Sunday, June 30, 2013

Detective Comics: Faces of Death (comic)

Writer/Artist: Tony Daniel
Collects: Detective Comics (vol. 2) #1-7

I've always liked Tony Daniel as an artist, but as a writer he leaves something to be desired. The plots are rarely gripping and it's easy to forget a lot of what you just read. Even with this book, which I read a week or so ago, I've been struggling to recall what happened without going back to the book for a refresher. Never a good sign; even worse when we're talking about one of the flagship Batman books in the wake of a line-wide relaunch.

Don't be fooled by the cover, either; after the first issue, the Joker vanishes, not to be seen again until Scott Snyders "Death of the Family".

Faces of Death actually focuses on a new villain. A laudable approach that I'm all for DC doing more of. Trouble is, said new villain has no spark. The Dollmaker is not much of a character beyond the fact that he cuts faces off, which is an MO we could get from any old grimdark comic book. Without an interesting threat, the book just kind of falls apart.

Still, I enjoy Daniels artwork, as always. A lot of people give him flack for being too "90's", but his style's always worked for me. He's not quite as reliably good an artist as some - he seems to like to experiment with technique a lot, which doesn't always pan out - but when he's on top he can make some really memorable images. Memorable as in "wow, that's a cool splash", not "uhh... huh, a splash page of Jokers severed face". Unfortunately, those type are in short supply here, but the art is still pleasant enough.

Even so, there's nothing here that you just gotta see and it's not quite good enough to make up for the lackluster story.

My Opinion: Skip It

Faces of Death isn't really "awful", but it's forgettable enough that I'm comfortable saying you don't need to bother. Kind of a dud, all things considered. Tony Daniel's done better.

Monday, June 24, 2013

X-Men: Blank Generation (comics)

"With the plane as our decoy,
we can easily escape!"
Writer: Brian Wood
Artists: David Lopez, Roland Boschi
Collects: X-Men #30-35

I tapped out on this book after X-Men: FF. I gave fair marks to the first two volumes, but that was where it became apparent the writer didn't really get the characters he was working with and the art was not on a level that could save the material as in previous volumes. But then Schism happened.

As you can guess, a new writer came on and the book got a new mission statement - our protagonists are now the "Security Team" of Utopia, whatever the hell that's supposed to mean - so, like most of the franchises books, I gave it another shot. I was a little concerned about the concept, but it's pretty clear it's just a name. They're based in a high tech jet, keep a teleporter around and are constantly on the move; they're really more like a first response group.

Right away they're knee deep in some heavy business. Someone managed to dig up some proto-mutant DNA and weaponize it, which naturally pisses off the mutants, since it's a gross misuse of a new discovery that changes everything they thought they knew about their past. Meanwhile Storm ducks and dodges dealing with Cyclops - which I think any of us might if we had to deal with him - and it causes friction on the team because heaven forbid we don't inform our overlord of everything before we even know what we're dealing with.

Even if it hasn't been done in this exact manner, the "Endangered Species" status quo has been going on for so long that it feels like we've seen a concept like this before. The first four issue arc doesn't even have a particularly climatic ending. There's a couple panel airborne fight, then one character crashes into the stronghold and, without spoiling anything, the threat is over within a page and without a fight.

Luckily, the book relies as much on character dynamics as anything else. Storm is the leader of the team, but it's pretty clear just in her actions that she isn't comfortable dealing with Cyclops, much less even being on the side she's found herself*. Colossus, ever the yes man for Cyke of late, obviously has issues with this.

The art for the first four issues, done by David Lopez, is pretty stellar. Plenty of style, a lot of color and clear action. We even manage to go the entire arc without a gratuitous Psylocke ass shot! The one time we see it, it makes sense for the panel and is not at all posed so you get a cheesecakey view of ninja rump. Keep in mind that I have no issues with some cheesecake art, but artists have a nasty habit of going out of their way to show the Queen of Ass Floss Tights "assets".

Then we have a different artist for the last two issues and it's a downgrade, in my opinion. There are fairly good pages in there. On the other hand, some pages and panels in the latter two issues are just downright ugly. On the plus side, the artist is good at panel composition. Two pages in particular, I'm willing to chalk it up to the artists style just not working for me.

Oh, I'd hate to forget to mention the downright awesome covers by Jorge Molina. Some great, great design there.

My Opinion: Try It

A definite improvement over the last volume I read. I'd say it's worth a read, if not something you want to run out and get. If nothing else, the book has the distinction of starring a team mostly comprised of females - who aren't exploited in the art, either - so if that sounds like it's up your alley then give it a look.

* You'll recall that, in the aftermath special for Schism, she wanted nothing to do with Utopia anymore and had every intention of following Wolverine to the new school before Cyclops guilted her into staying.

Batman: Earth One (comics)

Writer: Geoff Johns
Artist: Gary Frank
Original Graphic Novel

The only thing that surprises me about this is how long it took DC to put Geoff Johns on a Batman project. Teaming with him for it is Gary Frank, the artist of Geoffs all too brief run on Action Comics. It sounds good creatively, but do they manage to make a good book?

Right away, it's apparent this isn't the Batman we know. DC has done more than their fair share of stories regarding Batmans early years, but despite his inexperience or mistakes he makes, there's still a baseline level of competance there. In Earth One, Batmans first night out is an unmitigated disaster; his grapple gun backfires, he misses a jump and ends up in a trash heap. Hell, by the end of the book, it's plain to see that the legend of the Batman far outstrips the reality; Bruce Wayne will have to work hard to actually be on the level the public immediately assumes he is.

Alfred is one of the biggest changes. I remember during the hype phase when a lot was made about the characters new background as a Royal Marine. It isn't without merit, because it alters the dynamic completely; Alfreds mindset is that of a soldier, putting him at odds with Batman, who is against guns and killing. The new dynamic makes the book, providing ample fodder for an endlessly interesting take on the vigilante and his butler.

One aspect I like about the interaction is that Alfred does not understand why Bruce Wayne will not use guns as Batman. Obviously, his rule against guns is, by now, ingrained into the character. When you think a lot about him, the reasons make sense. We understand why he does not use them. But it's rare anyone ever challenges him about it. Everyone simply goes along with Batmans rules. Alfred doesn't push the matter too far here, but it does not seem like an issue he will just drop. It could be interesting to see a full scale blowout over the issue, with the mindset of a soldier clashing with the mindset of a man who wants nothing more than to keep someone else from losing their loved ones to a criminal act like he did.

Johns version of Harvey Bullock is also compelling. Essentially a glory seeking reality TV cop, Bullock comes to Gotham when his show dries up looking for new prospects. Everyone immediately writes him off, especially Gordon. But as we go on Bullocks better nature comes to the fore, his nature as an outsider shining a spotlight on just how screwed up Gotham has become.

Unfortunately, not every change works. So far the Earth One books seem intent on using original villains in their first outing. Trouble is, they're duds right from the start. Superman was saddled with a new villain who was as cookie cutter as it gets and ultimately amounted to little more than a plot device. A familiar rogue does come out to play in Batman: Earth One, but his role is minor. No, the book hinges on finding the victims of the new guy before he butchers them.

I'm talking about Birthday Boy, our "paint by the numbers" serial killer. He is ridiculous. That's not a bad thing to be, but taken in the context of what Johns and Frank have set up, he sticks out like a sore thumb. I mean, here we are with a relatively down to Earth take on the genesis of Batman and along comes this hulking behemoth with a party hat who says "make a wish, but don't tell anyone" before stabbing his victim. The only hint of motive is a throwaway line near the end and he lacks any sort of interesting facet to him. He's just there so Batman can fight someone in the third act. They could have slipped Zasz in there and I don't think anyone would know the difference.

What this leaves us with is a book without a compelling challenge for Batman, whether we're talking physical or psychological. Thankfully, the obvious challenges that face Bruce Wayne take up the slack. Johns and Frank do a fine job of showing us a Batman who might just be in over his head - who might not even be ready for the task he's set for himself - and that's where the heart of the book lies. The book could have done with saving any of the rogues gallery for the next volume and would probably have been better for it.

Luckily, what's good about Earth One is good enough to come back and see where Johns and Frank might be going with it.

My Opinion: Try It

Between this and Superman, it's clear the Earth One line is not for purists. Some people have very clear opinions about these characters and often lash out at anything that deviates. Trouble is, Earth One is all about the deviation, which puts it at a critical disadvantage. Walk in with an open mind and there's a good chance it will work for you.

Wednesday, June 19, 2013

Spider-Man: Ends of the Earth (comics)

Writers: Dan Slott, Ty Templeton
Artists: Humberto Ramos, Stefano Caselli
Collects: Amazing Spider-Man #682-687, Amazing Spider-Man: Ends of the Earth #1 and Avenging Spider-Man #8

This volume may have busted Spider-Man again. I suppose it's been happening since Dan Slott went solo on the title, but it isn't until this volume that it became unbearable. The reality is that Spider-Man has been on a backslide to a place Marvel went to a lot of trouble pulling the character out of. Slott clearly loves and respects Spider-Man, but perhaps has lost sight of what makes him work.

Once again, things are way too perfect for Peter Parker. I guess it started back with Big Time. Suddenly, Parker's so smart he lands a job at a big time science lab where he makes ridiculous amounts of cash. He can come and go as he pleases, something that takes care of all the realities of vigilantism that kept him from holding down a regular job. He has access to anything he could ever need. He can devise weapons to use against his villains in his spare time, while the tech also has practical use as inventions for his job. His rich supporting cast has been scattered to the four winds yet again*. On top of all that, the series has fallen back into that annoying habit of treating Mary Jane like she's "The One" and that they're perfect for one another, whether they're together or not, and she's patient and never mad at him when he has to run off and did I mention she's a supermodel or an actress depending on what you're reading**?

The pressure has been building for some time and Ends of the Earth is where the dam burst.

Slott obviously meant it as the culmination of everything Doc Ock has been doing since he returned to the book in... #600, I think it was. The scope and scale is suitably epic. The odds are insurmountable. The world is against him and it seems hopeless. All that is precisely the problem.

Within the second issue, the Avengers - called upon by Spider-Man to give him a hand - get the hell beat out of them with ease. It's not even a clever out like in Spider-Island; they're actively jobbing to Doc Ock. From then on, it's Spider-Man, in a spiffy new suit designed to counteract the powers of the entire Sinister Six - because he can come up with shit like that in his spare time now - against, quite literally, the world. Silver Sable and Black Widow are along, but Sable's the only one of any use. In this story, Spider-Man by himself is more resourceful than an entire team of Avengers. He comes up with the big ideas that take down the Six, he has Ocks plan figured before anyone else, manages to defeat several mind controlled Avengers in combat (he comes up with the solution to the predicament too) and... need I go on?

To top it all off, he has this "no one dies" thing going on and literally sulks after saving the entire world because one person died.

I just... what in the actual hell did I just read? I realize it's his solo, but suddenly Peter Parker is the smartest, toughest, bestest superhero around. There isn't even a "his deeds will never be known" bit; everyone knows he just saved the entire planet more or less by himself. I'm not saying stories like that can't work, but this one sure as hell doesn't. There are few, if any, points in this story where it seems like Spidey is on the ropes or in a difficult situation. Also completely ignored is the fact that, if he can seriously come up with a counter for all his villains now, no one should pose much of a threat to him going forward.

It's too much. I'm not going to pretend I don't know where this is going, but I have a hard time believing the events a couple volumes from here can salvage this, in my opinion, misguided direction. At this point everything Brand New Day brought back is being slowly tossed out the window again and it's annoying the piss out of me.

Arts pretty great though, I'll give it that. Stefano Casseli is just as great as when he did Venom issues during Spider-Island. Humberto Ramos is around, but only does two issues of the storyline. And hey, credit where it's due; I liked his work in this one a little better than I usually do. The art is the only reason you're not seeing red right below this.

My Opinion: Skip It

This is a bridge too far. I'll be around long enough to try out Superior Spider-Man - I love the concept, so I'm going to give it a chance - but if it doesn't seriously impress me I think I'm done until there's a serious change in direction or creative team. This book just is not working for me anymore.

* Characters are going to come and go depending on what happens to them, but we're at a point where a bunch of the characters Brand New Day went out of its way to bring back are flat out gone now. Slott has tried to control the damage by giving Peter some new friends and colleagues at Horizon Labs, but most of them - except maybe Pete's boss and I suppose Grady's alright - aren't on par with the best.

** All the other love interests are, yet again, either gone or a non issue. This is exactly why I dreaded the day Mary Jane returned to Amazing Spider-Man. I was afraid the series would fall back into old habits. Sadly, I was right.Time will tell if it holds, but I'm not optimistic.

Sunday, June 16, 2013

Flashpoint: Green Lantern (comics)

Writers: Adam Schlagman, Jeff Lemire, Pornsak Pitcheteshote
Artists: Cliff Richards, Joe Prado, Ig Guera and a metric ton of others
Collects: Flashpoint: Green Lantern #1-3, Flashpoint: Green Arrow Industries, Flashpoint: Frankenstien and the Creatures of the Unknown #1-3, Flashpoint: Hal Jordan #1-3

So, the actual title is supposed to be "Flashpoint: World of Flashpoint starring Green Lantern", but screw that. Kind of long and a little redundant. Anyways, with all the New 52 reviews, I took a look at my trade stack and figured an interlude was in order. What better than a tie in from the event that led to it?

In theory at least; most of what's collected here really isn't that interesting.

Green Lantern has top billing for this volume, since six of the ten issues collected star the character. They're kind of underwhelming. Abin Sur survives the crash and the consequences of that turn out to be exactly what you expected. Neither series goes in any new or unique directions, which is a complete waste of the concept; this is, of course, an alternate universe that would temporarily replace the normal DCU, so it isn't like they had to worry about breaking anything. The writing is iffy at times - Hal Jordan holds together a bit better than Green Lantern - but more than that it's really not that interesting. Considering these two comprise over half the book, you can probably guess my score just as easily as you could the plot of either miniseries.

Green Arrow Industries does better for itself. Ollie never really grew up in this universe and ended up manufacturing weapons, all the while feeling like he was meant for something better. Time and again he fails to make the right choices. I liked some of the ideas - Flashpoint Ollie deciding to steal the gimmick weapons of villains and reverse engineer them into his own designs is a nice touch I'm surprised no one has done in the regular DCU - and it was a decent read. Unfortunately, the main plot kind of falls a bit flat; the comic could easily have survived as a character piece on a man who has lost sight of his better nature and become the supplier for a devastating war.

Frankenstein and the Creatures of the Unknown, however, is where it's at. This three issue miniseries is a joy from start to finish. Ever want to see Frankenstein kill some Nazi's? Maybe decapitate Hitler? Beat the crap out of a military robot, all while flanked by a vampire, werewolf and merwoman? If you don't, imagine me looking at you funny. Why it was collected with Green Lantern is a mystery to me - Green Arrow at least has a connection beyond color, given that he and GL are basically best friends normally - and frankly I'd rather it had been put in with better material. Great as it is, it sadly cannot buoy a lackluster trade all by itself.

The art's barely worth mentioning. There isn't a single consistent artist for anything in here. It's pretty much a different artist for every issue. There isn't anything particularly bad to be found, but it feels like a patchwork quilt of different styles. I don't get why it happened either. As I recall the miniseries all had no more than three issues spread out monthly.

My Opinion: Skip It

There's little reason to bother with this volume. It isn't technically bad, all told, but it wastes the opportunity to tell different stories in a world gone to hell. Definitely get Frankenstein and the Creatures of the Unknown, but you don't need to buy this volume just to get it. Pick it up in single issues.

Friday, June 14, 2013

Action Comics: Superman and the Men of Steel (comics)

Writer: Grant Morrison
Artists: Rags Morales, Andy Kubert
Collects: Action Comics (vol. 2) #1-8

Supermans origin has been redone so many times it's safe to say we probably don't need to see it again for a long time. But if you are going to sell me on it, you could do far worse than bringing in Grant Morrison. Even better, Morrison had a great idea that no origin had touched on in decades.

Morrison finally brought the character full circle. Superman started out, way back at his inception, as a social crusader who cared more for justice than what people thought of him. He did the right thing, whether the law agreed or not. Kind of interesting that the Man of Steel has been made to be very relevant again simply by going deep into his past. With corporate recklessness at a high and people deciding the way to fight back is to occupy the streets, isn't this the sort of hero the world needs right now?

Something I appreciated is that Morrison gives ample page time to Krypton without it dominating the character. One of the things that sometimes bothers me is when Supermans Kryptonian heritage is made to be a part of who he is. Morrison never forgets that, no matter what might have happened on Krypton, growing up on Earth is what shaped Superman into the person he is. His mother and father were the Kents and they gave him the life lessons and morals that shaped him into the hero we know.

One scene in particular that I enjoyed is a flashback, when young Clark is discussing where he came from with Johnathan Kent. He remarks that he doesn't even know what the S on his blanket meant. His father tells him that it doesn't matter; what matters is that Clark himself can make that S mean something through his actions, by reminding humanity of the best parts of us. That's what I mean; Krypton can be relatively important and interesting, but it should not inform his character too much. Earth is his home.

By the end of these eight issues, we've recieved a pretty good primer on Superman and the world he inhabits. A plus is that they saw fit to correct the reading order for the trade. One of the edicts of the New 52 was that the monthly books would ship on time*. Thus, when Action Comics fell a bit behind schedule, Morrison, along with Andy Kubert, slipped in a two issue story obviously meant to take place after the arc it popped up in the middle of. The trade places it after the main arc has concluded.

All the backup strips are included as backmatter; they're by a different writer, but add some welcome depth to the world. A couple of them are dedicated to Steel - who is now inspired by Superman far earlier in his career and joins the Man of Steel in the fight - showing what he was up to while Superman went to confront the threat in space. Another, my personal favorite, shows the life of the Kents and the hardships they endured leading up to finally getting their wish of a family in Clark. They're also well worth the read.

Oh, and all the variant covers are collected in a gallery at the back, along with some behind the scenes tidbits with the creators.

I was initially apprehensive when I heard Rags Morales was going to be the artist of the series. The main work I knew him by is Identity Crisis, where he opted for heavy realism to the point of basing the look of the different characters after famous actors. It was always pretty weird and I always kind of equated him with that book. Thankfully, he does well for himself here, showing off a range and versatility I didn't expect from him. His work is not perfect. Hell, it's downright rough in spots, particularly an odd, odd style change for the closing pages of the initial arc. But it works better than I expected.

Andy Kubert does that aforementioned two issue arc. As always, his work is a delight. It's a real shame that he's not a faster artist, because I'd love to have seen him work with Grant Morrison more often**.

All together, Superman and the Men of Steel is some pretty great comics and well worth the purchase.

My Opinion: Buy It

I've finally come across the first homerun of the New 52. Superman and the Men of Steel is everything I wanted and more. It has action, drama and most of all it has heart. I couldn't stop smiling while reading it.

* For the unaware, DC had a nasty problem with late issues prior to the New 52. In some cases, this is forgivable; a story is often so much better when a consistent artistic voice is applied and a lot of the delays were on the art end. On the other, even in the case of stories that benefited from the wait, it could get kind of ridiculous. Geoff Johns "Last Son" arc of Superman was delayed for so long - I think it took over a year for it to finally reach a conclusion - that almost the entire run of Kurt Busiek on Superman happened between the issues of that story. I kind of wish there were a bit more leeway given rather than the hardline stance they take now, but no one will question things needed to tighten up really bad.

** The only other thing I'm immediately aware of his his run on early issues of Grants Batman run. Unfortunately, it seemed he couldn't keep up and had to bow out after about seven issues. A real shame, even if Tony Daniel did a fair job following him. I'd kill for a miniseries by Grant Morrison and Andy Kubert that allowed the two to do what they wanted without schedules to worry about.

Saturday, June 8, 2013

Justice League International: The Signal Masters (comics)

Writer: Dan Jurgens
Artist: Aaron Lopresti
Collects: Justice League International #1-6

Some books benefited from the relaunch more than others. Save Firestorm, no other book may have been hurt by it as much as Justice League International. Prior to the New 52, the JLI found a new lease on life as the other half of a years worth of two biweekly series, opposite Brightest Day. It was pretty popular and it looked like an ongoing would follow by the same creative team.

Then the relaunch happened. The JLI continuity was one of the casualties. Any momentum the JLI had died with it.

The situation could probably have been salvaged of a star creative team had been tapped for the relaunch, or if the team on JLI Generation Lost had been retained. Instead, they went with Dan Jurgens. No disrespect meant - anything of his I've come across has been pretty readable, if unremarkable - but amidst a slate of fifty two titles, his name is going to stick out the least. All that together and you could make the case that this book was doomed from the start.

But it did make it to about twelve issues - plus an annual - six of which are included here. Make no mistake, the concept could have worked. The team is basically formed as an easier to control, United Nations sanctioned counterpart to the Justice League, whom operate independent of any government. It's a pretty believable response to a group of super powered individuals popping up - you can bet your ass the governments of the world would want SOMETHING in place just in case somebody on that team went rogue, for one thing - and it could have led to some pretty interesting drama, had the book survived enough to settle into a status quo.

As it stands, the book doesn't have nearly enough time to differentiate itself from the main title and carve out its own niche. It does not, however, have to deal with the level of scrutiny the other Justice League title does. Given the hype, superstar creative team and expectations, the reality that Justice League didn't live up hurts more. JLI, however, has an easier time getting away with just being "pretty decent". Another advantage is that this book doesn't screw around; Justice League took four issues to get the band together and went almost nowhere in between, while JLI has the team together and the threat in play by the end of the first issue. It's the exact opposite of the sort of decompression Justice League employed.

Something I really enjoyed was Jurgens portrayal of Batman. One of the unfortunate losses in the New 52 is the comraderie and rapport that had developed between he and Booster Gold over the course of Boosters own title. But while the history is gone, Jurgens nonetheless retains the dynamic. Batman actually acts as something akin to a friend to Booster in this volume; he's often there with advice, seems to look out for the younger hero, actively helps him get some cred prior to an important UN meeting and is initially the only one who believes in him.

Too often, writers stick close to the Grimdark template of Batman - which is fine sometimes, but horribly tedious when overdone - and make him the most anti-social guy around. Thus, it's always nice to see a writer remember that despite how screwed up he is Batman still cares. If he didn't care about people at his core, he wouldn't dress up as a bat every night in an attempt to keep others from the trauma and pain he's lived through. I, personally, have had about enough Batdickery to last me a good long while, so more of this would be appreciated.

Something I didn't particularly enjoy was Godiva. I think she's a new character? I don't recognize her. Regardless, she proves herself to be a female clone of early, glory seeking Booster Gold. She at least has a character arc and I don't hate the character, but she's a puzzling addition.

If I had to describe the writing, I'd say it's something of a throwback. It reminds me a fair bit of some of the more typical mid-range books of the 80's and 90's. All told, this probably could have passed for a pretty solid superhero team title if it existed back then. Today, it feels a little bit out of place, but if you can get past that you're good.

Before I wrap up, I should probably touch on the art. There's really not a whole lot for me to say about it, but I figure it's worth at least giving a shout to it. It won't blow you away, but it's pretty respectable work. Much like the rest of the book. It's a shame that's not necessarily good enough for a book launched in this sort of initiative.

My Opinion: Try It

Justice League International had the deck stacked against it, but manages to come out a readable work. Damning with faint praise, I suppose, but given the circumstances I expected worse. If you want some meat and potatoes superhero team action, this isn't a terrible way to kill an hour and a half. But it isn't anything you just have to read, either.