Saturday, May 31, 2014

Justice League: Throne of Atlantis (comics)

Writer: Geoff Johns
Artists: Ivan Reis, Tony Daniel, Paul Pelletier
Collects: Justice League #13-17, Aquaman #15-16

It's certainly been a while.

About ten months ago I reviewed the second volume of this incarnation of the Justice League and it was scathing. The Villains Journey was bad enough that I wasn't sure I'd be back at all. But time can temper your annoyance. Eventually I decided to give the book another chance.

Throne of Atlantis is a crossover with the Aquaman title, concerned as much with advancing that comics story as it is the League. The short version is that a missile test goes wrong - foul play is evident, but that's left to simmer a while - and Atlantis is left with the impression that it was an attack. Thoroughly pissed off, Atlantis attacks the surface. The Justice League retaliates. Aquaman, who wants a peaceful solution, is caught in the middle. The creatures of the Trench are also involved; they were introduced in the first volume of Aquaman.

I'm not sure what it is about Aquaman that brings out the best in Geoff Johns, but if nothing else he's done a pretty great job of making the character interesting. Between Brightest Day, the characters solo and this crossover, it feels almost like a rehabilitation project for him. Throne of Atlantis does a fair job of redeeming the League, as well; they feel more heroic here than they did in the last volume. Even Wonder Woman has signs of likability as she attempts to solve a conflict with a classic rogue without bloodshed.

This ties into something I said about Geoff Johns in the last review, mainly that his best work seems to be when he focuses on the characters as opposed to simply worrying about the plot at hand. Unsurprisingly, that's part of why Throne of Atlantis works where Origin and The Villains Journey absolutely did not. He's clearly trying to do better with Wonder Woman, who has been portrayed as little more than a bloodthirsty warrior in past volumes. Cyborg has to make a hard choice in order to go save the League. Aquaman struggling with his dual heritage obviously has a lot of focus. It plays more to Johns strengths as a writer than the usual shock schlock.

We even get some long overdue moments between team members, chiefly Aquaman and Batman, who finally come to an understanding. Batman is the first to get what kind of position Aquaman is in, adamantly states that Aquaman will get a chance to resolve the conflict peacefully when the rest of the League is ready to go in and even goes for the old "we were both at fault" chestnut when Aquaman starts to blame himself. It's exactly the sort of thing this comic needed a lot more of; had a few storylines with similar development been done between Origin and Villains Journey, the conflicts of the prior volume would have been easier to take at face value. Batman and Aquaman feel like teammates here.

On top of that, there's a decent fake-out regarding the character behind the events that transpire. I won't spoil what happens, but it's a plot beat that has some more weight of you were a fan of DC or even just Aquaman before the New 52. The story leaves you expecting it to go in a familiar direction, then it flips the script. It's simple, but effective.

It's not all sunshine and roses, however. We get the fallout to the big kiss that closed the prior volume. You may recall I wasn't fond of that whole thing. It doesn't get much better. Geoff's clearly trying to make this work, going so far as to show the two on a "date" in civilian garb, but it feels like too much, too soon. We have the implied five year history, but nothing about the actions of the characters or their dynamic suggests people who have known each other for that length of time. We're told five years passed after Origin, but it feels like these events could only happen a year later at maximum, if that makes sense. So with things like Superman and Wonder Womans budding relationship, it feels like they've only just met - even if we know better - only to throw themselves into a relationship with the other. Mainly because they're lonely, which is the other problem. They don't even have much chemistry, at least in my opinion.

I'm want to just accept it at face value and move forward - after all, this is clearly going to be a thing whether we want it or not, so it's easier to just let it go - but I can't escape the feeling this whole thing is as shallow as I feared.

There's also the reality that the League this comic was sold on is changing. We've already lost Green Lantern because of plot contrivance. It's unclear, but we may be losing Aquaman as a result of this volume; the epilogue deals with his decision to go back to Atlantis and lead, interspersed with the League discussing recruitment. The New 52 Justice League was clearly marketed as a team of the greatest, most recognizable heroes and by the end of the second volume we've already started losing members. I was on board with the lineup, so the fact that it's already in flux isn't a good sign. I could always be reading the epilogue wrong and Aquaman will be present at the start of the next collection.

Oh, and Batman is still sort of useless, which is an obvious negative, but the book is clearly trying to work him in better.

Unlike Origin and Villains Journey, I don't have any major problems with the art of this collection. The highlight is, of course, Ivan Reis, but the others do a good job of keeping a visual consistancy. Aside from a few iffy panels where the storytelling isn't particularly strong, Tony Daniel manages to hang tough for his two issues as well. Jim Lees departure may have hurt the book in star power, but the result is stronger as a whole.

We'll see if the quality holds, but for now Justice League has won me back.

My Opinion: Read It

Wednesday, May 28, 2014

Superman: Secrets and Lies (comics)

Writers: Dan Jurgans, Keith Giffen, Scott Lobdell
Artists: Dan Jurgans, Jesus Merino
Collects: Superman (vol. 3) #7-12, Superman Annual #1

Hey, are you ready for another switch of creative teams? Too bad! Jugans and Giffen are only around for this volume. Lobdell takes control with the Annual - included here - and has the reigns for a couple volumes.

This volume of Superman may have the highest creative turnover of the entire New 52 line and it's not doing the book any favors.

We've already encountered Dan Jurgans at least once in the New 52. He's a dependable talent, not shifting too far in either direction as far as quality goes, but I'm hard pressed to think of anything he's done I really loved. The trend continues here, despite the addition of Keith Giffen; I enjoyed his art and the writing isn't half bad, but nothing about this book is even remotely memorable.

Part of that may have to do with the constant creative shifts. George Perez didn't last longer than a volumes worth of comics either. It's difficult to set up some sort of stable status quo or do anything interesting when no one can even settle in before they're gone. Still, it makes for a forgettable experience.

So we're left with a book that doesn't have a real direction; as such, it's sort of become a dumping ground for short, old school, disposable Superman adventures. I suppose there's some merit to the approach - it's a contrast to Grant Morrisons approach over in Action Comics - but the New 52 wasn't really supposed to foster books like this, where you can practically see the wheels spinning. It was supposed to foster excitement and new directions, wasn't it?

Instead, the Superman comic has felt like something out of the past. You may recall one of my complaints with the first volume was that it felt like a throwback to the Bronze Age. Well, it didn't get any better with this one. It has the same feel of a comic from a bygone era, though maybe a bit more modern than What Price Tomorrow. It only manages to get worse when we get to Scott Lobdells Annual; George Perez occasionally slipped into the old timey practice of using thought balloons, but Lobdell straight up embraces it.

Guys, we moved past the thought balloon for a reason.

Ultimately, nothing of consequence really happens here. I mean, it sort of advances the Daemonite plot that's popped up here and there and tries to set up a villain I assume Lobdell will be using, but it all feels like we're killing time. It's difficult to remember what actually happens save a few bullet points; I just read it last night and I can only remember the broad strokes. I actually stopped three times in the course of reading it, which is never a good sign for any volume that doesn't collect a number of issues somewhere in the teens.

I can typically see the purpose of a New 52 title or why DC might have been looking for when it made a certain comic. Superman is the title I understand the least of any of them. I don't really get what they were trying to accomplish with this or why they decided on this direction. All I know is it's not working.

My Opinion: Skip It

Saturday, May 24, 2014

Captain America by Ed Brubaker Vol. 2 (comics)

Writer: Ed Brubaker
Artist: Alan Davis
Collects: Captain America (vol. 5) #6-10

Sometimes it's difficult to write about Ed Brubakers Captain America. Reviews are often the hardest when a series is consistently good. What do you say? It would likely be a lot easier if you could do it in bigger chunks, like two volumes of nine or ten issues as opposed to four with five issues. But then Marvel makes half the money, right? Can't have that.

Volume two picks up where the first left off and it carries the same tone. Brubakers Cap feels different now; it's focused more on superheroics than than the intricate plotting of the past. It's not a bad approach, but I'm not surprised it turned people off. I appreciate it for what it is; it's kind of fun to see something a bit more straightforward as Bru prepares to depart the character.

The story for this volume is that Caps powers are out of whack. He's changing back to the ninety pound weakling he was prior to the Super Soldier Serum seemingly at random. The timing couldn't be worse, because someone has set up some Madbombs in New York, causing dangerous riots in the midst of some highly populated areas. Cap and friends have to figure out what is going on with him and stop the villains behind it.

All told, it's an average adventure. But it does have one thing going for it. Alan Davis is the artist and his work can elevate any material. He's as good as ever and frankly I wish we saw more of him in mainstream superhero comics.

I'm not sure what else to say. This isn't a story that fosters a ton of analysis, but it's perfectly enjoyable for what it is. You wouldn't just pick this volume up in a vacuum, but if you're already this far into Ed Brubakers I imagine you're in it until the end. Just don't go in expecting something that will blow your mind and you should have a good time.

My Opinion: Read It

Friday, May 23, 2014

Daredevil by Mark Waid HC vol. 1 (comics)

Writer: Mark Waid
Artists: Paolo Rivera, Marcos Martin, Emma Rios, Kano, Khoi Pham
Collects: Daredevil #1-10, #10.1, Amazing Spider-Man #677

About two years ago I reviewed Daredevil Reborn for Collected Editions. You can find it here. Since it was meant to clear the deck, I read it in preparation for this relaunch, which I believe was just beginning to hit the shelves in collected form at the time.

The fact that it's been two years since I've read a single thing involving Daredevil ought to tell you how well that worked out.

Part of that can probably be attributed to a lack of love or tolerance for the character. While he's enjoyed a solid decade of critically acclaimed, well loved stories, the end result is a character that is cripplingly depressing. I've said it before, but it's worth repeating; the three runs prior to Waid did everything in their power to keep things interesting, but in the process didn't pay enough attention to the consequences. Bendis - and later Ed Brubaker - left the book after some big, status quo shattering events, leaving the pieces for whoever was next to work with. Usually, said writer would break them into smaller pieces.

Eventually, they wrote themselves into a corner. The biggest events in the past ten years of Daredevils publication history were not the type you could easily undo. Even attempting it backfired. Daredevil Reborn, meant to get the house back in order, only served to make things worse. Every character in that book was a moron that made one monumentally stupid decision after another. Given the fact that Reborn seemed to want to handwave away some of the bigger issues to get to a familiar status quo, logic be damned, I didn't expect much.

Well, apparently Mark Waid is a wizard, because he found a way to fix things without getting too contrived. Not everything works the way I think they hoped - Matts way out of his blown secret identity is steadfast denial, letting the skepticism of others do the rest, even though we should be way past the point that would work - but in a world where Iron Man can just say he isn't in the armor anymore and everyone buys it, it's good enough to get you to suspend your disbelief. The Nelson and Murdock situation - a major, major issue with the end of Reborn - is addressed almost immediately. Waid managed to find a clever way around the elephant in the room with a delightfully comic book-y solution that doesn't insult your intelligence; impressive, especially considering I genuinely expected the whole situation to be glossed over.

Better yet, he manages to inject fun back into the character without sacrificing what came before or veering out of character. Murdock has his smile again, but it's abundantly clear that it isn't entirely honest; he's forcing clearly forcing it to some degree, which fits with his pattern of refusing to deal with things properly. His life isn't a series of devastating personal blows anymore, but a lot happened to him and he still isn't exactly the guy best equipped to handle the weight.

Another good idea centers around the choice to keep it brief. Most of the book consists of one or two issue stories with an overarching plot in the background. It makes for a nice contrast to many modern comics, where the four to six issue arc was adopted as the standard a long time ago. As a bonus, it feels like a lot happens in this one hardcover.

One thing did puzzle me, though. Matt comes into possession of an artifact mid-way through the book that has enough info to bury the five major crime organizations in the Marvel Universe. The book does have the decency to explain why Matt doesn't just hand it over to the Avengers or the Fantastic Four - other than the fact that it's his book, so he obviously needs to deal with it - but events at the end of the book did leave me confused as to why he doesn't just use the info to blow them all in. You'll see what I mean. It isn't a deal-breaker, though. Just odd.

I can't end without mentioning the art. It's easily the cleanest, brightest work Daredevil has been graced with in years. Alex Maleevs influence has been all over the franchise since his days working with Bendis; only now do we truly break away from it and it really, really works. It complements the tone of the book well and it's a good part of why the new direction works. Without Rivera and Martin, I'm not sure it would have the tone Waid was looking for.

Just good, good work all around. Assuming the quality keeps to this level, I may be in for the long haul. Highly recommended.

My Opinion: Buy It

Thursday, May 22, 2014

Incredible Hulk by Jason Aaron vol. 2 (comics)

Writer: Jason Aaron
Artists: Jefte Palo, Steve Dillon, Pasquel Ferry, Tom Raney, Dalibor Talajic, Carlos Pacheco
Collects: Incredible Hulk #7.1, #8-15

I liked volume one, but it left me concerned. While the high concept flipped the script on the Hulk in an interesting way, the things it said about Banner were not exactly kind. Turns out Jason Aaron knew what he was doing all along.

Too bad it stops here.

At the conclusion of the first volume, Banner had perished in the battle with Hulk. Or so we thought. After Hulk enjoys some time without Banner, he realizes his other half isn't quite as gone as he thought. What follows is a romp through the Marvel Universe, as Hulk tries his hardest to stay angry and somehow figure out what nefarious plan Banner has up his sleeve. But everything is not quite as it seems.

Jason Aaron broke away from the pack to become one of my favorite writers in a short amount of time and at least a part of that comes down to his sense of humor. Even a fairly serious story will be littered with a well time piece of dialogue or sight gag. Wolverine and the X-Men has a ton of it. His Ghost Rider run had a bunch of outlandish, ridiculous crap that you couldn't help smiling at. His Wolverine run had cancer bullets. A Jason Aaron comic stands out because it gives you things you never even thought of. The second and final volume of his Hulk has more of this type of levity than the first did and is better for it. I won't spoil some of the better moments, but suffice to say it made a decent comic even better.

Better than that is the fact that the story answers the question of what exactly was up with Banner in a satisfying way that doesn't really throw the character under the bus. Many Hulk writers have explored the MPD angle of the Hulk, but no one ever touches the implications. Hulk is a part of Banner, right? He's an undeniable part of Bruce Banner, the past he repressed most of his life, given physical form whenever he loses his temper. Yet Banner always wanted to get rid of Hulk. What happens when you do manage to eradicate a part of yourself? Nothing good could possibly come of that, right?

Turns out that question drove this story all along. I'm still not sure it speaks well of Banner - without Hulk, the manifestation of Banners rage, the history of insanity in his family comes to the fore - but it explains a lot and it's a novel take on the formula. Also a plus is the fact that, when whole, Aarons version of Banner is not a total douchebag, which was a problem in Indestructible Hulk.

Everything wraps up in a satisfying manner, clearing the deck for the next era, which would be the aforementioned Indestructible. The only real question I had pertained to Dr. Doom, more specifically what was going on with him. I assume it relates to events elsewhere in the Marvel universe, but there isn't even a "check ____ for the full story" footnote to help you find out. It isn't super important to the story, so it doesn't matter much in the long run, but it's an odd omission.

Unfortunately, there are a couple strikes against this. The least important of the two is the issue of length. At sixteen issues - including the point one in the number - it's the shortest run Jason Aaron has had on a Marvel property that I'm aware of. The first volume is good, but not quite great. The second is far better - as well as the point where it feels like Aaron has really settled in - but before you know it, the ride is over. Too long to be a punchy statement on the character, but too short to leave any sort of impact. The next Hulk series doesn't even reference it.

Worse is the art situation. Volume ones art was, well, not great. Volume two has the opposite problem. I'm sure you've noticed the artist list up top; no less than six people worked on this volume, most at one issue a piece. Most of it is good - Steve Dillon does the issue where Punisher guest stars and it's good to see him draw the character again, even if the issue seems to exist entirely for the "shoot me in the face" gag - but the result is a volume that lacks any sort of visual identity. It's offset by the fact that each issue is its own story within the arc, but even so, that's about eight artists for sixteen issues.

All told, between its length and the art, Jason Aarons Hulk is probably not going to go down as a definitive run. That's a shame. Maybe we'll see him take another crack at it in the future. Regardless, the story he did tell turned out to be worth it in the end and at two volumes it isn't exactly a big money sink, so I recommend it regardless.

My Opinion: Read It

Tuesday, May 13, 2014

Superman: Earth One vol. 2 (comic)

Writer: J Michael Straczynski
Artist: Shane Davis
Original Graphic Novel

Well, I guess volume one was a fluke, because they already blew it with the second.

To back up for a moment, I thought the first volume of Superman: Earth One was a pretty decent effort. I enjoyed its portrayal of Clark Kent as a confused young man trying to find a place he could feel comfortable while doing the most good. So, a typical young adult. A fair bit of the Comics Internet hated it, but I noticed at the time that most of loudest detractors were often the ones who had strict, rigid ideas about who Superman is and who he should be. Flawed as it was - Tyrell is such a forgettable villain that, two years later, I can't even remember what his deal was - it had merit.

Volume Two doesn't.

Not everything about it is bad. At least this time they go with a recognizable villain in Parasite. The artwork of Shane Davis is still good. But there are some wrongheaded notions at the core of this book and they're serious enough to sink it.

One of which is its odd portrayal of women. Lois Lane has a small role in this book and every page of it concerns a downright unhealthy obsession with finding out whatever it is she thinks Clark Kent is hiding. This is not necessarily news for the franchise, but it hits an uncomfortable note fairly quick. It comes off as obsessive and occasionally downright stalkerish with little justified reason for her skepticism. It reaches a point where she basically kicks her boyfriend out so she can illegally access his information. It's clearly intentional, as Jimmy Olsen comments on it in the four or five panels he's in and all but makes dismissive wanking motions about it.

If it were the only thing going on in here, you could possibly excuse it as taking Ms. Lanes usual behavior in pre-marriage stories a bit too far. I mean, she's done worse, right? Silver Age Lois Lane took obsession to crazed heights. Actually, everyone in that era was kind of a dick, save maybe Olsen. But it's not an isolated incident.

No, new love interest Lisa Lassalle is the one that kind of solidifies it. She's likable enough, but falls into a lot of the same traps you see with most female characters. A fair bit of her behavior is overly flirtatious, which - while sadly stereotypical in most fiction - isn't in itself a bad thing, but late in the book we find out she's also a prostitute, or at least when she needs cash to pay the bills.

Look, I'm usually pretty forgiving - I get in disagreements with a friend of mine semi-regularly because I find at least some merit in things he doesn't - but when that revelation came about, I shook my head. Of course she hooks. No sexually active woman could possibly be anything else, except maybe a slut, right? It feeds right into the sort of double standards we as a society have struggled with over the past few decades. On it's own it might not seem as jarring - especially if it had a few other female characters of different mindsets - but in a book where the only other female character of note feels obsessive to the point of stalkerish, it raises a few alarms.

But this is nothing new, I can hear some say. It's hardly the first comic to have questionable portrayals of women. Nor will it be the last. What matters is whether the rest of the book holds up. How does Superman himself come off?

Well, I'm sad to say that this time I have to side with the detractors. JMS definitely screwed him up. Spoiler warning for the next paragraph.

The point volume two completely lost me came late in the book, but had its roots in an early scene. At the start of the book, we see Superman in action, doing typical Superman things, such as saving people in a foreign country from a natural disaster. His rescue mission ends prematurely when the countries leader - clearly taking cues from real life dictators like Saddam Hussein - basically tells Superman to get out of his country before he starts killing people. Superman has to make a hard choice; clearly, he could stop this mans army from killing everyone, but he can't be in two places at once. Eventually he would have to leave to help someone else.

This is fine. It's a little too close to the real world for my taste - using realistic dictators in a superhero story makes for an uncomfortable time, which is why you tend to have things like Black Adam ruling a country - but on the surface it plays into the themes of the Earth One Superman series thus far. As mentioned at the start of the review, most of the point of the last volume was seeing Clark go through different avenues to do the most good before inevitably donning the red and the blue. Now that he's hip deep in the superhero trade, it makes sense for this Superman to come face to face with his limitations; he can't punch every problem, as some are systemic and may have been easier to solve had he been in a different profession.

No, the problem is the bookend. Near the end, after the threat has been dispatched - I know, spoilers, but come on, of course he figures out a way to beat Parasite - Superman returns to that country and incites a revolution. He waltzes in, takes guns from the dictators men, gives them to the revolutionaries and allows them to violently overthrow this regime. There is no mistaking it. There is gunfire going off. Then he goes to the dictators house, tells the man what he's done and then, hearing revolutionaries coming to kill the dictator, leaves him to die. Even if the revolution is over in an hour with minimal bloodshed, people have died and Superman is directly responsible.

Look, we all have different ideas about how change should come about in the world. I'd prefer most conflicts to be solved without violence, but I can't deny that at times I think some people need to be punched in the face, at the least. That, however, is reality. This is fiction.

We're talking about Superman. Having him do things like this shows a complete lack of understanding of the character. But even if we set that aside, even if you buy that Superman could kill or leave someone to die, we're not talking about another Kryptonian with the same power set and potential for danger here. The last scene of the book shows people in the US government trying to figure out a way to kill Superman. We're supposed to feel it's paranoia, because he has supposedly been benign. We're supposed to think they're out of line. But Superman just walked into a middle eastern country and turned it into a war zone. Isn't that absolutely terrifying?

If you were a citizen in that universe and someone with the powers of a god - who is supposedly altruistic, but hasn't been around all that long - went ahead and did that, wouldn't you want some kind of assurance he could be stopped?

That I'm even asking that question brands volume two of Earth One a failure, because it couldn't misunderstand the character more. That's a damn shame. Don't even bother with this one.

My Opinion: Skip It