Monday, July 27, 2015

Lazarus Book One (comics)

Writer: Greg Rucka
Artist: Michael Lark
Collects: Lazarus #1-4, four page preview story

Even the best fumble sometimes. I'm generally into most of the work Greg Rucka has made over the years. Lazarus might be the first that didn't lose me so much as it never had me and I'm not even sure how much of that is the books fault and how much of it is my own opinions.

Lazarus doesn't feel too much different from the typical Rucka deal. Some behind the scenes backstabbing is going on, there's some espionage, such like that, in a super vague dystopia. Maybe that's the problem. It feels "safe". It feels like a "typical book" for Rucka. Maybe that's not a problem for most people, but occasionally I find if a creator does a bit too much in one style or genre I start wishing they'd branch out some.

But all that could just be me. Hey, personal opinions and all that. I'm not so convinced the other issues are entirely on my end, though. There's something about Lazarus that just doesn't grab me. I couldn't connect to any of the characters, I didn't much care what happened to any of them and when things went bad I didn't much care to see where things would go from there. It feels so by the numbers I couldn't truly invest in it. It got to a point where, in the midst of the second issue, I actually hopped on Twitter to ask someone I knew was a Rucka fan if it got more interesting*. Something just isn't working.

As a side note, naming the unkillable bodyguard "Forever" is so on the nose I audibly groaned.

The bright spot is the art. Michael Lark is pretty amazing. But you know that. Even so, something feels off here. Like this is not the sort of project his artwork fits with. It's just a personal feeling. I'm not sure I can explain it.

Boy, not much I can explain in this review, huh?

Anyway, so far I'd say to give Lazarus a pass. Something isn't clicking. I may give it one more volume, but so far this is the least I've liked a Greg Rucka comic. That's an odd feeling. I hope it's just a hiccup.

My Opinion: Skip It

* The answer was no, by the way. He made it to the eighth issue before giving up. The rest of the first volume didn't exactly prove him wrong.

Wednesday, July 15, 2015

The Phantom Stranger: A Stranger Among Us (comics)

Writers: Dan Didio, JM DeMatteis
Artist:Brent Anderson
Collects: Phantom Stranger #0-5

I've always had a bit of a soft spot for the Phantom Stranger. Yeah, I know, I'm one of about three people. What can I say? He's got a certain air of mystery surrounding him that lasted all the way to Flashpoint, a tendency to make cool cameos and a killer outfit. Don't underestimate how important a great look can be for a character. The only reason Ghost Rider lasted as long as he has is because the visual of a leather clad biker with a flaming skull for a head is rad as hell.

Even so, that mystery can sort of work against him. I've seen dozens of appearances by the Stranger and it became pretty clear that he's a fine tool to use for the sake of setting heroes on the right track, he's kind of limited in regards to what he offers as a solo character*. After all, prior to Flashpoint, his main schtick is that he could not directly interfere in most threats short of The Spectre himself bugging out and trying to annihilate magic or something. He's the DC iteration of Obi-Wans ghost, really.

Regardless, DC decided to take a crack at it, spinning off the Strangers very own solo title from his New 52 status as one of the "Trinity of Sin".

All told, they make a pretty good go of giving the Stranger a solid hook in the New 52 continuity - something he lacked prior to Flashpoint - with enough depth to make him a viable solo character you might want to follow. The broad strokes are that the Stranger was once Judas - yes, that Judas - whom, after betraying Jesus, was lost in such a bottomless pit of self-loathing that he hung himself in an attempt to pay for his sins. Unfortunately, the numerous higher powers of the DC universe had other plans. Cursing him with a necklace made of the thirty pieces of silver he was paid for the betrayal of Jesus, Judas was cast back to Earth to forever walk, a stranger to all, until the time came when his services were called upon.

One piece of silver is destroyed for every divine task he completes; often, these tasks lead to him being forced to betray everyone he comes in contact with or attempts to help.

It's a clearer purpose than the Stranger has had in a long time. Not only does he now have a hook, he has an actual origin as well; something the pre-Flashpoint universe was unwilling to commit to**. It gives him a good excuse to interact with a lot of the DC Universe; in this volume alone, we see an origin for Raven - of Teen Titans fame - Terrance Thirteen shows up, the Spectre is in the house, Trigon drops some threats and even John Constantines merry band of dark Justice Leaguers decide to drop in. The Stranger touches a lot of lives, for good or ill.

Seeing that we've addressed the upgrades, we might as well move to the writing. Honestly, it takes a little bit for it to catch up to the potential of the concept. Dan Didio scripts a good two thirds of this trade. Dan's usually hit or miss as a writer - he seems to do his best work when allowed to cut loose with a crazy character or concept - but he's perfectly servicable. Even so, his issues, while inoffensive, aren't wildly interesting and his dialogue could use a little work. As interesting as issue number one is - that is the Raven issue, where we see how one single encounter with the stranger upends her entire life and ends up sending her where she does not want to be - it's a quick one. There are maybe three real scenes across the issue and while they do a pretty decent job of getting the concept across, it feels like it could have easily been compressed a bit to add more to it.

Luckily, JM DeMatteis - a writer I've yet to read a bad story from - comes on board as the scripter as of issue four and coincidently or not that's where the comic starts to pick up the pace. He immediately takes the setup Dan provided him with and turns it on its head, almost immediately leading into encounters with the Justice League Dark - a book I believe DeMatteis had taken over by the time this comic saw print, or would take over shortly after - and a knock down drag out fight with the Spectre.

The artwork is provided by Brent Anderson. It's not a name I'm familiar with, but he seems pretty good at what he does. My only real complaint is that he does a bit more crosshatching than I care for. We're not talking 90's level, where there's so much of it that every character looks to be in their late eighties, but enough to be noticable.

By the end, I was on board The Phantom Stranger. Be aware, though, that it takes a bit for the book to pick up. Prior to issue four I liked it well enough but wasn't sure I would continue. While it ended strongly, my score reflects that. Hopefully the second volume picks up well from where we left off. Anyway, give it a shot if your local library has a copy.

My Opinion: Try It

* I know he had a solo title way back in the 70's or 80's that went for a good forty issues, but I've never read it, so I don't know how they got around it.

** In the pre-Flashpoint universe, they kind of pulled a Joker style "multiple choice" deal with him. There was a special DC once did that presented four different possible origins for the Stranger. No two were alike. One of them was similar to the broad strokes of the current iteration; he was not Judas, but someone else inadvertently affected by Jesus in a negative way. Unfortunately, one of the stories was written by Alan Moore and, as DC tended to do with any Alan Moore work, was thusly considered about as official as DC was willing to commit. Say what you want about Alan Moore and his bitter rants - I've plenty, not a lot of it nice - but he does have a bit of a point whenever he alludes to DC being unable to let go of his work.

Saturday, July 11, 2015

Justice League: Trinity War (comics)

Writers: Geoff Johns, Jeff Lemire, Ray Fawkes, J.M. DeMatteis
Artists: Ivan Reis, Doug Mahnke, Mikel Janin and others
Collects: Justice League #22-23, Justice League of America #6-7, Justice League Dark #22-23, Trinity of Sin: Pandora #1-3, Trinity of Sin: Phantom Stranger #11, Constantine #5, New 52 Free Comic Book Day Special 2012

For as many mistakes as the New 52 initiative may have made, it certainly did a fine job of returning some of the lost luster of the Justice League brand. JLA ended somewhere around 2006 and despite numerous attempts it never really managed to strike a chord with anyone. That changed after Flashpoint, with no fewer than three Justice League books launching under the relaunches umbrella; one faltered, but was swiftly replaced by another. They rarely, if ever, interacted on any major scale.

Finally, a solid two years in, they collide in a big crossover. This time it's war. Well, sort of.

Trinity War certainly feels important. For one thing, it's the first big "DC Universe" story since the relaunch. For another, it's readily apparent that it is meant to be a culmination of everything the Justice League line had done in its first two years. Not everything feels as though it was planned - having read all the League books from Flashpoint to Trinity War, I get the distinct feeling that the plan for Pandora may well have shifted early into the lines life - but for the most part you can draw a clear line through each book to lead here. That's fairly impressive, especially given the fact that DC has often had troubling aligning the stars in the past.

The stakes are fairly high as well. We start with Superman having apparently* killed someone. From there things escalate as numerous heroes of the DC Universe try to absolve him - after, you know, the requisite punchup, lest the title be a complete lie - with battle lines being drawn over the best way to go about it. At the center of the conflict is Pandoras Box, the supposed prison of evil the titular character unwittingly opened long ago, unleashing sin upon the world.

It's an interesting story and it holds up fairly well, despite involving several writers and even more artists. I think what impressed me the most is that by the end, you realize the stakes are even higher than previously indicated. Trinity War manages to re-purpose several characters and concepts in ways that might surprise you, including a silver age villain given a no brainer of an origin that makes you question how this is the first time anyone has tried it.

As always, there are flaws. As the crossover goes on, there's less importance put on the "Trinity of Sin". They're made out to be a big deal very early on, but The Question is practically a non entity and while important, Pandora kind of fades to the background a bit by the climax and the Phantom Stranger, who is definitely a presence throughout most of the story, just disappears from it past a certain point. It's also a big difficult to suss out how the "sins" work, exactly, given the big twist of the storyline. I think I managed to figure it out, but it's something that isn't spelled out all that clearly. It isn't enough to break the story - and I imagine the nature of the sins will be explained more in the issues of Pandora that take place after Trinity War - but it's fairly curious.

There's also the elephant in the room that is the ending. Trinity War doesn't really finish so much as it moves us into the next phase. Turns out the war leads into the first - and with the recent end of the branding, only - event comic of the New 52. I can see how that might piss some people off. Personally, I think it works and the twist is intriguing enough for me to overlook the fact that the story is, in a way, a big lead in to an event. I understand how others might chafe, however.

Despite utilizing a small army of artists, visually the book holds together quite well. You'll still see some visual flair here and again, but most conform to a general "look". Many people bristle at the mention of a companies "house style", but there's little denying that in the case of multi-book crossovers like this it's an advantage as opposed to a detriment. Ivan Reis is the best of the bunch, but everyone holds their own well.

All told, Trinity War is a fun crossover that does its job well. You could do far worse. Do be advised, however, that it doesn't so much end as it pulls a time honored "to be continued". It's entertaining enough that it doesn't matter to me and it did its job well of stoking the flames of my interest in Forever Evil.

My Opinion: Read It

* "Apparently" because a three year old could tell you Superman wouldn't do that. The story, to its credit, doesn't even try to pretend otherwise; once everyone calms the hell down and stops throwing punches - hell, even while punches are being thrown - pretty much everyone agrees something is wrong with the picture. Well, save Waller and maybe two others, but if we're being honest "distrusting ass who is not afraid to pull some seriously shady business" is her character in a nutshell.