Wednesday, June 21, 2017

Jupiter's Legacy - Book One (comics)

Writer: Mark Millar
Artist: Frank Quitely
Collects: Jupiter's Legacy #1-5

Any of the three people who've read my blog for a long time know I'm not a fan of Mark Millar. I've had less than kind things to say about some of his comics in the past and I believe I've referred to him as a huckster. I started avoiding anything with his name over five years ago, in part because I got tired of his shock and schlock routine. Everything is crude, crass and disgusting to the point where it became a chore to read. It's like an ultraviolent version of Jerry Springer in comic form.

So, what brought me here? Well, Mark Millar comics sell big. As such, the guy attracts top level artists to whatever project he's working on. This time, he roped in Frank Quitely, which feels weird, given Quitely has worked primarily with Grant Morrison throughout his career. So it's the double surprise of seeing Quitely working away from a Morrison script for the first time in a decade and with a man Morrison once jokingly* said he wanted to run over with his car.

As expected, Mark Millar hucked it up going into this one, calling it his "Star Wars" and going so far as to say it's Lord of the Rings meeting a superhero crossover. Let it never be said that the dude doesn't know how to hustle his work. It's all overblown promotion, of course. The world is not nearly as intricately thought out as the latter and lacks both the scope and rollicking adventure of the former

But what it is happens to be pretty freaking good.

In 1932, in the wake of the stock market crash, Sheldon Sampson sets off with family and friends in search of an island he saw in a dream. They return with superpowers, ushering in a golden age of heroism. Cut to 2013, where they've all grown old and their children have taken their place. For the next generation, it's not exactly about heroics; it's all brand deals and putting your name out there, to the great shame of their fore-bearers. Sheldon - The Utopian - is struggling to uphold what he believes are the ideals of America in a world where it seems increasingly old fashioned and out of touch, even as the heroes around him actively resent him for keeping them from using their powers to "right" the world. His daughter is a drug addled mess, his son resents him for not being there enough and his brother is tired of playing by his rules.

Then the brother has had enough and whispers in the sons ear; if Sheldon were gone, everything would be better, they could make everything better.

As is clear from the general description, Jupiter's Legacy is a story about generational conflict and ego on both sides. It kind of brings Kingdom Come - the well regarded Mark Waid and Alex Ross Elseworlds miniseries - to mind, but without the overbearing biblical references or the immediate weight granted to an alternate universe of heroes millions around the world love. Grant Morrison even tackled similar themes before. The Golden Age of heroes is well and truly over, with the parents having done everything there is to do. As such, their children are left adrift, losing themselves to vices and cynicism that creep into their veins and take root in their lives. Much like real life, the young and the old have different ideas on how the world should be run and see each other as naive or out of touch. It's a fairly compelling conflict of ideals and to Millars credit, when the match meets gasoline, the impact is felt.

Part of what seems to set it apart is that Millar really reigns in his worst tendencies, to the stories benefit. I think this might actually be the first project I've read of his not involving a corporately owned superhero that didn't heavily rely on cursing. It's used sparingly, usually by regular people, and as such it feels a bit more natural. The ultraviolence and disgusting nonsense is at a low, too. The worst bit of it is the death of Sheldons wife, where we get a panel of her gored by numerous blades, but even that doesn't feel gratuitous. It works as an appropriately horrifying image without going too far, getting the point across without, like, showing her intestines or something.

But there's also a sense of hope and respect that feels absent in prior work. Things went off the rails somewhere in the past, but you really do get the feeling that, despite the problems of the modern day, even the villains of the piece stand for something. As much as the son may resent his father, Brandon still does what he does largely because he feels he can make things better and, despite his disillusionment, does want to help the world. He's distressed late in the book when things did not go near as well as he was promised by his uncle and in his frustration he's lashing out. It was all supposed to be so simple, right?

Then there's the daughter, Chloe, and her son. She's the more misguided of the two, losing herself to drugs and alcohol, but very clearly pulls herself together when things go bad, going into hiding with her child and the father. She tells the boy of her fathers adventures and her son, inspired and inheriting his grandfathers sense of both justice and inner heroism, covertly takes to saving people, despite the danger of discovery. By the end, the family comes together to save each other and their secret is blown, but whatever, right? They've hid long enough. The odds might be stacked against them, but when did the odds ever matter to superheroes?

All the more frustrating, then, to realize the guy could have been writing stuff like this all along. But hey, at least we got there. I'm into the book and ready for volume two, which promises to be where the push back against the new regime begins.

That said, there are some issues worth talking about.

Given that we're working with a new world and universe, we're obviously dealing with all new characters. So that leaves a lot in the way of set-up. Millar does a fine job of giving everyone differing viewpoints and personalities, but not every personal relationship is given the time it required. Chloe ends up looking like she'll be the hero of Jupiters Legacy, or at least one of the heroes, but she actually doesn't get nearly enough interaction with her parents before things go sour. We see plenty of the antagonism between Sheldon and his son, Brendan, but not so with Sheldon and Chloe. We get an idea what their relationship and thoughts are on each other through how they speak of each other, but they aren't even on panel together once, much less directly interacting. It's not much better with the mother, as they barely have a few sentences together before Chloe is attacked. It's a glaring oversight, and one reason I feel like this first volume could have used an extra issue slid in before the big plot point showed up.

The protagonists are also a little cavalier with loss of life at the end of the book, but it's in defense of their son, so you can at least sort of fudge the lines. Momma Bear and Papa Wolf aren't exactly new tropes. Still, I hope it's not the standard in the second half, as Chloes parents are old school heroes and wouldn't have approved.

Such a large time skip between issues three and four probably wasn't necessary either. Chloe has changed a great deal in the intervening years. It would have been nice to see some of that. Like I said, it could have used another issue. Half an issue showing moments from the nine years in succession all the way to where we end up would have done a lot for the book.

Frank Quitelys art is the same top notch work we usually get from him. As always, his style shows a lot of variety in body type, stature, body language and facials. The occasionally over-detailed eyes always get me. It's a thing in a fair number of Quitely projects that even good looking people will look just the slightest bit ugly without looking grotesque or unappealing to the eye. For example, Chloe has no eyebrows, making her look downright weird, but it also works, because she looks unique. Either you like Frank Quitelys art or you don't, but for my money, it's always great.

It's a good start and I'm invested in it enough not just to finish, but to check out the prequels, Jupiter's Circle, that Millar put out in the gaps after Legacy ran into its inevitable delays. We'll see where it goes, but for now, Jupiter's Legacy is a winner.

My Opinion: Read It

* I assume jokingly, but for all I know, he could have been serious. It's not exactly a big secret that Grant Morrison does not like Mark Millar anymore. The bad blood is known.

Monday, June 19, 2017

Superman Unchained (comics)

Writer: Scott Snyder
Artist: Jim Lee
Collects: Superman Unchained #1-9

Overall, I'd say I've read over half of the New 52 era of Superman. I've tried each creative team on Action and Superman both. On the whole, I've already kind of judged the whole endeavor - picture me as Ceasar giving the thumbs down - but there was one more piece of the puzzle to try.

That piece being Superman Unchained, a project celebrated at its announcement that feels as though it just came and went. I don't see much discussion of it, now or at the time. Strange, for a project teaming Scott Snyder, current comics golden boy, with Jim Lee, the standard bearer of DC art style for about a decade and a half. Now having read it, I can kind of understand why. Superman Unchained is perfectly fine, but doesn't really rise past that point, which is surprising given the talent involved.

A long time ago, American scientists sent an equation into space, asking for help from aliens, because I guess that's a thing you do. I don't know, maybe we've done it in real life. Regardless, something answered, an alien crash landed and America had its own "Superman", Wraith, who it's kept as a well guarded secret for over a hundred years. He was the second "bomb" dropped on Nagasaki in World War II and it turns out much of the worlds technology stemmed from this original alien visitor. In the present day, Superman is now forced to come face to face with Wraith, as well as the US army, led by Sam Lane, who if you cannot recall, is a dick.

There are other elements in play, including a terrorist group screwing things up, but they are the most after of thoughts. They blow themselves up halfway through the collection after they set off every nuke in the world and are just kind of swept under the rug after driving half the plot, just to get to the goods of Lane attacking the Fortress of Solitude with the Army and Wraith in a bid to kill Superman and take his technology.

That might even be the problem in itself. A lot of the threats end in a bit of a whimper, or don't have the gravity they probably should. As mentioned, the terrorist group Ascension just kind of blow themselves up. Wraith is beaten intelligently, but his change of heart has absolutely no build-up. The big alien menace ready to invade feels like a last minute hail mary of a plot point that is teased in the second to last issue, only to show up in the last issue, just to be dealt with. Even Luthor, who escapes mid-way through the book before enacting a plan - which involves Jimmy Olsen ending up in the Artic for no reason I can fathom - to get Superman to blow himself up to save us all, is re-captured by Superman off panel.

Wraith is a bit frustrating, because I don't feel like his conflict with Superman was mined like it could have been. He's very much a soldier, like Lane, who works for his country, believes in it and is upset that Superman doesn't directly tie himself to its cause, going so far as to ask why Superman doesn't turn over all the alien technology to the US. Lane has his own spiel about how Superman is a coward, because at least he and Wraith directly target threats and stop them, potentially saving lives, while Superman is, in Lanes view, a mass murderer because he's unwilling to get his hands dirty and concerned more with staying above the fray.

Superman never has a proper rebuttal that I can think of, or at least he doesn't directly confront the accusations in any meaningful way, which is disappointing because he could give any number of reasons as to why. It would not play well with the more "patriotic" among us - see the overblown, frankly dumb uproar over that one back-up where Superman renounced his American citizenry for an example - but there's a point to be made about how America is typically an aggressor, actively imposing our will and exerting influence in various regions of the world as it is, without even more advanced alien technology only they would have backing them up. There's the idea that it places too much importance and power in one place, too, an idea that resonates even more right now. Superman even passes up the opportunity to comment on how Sam Lane and Wraiths go-to option when he won't kneel and kiss the ring is to kill him, blow up the fortress and take it all. Would you really want people like that to have more power and tech?

The most we get is during the big fight with Wraith, when he's defeated and Superman starts in with a "Shut Up, Hannibal" speech. But instead of bringing up anything that illuminated his position or poked holes in any of the philosophical or metaphorical attacks on his character, he just verbally attacks Wraiths reliance on an army for back-up, while Supermans loner status left him learning how to fight out of necessity. It's the last we see of Wraith until he commits a heroic sacrifice in Supermans place, for no reason I can fathom. Superman didn't really say anything that might have caused him to "see the light" or make that choice, rather than let Superman die so he could live to keep fighting for his country.

Most of the problem seems to be in the back third of the book, where everything is racing toward the conclusion. It almost feels as though the series got cut short, which is why all these plot points and opportunities were resolved in an unsatisfactory way. Maybe it was. I think Unchained was supposed to be an ongoing, or was at least suggested to be such, before it ran into delays; as I recall, it took a year and a half to put out nine issues, so if that's what happened, it makes sense, but might have hurt the overall material.

Even Jim Lee's work doesn't help and might even actively hinder the material. Some of it might be personal preference; it has been a long decade and change since Batman: Hush and Jim Lee's style and sensibilities set the tone for DC for much of the time after, so it's been around a lot. I figured it might just be an issue with me falling out of love with Lee's style, which is thick with extraneous lines and not nearly as eye catching to me today as it was ten years ago. But the more I read, the more I thought that the problem might be elsewhere and not even relate entirely to Lee.

We don't think much about the inkers and colorists unless something goes very right or horribly wrong. After all, there's not a lot to talk about compared to things like the general style of the linework or the story, so they very much end up the unsung heroes of comic books. I could be wrong, but I think that Jim Lee has used the same inker and colorist for all of his work over the years. Having read the prior Jim Lee pencilled Superman story - the Brian Azzarello written For Tomorrow arc - as well as Unchained, I think that the usual choice of color, tone and use of shadow of this team might simply be unsuited for a solo Superman tale.

Coming off Son of Superman, I found I very much preferred the simple, brighter shades employed with Superman, a character who embodies light and hope. Keep in mind that I say this not intending to directly compare the two jobs or praise one over the other - they're both different styles, both are good and both could be superior for different projects - but I think of the difference in the details of how this book portrays something as simple as space compared to that story. In the opening pages of Unchained, where we kick off with an admittedly exciting, very Superman task of saving a falling space station, space is very black, almost oppressively dark in that sense, with only the stars breaking up that feeling. In Son of Supermans final issue, space is brighter, with the glow of the planet and the moon turning into gradients of blue, green and even purple.

Regardless, I should note that the work of Lee and his team is far stronger here than it was for the opening volumes of Geoff Johns run on Justice League. I remember that everything felt a bit more rushed and less detailed there than usual, likely owed to Lee being forced to let up to meet the then-ironclad monthly schedule the New 52 was determined to honor. Unchained was its own thing, divorced from the general goings on of the rest of the line, as opposed to Justice League, which was the first book of the New 52. Unchained could be delayed. It shows, because it's a marked improvement over Justice League. If you like Jim Lees art and have none of the issues I did, you'll enjoy looking at this book.

To loop back to writing, there are things to enjoy there, as well. One thing I noticed, and appreciated, is that Snyder portrays Superman and Batman as friends, with no large amount of tension or bull. Batman is prepared, just in case, but is ready to help Superman out when he needs it, does not seem particularly suspicious of him or his motives and is even appreciated by Superman, who remarks at one point that it's good to have paranoid friends. It's enough to make you want a Scott Snyder penned Batman/Superman title. Better still, while Batman is around and helps, he's a supplement to Superman and even when he has a standout moment, like when he holds the line against Wraith in the Batcave until Superman arrives, it doesn't feel like he's hogging page time. Superman has his friends and relies on them while still showing he's able to get the job done alone.

By the way, this thing apparently had an obscene amount of variant covers, because there's like a million of the things. Yeah, I know, that's hyperbolic. I'll clarify. Apparently, the nine issue run had fifty variant covers through its run. I counted. The cover gallery - with script pages for the first issue and raw Jim Lee pencils - are close to a third of the book. Not saying this is a bad thing, it just surprised me. Quite a few of them are nice to look at, with plenty of homages, so hey, it's a decent extra. I like being able to see the alternate covers in the trade anyway.

Thus far, this is Scott Snyders sole work with Superman. It's a shame, as I get the feeling that he does genuinely get the character and would do well with one of the two ongoings. His work with Batman seems to be winding down for now, so perhaps he'll follow Tomasi's lead over to the other half of the Worlds Finest team for a proper run in the future. I'd be willing to read it. But as for this, I can't give it a hearty recommendation. It might do more for you than me, so check your library system, I guess.

My Opinion: Try It

Friday, June 16, 2017

Superman: Son of Superman (comic)

Writer: Peter Tomasi, Patrick Gleason
Artists: Patrick Gleason, Doug Mahnke, Jorge Jimenez
Collects: Superman Rebirth #1, Superman (2016) #1-6

Of the trinity, Superman fared the worst in the New 52. The side books were a wash, but Batman itself was in the midst of another blockbuster run. Wonder Woman was divisive the whole way through, but even if they didn't like the tone or direction of the Azzarello run, most seem like they'll at least admit it was well put together. Superman had a year and a half with Grant Morrison on Action Comics and that was it. Nothing else really measured up*.

Worse still, for a majority of the time, the New 52 version did not really feel like Superman. It was like DC consciously decided to take a different tack with him. In some regards, it worked - Morrisons run starts off with a Superman that is more moral crusader for justice, both social and societal - but in others, it felt like we'd diverged too much from what made the character work to begin with. There's a real feeling, both in and out of his books, that the New 52 is a lot more concerned with his alien origins and feeling like an outsider than he typically is. It's the entire reason he hooks up with Wonder Woman - they both feel alone on an alien world, literal and metaphorical - which is just one part of why that felt like an awful idea from the moment they kissed. I feel like they realized they screwed up and were correcting course by the end, but it came late in the game.

I mean, I'd rather deal with that version than something closer to the Superman from the Zack Snyder films, for example, but it still feels like they missed the point of the character.

That's why the Rebirth Superman title was the one I anticipated reading the most. Just prior to Rebirth, the New 52 version died - if I'm being brutally honest, he died because he was a moron - and the classic version of Superman stepped in to take his place. With him came his wife, Lois Lane, and young son Jonathan Kent. Superman the family man is a status quo that just sounds right the first time you hear it, so the idea naturally agreed with me.

We start off with the Rebirth special, which is admittedly a mis-step. It's entirely about dealing with the fallout of the New 52 versions death and coming to terms with it. It does address an elephant in the room; Superman died once before, so of course he'd think the New 52 version could come back and would go looking for the same means he used to do it. It doesn't change the fact that we're leading off a new era dealing directly with the one we just left behind, one a reader coming back after an absence probably doesn't want to deal with anymore anyway. I know new readers are also mystical unicorns, but part of the reason why is we always see stuff like this, where before you recommend something you have to give a disclaimer or primer because of things that are, to a non comic reader, confusing stereotypical comic junk. That stuffs fine when you're deep in the numbers, but why would you ever lead off with it?

It should have been about a light recap of the life and times of the new-old Superman that glossed over some of the "from a parallel universe" stuff. Unfortunately, that's not what we got, so here we are. Admittedly, there's something sweet about Superman teaming with Lana Lang to retrieve his counterparts remains, then, upon realizing there's no bringing him back, burying him with his parents and carving a memorial to him in the Fortress of Solitude.

After that, we reach the first arc of the series, Son of Superman, and it's off at the races. Much like Tomasi and Gleasons Batman & Robin, this book is very much about the relationship between father and son. Jons powers are only just starting to manifest and he doesn't necessarily know how to control or properly use them. His start is a bit like his fathers in that regard. But unlike Clarks upbringing, he has the benefit of a father who has been through this before and is patient and understanding in dealing with it.

Which is not to say that Lois is a background character. She's just as important to the dynamic and brings her usual headstrong attitude to things. When things start going down, she even manages to get her licks in on the villain in a way I won't spoil, but calls back to the aforementioned Batman & Robin run.

Eventually, the Eradicator shows up. In case you're unfamiliar with him, he was one of the replacement Supermen in the 90's**, during the brief period after Death of Superman where the hole needed to be filled. Essentially a cyborg who thought he actually was Superman for a brief time, he stuck around in one form or another after that. This is a new version, whose history starts as a part of a small force that traps Kryptonian lawbreakers for General Zod. Now, having witnessed the death of Krypton and finding a living Kryptonian, his goal is the rebirth of the race. Unfortunately, he's none too fond of Jons human half and wants to wipe it out.

Naturally, Superman tells him to go screw and the fight begins.

Son of Superman is a fun start for the Rebirth era. We get to see both halves of Supermans life, the domestic and the heroic, how they intersect and how they're all a big part of his life. But we also get to see some scenes that are just downright cool. When the action spills into Metropolis and threatens to put innocent lives in danger, Superman retreats with his family to the friggin Moon, where the climax of the book takes place. Turns out Batman has a special cave there, because Batman, which comes in handy. It all leads to a page that feels like a classic Superman shot, where he rights the American flag and lunar module we left on the Moon and strikes a heroic pose for the cameras to see, to reassure the world that Superman is back and he's there to stay.

The book is full of bright Superman imagery. The way he's drawn by Patrick Gleason, he often comes off as a fatherly presence, larger than life without feeling out of reach. He smiles, shoots his son thumbs up, takes time out to receive keys to the city and proudly introduces his son to his colleagues in superheroics. It's hard to articulate the difference, but it comes down to the way the character carries himself compared to the one he's replaced. The body language feels as important in making him feel like the old school Superman as the dialogue and any of his actions.

There's a bit of fill-in art, unfortunately, but it's not too bad. Jorge Jimenez fits in well enough that I actually didn't even know what he'd drawn until I looked through the credits before writing this review. Doug Mahnke is the one that sticks out. He pencils the Rebirth issue - which is fine, as it's separate - as well as an issue late in the book. Doug Mahnke is a great artist, but his work is just different enough from Gleasons expressive, clean style that you'll notice the issue he illustrated. It's not helped by the fact that Mahnkes issue also uses a different inker and colorist; had he used Mick Gray and John Kalisz I imagine it would have helped smooth over the edges. But I don't know if that decision was in his hands or not. Regardless, Mahnke's a top flight talent and ably handles the material he's given.

Only a few things stuck out to me as a negative. The Rebirth issue being a sort of coda to the New 52 version being one, as I previously mentioned. Another is Supermans prickliness toward his new neighbor. Granted, Cobb kind of brushed off Clarks insistence that they had it under control, but it felt off to see Superman give him a stern look while he repeated himself. Perhaps he knows something we don't? I assume it will be addressed. Tomasi and Gleason seem to be setting Cobb and his granddaughter as recurring characters.

We also didn't need to see Jon accidentally fry the family cat in panic as he tries to save it from a hawk. It's appropriately heartbreaking, because of course the poor kid didn't mean to do it, much less understand how to even use this brand new power he's never had before, and ends up showing how supportive his family is, so it has its use. Superman knows immediately, but doesn't let on as such, instead taking his son with him on a distress call, using it as a teachable moment, helping Jon get control of his heat vision and gently encouraging his son to do the right thing and come clean. That said, did we really need to do that to get to this point? It's the one moment that felt a little bit too much like the kind of dumb, dark moments you'd get in that ugly post-Infinite Crisis period, but it doesn't hurt the book much and probably won't bother anyone else as much as it did me.

It could just be that I'm a cat person. Who knows.

Overall, Superman starts the Rebirth era off strong with the best material I've seen with the character in years. It's good enough that I'm optimistic about the future of the book. I'd go so far as to say it's the best of the Rebirth roll-out that I've read so far. Highly recommended.

My Opinion: Read It

* I say this as I have, at the time of this writing, not read Superman Unchained, which seems like the only thing left to try with a shot at being good to great.

** Eradicator isn't even the only callback to the 90's in here. I didn't expect to ever see Bibbo Bibowski again, but here we are. It's a nice surprise. Superman should have a recognizable fan or two we see from time to time.

Wednesday, June 7, 2017

Batman/Superman: Siege (comics)

Writer: Greg Pak
Artist: Ardian Syaf
Collects: Batman/Superman #16-20, Batman/Superman Annual #2, Batman/Superman: Futures End #1

So, now we're at volume four of Batman/Superman. Sadly, we lost Jae Lee along the way. The big Earth Two plotline that dipped in and out of the first three volumes has been scuttled off stage as well, without anything that really feels like a resolution. For better or worse, Siege is something different, holding us over in the time between the prior mission statement and the point where the book has to reflect radical status quo changes for the title characters, born from their solo titles.

Thankfully, it's pretty good. I'd go so far as to argue that it holds together better than anything since Cross World. It's amazing what having one artist draw an entire story or arc can do for you. The past couple of volumes felt patchwork at best, given that it swapped artists like you might change your underwear, sometimes in the middle of an issue. Ardian Syaf brings a stability to the visuals, one that was sorely needed. He has all of the same strengths he did in the third volume of Superman: Earth One, including the expressiveness of the characters.

The story itself is fine. I admit I cringed when I read the synopsis of Superman ending up with his own "Joker". I'm not sure what I expected, but in my head, I envisioned some bad attempt at conjuring an on the nose, Joker style character for Superman to be his new arch nemesis, even if the idea they'd try that seems almost silly. What it ends up referring to is the methodology; a sociopath who is simply out to hurt anyone connected to the hero, just because they can, possibly due to a strange fixation. That's fine, even if the idea of this character being Supermans Joker is directly expressed in dialogue a little too often to illicit anything more than an eyeroll.

Regardless, the danger is real, as this villain hits Superman where it hurts, several times, using what we learn is something directly connected to the Superman corner of the DCU to do it. Despite being heavily tied to the Superman half of the equation, Greg Pak does a fine job of keeping Batman in the mix, rather than letting him fade to the background a bit too much. In fact, at one point late in the volume, Superman impulsively activates his Solar Flare, leaving him powerless for twenty four hours just as a cadre of villains come looking to kill him. Batman has to keep Clark alive from that point on.

Also included is a Futures End tie-in issue. I'll admit I'm interested in the weekly and kind of looking forward to reading it. I also like the idea of an extra issue exploring the alternate world presented to us, much like DC One Million did in the late 90's. Unfortunately, this one is a bit of a wash. It's really just a Batman centric issue, with him dealing with a Superman villain and lamenting the breakdown of their friendship at some point in the history of this alternate future. The issue was kind of left between a rock and a hard place - from what I do know of Futures End, Superman is missing for the first half of it, possibly in a Kingdom Come-esque self exile - but it's still unfortunate. I don't feel like I really got anything out of it, aside from knowing why the Futures End Batmans back is quite possibly wrecked for good.

There's not a lot to say about Siege, otherwise. It's fine meat and potatoes team-up comics. I'd say it's an improvement over the past couple of volumes as well. It's unconnected to anything else, so you could just pick it up and read it if you felt like it. Siege is worth a shot if you're in the mood or don't have anything else to read, I'd say.

My Opinion: Try It

Sunday, June 4, 2017

Titans: The Return of Wally West (comics)

Writer: Dan Abnett
Artist: Brett Booth
Collects: Titans: Rebirth #1, Titans (2016) #1-6

If you care about the big mystery of the relaunch, this was probably the title worth keeping an eye on. DC Universe Rebirth was, after all, about Wally West - the original pre-Flashpoint version - and what his return meant. As it turns out, it doesn't have quite as much to do with that as I expected, but it does touch upon it more than most of the line did in the early months.

While the team itself is prominent, this volume is, as the name suggests, Wally Wests story. The entire Rebirth issue is spent getting the band back together, or getting them to remember him at least, and the rest is Wally dealing with the memories of another life, that of the pre-Flashpoint universe and his family with Linda Park. Wally's obviously having a hard time adjusting, making it the perfect time for Kadabra, claiming he was the one who erased Wally from the timeline, to strike.

There seems to be some fudging of lines going on here, though. I'm not sure if we're supposed to believe this really is the pre-Flashpoint Wally West, or if there really was a New 52 version of white Wally that was just erased. The story makes a point of suggesting that maybe Wally just glimpsed other realities while he was lost in the speed force, including the like of his pre-Flashpoint self, and took the memories into himself. It looks like a minor mystery to deal with in the future, but frankly, it seems like it might be making things a bit more convoluted than it needs to be.

I do wonder where Rebirth leaves the New 52 version of Wally West, though. He doesn't show up here, obviously, but he's still out there, participating in the Rebirth version of Teen Titans, even, during its first year. Having two versions of the same character in the same universe isn't something that typically holds, so I imagine there's going to be some story shenanigans or maybe he merges with Wally Classic, sort of like what goes down with Superman a bit later. I wonder how that would go over. I don't think anyone got too attached to that version, because he did a whole lot of nothing during the New 52, but they made a fairly decent deal out of that version of Wally being black and the last thing DC probably wants is to look like they eliminated another black character, of which comics are in short supply in both major companies, in favor of the white counterpart.

Best case scenario is probably that someone just has a name change, in story. Like, New 52 Wally takes the last name on his mothers side or something. Still, kind of an awkward situation DC's in with this one.

Regardless, Kadabra causes trouble for our heroes by summoning magic clones of their younger selves, from their Teen Titan days, to wreck their world and cause Wally undue pain. This includes kidnapping Linda Park, who is kind of freaked about everything and doesn't remember Wally at all. Like I said, it's Wallys story, right down to use of a Flash villain. It's a fairly simple superhero plot at its heart, buoyed by Wallys character struggle with a life he's not even sure he actually lived anymore. It ends with Wally accepting that he needs to move forward, a fresh start between him and Linda and the promise of Deathstroke, historically a major figure in the Titans line, causing trouble down the line.

I'm a little concerned with how heavily it plays off on our nostalgia for the Wally of the old universe and his life there. Wally was a cornerstone of the old universe, one of the few sidekicks who actually assumed a mantle and held it for a very long time. There's a lot of history there and if you've read any DC comics prior to the New 52 you're probably familiar with some of it. If DC uses nostalgia for the old days too much in the hook of their stories going forward, it's going to get old fast. In what I've read so far of Rebirth, it's confined to Titans, so for now it's fine. But I could see it becoming a crutch if used too often.

Brett Booth is our penciller for the book. His work is perfectly fine, if nothing spectacular. Actions scenes are perfectly understandable, everything is clean and good looking. It's nothing you'll remember the next day, but not every comic needs art like that. A lot of superhero comics are built on the backs of perfectly cromulent artists who know how to put a page together.

If I have any complaint - and it's subjective - it's that our heroes seem maybe a little too muscular? Also, there's a point where, like, Roy sucks his gut in during an action pose, for example, and his abs get weird. It's not Kelley Jones level, "oh my god, why dies Bane have a billion individual gut muscles on this cover" noticeable stuff, but I might as well bring it up. On the writing side, some of the dialogue feels a bit too awkward. But none of it harms the overall product much.

We'll see how it holds up going forward, now that this story is out of the way, but so far, Titans Rebirth is worth the read.

My Opinion: Read It

Sunday, May 28, 2017

Superman: Before Truth (comics)

Writer: Gene Luen Yang
Artist: John Romita Jr.
Collects: Superman (2011) #40-44, Superman story from Divergence: FCBD Special Edition #1

I said a while back that if the Superman book didn't improve, I was out until Gene Luen Yang took over. Well, if you want to check the Superman tag, you'll see how that worked out. But the honest truth is that, having read this volume, I'm about ready to call the New 52 era of Superman a wash, because Grant Morrison aside I haven't read anything that's going to be remembered even a couple years removed from it.

It's not that this volume is bad so much as it feels like Yang never got the chance to do anything. All of the other books jumped forward to after Supermans secret identity was blown, with Yang left lining things up to get us there. As such, it feels like he's trying to do that at the same time he tries to get his own ideas through. That leads into some of the cast doing stupid things that feel out of character, simply because we need to get from point A to point B.

The "how" of Supermans identity being exposed is one of these things. I won't spoil it in case you missed the coverage of it when it happened or are coming in after the fact, but I didn't exactly buy it because I couldn't imagine that character doing what they do, even if she convinced herself at the time that it was the right course of action. It's too pat, too clean, and ignores any of the more interesting reasons the character might have ever thought to do it.

I'm not a hundred percent sold on the bad guy, either, partly due to lack of development and partly because it's not going to amount to anything. The basic story is that the evil head of Not-Facebook has figured out Supermans secret identity and is using that knowledge like a dangled carrot to get Superman to do what he wants. Interesting idea. The idea of social media being used for evil feels almost prescient now, in the aftermath of an ugly election cycle - and, frankly, the Presidency that followed - that saw the rise of "fake news" both as a thing to worry about and as a catch-all boogeyman for various ills. It's easy to forget that a company owns the crap all your personal data, thoughts and moments are thrown on and that, if they wanted, they could probably use it against you.

It sucks, then, that Hordr-Root - yeah, I know, it sounds kinda dumb - just kind of vanishes at the end of part three of a four part arc. Supermans identity is exposed and, without that leverage, Hordr-Root just kind of kicks a rock and shuffles off, with the entire final issue dedicated to the aftermath of the reveal. With three issues left to tell this story - because let's be honest, this isn't coming up again after Rebirth and Yang has a different, unrelated Super book now anyway - there's no way it goes anywhere interesting or reaches a satisfactory conclusion. It feels like wasted potential. That and the design isn't super amazing.

As for the whole "blown secret identity" thing, well, Rebirth is not even a full years worth of monthly issues away by this point. What are the odds anything interesting is done with it in that time? Yeah. Exactly. I have to believe they weren't a hundred percent locked into doing Rebirth yet when they greenlit Truth, because there would have been no point in bothering if they did.

All of that is compounded by the art. I respect John Romita Jr's long tenure in comics, but somewhere along the way he transitioned into a style I'm not wild about. It's very simple, with a lot of straight lines and even blockiness. There isn't a ton of detail on certain things, either, unless it's extra lines everywhere. There's a prototype gun bandied about early on that looks almost Liefeldian, like something Cable might have been packing in the 90's. I don't compare it to Liefeld to be super insulting, because it's still competent work, but I'm just not into JR Jr's art these days.

With all the negatives dragging Before Truth, I really can't recommend it. I'm still interested in a book where Gene Luen Yang is able to actually do something, so I'll probably read Rebirths New Super-Man - and I may even read the following volume of this just to see if the story does go anywhere - but as it stands it's worth giving this a pass.

My Opinion: Skip It

Saturday, May 27, 2017

Batgirl: Beyond Burnside (comics)

Writer: Hope Larson
Artist: Rafael Albuquerque
Collects: Batgirl (2016) #1-6

So, with Rebirth, I've decided I'm going to try whatever I can find of it, even if they're books I don't normally pay attention to. Batgirl falls under that category. It's not that I don't care about the character or anything, it's more that any time I was interested, I didn't get the chance for one reason or another. Cassandra Cain was from before I got heavy into comics. Stephanie Browns time looked super fun, but the trades went out of print stupid quick. I think I read the first trade of the New 52 book, but forgot to review it, which probably doesn't say a lot of good things. I have a digital copy of the first trade of the Burnside era on Comixology, but haven't read it yet for one reason or another. So here we are.

Off the bat, the first arc tics a few boxes on the list of things I like. Bright colors and international adventures. I'm not sure what happened at the end of the New 52 era, but apparently Babs decided she needed to get away for a bit, so she travels Asia. In the process, she meets an old friend from her childhood who is apparently in a lot of trouble, which naturally leads Batgirl into some karate fights. I like it when heroes get out of their natural habitat, so I'm predisposed to enjoy this.

Some story issues held it back though. She re-connects with this friend, Kai, in the most coincidental, once in a lifetime way possible; she drops into Japan, only to find Kai is her room-mate at a hostel. This is four pages into the first issue, mind. Four pages for me to raise an eyebrow. Granted, this kind of stuff happens in stories sometimes and this isn't the first comic to do it, but it feels more and more like a narrative cheat these days. With all the technology we have today, there are more avenues than ever to get from A to B inside a page or two.

More than that, I feel like the "friend, possible boyfriend in trouble" thing really held it back. Sometimes, writers can pull this kind of thing off, but it's very hard to sell, because we don't know this new character from Adam. Kai has an advantage that, say, Dawn Golden does not in that he's actually present for most of the volume, so we actually get to know him a bit, but it's obvious fairly early that he's involved in something shady, which immediately leaves you wanting the heroine to distance herself from him, not lock lips. Her contemplating relationships this soon into reconnecting with the guy, when she has suspicions, also felt sort of off too, because again, we don't know this guy much at all, so it's hard to have investment in anything related to him.

Credit where it's due, though, at least Batgirl didn't think about marriage, sharing her identity and giving up the cowl five minutes into dating the guy. How many times have we seen that one pulled with Batman? The third volume of Batman: The Dark Knight feels like the most recent. So Batgirl definitely has one up on her mentor/friend/inspiration/whatever-they-decided-on-this-time.

I guess I feel like the emotional core of the story might have landed better if we'd met Kai before and this story had been a little deeper into the run. I'm also surprised at how quickly we're dropping "international adventuring" to head back to Burnside. I felt like that was a selling point, as part of the new direction in the wake of the Burnside era, to be mined for a years worth of issues, maybe. Instead, it's over inside of five. So much for that.

But all that aside, the writing is perfectly fine for the book and maybe even as far as good. Batgirl comes off as intelligent and compassionate. We see visualizations of her thought process and the times she searches through her memory. I particularly liked seeing her work through possible plans of attack through the art itself. She even brings back thought balloons. It's old school as hell - I mean, who think to themselves that much? - but it's distinctly "comic book" and there's a slight bit of joy to seeing them again. I mean, no one uses friggin' thought balloons these days. Thoughts are all in captions now. So it breaks the mold just enough to be interesting.

Top shelf artwork helps pull you past the issues, too. Rafael Albuquerque has been a favorite of mine since American Vampire - god, that's never coming back, is it? - and while his style works better for horror, it does just fine with superheroics. As usual, it's distinct in that it's almost sketchy at times, maybe under-inked, as though raw pencils were colored. His faces are very expressive and the action dynamic. He was a good choice, because I'd likely have tried this book just for his art alone.

I'd go so far as to say the art bumps this book up enough to be worth recommending. At least for a read. We'll see how it goes in the future, though.

My Opinion: Read It

Wednesday, May 24, 2017

Batman/Superman: Second Chances (comics)

Writer: Greg Pak, Jeff Lemire
Artists: Diogenes Neves, Karl Kerschl, Jae Lee, Marc Deering, Cliff Richards and like ten others
Collects: Batman/Superman #10-15

Don't let that Jae Lee cover and top artist billing on it fool you, his work is barely in this trade.

At this point I feel like this book is starting to fall apart on a bunch of different levels and none of them are the fault of any one person. It started out strong, with a punchy, well written and dynamically drawn opening arc involving the first meeting of the titular heroes and an encounter with their Earth 2 counterparts, but since then the regular artist has not exactly been what you'd consider a regular, the art has suffered and it's beginning to bring down what are otherwise fine comics.

On the upside, we've finally returned to the stuff the book began with, mainly that initial Earth 2 encounter, Kaiyo the Chaosbringer and the suppressed memories of the entire thing. Aside from some lip service during the First Contact arc of the prior volume, it's been mostly absent for about five issues - plus two of Worlds Finest - and an annual. Kaiyo's back and screwing with the duo, giving them a chance to change the events of Earth 2, then afterwards stripping them of their memories and tossing them in the world to figure it out from there, for kicks.

It's too bad it doesn't really go anywhere, doesn't wrap up and isn't likely to be continued. I don't know if it's because DC just gave up on Jae Lee penciling for the series, but the series takes a hard left into different territory from here on. The next arc is, from what I've read online, entirely about Superman ending up with his own "Joker". By the time that's done, the Jim Gordan and Truth eras of Batman and Superman, respectively, are in full swing, meaning this book has to fall right in line. Aside from the fact that the two remember the first arc now, nothing is really accomplished. It might have been better if the book never called back to it and left it at that.

There's also a fill-in issue where Superman teams up with the Atom to save Batman from something inside his brain. It's a pretty decent one off adventure and I've always enjoyed Jeff Lemires writing, but there isn't a lot to say about it.

Anyway, the issues with the story are kind of outside of its control, due to real world circumstances and pertaining more to the future of the book, so it's a bit easier to give it a pass. After all, the book is otherwise a fun enough read. Unfortunately, we get to the real problem, which is the art.

As mentioned before, Jae Lee is done after this. It was inevitable, really, and I suspected as much back when I reviewed the first volume. It's not exactly ideal, but something had to be done, because the art situation is completely out of control. I only listed five artists up top, but that's only because I didn't want that to run on much further than it did. No joke, we literally have twelve to fourteen pencillers contributing pages across six issues. Every issue but one - Jae Lees - has at least two artists. The issue closing out the volume has four.

Diogenes Neves does a passable Jae Lee impression - and if I'm being honest, I'm down to see more of their work elsewhere - but no one else comes close. Worse still, there isn't even any consistency in the issues themselves, for obvious reasons. A lot of them do their best chameleon job - and none of the transitions are as jarring as the annual in the prior volume - but if you look you can see the seams.

We'll see what the next volume brings, but as it is, there's not much reason to read this.

My Opinion: Skip It

Monday, May 22, 2017

Starfire: Welcome Home (comics)

Writers: Amanda Conner, Jimmy Palmiotti
Artist: Emanuela Lupacchino
Collects: DC Sneak Peek: Starfire #1, Starfire #1-6

With the DC You initiative, we've reached the point where all of the notable New Teen Titans everyone remembers - who aren't sidekicks past or present, of course - have had at least a miniseries. Cyborg got his first as well, which must have done alright, since he got a relaunch with Rebirth. Starfire did not. It's unfortunate, because I really like this book.

On the surface, it isn't anything super special. There aren't any grandiose adventures going on here. No big overarching plot that will run for dozens of issues and define a run or anything. In fact, it's downright simple. Starfire realizes she's been doing nothing but superheroics since she arrived and wants to have all the other aspects of a normal life on Earth, so she decides to strike out on her own. She solicits advice from Superman, a guy who obviously knows a thing or two about living on an adopted home planet, and based on it, decides to move to Key West, Florida. It's as much slice of life and figuring out how to live and make friends as it is about Starfire helping in a tropical storm or fighting a monster.

Even so, it's very endearing. At least part of that comes down to Starfire herself. They've pulled some cues from her characterization in the old Teen Titans cartoon from 2003-2006. I've always been a little cold on that series for a variety of reasons, so it rubbed me the wrong way initially. Starfire, to me, has always been an emotional person, but also strong willed and intelligent. The cartoon version of her, as a character, nailed the emotional aspect but didn't always get the intelligence part. This Starfire takes in some of that versions naivete, but it's clear that it's just a matter of not understanding different things and taking others a bit too literally. This is occasionally shown by thought balloons that illustrate things like letting dogs off a leash when someone uses the phrase "release the hounds" when referring to her tendency to show off a lot of her breasts, for example. Think the old Impulse series, or Young Justice. It toes the line well without making the character seem like an idiot.

Starfire is just likable, making it easy to care as she goes about making a life in Key West, making friends and integrating herself in the area. Her sexuality, long a part of the character, isn't forgotten, but doesn't feel exploited for sex appeal quite as much as it has in the past. If anything, it's mined for jokes, with people exasperated at her unwitting tendency toward showing a bit more skin than she should. The cast she's surrounded with is just as easy to like. They're not characters you'll go telling everyone about the next day, but you'll enjoy seeing her interact with the Sheriff, Sol and even the most recent Terra.

Speaking of which, the writers decided to do a little continuity patchwork here, keeping the pre-Flashpoint history of Terra III intact, Power Girl friendship included. I don't think this poses any timeline problems and seems like it slots in nicely, even, with what little I've read of the New 52 Power Girl. Even if it didn't, the New 52 era only had, like, a year left at this point anyway before Rebirth came along and did the same "re-establish old continuity people liked" business, so who cares?

The artwork more than holds up its end of the bargain as well. It's clean and detailed without being overdrawn, which could be an issue with some New 52 era comics. Even better, it's very expressive, with even bit characters you might never see again getting varied facial expressions and reactions to what's going on. It reminds me at times of Kevin Maguire. Adding to the entire package is the coloring, which is one of my favorites in recent memory. The colors chosen throughout the book are bright and cheery, perfect for Starfire and her surroundings. I'm a bit of a sucker for bright colors, especially given they're so rare in recent days, so getting it here worked wonders for me.

By the way, the costume redesign they give her for this book is probably the best one she's ever had and it's a shame she doesn't get to keep it. Her Rebirth outfit covers a bit more skin - the midriff - but isn't as aesthetically pleasing, with a lot of white over the chest and midriff area clashing with her traditionally associated purple. That on top of the always strange addition of heels to her thigh high boots. It's weird. They should have stuck with this.

It's unfortunate that there's only one volume of this left, because I could read about a book like this for a good, long while. Regardless, I'm glad it exists. It doesn't affect continuity in a major fashion, it doesn't change anyone forever and it's sadly not a book that's going to make much of an impact. But it's a fun, breezy read. Comics really ought to be more about that sometimes.

My Opinion: Read It

Wednesday, May 17, 2017

Spider-Man/Deadpool: Isn't It Bromantic (comics)

Writer: Joe Kelly
Artist: Ed McGuinness
Collects: Spider-Man/Deadpool #1-5, 8

So, generally, I have opinions about Deadpool. I like the character a fair bit and I'm open to trying any given run of the character. But the thing is, I'm not a mega-fan or anything. Not just any take on Deadpool hits just right, for me. I've read more than a few that trend too far into making the character obnoxious, or lean a bit too heavily on fourth wall breaking antics, and eventually get tired of it.

As such, I've told people in the past that I can only handle Deadpool in small doses. But that's not necessarily true. I suppose it should be clarified; I can only stand Deadpool in small doses if everything is not right.

Joe Kelly always hits the proper balance. Jokes fly free, but he knows when to pull back and get a little more serious with the character. He seems to know how to make the character just obnoxious enough to feel like himself without going so far overboard that he seems like a tiring caricature. The humor he brings is often genuinely chuckle-worthy while keeping away from overplayed Deadpool-isms like constant jokes about Mexican food. He knows not to over-play the fourth wall breaking wisecracks, or they'll get stale. More than that, he is great at keeping Deadpool endearing and interesting without completely losing the edge the character has, even as Deadpool attempts to become more heroic.

Throw in Spider-Man and you've got a hell of a book on your hands.

Boiled down to its essentials, it's really about Deadpool trying to convince Spider-Man to be his friend to help keep him out of the way when Deadpool goes to kill Spider-Mans "boss" Peter Parker, only to find he likes being friends with Spidey, which complicates things. The two prove to be great foils, especially since Spider-Man traditionally has little patience for Deadpool and his antics. The overall plot seems interesting, too, once the "kill Parker" stuff is out of the way and we get to the why of it all. Add in some great art by Ed McGuinness and we're set.

If I have any complaint, it's a callback to Mephisto and One More Day. It's one page of the book, but come on. Just. Let. It. Go. It's annoying every time someone brings it back or takes a passive aggressive shot, even if it happens very rarely.

All told, this was kind of a slam dunk. Witty, well drawn and fun from cover to cover. It might be the first Deadpool material I actually buy in a long time.

My Opinion: Buy It

Saturday, May 13, 2017

Detective Comics: Emperor Penguin (comics)

Writer: John Layman
Artists: Jason Fabok, Andy Clarke
Collects: Detective Comics (2011) #13-18

Chew made me a fan of John Layman, so I was interested when I heard he would be taking over the New 52 volume of Detective Comics after Tony Daniel left. The two volumes of the book prior to this had been middling at worst and merely okay at best, leaving a book that didn't have much to offer and hadn't even managed to distinguish itself yet. Unfortunately, the third volume doesn't get the chance either, so we're stuck waiting to see if volume four can pull it out.

Part of the problem is that the first couple of years of Batman in the New 52 were dominated by what Scott Snyder was doing in the flagship book. I don't necessarily mean that in terms of status quo changes, which is fine, but in tie-ins. It seems like every story Batman did through Zero Year saw the line saddled with tie-ins. With some, it was fine. The Night of the Owls tie-ins were a single issue. At worst, it was a brief break between story arcs. Death of the Family, meanwhile, ends up involving itself in several issues, leaving the writer to have to do something related.

It's worked in about as well as you could expect. The main story of the volume, involving a Penguin henchman getting froggy and seizing his empire, takes a backseat for a couple of issues, allowing that to gestate in the background while Joker copycat gangs make some noise in Gotham. The henchman only has the chance to begin with because Joker scares the piss out of Penguin and forces him to assist the clowns latest scheme. I'm not averse to that. It's Gotham. There's going to be overlap sometimes.

The thing I take issue with is that it's not exactly explained enough. Penguin just exits the book for a couple issues a third of the way through, handing everything off to the henchman to look after until he returns. We don't know what Joker asked of him or why he has to hang in Arkham for a bit, just that, judging by the way he's pissing himself after meeting with Joker, he doesn't exactly have much choice. The worst kind of tie-in is the one that interrupts another story, but doesn't explain or give context to the elements that bleed in. It's one thing to work in a tie-in to your story. It might even be the best way. But almost expecting that you've read the other is off-putting. I expect at least enough distance and explanation so I can read it on its own without wondering what was so important a character suddenly blew dodge, allowing the crux of the story to even happen.

Otherwise, it's a perfectly fine comic. Not quite the immediate knockout I'd thought or hoped, but we seem to be playing the long game here anyway. The Emperor Penguin story has only just kicked into gear by the end of the volume, so we'll see where it goes. I do hope something a bit more exciting happens going forward, though. Much of this volume is either playing set-up or involves a lengthy tie-in. It looks nice, though, thanks to the presence of Jason Fabok on art.

If nothing else, Emperor Penguin is better than the preceding volumes and may lead to better things, so we'll see how it shakes out. For now, I'd say it's worth a look if you can find it in the library.

My Opinion: Try It

Friday, May 12, 2017

Batman/Superman: Game Over (comics)

Writers: Greg Pak, Paul Levtiz
Artists: Jae Lee, Brett Booth, RB Silva, Kenneth Rocafort, Phillip Tan
Collects: Batman/Superman #5-9, Batman/Superman Annual #1, Worlds Finest #20-21

After I read and enjoyed volume one of the New 52 Batman/Superman title, I'd hoped that would extend to the second. Unfortunately, Game Over is not quite as strong as Cross World for a variety of reasons. Part of that is down to some uneven stories. The rest is art clash.

Plotwise, there are three arcs over the course of this volume and they range from okay to good, without anything really standing out. The first is the one the volume takes its name after. Toymaster has a new augmented reality video game which can, without his knowledge, take control of actual people and heroes, thanks to meddling by Mongul. Since it's just a video game, the players decide to fight heroes. Sadly true to life, as plenty of people get their rocks off playing evil pricks in video games, when given the option. The second takes place over the entire annual and is something of a sequel, involving Battleworld, Monguls son and a tournament for right of succession. The last is a crossover with Worlds Finest, where the titular duo finally meet the multiverse lost castaways from Earth 2. Can family get much more extended than "from an alternate universe"?

The first is just okay. There's an interesting plot to be made with the idea of an alien like Mongul using the bloodthirsty nature of "gamers" to his advantage and attempting to turn them into something he can use. "Gamers" are assholes, or at least a good portion of them are. Twenty plus years playing them and exposing myself to online communities did a lot to clue me in to that. But it's undermined a bit by feeling too much like a generic action story in the visual terms. There are no HUDs, no indicators that might resemble anything you see or link to a game. The only out of place thing is chibi versions of the players hovering around like they're goddamned Mr. Mxyplkt; not exactly a common sight. At best, it's like some weird AR game.

The voices feel off, too, which is probably why it's a bad idea to try too hard to imitate the voice of any particular group. Maybe it would have felt more authentic if the players were incredibly toxic and blindingly racist. Five minutes playing any multiplayer game with randos would tell you that's how "gamers" really sound.

I might like the annual the best. It's a done-in-one, using the oversized special for one story involving Battleworld, making it a bit of a follow-up to the first arc. It may just be that it has the first whiff of Jae Lee art in the volume. I'm not sure. But it was fun enough watching the two families battle in a gladiator tournament, helping Monguls son keep his throne.

Rounding out the volume is a crossover with Worlds Finest, where Huntress (Helena Wayne) and Power Girl - castoffs from Earth 2, dumped into the main universe in that comics first issue - meet the main universe counterparts of their father and cousin, respectively. It was an inevitable encounter, one Pak and Levitz mine for all the awkward comparisons and strained bonding you would expect. I feel like I might have pulled more from it, were I familiar with what Paul Levitz had been doing in Worlds Finest - I assume the antagonist and area the group ends up in was set up in previous issues of that book - but it holds together well just on the emotional weight of the meeting and their continued sadness over being cut off from home. It ends on an interesting look at what I assume are at-the-time recent developments in the Earth 2 comic proper; I'd always meant to read more of that, but to date have not managed to pick up the second volume.

So, all well and good on the story end, but nothing too spectacular. It might have been elevated with top shelf art, but unfortunately that's not exactly a given with this book. You saw the number under "artists", right? Five of them, not including Scott McDaniel, who did breakdowns for an issue late in the volume. I like the work of most of them.

One problem. They're not Jae Lee. Or, more accurately, some of them don't really gel with Jae Lee.

Maybe I just got the wrong idea, but I kind of assumed this book, at the start, was going to be more of a Jae Lee project, with him doing the bulk of the art. If you're using that guy, you'd want to have him doing as much as possible, right? Even if it leaves the book just kind of doing it's own thing. I mean, its nothing new. Remember the pre-Flashpoint Superman/Batman title? A good book, half the time, and mostly divorced from whatever else is going on in the universe. So there's precedent. But instead we kind of end up with fill-in guest arcs and while at least one story was tailored for that - I can't really picture Game Over being done by Jae Lee, even if there wasn't much done artistically with it as is - it's not really what I wanted.

But you know, that's fine too, because that's an artist for an arc. There's a clear breaking point. It's iffier when you're alternating artists with Jae Lee in one story or arc. Jae Lees work is distinct. No one else looks like him. I liked the annual a lot, but when art duties switched to Kenneth Rocafort - an artist I like a lot - for part two, it stood out. It's even worse when Batman/Superman alternates chapters with Worlds Finest, because RB Silvas artwork - which is also pretty good on its own - may be the furthest removed from Lees style, leaving zero visual consistency between issues. It leaves the First Contact arc feeling like patchwork, artistically. I feel like Lee should have either done the entire annual or the entire crossover, but not both.

The end result is a volume that feels uneven. Nothing inside is what I'd consider outright bad, but the Game Over arc is forgettable and the art feels like it whips all over the place. The book hasn't gone back to the events of the first volume yet either, aside from the title characters having an occasional inkling that they'd forgotten something during First Contact, so if that's what you're looking for, you're not going to find it here. I'd go so far as to say you can probably give this volume a pass if you want. Next volume seems like it might be more substantial anyway.

My Opinion: Skip It

Thursday, May 11, 2017

Batman: Earth One vol. 2 (comics)

Writer: Geoff Johns
Artist: Gary Frank
Original Graphic Novel

Volume One was a pretty decent start, but suffered from a weak antagonist that detracted from an otherwise compelling portrayal of Bruce Waynes extremely rocky road to basic competency as a vigilante. Volume Two builds off what the first started, but it's an upgrade in a lot of ways without sacrificing what worked the first time around.

Much like Supermans second Earth One outing, we're veering into this continuities version of classic rogues. This time, it's the Riddler taking center stage, with a subplot involving Killer Croc. Riddler basically starts giving riddles to groups of Gotham citizens. If they answer it correctly, they live. If they fail, they're dead.

On its surface, the idea of murderin' Riddler is a bit off-putting, as it seems pretty grim-dark at first glance. I've always felt his stint as a private detective, competing against Batman for fame and glory, was as good as the character has ever been. But in the context of a new continuity divorced from the main line, it works. He's tied to events in the first volume and ends up with a fairly clear motive that works for the world that has been set up so far.

Of the two, I like what they've done with Croc more. Croc is a character that, if you think about it, is easy to give a sympathetic angle given some of his varying origins, but I can't think of too many times they've gone with something other than a thug or monster. Here, Johns and Frank decide to buck trend a bit, giving us a Croc who's just the victim of a skin condition and, frankly, might not even be all that bad a guy. His role in the story is brief, but by the end he seems set to become a recurring character, which I'm actually all for.

If there's a reinvention of a rogue that poses a problem, it's the one for Two-Face. Without giving too much away, it seems JMS and Geoff Johns both had the same idea. The situation in this volume echoes what was done with a classic Superman rogue in volume three of that Earth One series pretty heavily. The two were even released but a scant three months apart. It's not a huge deal, but if you've read both series you're going to notice it.

Before moving on, I should say that I appreciate that Earth One has completely eschewed use of the Joker thus far.  He is a classic villain by all counts, but it's nice to have a build-up for once and use different people. Joker's going to show up at some point, let's not even kid ourselves, but I'm hoping we make it through another volume or two before we get there. Superman only made it to the third volume before it went to the Luthor well.

A lot of the aspects I enjoyed from the first volume are back, including the new version of Alfred. As I suspected, he hasn't given up on his mindset, though we've yet to see any major fight over it quite yet. It seems inevitable, though. I enjoy the differences from classic Alfred, especially the fact that Bruce Wayne now has a test of his resolve not to use guns and not to kill coming from within his inner circle. Our Earth One version of Harvey Bullock takes a back seat this volume - a shame, as I do enjoy this iteration - but he has enough page time to advance his character arc from where we left him at the end of volume one, despite so much else going on in this volume.

As for the Geoff Johns version of Batman, I like how this version of the character seems like he has to build himself from the ground up through literal on-the-job training. It's different from the norm, where Bruce Wayne takes, like, a ten year sabbatical to ready himself for his mission. In the first volume, he barely had a single clue what he was doing. Now, he's getting the hang of the fighting, but other aspects elude him. He doesn't know the first thing about being a detective, which becomes an issue in the midst of the story, and ends up having to ask Jim Gordon to teach him.

That's an interesting take. It suggests maybe this version of Bruce Wayne should have thought about what he was getting himself into and trained beforehand, like every other version, but as a reader it's something different and a worthwhile angle to explore with the character. Even in Year One, where things get off to a rocky start, the guy at least had a general idea what he was doing in most areas.

Gary Frank does as well as ever as the artist. He understands storytelling and action well. Two volumes in, I'm still a bit unsure about leaving Batmans eyes open like that, though. It might just be that I'm so used to the white eye lenses. In fairness, it does lend itself to a bit more details in expressions on the characters end. Anyway, there is what seems to be an art hiccup early in the book - Gordon is trying to get Bullock away from booze, Bullock says no, then the next panel has Gordon pour Bullock a drink - but that may be down to a coloring mistake on the coat, since we only see the torso and the drink pouring. So it's probably not on Frank anyway.

As a whole, the second volume is an improvement on what was already a decent enough start with the first volume. Everything is pulling together a bit better and this volume doesn't have the issue of a weak antagonist like the first. If this continues, this version of the character and his world might end up a genuinely worthwhile entry in the expansive, varied Batman franchise.

My Opinion: Read It

Saturday, May 6, 2017

Wonder Woman: The Lies (comics)

Writer: Greg Rucka
Artist: Liam Sharp
Collects: Wonder Woman: Rebirth, Wonder Woman (2016) #1, #3, #5, #7, #9, #11

I might as well start by admitting something straight up; I've never liked Wonder Woman. I've always liked the idea of her, what she represents, but as a character, I can't think of a time she's ever done anything for me. Unlike most of her counterparts, she doesn't have a particularly spectacular roster of villains, she doesn't offer any unique settings that I find appealing or anything as a character that I found particularly interesting. The strength of Wonder Woman at times seems to be what she represents as opposed to any of her trappings. Wonder Woman has always been the icon, the most famous female superhero in the world, but I've always preferred the others, the Black Canary, the Huntress and even the Zatannas of the world.

I mean, unless we're talking about Kate Beatons grumpy, chain smoking take on the character. I'd read the hell out of a book about her.

Rebirth seemed like the perfect time to give her one more honest shot. The entire line has seen glowing reviews and the five or six I've tried a couple issues of through Comixology sales have lived up to the press. Not to mention, while I have no attachment to Wonder Woman, I do like Greg Ruckas work, even if a project or two left me cold. It's good, very good, but I'm not sure the direction they went with, or the implications, were the best place to start.

Why? Our new, Rebirth era Wonder Woman book deals almost entirely with her past. The big question of the volume regards her history and how much of it may or may not be true; the titular Lies from which this collection takes its name. Wonder Woman sets off in this volume in search of answers and Themyscira, because she senses something is off about it. Along the way, she drops in to deal with a cult in Africa rooted in some serious, old school misogyny, looking for the help of Cheetah, who may or may not have a new origin*.

Right away, this stokes a fear I had about Rebirth, mainly that this relaunch, meant to merge the New 52 with things from the old universe everyone knew and loved better, will be so concerned with the continuity of it and making sense of everything that it might be a turn-off. I've read comics for years, but don't know squat about Wonder Woman. The question of her continuity doesn't really grab me much. I can't imagine this approach would hold much appeal for anyone else like me, or someone who wanders in just looking for an accessible Wonder Woman story. This would have been fine if it were condensed into a Rebirth special, but it looks like the question of it is what is going to drive the entire run. Look, I've been a fan of Teen Titans for a long time, and I can tell you the whole "Who is Insert Character" schtick hasn't worked out well for her younger counterpart.

I've read enough Rebirth specials and first issues from the line to know that this, thankfully, is not the norm, but it kind of sucks that the one I probably needed to be the most accessible ended up so concerned with resetting the table and swiping at the New 52 era title**. I do wonder if it would have read better were the book collected in publication order rather than by arc. You may or may not have noticed the "collected" section had all the odd numbered issues. That's not a mistake. The book alternated issues with a classic Year One arc for the character, something long overdue. Personally, I think the book should have opened with that in itself, then gone on to new things, reconciling any continuity with the New 52 elsewhere, maybe a miniseries, but I also don't write comics, so hey.

Those misgivings aside, this is a good, well written book, as I'd expected it would be, and problems aside it did draw me in, whether in spite of that or not. Diana herself is exactly what you would want or expect the character to be. Her compassion and love for others is endearing. There's a moment where she's shopping with old friends for clothes and a bunch of fans show up, having been alerted to her presence through social media. She doesn't shy away from it, or treat it as much of a burden. In fact, she leaves the shop to greet the throng, not because she has to, not because it's some burden she has to deal with, but because, as another person remarks, she knows what it means to those people. That's awesome. That's likable. That's also so reminiscent of the way DC heroes used to be, the way they should be, that it's kind of hopeful in itself.

It's well drawn as well. I'm not familiar with Liam Sharpe, but they impressed me here. The linework has plenty of detail and the page composition is occasionally done in eye catching, interesting ways. One sequence in an early issue, when Cheetah goes almost feral and tears into attackers, frames panels of Wonder Woman reasoning her with gutters that have suddenly gone from black to a stark white. Over the course of several pages, the composition starts to make the panels line up, until one page before Wonder Woman breaks through resembles the bars of a cage that might trap an animal. On the page where Wonder Woman appeals to Cheetah and promises to free her from her curse, the gutters break down with jagged edges, as though the cage has been busted. I'm not sure it was intentional - the white gutters do appear in another place in the arc without the seeming pattern, so it's likely a happy coincidence I'm looking way too much into - but it works regardless. Other standouts include a similar page, where between the bars of a wooden cage are panels depicting soldiers planning an escape, then Wonder Woman appearing before them. Yet another has the vegetation of the surroundings act as the gutters.

Top shelf work all around.

The next trade is, as mentioned, a proper Year One arc, which ran in the even numbered issues opposite "The Lies". I'm a bit more interested in this one. But even with my misgivings, Wonder Woman's new Rebirth series is a fine read, good enough that I'll be continuing with it. That feels like a big win in itself.

My Opinion: Read It

* I genuinely have no idea if Cheetahs origin in this volume is all new or a holdover from a prior era. It doesn't resemble any I've ever heard mention of. This might just be my inexperience with Wonder Woman coming into play.

** I remember it had a lot of purists up in arms about how it depicted Wonder Womans lore and mythology, with the amazons in particular being a sticking point. I can understand that. I get the impression Greg Rucka feels the same, because the lies the book is centered around involve the New 52 history almost entirely. I never did get around to reading it, so I don't have much attachment to it - though the creative team enticed me and I'd meant to try it - but there's something a little... off-putting, I guess, about how directly this book seems to want to address and refute it. It's hard to explain. I don't want to say it feels petty, because I don't think that's the right word for it, but I'm not sure what you would call it.

Wednesday, May 3, 2017

Amazing Spider-Man: Worldwide Vol. 1 (comics)

Writer: Dan Slott
Artist: Giuseppe Camuncoli
Collects: Amazing Spider-Man (2015) #1-5

With the man now closing in on a solid decade with Spider-Man, without much in the way of major stumbles, Dan Slott is probably going down as a definitive writer of the character when all is said and done. It hasn't been without its low periods, though - Ends of the Earth pissed me off so bad I stopped reading until Superior - and it's had the worrying trend of slowly but surely pushing the character away from the kind of situations and stories that make him compelling in the first place.

The trend reaches its its peak here - in the second Amazing Spider-Man relaunch in a year, because Marvel is run by insane people - where Peter Parker has essentially become a low rent Iron Man, a fact directly addressed in the story. Sure, the last series had a similar setup, which saw Peters life in a far better place after everything Doc Ock did with it in Superior, but in that book Peter was absolutely not ready to run a company, constantly fighting to keep its head above water, struggling with people screwing around behind his back, all on top of the personal problems caused by Ock living his life for a spell. Now, he's pretty much Tony Stark, right down to calling Spider-Man his bodyguard, without most of Starks obvious, compelling personal failings.

I was absolutely not interested in that. After all, if I want to read Iron Man, I'd pick that up; or not, I guess, given what's apparently happening there. So I put it off for a long time. Now that I've read it, I've turned around on the idea somewhat. This comic is good. Very good. In five issues, it's better than half the prior relaunch by far, with superior artwork, snappier dialogue and all the fun of international crime fighting. I don't know the Zodiac from Adam, but I'm interested enough in the book overall that I'm even interested in finding out whatever it is he's doing.

One good upside to this status quo is that Spider-Man is all over the place, now. Personally, there isn't much I love more than superheroes getting out of their comfort zone and visiting different countries. The rare occasions Batman does it are always a treat. Even if it's just aesthetic and nothing is done with the local culture, it always offers a different look for the typical heroics, spicing things up. I love Gotham and all, but geez, sometimes you just want to see the Bat family go somewhere else. Same for Spider-Man and New York City. Seeing the wall crawler in China, England and Africa offers a nice change of pace.

If I have a complaint, it's that we're already involving Norman Osborn again. When you think Spider-Man arch-enemies, he's definitely in the top three, maybe even at number one, but they use him as a crutch so much that it occasionally feels like the guy is behind everything that happens to Spider-Man. The character ended up being the overall villain of Superior Spider-Man, then continued his machinations in the prior volume, right into now. The book has let Ock cool longer than Osborn, and Ock is the more interesting character after Superior.

I do enjoy the structure of the series so far, though. While there's an overall story arc going on here with Zodiacs shenanigans and it plays a role in each issue, it doesn't feel like we're reading a typical "story arc". Each issue has a clear problem and conflict, which is generally resolved in one way or another by the end of the issue. If Spider-Man has to assault an aquatic base in an issue to try and retrieve something stolen from him, the plot will see itself out by the end of the issue. Goblin dudes wrecking a small town in Africa? Done three pages before the end. It's hard to explain, but it feels less like one continuous story that takes five to six issues to play out and more like chunks that build to a whole, but feel standalone enough that they are almost like their own adventure, if that makes sense. The "arc" is far less defined.

Also enjoyable, the artwork. I've liked a fair amount of Dan Slotts tenure, but most of it has been paired with art I find unappealing. That's not an issue here. Everything is clean, bright and dynamic. Even Alex Ross steps up his game, providing some of the best cover art I think I've seen from him, which is welcome, because the whole "I only do Silver Age heroes" thing got old quick.

I'm not sure how comfortable I am with this direction long term. I feel like it almost has to fall apart at some point, given how not-Spider-Man it feels. But as a change of pace, it's working amazingly well so far. And hell, low rent Iron Man is not so bad in an age when Iron Man isn't even having colorful playboy superhero adventures like this anymore. He's too busy being comatose, replaced by two different people, because replacing heroes with new versions is the only story Marvel knows how to tell anymore. I'd recommend this.

My Opinion: Read It

Wednesday, April 26, 2017

Captain America: Steve Rogers - Hail Hydra (comics)

Writer: Nick Spencer
Artists: Jesus Saiz, Javier Pina
Collects: Captain America: Steve Rogers #1-6 and FCBD 2016

This probably seemed like a better idea back when they pitched it in early 2016.

I'm not going to dance around any spoilers, because you already know the twist. It was all over the news. Even martians know the ending of issue one by now. Steve Rogers, Captain America, is an agent of Hydra and, thanks to the machinations of a cosmic cube, has had his memories altered so that he believes he was always a part of Hydra.

It's comic book-y as hell, but "good guy gone bad" stories are a classic trope for a reason. Even here, it's fairly well written and the story they're telling is kind of interesting. It is, after all, a story about how the most trusted, beloved figure in the Marvel universe, who everyone looks to for guidance or assistance, has been corrupted and how much damage he can do with that standing in the superhuman community. This one man could undermine the entire community, just because of who he is. That's compelling drama. Had they chosen anyone but Hydra, this story might have worked.

Unfortunately, media is not written or consumed in a political or societal vaccuum, so this book has some nasty implications that make it a difficult read.

There's the obvious issue, of course. When this was pitched, it was likely before everything blew up, but by the time the first issue actually released, we were neck deep in the primary season of 2016 and everyone knows how that went. The last issue collected here released two weeks before election day, roughly, and we all know how that went too, as well as how things spiraled downhill after that.

Marvel tries to pride itself on reflecting the real world in its spandex crime fighting, but there's a point where things can get a little too real. At the start of the last year of the Obama administration, the threat of white supremacists and fascists ending up with a foothold in the government probably felt like a remote possibility. By the time the last issue of this collection was out, it was a hairs breadth from reality. Reading this collection is an uncomfortable experience, because a symbol of America, one of the key figures to wear the colors of the country and represent it in pop culture, is running with white supremacists, with fascists, with Nazis.

Yes, Nazi's. I don't care what Marvel tries to say. They can downplay Hydras connection to Nazis all they want, but they're not fooling anyone. As a group, they've always had the mannerisms, the slogan, the actions and the atmosphere of Nazis. In the first Captain America film, they were a division of the Nazis outright. At this point in time, they're led by the Red Skull. The Red Skull. A Nazi agent since conception. There was even a miniseries where he was hanging with Hitler for a while there. There's no escaping this connection, whether they like it or not - and going by their interviews and how they've tried desperately to argue otherwise, they don't - and it means they've essentially had the symbol of America in their universe throw in with an organized, deadly, dangerous version of Neo-Nazis.

Worse still, the comic has a problem you might see occasionally in wrestling where the way everyone is written in the grand scheme of things leaves the villain correct in their gripes and motivations. When Steves thoughts turn to what a bunch of ineffectual, bickering children the other heroes are and how all they know to do is fight among themselves, it's hard to argue against, because he's absolutely correct. The last two issues of this trade are tie-ins to Civil War II, which is about the four hundredth instance of the Marvel superhero community splitting into sides and duking it out since the first Civil War. That's not really Nick Spencers fault, because it's how the greater universe is written, but it's a bitter pill when the corrupted hero working with Nazis kind of has a damn point. At this point, the heroes almost deserve to lose after going so long, in universe and out, without getting it together.

Like I said, it's uncomfortable all on its own; it's only compounded by what was happening at the time.

It's strange, because it's clear they knew they had a hard sell early and that people would not react kindly. The second issue, the one immediately after Captain America gives out a "Hail Hydra" on the last page of the first, it literally a "how it was done", almost as if to soothe fears and try to explain that no, it's not what you think it is, we know what we're doing, there's a plan. You might recall they tried a similar trick to pre-empt outrage and dampen it by having Peter the Whiny Ghost around in the early days of Superior Spider-Man, to annoying effect. That series worked out, but that has less real life baggage; it's sort of amazing to me that anyone greenlit this without someone saying "isn't this a bad idea?"

Can good writing salvage an idea like "Captain America throws in with Nazis"? I'm not convinced. But that's the conflict they have here. A decently written comic struggling against it's own ill conceived idea. It's the fact that it is decently written and somewhat compelling that I don't want to write it off. I gave Superior Spider-Man a chance, after all, and you might recall that it ended up being one of my favorite Spider-Man runs in a long time. But there's also the reality that this entire storyline is ending in an event series - because Marvel has not learned its lesson about diminishing returns, at least not when they started this - and those never end well. I think Siege was the last one I enjoyed. At least it knew to get it's shit in and get out in four issues, well before the fun wore out. I appreciated the brevity in an era when Marvel events drag on for nine plus issues.

I guess we'll see. I may see it through to the end, if only because it's not looking like a long storyline. They've got another trade before the event, Secret Empire, starts. I suspect they moved the conclusion up after things went downhill in the real world - I can't imagine they don't know full well the implications, with how things have changed since this story started - to get this out of the way, because it feels like something that might have festered a bit more in the background of the universe, in any other era. Or maybe this was always the plan and they've never met a bad idea they didn't like; they had Norman Osbourne running defense in the US for like two years worth of comics despite the fact that it made no goddamn sense, so who knows. Regardless, we'll see how it pans out. If the library stocks the rest, I might read and review it.

Now, after all that, it's worth addressing the art, because it's something I can feel good about with no reservations. It's clean, expressive and does its job well. There's an artist switch halfway through, as Javier Pina takes over for issues four through six, but he maintains visual continuity well enough that you might not notice. The only thing that stuck out for me was the depiction of Sharon Carter. She looks far older than the last time I remember seeing her. Is this a thing now? I haven't read a lot of Marvel over the past two years, so I'm not sure if something happened there. The last time I saw her show up was the Rick Remender run of Captain America. Maybe I'm just too far behind. In my defense, Marvel's kind of sucked the past couple years, in my opinion. I've had little interest in anything they were doing outside of whatever Jason Aaron is doing at any given time, which isn't much outside Thor.

The coloring in particular deserves a lot of praise. Whenever Steve Rogers goes too far or is in the midst of sinister machinations, the colors shift to a deep red background behind him - occasionally even bathing him in red light - which lends an eerie air reminding you of his true nature whenever it shows. An example is in the third issue. There's a lot of blue and other colors in each panel, but when Steve is on panel, beating the life out of Taskmaster for hitting Sharon, the deep red shows up. A page later, it's the same deal. Brighter colors while cleanup happens and Steve comforts Sharon, which switches back to red over Steve giving a sideways, troubled glance when it's announced someone he'd thought he'd killed has a pulse. It pulls back somewhat in the second half of the trade - Jesus Saiz colored his own work for the first half, which may explain it - but it's still there and still effective as a visual trick.

Flashbacks are another area the coloring excels. The tainted memories of a life led in service of Hydra are drained of every color but red, leaving the same sinister air as when the color is used in the present day. It's a nice visual tie between the two and lends a bit of flair to these warped flashbacks to Depression era New York.

All told, I'm really mixed on how I feel about this. It's an uncomfortable read from start to finish. But it's written well enough, with great art and coloring bringing it to life. I'm just not sure it can salvage an idea they probably should have thought about a little harder before they went all in. Whatever the case, it's something Marvel is going to have to live down for a while once it's over. It isn't exactly merit-less trash, so I guess it's up to you to decide whether or not you're down with reading about Hydra-Cap for a while. For me personally, it's not something I'd spend money on or have much interest in if the library didn't have it.

My Opinion: Skip It