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