Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Weekly Haul: June 10th

Billy Batson and The Magic of Shazam #5 (DC Comics) This is the first issue of the series by someone other than Mike Kunkel, whose first four issues were pretty great stuff, but weren’t coming out anywhere near a monthly schedule.

To keep the title appearing more regularly, DC is bringing other folks in to produce issues between the Kunkel-produced one, including writers Art Baltazar and Franco, and different artists. The art team for this particular issue is Byron Vaughns and Ken Branch, and they’re not quite up to the task.

Vaughns does a decent job of capturing Kunkel’s character designs, which were Kunkelized versions of Jeff Smith’s redesigns of the original characters, but there’s no disguising the fact that this is someone aping Kunkle’s art. Does it matter? Probably not to the target audience, which I assume doesn’t consist of 32-year-old Captain Marvel fans who spend a majority of their waking hours thinking about comics.

In addition to the second-generation reproduction quality of the art, the style of the presentation is quite different, as Kunkel often abandoned panels in favor of implied ones between sequential images. This is much more of a traditional comic.

On the other hand, it’s is a comic and it is out, and I’m not going to complain about a comic featuring Captain Marvel fighting Mister Atom being on the stands.

Baltazar and Franco’s script is likewise adequate if not brilliant; they’re definitely following Smith and Kunkel’s versions of the characters, and this issue is full of little call-backs to previous issues.

I liked it okay, but I’d be hesitant to recommend it too enthusiastically.

Booster Gold #21 (DC) I think this is probably the most interesting book released by any publisher this week, at least form an industry-watcher’s perspective, as it’s DC’s first at a $3.99 price point that compensate for the extra dollar with an extra 10-pages of story, devoted to a back-up strip. Well, I call it a back-up; Dan DiDio announced the strategy by calling them “co-features,” while the cover says “second feature.”

I think this is a pretty great idea. I won’t buy a 22-page comic book for $3.99, but a 30-page one? That’s a fair price. More than fair actually, as $2.99 for 22-pages means every seven pages of a comic costs $1. Here we’re getting 7.5 pages per $1. Value!

It also seems a nice solution to the how-to-publish things that aren’t Batman, Superman, Green Lantern, Justice or “crisis” titles. Blue Beetle , for example, was DC’s only Hispanic hero with his own title, and his trades did pretty well in libraries. But the monthly was unsustainable as monthly. Publishing it as a back-up allows the company to keep producing material to put in a trade, without the expense of publishing a monthly with sales too poor to justify it’s own existence.

Of course, each of DC’s titles that are going to be published in this format are a little different from each other, so one isn’t necessarily a test-case for another. Green Arrow/Black Canary and Teen Titans, for example, are about to become Green Arrow (with a Black Canary back-up) and Teen Titans (with a Ravager back-up). There’s no real new characters being added; some supporting characters are just getting their own features in the back.

Manhunter will be appearing in the back of a new Batman comic, and is likely going to benefit quite a bit by being there, by the simple fact of the matter that it’s awfully hard to publish an ongoing Batman comic that doesn’t maintain sales well-above cancellation level.

This particular title seems the riskiest, as Booster Gold is still being published, but it’s not like it was ever doing gangbusters or anything; in actuality, it needs Blue Beetle almost as much as Blue Beetle needs it.

(I do hope this works out though; it seems like a nice solution to providing diverse content for both the direct market and the eventual trade paperback market without quite as much risk. For example, Vixen and Black Ligthning sold like hell, and DC might reasonably pass on giving either another miniseries any time in the near future, but what if they were appearing in the back of Wonder Woman and Justice League?)

So how was this? Not bad at all. I dropped both of these titles, but returned to Booster Gold with this issue in part to check out the co-feature program, and in-part because Batman’s on the cover. And not just any Batman, but the new Batman. Exciting!

Now that Batman’s dead, Rip Hunter sends Booster Gold to the Bat-cave to recover evidence Batman had of his time-protecting duties before someone else can see it, but he’s accosted by the new Batman before he can get it. Then the villainous Black Beetle attacks, eventually killing Dick Grayson as Robin, screwing up the time-stream, and giving Booster a new case.

This seems in better keeping with the original conception of the current volume of Booster Gold, as the defender of DC continuity, a concept I found infinitely more interesting than the personal conflicts Booster Gold creator and writer/lay-out artist Dan Jurgens has been dabbling with.

Sure, the dialogue is occasionally pretty corny, and Jurgens’ writing at times reads quite…old-fashioned, but it’s competent enough that I’m not likely to runaway screaming from it.

The pages also seem remarkably full; there are a couple with nine-panel grids even.

Now, Blue Beetle and Booster Gold go together like peanut butter and jelly to comics readers of a certain age, and if these two versions of the characters aren’t quite as tight, the features do share a similar light-hearted tone.

I dropped Blue Beetle before writer Matt Sturges even took over, but this ten-page story by the cancelled ongoing’s last writer worked pretty well (and artist Mike Norton’s art worked even better than okay).

It gets off to a somewhat rocky start, with Jaime Reyes narrating about his problems, having an un-funny funny conversation, and then fighting a giant robot, but by page six, it kicks into high gear, with a “Three hours later…” caption in the middle of a giant robot fight.

How often do you see a superhero fighting a giant robot take so long that the comic has to skip over hours of it? It picks up from there, and by the time I was done reading it, I was glad I did.

It’s the first part of a three-part story, and the Booster Gold story was the first of a four-part one which will apparently deal with Batman and Robin, which ought to give the title a bit of a boost. I know I’m sticking around for at least the story arc, and I guess we’ll see how it goes from there. Good luck DC Comics’ 30-page, $3.99, co-feature-having books! I’m rooting for you!

The Flash: Rebirth #3 (DC) Props to Geoff Johns for busting out a reference to the Upanishads in a discussion of the nature of the Speed Force, and to artist Ethan Van Sciver (and colorist Brian Miller) for some neat “special effects” scenes; I dug the little tentacles of lightning reaching out from Barry’s body and trying to grasp other speedsters, and the last two panels on page 19 where Barry’s limbs stretch out to ridiculous portions.

As for the rest of the book, it remains decent but trifling. It just doesn’t seem very important, which isn’t something a superhero comic needs to be, except in special cases like this, wherein a long-dead superhero is being resurrected after decades of absence. It’s unimportant, but presented as if it’s supposed to be important, which underscores the unimportance of it. Does that make any sense at all? No? Nevermind then; maybe it’s just my own apathy for Barry Allen.

As I’ve said before though, if we had to have a Barry Allen-comes-back-from-the-dead story, this seems like it may be the best one we could have hoped for. Van Sciver’s detailed art often seems stiff and dense, but every once in a while he’ll pull off a great panel like those on page 19 where I forgive the less lively stuff.

Lockjaw and The Pet Avengers #2 (Marvel) Lockjaw’s pack picks up a new member in the Savage Land, as Ka-Zar’s sabretoothed pal Zabu joins the quest of the Infinity Gems. Then they all go back in time and fight Devil Dinosaur. Artist Ig Guara is really doing a hell of a job on this series, “acting” through the characters can’t be easy when there isn’t even a single human being in the book, but he manages to give the various animals distinct visual personalities and expressions throughout. And he sure draws some nice prehistoric animals.

Marvel Adventures Super Heroes #12 (Marvel) This month’s issue features Captain America starring in two different stories. The first is written by Scott Gray, penciled by Matteo Lolli and inked by Christian Vecchia and man, it took some getting used to.

I know these stories are out-of-continuity, or at least continuity neutral, but this one was about Rick Jones guiding a recently defrosted Captain America through the such modern marvels as the Internet, and I had a hard time wrapping my head around a Cap so new to “the present.” (Although Gray makes a joking references to Brangelina and American Idol, so maybe the present is actually a few years ago?)

Rick takes Steve Rogers to an Internet café, and, while Googling—er, Sparrow Hawk-ing Hydra, the pair find the, and end up getting sucked into it. Together they must fight their way through the Internet, and literal manifestations of slang (the trolls in the message board are actually trolls, the firewall is a wall of fire, et cetera).

Lolli’s artwork is fantastic, and while a lot of gags are real groaners, it’s pleasant enough, and I did find the emoticon-headed denizens of Hydra’s site pretty amusing, particularly during fight scenes.

The back-up, however, was a blast. It’s Roger Langridge and artist Craig Rousseau (whose work has never looked better), and it bears the very promising title of “If This Be P.R.O.D.O.K.!”

Steve Rogers, Bucky Barnes and three comically-shaped fellow soldiers are all on leave, taking in Casablanca, when ZZAPP!!, what appears to be a German-speaking prototype version of M.O.D.O.K. attacks. It was apparently built by fifth-columnists, from old Ford parts, and is designated as Partially Robotic Organim Designed Only For Killing.

One of my old roommates was a foreign language major who spoke German, and I used to have him translate Nazi dialogue from comics for me all the time. I no longer live with him, and so I have no idea what this -O.D.O.K. was staying. Way to make me miss an old roommate comics.

Miss America Comics 70th Anniversary Special #1 (Marvel) Another Marvel 70th Anniversary Special, another great one-shot. The worst of these I’ve read so far has been pretty damn good, and the best have been pretty great super-comics, and this one is no exception.

The character featured here is Miss America, whom I no nothing about aside from the fact that she didn’t get along well with Tike Alicar in X-Statix Presents: Dead Girl.

Oh, and that she was apparently an early pioneer of the photo cover:
The lead story is written by Jen Van Meter, and is about the title character and her Liberty Legionnaires teammates The Whizzer and Blue Diamond (the former who is also her fiancée) busting up villain Brain Drain’s mind-control operation in the states. They split-up to work different angles, with out gal going undercover to snoop out saboteurs working among the women building a top-secret super warship of some kind (The men, of course, are busy fighting the war).

Van Meter plays it mostly straight, but goes j-u-u-u-st over the top enough here and there to make it funny. For example, Miss America’s foes are Madame Mauzer, Vichy Vixen, Axis Annie, Fraulein Fatale and Penny Panzer, and they exchange dialogue like “We’ll see about that, you Teutonic tramp!” and “God, how I loathe you Americans, with your moxie...”

As with several of the previous specials, this one features some rather incredible art, art that frankly puts most of the rest of Marvel’s line to shame.

This time it’s Andy MacDonald, whose heroine is refreshingly real looking—she looks like a normal, slim girl in a costume, rather than a body-builder or Barbie doll (her super-strength doesn’t come from her developed muscles, after all).

There’s something about his lines that remind me a bit of John McCrea’s Hitman art—the way the characters throw punches, or their pantlegs look—and his Whizzer and Blue Diamond have the casual, comfortable, lived-in look of Farel Dalrymple’s super-characters in Omega the Unknown.

It’s just all around great work, and he’s one more contributor to this series who I can’t wait to see more work from (The coloring, unfortunately, is that same over-colored style as the bulk of Marvel’s line; if they colored this like they colored the Marvel Adventures line, it would be perfect).

The back-ups star The Whizzer, who apparently dated or married Miss America, but not Miss America herself, which seems odd—and too bad. Not that the Whizzer stories aren’t amusing, of course, I just would have preferred to see a Golden Age Miss America story to compare the Van Meter/MacDonald story too.

I didn’t realize that The Whizzer’s helmet was apparently bird-shaped at one point, as the back-up adventures feature little bird wings on the side, and an honest-to-God bird’s head sticking out of the front of it.

Poor Whizzer; he sucks so bad I kinda feel sorry for him.

The best of these back-ups is probably “The Terror of Triple Destruction,” during which he battles three muscular, pointy-eared, all-black shapes who are Nazi saboteurs. There’s one great panel where on says “What’s that whizzing sound?” right before the Whizzer whizzes up to him. Awesome. What else could it be, other than the Whizzer? Isn’t he the most obvious candidate for whizzing sounds?

Super Friends #16 (DC) Well this is certainly weird.

In this issue, which is written by Sholly Fisch, cold-themed villains Mister Freeze, Captain Cold, The Icicle, Killer Frost, Minister Blizzard pool their powers to reshape the world more to their liking.

In 2002, Justice League Adventures #12, which was written by Christopher Sequeira, featured cold-themed villains Mister Freeze, Captain Cold, The Icicle, Killer Frost, Minister Blizzard and others pooling their powers to reshape the world more to their liking.

Maybe all-the-cold-villains-team-up isn’t the most original plot in the world and the fact that two Justice League comics aimed at a kid audience used it in less than a decade is just a coincidence. But it sure looks like the latter plagiarized the former (Although given that DC owns both comics, maybe it was more like intentional recycling?)

Well, I liked that JL Adventures, and this, well, it’s not quite as good, but I picked it up anyway on account of the fact that one of the cold-themed villains in it was The Blue Snowman, a Golden Age Wonder Woman villain I was kind of hoping Gail Simone might revive at some point.

The story is about as stupid as the worst issues of this title tend to be, and Dario Bizuela’s art leaves a lot to be desired—I know the artists on this series are greatly constrained by having to hew reasonably close to the Mattel designs for the toys, which make the heroes look like hideous little trolls, but there are several scenes in this issue where characters just look fat. And man, a fat Flash just doesn’t quite work for me.


Sea-of-Green said...

I still can't help thinking that Flash:Rebirth reads like something Johns was ASKED to write, as opposed to something he obviously WANTED to write (like Green Lanter:Rebirth). Love or hate the GL:Rebirth story, it was obviously written with a great deal of enthusiasm, unlike the Flash story so far. :-(

John Cochrane said...

More evidence supporting the notion Barry Allen needs to stay six feet under.

I applaud you, sir.