Saturday, March 27, 2010

Comic shop comics (mostly from March 10th and March 24th)

Avengers Vs. Atlas #2 (Marvel Comics) After the New Avengers disappeared via time anomaly at the end of the first issue, the Old Avengers (fresh off their first encounter with Kang) appear. Thing being a Marvel Comic, the Old Avengers naturally assume the Agents of Atlas are actually agents of Kang, leading to 17 straight pages of fighting.

And that’s not a complaint. Artist Gabriel Hardman is a damn fine artist, and his work is representational yet still highly fluid. Applied to the original Avengers, that means they look like “themselves” and yet look realer and of the same world of the Agents at the same time.

And Parker is such a fun and clever scripter that even 17 straight pages of super-combat is a blast to read—I particularly enjoyed a two-page sequence in which Gorilla Man disarms Captain America by skipping his shield like a stone out into the water and then grows giant-size to deal with Hank Pym. It’s almost a disappointment when the all those smart guys on the two team’s finally realize they’re all heroes and can’t solve their problems by beating one another up.

There’s also an eight-page back-up story, which is probably the best of the three I’ve read so far. That was a bit of a surprise to me, given that it stars Jimmy Woo, the least interesting of the Agents (Of course, he’s still a former FBI agent and former SHIELD Agent whose portfolio was dedicated exclusively to fighting Godzilla and who now runs an evil criminal empire as a force for good, so even the least interesting Agent’s a lot more interesting than your average comic book character).

This one’s by writer Scott Kurtz and artists Zach Howard and Mark Irwin. Jimmy is investigating an evil hibachi restaurant and ends up fighting blade-wielding restaurant employees and monstrous sushi ingredients in an attempt to recover a very unexpected item for Mr. Lao, his dragon advisor. It’s a nicely structured story that doesn’t waste a panel.

Batman and Robin #10 (DC Comics) Grant Morrison’s fourth art team shows up for the next three-issue arc, “Batman Vs. Robin.” Picking up right where the last issue left off, with Dick Grayson realizing what they thought was Bruce Wayne’s body was actually that of a clone and that Wayne must still be out there somewhere, he and his Robin and Alfred start searching Wayne Manor for clues Wayne might have left if he was really lost in the past.

It’s a pretty clever set-up, as it allows the characters to find secret passages and suchlike in the well-explored manor that are new to them, while assuaging readers’ skepticism that surely they would have noticed that secret underground church before since, you know, it wasn’t actually always there, but just appeared there after Bruce was sent back in time to build it or whatever.

In addition to this mystery, Talia al Ghul launches a rather unexpected plan to take out the new Batman, and the mysterious crime writer Oberon Sexton gets even more mysterious (Is he Bruce Wayne?)

This new team is that of Andy Clarke and Scott Hanna. They’re pretty good—miles ahead of Philip Tan—even if their style isn’t as strong and individualized as that of Frank Quitely or Cameron Stewart. Of course, the good thing about Tan’s contribution to the book is that now anyone who can produce legible artwork for a comic book that draws a Batman story for Morrison is going to seem pretty great.

Batman: The Brave and the Bold #15 (DC) Artist Robert Pope’s cover of this issue looked so familiar to me that I had to look up Adventures in the DCU #14’s cover just to see how similar the two are: I guess they’re not that similar after all; Steve Vance’s Wally West is teasing Superboy by enjoying a cool drink while racing him backwards, while he’s merely goading Batman by yawning. I think I like Vance’s better, mostly because his Superboy is clearly being bugged so much more, and is trying so hard. Batman’s harder to tease; he just looks kinda pissed in his cover.

This issue is written by Sholly Fish and drawn by pencil artist Pope and inker Scott McRae. It opens with a pretty damn amazing three-page sequence, in which Batman teams up with Super-Hip and Brother Power, The Geek to take on The Mad Mod.

That right there is a perfect comic book story, and it’s just the first three pages!

The main team-up is Batman and The Flash Wally West, in a race to see who can solve a robbery by a classic Flash foe in Keystone City first. It’s a tidy little done-in-one, with a couple of twists regarding who wins and how. I really liked the ambiguity of the contest, which, like all of those classic Superman/Flash races, didn’t have an entirely clear-cut, definitive answer to who is actually fastest.

Billy Batson and The Magic of Shazam (DC) Putting a Byron Vaughns cover on this issue probably wasn’t the best choice, given that this is the debut of Mike Norton as the title’s new ongoing artist.

I was surprised to hear Norton would be working on this book, given that he’s done so much work in the DCU proper already and, prior to that, for Marvel Comics. Additionally, while he’s shown great range, he’s work never struck me as particularly Jeff Smith-like or Mike Kunkel-esque.

So I was really curious to see how this turned out and, to my delight, it turned out great. Norton has modulated his style so it looks different from his previous DCU work, and different from the artists who designed and then re-designed these characters, and yet it’s close enough to Smith’s original work that it seems a natural progression of it. Norton’s not aping Smith at all, but his work definitely compliments Smith’s. Just flipping through this a second time as I prepared to type up a few paragraphs of it, I was struck by how much this looked like the sort of work one would find in an original graphic novel produced by a major book publisher for a Young Adult of Juvenile audience.

I think it may be some of the best work Norton’s ever produced, and it’s the best this title’s looked since it launched—I liked what Kunkel did, and I love Stephen DeStefano’s work, but Norton’s work seems much more broad in its appeal. I know I’ve only read one issue of it, but I kinda hope he sticks around forever now.

The script is by the Art Baltazar/Franco team, and it’s decent but light; they seem far more adept at gag comics like Tiny Titans then more straight adventure fiction like this. It’s not bad or anything, but it’s nothing to get too excited about.

Norton’s artwork on the other hand…

The Brave and the Bold #32 (DC) This by far the strongest of the J. Michael Straczynski/Jesus Saiz issues of this title I’ve read, in large part because rather than introducing heavy moral and emotional content into a 22-page superhero narrative and then not pursuing it to any king of logical resolution, JMS sticks to just putting two super-characters together in a single-issue story.

Again, his choice of heroes to team-up is rather unusual. It’s Aquaman and Etrigan, The Demon, and the latter is there for his magical expertise, which makes his presence all the more unusual, since Aquaman has a working relationship with so many other magic-types who can do the same things Etrigan does here: Zatanna, The Phantom Strager, a Dr. Fate eta. I’m not complaining though; The Demon is a more colorful, striking design than some of the others, and he’s got a more interesting way of talking (JMS writes his dialogue in rhyme; it’s all couplets here, I believe).

The story is structured not unlike an H.P. Lovecraft one, in which a seemingly deranged man tells his story about his encounter with weird monsters and evil space gods beyond human comprehension, and it boils down to Aquaman and Etrigan versus Cthullhu.

Not exactly inspired stuff—there was an episode of Justice League Unlimited* with a similar premise—but it’s well-written, and it’s not like Aquaman fans have had much else to read featuring their hero in a long time now.

I was rather disappointed in Saiz’s work this time out though, although to be fair, he disappoints in the same ways a lot of artists tackling Lovecraft do. I liked his Cthullhu a lot, its head and chest a mess of unorganized tentacles rather than something more logical looking, and there are a couple of neat-looking creatures on the ground on page seven, the big This is Cthullhu’s Army In the Sunken City of R’lyeh splash page (see the little ones that look like a dozen or so crustacean legs glued together?).

But other than those few designs, they simply look like your standard issue modern sci-fi sea monsters and zombies, the same things you would see in a Hollywood horror move playing with Lovecraft’s mythos. (And I suppose I should here note that Lovecraft, Cthullhu and R’lyeh are never mentioned by name; if you’re familiar with ‘em already, you’ll see them here, and if not, you’ll probably think JMS came up with some of this stuff).

This same page is among the most disappointing, as JMS’ narration mentions the bizarre architecture and the fact that “the angles were all wrong somehow…and if you looked at ‘em too long, your eyes would start to hurt…” But the city Saiz draws doesn’t look anything like what the narration describes—it doesn’t look non-Euclidian, or alien in an upsetting way. Granted, it can’t be easy as an artist to draw a city that looks so foreign to everything the reader knows to bother them, but then, that’s the challenge of doing Lovecraft stuff in the comics medium, isn’t it?

There are a couple of other places where the script seems to call for an image to knock the reader’s eyes out of their sockets—Aquaman amassing every living thing in the ocean behind him as a massive army to fill a whole splash page, for example—but Saiz simply provides pretty decent illustrations for.

The drawings aren’t necessarily bad, but they aren’t quite good enough, either.

Green Lantern #52 (DC) As the multi-title Blackest Night storyline has worn on, the peculiar structure of it has informed the contents of the comics more and more, mostly to their detriment. This particular issue, the last issue of Green Lantern dedicated to the “Blackest Night” story and the second-to-last comic book featuring a Geoff-Johns written portion of the story, is the first I’ve read in which the format seems to have dictated the entire issue.

Because Johns has written the story so that it takes place in both Blackest Night and Green Lantern, he’s had to keep relevant beats in both books, but not put anything too important in GL, or else BN won’t make sense on its own, for readers who are choosing just to read Blackest Night. He’s mostly coped with this challenge by following Hal Jordan around in the pages of GL, and since he was on different planets than the other characters in BN for a while, that worked pretty well. But now that we’re in the home stretch, it’s gotten trickier and trickier to pull it off.

This issue should be the beginning of the climax of the series, and yet it ends exactly where the last issue of BN ended (and where this very comic began), with Sinestro now a “White Lantern” wielding the power of life itself. Everything that happens in this particular issue then is basically filler, although it’s really weird, really interesting, sort of exciting filler (at least, to me).

That filler comes in the form of needless splash pages and Geoff John’s own creation myth, a creation myth that is in direct opposition of a lot of what we think we know about the creation of our universe (scientifically and religiously) and the evolution of life on earth…and what we thought we knew about the creation of the DC Universe and life there.

First, the splash pages. They’re drawn by Doug Mahnke and Christian Alamy, an art team that has provided the very best work of any of the couple dozen to have drawn Blackest Night-related comics over the course of the last year or so (and, I think, the very best of the many teams to draw Green Lantern over the course of the last 52 issues).

The images in the splashes are thus rather nice-looking, but there’s absolutely no reason for most of them to have the space they occupy, other than to eat-up the page count. The first one in this issue, for example, is a two-page splash, although all it contains are eight characters in flight.

All together, there are four double-page splashes, three single page splashes (that’s one-third of the issue right there). Like I said, they are nice looking pages all, but the pacing is so weird now, and it’s a shame so much page-space is being wasted so flagrantly when there are literally thousands of characters flying around who could be shown doing stuff in all that space.

Now, back to that bit about the creation myth. It goes something like this. The “Entity” we glanced in the last issues of Blackest Night, once in Sinestro’s ring/costume/head/whatever, shares it’s story with the pink supervillain, and it goes like this.

Once upon a time, the white light entity was thrust into the black, lifeless universe. It appeared where Earth is, and it created everything in the universe. It built earth around itself, and then generated life upon earth. As this life evolved, various creatures would invent an emotional reaction of some kind (these being the seven “emotions” of Johns’ emotional light spectrum, including “willpower” and “making people afraid of you”), which would cause these various animals to power up like Pokemon and become the alien angel avatars like the Green Lanterns’ Ion and Yellow Lanterns’ Parallax. (Please see Jonathan of Living Between Wednesdays’s amusing little rant about the many ways in which sequence struck him as just plain crazy-wrong).

In addition to what this says about the origin of the universe (the Big Bang occurred where Earth is? Earth is the center of the universe?), evolution (Nothing experienced fear until insects came long) and DCU cosmology (If Earth’s the oldest planet, what’s that say about all those other ancient alien races/species?), there’s a religious component which is so stupid it’s awesome (which, as I’ve said many times, is sort of the key to Johns’ appeal—he creates comics that are at once stupid and awesome, depending on how you look at them, and sometimes elements are so one that they’re actually the other).

There’s a panel during the emotion evolution sequence showing a lush, beautiful garden, and a pink light in the distance. The narration reads, “As love ignites into existence, so does the Predator.” The Predator, by the way, is the pink alien angel avatar thing of love, the emotional light-power of the Star Sapphires (the pink lanterns). It looks like a dinosaur crossbred with an H.R. Giger alien design…only pink.

And it was apparently created…in the Garden of Eden? The next two panels clearly reference the Book of Genesis, which bolsters the reading that this panel is set in Eden (So why is “The Predator” a dinosaur monster thing instead of a humanoid? Did we descend from dinosaurs?!)

The next panel depicts a large snake with a glowing Orange Lantern Corps symbol-shaped halo, descending from an apple tree. Narration: “As a creature eats what it does not need, Avarice consumes all it touches.”

The serpent in the Eden story? The first Orange Lantern. (Which doesn’t actually gel with the story; Adam and Eve at the fruit, not the snake, and if the snake was feeling “avarice” like Larfleeze and Orange Lantern Luthor, why would it tempt others to consume the fruit instead of eating it all himself?)

Next panel: A sharp rock covered in blood, staining grass. Narration: “Rage grows from murder.” Cain was the first being to experience rage, the source of the Red Lanterns.

Next: Rain and lightning from a storm cloud, and the words “Hope from prayer.” I at first read this as the flood story, sticking with the Genesis theme, but there’s no reason to assume it is. There aren’t really any clues here; it could just be a matter of someone/-thing hoping and praying for rain because of drought and eventually getting it (The Hope avatar is a bird, which one wouldn’t really expect to be the religious type; Rage is a big bull monster though, and doesn’t even have a hand with which to lift a rock, so perhaps emotion invention transforms the emotion-inventor into a different species…?)

The sequence ends with a panel showing a burst of light over an indigo field, with the words “And at last, compassion is offered to us all.” This may just be my Catholic school upbringing following all that Old Testament imagery to its conclusion, but I saw this and though of Jesus, being suggested as the inventor of universal compassion. But perhaps we’re still in Genesis, and it’s God and/or The Entity who are showing compassion after the Flood (which may have been depicted in the previous panel), repenting for having tried to wipe out creation. If it is meant as an echo of the Noah-and-the-flood story in Genesis, that would resonate with Johns’ rainbow emotional spectrum symbolism, as the Flood story ends with God offering a rainbow as his promise not to try drowning the whole world again.

Okay, I realize I’ve gone on way too long about this at this point, but, like I said, I find this stuff really fascinating—no matter how silly it may be. I’ll have to wait to see how it all plays out in the last issue of Blackest Night and then let it rattle around in my head a bit, but this is beginning to seem like an extremely religious story for a big event comic crossover centered around Green Lanterns and zombies. (I don’t think The Entity is meant to be God or the DCU’s god, as Nekron yells at it at one point that “Whoever or whatever sent you here will regret it.”)

I’m particularly curious about how this crazy creation myth will line up with all the previous crazy DC creation myths. I recall there being a lot of that in the old Green Lantern books I never read, and then, of course, there’s the Fourth World/Kirby gods business, John Byrne’s “Genesis Wave,” Grant Morrison’s Final Crisis universal reinvention, Neil Gaiman’s Sandman stuff and Books of Magic miniseries.

In fact, Neil Gaiman used the Cain of The House of Mystery as the Biblical Cain (same with Abel and Eve) in Sandman, and Greg Rucka played around with the biblical Cain in Final Crisis: Revelations, who was a different Cain than the Sandman Cain, and…

Well, anyway. This is a big story, and while Blackest Night is hardly the best superhero comic of the last year or two, it’s becoming the most fascinating one.

King City #4 (Image Comics) The original material in this issue includes a page of prose from Brandon Graham explaining the inspiration behind a few details from this and the previous issue (I was seriously wondering about that “Please Do Not Pump Ape Bowels” sign, as it seemed to me if Graham didn’t see a sign like that in real life somewhere, it meant he first made up the sign himself, and then arrived at the decision to change some of the letters through a fictional character’s graffiti to come up with that phrase, and man, that would just be insane), as well as a two-page comic strip that Graham says was inspired by DC’s Wednesday Comic.

You know what that means? DC should totally hire Graham for a Wednesday Comics Vol. 2 project! I’d recommend The Legion. I’d like to see him redesign 1,000 superhero costumes, and give him a couple of futuristic alien planets to fill full of Brandon Grahamtastic details.

Oh, this issue also contains the scene where Joe winds up the cat’s tail so it’s legs start running, and then rides it like a skateboard, even doing a kick-flip (Sound effect: “Cat Flip”).

I skated for a few years, but have never been able to master the kick-flip. Graham sure draws it well.

King City #6 (Image) This issue contains the climax of the original Tokyopop digest version of the comic, in which that old man character with the super-powerful evil aura that kills everything it touches passes through the city, killing the fuck out of everything by simply being that evil, comes face to face with Joe and his cat and they do battle.

It is awesome.

The original back matter this time out isn’t from Graham himself, but from Marian Churchland (the artist who drew that story for MySpace Dark Horse Presents where Conan totally kills a dude with his loin cloth). It’s a two-and-a-half-page strip in which Churchland fantasizes about what it would be like dating Max from King City while Graham ignores here. The six-page sequence devoted to their fantasy relationship is awesome (I like the panel where she’s playing William Tell with her dog…).

Orc Stain #2 (Image) This is a perfect comic book.

Tiny Titans #26 (DC) I wonder, is there some reason why Tiny Titans can’t say the words “St. Patrick’s Day?” Did Ireland or the Catholic church copyright it? Is it a controversial holiday that might not be deemed appropriate for kids to read about? Because there are a couple of points in this all-green issue where characters refer to the “green holiday” without saying St. Patrick’s Day, and, amusingly, the issue opens and closes with a couple of Titans drinking green milkshakes that they refer to as “Green Holiday Festive Milk Shakes” (instead of Shamrock Shakes, which probably are subject to copyright).

At any rate, the green-colored characters take center stage here. Beast Boy is babysitting Miss Martian, who sees green-clad Gizmo and, mistaking him for a dolly, gives chase. Along the way, Lagoon Boy and Kroc (the Tiny Titans version of Bat-villain Killer Croc) get sept up in the proceedings.

As every month, it’s a fun and funny comic, and Baltazar and Franco seem to only be getting better and better the longer they’re on the book. I particularly enjoyed this month’s cover…check out the range of expressions on the little green animals’ faces. What are they thinking about?

The Twelve: Spearhead #1 (Marvel) This is a 38-page, $4 speical one-shot that’s both written and illustrated by Christ Weston, the artist for the seemingly abandoned 12-part miniseries that JMS was writing before signing his exclusive with DC Comics.

I forgot how much I enjoyed Weston’s artwork in that series, and how much I was enjoying all of those 70th Anniversary Special one-shots Marvel was pumping out featuring off-beat Golden Agers, until I read this.

It was welcome reminder that Marvel owns a pretty exciting stable of Golden Age heroes other than the three we always see—The Invaders—characters who seem perhaps more exciting and rather strange compared to DC’s heroes of the same era, in large part because DC’s heroes of the era are so familiar, while The Blue Diamond and The Witness and The Phantom Reporter are so much more obscure, having taken decades off between appearances.

The Phantom Reporter narrates this story, and is the main character. It’s set during World War II, and he’s serving as a war correspondent, but, when he finds costumed heroes amassing for a big operation under the leadership of Captain America, he signs up to fight as a soldier.

Weston proves a very capable writer, and despite the by-now-tired superhero-talking-about-how-the-soldiers-were-the-real-superheroes routine, he works in some neat observations (the Nazis who espouse belief in a “superman” philosophy getting the shit kicked out of them by a bunch of Nazi-hating supermen, Phantom Reporter’s reaction to Mister E’s similar costume). He also manages to give most of the Twelve a spotlight at one point or another during the story, which couldn’t have been easy given how different so many of them are, but many of them play unique roles here (And Weston also manages to tease personality traits and sub-plots that were/will be important in the main Twelve miniseries).

While I was enjoying The Twelve series, I was actually looking forward to what was next for the characters more than the resolution of the actual murder mystery. After reading this, I’m fairly certain I’d rather see more of the characters outside of The Twelve, and Weston seems to be more than capable of writing their adventures as well as drawing them.

* is telling me it’s episodes 15 and 16 of season two, “The Terror Beyond.”


Randal said...

Actually, he said, pushing his patented nerd glasses higher on his nose, during the Sandman series, at one point Abel is telling a "Li'l Cain and Li'l Abel" story, and Cain, on the verge of beating him up, says something along the lines of, "We didn't even look human then."

Anyway, I have no problem with Earth being the center of the DC Universe - that's been building up and being hinted at ever since Invasion! all those years ago, but really kicked into high gear since Infinite Crisis.

Robert Pope said...

About a zillion years ago, I was doing a double-page spread for Toyfare parodying the classic Perez "Crisis" cover with Supergirl in Superman's arms in the Bruce Timm style, and my editor sent me a batch of "DC Universe" issues for reference, INCLUDING the Vance "Flash VS Superboy" issue. As God is my witness, I hadn't looked at that cover since, and must have unintentionally, subconsciously cribbed it. And Vance's cover IS better, to be sure! I was just happy I got to draw so many "Infantino buildings!"

Anthony Strand said...

Wait, a footrace between the Flash and Batman? With no clear winner?

How do they even make that a suspenseful event?

Jeremy said...

It isn't a footrace, it's a race to solve a crime.