Wednesday, December 19, 2007

Weekly Haul: December 19th

Action Philosophers Giant-Sized Thing Vol. 3 (Evil Twin Comics) Featuring a back-cover blurb from yours truly! I’m glad to see writer Fred Van Lente’s name popping up in Marvel Comics solicitations so often these days for two reasons. First, it means more Marvel comics are going to be well-written and fun to read, and second, I hope the wider audience he’ll be reaching through his work on stuff like Hulk comics will help lead fans back to he and artist Ryan Dunlavey’s Action Philsophers! comics, because these things are—and I don’t say this lightly—brilliant.

Batman and the Outsiders #3 (DC Comics) The cover reads “Batman and the Outsiders vs. Justice League of America” and shows characters from each team duking it out, while writer Chuck Dixon entitles this story “Throwdown,” so you just know this issue is going to be a slam-bang super-throwdown between the two super-teams, right? Right?

Not so much, actually.

First, forget that cover. Red Arrow, Black Canary and Martian Manhunter don’t actually appear in the issue, and Thunder doesn’t suit up or fight anyone, let alone her dad; she just kinda lounges around Outsiders HQ, which is apparently still just a lavish penthouse apartment.

The League and Outsiders do kinda sorta come into rather unconvincing conflict, though. Batman is having Dr. Kirk “Man-Bat” Langstrom’s wife Francine analyze the captured OMAC unit for him, when in bust three of the newest and greenest members of the League—Hawkgirl, Geo-Force and Black Lightning—to tell Batman they should be the ones analyzing the OMAC unit, and they get slapped around a bit.

Meanwhile, Thunder thrusts out her tits while talking about all the things she and Grace can share (Urgh…one of these girls has to leave this book STAT; there’s only so much lesbian banter I can take when I know it’s being written buy a guy who loudly proclaims how wrong gay banter in comic books is) and Cassandra “Batgirl” Cain walks around naked.

Writer Chuck Dixon still seems to be arranging things in order to launch this series, and it’s admittedly starting to get kind of fun. I liked Geo-Force getting “transferred” like being a superhero was some kind of corporate job, and while the Batgirl scene was…weird, at least Dixon seems to know something about the character (she’s quiet, creepy and was horribly abused growing up). Plus, that was a pretty dynamite cliffhanger, and I’m really curious as to who those two people are.

The art is again by artist Julian Lopez, returning after a one-issue break (maybe if this series wasn’t on a biweekly schedule for some reason, it wouldn’t need two pencillers?) and it’s pretty solid. Lopez is a very strong storyteller, and gets in some neat expressions. Not sure if giving Katana a red mask in the first two issues was a coloring mistake or if giving her a yellow one in this issue was the mistake, but I liked the all-red outfit much better.

Birds of Prey #113 (DC) After a four-issue, time-killing stint by Tony “The Bridge” Bedard, Gail Simone’s replacement Sean McKeever reports for duty. The results are a little disappointing; not Countdown or Teen Titans disappointing, but not what I was hoping for from a writer with as impressive a body a work as McKeever has amassed. I say this, of course, as a fan of the series and characters more than as an objective critic or anything here.

The story is actually constructed pretty well, and does a decent job of introducing all of the characters for any new readers in the audience, getting all of their voices fairly right (save two, whom we’ll get to in a bit) and including an action scene followed by a big, crazy action scene.

Barbara “Oracle” Gordon, and her bare bones, Canary-less team of Huntress, Lady Blackhawk and Misfit are dealing with the teenage mobster’s daughter from Gail Simone’s second OYL arc, who has gotten control of a superweapon and brought it to Metropolis, while Superman is conveniently out of town. It goes off, countless civilians are dead, and it’s all the Birds’ fault—specifically Misfit’s, for setting it off, and Barbara’s I guess, for having Misfit around in the first place.

If McKeever is trying to push the team out of Metropolis and give them a new status quo, this makes a certain amount of sense (and Barbara Gordon in any city other than Gotham, or maybe D.C., will always seem a little off), but not enough.

Oracle still comes across as an amateur fuck-up, particularly when protesting that they can’t be expected to “call in the cavalry for every little thing.” That’s Oracle’s whole deal—she’s got every superhero in the DCU on speed-dial and uses them to play chess against the world on her behalf. Also, countless deaths seems like the wrong thing to call a “little thing.” Her protest comes while Superman is castigating her, complete with finger-pointing, doing the whole Batman speech, save for using the phrase “my city.” (The scene actually played like all of those Superman guest spots back during the “King of the World” story arc).

It was off enough that this would seem like a good time to leave the series, if old Blackhawk villain/super-pirate Killer Shark wasn’t on the cover of the very next issue.

On the art end of things, the title remains exactly as strong as it was when Simone was still writing. Penciller Nicola Scott and inker Doug Hazlewood strike a pitch-perfect balance between realism and exaggerated superheroics. That is, the action scenes sing, the character look bigger than life, and yet they still look like real people in real clothes.

I do hope this book gets very good very fast, as I’d hate to see it get cancelled (it’s usually less than ten thousand units away from cancellation level), and I’d love to see McKeever get a real hit on his hands at DC (Well, one other than Countdown, which sells well, but which only three people in the world will admit publicly enjoying—and they go by fake names on messageboards).

Justice League of America #16 (DC) After devoting a four-issue story arc to setting-up the already begun Salvation Run miniseries, a tie-in to maxi-series Coutndown, writer Dwayne McDuffie’s very next story in JLoA is a prequel to a Tangent miniseries beginning in March. Seriously, it even ends with the words “To be continued in Tangent: Superman’s Reign.” It occupies the first 15 pages of this issue, illustrated by Joe Benitez and Victor Llamas.

It’s followed by a seven-page back-up by writer Alan Burnett and artist Allan Jefferson (who, if you’re wondering, is much better than both Benitez and “regular” penciller Ed Benes) which also alludes to Salvation Run.

I can kind of see the logic of DC turning their best-selling title into a sort of preview book pushing other books. After all, more readers read this title than any other, so if you’re going to try advertising other series within a series, you might as well go with the one that gets the widest exposure, right?

The problem is, it’s incredibly self-destructive, as the reason JLoA is so popular is because it was being written by Brad Metlzer for a year. McDuffie’s less popular but also much better, meaning he has a fighting chance of keeping JLoA a top-seller, but keeping that 100,000+ audience month in and month out is going to be hard when people start to realize they’re reading a Countdown-like book, one that exists not to tell its own story, but to suggest other stories to readers.

To zero in a bit on the story itself, however, it’s pretty short and simple: The green lantern from 1997’s skip-week Tangent event masterminded by Dan Jurgens swaps a thief targeting Guy Gardner’s storage unit out for the Tangent Universe’s Atom, a handful of Leaguers investigate, and then the lantern swaps them back. Of the nine heroes on the cover, only two appear within (Tanget Flash and Benitez’s gargoyle-faced John Stewart).

I’ve been pretty cruel in discussing Benitez’ art on JLoA #14 but, to be fair, it was really, really, really bad. Here there are still a ton of problems with the art, including terrible lay-outs, a derivative style that seems to blend the worst of Rob Liefeld and Todd McFarlane, a failure to match up with the script (Roy mentions his quiver being destroyed in one panel, while the image shows his bow destroyed but quiver fine; in a conversation with a police officer, a second police officer’s voice comes from an unseen, never introduced character off-panel) and images that it’s hard to believe even exist in a comic being published in the year 2007. (It’s times like these I wish I had my own scanner; check out the image of Roy in the lower right hand corner of page 11 if you have a copy of your own, and please note how much his boots and belt changed in the space of a page).

That said, this time Benitez’s art at least seems a lot less lazy, as he actually draws backgrounds. Not in every panel or every page, mind you, but compared to his work on #14, which looked like an avante garde stage play? These backgrounds are positively intricate.

Given that this story features two characters from a universe created in 1997 and 1998, perhaps using an artist with such an unapologetic ‘90s art style makes a certain amount of sense, but wouldn’t it have made more sense to use someone actually involved with the Tangent line provide the art this issue? Jurgens drew The Atom one-shot, J.H. Williams III drew the Green Lantern books, and Gary Frank and Paul Pelletier did the Flash books. The other pencil artists involved were Tom Grummett, Sean Chen, Angel Unzueta, Mike McKone, Butch Guice, Joe Phillips, Vince Giarrano, Darryl Banks, Jan Duursema, Dusty Abell and Matt Haley. All of the above are better artists than Benitez (in terms of storytelling; I realize everyone’s tastes in style varies dramatically), so not only would any of the above turned in better work, they also would have been more appropriate in capturing the particular feel of the comics being referenced here.

The Incredible Hulk #112 (Marvel Comics) Marvel’s official solicitations refer to this book as The Incredible Herc and the cover itself is a little vague on that matter (the “Hulk” part of the logo has “Herc” spray-painted over it), but I’m sticking the title as it appears in the fine print. Besides, you can’t change the title of a book drastically but leave the numbering; that’s just insane (No offense, Aquaman: Sword of Atlantis and Hawkgirl).

Anyway, this is the first real post-“World War Hulk” issue of the series, ceding the spotlight completely to Hercules and Amadeus Cho, who were more or less the stars of the monthly during WWH anyway, when the Hulk-centric parts of writer Greg Pak’s storyline filled the main World War Hulk miniseries.

Joining regular writer Pak here is co-writer Fred Van Lente, and together the pair do a wonderful job of somewhat subtly setting Herc and Cho up in the same big strong guy/punk kid dynamic of the Hulk/Rick Jones stories, as well as the brawn/brains dynamic of the Hulk/Bruce Banner relationship, and having them on the run from the authorities (here SHIELD and the Ares-led Mighty/Republican Avengers, who are sore at them for taking the Hulk’s side during the war). Additionally, they tie Hercules’ situation here to his mythological past, committing a crime and engaging in labors to atone for it. And Pak and Van Lente manage all of this without seemingly laboring at all (Get it? Hercules? Labor? Ah, nevermind). It’s also a pretty damn fun romp with scenes of Herc hitting the old goblet pretty hard and breaking a lot of stuff.

With witty dialogue and artists Khoi Pham and Stephane Peru’s nice art (with occasionally scratchy ink lines and a gorgeous scene depicting the climax of WWH all in silhouette, this is all around good comics. I wasn’t reading the title before the change in protagonists, so I don’t know how welcome or irritating this might be fore people who are picking up The Incredible Hulk specifically to read about the Hulk, but I really dug this issue, and am looking forward to the next one.

Marvel Adventures Hulk Vol. 1: Misunderstood Monster (Marvel) And besides, if you are missing the green goliath, this week sees the release of the first Marvel Adventures digest collecting his adventures. Having sampled the series last week with #6 on the strength of the Namor appearance, I thought I’d catch up via collections, and man, this one is pretty great.

First up, it’s only seven bucks, but it collects the first four issues of the series. If you bought ‘em in singles, that would run you $12, but this is only $6.99. Talk about value. Oh, and the stories inside? They’re pretty damn good.

I admit I didn’t care for the first one, which was basically just a dry retread of the Hulk’s origin, modernizing it a bit (General Ross is concerned about insurgents, not Communists), making Rick Jones an intern, Betty Ross a scientist and adding a monkey into the mix. But #2-#4 are really quite great, as Hulk/Banner, Rick Jones and their pet monkey Monkey are on the run from General Ross and seeking a cure for Banner’s Hulk affliction.

The second issue guest-stars Madrox the Multiple Man of X-Factor Investigations, and I was surprised to see him in an MA book which kept the look, feel, voice and powers of the Peter David iteration of the character, right down to the noir movie obsession. This was probably the best Madrox story I’ve read since David’s original miniseries (I dropped X-Factor as it got too X-Menny recently). Writer Paul Benjamin writes a sharp script, in which one of Madrox’s dupes hangs around on fire escapes narrating out loud, while the other does his detective thing for Banner. An accident gives the Hulk Madrox’s powers, leading to a bravura sequence in which New York is over run with hundreds of Hulks with varying personalities.

Next up is a team-up with The Radioactive Man, who rides the rails with our heroes engaging in nerdy science talk with Banner while alienating Jones. And finally there’s an issue in which Ross hires both Madrox and The Radioactive Man to help him apprehend The Hulk.

Benjamin doesn’t seem to have a regular artist to work with here, at least, not all the way through pencilers David Nakayama and inker Gary Martin handle three of the stories (and do an incredible job; they seem above average in skill for the MA line, and by their last two stories were actively reminding me of Dale Eaglesham), and Juan Santacruz does another issue.

That’s five issues of the series I’ve read now, three of them were pretty good, one of them was excellent, and another wasn’t so hot. I’d definitely be adding this to my pull list—if the digests weren’t such a great vaule. As is, I think I’ll be following this via digest from now on. I just hope Benjamin sticks around; Jeff Parker broke my heart when he left MA Avengers

Special Forces #2 (Image Comics) While the first issue of Kyle Baker’s balls-out war satire involved a lot of set-up, including introducing a bunch of characters who wouldn’t survive the first issue, this one zeroes in on Felony as our protagonist, and is mostly occupied with a few action scenes, in which our scantily clad heroine, her clothes shrinking even more, must shoot her way through a building full of foes, keep her autistic fellow survivor alive, wrestle an equally naked bad guy, and then face a car bomb. It’s great stuff but then, it’s Kyle Baker; that guy doesn’t make bad comics, does he?

Superman #671 (DC) Okay yes, Grant Morrison is probably the best Superman writer at the moment, producing the very best Superman comics available over in All-Star Superman. But he has a somewhat unfair advantage there; that stuff is out-of-continuity, so Morrison’s free to do pretty much whatever he wants. Poor Busiek has to deal with crap like Superman and Lois having a foster son from the Phantom Zone, and Lana Lang being divorced from former President of the United States Pete Ross and so on—it’s like he’s writing this thing with one hand tied behind his back.

And yet he still manages to write an incredibly powerful Superman, one with a brilliant mind and crazy-powerful super-senses (he uses his nose like Wolverine here, but it’s attached to a brain that can identify, like, every base chemical he smells), and come up with fun challenges to give his godlike Superman physical challenges that instill the confrontations with at least a veneer of danger.

He also, like Morrison, loves the Silver Age, and manages to transplant plot elements from that era into the modern DCU without it seeming at all retro. This issue involves Lana Lang becoming the Insect Queen on the moon (sorta), and a very, very busy Superman fretting over the things in his life he can’t help, like having broken Lana’s heart or the fact that her marriage to Pete is something he can’t save, despite his powers.

He also wears a baseball uniform to pitch a super-fast fastball over the plate, which he then bats out of orbit. For charity.

Busiek fills the issue with genuine drama and actually thrilling action, lots of science talk and plenty of elbows to fans (I like that he remembers that Gateway City exists, for example, and that Luthor’s desk form Morrison/Quitely’s JLA: Earth-2 original graphic novel is the same one Lana sits in now that she’s the CEO of Luthor’s old company).

The pencil artist here is Peter Vale, and he does everything Busiek does with words with his art, which is exactly what a comic book artist should be doing. His bug-monsters are scary and threatening, his Superman is powerful and determined, his women are sexy, his characters have a full range of emotions, and he works in lots of fun little details, like worried looks on the face of the catcher and bat boy, and designing a logo for Metropolis’ baseball team.

What If? Civil War #1 (Marvel) Tony Stark is milling around a graveyard, mourning the death of his friend-turned-foe Captain America, when up walks a tiny little Watcher to tell him stories about alternate universes. That’s the set up, written by Ed Brubaker and drawn by Marko Djurdjevic, who also provides the Civil War inspired cover (and whose work resembles that of Steve McNiven and company’s enough that it makes for a particularly potent CW riff).

This is just the framing sequence, however, and the two stories don’t look quite as good.

The first and lesser story is by Kevin Grevioux, penciled by one-name artist Gustavo and inked by Gustavo and three others. It asks the question “What if Captain America led all the heroes against registration?” and it posits a world in which Stark dies before Stamford, and Cap is therefore able to rally everyone against the U.S. government. So it’s basically the Marvel Universe against just Maria Hill, James Rhodes, Henry Gyrich, some Sentinels and a ton of Clors.

It’s pretty boring, actually. Grevioux suffers from the same thing that sinks a lot of these stories—it’s just too much story to squeeze into so few pages, so much of it reads like a summary. Gustavo’s style is much more exaggerated and cartoony than McNiven’s, and this doesn’t look much like Civil War; his drawings of the FF in morning are particularly hilarious, when, of course, the scenes are meant to be serious.

Much beter is the second story, “What If Iron Man Lost the Civil War?” which isn’t phrased in a way that actually reflects what it deals with. But then calling it “What If the Marvel Heroes Who Starred in Civil War Remained Heroic and Consistent With Their Previous Portrayals?” might have been perceived as too insulting to Mark Millar, even if it were a more accurate title.

This one’s written by Christos Gage, who wisely skips a lot of recap, assuming readers are familiar with the beats of Civil War (and if you’re not, why on earth are you bothering with this book anyway?) and basically has Cap decide not to zap Tony in that silly burning warehouse trap and Iron Man throwing himself in front of Clor’s lighting bolt, saving the life of Goliath. Seeing a killer clone of their friend sent to murder their other friends, both sides team up against Clor, and then figure out an extremely easy to figure out compromise in which war is averted. It’s not as melodramatic as Millar’s Civil War plot, on account of it being happier, but it is a hell of a lot more logical.

The art here is by Harvey Tolibao, and seems a lot more appropriate to the subject matter. It’s not quite as static or glossy as McNiven’s, but it’s not incongruent with it either.

And the last two pages of the Gage/Tolibao story, while not as completely hilarious as the last two pages of What If? Annihilation, are still pretty funny in a Captain America and Iron Man are totally gay for each other kind of way.

Wolverine: Firebreak (Marvel) Mike Carey and Scott Kolins seem to be courting a glowing review from Chris Sims. Not only do they include a Wolverine versus bear fight in their lead feature, but it’s a Wolverine on fire versus a bear on fire fight. The rest of that story’s pretty so-so, but this issue has a pretty cool back-up, featuring Vasilis Lolos art. For a more long-winded review from me, check out Newsarama, which provided me with a review pdf from Marvel. And hey, did you know Chris’ Invincible Super-Blog was the fourth google hit under the search “Superheroes fighting animals.” Hard to believe it was that far down…


Derek said...

"His but-monsters are scary and threatening..."

I feel certain you meant "bug-monsters".

Then again, enemies Superman would be simply too embarrassed to fight sounds like something Busiek would come up with.

Caleb said...

Heh. Fixed it. Thanks!

googum said...

Wasn't Francine Lang, Man-Bat's wife, killed off in Bruce Jone's completely unneccessary Man-Bat limited? (My son pieced that whole series out of the quarter boxes, but even for $1.25 it wasn't worth it.)

I would be totally cool if she wasn't though: I had a record as a kid where she turned into a Man-Bat, and have a soft spot for her.