Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Weekly Haul: July 23rd

Ambush Bug: Year None #1 (DC Comics) So, can you go home again? I was dreading this title as much as I’ve been looking forward to it, but by panel two I was won over. That’s the panel in which the Source Wall says, via the writing that mysteriously appears on it, “Which crappy comic book am I in today?”

The old school Ambush Bug team of Keith Giffen, Robert Loren Fleming and Al Milgrom answer the question of why DC continuity is so completely fucked up these days—Continuity cop Jonni DC has been murdered, the latest in a string of murders of female characters in the DCU, which is, quite literally, littered with female corpses.

Ambush Bug is kinda sorta on the case, pacing and teleporting through pages of six- and nine-panel grids interrogating Egg Fu, Ace the Bathound, The Glop and the original Bat-Girl, who is now the daughter of Sue Dibny and The Phantom Stranger. Also appearing are Yankee Poodle (in a bikini), Space Cabbie, the Kirby Sandman, pink Swamp Thing (are you guys that scared of Vertigo? Man up editors Jann Jones and Stephanie Buscema!) and grim, gritty new takes on Sugar, Spike and ‘Mazing Man.

Not every joke works, and, to be honest, I can’t imagine anyone who’s not a huge DC fan even finding any of these jokes at all amusing, but a great deal of them do, and this was easily the most fun book of the week.

It’s been quite a while since I’ve seen Giffen doing full pencils, but I was pleasantly surprised that his work looks better than ever here, keeping the somewhat cartoony fell of his 52 lay-outs (most of which I usually preferred to the finished pencils on those issues), and having fewer of the sketchy lines that defined his style from back in the day of earlier Ambush Bug projects.

Avengers: The Initiative #15 (Marvel Comics) I’ve always liked the way Dan Slott and, more recently, Christos Gage have used this title and the overarching post-Civil War story of the Marvel line as a sort of playground where they can trot out whatever half-forgotten detritus of Marvel Comics history to play with. And I’ve always admired the way they’re able to do so in service to a story that is compelling in its own right and relevant to the goings-on in other Marvel book.

In other words, this is basically a book in which fans-turned-writers indulge their own fannish inclinations, and yet it avoids the stink of pro-written fan-fiction that books in similar positions tend to give off.

For example, this issue is of course a Secret Invasion tie-in, as everything Marvel is currently publishing seems to be, but it’s also a surprisingly melodramatic story about a single, minor member of the book’s regular cast, who is himself a throwaway supporting character from a throwaway story arc in Robert Kirkman’s long-since cancelled run on Marvel Team-Up.

That would be The Crusader, the Skrull spy who went native a long time ago and is now pretending to be a human superhero and now finds himself in a rather awkward position when the Skrulls invade earth.

The issue is told from his perspective, and includes a rather long recounting of his history before he and the rest of the Initiative head to Manhattan to engage in that fight scene from Secret Invasion #2. Slott and Gage must have done something right because I usually find the flashbacks to the Skrull homeworld that Bendis has been packing into his books boring as all hell (probably because I’m a humanist, and all these Skrulls look alike to me and all their silly apostrophe-d names sound alike to me).

But the symmetry between the scene of Crusader and his old friend fighting as cadets in the Skrull army and then meeting again in this war between the planets? It hit me like a scene from Ken Burns’ Civil War documentary.

This issue’s art comes from guest-artist Harvey Tolibao, and it seemed like a rather ideal compromise between the styles of Stefano Caselli and Secret Invasion artist Leinil Yu.

Batman: Gotham After Midnight #3 (DC) Did you know that today is Kelley Jones’ birthday? Well, it is. I wish I knew earlier. I would have baked you a cake. A big, huge, weird cake.

Well Jones gave us a nice reverse-birthday present with another issue of his collaboration with Steve Niles on Batman, which is basically just an excuse to have Jones draw a bunch of cool Batman shit for a whole year. At least, that’s the way I look at it, as it doesn’t do one much good to pay too much attention to the script, which is kinda of, oh what’s the word…bad. Yes, that’s the word. Bad.

The special guest-villain is Clayface, whom new villain Midnight convinces to grow to gigantic size by absorbing people. I don’t quite get the science of this, how jamming a person inside him instantly makes him double in size like Mario touching a mushroom, but it allows him to shout on the cover “Prepare to be buried in the living cemetery of CLAYFACE!” and rant about returning to the earth throughout.

Niles’ familiarity with Batman seems incomplete, which wouldn’t really be a very big deal in this sort of off on the sidelines, outside the main Bat-books kind of project if it weren’t for the fact that a lot of the stuff he seems unfamiliar with happens to have happened during Jones’ run on the book.

For example, let’s let it slide that Batman doesn’t think of Cornelius Stirk when he starts finding bodies with their hearts missing, even though Stirk’s M.O. is to eat his victims’ hearts.

He also rules out the Joker because “None of our usual suspects work in the black arts. The Joker might be crazy, but even he doesn’t deal in voodoo.” Of course, Jones drew a three-part story in Batman #544-#546 in which The Joker did just that. Even the giant Clayface schtick has been done, again in a comic Jones drew.

None of this bugged me as much as hearing bookish psychiatrist, college professor and chemist Jonathan “The Scarecrow” Crane say “I woke up and I have these holes and they itch, man…”

“Man?” Really? The Scarecrow?

These are just quibbles of course. Niles’ script does have its moments but, as I said, I mainly think of him as the guy who suggests things to Jones to draw.

His Clayface is a knockout, with a strange hunched, ape-like anatomy and mane of frozen drips around his shoulders. Once he starts growing, there are plenty of incredible scenes of him with human hands straining out of his back like spines and a killer two-page spread that I hope to God Batman artist Tony Daniel is look at and feeling thoroughly ashamed about. That is what a two-page splash should do— use all that space to hit the reader with a visual they just couldn’t get in a one-page splash or a single panel.

The Brave and the Bold #15 (DC) Unable to find Batman, Deadman settles for Nightwing to help him retake Nanda Parbat, but that involves first tricking every hero in the DCU off of earth (allowing Scott Kolins to work in as many heroes as he cares too in a first-page splash—look, there’s Ambush Bug again!), and then recruiting Hawkman to give drop some archaeology science on them (and some killer mace on the evil ghost things). I’m sure you can guess whether the heroes win the day or not.

Mark Waid writes all of the characters just fine, and this ends up being a team-up of team-ups (with Deadman leading Nightwing and Hawkman to resuce Green Arrow), and it was certainly fun seeing how Kolins tackled the various DC heroes. I liked that he drew eyeballs in Nightwing’s mask, which gave it a kind of unique look, and appreciate that he gave Hawkman big, cool googly hawk-eyes. Props also for including Plastic Man in the splash, and for having Black Lightning emitting black-colored lightning, something I’ve discussed the importance of here before (as has Jefferson Pierce).

Joker’s Asylum: The Scarecrow #1 (DC) It seems natural enough that DC would want a series with the word “Joker” in the title during the month in which The Dark Knight comes out, although this particular series (each issue of which is numbered #1) is kind of weird. Each issue focuses on a different one of Batman’s rogues, with the Joker serving the horror host role of, say, Cain in House of Mystery. So it’s essentially a Joker series with a panel or three of the Joker in each issue, I guess…?

It is pretty new reader friendly, I suppose, and, while this is the first issue I’ve read (it was preceded by issue’s focusing on The Joker, The Penguin and Poison Ivy, and will finish next week with a Two-Face issue), if it’s representative to the series, than it serves as a pretty readable Batvillains 101.

The problem with this approach, of course, is that if you’re not new to the characters, than a lot of this will seem like old hat, and Joe Harris script for Scarecrow is chockfull of bits I’ve read in dozens of other Scarecrow stories, at least in the Scarecrow’s narration.

If Scarecrow enumerating the standard issue list of phobias is tired, Harris does at least come up with an otherwise rather engaging premise. The story is set-up a bit like a slasher movie, as the popular kids invite hot nerdy girl Lindsay to a sleepover, the Queen Bee of the mean girls having concocted a plan to catch Linday’s round of Seven Minutes In Heaven on camera.

Lindsay’s psychiatrist is one Jonathan Crane, however, and he puts on his costume and crashes the party, picking the bad kids off one by one until Batman shows up for a couple of pages.

He art is by Juan Doe and, truth be told, that’s the reason I picked this issue up, having been so thoroughly impressed with Doe’s work on the FF-go-to-Puerto Rico story with Tom Beland.

Here Doe seems to be relying heavily on computers, particularly to provide patterns on clothing and walls (dig The Joker’s pj’s) and make his lines all but invisible. His design style, however, is very flat and cartoony, giving the issue the effect of a highly stylized version of Batman: The Animated Series (His Batman and Batmobile especially seem to have been imported straight from the cartoon). Actually, don’t just take my word on what it looks like; you can see some pages here.

I don’t think his Scarecrow has quite cracked my top six favorite Scarecrow designs or anything, it is definitely a good one, and I really like the way Doe and Harris keep the villain off-panel for the most part. We never see Crane’s face when he’s not in costume, and even in costume more often than not he’s simply a shadow, a silhouette, glowing eyes, or hands reaching from off-panel.

Marvel Adventures Super Heroes #1 (Marvel) You can’t tell from the extremely generic cover, which simply features Marvel movie stars Hulk, Spider-Man and Iron Man all posing on a very sunny day, but the plot of this comic is a great one: Hercules dumps multi-headed mythological monster dogs Cerberus and Orthus on Spidey and friends to dog sit for him, and the eventually enter them in a dog show.

This work of genius is written by Paul Tobin, and illustrated by Alvin Lee and Terry Pallot and I can’t really point to anything any of them did wrong, but the whole thing just seems a little…off.

Now, normal Marvel Adventures caveats apply: This is a comic for kids, and I’m 31, so the fact that I wouldn’t exactly nominate it for an Eisner doesn’t mean all that much. Still, I think the best kids’ comics are ones that can also be enjoyed by adults, and I certainly like a lot of Marvel Adventures comics, including ones written by Paul Tobin.

I think one of the problems is simply it felt so weird to see Spider-Man, Iron Man and the Hulk just kinda hanging out at one of Iron Man’s mansions (which looks like an average suburban house, actually) all eating pizza together. The first two in their costumes, masks and all, the latter all Hulk-ed out. In MA Adventures it’s clear these guys are all on a super-team together, and their adventures stem from their being Avengers. Here they just seem like pals palling around, waiting for wacky hijinks to come their way, you know? (Also, I don’t really like the way Lee draws the Hulk’s face. He just looks like a green dude, rather than some kinda monster).

Now those hijinks are plenty wacky, and there’s certainly some great scenes and great lines in here, but the whole thing never quite comes together the way the better Marvel Adventures stories usually do. I dug the story okay, but less than I expected to, and probably not enough to add one more MA book to my pull-list.

New Avengers #43 (Marvel) Note to self: Don’t forget to drop New Avengers until after Secret Invasion wraps-up. You know the drill by now. Brian Michael Bendis’ SI storyline isn’t told in a straight line so much as told in a straight line with (at least) twice-monthly digressions that branch out perpendicularly from the plot, recap a bunch of past info you probably don’t really need to know and/or give a shit about, and then rejoins the SI plot, having advanced it to a hardly noticeable degree.

In this issue, for example, Spidey, Sheena, Ka-zar and his giant-ass saber tooth tiger fight Captain Skrullmerica, discovering that he is of course a Skrull (just in case you thought maybe Marvel was going to screw Ed Brubaker that hard and put the return over in Bendis’ book). The Skrull then flashes back to the Skrull homeworld, where we get to see that damn Skrulls-becoming-earth-people ritual for, like, the eighth time. The end.

Nocturnals: Carnival of Beasts (Image Comics) Wow, it has been a while since I’ve seen new Nocturnals material from Dan Brereton. So long, in fact, that I’m not even sure what the last Nocturnals comic I read actually was, nor were the intricacies of the plot terribly familiar to me. According to Brereton’s afterword, this story is a bridge between two previous series, cleaning up some unfinished business, which I had little memory of.

Of course, I regard Brereton as a better character designer than a storyteller, and I suppose that sounds like an insult or a backhanded compliment, I mean it as a, um, fronthanded compliment. His Nocturnals are fantastic creations—wonderfully conceived character designs with interesting looks, codenames and backstories—and I derive a great deal of pleasure just looking at and thinking about them. In previous readings, my reaction was more, “Wow, these characters are awesome,” than “Wow, this story is awesome.”

At any rate, Brereton and his cast of kooky horror heroes are back. Starfish and Komodo take off on a vacation, Polychrome keeps to herself, Firelion and Raccoon go off to have bad-ass off-panel adventures, and Evening “Halloween Girl” Horror is getting ready to go off to boarding school. But Doc Horror needs a special compound to fight his monster-turning-into, which leads him, Eve and her zombie gunslinger bodyguard Gunwitch into the woods to face a horde of body-modifying mad scientists, one of which is a goat lady who’s hooked up with a very idiosyncratic (and awesome-looking) Bigfoot. A fight breaks out.

Including in this prestige format book are two back-ups. One is a Starfish solo story illustrated by Viktor Kalvachev involving a ghost and a sea monster, and the other is drawn by Ruben Martinez and features Poly, Eve and Gunwitch versus an evil carnival, which amounts to a bunch of cool, cartoony horror character designs battling a bunch of other cool, cartoony horror character designs.

If you’ve never read a Nocturnals story before, I’m not sure this is the best place to start, story-wise (particularly at $7), but think the X-Men via Hellboy, fully painted.

Wait, why hasn’t this been made into a movie yet? You’d think an “X-Men via Hellboy” pitch would go over pretty well in Hollywood at the moment, particularly since they seem to be greenlighting projects based on comics that don’t even exist yet.

Robin #175 (DC) Hey, this isn’t the book that was solicited! Rather than the first chapter of Chuck Dixon’s “Batman R.I.P.” tie-in, which I seem to recall featured the Cluemaster on the cover, this is the first chapter of Fabian Nicieza’s run on the title, which is running in place of Dixon’s.

Now the best word I can use to describe Dixon’s Bat-comics is “serviceable,” and Nicieza’s first issue is likewise “serviceable.” He even deserves some points for making his “Batman R.I.P.” tie-in at least appear to have something to do with “Batman R.I.P.,” unlike Paul Dini’s Detective tie-in.

Batman’s missing and Robin thinks he might be coo-coo bananas, so he’s trying to find him and determine if he’s insane…er than usual and, if so, what he’ll do about it. Spoiler kinda follows him around and worries about his sanity. Meanwhile, Robin flashes back to the events of 52 while narrating lessons he learned during his time with Nightwing while Batman was going through a cleansing ritual in Nanda Parbat which might make sense if it didn’t, you know, openly contradict what happened in 52.

It’s a weird experience, reading first-person narration telling you a story that you know isn’t true; kinda like your buddy telling you a story about what happened last Friday night even though you were with him all night Friday and know nothing he’s saying actually occurred.

I know a popular complaint about comics fans—particularly those with an Internet connection and too much time on their hands—is that they too often take too seriously the minutiae of past stories and worry about continuity at the expense of all else (Kinda like I was doing a few reviews up, regarding Batman: Gotham After Midnight).

But I don’t think that complaint is valid when the story a fan is complaining about is referencing another story and getting it wrong. I mean, if what actually happened isn’t actually important, why devote your new story to recounting that old one at all? And 52 isn’t actually ancient history. We’re talking a two-year-old story. I find it kind of hard to believe that Nicieza or editors Mike Marts and Jeanine Schaefer couldn’t track down a trade of 52 if they couldn’t quite remember what happened during it to check.

Anyway, Robin tells us that when Bruce Wayne went into the cave in Nada Parbat for a few weeks, Dick Grayson waited with Tim for a while, then the pair of them decided to leave Nanda Parbat and do some crimefighting in exotic locales. But Dick had left Time and Bruce weeks before that, returning to Gotham where he got caught up in helping Batgirl fight the Crime Religion.

I suppose it’s possible Nightwing would occasionally jet across the ocean to hang out with Tim while Intergang was muscling in on Gotham, trying to turn it into the Vatican of a worldwide religion of crime that worshipped Darkseid while monster-men built Apokalyptian fire-pits in the city, but it’s kind of hard to swallow. And at any rate, the fact that Robin never left the entrance of the cave while Bruce was in it was pretty well-established in 52.

So, long story short, this is a comic story which is about how this comic (Robin) reacts to another comic (Batman) and is based on still another comic (52), only the people making it didn’t actually read the comic it’s based on.

I dig the homoerotic cover though. His eyes are to your right, chum.

Superman #678 (DC) I guess I’m still getting used to James Robinson’s take on the Man of Steel, because a lot of Superman’s dialogue seemed really weird, particularly during his kitchen table conversation with Lois Lane (What was up with that Zatanna comment? And last issue he said something vaguely creepy about the late Jade. Why is Superman such a hound all of a sudden?). This issue manages a bit of an origin dump for Atlas, framed by his fight with Superman. I don’t think I quite caught all of it, or maybe it won’t make sense until the story arc’s over, but I did dig the superior art team of Renago Guedes and Wilson Magalhaes’ distinguishing the present-day action and the flashback by switching form their normal style to a more comic book-y, Jack Kirby style (complete with dot coloring effects from Hi-fi).

Trinity #8 (DC) What the hell people? Is this true? Is Trinity already selling 20K less copies than the abysmal Countdown was selling by the end of it’s year of increasingly terrible comics? This is very sad news indeed.

I’ve repeatedly said Trinity is pretty much a “good enough” comic rather than a great or really good one, so I guess I have a hard time berating strangers into buying it every month—the space allows Busiek to let his characters perhaps talk too much, a problem I noticed during his abbreviated JLA run (not the heroes so much as the alien villains who no one has much reason to care about the way they would Batman and Wonder Woman), Scott McDaniel’s occasional pencils can sometimes lean toward the incomprehensible (as they do this issue) and the covers are all dull as dirt, but this is still a better Justice League comic than Justice League of America.

In this issue, Busiek and Bagley show us a party at Wayne Manor, Superman and Lois spending quality time, and Diana and so-thin-I-can’t-believe-it Etta Candy shopping for clothes. In the back-up, the bad Trinity talk, there’s a gorilla from Gorilla City involved and Enigma drops enigmatic clues that he may have something to do with The Riddler.

Wolverine First Class #5 (Marvel) Does Fred Van Lente love Snowbird or what? First he puts her on “The God Squad” in Incredible Hercules, which he co-writes with Greg Pak, and when he teams Wolvie with Alpha Flight in this issue of The Only Good Wolverine Title, she’s one of the three Canadian mutant heroes involved (along with Shaman and Aurora)*. This is probably the darkest and most adult issues of the series before, a series which exists in the same half-Marvel Universe, half-Marvel Adventures middleground as X-Men First Class, as it deals with Wolverine’s sorry life and is completely devoid of ninja waitresses. In fact, the only really funny bits involve Kitty’s questions about why Canada still has a queen.

*See comments for a correction regarding their actual genetic make-up. I assumed all of Alpha Flight was made up of mutants. Because pretty much all I know about them is that they totally got killed off-panel in the most boring issue of a comic book I've ever read.


Steven said...

Is this true?

No, it's not true. The first 8 issue of Trinity are fully returnable, so Diamond is automatically deducting 20% from their estimated sales. Expect Trinity to jump to roughly Countdown numbers with issue 9.

This is the same thing that happened with Countdown AND 52. Order seem low, the naysayers claim disaster, the numbers jump to expectations as soon as the book stops being returnable, everyone shuts up about disappointing sales.

Why can no one remember that?

That said, I dropped Trinity with issue six, because I found the back-ups kind of interesting and the leads boring. But that was five more issues than I gave Countdown.

Anonymous said...

I was curious about why Lois had so much Krypto hate all of the sudden. I know he busted up the old apartment a bit but why she was acting like she wanted to feed him Kryptonite flavored dog bones?

David said...

Snowbird and Shaman aren't mutants.

If they were gonna have AF mutants showing up, I'd personally prefer Mannikin and Madison Jeffries.

Patrick C said...

Robinson's Superman hasn't grabbed me like Johns' run on Action, but Robinson has enough built-in cred with me that I'll be sticking around. I have so much faith in Johns and Robinson that I think I'm even going to be picking up on Supergirl once Gates' run starts. And did anyone else notice Clark and Lois were reading an Opal City newspaper??

And I know you didn't review it, but I think the latest issue of Justice League is going to be my last. I've gotten every issue since Morrison's JLA #1 however long ago, so it hurts giving it up, but it's the point where I dread reading it.

I don't know if I'm totally sold on Ambush Bug, but there were enough fun moments for me to pick up the next issue.

SallyP said...

Ok, Ambush Bug was completely over the top and totally childish, and frankly, I loved it. I'm over the top and childish too.

The Brave and the Bold was nice. I did wonder why Ollie was being so obnoxious in the last issue, so it was nice to have that cleared up.

I rather liked Clark and Lois's breakfast chatter. I can only assume that Krypto pees on the rug, which would explain Lois's disdain. But the bit where Clark says that he's going to go into space and play with Krypt...and Hal was a hoot.

I didn't pick up the Scarecrow issue of Joker's Asylum, but perhaps I should.

Trinity continues to be a pleasure. Not outrageously fabulous, but a pleasure nonetheless. But yes, Etta needs to add a few pounds.

Tony said...

>Why is Superman such a hound all of a sudden?

Is Robinson maybe writing him like Jack Knight?

Philip said...

Your comments about Batman: Gotham After Midnight don't surprise me. I've always found Niles to be a sloppy writer.

In the first 30 Days of Night book, when he's describing the Alaskan town, he says the period in summer when the sun doesn't set is three times as long as the period in winter when the sun doesn't rise. Also, the sunless period doesn't even include the winter solstice. You know, the shortest day of the year.

How hard is it to do a little research?