Thursday, December 22, 2011

Records of warfare: Some dinosaurs

This is Lutz again. Over on my art blog, I've written a post on paintings of monkeys and dinosaurs and their respective fitness for the evolution of comics, which some of you possibly might find interesting. Here are some appetizing pics from that. Happy holidays!

Friday, December 16, 2011

Daredevil #6 (Marvel) – Matt Murdock is still smug/grimly smiling at the end of this, so despite a teasing announcement in the intro that this time he’ll suffer, he’s still having fun. Looking back, the first “arc” (too all over the place storywise to really call it that) clearly falls into two very separate parts: first the new, carefree Matt is introduced and fleshed out by Mark Waid with artist Paolo Rivera, and then the story is sort of sitting around waiting for penciler Marcos Martin to do something spectacular. 

And often he obliges. Martin doesn’t much do continuous action sequences, rather he breaks fight scenes down into tableaus of decisive moments, where the immediate outcome of a move is seldom in doubt. Indeed he seems to be looking for ingenious ways to work around the action. Here’s a brilliant page where Daredevil turns the tables after being beaten to a pulp by Bruiser, a somewhat lackluster villain of artificially enhanced humanity on the lookout for sponsors. A zoom into Daredevil’s face alternates with radar (or so it is suggested) images of Bruiser’s knee, leg bones straining toward breaking point . . . then we don’t see the hit at all but only Bruiser’s shocked cry of pain framed by the letters of the transliterated sound of his bones breaking. Marvelously conceived and not a little silly (the cute knee). Thrilling as art and not (merely) because of the action. Though I wouldn’t mind if the inker were a little lighter on the colors, all the villains seem evenly distributed across the color wheel, which, while it seems a nice nod toward classic comics, works against an atmosphere. There’s not much to grip the emotions. So however marvelous the pages are, I do get a feeling that Martin is still working from the empathy we’ve built up with Matt Murdock over the first three issues, and is not adding much to the character himself.

But maybe that’s the writing, not the art, and it gets pretty thin when Daredevil has to talk himself out of a spot explaining to the mean guys that their five gangs wouldn’t get along afterward if first they’d kill him anyway, and nobody does him in for the heck of it. Whatever happened to the villains? So with Martin leaving the boat, not sure if this series can keep it up, but with sheer beauties like the panels below, him getting a creator-owned project can only be a good thing. (Though I’m not sure the boat’s moving in exactly the right direction here?)

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Supergirl #3 (DC) – Koff koff. This is Lutz, suddenly transferred to the main body of the blog from the comments section. Who went on record saying that, after Animal Man, Supergirl was the only series from the DC reboot that still grabbed his interest. So he had something at stake here reading this.

I was half-expecting the thing to crash-land anyway, since the first two issues have just been prolonged fight scenes and my liking for them depended on the lack of drama, of a deeper purpose, no winners or losers, just a state of general pissed-offness at being thrown into this world. She saw no way to express herself except through sweet violence.

But something has to happen at some point, and as it turned out this was the point, and over the first half dozen pages my heart sank deeply. Awful dialogue (why can’t they just keep stuff in the original Kryptonian), even awfuller posing and subtly inconsistent art, culminating in one panel that in its overloaded oiliness cries for an Alex Ross guest spot: behind Supercousin’s shoulder a panorama of his heroics, catching a burning passenger plane, blowing out a burning mansion, and, worst of all, fullbreastedly taking shots from an anonymous hand at close range, pumping his fist, receiving the bullets that can’t harm him with a look of religious ardor. Ugh.

I gave up on the series there and then and did not even notice how it happened that two jarring transitions later this was an awesome comic again. It helped that the villain is a kind of hi-end scrap merchant who collects whatever strands in privatized space around Earth (where no nation can afford space travel anymore), to make a nice profit. His methods to test the worth of his new bounty are beautifully eccentric: heated metal butterflies and, even better, The Brain, in a body of jellyfish flesh clothed around a skeleton of neural pathways. The brain sucks up everything thrown at him and doesn’t let go again (so it’s no relation to mine), and the battle between the two is the highpoint of the issue, five marvelous pages.

Storywise that’s actually a very clever development, since Supergirl’s reaction to the shock of waking up on another world without a clue as to what it all means—to hit everything that talks to her—now is exactly the trait of character demanded from her, a figure in a sort of video game situation. Lots of potential here, and artist Mahmud Asrar has sort of promised more consistently great art after next issue, but I’m not going to trust this beyond the page in front of me anymore.

(Lutz blogs here courtesy of his pod.)

Monday, November 14, 2011

Weekly Comics: November 9, 2011

Batman and Robin #3 (DC) - This is becoming a slow-burning surprise favorite for me out of DC's New 52, getting better with each issue. This is especially true because Peter Tomasi is increasingly focusing on the "and Robin" part of the title, making this a book about Damien Wayne's struggles with the way he was raised versus the noble ideal offered up by his father Bruce and his mentor/peer Dick Grayson. Damien's interactions with the stolid, unshakeable Alfred are a lot of fun, and this issue opens with a chess match between the butler and the boy wonder, drolly funny and sharply written. Tomasi has a good feel for the uneasy relationship between Bruce and Damien: the boy looking up to his father but also straining against the bonds of this relationship, while Bruce, long used to being the chilly loner despite his succession of sidekicks, is a much cooler and more distant father to his troubled son than Dick Grayson was during his stint as Batman. Damien takes typical preteen rebellion and gives it a sinister twist because he's not only resisting parental guidance, he's straining against Bruce's strict no-killing code and insistence on self-control and restraint. But there's also a real joyous side to Damien when he's allowed to break free, which tempers the darker aspects of his character; it's hard to stifle a smile when he tells a crook, "I'm sure you didn't leave your hole tonight thinking you'd get your ass kicked by a ten-year-old!"

Batwoman #3 (DC) - This is the best issue of this series that J.H. Williams has done since going solo after his run on the character with Greg Rucka in Detective Comics. Williams is continuing to build on the foundation built during that earlier story, here opening with Kate Kane sucked under water by a vengeful spirit who summons the spectre of Kate's dead sister, trying to prompt the hero to let go of it all, to give in to despair. The result is a gorgeous, evocative few pages where the image of Kate as Batwoman is replaced by the image of her sister, a visual evocation of Kate's unarticulated, subconscious desire to join her sister in death. Of course she breaks free, and the next few pages are given over to a wonderful few pages where Batwoman fights with Agent Chase, who's investigating her and trying to figure out her secret identity. Williams' fight scenes, spread over the jaw-dropping double-page layouts that have come to be expected from his work, have a stuttery kinetic quality that suggest events happening in flashbulb bursts of motion, each pose frozen and cordoned off by the lines that zigzag across the page to indicate different intersections of time and space. This is also the issue where Williams' delineation of different styles for Kate's civilian life and her nocturnal adventures as Batwoman really pays off in a big way. When Kate returns to her apartment from her ordeal, dripping wet, in full costume but without her mask, her presence seems like an intrusion, a violation of the scrupulous separation between bright, colorful ordinary life and the dark, shadowed world of the costumed hero. That's the point, as Kate tells her cousin Bette, who she's been training to be a hero as well, that Bette should quit and go back to her normal life. Kate wants to keep these worlds separate, to banish her cousin from the darkness and danger of the superhero's life, to protect her from the fate of her own mad, corrupted sister. Then there's a wonderful silent page where, on the left half, Kate undresses and takes a shower, stripping back into her civilian identity, while on the other half of the page, surrounded by a deep black border, Bette puts on her costume and prepares to go out into the night. There's an acute sense in this series of identity as a costume one takes on and off, switching roles with clothing, existing in two different spheres that are represented by entirely different aesthetics.

Deathstroke #3 (DC) - Kyle Higgins has quickly proven in these three issues that he has a very limited set of ideas for this series, so he's just going to keep repeating them over and over in the hopes that it will be seen as thematic consistency instead of redundancy. This is the issue where Deathstroke's repeated insistence that he just wants respect, that he's worried that people think he's lost his touch, becomes particularly wearisome. The end of the issue throws in a few new wrinkles, tying back into the first issue and establishing that the Harmory characters in that issue weren't just a disposable punchline but were setting up something bigger. But it's not quite enough to keep me interested or make me want to continue reading what's turning out to be virtually the same book every month: Deathstroke gets a job, decapitates a bunch of people, easily dispatches everyone he encounters, and then goes all Rodney Dangerfield and complains that he gets no respect. Joe Bennett and Art Thibert give the book an attractive, unshowy art style that makes all the gore seem very matter-of-fact, but their contributions aren't reason enough to keep reading either.

Green Lantern #3 (DC) - Geoff Johns continues to do a good job of balancing the dichotomy of his central characters Sinestro and Hal Jordan: the one-time villain who's now been restored to the role of an unlikely hero, and the hero who's actually kind of a stubborn, arrogant asshole. Their interactions form the core of this book, as they define themselves against and in relation to one another, each convinced that the other is evil or idiotic or in the wrong. This is an interesting dynamic and the bitter repartee between these two old adversaries, each of them totally locked into their respective worldviews, totally drives this comic and especially this issue. The actual action, in which Sinestro and Jordan confront Sinestro's former corps for the first time, is just a quick burst at the end of the book that leads to a cliffhanger that only someone who's never read comics before could really believe is actually a cause for concern. Nevertheless, I'm definitely interested to see where this series is going, and I'm enjoying Johns' approach to these two rather unlikeable heroes/anti-heroes.

The Incredible Hulk #2 (Marvel) - I haven't been following the Hulk's comics before this new series, so I'm not sure exactly what happened to split up the Hulk and Bruce Banner, but this issue's examination of Banner's obsession with his missing other half is compelling anyway. Jason Aaron casts Banner as a deranged mad scientist in contrast to the serene, isolated Hulk, who just wants to be left alone, hidden away under the earth with his Moloid friends. This issue is all about setting up the obvious conflict between Hulk and Banner that will be coming in future issues. In the meantime, Aaron delivers the crowd-pleasing diversion of the Hulk battling some killer sharks, because hey, why not? I'm not sure how I feel about the gang of monster-hunters who are heading after Banner, though, what with the leader continually repeating that she's not related to Dr. Doom despite a shared last name, and the lame meta jokes like having a hunchbacked former mad scientist sidekick named Mr. Gor. Marc Silvestri's art is scratchy and densely hatched, and it's nice even though he seems to have an army of collaborators helping out. I don't think I've ever seen this many artistic credits on a single issue; between pencils, ink, finishes and "pencil assists," there are 11 credited artists on this comic. The result is sometimes a little inconsistent in terms of the level of detail, but not as bad as you'd think from that array of artists.

PunisherMAX #19 (Marvel) - This latest arc of Jason Aaron's PunisherMAX is at least as much about the Kingpin as it is about the Punisher himself. While this issue mostly focuses on Frank Castle's bleak internal monologue, the battle-weary drone of an old man accustomed to blood and pain, it's also about the Kingpin's gradual process of toughening himself to fill the larger-than-life role he's taken on, to really become the iconic villain he's meant to be. Interestingly, Aaron's Wilson Fisk has thus far been very passive and melancholy, a man drawn up inside of himself, having done atrocious things to achieve a position of power only to realize that he barely cares about the power. Now he's finally drawing out of that self-imposed shell, even as his adversary the Punisher cruelly antagonizes Fisk by disinterring the Kingpin's dead son. Steve Dillon's art is blunt and effective, powerfully depicting all the routine violence that surrounds these haunted, angry men, and also the ways in which all this horror has been written on their faces and in their bodies. Aaron is very much following in the footsteps of Garth Ennis on this series, and he doesn't depart too far from that model, but there's something about the combination of Aaron's writing and Dillon's art that makes this Punisher an even more tragic, sad, eerily empty character than ever.

Rachel Rising #3 (Abstract Studio) - Wow, this issue really ups the ante for the freakiness of this great series. Here, the newly resurrected Rachel seems to be getting flashes of portent about the violent deaths of other women, all of which seem to be linked by the mysterious blonde woman who's wandering through town, igniting feelings of misogyny and rage that lead to murder. Violence against women is the common thread, an ancient evil that exploits latent feelings of distrust, jealousy and self-doubt. Terry Moore's clean, bold art, with its copious white space and elegantly minimal faces, is just breathtaking, and creates an especially powerful atmosphere in the silent scenes (like the opening sequence in a jazz bar). Rachel herself is depicted with strangely shaded eyes that, together with her gothy makeup and the rope burns around her neck, make her an increasingly eerie central character. The highlight is the scene where she finds herself inexplicably compelled to confront a woman in a bar bathroom, telling her, "Your wedding bed will be a shallow grave... your lungs full of mud. Something old will violate you and you will feel it... making its home in you." This is a shivery, fascinating horror story, one of my favorite new series and already a worthy successor to Moore's Echo.

Uncanny X-Force #17 (Marvel) - Rick Remender's epic "Dark Angel Saga" hurtles on towards its conclusion next month, and this penultimate issue is a great example of Remender's virtuosic control of this kind of fast-paced storytelling. This issue expertly balances visceral action with the intense psychodrama at the core of the saga, the corruption of Archangel by Apocalypse's evil influence and the struggles of Archangel's lover Psylocke to prevent the world-devastating plans of her love without destroying him in the process. Several scenes in this issue take place in memory, on the psychic plane, and here Jerome Opena's woodcut-like hash marks are especially beautiful. As Psylocke attempts to break free of her corrupted lover's control, her mind returns to the memory of their first meeting: the dialogue is witty and urbane, a verbal dance of seduction, but Opena's shaded faces and the muted color palette (by Dean White, an unsung star on this book) suggest the heartbreak to come from this blossoming romance. The action continues to be strong, too, as characters from the alternate reality Age of Apocalypse join in both on the side of X-Force and as the allies of Archangel. This is just a great series, encompassing all the epic drama and intense stakes that characterize the best superhero comics.

Wolverine #18 (Marvel) - Well this is pretty ridiculous. And writer Jason Aaron seems to know it. He's relishing telling a deliberately campy, over-the-top story here, with a villainess who leads back directly to the Dragon Lady from legendary comic strip Terry and the Pirates. This drug kingpin's lavish, outlandish daily rituals — bathing her feet in the blood of any woman who claims to be more beautiful than her, dining on delicacies like "butterfly brains," refilling her pillows nightly with the feathers of a 1000 doves — definitively establish that this is a camp movie serial villain, an exaggeratedly evil adversary who'd twirl her moustache if she had one to twirl. Equally silly is Wolverine's new ally, Fat Cobra, a big tattooed sumo type who just wants to make a meal of a dragon. This is a quirky comic that climaxes with Wolverine and his allies riding towards their enemies in the bellies of a trio of dragons, and Aaron maintains an appropriately irreverent tone as he weaves a collage of kung fu clichés with imaginative conceits like the villains' underground poppy field or the concept of using dragons as drug mules.

Monday, November 7, 2011

Weekly Comics: November 2, 2011

Action Comics #3 (DC) - Grant Morrison's take on Superman in this book still feels really fresh and original, and I'm loving it so far. There's a great scene here where the Metropolis PD breaks into Clark Kent's apartment and rummages through his stuff, obviously just harassing him simply because of his reporting about important businessmen in the city. This Superman is a crusader for the little guy, both in his secret identity journalism and his cape-and-jeans adventures. This issue also raises the idea that the latter is interfering with the former, because now Lex Luthor is helping to stir up distrust about Superman because of his alien heritage, which allows Clark/Superman's capitalist foes to redirect attention away from their exploitative business deals and corrupt political connections. Morrison also seems to be moving towards Superman examining his Kryptonian roots, and the issue opens with a sequence set on Krypton before its destruction. On the negative side, DC's insistence on getting issues out on time seems to be crippling artist Rags Morales, whose work here isn't quite as inconsistent as in issue #2, but still looks fairly rushed. Gene Ha guests to draw the Krypton sequence (which looks gorgeous and glossy) but apparently even this didn't give Morales enough time to polish the remaining pages. This is a great book, and as the first issue showed, if Morales has enough time it could also be a great-looking book, but it's becoming increasingly obvious that the art is suffering from deadline pressure here.

American Vampire #20 (Vertigo) - Although exposition-heavy writing is often the enemy of good comics, Scott Snyder excels at making exposition and storytelling the center of his work without often succumbing to the pitfalls associated with these devices. In this case, the bulk of this issue is structured as a flashback in which a powerful Shoshone vampiress narrates her life leading up to her conversion into a vampire and the bloody history that followed. It could be clumsy or dull, especially since Snyder is delving into the past of a character who hadn't appeared before the final pages of the last issue, but instead he economically tells a strangely moving tale of a woman who largely drifted through life, barely even realizing how unhappy she was, before the adventures that led to her becoming a vampire. Jordi Bernet, the guest artist on this arc, has a distinctive style that initially seems too cutesy/cartoony to be a good fit for such a dark tale, but he proves adept at rendering gape-mouthed grotesqueries once the vampires make their appearance.

Animal Man #3 (DC) - Since it's pretty much established at this point that I think this series is the awesomest of awesome things, I'm just going to list some of the great stuff that happens in this latest issue. Right on the first page, there's the great visual of Buddy and Max falling into the Red, with Buddy getting twisted into hideous, Cronenbergian forms while Max blithely stretches her arms out with a big smile on her face, looking like she's skydiving and loving it. While the villainous Hunters Three are incredibly creepy, in many ways the benevolent forces of the Red's totems are equally terrifying, and the Red itself looks like a nightmare rather than the touchy-feely spirit-of-all-things hippie place it's described as. Although this issue is heavier on the weirdness and grotesqueries and lighter on the Baker domestic drama, I love the scenes between Ellen and Cliff: she scolds her son's gory video games but then casually joins in, and as they're fleeing from a monstrous attacker she still instinctively tells him not to curse. Travel Foreman's facial expressions are amazing, especially Ellen's pinched look of worry as she moans, "I can't believe I married a superhero." This series is just great: Jeff Lemire has established just the right delicate juggling of tones so that each issue incorporates some humor and surreal absurdity with the horror and slowly building dread. This issue also makes explicit the link between what's happening here and the equally weird goings-on in the Green over in Scott Snyder's Swamp Thing, bringing that eventual crossover closer to fruition.

The Boys #60 (Dynamite) - Not much here except the usual Ennis wallowing-in-filth. I'm not sure I get the point of the subplot with the wife and daughter of Mother's Milk doing mother/daughter porn, except as a way to display even more perversity and to drag these characters through the muck some more. Similarly, the team of superheroes who show up at the end with blatantly sexual names — Astroglide, Stopcock, Trojan — are just an even more dumbed-down than usual version of the same joke that Ennis has been telling since the beginning of this series. I continue to read this series because I want to see the inevitable confrontation between the Boys and the Seven that's been building up since the beginning, and because I'm invested to some degree in the relationship between Hughie and Annie. But issues like this basically just amount to filler, with the only moment that really stands out being the one where Butcher instinctively calls to his dog only to realize that the dog was killed last issue. Those kinds of quietly affecting, very real moments pop up every so often in this otherwise broad, over-the-top series and provide a reminder that Ennis can be much more than a self-conscious shock-purveyor when he wants to be.

Ganges #4 (Fantagraphics) - The latest issue of Kevin Huizenga's great Ignatz-format series continues the cartoonist's introspective focus on mental states over physical action. The entire Ganges series so far has taken place over the course of a single night in which nothing much of note actually happens. In fact, Huizenga includes a few wry continuity captions of the kind that often appeared in old-school superhero comics, which here serve to remind the reader of just how uneventful this series' "plot" has been. In place of narrative drama, Huizenga delves into the thought processes and imagination of his everyman protagonist Glenn Ganges, tracing the ways in which thoughts lead one into the other, creating the chains and loops of ideas, memories and associations that constitute mental life. It's a remarkably abstract topic for a visual artist to confront, but Huizenga brilliantly makes thinking sensual and tangible, building pages that diagram out ideas and attempt to visually represent the mind's logical dissection of a situation. This issue, like the last one, can be summed up on a physical level as "Glenn Ganges tries to fall asleep and fails," but more than a story about insomnia it's a profound essay on time, mortality, and the intellect.

The most dazzling sequence of this issue comes towards the end, when Glenn begins thinking about what he plans to do with his wife tomorrow, a train of thought that leads him to think back to when he made these plans earlier in the week. From there he begins leaping back further and further in time, visualizing blocks of time as literal blocks floating in grids above his head, representing years, months within years, days within months, hours within days and so on. He's trying to come to grips with how much of his own life he can actually remember and how much has simply drifted by. This somewhat sobering idea connects back to the earlier sequence in which, while trying to pick out a book, Glenn imagines himself accompanied by the Grim Reaper, who admonishes him to choose wisely and not waste his precious time reading or doing something unimportant. In this way, Glenn's thoughts roam freely from minutiae to the biggest philosophical questions facing humanity, as his sleepless mind finds potential profundity in even the most prosaic details. In another sequence, Glenn purposefully chooses a boring theoretical book in hopes that it will help him fall asleep, but as Huizenga lovingly parodies academic-speak, Glenn's mind can't help attempting to visually diagram these confounding sentences, wrestling with the paradoxical ideas and trying to construct coherent thoughts based on what he reads.

In sequences like this, throughout this issue, Huizenga creates utterly engrossing, funny, disarmingly powerful comics from the relentlessly internal, static situation of Glenn lying in bed or wandering around his house in the dark. Huizenga's formal rigor makes each small decision — should I get out of bed or lie here some more, should I read a book, what should I think about, how often should I blink — the origin of a forking path in the protagonist's neural maze. He lays bare the internal processes of decision-making, self-analysis and thought that operate beneath the placid surface of this ordinary suburban husband as he spends a restless night next to his sleeping wife. There are repetitions and dead spaces built into the comic, and moments when the panels run off into the gutters as Glenn's thoughts detour in a whole new direction before returning to the main flow. This is totally exciting, formally ingenious cartooning, another reminder of why Huizenga is one of the very best artists working in comics today.

Moon Knight #7 (Marvel) - As much as I'm sick of Brian Michael Bendis in general, I have to admit that his take on Moon Knight is a fresh, funny, interesting approach to this character. Bendis' Moon Knight is an outright nutcase who shares his head with multiple personalities, embodied as Captain America, Wolverine and Spider-Man. It's a sly parody of the superhero team-up, as Moon Knight constantly has his own mental chorus of famous heroes giving him advice and commenting on his actions. This goofy, oddball premise is well-suited to Bendis' talky, pattering dialogue, as Moon Knight has fast-paced conversations with himself, at one point holding his head in his hands as he moans, "God, I'm hard on myself." Bendis' regular artistic collaborator Alex Maleev is as great as ever here, his gritty art a perfect complement to the urban hysteria of the title's hero. Although I've long since given up on most of Bendis' high-profile titles, this kind of obscure, off-kilter comic may be where he does his best work.

OMAC #3 (DC) - It's usually offputting when something goes out of its way to slavishly pay tribute to a predecessor, but Dan Didio and Keith Giffen are doing such a good job of aping Jack Kirby with this series that it's hard not to enjoy it as the manic homage it is. The Kirby nods go beyond the obvious way in which Giffen has tailored his art to capture Kirby's distinctively brutish, ugly faces and kinetic distortions of body language. The homage extends as well into the narration and the way each issue introduces out-there sci-fi ideas and pieces of technology, describing these innovations with the tone of an owner's manual for futuristic devices, much as Kirby did in the original OMAC series. This issue offers up yet another standalone confrontation in which Brother Eye manipulates the hapless Kevin Kho into battling a monstrous enemy. The pacing is fast and the dialogue is quirkly entertaining, so the issue just barrels by. This is just big dumb fun, a love letter to one of the iconic superhero artists. It's also a reminder that while Kirby has been and continues to be a huge influence on virtually every aspect of superhero comics, his actual style, weird and off-kilter as it is, hasn't often been imitated as completely and affectionately as this.

Stormwatch #3 (DC) - This series is still a mixed bag. Paul Cornell's writing is sometimes clever and sometimes grating, and this issue has a little of both. I loved the lurid, lunatic tone of the few pages where Harry Tanner gloats as he mentally and physically tears apart the giant eyeball at the center of the moon: Harry's a Stormwatch hero and he's fighting a monstrous alien eyeball, but the whole thing has such a sociopathic tone as the hero finds glee in utterly demolishing his adversary. On the other hand, in this issue Cornell unfortunately literalizes the powers of both Jack Hawksmoor and the Projectionist, so that the former literally talks to avatars representing various cities while the latter addresses the media as though she too is engaging in an actual conversation. Both these characters have powers that should have been left more abstract. Otherwise, this is just a big action showcase and the fight scenes are fun and chaotic, with Miguel Sepulveda's glossy art doing an especially good job of rendering the massive, tentacled alien monster that the team encounters in the second half of the issue.

Swamp Thing #3 (DC) - This is the best issue of Scott Snyder's Swamp Thing yet. It's finally all starting to come together and Snyder has now struck a good balance between the eerie horror visuals and the exposition that attempts to untangle the complex back stories of Alec Holland and Abby Arcane. As in this week's Animal Man, this is also the first issue that really makes explicit what the threat is: a young boy with a connection to the Black, the Rot, akin to Swamp Thing's status as an avatar of the Green. There are some really horrifying images here: the issue starts with more creepy/comical overtones as a sick kid hears the voices of mounted fish speaking to him, but things quickly move into more sinister territory. There are some grisly images here, most of them courtesy of guest artist Victor Ibanez, who alternates sections with regular artist Yanick Paquette and winds up drawing most of the gory hospital scenes. Paquette, for his part, continues to recall the classic work of Alan Moore, John Totleben and Steve Bissette on the series. In this case, with Abby's presence, Paquette and Snyder deliberately evoke her appearances in those old Moore issues to emphasize how she's changed in the intervening years; it's a very powerful use of earlier material to deepen the impact of a character's transformation, in ways that go way beyond her new shorter hairstyle. The pace is picking up here, and after a couple of issues that necessarily leaned heavily on explanation, this issue finally launches the horror plot into overdrive.

Sweet Tooth #27 (Vertigo) - As much as I love Jeff Lemire's quirky, scratchy art, this most recent arc (of which this is the second of three parts) with Matt Kindt handling the art has been really fantastic. Kindt's wispy, shaky figures and watercolors give a hazy aura to this story that appropriately suggests looking back into the past through the warped, brittle pages of a forgotten journal. Lemire is delving into the past for this arc, suggesting that the origins of the plague and the human/animal hybrids stretch back further than expected. This arc also provides a spiritual/supernatural counterpoint to the theories about the plague's origins offered elsewhere in the book, which have tended to emphasize science and genetic engineering. It's impressive that Sweet Tooth has diverted into a three-issue historical arc that doesn't feature any of the series' regular characters, and the results are absolutely engrossing and creepy and compelling.

Uncanny X-Men #1 (Marvel) - Following up on last week's Wolverine and the X-Men, this is the other half of the new post-Schism X-Men. This series, written by Kieron Gillen and drawn by Carlos Pacheco, is about the X-Men team led by Cyclops after his fall-out with Wolverine. Whereas Jason Aaron's new series focuses on massive changes to the status quo with Wolverine refounding the mutant school and gathering up a bunch of lesser-known characters, this series doesn't have any such clear change from previous X-Men stories. Wolverine's team is boldly creating something new. Cyclops' team is... continuing to hang out on Utopia. Maybe because of that, this issue just doesn't have the same breathless forward momentum and dazzling anything-can-happen spirit of fun that inflected Aaron's Wolverine and the X-Men. There's no escaping the impression that this series just doesn't have the clear sense of direction that Aaron is bringing to his title.

This is still a decent issue with some playful dialogue, explosive fight scenes, and some high-concept sci-fi threats that make me look forward to seeing where Gillen goes next. As usual, Gillen's writing goes back and forth, for me, from amusing to clunky to just downright puzzling. Case in point this issue is some dialogue with Namor and Hope, meant to be making a modest joke about stealing chairs. But it all goes awry when Namor boldly declares, "to sit in a seat so fine, Namor would take it from any man," which makes it sound like the king of Atlantis is offering to prostitute himself out for comfy chairs. It's hard to tell if Gillen is making a joke of Namor's awkward diction or if Gillen's own sometimes stilted writing is just creating unintended and unfortunate meanings.

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

More Weekly Comics: October 26, 2011

The Fury of Firestorm: The Nuclear Men #2 (DC) - Despite its blunt dialogue and half-baked racial politics, this series' first issue was messily intriguing, a smear of weird ideas and keyed-up hysteria. Gail Simone and co-writer Ethan Van Sciver deliver more of the same for the second issue, though if anything the dialogue is even more ungainly this time around, and the seams are showing more obviously in the exposition-speak and uneven pacing. Yildiray Cinar's art continues to be the most satisfying aspect of the comic, with a distinctive marker-line style that makes things look curiously washed-out and faded. It's a great-looking comic, and there are some cool, out-there ideas bouncing around here, as the two Firestorms embody opposite personalities and can come together as part of a larger whole. It's not really a good comic, though, and I'm not sure how much longer I can wait for it to get over its trainwreck weirdness and become legitimately worth reading.

Journey Into Mystery #630 (Marvel) - Every time an issue of this Kieron Gillen series comes out, I keep thinking that it's a book with a lot of promise. There are always flashes of wit and clever writing that suggest the truly great comic it could be but never quite is. This issue has paid off my patience in a big way, though, with the best issue Gillen's written yet, the first issue to really deliver on the promise that he's shown in crafting the adventures of Loki and the other Norse gods. The focus here is on Volstagg the Voluminous, one of my favorite of the Marvel Asgardians, the jolly fat man who's a lot smarter and a lot braver than the comic relief goofball he usually seems to be. So it shouldn't be a surprise that this issue just sparkles from beginning to end; it's funny and poignant and a great showcase for the fat god. The dialogue, always Gillen's strongest attribute, is really witty and packed with puns and fast-paced exchanges, like the mocking but affectionate back-and-forth between unlikely conspirators Loki and Volstagg. And then Volstagg returns to his family, and tells his children the story of his encounters with the evil Serpent, embellishing details freely and making himself look muscular and dashing in his visualizations of these tall tales. It's funny as hell and perfectly paced, with the best moment probably being when Volstagg gets carried away in imagining Ms. Marvel gushing over him, prompting a stern scowl from his wife. There aren't as many of the often-ponderous narrated caption boxes that Gillen has sometimes leaned too heavily on in previous issues: while his omniscent narrator can be stilted and boring, his control of the characters' voices is perfectly pitched. The bulk of this issue is dominated by Volstagg, and through Gillen's writing of the character (and artist Richard Elson's expressive body language and faces) one can practically hear the big god's booming tones and jovial jesting.

The Savage Hawkman #2 (DC) - Man, this is a staggeringly bad comic. I thought, after Tony Daniel's first issue, that I could put up with Daniel's gritty Frank Miller wannabe writing for the sake of Philip Tan's lush artwork, but now I fear I was wrong. This is a comic that opens with the terribly named alien villain Morphicius telling the hero, "your nth metal is burning my blood, Hawkman! But it is a good burn!" Kinky. There's more, much more, where that came from, as Daniel seems intent on proving what a bad writer he is on every page. As for Tan, his chaotic battle scenes are certainly cool-looking, if sometimes not especially clear — the title splash page is basically just a big mess of fire in which the two combatants are totally immersed — but the non-fight scenes don't fare as well. Tan's drawings of Hawkman's co-worker Emma as an emaciated beanpole with a deformed upper body are especially comical.

Secret Avengers #18 (Marvel) - This is Warren Ellis' third issue since taking over this series (after a solid but unfortunately abbreviated run by Ed Brubaker and a few lousy Fear Itself tie-ins by Nick Spencer) and he's turned it into just the kind of one-and-done secret mission thriller series that is one of his fortes. There's more than a hint of Planetary and Global Frequency in these issues, as Ellis makes each issue a standalone story in which Steve Rogers and a small roster of his secret agents must stop a potentially world-ending threat at the last moment. For this issue, it's just Rogers, Sharon Carter and Shang Chi infiltrating a secret base where the bad guys are smuggling out some material that could turn the Earth into a sun. For some reason, the base has warped gravity so that staircases run upside-down and up the walls, which gives David Aja an opportunity to draw mind-bending M.C. Escher layouts in which the heroes and the bad guys stalk each other at odd angles and have gravity-defying fights that start out upside-down and end with the combatants flying off-panel right-side-up. The action is brutal and efficient, and in between the fight scenes Ellis likes to pause for just a moment's breath, in which the team's resident scientist Beast often delivers elegant explanations for the multidimensional weirdness that's caused this latest threat. This is the kind of comic that Ellis could probably write in his sleep, a breezy sci-fi spy thriller with punchy dialogue and a new, inventively realized evil plot in each issue.

Superman #2 (DC) - George Pérez and Jesus Merino's Superman lacks the punchy modernism of Grant Morrison's new Action Comics, but that's obviously intentional. Just as Morrison's series chronicles the early adventures of an angry, hungry young Superman, Pérez is telling stories about a much calmer, more settled Supes who's grown into his power. While he retains the polemical, near-socialist idealism of Morrison's Superman, he's also been worn away a bit by the years. This is a very melancholy, lonely Superman who opens the issue brooding over star charts that show the location of his demolished home planet. Later, he sits in his aptly named Fortress of Solitude while Lois Lane, oblivious to his romantic pining over her, asks him to share what's bothering him. Like the first issue, this one focuses on a fight with a strange monster, though this battle is more inherently interesting and has a pretty clever conceptual hook: Superman can't see the monster while all the humans around him can. This means that he winds up relying on video feeds and televisions to fight the monster. The comic shows things from Superman's perspective, so that he seems to be fighting thin air while keeping an eye on video monitors that show what everyone else is seeing. It's nicely done, and feels like the kind of gimmick that might have provided a goofy single-issue hook for an old Silver Age issue of Superman. It also provides some visual interest that was mostly lacking in the first issue's comparatively generic fire monster. Pérez's writing is still wordy and old-school, overloaded with narration as Superman records his report about the day on his computer system. The overall effect is dense and meaty, ignoring recent trends towards minimalism and decompression.

Teen Titans #2 (DC) - Yeah, I'm done with this now. I gave this series the benefit of the doubt because I'd been pretty positive about the first issue of Scott Lobdell's Superboy, and the two books are basically telling one big story, but the first issue wasn't exactly thrilling. Now I'm ready to give up on Lobdell's New 52 work, because the second issue of Superboy wasn't anything special, and this series continues to underwhelm. Not much to say here, really. It's the kind of book that seems to think that introducing a character, giving him or her a power set and maybe one defining characteristic is the extent of characterization. The Wonder Girl/Red Robin relationship here is so one-note and simplistic: Wonder Girl just responds defensively to everything, while Red Robin makes puppy dog eyes at her. Nothing much here to make me want to read more.

The Unwritten #30 (Vertigo) - Though I'm a couple of weeks late here, this is the best issue yet of Mike Carey and Peter Gross' magical fantasy series. The most recent story arc has been delving into the rather sordid past of Tom Taylor's novelist father Wilson. This issue provides the climax of that story with an especially heartbreaking revelation about the comic book character the Tinker, a costumed hero who seems to have burst into the world from the pages of a short-lived newspaper serial. This series is, at heart, about the profound effect of fiction on those who read it and create it — as this issue makes clear, so many of this series' characters exist at a sort of junction between reality and fiction, their lives shaped by the stories that at times seem more real to them than "real life" itself. That's especially true of the Tinker, whose devastating story forms the bulk of this issue. As the comic cuts back and forth between a conversation between Tom and the Tinker and flashbacks from Wilson Taylor's journal that elucidate this strange character's past, a truly strange and powerful tragedy begins to take shape. What's especially powerful is the way Gross draws the Tinker at first in a bold, cartoony style that emphasizes his comic book origins, but as the issue goes along and the tragic truth about this character is revealed, his square-jawed heroic countenance fades into a wasted-looking old man.

Friday, October 28, 2011

Weekly Comics: October 26, 2011

All Star Western #2 (DC) - Some people complained that the first issue of this series was too heavy on text box narration from Amadeus Arkham. Though the text-heavy first issue didn't bother me — it was a good way of delving into the characters of Arkham and bounty hunter Jonah Hex — it is nice to see that the second issue is much lighter on text and moves at a much brisker pace. The secret society that Hex and Arkham stumbled across last issue is now revealed as the same "religion of crime" that's been featured in Grant Morrison's Batman and the Greg Rucka/JH Williams III Batwoman. Between Morrison and Scott Snyder's work with Batman of late, there have been a lot of comics that have delved into the history of Gotham City, and this series now promises to tie in with that work in interesting ways. Justin Gray and Jimmy Palmiotti vary the pace here nicely, with a great shootout composed on a few busy pages full of frantic action panels. There are some occasional awkward moments in the writing (the very first page refers to "a more bloody destination") and even Moritat's generally fantastic artwork isn't always in top form. The staging of a fight scene between Hex and a hulking brute makes it pretty unclear where exactly the characters are in relation to one another, for instance. This issue also introduces a back-up feature about El Diablo, also written by Gray and Palmiotti, and drawn by the great Jordi Bernet, which justifies the book's title as something other than a Jonah Hex solo series. This short piece, in which El Diablo prepares to face down some zombies, is slight (like many backup features) but nicely drawn.

Aquaman #2 (DC) - Well at least this issue goes much lighter on the relentless Aquaman-is-a-joke punchlines from Geoff Johns' first issue. There are still traces of that annoyingly defensive tone, but for the most part integrated much more seamlessly, so this issue's gags — like the way Mera keeps getting called Aquawoman, or the scene where a cop doesn't quite recognize Aquaman without his orange shirt — are funny without being as blunt and obvious. I'm still not totally sold on this series but this is a decent issue, and the deep-sea monsters with their huge razor-sharp teeth are really creepy. Ivan Reis' art is mostly nice, too, especially during the gory battle scenes with the gilled monsters. Reis' youthful, square-jawed Aquaman is a pleasure to watch in action, but his facial expressions vary from awkward to just plain inscrutable. There are too many panels where Aquaman stares blankly straight ahead, his feelings or thoughts unclear. The tonal uncertainty in those moments is emblematic of this series as a whole.

Captain America & Bucky #623 (Marvel) - I've been really enjoying the World War II era stories in this comic of late, more than pretty much anything in Ed Brubaker's Captain America stories since around the time Steve Rogers came back from the dead. The basic gimmick here is that Brubaker, along with co-writer Marc Andreyko, is retelling the stories of this era from the point-of-view of the sidekick rather than the larger-than-life hero, and all of it is informed with an extra level of poignancy by the knowledge of Bucky's ultimate fate as developed during Brubaker's Captain America run. In this issue, Bucky comes face to face for the first time with the horrors of the concentration camps, probably an inevitability considering that this is an attempt to do a gritty war movie version of Bucky's life story. It's appropriately horrifying, the kind of story that never would have appeared in the original World War II Cap and Bucky comics. Chris Samnee's moody, wintery artwork — evoking the feel of David Mazzucchelli's Batman: Year One — makes the images of skeletal, silent prisoners especially heartbreaking. These World War II stories have been so generally good that it's a little disappointing that this series is now moving on, though the promise of checking in on Bucky's years as Soviet assassin the Winter Soldier is equally enticing.

Daredevil #5 (Marvel) - It's really wonderful to see the methodical way that artist Marcos Martin breaks down a fight scene into a flurry of small panels. Martin's art, together with Mark Waid's writing, puts the emphasis on Daredevil's senses: this book continually captures the way that Matt Murdock compensates for his lack of sight by analyzing his surroundings through the input of his other senses, turning each move, each action, into an elaborate but super-fast calculation. On one page, Martin pulls back from a closeup of the interior of an ear as Murdock winnows away all the extraneous sound threatening to overload his senses, honing in on the few important sounds he needs to hear clearly. Waid's writing has a clever, breezy feel to it that emphasizes just how much fun Daredevil is having doing what he does. "Oh, no! Six armed mercs wearing night vision goggles! Whatever will I do?" Murdock thinks, before Martin inserts a perfectly timed panel of a finger flicking a light switch to blind the bad guys. It's whimsical and light-hearted, despite the high-stakes danger and intrigue, although Waid does keep hinting that Murdock's new happy-go-lucky attitude is a defense mechanism to deal with all the trauma inflicted on the character by previous Daredevil writers.

FF #11 (Marvel) - Jonathan Hickman consistently packs an awful lot into 20 pages. This comic features another typically charming scene with Val and Franklin Richards and their assortment of oddball friends, multiple world-ending plots churning into motion, and Reed Richards assembling a huge group of heroes to face the threats closing in from every direction. It's briskly paced, funny and thrilling by turns, and every page has some fun bit of business or a startling twist or some visual stunner. This is dense and exciting, the total opposite of the trend towards decompression that dominates so many other superhero comics these days. What happens in this issue might have been stretched out over a few months in other series — or a few years if Bendis was writing it — but Hickman continues to hurtle forward with so much going on in different corners of the universe. Probably the best sci-fi moment is the revelation of the fate of the two alternate universe Reeds held captive by the Inhumans: a totally unexpected twist that Hickman and artist Barry Kitson brilliantly depict in a few gorgeously outrageous pages. Other writers would have made that the last-page cliffhanger, but Hickman just confidently tosses it out there in the middle of the issue and then moves on, ending with an even bigger cliffhanger. This is an especially strong issue for Hickman's crackling dialogue, too, after a few issues that focused more on epic fight scenes and plot machinations. The banter centering around the Future Foundation kids is crisp as ever, and so is a great scene where She-Hulk and Sue Richards gently, affectionately mock a grumpy Ben Grimm. It's yet another reminder that Hickman's Fantastic Four (which returns for its 600th issue next month) and the spinoff FF are so strong not only for their wild high-concept sci-fi but for their low-key humor and keen grasp of family dynamics.

The Flash #2 (DC) - I thought the first issue of this series was really good, but this one ups the ante even more. Artist Francis Manapul and colorist Brian Buccellato also share writing duties on this series, and considering that they're not tested writers with a lot of experience, this book reads briskly and enjoyably, telling its story with more clarity and wit than many of the New 52 books guided by supposedly more seasoned writers. But the art is where this book really shines, the art and how it's used to show Barry Allen in super-fast action. This issue introduces a new wrinkle to the Flash's powers as he realizes that, while he's physically using his powers to their full potential, he hasn't really taken mental advantage of his speed. Needless to say, the pages where Manapul shows Barry flexing his new sped-up mental prowess are jaw-dropping. The pages are filled with small square panels depicting everything Barry sees as he walks around the city, as he takes in all the different aspects of a scene and then foils a robbery without anyone even realizing that he's intervened. This scene reminds me of the Marcos Martin-drawn story in Mark Waid's recent Daredevil #1, and the two books share some similarities in that both are about sensation and heightened ways of experiencing the world. It's brilliantly staged, and suggests the possibility of the Flash as a hero whose heroic acts pass unnoticed, explained away as elaborate coincidences and mishaps.

The Incredible Hulk #1 (Marvel) - I could have read quite a few issues of the shaggy, bearded Hulk hiding out underground, chilling with the Moloids and hunting great big monsters. So it's a little disappointing that this situation basically only lasts for the first half of Jason Aaron and Marc Silvestri's new first issue about the big green guy. Silvestri's densely hatched art is instantly striking, though it's puzzling why he needed three inkers as well as Michael Broussard doing "pencil assists." The issue opens with Hulk battling monsters, then brooding while his adoptive underground family feasts and celebrates his successful hunting. These pages are evocative and beautiful, depicting a haunted Hulk vainly trying to escape his past. I'm not as sold on the rest of the issue, as Aaron very quickly — too quickly, I think — breaks Hulk's isolation by bringing in a squad of chatty robots to fight him and teasing what looks to be the larger plot for subsequent issues, involving Hulk's former alter ego Bruce Banner (apparently they're separate beings now?). This was a decent enough first issue, and it's certainly cool-looking, but I'm still a little disappointed that Aaron has so quickly moved beyond what could have been a promising status quo for this book's initial arc.

Justice League Dark #2 (DC) - I didn't really expect to be saying this, but the highlight of this issue is the creepy/kinky relationship drama between Deadman and his girlfriend, Dove. Deadman attempts to get laid by possessing random strangers in the hopes of having an actual physical relationship with Dove, and it's both strangely poignant and really funny, especially when he possesses a girl and clumsily hits on Dove, causing her to storm off. Meanwhile, the main plot with Enchantress simmers a bit after the all-out chaos of the first issue. The villain mainly unleashes some random weirdness on Zatanna and Dove and delivers threatening messages via the radio. Constantine appears briefly too, very much in character, drinking and getting beat up and generally just providing a reassurance that Constantine can exist outside of Vertigo without losing his edge. I like that Milligan seems to be randomly jumping around to different characters, delivering twisted little character beats or offering up visual weirdness for Mikel Janin to draw in his hyper-real style. It's also nice that Janin subtly alters his art to suggest the different worlds of the characters: Constantine's gloomy, heavily hatched pages seem very different from the much brighter, cleaner style of the bar scenes where Deadman and Dove awkwardly banter and argue.

The Mighty Thor #7 (Marvel) - Last month, Matt Fraction wrapped up this series' first arc in a very satisfying fashion. This month, the book is given over to what amounts to a prequel to Fraction's Fear Itself crossover, the story of how Thor's father Odin ascended to become first among the Norse gods. It's just a solid, action-paced issue, an excuse for artist Pasqual Ferry to draw lots and lots of heads being lopped off and bodies torn apart as Odin does battle with the forces of his cruel, warped brother. The best part is Fraction's writing of the bold, overreaching young Odin, whose bravado and leaping into danger is very reminiscent of the child Loki who Fraction created on his last Thor series. It's a decent standalone issue, if not as boldly imaginative as the great stuff Fraction was doing with these characters prior to Fear Itself. What will be really interesting now is to see if Fraction can maintain this series' level of quality with Thor, for the moment, "dead" after the events of the crossover.

Spaceman #1 (Vertigo) - This is the debut of a new nine-issue miniseries that reunites writer Brian Azzarello and artist Eduardo Risso, the creators of the great, pulpy 100 Bullets. It's a post-apocalyptic thriller set in a future wasteland, where the title character Orson — a genetically engineered humanoid manufactured for spacefaring missions — has virtual reality sex via remote hookups and scrounges for scrap metal to feed his drug addiction. The story thus far is a mash-up of various dystopian genre conventions and little meta in-jokes, with a kidnapping plot that revolves around a vicious and transparent satire of Brangelina. There's not enough here yet to tell where this is really going, so this first issue is all about atmosphere, both in terms of Azzarello's goofy, invented future-slang and Risso's typically jaw-dropping, shadowy artwork. Though I can already feel the weird, slangy dialogue growing on me, like a nutty sci-fi twist on the purplish street patter that Azzarello slung throughout 100 Bullets, it's Risso's mostly wordless visual storytelling that provides the issue's most compelling moments. That's why the best sequences are the ones in which Orson in a spacesuit navigates across Mars, in what may be a glimpse of the past or the future or simply a druggy reflection of the main character's inner states.

Venom #8 (Marvel) - Spider Island is yet another big Marvel crossover that I haven't been reading but which is infiltrating books I like anyway. It hasn't derailed Rick Remender's Venom, though, even if the whole concept for this storyline seems spectacularly, amazingly stupid. Remender has wisely chosen not to allow the crossover to completely overwhelm the stories he was telling with this series already, so that even if the events of these issues tie into what's going on over in Amazing Spider-Man and other books, Remender keeps the focus on Flash Thompson dealing with the illness and death of his drunkard father and coping with the Venom symbiote's strengthening hold on him. Though this issue isn't as strong of a standalone issue as Remender's previous two Spider Island tie-ins — for one thing, it ends with a cliffhanger battle that's going to be resolved in Amazing Spider-Man #672, the final issue of the crossover — it's still a character piece as well as a crossover fight scene. Remender weaves the plot together with narration from a letter that Thompson's dad wrote just before he died, so that even as Thompson/Venom brawls with the Spider Queen and teams up with Steve Rogers, the book remains focused on more than the violence. That's what makes Remender's Venom so enjoyable; he does the big dumb action well but never delivers an issue that's just big dumb action. Even if these Spider Island issues haven't been as strong as the series was before the crossover started (and I'm glad it's over) Remender has managed to keep this series on track even while compromising with other writers' stories.

The Walking Dead #90 (Image) - Robert Kirkman's zombie epic has been running for so long now — holy shit, the 100th issue will be out next year! — that there's a real sense of its characters changing and growing over time. So when, as in this issue, Rick discusses the ways in which these experiences have changed him with Andrea and Carl, or when Maggie lets the pressure of life in the zombie apocalypse get to her again, these moments resonate with everything that's happened to these people in these pages. Rick's ongoing evolution, his struggle with his need to control everything, his increasing comfort with life-or-death decisions, continues to be very compelling, highlighted here by a stunning double-page spread in which he asks Andrea, and by extension the reader, to look into his eyes and really think about what he's seen and done. That expansive portrait, by Charlie Adlard — who's been with these characters nearly as long as Kirkman has — delineates Rick's exhaustion, his numbness, with lidded eyes and heavy shadow. He seems haunted, and the image itself is haunting; in an issue with no zombies, no gore, no violence, this portrait encompasses the horror of this series' premise, the horror of accepting death and violence as an everyday occurrence, just another part of what happens. This is an especially good issue for this kind of low-key character work, which is Kirkman's primary strength as a writer. He's good enough at this stuff that even the last-page romantic twist — which Adlard has been subtly hinting at with body language and visual feints for several issues now — doesn't come off as a gimmick but as a natural outgrowth of these characters and this moment.

Wolverine and the X-Men #1 (Marvel) - Jason Aaron's Schism event, which separated the X-Men into two teams focused around Cyclops and Wolverine, was lame and forced, a perfect example of a story existing solely to justify (weakly) its end point. So it's surprising that the first issue of Aaron's new book, about Wolverine setting up a new mutant school, is a blast from start to finish, totally clearing the air of all the turgid Schism/Regenesis stuff and making it clear just why Aaron was so excited to get to this point. There's just so much to love here, as Wolverine and Kitty Pryde take a breathless tour of the new school's grounds with a pair of frazzled, caricatured state education inspectors in tow, harrumphing everything they see. It's a delight from start to finish. The structure provides an opportunity for Aaron and his artistic collaborator Chris Bachalo — whose energetic manga-influenced style is a perfect fit for this issue's flippant, funny tone — to introduce the huge cast bickering, gossiping and careening through the halls committing all sorts of wackiness. It's fun to see all these underused mutant characters colliding off of one another. I got a special kick out of seeing Doop, from Peter Milligan's classic X-Statix, serving as the school's receptionist. It was also nice, and logical considering Bachalo's presence and the school setting, to see a bunch of alumni from 90s X book Generation X, which I fondly remember as a favorite of my 13-year-old self. This issue is fast and funny and packed with little character beats and visual gags, like the full page shot of mutant terrorist Quentin Quire being kept prisoner with the dragon Lockheed perched threateningly over him. If Aaron and Bachalo can keep this frantic pace and level of energy up over the long haul, they've got a real classic in the works.

Monday, October 24, 2011

Weekly Comics: October 19, 2011

Batman #2 (DC) - I love how deeply engrained Scott Snyder's Batman is in the history of Gotham City, its legends and the ancestors of the characters who define its present. The opening of this issue, with its emphasis on Wayne Tower, recalls the Snyder-overseen miniseries Gates of Gotham, which explored the secrets behind the construction of that tower. Snyder is signalling that the past is once again going to reach forward into the present. This issue also explores another of Snyder's running themes in his Batman work: the ways in which the city of Gotham shapes those who live in it, and vice versa. His Detective Comics run, with Dick Grayson as Batman, focused on Dick's fears that Gotham would transform him, would unleash the darkness that so often threatens to consume Bruce Wayne. But as in that series, Snyder's new Batman seems to be confirming that things mostly work in the other direction: each man sees his own Gotham, shaped or warped by his own experiences and how he's chosen to react to them.

Bruce's conversation with would-be politician Lincoln March underlines this theme. March is a man with a past similar to Bruce's, having lost his parents at a very young age; his story about his mother's heart pin is an eerie echo of Bruce's fixation on his own mother's pearls. March says that Gotham itself helped him past his trauma, giving him a sense of purpose, and in a strange way this is also true for Bruce, though not in the same sense as March's idealistic political fervor. Both men see themselves as shaped by the city, changed by their traumatic pasts, but they take very different trajectories and see Gotham in very different ways. It's great how Snyder is weaving these undercurrents into his story from the very beginning, slowly developing these themes as Bruce, confident in his knowledge of Gotham and of his own relationship with the city, prepares to face yet another threat from the city's past, a threat to the city that he sees as integral to his identity as Batman. Snyder's storytelling is patient, obviously working towards a bigger arc, but not at all decompressed — this issue is well-paced with action, some displays of Batman CSI tech and detective work, and the moments that develop Snyder's big picture themes.

The Boys: Butcher Baker Candlestickmaker #4 (Dynamite) - Well, I called what was going to happen in this issue. Not that it was hard to predict. The problem with this miniseries is that it was always so obvious just where it was going to be heading, the only place it possibly could be heading. It's a familiar Garth Ennis formula, especially in this series, which revels in brutality and horrible things happening to decent people. So when the future leader of the Boys, Billy Butcher, met a beautiful redhead and married her, the only question was in what horrible and grotesque way the Homelander was going to kill her so that Butcher could be pushed onto the unceasing quest for vengeance that drives him over in the main series. That question has now been answered, and the final pages of this book, as drawn by Darick Robertson, are appropriately harrowing and horrifying — suffice it to say that Ennis' warped imagination has concocted some really nasty images here, images that owe a bit to Alan Moore's Miracleman and offer up a grisly, cynical twist on one of the pivotal events of that series. But there are no surprises here, and there's no real depth to Ennis' revelation of Butcher's back story. It was always obvious from the main series that superheroes — and specifically the Homelander — had been responsible for something awful in Butcher's past, that they'd probably killed someone he loved. Now that the details have been revealed, it doesn't really change his character very much, or reveal much about him that wasn't already apparent. It's just another opportunity for Ennis to wallow in the terrible things that superpowered beings do in this series, another opportunity to show that people with real power almost invariably use it to hurt, use and screw over others. The political applications of that idea are made especially clear in this issue's discussions about Thatcherite England, but even so this whole miniseries just feels so redunant and unnecessary.

Captain Atom #2 (DC) - This is just a really cool-looking terrible comic. The linework of penciller Freddie Williams II isn't anything special; it's mostly pretty minimal and crude, and when it isn't there are some ugly, distorted faces on the pages where Williams lays down the ink thicker. Colorist Jose Villarrubia does most of the heavy lifting here, giving the series' title character a pale blue sheen that makes him stand out boldly from the world around him. It's very striking, especially on the pages where the atomic hero is overwhelmed by the electronic signals of the Internet and text messages flowing through the air around him, spectral information as ghostly and colorful as the hero himself. If only it were a good comic with this kind of distinctive style, but JT Krul's writing and plotting are just boring — when they're not outright silly, as in the volcano that abruptly popped up in the middle of New York at the end of last issue, a threat that Captain Atom seems to have neutralized between issues, leaving the volcano inert but still sticking out of a Manhattan street. I wish this comic was good, because I do like looking at it, but unfortunately it has little to offer beyond its admittedly pretty colors.

Catwoman #2 (DC) - I've gotta give it to Judd Winick: he pissed off a whole lot of people by ending the gloriously sleazy first issue of this comic with a fetishy, campy Batman/Catwoman sex scene that apparently offended everyone but me. (That's an exaggeration, but not by much.) And instead of moving on from there, he decides to open the second issue with the sex scene still in progress, giving us not only a splash page of a post-coital smiling couple but a panel of Batman adjusting his belt as he pulls his costume back into order. Never thought I'd see that. And I have to say, I'm still digging this ridiculous comic. Guillem March draws a very sexy, curvy Catwoman whose face expressively projects her playful delight in manipulating her opponents. She'll get her revenge for some dark things from her past, and she'll have a lot of fun doing it. The end of the comic goes very dark, very suddenly, but before that it's just so much fun to see Catwoman flirting with Bruce Wayne, unaware of who he is but feeling a strange attraction to him anyway, and then cleverly manipulating some rival mobsters into a shootout to get her revenge. This is pulpy stuff that very deliberately leaps across the line separating good taste from bad, and I can't help but admire it for that. It's trashy, and Winick and March undoubtedly know it, and the result is kind of a grindhouse Catwoman comic, delving into extremes of flashy sexploitation and over-the-top violence. I'm sure this comic will continue pissing people off, and I'm equally sure that it's going to be hard to look away from its garish trainwreck wildness for as long as it continues in this vein.

Green Lantern Corps #2 (DC) - After the first issue of this series, I thought I was onboard for what seemed like it was going to be some mindless cosmic action. Now I'm starting to think it's a bit too mindless after all. Not much has changed from the first issue, I admit, except that now the focus is irrevocably off characterization, so that Lanterns John Stewart, Guy Gardner and the squad of alien Lanterns they lead are all pretty generic. At least the first issue gave some character beats to the two human members of the team. The threat they're facing, which was just an unseen terror killing Lanterns last issue, has now been revealed as a bunch of generic guys in black armor, so that's a letdown too. Basically, it feels like this isn't going to be the great action series I was hoping for, and the alien Lanterns are going to continue to be mere fodder for limb-hacking and grisly deaths, and I'm not sure that there's any reason to keep reading.

Journey Into Mystery #629 (Marvel) - Since it seems like Marvel's Fear Itself event is quite simply never going to end, I guess this potentially enjoyable book is going to remain trapped in a crossover swamp for the forseeable future. Kieron Gillen's writing is a weird mix of formal prose and flippantly delivered dialogue, with the latter being much more palatable than Gillen's attempts at Asgardian portent. As usual, Loki's breezy manner is the main appeal of this comic and this character. His delivery of tossed-off battle orders — "Dark Asgard flies on engines powered by raw fear-stuff and similar... let's blow them up" — suggests his childlike enthusiasm and casual approach to prophecy and war. This is contrasted against the stiff, often awkward writing of the narrative caption boxes, which overpower the much more lively dialogue. But the real problem continues to be that Journey Into Mystery so far has just been a peripheral part of Fear Itself when it should be a fun, slightly goofy book about the adventures of kid Loki. It's a waste of this character that his showcase comic mainly summarizes events in other series (apparently Thor's dead over in Fear Itself — yeah, that'll last) and adds a little ancillary action.

Justice League #2 (DC) - Geoff Johns' flagship DC book continues to move at a deliberate pace, slowly introducing the major players and having them size each other up with pattering dialogue and the obligatory superhero-misunderstanding-fight-scenes. Last issue focused on Green Lantern and Batman, with Superman showing up at the very end, while this issue throws the Flash into the mix and moves forward with the origin of Cyborg. Johns' punchy dialogue prevents the decompressed pace from being frustrating, and it helps that it's inherently fun to see these famous heroes meeting each other for the first time, cracking jokes as they try to figure out the origin of the mother boxes that Darkseid is planting in various US cities. Jim Lee's bold art is another pleasure here, and he's at his best in depicting a fight scene between Superman and the Flash, with the speedster dancing in circles around the Kryptonian before Superman finally catches him and sends him flying with a playful flick of his finger. The layouts of fight scenes like this are simple and elegant, breaking down the action into small gestures that lead into the massive, explosive pin-up panels that are Lee's forte. When he tries for a more complex layout, as he does on a page where Green Lantern calls the Flash for help, the page starts to look crowded and cluttered, with word balloons and layered panels creating visual confusion. That's just one page, though, and the rest of the issue tends to play to Lee's strengths much more clearly, with simple, iconic depictions of fight scenes and superhero posing. The introduction of more heroes in this issue gives the impression that things are speeding up and spreading out, gathering momentum as the Justice League of the title begins to take shape. When Wonder Woman and, presumably, Aquaman show up next issue, the pacing should get even more frenetic, the action more frenzied.

Nightwing #2 (DC) - I like Dick Grayson as a character, especially since his recent stint as Batman, but I have to say, the prospect of "Nightwing solves a circus mystery" as the driving plot of this first arc is really not exciting me on any level. The same thing goes for the assassin who's stalking Dick, a generic costumed guy with claws called Saiko, which not only provides the awful pun of the cover text but allows Dick to make a similarly terrible sorta-pun inside the actual comic. This just isn't really that interesting, from the generic love interest to the weirdness of Dick inheriting a circus to the off-kilter pacing. Eddy Barrows' fight scenes are interestingly laid out — as in the first issue, he seems to be taking more than a few page design cues from JH Williams III — but his faces are really goofy looking, and the presence of two inkers suggests that this is yet another New 52 issue affected by deadline pressure.

Supergirl #2 (DC) - The very decompressed storytelling in this series is already starting to get annoying. The first issue was basically just an extended fight scene between Kara and a bunch of armored soldiers as she tries to figure out what's going on. The second issue is... basically just an extended fight between Kara and Superman as she tries to figure out what's going on. While I enjoyed the first issue well enough, Michael Green and Mike Johnson are certainly taking their time building up to anything more substantial. Here, the two Kryptonians duke it out because Kara refuses to believe that Superman is actually her cousin, mainly because in her memory he's still a baby, which raises questions about where (and when) she's actually from and how she got here. But the whole thing feels contrived because after brawling all issue, Kara abruptly decides to stop by the end, and suddenly trusts her cousin after refusing to listen to him at first. This series needs to quickly do something besides staging 20-page fight scenes, even though Mahmud Asrar is undeniably good at drawing them: his figures in motion have a nice sense of energy, and he's great at depicting the paths of destruction that the hurtling superbeings leave in their wake.

Wolverine #17 (Marvel) - Jason Aaron has been doing some fine work on Wolverine lately, quite literally sending the man with the claws to hell and bringing him back only to tear him down even further. Then, just last issue, Aaron offered up a surprisingly touching and even funny reminder that Wolverine stories can and should be about more than just suffering and killing. This issue picks up that thread and serves as a placeholder in the aftermath of Aaron's Schism miniseries, which somewhat artificially concocted an excuse for Wolverine and Cyclops to fight and split up the X-Men into two teams. Now Wolverine's preparing to restart the Xavier school, so this issue is pretty much just filler before that storyline starts in earnest over in Aaron's new Wolverine and the X-Men series. As filler, it's not bad, and Aaron's feel for humorous dialogue is especially sharp here, as Wolverine goes hunting through San Francisco's Chinatown underworld for some drug dealers who have managed to subjugate a pair of dragons. Yes, really. It's knowingly a bit goofy, especially when Wolverine's throwdown with Gorilla Man is interrupted by the meta commentary of a pair of onlookers whose banter reflects the stupidity of the superhero comic convention that every time two heroes meet, they must fight. Considering all the angst and poignancy of Aaron's recent Wolverine arcs, this kind of low-key, light-hearted issue was probably needed to provide a breather before the aftermath of Schism really starts to play out.

Wonder Woman #2 (DC) - Damn I love this comic. This issue isn't as rapidly paced as the action-packed first one, but it has the same energy and vitality. Brian Azzarello's writing is crisp and efficient: he tells Diana's origin story in just two pages and caps it off with a casually jokey exchange. He packs a lot into this issue, as Wonder Woman takes Zola — the woman carrying Zeus' latest bastard child — back to the Amazons' home. Azzarello's dialogue is crackling and sharp, very different from his usual hardboiled style but with his characteristic wit intact. Zola's conversation with Hermes is great, as she wonders which of the men she's slept with lately could have been Zeus in disguise. It's not only funny but sex-positive and non-judgmental, especially remarkable considering some of the depictions of women in other New 52 series. It helps that Cliff Chiang's cartoony, expressive faces give his characters, particularly all the women in this story, vibrant personalities. The design of the villainous Strife, Hera's daughter and apparently Diana's sister, is especially effective, appearing as a willowy, pale blue gothy figure in a shredded cocktail dress.

Monday, October 17, 2011

S.H.I.E.L.D and Uncanny X-Force: October 12, 2011

S.H.I.E.L.D. #3 (Marvel) - This Jonathan Hickman miniseries, a sequel to his previous S.H.I.E.L.D. mini, is a marvel of invention and unfettered creativity. Hickman is probing into the history of the Marvel espionage organization that has previously mostly been associated with Nick Fury. In the first series, Hickman revealed just how far back S.H.I.E.L.D. stretched, as a time-spanning group comprised of various scientists and artists — da Vinci, Michelangelo, Tesla, Newton — who defend the world against cosmic threats like Galactus. In the early 1950s, the organization is riven by a philosophical contest between Leonardo da Vinci, preaching free will and choice, and Isaac Newton, a dictatorial advocate of fate and predestination. This elemental debate takes a back seat in this issue, though, for a mostly wordless battle between the S.H.I.E.L.D. agents and the massive power of the Celestial Star Child. There's a very Kirby-esque spirit of constant motion and conceptual overload as S.H.I.E.L.D. throws everything they have at the monolithic threat rampaging through their hidden city. Dustin Weaver's art is glossy and sleek, and his panels here verge towards the epic, capturing the towering, city-devastating might of the Star Child as its laser beams topple buildings into explosions surrounded by bursts of Kirby dot particles. The entire issue is wordless until the battle is over on the last few pages; before that, the only dialogue balloons consist of a conversation between the Star Child and Michelangelo in the Celestial's mathematical language. This is epic and savagely beautiful, building to an impossible crescendo of grandeur by the time the battle has reached its climax. This is how comics fight scenes should be, beautiful and horrible all at once, and even funny as in the series of panels in which Nathan Richards and Howard Stark's expressions change from elated to horrified as they realize how quickly the Star Child repairs its damage.

Uncanny X-Force #16 (Marvel) - The current "Dark Angel Saga," of which this is the sixth chapter, has catapulted Rick Remender's dependably great X-Force series to an even higher level. This book offers epic, apocalyptic action month after month, with the highest of stakes and a cast of varied, interesting characters. Even as the story keeps getting bleaker, as former hero Archangel is fully corrupted by the dark agenda of the genocidal Apocalypse, the comic remains vigorously exciting and often even funny. The latter is mostly due to the presence of Deadpool, a character who can all too easily be annoying but is generally well-written by Remender. In this issue, his battle with the Blob — which memorably climaxes with Deadpool stabbing his adversary in the tongue — has just the right balance of wit and crude humor. Jerome Opeña's textured art is also a major draw here, tending towards an iconic simplicity that's complemented well by the dark, muted color palette. Remender and Opeña pack so much into each issue of this series, so that each issue, this one includes, moves at a frenzied, breathless pace but never feels like it's over too soon. It's this skillful serial storytelling that makes Uncanny X-Force one of the best straight-up action/sci-fi series around.

Thursday, October 13, 2011

Weekly Comics: October 12, 2011

American Vampire: Survival of the Fittest #5 (Vertigo) - The final installment of this Nazi vampire spinoff miniseries plays out like a full-on action movie climax. Scott Snyder knowingly and lovingly hits all the expected beats, with the hero sacrificing himself to save the girl, giving her a final kiss as a sendoff before he storms into the center of the Nazi tanks, literally giving the finger to the enemy as he sings the Star-Spangled Banner. It's just that kind of over-the-top pulp craziness. It's also the kind of story where the heroes escape the Nazi vampires by leaping across a seemingly unpassable gap on a motorcycle as, behind them, the towering and recently unearthed godlike ancient vampires demolish the newer, uniformed monsters. Sean Murphy's manic hatching and exaggerated facial expressions are perfect for this explosive material, but he's equally excellent in the comparatively understated and moving coda in the final pages of the book. At that point, when the insanity has abated and the clamor of war faded away, Snyder and Murphy offer up a simple, moving epilogue and a surprisingly sweet last page.

Batgirl #2 (DC) - This series seems to have stirred up a lot of controversy just for giving Barbara Gordon back the use of her legs and making her Batgirl again after decades as the wheelchair-bound Oracle. I can't say I feel too strongly about that decision one way or the other, though the circumstances of Barbara's recovery continue to be pretty vague here. So, putting aside whether or not the basic idea is a good one, Gail Simone's new Batgirl is just a pretty good book about a very likable character whose internal narration wavers between anxiety over her return to superheroics and girlish euphoria at once again being able to swing through the air and fight bad guys. I could do with a little more of the enthusiasm and a little less of the hand-wringing, honestly. It makes sense, though, that this first arc's villain, the Mirror, is basically a personification of survivor's guilt, a perfect foil for a hesitantly recovering Barbara who isn't quite sure why she's experienced this "miracle." Barbara's new roommate is just a bundle of annoying quirks, and her boyfriend is bland, but this issue has some kinetic, intense fight sequences (fluidly rendered by Ardian Syaf) and the writing has a breezy quality even when it's mired in Barbara's self-doubt and uncertainty.

Batman and Robin #2 (DC) - Maybe it's just because I like Bruce Wayne's son Damien as a character, but I'm really digging the way this series seems to be focusing on Bruce's ongoing attempts to channel his son's killer nature and angry temperament into constructive pursuits. Peter Tomasi writes this father/son relationship well, especially in the scene where Bruce awkwardly questions Damien about homework before transitioning into the set-up for a Batman and Robin mission. It's an interesting relationship unlike the dynamic between Batman and any of his previous Robins, and it seems to be what's really driving this book so far. Although, it could just be that the actual villains here are pretty uninteresting, as Batman and Robin take on some generic weapons dealers. Then, at the end of the issue another nemesis shows up, and I'm unsure if I'm supposed to know who this is or not, but I don't, except that he was the guy killing the Russian Batman in the previous issue. I'm not too invested in the actual menace that Tomasi is haphazardly setting up here, whatever it is, but I'll keep coming back to see more of the central father/son relationship.

Batwoman #2 (DC) - At this point, it's almost easy to take JH Williams' interpretation of Batwoman for granted, even just two issues into the character's first solo title. His brilliant, sprawling double-page layouts and mastery of different styles is fully in place by this point. His action scenes are spiky and kinetic, full of pointed edges and panels-within-panels that call attention to points of impact or reveal the X-rayed anatomical contortions behind each well-placed kick. The panels become wavery and watery whenever the ghostly "weeping woman" makes an appearance, and the scenes in the ordinary civilian life of Kate Kane have a comparatively rigid panel structure and soft, brightly lit feminine colors to suggest the disparity between this woman's secret identity and her nightly crimefighting activities. This is an amazing comic in every way, guaranteed to be mindblowing month after month. The best scene in this issue is one in which Kate's detective girlfriend Maggie Sawyer walks around a supernatural crime scene, using the evidence to concoct a coherent story of what went down, and as she speaks the battle springs into life in the air around her, shaped by her conclusions and conjectures. Williams excels at this kind of diagrammatic layout. He excels, too, at jamming together contrasting styles, as he does when Maggie meets Cameron Chase, who's rendered in a shadowy noir style even in daytime, recalling her appearance in the short-lived Chase series that Williams illustrated back in 1998. The issue ends on an abrupt cliffhanger that suggests that the comic simply ran out of pages — Williams' plotting may be a little shakier than his jaw-dropping artwork — but otherwise this is yet another remarkable, unmissable installment in one of comics' most consistent visual treats.

Deathstroke #2 (DC) - I'm not sure what to say about this one, because even more than in the first issue, Kyle Higgins and Joe Bennett have just delivered a 20-page fight scene that takes all of two minutes to read, if even. It's got explosions, decapitations, and Deathstroke's rather quick destruction of a goofy, armored-up, roller-blading guy called Road Rage. There's not much at stake here, and barely a hint that the title character has even worked up a sweat after easily dispatching everyone who comes at him. It's lightweight and utterly disposable, with less of the quirky touches of personality and humor that spiced up the first issue. This comic is bound to just be the bloodbath-of-the-month and it does that just fine.

Demon Knights #2 (DC) - The first issue of this series was one of the bigger surprises of the New 52, since I didn't really have any expectations for it and it wound up being a whole lot of fun. This second issue lives up to the promise of throwing a whole bunch of DC's olden-times magic/immortal characters together to fight dragons and an evil queen. It's fast-paced and action-packed, inflected with the fun-loving spirit of warriors who love nothing more than digging into a tough fight and feasting on dragon meat when it's all over. Paul Cornell's dialogue has a peppy zing that mostly compensates for his characters' tendency to narrate their every move. This light-hearted style only occasionally gets tiresome, as when Cornell takes a cue from manga's jokey meta asides, which results in some very out-of-place dialogue. Other than such small dialogue issues, though, this remains a rollicking good time, gorgeously illustrated by Diogenes Neves and Oclair Albert, whose lush, European-influenced style is perfectly suited to this old-school wizards-and-demons adventure.

FF #10 (Marvel) - This is a pretty low-key set-up issue, a breather after last issue's climactic extended battle, which didn't so much conclude as take a momentary break. Jonathan Hickman continues to excel at hitting just the right emotional beats. The prime example here is a quiet scene between Sue and Reed Richards, staged so that Sue is looking away from her husband, facing the "camera," her expression mostly guarded but betraying a little smile, knowing and satisfied, when Reed tells her she's right. The scene plays out entirely in small shifts of facial expressions as husband and wife reconcile without laying it all out in so many words. Barry Kitson, filling in for regular artist Steve Epting, does an excellent job in moments like this, with a glossy, economical style that defines faces in a few graceful lines. Thanks to Hickman's facility for one-on-one dialogue scenes and Kitson's unshowy feel for the emotional nuance of Hickman's writing, what could have played out as a mere lead-up to bigger plots instead feels like a series of emotional climaxes for Reed and Sue, Ben Grimm, even the peripheral Inhuman Crystal and her Kree husband.

Frankenstein: Agent of S.H.A.D.E. #2 (DC) - This is stronger than the already good first issue of Jeff Lemire's Hellboy-ish paranormal series, because with most of the exposition out of the way Frankenstein and his troupe of monster soldiers just leap into action here. The best line comes early on, when Frankenstein slaps an old woman (she had it coming) and deadpans, "Frankenstein's vengeance does not discriminate on the basis of age." After that, there's more frenzied action sequences with massive monsters, rendered in scratchy scribbles of dark lines by Albert Ponticelli. Lemire takes a break in the middle of the issue to provide a backstory for one of his newly introduced monster characters, a female Creature from the Black Lagoon lookalike, which suggests that maybe each of these early issues will fill in the pasts of these new characters one by one. It's perhaps an inelegant way of shoehorning in exposition, but it works in this case because the flashback is packed with little bits of weird science fun, and because it ties in thematically with this issue's revelations about child sacrifice in the small town where this interdimensional infestation has broken loose.

Green Lantern #2 (DC) - It's not too surprising that Geoff Johns has wasted little time in getting Hal Jordan back in a Green Lantern costume after spending the first issue of this title powerless. It's not a total return to the status quo given that Jordan's power is now tied to his one-time nemesis Sinestro, but Jordan once again has a costume and a ring, even if it's not a "true" Green Lantern ring. Considering how clumsy and hackneyed the plotting of Hal's human misaventures were in that first issue, this is probably a good thing, and this issue establishes the terms of the unlikely Jordan/Sinestro team-up with some solid action. Sinestro's lesson to Hal has a hint of meta about it, an acknowledgment that for all the power of the Lantern rings, most of those who have wielded them have not changed worlds but simply constructed big green weapons to fight other superpowered beings. It's a distant echo of the end of Alan Moore's Miracleman, which questioned why superheroes with awe-inspiring power always thought so small. The point is perhaps erased when the very next scene involves Sinestro and Hal constructing big green weapons to kill a marauding alien, but it's nice to think that maybe Johns will work his way up to something more ambitious over time. This series isn't blowing me away so far, but it's offering up interesting, dynamic characters and some good old spacefaring action, and so far at least that's been enough.

The Punisher #4 (Marvel) - Though Greg Rucka's new series bears the name of antihero Frank Castle, the Punisher, what makes it worth reading is that, this time around, Castle isn't quite the center of his own book. In Rucka's first issue, the Punisher was a ghostly presence glimpsed out of the corner of one's eye, little more than a blurry flash of that white skull logo and the bloody evidence left behind in his wake. He's become a bit more of a physical presence in subsequent issues, and in this fourth issue he speaks more — 25 whole words — than he has in the previous three issues combined. But this is still a comic about the effect of the Punisher, the idea of the Punisher, more than it is about the man. That makes sense; the Punisher has starred in a lot of comics and has had a lot of writers define and redefine him. His psychology is pretty well established at this point. Rucka has decided to take the Punisher himself as a given, a powerful force tearing through New York's criminal underground, and his Punisher is more about the cops, journalists, and crime victims who would be glimpsed at the fringes of a more traditionally centered Punisher story. That street-level grit is affecting, especially when it comes to the continued emphasis on Rachel Alves, the survivor of a wedding day shootout that killed her new husband and most of her family. The Punisher is all about revenge, but Rucka seems interested in exploring crime and vengeance in ways that go far beyond the Punisher's simple, predictable, bloody retribution. In this, he's ably assisted by Marco Checchetto, whose art is gritty but somehow also soft-focused, as though there's a shadowy fog hanging over everything, blurring the black-and-white moral clarity of the Punisher's world. This issue is much more conventional in form than the brutal, near-wordless bloodletting of issue #3 or the destabilizing ambiguity of issue #1, but it continues Rucka's examination of the grimy nighttime world that revolves around Marvel's most ferocious antihero.

PunisherMAX #18 (Marvel) - If Rucka's Punisher stays fresh and interesting by taking a new approach to the character, Jason Aaron and Steve Dillon's MAX series is much more traditionalist. Aaron's Punisher is very much recognizable as the hardboiled killer of Garth Ennis' justly praised MAX run, an alternate take on the Punisher, free of mainstream Marvel continuity and also free to be much more explicit in terms of sex, language and especially all the inevitable blood and guts. Aaron doesn't do anything too daring here, just offers up more of the same for those who loved Ennis' Punisher. The book has been structured elementally, with each arc examining a character: Kingpin, Bullseye, then Castle himself. In the current "Homeless" arc, there's no such clear character focus, but Castle has been reduced to zero, having to rebuild his store of weapons, re-establishing himself as a force on the streets after a stint in jail. This is a Punisher book where Elektra can dispatch a room full of mob flunkies in memorably gruesome ways, tearing out eyeballs and sticking knives up men's noses, then screw the Kingpin on a bloody table for some reason. A few pages later, she goes to bed with Vanessa Fisk instead, a puzzling development that suggests the gleefully juvenile sensibility of this material. Dillon, with long experience drawing similarly trashy stories for Ennis, brings his characteristic physical heft to each disfigurement and death, each gory action sequence. But what he's best at, it turns out, is drawing Frank Castle himself, as an old and grizzled man with hard lines cut into his face as if out of granite, scowl lines etched so deeply into his skin that they're like wartime trenches. Castle's mask-like face is the real star of this series, the craggy visage of a man who's fought and killed his way to the brink of old age without exhausting his appetite for blood.

Resurrection Man #2 (DC) - Oddly enough, I still don't have much of a handle on whether this series is actually any good or not. It's an engaging concept — a guy who dies and is reborn every issue with a new power — written in a fast-paced, jagged style. In this issue, Mitch Shelley goes looking for answers about his own murky past, trying to figure out who he was while various supernatural entities and killer glam girls track him for their own mysterious purposes. Dan Abnett and Andy Lanning mostly go for a light, casual writing style that allows the issue to glide by quickly, though there are a few clunkers ("wow, pretty mad surfing skills there, Darryl") to serve as speed bumps. Similarly, Fernando Dagnino's art is not bad, but tends too much towards awkward pin-up poses, especially for the hitwoman villains, who seemingly lounge around in their underwear reading porno mags while waiting for their next mission. (They don't wear a whole lot more while on a mission, for that matter.) This second issue does little to improve upon the problems I had with the first, but there's still something goofily entertaining and intriguing about this off-kilter book. Its odd cast of characters includes the resurrecting man himself, glamorous hitwomen, angels, shape-shifting monsters, and it ends with Shelley plunked down into a weird netherworld with chalk-outlined bodies drawn on the ground and shadowy demons in the sky. If Abnett and Lanning simply mean to keep readers guessing and coming back for more off-kilter, uneven weirdness, so far they're succeeding.

The Shade #1 (DC) - James Robinson returns to one of the characters from his beloved Starman series for a 12-issue miniseries. Thankfully, he definitely does justice to the always-intriguing character of the Shade, capturing the witty, urbane tone of this character perfectly, as well as the emotional openness that characterized Robinson's best work. I haven't followed Robinson or the Starman characters after the end of the great original series, but this already seems like a worthy follow-up. This first issue establishes the scope and the tone of this material, opening with a philosophically inclined conversation between the Shade and Mikaal, one of several characters to bear the mantle of Starman. The dialogue is florid and romantic, as befits an ancient, gentlemanly character like the Shade, but it never gets weighted down by the stylized language. Instead, the dialogue zips and darts around with wit and insight, both in this conversation and a later scene between the Shade and his girlfriend. The action scenes are equally adept, particularly the showdown between Shade and Deathstroke that ends the issue. Cully Hamner's art is great and is especially strong when the Shade begins drawing shadows around himself, his red eyes shining from beneath the brim of his hat, his face becoming a maze of black patterns layered over his skin. Like Robinson's Starman, this is just great comics, with a relentless forward momentum and a real feel for the characters that perfectly balances the action. I'm really looking forward to more of this.

The Simpsons' Treehouse of Horror #17 (Bongo) - Traditionally, the "Treehouse of Horror" series has been the annual opportunity for The Simpsons, whether on TV or in print, to mess with the formula, to tell outrageous, surreal, gory stories where the usual rules of the characters don't apply. In the comic, this has often meant that this annual institution has been an opportunity for comic creators from outside the mainstream to tackle the iconic inhabitants of Springfield. This year, the real draw here is a story by Jim Woodring that closes the anthology. But first, Zander Cannon and Gene Ha turn in a loving homage to Nosferatu, with Mr. Burns as the vampire, Homer as Renfield, and Bart as the hapless visitor to the vampire's lair. Cannon and Ha have a lot of fun translating silent film aesthetics to print, including a line of musical notation that runs beneath the panels until Bart decides to turn the record off. It's a fun, quirky read with some clever nods to the story's cinematic source, and several panels recreate iconic compositions from the film, with the most effective being a few silent panels in which Burnsferatu creeps towards the "camera" through a stone archway. The second story in this issue, written by Jane Wiedlin of the Go-Go's with art by Tom Hodges, is much less successful. It starts as a lame and haphazardly plotted Star Wars pastiche (Hodges is an artist for Star Wars webcomics), tosses in some zombies, and it's just an unfunny tonal mess. Even the lettering is ugly.

Unsurprisingly, Woodring's final story is the issue's primary treat, and it's great indeed. It's a tribute to the classic EC horror comics in which Bart discovers a third-rate EC knockoff comic that terrifies him. Woodring draws the comics within the comic in a throwback style and packs the story with meta gags and weird, unsettling imagery. The first story Bart reads starts with a boy brutally killing a turtle, which leads to a wonderfully awkward panel of his two friends spitting as they deliver the kind of unsubtle moral message that always acted as a counterbalance to the gore in EC-style comics. Woodring's slightly off-model drawings of the Simpsons characters go well with his subtly off-kilter humor. He ends the story with a fantastic meta flourish in which his comic mirrors the comic within the comic, merely implying the gory and gruesome ending. This issue is well worth a look for Woodring's story alone, and moments such as these make one wish that the Treehouse of Horror was more than a yearly event.

Superboy #2 (DC) - At some point, probably soon, I know I'm going to get tired of the new DC titles that offer up dependable, solid superhero entertainment but don't really rise above the pack. When that happens, I think Scott Lobdell's connected Superboy and Teen Titans are pretty sure to fall by the wayside. This is a decent second issue and not much more. There's still a lot of internal narration from Superboy here, infusing the book with the title character's continued quest for self-discovery. And there's a nice balance of governmental conspiracy plotting with, in the latter half of the issue, some all-out action. The rationale behind said action is weak enough that it transparently comes across as the writer deciding, "OK, now we need some action," but it's still pretty fun to watch Superboy and Rose Wilson thrash it out with some shark-like aliens. R.B. Silva's art is attractive and clean, slightly cartoony in a way that makes everyone look like teenagers, which is great for Superboy and slightly problematic for his handlers. All around, this is a good read but I just can't see this ever becoming a must every month.