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.

Monday, October 10, 2011

Weekly Comics: October 5, 2011

Action Comics #2 (DC) - Grant Morrison's badass new take on Superman continues to be a ton of fun and defy expectations. In this case, the second issue opens with Superman in the custody of Lex Luthor and the US military, strapped to an electric chair and being subjected to probes and tests. Nobody knows his limits, and they're pushing his endurance, trying to figure out what hurts him. But Morrison doesn't let Superman remain defenseless for very long, so the second half of the issue is thrilling and grin-inducing, as Superman busts free of his fetters and begins tearing shit up. Morrison's having fun writing a Superman who's having fun with his powers, a young and angry Supes who at one point playfully twirls around, sending out an arc of heat vision to melt the guns of the soldiers pursuing him. Superman's escape sequence is perfectly staged by Morrison, with delightfully posed panels like the one where he calmly strides up a staircase with soldiers amassed above and below him. He strolls through the base as though he's just taking a walk, confident in the knowledge that these men can't really hurt him, simply enjoying breaking holes in walls, letting bullets bounce harmlessly off his chest and smashing any soldiers who try to stop him. When Luthor shows Superman a decaying alien goat-like creature, claiming that this is Superman's true form, Superman simply laughs, then calmly announces that the tests are over, initiating the rollicking mayhem of the book's second half. Regular artist Rags Morales is here assisted by Brent Anderson, an ominous sign that DC's pressure to keep books on time is already affecting the artists, and the art is pretty inconsistent with a few particularly awkward panels in which Lois Lane's appearance fluctuates wildly. Nevertheless, Morrison easily keeps up the energy and edge and enthusiasm of Action Comics #1, and his snotty, hot-tempered Superman continues to be a joy to watch.

Animal Man #2 (DC) - Somehow, Jeff Lemire and Travel Foreman have managed to top their stellar first issue with an even better second one, which revels in the possibilities of mingled dark humor and grisly horror offered up by this story. This issue is packed with disturbing images, but each new creepy visual is imbued with a sense of discovery and delight that makes this a dazzling, fun read in spite of its dark content. By the fourth page, when Foreman packs a kitchen scene with wonderful little details — Maxine trying to feed milk to a thirsty skeletal Mrs. Pickles, Cliff gleefully using his cell phone to record dead animals doing battle on a garbage can, and then casually heading out the door with a shovel to dig up some more nasty fun — the comic has acquired a hurtling, manic forward momentum where each page seems to top the last in nutty imagination. Foreman's art is, if anything, even better than in the first issue, as he fully embraces the strangeness and reality-warping nature of the crisis in "the Red" that's propelling Buddy and his daughter into danger. His control of facial expressions is virtuosic, ranging from the cartoony pouting of Max to the devastating panels showing Ellen's tearful, confused, angry response to the weirdness tearing her family apart. This is shaping up to be the work of true mad genius promised by Lemire and Foreman's first issue, with no signs of letting up in intensity or inspiration.

The Boys #59 (Dynamite) - This issue does not start promisingly, what with the cliffhanger from last issue — a tense showdown between the Boys and the Seven — almost immediately fizzling out. Things don't get better in the pages packed with verbose word balloons as Hughie spills his resentment of Butcher, which is starting to seem like a broken record in recent issues. But then the Boys return home to find that Butcher's beloved dog has been killed by one of the Seven's superheroes, and Garth Ennis again displays the weird mix of poignancy and brutality that makes his best comics (in which company The Boys, admittedly, usually does not belong) simultaneously so hard to take but so hard to look away from. Because there's something weirdly touching about the psychopathic Female lying down next to the dead dog, mimicking the animal's limp form and closed eyes as Butcher darkly stalks off to do what he needs to. So although the issue started as an anticlimax, by the grisly end it's obvious that the expected war is coming anyway. The final pages, with one line of dialogue repeated like a mantra over and over, are especially effective in that typical ugly Ennis way, with emotions of loss and sadness transmuted into violence and horror.

Casanova: Avaritia #2 (Icon) - With this newest Casanova miniseries, Matt Fraction is really digging deeper than ever into the heart and soul of his pandimensional spy thriller. He's using the pop culture riffing and anything-can-happen anti-logic of Casanova to explore some pretty heavy themes. It's all about patterns and repetition — specifically, about escaping from the patterns that threaten to lock Casanova Quinn into a potentially never-ending cycle of destruction and guilt. At the climax of the comic, during a bloody but beautifully visualized action sequence, Fraction replaces the dialogue with placeholders, indicators of the kind of formulaic dialogue that should go here, at this place in the story. And it's just the set-up because when Casanova begins speaking with his own words again, his voice no longer a simple vehicle for action movie clichés, he finally breaks free of the cycle, offers up an alternative to the familiar pattern. It's about free will, man! And it's damn good stuff. Gabriel Bá, more than ever, is drawing Casanova and his future nemesis Newman Xeno — who Casanova must kill, over and over, in one universe after another — as Mick Jagger and David Bowie, locked into a cycle of homoerotic attraction and deadly rivalry. Bá's art is wonderful and trippy, making it seem as though Casanova is living an acid trip, whether he's in "reality" or dreams or skating through interdimensional space, and it's appropriate that in the final sequence one important "version" of Xeno isn't quite sure if he's just really high or if he's actually talking to his would-be assassin.

I was also tickled that, in the typically rambling essay in the back of the issue, Fraction talks about crying while reading Jaime Hernandez's "The Love Bunglers." Right on.

Detective Comics #2 (DC) - The first issue of writer/artist Tony Daniel's Batman serial didn't make much of an impact other than its over-the-top final page, which showed the Joker's face sheered off and pinned to a wall. The rest of the issue was all gritty voiceover and Dark Knight clichés, but I figured I'd give Daniel a second issue to see where he was going with this. Unfortunately, this issue dives headfirst into the blunt, stupid nonsense lurking in the subtext of that first installment, and now I'm done. It's a really goofy comic, although it wants to be anything but: it's the product of someone trying way too hard to create something "dark" and violent, and instead producing unpleasant camp. The issue starts with a weirdly homoerotic scene in which Bruce Wayne is courted by a muscular businessman who strips off his shirt and climbs a rock wall with Bruce while talking business. Then, as if to prove Bruce's hetero bona fides, there's an awkward attempt at a seduction scene with a generic Wayne bimbo, and then things get really goofy. By the time a villainess shows up dressed like she bought a "sexy nurse" outfit at a Halloween costume shop, baring cleavage and wielding a hammer, there's really no redeeming this one.

iZombie #18 (Vertigo) - Since Mike Allred's iconic art is generally the main appeal of iZombie, it's surprising that guest artist Jay Stephens contributes to one of the series' best issues. Stephens has a wonderfully cartoony clear-line style, and Laura Allred's colors here also tend even more towards bold primary colors than usual. The style recalls Tintin and Dick Briefer's Frankenstein, and Chris Roberson's story also evokes the globe-trotting adventures of Hergé or Terry and the Pirates. It's old-school, and enjoyably so, in a very different way from the Universal monster movie retro affection that runs through the rest of the series. Curiously, I'm also reminded of the campy, cartoony climax of the recent American Vampire #19, drawn by Jordi Bernet. I didn't expect much without Mike Allred around (he only provides inks on a few pages) but Stephens, who seems to be mostly involved in animation and kids' comics, really impressed me.

OMAC #2 (DC) - The second issue of Dan Didio and Keith Giffen's manic Jack Kirby pastiche isn't quite as much goofy fun as the first one, but it still offers up plenty of Kirbyesque pleasures. The hapless hero, who as OMAC rampaged throughout the first issue, now reverts to human form and has a frazzled dialogue with the nigh-omniscent satellite Brother Eye, communicating through cell phones and TVs and any other handy electronics. There's something endearing about Brother Eye's motherly, solicitous conversations with Kevin, looking out for the young man's nutrition while maneuvering him into place to battle another super-powered being. It's a good mix of brisk action and light-hearted humor, a very old-school book with a tone to match Giffen's Kirby-aping artwork. This is just big dumb fun.

Severed #3 (Image) - This comic is still all about slow burn buildup rather than all-out horror, but it remains an effective tactic. In this issue, writers Scott Snyder and Scott Tuft have young Jack and Sam finally come face to face with the chilling human (?) monster who's skulked through the shadows of the previous two issues, the man with the filed, hungry teeth hidden behind a false set of normal chompers. There's no gore here, no violence, only a conversation between this predator and his latest targets in which every word subtly and not so subtly teases the absolute horror still to come. At one point, the old man asks the two children, "what's in the future for you?" and framed in the foreground between his outstretched hands is a plate full of picked-clean duck bones and uneaten skin. It's an image freighted with sinister meaning, and artist Attila Futaki continues to give everything in this story weight and hyper-real lushness that adds to the creepy vibe drifting through these pages. Shadows have real depth and the sky is a constant swirl of bright colors giving way to the midnight blue darkness of night. This is a sublimely creepy horror comic, the kind of story best told huddled around a campfire in the dark or curled up in bed with a flashlight. Best of all is the moment when the cannibalistic killer describes exactly what he's going to do to his victims, without them realizing: "he'd feed the duck beer, massage its wings, grant it its every wish... meat is muscles, boys, and muscles remember... everything. Especially the last days. If you're gonna eat an animal, make sure its last days are memorable."

Stormwatch #2 (DC) - This comic continues to be better in terms of crazy plotting and cosmic visual extravagance than in actual writing, but maybe that's okay. It's a wildly entertaining comic, moving at a frenetic pace and leaping from the literal beginning of time to the interior of the moon to Stormwatch's space station HQ to various locales around Earth. It's big and bold and aggressive, and that translates to the dialogue as well. Paul Cornell seems to think he's cleverer than he actually is, and stuff like Adam One's meta joke on the second page just comes off as clumsy and nonsensical. The dialogue is wordy and full of exposition, and there's something really unnatural about nearly every sentence. Every conflict or motivation is bolded and underlined, particularly the struggle over leadership of Stormwatch that runs all through this issue. The dialogue is also still compromised by the necessity of continually introducing characters and describing their powers. Still, Cornell's nutty concepts — lovingly, colorfully realized by Miguel Sepulveda and the rest of the art team — more than make up for the exposition-speak that seems to afflict every character. There's also a genuinely great running gag about how the team's media manipulator convinces the rest of the world's heroes that the chaos on the moon is being caused by low-rent villain the Fox. There are still plenty of seams showing in Cornell's construction, but if every issue is as much fast-moving fun as this, it'll be easy to ignore the problems even if the writing doesn't improve.

Swamp Thing #2 (DC) - It's a little disappointing that Scott Snyder is still leaning heavily on exposition and backstory in his second issue of Swamp Thing. The first issue was an intriguing set-up that teased some really eerie horror to come with a few stunning sequences of odd occurrences happening around the US. Instead of leaping deeper into that territory here, Snyder slows things down for a long infodump where the current Swamp Thing relates a whole lot of history and prophecy to Alec Holland, trying to convince Holland to take on the mantle of Swamp Thing. It's interesting exposition, at least, and Yanick Paquette's layouts — reminiscent at time of JH Williams III — help to jazz up these pages with gorgeous, sprawling guided tours through the concepts that Swamp Thing is talking about. The second half of the issue is then given over to a crisply executed action sequence, although the shock of the new has already worn off with the twisted-head zombies who attack Holland here, and his last-minute rescue by Abby Arcane borders on cheesy. This series still shows a whole lot of promise, and it's still beautiful, but it needs to start moving at a faster pace. If the next issue opens with Abby delivering her own lengthy infodump to Alec, I would not be the least bit surprised, but Snyder will be squandering the potential of a book that promises to be one of the best of the New 52. I did like the shout-outs to former Swamp Thing artists Stephen Bissette and John Totleben embedded in the artwork.

Sweet Tooth #26 (Vertigo) - Jeff Lemire's post-apocalyptic road movie adventure about a boy with antlers is starting a new arc this issue. Issue #25 left off with much of the cast preparing for a trip to Alaska, where they hope to discover the answers to mysteries like the plague that wiped out much of the world population and the animal/human hybrid children who might be connected to the disease in some way. This new arc, though set in Alaska, leaps back in time to 1911 to tell a story that's obviously going to lay some groundwork for the eventual journey of Gus and his friends to the icebound north. Lemire takes a break from the art chores as well, and his friend Matt Kindt lends a distinctive, sketchy but lush watercolor style to this issue's tale of an ill-fated Alaskan expedition. It's a gorgeous book, especially when the expedition reaches Alaska and three men wander off into an icy wasteland rendered with stripes and washes of pale grays and reds sweeping by in the background. It's an abstracted vision of the icy north that increases the sense of dread hanging over the three men. Kindt also achieves some very striking effects, as in the panel where a dog pokes its head up through the wispy, multi-colored strands of the wind and blowing snow, its green eye looking melancholy, a "whimper" enclosed in a speech balloon near its head. Several pages later, the lead character is reflected as a wavery, warped outline in the glossy black eye of a dead dog, and soon after there's a panel where a wooden church's steeple is reflected in the man's eyeglasses. Such echoes and reflections define the haunting visual storytelling going on here.

The Walking Dead #89 (Image) - And Robert Kirkman's epic zombie soap opera continues. There's not much to say about an issue like this, in which not very much happens until the end, ensconsed as it is in the middle of what's shaping up to be a very long storyline about Rick and his band of survivors settling into a more stable community, trying to build a permanent place to live. I can see this storyline stretching out for a very long time, maybe until the end of the series, and I kind of hope it does. In this issue, it seems obvious that among other things Kirkman is setting things up for a more sustained look at the long-running subtext of Rick's son Carl growing harder and colder and tougher in the zombie apocalypse, deadening his emotions in response to everything he's seen and had to do. It's something that Rick hasn't addressed quite as directly as this before, and neither has Kirkman. It's also yet another issue that ends with Rick acting like a badass, and it's interesting that the ending sequence with its series of weapon-wielding portraits of Rick and his friends more or less confirms the fear of the would-be rebels that their community is pretty much being taken over by force. I wonder if Kirkman is going to address that in subsequent issues. He's certainly never shied away from making Rick, the paranoiac control freak, a fairly unsympathetic character, and the antagonists in this plot are definitely not entirely in the wrong.

Wednesday, October 5, 2011

DC's New 52: Final Thoughts

Now that the first month of DC's New 52 reboot is over, it's time to evaluate the overall scope of this project and how successful it has been. The New 52 was expressly intended to bring DC comics to new readers, and since in many ways I'm one of those — a longtime comic reader who has never been too interested in DC beyond a few titles — the initiative was at least successful in generating some interest for me (and I suspect a lot of other people like me). There are a few titles in particular from this reboot that I absolutely loved, and a bunch more that I liked well enough to read for the immediate future. Even if I eventually wind up trimming everything but the titles I like the most, I'll be reading something like 10-15 DC titles on a monthly basis as long as they keep their current creative teams and level of quality. Since before this I was basically only reading Grant Morrison and Scott Snyder's takes on Batman, and J.H. Williams' Batwoman (which would have continued in more or less its current form with or without the reboot), DC has certainly succeeded in getting me interested in their wider line.

I won't speculate beyond that for how this relaunch has done for DC commercially, although it certainly seems that they've made their desired impact in that respect, with almost all 52 titles selling out and many of them going to multiple printings to satisfy demand. That's a good sign because I want the books I love to continue, and so far it seems like most of the best titles will be pretty stable for the forseeable future.

That said, DC has obviously hedged their bets here by introducing the relaunch with the Flashpoint miniseries (which I haven't read, though I know the gist of what happened) which would seem to suggest that the status quo could be reset yet again at any point. That impression is heightened by the fact that every #1 issue from the first month contained an Easter egg of the hooded mystery woman from Flashpoint, whose presence in all these books hints that eventually DC could use another crossover to revert the universe altogether or just tweak the elements of the new universe that aren't working. I think it's a bad sign, honestly, that there are already hints of them laying the groundwork for that probably inevitable second wave of changes and reboots.

I just hope that if (when!) it comes, it doesn't interfere with what creators like Jeff Lemire, Scott Snyder, Brian Azzarello and J.H. Williams are doing in their respective books. One thing of note about many of the titles that I admire the most from this relaunch is that they seem to be doing their own thing in a private corner of the DC universe, without many readily apparent connections to other titles. Azzarello seems to be crafting his own fresh take on mythology in Wonder Woman, Lemire and Snyder have roped off a dark, horror-based territory for Animal Man and Swamp Thing to interact with one another, Batwoman remains its own self-contained thing within the larger Bat family, and Paul Cornell's Demon Knights is set in the distant past. Hopefully, these titles will retain those distinctive identities without getting folded into whatever larger crossovers and line-wide stories that DC editorial will start pushing down the line, when the New 52 doesn't seem as new anymore and the company needs some newer hook on which to hang their hype.

Below is my summary ranking of the entire New 52 first month, divided into five categories of quality. The rankings are probably self-explanatory. The great titles are the ones I love unreservedly, the good ones have some room to improve but remain very enjoyable, and the borderline titles have some interesting elements and could either become worthwhile with further issues or squander their potential. The titles in the boring and awful categories, obviously, are the ones that I definitely won't be continuing with, since one issue was enough to decide that I didn't want more of these series. A significant number of the New 52 first issues were simply mediocre and boring, with little to distinguish them, rather than outright bad. In a way, that's worse: I certainly had more fun reading the aggressively lousy Red Lanterns, Suicide Squad and Hawk and Dove than the simply boring stuff like Men of War or Birds of Prey. As bad as those bottom few books were, at least they didn't make me sleepy the way all those generic, forgettable superhero titles did.

1. Animal Man
2. Wonder Woman
3. Batwoman
4. Demon Knights
5. Swamp Thing
6. Action Comics
7. Justice League Dark
8. The Flash

9. Batman
10. All Star Western
11. Frankenstein
12. Green Lantern
13. Justice League
14. Catwoman
15. Superman
16. Green Lantern Corps
17. Batgirl
18. Superboy
19. Stormwatch
20. OMAC
21. The Fury of Firestorm: The Nuclear Men
22. Supergirl

23. Batman and Robin
24. Aquaman
25. Deathstroke
26. The Savage Hawkman
27. Teen Titans
28. Resurrection Man
29. Voodoo
30. Detective Comics
31. Captain Atom

32. Nightwing
33. Green Lantern: New Guardians
34. Batwing
35. Mister Terrific
36. Birds of Prey
37. Blue Beetle
38. Grifter
39. DC Universe Presents
40. Justice League International
41. Static Shock
42. Blackhawks
43. Green Arrow
44. Men of War

45. Suicide Squad
46. Legion Lost
47. Legion of Super-Heroes
48. Red Lanterns
49. I, Vampire
50. Red Hood and the Outlaws
51. Hawk and Dove
52. Batman: The Dark Knight

Monday, October 3, 2011

Weekly Comics: September 28, 2011

American Vampire #19 (Vertigo) - With the recent epic World War II storyline concluded, Scott Snyder's gritty vampire series takes a break with an arc dedicated to the early life of Skinner Sweet, before he became a vampire. Sweet and his future adversary Jim Book are in the army together, fighting Indians, and the bulk of this issue focuses on the brotherly rivalry between these two men who would eventually become worst enemies. Jordi Bernet is the guest artist for this arc, and his cartoony, slightly sketchy style is a good fit for this tale of a simpler time in these men's lives. This is especially true of the first few pages about Sweet and Book's boyhood, which features a bright, sunny look and big-eyed character drawings that immediately contrast against the much darker style usually brought to the series by Rafael Albuquerque. With the emphasis on Book and Sweet and the broadly telegraphed differences between them, this is a pretty atypical (and largely vampire-free) issue for much of its length. Of course, the ending marks a return to the pulpy lunacy that I've come to expect from Snyder's Western vampire saga, when a curvy, naked vampiress makes an appearance in the last few pages. At that point, Bernet's bold art gives the scene a splashy, campy tone that suggests that some good goofy fun is ahead for this story.

Brilliant #1 (Icon) - This is the first issue of a new creator-owned series by Brian Michael Bendis and artist Mark Bagley, which has apparently been a long-gestating idea that Bendis has been waiting to do with Bagley. The first issue is... okay. After loving a lot of Bendis' work for years, especially Alias, I've gotten burned out on his style since he started steering Marvel's Avengers and a lot of the company's big superhero crossovers. This issue does little to alleviate my exhaustion with him, because the trademark wordy, hyperactive, pattery Bendis dialogue is all over the place, with chains of word balloon exchanges winding through most of the panels. His stylized dialogue has always walked a thin line between amusing and annoying, and here it jumps back and forth between the two poles, with an unfortunate emphasis on the latter. I'm not sold on the idea (a bunch of prodigy Ivy League college kids "invent" superpowers) or the characters, and so far it basically feels like Heroes, dealing with the concept of superpowers in a mostly realistic world with young people who don't don costumes when they get their new abilities. I'm curious enough to check out some more of it, but so far it doesn't seem like Bendis has returned to the heights of Alias or Daredevil or the best parts of the sometimes-uneven Powers.

FF #9 (Marvel) - Jonathan Hickman has been doing excellent work on Fantastic Four and its successor series FF ever since his debut on the former series. The reverberations of his fantastic first arc, in which Reed Richards tried to "solve everything" with the help of a pandimensional assembly of his parallel selves, are still being felt in FF, as four dimensionally stranded Reeds stand at the center of a massive war that Hickman's been patiently setting up for some time now. This issue takes place at the climax of this war, so it's mostly all dedicated to battle and action, with visceral art and layouts by Steve Epting that make all the explosions and fist-fights pop off the page. As usual, though, Hickman is at his best when he cuts away from the action for a few pages spent with young Valeria Richards and would-be child supervillain Bentley. Hickman's expansion of the Fantastic Four cast to focus on the Richards kids and a host of other children and oddball characters is the best aspect of his run, and his dialogue for these characters — precocious but definitively childlike — is pitch-perfect. This is a short, delightful little scene, a much-needed break from the otherwise non-stop action on display here. One hopes that Hickman's FF will eventually focus even more on the Future Foundation class and other supporting characters — maybe once the main Fantastic Four series returns, also with Hickman writing, in November.

Journey Into Mystery #628 (Marvel) - I've been reading this series ever since it split off from Matt Fraction's Thor as a showcase for the young, newly resurrected Loki, and I'm not sure why. Part of it is that I love the character: Loki as a kid is just a lot of fun and his constant machinations are really charming, whether they're here or over in Fraction's Mighty Thor. The problem is that this series has been mired in the Fear Itself crossover (which I'm not reading) since it began, and a lot of these issues just read like summaries of things happening elsewhere or bits of ancillary action at the fringes of the story. Also, Kieron Gillen's wordy, text-box-heavy style is doubtless intended to give the impression of a series steeped in old world myths, but the effect is mostly just stilted and arch. This issue features nice art by Whilce Portacio, who's a little more lively than Dougie Braithwaite, whose art on previous issues of Gillen's run has always seemed overly stiff and static, not to mentioned smothered under oppressive coloring. There continue to be flashes of cleverness and fun here whenever Gillen abandons the endless narration boxes to let Loki crack wise, but he still doesn't nearly have Fraction's subtle wit or sense of scale. I'm hoping this series will be able to stand on its own well once Fear Itself finally ends, though.

The Mighty Thor #6 (Marvel) - What I love about Matt Fraction's take on Thor is that it's totally unpredictable, working at a grand epic scale, dealing with myth and belief and fate and choice, as befits a character right out of mythology. This issue concludes the war between Galactus and the inhabitants of Asgard that has run through the first six issues of Fraction's Mighty Thor. And suffice it to say that the war has been resolved in an utterly unexpected way, tying together the large-scale cosmic conflict with the ground-level struggle between the Asgardians and the humans living in a town near Asgard's current earthly location. Most notably, the local Christian pastor who had often been a subject of comic relief in earlier issues unexpectedly gets treated in a much deeper and more complex way here, and the resolution of that plot sets up a strange new status quo that should make the next arc of this series just as interesting. As usual, Olivier Coipel's art is stunning, particularly in the panels of a brooding, shadowy Galactus looming over the tiny figures of the men and gods arrayed at the feet of the world devouring being. Also as usual, much of the action is splayed across the elaborate double-page spreads that Fraction favors for his work with Marvel's Norse characters, contributing to the sense of scope that's so important to dealing with gods and aliens and creatures that dwarf mountains.

Rachel Rising #2 (Abstract Studio) - This is the second issue of a new series written and drawn by Terry Moore, of Strangers In Paradise fame. While I never liked Moore's most famous series, his clever, light sci-fi follow-up Echo was remarkable, and this new horror project promises to be equally compelling. Moore and genre fiction seems to be a really good fit. In the first issue, a young woman named Rachel woke up in a shallow grave in the woods, seemingly brought back to life with only vague memories of a shadowy figure strangling her with a length of rope. This issue is mostly about Rachel's visit to her mannish coroner aunt, who, curiously enough, takes Rachel's presence as a hallucination of sorts, reacting very strangely to her niece. These scenes have an odd rhythm, as though something is subtly off, disconnecting the reincarnated Rachel from her former life.

Moore's drawing is as beautiful as ever; his line is graceful but just a little ragged, and he makes liberal use of white space so that the overall effect is spare and ethereal. He's a sublime draftsman, and he especially has an affinity for capturing the nuances of facial expressions and body language. In one wonderful two-panel sequence, a young woman comes home from a date, her face flushed, a distant, contented smile on her lips, and in the next panel her expression falls and her body language becomes antagonistic and coiled as she sees her sister, who has been spying on her. It's slightly cartoony, and Moore doesn't flinch from manga-esque exaggeration and cartoon devices like big dramatic sound effect lettering. He blends these cartoony flourishes with whimsical dialogue and contrasts the tonally lighter moments against the darkness and violence that forms the core of the book. To that end, the issue ends with a harrowing, brilliantly rendered sequence that suggests that the series' horror component is going to remain prominent (and very satisfying).