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.