Thursday, 31 July 2008

Justice Society of America Annual 1

Now here's a fanboy's wet dream. Well, an old fanboy's - I can't see readers under 30 being as excited as I was at the prospect of Power Girl's return to Earth 2. As a very pre-Crisis reader, the idea of DC's Golden Age Earth having survived, and moved in on Peege's absence, was thrilling.

But boy, do I have mixed feelings about this, as it further muddies DC's post-Crisis, post-Infinite Crisis continuity. How I'd love to be able to enjoy the line of DC superstars without constantly wondering what history counts this week, and for how long.

That aside, it was fair intriguing to see Peege apparently reunited with the original Huntress, Helena Wayne, and other members of the JSA and Infinity Inc, here fully incorporated as Justice Society Infinity. Plus, it's a much-needed breather from the ongoing (and ongoing, and ongoing) Gog storyline in the monthly title.

Peege and the JSA are equally confused by her appearance among them but one area which always focuses the Last (But One) Daughter of Krypton's mind is action. Thus, she joins Huntress on a sortie to sort out the Joker, once and for all. Helena has good reason to finally decide to wipe the smile off the Clown Prince of Crime's face, as his twisted acts continue to hit close to home. Exactly what he's done sets up a nice moment of characterisation for Helena, and the confrontation between Dark Knight Daughter and her family's greatest enemy is wonderful. The Joker here, despite age and infirmity, is far creepier than the much lauded silver screen turn by Heath Ledger.

The team-up sets Peege on the way to feeling that, yes, she is home after all; that's when writer Geoff Johns throws a neat spanner in the works, confirming that all isn't as straightforward as it seems.

And here's my major gripe with this issue - whoever okayed the ad placement needs a slap. Not one, but two big reveals are scuppered by a flatplan that's dumped two significant splashes on right hand pages, opposite story rather than ad. You turn the page and see the surprise, prior to finishing the scene leading up to it - it's maddening.

And that's a shame, when it's so rare to find a clever moment in a book that's not been previewed to death. Luckily, this book had lots of other clever moments - clues that Gog's gift is ambiguous, to say the least; pleasing ties to the Huntress's solo strip in Wonder Woman back in the day; and Kara explaining her life on post-Crisis, then New Earth.

And the art is a blast. Infinity Inc and All-Star Squadron alumnus Jerry Ordway's work is beautiful here - it's a travesty that editors aren't begging him to sign an exclusive. Storytelling, figurework, body language, facial expressions . . . Ordway's pencils have it all. And they're lovingly embellished by fellow veteran Bob Wiacek, another guy we need to see more of.

Alex Ross's cover is impressive, but doesn't jump from the shelves, being lovely and ethereal without being grabby - Peege and pals look like they're in heaven, but the image is muted and crowded.

The lovely surprise this issue was a fabulous team poster - the regular team, not the 'Earth 2' people - that reminds us that the modern JSA are a group of regular folk with costumes and powers, not simply the icons many can be seen as. They're a group with personality.

I wish this issue had been truly standalone, a satisfying moment away before Peege is folded back into the main story. It's not, giving the Gog storyline further chance to ramble on, but nevertheless, this is a fine first annual.

Reign in Hell 1 review

Having given a lot of attention to its space heroes over the last few years, DC gives its supernatural sector a shot at greatness. The guiding light in hell is writer Keith Giffen, who helped make Marvel's cosmic crew popular again with the Annihilation series. He's joined by penciller Tom Derenick and, in what I consider a coup, the great Bill Sienkiewicz.

And this team make for a good-looking comic, albeit one populated by the ugliest critters in hell. Much of the first issue is spent reintroducing us to the factions fighting for hell's soul - Lord Neron, Satanus, Blaze, Lilith and their lackeys. There's lots of talk about the governance of the nether regions, which I found deadly dull - too, too Vertigo. So did I like the action? Nope, as it was difficult to enjoy, being laced with oodles of battlefield jabber, such as puts me off Checkmate (and look, it's cancelled, that'll show it). I know a lot of people feel this sort of thing makes comics more realistic, but I just don't have the attention span to chew over new maps of hell and consider satanic strategies.

So I was planning not to bother with future issues, but then the story brings in actual characters I enjoy - Shadowpact, Zatara, Linda Danvers, Azrael . . . oh all right, not Azrael, that's one Grant Morrison Hawkman substitute whose heavenly wings I'd love to see clipped. He's just, I dunno, funny looking with an annoying personality (dig my critical vocabulary). But there's the promise of enough going on with the characters I do like to keep me coming back, at least for a few issues.

What will likely have me on board for all eight issues of this book is the linked back-up strip, starring Doctor Occult, the mystic detective dating back to the Golden Age. He's not quite the fella he was, having fallen on hard times - Giffen comes up with a great concept to up his outsider status, 'asomatous pollution'. Over time, the people of Occult's neighbourhood are made antsy by the subtle aura of magic around him, and they move on. Poor soul.

But Occult does have someone to talk to, at least this issue, and their surprise appearance made my day. Hot on the heels of their Outsiders appearance - which I, er, missed - Ralph and Sue Dibney, the ghostly gumshoes, are back. And while the former Elongated Man is more serious than he used to be, it's just great to see him and the missus here. I do hope they show up again, but even if they don't, the Occult strip is so far much more appealing.

Drawing 'Debts Owed' is Stephen Jorge Segovia, a new name to me. The look is scratchy realism, and generally appealing, though there's a tendency to paint a grimace on faces at every opportunity. He does, though, convey the necessary world-weariness that characterises Occult here. Matching the art of 'Jojie' (see splash graffito)nicely are the colours of Dan Brown (I'm avoiding obvious comment, just this once), which are subdued, but not dull.

Mike Atiyeh, the colourist on the main story, 'Sundered Dominion', has more freedom to go mad with his palette, and this he does, giving us devilish reds, lizardly greens and succubus orange. Letterer Steve Wands, who also handles the short, shows off a tad here; for a scene in which Zauriel and Zatara must go undetected in hell, Wands finds a clever way to show us they're speaking a coded language - he comes up with a font named Bloody Unreadable, Stop It Now. I mean, God bless Mr Wands for going the extra yard, but said lettering style truly is a taste of hell.

Ah well, as I said earlier, the art looks good. Tom Derenick has become one of DC's go-to pencillers when it comes to solid superhero work. Bill Sienkiewicz is a comics legend, having moved from Neil Adams acolyte to his master stylist in his own right. They're an inspired pairing, with Derenick providing the foundations and Sienkiewicz the intensity. If they're together for the duration, that's another reason to buy.

And given that Keith Giffen is one of the few writers able to surprise me (though I could have done without Shadowpact's apparently out-of-characters actions this issue), I'll certainly try next issue at least. Politics and battles are obviously fundamental to the series, but having established his parameters in this premier issue, I expect he'll tone that stuff down next issue, and I'll have one helluva time.

Thursday, 24 July 2008

Uncanny X-Men 500 review

Can a comic be too pretty? It seems so. This anniversary issue features the artwork of Terry & Rachel Dodson and Greg Land & Jay Leisten. It's gorgeous, especially in the case of Land and Leisten - characters have perfect skin, beautiful smiles, angelic grace . . . but little life, no real dynamism. Whether we're watching the made-up Mayor of San Francisco tour the new X-HQ or our once more merry mutants battle for their lives, everything looks so damn nice that I wasn't drawn into the story. I stopped to gaze at every panel, wishing to step into this luscious world.

When Magneto finally showed up to cause trouble in San Francisco I didn't believe it. For page after page, I was expecting to learn we were in some Emma Frost mindscape, or Danger Room scenario.

There's more movement in the Dodson's sequences, but again, the sheer loveliness of the characters was distracting - even the Sentinels look like GQ models. And would-be clever chapter headings constantly obstructed the narrative flow.

As for the story, writers Ed Brubaker and Matt Fraction come up with a clever way to take a trip through Memory/Greymalkin Lane, a mutant pageant to mark an artist's latest installation - a leftover Sentinel. Knowing it's only a matter of time - minutes, as it turns out - until the giant robot poses a new threat to mutantkind, Cyclops and co suit up and mingle with the motley mob. And when the old master of magnetism joins the throng, it's a nice reminder of the X-Men's first battle with him, in issue 1. The magnetic effects by Land, Leisten and colourist Julian Ponsor are superb, whether I believed it was the real guy or not.

But it seems it is, and the sequence leads into a new plotline featuring a Marvel character who has played both sides of the line in his day. I may stick around to see where it goes, if only to enjoy Brubaker or Fraction's marvelously grandiose Magneto dialogue. Lines such as 'You play king of the mountain, boy. Boss around the dregs of a dying race and suckle on the teat of those that would see you driven before them' should surely have mopped up any doubt I had that this was the real deal.

I may also come back to see how come Fred Dukes, the Blob, is turning Japanese - has he really been Psylocked? And where do people's faces go when Greg Land pulls back his artistic camera? And, next time the mayor says the view from X-HQ is the best she's seen of SF Bay, will anyone deign to show the reader?

One thing I do know is that the Big Mutant Moment this issue will come back to bite the X-Men on the bum - a psychic declaration to all homo superior folk that henceforth SF will be their haven. In comics terms, SF has just had a great big target painted on it - Damage Control might as well open a branch there right now.

My favourite moment this issue was an understated demonstration of how hardcore the Angel is, and it was needed after an earlier scene that had me thinking Warren Worthington was about to move to the Castro.

What the book lacked was an explanation of the Dreaming Celestial - I must have missed that one plonking down in SF. Letting that hang around is as stupid as the mayor allowing Sentinels to be used as artwork, but that way conflict lies, and that's what comics need if they're going to get to 500. Happy Birthday X-Men.

Ambush Bug Year None 1

DC's greatest character is back after nearly 20 years.

Yes, 'Mazing Man is in this comic. OK, it's not a very flattering portrayal of the little guy, but it's good to see him. It's also good to see Ambush Bug back, breaking comics' fourth wall and pointing out the industry's cliches, silliness and general foibles. And he does this not by laughing at them, but by living them, here caught up in a mystery that goes to the heart of the Women in Refrigerators debate.

Someone is killing women in the DC Universe, and the latest victim is an old rival, Jonni DC - the continuity cop finally caught the DC bullet. That doesn't sound a barrel of laughs, but there are giggles aplenty here, at least for this old fanguy. Seeing the true secret origin of the original Batgirl (possibly) and learning the final fate of (Sugar and) Spike (I doubt it) was worth the price of admission. The trend away from thought bubbles and the darkening of minor characters are just two of the targets for humour. There are also plenty of speedy sight gags and a plethora of puns.

In his first DC work for years, Robert Loren Fleming does a sterling job scripting Keith Giffen's plot, even continuing an old gag about his demise. Giffen's pencils are a delight, being somewhere between his Legion of Super-Heroes Great Darkness Saga style, and the less popular Five Year Gap work. And inker Al Milgrom makes the art look nice and sharp - mind, his name has been omitted from the credits box - could that be a clue to the murderer's identity? Is Milgrom taking some sick revenge for being overlooked? Probably not. Anyway, big Too Dangerous For A Girl hugs to editor Jann Jones for championing this project and bringing smart stupidity back to the DCU.

Superman 678 review

Atlas came to Metropolis last issue and challenged Superman to a fight, and here the brawl continues. Hero and antagonist get down and dirty, watched by Lois Lane and Jimmy Olsen. We learn how Atlas got from ancient times to today, and how his nature changed from noble hero to power-hungry Titan.

It's a meaty issue so far as developing Atlas goes, adding a layer of complexity to the big buffoon who showed up last month. We can dislike him for the way he is now, while feeling sympathy for the man he once was. Can Superman redeem him? Possibly, but first he has to punch him a bit more . . .

So, writer James Robinson makes a decent fist of Atlas, but it's at the expense of other characters, most importantly, Superman. Yes, we've had decades to get to know Superman, but never as written by James Robinson, acclaimed author of Starman, The Golden Age and so forth. That's why I'm excited by the prospect of the current run, and while I don't doubt there will be character development aplenty in the coming months, I'm impatient.

This issue there's a page showing Lois and Clark having a breakfast table chat about Krypto, and lots of gritty posturing from Superman towards Atlas. There's also a scene with the mysterious woman running Metropolis Science Police, which is a tad tiresome. Well, I assume she's meant to be mysterious, it could simply be that artists Renato Guedes and Wilson Magalhaes haven't decided how she looks yet . . . (She sounds a cocky one, so it could be that cop-cum-slapper from Greg Rucka's run. I hope not, cos Lt Lupe looks great in comics limbo.)

Guedes and Magalhaes are required to do a Jack Kirby impersonation for the flashbacks, this version of Atlas being a creation of the King, and it's stunning stuff. Powerful, dynamic, a true tribute to Kirby's majesty. And Hi-Fi do a bang-up job on the colours, giving us a subdued Silver Age palette that turns back time; and while it's become something of a cliche, the four-colour dot matrix overlay effect works here.

The colours are less successful in the modern sequences - characters have an ugly pink skin tone. Heck, the nearly naked, muscle-bound Atlas looks like an uncooked sausage. And I don't like the shade of blue used for Superman's bodysuit and the grey/black given his hair.

The cover hues are a tad off, too - Alex Ross has composed a simple but memorable image, but both Superman and Atlas have a sickly green tinge.

Overall, this issue was more technically impressive than satisfying. I missed the characterisation and heart you find in a good Superman story - but the creators are talented, and I truly believe they want to do good by Superman, so my optimism remains. Up, up and away? Probably.

Thursday, 17 July 2008

Batman and the Outsiders 9 review

Ah Looker, proud possessor of the worst name, shallowest personality and nastiest costume in DC history. Probably. Certainly, as created by Mike W Barr and Alan Davis she was a contender. All she wanted out of life was to move from plain to zoftig, and when her powers gave answered just that wish she adopted a name to reflect that (well, in US parlance - as a Brit who'd never heard the term, I pretended it was Cockney rhyming slang). Worse, she donned a one-legged costume with Margaret Thatcher pussy bow and complemented the new look with freakish Seventies Marvel eye-make-up (see Dazzler and Marionette).

And other than a fine Clayface story in Detective Comics, I soon lost track of her, as Batman and the Outsiders entered a cycle of cancellation and rebirth. Along the way, I heard Looker had become a creature of the night, gaining vampire powers to add to her already considerable psychokinetic abilities. Oh, and I saw her in an issue of Wonder Woman, hosting a daytime TV show, as vampires do.

But here she is, in a title I've not read since the first issue, despite enjoying Julian Lopez's artwork therein. The Outsiders just hadn't gelled for me since they emerged One Year Later as a harder team, and this looked to be more of the same, but with the promise of such hated characters as Cassie Caine, aka Bat-Mute. Still, who could resist Dougie Braithwaite and Brian Reber's cover, and the chance to see if an old friend's dress sense has improved?

And hoorah, it has. Here, Lia Briggs is Looker in sexy leather coat, boots and scarf. It really works for her. Sadly, after serving a handy plot purpose - reading the mind of a troubled astronaut - she collapses. Bless.

Still, it was nice to see her, and if she were to stick around, along with writer Chuck Dixon, I'd likely be buying up the back issues and signing on for more. But we know Dixon's fallen out with DC and, in the words of Ben Affleck, is gone baby gone. Which is a shame, as he provides a masterclass in comics writing, introducing the characters, presenting the plot, adding characterisation, inserting action and finding a proper place for humour. Said laughs come from Metamorpho - though I find his current look too creepy to allow for much laughter - and, good God, Katana and Batgirl. And I hate Cassie Caine. Heck, it's beyond hate, it's a vocation. She's a reformed mute assassin in a gimp suit who went back to the dark side. I have no idea how come she's back on the side of the angels, but I've no room in my brain to work it out, so astonished am I that a wee gag about shopping had me liking her. What's more, Dixon then wrote a scene making me feel sorry for her. It's just not on.

That reaction was also prompted by the sensitive pencils of Lopez; boy, is that guy good, giving heroes individual faces that express recognisable emotions. Aided by the inker known as Bit (is someone shy?), he also does great monsters, cool cars and spooky undead lady effects. If I'm not going to be reading this book regularly, could someone at DC reassign him, please? Mind, would he go - he seems to be having great fun drawing the decolletage of Mrs Man-Bat, apparently the resident all-purpose scientist, alongside some fella named Salah who enjoys amusing asides with a red Omac named Remac. Oh how I hate all things Brother Eye.

I didn't hate this comic, though. Heck, I may go out and buy all the Dixon back issues anyway. Chuck Dixon has sucked me in. Just my Looker.

Birds of Prey 120 review

I've been looking forward to this issue, the official debut of Infinity, a new character previously seen only in a cameo. And she wins me over straight away by being British, like me . . . yeah, shallow, I know.

I also like her skill set - not only does she have phasing powers a la Phantom Girl of the Legion of Super-Heroes, she can commune with the dead. And that's when she gets a shock this issue, as a villain murdered by Doctor Sivana a while back is found hanging around the headquarters of the sinister Macintech (ooh, subtle). Infinity is on a recce mission for Oracle and proves as spunky (very) and as capable (errrr) as any new heroine. We don't find out much about her this time, but seeing her in action and getting hints of her pesonality is enough to keep me interested. And Stephane Roux makes her look great on the cover.

The other main thread this issue sees Manhunter vesus Black Canary, with Dinah understandably miffed that former partner and best friend Babs has sent a lackey to spy on her. The fight goes well - for one of them, at least - and the confrontation between Canary and Oracle is very satisfying.

Everyone looks great, as drawn by new artists Michael O'Hare and John Floyd, while Hi-Fo provide a thoughtful colour job.

My only real problem with an issue that develops the Platinum Flats storyline nicely is the cutting back and forth between scenes. Rather than paced for drama, there's random switching between the two storylines - get interested in one scene and you can guarantee we're immediately off to the other. OK, this is Comics Scripting 101, but the scenes are so short that it's just annoying. It's also confusing, as I thought one character had gone into flashback when we were actually back with another one. There are two transitional captions in the entire issue, and they great, really cool. They immediately let us know we're somewhere else - it's as if writer Tony Bedard suddenly remembers this isn't TV or film, wherein a split-second cut/wipe/whatever sends the message that the focus is shifting.

All in all, a pretty good issue; not amazing, but solid. Unlike Infinity.

Rogue's Revenge review

The first Final Crisis tie-in, Requiem, was a very nice surprise, but can DC keep up the standard? The second, Rogue's Revenge - a three-parter rather than the one-off devoted to the Martian Manhunter's life, death and legacy - sees the return of acclaimed Flash creative team Geoff Johns and Scott Kolins, so it's off to a good start.

First off, though, the cover. I picked up the Captain Cold cover, and the single image by Kolins could look fantastic, icily dramatic against the black background. Unhappily, Chip Kidd's trade dress works against it, with the massive word CRISIS plonked over the aforementioned Len Snart. I'm not blaming Kidd, it's not up to him to say how his design is used, but someone in DC's production department should have caught this. For example, why not have both words down the left-hand side of the cover, tying in with the main series, but appropriate for this book? DC, if you're reading this, feel free to use that notion for any reprint!

Inside, there's little to dislike and much to praise. The good stuff includes economic introductions to the main Rogues, ensuring that you don't have to be a Flash expert to enjoy this; the return to Central City of the Pied Piper after the horrors of Countdown; the revelation of Trickster's Last Will and Testament; a great close and more. Particularly appreciated is the return of Central City cops Chyre, Murillo and profiler (and Mrs Professor Zoom) Ashley Zolomon - they were important supporting characters to Wally back in the day, and it's great to see them here. It's especially good that they're looking into the murder of Bart Allen, it's nice to see someone cares.

The Rogues were their old selves in this issue, troubled souls, yes, and willing to slay in self-defence, but not the gleeful killers they seemed in Bart's short run as the Flash. Johns and Kolins don't try to make them likeable, but they keep them human, allowing us to enjoy them as protaganists. It's not an easy trick - there was no way, for example, I'd buy a book starring Black Adam, due to his monstrous acts and poor attempts at justification in 52.

The Rogues, though, know they're pretty crap; some of them have genius minds, but they've let themselves become losers. The fun of the game, of matching wits with Flashes, has gone, and as this book begins they're back from the prison planet seen in Salvation Run and ready to retire. They have just one loose end to tie up - Inertia, the psychotic teen speedster who put them on the road to killing Bart Allen.

Here's a quibble. Inertia appears in this issue, and he's still in the Flash Museum; but in last month's Flash, 242, when the place was burning down, Wally removed him. Unless the museum is rebuilt and Inertia returned, or this story ends with him back in the museum, we're left with yet another of the continuity cock-ups which have bedevilled DC books over the last few years. It's not the worst ever, and won't matter a hoot in future years, but when a comic is contradicting stuff from a month ago, that's not great.

I was going to complain about the ongoing bloodthirstiness of today's DCU, given some nasty deaths at the museum. Thinking on, though, it seems this isn't 'Superboy rips Pantha's head off/Black Adam tears Terra Man in two' so much as 'Inertia really is a few notches above the Rogues in terms of nastiness'. Inertia has sullied the good/bad name of Central City's criminals and the old guard will make him pay.

The Final Crisis aspect of this book comes with the lightning storms that may or may not be linked to the return of Barry Allen, and the inclusion of Libra, here preaching rubbish from DC's woeful Crime Bible maguffin. And along with hints of Barry, we have a scene with his widow, Iris, perhaps sensing Barry's return.

This scene is the one clunky moment from Kolins - staring out at the storm, she looks like a big-headed kid. The rest of the book, though, is stunning. Kolins owns Central City in a way no Flash artist has since Silver Age great Carmine Infantino. His characters look lived in and his storytelling is superb, driving the stories as much as Johns' words. Kolins is aided by the colours of Dave McCaig, who adds depth and texture to the pages - this is the first time I've been stunned by the beauty of Iris Allen's roof.

So yes, while a different animal, Rogue's Revenge is as worthwhile a Final Crisis tie-in as Requiem was. In providing an intriguing storyline re-establishing Flash's greatest foes and reintroducing us to a blue collar Central City rather than the generic place Wally is currently living in, Johns, Kolins and co have given us the best Flash story in years - and Flash isn't even in it.

Thursday, 10 July 2008

Detective Comics 846 review

What makes a great Batman villain? The Joker - face of an evil clown, puts a smile on the face of victims.

Scarecrow - dresses like his namesake, overwhelms enemies with fear.

Caqtwoman - garbed in a catsuit, works as a cat burglar.

Hush - wears bandages and, er . . . tells people to shut up in public libraries?

I dunno, I read his long debut in Jeph Loeb and Jim Lee's storyline, and all I recall is that he was a playboy doctor who'd been a boyhood pal of Bruce Wayne, and killed his dad cos he wanted to be an orphan. A worthy ambition, obviously.

Oh, and he spoke in the third person - maybe they could call him the Third Man? Or do something, anything to make him interesting.

Paul Dini, whose Detective Comics run has given us some cracking stories, doesn't manage that trick here. To be fair, he's saddled with having to recap Hush's dull back story and set up a tie-in to Grant Morrison's Batman RIP story. Said link amounts to 'Hahaha, the Black Glove wants to destroy Batman, but no one shall kill Hush's enemy but Hush, I tell you, Hush hahahah!' Cue an encounter with Gotham's worst themed criminal ever, Doctor Aesop - well, he can't be allowed to kill Batman either, can he? God knows why Hush wasn't concerned about the zillion other villains who might have killed his chosen nemesis since his last appearance, wherever that was, but we'll let that slide.

And yup, Doctor Aesop runs his crime empire (well, more a principality, this fella is strictly little league) according to the word of the Fables fella. This is either Dini showing that Gotham really does attract nuts out to make a name for themselves, or just not wanting to waste a decent villain on a Hush story. Anyway, the bad doctor (Aesop, not Hush) incurs the wrath of Catwoman via his use of dumb animals to illustrate his tale-telling, and this motivates a team-up with Batman.

Oh, oh, that reminds me, Selina mentions Jezebel Jet, Bruce's squeeze in Morrison's story. My apologies for being so terribly dismissive above - this is truly an essential RIP tie-in. It even says RIP on the cover.

Mind, it's easy to be dismissive of a story that seems to be this editorially mandated. Can Paul Dini please tell a tale of his own choosing soon?

Thank goodness for the artwork - Dustin Nguyen and inker Derek Fridolfs are suddenly channeling the spirit of Norm Breyfogle, and I like it. The pages are dynamic, open, loose in feel, yet tight in storytelling.

Nguyen alone provides the cover and it's an instant classic, well conceived and beautifully executed. It's just a shame the story - which is running to five parts (sigh) - doesn't live up to it.

The Last Defenders 5 review

I've always loved the Defenders, no matter which version. Hulk, Dr Strange, Silver Surfer, Namor; Hulk, Strange, Nighthawk, Valkyrie, Hellcat; Angel, Iceman, Cloud . . . really, it doesn't matter whether it's a 'non-team' or a would-be team, the book has always had something - at the very least, a great mix of characters; at best, great characters and gloriously convoluted plotting.

This mini-series has neither; with one issue to go, it's proving a rare misstep from writer Joe Casey, so good on such classic Marvel candy as Earth's Mightiest Heroes and Iron Man: The Inevitable. This should have been the proverbial shoo-in, a chance to build a new team around Nighthawk, probably the longest-serving member, and certainly the heart and soul of the team.

Instead we've had five issues of boring Initiative-related story, with Kyle surrounding himself with pretty dull and/or overused characters while trying to form a new Defenders. Blazing Skull, Junta and Paladin are among the former, She Hulk and Colossus the latter. Yes, the story is convoluted, but it's pretty much unintelligible, with, this issue, old Defenders baddie Yandroth wittering away about 'cosmic missteps' and 'tentacle choirs' while Nighthawk is thrown around his own past. And then we meet the final team, supposedly the true destined Defenders - She Hulk, a new Nighthawk, Warlord Krang (not so much a character as a sound effect) and - hey, an actual favourite of mine - the formerly sexy Son of Satan. In a horrendous new costume.

As for the art, Jim Muniz' people have a strange, plastic quality, and he seems to have problems conveying movement. And really, Damon Hellstron's hell horses should not look like My Little Pony. As for Yandroth's dress sense, is it really so tough for a professional artist to draw a suit? There's the occasional pleasant panel, but overall, this isn't my cup of tea.

The cover, by Rodolfo Migliari, is, though, gorgeous - so that's something!

And I'm buying this book, why? Because I'm an idiot, obviously. I grew up reading about a non-team, now I choose comics with my non-brain. Sad, really.

Action Comics 867 review

It's part two of the Brainiac storyline and Supergirl is on hand to guest - she even gets her own logo and backstory caption on the splash page. In a nice touch, she's described as 'fighting for truth, justice and the Kryptonian way'. Kara is further contrasted with cousin Kal as we see that she has memories of Brainiac taking Kandor in the days before Krypton died - and she's terrified. And the horror was personal, as her best friend, one Thora Ak-Var (in the Silver Age she was Kandorian scientist Van Zee's niece), was in the city.

I like that the people of Krypton, in this version, never knew that Brainiac stole the city and shrunk it, along with its inhabitants, down into a bottle; it adds to the mystery, and tragedy of Kandor. I also like Supergirl explaining to Superman that in all the 'Brainiacs' he's met, he's likely never encountered the real one - it's about time the current Supergirl was occasionally shown being the one with specific knowledge, not Superman. Most of all I like Kara absent-mindedly frying the Brainiac drone Superman has captured with her heat vision - this reminds us that Supergirl's powers are still new to her, and shows the fear, and anger, elicited by Brainiac.

Family is an important theme this month. We move from Superman comforting Kara to telling his parents about Brainiac - he knows his parents will worry, but their closeness won't allow him to lie to them, even for their own peace of mind. Pa and Clark share a few father/son memories, and while I could have done without the couple of pages they took up (surely everyone knows the back story?), it piles on the poignancy if a sad inevitability many suspect is on its way does indeed occur sooner rather than later.

Then it's over to Metropolis, where Mrs Kent is hoping to prevent recently returned gossip girl Cat Grant from running a piece slagging off Kara. Gary Frank and Jon Sibal demonstrate their Lois and Clark gets better by the month - they're not photo-realistic, they're comics realistic, and that's what I like. The husband and wife reporting team are attractive, and they look intelligent, something very few artists can convey.

Memo to Geoff Johns: 'That's enough Steve Lombard. Ed.' Seriously, while I'm glad to see a familiar face from the Bronze Age (perhaps even Golden Age, if we factor in Steve Bard), a little Lombard goes a long way. We don't need to see him harassing Planet colleagues with crap gags every issue; that way lies boredom for the reader, and dismissal for Lombard.(There's an idea, get rid of the big bum and bring back WGBS chat show host Steve Nevada!)

The action this issue comes when Superman finds Brainiac's drones attacking another planet and, finally, encounters his ship. It's a hard scrap, and not one Superman wins. It's also one that's not as clear as it might be - Frank's pencils are gorgeous, but I had to study the panels a few times to work out what (I think) was going on towards the end of the issue. I think a rocket from Brainiac's drone ship shoots off the planet, into the sun, and blows back towards the world, exploding it and killing those inhabitants not already taken and (presumably) shrunk. But I was put off by a panel of Superman (apparently) randomly looking back at the alien city in between shots of the rocket bomb. If I have the wrong interpretation, please share! Honestly, I'm not great with silent panels, and much prefer someone giving me expository dialogue - Superman should take Krypto everywhere,to have someone to explain things to. Heck, I'd settle for Johnny Nevada.

The final page is powerful, and bodes well for next issue. Despite my quibbles, the creatives are firing on all cylinders - a special shout-out this month to colourist Brad Anderson, whose unashamedly bright colours are perfect for a Superman book.

Now, bring on Brainiac - the real one.

Final Crisis: Requiem review

J'onn J'onnz died in the first issue of Final Crisis. It was a one-panel deal, it didn't move me and because we've seen so many heroes come back from the dead, it never felt like it mattered.

Now, it matters. Writer Peter Tomasi, penciller Doug Mahnke, inkers Christian Alamy and Rod Ramos, colourist Nei Ruffino and letterer John J Hill made me care. Heck, they made me cry, with a simple final page moment. This issue is a masterful example of how to give a hero a classic send-off; whereas in Final Crisis it seemed J'onn was ambushed and crisped, in about two seconds flat, here we see him fight back. He takes on awesome odds and nearly wins. We see just how powerful his mental powers are, both in battle and in saying his goodbyes to those closest to him.

For as J'onn dies, he reaches out to Superman, Hal Jordan, Black Canary, Batman and Gypsy. Yes, Gypsy. This is the moment I know J'onn really matters to Tomasi - he reminds readers that Cindy Reynolds, a heroine he'd taken under his wing during the JLA's Detroit spin and stayed close to ever since, was one of the most important people in his life. J'onn had lost his own daughter long ago, on Mars, and Cindy had seen her parents murdered by Despero; is it any wonder the empathetic Martian and spunky Earthling clung to one another? She doesn't have a big role in this book in terms of page time, but it's a huge one, emotionally.

The fight is rendered superbly by Doug Mahnke, in the best artwork I've seen from him - he seems to have tamed his love of massive figures and gone for a more classic look, in keeping with JG Jones' work on the Final Crisis mother book. I don't like gore in comics, generally, but it's justified here to point out that this is J'onn's toughest - final - battle. Standout moments include the discovery of J'onn's body by Nightwing (a nice touch, given J'onn debuted in the back of Detective Comics, with Robin and Batman in the front) and the final skewering of J'onn by Libra. Among the quieter moments, the funeral splash page is a masterpiece of perspective.

The funeral is wonderful in that it sees Superman, in his eulogy, mention J'onn's dry sense of humour, a nod to his JLA/JLI/JLE days, when J'onn gained a personality after three decades in comics. And we see the fun side of J'onn even as he's dying, attacking the villains with images of an ultra-violent Justice League, his 'super friends' - where Aquaman is slaughtering Ocean Master, Superman is ripping Luthor's heart out, and so on, J'onn imagines Batman snogging the face off bad girl Talia.

The book also gives us, through the neat device of J'onn transferring his memories and the history of Mars to Gypsy and co, a lively rundown of the terribly underrated Martian Manhunter book by John Ostrander and Tom Mandrake. Tomasi edited that run, and the recap here is him saying, 'hey guys, look at the great stories you missed'.

And that final page? In case you haven't read the book, I won't spoil it, but after pages of getting used to the idea that, yes, J'onn is gone, it's a classic, touching goodbye to the first hero of comics' Silver Age. If there's a better special from DC this year, I'll be amazed.

Wonder Woman 22 review

In which Diana, Stalker, Claw and Beowulf meet the demon D'Garth at a stone table that's not in Narnia, there's a betrayal, a twist or two and a rather sick fantasy sequence. Said sequence opens the issue, with Diana seeing just how far she may fall if she fails to hang on to her soul, infected by Stalker an issue or two back. As Her Radiant Majesty, she is served by her mother, honoured by other heroes and mistress of all she surveys with her red eyes. She's deluded, believing the better way is to kill her foes and mount their heads on pikes.

Hippolyte, though, implores her to not trust 'the red-eyed man' - Stalker, unless this is Gail Simone laying subplots. Unless this is the real Hippo somehow touching her daughter's dark dreams, it seems that despite Shamazons Attack, Diana still sees her mother as a moral touchstone, as much as the glowing lariat. That gives me hope that Gail will continue Hippo's redemption.

The art by Aaron Lopresti and Matt Ryan is stupendous here - I thought a lifetime of comics reading had shown me all the permutations of JLA as sword and sorcery figures, but the designs here will inspire a doll or two if DC Direct has any sense. The scenery, the layouts - all great stuff worthy of a great storyline. I must say, it was fun to see that saucy Circe makes a fine kebab, and that Veronica Cale is unworthy of Diana's notice. I liked that Darkseid is considered a personal foe by Diana, after his sins agains the Amazons, but who was that next to him, a darker than usual Ares? And the masked lady (?) at the far end of the splash head line?

And I just love Princess Diana's throne.

We see Diana Prince's throne (British parlance . . .) in a continuation of the Nemesis sub-plot, as he takes on the Gorilla City Guys with a bit of Mari McCabe perfume, his imager and general ingenuity. It's great to see that he doesn't for a second believe Diana has gone bad.

Elsewhere, Diana's fantasy passes and she meets the Oracle, whom we're told has a counterpart on all worlds, eliciting an 'ah' of recognition from Diana? Surely she can't be thinking Babs Gordon, as this woman is a mischievous minx, telling Diana to beware of a traitor?

Mind, she's right, and it's the revelation of said betrayer which sets up the thrilling climax, and next issue. That also promises an appearance from a guest star who shows up in Diana's apartment. And she's looking good.

Sunday, 6 July 2008

Trinity 5 review

The fight against the horribly named Konvikt and Graak ends with each of the Big Three doing their part. Superman and Wonder Woman biff and bash, while Batman provides the brains, using something from the bad guys' spaceship to end the fight.

The action is good, as drawn by Mark Bagley and Art Thibert, but the characterisation? Good grief, writer Kurt Busiek surprises with surprisingly bad moments for Wondy and Supes. First of all Superman becomes a bit jealous that Diana may get to end the battle against Konvikt, then Wonder Woman gets all flirtatious about whether or not Batman and Superman will tell her to get some cuts checked out, in case she feels patronised. A stupid moment followed by a tremendously stupid moment - Busiek has been writing these characters on and off for decades, so where is this coming from? Is he trying too hard to compare and contrast personalities?

The second strip has more of Tarot and Gangbuster, taking on three obscure but powerful villains, Blindside, Throttle and Whiteout. Rita provides the sage advice, Jose does the hitting, and all works out well, though witch lady Morgaine's beasties are looming at the end. It's a decent enough chapter, with my only complaints being around the art - the usually dependable Mike Norton and Mark Farmer draw Jose as Asian rather than Hispanic; and Tarot isn't a superhero - there's no reason for her to wear the same outfit day after day.

All in all, not a bad issue, but this series has yet to grab me - it's competent, but not terribly exciting.

Friday, 4 July 2008

All-New Atom 25

Ryan Choi loses his book, as sales once more prove the enemy few can beat (ahem! Spider-Girl, Manhunter, Blue Beetle), but wins the day. Well, to an extent. The long-running storyline in which Ivy Town residents are thrown into a world in which time runs differently and scary worms eat people gets a conclusion of sorts, but it's not a satisfying one. A favourite character is sacrificed to no good effect, the impact of their heroic demise waved away by their supposed lover, and the villains get away. OK, the escape of Mr and Mrs Chronos gives Ryan Choi reason to remain the Atom, now Ray Palmer is back in Ivy Town, but I really want a hero to win big in his final issue. Plus, Ryan's character demands he remain a costumed hero anyway - we've been following this guy for two years, seen him grow as a crimefighter; there's no way he'd give it up, especially as his powers are now internalised.

As for the aforementioned Ray Palmer, I was expecting him to be revealed as a fake - he's brusque with Ryan, oddly unwilling to costume up to help out, terribly enigmatic for no apparent reason and tells Ryan that taking time out from being a hero might be a good idea. He's a bit of a jerk, truth be told. But apparently it is the Silver Age Atom, meaning that where Ryan is continuing Ray's legacy, Ray himself is spitting on it.

I don't know what happened to writer Rick Remender here - supposedly he accepted the Atom assignment knowing he was wrapping the book up, so why leave us with loose ends at the close of five issues? There's no excuse - even if DC plans to have Ryan hunt down his foes in the pages of another title, this title ends here, and readers who have stuck with it want closure.

As for the artwork, it looks rushed compared to previous issues from penciller Pat Olliffe and inker John Stanisci, and surprisingly scratchy. There's a pleasing energy to the pages, but I've seen this team do better. It's as if they just gave up, along with Remender.

And that's a shame, and that's annoying - I've been a big booster of their work here, and feel the world's smallest hero deserves a bigger finish.

Astonishing X-Men 25 review

Warren Ellis and Simone Bianchi take over the writing and art assignments from Josh Whedon and John Cassaday and the difference is immediate. Where the previous creative team went for epic adventure - mad robots, interplanetary warfare - here we have a murder mystery.

And it's a great one. Newly ensconced in San Francisco, the X-Men are asked by the local police department to help out when a spinning, burning corpse is found. Members use their powers and abilities to piece together clues to the man's death in a sequence that reads like CSI: X-Men. It's immensely satisfying to see our heroes do something other than smash and blast, and a wonderful change of pace to have them not 'feared and hated by a world they have sworn to protect'. For whatever reason, the City by the Bay likes having the X-Men around, and after two decades of relentless angst, it's good to see.

It's also good to see Storm back with the team, for reasons that make sense for her new role as Queen of Wakanda, and old role as full-time superheroine. The other members are holdouts from the previous run - Cyclops, Beast, White Queen, Wolverine and Point of View Girl aka Armor (brrrr, nasty US spelling!). Really, if Warren Ellis achieves just one thing with his stint, I hope it's to show us just why Armor deserves to be on the team - her power's not amazing, her character's nothing new; she's just the latest ingenue, following in the footsteps of Kitty Pryde and Jubilee. All she does is remind me that I'd rather have either of the other two around.

Armor, or Hisako to use her given name, seems a nice enough girl. She's witty, but so is everyone under Ellis. The dialogue is as snappy as any penned by Whedon, and I like that - even when I couldn't follow the Breakworld shenanigans, I enjoyed this as the witty X-book, and it's lovely to see the tradition continue. I also like that Ellis also shares Whedon's knack for character interaction, and respect for history. Having enjoyed his work on Excalibur, Nextwave and other Marvel B-books, I hope he'll take the opportunity to go wild on this flagship book.

As for Bianchi, I know his work only from DC's Shining Knight and various covers, so it's intriguing to see him on such a hot ticket. And the work is good, with expressive characters and decent storytelling, though it doesn't knock me out. I think I'd like it more without Simone Peruzzi's relentless gloomy colouring - the story lets us know that these are better days for the X-Men and I'd like to see that reflected in brighter hues, at least until the story darkens, as seems inevitable.

Still, that's quibble territory. For giving us a straightforward yet stylish tale, I thank Messrs Ellis, Bianchi and co.