Wednesday, 31 December 2008

Final Crisis Secret Files 1 review

There are two covers to this issue, one featuring the villain Libra, the other, Wonder Woman. I prefer the Libra one, not just because I like Frank Quitely's image more than that of Richard Friend and Randy Mayor, but because it shows a character actually featured in the issue. There's no real reason for Wonder Woman fans to buy this book, as she shows up only in flashback group scenes, and doesn't get so much as a line. It's all very odd.

The actual comic isn't bad. There's a look at Libra's origins, showing that he's been involved with Darkseid longer than we knew and giving him Golden Age connections not possible when he appeared pre-Crisis. It answers some questions I had and is thoroughly competent, but eminently missable; the greatest pleasure it gave me was seeing Libra's creator, Len Wein, credited as scripter.

Well, that and laughing at Libra's original costume again. Darkseid gives him a cover-up cloak and new boots - who knew the dark Lord of Apokolips had taste?

That first story, nicely drawn by one Tony Shasteen, takes up most of the issue. The rest is feature pages - Grant Morrison shows up with a thoroughly confusing history of the Anti-Life Equation (do we really need anything beyond 'it's a mystical maths concept that turns people into Darkseid's drones'?).

Greg Rucka, Steve Lieber and Eric S Trautmann give us The Words of Lilith, a page from the Crime Bible, but as with the similar offerings in DC's CB mini series, I tried to plough through it, but couldn't be bothered to finish. Cod-biblical prose written in semi-script, red on orange, with a colour-hold underlay, doesn't make for an easy read. Hasn't DC heard of 'over-designed'?

I did enjoy Morrison and JG Jones' Secret Files Sketchbook, which looks at the Justifiers, dark Mary Marvel and various other FC-related types. The most intriguing inclusion is a slightly tweaked classic Aquaman, hinting that Arthur Curry will be back among the DCU mainstays soon (click for a close-up).

All in all, this is a decent way to spend half an hour, but eminently missable.

Secret Invasion: Requiem . . .

. . . or, The Skrulls Got Me Killed and All I Got Was This Lousy Cover.

Brrr, that really is a weird illo from Khoi Pham. What's the Wasp known for? Being a tiny superheroine. What do we have here? A composition that makes Janet Van Dyne look huge. And ugly. Really, the woman has her eyes closed and wears a beatific smile, as if she's just let off a secret fart. And why does Hank appear three times in the image? One for each personality (this week)?

The Wasp had more than 200 costumes. Some of them were even attractive. So why not just give us a simple pic of Janet wearing one of them, in heroic pose, with the Avengers? The original members are here, but they just crowd the image rather than salute Jan in any way.

Yes, I'm going on, but Pham has talent - as seen in this issue's new story - and this drawing is just plain peculiar.

The contents of the issue are more pleasing - that new story featuring Hank and robotic Avenger/Ultron's first wife Jocasta ruminating on the late superheroine, framing two classic stories. Said reprints are the Wasp's origin, as she becomes an insect girl to battle 'The Creature from Kosmos' and the story that came to define the Jan/Hank relationship (wrongly), Court Martial.

I'd not read the older tale, by Stan Lee, HE Huntley, Jack Kirby and Don Heck previously, and it's fascinating to see that Hank was patronising and dissing Jan from their very first meeting. And she just takes it, seeing his demeanour as a challenge for her feminine wiles.

It's interesting that Hank never tells Jan why he's initially attracted to her - she's a younger lookalike for his late wife, Maria. Not creepy at all, then.

It's funny, I've defended Hank Pym over the years when people try to make the time he hit Jan, while under terrible stress, define their entire relationship, his whole character. But reading this first meeting of Ant Man and the Wasp, seeing what a creep he was even at the beginning, then re-reading Jim Shooter and Bob Hall's 'Court Martial' and seeing Hank as a freaking lunatic from beginning to end, not just towards Jan but the entire Avengers . . .

. . . factor in the reminders of their long relationship in a text piece at the end, reminding us just how often Hank lost his marbles/Pym particles and I wonder why he's ever allowed to be on an active Avengers roster. The man surely needs ongoing psychiatric help and superheroic supervision. And Jan should have knocked her neediness for this nasty father figure on the head long ago.

Dan Slott, who writes the new piece, 'How I'll Remember You', knows this. He goes straight for the self-aggrandising side of the scientist, having Hank claim Jan wasn't always his true love, she was his 'groupie'. Read the Kosmos tale following and it's clear she was nothing of the sort - she was a young woman determined to avenge (aha!) her murdered father and, seeing the brave soul within, Hank actively recruited her to be his partner. Yeah, she was a tad soppy, but heck, her father had just died, she was vulnerable. Does Hank notice, in his retelling, that he was too stupid to think to grow to normal size when called on to fire a gun, rather than employ the aid of ants? He does not, cos he's the big hero and Jan was his 'greatest experiment'. Arse.

The surprise superhero this issue isn't the new-look Hank Pym, as he becomes legacy hero The Wasp. No, it's reprint colourist A (which I think stands for Andrew) Crossley. While his hues don't make a great deal of difference to 'Court Martial', the 'Kosmos' art is a revelation. Crossley uses today's techniques to add depth to the Kirby/Heck artwork I'd never have guessed it needed. Yes, the original colour job has charm, but it's fascinating to see how great Kirby and Heck might look if they were teamed today.

As well as the aforementioned hero history pages, the issue is rounded off by the reprints' original covers and a gallery of the Wasp's Wardrobe of Wackiness (who could forget George Perez's one-legged number? Or George Perez's bridal layered creation. Or . . .). This really is a fine reprint-plus package from editors Cory Levine, Jeff Youngquist and Jeanine Schaefer.

BUT DID YA HAVE TO KILL OFF JAN?! She could be dead for weeks.

Tuesday, 30 December 2008

Wonder Woman 27 review

Superheroes have a code against killing. Everyone knows that. A lesser known understanding is the Code of Dibs. Members of a heroic family can claim a conflict as their own even if regular, non-powered people are threatened and other heroes are willing and able to help out. The rule is amply demonstrated this issue as Donna Troy calls Wonder Girl about Diana's thrashing last issue by villain du jour Genocide. (Click for a close-up.)

Yep, Diana is half-dead, civilians have been gutted and the creature responsible is loose, but does Donna call in the reserves? Nope, it's a matter of pride that Diana's dignity is preserved.

That's the dignity of Diana, a woman who struts around in a star-spangled swimming costume . . .

Dearie Lord, Donna Troy, has Dick Grayson taught you nothing? Get a clue!

That's the one bum note in an otherwise exemplary issue. It's part two of Diana's big storyline, the Rise of the Olympian, and it's full of incidents to intrigue - Athena's apparent manipulation of the reborn Zeus, who recalls the amnesiac Amazons to Paradise Island; Nemesis's declaration of his Amazon status to a bemused Donna; Genocide's incorporation of the lasso into her very body; mass murder at the Department of Metahuman Affairs; the JLA cavalry (they're pros, they don't wait to be invited!); and a startling offer by Zeus to Hippolyte.

And Wonder Woman? Poor Diana has little to do but moan intermittently, but this issue was so good I barely noticed her lack of impact. She'll be back, I know, but meanwhile I'm just thrilling to the fireworks being lit under her world.

Providing the sparks are writer Gail Simone, penciller Aaron Lopresti and the rest of the creative team. Simone works hard to provide a variety of voices as she plonks her characters into dire situations either physically or subtly dangerous. Lopresti and inker Matt Ryan, meanwhile, ensure the panels drip with drama. I especially loved that they provided a moment of pure comic art, via judicious use of sound effects.

God bless them for embracing the grammar of the comic book form; I'm so tired of artists who try for the 'cinematic' - big dull panels, sometimes featuring nothing more than big dull buildings. Nope, I'm all about the fun.

And that's what this issue is, despite the carnage (hey, people are being slaughtered, but they're pretendy people!). Fun. And the Olympian hasn't even risen yet!

Saturday, 20 December 2008

Hellblazer 250 review

God help ye merry gentlemen, it's John Constantine's 250th issue and it's a Christmas special to boot.

As a treat, many former creators have been invited back and first off we have Dave Gibbons and Sean Phillips with Happy New Fucking Year. Once upon a time Vertigo couldn't use the old expletive; now they can and it's everywhere in this tale. For me, the freedom detracts from the story, drawing attention to itself like a little kid saying 'look at me pee'. That apart, this is a great little episode, with John on top form as he tries to stop a baby being sacrificed by a madman. There's a real sense of London here, produced by Gibbons' script and the masterly compositions of Phillips. Could these fellas be signed up for a run please?

Original Hellblazer writer Jamie Delano warms the cockles of the heart with Christmas Cards, though it's almost scuppered by the tortuous details of the card game - poker fans never notice that the rest of us aren't actually fascinated by the game's ins and outs. David Lloyd provides full colour art, somehow managing to lend softness to his grainy finishes. And extra points for use of the very British phrase 'Christmas box'.

Brian Azzarello authored my least favourite Hellblazer run. I'm not saying an American couldn't get Constantine, but for me, this one didn't. Even the speech patterns seemed off. Perhaps Azzarello agrees, as here he avoids dialogue, instead giving us a story in verse. It's not great verse, but I'll be charitable and assume that's deliberate, as All I goat for Christmas is the work of 'Jimmy Przeska, Local 432'. Would Local 432 be a trade union? I dunno. I also didn't get the resolution of this tale of a demon goat and a sports team, but Rafael Grampa's artwork was delightfully expressive. If a tad too brown, as coloured by Marcus Penna.

The Curse of Christmas is a six-page gem from Peter Milligan and Eddie Campbell, a story of dark political shenanigans that's all too plausible to any Brit who has had to endure the Queen's Christmas Day address to the nation (all of us). The nearest thing I have to a quibble is the lower case font used by Jared K Fletcher, which brings to mind Janet and John books. Or Marvel's Ultimate line.

Closing off the issue is the charming Snow Had Fallen, which is one of the most original Constantine tales I've read, yet totally true to our poor man's Merlin. China Miéville's script is bright, yet works for a Hellblazer entry, and Giuseppe Camuncoli and Stefano Landini match the mood with their attractive art. The short concerns dark doings surrounding an apparent industrial accident and its sheer cleverness made my day. I think this is Miéville's first Hellblazer story; Vertigo, don't let it be his last.

So that's five stories, three of them delights, one pretty good and one that's not my cup of tea but will likely appeal to others. Plus, a splendidly spooky festive cover by Lee Bermejo. Who says comics can't get anthologies right? A big pat on the trenchcoated backs of editors Brandon Montclare and Bob Schreck for a job well done.

Friday, 12 December 2008

Final Crisis 5

The battle for Earth continues on various fronts, with the forces of Darkseid threatening to underwhelm the human resistance as DC's biggest event series for years continues. There are some brilliant moments, surprising turns of events, which I won't spoil; suffice to say that writer Grant Morrison is having a tremendous time playing in DC's playpen. Even when the toys may not have existed previously - Sivana Jr's quantum blunderbuss, at a guess - you know they should have.

There's also some great dialogue, including the spouting of, basically, anti-life advertising slogans, and my favourite line: 'Have you any idea how easy it is for a god to hollow out a living mind and hide in the bleeding shell?' Scary - and that's a feeling comic book gods rarely evoke.

Incidental delights include someone from the Marvel Family actually noticing Mary is in big trouble, the Guardians quoting Flash Gordon and the appearance of a restored Tempest.

An irritation is the lack of captions. Scenes change from page to page with nary a word of explanation - if ever a series needed a Marvel-style recap page this is the one. I've been following Final Crisis throughout, and reading most DC superhero titles for decades, and I was occasionally scratching my head. I believe the thinking is that scene changes without Meanwhiles and Elsewheres or setting notes make for a smoother, more cinematic read (hey, comics have to pretend to be movies, except when they trying to be TV, with 'Seasons' rather than volumes). Not so. Instead of transitions, we get jerks. Rather than being pulled along at breakneck speed, I'm thrown out of the comic by trying to work out where in the story I am. Would it really ruin the beauteous flow of the book to occasionally give a reader a hand?

JG Jones, Carlos Pacheco, Marco Rudy and Jesus Merino provide some sensational artwork, bringing drama to the battles scenes and intensity to the quieter moments. Their spread of the heroic underground attacking Darkseid's goons is, as they used to say, suitable for framing.

So that's five issues down, two to go, and hope in sight for Earth. Wouldn't it be nice if DC forgot about the Anti-life Equation and solved the On-Time Shipping Quandry? We can but hope.

Thursday, 11 December 2008

Green Arrow and Black Canary 15

This comic has everything a first issue should have - an origin recap, a look at the main relationships and an action sequence or two.

It's a shame, then, that this isn't a first issue. It's number 15 and it seems new writer Andrew Kreisberg hasn't noticed. Why else spend pages showing us Ollie's beginnings and how much he and Dinah love one another? The latter comes in cringeworthy dual narrative boxes as Ollie bids to rescue Dinah from Dregz the Throwaway Villain.

Who? Exactly. He's just there to hold Dinah - knife to the throat, of course, so she can't use her sonic scream to save her own bacon - while Ollie has his 'in case you just joined us' flashbacks for, in the words of the title, 1.078 seconds. As well as the origin and relationship stuff, Ollie's thoughts bring us up to speed about some actual fresh happenings, as Mia and Connor Hawke are speedily written out.

Kreisberg does deliver some nice moments, such as Ollie calculating his shot, and a terrific line from Dinah as she finally gets to defend herself, but these are balanced out by some horrid dialogue. Connor, for one, seems to have spent his convalescence watching bad daytime soaps, telling Ollie and Dinah: 'This isn't a reflection on you. It's about my reflection. The one that stares back at me in the mirror. It's not mine yet. I don't know if it's because I've lost something . . . or maybe now I realise that I need something that I've never had. But even if I don't know who I am . . . I know where home is'

This last line is said as Conner hugs his dear old dad, and Dinah looks on adoringly. Pass the sick back Ethel.

I wonder if Kreisberg is simply trying too hard - some of the narration is very self-conscious, as if he's trying for the poetic. Certainly it doesn't seem the sort of thing Ollie would have going through his head in a combat situation. Really, what motivates the flashbacks? Ollie needs to be in the moment, not playing 'who I am and how I came to be'. It's not even as if a recap is needed so soon, Andy Diggle spent a whole mini on Green Arrow's early years recently - and there's another look due in a month or two, as DC has its Origins and Omens month. Maybe editor Mike Carlin thought TV writer Kreisberg (Boston Legal, Eli Stone) would entice new readers, and wanted to bring them up to speed. If that's the case, Dinah should have had her close-up too, as this is meant to be her book as much as Ollie's.

Still on the narrative front, please, no Superman/Batman-style alternate thought boxes; they're just plain annoying. If we're going to have internal monologues, use the grammar of comics, that is, bubbles. They worked fine for 60 years or something.

A query for more regular readers than me (I jumped ship a couple of issues into the current series as Judd Winick's fast and loose style of plotting failed to appeal): when exactly did Dinah gain super-speed? She surely has it this issue.

All in all, not a great first effort from Kreisberg - too much Green Arrow 101, not enough Green Arrow and Black Canary 15. Add in some clunky humour forcing Dinah into the role of Seventies sitcom mom and a melodramatic aside involving an apparently abused wife, and you have a middlingly entertaining book that's nowhere near the smart read I expected from a professional TV guy. But I'll give Kreisberg another couple of issues, see where he goes once he gets the transition stuff out of the way (I expect Dinah to have an origin recap next month). Maybe he'll find a tone for the book I like.

As for the art, penciller Mike Norton always does a decent job, and he has one or two great moments here, such as Dinah using her canary cry, and Ollie in his original garb (before he pulled on a hood, apparently deciding that archers didn't need peripheral vision). And I was delighted to see veteran Joe Rubinstein on inks, the man is terribly undervalued.

The 'new era' is underlined by a painted cover by Jose Ladronn and it's not great - awkward positioning makes Ollie look like a headless bug while Dinah looks like a senior citizen in a fright wig. And the threatening Dregz only just edges his way into shot. I'm tired of painted covers on comics that use line art, they just don't work - give me a sharp Brian Bolland or Alan Davis illo anytime. Or why not give Norton and Rubinstein a crack,if they're sticking around?

Friday, 5 December 2008

Terra 3

It's the penultimate issue of the four-part mini and we learn just who Terra is, and what her relationship is to the two late heroines who went by that name. There's a fight between our teenage earthmover and zombie master Deathcoil for the life of Geo-Force in which the main battleground seems to be the world of truly awful banter, more under-Earth races and two dastardly villains.

Scripters Jimmy Palmiotti and Justin Gray have produced a script that's as light as a good souffle and occasionally as tasty, while Amanda Conner draws up a storm. Special praise to her, and colourist Paul Mounts, for one of the best-looking underworld kingdoms ever. It almost makes me forgive the bikini on the rock-mermaid.

Terra seems to have a new use for her powers this time, manipulating crystals a la the late, unlamented Teen Titan Kole, and it makes me laugh that she still hasn't run into Richard the transformed mad scientist I'd assumed would be her big bad. I'd also assumed his girlfriend, Veronica, was Wonder Woman baddie Veronica Cale, but after hilarious scenes involving them this time, it looks like I was wrong.

So, one more issue of a comic that won't change the world but has proven a fine palette cleanser in this age of never-ending events. It looks as if Terra is destined to join the Teen Titans and it'll be wonderful to see such a fine young lady join that over-excitable team.

Thursday, 4 December 2008

Marvels: Eye of the Camera 1

Fourteen years ago Kurt Busiek and Alex Ross made their first real impression on the comics industry with Marvels, a look at the early Marvel Universe through the eyes of news photographer Phil Sheldon. Ross's next big project was Kingdom Come (with Mark Waid). For the last few months Ross has been revisiting the Kingdom, and now Busiek returns to the Marvels well.

He hasn't got Ross with him, but Jay Anacleto and Brian Haberlin do a passable job of reproducing the Ross vibe. Once again we see a lovingly rendered New York of the early Sixties, once again we see stiff-looking people, caught mid-pose. While there are impressive shots of the Human Torch and, er, Phil's darkroom, this style just isn't my cup of tea for superhero stories. If it's painterly realism versus comic book dynamism, I'll take the latter any day.

Reading this book felt like being dragged into a swamp as the art combined with Busiek's super-wordy, introspective script, which told us that Phil was worried about his family, career and the future of a changing world. The book is set in the early Marvel U, yes, but there's none of the joy Stan Lee, Jack Kirby and friends poured into every panel. The ending of the book is a particular downer, and you'll likely see it coming when you notice something going on that Marvel editor-in-chief Joe Quesada won't allow in his books.

I get the impression we're meant to identify with Phil's everyman nature, but his ordinariness equals zero charisma. There's even a 'Phil Sheldon created by Kurt Busiek and Alex Ross' credit, as if he were the character find of 1994. I turned every page desperate for a nice big shot of Galactus or Fin Fang Foom; instead I got developing fluid and My First Spectacles (courtesy of the Metaphor Fairy). The FF turn up occasionally, and there are a couple of great Ant-Man gags, but these are mere passing pleasures.

Whether there were any more photo opportunities in the Marvels genre I don't know. All I can say is that snapper Phil left me feeling negative.

New Avengers 47

The hell?

I bought this issue for the promise of a Hawkeye focus, and got an issue of Alias. And while I enjoyed Alias, it was of its time, and that was a time when Brian Michael Bendis' never-ending back and forth chitchat seemed fresh. Now it reads like three-day old cheese; here a *!&$?, there a silent panel, everywhere a 'the hell?'

Yes, it's fascinating to see Bendis working with Michael Gaydos again, there's no denying they gel, but the bulk of this issue was a throwaway look at an early incident in the Luke Cage/Jessica Jones relationship. And in the week that Secret Invasion concludes, I want something newer, more exciting than another peek at a relationship we know well.

Billy Tan and Matt Banning provide decent artwork for a framing sequence which takes place in the days prior to the SI, and ends on an SI cliffhanger. The sequences are bookended by big close-ups of a highly emotional Cage but there doesn't seem to be any point to this; it comes across as dull coincidence.

Thank God this should be the last filler issue, and actual stories of the New Avengers team resume next issue. I've had enough of Solo Anyone Linked To Avengers.

Justice Society of America 21

Look at that cover - Alex Ross has entered his red period. Oh dear.

Following on from last week's excellent The Kingdom special, this sees the pro and anti-Gog factions of the JSA unite to battle the self-proclaimed god now he has shown his hand. Predictably, but satisfyingly, several members pay the price in a Geoff Johns script that's choc-full of fine character moments.

That's pretty much it for story, but it's a hugely enjoyable issue as the entire membership wakes up to the fact that sometimes you should look a gift god in the mouth and take note of the creepy child molester grin.

The only off-note in this issue is on the face of it an art issue, but it plays to character: Alan Scott's outfit. He dons the green knight look Alex Ross designed for Kingdom Come. Complete with loincloth. Did he run out of green energy metal around the crotch? This is a man born at the beginning of the 20th century, is he having a late-life crisis?

The actual art is pretty nice - I think it's mostly Dale Eaglesham and Nathan Massengill, with a bit of Jerry Ordway and Bob Wiacek here and there, as indicated by the cover credits. The interior credits are absent, though there is a lovely black panel on page 4.

Next issue, 'the long awaited' conclusion - has DC been reading my whines?

Batman 682 review

Now this is the most fun I've had with a Grant Morrison Batman story since the caped crusader opened his 'sci-fi closet' back in Justice League Classified. 'The Butler Did it' runs through Batman's history from his earliest days, dating Julie Madison and solving 'The Case of the Chemical Syndicate'; through the era of adventures on other worlds; the New Look; debut of Nightwing and beyond.

Along the way there are nods to the just-finished RIP storyline, and the knitting together of continuity threads. For example, we learn that the Silver Age Batwoman whom Batman loved is indeed the same Katy (she lost her H, and niece Betty her Bat-Girl hyphen!) Kane who later dated Renee Montoya and is the new Batwoman - not so new after all, then. Circus boy Dick knew she liked girls, but didn't know how to tell Bruce, it seems. And we see the moment Bruce decides that sex is OK, commitment less so, and acknowledgement of the Joker's changing levels of viciousness.

As for what's going on, why the flashbacks, it's linked to Final Crisis, but I'll leave you to discover that for yourself. Safe to say this is an immensely satisfying issue for lovers of the Batman legend. Morrison provides some wonderfully appropriate dialogue for the ever-delightful Alfred - his musings on other identities Bruce might have adopted are priceless. The conclusion to this tale next month - advertised in the comic as Morrison's final issue, despite Dan Didio's recent reluctance to confirm the writer's exit from the title - can't come soon enough.

Not least because it means we'll get to see more from artist Lee Garbett, a new name to me, though he's worked for Wildstorm and is, I'm delighted to learn, a fellow Brit. With inker Trevor Scott, Garbett produces some beautiful Batman artwork - nicely composed pages filled with handsome heroes and filthy villains. His original Robin is spot on, while modern-looking; Batman gets to show some human expressions; and Alfred looks like the rock he is. I hope we see this team again soon - they're made for the upcoming Batman and Robin title, surely?

Alex Ross, on cover duty, provides a striking psychedelic scenario, though he's given us a montage linked to the Adam West TV series rather than represented this issue. It does, I suppose, jibe with the idea of shifting Batman memories, so let's assume that was the intent.

Supergirl: Cosmic Adventures in the Eighth Grade 1

Here's the Maid of Might younger than we've ever seen her - think Mite of Might -in a new series from the Johnny DC line. That's what DC call all-ages and most of us think of as kiddie. I haven't a kiddie here to review it, so let's see if I can enjoy it in an all-ages way.

The art by Eric Jones is pretty appealing, once you get past the massive-headed Kara on the cover. Mind, there's no denying this will catch the eye of the young 'uns. I'm not sure how many boys will try it, though - yes, it has a little Superman in the corner, but that logo is sooooo very girlie.

Inside we see Kara stranded on Earth from her home on Argo City after she mounts a mini-rebellion against her folks. Her meetings with Metropolitans are amusing, and Superman is immediately welcoming. To a point - taking a cue from his Silver Age self, Supie decides Kara will be his secret weapon. But does he take her in, this scared, confused kid? Does he heck, by the end of the issue Kara's living in a Girl's Dormitory. Private school? An orphanage? I don't know, but will today's kids be as forgiving of a neglectful Superman as readers were back then?

Writer Landry Q Walker provides some cute scenes showing Kara having a tough time in class, and a subplot which sees her power fade (I don't trust that gym coach!) in a light, bright, good-looking read that doesn't talk down to readers.

The character design isn't bad - Supergirl wears a version of her original costume, but the blue tights under the red dress just don't work (I tried it myself prior to writing this review). Still, Kara's a spunky wee soul and if the quality keeps up this book could last awhile. I'll certainly be back.

So, when does Kara get a super-cat?