Thursday, 26 February 2009

Blue Beetle 36 review

Blue Beetle buzzes off with this issue after a respectable three-year run. That's respectable so far as the amount of issues published is concerned. In terms of quality, the book's been far beyond respectable - it's been consistently excellent (hey, editor Rachel Gluckstern, take a bow!).

And writer Matthew Sturgess and the rest of the creative team ensure the quality doesn't dip, as Jaime Reyes goes out with a bang. He's been attacked by a bunch of extraterrestrials but, as they say on Police Squad, that's not important right now. Superhero and villain battles, hey, they happen. What happens less often is a mainstream comic book so smart, so full of likeable characters, so . . . right that you hate to see it go.

Sturgess begins with Jaime ruminating on the thoughts of original Beetle Dan Garrett and the hero's place in society. They're pretty much the opposite of second Beetle Ted Kord's, as laid out last issue, but they give Jaime, inheritor of their heroic mantle/carapace as much to think about. And while both heroes are dead, they're a presence in Jaime's life and give him help a couple of times here.

Once again, Sturges showcases Jaime's rich supporting cast - his friends, his family and his 'Beetle Cave' tech allies. The fact that we won't see them regularly is one of the big sadnesses of this book's cancellation but they're still around and will likely pop up occasionally. One of them, at least, is almost guaranteed to pop up again, as their relationship with Jaime changes - and not for the better.

Carlo Barberi and Jacob Ecuren provide pencils and inks and do a fine job, keeping within the Blue Beetle house style established by Cully Hamner and Rafael Albuquerque, without going the identikit route. I especially like their scenes of Jaime falling through space, the composition choices are top notch.

I'd love to repro the issue's final panel here - it's terribly clever, and utterly perfect, but it's best read in context, in an issue that underlines how far Jaime has come. Just over three years ago he was a kid who found the scarab in DC weekly 52; now he's one of the DCU's up and comers, someone Superman is happy to have in his corner. He's learned to use for good powers that were meant to make him earth's enemy. He's shown ingenuity in the face of awful odds and an instinct for improvisation. He's saved the world from the scarab's creators. He's found respect from the superhero community, notably hotheads Guy Gardner and Peacemaker. He's become a true hero.

And while the scarab-generated-suit is a powerful tool, Jaime's greatest weapon has been his heart. Yeah, it sounds icky, but it's true. Jaime's willingness to listen to people, to give them respect, to learn from them and allow others to join the good fight, has seen him grow from callow youth to quite the young hero.

So, see you in Teen Titans, Jaime. Perhaps in a back-up strip in a DC anthology. And in a big black and white manga style telephone book of the entire run, collecting one young hero's perfect journey. *

* I made this up, but it's on the internet now - someone might believe it, make it happen, and make some money. Just call it American manga, print it back to front, and the kids will flock to it!

Wonder Woman 29 review

Despite the cover, Genocide doesn't appear in this issue. No complaints from me, as she's had plenty of panel time of late, beating Diana twice, so far. I don't doubt Diana will overcome her in the end; meanwhile, it's good to catch up with other aspects of this storyline.

Namely, Jason and the Zombienauts vs the US Navy; Diana vs the Cheetah; and Zeus vs Polynesian god guy Kane. I've included an image of the latter here just to lift the review. Nothing to do with the buff guy in a loincloth. That's Kane, to whom Diana recently swore fealty to overcome a plot point. I like Kane.

Wonder Woman's clash with the Cheetah is notable for showing just how good Diana is; she does something here no other hero could do, and she does it with confidence. That's the Wonder Woman I want to see, not the doubting soul we've witnessed of late. Mind, the spirit-sapping Genocide can be blamed for that, and we see just how badly she can affect someone in the way Donna Troy acts here, turning on Diana and accusing her of all sorts. Bearing in mind that Donna started out as Diana's mystic twin, we get an idea of just how resilient Diana is. Let's hope Zeus knows this. He'd better, as he's going to get his ass whupped for what he does this issue following his battle with Kane.

A highlight in Gail Simone's script is the return of Steve Trevor, who gives Sarge-Steel-Really-Dr-Psycho a dressing down. And he even remembers that he's married to Etta Candy who, in a lovely piece of characterisation, Diana urges to 'Be strong. Be Amazon'.

The best part of the book, though, is the destruction of the screaming chicken armour Diana donned to face Genocide. It didn't give her much protection and, worst of all, didn't look good in battle. Just look at the estimable Aaron Lopresti's cover - even he can't make the costume look dynamic in movement; it's heavy, clunky, inelegant. It's not a costume for any self-respecting action heroine, it's a posing piece. Great for Alex Ross portraits, but for any other purpose, just pants.

Hey Kids, it's Origins and Omens time again! Despite the fact that Simone told us Diana's origin only last year, the DC-wide mini-stunt demands she do so again. Happily, there's a new wrinkle here, telling us just where Hippolyte got the mud from to make her clay baby, thereby explaining why the rogue Amazons of the Circle consider Diana a dangerous 'dragon'. The set-up has Hippolyte visiting the injured Tom Tresser in hospital (as opposed to helping Diana out, as she's in the area, but hey, this is Stunt Month) and it works well enough but heck, Tom gets about two lines of dialogue and one makes him seem an idiot. If he doesn't start acting like the real Nemesis soon I may have to give up on the guy . . . hopefully he'll be more himself come his featured role in the six-issue Final Crisis Aftermath: Escape.

The art this issue was generally joyous, with some lovely facial expressions. Lopresti close-ups are always marvellous, though smaller figures are sometimes less successful (such as Nemesis on page six and the battling Navy guys on page eight). The big moments, though - such as the appearance of a bothersome behemoth - are pretty special, his Diana is strong and gorgeous and he's pretty competent at drawing gods battling. What seems tough for Lopresti, and inker Matt Ryan, is making the Cheetah look scary. I doubt anyone could, given Terry Dodson's redesign. George Perez created a crazed werecat. Dodson remodelled her as a Las Vegas showgirl. 'Grrr, I am woman, hear me PURR! Or maybe just mewl a little.' Honest, she looks as if she's shaking newly painted nails dry, not primed to slaughter a superheroine. Please DC, go back to the Perez Cheetah, it knocks spots off the current design.

Brad Anderson's colours are spiffy - the post-Genocide scenes are suitable dour, the visit with Kane serene, the origin of Diana intense. And letterer Steve Wands makes a chatty script easy to read.

So, another entertaining issue. Heaven knows why it's called Rise of the Olympian, as we're four issues in and that's been but a tiny part of the storyline, but what the heck, we're in a great run of Wonder Woman and I can't wait to see where we go next.

Mighty Avengers 22 review

There are some images that become instant classics. The Fantastic Four joining hands as they vow to stay together. Kingdom Come Superman catching a lightning bolt. Phoenix rising for the first time. And now, Hank Pym fixing Jocasta with his power tool (click to >ahem< enlarge). If that doesn't give you nightmares, you're made of adamantium/prometheum/inertron/insert comic book tough stuff of choice.

Elsewhere this issue, the ragtag team of Mighty Avengers faces Cthon, Quicksilver races down the road to redemption and Bova the cow woman is udderly brilliant. Writer Dan Slott continues to find the classic Avengers spirit, with a story tapping into Marvel lore and plenty of spot-on characterisation. Penciller Khoi Pham suffers a little from murky inking - there's some odd blacking at times - but tells the story well enough. Astral projection Wanda is tremendously eerie, in part due to colourists Jason Keith and Matt Milla. And letterer Dave Lanphear plays his part well (I love it when people use the original Avengers logo font for credits, as he does here).

In all, a fun straightforward comic from a team that really knows what it's doing.

Thursday, 19 February 2009

Outsiders 15 review

Oh, I do love to be surprised. Last week I was rather doubtful that the latest Outsiders revamp would be for me*, but here's the first issue and it bodes very well for the future.

The special saw Alfred, post Batman's supposed death, accept his request to put together a new version of the Outsiders, one pretty much identical to the first. And here they are: old members Katana, Black Lightning, Halo, Metamorpho and Geo Force, and newbies Owlman and (bleurgh) the Creeper. It's pretty much a talking heads issue, as Alfred explains the team's new rules - members must cut themselves off from the world for months at a time as they track down a hidden enemy with ties to the original Outsiders' terribly unimpressive Rogues Gallery.

But talking heads do not a bad comic make - this not being Marvel, Tomasi gets to have his players speak in complete sentences, rather than ones filled with ums, ahs and 'the hells'. And those sentences carry clever little pen portraits of the cast, bringing readers up to speed on their personalities. The familiarity of the members with one another is a delight, and the unfamiliarity of Owlman makes for a telling scene. Creeper, I still can't see the point of - as Alfred tells the new team they were chosen to represent aspects of his personality, presumably Creeper represents the scary creature of the night (that outfit would scare anyone) but I can't see his loose cannon ways fitting in with Alfred's tight mission statement. With luck the man who puts a lie to the idea that there are no bad characters will be back in limbo soon.

(Oh, and what on earth bit of Batman does Halo represent? The eternal optimist? The guy hasn't smiled since 1983. And why isn't my girl on Garbett and Scott's spiffy cover? Is she perhaps standing behind the Creeper's fun fur?)

The main story closes with the team setting off on their first mission as we see terrible things happening in Germany. I'm serious - a puppy is in danger! That guarantees I'll be back next month.

As does the back-up, an actual worthwhile Origins and Omens short which again shows how well writer Peter J Tomasi gets the Outsiders. He quickly recaps the members' backgrounds before Guardian Garden Gnome Scar gives us her usual depressing preview of things to come once the Blackest Night arrives. And the future events actually grabbed me - that never happens!

The short is also notable for showing how much better original artist Jim Aparo's character designs are than today's versions. Compare Halo's all-black suit with hologram belt to her original swirly number with My Little Pony hair. Compare Katana's samurai armour to her new Tarantula-wannabe outfit. Laugh at the pretty tea stains on emaciated Metamorpho's head after seeing the original bruiser version again. And penciller Lee Garbett and inker Trevor Scott - who also handle the main strip - draw them real pretty. Could we maybe have a campaign to bring back the old looks? Goodness me, they even make the original Black Lightning uniform look good.

Ah yes, Garbett and Scott. I mentioned in my bletherings on Batman 682 that I'd like to see this pair given a regular gig, and here it is. Another reason for me to watch this book for awhile. The art doesn't look quite as good as in the Batman story, but given how the Outsiders traditionally goes through creative teams, they were possibly given the gig at short notice and had to rush. Let's see how they settle down.


Birds of Prey 127 review

It's bye-bye birdies week at DC, with the Birds of Prey following Robin's example by flying the coop. And while Tim Drake's upcoming changes can be seen as a story-led evolution of the character, the Birds' goodbye feels forced.

Sure, writer Tony Bedard does as good a job as probably anyone could in the circumstances, ending the threat of the Silicon Syndicate, but what follows left me feeling empty - Barbara decides she has to cut her ties to the team, because she feels she's lost her edge. Hmm, won't we be surprised when regaining her edge reverts her to the status of Batman supporting character? Sure, Oracle's getting a mini series, but she already had an ongoing.

Oracle's mini is set up in the Origins and Omens back-up. According to Scar, the black and blue Guardian, her heart is becoming darker blah, blah and blah again. The script's written by Kevin Vanhook, who is handling Oracle's mini, and it's economic and effective, zooming through Barbara Gordon's hero history. It bodes well for the mini except for one thing - we're getting yet another focus on the sodding Calculator, a villain who has hogged acres of panel room in Birds of Prey and who becomes less interesting the more powerful he gets. I should reserve judgement, but I'm peeved, sassafrackin Battle For the Cowl!

Claude St Aubin and John Floyd do a decent job on the art, choreographing the Syndicate's sorties against the various birds - Oracle, Black Canary, Huntress, Lady Blackhawk, Misfit and Infinity (ah Infinity, we barely knew you). Fernando Pasarin and Matt Ryan look great together on the back-up. And Stephane Roux supplies a quietly dramatic cover. It's just a shame this book has to go. Let's hope they return when the Batman titles move on to the next stunt, Conflict for the Cape, Battle for the Boots, whatever.

Robin 183 review

Artist Freddie Williams II marks Robin's final issue with an acknowledged homage to Brian Bolland's cover for Tim Drake's first mini series, back in 1991. It's a smart piece of work, amply demonstrating that Tim Drake looks loads better in his Neal Adams outfit than the recently tweaked version. That was the idea, wasn't it?

It's also appropriate as Tim once more faces his first real foe, Lady Shiva. This is a thoroughly enjoyable issue - like all of writer Fabian Nicieza's Robin books it's a character study of Tim Drake as well as a first class superhero comic. The only problem here is with the resolution. Tim's internal dialogue gives us such lines as: 'What do you do if you expect to die tomorrow?' The point is made a few times, cranking up the drama. And when the resolution comes, it's smart, and makes Tim look good . . . but it also makes nonsense of his narration. Maybe I'm being stupid - and I'm always glad to be put in my place, so feel free to tell me - but it seems there was never a strong possibility that, in the words of the Silver Age-evoking title, 'Robin Dies at Dawn' because Tim knew more than he was telling.

And Nicieza needs to watch he doesn't turn Tim into another all-knowing bat character a la Oracle and Batman (RIP) - it's enough he has a battery of screens showing what's up in Gotham without him being able to keep tabs on everyone he's ever faced, wherever they are in the world.

For the Origins and Omens story here also has him taking down an old bad guy, the Obeah Man. Tim's waiting for him when he bribes his way out of his Haitian jail. OK, I'll buy that he'd keep close tabs on the guy who killed his mother, but coming in the same issue as the Shiva encounter, it starts to look like nothing is a challenge for Tim, teenage master planner.

Back in the main story, we check in on Tim's supporting players as he says goodbye to them - well, he knows he's going to die/his book is going on hiatus. It's a reminder that Robin has a rich cast and I hope they'll be around as he becomes Red Robin, which the book strongly implies is his next move.

Williams is on stonking form, his Robin a pocket dynamo racing across the city in great panels like this (click for a bigger view). The splashy fighty scene with Lady Shiva (truth be told, a boring little madam) is equally good, as is the quiet Batcave scene Nicieza supplies for Tim and Jason Todd.

So, that's Robin over with and the next phase of Tim Drake's life set to begin. Nicieza, Williams and co deserve credit for a cracking send off.

X-Factor 40 review

Last issue had one of the most unexpected turn of events I've ever seen in comics and writer Peter David, in a note preceding the story, asked readers not to spoil it online. I could live with that - if potential readers hear a buzz about an issue, but don't know the details, they may buy the book and a title I enjoy will hopefully stick around a lot longer.

PAD makes the same request this time, promising that 'the climax of this issue will simply blow you away'.

Well, that's the first time indifference has threatened to make my head explode - so far as climaxes go, this is pretty flaccid. I'm happy to respect PAD's wishes, as I tend not to spoil the end of comics anyway, but really, there's nothing to see here, move right along . . . the final page surprise here is X-Men 101, the type of thing we've seen over and over again in the mutant books.

I'd likely not feel a tad disappointed had PAD not pumped up the expectation level. In the Silver Age Stan Lee would have stuck a huge hype blurb on the cover: 'You mustn't reveal the ending of this issue, True Believers, it'll blow your ever-loving socks off.' That way we'd read the story not expecting too much, and perhaps be pleasantly surprised when our feet do indeed end up naked.

But at Marvel these days blurbs are strictly for retro books like Age of the Sentry; a fun cover flash wouldn't gibe with the noir tone I believe - and hope - PAD is returning to X-Factor. So maybe the answer is to keep the message but lessen the expectations by putting the 'Oi, readers, zip it!' plea at the end of the book.

Other than that, how was the theatre, Mrs Lincoln? Not bad, certainly better than many comics. PAD knows what he's doing, so we get a typically clever - but not clever-clever - piece of storytelling, well paced and scripted. The focus is on Jamie Madrox, in despair after the events of last issue, as he revisits priest John Maddox, the only Multiple Man duplicate ever to make a life on his own. We see that even though he's stepped away from the superhero game, Maddox remains a hero. Madrox, too, wants to leave his life behind, but in a less positive way. Their encounter ends with the surprise and me wondering what PAD will pull out of the bag next issue, as I understand more twisty moments are coming.

I missed the rest of the X-Factor team this issue - well, except for the terribly annoying Darwin - but as a focus on Madrox, this worked. He's more intense than I like him, but it makes sense given recent events, and he'll likely remain gloomier as the book's atmosphere darkens. Just so long as his sense of humour returns. And while the ending speaks to X-Men cliche, I don't doubt PAD will find somewhere new to go.

The art by Valentine DeLandro and Pat Davidson is excellent, moody and nuanced. I hope they have the regular assignment. Jeromy Cox's colours were appropriate, happily less murky than much of Marvel's current output, and Cory Petit's letters were good and clear. The cover by David Yardin with Nathan Fairbairn is spot-on but by cracky, it could have done with a blurb. Don't Marvel want to attract new readers at point of sale?

Saturday, 14 February 2009

War of Kings?

Attack of the arses, more like. What are Crystal and Lilandra doing? Apart from putting their backs out. Well done Brandon Peterson, you must be proud.

Thursday, 12 February 2009

R.E.B.E.L.S. 1 review

Over the last few years it's been the habit of Legion of Super-Heroes writers to characterise Brainiac 5 as snooty and manipulative. Well, that's not Brainy at all. That's his ancestor Vril Dox, a character so much fun that after his titles, L.E.G.I.O.N. and R.E.B.E.L.S. were cancelled in the Nineties, writers grafted his personality on to the only green Coluan in town.

Well, the original is back and don't we know it. Within minutes of arriving on Earth he's patronised a sweet young couple and happily endangered the population of Metropolis, ir order to get Supergirl's attention. The Maid of Might shows up and becomes embroiled in Dox's fight - he's fleeing from operatives of L.E.G.I.O.N., the intergalactic police agency for hire he's supposed to run.

Said pursuers will be familiar to followers of the Legion of Super-Heroes, in type if not in name. There's a Khund cum Tyr, a big monster reminiscent of Validus, a sort of Tellus. Then there are the Omega Men, appalled that L.E.G.I.O.N. has changed its agenda.

This is a fast, but meaty ride. Tony Bedard gets Dox and Supergirl, giving them delightful interplay. It's too early to judge the new characters, but if they're this well characterised, we're in for a treat.

And perhaps if we're very good, Bedard will bring back some of the original L.E.G.I.O.N. operatives, such as Marij'n and Garryn Bek and Stealth. Strata already looks set to return (thanks Mario). *

Andy Clarke's images are stellar. I hope this is more compliment than reductive statement, but he reminds me of a cross between original L.E.G.I.O.N. artist Barry Kitson and JLA star Kevin Maguire, so clean are the pencils, so right the expressions. And Clarke's dynamism is all his own, as illustrated by a unique Supergirl moment on page 9. Helping hugely is Jose Villarrubia, who makes the book gorgeously bright, but never garish.

If you've never come across Vril Dox - Brainiac 2 - and his galactic gang previously, give them a try. Tony Bedard tells us on page 1 - it's the Second Coming.

* Some of whom may be dead, my memory's not so good, but why should that stop them appearing?

Batman 686 review

'Whatever happened to the Caped Crusader?' That's the question Neil Gaiman challenges us to work out in a two-part, extra-length story. And at first, it seems obvious. Batman is in the Dreaming, or he's dead and with Death of the Endless.

Both these scenarios are denied as an unseen Batman questions his unknown guide. Gaiman knows we'll jump to conclusions, and tells us to think outside the box instead. Well, I don't doubt there are clues aplenty here, but I'm too dumb to work them out. (My gut guess? It's his sainted mother.)

What I do know is that as the story begins, Selina Kyle arrives at a bar tended by Joe Chill, the killer of Batman's parents. The bar is in Crime Alley, formerly Park Row, where Thomas and Martha Wayne died, and the Batman was born. It's named the Dew Drop Inn, perhaps a reference to Martha Wayne's broken string of pearls, a recurring motif in the Batman origin for many years, or maybe the tears of the boy Bruce. Selina and Chill share an intriguing moment, before she goes into the back room, joining versions of Batman's foes pulled from several continuities. They're joined by friends too, to look at his corpse, dead in a coffin. At Dick Grayson's invitation, Catwoman tells her story. It's an older Catwoman than the one we arrived at the bar with, and the tale is beautiful, romantic and chilling.

Then Alfred explains his part in the Batman's life, and it's nothing you would ever expect. It's terribly clever, but not annoyingly so, and plausible if you're looking at Batman in broad strokes. Batman as myth.

And that's why it's so appropriate that Gaiman evokes classic Batman stories from different DC Earths. The bar is in Crime Alley, which was used to best effect in 'There is no hope in Crime Alley' (Earth 1, Detective 457). In a scenario reminiscent of the serial in which the Riddler, Catwoman, the Joker and Lex Luthor told assembled villains that they, yes, they , killed the Darknight Detective (Earth 1, Batman 291-294) while the Catwoman sequence reminds us of the Earth 2 courtship of Batman and Catwoman (The Brave and the Bold 197).

While the overarching mystery is compelling, there are many incidental pleasures, such as Gaiman's presentation of Selina Kyle as Jane Austen heroine ('A young lady with no family and no prospects must make the best of what she has, so to speak, and must create her own opportunities'). Then there's Alfred's appraisal of his charge's mental health, 'as an Englishmen'; the kid who offers to watch supervillain cars, a possible nod to the rebooted origin of Jason Todd and its comic strip inspiration, Junior Tracy . . . yes, I may be reaching here, but that's a Neil Gaiman comic for you; you know he's in the habit of sprinkling subtle references, so start seeing them where they're likely not.

There was barely an off-note - I can't really see Harvey Bullock saying that Batman was needed in Gotham because of the pre-existing crazies, as so far as we know there were no costumed villains around before Bruce first donned the cape and cowl. And Commissioner Gordon sounds weird calling his daughter 'Babs'. But these are micro-moans when you're talking one of the most original Batman stories for years. This is the Neil Gaiman not of the hugely disappointing 1602 at Marvel, but of the Sandman's Dream Country sequence, weaving tales of enchantment with apparent ease.

And the art. Oh, it's good stuff. Andy Kubert, with inker Scott Williams and colourist Alex Sinclair, take us back to a Forties Gotham, and offering up classic versions of such Catwoman, Riddler (there's more to him than meets the eye, methinks), Joker and co. There's a spot of Dick Sprang here, some Jack Burnley there . . . Gaiman's script is perfectly brought to life in art that homages the past while always moving the story forward. Kubert does, though, give us a somewhat off Bruce Wayne - he and brother Adam (see Batman and the Outsiders Special review) have apparently made a Satanic pact to convince us the Batman's cowl has rubbed away his eyebrows. Behave, boys.

Never mind, it's barely February and we already have a comic bound to win a slew of awards. Whatever happened to the Caped Crusader, it's wonderfully entertaining.

Batman and the Outsiders Special 1 review

So, what happened to the Wayne fortune when Batman (comic-book) died? Alfred spent it on hair plugs. Seriously, have you ever seen such a luxuriant mane on the faithful manservant (below)? The ghost of Bruce Wayne isn't half making him work for it, though, asking Alfred to get the Outsiders back in the game. Well, it must be a week since they last disbanded. It's what they do.

Really, it's quite impressive how DC just won't let the Outsiders die. This must be the third relaunch since the team returned following the execrable Graduation Day crossover a few years ago. They never really connect with readers, but they won't go away. This time DC is going retro and having already had Metamorpho, Katana and Geo Force around, they're bringing back Halo and Black Lightning and adding two new members, Owlman and Creeper.

I hate Creeper, let's not talk about him and he may go away.

As for Owlman, it looks as if he won't be Alfred, as some fans - with an understandable degree of incredulity - expected. It's likely Roy Raymond Jr, son of Fifties DC character Roy Raymond, TV Detective and recently seen in Tom Peyer's too-short Flash run. He seems to have lost a bit of weight since then, taken a few martial arts classes and become more likeable; he's worth watching, someone a bit different from your usual team member.

As for the other members, Katana is more interesting here than usual, being less acerbic than is often the case (perhaps DC editorial has decided that as Dr Light II is back in the JLA, she can be the cranky Asian lady hero). She does have a bit of a gloomy moment, by the graves of her husband and children, so let's hope the Outsiders cheer her up.

Just don't ask Geo-Force to do it, he's twenty past miserable, still carrying around the suicidal feelings dumped on him in the awful DC Universe Last Will and Testament 'special'. Prince Brion's hobby these days is sitting in a hole in the ground, feeling peaceful. What a poltroon. Oh all right, it's apparently healing him from the injuries received in the special, but I still say he's nuts. The apple doesn't fall far from the lunatic half-sister.

It's years since I've seen Halo, but here she is, at the rebuilding of New Orleans, er, cheering people up by levitating them. So she's as simple-minded as ever, then. Still, at least if she's busy in BATO Geoff Johns can't rewrite Halo's origin to make her colour-based powers part of his pretty Green Lantern mythos.

Black Lightning is currently part of the JLA and people seem to like him there, so unless he's leaving that team, he's going to be knackered after a few months on this team too. Still, maybe he can tap into a lightning storm for energy, as he does here. I like Jeff, but I really don't want him taking up spots on two teams; I suspect sentimentality will prevail, and DC will leave him here awhile.

Metamorpho's been (comic book) dead, but he returns here, in a hugely unlikely manner. Still, it's original.

And that's the cast for this first issue. I find it rather irksome that the book is kicking off with yet another of Batman's contingency plans. It's a huge DC cliche, it would have been far better for Alfred to have had the idea to run the Outsiders himself. As it is, Bruce Wayne looks hugely selfish and manipulative, and that's a Batman I've tired of over the last decade and more.

That said, this is a well-crafted tale. Peter J Tomasi, who provides the 'story and words' - an overegging credit if ever I saw one, but he gets it in the excellent Nightwing too, so must like it - provides a textbook 'gathering of the team' tale. The heroes are dispersed, Alfred quests to bring them together, while Batman's true motive for starting the Outsiders, several continuities ago, lurks in the shadows, to be revealed in good time.

That's actually annoying, the notion that all those years gone Batman lied to the Outsiders about why he brought them together. I read those stories. I know why he brought them together. I'm pretty sure Batman had thought balloons back then, backing up my impression. Now, it looks like we're going to be told Batman was selfish and manipulative pre-Crisis. Which he wasn't.

While it's a decent book, this special lacks the spark Tomasi has brought to Nightwing, so let's hope that once the groundwork is laid he'll be able to surprise me. The art is pretty attractive, with Adam Kubert experimenting with page and panel design, but never to the detriment of the story. Apart from the oddly coiffed Alfred (brother Andy gets it right in this week's Batman), and his Bruce looking like Ra's Al-Ghul (right) due to Kubert's apparent disdain for eyebrows, I've no quibbles. Inkers John Dell and Sandu Florea, and colourist Chris Chuckry, keep up the standards. And Andrew Robinson provides a striking cover - odd, but striking.

Steve Wands does a bang-up job on the calligraphy, and maybe he understands what he had to letter preceding a way-too-grisly final scene: 'I relinquish the duties of my thrasher . . .' says a cultish lackey. Thrasher? Farm machinery? Songbird? One who thrashes? (Marvel have one of those, he's a bit rubbish). If I buy next issue for any reason other than the intriguing Roy Raymond Jr - it certainly won't be to find out what Batman's Secret Plan is, cos that'll be spurious as heck - it'll be to learn what a thrasher is.

Tuesday, 10 February 2009

Battle for the Cowl - why?

The marvellous Comic Book Resources this week posted a transcript of a New York Comic Con panel regarding upcoming Batman event Battle for the Cowl.

Here's an excerpt:

All of the combatants in "Cowl" have "different beliefs," Daniel said in response to the question of why Dick Grayson is not the anointed successor. For their own reasons, he said, Dick and Tim Drake will come to the realization that, though Bruce Wayne was irreplaceable, there needs to be a Batman.

Call me thick, but what's behind this idea that Gotham must have a Batman? Yes, Batman has gone, but he leaves behind Robin, Nightwing, the returning Oracle, Spoiler, Batwoman, Batgirl, Jason Sodding Todd and more. There are enough people there to handle any number of villains.

Ah, but DC might say, 'there MUST be a Batman. Criminals are a superstitious, cowardly lot!' Maybe back in 1938, faced with a supposed human bat, the likes of which they'd never seen. But in 2009, after more than a decade, in comic book time, of Batman punching their lights out? Hardly. I'd be more scared of Jason Todd aiming a machine gun at me from across the street than a man who never kills dressed in a Hallowe'en costume.

If the argument is that someone must wear the Bat-suit to take on the regular villains, how does work? Joker, Penguin, Poison Ivy . . . they've all seen Bruce as Batman so many times that they'd know pretty quickly it wasn't him. And word would quickly spread.

And how much effect does Batman actually have on crime clean-up in Gotham? The villains run riot day after day, there's never any let-up, whether he's there or not. Batman is there to try and stem the dam, he's not a deterrent.

If anyone can explain the logic behind the idea that there must be a Batman, please do. I won't hold my breath for an answer in the comics themselves, where the idea seems to be a given. There must be a Batman because, well, there just must!

We know the truth, though - there must be a trademark holder.

Thursday, 5 February 2009

Secret Warriors 1 review

I like the subtitle of this book, Nick Fury: Agent of Nothing. And that's about it.

Spun out of Secret Invasion, this is the former SHIELD chief's personal strike force, originally dedicated to take down the Skrulls, now keen to smash Norman Osborn's SHIELD replacement, HAMMER. They didn't actually do much in the SI crossover, they were mainly just faces in Central Park's superheroic crowd. The young heroes don't do much here either - we're briefly reintroduced to the team members during a battle between HAMMER and HYDRA, before the issue gets bogged down in Fury flashbacks.

One of these involves a visit to the White House where Fury talks trash to Barack Obama, who is as irritatingly submerged in shadow as he was in last month's Thunderbolts. What is it with Marvel's coyness? We know who the president is, and Stefano Caselli does a fine job of letting us know he knows too, so why not just show the guy? If not, make up a president, or have the Marvel heroes deal with subordinates.

The book closes with a Shocking Revelation which no reader will believe, and it's certainly not enough to bring me back next issue.

Jonathan Hickman's script is OK, it reads pretty much like the work of his co-plotter, Brian Michael Bendis, which is no doubt the idea. People talk tough, everyone is enigmatic and it seems there's a long-term plan in store. Well, good luck to the comic, but I'm bailing. I can't see a single reason for it to exist - the campaign against Norman Osborn can be handled in the Avengers titles, while none of the Warriors - the children of mostly very obscure Marvel villains, though you aren't actually told that here - offer anything not already covered by new mutants, young avengers or runaways. It's as if Marvel can't commission an event book without pencilling in a new team title.

Fury, long a favourite, is a stranger to me here. His hair can't decide whether it's the traditional Reed Richards brown with grey temples or all-grey, he likes his young charges to spout grasshopperisms and he doesn't have his trademark cigar. And i just can't believe that a man who has always worked in organisations that give proper training to recruits before sending them on to the battlefield would let a ragtag bunch of untested teens go out and do his dirty work.

The art is OK. Caselli covers the story beats, while 'color artist' Daniele Rudoni turns to that odd, depressing palette Marvel favours these days - washed out skin tones, lots of browns, greys and blues. Who says this isn't the mighty Marvel age of murkiness?

Jim Cheung's cover illo is attractive, but subordinate to the trade dress - half the cover goes to Civil War style wasted space.

This is a $3.99 book, but don't expect an extra-length story. Nope, Marvel give us 12 pages of 'Autofac' - lists of SHIELD bases, agents, protocols, an extract from the secret diary of Secret Warrior Yo-Yo (as opposed to New Mutant Boom-Boom), a Hydra timeline . . . I can see someone put work into this, but if I want to buy a Marvel Handbook, I'll buy a Marvel Handbook. And I haven't yet. Seriously, any relevant information should be contained in the story (click on image to see how exciting these pages are). There are also three pages of Caselli art designs for the book; call me old fashioned but I'd quite like to see how the characters look in an actual story, not have story pages sacrificed to show us how they might look.

So there you go. Nice try but, as I said, no cigar.

Secret Six 6 review

One of DC's most consistently entertaining series, Secret Six delivers once more this month. Yes, the storyline around the 'Get out of Hell free' card storyline begun in issue 1 shows no signs of wrapping, but neither is there evidence of flagging. As a maguffin to motivate action and character dynamics, the card is first-rate. Part Six of Unhinged, Compound Fracture, offers a face-off with the wicked Junior, the secret of Jeanette, the revelation of the Six's shadowy employer, and a surprising betrayal.

Said betrayal disappointed me, but that's a measure of how likeable writer Gail Simone has made this team. It seems there really is no honour among thieves. Narration and dialogue are top-notch, with even the minor characters having their own voice, while the constant twists and turns are delightful. Of course this storyline will be collected on completion, but Simone never forgets that she's writing a monthly comic, packing each issue with enough nuggets of nastiness to make this a story I'm unwilling to wait a while for.

(An incidental pleasure of this book is the henchman abuse. Whether it's Junior killing his former conjoined twins, Jeanette's butlers getting slaughtered by Cheshire and co, or this poor guy - spot the clue to the mystery employer - the underlings just can't catch a break.

Penciller Nicola Scott, inker Doug Hazlewood and colourist Jason Wright provide the stunning artwork I've gotten used to (the well-conceived splash page is especially nicely rendered), aided by former Manhunter artist Javier Pina, who I think handles the Jeanette flashback. Whatever the case, it's another good-looking strip.

It's a shorter than usual Six chapter this month, as three pages are thrown in the direction of the Origins and Omens strand (DC gives us three extra pages for free). So the rogue Guardian of the Universe is back for another round of Scar Blah Blah. This time we're told the story of the Six from Villains United on, so that's the Origins covered. There's little ominous here, though. Simone delivers an efficient script, with a trademark surprise, and Pete Woods draws real pretty. In the main though, it's a distraction from the main event.

Scar, please take your Book of the Black and go find a plastic surgeon.

Adventure Comics 0 review

Good on DC for a cheap reprint of the first appearance by the Legion of Super-Heroes, from Adventure Comics 247. I'm sure everyone reading this is familiar with the story - three mysterious kids with super-powers play mindgames with Superboy in the 20th century as a precursor to playing mindgames with him in the 30th century. But they then offer him membership in their super-hero club, so that's all right then. It's typical Silver Age Superman Family stuff, charming but, as is often the case, emotionally skewed. You have to hand it to writer Otto Binder and artist Al Plastino, though - their basic concept of a teenage hero team had legs. By issue 300, after regular cameos in the Superman Family of books, they were backing up Superboy in their own strip, and they went on to take the lead slot and, finally, the whole book.

Further proof of the potency of that original idea is that, 51 years later, the Legion are about to take up residency in a book named Adventure Comics for a second time (third, if we're counting their 1980s reprint digest). Before that, though, we have this special's new strip, a six-pager on the Origins and Omens theme threading through the DC Universe line this month. Narrated by rogue Guardian of the Universe Scar, it features Lex Luthor in his current role of lackey to General Sam Lane, for some reason allowed free reign to tinker with sleeping android conqueror Brainiac. Lex thinks he's clever for waking Brainiac, but Brainiac tells Luthor he's the clever one as that was his plan. At the end of the book there's foreshadowing that Kon-El, the clone of himself and Superman (is it actually a clone if the DNA of two people are involved? Anyone got a new word?), will be back in the upcoming Green Lantern Blackest Night event. Which readers were expecting anyway.

Written by Geoff Johns and illustrated by Francis Manapul (both pencils and inks, a trick he never tried on his recent Legion of Super-Heroes run), it's a well-crafted short, but entirely missable. Superboy doesn't return to life here, and the Superman strips will undoubtedly bring readers up to speed as to any upcoming Luthor-Brainiac team-up. And one Origins and Omens strip in, I'm already hugely irritated by Scar's portentous narration and her stupid Book of the Black. In a universe where time travel is not only possible, but frequent, why would anyone set any store by prophecies? Nothing is certain, and anything can be changed. So why not just focus on your goal, and go for it. I've always found storytellers in comics a leaden narrative device and this story does nothing to change my mind.

Manapul's art is attractive, moodier than his Legion work, but he needs to keep on eye on the model sheets - Brainiac is much wirier here than in Action, where Gary Frank has established him as buff. Still, he gets the job done nicely.

The other new piece of art this issue is a pleasant Aaron Lopresti homage to Adventure Comics 247, though Saturn girl, Lightning Lad and Cosmic Boy are in their revised Silver Age uniforms, rather than the originals from that first strip. Disgraceful!

Now we've had the appetiser, I want the main event. Roll on June and (new) Adventure Comics 1.

Wednesday, 4 February 2009

Jesus, Keith, it's Superman 684!

I'm not reviewing Superman 684 - it was great, but most issues written by James Robinson are great; a post-New Krypton story it featured a teasing focus on the Parasite (I think he's pining for his time as Lex Luthor's loving Lois), a rallying call from the Guardian and the eschewing of grammatical contractions by Mon-El.

The art by Jesus Merino was a particular treat, with the creepiest-looking Parasite ever. But what really drew my attention was his art on the closing sequence, featuring Trusting Fool Superman visiting Wicked Aunt Alura on New Krypton (click for a non shrink-ray view).

Now, I'm no expert, and I'm not positing any deliberate swiping here, but boy, is Merino channeling his inner Keith Giffen or what? WAA could easily fit in with the Five Year Gap Legionnaires below.* I doubt KG would be upset, given his Marvel days homaging Kirby and later acknowledged debt to Jose Munoz.
* Ayla, Andromeda and Kono borrowed from Mike Jozic's Keith Giffen Resource Page - go visit!