Friday, 27 March 2009

Commissioner Gordon #1 review

An attack by Mr Freeze on Gotham City helps Jim Gordon accept that Batman is dead and leads his police force to rededicate itself to the protection of Gotham's citizens.

Those are the bones of the issue, the meat is a fast-moving, efficient script from Royal McGraw which shows us that Gordon doesn't always need a vigilante to protect him. Given his late middle-age, the extent of Gordon's physicality surprised me, but what the heck, this is his one of his only solo comics in 70 years. Let's assume he had an adrenaline rush and say no more.

I had no problems with the intelligence on show here, though; this is the top cop in America's most dangerous city, the father (yes, father - stick your post-Crisis tweaks where continuity don't shine!) of a computer genius. He's bound to be a sharp cookie.

The book is also a good showcase for Detective Harvey Bullock, highlighting his loyalty to Gordon. Mr Freeze is a tad annoying, displaying a movie Joker-style desire to teach the citizens of Gotham a lesson, but as drawn by the terribly underrated Tom Mandrake, he's menacing fun.

All in all, this isn't an indispensible part of the Battle for the Cowl storyline, but it's a decent spotlight that will hopefully give McGraw and Mandrake a chance to do more ambitious Batman work.

Thursday, 26 March 2009

Superman #686 review

The Worlds of New Krypton mini-series is up and running as Superman's home for the new year, so Superman's home book gets some new stars. The Guardian and Mon-El step up to watch over the City of Tomorrow and this issue represents the ground floor of their tenure.

And as depicted by penciller Renato Guedes and inker José Wilson Magalhães, the ground floors of Metropolis are glorious. Indeed, the whole city has rarely looked better. This is a place with solidity, a city of stone fit for a man of steel. It's Forties America with a touch of Stalinist baroque. And colourist David Curiel adds the final touch, lighting the buildings with sunlight or enveloping them in shade. The art team also do a tremendous job on Mon-El, painting him with a loneliness befitting a man who has spent long years in the Phantom Zone. His eyes are bright blue, but they're haunted. As for the Guardian, he shines as befits a symbol of justice and hope since the Golden Age.

The interesting challenge for the art team this time was fulfilling writer James Robinson's apparent instruction that while Superman interacts with characters in flashback, he's never clearly seen. So he's a reflection in the Guardian's mask; a flash of cape; a figure in the shadows. Yes, it's contrived, but as a one-issue deal, the conceit works rather well.

What also works well is Robinson's script, which, behind Andrew Robinson's evocative cover, gets off to a witty start as citizens look up in the sky and react to Mon-El's appearance. After that we go back and forth within a several day period, showing Superman saying his goodbyes and preparing the way for Mon-El's guardianship of his city; and Mon-El battling one of Superman's regular villains and joining the Science Police in his Jon Kent identity.

I appreciated Superman trusting friends and partners with his plans, liked the addition of a cast member from the Bat-books (well, they nicked Maggie Sawyer), the respect given to John Henry Irons and adored the return of Bibbo in a brand-spanking new Ace O'Clubs Bar. The ensemble feel of this book is tremendously refreshing - it's a Superman title of a different flavour. And if the next 11 issues are as good as this one, I'm not going to miss the big fella.

Oracle: The Cure #1 review

This is branded with the Battle for the Cowl banner but aside from being set in current Gotham City, it so far has little to do with the current Bat-books storyline. Which is fine by me, as I can't recall Barbara Gordon having a book to herself since a Batgirl special, just before the Crisis, so I'm more than happy to have her to myself for a while.

The story picks up after the recent (unconvincing) disbanding of Barbara's Birds of Prey operation, with Oracle setting up a new home and spending time with her father. Commissioner Gordon is splendid here, the 24/7 cop who still makes time for his daughter. And while he sees she has something on her mind, he respects her enough not to press the issue.

Barbara, meanwhile, is distracted by supposedly phantom pains in her paralysed legs, having apparently forgotten the BoP story in which an encounter with Brainiac left her with tingly toes - who knows, maybe she's getting more feeling back? I hope not, as she's been far more interesting as the DCU's greatest computer whiz than she ever was as a minor member of the Batman Family - and at the moment there are so many floating around Gotham that a returned Babsgirl would be just another face in the cowls.

Also back in Gotham is Barbar's baddie counterpart, the Calculator, seeking the remnants of Darkseid's Anti-Life Equation to restore his bitten-by-a-hell-hound daughter Wendy.

From the terrific opening page - a Rear Window-style snapshot of Babs' new building - to the terrible cliffhanger, writer Kevin Vanhook does everything right. He reintroduces old friends, adds some new ones (the Brenda Morgenstern-like Cheese-fiend is great fun), sets up the story, mixes and stands well back. Despite my being tired of the Calculator after his dozens of appearances over the last few years, Vanhook makes him fresh again, adding a layer of real menace to the man. One thing I particularly enjoyed was Vanhook's proving that the omniscient narrator is alive and well - apart from some Oracle thought boxes at the start (would actual bubbles have killed you, DC?), this is a one-voice book. That's refreshing, these days.

The art, by pencillers Julian Lopez & Fernando Pasarin and inkers Bit & David Bryant, is gorgeous. I'm not sure how the art teams were split, but the whole book looks splendid. And whoever drew the moody Gotham night scenes - I'm guessing Lopez and Bit - should be snapped up by the Bat-books for a decent run. Barbara looks wonderful throughout, look at this cute expression, for instance. Mind, the same page has a terribly prurient scene of Barbara preparing for a shower - really, I don't think the world needs to see Oracle's knickers.

That apart, this is a first-rate effort; once Birds of Prey returns, as it surely must, I'd love to see the creative team here continue Barbara Gordon's story.

Justice League of America #31 review

Here we go again. It's the end of the Justice League. Happens every five years or so, everyone frowns, has a minor fall-out and swears never to gather again. And they don't, until the next crossover comes along. This time, though, the JLA isn't ending, it's merely getting a few different members added to replace the fickle souls who depart this issue.

Superman? Busy on New Krypton. Wonder Woman? 'Obligations to Themyscira'. Red Arrow? Too busy moping over feckless girlfriend Hawkgirl. Hawkgirl? Flown off with Hawkman. Flash? Not fast enough to fit the JLA in alongside family and Titans. Black Lightning? Rejoined the Outsiders. Green Lantern? Formed his own JLA. Batman? Presumed dead - at least that's a decent excuse.

It's all terribly unconvincing. Since when does having their own book make a hero too busy for the JLA? This isn't the wartime JSA, when a character left the team on being promoted to their own title, giving their place up for someone who needed the exposure. I'll allow that Superman has a year-long story away from Earth, but Red Arrow gives no reason, he just refuses to accede to the pleas of leader Black Canary. That's Black Canary who nursed Roy through the toughest period of his life, when he was battling a drug habit. But Wonder Woman too busy with Amazon business? Since when? She's no longer an ambassador, and the Amazons are handling their own subplot nicely, far from her. And as acknowledged here, Flash spent a whole issue, less than a year ago, assuring Wonder Woman he could commit to the JLA.

Basically, it's new launches and big storylines scuppering the team - Green Lantern is leading the new James Robinson JLA, though it's demotion to mini-series status means he'll be available again soon. Black Lightning is indeed in Peter Tomasi's fine new Outsiders book. Superman has the New Krypton business. Batman is RIP. Wally will be busy with Flash: Reborn. Etc.

It's all very well, and I'm enjoying the other DCU books, but do we have to have a story in which so many people act out of character to motivate a changing of the JLA guard? There's no way in the world Hal Jordan would tell Dinah Lance she's a rubbish leader. Roy would not abandon her team without good reason. Diana has no reason to leave. And so on. It makes the characters look like fairweather friend losers. I'd far rather have an Avengers style 'old order changeth' type of story in which the members have a big meeting, some say they're busy and new folk are brought in for a while. That way we'd be spared the over-the-top melodramatics and personality gymnastics of this issue.

And I don't blame Dwayne McDuffie, who does a pretty good job of making super-lemonade. He juggles the scenes of Dinah being shat on by her supposed friends well enough. The opening confrontation between Dinah, Hal and Ollie is terrifically sparky - and allows artists Shane Davis and Sandra Hope to give us the splash page of the year - but are we really to believe Green Arrow would choose Hal over his wife? And does Dinah truly suppose Firestorm isn't ready for the League after all the times he's worked with them?

Is McDuffie not sick of writing a title that's never more a straw in the wind of DC sales stunts? Sure, he's getting to add at least one of his Milestone characters to the team, but is it really worth it? Maybe he has had enough, as next issue is written by Silver Age great Len Wein.

On the art side, I liked Davis's pencils, for the most part. I hate that he drew Superman in the nasty Superman Returns film suit, but I like that he's toned down his tendency to draw very blocky people. There are some lovely shots of individual characters. But he loses points for repeating the odd panel, with one changed element. And there seems to have been some miscommnication: Dinah and Roy have a scene in the holodeck-style Kitchen of the JLA satellite and he says it's recreating a park he and Kendra enjoyed. Yet Davis has drawn a graveyard, complete with Roy in mourning suit - I know he's missing Kendra, but really.

Page one has Zatanna talking to Dinah, but Davis has drawn Diana. I'm assuming this is a plot element I'm failing to understand as the previous panels show the JLA satellite, an explosion with the satellite absent, and are followed by Dinah/Diana acknowledging Zee's suggestion that she zoned out. Some Final Crisis moment I'm forgetting? Trinity fall-out? As Penelope Pitstop would say, HYALPPPP!

Wonder Woman #30 review

Finally. It's Part 5 of Rise of the Olympian and at last the Olympian does indeed rise. It happens in a fine sequence that shows Zeus at his creepy best, laying down the law about what type of champion the reborn Achilles will be (I'm assuming it's the Achilles of classical Greece, following a comment from Zeus about him not being 'of your time'). He won't, unlike Diana, offer words of piece - he'll bring down the warmongers with force.

Unfortunately, he doesn't yet meet Diana. She's still busy in the aftermath of the Genocide battle, desperately trying to find the missing Etta Candy. She gets one step closer via a confrontation with Cheetah, who masterminded the inhuman creature's creation. Gail Simone writes Cheetah up a storm - at first. Then her defiance is replaced by whining as Diana picks her up by the tail. It seems way out of character for Cheetah to be perturbed by something as small as a cut face from Diana, but the cat creature squeals like a pig even before Diana comes up with a terribly creative threat. Maybe she's playing Wonder Woman, or maybe it's cat skittishness. Whatever, the moment gave me pause.

And I wasn't too keen on Diana's rage issues, I've had enough of her being unsure of herself. She's been a warrior long enough to control her feelings, not become the berserker. I suppose this could be a legacy of the recent Ends of the Earth storyline, or linked to the loss of her lasso. In which case, I should probably just shut up . . .

. . . as if. Things that were just plain great included the courage of Etta, the renewed friendship with Steve Trevor, the fact that Diana inspires fear even in the super-villain Phobia, Felix Faust auditioning for Dragon's Den ('I'm out') and Diana's eagle soaring as she channelled her anger at the Secret Society HQ. Best of all, the Amazons are back on Paradise Island and united - let's hope they form a cavalry for Diana soon.

The question the issue leaves me with came with this panel. Has the post-Crisis origin been tweaked, so that Steve Trevor did indeed have romantic feelings towards Diana? The last we heard, the extra years he gained meant he looked on her as a younger sister, and was drawn instead to the also-older Etta. It certainly looks as if a sub-plot is being born.

Yes, there's a lot going on this month but penciller Aaron Lopresti, inker Matt Ryan and colourist Brad Anderson make the script sing; the storytelling is clear, with a side-helping of style. I especially appreciated the lasso panel borders at the start, Diana's battle with the Society, the summoning of Achilles and the goofiness of Felix Faust pulling his overcoat on over his evil mage robes. Lopresti also gives us one of his best covers yet, with help from the Hi-Fi folk - I expect that's the trade paperback image.

So, another excellent issue, congrats to the creatives, including new (or at least, just noticed by me) editor Elizabeth Gehrlein. I can't deny I'm impatient for the final battle with Genocide, and the first encounter with the Olympian, but hey, I like my stories two or three issues tops - I'm old school. Six-eight months for a story (see also Gail's Secret Six book) - even a great one - is the type of thing that could have me moving to trades.

Friday, 20 March 2009

X-Factor 41 review

For the past couple of months writer Peter David has been trying to up X-Factor sales with shocking surprises. Well, this month he pulls off the biggest trick of all - he makes me like Longshot. Yes, the mullet-cursed Eighties holdout gets some great dialogue and charms me with a gag.

Then David, on a roll, goes one better and makes me like Darwin, the evolving wonder boy, with his best transformation ever. But I'm not going to spoil that one, buy the book . . . do so and you'll also enjoy Jamie Madrox's trip to a Sentinel-filled future, X-Factor's latest assignments, Guido reminding everyone he's as much a Smart Guy as a Strong Guy and priest John Madrox showing that he doesn't always need the power of prayer to prevail.

This is a gimmick-free issue, relying on the book's traditional strengths - smart storylining and terrific characters - to carry the day. And on that basis, I heartily recommend it.

Valentine DeLandro continues to provide attractive pencils, and he's joined here by Marco Santucci, who's new to me but I expect to see lots more of him. In nine pages (the Detroit and smuggling sequences) he shows he can handle action and emotion equally well, and is simply sterling at interesting angles, an area in which many an artist falls down. Santucci does his own inking, while Patrick Davidson spots for DeLandro, and they're an attractive team. Colouring the whole lot is Jeromy Cox, who always finds drama in a naturalistic palette. Cory Petit does a grand job on lettering, but he's had his praise for this week in my Spidey 588 review - can't have him getting swell-headed, now.

David Yardin and Nathan Fairbairn have worked up a terrific cover that combines scary looming giant robot with Ditkoesque people - how could I not like it?

All in all, this issue showcases everything good about X-Factor and it does so with style. I do hope you're reading.

Thursday, 19 March 2009

Amazing Spider-Man 588 review

This is part 4 of 4 of the Character Assassination storyline, but it's more than that; it's the wrapping up of the first batch of plotlines since Brand New Day began bringing us an almost weekly Spidey book. That's over 40 issues and editor Steve Wacker and his assistants deserve a big spider-tracer on the back for keeping the quality up through the numerous storylines.

So we now know who Menace is. We know how far Harry Osborn will go for his loved ones. And we know that Peter Parker is still the smartest, bravest, most inspirational hero in the Marvel Universe. This guy fights on, no matter what the odds, knowing he's lucky not to be lynched by the good people of New York, never mind thanked for putting his life on the line for them. At one point this issue he's so beaten down that he can fight no more, and he's preparing to meet his maker, and someone else. What's shocking is who he doesn't think of.

This story has shone an intense spotlight on almost every member of Peter's regular cast, highlighting the good and bad alike. Peter's flatmate Vin must face up to his mistakes. Police scientist Carlie shows true pluck. Harry's girl Lily Hollister is offered a deal with the devil. And Peter and Harry come to an understanding.

It's immensely satisfying, as writer Marc Guggenheim skillfully balances action and character work. And veteran Spidey penciller John Romita Jr shows why he's in any Spider-Man fan's Hall of Fame with page after page of classic Marvel action. Spidey is very obviously fighting the pain as he battles the bad guys. There are a couple of panels in which Spidey's anatomy is, to be diplomatic, over stylised, but there are several dozen which just made me smile.

And all credit to Romita, with inkers Klaus Janson and Tom Palmer, and colourist Dean White, for realistically showing that if your face is pummelled, you're not going to look like a GQ model ten minutes later. Peter looks thoroughly beaten up by the end of this issue, while Vin looks like raw hamburger; it's not pretty, and that's commendable. This is what violence does, folks.

And while letterer Cory Petit didn't get to do anything flashy here, he produced excellent work, as he's done week after week. Take a bough . . . sorry, bow (see, Cory wouldn't get that wrong!)

I was sniffy about the political meanderings of this storyline awhile back, but the pay-off here wouldn't have worked had the groundwork not been laid carefully, and in detail, so I guess it was all worthwhile (crivvens, I almost said I'd been wrong, there).

So, that's Brand New Day over with. I can't wait to see what happens next. I suppose an actual weekly is too much to hope for?

Outsiders 16 review

There aren't many times when it pays off for a comics fan to be a big old musicals nerd as well. But Outsiders 16 could be one of those. For as our new team attends a German mining disaster, field leader Geo Force asks Halo to go to the surface and speak to survivors. Katana suggests she go instead, as Halo's light powers might be more useful below the surface than her own skills. Brion says someone with Halo's 'qualities' might serve the mission better. Which brings the following exchange. Come on, tell me that isn't an Avenue Q tribute. I'm singing the song 'Everyone's a little bit racist' even now . . .

As for the rest of the issue, writer Peter Tomasi continues to define the group, with Metamorpho explaining what aspects of Batman the individuals represent. He's acting a tad more Plastic Man than I prefer, but it's a terrific scene nonetheless. There's an understanding between this team that I like, explainable by the long association most of them have. New guy Owlman is fitting in just fine, happily. Of course, the Creeper should go, but that should go without saying, he's a primary-coloured pillock.

While I can live without Metamorpho's personal puppetry, I do like how Tomasi is using his cast's abilities in ways that are new (to me, at least), such as Geo Force talking to the Earth, and Halo's ability with languages.

The Outsiders new space-HQ is named this issue, it's the Haven. Which is dull. Given its shape - a cross between an axe and a bat - may I suggest the Batlax? Or does that sound like a superheroic stool softener?

So who's the bad guy? That would be guys, plural, a bunch of immortal aliens or something, out to find a life-force giving mineral in the mine. They've not grabbed me so far, but it's early days.

Lee Garbett, with inkers Trevor Scott and John Livesay, produces good-looking superhero art (his Katana is a particular delight); it's not distinctive, but the storytelling is spot-on and I'd love Garbett to be around long enough to develop/show off a more personal style.

The only disappointment this time was the non-appearance of Alfred, but I suppose that's fair enough - the team is on a mission and he has silver to polish and sidekicks to be sarcastic to.

Garbett and Scott's cover is nicely executed, but come on chaps, do we have to have the cheesy two-heroine pose, one sticking her hips out, the other showing her bum? This comic is better than that!

Friday, 13 March 2009

Captain Britain and MI13 #11 review

I am the Lord of tinpot reviewers, you will buy this comic . . .

No? Better convince you the old-fashioned way, then.

This truly is a first-class superhero title. While firmly set in the Marvel Universe, it ploughs its own furrow so that when existing characters are used - such as Clive Reston from Master of Kung Fu, or Union Jack from Captain America - it's in new ways. Simply put, the landscape of the MU becomes pleasingly unfamiliar. So it is that here Count Dracula is more than a snarling creature of the night, wrapped up in his petty vengeances and vendettas; he's a political strategist, a warlord focused on taking down the UK and Northern Ireland as part of his campaign to establish an undead homeland. He's also a bit of a mad scientist, as we saw in last month's prologue to Vampire State, launching vampire missiles from the moon to earth.

Writer Paul Cornell's scripts get better every issue. The twists of the story surprise as much as the dialogue and actions of his cast. These aren't heroes you can reduce to a single buzzword, Noble, Brainy, Flirt, Whatever - they're already rounded characters who reveal more of themselves every time out. And while the book's headlined by field leader Brian Braddock, the crackling dialogue shows brilliantly why Pete Wisdom is the man to handle the political strategy (click pic for readability). The government meeting that follows this moment is as thrilling as any superhero battle, though this issue has action aplenty as Dracula's forces wage war on our heroes.

The standout moment this issue comes as two members of the team are in dire straits. It's not just a matter of a wholly original use of powers (well, in my experience, anyway, and I've read, ooh, dozens of comics), it's in how Cornell chooses to tell the story. And I realise I'm being annoyingly vague here, but you'll thank me after you've had the pleasure of discovering this scene for yourself. You'll thank Cornell more.

The interior art is good stuff: action scenes have a pleasing freneticism, chattier moments an equal, yet different, intensity. The biggest quibble I have is that Dracula looks off from the Marvel model - I didn't even recognise him at the end of last month's issue, despite his having appeared earlier in the book; I thought it was some chubby second-tier vamp. The ironic thing is that this time we see an 'artist's impression' of Vlad Tepes and it's a nice nod to Tomb of Dracula legend Gene Colan. If talented pencillers Leonard Kirk and Mike Collins could keep that Drac in mind, I'd be an even happier bunny than I am now.

Oh, and Black Knight's current helmet looks naff as heck, the nosepiece is far too big. Tut.

All this goodness comes behind my favourite cover yet, an iconic team shot from Stuart Immonen (who shrinks Dane Whitman's nosepiece to happily traditional levels).

If you've never tried this book, pick up this issue. You don't need previous ones, you don't need last month's prologue - the creative team give you everything you need to hop on board. Do it for me, do it for yourself. Heck, do it for Harry, England, and St George. Just do it.

Thursday, 12 March 2009

Batman: Battle for the Cowl #1 review

While I'm not down with the basic premise that Gotham must have a Batman - see the beautifully coded - I gave this book a shot. And it has some good points. Writer/penciller Tony Daniel, a surprise choice for a high-profile three-issue mini, quickly sets up the situation of a Batman-less Gotham having descended into chaos. Gang war has broken out (again), looting is rife and - ulp - someone is going around tearing the heads off/hanging criminals. Things are so bad, Nightwing and Robin have taken to importing UK Batman and Robin, the Knight and Squire. Hang the UK, Gotham is in danger and only has a dozen or so local heroes to protect it, among them Catwoman, Wildcat, Huntress, Oracle, Manbat, Black Canary, Lady Blackhawk and even brat boy Damian.

And of course, there's a mysterious wannabe Batman. There's always a mysterious wannabe Batman. It may be Jason, it may be one of the fake Batmen left over from Grant Morrison's recent Batman run, it may be the new Azrael we're due. I dunno, what I do know is that I don't much care - we've seen the ruffty-tufty imposter bit too many times previously, and despite what this issue claims, Gotham has enough vigilantes as it is.

And while the newly named Network - Dick and Babs do like to think up team names - runs around Gotham, firefighting, costumed baddies heading from Blackgate Prison to Arkham Asylum are gathered up by Black Mask after he blows up said nuthouse.

What's that you say, Black Mask is dead, killed by Catwoman in revenge for something or other? Turns out he's not, which is handy for everyone who believed Selina Kyle killing anyone was way out of character. Mind, it could always be someone else under the mask. I dunno, Red Hoods, Black Masks . . . bring on the Pink Balaclava, that's what I say.

Meanwhile, back in the event book, Dick is still super-mopey over Bruce's death, staring into glass cases at Bat-manikins. This sends him over the edge to the point where he starts trouncing defenceless dummies. All credit to MI-5 and RSC-trained fighter Alfred for jumping into the fray and defending the poor saps.

Dick's mood fails to convince, as he's trained for years to take over should Batman no longer be around, and he's long-established as a world-class team leader in the DCU. This is a man who would be getting on with the job, not choking back the tears. I'm not blaming Daniel for this, though, it's almost certainly an editorially imposed piece of mischaracterisation - if Dick is allowed to be the hero we know he is, there's no Battle for the Cowl.

Tim is busy having moody thoughts about manipulating Dick into accepting that he should be a new Batman. This is the same Tim who a couple of months ago wasn't at all pleased when Spoiler caused chaos in Gotham, at Batman's behest, in order to make Tim a 'better' Robin. He's also a tad addled, referring to Batman's costume as 'my father's suit'. I know Bruce adopted Tim, but heck, that was five minutes ago in comics time, and his actual dad, Jack, has been dead only six. (Actually, being dead for six minutes in a bat book means he's likely back as someone new. Jack Drake is the Black Mask. Or wannabe Batman. Or Azrael. You read it here first.)

The extra-length story is well-paced, Daniel gets a lot of information across efficiently and there are some neat set-pieces. A scene involving Damian, Oracle and a groupie he's picked up in the Batmobile is a hoot, and what follows is good comics. A confrontation between pushy Tim and sulky Dick works well. And we see once again that whereas Dick embodies the daredevil aspect of Batman's legacy, Tim is the better detective. In all, this is a creditable effort from Daniel, I'd say he bears watching as a writer.

Mind, he's given a big hand-up from the penciller. That Tony Daniel is good, whether it's heroes battling hoods, butlers sparring with charges or costumed crooks crammed into a bus. Even plain old conversational scenes have an emotional energy that works for the book. Adding to the mood is inker Sandu Florea, who gives great black. And colourist Ian Hannin stops a book featuring mostly grey and blue characters in night scenes looking dull.

Overall, this is a textbook example of an event comic - it sets the scene, introduces a gazillion characters and sets the engine of the story running. What we don't get is anything new. We've seen the battle for Batman's mantle, mass villain breakouts and Gotham in chaos plenty of times. The only big surprise here was that Oracle doesn't know what 'decimate' means. Let's hope that now the set-up is over, it's not rogues, but originality that breaks out.

Monday, 9 March 2009

Age of the Sentry #6 review

I'm no fan of the Golden Guardian of Good in modern-day Marvel - too often he's the weeping fall guy - but the first five issues of this six-issue mini were a delight. Writers Jeff Parker and Paul Tobin, and an artistic team led by Nick Dragotta and Ramón Rosanas, produced issue after issue of Silver Age stylings. In stories that were simple but never simplistic, tales that looked back on Sixties Marvel and DC with affection rather than cynicism, we were introduced to Rob Reynolds, top entry man for Excelsior Encyclopedia, his girl Lindy Lee, sidekick Scout, pet Watchdog and enemies Cranio the Man with the Tri-Level Mind, Gorax and the Void.

Occasionally though, there were darker moments, when the Sentry's perceptions changed, when we saw that the Reed Richards of the modern Marvel Universe was telling these tales to son Franklin.

And now, issue six, the Story Mart Never Demanded! It has the Sentry learning that everything he thought he knew was wrong, and while the final twist is clever, 'the Death of the Sentry' does its very best to squeeze all the fun out of the previous five issues. Instead of the super-souffle we've had so far, there are pages and pages of exposition pudding (click on image to taste it). That little chat goes on for eight pages and it saps the spirit like the Void sucks up the Sentry's powers as we reach the big finish . . .

. . . and then Reed appears, all comics-realistic and reassuring Franklin that the scary bedtime fable he's heard was simply 'one of my theoretical mental exercises to help me brainstorm'. Whatever you say Reed. We know you're deliberately making Franklin, your Celestial-powered son, suspicious of a supremely powerful, yet gaga, hero, in the hope he'll take him out one day.

That's issue seven.

Well, it might as well be, because while well-crafted, this issue was such a downer. Anyone who likes metafiction more than metahumans will likely love it but I think I'll rewrite my personal continuity so that I never read it. Instead, I'll hug those five gorgeous gems that came before it.

This conclusion did, though, contain one of the funniest panels I've seen this year. More of this sort of fun please, chaps - everything doesn't have to be linked to the grimmer world of modern Marvel.

Friday, 6 March 2009

Agents of Atlas 2 review

Well here's a comic not suffering from 'that difficult second issue syndrome'. Agents of Atlas 2 is at least as good as the debut book, as writer Jeff Parker shows more of the Atlas Foundation's war on Norman Osborn's rotten regime. Better yet, we have a second tale woven in, flashing back to 1958. Both begin at Edwards Air Force base, which I'd assumed Geoff Johns had made up for Green Lantern - shows how much I know. From there they diverge, but it'll be interesting to see how they converge once more after the double cliffhanger here.

Every agent is unique - alien, spy, goddess, Atlantean, robot, gorilla guy - but boy, do they have chemistry when they get together. I don't know if his long and wonderful run on X-Men: First Class helped, but Parker really does get the idea of superheroes as family. When one member goes a little off the rails here, for example, there's no judging, no Avengers-style court martial - just the best possible spin put on her actions. And we see the heroes were equally close back in the Fifties, in a delightful scene set in a jazz bar.

We also see that Parker doesn't mind making obvious gags; happily, he makes them funny. Lovely art, wot? That's the work of Carlo Pagulayan and Jason Paz, and it's equally good throughout. The 1958 illustrations are fantastic too, very retro, very cool and very much to the credit of Gabriel Hardman and Elizabeth Dismang Breitweiser. And take a huge bow digital painter Jana Schirmer - I've been negative about Marvelmurk, the muddy palette which seems to be in favour at the House of Ideas these days, but this is something else. The colours in this comic are simply gorgeous, from the blue skies above the air base to the reds of the jazz club via Bob, bobbing in his mucky Uranian chamber. If Marvel hasn't got Schirmer on a contract, they're nuts.

The cover this time is one of the better Greg Land jobs I've seen, there's not a toothpaste model in sight and nicely coloured by Justin Ponsor. OK, I'd have liked it more had suave fella Jimmy Woo been on there, and had Bob's head been angled so we could actually see it, but nevertheless, it's a striking image for a book that deserves to be a massive hit.

Thursday, 5 March 2009

Secret Six 7 review

A pal tells me that at Wondercon recently, a DC Comics editor took umbrage at his very suggestion that most stories these days were written for the trade, hence the predominance of long 'arcs'. Well, if all lengthy arcs were as good as Unhinged, which has filled the first seven issues of Secret Six, readers would have less to sigh about.

Where many longform stories feature an issue or two of water-treading, the consistency of quality here has been remarkable. Imaginative action and continual revelation of character has remained to the fore, making this a series to savour. Which is tough, given the often-breakneck pace.

So yes, the finale doesn't disappoint. Our anti-heroes reach Gotham City after their cross country trip centring on old devil Neron's 'Get out of hell free' card and, funnily enough, all hell breaks loose. Dozens of villains attack the Six at the behest of the vile Junior, and they pay the price, before the story wraps up in a thoroughly satisfying manner.

Writer Gail Simone has never been shy of sick moments, and I've not minded at all - this is a book not so much skirting the darker edges of the DCU as running up and snogging them. Sadly, an innocent bystander is (apparently) killed this time, which is where my enjoyment of Junior's evil nature ends. I had the same reaction when she murdered a prostitute in an earlier issue. I don't mind at all when horrible things happen to horrible people - especially if they make me chortle - but it's less palatable to me when innocents are involved. I know it's likely that such things would happen, but I'd be happy for the realism to be restrained before we reach that point. That apart, Simone delivers another cracking script, clever, sly and witty.

The talent on show doesn't end there, as the art team of penciller Nicola Scott, inkers Doug Hazlewood and Rodney Ramos, and colourist Jason Wright provide page after page of beautiful work. The latter has emerged from this run as one of the top colourists in comics - check out how he's toned Gotham Bay on page six, for example. And the way he shades characters for night scenes should become the industry standard - rather than altering the entire palette, as seems to be the Marvel way these days, he simply darkens the character tones, adding lowlights. If Wright doesn't win an Eisner Award for Best Colourist this year someone should set Junior on the judges.

Given how much I enjoy the art, it's odd that I found Scott's cover so unsatisfactory. I think it's the concept - Catman and Huntress in a smoochy fight would have suited an earlier issue, but for the end of the arc, we needed something bigger, more dramatic.

And funnily enough, there's just the image inside the comic. I doubt you'll see a better piece of superhero genre artwork this year (click, because size matters). Never mind though, I've had seven months of cracking entertainment from DC and you know what? If by some weird coincidence a trade appears, I may even buy it.