Friday, 28 August 2009

The Supergirls by Mike Madrid (Exterminating Angel Press, $16.95)

The first comic character Mike Madrid ever took to was Supergirl, so it's appropriate she lends her name to his look at fighting females. From Sheena, Queen of the Jungle in the 1930s to Manhunter in the 21st Century, they're all here - Wonder Woman, the X-Women, the heroines of the Legion, Lois Lane . . . But this isn't just a round up of the usual suspects, as Madrid also brings us a plethora of more obscure characters, such as War Nurse, Miss Fury and Lady Luck.

He organises characters by type and period, so we have the Debutantes and the Victory Girls among the Golden Age gals enjoying A Secret Life, and Sirens and Suffragettes in the Seventies. This allows for a fascinating narrative factoring in social history, literary precedents and much more. And while I devoured information on heroines unknown to me - if spinster turned death-dealing aviatrix Black Angel doesn't get a revival one of these days there's no justice - I was equally satisfied by new details on old favourites. For example, I knew Captain Marvel was physically based on Fred MacMurray, but I never made the obvious-in-retrospect connection between sister Mary Marvel and another Hollywood star: 'She was, as intended, a virtuous helpmate - a flying, bulletproof Judy Garland, minus the diet pills.'

I gobbled up the whole book but my favourite chapter focused on Madrid's first love, Kara Zor-El, occasionally comparing the original Maid of Might's heroic career to that of Sixties pop princess Lesley Gore. The idea sounds contrived, but Madrid uses Gore as a pop culture yardstick against which to measure Supergirl's progress both as a heroine and Sixties chick, and it works. Madrid comes back to pop music again and again, usually to good effect, though the idea of the Dark Phoenix saga as a comic book Bohemian Rhapsody strained the conceit. Amusingly.

There's also a meaty chapter on Wonder Woman, looking at her schizophrenic career as 'Super-heroine Number One' and coming up with interesting theories on why she almost has relationships with Batman and Superman after her Eighties rebirth. The only criticism I have of the section is that it could leave readers with the impression Diana's still wearing the Brian Bolland 'biker chick' outfit of the Nineties.

Other highlights include discussions of Kitty Pryde's journey from typical teen to leather fetish queen and Barbara Gordon's transition from Batgirl to Oracle.

Madrid's text manages a fine balance of the scholarly and the readable, but the very occasional errors are a shame. Superman's co-creator Joe Schuster? Jimmy Olson? Still, I recommend this as a terrifically readable book of comics history. I'd love to see a second edition with copyrighted images of the heroines discussed - original archetype illustrations are used this time - and more attributions when individual stories are mentioned.

Thursday, 27 August 2009

The Shield #1 review

DC's Red Circle launch concludes with The Shield. It's your standard 'injured military man gets a special suit' story, with loads of military speak which I found unintelligible and offputting. J Michael Straczynski gives us seven pages of Afghanistan action which I was just willing to end, so we could get our hero, Lt Joel Higgins, into costume.

To be honest, I'm not a fan of military superheroes. Steel, Commander Steel, Magog . . . I'm just not interested. I bought this issue in the hope of being pleasantly surprised and to find out about the Red Circle concept. Well, we got a little more information on the latter - it's very Disney - but as for the former, nope, the Shield hasn't grabbed me so far. Higgins comes across as a passive character, and - big surprise - there seems to be a military conspiracy.

The art is by Scott McDaniel and Andy Owens, whose faces are always a tad too blocky for my taste. But lots of comic book fans do like their work, and there is a terrific splash revealing the Shield for the first time. The art team on the regular book is Marco Rudy and Mick Gray, so I'll take a peek to see how the Shield looks under them.

So that's four specials in four weeks, and it's been an entertaining ride. I'm certainly on board for more Hangman and Web and, happily, they're sharing a book. As for the Shield/Inferno title, I'll likely pass.

Flash: Rebirth #4 review

That's better. I've not been impressed with this mini to date, due to Barry Allen's miserable nature and too much Speed Force nonsense - the force was never part of Barry's legend, it was Wally's thing, so I couldn't see the sense of it in a Barry-centered book. But writer Geoff Johns does one of his 'everything's connected' tricks, and while this sort of thing often annoys me (eg Rainbow Brite Lanterns), here it makes sense. It even goes some way to explaining Barry's black mood.

The returned Professor Zoom is incredibly annoying, with his long-winded explanations and pointless revenge plans - nearly everyone in this book can time travel, so whatever evil he does can most likely be undone. Still, his presence does allow for dramatic scenes at the West household which cleverly echo his pre-Crisis antics and motivate the book's big finish.

The emotional climax for me has Barry pointing out to Max Mercury that he may not have a wife, but he does have his own emotional lightning rod in Bart Allen, so he's as much a member of the Flash family as anyone. There's also an intriguing scene involving Jesse Quick . . . but my favourite moments involved Wally.

I was afraid he'd be sidelined with the return of Barry Allen but the third Flash is a massive heroic presence here - despite Jay Garrick and the JLA being on hand, Iris Allen looks to her nephew to find her lost husband and he's ready for his close-up. There's no doubt from Wally, he's full of determination and confidence that he can reclaim Barry from the Speed Force.

Ethan Van Sciver's art, coloured by Brian Miller, is the best it's been so far - sharp, not over-cluttered and always serving the story; there are no pin-ups for the sake of it, but several big moments that deserve their full-page splash status. Nevertheless, my favourite illustration is small and simple - Wally West in sprint start position (click to enlarge). Three decades - and the rest! - of reading Flash comics and I don't recall ever seeing this no-brainer pose. Similarly, the cover is a great idea that's awfully obvious now someone else has thought of it, and beautifully rendered if we ignore the weird-shaped lightning bolt.

So I'm excited for this mini series again. I just wish it came out a bit, you know, faster.

Fantastic Four #570 review

And . . . a new creative team brings me back to the Fantastic Four. The first thing I notice is that the smartarse, self-consciously 'modern' cover dress of the Millar/Hitch run has gone. Look at that lovely Seventies logo, complete with headshots! OK, so the cover line meant to entice us to buy is depressing ('what is the true cost of a man's mistakes?'), but that's easily fixed - just give us back the traditional Lee/Kirby boast that this is 'the world's greatest comic magazine' and I'll be a happy chap.

Jonathan Hickman's debut script uses as its springboard his recent FF: Dark Reign mini series, and the Civil War shenanigans, with Reed Richards desperate to 'solve everything'. A run-in with the Wingless Wizard, happily creating clones to attack the FF on his way to building a better world, doesn't alert Reed to the dangers of his own god complex. So the offer of a bunch of otherdimensional Reeds to join their troubleshooting council is tempting.

The rest of the issue has some nifty characterisation for the first family, with Johnny and Ben on form, and Sue strangely tired. Hickman's handling of kids Franklin and Valeria is a joy. I just hope that he shares out the big scenes as time goes on - so far, it's obvious that Reed is His Guy (he even gets a character-forming flashback with old beardie weirdie Nate Richards and a tremendous treehouse). For now, though, I'm happy to see where Reed's latest spot of mad science goes - will the man who calls himself Mr Fantastic ever learn some humility?

Dale Eaglesham's illustrations fit the script perfectly, being powerful in the fight scenes and quiet for the domestic moments. My only moan is that the retained Bryan Hitch short-sleeved costumes look awful - awkward and ungainly. I'm for a move back to the Kirby jumpsuits or the Byrne-tweaked version, and sharpish. And unless there's a reason for the FF to have the costumes on, civvies would be nice - surely by the time Franklin and Val are being put to bed the team could have changed into something a little more comfortable?

These are mere quibbles, though. Eaglesham and colourist Paul Mounts give us a good-looking FF here - heck, Johnny is practically a Greek god and those kids are soooo cute - and I hope they have a decent run on the book. Looks like I'll be here awhile myself.

Wonder Woman #35 review

'It's like watching a ballet. With compound fractures!' That's how Black Canary wittily describes witnessing Wonder Woman fight in the conclusion to their two-part Tokyo romp. There's never any real sense that Diana and Dinah are in danger from the supervillain fighting arena they enter - Dinah's confidence ensures that. Canary knows that she and Wondy are the JLA's premier femmes and one or two villains aren't going to faze them.

Even when wild card Pele, daughter of Diana's recently slaughtered patron Kane, spirits her away for a revenge attack, we don't worry for Black Canary, left behind and guarding Diana's physical body. Given that she's ambushed by the likes of Killer Frost, King Shark and Mr Horrific, that sounds surprising but she is one of the top five martial artists in the DCU. Dinah takes advantage of the mob's disorganisation to take them out, setting their powers against one another at close quarters, and brings her usually underused Canary cry into play.

Diana, meanwhile, is feeling the full force of a goddess. Pele, mistress of violence and volcanoes, has her on the backfoot. When Diana's mystery lightning power gives her a brief advantage, I hoped she would convince Pele that Kane made his own decisions and so Diana isn't to blame for Zeus killing him, but no, Diana's on her knees, transferring the vow of allegiance she made to Kane, to Pele. Oh, I do wish Diana would quit with the pledges of allegiance. What does she know of this Pele that she's comfortable putting her free will in her hands? Hello, goddess of VIOLENCE? What Pele asks of her as amends, we aren't told.

It's likely we won't be told for several months, as this book is like that. Questions are raised, teased and dragged out some more. Thus, when Diana is back in Washington, after she and Dinah rescue Sarge Steel from his body swap with Dr Psycho, she meets Nemesis, apparently to sort out their relationship. The last development was that Diana told Tom Tresser she didn't love him, leaving him with the impression she wanted him merely to breed new Amazons. He was devastated and now, three months later, there's a quiet moment for them to talk. After a weird scene in which the ever virgin Wonder Woman tries to get Tom into the shower, he returns the spear her mother, Queen Hippolyte, gave him some time ago, as a sign of his adoption as an Amazon. Hopefully that means he's ending their awkward little almost liaison - much as I've enjoyed Nemesis over the years, he deserves better than to be Diana's pocket stallion.

Mind, Gail could still pull a rabbit out of the tiara, and reveal that what Diana said to him wasn't the whole story. After all, could the former goddess of truth, the very spirit of empathy, treat a good man so? I choose not to believe it until all the evidence is in. I just hope that's soon, as at the moment Wonder Woman is looking at best insensitive, at worst a manipulative user. And where the heck is her so-called Wisdom of Athena?

It's funny, I understand that one of Gail's aims on taking over this book was to let us get to know Diana, end her time as a cypher. During the writer's tenure we've had regular narration from Diana, and yet I still don't feel I know her. She's the POV character in her own strip, yet she's clearly hiding something from the readers. I hope the reveal will be worthwhile, and I pray it's soon.

Meanwhile, I enjoyed these last two issues hugely. The relationship between Diana and Dinah developed delightfully, so much so that it'd be a shame if we didn't see pretty regular interaction between the two heroines. I also liked the use of the magic lasso as not so much a plot device than a logical story component - how else to have Steel recover his mind than by having him entwined in the golden lariat? A case of total re-coil.

And Nemesis was commendable in his brief appearance, treating Diana with far more consideration that she seems to give him. Now, if only we could see him at her side in battle, as the super-spy who's her equal in his own way. Finally, it made my old heart sing to have Diana's late friend Myndi Mayer namechecked. She was a huge part of Diana's earliest days in the US and shouldn't be forgotten.

Aaron Lopresti and Matt Ryan turn in another attractive job on pencils and inks. Whether they're drawing a determined Diana, a spunky Dinah, a tragic body-swapped Dr Psycho or fury-filled Pele, they give it their all. They're as capable with the expressions as with the action, and that's darned good. It's a shame they weren't able to give us a Diana v Pele scene on the cover - the Saul Bass reminiscent cover is decent, but as we had the Diana/Dinah team-up image last issue, a shift in focus would have been appreciated.

But that's a quibble. The issue looked great, and I do hope that when someone manufactures a Wonder Woman Happy Magic Fun Sword Girl and a Tarty Bikini Scorecard Batgirl, they get a cut.

Thursday, 20 August 2009

The Brave and the Bold #26 review

When he was alive Ray Walker preyed on the living. The Spectre put an end to him . . . or so he thought. But soon serial killer Walker is back and using his more-than-usual phantom strength to torment ghosts, vampires and other creatures of the night. Supernatural investigator Julian Parker asks his friend David Kim, aka Xombi, to stop Walker's reign of terror. But can they get massively powerful Spectre to help when punishing the dead isn't in his purview.

That's the premise for this teaming of a DC character with one of the recent Milestone transplants. I've never read a comic with Xombi in it so was looking forward to finding out about him. All I learned was that nanobots saved his life and now he's immortal, as they repair him when necessary. And he likes or needs pancakes. John Rozum's script - which makes great use of the unfashionable omniscient narrator - alludes to there being a distinct downside to this ability to self-repair, but what it is, we're not told. How being full of nanobots makes Kim a supernatural being, we're not told. Apparently there are other xombis, but who they are and what they do, we're not told. I don't even know what this Xombi can do, other than heal. 'Strange and unexpected side-effects' is all we get.

And that's the main flaw with an entertaining read. The Spectre is pretty self-explanatory - godlike being who punishes evildoers. We're told this, and we see this. But Xombi is an enigma. An intriguing one, yes, but sometimes I'd rather have a little bit of intrigue and a huge dollop of enlightenment. Julian Parker is as important to this story as Xombi and the Spectre but we're told little about him ... I'm thinking he's a Xombi supporting character, but it's assumed I know.

An extra pleasure here is spotting film references. I noted three in the first six pages, but none after that. I bet there were more.

Scott Hampton's artwork is perfect here, having an eerie lushness all its own. Everyone, living or dead, has an ethereal look that suits the story. Daniel Vozzo's colours are subtle and unexpected, while Rob Leigh chooses some fine fonts to convey atmosphere.

The issue's topped off by a DC mystery books style cover by veteran Mike Kaluta, less finely rendered than his earlier work, but welcome nonetheless. It even comes with a cheesy word balloon.

If this issue was intended to get me wanting to see more of Xombi it's done it's job. Just so long as we can have this creative team back, and they bring just a tad more exposition with them.

The Web #1 review

Meet John Raymond, billionaire bad boy and secret hero. He's putting his money into a new project. As the technologically advanced Web, he's the man ready to help the public at the drop of an email. People in need can contact him via summontheweb.com Are his intentions entirely altruistic or does he have another agenda?

That's the question at the heart of this third Red Circle one-off from DC, generally a lighter read than the previous two (Hangman and Inferno). The other question is, with all his money, why can't the Web come up with a costume that doesn't look like someone vomited it up?

That aside. this is a very likable book. J Michael Straczynski peppers his script with lines that are smart but not smartarse, making narrator and protagonist Raymond someone I want to know more about. He becomes more intriguing as the story goes on, and I hope to see more of him and his troublesome clan very soon.

Roger Robinson and Hilary Barta do a spiffy job on the art, with their best shot being a moody splash partway through. God bless them for giving the Raymond a contemporary haircut, not something that happens often in comics (and no, Superman's mullet did not count). Of course, they can't make the costume look good. No one could, although Jesus Saiz makes a fair fist of it on the cover.

And yes, I did type in summontheweb.com and found, not a superhero, but DC's solicitation for this issue. Nice one, DC!

Superman: Blackest Night #1 review

The bad news: I bought this comic by mistake, being of the mind that I should ignore Blackest Night tie-in titles. The good news: I thoroughly enjoyed it.

Yes, Rod Reis does a great job on this book, bringing us some of the most gorgeous hues I can recall seeing in a comic. Just look at this moment, as Clark and Conner Kent are confronted by a rather skeletal face from the past (click to enlarge): We go from the naturalism of Ma Kent's scullery to the emotional reading of our heroes' auras. Intense stuff.

Aiding Reis here are penciller Eddy Barrows and inkers Ruy Jose and Julio Ferreira, who provide some excellent images for Reis to enliven. I love their portrayal of Smallville, recognisably smalltown but not stuck in a 1930s time warp. Extra marks for their depiction of Pete Ross, who looks a real Midwest L'il Abner type, barrel-chested, square-jawed and kindly. Elsewhere they do a fabulous job of darkening the mood as a visiting zombie - the Earth 2 Superman - wreaks havoc with the town. And their moody art isn't confined to Earth, with a scene on New Krypton a masterclass in how to knit the horrific into shiny sci-fi illustration.

A clever artistic decision on the part of Barrows is the absence of panel borders, giving the tale a dreamlike quality, perfect for the first story I can recall featuring Smallville at night. That in itself ups the weirdness factor. Every page has something to delight, whether it's Zombie Superman looming in space, or an exceedingly cute Krypto ('Rieww'). Take this shot of someone flying against the sun, a simple idea that's carefully rendered for maximum impact. And Nei Ruffino steps in as colourist for Barrows' grabby cover putting a ghoulish spin on the classic Welcome to Smallvile (oops, typo - I'll leave it, it suits the story!) sign.

Also playing a part is writer James Robinson, who gets me on side immediately by presenting, for the first time in what must be 20 years, a happy Pete Ross. Relieved of an unhappy marriage to Lana Lang, and an accidental presidency, he's running the Smallville General Store that was once so integral to Superman mythology. In a nice nod of the hat to one of Superman's greatest creators, it's just down the street from (Curt) Swan Art Supplies.

The interplay between Ma Kent and her two sons is a joy - even though they've gathered to remember the recently departed Jonathan Kent, they can manage a smile. The pain of bereavement is giving way to the consolation of memory. And of course, Robinson's favourite, Krypto, is on hand to guard one and all. There's a decent amount of bashing and property destruction, but this is as much a mood and character piece as anything. And, wonders never cease, Conner even has a moment in which he shows that he's more than lunkhead eye candy.

Having given up on the Green Lantern books due to a serious case of Prologue Fatigue, I'm not too sure of the significance of the emotion readings, but as they lead to such great visual moments, I don't care. I'm even happy that this Blackest Night tie-in is running a couple more issues, because if they're as well-executed as this one, I'm in for a treat.

Amazing Spider-Man #603 review

The Chameleon is working for a Taliban offshoot and aims to strike a blow at the heart of New York, by planting a dirty bomb in the city's anti-terrorism unit. In order to access the security systems he's disguised himself as a member of the Mayor's photo unit, one Peter Parker.

I've always enjoyed Day in the Life issues and this is one such with a difference. There's no Spider-Man action here, Peter is . . . indisposed . . . and as the Chameleon doesn't know he's Spidey, it's all Peter. But it's a twisted Peter, as the Chameleon messes with the heads and hearts of his loved ones.

I don't want to say too much, as this book demands to be read by anyone with even a passing interest in Spider-Man. We've seen how people think of Peter previously, but always filtered back through his perspective. Here there's no Peter to temper the Chameleon's guesses as to his character, and some of his conclusions are pretty hard-hitting - but not totally off the mark.

Then there's the way he plays headgames with Peter's friends. What happens with landlady Michelle and former love Mary Jane are bad enough, but I was actually shocked by the scene with Flash Thompson. And a visit to Flushing Cemetery has him planning likely worse. Without deliberately trying, the Chameleon - scary for the first time - is going to wreak havoc with the life of his greatest enemy.

Kudos to the Web-Heads story brainstormers and editors for this issue, one of the most original for years, and especially writer Fred Van Lente for bringing the ideas to life. Penciller Robert Atkins is new to me, and he does a good job, aided by inker Victor Olazaba. At times they make 'Peter's eyes extra-hooded, a wink that it's the Chameleon wearing a mask.

I'm also impressed that, so close to 9/11, Marvel is putting out a storyline dealing so overtly with Taliban terrorism; it's been addressing America's security from the POV of an avowed enemy, but it's no propaganda piece.

This is the third part of the Red-Headed Stranger story marking the return of Mary Jane Watson, but you can jump right in courtesy of the recap page and smart script. The only thing I'd change would be the covers, which have all had MJ to the fore. This week's, by Stephane Roux, is the best so far (the others had MJ off-model/borderline freaky), but I'd rather have something pertaining to the drama that's at the forefront of the storyline - the Chameleon's plans. That apart, this is a five-star read.

Batgirl #1 review

This book has been promised for so long that I'd forgotten all about it. That being so, I was pleasantly surprised to see it on the racks. And speaking of racks, we're going for a Power Girl vibe, with the emphasis firmly on the bat-breasts here. DC's justification would be that there's a mystery surrounding the identity of this latest Batgirl, so Phil Noto goes in close to avoid showing the top of her mask, eyes peeping through. After all, comic book females are so distinctive, I could recognise anyone through that old gimp mask.

Well, so long as they were She Hulk. Or maybe Shadow Lass.

I do like the symbol, though - the outline of the bat is simple and effective. But this time I'd have gone so far as to drop, or shrink and set to one side, the logo, as its outline echoes the adjacent chest symbol and cuts across the image in an unattractive way. The title lettering itself is pleasingly bold, and perfect . . . for a chocolate bar. The friendly forms simply don't scream 'bat-title', even though the B and R letter forms are reminiscent of earlier Batman and Robin logos.

The opening scene isn't the most exciting. Batgirl is trying to stop some kind of illegal street race. As I understand it, whoever races the organisers would have their cars, possessions and life removed. So why anyone was actually accepting the challenge is beyond me, as it's not like Gotham's lowlives don't talk among themselves. Batgirl manages to stop the current race by tossing herself onto the windscreen of a speeding car from a great height and not dying - that's some bat-armour she has, and her stability must be that of an Olympic gymnast. This apparently causes both cars to crash, she confronts the drivers and puts one of them out by kicking his knee. From a handstand position, even though she's right next to him in the previous panel and could have just kicked the guy without the cheerleader acrobatics. Then the other fella is about to shoot her but is knocked out by a batarang thrown by one of the over the page guest stars. Batgirl's narration indicates that she was about to do something to stop him, but her back's to him all the while and she doesn't notice that someone else has taken care of her problem.

Or am I misreading the sequence? Take a look, I'd be delighted to be made to look an idiot here. Happens all the time ... (click for bigness) To me, it seems there's a disparity between Bryan Q Miller's script and Lee Garbett's pencils.

It could be that we're meant to think the new Batgirl is a bit rubbish - there's even a line to that effect later in the issue - and this book will follow her journey to competence. Or maybe the girl's incompetence will be the comic's unique selling point. That would certainly be novel.

Oh look, Batgirl is Stephanie Brown, the former Spoiler. Who was indeed a bit rubbish, and nagged into pretending to retire by the all-new, all-moody Red Robin, aka Grim Tim Drake/Wayne. Further evidence of her stupidity is randomly unmasking on a rooftop for a splash page pose of the 'I own the night' variety. Stef, pet, you don't even own a particularly dull five minutes of the afternoon.

So how did our heroine come to be Batgirl? Did the title's previous holder, Cassandra Cain, die heroically, putting Steph on a revenge trip? Not quite. She wandered off after a team-up with Spoiler and couldn't be arsed to take the costume home. As ways to hand over a mantle go, it's at least original.

Interspersed with Steph's flashbacks, showing that the girl has that crimefighting bug bad, we join Barbara Gordon, the first Batgirl (as opposed to Bat Hyphen Girl, Betty Kane), for another of those moody dinners with dad, Commissioner Jim Gordon. Sometimes she's happy, usually she's sad, but always she's keeping her feelings from a man who is a million miles from Dumb, and one of the most trustworthy people in the DCU. I can never remember if he knows Barbara was Batgirl and is Oracle - hey, it's like I'm a DC editor! - but here it seems he knows something. There's also a sequence with Babs and all-purpose doctor Leslie ('What do you mean, my parents wanted a boy'?) Thompkins watching Wendy Harris play wheelchair basketball. Wendy, in case you don't know, is the daughter of overused DC villain the Calculator and was recently crippled in Teen Titans. Leslie suggests the similarly disabled Babs - remember, only men in the DCU get cured of paralysis - help Wendy with her emotional rehabilitation, but Babs is busy being angry and grim.

Towards the end of the issue there's a scene in which we meet new Gotham cop 'St' Nick Gage, who seems a nice guy in that he doesn't shout at Batgirl when she nearly gets him killed because she's more into posing than fighting (hey, that cover's a true representation of the insides). Earlier in the issue, she mused on the power of Batman's motif, explaining to the readers why she's adopting Cassandra's costume over her own. It's a good line: 'It's like the symbol does half the fighting for you.' Sadly, Steph forgets that this means she has to do something herself. Seriously, her fighting this issue is a step back from her time as Spoiler, when she at least seemed competent. Boy, is she going to get a lecture from Babs next month . . .

I was surprised by how much panel time Babs got here, my impression now being that this is as much her book as Steph's. And the inclusion of Wendy is intriguing - it could be that DC is planning a bait and switch and she'll be cured and take over, or share the Batgirl role. This question will bring me back for a few issues, but unless things improve pretty quickly, I won't be around for long.

Because this is very much Just Another Batbook. I don't really believe Steph's less than stellar performance will continue, but what is this book for? There's already a Batwoman, the Huntress and Oracle fighting crime from the female bat-perspective. All Steph has going for her so far is her optimism, which frequently crosses the line into idiocy. The things that do set her apart - a criminal father, a child she gave up for adoption - aren't even mentioned.

As is, this is a pretty decent comic. Thoroughly OK, worth the death of a tree if said tree was suicidal. Miller's script is pretty good, and I liked the shared narration between Babs and Stef, but ask me in a day what happened here and I'll likely be unable to tell you. There were no unique villains, no elaborate plots, just the latest stage in plucky Steph's heroic quest. And that's something I'd happily see confined to one of DC's new co-features.

Lee Garbett's pencils are attractive enough, and I hope the storytelling of writer and artists (Trevor Scott inks here, but his line is pretty self-effacing) will gel soon. As it is there was another scene that just didn't work. The idea seems to be that Babs is so freaking cool she can beat three baddies without her fighting sticks, and with her back turned, but alternating the blacked-out fight panels with ones taking place immediately prior to the confrontation throws the timeline off. This might work on TV, where quick flashing back between Now and Then is common, but it seems Smallville writer Miller is feeling his way into comics - I had similar problems with his Fearsome Five script in Teen Titans last month, though that, too, had its good moments. Editor Michael Siglain, your ball!

All in all, this wasn't a bad read but it's not going to have anyone salivating for the next issue.

Saturday, 15 August 2009

Booster Gold #23 review

This issue's had a bit of extra publicity due to it featuring a photo cover of one Blair Butler, apparently a big fan of Booster's and subject of some DC staffer's crush. Oh well, if it gets more people to try this book, fine. The alternative would likely have been one of those 'villain poses on pile of heroes' deals and I've had enough of those to last me an alternate lifetime. Plus, we get that happy visual inside.

Sitting on the bodies is old New Teen Titans baddie Trigon the Terrible. He's ruling an alternate future because Booster failed to save Dick Grayson's life last issue, mainly due to pesky time tinkerer Black Beetle. This issue sees Booster and Time Master boss Rip Hunter travel to said future to put a stop to Black Beetle's plans . . . or should that be, results?

There's one scene in this issue which seems to have been inserted to justify the cover. You can tell because it makes little sense. It has Booster tell surviving Titan Raven he's the number one hero of the future, with such media spin-offs as tee shirts. He tells her this twaddle because of this book's baffling rule that Booster's mission to protect the timestream must be known to as few people as possible. I see the reasoning in terms of Booster's home timeline, but can't see any problem with telling people in those he's trying to change. And if you're bidding to get empath Raven onside it makes no sense to look her in the eye and lie. Especially if you've just pointed out to the readership that you can't actually lie to Raven.

Turns out you can. Raven has taken her stupid pill.

That apart, writer/penciller Dan Jurgens and inker Norm Rapmund craft a satisfying penultimate instalment of the four-part Day of Death (yup, we have a cover that might bring in new readers this late in a multi-parter). The mystery of Black Beetle's identity and what he wants gets more intriguing by the month, alongside the question of who his partner in time crime is. Booster displays the usual courage in the face of overwhelming odds, a couple of JLA guest stars show up and there's a grabber of a cliffhanger. I'll be back next month for more Booster.

And more Blue Beetle, who here winds up his first co-feature story by battling Maria the Robot and her metal minions. In a fun twist of the usual Pinocchio guff (see Vision, Red Tornado, Data etc) Maria wants rid of the capacity for emotion her 'father' instilled in her, the better to conquer mankind. Happily, Beetle reins in his ever more alien battlesuit - it's recently been advising him that human fatalities are acceptable - long enough to save the day. He's helped here by pals Brenda and Paco, who know just how to distract a refugee from a Fritz Lang film. The strip ends by tying into Booster's story, making Beetle a little more attractive for Booster-only fans.

I'm not one of those, finding Jaime's doing's at least as engaging as Booster's. Writer Matt Sturges knows how to write a meaty short, and artists Mike Norton and Sandra Hope provide good, clear art. In all, a very solid comic. Now, if only someone at DC would get rid of that terribly flaccid logo . . .

Friday, 14 August 2009

Adventure Comics #1 review

Back as a regular title after a quarter of a century, Adventure Comics proves more fun than expected. There's an airy feel to Geoff Johns' script for the lead strip, Superboy, which I appreciate after the complexities/clutter of the current Green Lantern storylines. This is a simple tale of the newly resurrected Conner Kent beginning a search for his place in the world.

Along the way we meet two new supporting characters, teen brain Simon Valentine and . . . I can't say as she's not actually named. It could be the comics version of TV's Chloe Sullivan, at last. Anyway, it's a blonde and she likes Superboy, but likes someone else more. As for Simon, he looks to be a well-meaning boy genius but history may send him down a familiar path. That's according to what appears to be a swamp monster but is actually someone more benevolent, as smartly revealed in the second tale.

Johns does a great job of reintroducing Conner, and showing how he and Martha Kent could be just what one another needs. The story structure, with Conner trying to model his second chance on the life of co-DNA donor Superman, is clever and facilitates a pleasingly logical ending.

Francis Manapul's art here is a terrific surprise. On the Legion's most recent run his work was clunky and angular - not unsuited to the strip, but not my favourite. Here it's softer edged and when you add Brian Buccellato's palette you have a gorgeous story, as a blaze of autumnal colours light up the pages.

I mentioned the second tale above, but have no intention of spoiling its reveal - you'll feel smart when you figure it out for yourself, and I'm not denying anyone that. While this was advertised as a Starman solo, it's not at all, with plenty of other Legionnaires appearing. Which is nice.

I liked this opener less than the Superboy lead-off because we're back in the land of a never-ending Johns plot, Starman's missions in the 21st century. I'm old enough to have read plenty of stories featuring LSH members in the present day (see Karate Kid, Valor, Leionnaires, Inferno etc) and my prevailing thought is 'So, when are they going home?' Because the Legion's unique selling point is their far future setting, and if they're not there, I don't care.

Which isn't to say this isn't an entertaining little read for its minuscule 8pp runtime. Starman remains the poster boy for the Let's Laugh at Schizophrenics League, and we see that there are even more members hanging around the 21st century than previously revealed. There's one of Johns' patented final page previews of upcoming events and it's full of promise, bar the final panel, which has me grimacing in a 'change the bloody record' sorta way. But this merely whets my appetite for a full-size portion of Legion goodness.

Clayton Henry's stripwork is more than adequate here, with an especially impressive job on a double page shot of the Legion. It's just a shame some printer's devil scuppered the right hand side powers and abilities text boxes, making them unreadable. That's after mixing Night Girl and Shadow Lass's captions.

Still, it wasn't a bad beginning to the latest Legion revival and, if tradition prevails, they'll be taking over the book within a year or so.

Inferno #1 review

The second of four in DC's Red Circle event, Inferno has the survivor of an explosion on an ocean liner unable to remember who he is and muttering the name of someone who seems not to exist. A flashback features a woman and someone unseen being lovingly doomy. An attack causes the mysterious chap to transform into a fiery man with a mission - but is he hero or villain?

Beats me. All I know is that he looks a tad gayer, in a butch way, and the story is set in San Francisco. Perhaps he's the spirit of the Castro Gold's Gym, a total flamer and a bit of a hottie? As part of the Red Circle story helmed by J Michael Straczynski, this issue pulls in last week's one-shot star Hangman, and we'll likely get some answers in the next couple of weeks.

Not good enough. This may be part 2 of four but it's advertised as a one-off, so I expect a self-contained story even if it's part of a bigger whole. And it didn't help that Hangman stole the show, revealing more power than previously.

DC might be pleased that I've been left wanting more, but more than that, I'm annoyed. Twenty-two pages is enough to tell a story - the likes of Dan Slott and Keith Giffen do it all the time. JMS comes from TV, where folk have five-year plans (the slow pace of his Thor run saw me give up the book), but he showed with last week's Hangman that he can do it. Let's hope he does it next week.

The art, by Greg Scott and colourist Art Lyon is gorgeous, with the contrast between the bright Inferno and gloomy Hangman a visual treat. It'd be good to see these fellas work together regularly. And the cover by Jesus Saiz really captures the title character. It's just a shame we didn't get to know him more.

Friday, 7 August 2009

The Hangman #1 review


The first of DC's latest attempt to make something of Archie Comics' Red Circle characters and concepts, this one-off brings us the heroic origin of the Hangman, aka Dr Robert Dickering. AKA Dr Bob.

Stop snickering at the back - writer J Michael Straczynski inherited the name and deserves praise for working past the silly moniker with a straight face. Mind, he might have avoided the Muppet reference. This is an absorbing read, beginning in Civil War America, where Dickering is made a tempting offer just as he's about to be hanged (presumably, any offer is tempting just when you're about to be hanged). The tale then shifts to modern San Francisco, where we find that Dr Bob is the world's worst babysitter, reading terminally ill kids the dark story of his origin. Presumably he changed the name, as The Nurse Wot Loves Him, Sarah, doesn't offer, 'So, you're a supernatural hangman condemned to save the guilty and punish the innocent?' Instead, she tries to get him to join the gang for a drink, bless.

But he has business and for Dickering, the clock's, er, tickering. He rides into battle on a hell-horse (maybe he hides it under a gurney) and makes rather the magnificent figure, as drawn by Tom Derenick and inked by Bill Sienkiewicz. I would say sexy, but you might worry, what with his justice-seeking look involving an executioner's mask and knotted rope at the neck. The storytelling by these boys is top notch, in a combination reminiscent of the always superb Tom Mandrake.

Providing the cover is Jesus Saiz, and it's a lush, powerful illustration. It's a shame the excellent logo hides an important part of the image.

The issue ends with the next one-shot star, Inferno, arriving in hospital for treatment. A gimmick for the first three Red Circle titles - this, Inferno and The Web - is that the final page of each acts as an artistic baton ... the artist for the next book takes over the reins. Greg Scott's page here is lovely for what it is, but doesn't actually add anything new. It's just another page of story rather than an !mpactful splash.

Never mind though, the Hangman #1 is a splendid read and I'm actually rather sad Dr Bob's story won't be taken up again soon. I await noose of a sequel.

Doom Patrol #1 review

They're back, the world's strangest heroes - Robotman, Negative Man, Elasti-Woman (she's grown up!) and the world's dodgiest leader, the Chief. As we join them, he's sent the Patrol on a mission to stop evil scientist Amanda Beckett from hatching a batch of monster men. Alongside the classic Silver Age team are newer recruits Grunt and Nudge and what happens to them highlights the veterans' mindsets as the story continues.

For this is a troubled bunch. As writer Keith Giffen makes clear, it's their mental health that sets these heroes apart, not the fact of their powers. Granted, Negative Man and Robotoman aren't set up for Happy personal lives, but the original idea that the then Elasti-Girl was a freak who couldn't fit into society was unbelievable - she could grow, but equally she could shrink to her normal Hollywood goddess-sized self. But here we have a troubled Rita, her sense of self skewed by her size-changing, making her prone to depression. Negative Man/Larry Trainor and Robotman/Cliff Steele have their own issues which make them believably odd without crossing the line into Nuttytown.

Trying to counsel them into finding a path to peace is team chaplain Rocky Davis, , world's hottest priest, former Challenger of the Unknown and the man with his eyes on the Chief. Oh, if he'd seen what was on Niles Caulder's computer . . .

Also on hand is Deborah Marlow, nicknamed Dusty, team pilot and tech support. We don't see a lot of her this time, but we get enough to suggest there are layers to be unpeeled. There's also Karen Beecher-Duncan, former Teen Titan and a woman with her own problems, ones that Rita could help with a tad more were she less self-obsessed.

Giffen shows why he's DC's go-to-guy for relaunches. He parachutes us straight into the action, setting down enough information about personalities and situation to let the story move, filling in blanks in greater detail when things calm down. He understands that a grabby central idea is one thing, but it's character that will keep us coming back. Here he negotiates the tightrope of the Patrol's personalities perfectly, making them less vanilla than in the Silver Age, but not as all-out creepy as in their Titans appearances a couple of years ago.

Matthew Clark and Livesay provide stellar artwork here, giving the characters real emotion and managing to convey the off-centre nature of our heroes perfectly. Rita, Larry and Cliff all look like their Sixties selves, but their updates are very today without being outlandish. My favourite is Karen Beecher, her hair and eyes perfectly suiting her superhero schtick.

The Doom Patrol got off to such a great start that I forgot there was a back-up starring the Metal Men. Actually, the heck with back-up, for the first time since DC began expanding books to $3.99 there's a story worthy of being termed a co-feature. I easily enjoyed this as much as the Patrol strip. Legendary Justice League creative team Giffen, JM DeMatteis and Kevin Maguire show that they can make magic anytime you give them room. And it seems 10 pages is enough. We get a mini-adventure with the human robots having some Indiana Jones fun, some laughs with Doc Magnus and the neighbours, perfect characterisation and a mystery involving newest member Copper. There's plenty of dialogue but the script is never unwieldy - this is superhero sitcom at its best (click to enlarge). Gold, in particular, gets a proper personality rather than simply characteristics accosiated with his base metal, and I love him to bits. Copper makes a big impression too, coming across as a cross between Charlie Brown and Marcy. But there's not a dud robot in the bunch: individual personalities are entertaining and together the Metal Men make magic.

Maguire's characterisation is masterful. He's tweaked the designs a little here and there, but honours the Ross Andru originals (as original writer Robert Kanigher is here feted with his own street). The moments of high adventure are a hoot but the suburban scenes are as entertaining. And adding the final flourish is Guy Major, who also colours the Patrol story.

It's tempting to demand this strip is spun off into its own book immediately, but it's perfect as is, and alongside the Doom Patrol strip makes this book an unmissable package. If I had any fears about the Metal Men's ability to work as a short strip, they've been alloyed.

(Sorry)

And that's not all, there's also a tiny preview of the upcoming Magog comic which does the job of making me decide whether to buy or not. Not. Corpses on a cart and stumpy men are not for me. Forget that though - if you've not tried this book and have the cash, grab it - it deserves to be a massive hit.

Amazing Spider-Man #601 review

After the last several issues of Spidey, with big battles involving Norman Osborn and Doctor Octopus, this is a quieter, day in the life issue. Of course, this being a slice of Peter Parker's life there are moments of action - here a jewel snatch, there a blaze - but it's the out-of-costume moments that make this issue a keeper. Peter's day starts off badly, as he wakes up with someone he perhaps shouldn't (no, not Lady Blackhawk and Huntress*), and continues in the same vein, with frustrations and irritations everywhere. But where some writers overdo the angst, Mark Waid keeps things nice and light. His Peter has perspective, half expecting things to go awry so able to deal with them when they do.

Along the way Peter has encounters with rhyming flatmates Glory Grant and Betty Brant, out of town relatives the Reillys and cranky landlady Michele Gonzales that go places we've never been before. I'm a huge fan of Waid's Betty; he wrote her superbly in the dating issue, #583 (which, unfairly, will be remembered for the rubbish Obama story and cash-in cover) and he writes her superbly here - funny, sharp, sarcy . . . honestly, I'd love a fourth week Spidey book starring Betty. The Brilliant Betty Brant. Maybe the Bitchy Betty Brant. The Brown-Haired Betty Brant? And if Betty needed a supporting character, the doorman from Harry Osborn's apartment block would do nicely, with his disdain for 'the young man with the furrowed hair'.

The main thing on Peter's mind is keeping an appointment with the newly returned Mary Jane Watson made when he was too drunk for it to properly be filed away in his prodigious brain. Does he keep the appointment? Buy this terrific issue and find out. As well as the aforementioned tale of suspense there's some of the best interaction with New Yorkers I've seen in a long while. How's this for classic Spidey? Click to enlarge. The artist here is Mario Alberti, a real find. His people are on model and expressive, his New York realistic yet characterful and his Spidey spot-on. And Andres Mossa colours in a way that's realistic without being dull. I really hope Waid, Alberi and Mossa are together for as long as this story runs because they're a great team.

So, 'No Place Like Home' is a very enjoyable start to the Red-Headed Stranger story. But there's more. Marvel adds a bonus short, by the all-star team of Brian Bendis and Joe Quesada, and it raises an important question. What the heck is up with Spidey's mask? I get that Joey Q is trying for a true-to-life look but little slitty eyes, indented brow, sucked-in nostrils and mouth . . . this isn't Spider-Man, it's a serial killer! And drawing the cobwebs angling in rather than out doesn't help. All very odd.

The actual story has Jessica Jones telling Spidey how much he meant to her at school, and bringing her to A Fateful Decision. It's nicely written but will rot your teeth. I loved the use of actual Steve Ditko art to help Jessica's retrofitting into Midtown High, though a clever transition between past and present Jess seems to have resulted in her looking rather unlike herself for the entire story. But thank you Marvel, a bonus is a bonus.

Which leaves the cover. It's by J Scott Campbell, so featured character Mary Jane is a huge-boobed waif who keeps her vital organs strictly off-panel. It's a shame, as the MJ inside the book is a potent reminder of why I Peter's ex so much. This ain't her, but I suppose the kids will like it.

* Vaguely topical reference, best ignored.

Saturday, 1 August 2009

Superman #690 review

I've been praising this book to the heavens recently for its blend of rich characters and lush artwork. This month DC lets me down. Half the book is taken up with a wordless battle between Atlas and Steel.

One page is the same panel repeated four times . . . sorry, that's unfair, two of the pictures show the hand of Atlas. Thrillingly. Perhaps the intention is to convey, as they say in TV, a beat - Atlas is temporarily immobilised by Steel's organic metal claws. What's actually conveyed is a lack of effort. The rest of the book involves:

1) A Science Police scene that's simple admin and a fun gag involving a PC gay bore ('To be continued in Superman: Secret Files 2009').

2) A terrific Zatara sequence revealing that there's more to his assistant than meets the eye.

3) A page of Dr Light, the Guardian and their kids in the park ('To be continued in the pages of Superman and the Justice League of America').

4) A meeting between time-displaced Legionnaire Tellus and dullest Green Lantern ever, Sodam Yat, with tangential bearing on Mon-El, current co-star of this comic but absent this time ('To be continued in Superman Annual #14 this summer').

Now, does this sound like a satisfying comic? If I wanted a bunch of scenes telling me to read other books I'd pull out my old, sad issues of Countdown. The vignettes themselves are well-enough written, but if they're not important to this title, don't put them in it. Were they even meant to be in this issue, or planned for some DC sampler? Look at the note tagged to Dr Light and the Guardian - 'To be continued in the pages of Superman . . .' This IS Superman!

Points, though, for the title being honest: 'The set-up.' Indeed. And fill-in artist Pere Perez draws up a storm, while Andrew Robinson's cover is a powerful image.

As this is one of my favourite monthly reads I'll give it a free pass and assume a schedule crunch motivated this less than stellar issue. But can we put some effort in next time, please chaps?

'Continued in Bottle City of Kanga and Bee Boy's Killer Sting.'