Thursday, 24 September 2009

Dark X-Men: The Confession #1 review

'I'm the worst.'
'No, I'm the worst.'
'TAKE ME!'

Scott Summers and Emma Frost have been keeping secrets from one another. He's been sending teenagers off to murder the X-Men's enemies, she's been bedding down with Norman Osborn's cabal. But today they share their darkest, dirtiest doings, in cheesy back and forth mental confessions.

And, twisted pair that they are, it turns them on. Oh yes, they may try to fool themselves with their daytime soap dialogue but within panels they're jumping on one another. Oh yes, ever since Dark Phoenix, Cyclops has liked a bad girl and now that he's dragged himself down to their level, the bad girls like him even more.

Thinking on, Cyke's even worse than Emma these days; he's ordering the deaths of his enemies - he doesn't get his own hands dirty. That, my friends, is the work of an evil mutant and no amount of dissembling - apparently it's OK for X-Men to murder so long as they dress in black and call themselves X Force - will change that.

Craig Kyle and Chris Yost have written a few decent X-books in their time, but this isn't one of them. It's excruciatingly awful, a clunkily plotted, embarrassingly executed slice of sick soap. And the end result is that two characters are destroyed as heroes for all time - there's no coming back from this, with Scott and Emma embracing their vileness and not really caring so long as they have each other.

Longtime X-writer Chris Claremont has taken some stick over the years (ahem) for his flowery writing, but I've no doubt he could have sold this story rather better than the creators here. They give us corn, Claremont would have provided spice. And if he'd taken a whole issue to do it he'd have given us a classic (remember Lifedeath, the Storm/Forge two-hander in X-Men #186?). And why is this story resolution in a separate book when everything in it springs from events in the monthly titles? Every week brings more Dark Reign specials, and we're well into the diminishing returns column.

Penciller Bing Cansino and inker Roland Paris draw page after page of flashbacks that are meaningless unless you've been reading all the X-books for several years, which ain't me. They deserve kudos for an Emma Frost who isn't a sex doll, while having the strength I associate with the White Queen . . . until the script has her lose all spark, and they make her suitably vulnerable looking.

Well as vulnerable as the Twisted Bride of Cyclops could look.

Scott Summers spends most of the book in his boxers, which is nice, but it doesn't justify this truly rubbish concoction. Avoid.

Justice League of America #37 review

Bridging the gap between Dwayne McDuffie's prematurely curtailed JLA run and James Robinson's regular series debut has been Len Wein. Yup, Len Wein, Seventies wunderkind, long absent from DC and Marvel. Can he cut it in the modern DC Universe?

Too bloomin' right he can. The last three issues of JLA are certainly old-fashioned in structure: Amos Fortune and Roulette join forces to sic enemies on the world's greatest superheroes and the team splits into mini-strike forces in chapters - complete with cute individual logos - coming together at the end to wrap things up. It's pure Gardner Fox. It's also pure fun when done right, and Wein knows how to write. This is the approach he used in his well-loved Seventies JLA run and I'd venture to say he's only gotten better.

For this is no fill-in handed to some old guy as a favour, with no ties to anything else going on in current comics. This is a true bridge between runs built by a seasoned veteran, with Vixen dealing with the aftermath of the League being sundered by the loss of most of its members. So we get a new League, resulting from the death of Batman, Superman's flight to New Krypton and the formation of Hal Jordan's Grimace League. It's Vixen, Plastic Man, Dr Light, Firestorm, Red Tornado and Wonder Woman and they make a tremendous team.

While it's fair to say this final issue of Royal Pain is all action, Wein uses the excitement to effect character, exploring the dynamics of such unusual combinations as cranky but caring Dr Light and presents-as-flighty Plastic Man. Not for Wein the modern school of heroes sitting around at breakfast, shooting the breeze - he has them actually accomplish things while bantering.

He also knows that a comic book team isn't simply a bunch of characters sharing one book, it's heroes combining their powers and personalities to move the story forward. So here, for example, Wonder Woman and Red Tornado make the best of a bad job when Amos Fortune's bad luck technology kicks in against them, and triumph.

While all the characters shine, it's determined, spunky Vixen who is the standout, refusing to let the League dream die. I especially liked the flashback to Superman giving her a pep talk. In many other writers' hands the very idea would peg the experienced Vixen as a newbie, but Wein simply shows the strength of friendship, reminding us that Superman was her mentor of sorts (when the DC Explosion killed Vixen's solo title before it launched in the Seventies, she finally made her debut teaming with him in DC Comics Presents).

The incidental details are a delight, from Fortune's team sheets styled to look like Wein-era JLA covers to the use of Infinity Inc's Stellar Studios and Superman foe Titano as a movie icon. Wein knows his DC history and employs it not as fan porn but to enhance the story. And just when it seems his job is done, he brings in another old JLA foe in a surprise ending.

I hope DC are planning to give Wein a chance to pick up where he leaves off here, as this is the most fun I've had with a JLA book in ages. If there is a second JLA book planned to complement the James Robinson/Mark Bagley run, I want Wein writing it.

And if he brings this issue's penciller, Tom Derenick, with him, that's fine by me. The fella's been around for years and I can't remember the last time he had a regular book. It's a fill-in here, a fill-in there, always done with style and care. The consistency suffers here from too many inkers, but the storytelling is solid, the figurework punchy. And all nicely coloured by Pete Pantazis.

The issue is topped off with a gorgeous cover by Joe Prado, coloured by David Curiel. It's a shame these last three issues are unlikely to be collected ('Smells Like League Spirit', maybe?), as the image would make the perfect cover.

So, is the Len Wein JLA too old-fashioned for today? Nope, it's a classic formula, updated by a pro. Hope you caught it.

Superman: Secret Origin #1 review

When I was a young Superman fan I was thrilled to learn that Clark Kent's Earthday - the date of his arrival from Krypton - was June 18 . . . my birthday. This comic wipes out that piece of magic and reassigns the event to December 1.

Knowing writer Geoff Johns' love of the Superman movies, I expected to find the new date was the day star Christopher Reeve came into the world. Well, it is indeed the birthday of an actor from that series. Richard Pryor. Which made me laugh.

No doubt December 1 has some significance to someone involved with this book, which is one of DC's most-hyped projects this year. It comes with stiff cover, extra pages, just like the last time we had a mini looking at Superman's early years, Mark Waid's Birthright. But I won't compare and contrast, for this is Superman for a new generation - well, it's been five years and that was the time for audience turnaround in the olden days. OK, so now it's about 30 years ...

So, the stiff cover. It's very dull. Ma, Pa and ickle Clark Kent, standing on the old farm. Cliched as these concepts are, it needs a colour hold image of Krypton exploding, or Superman as an adult - something to make the image interesting. Even something as subtle as Clark's eyes reddening as heat vision arrives would be something.

That scene's in the book. As is the injuring of a pal while playing. And the revelation of Clark's origins. All the usual stuff is here, with nary a tweak to the legend. Jor-El has a beard, but Johns and Richard Donner gave him that ages ago. Chloe from TV's Smallville has apparently signed Pete Ross' plastercast, which is an inconsequential tease.

The biggest change here is that Martha Kent now designs the Superboy costume as a result of seeing Jor with the El family crest, and holographic Kryptonians wandering holographic streets. I always liked that Martha came up with the S-symbol, but we've been stuck with Jor-El wearing an S since Superman: The Movie, and as long as the comics are wrong-headedly reflecting that, the writers have to explain it.

There's more explanation with regard to Clark's glasses. Used to be that on starting his Superboy career the Kents came up with the glasses as a way to reinforce a meek persona. Over the years DC has told us the glasses were a focus for secret-ID protecting super-hypnosis, and that they dial down his unusually blue eyes. Now they absorb any stray heat vision blasts, which tend to emerge when cute Lana Lang excites Clark. I don't want to think about that.

A nice subtle touch here is that when the heat vision first ignites, a shocked Lana drops her book on the laws of physics. There's also a wonderful image evoked of Martha trying to cut Kryptonian blankets with a chainsaw. And a wee reference to Dr Erdel, from J'onn J'onnz' origin story.

Lex Luthor is on hand, being clever and creepy. Pete Ross is here, expect a sodden tent very soon. And green kryptonite shows up.

What isn't here is any great originality. I accept that this isn't really possible with Superman's origin - change the big details and people complain, alter little things and folk say why bother? Well, Johns limits himself to the tinkering option and 'why bother?' it is. This is a thoroughly competent comic book; Johns writes a decent script, Gary Frank and Jon Sibal make the book look great. Honestly, dullness has never looked so good. Reading Secret Origin, I kept expecting one big idea, something to justify another recap of the Superman legend. But there's nothing here. The book reads like a vanity project, as if DC indulged Geoff Johns with the time and space to tell his version of the story, one which will remain definitive for, ooh, months.

Perhaps the story will begin popping next month as the Legion of Super-Heroes shows up - their first encounter with Clark Kent is a story begging to be reinterpreted with modern sensibilities. I hope so, or this book will be filed under non-event well before (grrrr) December 1.

Friday, 18 September 2009

M.O.D.O.K. Reign Delay #1

George Tarleton, aka MODOK, former head (ho ho) of AIM, has fallen on hard times. He's unable to pay his minions and super-villain patron Norman Osborn hasn't given him a plum position in his HAMMER organisation. Finally, sick of MODOK's needy girlfriend-style answerphone messages, he makes him head of operations in . . . Erie, Pennsylvania, which happens to be MODOK's home town. Moving in with Mom and Dad saves on secret headquarters costs, but can he put up with his braggart father, cope with a high school reunion and deal with his lackeys' ceaseless demands?

It's definitely worth finding out in the book that makes Marvel's long-winded Dark Reign event/infestation worthwhile. Cartoonist Ryan Dunlavey (which sounds a bit like Reign Delay - well, to me) makes the old Mobile Organism Designed Only for Killing almost sympathetic. Mainly, he makes him funny as he tries to settle into smalltown life, little knowing he must soon face the fearsome mutant machine master, Box. Along the way we see that bigshot supervillain he may (sometimes) be, but it's the everyday things that trouble MODOK - no wonder he's not the nicest of souls (click to make little MODOK bigger). I loved this comic - which debuted on Marvel Digital Comics Unlimited - from beginning to end, for the joy with which Dunlavey played in the House of Ideas' toybox. Madison Jeffries, for example, may not have much room to shine now he's an X-Man, but as fellow Alpha Flight alumni Diamond Lil's mildly henpecked hubby he's a hoot. And MODOK's minions and parents add a touch of humanity to bighead.

I'm not sure whether MODOK could carry another book (well, those arms are tiny) but I hope we see more Marvel, and indeed, some DC work from Dunlavey soon.

Action Comics #881 review

(Setting aside the flattened cardboard box advertising some Star Wars nonsense that made my comic fall apart when I tried to remove it so I could, you know, actually READ the book . . .)

I've not warmed to Thara Ak-Var and Chris Kent, the latest in a long line of Flamebirds and Nightwings. Thara's a grimacing religious nut, Chris is one of those prematurely grown comics kids whose naivety will get them killed, and their utilitarian outfits are dull as dishwater. Adding Supergirl to the mix for the Hunt for Reactron storyline that begins here makes their strip a tad more tolerable, though being around Thara - whom Kara reckons indirectly responsible for her father's death - sees Supergirl revert to the punch-first mode that was her default before Sterling Gates began writing her.

Which is surprising, as Gates co-writes here with regular Action man Greg Rucka. Then again, heated emotions are everywhere - the usually calm Guardian shows up and gets as shouty punchy as Supergirl because he believes Supergirl killed Mon-El. I actually began feeling better towards Chris, as his cow-like docility made him seem the sanest on the scene.

All the intense emotion - the apparent unwillingness of experienced heroes to take a breath and consider that the obvious isn't necessarily the truth - makes for some decent fight scenes, though. The amped-up Science Police take on our heroes in the streets of Metropolis, annoying Flamebird gets blasted with energy hot enough to take a Kryptonian aback, and Supergirl grabs Nightwing and hurries him to Paris . . .

. . . ah, Paris, City of Light and, it turns out, a cheaply decorated mini-Fortress of Solitude maintained by Supergirl. Inspired by Batman's Batcavettes around Gotham, she maintains hidey holes around the globe. And Supergirls love Paris (see December 1965's classic Brave and Bold #63, Supergirl and Wonder Woman in Revolt of the Super-Chicks). Thara's followed, and an excellent couple of pages shows her perched atop a building, using super-hearing to listen to people across the world knocking Kryptonians, and finally focusing on Kara slagging her off to Chris. Artist Pere Perez nails Thara's changing mood in the sequence, and the Paris cityscape. It's wonderful to see someone draw Europe in a comic and have it approximate reality - no tiny cottages, no chateaus, no gargoyles apart from Thara (me, i live in a thatched cottage with a beefeater at the gate), but a city as vibrant in its own way as Metropolis.

The art's impressive throughout, Perez gets better every outing, using a variety of angles to keep the interest going even in the talkier scenes. Speaking of which, there was very little in the way of subtitled Kryptonian this time out. Hoo-rah.

Reactron himself appears on only a couple of pages, having a nice buddy chat with fellow General Lane lackey Metallo. I'm not sure he deserves having an arc titled for him, Reactron's a crappy name, how powers are nothing amazing and his look is awful, but already this storyline is more entertaining than last month's Codename: Patriot crossover, which 'boasted' the worst cover concept you'll see in a long while. The cover here is pretty funny, with Thara pushing Kara backwards as Chris looks on uselessly (surprise). When Teens Fall Out, wot?

The issue ends on a dramatic note, though one that's becoming something of a refrain in the Superman books - anti-Kryptonian government grunts show up for a fight that will no doubt prove inconclusive and inconsequential. Still, it brings the illusion of a cliffhanger, and Perez provides a choice shot of the Eiffel Tower.

In back-up land there's another one-minute read with Captain Atom, but at least the story's moving forward as we meet some of the people who have been manipulating him. Three episodes in, though, impressive as the fight scenes have been, I'm ready for some exposition from writers Rucka and James Robinson. There's no denying that artist Cafu gives us a polished Captain Atom, but it's not enough to justify the strip.

So, not a bad issue, even if it has dropped to bits. We're one more issue closer to Flamebird and Nightwing buggering off, that's the main thing.

X-Men: Legacy Annual #1 review

I've not read X-Men: Legacy since the first couple of issues of the retitled Adjectiveless X-Men comic. It's focus on Professor Xavier and totally rubbish villains meant it wasn't for me. But there's nothing to get me excited like a BOLD NEW DIRECTION cover blurb. It's right up there with BECAUSE YOU DEMANDED IT and GREAT NEWS FOR ALL OUR READERS.

And that's a spiffy cover by Daniel Acuna - though the Beast looks to be rendered in a different style to everyone else - all iconic and patriotic. It turns out the X-Men are being patriotic about their new island nation, Magneto's Asteroid M, which has apparently been brought down to Earth. Who knew that after decades of being constantly miserable, a hunk of dead rock would put a smile on those kids' faces?

What we need is a villain to remove it and Mike Carey helpfully gives us one of the creepiest in X-Men history, Emplate. The very definition of Bondage Elephant, the dimension-phasing power sucker is back, and hungry. A variety of X-Men try to take him out but in the grand tradition of Legion of Three Worlds (how could 60-odd heroes have a hope of taking down one baddie?), he gets away. It's not all bad though, as there are some terrific moments along the way, from Emplate strangling the frankly vile Pixiewixie to Madison Jeffries appealing for psychic aid. A character portrayal I didn't enjoy involved Rogue moaning to Cyclops that she doesn't wish to be sidelined as a teacher to Pixiewixie, Rockslide, Indra and co, the Cousin Olivers of the superhero set. What happened to the sparky young woman I used to know, the one who would punch Cyclops before taking a job she didn't want? I know she gets whiny when around Gambit, but he's not around.

At least she's drawn well by Acuna, as are most people in this book. His Wolverine is a mite odd, mind, looking like a kid who's pasted on whiskers and claws, but I have to commend him for at least remembering that Logan shouldn't be 6ft. While handicapped by having to draw the hideous Frank Quitely costumes, Acuna produces a great looking story, with action scenes that show a bit more life than in some of his earlier work, such as the Flash.

The only bad thing about this oddly enjoyable X-Men entry was the length. This is an annual, which should mean Big Story. Instead, we must make do with part 1 of the four-part Devil at the Crossroads (was 1930s blues singer Robert Johnson a filthy mutie, then?) and a too-short 24pp. Did someone say 'intended for the regular book, was it?' Oh, that would be me. The rest of the pages are taken up by a short featuring Gambit aka Charming My Arse. He sneaks into a HAMMER facility - can't have a Marvel story without referencing bloody Dark Reign - to steal a chair for Cyclops. It's only right the leader of the X-Men has the chair he wants.

As ever, for Remy le Beau read Pepe le Pew. He doesn't quite eat himself but he gets pretty damn close. The story, by Carey and Mirco Pierfederici, is OK, it's a light-hearted, pleasant romp . . . until some nonsense involving tedious X-villain Poxylips comes into play.

Oh well, so much for a Bold New Direction. Still, there'll be another one around in a month or two.

The Brave and the Bold #27 review

This is one of the most predictable comics I've read this year.

It's also one of the best. J Michael Straczynski begins his tenure as writer of DC's team-up book by dusting off Silver Age C-lister Robby Reed, possessor of the mysterious H-dial which turns him into a different hero every time, and sending him to Gotham City. The cover hints that he's not going to have the best of holidays - that's a pretty doomy title to go with the striking image by interior artist Jesus Saiz.

But by the time a petty criminal steals the dial a few pages in you know just where this story's going, and wait for the twist. Well, the twist is that there's no twist. But there is a nicely sketched guest hero, a striking transformation by Robby Reed* and a sermon from Batman that somehow works. I wasn't looking forward to an appearance by the overused Joker, but JMS really refreshed the character for me. His Clown Prince of Crime isn't trying to hard to be funny, but you can't miss that he's skewed. Truth be told, I could have stood more of him here. So far as the good guys go, JMS provides Batman with a 'glovely' new trick and makes Robby Reed a convincing kid.

The always accomplished Saiz ups his game to produce the most beautiful artwork I've seen from him, superbly coloured by Trish Mulvihill and complemented by the letters of Rob Leigh (click to enlarge). I like the Astro City-ish look of new hero the Star so much that I'm sorry we're not likely to see him again anytime soon. And wonder of wonders, someone has finally drawn the pouches as just that - pouches that move along with Batman.

But which Batman, continuity cops? I'm guessing Bruce, as he's such a dick with his 'This is my city' routine that masks a heart of something or other. Not that it matters much, when we have a gem of a story like this.


* One of those names you have to use in full every time, a la Charlie Brown; anything else doesn't seem right)

Saturday, 12 September 2009

Models Inc #1 review

Welcome to Models Inc. Then again, with Iron Man looming so large on the cover of my copy it could well be Model Zinc.

All right, that's a rubbish gag but I have to amuse myself somehow, as the comic itself wasn't the most exciting. Millie the Model, a star of the Marvel stable since the Timely days but rarely seen since the early Seventies, is dragged out of mothballs for this New York Fashion Week tie-in. She brings with her a - what's the collective noun? - shallow of fellow mannequins, including old pal Patsy Walker, better known today as the superheroine Hellcat.

In a nod to modern mores, Paul Tobin's tale has it that Chili Storm is a lesbian and Hedy Wolfe a fashion blogger. But no one is very interesting, unless jabbering on about real world designers counts. The girls swap friendly barbs as they parade around New York in what are presumably the latest styles, but it's pedestrian stuff. At one point we're told that Millie is known for her 'constantly flapping mouth' but truly, she has the least personality of anyone here.

The use of Patsy's abilities and references to fellow Defender Kyle Richmond set this in some version of the Marvel Universe, so I was wondering if Chili would turn out to be a relative of Sue and Johnny Storm. Well, the Human Torch shows up and the answer is, apparently not. No one even brings the subject up. Moment of excited speculation over.

The final two pages see things finally heat up, with a much-needed change in tone - admirably handled by penciller Vicenc Villagrasa and colourist Val Staples - but it's too little, too late. If this comic were a couture piece it would go straight back on the rack.

Along with the Models Inc strip come inconsequential extracts from Hedy's website and a short story featuring Tim Gunn, who the back page ad reminds me is from TV show Project Runway. Here he gets involved in a raid by Advanced Idea Mechanics on a museum exhibit of fashion designs by Janet Van Dyne ('The Wasp. She saved the world with style.' Really? Did you ever see her costume designs?). Luckily there's also a fully functioning Iron Man outfit to hand, allowing Gunn to save the day, quipping merrily as he does so. Loaded Gunn is a lot of fun and would have improved the main strip no end had it been incorporated. As it is, Mark Sumerak and Jorge Molina's tale stands alone.

There are three more issues of this mini-series and I'll likely check in to see how Mary Jane Watson fits in. Trivially, no doubt. But I'm not the young female audience this book is obviously aimed at, I'm just a nitpicking fanboy - and we're always in fashion.

Thursday, 10 September 2009

Amazing Spider-Man #604 review

Amazing Spider-Man, I've grown accustomed to your pace. Three times every month we've been getting a consistently intelligent, witty, action-packed book that's classic Spider-Man for the 21st century. Which makes it a bit of a bugger when the calendar arranges a fortnight's break between issues of a particularly fine storyline.

For that's what Red-Headed Stranger is, one of the strongest Spidey sagas in years, replete with heroics, villainy, mystery, romance and complications for Peter Parker. The only weak part of the issue was the explanation of how our hero escaped the Chameleon's apparently full-to-the-brim room of acid, but I'll forgive, as the rest of the issue is of such high quality. Fred Van Lente seems a natural Spidey-scribe, peppering Peter's prose with rousing repartee that stops short of being self-conscious comedy (click to enlarge). And he writes a great Mary Jane Watson, who looks to be sticking around after her stint on the West Coast.

I was ready to adversely criticise the book for having J Jonah Jameson tell his mayoral Spider Slayers to actually slay Spidey, but the moment plays out so logically that my dissent dissolved. And towards the end of the book there's a sly twist on Peter's domestic woes which is hilarious.

Not a moan, but a 'why bother?': each scene is time-stamped, which is hardly necessary for the straightforward linear narrative we have here. The single flashback is pretty obviously signalled. And a question: this episode is titled 'The ancient gallery' which Googling tells me could be a reference to popular beat combo the Doors. Can anyone explain the relevance, or provide an alternative reading?

Penciller Barry Kitson impresses with his storytelling choices, filling the pages with dynamic tension and humour. And when you see the way his Peter and MJ look at one another you'll never doubt they're meant for one another, devil be damned.

Adventure Comics #2 review

The Brainiac-Luthor team dominate the first few pages of this issue, attacking grunts, making deals . . . you know, the whole baddies bit. But once we leave West Virginia ('mountain momma') and join Conner and Martha Kent in Smallville, that stuff just fades into memory. For the Johns-Manapul team is far more persuasive than Baldies Inc, gently drawing us into a place where it's forever summer. The heart of the issue is a conversation between Conner and a visiting Cassie Sandsmark, Wonder Girl - the love of Superboy's life before his death.

Conner and Cassie talk through their feelings, truths are shared and their relationship begins anew. And all the while Krypto is on hand, ever the supportive Superdog. I love Krypto. As for Ma, let's just say the story's penultimate page had me weeping - and I'd only just got the lump out of my throat from the previous scene.

This is fine work from Geoff Johns and Francis Manapul, who prove masters of mood. Colourist Brian Buccellato matches tone to emotion, and letterer Steve Wands ensures the script is never noisier than it needs to be. This series feels like no other DC title, a refreshing spa break from the grubbiness that pervades much of the line these days. I just hope the Superboy series remains a haven of Americana before writer and artist leave this book to reteam on The Flash.

Johns joins Michael Shoemaker to co-write the Legion short, which focuses on Lightning Lad and estranged/strange brother Mekt, Lightning Lord. I enjoyed it until we came to a 'revelation' which shatters even my tolerance of corn. Where the story works is in establishing Lightning Lad's current hothead personality. I also liked that it never ventures from the 31st century - we see enough of today's world and heroes in other series, the LSH should stick to its prime setting.

A 7ft Saturn Girl apart, Clayton Henry's art suits this strip well. It's just a shame he has to use Gary Frank's dowdy Legion costumes. Poor old Lightning Lad, for instance . . . doesn't his bum look big in this?

Secret Six #13 review

One of Mad! magazine's longest running features is Scenes We'd Like To See. This issue of Secret Six goes in the other direction, flashing back to Scandal Savage's 9th birthday for a scene I could easily live without. As a rite of passage her father, Vandal Savage, has her run a gauntlet of thugs for an especially nasty reason.

Yes, I know the outwardly sophisticated immortal Vandal is a cannibalistic caveman, so any daughter of his isn't likely to have the sanest upbringing. But even in the nastiest DC comics I don't expect to see children brutally attacked - we're not talking suggestion here, the art is explicit - then taught to 'crush, disembowel and mutilate' aggressors. I see that the scene speaks to character, and I know this is a book about villains willing to kill, but there should be limits. I had problems enough when Black Canary suffered a similar attack in Birds of Prey under Secret Six writer Gail Simone, but at least Dinah Lance had a choice. L'il Scandal has no say in the matter.

There are a few more really nasty moments in an issue which seemed determined to push the envelope. If anything, it's going to push me away. I buy this book for the characters, plots, team dynamics and art. I know Scandal, Ragdoll, Jeanette and co aren't kindergarten teachers but I'd prefer the extreme stuff to be left to the imagination.

And if that makes me a lily-livered hypocrite, so be it. I know Gail is a huge admirer of John Ostrander and Kim Yale's Suicide Squad, a book which similarly featured the scum of the DC universe (among them, Secret Six's Deadshot) teaming up for dubious missions. It managed to be a fabulously dramatic read, month in, month out, without going the graphically grisly route. Gail's a writer with the talent to follow a better path; I hope she chooses to do so.

Rant over. This issue continued the Depths storyline, with the Six split into factions over a ring of slave owners building the world's largest prison. Also on hand are Wonder Woman and the mythical beast Grendel who, being chained up, doesn't get to do much other than make creepy threats. We also get more insight into the banshee Jeanette and catch up with Scandal's new girlfriend Liana, and the instalment is entertaining but my interest is waning - this is part four with no end in sight.

Nicola Scott, Carlos Rodriguez and the rest of the artistic team keep things looking good, if grisly, while Daniel Luvisi supplies another gorgeous cover. In all, this isn't my favourite issue, but it's still a smart read.

Saturday, 5 September 2009

Justice League: Cry For Justice #3 review

Here's Cry For Justice writer James Robinson admiring Grant Morrison's recent Batman: RIP story in a text piece this issue:

'One of the things I loved, following on from how Grant worked in and greatly personalised the International Club of Heroes, was how in a few pages of RIP he managed to give these multinational heroes their own set of archenemies like Le Bossu and King Kraken'

And here's James Robinson himself using some of DC's international heroes (click to enlarge): Hmm, I think someone missed a point somewhere.

The subject of the text piece is the villain Prometheus, created by Morrison as a foil for the JLA but never really catching on with readers. Robinson thinks he's not been used properly since his JLA debut but I'd argue that his gimmick - a helmet that can download 'any conceivable data he might need directly into his brain' - is so stupid that making him cool is pretty much impossible. Robinson seems to be admitting this in having Prometheus report that he's murdered a bunch of heroes in order to appear a threat to Hal Jordan's Justice League. We don't see Prometheus plotting great schemes and having awe-inspiring battles; no, we just get told that he's killed a bunch of folk, and see some death scenes. Ooh, scary.

I'm actually surprised an Englishman would make international heroes look incompetent in order to big up a less-than-formidable Yank villain (see also the deaths of Amazing Man, Crimson Fox and Blue Devil in Starman #38). James Robinson, Queen Elizabeth is weeping.

As for the rest of the issue . . .

THE WORLD'S GREATEST SUPER-HEROES

That was the proud claim on the covers of the Justice League of America in its Silver Age heyday. Green Lantern, Atom and Green Arrow were members in good standing, shining science heroes whose sheer goodness set the villains in dark relief. While not saints, they'd never abuse their abilities to beat a villain, they'd always find another way.

In this comic Green Lantern stands over a bad guy as the Atom wanders around his head, inflicting huge pain that causes his victim to scream out. Green Arrow, whose decades-established character demands that at this point he challenges/punches his fellows, before walking out, simply mutters: 'I gotta ask, Hal -- is this right? I mean, isn't this torture?' Hal justifies the crime they're committing by referencing the recently killed Batman and Martian Manhunter.

Yes, Green Lantern is condoning torture because super-villains have been doing evil things.

And the Atom is carrying out the torments by doing pretty much exactly what ex-wife Jean Loring did to kill his friend Sue Dibney. Granted, Ray Palmer has better control of his size and weight changing, but you'd expect Jean's actions to deter him from trying such a trick.

Earlier in the issue Hal has the gall to ask the newly arrived breasts of Supergirl, 'Are you here now as a hero, or as a villain?' Look in the mirror, you dumb, green hypocrite.

Poor Supergirl is suddenly as melodramatic as Hal and pals, telling them about the recent killing of her father and declaiming: 'Together we can be justice!' Phew, thanks Kara, I'd nearly forgotten this book is about snarling heroes wanting revenge - the Grimace League of America.

I could also do with this book being less self-conscious. Would people in the DC Universe really rank villains as B-list or whatever, given that any one of them can do something heinous, way beyond anything they've done in the past, given the opportunity? And while in the real world Elvis Presley apparently based his look on Captain Marvel Jr, would Green Arrow really refer to Freddy Freeman as 'Elvis Jr'? In the context of the DCU it makes no sense; it's not even as if artist Mauro Cascioli draws Freddy with an Elvis look.

When the dialogue isn't awash with exposition ('Not to mention the murder of my friend Mike Dante, as well as Jay Garrick's buddies--'), it's trying too hard (click to enlarge): It may sound like I'm being too tough on this book, but I know James Robinson can do better. I've no idea why he's trying to write a grim and gritty comic at the end of the first decade of the 21st century; the time for such a treatment is past, and it certainly doesn't suit his talents. When he's concentrating on sheer superheroic fun, the story comes alive, as in a terrific spread featuring Congorilla and Starman Mikaal leaping from a plane to fight those robots. And the aftermath, with our heroes in the sea, has a priceless moment with the old golden gorilla.

Another highlight is a single page featuring a bunch of old Jack Knight Starman characters in Opal City - just a quiet moment with people who know one another well, but it truly works. There's no gritting of teeth, no posturing, not a single cry for justice.

If James Robinson played to his strengths, and everyone stopped taking themselves so seriously, we might have a fun superhero book. I hope that's what we'll get when Robinson joins artist Mark Bagley for a run on the regular JLA title. But we're not going to get this here. I should stop buying, but I've become a rubbernecker. I'm buying this nonsense when I should be crying for quality.

Friday, 4 September 2009

Red Tornado #1 review and The Torch #1 review

Yup, it's Android Week as two of comics' oldest non-human heroes get a chance to fly solo.

First off, it's the Justice League's longtime Pinocchio, the Red Tornado. As we join him he's at adopted daughter's Traya's recital with partner Kathy Sutton, listening proudly, but distracted. He's recently realised there are other androids out there like him, cybernetic siblings. This issue we meet two of them, and hear of the third. Like Reddy, they're earth elementals, but not necessarily earth angels. Red Volcano, for one, isn't to be messed with. The other two, Red Torpedo and Red Inferno aren't under the spotlight, but Volcano has a mission - find his creator, mad scientist TO Morrow.

Hey, that's easy, he's a regular member of Wonder Woman's supporting cast! Actually, no, due to DC editors not actually talking to one another or reading their comics, he's in super prison Belle Reve. That's where Volcano heads, and that's when we see that unlike Reddy, he's not down with the human beings. Reddy, meanwhile, searches for the dormant Red Torpedo. And the final android, Red Inferno? Mindwiped and living as a little boy.

Red Tornado's history is so horribly complicated, warped across various planets and continuities (I'm not kidding, go Wiki, I'll wait a day or so while you try to make sense of it all), that the best way to enjoy this book is to not worry about it. Happily, writer Kevin VanHook doesn't go into Reddy's past, leaving it at the basics - John Smith is an air elemental and Justice League member. He was created by science but the emotions he feels make him feel human, so it's understandable that when he detects a connection 'out there' he goes in search of his family. And refreshingly, there are no amateur dramatics involving Reddy's wife and daughter; Kathy ain't worrying about him leaving her for a toaster, and Reddy's not rejecting anyone for those more like him. He's human, and therefore he's curious; he's off, but he'll be back by dinner.

There's some decent drama here, mostly centred on Volcano's doings, but my favourite scene was motivated by Reddy turning off his 'chit-chat' program. I hope we continue to get flashes of humour as this six issue series progresses, as every android needs a bit of personality.

We don't see anything of the original Human Torch's personality in the first issue of his eight-parter, but as with Red Tornado, there's a hero looking for something. It's Toro, the Torch's recently reborn partner (Cosmic Cube blah blah). He's looking for a life, being the latest Timely hero to be reborn, a man out of time. That makes Captain America, Bucky, Namor, the Twelve . . . never mind, if I can pretend I don't know Red Tornado's history, I can make out that poor Toro is in a unique position.

As it happens, scripter Mike Carey makes the mental misery of Toro - Tom Raymond and not an android, but a mutant - pretty real. We begin with his memories of fiery incidents, including the death of his father (which doesn't jibe with his Golden Age origin, oh well, what did I expect?) and see that he's particularly peeved that his wife is happily married again. Given that Toro has been de-aged and is, you know, not actually dead anymore, I take it he's a 'glass half empty' kind of fellow.

The other star of the issue is old FF villain the Mad Thinker, who's had several dealings with the Torch and Toro post-war, and was the man who murdered Toro. Remembering this, Toro figures killing the Thinker would at least be something to do, so he's teleported to the scientist's side by the Vision (we're talking the Forties fella from Smokeworld, not the Avenger whose body is made from a time-split version of the Torch . . . sorry, sorry, I'm really trying to avoid this sort of thing).

Anyway, let's just say things don't go as planned, and by the end of the issue the original Torch is back in the picture.

I liked this book a lot. Carey makes Toro tormented without his a whiner, and the Thinker actually gets a bit of a personality beyond cardboard mad scientist (click to enlarge). And in case you're not British, this is a Bourbon. They're best dunked in a nice cup of tea - coffee is all wrong, and Mike Carey should know better. Tut.

I was dubious that this would simply be Marvel revisiting the Marvels well yet again - well, it does have Alex Ross as co-plotter and the requisite Ross cover and Ross-ish art from Patrick Berkenkotter and colour artist Carlos Lopez, but no, this is more than just another bunch of origins and foreshadowings. For one thing, we're in the present day. For another, former Hellblazer writer Carey is better than that, he doesn't do copies. Whatever the Mad Thinker is planning by the end of the issue, it looks to be something original, and I look forward to seeing how any Torches fit into them.

Back in Red Tornado's mini, the art is a more traditional pencils, inks and colour job from Jose Luis, JP Mayer and Guy Major, but appealing for all that. It's solid superhero illustration in the modern DC house style - think the Superman stable of artists - telling the story well with only the odd odd panel, such as Reddy stripped to his trunks in his John Smith guise. The old android looks like the Hulk, but pink (does Marvel have a pink Hulk yet?). The cover is by Ed Benes, an odd choice as Reddy doesn't wear a thong. Nice picture though, even if the shady Red family members are a little too blobby; that great new logo certainly lifts the image.

So that's two minis about android here, only one of which stars the title character this time, but they're both good time-fillers. Both characters 'boast' appallingly convoluted back stories that by rights should have any writer running for the hills, but the creatives, thankfully, don't reference anything not necessary to the story at hand. There's nothing amazing here, but as spotlights on little-seen characters, both these minis look to be worth sticking with.