Friday, 30 October 2009

World's Finest #1 review

'Your two favorite heroes, Superman and Batman, in one adventure!' That was the idea behind the old World's Finest series. Poor Robin never rated a mention.

Still, there's a Robin in the first issue of this mini series teaming the second stringers of the Superman and Batman family, and while I used to love Tim Drake's perky teen wonder, his Red Robin incarnation depresses me. He's the nice kid who's suddenly realised Life is Serious and he's going to drip angst until he really does grow up.

This issue also features the new Nightwing, Chris Kent, who has been annoying me in the pages of Action Comics of late with his puppy dog devotion to religious super-nut Thara aka Flamebird.

So it's safe to say these aren't my two favourite heroes together. Happily, Sterling Gates is up to the task of writing a decent story featuring two characters in search of charisma. The plot is simple enough - Nightwing finds Red Robin in Amsterdam and asks for help in retrieving the captured Flamebird. It actually makes sense that Chris seeks out Tim, as they became pals for about two minutes when Chris was a young kid, and Tim was a chirpy wee Robin.

Tim does the miserable git thing, proclaiming that 'helping other people isn't my job anymore'. Poor love. Chris bores Tim into submission via tales of old Krypton. Back in Gotham they use brains and brawn to take down the Penguin and Kryptonite Man and rescue Flamebird, who has had another of her doomy visions. Could someone please drug that girl? Oh well, it'll get us to issue two, no doubt.

While Gates doesn't make Tim likable again he keeps his current character on moody model. He has more leeway with Chris, who shows he's learned some good lessons from Superman when he spent a few weeks as Clark and Lois's sort-of adopted son. It's just a shame Greg Rucka created Chris to be a passive soul, as he really should have given Red Robin a right rollicking for his attitude - a spot of heat vision to the tights, maybe. Still, there are one or two pleasant moments, including a discussion about Chris's tactile telekinesis that had me wondering if, like Superboy, he's not so much son of Krypton as clone of a clod.

Penciller Julian Lopez and inker Bit jolly things along nicely with good, clear storytelling. The panels have a pleasing dynamism, with the highlight being a splash page of Tim and Chris leaving Amsterdam, all gritty determination and newfound hope. The close-up of Pengy is a classic. And would it be wrong to admit I found their Kryptonite Man rather sexy?

I won't, then. There's also a cracking shot of a last-page surprise villain which promises interesting times ahead for the rest of this series. So far as this issue goes, it's solidly entertaining, with Gates, Lopez and co making decent lemonade from the bitter lemons handed them.

Phil Noto's cover is a beautifully composed image, with Red Robin looking splendid as a smile plays upon his lips and Kyptonite Man truly formidable beneath him.

What this book is missing so far is a wow factor - it feels like a well-delivered technical exercise rather than essential reading.

Detective Comics #858 review

The Batwoman, who she is and how she came to be. That's the premise of the new story arc in Detective and thank the Lord - it's been a couple of years since Kate Kane began swooping around Gotham, I'm ready to know why she took up the mantle of the Bat.

This first part gives Kate a tragic loss to match that suffered by young Bruce Wayne. But where he lost his parents to crime we see that she, two decades ago, lost her mother and twin sister to terrorists.

But is sister Beth still alive and reborn as lunatic villain Alice, Batwoman's adversary in the first four-parter? That's what Kate's trying to find out here, carrying out a comparative blood test.

The flashback scenes show a good childhood - not idyllic, as the Kane twins weren't always fans of the life of the army brat, which two parents in the service made them, but not half-bad. It's sad their childhood came to such a sticky end.

Greg Rucka writes the family life wonderfully well, and the scene of their father in, I suppose, the Gulf War, convinces - it's the military/spy speak Rucka does so spiffily that to me is pure Miss Othmar; I can't make head nor tail of it, and you can tell Skylight and Cloudbreaker I said so.

In the present we see a little antipathy between Commissioner Gordon, whose men are trying to find the body of Alice, and the military, as represented by Colonel Kane (that seems to be his first name). Well, when there's never been a military presence in Gotham in 70 years, would you want them coming in and taking over your crime scenes?

All credit to Rucka for keeping the worst of the violence not so much off-panel as in the dark. We don't need to see the bloody details of the torture and murder here, as Alfred Hitchcock said, it's the stuff you imagine that's most frightening. JH Williams does a superb job (likely with the assistance of legendary letterer Todd Klein) in placing the sound effects and balloons.

It's an imaginative layout in a book full of them, with only one not working - the docks scene's jagged panels don't guide the eye across the spread as they might. Williams uses a variety of styles - rich renderings for the present scenes, a vaguely Joe Kubert style for our army at war, and a simple, impressionistic line - it's a little Michael Lark - for the twin sequences that makes the violence all the more powerful when it occurs.

Oh, and Williams proves himself unique in drawing a Paris street and not dumping the Eiffel Tower at the bottom of it. Bravo, mon frere.

Colour artist Dave Stewart proves himself a versatile chap too, matching his skills against those of Williams for a perfect finish. His contribution to the art deserves a cover credit.

While the Batwoman segment left me wanting more, the Question strip here left me wanting less. Well, none, actually. Rucka's writing here lacks the spark evident in the main feature, while the excellent Cully Hamner isn't asked to draw anything very interesting. The conclusion to the first five-parter is just more of the same - Renee Montoya in a face mask busting chops to rescue a young woman kidnapped for prostitution. I admit, if this happened to you, you wouldn't find it boring, but in a world of weird villains and dastardly plots, it's terribly mundane.

And I remain to be convinced that the Question is the best role for Montoya. As a Gotham City cop she went through a huge range of emotions, all of them etched on her face. Now she's wearing a mask most of the time, so is rendered expressionless. And instead of pursuing her own passions, she's filling a dead man's shoes. Renee the cop was fascinating, Renee the Question is dull.

Happily, Greg Rucka's a first-class writer, so with luck, now that he's established the sort of thing the new Question does, he can let more of Montoya shine through.

Thursday, 29 October 2009

The Last Days of Animal Man #6 review

It's the final issue of this future-set storyline which has seen Buddy Baker struggling to deal with fading powers and fraught family relationships while being targeted by new villains. Last issue ended with Buddy being thoroughly stomped by Mirror Master's daughter Prismatik and the brutish Bloodrage. This issue he saves the day in a clever way that makes sense for his powers and the story, after meeting some old sort-of friends from way back. We also see the final fate (I so want to capitalise those two words) of the odious villains and the resolution of Buddy's personal issues, both super and domestic.

It's a thoroughly satisfying end to a series which should have generated a lot more buzz among fans. The Last Days of Animal Man was a terrific tale, well told. Writer Gerry Conway eschewed flashy storytelling and look-at-me twists to tell his story in a straightforward but engrossing manner. And he didn't shirk, delivering on the threat of the book's title. This is indeed the end for Animal Man, and it's affecting to see Buddy accept his fate in a scene which doesn't hit you over the head with its symbolism.

I'm not always the biggest fan of narrated stories but the technique works well here, putting us right by Buddy as he faces up to a tangled present and an uncertain future. He's been far from the perfect husband and father, but always a good man and a great hero. It'd be a shame if Conway, whose screen background stands him in excellent stead here, didn't get to do some current continuity stories with Buddy, wife Ellen and kids Maxine and Cliff.

And if he does I hope Chris Batista is along as co-driver. This is the best pencilling job I've ever seen from him, with Buddy apparently modelled on the work of longtime Animal Man cover artist Brian Bolland. He's been appropriately aged for this mini, but Buddy's the same guy we saw on all those gorgeous covers. Like Conway's script, Batista's work isn't showy but the storytelling is superb, with expressive characters moving through well-drawn landscapes, whether in the real world or of the mind. Dave Meikis and Wayne Faucher share inking duties, providing an attractive finish; particular credit to whoever handled the Starfire close-up, as she's not looked this good in years. And I'm not just saying that because she's full of attractive Bolland stroke-shading.

The man himself provides his final Animal Man cover (for now, he said optimistically)and it's a keeper. I especially love the brilliantly corny use of the leaf to hide Animal Man's birthdate.

If you ever enjoyed an Animal Man adventure, I hope you've been reading this smart series. If not, grab the back issues or get the collection when it appears in March (someone really should give DC's trades schedule a kick up the arse). Either way, join Buddy for Animal Man's final days. I'll miss him.

Wonder Woman #37 review

The first image in this issue took me right back to the Seventies and the cover to issue #246, with Diana in bed as a mystic force attends her. The shot is almost certainly a coincidence, but one I enjoyed. What follows is one of the best scenes Gail Simone has written since she took on this book, with a terribly creepy Ares, god of war, appearing to Diana and taunting her with weasel words. Artist Bernard Chang cranks up the atmosphere so Ares seems like the ghost Ebenezer Scrooge never met, there not to threaten, but to deliver a message. And their panel of a godly tongue licking Diana's lasso is one of the ickiest in a long while - there may be a subtext but I'm just not going there.

What's right with this scene is that it adds extra visual interest to Ares, as he bears the scars of Diana's axe, and that rather than being cowed, his words motivate Diana to face her foes. What's wrong with this scene is that it has no business being at the start of this issue.

Last month we ended with Diana having been informed by Achilles that he had her mother, Queen Hippolyte, strung up as a hostage. There can't be a reader who didn't expect - want - the continuation to begin with Diana's reaction, maybe a shot of the bound queen, prior to all hell breaking loose as Diana and temporary ally Giganta stuff Achilles' terms where the sun don't shine.

Now, confounding expectations can make for a great experience, but sometimes you have to give the reader what they want, because it makes sense for the story. The Ares scene could have been saved for some other time, with altered foreboding. It's followed by Hippolyte on New Themyscira (I forget its name, Gail rarely bothers with locations when we move scenes - too uncinematic I suppose, which is a terrible thing for, er, a comic book) visiting a mystically pregnant Amazon, with no reference to her ever having been imprisoned by Achilles.

It was at this point that I seriously wondered if I'd missed an issue, but we're finally informed, during a love tussle between 'prancing idiot' Achilles and rogue Amazon nut Alkyone, that Diana retreated after last issue's threats, leaving three of her gorilla chums to protect the Queen.

You what? The odd gorilla has already died as a result of loyalty to Diana - they're not invulnerable. Yet she's depending on them to protect her mother where her Amazon sisters could not? And the situation hardly equals a stalemate between Wonder Woman and the so-called Olympian - departing at the behest of Achilles leaves him free to continue his campaign to end world wars by killing soldiers (or something, the book hasn't made his campaign plans particularly clear).

Wonder Woman should be rallying all her allies to end the thread of Achilles and his army, but instead she tries to grab a good night's sleep. Gail has some fascinating, original ideas, creates attention-grabbing new characters and tweaks existing ones in interesting ways, and writes great scenes and dialogue (ignoring the awful line, 'Tonight I will introduce them to Diana reassembled'. Out of place Avengers in-joke or just a weird choice?). But the plot structure regularly gets peculiar, to say the least. Climaxes aren't followed up, important things happen off panel . . . I'd love to see evidence that editor Elisabeth Gehrlein sits down with Gail and works out where plot beats make sense. Perhaps the problems are less evident in trade form but at the moment the scattershot approach is harming this comic as a monthly read.

In other news . . . Artemis returns to the island with the Bana prisoners freed in Secret Six last month, and Amazon extra Persephone announces her as their likely saviour - not surprising, given supposed champion Diana's folding before Achilles. It's probably best not to try to work out where the S6 story fits with the last year of Wonder Woman, as there's no obvious point at which Diana left her Genocide/Ares/Alkyone/Achilles storylines to help free the dear ladies. Perhaps it was in between dumping gorillas and having her cocoa; a reference would have been nice. Did I mention I'd like a stronger editorial hand on this comic?

Good on Gail for having the balls to mention the Stygian hornets, one of the most ridiculed elements of DC's shameful Amazon Attacks mini series.

And well done for showing a bit of Diana's legendary Athenian wisdom in working out how to use the lasso to end her battle with Donna Troy. It's just a shame we didn't see how Achilles got her to throw in with him - Donna's apparently been flying around for several issues, off panel, waiting for someone to ask her to beat Diana up for perceived wrongs. Silly girl.

Then there's Achilles, who isn't so much a superheroic rival for Diana as Captain Henpecked, constantly bowing before off-her-bald-head Alkyone.

The assertion of Ares that Diana actually serves him rather than the more peaceful gods cuts nicely to the core dichotomy of Wonder Woman, that she's a warrior for peace.

Chang delivers, page after page. His Diana is a tad more Greek looking/stern-nosed (ducks) than regular artist Aaron Lopresti's, and as powerful, intelligent and dignified as you could wish for. The action scenes are as good as the Ares opener.

Lopresti shows up for the cover but wasn't there a proper brief? While Hippolyte does turn up at issue's end, pleading with Diana to let her play hostage (bleedin' Amazon perverts), nothing like the moment shown happens. If Donna had been substituted for Hippolyte, fine. When there's as much going on as there is inside this comic, there's no excuse for a cover that lies. Oh, and Bernard Chang is denied credit, with Lopresti being named this issue's interior artist. Again, editor?

So another enjoyable issue, but one that could have been better with a more reasonable plot structures.

Monday, 26 October 2009

Power Girl #6

There are no boob jokes this month, which is how it should be as by now it's obvious Power Girl's biggest asset is her gift for friendship. If Mary Tyler Moore were a Kryptonian, she'd be Power Girl. For Peege is the single woman trying to make a new start in the big city while juggling personal life and career.

Make that careers, as superheroing is as important to Kara-L/Karen Starr as making a success of her tech firm. And she may not state the fact, but Karen is all about doing the best by people - everywhere she goes she treats folk well, be they cop, colleague, cad or cat.

The punch-first, think-later Power Girl of the Seventies is long gone; this is a mature hero, ready to give someone a chance to explain or surrender before bringing powers into play. And that attitude comes with confidence - she's not omnipotent but Peege knows she has enough power and smarts to get most jobs done. Happily, the confidence never morphs into arrogance, as when she needs to, she'll pull in a pal.

One such, the new Terra, Atlee, appears this issue but it's strictly to help out with a trip to Ikea, not to bash villains. Peege tracks down the troublesome rich space girls (trustifaliens?) from last issue alone after their minder, Carl (Carl? There's another story there, I suspect) tells her they're not bad, just irresponsible. She winds up helping them out when they run into gangster trouble in Atlantic City. By the end of the issue Karen's set the trio and Carl up with an Earth life to enjoy until they can return to the Vega system. I've no doubt they'll be back causing chaos before long. I hope so, as the girls are fun and Carl is pleasingly Kirbyesque - short, snub-nosed and scrappy.

This issue also sees Karen meet a potential date, take her cat on a trip and pop to the pictures with Atlee (Fat Guy and the Hot Chick, bound to be huge). All the while, Karen and co are chatting, talking through situations, relationships and just having fun being around each other. This is one of the wordiest comics around, but one of the most fun, with the lively illustrations of Amanda Conner, coloured by Paul Mounts, making every page a visual feast. Whether it's Peege hovering in the air, Karen and cat riding the subway or Carl obviously not keen on heights at Coney Island, it all looks great. Even a fat hood in an animal print thong is an image to savour.

And as great as the foreground incidents is, the background bits of business are a joy too - check out the little story in the back-panels of the ER department here.

While dating looks to be on the horizon, I can't see this book turning into a Sex and the City knock-off as it has a charm, and class, all its own. It likewise has a rhythm unlike any other mainstream hero book. Instead of starting quietly and escalating the action, or beginning with action, looping back to show how we got to that, and cranking up the speed from there, Power Girl's book goes its own way. Dynamism and domesticity come and go as they please. It's not a case of meandering, as Gray, Palmiotti and Conner are totally in control of the pace, it's more about letting the characters dictate where the plot points fall.

At the moment Karen is the most likable hero around and the creative team here are doing right by her, month in, month out. The first trade isn't out until next April but this book is very reader friendly, so if you fancy giving it a try, any month is good. Go on, make friends with Power Girl, you'll be glad you did. Who can turn the world on with a smile? Peege!

Friday, 23 October 2009

Supergirl #46 review

I really enjoy the Supergirl comic. Could we please have one? For this book is now so tightly tied into the New Krypton sequence that Kara is almost a bystander in her own book, This issue Kara's flying around with Flamebird and Nightwing in the World Against S-Shield With an X Through It crossover, fighting Reactron. As he's the fella who killed her father, it's understandable she's involved, and Flamebird is her sometime best friend, but I'm getting sick of all Krypton, all the time.

A few months ago we met Linda Lang, Supergirl's new secret identity. Since then we've been thrown barely a crumb. Linda went to the bank in the Annual and that's pretty much it. I want to see Linda develop her new life on Earth, not spend her days as a lapdog of New Krypton. I suppose I should get used to it, as Kara has picked a guild to join on her mother's terraformed world, but I get enough of that place in the World of New Krypton book. I want something different here.

This issue isn't even written in total by regular writer Sterling Gates, with Greg Rucka pitching in - most likely on the parts featuring his Action Comics characters, Thara and Chris. The pair were actually interesting here, but I'd rather they were interesting there. Let every Superman book have a different angle on the New Krypton story, and can the crossovers.

Besides, the more Kryptonian heroes in one story, the harder it is to believe the likes of Reactron are a threat. I get it, he has a gold kryptonite heart that can switch powers off for 15 seconds at a time. Big deal. He can't continuously be flashing his organ at three Kryptonians with superspeed and a bunch of other powers.

Then there's Nightwing's tactile telekinesis, which he should be using a little more effectively by now. Thank goodness Flamebird inadvertently plays her fiery ace in the hole here, ending this less than thrilling crossover.

Kara and Thara are reconciled, and Lana Lang has to stop denying she's sick - it's just a shame Kara is so weirdly hard on her at the end of the issue. So there is some actual Supergirl-specific story movement. But I want more.

Still, this looks to be the end of the Nightwing and Flamebird guest shot for now, meaning we should see the back of that infernal Kryptonian dialogue that brings the story to a dead stop every time it appears. Which is often. (Click to make image bigger/more annoying) What's Kryptonian for blah blah? Could someone please invent a virus, hack the DC computers and kill that self-satisfied font?

I'm not keen on Joshua Middleton's cover. On the one hand, Reactron vs Nightwing is the focal point, on the other, one has his back to us and is in shadow, while the other is faint behind his gold kryptonite heart. Kara and Thara, meanwhile, lie indistinct in the foreground, in the shade.

Inside, regular art team Jamal Igle and Jon Sibal are joined by Eduardo Pansica and Julio Ferreira and they do good work. I can't be specific as I'm not sure who drew what, although it looks like Jamal at least handled the quieter, characterisation scenes. Whatever the case, the storytelling is good and the money shots earn their keep.

One thing I'd like to see Jamal do is redesign Reactron's look. Talk about fussy costumes, he looks like a Donna Troy tribute act. Next issue: the final fate of Reactron. Thank God.

The Brave and the Bold #28 review

Look at that gorgeous cover by Jesus Saiz. The fastest man alive and the Second World War's most famous fliers, racing towards the reader. So how disappointed am I that when Barry Allen lands in the past there are just a few speed feats and no actual flying? Not a HAWKAAA-AAA to be heard.

Not at all, because there's lots of physical action and even more character action. For this is Barry Allen faced with having to break one of the basic codes of the Silver Age superhero - his vow against killing. The Blackhawks, meanwhile, are on the run without access to their famed fighter planes and wondering if they can trust the garishly garbed stranger who claims to come from the future.

J Michael Straczynski gives us another team-up as entertaining as it is thoughtful. Circumstances mean his Barry Allen can't depend on his patented super-speed feats, bringing the moral dilemma. If he doesn't accept a gun from Blackhawk, and help defend the group against Nazis, they may all die and the war could be lost. If he accepts the gun he might lose himself.

Saiz is an equal partner here, providing page after page of sumptuous work. Never mind the way he moves men and equipment across a page, I could look at his winter scenes all day. Trish Mulvihill's colours makes the linework pop, while letterer Rob Leigh gets to show off a bit on the title page before settling in to quietly ply his craft.

Apparently this comic isn't selling great guns. It should be.

DCU Halloween Special '09 review

Halloween specials are always mixed bags, full of more tricks than treats. But DC has another crack at scaring the bejabbers out of us with '13 all-new tales of terror'. That would be hype, as some of the tales are played strictly for laughs and are none the worse for it. On the whole, though, I prefer my All Hallow's Eve tales to be veritable spookfests. Let's see how the strips here deliver . . .

The issue is bookended by a tale of the Bizarro world, with Bizarro No.1 hating his worst holiday. Or something - I can never manage Bizarro-think. Anyway, Jake Black's script is delightful, never trying too hard, while Ibraim Roberson does a nice line in Bizarro-American Gothic. There's even a Bizarro Dan DiDio (presumably he allows a storyline to end).

We then see Guy Gardner organising a Halloween party at his bar on Oa, inviting his GL pals and having fun with girlfriend Ice. It's featherlight stuff until a subtle shift in tone shows us Guy's childhood Halloweens, providing an insight into how he became the man he is today. While it's well done by writer Adam Schlagman and artists Mark Bagley and Ray McCarthy, I'd rather it had been done elsewhere - the realistic feel to the flashbacks is at odds with the rest of this 80pp giant. I'll take a fun frightfest over a psychological insight into something that doesn't need explaining - I'm fine with 'sometimes Guy is a bit of an arse but he really, really loves Halloween'. Bagley draws a great Kyle Rayner, he's the first artist in years to remember that the Green Lantern is part-Mexican and isn't meant to look like just another middle-American. Kyle, of course, is an artist himself, and the costume he designs this issue shows he's one sick puppy. Oh, and a demerit for overuse of an obscure-outside-the-US TV reference. Ginger and Mary Ann indeed!

Duncan Rouleau contributes a single page Creeper strip and, as ever, that's quite enough of this annoying character for me. I liked that it was basically a Mad Magazine gag page, but it was more hit than miss.

Creeper shows up again over the page in a story of the new Outsiders. Alfred tasks the team with stopping the rebirth of Mary, Queen of Blood from the fabulous old House of Mystery I . . . Vampire strip. It's written by DC editor Michael Siglain, who shows that he really should be writing more, as this is the best outing yet for the Outsiders. It's a tight wee tale which utilises good teamwork, supplies fine dialogue and a terrific ending. And as Siglain celebrates Halloween he also sticks to a newer tradition - Halo gets but a single line. Never mind, this story works, not least because of the spookily stylish artwork of Kelley Jones, who does shadows like no one else. Particular pleasures of this strip include a smart use of Black Lightning's powers to tackle some rather familiar familiars and some clever namechecks for Hammer Films fans.

Tiny Titans creators Art Baltazar and Franco Aureleiani provide a short but sweet tale of the Batman Family's Halloween bash being crashed by Killer Moth. Set shortly after Barbara Gordon's debut as Batgirl it's a fun tale which shows once again how cool Alfred is, as he helps save the day after giving Bruce Wayne a thorough dad-lecture. Sergio Carrera's art has a wonderful newspaper strip quality to it, clean but never dull. Colourist Marino Lucas Morales deserves a shout-out for his unshowy, but thoroughly effective colouring job. Together, the creators show that a Batman story doesn't have to be a 74part epic to be any good.

In the first solo tale I've seen with him, latest Robin Damian Wayne takes on a terrifying new villain, Sugar Tooth, whose origin makes an awful lot of sense for a Gothamite. Writer Derek Fridolfs captures Damian's voice well, and his inks look as good as ever on Batman: Streets of Gotham partner Dustin Nguyen's crisp pencils here. Damo's narration provides my favourite line of the issue: 'Or maybe just another clown-related curse running through this cesspool.' That kid's so noir!

Then we get another Robin, the Red one, and interestingly chunky art from Matt Triano. Ariel Thomas's script, though, while fine for what it is, is another exploration into Tim Drake Wayne's heart of darkness. I love the Janitzio setting but I've just had enough of tortured Tim. If any kids come to his front door trick or treating he'll be straight in there with a lecture about the evils of candy. Cheer up chum, we get the angst in your own title, this is a holiday special.

Ravager bores the tits off me, and I'd not be at all surprised were her second feature in Teen Titans to be the first to be replaced by something new. But I loved Amy Wolfram's one-page script, it's a little gem of genius, decently drawn by Pow Rodrix and Marlo Alquiza.

The next story is equally good, and longer. It's a Kid Flash story (Bart has a nice Impulse-style new logo) in which Mirror Master takes on a Candyman style legend. Bart doesn't have much to do, and is no fun at all, but this strip delivers the most potent Halloween punch. Author Joe Harris and illustrator Andrei Bressan make a moody team, providing the book's best climax.

Beast Boy shows up for a single pager. He wants to trick or treat but Cyborg says hes too old. An instant un-classic from Amy Wolfram (it says Wolfman on the story credits - someone has too much spooky spirit). Still, she did do the impossible and make me like Ravager. The art by Jon Boy Meyers is a lot of fun.

There are more Teen Titans in the Wonder Woman story, in which the Amazing Amazon watches some Blair Witch style reality TV and gets the shivers. When she sees Wonder Girl, Aquagirl and Miss Martian head for the area seen in the show she's a tad concerned. The ending is predictable and exactly what I wanted, so well done to writer Mandy McMurray and artists Scott Clark and David Beaty. This story is also a notable moment in comics history for being the first time the ludicrously designed Titans Tower looks good.

I do get terribly bored by Superman Vs Flash races, as no result will ever be definitive and besides, I just don't care who's fastest on any given day. But the story here has considerable charm, especially in a moment involving Superman's cape. No referee is needed to declare Billy Tucci's story and art a winner.

Lois and Clark offer three young guys a swinging session in the next story. Just look at this!(Click to enlarge) Well, that's how I read "Daphne's" proposal. It turns out Superman and wife just wanted to mess with their heads in a sweet time passer by writer Joshua Williamson and artists Peter Nguyen and Marlo Alquiza.

And then it's back to those Bizarros for an amusing wrap-up to the first story.

The book is beautifully designed by letter artist Steve Wands and there's a peach of a cover by Gene Ha (which reminds me that I still can't tell the difference between Red Robin and Dr Midnight at a glance - am top Bizarro comics critic).

Congrats to editors Eddie Berganza and Adam Schlagman (I knew that name sounded familiar!) for an impressively varied collection of stories, and getting often splendid work from a lot of creators I'm assuming are new to the BBC big leagues.

So, a better than usual Halloween Special. Now, where's Santa . . .

Thursday, 22 October 2009

Justice League of America #38 review

Another day, another Justice League of America relaunch. Writer James Robinson and penciller Mark Bagley are the latest creatives bidding to bring back the glory days and they begin with a bang as one of the team's scariest foes, Despero, attacks the most recent incarnation. Robinson would get a demerit for here killing off another minor Leaguer, in both senses, but I suspect it's a feint; he's sharp enough to know an awful lot of readers are tired of offhand deaths, killings there purely to build up a villain's rep or motivate a new storyline (see Justice League: Cry for Justice by, hmm, James Robinson).

Apart from Dr Light and, possibly, Plastic Man, the new JLA line-up aren't around this issue, which is fine by me - I'll take Vixen, Zatanna, Red Tornado and Gypsy any chance I can get. A few of them are in a poor state of health as the story begins, though we'll have to wait until the end of Robinson's current Cry For Justice mini series to find out why. God bless spotty scheduling. Vixen has a bum leg, Plastic Man has lost his bounce (he looks for all the world like Law & Order's John Munch), Dr Light has a broken arm . . . they're ill-prepared for an attack by a heavyweight such as Despero.

But despite being one of the most casual groupings in JLA history, this lot aren't crap. And that's my problem with this issue - from the cover on, the team are positioned as poor substitutes for the more iconic line-ups. Yet we've seen again and again that Vixen is one of the most intelligent and determined Leaguers ever, always ready to fight to the last for the League, and her powers are no small potatoes. Red Tornado commands the power of an elemental. Zee has undefined magic. And so on. None of this bunch are Superman or Wonder Woman, but against Despero any one of them is a lot more immediately useful than Batman.

So it's annoying to have Vixen full of doubt as to whether this JLA - who have provided a lot of fun over the last few months, while fighting off the same threats as more lauded line-ups - should carry on. It's even acknowledged in the book that she's acting out of character; she explains that having her leg broken has shaken her. Right. That's about as logical as her calling the recent members to the JLA's original HQ in Happy Harbor - it's a setting of strained significance that makes little story sense.

I just hope that the next few issues, which phase in various New Teen Titans, established JLA-ers and Robinson favourites, don't make the interim team look rubbish to ensure the new lot looks better by default. If Vixen and co are going - Robinson has indicated the team will be bigger than the announced members, so who knows? - I want them to go out fighting hard, with their heads held high.

Meanwhile, let's not have them put themselves down as quickly as does Despero. If someone has been granted JLA membership, with all its benefits and privileges, then they're worthy. That's it.

Bagley's work is as action-packed as you could wish for, with his people looking less like startled ponies than is often the case. Despero is power personified and the heroes look formidable too, though the female faces need some work - Gypsy shouldn't look like Zee's twin, while Dr Light appears far too young and sweet. Overall, though, it's good comic art and kudos to inker Rob Hunter, colourist Pete Pantazis and letterer Rob Leigh for their contributions.

One final, trivial word, though - if you're giving us a new era for the JLA, DC, jolly well put the proper logo on the cover!

Mighty Avengers #30 review

Face front True Believer, this one has it all!

Why doesn't Marvel use this classic Stan Lee line any more? It's corny as heck, certainly, but occasionally it's just perfect. Take Mighty Avengers #30, in which writers Dan Slott and Christos Gage ensure all sorts of pleasing things happen: Various members go ape, or at least Neanderthal; Jarvis is reunited with old friends; Hank Pym finds the universe provides a surprising confidence boost; and the Mighty, Young and New Avengers, along with the Anti-Initiative Avengers Resistance, unite to fight a common foe no single hero team can withstand.

While said 'common foe' - former Inhuman king the Unspoken - has been the least interesting part of recent issues, brooding around Tibet, bossing around Alpha Primitives and fighting Chinese superheroes, here he finally finds his mojo. I just wish he'd find his name, as The Unspoken sounds like something his successor, Black Bolt, rejected.

Nevertheless, it's good to see him finally earn the build-up he's been given by raising terror weapon the Slave Engine and unleashing it on Earth's Mightiest Heroes. He shows the determination and arrogance of a classic Marvel villain and guest artists Sean Chen and Mark Morales have him looking the part, complete with patented Kirby dots. It's comic book action in the Mighty Marvel Manner (oh, there's another one).

But it's not the best part of the book. I got even more pleasure from the gathering of Avengers past and present who answered the Mighties' call to arms. Just seeing a roomful of heroes steadfast and true took me back to the glory days of the Seventies and Eighties Avengers, when the old order would changeth every couple of years via mass meetings (rather than insane destruction) at Avengers Mansion.

Still, though, that wasn't the best part of the book. That came with scenes of Hank Pym, the not so winsome Wasp, confronting a destiny he never dreamed of, and one that makes happy sense in the Marvel Universe. Likely there are spoilers all over the net, but on the off-chance you've not seen them, I'm keeping my big gob shut. For this is really one of those times when I don't want to spoil the thrill of discovery. Where Hank goes, who he meets, what he learns and the effect it has - these are things anyone with even a vague interest in the oft-troubled hero will want to discover for themselves. I want all fans of good superheroics reading this sumptuous series. This is part #4 but there's a clever recap page and other stuff is explained as the story rattles along like a quinjet that's been bitten by a mongoose.

I adored the care with which this issue was put together. The smart plot by Slott, the crisp, witty dialogue by Gage; the gloriously clean, dynamic pencils of Chen and the sharp inks of Morales; the vibrant colours of John Rauch and pleasingly large lettering of Dave Lanphear. The beautiful cover by Marko Djurdjevic that says we're going to lose this guy to film posterland any day now. There's a proper roll call with headshots. And look at the 'Avengers Assemble' logo partway through - it's not just the classic cry, it's lettered to recall the mag's original logo. Really, it's time Marvel gave in and put the original Avengers logo on this book. Because I demanded it.

Friday, 16 October 2009

Uncanny X-Men #516 review

The X-Men have renamed Magneto's downed Asteroid M, now floating off San Francisco, Utopia. 'This is our homeland now people. And we treat it as such' says Scott Summers, Cyclops, as he has his lackeys prepare arms. Subtle.

Why Scott is so keen to gather all mutants on a crap old rock, with no shops, multiplexes or baseball pitches, I have no idea. The notion seems isolationist to me, the type of idea that would appeal to an evil mutant.

And here's one now, it's Magneto, floating down from on high. He comes in peace. Allegedly. Professor X doesn't trust him for a minute. Then Magneto kneels before Cyclops. Talk about overplaying your hand. But Cyclops bloody loves it, as Magneto flatters him with silver tongue, insisting that Scott has succeeded where he and (up)Chuck failed; he's 'united the mutant race'.

He has? Aren't there still loads of evil mutants out there, waiting to attack the good freaks? You know, the ones Scott has been sending X-Force out to murder. Cyclops seems convinced by Magneto's words, though. Mind, he disagrees that mutants should now settle down on their scabby bit of land and die peacefully - Cyke reckons there's hope because of, well, Hope, the ginger mite who might have Jean in her genes.

Have I told you lately that I loathe Scott? The man is an idiot and proves it again here, in giving Magneto - the fella who has tried to kill him dozens of times - a minute's credence. Yes, Professor X is a jerk, but he's obviously taught Scott well. And obnoxious as he is, Charles is wise to not trust Magneto for a second.

While Magneto hides behind a cloak of friendliness, there's a more honest bad guy this issue. I don't know who he is, though - writer Matt Fraction never deigns to introduce him. Maybe there's meant to be a mystery, but I suspect it's more forgetfulness, or the assumption that no one will be reading this book who hasn't been reading it forever. Unknown is holding a hairy chap captive and on their sixth page together we learn this is a mutant - 'John Greycrow aka John Riverwind aka Scalphunter' (you think that's bad? Magneto is introduced as 'Max Eisenhardt aka Erik Lehnsherr aka Magnus aka Magneto, the Master of Magnetism'). We're not told what his power is, or given any idea as to how he fits into the X-universe, which makes me miss Chris Claremont. He was wordy, but you always know where people were with him.

And he wouldn't have Nightcrawler able to teleport, sight unseen, into a moving plane three miles away. Tut. The fuzzy elf is trying to find out what the rapidly approaching Scalphunter is up to. He claims he wants sanctuary, but why should Cyclops trust him? It's not like he's a mutant master of magnetism who's tried to murder him all his adult life.

Annoying as I found much of Fraction's script he did give me a smile with Scott's line before Magneto turned on the smarm: 'X-Men - Fan out and execute close combat Magneto tactics . . .' Why this didn't get a sarcy response from Emma Frost I'll never know. Possibly because she seems to be mute this issue - always at Scott's side, never speaking, never counselling, never bitching. The Beast is similarly silent, standing around as Scott tells Charles to shut the X up. Ditto Wolverine, who finally gets a bit player's line towards the end of the issue. Psylocke gets to say 'As you wish' but while her arse and tits are prominent, we never see her actual face.

It's ridiculous that X-Men with the standing, and personalities, of these characters apparently have no opinion on Magneto's assertions of friendship. There's no way in the world a couple of dozen mutants would stand back as Scott and Charles have a pissing match over Magneto.

When he's not randomly posing attractive women, penciller Greg Land's work, inked by Jay Leisten, is effective. Every time a bit of flashy drama, such as Nightcrawler bamfing, or Scott's optic fizzing, is called for he remembers he's a good superhero artist and delivers dynamic work. And Land's not actually bad at all in the interminable chatty scenes. If only he'd stop the occasional cheesy compositions . . . Justin Ponsor deserves huge credit for a beautiful colouring assignment - darkly moody when we're with, er, that villainous fellow and his unspeaking, unnamed colleagues, and wonderfully bright for the X-Men's very own Paradise Island. Never has Magneto looked so perfectly pink.

So that's part 1 of Nation X, the latest X-Men arc. If things continue the way they've started, don't expect an arc of triumph.

Batgirl #3 review

Stephanie Brown, former Spoiler and onetime Robin, takes on the Scarecrow, a villain who has proven a huge headache for Batman and Robin on numerous occasions. Here, despite being half his size, never mind that she's hallucinating from his latest toxin, she takes him out. Hard.

Possibly this has something to do with the fact that the new drug is a rage enhancer; it gives Steph the power to hoist Jonathan Crane on his own petard. Or maybe coat rack: The main thing seems to be that Steph was roused from a stupor by helper-in-her-helmet Oracle finally calling her 'Batgirl'. This gave Steph the wherewithal to talk Scarecrow into submission, parroting back what she learnt in class that day.

Oh who cares, the fight with Scarecrow was just a long set-up for the emotional meat of the issue - original Batgirl making a vow to her second successor that she'll give her whatever support she needs. Along with a new costume she has hanging up in the Batcave, in one of those 'dead sidekick' cases - is she trying to tell Steph something?

She'll have a chance to tell Steph lots soon, as by the end of the issue Babs has gotten a job as assistant professor of something called 'Comp480' at Gotham University. Presumably that's Computers 480 (please, someone explain US class titling), as information technology is pretty much all Babs could teach. Well, apart from librarianship, disguising masks as berets, crimefighting, congresswomaning, picking the ugliest spectacles in any situation . . . hey, she really is the whole package. Anyway Steph, have fun with your new mentor/stalker.

The issue closes on a happy note, with Batgirl leaping down on some crooks, all new utility bat-on (I'm surprised no one came up with that years ago) in her hands.

If there's anything that's going to keep me reading this book it's a happy Steph. She's been through an awful lot of angst (dad a costumed criminal, teenage pregnancy and giving up her baby, beaten up and forced to fake her death) so it's pleasing to see her gung-ho on the streets of Gotham. She's not quite ready for the Batgirl gig, and knows it. But she's bright, willing, athletic and has Babs on hand to advise. I think she'll get there. And along the way she can fill the light Batbook niche vacated by Tim Drake, who used to be happy little Robin but is now gloomy Red Robin.

Brian Q Miller's script certainly keeps Steph likable, even when she's gabbing away about philosophy. His Babs is a bit dour, but that's likely to change now she's gone through the motions of being stern experienced Bat-person and admitted she actually likes Steph. Wendy Harris, recently crippled daughter of the Calculator, looks to be a regular too, and it'll be interesting to see what her role is. Maybe she and Steph could form a Daddy's a Rubbish Rogue support group. Just so long as she isn't an excuse for lots of appearances by the Calculator, who has been terribly overused these past few years.

Artists Lee Garbett, Trevor Scott and Sandra Hope work hard, taking us hither and yon around gargoyle-crazy Gotham. Cleverly, they have Batgirl looking darned impressive when posing alone on the rooftops, but the minute you see her next to another person you wonder how this little kid will survive the night. Scarecrow has rarely looked creepier and Babs . . . poor Babs. She's a drab of the first order. Why I don't know - speccie folk are tres sexy. Sort it out, Garbett!

Guy Major's vibrant colours and John J Hill's wonderfully clear letters finish off the creative package nicely. And Phil Noto's cover is a keeper, with Steph looking at the reader in a challenging, but not teasing, way. Good trick, that.

So, first story over and I'm on board for a few more issues. Good luck, Steph.

Thursday, 15 October 2009

Secret Six #14 review

Too many comics these days promise a graphic novel-length saga that'll knock our socks off, but after building the adventure, bungle the payoff.

Not Gail Simone in this fifth instalment of Depths, which has seen the DCU's motley mercenaries fighting for, and against, a modern day slaver. And more frighteningly, the dark beast Grendel, who wants nothing more than to eat the tasty morsels laid before him.

First said morsel this issue is guest star Wonder Woman but, unsurprisingly, she lives to see another sitting. It's actually a bit cheap, how she survives; just as Diana is about to be gobbled up, Smyth asks if he wouldn't mind awfully killing a few of the Six first . . .

But full marks to the writer for delivering answers to questions asked and unasked, throwing in plenty of twists, a logical ending for one team member and a riddle or two for another day.

I liked included Jeannette's reason for hating Amazons - it makes sense that the longer-lived folk in the DCU have opinions on immortals (even if she doesn't seem to know the difference between a Themiscyran Amazon and a Bana). The scene between Bane and Scandal Savage proceeded nicely from groundwork laid in previous issues - he proves that no matter how dangerous, he'll always come back for her, whereas she doesn't have the proper amount of faith in him; she considers that only the monstrous, venom-packed Bane can save the Six. While Bane remains as courtly and polite as ever, it's safe to say Scandal's attitude comes back to bite her on the bottom by issue's end.

The marauding Amazons look suitably fierce as drawn by the art team - I don't want to think about what Artemis does with those knee spikes.

The most satisfying snippet of information here was the past of Smyth's rogue Amazon, Giuana. It turns out that she's as sick as you'd expect from a Secret Six villain, and a worthy foe for Catman and Jeannette. The latter's big psychological weakness comes into play here - she really should go full-on banshee a bit more often, protect herself.

As barmy as Giuana is, Smyth matches her, seriously believing that his motives are as pure as his Mr Rourke suit, but Fantasy Island this ain't.

The wrath of Ragdoll, Grendel's family history lesson, Artemis' order to grab the wounded and dead - I loved it all. What I wasn't keen on was the onetime Wonder Woman's willingness to kill her sisters herself rather than let Smyth win. Nah . . . it'd be suicide run all the way for Artemis and crew, if they die, they go out fighting.

Mind, this surprising scene did lead to my favourite line this issue, as Diana shows up and comments: "Brave Artemis. You are filled with death glamour.' Too bloody right. And seeing the effect her presence has on Artemis was a delight - the younger, brash Amazon suddenly feels safe enough to just grab a hug and voice her feelings. Yes, she's a gutsy warrior woman, facing down her leering captors while at her lowest, but she's rounded enough to show vulnerability in the face of the greatest Amazon of them all.

The demands of a continuing series means, though, that Diana must let the Secret Six get away, despite knowing that they've killed US government-affiliated prison guards by the score. We see Diana bowing to Scandal's weasel words, as the killer tries to justify the Six's actions, but really, it doesn't make sense for Diana's character. I'd rather Diana was taken out briefly by someone, or distracted, and the Six just fled. Logically, now they're on Diana's radar she should devote a good deal of her time to shutting them down. Which may be the plan, but I doubt it - Diana has guested and must return to her own book, and her assigned conflicts. I can live with that - it's comics, innit?

As always, the art is fantastic throughout. Regular penciller Nicola Scott shares layout duties with illustrator Carlos Rodrigues, while inkers Doug Hazlewood, Mark McKenna and colourist Jason Scott keep the artistic transitions smooth. There are as many character moments as there is action in this meaty issue, and the team ensures we miss not a nuance. Some of the action I've already mentioned, but I can't not pick out Scandal and Bane's short tussle with Grendel as one of the most satisfyingly intense fights we've seen in awhile. The issue is topped by another stunning Daniel LuViso cover.

If you want conflict - physical, emotional and moral - you'd be hard-pressed to better the Secret Six in Depths.

Sunday, 11 October 2009

Doctor Voodoo: Avenger of the Supernatural #1 review

There's an article in the back of this bumper-sized issue by comics writer and Comic Buyers Guide critic Tony Isabella from the early Seventies, heralding the next big thing from Marvel, Jericho Drumm aka Brother Voodoo. Stan Lee 'wanted to make sure this character did not become a black Dr Strange'. So in his Strange Tales strip there was neither manservant Wong nor evil Baron Mordo; anyone for manservant Bambu and evil Baron Samedi? Brother Voodoo lasted five issues before landing in the limbo reserved for occasional guest stars and Fred Hembeck favourites . . .

. . . but now he's back, and promoted to Sorcerer Supreme. Doesn't that make him a black Dr Strange?

Maybe so, but if this first issue is anything to go by, that's only a good thing. Having taken on the Eye of Agamotto, Cloak of Levitation and sundry other Stephen Strange props, he's being mentored by the former Sorcerer Supreme as he tears through demonic nether-regions, telling the dark lords there's a new sheriff in town. When we join him this issue he's gotten as far as the dread Dormammu, who isn't intially impressed. By the end of the book Dr Voodoo - he's a psychologist as well as a superhero - is facing Dr Doom, who's out to usurp his new role and become Sorcerer Supreme himself.

The book also features Strange as mentor (I believe he's soon to debut in a new book of his own - Dr Strange, Sorcerer Superfluous, maybe), soul brother Daniel and a very scary voodoo deity. Writer Rick Remender fills the comic with mumbo jumbo of the highest order - I've no idea how many of these mystic references are from the voodoo tradition, as opposed to having been made up by Remender, but it sounds convincing (he said, terrified to try and use 'verisimilitude' in a sentence). And there's a definite direction here, always a plus. I think I've read maybe one Brother Voodoo story in my life, but I didn't feel at all lost here, and I definitely like our hero - he's purposeful, courageous, not totally dour and as keen to help the bum in the street as he is to send Dormammu and chums packing.

The art of illustrator Jefte Palo and colour artist Jean-Francois Beaulieu is beautiful. Dr Voodoo looks every bit the powerful mage in his new Stephen Strange influenced get-up, and moves with animalistic grace (click to enlarge). While I prefer my Dormammu with Human Torch stubble, the lord of the Dark Dimension is recognisable here, and formidable, while Dr Doom actually looks as fierce as he talks. There is, though, no excuse for Palo's Strange, who looks like a gay walrus missing his gym membership. Maybe I'm projecting, but I'm sure I detect echoes of Gene Colan - Brother Voodoo's masterly first artist, and penciller for Strange's masked period - in occasional images, such as the castle towards issue's end. That's a definite plus.

Beaulieu's colouring is a revelation - intense, moody and, when special effect are needed. spellbinding. Credit too to letter Dave Lanphear, who juggles his dialogue fonts with panache.

Marko Djurdjeviv is fantastic, you can hear those voodoo drums a-coming, but it's also the cover that brings my only real gripe - that logo is nigh unreadable. Actually, that's not a logo, it's a toast rack. Fix it someone.

As well as the Isabella text piece there's a Handbook of the Marvel Universe spread to help us tell our Zobop from our Zhambi.

All in all, Dr Voodoo #1 is a wonderful package - just magic.

Thursday, 8 October 2009

Batman and Robin #5 review

Nine-tenths of this book could have been rubbish but I'd still have loved it for the one page that made me grin from ear to ear. The page that had Jason Todd show sidekick Sasha/Scarlet that he's a redhead who used to dye his hair to look more like Dick. Bye bye black-haired street kid with bad attitude, hello ginger circus boy who was actually a nice kid. I never liked the re-origin and attitude handed Jason by writer Max Allan Collins, presumably because someone decided Jason's family tragedies and persona echoed Dick's too much. That was the idea - Jason was a substitute and needed something of Dick's character and abilities to prosper - and that original story gave us Killer Croc, one of the first villains since the Forties to have any staying power. In giving Jason his history back as he builds up his motivations, Grant Morrison is making the second Boy Wonder a character again, rather than an embarrassing piece of Infinite Crisis business that outstayed its welcome.

So thank you Grant, and thanks also for putting me off my supper as we see just what new villain Flamingo gets up to. And as it happens, nine-tenths of the book isn't rubbish, as the writer continues to show us the new Batman and Robin team bonding. There's no dissing of Dick from Damien this month, as we see a more vulnerable boy wonder, shocked to learn that Scarlet is the girl he tried to save from Professor Pyg a couple of issues back.

As for the Red Hood, yes, it is Jason, as many of us assumed not to be the case - too obvious. It works for me, though - Jason's been the Red Hood previously, and with his new Joker-Red Hood appearance, he looks the part. And having been revealed as the redhead Robin, he's no longer drawn as a double for Dick. With his ginger mop and Mallen streak he's similar to Jason Blood, though his face is more rattily Rorschach.

Penciller Philip Tan's storytelling gave me a few problems last month, with some sequences difficult to follow. Things are more straightforward here, though he really needs to work on some of the faces: That's Dick, Alfred and presumably some killer homunculus escapee from Arkham. Scary. And while I won't spoil his last page entrance, let's just say the Flamingo's appearance doesn't live up to his build-up.

All in all, this is a blisteringly good issue, with poor Scarlet's psychosis both chilling and heartbreaking and the dynamics between the two duos hotting up. It could have used a bit more Alfred, but what Batman comic couldn't?

Astonishing X-Men #31 review

Abigail Brand, Agent of B.O.R.E.D., is retreating from a Brood-bashing mission when something or other goes wrong, sending her plunging into Earth's orbit in an escape pod. Luckily the X-Men have six minutes to save her. Which they do, before confronting a mystery at San Francisco's Fisherman's Wharf.

No, the mystery isn't how the heck do folk eat chowder in a bowl made of bread? Buy the book and find out. You won't regret it, new penciller Phil Jimenez and inker Andy Lanning seem to have influenced regular writer Warren Ellis to turn in a straightforward script that breaks a fundamental rule: the X-Men have fun.

Yes, they're fighting to save Brand's life but they're having a good time doing it; the X-Men have spent so many years facing non-stop apocalyptic crises that anything less than Mr Sinister eating a coachload of orphans counts as a hoot. So Scott, Hank, Emma, Logan and Ororo get to be dry, bitchy, black . . . all the while remaining focused on saving Brand.

The super-agent is my only problem with this issue, hogging the first seven pages with her inappropriate jabbering. I'd have been fine with page one being the X-Men hearing that Brand was incoming after a tough mission. Of course, it was good to see the Brood getting blasted, but they were gone by page 4.

Oh, I'm also sick of people proving how 'badass' they are by speaking in $!*?@%? Shiftlock. It detracts rather than lends authenticity.

And could X-editorial please give up on the story titles starting with X sounds? X-tinction Agenda was OK, X-cution Agenda clunky. Here we get eXogenetic, proving that they've long since run out of useful X titles.

The art by Jimenez, Lanning and colourist Frank D'Armata, kicking off with a striking wraparound cover, is splendid. Brand's race through space, tedious as it is to read, looks fantastic, the Brood are horrific and the X-Men are themselves . . . which is far from faint praise; you can read their personalities on their faces, in their body language. I hope this is the time previous X-Men guest artists Jimenez and Lanning stick around for a decent run.

I've high hopes for this latest run on Astonishing. If only they'd do away with Agent Brand Echh.

Justice League: Cry For Justice #4 review

This issue, Green Arrow gets his groove back. Having stood by last issue and allowed Green Lantern and Atom to torture Clayface for information, this time he remembers that he's meant to be a caring kinda guy and tells them to cut it out. GL and Atom tell him where to shove it, the latter declaring 'I never liked you anyway' . . . sorry, it was: Honestly, what a baby! Standing by are possible teammates Supergirl and Shazam (Freddy Freeman) and boy, are they shocked when former Star City mayor Ollie Queen, noted orator, responds to his hardliner pals: Yup, Green Arrow presses the button on, his, what . . . sonic scream arrow? Panic point? Shouty shaft? Whatever it is, it knocks GL and Atom for a six, causing Supergirl to melt the thing. She's OK with torture but for God's sake, don't turn the volume up. GL seems fine with being assaulted by his best pal, and ready to listen, but Atom's stil grumpy. Oh well, at least Ollie has a 50 per cent hit rate.

That's just the maddest scene in a JL mini series that's slow to give up its secrets/refuses to make sense. These heroes know master information gather Oracle, countless telepaths and magical beings, yet the best they can think of to find the eeeevil Prometheus is to have Atom torment them via nostril? Thank God for Freddy, who taps into his wisdom of Solomon, and comes to the conclusion that Prometheus Is Up to Something. Wow.

Elsewhere in the book, Congorilla and Not Starman Mikaal Tomas still haven't hooked up with Hal's Grimace League - they're in Paris, having sniffed out (literally) the baddies who slaughtered the gorilla tribe in issue #1. Congorilla seems to have developed a new ability - the madder he gets, the bigger he gets. As gorillas don't. The evildoers are Penny Dreadful and Arak, who I've a vague memory used to fight Infinity Inc back in 1806 or something. Seriously, James Robinson isn't writing this book for readers bereft of a DC Encyclopedia. This issue alone, as well as villainous obscurities, there are references to the Atom's interdimensional wanderings in Countdown and Identity Crisis and we enjoy flying visits to various DC locales. I've been reading since the Seventies and I didn't recognise all the characters seen by Golden Age Flash Jay Garrick. Who's the dead guy in St Roch? Who's the live guy? Who are those tiny people in Happy Harbor?

I'm still not actually sure what Jay is panicking about; so there's naughtiness afoot in the DCU? It's not like there aren't channels to warn super-folk that don't necessitate him running around like a blue-arsed fly. Mind, the hysteria does allow artist Mauro Cascioli to draw a cute Jay, totally knackered from his travels, having taken his boots off.

This is Cascioli's best issue to date. Odd moments don't work, such as the aforementioned visits by Jay and a confusing panel layout involving Congorilla's hairy back. There's one panel that's meant to be a big reveal, as the Shade arrives at the home of Jay and wife Joan, but given that his trademark top hat and cane were buried behind his back, I failed to recognise him. But generally the book looks good and the storytelling's fine. I especially like a frankly iconic shot of Jay running, and the closing spread featuring a perplexing JLA line-up.

Robinson's dialogue is mostly better than in previous issues, too, with only a few cringe-making moments, and one or two really nice ones, such as Kara's crush on Freddy, and Shade's response to a query by Joan.

Justice League: Cry For Justice is still bombastically daft, but it crossed a line and became fun this issue. I'll still be glad when it's all over, but the journey's no longer making me feel ill.

Sunday, 4 October 2009

Sex and the Superhero #1 review

More accurately, that would be Sex and the Gay Superhero, as all the metahumans in here are pretty darned queer, from the terribly camp Cosmic Man to the so-macho-he's-even-camper Pink Storm. There's also Captain Avenger, the hero you could take home to your mother, sole female Lady Web and the hilariously named Street Diver. Individually they're awesome fighters for justice. together they're . . . a right bunch of gossipy old tarts.

Seriously, whenever this lot get together they follow the Golden Age JSA-er model of swapping tales of their latest exploits, but said adventures tend to be sexual. Some involve the sort of non-Comics Code-approved situations we've likely all speculated on - what's it like to be with a Plastic Man type?; do combatants ever get turned on as they swap buff blows in tiny costumes? Others are more surprising, including the main story of the issue, which sees a couple of members turn peeping Tom Strongs.

It's helium-light stuff from So Super Duper writer Brian Andersen, but not without charm. While Pink Storm comes across as an immature prat due to his boastfulness and sweary gob, everyone else is worth spending a few minutes with - even super-sissy Cosmic Man who, had he the elastic powers, could call himself Nellyongated Man.

My only real complaint is that while we get brief descriptions of the power archetypes before the strip begins, we never really see much of anyone using their abilities. So, for example, I've no idea if Pink Storm's super-pink skin has anything to do with his strength. or what Cosmic Man's 'space age cosmic powers' are. Such details may not be necessary for the story to work, but the knowledge would certainly enrich the reading experience.

The art is handled by Neftali Centeno and is as bright and airy as the script demands. It's obviously the work of someone starting out in comics - some of the faces are a bit off, and not all the poses work - but it tells the story nicely, being strongest in the broadest comedy moments. One thing I don't understand is why words such as 'cock' are asterisked out in a comic which features much on-panel shagging (there's a PG-rating on the cover, which seems a smidgen low).

Completing the creative team is colourist Celina Hernandez, whose nice line in graduated tints makes up for Centeno's often skimpy backgrounds.

Entertaining and undemanding, Sex and the Superhero is an interesting experiment, even if its heroes don't have the depth to play with the big boys. Who knows, though, what future issues will bring.

Friday, 2 October 2009

Blackest Night: Titans #2 review

I'm being sparing in following the Blackest Night crossovers, as the core concept of zombiefied DC heroes and villains isn't an immediate grabber for me. But which old New Teen Titans fan could resist this cover, and the promise that where baby Robert goes, dad Terry Long can't be far behind.

And who knew that Terry would be far more attractive in death than in life? Don't we all love a guy with a little intensity? And isn't it great that Terry's old wedding suit can accessorise the Black Lantern look?

Donna's meeting with Terry Longdead and son is actually rather creepy as written by JT Krul and drawn by Ed Benes. For the first time in years, this is a Donna Troy I recognise; it's as if the death of her estranged husband and baby son made her block off a lot of personality, and their apparent resurrection has set Donna free. In a way, it's as if Donna had been dead too, and she's going to grab life by the balls once again (well, after this crossover, I mean).

Lots more dead Titans folk this month - Lilith, Terra and the two Hawks are the most prominent, but a whole bunch show up before the issue's out. And as with Terry and Robbie, along with the zombies comes better characterisation, with Starfire and Dove especially benefiting in this area.

This is one of my favourite Benes pencil assignments ever. He de-cheesecakes the ladies a tad - breasts are still ample, but further down there's room for internal organs, and the guys get to be as hunky as the girls are gorgeous - and channels the horror in dark, twisted scenes that show just how scary the Titans' world is getting. From the eerie scenes with Robbie to the Grand Guignol theatrics surrounding Hawks and Dove, Benes pulls it off.

Fun and frightening, this is one of the best Titans tales in years.

Batman: The Brave and the Bold #9 review

Don't tell Secret Six fans, but here's Catman going through a whole issue of a comic without stripping down to his tighty whities. Mind, this is a DC all-ages book and this isn't the same version of Catman - this is a Catman who's just starting out, and keen to get in Batman's good graces . . .

. . . of course, whichever version of the DCU we're in, Batman is mighty suspicious, keeping an eye on his new colleague as they fight the likes of the Joker, Two Face and, in a page I just have to reproduce, the Penguin and his sinister seals (click to enlarge): There's not a huge amount to say about this issue, other than it's a fast, fun ride by Eric Jones and Landry Q Walker (creators of the superb Supergirl: Cosmic Adventures in the 8th Grade series, collected in December). They capture the flavour of the TV cartoon, right down to a pre-team-up team-up (featuring . . . nah, I won't spoil it) and even a 'credits sequence'. The dialogue's snappy and fun, the art's big and bold and there are some terrific colour effects from Heroic Age.

If only I were bright enough to understand the Riddler's riddle when Batman explains it . . .

So, does Catman, who's the nearest the Secret Six have to a good guy, side with the angels here? Have fun finding out.

Thursday, 1 October 2009

Wonder Woman #36 review

In which Diana attacks Giganta, Achilles the Olympian and Egg Fu lookalike Alkyone enter a marriage of convenience, and Wonder Woman and Nemesis finally have that conversation.

The opening conflict with Giganta isn't a great credit to Wonder Woman, as Diana vents her considerable frustrations on her old foe, who wasn't actually doing anything heinous. Sure, she has supervillain form, but if there are any outstanding warrants against her, Diana certainly doesn't bring them up (maybe she's worked off her latest crimes on a Suicide Squad mission or two).

Happily, Gi makes Di see sense and the women forge a temporary truce to talk about their troubles. Well, Diana's really, as Giganta, aka Dr Doris Zeul, seems to still be happily dating All-New Atom Ryan Choi (as established when WW writer Gail Simone was handling his missed-by-me book).

What's wrong with this picture? Diana's opinion that there's really no one else she can share with other than 'someone who wants me dead'. Two obvious confidantes are alleged best friend Etta Candy and sister Donna Troy. We've not seen either in this book since the Genocide story ended a few months back - Donna sped off in a haze of hatred again Diana, her mind fair pickled by Genocide; Etta was hospitalised after being tortured by the she-beast. So it could be that neither are in a fit state to listen to Diana's woes, but Donna and Etta, if not seen on panel, should at least have crossed Diana's mind.

There's also Dinah Lance, Black Canary, with whom Diana spent the last two rather fun issues - we saw their friendship deepen . . . has it faded again so soon?

The business with Giganta does set up the size-changing boffin for her role later in the book, and provides a bit of early action for the impatient, but I'd really like Etta's situation addressed soon (Donna, we're told, shows up next month).

This apart, I liked seeing Giganta and Wonder Woman chewing the fat. If Wonder Woman can't make a hawk into a dove, who can? OK, so it was Doris who had to calm Diana down, but our heroine got there in the end. Giganta seemed to be changing her villainous ways in her Atom stint, settling down as a teacher, and I'd love to see that path extended here, the possibility of reformation being one of the themes of the original Wonder Woman.

A good sign is that Giganta joins Diana when she's later called by new patron goddess Pele - in a spookily surreal sand form - to face Achilles. Giganta continues to witter on about how much she hates Diana, but I don't believe that for a minute - she's softening towards Superheroine Number One.

Before that we learn that the previous night Nemesis, Tom Tresser, pushed Diana on the matter of her Genocide-motivated denial of love for him. Diana tells him that yes, she didn't love him then, but now she does and wants his babies. She comes across as less manipulative over the notion of using Nemesis as breeding stock than I feared, aware that she's got things seriously wrong but believing explanation equals excuse.

Nemesis begs to differ, deciding he'd rather be abandoned by her in the Amazon jungle than continue the conversation. Take that, Princess Presumption!

An appreciated bit of business here is that Diana tells Tom she sees through his 'frat boy act', waving away the too flighty personality relaunch writer Allan Heinberg imposed on the formerly serious superspy. I also liked seeing Diana describe the lasso, rather than herself, as 'the universe's ultimate avatar of truth', putting a much-repeated misunderstanding about Diana to rest.

The Olympian's scene with intermittently rogue Amazon Alkyone does nothing to change my opinion that he's a silly wimp. He proposes to her with one of those perplexing peach pits Diana gave Tom awhile back, she accepts, they wed, she tells him there'll be none of that - ugh - mucky stuff and he indicates that he doesn't like girls anyway. Then she's offended that he's not upset by her withholding her undetectable charms. These two nuts are made for one another.

I'm not too sure why Achilles sees Alkyone as queen material; surely most of the Amazons consider her a dangerous lunatic, not a uniting force? Phillipus or Artemis - an actual Amazon leader - seems a more obvious choice, but neither they nor Hippolyte are to be seen this month.

I'm even less sure what's going on with Achilles and his colourful troops at the end of this issue - there's no specific narrative information as to where we are. It's presumably the US as there are army types on hand, watching from a distance, but we're not told what the Olympian's plans are that has them on alert. EDITOR!

The tussle between Diana and Achilles, with his lovely be-ribboned 'Virgin Spear' of Athena, is short but well done, allowing Diana some amusing thoughts. She's not taking Achilles seriously, which doesn't fit with her mopiness a couple of issues ago, but I assume Gail's flibbertigibbet Diana persona is deliberate, leading somewhere.

Diana wins the day, but Achilles prepares to wander off until 'next we meet', explaining that he has a hostage in his favour. Why he thinks Diana sees their encounters as a series of instalments I have no idea - surely their confrontation should continue until there's a final triumph, hostage or no hostage?

Questions aside, I had a good time this month - Diana started badly but became a good companion as the book went on, Giganta was a delight, Alkyone was creepy, Tom shone with integrity and the Olympian ... was around. Gail's script had some wonderful moments of dialogue, whether she was going for the funny bone or pulling the heartstrings, and I'm glad to see the Olympian storyline properly underway (the sooner to send the pompous girlie-haired Achilles packing).

Gail's equal partner here was Aaron Lopresti, who from the sumptuous cover on provided page after page of beautiful artwork, aided by inker Matt Ryan and colourist Hi-Fi. There's not a dull image in the book, and Lopresti never does that irritating thing of repeating panels - the man has expressions for every occasion, allowing characters to be properly nuanced. If I had to pick a favourite panel it would be the bombastic opening spread of Diana beating up Giganta - I disapprove of the act, but adore the execution.

Now, a question - what's going through Diana's mind in this panel (click to enlarge): Dot, dot, dot. Wonder Woman knows she will likely one day die whereas her mother would fade? Is this a portent of things to come? Does Diana believe her Circe-resurrected mother is barely more than a shade, bound to dissipate with time? Or am I reading too much into the dialogue? Is Diana merely the mistress of near-synonyms? One hundred words, on my desk, Tuesday!