Saturday, 26 December 2009

Fantastic Four #574 review

Awhile back Social Services were at the FF's collective throat, fretting that the Baxter Building was too dangerous an environment for raising Richards kids Franklin and Valeria. The team won that battle and seem to have gone on some sort of approved list as this month they take in family free mutants Artie and Leech. That's on top of looking after wee Wingless Wizard Bentley Wittman. Oh, and Franklin's birthday party this month also sees Reed offer ageing Power Pack member and fully certified teen genius Alex Power houseroom. Mr Fantastic may claim he needs an assistant but I see what's going on here - Reed and wife Sue want to be the Brangelina of the Marvel Universe with their very own super-powered rainbow family.

Not that they can be trusted to raise decent children . . . this issue the ever-snotty Val (she can't get through a sentence without declaring her genius) teases less bright brother Franklin with the line 'Happy birthday, retard'. Twice. It's ironic that this particular, and particularly unpleasant, insult is used, given the family's embracing of unusually headed waifs Artie and Leech. Now unless this proves to be a plot point, with Val needing to be taught sensitivity, writer Jonathan Hickman needs to go and sit on the naughty step until he promises not to use inappropriate language.

While he's there he might also assure me he'll pack it in so far as using Days of Future Past storylines goes. The story here is titled Days of Future Franklin, and if you've read the classic John Byrne FF run you'll be unsurprised by Val's visitor. I can't abide 'we must change the future' storylines - too much of that messed up the X-Men - but that seems to be where we're going here.

There's a status quo change so far as the powers of one Richards family member is concerned, which would have served as the issue's big surprise were it not given away on the letters page. How many times do editors have to be reminded that many of us turn to the text pages first? Mind, points at least for having a lettercol, even if most of the responses to readers do 'come' from Frank and Val. Too cute.

A scene focussing on Bentley is good cute, with him informing Sue that until he earns the right to a name, he'd prefer to be known as 32. Wonder if he's related to Charles M Schulz's 5?

Other guests at the birthday party include an unnamed Stan Lee, Dragon Man (presumably another inhabitant of the Fantastic Or4nage) and cover star Spider-Man - Franklin's a fan. None of them have much to do but it's nice Franklin has guests.

This issue is basically a set-up deal and Val's verbal faux pas aside, works just fine. Hickman has the feel of the FF down pat, all we really need is the odd big slugfest involving the whole team.

Neil Edwards' pencils, the odd skanky Reed aside (shave, for God's sake!), look good, though I'd be interested to see him shed the echoes of Brian Hitch and go his own way. This may actually be his natural style, of course, in which case I hope he simply keeps up the good work as alternating penciller with Dale Eaglesham. Andrew Currie's inks are sharp, Paul Mount's colours remain vibrant and Rus Wooton's letters are jolly clear; the script doesn't give anyone a chance to be showy, so simple professionalism is the order of the day. Works for me.

Friday, 25 December 2009

Justice Society of America #34

Young Justice, the Doom Patrol, the Legion of Super-Heroes . . . If you're a super-group in need of a home, the Justice League's Happy Harbor cave is the place to be. Even the Injustice Gang have taken refuge under the stalactites. And now it's the turn of the JSA, well, at least the half that hasn't wandered off after Magog to become meta-marines, or something.

But the Justice Society of Troglodytes aren't alone, as a mystery Lord of Chaos gatecrashes the latest Dr Fate's body. Well, he's too new to have set up defences and he's not wearing his Lord of Order-filled helmet. The set-up makes for a fun issue as the trespasser has a series of awkward and amusing encounters with the team members before being revealed at issue's end.

Next issue looks to be fight filled, leaving this as a 'day in the life' tale of the type New Teen Titans and Avengers used to do so well back in the Eighties. It's all about the characterisation, with a cute running gag about Jesse Quick's marriage, a power upgrade for a newer member and Alan Scott and Jay Garrick dealing with the captive Kid Karnevil. There's even room for Lightning to show a bit of her personality, something I've been wanting to see for a couple of years.

Bill Willingham paces the book nicely, giving each scene room enough to breathe without dwelling too long on each vignette. The personalities of good and bad guys sparkle - I especially like that he can portray Mr Terrific as both a bit of a workaholic and a fella with a sense of fun. The long-running question of Wildcat's longevity is smartly settled and Jesse is endearingly grumpy. It's a fine first solo issue for Willingham, with Matt Sturges having gone off to look after the new All-Stars book.

Travis Moore, a new name to me, produces wonderfully clear layouts and gives the players some delightful expressions; most of the team are in civvies throughout but there are no identikit faces here. Veteran inker Dan Green adds his usual layer of crispness, and I'd be very happy to see this team stick around for awhile.

The cover by Jesus Merino, who apparently wasn't told Power Girl has left the book, looks to be continued next month. I look forward to it, along with the conclusion to this palate-cleanser of a story.

Thursday, 24 December 2009

Wonder Woman #39 review

Now here's a heartening Christmas gift - the most satisfying Wonder Woman issue in ages. After last issue's lamb to the slaughter impression, our girl gets her groove back, taking on a hell creature with guts and a grin. Writer Gail Simone provides the personality and artistic partners Aaron Lopresti and Matt Ryan bring forth the warrior with a twinkle in her eye and gleaming lasso in hand.

It's good to see an unexpected courier return Diana's lariat, which has been missing for awhile. It's even better to see her reclaim her gauntlets from scheming Alkyone. I'm not delighted that the recently manifesting lightning power is here officially and indefinitely incorporated into them; Diana has enough inherent abilities and the lariat was also recently given a massive power upgrade. I wouldn't be at all surprised were the still-absent tiara to channel high-definition TV by the time it shows up again. A girl can have too many toys.

We'll see where things go. For now, the wonder bling makes for a flashily fun climax to Diana's tussle with the monstrous Cottus. And that isn't the only climax, with several threads being tied up, including the Olympians and the Ichor, Achilles' tenure as Amazon king, the unification - or at least alliance - of the Amazons and Gargareans, and more. Gail wipes the slate clean and sets up a status quo, something this book has needed for awhile.

The title of the last few issues, Warkiller, had me expecting a big confrontation between Achilles and the governments of the DCU. Instead we saw him embroiled in Alkyone's web. I think, as with this year's lengthy Rise of the Olympian arc - which turned out to be mainly about Genocide - the problem is mistitling rather than lack of interesting story.

It's not all conclusions here, as the Amazon pregnancies storyline progresses nicely. Ares proves himself the world's worst midwife and faithful recitor of Classical poetry. Aaron draws the heck out of this scene, making it my joint favourite, alongside the fierce underwater Diana. Whlle there's an especially appreciated bit of business from Hippolyte here, and Donna, Artemis and dozens of Amazons are also on hand, it's inarguable that Wonder Woman is the star of the show.

So thanks to the already mentioned creatives, along with colourist Brad Anderson and letterer Travis Lanham, for the festive fun. And Merry Christmas to (new, I think) editor Brian Cunningham. Here's hoping for a tremendous 2010.

Tuesday, 22 December 2009

Batman: The Brave and the Bold #12 review

I'm about a week late with this but hey, it's nearly Christmas and I've been busy forgetting to post cards to folk. I do, though, want to give a quick plug for this issue in case anyone is off to buy comics in the next day or so and fancies a no-risk purchase, cos at $2.50, this is the proverbial steal.

Plug? Yup, I'm not even pretending this is a review,
it's an out and out recommendation for a comic that could be enjoyed at any time of year but, as it's so perfectly Christmas-themed, is best enjoyed right now. It's a terrific Batman and Adam Strange team-up featuring all kinds of goodness - Psions, shadow demons . . . yes, there's a definite Crisis on Infinite Earths vibe, right down to an almost-anti-matter wave destroying a planet or six. Batman gets rightly distracted when Earth becomes one of the lost worlds, but not enough to bog down this all-ages book. Like the stoic hero he is, he concentrates on what he can fix rather than what he can't.

What he can do is team up with Adam Strange, hero of Rann, to stop yet more tragedy hitting the universe. And of course, Alanna is along not just for the ride, but to play her part. Mrs Strange (Alanna is missing an 'N' here, for some reason - perhaps special guest villain Calendar Man nicked it) is on great form throughout, as are the chaps in Landry Q Walker's stylish romp. The story has physical and emotional action, comedy by the bucketload and a twist you can just about see coming and it's all the better for that. Illustrator Eric Jones marries dynamism to cute, pulling us through the story at the speed of a zeta beam.

Give yourself an extra holiday gift by buying this issue. And if you like it, the same creative team's Supergirl: Cosmic Adventures in the Eighth Grade collection is out next week (individual issues reviewed elsewhere on this blog). Boy, I ought to be on commission, but it's pure selfishness . . . if I'm going to see more of these books, I need people to buy 'em. So buy 'em!

Saturday, 19 December 2009

The Brave and the Bold #30 review

Years ago, after the Justice League fought the Gray Man, Kent Nelson sent an aspect of his self into Hal Jordan's ring to gather news of the future, before returning moments later. Like a convenient genie, he pops out when Hal needs him most, offering to make a sacrifice . . .

The Golden Age Dr Fate and Silver Age Green Lantern team up in a villain-free issue that cleverly contrasts their particular perspectives - destiny vs free will. It's smart stuff from writer J Michael Straczynski, elegantly illustrated by Jesus Saiz, and while talky, is never boring. I find it terribly refreshing to see Hal soaring through space not surrounded by 7199 other GLs, and Kent Nelson is my Dr Fate, so he's always a welcome presence - we even get to see his wife Inza, in a searingly sad flashback.

Placing the cherries on top of this particular cake are letterer Rob Leigh and colourist Brian Miller, and Saiz's cover is a stonker, with a splendidly Gil Kane Hal primed for action.

I'm enjoying the new B&B brief - 'Lost stories of yesterday, today and tomorrow' - hugely, as Straczynski and Saiz get to hurdle complicated continuities to simply shed light on characters in single-issue slices. So of course, sales aren't great. If you've not tried the most recent issues, and are in the mood for a palate cleanser, risk $2.99. I bet you'll be glad you did.

Supergirl #48 review

After last issue's focus on Supermom Alura, daughter Kara takes centre stage again in an issue that barely touches upon the New Krypton storyline that has dominated this book for months. And the comic is all the better for it, as we finally get some real information about Lana Lang's illness and Supergirl gets a mystery to solve without having to worry about what 100,000 survivors of Krypton are doing.

Police contact Inspector Henderson asks for super-help when spectral menace the Silver Banshee shows up in Metropolis again. She's questing for eternal rest but is merely succeeding in sending mortals to theirs. By issue's end Supergirl is looking at things from a very different angle in a case of Kara on screaming*.

While I've been anxious for the Lana subplot to really get moving, after months of hints and portents, I'm fine with it taking a back seat to the Banshee business here. For Gates makes she-devil Siobhan intriguing enough to merit the space she gets, from the eerie opening to the surprise ending. Guest artists Fernando Dagnino and Raul Fernandez keep to regulars Jamal Igle and Jon Sibal's character designs while impressing with their own tricks. Dagnino shows a real knack for a well-laid-out page, with a spread detailing the Silver Banshee's origin a flashy standout, while Henderson's narrative of his recent business is a quieter gem. I want these guys on the first superhero strip with a vacancy, stat.

Princess of the palette Nei Ruffino gets a hand from Ulises Arreola and Pete Pantazis and whatever mood is required, they whip it up; Jared K Fletcher gives us clear calligraphy and a screamworthy story title. Editors Wil Moss and Matt Idelson have assembled an excellent team, resulting in an excellent issue. It's not rocket science, but it's appreciated.

* Oh dear, that'll make no sense to non-Brits - sorry!

Thursday, 17 December 2009

Power Girl #7 review

Behind Amanda Conner's nice homage to the 1974 issue of Superman which introduced Vartox, himself a homage to Sean Connery in Zardoz, is another smile-inducing issue of DC's most delightful superhero title.

We begin with a flashback to the day space pirates made the population of Valeron, except its protector, Vartox, infertile. That explains his quest this month to persuade Power Girl, the only woman in creation deemed worthy of 'the Hyper Man', to be his woman. So it's away to Earth, armed only with interstellar headship, seduction musk-rifle and interstellar pornstache. The clash of personalities between the insanely arrogant Vartox and the rightly incredulous Kara makes for a fabulous romp. And while there's a credible threat thrown in for the sake of drama, the amusement never wavers.

'Lust in Space' also features a treat for old Wonder Woman fans in an appearance by a new version of Byrna Brilyant the Blue Snowman, and for JSA boosters with Dr Midnite playing damsel in distress.

Writers Justin Gray and Jimmy Palmiotti give Peege the straight face that makes the ridiculous situation Vartox creates all the funnier, though she can throw a barb with the best of them. And as usual, Conner's art has personality plus. Her depiction of Vartox's Seventies throwback world is a hoot - it'd be a crying shame if we never saw Chancellor Groovicus Mellow again - but likewise she knows how to make a monster scary, aided by the fine colourwork of Paul Mounts. And letterer John J Hill makes the words look good too.

The story is continued next issue but given this creative team's niftiness with recaps, it's a sure thing you could buy that without reading this. But read this anyway, it'll make your life better. Vartox says so.

Justice League of America #40 review

This issue is a masterclass in setting up your new direction for the Justice League by misrepresenting an older version. So it is that current JLA members Vixen and Dr Light face Black Lanterns who seem more interested in slagging off their heroic careers than actually grabbing their hearts. While the bad guys' MO is to get an emotional reaction by upsetting the living, new writer James Robinson, who is about to fill the team with Superman B-listers and former Teen Titans, just doesn't let up. So we hear how utterly crap Vixen ('a weak sauce version of Animal Man') and Dr Light ('a real %&?@!') are. Also on hand is Vixen's former JLA Detroit teammate Gypsy, allowing fellow former members Vibe and Steel - their personalities resurrected in Black Lanterns - to go and on about how rubbish they are and how they laughed at them, back in their League days.

Well, if any members of the Detroit League were failures as heroes, I'd suggest it might be the guys who got killed rather than the ones who still fight the good fight around the DCU. But I wouldn't point that finger - I remember the Detroit team and while they weren't all powerhouses, the then-new characters having an unhappy reunion in JLA #40 were interesting and at least as endowed with ability as many a JLA-er before and since. Vibe and Steel were killed by Professor Ivo, but they died as true heroes, and they'd likely be alive today had it not been for the fact DC were about to launch another new direction for the team. (Ironically, the next version, the JLI/E, once their time in the sun was over, was put down as regularly in DC titles as the Detroit League before them, even though they were - when not kidding around off duty - an effective force against evil).

No one dies here, but the villainous Dr Light, now a Black Lantern, does try to rape the newer, heroic version; he doesn't manage this, but he does tear her down as a hero and human being, imply he did vile things one time he was in control of her body, and by the end of the issue she's an unconscious wreck in a costume that's gone from tattered to absent. Vixen receives more injuries to add to those she suffers in an issue of Justice League: Cry For Justice that's not actually appeared yet, and passes out. Gypsy is simply exhausted and shellshocked.

I get that the heroines finally won the day here. I realise there's a difference between the writer's own views of a character and what he has someone in a story say about them. But intention or not - and I suspect there is some deliberate diminishment going on here - the cumulative effect of page after page of characters being torn down is that newer readers could begin to think the dissers have a point. And when they disappear as the next version of the JLA beds in, as Vixen and Gypsy seem set to do, there's no chance for the record to be set straight.

Also lying in a heap at the end of the issue are Red Tornado and Plastic Man, shredded and bent out of shape respectively, and Zatanna, who spends this issue tackling a Black Lantern version of her father, Zatara . . . off-panel. All recent JLA-ers, all deemed too useless to win a fight or only good enough to just survive.

It's pretty annoying; to my mind any character admitted to the League is by definition one the 'world's greatest superheroes. Of course they can pay a price for victory, but they shouldn't be seen to be pitiful saps along the way.

So apart from that, how was the theatre, Mrs Lincoln? Actually, the nastiness was pretty much the whole show - Black Lanterns spewing spite and bile as if they're being paid by the insult. There's a recap of the origin and brief career of the second Steel, but that's it.

The art of Mark Bagley and Rob Hunter looks a lot better this issue than last, with the faces in particular improved, and the action pops. It's just a shame I found so much of what they are called on to draw so distasteful.

Tuesday, 15 December 2009

DCU Holiday Special #1 review

'tis the season for jolly big anthology comics full of Santa and sentiment. DC's entry this year is adorned with a simply gorgeous cover hinting that one day soon we're going to lose Dustin Nguyen to Hallmark. A tip of the elf's hat, too, to publication designer Travis Lanham for a striking logo, merry title page and likely all kinds of subtle touches that go unnoticed by me.

The 80pp holiday grab bag (I have no idea what a 'grab bag' is, but Marvel used the phrase a lot in the Seventies in connection with festive anthologies, so who am I to argue?) features 16 shorts, none of which are outright clunkers and some of which are instant classics. Even if something doesn't tickle your tinsel, the format means there's something new along in a page or four.

Let's have a quick wander through the book.

Batman in Silent Knight (Jay Faerber/Peter Nguyen)
The Caped Fella chases a bad Santa and meets a bunch of other bad Santas in a wordless tale (Silent Night, geddit?) with an ending that makes no sense. A few words might have helped. The art's nice, in a gloomy way.

Superman in Man of Snow (Arie Kaplan/Nick Runge/Gabe Eltaeb)
Frosty the Snowman goes Golem courtesy of a telekinetic Tiny Tim. Quirky fun, but dock a point for rolling out the sick kid at Christmas.

Flash in The Flash Before Christmas (Amy Wolfram/Daniel Leister)
Wally West zooms around the DCU, doing good while trying to get presents bought. I know how he feels. Extra entertainment comes via a panel of the JLA Christmas do which got me overexcited: Look, it's Martian Manhunter in a story which shows Donna Troy and Dick Batman as JLA members in good standing, setting it after Blackest Night, which means the Martian Manhunter will be back from the dead before we know it. Oh all right, it's just J'onn in a non-continuity short, but if you can't dream at Christmas, when can you?

The Doom Patrol in The (Beast) Boy Who Hated Christmas (Sterling Gates/Jonboy Meyers)
Back when Beast Boy really was a boy, there wasn't much joy at Christmas. Well, he was an orphan - perfect for a Christmas tale. There are no real surprises here so far as where things are going is concerned, but the characterisation is excellent. And much as I'm loving the current DP book, the old logo and Elasti-Girl's costume are so much better than today's. I like Jonboy Meyer's exaggerated art, apart from his too-wide Robotman. Chuck Pires' colours are a firework display of fun. Good stuff.

Superboy in Party Gift (Ralph Soll/Rodney Buchemi/Greg Adams)
Bad guys gather but who the heck invited them? Don't expect the page one logo to give you a clue in a story which left me a little puzzled, due to my being unable to interpret modern Bizarro-speak. Still, I enjoyed the villain gathering, and the art is luscious.

Martian Manhunter in Reason for the Season (Fred Van Lente/Nick Dragotta)
Back in his earliest days on Earth, detective John Jones catches a crook and learns that Martians and humans aren't so different. With a smart script by Van Lente that respects the superb work John Ostrander did on the Nineties Martian Manhunter book and wonderful illustrations - pencils, inks and colours) by Dragotta, this is a Christmas cracker. When J'onn does come back I'd love to see this team in charge.

Angel and the Ape (Andrew Pepoy)
An untitled single-pager sees our heroes collecting for charity. Pepoy gets in, gets out and leaves us with a grin on our face. Sweet.

Sgt Rock in A Peace on Earth (Billy Tucci)
The Rock of Easy Company encounters an enemy soldier at Christmas and there's goodwill from both men. Tucci produces some memorable images here, aided by Hi-Fi's barely-there colour palette. A perfect Christmas strip, based on a true story . . .

Enemy Ace in Stille Nacht (Seamus Kevin Fahey & Sean Fahey/Howard Chaykin)
. . . it's a shame that it's followed immediately by another DC war character, Enemy Ace, in an equally fine piece apparently inspired by the same event - the 1914 Ypres Christmas truce. Backseat Editor here would at least have placed them at opposite ends of the book. This is a superb character piece focusing on the ever-melancholy Hans von Hammer, faced with a tough decision on Christmas Eve. I don't know the Faheys, but let's see more from these lads. Chaykin is, of course, a comics legend and he underlines his reputation for power-packed pages here while capturing the thoughtfulness of von Hammer.

B'wana Beast in The Hunt For Christmas (Beau Smith/Gary Kwapisz)
The African hero, currently comics-dead, tackles poachers aided by his animal chums, with a hymn providing the narration. Not my cup of cocoa, but it's good to see a Christmas short not swathed in snow. And where the heck has Kwapisz, one of my favourite Conan artists, been for the last few years?

Captain Marvel in Home for Christmas (Steve Horton/Afua Richardson)
Another vignette, competent enough, of orphans and truces as Cap fights Ibac, then doesn't. The art on this single pager is squeezed even more by Richardson's decision to use fat borders and add in about an inch of unnecessary black space. And it would've been nice to see the two foes properly, rather than having them in the distance at all times.

Deadman in Unbearable Loss (Scott Kolins)
The orphan quota gets a boost with this story of the Scarecrow's surprisingly Milfy mom and a homeless tyke. Deadman gets to be Clarence the suicide intervention angel, though writer/artist Kolins makes him a heckuva lot less cute, Kelley Jones skeletal, in fact. It's not a look I like, and it makes you wonder why Scarecrow Mom Karen isn't scared to death the second she sees him. There's a fresh layer added to Scarecrow's origin here, with new (well, to me) revelations about his childhood, in this heartwarming bauble.

Red Tornado in A Night Before Christmas Story (David Tischman/Adam Archer/Sandra Hope)
Reddy gets personality shock! Like Wally West, the android JLA-er just wants to get his Christmas shopping sorted, when life intervenes. But whereas circumstances drag Wally off course, it's Reddy who calls a halt to the shopping when, exasperated by the lack of Christmas spirit around him, he takes surprising action. I love this strip for its originality, as Tischman gives us a new angle on an old hero and Archer and Hope tell the story attractively. This tight four-pager is such a treat that it's only now I notice that Reddy never even appears in costume.

Huntress in Naughty or Nice (J Torres/Hubert Khan Michael)
Our heroine spies on the neighbourhood and sees people learn to get along. Pleasant enough, though Michael's Huntress money shot might have worked better without Tom Smith's nighttime colour choice.

Ragman in Seeing the Light (Rob Levin/Brian Ching)
The story of the Maccabees is placed side by side with the struggles of Ragman to clean up Gotham. He's mopey, but invited to find hope by lighting a menorah. Fabulous art, a sincere narrative but this felt more like a lecture than a comic strip, with Ragman's misery tacked on for the sake of the story.

Adam Strange in Auld Lang Syne (Shannon Eric Denton/Nick J Napalitano)
This is the Wally West story again, with an oddly brunette Adam's attempts to get to Rann for New Year impeded by various Earthbound perils. Napolitano's art is chunkily cheerful, while Denton gave me the biggest laugh of the issue courtesy of a dirty old broad.

And it's good to end a Christmas comic with a smile. Overall, this is one of the better seasonal offerings of recent years, so Christmas kisses to editors Adam Schlagman and Eddie Berganza.

Monday, 14 December 2009

Action Comics #884 review

This review is brought to you by the letter 'N' which I'd like to devote to Action Comics co-writer Eric Trautmann to replace the one DC denied him on the cover of this issue. That apart, great cover with Mrs Superman, gorgeously defiant in the face of adversity and the legend 'Lois Lane: Traitor' evoking memories of such Silver Age tales as 'Lois Lane, Convict!'(twice), 'Lois Lane, Super-Babysitter!' and 'Lois Lane, Muppet!'

(I admit it, I made one of those up.)

Nevertheless, with Nightwing a bedridden old man and Flamebird an evil scientist's dupe, fiery, resolute Lois is the star of this issue's main strip. She's shaken by the actions of military madman father General Sam Lane, but determined to get the story of the much-maligned F&N's innocence out. And Perry White shows he's more of a father to Lois than Sam Lane has been for years.

Evil Kryptonian boffin Jax-Ur continues to delight, performing evil experiments on Nightwing under the noses of Flamebird and Dr Light. Mind, he does bring on this month's bout of Unnecessary Kryptonese. By chapter's end Jax-Ur has gotten what he wanted while Flamebird has sacrificed something she will likely regret.

Rucka and Trautmann give great Lois Lane, showing her as the Daily Planet's Ms Action and I look forward to seeing where the story goes from here. And with luck the two Kryptonian 'stars' of the strip will earn their keep by whupping Jax-Ur's baldy arse next month.

Pere Perez continues to provide zingy pencils with plenty of drama and detail, though my favourite image was a simple blacked-out face of a sinister, leering Jax-Ur. The inks by Bit, colours by Javier Mena and letters by Rob Leigh helped ensure a nice looking strip.

The illustrations on co-feature Captain Atom by Cafu and colourist Santiago Arcas are shinily attractive, but whoever decided to have a spread arranged as a big fat U-shape, with only a single word bubble hinting at how the page is to be read, don't do it again. I'm obviously too thick for random design elements.

It turns out that this strip is set ahead of most of the current DC Universe, so the new James Robinson Justice League is featured here. There are no spoilers beyond what we've seen in preview art, but it's interesting to see. Cap himself, like N&F, doesn't do much in his own strip, other than claim to Mon-El and Starfire that oh no, of course he doesn't remember being that nasty murderous cosmic despot Monarch. More on that next issue, something I'm far more interested in than how Cap's tale links in with Sam Lane's shenanigans across the Superman books. Mind, there's a big chance the two plot strands are linked.

The main thing is, I want the opening arc over - we're six issues in already - and Cap left in a more heroic place than he's been for the last several years. That is the plan, isn't it? Oh, suspense!

Friday, 11 December 2009

New Avengers Annual #3 review

I'm not a regular New Avengers reader, I'm more a Mighty boy, but if this is the beginning of the end for Dark Reign, I want in.

So, moving quickly on from the fact that this is a big old rip-off in terms of price - $4.99 for 32pp of story, with a long ad for Siege #1 taking up the rest of the story pages - how was it?

Well, for lovers of Clint Barton, this is a great book, as he shows the indomitable spirit that made him a classic Avenger. Captured by Norman Osborn, the Dark Avengers looming over him, there's no way he's going to willingly give up the whereabouts of his friends.

Wife Bobbi, meanwhile, is initially a tad whiny when she realises Clint has gone off to face Osborn and co alone, but her colleagues rally round and they're soon taking the fight to his HAMMER helicarrier (did they not try this months ago, and if not, why not?). Norman isn't there, mind, having used his supervillain resources to get the information he wants despite Clint's impressive efforts, and he's not slow to act on it.

Given the Siege story is going on until May or something, you'll not be surprised there's no big battle between New and Dark Avengers - well, Marvel knows you still have some money set aside, for bills and stuff. But the business that is in this book is good, with Brian Bendis' dialogue not as self-consciously smartyboots as I remember it and some proper forward movement in the overall story. His portrayal of the Clint/Bobbi relationship is spot-on, while Osborn is intelligent and threatening without being too moustache-twirling. I wasn't happy with the defeatist Ms Marvel early on in the book, but given that I dropped her own title because of her super-gung-ho, kill all Skrulls attitude, I suspect I'm never happy.

I am happy with the contribution of illustrator Mike Mayhew and colour artist Andy Troy - it's stunning. For one thing, they present the sexiest Clint Barton ever, naked, bound, hairy-legged . . . AHEM (click to engorge). The anatomy's convincing, the tech is grand, the cityscapes sweeping and the people, perfect. Start to finish, this is a tour de force of dynamic comic art, painterly without being sterile. Favourite moments include a dreamlike flashback splash (splashback?) involving Clint's memories, a panel of a flying Ms Marvel trailing afterimages, and a sortie between Clint and the Dark Avengers that just flies off the page.

Mayhew also provides the gorgeous cover, one of the brightest I've seen from Marvel in years. Maybe that's what happens when you feature Jessica Jones in her old Jewel costume, an outfit so bad even Janet Van Dyne would disown it.

All in all, this is the best New Avengers issue I've read - no ninjas, no one in a Ronin suit, no slinking around alleys. I think I'll try another.

Titans #20 review

The Titans continues pretending it's not been cancelled due to lack of interest with the latest solo issue. Featured here is Donna Troy, patron saint of frogs killed by dissection, in a simple tale of girl meets boy meets Fearsome Five.

Donna's feeling a bit mopey so jumps - or rather, flies - at the chance to take up her photography career again. Off she goes to Miami for the opening of a flash new resort, where she finds that she's a little out of practice when it comes to fending off wolves, but receives a hand from a charmpot barman (he's blond and named Tom but apparently not sister Diana's old pal Nemesis, though that would be amusing). The rest of the issue is a fight with a new version of old Titans baddies the Fearsome Five - currently Shitt . . . sorry, Shimmer, Mammoth, Jinx, Rumble and Nano (write your own Mork and Mindy gag).

There's nothing complicated here, nothing that need concern us once we finish the comic. Even the fact that someone has hired the FF to kill Donna isn't important - the thread may be picked up later, it may not be; the main thing is, it gave Donna someone to fight. And showed that she's a powerhouse, unperturbed at being piled on by five murderous metas and able to clean their collective clock just fine.

The fight, while cleverly choreographed and more entertaining than most, isn't what I liked most about this issue. That would be that Michael Johnson gives us a story about Donna that doesn't focus on her origins, has no intention of cleaning up her continuity. It simply presents her as a powerful woman who's forgotten how to be young and have fun, but not how to be a hero. DC fans know why Donna may have lost her cheeriness, but Johnson doesn't drag it onto the page. He quickly establishes that she needs a change and has her embrace it. By the end of the issue Donna's got a new take on life and decides to relocate, be her own woman and a Titan, rather than simply the team's go-to den mother. She's getting a life.

This is the first time in years I've seen the Donna I grew up with - a smart, fun, brave young woman free from baggage. I'd be thrilled were Johnson to continue Donna's story in at least a mini series, showing us the girl-next-door Amazon not so much struggling to find her place in the DC Universe as just living in it. She's gonna make it on her own, and all that.

And I'd be thrilled to bits were this issue's illustrators, Sergio Ariño and Wayne Faucher, to get the art assignment. Ariño's work is clean and open, perfect for Donna, especially when Faucher adds his smooth finishes. Their fight scenes have impact. And they draw regular people every bit as purty as the super-folks - like Donna, I'm already hoping to see Tom the barman again. There are also some nice special effects, meaning I should probably namecheck colourist Hi-Fi design. And letterer Travis Lanham gave Donna her very own version of Wonder Woman's star-spangled banter boxes, which work a treat. God bless editors Rex Ogle and Brian Cunningham for showing that stories that are apparent fill-ins don't have to be throwaway.

Donna's costume, which was tweaked into a most unattractive Amazonian version in the latest Wonder Woman, #38 (see separate review for a glimpse), looks brilliant here. The starfield cloth shines brightly, the front isn't slashed to the waist as is often the case and all in all Donna looks every bit the superheroine about town. She's the Miss Congeniality of the Amazons, and really doesn't suit Greeked-up garb, as also demonstrated when she filled in for Diana at the start of the most recent Wonder Woman volume. Donna wears pantsuits, it's her thing and wise creators realise that.

Mind, an exchange between Donna and Tom at story's end hints that Johnson would like to see her classic, Nick Cardy-designed outfit back. Cardy is even namechecked earlier in the issue.

In a cute coincidence, this issue's cover design is similar to this week's Secret Six #16 Black Alice cover. Angel Unzueta's idea of a post-bar fight Donna, beckoning all comers, is a sweet one, but overshading and unfortunate barcode placement work against it. I still like it, though - Donna looks the demi-god come down to Earth that she is.

All in all, this issue was a terrific surprise. I hope it doesn't prove to be a one-off and next time we see Donna - presumably when she joins the new Justice League team - she's back living in New York and all mopey and man-less. It's time for the first female of the Titans to move on.

Thursday, 10 December 2009

Secret Six #16 review

In the DC Universe there are men who fantasize about sex with Mr Mxyzptlk. That's the only conclusion to be taken from the scene this issue in which Deadshot and Catman take wannabe Secret Six member Black Alice to the strip club. There, exotic dancers appear as female versions of Mr Freeze, Eclipso and more. No one asks Ms Mxy for a private dance.

Before that, though, there's a dark opening scene which sees a paedophile killer get the surprise of his life. I won't go into details - suffice to say that I've learned more about torture than I'd ever wish to. This book really should have a ratings certificate, being set in the HBO section of the DCU. I know it's about killers and deviants, but there are times to do a Hitchcock and pull the artistic 'camera' to one side. Even random crows bid to put me off my lunch. The scene is important though, in demonstrating that Catman is kidding himself if he really thinks he's anywhere near being a hero.

Deadshot, never one to deny that he's a scumbag, doesn't take a shine to Black Alice - twisted teen borrower of mystical energies - as seen in my favourite panel this month (click to inflate). Character moments like this are why I buy this book. It really doesn't need to try so hard in terms of pushing the envelope. It's not hard to gross a reader out; what's really clever is providing a compelling story peopled with intriguing personalities.

And writer Gail Simone does that issue after issue, so why not tone down the violence a tad (see also my rant on #13 and the flashback to Scandal's brutal ninth birthday)?

The interaction between the Six and Black Alice is great, with our villains actually cowed by the idea of saying no to a moody young woman who can call on the power of the Spectre. Of course, a fight breaks out and its resolution pleases some more than others. If Alice is sticking around awhile, I'm a happy camper. She's unpredictable, a mixed-up kid with the powers of a god, filled with spite one minute and on the verge of tears the next. With luck, hanging around with a bunch of reprobates like the Six while give her a reality check in terms of what are, and are not, advisable ways to make a buck. The kid needs a hug . . . and I wouldn't be surprised were Bane to give her one, as it were, further putting recently deposed Six leader Scandal's nose out of joint.

Scandal's girlfriend, Liana, shows up this issue, hale and hearty; unless some pages were stuck together and I missed something, last time we saw her it seemed a spurned admirer was on the verge of doing something nasty to her. I guess he changed his mind. Men. So unreliable.

Regular artist Nicola Scott being busy with Blackest Night: Wonder Woman, Peter Nguyen interprets the script and a fantastic job he does too, supported by regular inker Doug Hazlewood and guest Mark McKenna. The opening splash of Black Alice channeling Phantom Stranger - the girl could easily get a job in the superhero strip club - is a keeper and he makes her look terribly cute as a Blue She-Devil (that's the original version of Dan Cassidy's alter ego, who's not been in the DCU for years - maybe Alice can channel leftover magic). And as for Black Alice in the strip club fight, blimey O'Reilly. The Six look fine too, with everyone on model. I'd be delighted to see more from Nguyen if further fill-ins are needed. Colourist Jason Wright and letterer Travis Lanham do their usual splendid job of finishing the book.

Cover illustrator Daniel Luvisi produces his finest work yet here, with an eerily calm Black Alice atop a gravestone as the snow falls and Deadshot, the only shot of colour in a mono image, channelling Sissy Spacek - spectacular.

Interesting art, too

Tuesday, 8 December 2009

Batman Unseen #5 review

Doug Moench and Kelley Jones conclude their 'lost tale of Bruce Wayne as Batman'. Where it fits into continuity isn't important - at a guess, after Dick Grayson became a full time Titan, given the presence of my favourite Gotham cop, Harvey Bullock - as everything you need to appreciate the tight five-part story is supplied. Just sit back and enjoy Bruce Wayne, Alfred, Commissioner Gordon, Bullock and the original Black Mask all operating in and around Jones' uniquely baroque Gotham, a city creaking with grotesques.

Oh, and there's the Meat Man - transparently evil scientist Nigel Glass, driven to madness by his obsession with an invisibility formula. He embarks on a trail of vengeance, stalking the streets with, literally, naked fury. His lack of form gives him an advantage over Batman, but this issue Batman takes the fight to him.

A subplot running throughout this mini series has seen Batman perturbed at the fact Gotham's villains aren't as superstitious as they were, no longer so scared of the Bat. I love that Moench has tackled this, as I've always wondered for how long Batman had the advantage over the 'cowardly lot'. And this subplot, in the old-fashioned - classic - manner, feeds into the main storyline this issue in a way that allows Jones to go wild with a decidedly different Batman visual.

I won't show that here, in the hope anyone who's not been buying will get down to the comic shop and grab the back issues - there doesn't seem to be a collection planned. I will, though, remind you of just how good Moench and Jones are together (click to enlarge). I love Moench's snappy dialogue, just the right side of melodramatic, and the way Jones twists his figures and plays with light. And I know that everyone does dry Alfred these days, but I really love the perfect way words and pose match up here: Every page of this series has bled quality, making it my favourite Batman experience this year. There's no denying I'm enjoying the Morrison Batman and Robin series, and other current stories, but there's been nothing to touch the warm glow Batman Unseen has given me. For storyline, drama, humour, visuals it can't be touched. Even the colouring is perfect, with Michelle Madsen demonstrating that a Batman story doesn't have to be drenched in black to have mood. And while I'm no fan of narrative boxes in handwritten script, letterer Pat Brosseau keeps everything wonderfully readable. And further kudos if he handled the headings for the cute little chapter illustrations Moench and Jones provide, adding to the feeling we're watching a Batman movie serial. That impression is added to by the brilliantly designed covers this series has boasted, with their bombastic taglines and over the top images. Kudos to editors Michael Siglain and Harvey Richards for overseeing this project.

Every aspect of this mini series has been top notch and it's a terrible shame there's been so little buzz about the project. Batman Unseen indeed. I really hope DC does collect the series (update - they did!), and soon, as it's exactly the sort of thing that might sell well to the general public. Never mind this week's announced Earth One Batman and Superman graphic novels, there's no need to reinvent the wheel when accessible, entertaining fare like Batman Unseen is available.

Thursday, 3 December 2009

Black Widow and the Marvel Girls #1 review

I'd not heard of this book until I saw the iFanboy listing for this week's comics, but the prospect of Black Widow teaming up with four other Marvel women has a certain appeal. First off we have the Asgardian Enchantress - that's Amora - teaching the young Natasha Romanov a lesson that will stand her in good stead. The flashbacks to Tasha'a training alternate with her current mission, getting a fatcat arms dealer out of his panic room (if he learns a lesson, it's to hire gay security men).

Paul Tobin's script is terse and full of character, as efficient as Natasha herself. The story is clever and satisfying, with Amora the magical minx she should always be. Her reasons for helping Natasha through training camp are her own, and when they come they're smart and make perfect sense for her personality. I wouldn't ever have thought of teaming these characters, but this story works beautifully and has me panting for a sequel.

The dialogue both moves the story on and reveals character, while the art by Salva Espin and colourist Veronica Gandini is unshowy but attractive and stylish. Whether we're talking quieter moment or action sequence (click to upsize) they nail it. I'll take good storytelling over flashy but headscratching any day. And I bet, given the needs of the script, this team could throw in some flash too.

The cover, by Salva and colourist Elizabeth Breitweiser, is just gorgeous, though I swear it's upside down. Happily, it takes the eye away from the awful series title.

Not that I ever look (ahem) but it's hard to find anything bad to say about this comic. There's a grammatical error in a large font on the title page, but it hardly ruined my day. The word balloon pointers could be moved a few degrees? The staples are the wrong colour? Aha, there's no story title where we could have had 'Spies and Spells'. Too picky (but feel free to add that in come trades time, Marvel people).

Nope, this is a thoroughly entertaining, well-crafted one-off issue that's likely to be the standard for the two issues that follow. Even the sound effects, courtesy of Dave Sharpe - who gets to use that lovely old Asgardian font for Amora - are above par, jumping off the page without detracting from the art.

And surprise surprise, even though this is a Marvel Comics mini, it's a relative snip at $2.99. If you've ever liked the Enchantress of the Black Widow, snap it up, then come back for Natasha's encounters with the Wasp, Ms. Marvel and Storm.

JSA All-Stars #1 review

I'm rather pleased to see the Justice Society of America split into a pair of teams, as of late the sheer number of characters has proven unwieldy, with no writer of today seemingly willing or able to share out the panel time in the way classic writers of similarly sized team The Legion of Super-Heroes did.

This book focuses on the trainees, with Power Girl and Magog in charge of Wildcat III, King Chimera, Cyclone, Citizen Steel, Judomaster II and Damage. Hourman II is also an instructor, and Stargirl cheerleader in chief. It could be that some of the throng I mentioned are also trainers rather than -ees, surely the oddly named female Judomaster knows how to fight, for one? It'll all be made clear, I'm sure - writer Matt Sturges starts filling in the details of the new regime once the team reaches their fresh HQ, a ranch in New York State. Before and after that the kids battle two nondescript villain teams sent to take them down in the wake of the recent multi-super-villain attack in the parent book.

This is entertaining enough, but the best scenes of the issue see members enjoying a spot of R&R while trying to come up with a name; a conversation between Stargirl and Powergirl; and training scenes which see Magog's bullish personality toned down to acceptable levels.

Sturges does a wonderful job ensuring everyone has a moment or two while progressing the 'how come no one attacks Stargirl?' storyline. The answer comes at issue's end on a final page which could have been drawn a bit more clearly by Freddie Williams II. There are a few apparent teething problems in places this month, but I can't fault his enthusiasm - there are no lazy panels here, as Freddie fills every inch with people, robots, rubble . . . and Power Girl's tits.

Lord, I was going to stop remarking on Peege's boobs, but when an artist is so keen to show that he has a compass and knows how to use it, what's a fella to do? I give you exhibits A), B), C) and Double-D): GET A GRIP, MAN. Or at least even things up with lots of prominent shots of the biggest male member (that would be the currently missing Atom Smasher, I suppose).

Mind, to show he's not entirely a breast man, Freddie does give us this: I reproduce it only because it's pleasingly Kirbyesque in its shading.

Oh, and Peege's costume gets ripped not once, but twice. Power Girl has worked for years to get a bit of respect in the superhero community, and she's recently become a JSA leader, so please Freddie, don't strain to shove Karen's breasts in our face. Some of the panels I reproed look really awkward due to the overemphasised decolletage. If we must have a team sex kitten, Wildcat III is a natural.

Kudos to the creatives for adding characters not on the announced roster, Sand - who's not had a decent scene for what seems like years - and the original Hourman, who delights with his willingness to insert 'pickle' into a sentence.

Art quibbles aside, this is a belter of a first issue for an angle with a lot of promise. Straight off it's made clear that, despite the team name brainstorming session, this isn't yet another 'taking the fight to the bad guys' book; it's about proper training for a new generation of heroes, the stated intent at the start of the most recent Justice Society run. I'm excited to see where this will lead.

And more clockwork crocodiles, please.

Blackest Night: The Flash #1 review

Behind a clever cover by Scott Kolins homaging the recent Flash: Rebirth #1 we see what's going on in Central City as the Black Lanterns rise. Barry Allen zips around warning the meta-community to be on their guard, before racing to Africa's Gorilla City where he hopes wise King Solovar will have some ideas on how to help the living beat the dead. The Rogues, meanwhile, ready for battle; there's a veritable gauntlet of deceased-supervillains linked to them and likely to make a grab for their black hearts at any minute.

These conflicts are saved for next issue, unfortunately - I was really looking forward to the return of Captain Cold's sister, the Golden Glider after many years dead. Never mind, there's fun to be had here as Barry fights a revived speedster and a super-gorilla, using his scientific mind as much as his speed. He does his darndest to shut off any emotions after he loses his first Black Lantern but we comic readers know that's not going to work for long . . .

Writer Geoff Johns delivers an ambitious script, squeezing in the histories of Gorilla City, Professor Zoom, Barry himself; he provides details on Blackest Night, introduces more than a dozen characters . . . somehow he pulls it off and the comic doesn't collapse under the weight of exposition. He even finds room for an interesting scene with the new Captain Boomerang and has Barry find those mysterious cave paintings from Rebirth. There's not a lot of forward momentum - unlike this week's Blackest Night: Wonder Woman, which provides both recap and an entertaining chapter of the bigger story - but the comic is a good primer for readers unfamiliar with Barry's world and hopefully the real fireworks will come next month (I was holding out for a confrontation between Iris Allen and that upstart Fiona Webb, who nearly wed Barry after Iris died, but it turns out Fiona never died - now that's weird).

It's good to see Kolins reunited with Johns, given their superb partnership on Wally West's Flash run, and the creative crackle is back. Kolins gives Johns whatever he asks for and more. The energy never flags. I like the way Kolins' art has developed - there's a pleasing Keith Giffen character to the figurework at times, especially in the Boomerang Jr scene. And colourist Michael Atiyeh, a new name to me, provides each scene with the proper atmosphere and keeps the many costume colours from clashing.

I loved the reminder that Wonder Woman wasn't the first Justice Leaguer to snap a villainous neck - Barry Allen got there years before his much-maligned colleague. And it was fun to see Captain Cold go off-message and describe the DC undead as zombies. So there!

Blackest Night: Wonder Woman #1 review

Years ago, Wonder Woman felt forced to snap the neck of friend-turned-foe Max Lord. Courtesy of the Blackest Night crossover, he's back, murdering the innocents of Washington DC, successfully drawing Diana to him. The MO of the Black Lanterns being to feed on the emotions of the living, he thinks Diana's anger is a sure thing.

He gets a surprise as Diana is chock to bursting with the apparently less-attractive feeling of love. Swinging that daft great axe she's generally saddled with for crossovers, she slices off his undead head with sweetness in her heart. Whether it's her general repository of love, or positive feeling for the Max she once knew - Justice League big kahuna and all-around great guy - we're not told. It doesn't matter, as writer Greg Rucka uses the Blackest Night maguffin to underline what Diana is all about.

Greg, who wrote the Wonder Woman book for a few years before the last revamp, shows his gentlemanly nature here by homaging current writer Gail Simone's trademark narration style. He's also good to the reader, not assuming everyone is following either Diana's regular book or the Blackest Night crossover. So Diana recalls how she's been affected by death over the years and we're brought up to speed on what the Black Lanterns are up to. Unfortunately so far as lasting poignancy goes, almost everyone Diana recalls - Artemis, her mother, herself - has been reborn, and Batman is certain to follow. But this is a blockbuster in need of big moments and the many Amazons who have been slaughtered over the years, not least in the Max-inspired Omac business, don't cut it as evocative on-panel images.

That's OK, it all gets us to the meat of the book efficiently, and the terribly enjoyable fight with Max and his mortis mob. There's even a vintage DCU guest, foreshadowed on a background TV screen in an early Blackest Night issue. Standing by Diana and representing the regular folk, once they've been released from Max's malevolent mind control, are two brave members of the Honour Guard.

Nicola Scott, on loan from Secret Six, produces stunning pencils, finished off by a bevy of inkers. Her Diana is alive with determination while the wisecracking Max is still a frightening figure. The fight scenes are refreshingly clear and the storytelling overall spot on.

The issue is topped off with a terrific new splash page legend for Diana, and a horrifically good cover by Greg Horn. One issue in and I'm optimistic this will prove one of the better Blackest Night crossovers by the time the three issues are up.