Wednesday, 31 March 2010

Avengers: The Initiative #34 review

On the one hand, there's not much point trying to persuade anyone not reading this book to join the party; it's cancelled in a month or so, as the Avengers titles realign.

On the other, it would be a shame to ignore excellent work simply because the book is ending.

So behind a gorgeous half-cover illustration from David Yardin here's another event tie-in, with moments also seen in Siege #3 (reviewed below). For a change, though, the events shown in one comic are accurately reflected in another, and they don't take up so much space as to make me feel I'm not getting my money's worth the second time I see an exchange of blows and barbs. For said scene - the confrontation between Captain America and Taskmaster - was simply one large and memorable panel in Siege, and here we see what happened next, a cracking fight between Taskmaster and . . . Bucky Cap. And what we do view again here is worth another look as presented by penciller Jorge Molina and inker Andrew Hennessy. I don't recall seeing this artistic pairing previously, but I want to see a lot more of them.

This is good superhero storytelling - solid, crystal clear, loud for the battle scenes, subtle where needed. It's not perfect, with the occasional squished-looking head and a too-stocky Spider-Man, but they've drawn several dozen characters here, likely to a tight deadline, so they get some slack. I want Molina and Hennessy gifted a regular assignment - and if they're re-teamed with this month's tremendously talented colourist, Edgar Delgado, so much the better.

Supplying the words to be illustrated is Christos Gage, who finds time amid the sound and fury for standout character moments featuring such Initiative regulars as Night Thrasher and Justice. A scene readers have been waiting for since Robbie Baldwin transformed from Speed to Penance finally occurs, and it's not fluffed.

Even when this book doesn't involve dozens of guests from the rest of the Avengers line, there's a large cast, but Gage never fails to keep his superheroic plates spinning. Over the course of a few issues no one is off stage so long that you forget them, and newer readers are brought up to speed via introductory nametags when players arrive on panel; it's a device I wish more comics would use, and kudos to editors Bill Rosemann and Rachel Pinnelas for maintaining this piece of furniture. Gage - who moves from this book to the Avengers Academy start-up, hopefully taking several Initiative members with him - shines not only in character juggling, he's also adept at seeding dramatic moments and illuminating them with sharp scripting. It's a joy to read such a confident story, a crossover issue that serves the larger event while delivering on its own terms.

So forget what I said, it's not too late to hop on the Initiative bandwagon - buy this issue, buy the previous issues and be back for the series finale.

Tuesday, 30 March 2010

Batman: The Brave and the Bold #15 review

Like the TV cartoon on which it's based, every issue of this comic features two team-ups - a main story and a mini-adventure which acts as a prologue. The star guest this issue is Wally West, the Flash, but before that we get these two guys:

Brother Power The Geek I recognised, he's had some play in the DCU over the last several years (including an excellent issue of this comic's big brother, The Brave and the Bold). But Tadwallader Jutefruce, aka Super-Hip?

While I'd heard of him as a character from DC's Sixties Bob Hope book - he's the classic comedian's super-powered nephew - I'd never seen him. But on clocking the heroic Hope chin, it all makes sense. Who better to team up with Batman to take on the Mad Mod on a time trip to Swinging London? And Brother Power is the perfect third tag team member when politicians are enchanted by Carnaby Street fashions. Don't worry, it all makes sense . . .

... well, as much sense as anything in this simply smashing vignette. Honestly, the comic could have ended after those first three pages and I'd have had my money's worth. But there's lots more, as the Flash, having given Batman a Cosmic Treadmill trip home, challenges his fellow Justice Leaguer to solve a mystery in Keystone City before he does. Batman may have the detective skills, but Wally has the speed and the local contacts.

As for what happens, I'll shut up and invite you to spend $2.50 on a comic that's pure pleasure and find out for yourself. Writer Sholly Fisch, penciller Robert Pope and inker Scott McRae provide the proverbial feast of fun and pretty much define 'all-ages' comics. There's the pace today's kids demand alongside a Silver Age science lesson for us old guys, originality for everyone and jokes for anyone who gets them. Love of the DC Universe shines on every page of 'Minute Mystery', whether it's the car driven by the villain of the piece, the Carmine Infantino cityscape or Flash's very logical informant. It's old home week for the likes of me, and a new world of wonder for the younger set.

And Sholly doesn't skimp on the characterisation, making a better fist of presenting the relationship between Batman and Flash than we've seen in many a more 'mature' comic.

Pope and McRae's cartooning is wonderful - dynamic and fluid. The figurework is deliberately simpler but the depiction of super-speed as good as any I've seen. And the colours applied by Heroic Age are a knockout, making everything pop despite the cheerfully low-grade paper. Let's not forget Rob Clark Jr, whose lettering is extremely attractive, with all the correct emphases - sure, these are almost certainly indicated on Sholly's script, but it'd be easy to miss a few. I'm certain Rob didn't.

It's safe to say I enjoyed this comic more than anything this side of Power Girl this week. It's suitable for kids, yeah, but it's as sophisticated a product as any other superhero book out there - Brave, Bold and Brilliant.

Thursday, 25 March 2010

Mighty Avengers #35 review

Ultron is the number one Avengers foe, with twisted familial ties to numerous members. Most of all, though, he's linked to Hank Pym, seeing himself as the son who, in the manner of ancient gods, must kill the father.

Being the number one bad guy means he's had numerous encounters with the team, each more humiliating than the last. So how could writer Dan Slott make another father-son run-in fresh?

I've come to think Dan Slott can make any scenario fresh in this book - whether it's Loki's latest deception or Pietro's zillionth temper tantrum, he always makes it entertaining. Here, as well as Hank and Ultron - now, amusingly, referring to himself not by number designation but as Ultron Pym - the mix involves Jocasta and Agents of G.R.A.M.P.A. One-Eyed Jacquie and Ace. Jarvis is around briefly, and we see what Amadeus Cho, Vision, Stature, Quicksilver and the Captain are up to, but they're mainly shown to tie into the Siege event; the main event here is Ultron's commandeering of Infinite Avengers Mansion and 10 billion copies of Jocasta. Along the way we get my favourite panel of this week: 'Snog', in case any non-Brit reader doesn't know the term, means to smooch. And as to whether Hank's planning to kiss Jocasta, well, there are a couple of developments this issue that will have you wondering just how clever, and scary, Hank really is ...

... Ultron certainly knows that if he's a genius robot it's because his 'father' is pretty awesome in the brains department - there's a moment here which shows just how much he respects his creator.

And it's a terrific panel in a book full of them. Penciller Koi Pham's layouts have been getting better with every issue, and inker Craig Yeung works with him to bestow a real spookiness upon Ultron and the Jocasta sisterhood worshipping him. Ace, with his full-face mask sitting atop a business suit, looks like a lunatic, Jacquie is a wannabe Bond babe, Pym a man possessed - but in a very good way. And as the mansion is corrupted by Ultron, becoming a metal reflection of his cybernetic madness, the artists tweak the design convincingly without going haywire with noodling.

They're greatly aided by the colours of John Rauch, which are naturalistic at the start, intensifying as the drama grows. And Dave Lanphear does his usual excellent job with the lettering.

The final page is magnificent; when I saw it, and learned the story's title, it became obvious that Slott and co have something big planned for next month. It's the final issue and it seems they're not clearing house at Infinite Avengers Mansion, they're renovating.

Uncanny X-Men #522 review

Kitty's coming home. That's the message of Terry and Rachel Dodson's pretty cover, and it persuaded me to buy. After all, Kitty Pryde has long been one of my favourites, from the day she was introduced as a gawky 13-year-old. She's grown a lot since then, and not just in the predictable ways of comic book anatomy.

No, Kitty went from wide-eyed teenager to superhero soldier, a warrior for mutantkind and eventual saviour of the planet. Tragically, saving the Earth from a massive alien bullet meant steering it away while keeping it phased out of solidity, preventing her from ever returning home. She wasn't dead, but she might as well be. Kitty Pryde was lost for all time.

In comic book maths, 'all time' = almost two years.

But I'm not complaining, I'm celebrating. We get our girl back in an issue of Uncanny X-Men that brims with uncharacteristic optimism. Cyclops knows the dangers of the bullet's return but has faith in Magneto to stop it from devastating the planet - after all, if his foe-turned-ally can magnetically pull the bullet back from deep space he sure as heck can stop it from piercing the planet. Scott Summers also puts great faith in his scientific sub-team, the X-Club, and Emma Frost's Stepford Cuckoos to keep the planet from panicking. And he knows mistress of mutant medicine Dr Cecilia Reyes is their best shot at saving Magneto after the strain of rescuing Kitty.

And it pays off. Yes, Scott gets a lecture from Reed Richards for being, in his eyes, unnecessarily secretive, but Kitty's coming home. Hurrah!

Boo. Kitty's home and she can't unphase. This throws Scott and Colossus into a right old funk. 'What does this mean?' asks Peter Rasputin. Twice. And loudly.

What it means, dimwit, is that Kitty has been using all her will to stay phased for several months. If she's to have had any sleep the phasing would have had to become her default state. So of course she's not going to be able to snap right out of it. So calm down, and have a nice bowl of chicken soup ready for when Kitty can slurp again. It's just a phase she's going through.

Overwrought ending aside, I enjoyed this story, which showed that when the X-Men combine their wits and powers, superheroics with mad science, there's little they can't achieve. Magneto's cosmic level abilities are more than I'd expect, but it's not like he's wielding them with ease. And writer Matt Fraction found room in his fundamentally serious script for humour, notably in a scene set on the Blackbird. The Reed Richards cameo made perfect sense - of course a hero who's operated openly from day one wouldn't understand why being furtive is second nature to the X-Men.

It's years since I've seen any comics art by Whilce Portacio, but on this showing, I'm glad he's back. Maybe it's the smart inks of Ed Tadeo, but he looks to have improved since his Nineties heyday - the work's warmer, less scratchy. There's splendid colouring from Justin Ponser, too.

I confess to not understanding a silent page in which Emma Frost is piloting an undersea craft, as Namor swims alongside; and the equally quiet page opposite, which shows various X-Men at work and play, had me scratching my head. Presumably the latter was meant to show that life goes on and some people at least appreciate that Kitty being back planetside, and the bullet gone, is a pretty good start.

There's a second story here - Marvel says it's a 'bonus' in which case I expect my dollar is in the post, as this is a $3.99 issue. In it, an alien who hasn't lived the best life awaits the end of his world. I realised pretty quickly what the link was to the main story, which made waiting for something interesting to occur pretty tortuous. In the end, it was a decent, if unsurprising, little tale by Fraction, penciller Phil Jimenez and inker Andy Lanning, but I'm just not fussed about the mental meanderings of a character I've never seen previously and likely will never encounter again.

Still, I've no huge complaints about this issue - it's certainly a good
X-Men comic, being pretty much self-contained and having all participants acting in character (well, in the characters I prefer; a fair few have had several personalities over the years). I'd have preferred a longer main story, with more on Kitty, but the creative team gave me enough to hook me. I'll be back.

Power Girl #10 review

I found myself reading this issue more slowly than usual, news of the creative team's imminent departure having hit. But not too slowly. Said creative team know how to control the pace of the book, no matter how a reader might struggle so best to savour.

So here we have the continuation of last issue's fight with Satanna, Terra's day trip to Starrware, kid blackmailer Fisher getting a lesson in compassion, an attack by Hawkman foes the Manhawks and the proverbial, yet not too predictable, shock ending.

The highlight of the issue? There ain't one . . .

... it's all spiffy. The two fight scenes are superbly staged by artist Amanda Conner, while the dialogue from Justin Gray and Jimmy Palmiotti crackles. Satanna's nagging of Terra for having an unoriginal name is a hoot, especially given how close her own name is to that of DC's top magician. (Mind, she has a point - why would any young heroine not protecting a trademark associate herself with a psychotic teen traitor? Drop Terra, pet. Try Gaea, or Eartha, maybe.)

The Manhawks are always welcome, and it's logical Satanna would try to use them, though in mutating them she's actually made them less scary - here they're standard snarly anthropomorphic birds, whereas previously they were giant birds wearing creepy human masks. Unique. But that's not important right now. Neither is the subplot showing Satanna's talking badger sidekick apparently plotting against her - I expect we'll see the results of that next month.

This issue is more concerned with mentoring, with Karen taking semi-scumbag Fisher under her wing alongside Terra. While he's undoubtedly earned a kicking for taking seedy snaps of Karen and holding them over her head, our heroine sees that he's just a daft, hormonal kid who could benefit from a softly softly approach. After all, his 'requests' of Karen are hardly things of great evil - making him look good at the comic shop, for example. Let's hope he proves worthy of her trust over the next couple of issues.

As for Terra, she shows a harder edge here than previously, giving Karen the chance to continue the good work she does with the young heroes of the JSA. And it's fair to say that this story strand goes interesting places.

Everyone in this book is full of character, from the front and centre heroines to the comic shop gang. And it's all captured beautifully by Conner, who slips in enough interesting background detail for any three normal comics. Here's Fisher shadowing Terra and Peege; there's a mother reaching out to catch her baby after a Manhawk drops it; and check out the cutest cat in comics, begging for a feed. Many of the details - such as a fruit stall outside the comics shop that turns out to be selling clues - have obviously been requested by Gray and Palmiotti for story purposes, but I'm willing to bet Conner has the leeway to embellish the story with cameos and Easter eggs as she wishes.

And it doesn't really matter who decides what goes on the page, it's the results that count. And this creative team sings. More than any other DC comic right now, this is a team book so far as the creators are concerned. I've mentioned three, but colourist Paul Mounts, letterer John J Hill, editors Mike Carlin and Rachel Gluckstern - they're all putting immense care into this comic book too, meaning Power Girl's first year will be remembered with fondness for years to come.

Friday, 19 March 2010

Superman 80-Page Giant #1 review

It's an 80-page giant, it's seven new stories by creators DC describes as 'up and coming talent', but is it any good?

We begin with Cold, written by Mike Raicht and drawn by Charles Paul Wilson III and, readers of the recent Superboy run in Adventure Comics will immediately note, coloured by Brian Buccellato. The latter's palette is distinctively autumnal, yet it fits this winter's tale perfectly, matching the colours of childhood memory. The childhood here is, of course, Clark Kent's. Ice skating with Pa and best pal Pete Ross, Clark learns more about his developing powers and himself. It's the type of story we've seen many times, but when it's presented as well as it here, variations on the legend are always welcome. The key word here is naturalism; both script and art hit the perfect register for the story of an extraordinary super-powered boy and his extraordinary regular parents. I particularly like that while Jonathan and Martha Kent are presented as patient and loving, they're not the Solomon-like figures we've sometimes seen. Beautiful stuff.

Letterer Travis Lanham is the first member of the creative crew to grab the attention with the second story, via a smart 'title card' telling us that this stars 'Lois Lane and Clark Kent in Patience-Centered Care'. It's a tale of Mr and Mrs Superman in which Lois is miserable over a flu bug, while her every need is ministered to by loving, attentive Clark. Loving, attentive ... and annoying Clark. Determined to stay by his wife's side, but banished to the next room for fussing around, the way he finds to amuse himself makes for one of the most original Superman stories in years - the guy is positively playful. Kathryn Immonen and Tonci Zonjic (colouring as well as illustrating) give us a Mr and Mrs Superman for the 21st century while plugging into the screwball comedy of Hollywood's golden age (Clark and Lois even have separate beds!). Immonen provides the zingy one-liners, Zonjic bats them back with expressive ease. This is a treat from start to finish, capturing the sometimes grumpy joy of love. If I don't see Immonen and Zonjic at least get to fill in on a regular Superman issue I'll be disappointed.

Ben McCool comes up with a neat idea for Bugs. The Daily Planet is infested with alien insects and Clark helps out the local exterminator. McCool captures the essence of Superman-while-Clark, light-hearted but taking his work seriously, and never so keen to protect his secret ID that innocents are endangered. And Matt Camp's pencils and inks are pretty masterful for an 'up and comer' - he begins in the mundanity of the Daily Planet newsroom and gradually ups the creep factor as Clark and self-styled expert Taylor descend to the basement. There's a sophistication that recalls Brian Bolland, and the visuals are superbly coloured by Nei Ruffino. All in all, this is a clever short showing Clark doesn't need the costume to do the super-stuff.

The splash page of Why Metropolis? is grabby to say the least, with that man Lanham getting to use probably the largest word balloon font of his career. And the story isn't bad either. Pat McCallum has three career criminals explain to a newbie why they've chosen to pull a job in arguably the best protected city in America. It's refreshing to hear the hood in the street's views on various superheroes (and the Green Arrow vignette shows us that he really doesn't need a barrowload of grit to be appealing). But crooks and heroes apart, it's Superman who finally steals the show. And courtesy of penciller Mike Shoyket and inker Rick Perrotta, we get a Superman who's daringly off-model, looking like a prizefighter rather than the classically handsome guy we're used to. There's a kindness here that fits Superman's words, and an earnestness in the eyes that stops short of sappiness. It's a clever piece of illustration. As for the crooks, Shoyket and Perrotta catch their frustrated fatalism perfectly.

Superman is My Co-Pilot, by Jason Hall and Julian Lopez, introduces us to Stan, a near-agoraphobic due to fear of the costumed crazies who populate Metropolis. Then one day he's saved by Superman and . . . well, hopefully you'll read this story for yourself and find out. Let's just say he seems to be channelling Silver Age Lois Lane (and no, that doesn't mean he's trying to trick Supie into marriage). Hall's first person narration has me rooting for Stan, even as I want to slap him, while his dialogue is sharply understated. Penciller Lopez brings Stan to life, and in one of this book's few supervillain scenes, provides a crackling action shot. I've seen work by inker Bit previously - he's good - but his colours here are a revelation, capturing the hues of a city with rare intelligence. And his skin tones are first class. The combination of creators and subject makes for an enjoyable parable.

The kernel of the charming Five Minutes is another simple idea - how can Clark fill a few moments while waiting for Lois - but writer Rik Hoskin spins it into a thing of wonder. There are no big villains here, it's strictly Superman as community pal, right down to the classic cat in tree shtick. And I had a great time, just enjoying the interaction between citizens and a man who never sees himself as saviour. Writer Rik Hoskin shows us the warmth of Superman, and provides another look at the quiet strength of the Clark/Lois relationship. And penciller RB Silva's cityscapes are stunning, filled with depth and detail - there's even a person dressed as a duck selling balloons (then again, this being Metropolis it may simply be a giant duck). And, inked by Alexandre Palamaro and coloured by Javier Tartaglia, his Superman is pretty fine too - majestic, yet human.

Sean Ryan's story, the last in the book, brings the giant's occasional theme of how ordinary folk view Superman to the fore with a series of conversations about a battle he's having with Bizarro. As the conversational baton passes from person to person we move from Metropolis to Arizona, where hero fights twisted mirror image. And then we get to the final image, and the story's very appropriate title. Sorry, not telling! Apart from a stream of spit/blood that's out of place with this giant's overall gentle tone, I love Clayton Henry's art here. There's an echo of the great Dave Gibbons in some of the faces, but all credit to Henry for helping ensure an experimental idea works. And when we finally see his Superman, boy, it's good. Colourist Brian Reber makes things nice and bright, while Sal Cipriano's letters are smart (what's the matter, Lanham, couldn't be bothered?).

So that's seven shorts and seven hits, making this the best of DC's recent 80-pagers. Even the cover by Aaron Lopresti, a veteran but up and coming so far as the Superman books are concerned, is strikingly original.

Whether you're a fan of Superman or simply human interest stories set in a world of wonder, I can't recommend this special enough.

Siege #3 review

In which the Cavalry whups Norman Osborn's scaly green ass. The thing is, Captain America is back from the dead and Cap's main super power in an Avengers book is to inspire. Lord knows how that works but he appears on the scene and suddenly the heroes of the Marvel Universe stop acting like losers and actually win some fights.

Of course, it helps that in attacking Asgard Osborn has overplayed his hand and the President stops being stupid*, sees Osborn for the evil git he is, and has the USAF go biblical on his H.A.M.M.E.R. aircraft carrier.

Tony Stark is back in classic Iron Man armour to mess with Osborn's rip-off Iron Patriot suit, allowing Spider-Man - yes! - to punch his stupid face. OK, the Sentry is still on the scene and more powerful than a million deii ex machina, but I've no doubt that the combined forces of the heroes will suddenly be able to beat him after all. They'll remember to use psychic abilities, cosmic force fields, genius level brains . . .

. . . or, horribly likely, a speech from Cap. 'OK soldier, you've tried to do right. But you've made a mistake. Don't worry about Ares, he wasn't even American, just give your wife a hug. And cut that damn girly hair . . .'

Don't get me wrong, I loved the 'hoorah moments' in this issue, it's just that I wish they arose organically rather than magically. Suddenly everyone is competent again? I wanted Osborn's downfall to come as the result of heroes using their brains and skills to show him up for what he is, not because he makes mistakes. It's as if writer Brian Bendis has flipped a switch that reads 'Brains and powers ON' to pave the way for the upcoming Heroic Age.

So, there are my qualms. I did enjoy the pacing and dialogue - there's an exchange between Cap and Taskmaster that put a huge smile on my face, for instance. And the art by penciller Olivier Coipel, inker Mark Morales and colourist Laura Martin is sharp and gorgeous. And Chris Eliopoulos's lettering complements the art.

The book's not the best value, though - there are 23 pages of comic strip for $3.99, with the rest of the story pages giving us Maria Hill's view of the battle we've just seen, via a six-page memo to the president. Accompanying this are spot illos consisting of re-used artwork. Are there really any readers out there who prefer this sort of thing to the longer story we'd otherwise get? If DC can give us 30 story pages for $3.99, Marvel sure as heck can too. What will we get next month, architectural plans for a new Asgard? Tony Stark's cocktail recipes? Come on, Marvel - lengthen the story or lower the price.

* Though he is apparently too mean to turn the lights on in the White House war room. Marvel's continual shadowing of Obama, outside of the Buy This Comic, It'll Be Worth Something, Honest, Then Come Back For The Bridge issue of Spider-Man is nuts. Either make up a pretendy president, or show him clearly.

Thursday, 18 March 2010

Titans #23 review

Now here's a novelty - a Titans story set on one of the other worlds in the DC Multiverse. While the team's basic history - both ancient and recent - is the same, there are some interesting divergences.

Rather than a nicely raised rich man's ward, Speedy was a kid thug who taught Wonder Girl, Robin, Aqualad and Kid Flash to 'fight dirty' - but despite the tips, Kid Flash and Robin always hated him.

The original five Teen Titans only just avoided become a gang of degenerate bullies, grimacing as they pummelled costumed idiots.

Speedy proposed to Donna Troy.

Donna turned redhead Roy Harper down after all-purpose mentalist Lilith warned her she'd marry a ginger, and he'd die. Ditzy Donna later forgot this trivial information and wed carrothead Terry Long. Oops.

On discovering Speedy's drug addiction, Robin and Kid Flash told him to bugger off and get himself sorted out.

It all makes for a fascinating look at how the regular DC Universe Titans would be had they been written as arseholes from their earliest outings. And the originals are no better in the story's present day scenes - Donna punches Dick's lights out when he deigns to get upset that Roy has been maimed by Prometheus and his daughter killed. There's humour too; the first thing this Earth's Dick Grayson does when things calm down post-Prometheus and Blackest Night is order new statues for Titans Tower's Hall of Death. Gotta keep the old place nice, eh?

So congratulations to writer Eddie Berganza for a change of pace one-off that acts as a bridge between the current unsuccessful Titans run and the upcoming unsuccessful run (the Titans will consist of murderers led by Deathstroke - oh yes, that has breakout success written all over it). The original DC solicitation for this issue promised we'd see Roy having a fever dream of a possible Titans future, but this Elseworlds tidbit will do.

And well done to fill-in artists Scott Clark and Ardian Syaf for making the Titans look close enough to their regular selves to echo our old friends, while adding subtle changes to details. Check out, for example, the teenage Donna Troy's Wonder Girl costume, apparently created with body paint and strong liquor. While there are one or two awkward moments I enjoyed the art - presumably split by time period, with Syaf handling the current moments and Clark the past (apologies to both gents if I've gotten that wrong). Syaf does a brilliant job of rising to the script's more overwrought moments (Donna is apparently auditioning for Weeping Gorila Comics for much of the book) while Clark captures something of the atmosphere of the recent Teen Titans: Year One art of Karl Kerschl. Inkers Dave Beaty and Vicent Cifuentes do good work here too.

I like this subtle touch, as Donna and Roy talk. Note the blur? Sure enough, a page later Kid Flash is present (and being a jerk again, warning Roy off Donna like a patronising big brother). Kudos to Hi-Fi Design for that, and indeed, a sterling job throughout the issue, from the spookily effective opening page onwards.

And there's some more than decent dialogue that makes it seem like these are the Titans I grew up with, for example the banter between Wally and Donna about the former's wife, Linda. But then something happens and I'm reminded that these are simply strangers, going through the motions.

Friday, 12 March 2010

Batman and Robin #10 review

'The Return of Bruce Wayne begins here!' yells the blurb on Frank Quitely's grabby cover. Hmm, wonder how it'll all end?

Never mind, no one doubts the original Batman will be back soon. Meanwhile, I'm relishing the Dick/Damian partnership, which gets better with each outing. Forget their chalk and cheese personalities there's a real affection developing between them. Despite the cover scene, that's very evident this issue as the prospect of finding Bruce alive hints that the new Batman and Robin team's days are numbered and Damian gets a little choked.

Choking is what his loving mum, Talia al-Ghul, would love to do to Dick for distracting her boy from his future 'greatness' but can she break them up? They're certainly working together well this issue as they scour Wayne Manor for clues left by any 'lost in the past' Bruce. Guiding them, and nearly stealing the show, is Alfred who, writer Grant Morrison reminds us, is an intelligence expert. The trio's conversation as they undertake their Bat-scavenger hunt is as engrossing as any action scene would be.

Which is just as well, as this is a fight-light issue. Guest detective Oberon Sexton gets as much play as the Dynamite Duo (he seems 'familiar' to Dick, and he has 'exceptional hearing' like a bat, but it's likely too obvious for him to be Bruce, back to solve the mystery of his disappearance). There's also an amusing boardroom scene in which Damian, 10, calls the Wayne Enterprises chiefs to account for missing monies, but it's the trawl through the Wayne family tree that provides the tastiest treat this issue. I can't wait to learn more about the likes of demon-summoning Thomas and saintly Solomon. That may actually come in the upcoming Batman: The Return of Bruce Wayne maxi-series but whatever fills this book it's going to be very good if Morrison retains this form - this is his best script in ages, combining mystery and character in equal parts.

Credit too to former REBELS artist Andy Clarke, who turns in a wonderfully clean, clear job, and Inker Scott Hanna makes the most of Clarke's contribution with delicate Brian Bolland-style brushstrokes. 'The Haunting of Wayne Manor' is this issue's title and the artists - including colourist Alex Sinclair - definitely capture a spooky mood. They also give us the cutest pet tiger ever, at the side of a very Marsha Cross Talia. Patrick Brosseau provides the finishing touch via friendly, clear lettering.

This is cracking superhero fun, with every page providing smiles. And Damian is a big part of the success of this run; he's gone from annoying brat to loveable foil without losing his edge. Whatever else happens, I hope he remains a prominent member of the Batman Family.

The MystIc Hands of Doctor Strange #1 review

Marvel's latest Super Issue homaging its Seventies black and white magazine line features Dr Strange in four tales, three of which are very much of 'their' time, all of which are different enough from current stories to justify their inclusion.

Kieron Gillen's piece, in which Strange tackles an offbeat cult leader out to remake the world in his image, leaves the reader questioning whether our hero has done the right thing. The Seventies vibe is there from the opening scene of Strange and disciple Wong shopping in a Greenwich Village full of trendy hipsters, immediately evoking the work of such classic creators as Steve Englehart and Frank Brunner. If there were any doubt, their Sise-Neg storyline is indirectly referred to by Strange in a clever bit of business. And the villain of the piece has rarely been better portrayed, the snide old git.

Fraser Irving, aside from giving us the creepiest image of Strange's gal pal Clea ever, produces magical effects that would look great in colour. The washes and greyscales look good, nevertheless, and it's full marks for eeriness, with the androgynous appearance of the antagonistic Doktor also keeping the reader on their toes.

The great Frank Brunner himself illustrates Peter Milligan's story of a melancholic Strange helping a weak man tackle his inner demons. There's unapologetic talk of sex, a scene of domestic violence and a subtle likening of Strange's spells to recreational drugs. Milligan mixes ideas and actions with ease in this impressive outing. And no one does a better brooding Strange than Brunner. As for his Wong, the manservant's knowing looks, coupled with the narrative references to his special noodle sauce (easy!), had me wondering if it were his 'powers' rather than his master's, which finally lift their caller's mood.

Writing and drawing, Ted McKeever ups the philosophical talk to the extent that I found his contribution nigh-unintelligible in terms of dialogue. There's a drunk, suicidal Strange, a vagrant turned talking head and a demon tempter. I suspect it's all an allegory for dealing with addiction. Beats me, but I think I got the gist of proceedings and liked the air of oddness that dominated. And McKeever's illustrations, here sinister, there amusing, are fascinating to look at.

The Seventies sensibility in terms of story tone is absent from Mike Carey and Marcos Martin's short, but it's there so far as format goes - this is prose with spot illoes rather than stripwork. The first person narrative concerns Strange's debut encounter with a servant of Dormammu. With flashy graphics barely available, Carey concentrates on the cerebral, as Strange discerns a magical rule or two. Marcos Martin - who co-created The Oath, the best Strange tale in recent memory - does a lap of honour here. His three images bring Carey's words to richer life.

Lucio Parrillo's cover shot perfectly evokes Marvel Magazines' top cover artist, Earl Norem, but it's far too dark. As the only colour page, this should dazzle the reader, but poor Dr Strange looks as if he's been down a coal mine.

If you're a fan of Dr Strange, you should enjoy this return to his glory days. And if you've never got the appeal of the character, there's even more reason to try it.

Thursday, 11 March 2010

Superman: Last Stand of New Krypton #1 review

And so it begins, the three-issue mini that promises to cap the year-long storyline that has seen thousands of super-powered, earth-hating Kryptonians populating a new world on the far side of the sun. Given the set-up, my impression was that we'd see epic encounters between the New Kryptonians and the powers of the wider DC Universe . . . but the scenario has hardly been mentioned outside of the Superman line. And DC's pushing of the Blackest Night event has allowed World of New Krypton to wither in the shade. Plus, while I could buy Superman hanging around to keep an eye on his people, the suspension of belief required to accept he could serve in the army of mass murderer General Zod has proven too much.

The WoNK mini series began well but soon became bogged down with dull politics, visits from toothless alien races and a murder mystery that pretty much killed what interest I had left. So thank goodness the end is in sight courtesy of the return of star-spanning conqueror Brainiac. His attack this issue prompts the Kryptonians to stop squabbling among themselves and fight back with their new abilities. Superman finally realises Zod isn't someone he can work for. Supergirl declares Superboy her cousin in a sweet scene as the Legion of Super-Heroes shows up to lend a hand. And the good guys keep interrupting the saving of lives to have chats with Zod, which is mighty odd.

James Robinson and Sterling Gates co-write, producing a workmanlike script that gets us from point A to point B. The return of Brainiac brings the story full circle rather than adding anything new, and the Legion's cavalry-like appearance soon peters out amid more Zod posturing. The whole thing feels like just another issue of WoNK rather than cake-saving icing.

Pete Woods brings his A-game to the art, providing lush illustrations - there's an especially good-looking splash of Commander El reclaiming his Superman identity. The colours of Blond only add to an attractive job.

I'm less keen on Andy Kubert's cover - it's certainly kinetic, but Superman's heat vision-obscured face looks ugly and he's ignored the actual design of Brainiac's ship for a quick injection of drama.

So, a disappointing issue but the addition of the Legion is enough to keep me reading. With luck the story will improve to the level of the art.

Friday, 5 March 2010

Girl Comics #1 review

I'm not too sure how to approach Marvel's latest anthology series. The fact it's being sold on the back of being by all-girl creators suggests I search for a 'female sensibility'. On the other, that would be like holding Girl Comics to a different standard to other superhero comics, which usually have a male bias in the creative team. Some comics I like, some I don't, and I never attribute my reactions to the gender of the creators.

So the heck with keeping an eye out for anything approaching an agenda, let's just see what's in there.

The cover's by Amanda Conner and as delightful as I've come to expect from her, with She-Hulk - whose 30th anniversary has ignited Marvel's current female focus - beating Iron Man at arm wrestling, watched by the the fine ladies and gents of Marvel.

The first feature is the closest Girl Comics has to a statement of intent, with Colleen Coover writing and drawing a two-pager that has a batch of heroines explain what they are, and aren't, about. It's a whimsically drawn piece whose message boils down to 'let's just get on with it' - a favourite sentiment.

Next up we have Nightcrawler rescuing a damsel in distress at the cabaret. And she rescues him right back. It's a simple story, with the unique selling point that the narration comes via moritat - a murder ballad. It's a toughie to pull off in print - Alan Moore tried it in Warrior's V for Vendetta strip with This Vicious Cabaret, which may have been one of the inspirations for G Willow Wilson's story. I'd love to hear the ditty here set to music, though, for the fun of it. Maybe Marvel has a smoky-voiced in-house chanteuse who could put the song across on a podcast? Meanwhile, good on Willow for trying something different, and Ming Doyle for so ably illustrating - the first shot we see of Kurt superbly captures the essence of a man you can never truly know. And I love that he wears sock suspenders.

Venus, of Agents of Atlas fame, solos in a tale which has her betting Zeus that her powers of femininity are as strong as Hercules' strength. So it's off to Manhattan for an adventure involving supermodels and secret affairs. There's a hilarious gag which shows that even a burka can't stop Venus recognising . . . oops, can't spoil that! But this is adorable fluff from Trina Robbins, here writing 'only', for the terribly talented Stephanie Buscema, whose retro linework is simply joyous. And the tattoo she's designed for a certain cast member is perfect.

In a Punisher short featuring the world's scariest shower curtain, he takes on one of the bogeymen of today. There are no surprises but, appropriately enough, the story is well executed by Valerie D'Orazio and Nikki Cook, with both script and art nicely nuanced.

Sana Takeda contributes a pin-up of She-Hulk which acts as a sequel to a 1992 John Byrn poster. It's birthday cheesecake for the big green gal.

My favourite story of the issue is a two-pager by Lucy Knisley which has Dr Octopus on a shopping expedition - it made me laugh out loud, yet manages to be oddly touching.

A perfectly in-character Franklin and Valeria Richards feature in a twisted fairytale that morphs from comic strip to storybook via the talents of writer Robin Furth and artist Agnes Garbowska. It's a pretty safe bet I'm going to be having nightmares after this one.

Finally, it's back to the period when Jean Grey was still alive (well, one of the periods) for a look at the relationship between Jean and Scott Summers, and Jean and Logan. Jean and Scott help Wolverine beat off various attackers, Scott notices how the other two look at one another and Jean denies any impropriety. It's well-observed soap from writer Devin Grayson, but we've seen it too many times previously, and it left me feeling rather gloomy. Mind, there is a good joke, with the ever-under-attack Logan having forgotten why he's being assaulted this particular time. Emma Rios supplies wonderfully alive artwork in the issue's most action-packed segment.

Capping off the issue are much-appreciated features on Marvel legends Marie Severin and Flo Steinberg, and creator bios. Girl Comics proves an enticing package, full of variety in subject and approach, and you can be sure I'll be back in a month to see what's next.

Thursday, 4 March 2010

Adventure Comics #8 review

The waiting's nearly over. Soon the Legion of Super-Heroes get their own book again. Two books, in fact - for a while, at least. Before that they're guesting in a big Superman event for which this issue of Adventure Comics provides three prologues.

The first story features the Legion in the 31st century as a seemingly standard rescue mission reveals a threat from the 21st century. Its first three pages focus on Legion genius Brainiac 5, explaining why the heck Querl Dox uses the title of his mass murdering ancestor. The rest gives us teasing glimpses of such old favourites as Lightning Lass and Timber Wolf, who has developed an annoying vocal tic, 'Hrrf. Do wolves go 'hrrf'? I suppose they must.

Anyway, no sooner is the story begun than it's over, referring us to the continuation in this month's mercifully short mini series, Superman: Last Stand of New Krypton, which follows the damp squib that was Superman: World of New Krypton.

In his first Legion outing Sterling Gates shows the confident touch he's brought to Supergirl, blending superheroics, character and plot to great effect. Travis Moore and Julio Ferreira provide attractive artwork (they're especially good with noses - don't laugh, so few artists are!), which Pete Pantazis colours with intelligence. And Steve Wands shows that his natural super-power is lettering. I loved this l'il Legion story, consider my appetite for 31st-century tales of the LSH well and truly whetted.

Prologue 2 shows the 21st-century Legion Espionage Squad reveal themselves to Conner Kent, and then explain to Mon-El that they don't actually know very much about why they're in his time. It's strictly bridgework, introducing a few more Legionnaires to new readers before they take part in the mini series mentioned above, but it's a pleasant read courtesy of James Robinson. The reason given for the members hanging around Superboy and Mon-El for months doesn't bear even a moment's examination - Legion benefactor RJ Brande wanted them to watch over the pair and bring them on as heroes before they're needed by the Legion - but it provided an excuse for the future teens to pop up every now and then, building anticipation for this issue's reveal.

Penciller Julian Lopez and inker Bit prove well able to make several pages of conversation between costumed folk look good. Their very Silver Age Chameleon Boy is a joy forever, while Superboy's costume change sequence makes an old cliche look fresh. Sensor Girl looks hideous, mind, but what can you do? My only real complaint is the physical similarity of Conner and Mon-El - I know Clark Kent originally mistook Lar Gand for his big brother, hence his bestowing of the El appellation, but Conner's a new generation. And half Lex Luthor (allegedly). Lord, it's like Jedward with super powers, a thought far scarier than an invasion by the original Brainiac.

Pete P colours again, and leaves the artwork looking so damn happy it's as if he's been waiting all his life to enliven Matter-Eater Lad and Tellus. And Mr Wands letters once more.

He works on the final story too, though the colouring baton is passed to Blond, whose muted choices suit Pier Gallo's sensitive art for this tale of two fanatics - Kryptonian sleeper agent and bad pun Cer-Vax, and US Army General Sam Loon . . . sorry, Lane. The former I could care less about (she's an accidental killer turned zealot for Zzzzod) but after more than a year as the main antagonist in the Superman books it's excellent to see Lane fleshed out. Finally we see a little of why he has such a stick up his military arse when it comes to aliens, despite the always benevolent actions of Superman. It boils down to fear, and while this doesn't make him any more sympathetic, it leaves him more believable.

Eric Trautmann, currently co-writing Action Comics, turns in a splendid pair of character studies. The guy's work is Brainiac bright, but never boring. I hope he sticks around DC once the Flamebird and Nightwing strip in Action Comics ends.

Ugly old Sensor Girl apart, I like Francis Manapul and Brian Buccellato's cover, which features Legionnaires from the 21st and 31st centuries in a subtly split image.

While I'd have likely relished the first strip in this issue filling the book, for what it was - a bridge between two Superman events - this comic was admirably entertaining.

Anyone want to convince me Sensor Girl isn't a serial killing drag queen?

Justice League: Cry for Justice #7 review

I like a big stupid blockbuster as much as the next person. Massive disasters, bombastic dialogue, it's all good . . . except when the story can't get from point A to point B without characters who are Too Stupid Too Live.

And that sums up every hero in this book. Green Lantern, the Atom, Green Arrow, all these and more are here unable to use their skills and powers, their brains and experience, to foil the schemes of one man. Yes, the destruction of Star City is well underway as this finale issue begins, but the perpetrator, Prometheus, is in League custody. Available to end the destruction are heroes with magic rings, super strength, ultra-speed, and yet not a single building is seen to be saved. Green Lantern doesn't so much as throw up a few supports. Firestorm carries people on lumps of pavement rather than throwing his incredible power set at the big picture. That sort of thing.

With the threat of similar destruction across the world via cunningly planted bombs, the heroes have no choice but to let Prometheus go free in exchange for deactivation codes. Because he can counter any attempt to force him to give up the information - knock out a mental maven via psychic feedback, stop magical attacks - anything. So what if Prometheus is neither magical nor telepathic, he's The Man With the Plan and in the DC Universe (see Batman, Deathstroke etc) a bit of forward thinking always wins the day.

Burying a bomb under a river but want to keep speedsters at bay? No problem, simply arrange it so that unless the 'exact cubic tonnage' of water surrounds the explosive, it goes off. And so on. It's silly, and not in a good way. Prometheus is so brilliant, and the heroes so rubbish, that when it comes down to 'free the guy and get the codes, or let millions die', the good guys are utterly paralysed with indecision in a laughable two-page spread. A decision has to be made and the JLA and chums decide to have a conference call. 'What do we do?' 'No! No way he walks!' 'We're loosing (sic)' 'I don't know what to say.'

This really is excruciating stuff from writer James Robinson; it might work on TV, with quick cuts and split second flashes of dialogue, but laid out on the page it's corny and unconvincing. And the internal monologue given to the blue Starman as he's meant to be helping people would disgrace an afternoon soap. Which is weird, because sometimes you can read a James Robinson comic - such as the recent Starman: Blackest Night - and be thrilled by the subtlety and smarts of the script.

Not here, where you're more likely to laugh at the words given to poor Freddy Freeman, his lips sewn together to prevent him summoning his Marvel-powered form: 'Yeath. Juth get m'to the dewiseth! Matgic of Shaztham!' After a few lines of this I was expecting two magic words: 'Thufferin thuccotash!'

The big emotional moment is the death of Lian, Roy Harper's cute little daughter, crushed by a building. Allegedly 90,000 people perish as Star City falls but poor old Lian - whose demise was cleverly hinted at in the set-after-this Titans #21 a couple of months back - is the only corpse in the book. It sucks to be a superhero's kid, but the tragedies are necessary for the upcoming adventures of Grim Arrow and Stumpy. Super.

The close of this story sees said Ollie Queen finally finds a target
- Prometheus' stupid helmet and the brain matter behind. As it's the end of the mini, suddenly there is something Prometheus hasn't planned for, while a hero is allowed to remember his skill set. The contrivances are a bit rich but nevertheless the death of Prometheus provides the most satisfactory moment of the series.

Mauro Cascioli, Scott Clark and Ibraim Roberson handle the pencils and, backed by a veritable league of inkers and colourists, produce mostly attractive, effective work. While some of the emotional beats called for by the script are a tad OTT, the artists capture them just fine. And someone had a very good time drawing Starfire's cosmic bottom trying to escape her hips - an honourable DC tradition.

So it's over. Seven issues, most of them annoying, and yet I bought the things so more fool me. I nearly dropped the book once or twice but my faith in James Robinson, along with the saddo aspect of having to know how the story ends, kept bringing me back. Of course, the story isn't ending, as the plights of Ollie Queen and Roy Harper lead into a JLA special, Arsenal mini and an arc in Green Arrow's book. We're promised falls, rises . . . maybe some people will eat this up, but it's not for me. I'll stick with James' current run on the regular JLA book, which is already proving more to my taste than Cry For Justice. I should have cried off after the first issue.

If only Ollie were taking off the mask his homage to Horatio Caine would be complete