Tuesday, 30 November 2010

Justice Society of America #45 review

Is there any buzz about this book yet? Because there should be. The new creative team of Mark Guggenheim and Scott Kolins came on board last issue and immediately changed the feel of the title. Out went the endless hero vs villain crowd scenes, in came a tighter team, allowing for more satisfying action and characterisation. Suddenly, the book had focus.

If you missed the beginning of Supertown, you should know that a new metahuman appeared and began wreaking havoc, the JSA turned up to defend humanity and a battle royal raged for hours. Before the heroes finally overwhelmed their foe, the city of Monument Point was devastated, and Green Lantern Alan Scott paralysed.

The continuation begins with a flashback to the Second World War, with Scott and Jay Garrick, the Flash, on a black ops mission in Libya. We don't find out what their ultimate assignment is until near the end of the story, as it weaves back and forth between then and now. The now segments see Superman arrive to begin helping with repairs, and apply his J Michael Straczynski Sad Face to the situation; and Molly Mayne Scott visiting husband Alan in hospital, accompanied by Jay.

Kolins' artwork really conveys the delicacy of GL's situation - hooked up to medical monitors, head shaved for examination, I've never seen him look so old, so fragile. It's easy to forget that the senior JSA members have been active for 70 years, given how many random energy blasts and spells have tweaked their physiology and frames, but there's no denying it here.

Jay is shaken by his oldest friend's plight, and furious when a senator summons him away from hospital, especially as said politician led the HUAC panel which accused the JSA of being traitors in the 1950s. As it turns out, America's Oldest Public Servant, Sen Eagin, has information Jay needs to hear about the super-villain who caused Monument Point to be razed, now codenamed Scythe.

Meanwhile, back in the past ... it turns out the black op is a little too dark for Alan, when it becomes apparent that the Nazi experiment they're meant to destroy, Project Drachen, is a baby (like GL, seven decades later, he's helpless, hooked up to monitors). Flash is more ready to follow orders, arguing that they're at war, and the two come to blows. By dint of wielding the most powerful weapon in the universe, GL wins and the baby lives. And guess who the tot grew up to be?

Yup,  apparently he's not just a random super-villain - Scythe matters.

Why that is, we don't find out right now, as the rest of the story concerns Jay's reaction to knowing that, albeit inadvertently and due to their humanity, he and Alan gave rise to the situation which destroyed Monument Point.

Yes, it's that old chestnut of hero feeling bad over the unavoidable lesser of two evils - as Molly points out earlier in the story, the JSA saved millions of lives. But that doesn't stop a crowd railing on the JSA, accusing them of not caring what happened while they were fighting Scythe, and it doesn't prevent Jay from being affected. He may not agree that the JSA is to blame, but that doesn't mean he'll turn his back on the city, and by issue's end he's resolved to remain, and rebuild. 

While Flash and GL have the spotlight, Wildcat, Lightning, Dr Midnite and Mr Terrific dance around the wings, doing what they can. The latter of the quartet continues last issue's fretting that he's losing his Terrific IQ, but keeps his fears from his friends. That'll end well.

I'm impressed with how quickly and thoroughly Guggenheim has found his voice with this book. He's not trying to emulate the hugely popular Geoff Johns JSA, but going his own way in order to better serve the characters and the readers. This means that rather than feeling like a desperate retread, the book boasts the freshness that heroes who were once so innovative deserve. 

And the art of Kolins is a big part of the JSA renaissance. He's going for a more painterly look than that used in his long Flash run (no pun etc), but because he's spent years as a continuity strip artist before tweaking his style, the illustrations retain a fluidity that, say, the art of Alex Ross lacks. But characters have a new strength to them, an intensity dialled up a notch when colourist Mike Atiyeh applies his enviable skills (click on image to enlarge).  
Flash and GL really look like they mean business in their military uniforms (I love Jay's Mercury cap doubling as a tin helmet), while Jay's rage looks set to boil over here.
The artistic mood suits a storyline with so many sombre aspects, such as the aftereffects of the Scythe attack, and the dirty war our shining heroes were once dragged into. It'll be interesting to note whether the tone lightens as the JSA bring new hope to Monument Point, which I don't doubt they will. 

Also helping the new JSA run find its artistic feet is letterer Rob Leigh, with his attractively Art Deco eagle-topped plaques introducing team members. It's remarkable, how something so small can so definitively add to the attractiveness of the page. Leigh fills word balloons nicely, too!

Topping off the issue is a fine cover by Shane Davis, Sandra Hope and Barbara Ciardo - the Golden Age-style poster art smartly contrasts with Jay's situation, while hinting at the issue's themes.

With its splendid melding of ideas and execution, this looks set to be one of the best modern JSA runs. I hope superhero fans try it.

Sunday, 28 November 2010

Thunderstrike #1 review

It's Thunder Trike, the super hero who roars into battle on a tricycle!

Or maybe just the guy with badly placed cover art.

In the 1990s, when heroes weren't donning metallic versions of their union suits, they were running into copycats - Captain America had USAgent, Iron Man had War Machine and Thor had ... Thunderstrike! Despite a shocking ponytail, the so-called 'everyman Avenger' headlined his own comic for a couple of years before being killed off. So he must have had his fans.

I wasn't one - nothing against the guy, but one Thor/Cap/Iron Man was quite enough for me. And that hairdo ...

Sixteen years on, he's back, and I'm giving his first issue a try, mainly to see how writer Tom DeFalco approaches the mainstream Marvel Universe after years spent chaperoning Spider-Girl in an imaginary future. The other point of interest, given how many appalling outfits he wore in his previous short publishing existence, is to see how Marvel updates Thunderstrike's look for the 21st century.

Not at all, as it happens - the hero returns in his best-known outfit, a combination of Thor's iconic shirt, naff sleeveless leather jacket and that stupid ponytail. But there is one big difference - Eric Masterson remains dead, and his teenage son, Kevin, has inherited his body, along with his magical mace. Kev's already an angry little snot, so heaven knows how he'll react to looking like a guy rejected by the Village People for seeming too camp.

Kevin's actually the only problem with this story. Oh sure, he'll go on the old Hero's Journey, and learn to be a better person, but by the time the process begins here he already has me hoping he'll get eaten by a passing troll. He's angry at some kid at his school for reasons unknown, his mother for moving the family to New York, his stepdad for trying to be a nice guy, the Avengers for supposedly letting his father get killed, his dad for getting killed ... If the Thunderstrike mace had an enchantment akin to that which ensures Thor's hammer can be lifted only by the worthy, Kevin would remain happily ponytail free.

As it is, America's Top Cop (TM) Steve Rogers simply hands him the weapon because it's legally his, brushing aside Girl Friday Sharon Carter's protestations that the kid's a loose cannon. 'I've helped former super-villains go on to become the greatest Avengers,' he points out.

And I've few doubts he'll be proven right. The minute a crisis breaks out, Kevin steps up to help, and the spell connected to the mace kicks in, transforming him into Thunderstrike/Dad/Fabio. The final few pages of the story have Kevin and the new Rhino going at it hammer and tong, with DeFalco capturing Kevin's eminently reasonable confusion rather well. It's interesting to see how a bullying teenager's attitude so easily translates into the righteous boasts of a superhero.

The fight scene is a wonderful example of old school Marvel - bombastic, unambiguous fun, courtesy of veteran penciller Ron Frenz and finisher Sal Buscema ... there's a reason these chaps have survived for decades in a competitive industry. They know how to tell a story, they know how to sell a story. There's nothing especially innovative here, the reader is simply allowed to relax into the tale.

I'm not sure whether to credit Frenz, or the excellent letterer Dave Sharpe, but the sound effects are first class- there's at least one brilliant homage to John Workman, whose calligraphy helped define an era of Thor. And colourist Bruno Hang does a decent job, though the lasting tonal impression is a tad brown for my liking.

So how does DeFalco cope, back in the 616 universe? Just fine. He knows how to craft a fast-moving, coherent comic strip - characters are introduced, backstory is woven in and the premise of the series is laid out, while the dialogue is more than decent.

But that's not all he wrote. There's a back-up, drawn by Todd Nauck, which shines a light on a moment of mystery in the lead strip, while spotlighting the many looks of Thunderstrike - verily, he be the Norse god of style disasters. It's a useful recap for us newcomers which also manages to move the new story forward.

Thunderstrike #1 is a comfortable, enjoyable read, a great example of classic superheroics and I'll be back next month to see what happens next. I hope the market has room for a well-done, fairly traditional comic book.

Friday, 26 November 2010

An Explosion of Alpha Flight - Steve looks at the week's comic covers

I still haven't persuaded Steve to look inside, mind you!

Batman and Robin #17 review

If this is a fill-in, could we put off the main event another couple of years? Paul Cornell takes over as Batman and Robin writer for three issues and produces an instant classic, honouring the tradition of entertainingly psychotic villains while somehow managing to find an original angle.

What that is, I won't spoil, as the entire issue leads up to a somewhat stunning final page reveal. What I will say is that I can't recall the last time a Batman story presented such an engaging mystery, one that manages to be fascinating, while pleasingly straightforward. We start on action, as Dick and Damian crash an unusual wedding, move back a few days to see how they got there, and pick up where we left off on the way to the climax. 

En route we see a little of Commissioner Gordon's attitude towards last issue's assertion that Bruce Wayne funds Batman, and learn that bad guys are already striking at the billionaire through his associates. Best of all, Alfred enriches the often-shallow figure of Bruce Wayne by letting Dick and Damian know that he didn't treat all his lady friends as Bat-beards.

Cornell immediately joins the ranks of writers who get Damian first time out, and consequently the banter, and conversations, between the newest boy wonder and Dick are a constant delight (click to enlarge).

What's more, the new villain has great promise, introducing themselves with a flourish worthy of the Sixties Avengers TV series. 

Helping the story along greatly is the artwork of Scott McDaniel and Rob Hunter. Of all the art jobs I've seen from the former, this is my favourite - his trademark dynamism is present and correct, but the layouts are more pleasingly playful than previously. Hunter is sympathetic to McDaniel's feisty style, while adding a depth of his own. I like this pairing a lot, whether they're giving us moody shots of the Dynamite Duo by a grave, or Damian showing that he's fallen under the spell of Alfred's Earl Grey. Letterer Patrick Brosseau and colourist Alex Sinclair add their own storytelling skills to the mix, helping to create a Batman book that recalls the glory days of Alan Grant and Norm Breyfogle.

Well done to editors Janelle Siegel and Mike Marts for assembling such a stellar team - not forgetting Guillem March, who provides a cracking, vibrant cover illo.

With issue #20, new regular writer Peter Tomasi and penciller Patrick Gleason should be in situ. I expect I'll enjoy their work, but meanwhile, I hope DC is busy finding more Gotham assignments for this issue's terrific team. 

Thursday, 25 November 2010

Chaos War: Alpha Flight #1 review

I loved the original run of Alpha Flight, Canada's super-team. Writer/artist John Byrne gave us a book in which the characters were new enough, the action far away enough from the rest of the Marvel Universe that anything could happen. Characters changed, left, loved, died ... and then Byrne went too, and the book was never the same.

Of all the revamps down the years, the Steve Seagle/Duncan Rouleau run, with its many new cast members, came closest to capturing the spirit and excitement of the original, but sadly, it didn't take.

Now most of the original team is back, courtesy of crossover du jour, Chaos War, in which some dark god fellow is killing other, nicer gods. Well, mostly - old Alpha Flight baddies the Great Beasts are in here, and they're as dark as they come. Which isn't to say they mightn't do a good deed, as Sasquatch finds out when they offer to revive his fallen teammates if they help defeat the Chaos King, before he destroys the Beasts.

And before you know it, dead Alphans Guardian, Vindicator, Marrina and Shaman are back among the living, and guaranteed to continue breathing if they keep CK (no, not that one) busy long enough for the Beasts to recover their fighting strength. Unfortunately, my old favourite Puck isn't back - it's explained by Shaman that he's off 'to a place even I dare not follow' (ie some Wolverine comic or other). Other deceased members are also absent, but I've little idea who - keeping up to date with Alpha Flight's death rate is about as simple as explaining Donna Troy's continuity.

The main thing is, Guardian and co show up on the frontlines and are reunited with Sasquatch, Northstar, Aurora and Snowbird.  But will they go along with the Beasts' plan and earn their continued existence by acting as lackeys? After all, as Snowbird points out (ad nauseum), the Beasts are hardly angels.

That's the dilemma and it's handled in a satisfying manner by writer Jim McCann. What's disappointing, though, is the attitude of the revived Alphans towards their deaths. They've been among the choir invisible for years, but it's if they've just come off their lunch break. There's no disorientation, no trauma, just mild surprise that they're back. And while the artwork hints at what various members' powers and abilities are - here a blast, there an aura, everywhere a polar bear - there's no real run-through to bring new readers up to speed.

That said, I liked this comic. Hawkeye & Mockingbird writer McCann's scripts just get stronger, while penciller Reilly Brown holds his end up with strong, imaginative pencils. Standout pages, nicely inked by Terry Pallot and beautifully coloured by Val Staples, include a splash of the heroes setting eyes on the Great Beasts which evokes the work of much-missed Rom inkers Ian Akin and Brian Garvey, and a heroes' farewell.

(Some surnames are on the cover, which features a pleasant illustration by Salva Espin, but I'll be danged if I can find detailed creator credits inside. Letterer, whoever you are, nice job too.)

The micro-storyline of the dead members' return is tied up nicely here, but Alpha Flight's struggle against the Chaos King will continue in Chaos War #5. I won't be bothering with that, but I will be hoping we get a new series starring the team, by this creative team, and soon.

Batwoman #0 review

Well, it's been a long wait, but months after vacating Detective Comics, Batwoman returns in her own book. It's one of those annoyingly titled #0 issues, with #1 not due until February, but I'm glad to see Kate Kane back in the Gotham night.

Greg Rucka having gone from DC, artist JH Williams takes up the writing reins, with W Haden Blackman co-piloting. Williams also shares his artist's credit, as Amy Reeder steps in to co-pencil, and hopefully ensure the book appears monthly.

The tweaked creative team steps up in style, providing a solidly entertaining primer in who Kate is, and why she's taken on the mantle of the Bat. The device of having Batman stalk Batwoman as she goes about her business, in both her identities, plays to the cliche of Bruce Wayne as overbearing guardian of Gotham. And the returned Religion of Crime remains as uninteresting as ever.

But the framework of Batman trying to prove to his own satisfaction that Kate is Batwoman makes for easy and elegant exposition. We're distanced from Batwoman, but seeing how quickly she gains a measure of respect from Batman strengthens her position as a hero to watch. And I strongly suspect that when her series proper begins, Batwoman will again be our point of view character.

The story has Kate tracking down the cult as they despatch a mysterious sarcophagus out of Gotham via boat. Alone, she can't stop them, but with Batman's help ... sorry kid, you're on your own. Batman tells us he'll intervene if absolutely necessary, but when that moment comes, and tough girl Sister Shard looks set to murder Batwoman, he's too far away to do any good. Arse. Happily, Batwoman escapes thanks to her own wits and equipment.

A parallel narrative shows us Batman, in several disguises, follow Kate around for weeks while she's off duty. He finds little clues that point towards her secret life, wonders whether she's fallen out with military man father Jake, and remembers that cousin Bette was the superheroine Flamebird.

Speaking of flaming, he has a lovely time at a gay club. Purely for research purposes, of course ...
Good Lord, what does he mean? Obviously, someone needs to get out more, then Bruce wouldn't be the Peeping Tom of the superhero set.

The script is structured so that the Batwoman scenes take up half of each spread, with Kate's doings filling the rest. Williams draws the former, Reeder and inker Richard Friend the latter. And the technique works very well, with the two styles meshing, and complementing one another. It'll be interesting to see how Williams and Blackman - known for his Star Wars work, the net tells me - allocate sequences in future, as I can't see every book being split like this. I'd be perfectly happy for the artists to alternate storylines - Williams may be the bigger draw, but Reeder has her own following due to her work on Madame Xanadu and elsewhere.

My teensy negative criticism on the artistic front is Williams' tendency to give Batwoman an evil smile, and Reeder's to supply Kate with big button eyes - the character's pale colouring already makes Batwoman resemble a vampire and Kate look like a spooky Victorian doll. Said colouring is the work of the exemplary Dave Stewart, who adopts a discrete approach for each sequence, except when Kate leaps into Batwoman-style action and the tones become less impressionistic, more modelled, real. The lettering, meanwhile, is in the hands of the legendary Todd Klein, ensuring the dual narrative fonts are distinct and attractive.

I'm not sure if Todd Klein designed the cover logo, but it's not my favourite. It echoes Williams' ornate design work but it's a fussy masthead on a fussy image, and rather lost. 

My big negative criticism is the amount of material presented in this issue - for $2.99 we get 16 pages of story and 'an exclusive sneak preview at JH Williams' artwork for the first issue of Batwoman'. That's an advert, to you and me. Thanks for that DC - I think you owe us an extra-length story, at no extra charge.

Batwoman #0 has whetted my appetie, while also leaving a nasty taste in my mouth. Clever, that.

Wednesday, 24 November 2010

Justice Society of America 80-Page Giant #1 - anyone know a good shrink?

Some weeks there's just not the time to review every comic I'd like to. Especially when they're giant-sized issues (which barely anyone buys - seriously, you should see my stats when I try to give a multi-story special its due. Pitiful).

Still, I'd not sleep if I didn't at least try to bring a little story from the recent Justice Society of America 80-Page Giant #1 to your attention. The tale is certainly a nightmare, which is appropriate as it stars Sand, the team's resident bad sleeper. The guy just can't catch 40 winks without having a terrible dream.

In Night Terror, the former Sandy the Golden Boy meets girl, a sculptor named Jen. Things are going well until a vision tells him they're 'doomed'. DOOMED! His shadowy dreams are never wrong, he thinks. So far, so depressing.

And yes, Jen does send him a text message informing him that she doesn't date 'freaks'. Which is sad, but survivable. Yet Sandy's dream didn't end there - he saw himself shooting a member of the police department, point blank. Oops.

So, you're an associate of one of the most powerful super-teams on the planet, certainly the one with the biggest pot of accumulated wisdom. It's replete with super-scientists, mystics and men who have fought evil for 70 years. Do you go to your colleagues for their point of view? Ask them to watch over you and make sure you don't top a cop? Have them lock you up for awhile in Dr Fate's doorless tower? 

Here's the approach Sand takes in the strip, nicely illustrated by Leandro Fernandez (click on image to enlarge):
Okaaaaaaay ... why even try to stop a prophecy coming true when you can just go with the flow and kill a chap? It could be the start of a whole new career. It's not as if prophecies are warnings that can be heeded, is it? 

As it turns out, the prediction does come true, but not in the way Sand expected. That's the thing with shadowy dreams - they tend not to be big on detail. And there can't be a reader who didn't see this coming, unlike our so-called prophet.

Alarmed by how far down a dangerous road he's gone, Sand quits the JSA and checks himself into a clinic for psychological counselling ... 

... actually, no, I made that bit up. He simply continues his depressing internal monologue and heads home, for another night of fitful sleep. The end.

To say Sand comes across as disturbed in this tale is an understatement. Crime novelist Jason Starr's script isn't lacking in craft, it's simply a weird story and the idea that editor Chris Conroy stewarded it through to the printed page is a headscratcher. Sometimes - ofttimes, even - it seems that DC Comics will let successful writers from outside comics run with any wacky notion they come up with (>cough Superman< >Wonder Woman<) because, well, they're famous.

And yet, why not take a leaf out of Sandy's book and go with the flow? A superhero ready to murder a man because his dreams said he would is certainly original. If followed through it'd give Sand the character arc he's been denied in years of sporadic JSA appearances.

Heck, give the entire book to Jason Starr, let's see all those buttoned-up heroes follow their whims. Jay Garrick could throw away the union suit and become the fastest streaker alive - it's not as if anyone can see him. Know-all super-athlete Mr Terrific might refuse to talk to his teammates because he's so far above them. Pill-popping Hourman could improve his colleagues' performance by supplying them all with drugs.

The possibilities are endless! A breath of fresh insanity could be just what the JSA needs. So if you missed it, rush back to the comics store and buy this issue. One day it'll be worth millions.

Tuesday, 23 November 2010


As Marvel’s Year of the Women counts down its final days, She-Hulk fans again have a reason to visit their local comic book shop. She-Hulks #1 kicks off a four-issue mini-series dealing with the after-effects of the recent World War Hulks saga. The story stands up well on its own without the need to read other Hulk comics, or the internet, to fully understand and enjoy it.

Tasked with capturing fugitive members of the Intelligencia, Jen and Lyra literally hit the slots as they take down the Trapster in Las Vegas. In between missions, Jen enrols Lyra in a New York City high school before taking a well-deserved bubble bath in their new apartment on the Upper East Side.  

With a gentle nod to Grace Randolph’s recent Her-Oes saga, Lyra (in her human form) becomes acquainted with the pink-haired Amelia and her posse of mean girls. After a hilarious scene where she shuns the advances of two hockey players, Lyra makes friends with local heartthrob Jake Constantine, much to the annoyance of Amelia. After school, Jen and Lyra are off to see The Wizard on his yacht off Monte Carlo.
Psst ... Guess where their costumes are 

In what would have been the best episode of the Love Boat ever, the gamma-charged Gilmore Girls capture the Wizard after a struggle surrounded by champagne wishes and bikini-clad supermodels. The issue ends with the Wizard vowing revenge from his Gamma Base detention cell as Jen and Lyra’s quest continues. 

Writer Harrison Wilcox’s sharp and witty dialogue succeeds in keeping the story engaging and the characters interesting, particularly Lyra. Once feared to be Jen’s replacement, Lyra has instead established herself as the latest in a long line of sidekicks to banter back and forth with her. Another enjoyable element is Jen working alongside Cousin Bruce, which (aside from Greg Pak’s current Incredible Hulks run) has only happened sporadically in her 30-year history.

The art presented by penciler Ryan Stegman, inker Michael Babinski, and colourist Guru e-FX is a visual treat that gives the story a colourful, animated energy to it. Stegman’s pencils convey the action well, and the facial expressions are on a par with Ed McGuinness and Amanda Conner. One hopes that Stegman will provide a transformation sequence of either Jen or Lyra before this mini-series concludes. As an added bonus, the back of the issue contains two biographical files of Jen and Lyra, with their histories updated to before World War Hulks.

Wilcox and Stegman have made a worthy contribution to She-Hulk’s mythos with the right blend of characterisation, action, humour, and beauty. She-Hulks #1 is one of the most enjoyable She-Hulk comics since Dan Slott’s early run, and hopefully this miniseries will be successful enough to garner further adventures of Jen and Lyra from this creative team.

Eugene Liptak is a librarian and author who knows that two She-Hulks are better than one. And knowing is half the battle.

Monday, 22 November 2010

Superman/Batman #78 review

This issue opens with shocking scenes as Superman and Batman are seen engaging in brutal conflict. The narration doesn't shy from letting us know things aren't as they seem, and we're soon shown that the fights are the imaginings of two boys engaging in a game of 'Who would win'? 

And that's basically it for Joe Kelly's story, written with son Jack. But that's enough, as the tale features the blend of intense drama and sharp humour that makes Kelly one of the best mainstream writers around. However much Kelly Jr contributed, well done, young sir. And artist Ed Benes brings his A-game, illustrating with a straight face that makes the daft moments even funnier (click on image to enlarge).
The fine letters and colours are the work of Messrs Steve Wands and Pete Pantazis respectively.

I suspect that this joyous bagatelle was commissioned for Superman/Batman #75 (click for review) but was set aside either because that book features a charming Billy Tucci short with a similar set-up, or because the Kellys' story deserved the spotlight only its own issue could assure. That would explain it not being book-length.

The rest of this issue is filled with a fable that couldn't be more different. It fits the Kryptonian/Gothamite model, being a teaming of Power Girl and Huntress, but Lord, it's depressing. 

Power Girl wants to help Huntress rescue folk after a Gotham earthquake. Huntress tells her: 'We don't need your help' (any people trapped beneath the rubble might disagree).

Apparently Huntress doesn't like being around interdimensional transplant Power Girl because the pain on the latter's face when she looks at her, Huntress Helena Bertinelli, and remembers her fallen friend, Huntress Helena Wayne, makes HHB oh-so-sad, reminding her of her own sorrows.

The wallowing is interrupted when a lost alien child crawls out of the rocket that caused the quake and lashes out telepathically, linking the three's common misery. Huntress wants to bash the child's face in, Power Girl assures him they'll get him him home, the story tells us, nah, it'll never happen.

This slice of misery was written by Amanda McMurray, presumably as some kind of therapy - pass the pain on and all that. Cheers, Amanda.

Brett Booth illustrates and looking at the monumental thighs he gives Power Girl, I think we've finally found a male comic artist who isn't a boobs guy. The characters are intense, perfectly in keeping with the dripping angst of McMurray's script - quite an achievement given Booth was likely trying not to slash his wrists as he drew.

On the one hand, good on DC for giving us such variety in one comic book. On the other, please don't do it again.

Friend of Dorothy #1 review

If you're like me and can't watch The Wizard of Oz without suffering weeks of nightmares involving flying monkeys and cackling green women, this latest spin on the favourite tale could open a whole new seam of bad dreams. For it feature scarecrows that have more in common with J-horror than Ray Bolger.

I swear, the straw men who crawl through the clunkily named Scott-John's window are straight out of The Ring. Luckily his previous visitor, Gorlindo, Good Witch and fan of all things pink, has equipped him with a magical axe to take out the creatures known as 'Scrows'.

He's also been given super-powers, as the designated new champion of Oz, the official Friend of Dorothy.

Yes, somehow writer Brian Andersen, artist Neftali Centeno and colourist/letterer Falecia Woods have contrived to make the Wizard of Oz even camper, swapping farmgirl Dorothy Gale for a flamboyant gay male, the Ruby Slippers for scarlet disco boots and yappy Toto for talking Dodo. And it's Dodo who's going to be Scott-John's guide as he bids to deliver Oz from an as-yet-unrevealed crisis, and so save his own world.

This first of three issues sees Scott-John go from would-be suicide - he's broken up over a break-up - to nascent hero able to transcend his appalling new outfit and be the saviour of two worlds. By instalment's end he's ready to right wrongs in a far-off land. So long as he can stay on his flying broomstick ...

I'm not a huge fan of reimaginings of L Frank Baum's world. To me, The Wiz is a case of 'ease on down the roadkill', while the saccharine political correctness of Wicked makes me want to stamp on a Munchkin. But I enjoyed Andersen's script, which goes its own way rather than opting for easy parallels with the original stories. Bossy Dodo is a nice addition, and should become more fun now that his initial role as Exposition Dog has been fulfilled.

Centeno's illustrations, while less polished than the art seen in books from the major comics companies, is good-natured and carries the story along nicely, while Woods' colors range from bubblegum to naturalistic in an appropriate manner. My favourite sequence is the fireworks-riddled entrance of Gorlindo.

As a bonus, the comic features an 8pp strip written by Andersen - creator of Newsarama's So Super-Duper series - and illustrated by Jon Macy. I Am Moxie Marvel, originally submitted to DC's Zuda line, is another gender reversal tale - this time bullied high school student Chance Wittsome (!) inherits the powers, mission and, God help him, costume of legendary superheroine Moxie Marvel.

I actually enjoyed this more than the lead strip. Partially, that's because I'm a superhero fan, not an Oz guy, but it's also because Jon Macy's deceptively simple artwork channels a story they're obviously passionate about, brilliantly. And the Zuda format - half-page strips - makes for a tight, pacy read.

Oz aficionados (especially gay ones, although I may have entered the realm of tautology here) will likely get the most out of this comic, but even doubters like me should find something to enjoy.

Sunday, 21 November 2010

Legion of Super-Heroes #7 review

I wasn't going to review this issue - I've done every one since the relaunch, and should be looking at neglected books. Plus, I may be getting repetitive. 

Then I read it, and once more the little suprises, the fine bits of characterisation, the sparkling artwork had me itching to tell people about this. I dunno if I've helped sell a single copy, but what the heck ...

Before the praise, though, a line or two of negative criticism ... that is one very dull cover. Nicely produced by penciller Yildiray Cinar, inker Wayne Faucher and colour house Hi-Fi, but far from a grabber. Under the line 'Trapped by the Science Police' we have four Legionnaires cornered by several members of said force. That would be the Science Police who are traditionally the Legion's allies - OK, there's suspense as to why the falling out, but it's not likely the two sides won't sort out their differences within a couple of minutes. 

And if they don't, well, the weakest Legion member could take out several space cops without getting out of breath, if not with their abilities, then with their training and smarts. So it's not like the Legion are particularly threatened here.

And so it goes inside, with Cosmic Boy, Tyroc, Ultra Boy and Timber Wolf bypassing the SP 
 to get to a murder scene by the end of page one, via one of Cosmic Boy's wonderful 'SPROING!' zaps. A diplomat has been offed by person or persons unknown, leaving the lads to protect his twin, and find his killer.

And this is where we get one of those surprises I mentioned. Tyroc, whose sonic screams are usually used as power blasts a la Black Canary and Banshee, generates an ultrasound scan of the victim's body. 'I've been developing my powers,' he tells an impressed Cosmic Boy. 

I love this sort of thing, a specialty of writer Paul Levitz since way back when he had Dream Girl, then considered the lamest team member by many, use the gravity nulling powers of her flight ring to rip up a pavement or somesuch. Now if he'd done this last month, Tyroc would have had a much-better chance in the reader vote for the new Legion leader. 

But back to the story at hand, in which Tyroc stays behind to guard the twin, while Ultra Boy, Cosmic Boy and Timber Wolf (whose super-sniffing comes in very handy) work out that shape-shifting Durlans - Chameleon Boy's people - are likely behind the killing. Sure enough, Durlans are soon attacking the surviving diplomat and all four Legionnaires put up a fine defence, especially Timber Wolf, who faces a doppleganger.

The rest of the story features Mon-El rather magnificently telling Earth-Man that his past relationship with Shadow Lass is none of his business, and the return of the subplot in which green guy Diogenes tries to nag someone into being a Green Lantern (if you've read previous reviews, you'll guess how thrilled that makes me).

Happier returns are the comeback made by Polar Boy, who has been offworld recently with the aforementioned Mon-El, and the tradition of Legionnaires playing holographic games in their downtime - we've had so many years, decades even, of gloomy stories that it's brilliant to see there's time for fun. And fun character interplay, with the also-present Sun Boy and Dream Girl having an amusing ten-second tiff. Oh, and Polar Boy shows off his replacement arm, having lost his right one a few months back; I actually liked his self-generated ice limb, but it would beggar belief for the 31st century not to have regenerative medical procedures.

Levitz's script, combined with the assertive artwork of Cinar, Faucher and Hi-Fi - particularly rewarding in the ultrasound reveal - make for a thoroughly entertaining instalment.

But wait, there's more - a back-up strip featuring a trip to Dream Girl's homeworld, Naltor, by Brainiac 5 and Chameleon Boy. Brainy's come to ask Time Institute chief Harmonia Li who the heck she is, having learned she's lots older than the records state. We don't find out yet, but the information Brainy rattles off hints, to my mind, that she has some good fortune powers going for her, or influences people with her mind. Cham, meanwhile, is present as Naltor's High Seer experiences a powerful, painful vision about him - and it isn't good news.

This intriguing diversion is again written by Levitz, though the art baton passes to regular co-penciller Francis Portela, whose illustrations sit nicely beside Cinar's. Previous issues have had them literally side by side, but it seems the creative team is experimenting here, slicing off a couple of strong sub-plots into a side story rather than incorporating them into the lead strip. 

There's more creative thinking in the script, as we learn that Naltor runs its air traffic control via precognition -  a scary prospect for an offworlder.

And Levitz may have to get even more creative next month, as the leader election results are revealed, if a leftfield Legionnaire is asked to step up. Just so long as it isn't Muttonchop, sorry, Earth-Man, I'll be happy.

Saturday, 20 November 2010

Steve looks at covers

Here's my non-comics reading mate Steve looking at this week's comic book covers - just a few minutes of fun!

Friday, 19 November 2010

Supergirl #58 review

That's a gorgeous cover illustration by Amy Reeder, coloured by Guy Major, but it doesn't do this issue justice. Smiley Supergirl is suited to a poster book, or a promotional illo. A first issue, or special. But this issue's change of pace story should be represented on the cover to let potential buyers know there's a different flavour to the drama inside.

So what is inside? Not the usual hero vs villain business. Instead, it's a story in which Supergirl joins journalist Cat Grant to track down whoever is kidnapping kids off the streets of Metropolis. The mystery has special resonance for Cat, as her son Adam was murdered by the Toyman (later needlessly retconned into a Toyman robot). The situation gives Kara a chance to learn why Cat hates her, and Cat an opportunity to hear Kara's point of view.

The most intense scene of the issue is the Arkham Asylum interview with Winslow Schott, the toymaker turned menace. Having been receiving creepy dolls on the days children have vanished, Cat quite reasonably suspects he's behind the disappearances, and likely murders. Supergirl shows her steel in this scene, letting Toyman know that he answers Cat's questions, or else.

What happens next is pretty freaky, and a good indicator that Toyman isn't involved. By the end of the issue we know just who has been tormenting Cat, though not why. As well as the long-in-coming Cat/Kara confrontation - one in which writer Sterling Gates favours neither character's point of view - 'Toying With Emotions' features a rewarding phone chat with big sister figure Lana Lang putting Cat's behaviour into perspective, and underlining that while not a relative by blood or marriage, Lana's as much a member of the Superman Family as anyone.

The new villain appears in just a single panel, but makes a big impression - file under Camp as Christmas, But Don't Turn Your Back.

(Yes, I could tell you more, but this comic book deserves extra readers - if you've some spare pennies, and haven't tried Supergirl of late, give it a go. try this issue, or grab the trades, Who Is Superwoman?, Friends and Fugitives and Death and the Family. Then report back!)

The Sterling Gates/Jamal Igle creative teaming ends after next issue, and while I don't doubt Nick Spencer and Bernard Chang will bring their A-game, dang but I love the current pairing. The people Gates writes, the relationships he fosters, are among the most real in comics. And they benefit hugely from the skills of Igle, whose storytelling choices are always spot-on, and followed through with style. Where lazy creators repeat panel after panel for talking heads scene, Gates and Igle like things more animated. Have you ever seen Supergirl look more human than in these panels, inked by Jon Sibal, coloured by Blond and lettered by Travis Lanham? Click on the images to enlarge. 

Gates and Igle have defined Kara and co for the modern era, and while they're in the final stretch, they're not coasting. This month's mood is far from that of previous issues, but because characters are so well-defined, we can comfortably plug into something different. And while Cat's unreasonable behaviour does drive Supergirl away, she doesn't abandon the job - as would have happened in the early days of this book - but flies off to investigate from another angle. Kara has grown into quite the young hero, and her two adoptive daddies can be very proud.

Even Cat is allowed admirable qualities, such as her mother's devotion, and reporter's courage in entering her apartment when she knows the villain is likely to be inside. 

If all this isn't enough, there's a tremendous closing scene bringing back a villain from earlier in the Gates/Igle run. I don't think there'll be a loose end left unaddressed as the sequence closes, but knowing the work of these gentleman, there'll be no rushing or short-changing. A classic run is almost over, and I'm savouring the final moments.