Tuesday, 31 May 2011

The New DC Explosion ...

 ... let's hope it's more successful than the last one. In the Seventies, DC Comics published a slew of new titles, with more pages, over several months in a bid to gain back ground from Marvel. But early sales weren't great, wobbly executives cancelled many of the new titles and a few old ones, and the period of retrenchment became known as the DC Implosion.

This summer, DC are going one better. Here's today's announcement from the company.

This year, change is in the air at DC Comics.

On Wednesday, August 31st, DC Comics will launch a historic renumbering of the entire DC Universe line of comic books with 52 first issues, including the release of JUSTICE LEAGUE by NEW YORK TIMES bestselling writer and DC Entertainment Chief Creative Officer Geoff Johns and bestselling artist and DC Comics Co-Publisher Jim Lee. The publication of JUSTICE LEAGUE issue 1 will launch day-and-date digital publishing for all these ongoing titles, making DC Comics the first of the two major American publishers to release all of its superhero comic book titles digitally the same day as in print.

DC Comics will only publish two comic books on August 31st: the final issue of this summer’s comic book mini-series FLASHPOINT and the first issue of JUSTICE LEAGUE by Johns and Lee, two of the most distinguished and popular contemporary comic book creators, who will be collaborating for the first time. Together they will offer a contemporary take on the origin of the comic book industry’s premier superhero team.

In the hours, days and weeks to come, we’ll have more news about the other titles. Tomorrow, we’ll hear from Co-Publishers Dan DiDio and Jim Lee about this momentous occasion. Keep checking THE SOURCE for updates about the other first issues.

This year, make history with us.

52 new number 1s? Yes, 52 is the number of worlds in DC's current multiverse, but do they have to fetishise the number to the extent of making it the foundation of a publishing plan? Relaunching the entire line is a bold move, but more than four dozen titles competing for our DC spend?

The optimist in me, though, looks at the number and sees it as a sign that DC will diversify, moving away from a line bloated with superhero books to one embracing the genres of its past. Currently, Jonah Hex represents the once hugely popular Western line; perhaps he won't be lonely much longer. I'd be delighted to see other non-superhero books show up. Fantasy comics such as Amethyst, Princess of Gemworld. Horror titles like Night Force. Sgt Rock heading up a war line. Sugar & Spike bringing back kid humour. Cop book Gotham Central, And so on. I don't doubt that superheroes will form the backbone of the imprint, but surely DC isn't going to give us 52 of them?

I can't say I'm enthusiastic about longstanding titles such as Wonder Woman, Superman and Flash going back to number one, again. And the sentimentalist in me is appalled at the prospect of such never-rebooted comics as Action (just passed #900), Detective and Batman having their serial numbers wiped back to #1. I don't believe for a minute it'll last - it'll be the usual pattern of short-term blip followed by falling sales and a return to 'legacy' numbers. Five years, tops. But before that, seriously impressive numbers will have been thrown away.

And I don't relish the prospect of seeing seasoned heroes reintroduced as naive tyros, their old continuities slowly returning, as happened with Superman and Wonder Woman after the Crisis on Infinite Earths. I'd far rather the top creative teams we're expecting (Geoff Johns and Jim Lee on Justice League a cert, Grant Morrison and Phil Jimenez on Wonder Woman, rumoured) were told to institute whatever new approach they wish, within the confines of existing continuities. If creators prefer to present heroes as a tad younger - as the singular unimpressive promotional art DC presented with today's announcement, posted above, indicates - fine, just don't throw out the baby and take a decade to replace the bathwater. I don't care what great new angle Writer A may have on Mr Mxyzptlk, I can't see it needing a whole new continuity to work in.

The idea of yet another Legion of Super-Heroes restart has me pulling a face Chameleon Boy could never match. It's been stopped and started about four times in the last few decades but with the great Paul Levitz at the writing helm, joined by a slew of fine young artists, the current book's the best Legion we've had in years. With luck it'll get a new number #1 but be left in its own continuity - the 31st century is a long way from the new DC Earth promised after the current Flashpoint crossover concludes, let's keep it that way.

am pleased to hear that DC is diving into the area of day-and-date digital publishing. A lot of people have been asking for this, and it can only help sales. So long as the physical books remain, I'll be happy. And while I'm no fan of reading comics on screen - I work at a computer all day and my eyes need a break when I get home - I can see myself dipping into things I know I'd like to read, but not necessarily store.

There's no denying I'm intrigued and look forward to hearing more details of what DC has up its sleeve. It could be that come September, I'll be treating post-Flashpoint DC as a perfect jumping-off point ... DC obviously wants younger readers, hence the line-wide Botox Explosion, and it could be the books will be so hip it hurts. But there's a chance that the invigorated DC Universe will thrill me, especially if the creators are energised and the variety of material increases.

One thing's for certain - with today's announcement, DC has staked a claim to be the most forward-looking comics company, the one looking to the future.There's a confidence that may translate to excitement among fans, better long-term sales and a healthier market.

Just leave my Legion alone!

Xombi #3 review

This comic book is amazing. It has a hero who can't die. Roman Catholic nuns with super-powers. A schoolgirl whose metahuman abilities are fueled by by faith. A kick-ass rabbi. A philosophical ghost. An immortal villain. Back-seat golems. 

And more. All in 20 pages. And while the story reads like the X-Files on steroids, it doesn't feel at all crowded. Because while supernatural mysteries grow and grow into epic tales, humanity remains at the core.

This issue continues the story begun in #1, with David Kim, the 'Xombi' of the title, fighting a losing battle against a lion demon - the Maranatha - who's the embodiment of rage. It's fair to say he loses the battle, but the nanites which continually heal his body give him a shot at winning the war. It's while David's lying on the ground, somewhat eviscerated, that a shade, attracted by the Maranatha, stops by for a chat. The ghost's message is an old one - life is wasted on the living - but so well-expressed that it's difficult to argue.

It's typical of John Rozum's meaty script that a cliche becomes a highlight. Even expository captions that could kill a story dead are a joy to read because they're lyrically written, full of fascinating ideas. While this is part three of a complex tale, I'd nevertheless recommend anyone who hasn't tried Xombi to risk $2.99; enough details are present to allow a newbie to jump in, and I doubt anyone could fail to be fascinated by the players (click to enlarge).
And that's without mentioning the art, so gorgeous as to be nigh-edible. The naturalism of Frazer Irving's people and settings is offset by his colour choices, which shouldn't work, but do. Brilliantly. Tones sit beside one another in ways that likely break all kinds of colour theory rules, but instead of hurting the eye, they evoke an eerie atmosphere that's perfect for the weird narrative. And his page compositions excite the eye, without ever getting so outre as throw us out of the story. Completing the core creative team is Dave Sharpe, who never puts a font wrong with his letters.

I can't believe that a comic book this good will survive in today's marketplace. Please prove me incorrect.

Friday, 27 May 2011

Strange Adventures #1

Creating compelling tales of the imagination, it's not rocket science, is it? DC managed it for a couple of decades, in the middle of the last century. And now, via the Vertigo imprint, they dip another toe into the water, with a collection of stories 'suggested for mature readers'. That means tits and swearing, kids.

I was curious to see what a Strange Adventures revival, under the Vertigo imprint, would offer. Let's see, shall we?
  • The cover, a trippy number drawn by Paul Pope and candy coloured by Lovern Kindzierski, features an astronaut and a scantily clad young lady. That's one for the mature readers. It's not unattractive but is hobbled by the ugly, inappropriate banner ad for the Green Lantern movie.
  • Case 21: The first story takes place in the usual dystopian future as a world-weary and terribly tiresome tattooist has a bad day. It features a script with a couple of clever ideas by Selwyn Hinds (apparently delighted to have free reign to cuss in a DC comic), scratchily effective art by Denys Cowan and John Floyd, deliberately wonky - and decidely unattractive - lettering by Sal Cipriano, and fine colouring by Cris Peter. It also has an ending only the blindest of bats could fail to see coming a mile off (probably a cyborg bat with virtual reality wings at that).
  • The White Room: Juan Bobillo, who did such cute work on Marvel's She-Hulk title a few years ago, turns up here with a decidedly different style. Working in full colour, he produces soft, enticing illustrations for Talia Hershewe's bittersweet tale of a world in which people embrace false experiences over the real.
  • All the Pretty Ponies: Virtual experiences also play a part in Lauren Beukes' story, in which a young designer and her well-connected boyfriend learn that they shouldn't mess around with other people's heads. Tightly scripted, it's superbly illustrated by Inaki Miranda, who finds a proper contrast between the worlds of the haves and have nots. And the intelligent colours of Eva De La Cruz are the cherry on top.
  • Partners: Two teens are on the run, but is either of them a true friend to the other? That's the question posed in a sad, wacky story of fear and codependency from Peter Milligan. Hitch the absorbing, teasing script to the clean artwork of Sylvain Savoia - a little reminiscent of Mike Allred's line - and we have  a winner.
  • Ultra-the Multi-Alien: Writing and drawing, Jeff Lemire revisits one of DC's oddest Silver Age heroes. I appreciate the craft he brings to the story, the control, but Lord, it's a downer as our hero travels a million miles beyond melancholy. Kudos to Jose Villarrubia for a bright, breezy colouring job that makes this tale of literal alienation all the sadder.
  • Refuse: A woman who's had her baby taken away because she's rubbish in the cleaning department finds something new to love in this body shocker. David Cronenberg would salute writer/artist Ross Campbell.
  • The Post-Modern Prometheus. A man walks into a bar. A very unusual man. And the convention of the barroom tale almost excuses the narrative style chosen by writer/artist Kevin Colden. Almost. I found the long monologue, as our protagonist tells the story of his disturbing, desperately sad life, made for a drab reading experience. And when we return to dialogue, on the final page, the relationship laid out doesn't work. Nevertheless, an interesting experiment, with some subtle satire.
  • A 'True Tale' From Saucer Country: George is a UFO nut, and one day he meets the aliens. Or does he? Paul Cornell delivers a typically sharp script and has fun with the narration. And Goran Sudžuka's artwork is spot-on for this tale set in Fifties America - unshowy but accomplished. George looks to me like classic comic artist Gil Kane - no stranger to Strange Adventures - and if I'm not imagining that, I'm likely missing some clever meta-fictive flight of fancy. Then there's the name - George Kashdan was one of the creators of space star Tommy Tomorrow. And look, the panel above (click to enlarge) is definitely winking at us ... oh, I'm probably overthinking.
  • Spaceman: The only one of the stories trumpeted on the cover, this would be my least favourite. And the sole strip that looks set to continue. Brian Azzarello's script has a couple of future junkmen chatting about the news that their apparent creator has died. A bit of effing and blinding, imaginative but nigh-unintelligible future slang, ultra-violence motivated by gay panic ... what's to like? Well, Eduardo Risso's art is chunkily attractive, Patricia Mulvihill's colours are great and Clem Robins letters like the veteran he is. It's not enough, though, the strip has the tone of a shouty adolescent and I'm too old for that.
And I doubt I'll be reading future issues of Strange Adventures if Vertigo is going to bring the gloom to this extent. Yes, there's good work here. And undoubtedly, the original series - which ran from 1950-73 - had its downbeat endings. But here it's downbeat beginnings and middles too. Would it really be so uncool to have one or two tales of unalloyed wonder in there? Stories with drama, yes, but optimism too?  

Shouldn't a book titled Strange Adventures take us soaring to the stars, not bring us down to Earth with a bump?

Thursday, 26 May 2011

FF #4 review

There are few super-teams that can't be improved by the addition of a traitor. The Avengers had one in Iron Man, thanks to Kang's time manipulations. The JSA suffered All-American Kid, aka evil Karnevil (should have been a stunt cyclist). Heck, at times it's seemed like the Legion of Super-Heroes' entire raison d'être is to be infiltrated.

And now, only about a week into the organisation's existence, one of the Future Foundation kids starts acting rather suspiciously. Bentley, pint-sized clone of the Wingless Wizard, pretty much persuades Ben Grimm to take a vacation when it's obvious the Thing's strength, courage and pure pluck will be needed soon.

It's a no-brainer, given that Mr Fantastic has crammed the Baxter Building with the Fantastic Four's smartest foes. Dr Doom, Diablo, the Mad Thinker, a couple of AIM scientists, the High Evolutionary, the aforementioned Wizard ... they're gathered for a mission so desperate, even The Watcher has shown up. Reed wants them to come up with a plan to defeat four evil alternate universe Reeds set loose by the most dangerous kid on Earth - Valeria, his daughter.

Ah, Valeria. Cosmic-irradiated butter wouldn't melt in this brat's mouth. While Bentley's wicked smile as Ben leaves betrays his intent, Val considers herself the good seed. She has the intellect of her father, but the undeveloped emotions of the child she is. She's arrogant, doesn't plan for consequences ... always thinking that if, God forbid, she can't mend a situation with her intelligence, Daddy will. Well, Daddy's patience is running out here, and his anger helps persuade Val to finally share what she knows about the rebel Reeds' plans.

The Council of Doom scenes are the highlight of this issue, as writer Jonathan Hickman reminds us that the various evil geniuses who have challenged the FF for decades aren't interchangeable beneath the fright masks. Doom has the quiet gravitas of the absolute monarch, the Mad Thinker trips over the thoughts that just won't stop coming, Diablo mocks ... More useful than any of them is Reed's father, Nathaniel, who asks a question that gets to the core of the matter.

Also this issue, the Invisible Woman makes Spider-Man a sandwich! 

Actually, there's more to the scene than that, with food fancies used to cast light on the personalities of the Future Foundation kids, and Spidey learning that former 'professional hostage' Sue has killer confidence these days. He sees Sue's will to win in action when she receives an emergency summons from Atlantis, of which she's currently Regent. Rather than interrupt Reed and co, she leaves the avuncular Dragon Man in charge, gathers up gravity-controlling intern Alex Power and Spidey, and heads off to Old Atlantis. And there they find one of the Fantastic Four's greatest enemies, one of the few not at the Council of Doom - Mole Man, complete with pesky Moloids and the big beastie from Fantastic Four #1 back in 1961.

There's an interesting offhand comment this issue. I may be reading too much into it, but Sue refers to 'my bedroom'. Is she still mad at Reed over Johnny's death? 

After all these years it's amazing that a writer can find another side to Victor Von Doom, but his face as it dawns that Reed is more afraid of 'himself' than he's ever been of him is a picture. It's not just his face, it's his bearing too, for this issue boasts comic art by a real master - Barry Kitson. The storytelling, the nuanced emotions captured, the action sequences - every page is a lesson to younger artists, without ever stopping the story to draw attention to itself.

And colour artist Paul Mounts deserves massive praise. He's been one of the Fantastic Four's MVPs for years, but he's gotten even better lately. And I can't recall his work ever looking as great as it does teamed with Kitson. I'm a big fan of regular penciller Steve Epting, but given Marvel's current policy of double-shipping books, I hope Kitson is on board as back-up, with Mounts his partner. 

The only artistic iffiness with regards to FF #3 relates to Daniel Acuña's cover, with its soft focus, doughy Thing. And that FF logo is just terrible, fading out of sight - I missed this issue on my first go-round of the comic shop shelves, could we have a more powerful, less designery masthead please?

Otherwise, this is an excellent issue of the FF. I'd prefer it was a Fantastic Four book, complete with the Human Torch and costumes that don't hurt the eyes, but that'll come. For now, Hickman and co are delivering a nice package of quality entertainment that's firmly based in the FF's playground. 

Wednesday, 25 May 2011

Action Comics #901 review

There was outrage in sections of the US media recently as a story in Action Comics #900 saw Superman renounce US citizenship. Comic readers knew that as a standalone short in an anniversary issue, David Goyer's tale would likely never be followed up on. And here we are just a month later, with President Obama making a personal appeal to Superman to stop a massive missile from bringing planetary extinction.

Not that Superman hears the plea, as he's in outer space, already knee-deep in the situation, trying to avert the catastrophe from the inside. It'd be a little easier without a bunch of customised Doomsday clones pursuing him through an immense, labyrinthe craft. He has help, mind - Steel, Supergirl, Superboy and the Eradicator were all on the ship before him, kidnapped by Doomsday Prime at the behest of the departed Lex Luthor. Together, they make quite the team, but will they be enough?

Well, we've a few more issues in which to find out. As Superman says here. '... winning this is going to take a long time'. Doesn't sound like good news for those of us who find Doomsday a crashing bore, but the storyline has a secret weapon - writer Paul Cornell. Having done a fine job of handling Luthor's run in this title, he's been retained for Superman's return. And it's a good decision - Cornell gets straight to the heart of his heroism. Leadership, strategic nous, a preparedness to sacrifice folllowed by the determination to fight on, warmth ... this is the Man of Steel at his best. And there's a heartening surprise at the beginning of the book, as Superman takes a no-nonsense approach to one particular annoyance.

With the spotlight on Superman, there's less space for Supergirl, Boy and co to strut their stuff, but everyone gets a moment or two. I especially like the affection between Kara and Clark, something we need to see more of. The action scenes are big and thumpy, as you'd expect in a Doomsday story, but I'm betting on Cornell to get more creative as the arc continues.

The physical stuff does allow joining artist Kenneth Rocafort to show what he can do, and the fights fair rock the page. His Superman reminds me of Jim Lee's in its power, but minus the noodling we have a happier result. His layouts give the story room to breathe, something also achieved by Jesus Merino, who handles almost half the issue. Merino makes a sizeable splash, lterally, with a cracking full-page of our heroes upended by the Dolly Mixture Doomsdays. And colourist Brad Anderson's subtle shades bring the illustrations to greater life. There's good work, too, from letterer Rob Leigh, who looks to be having fun with the speech patterns of new character the Doomslayer, who looks an awful like the silhouetted baddie who's sending the ship into Earth's orbit. Don't trust him, chaps!

Rocafort's cover is eye-catching, just about surviving the ugly banner ad for the Green Lantern film which DC has slapped on all its books this week (because, you know, comic fans have no idea it's coming out). 

I'll be glad when  Reign of the Doomsdays is over - this is part 7, for crying out loud - but I'm more confident than previously that I'll be well-entertained along the way.

Friday, 20 May 2011

Supergirl #64 review

The conclusion to 'Good-Looking Corpse' begins with Supergirl in trouble, attacked by a mind-controlled Robin and Blue Beetle, and with an equally out-of-it Miss Martian standing by to empty her Kryptonian head. And while ickle Damian Wayne can't do much against the Maid of Might, Jaime has some serious firepower in that scarab suit.

Doing the mind-controlling is Alex, now revealed as the Kryptonian-spliced clone of Cadmus Project DNAlien Dubbilex (if you don't keep up with the secret research facilities of the DC Universe, think science project gone badly wrong). I'm calling him Trippilex and you can't stop me. He's a bit of a nut, his plan being to take down heroes such as Supergirl, Robin, Blue Beetle and Miss Martian in order to leave the Earth open to alien invasion, something he believes will kick humans up the ladder of progress. He's ignoring the fact that Supergirl and Miss Martian are aliens and could themselves influence Earth folk. Plus, he has parental issues, his 'parents' being a soft-hearted Cadmus worker, and an artificial intelligence. Finally, he goes all-Olympian on one of 'em. He's not right in the head, our Trippilex.

His head, though, is where Trippilex is most powerful. And, it turns out, most vulnerable. By the close of Supergirl #64 Trippilex's plans have failed, due to Kara and co, with enough time left over for our heroine to share a coffee with Lois Lane, who's been working the Trippilex story from another angle.

Much as I enjoyed the conflict in the first two-thirds of the issue, the quieter last several pages are equally good. Kara's had a solid win, saving innocents and putting the bad guy away; she's proven able to inspire a new generation of heroes as cousin Superman does his; and she's beginning to lose that inferiority complex.

This issue is a fine capper to James Peaty's pinch-hitting run as Supergirl writer. He's proven so adept at handling Kara that I hope editors Matt Idelson and Wil Moss invite him back for an open-ended term. Peaty's Supergirl is charming, a friend and a champion, growing in confidence but not arrogance, a  team player but quick to step up. In Trippilex, he gives us an interesting new opponent - clever, manipulative, dimestore philosopher - an imposing presence. Like Max Lord and Lex Luthor, Trippilex is ready to do terrible things in the belief he's helping the world (Lex, MaxTrippilex, all x-men - coincidence? Probably). I wonder if Lex needs an apprentice ...
Also leaving the book with this issue is Bernard Chang, which is, as we Brits say, a bit of a bugger. For Chang's knack for drawing Kara has grown by the issue (click to enlarge art). He really captures the poise and intelligence I associate with Supergirl - in some panels she's sitting, convincingly, in mid-air - and keeps her pretty rather than stunning. Chang draws a fine Lois too, aided by the skin shading of colourist Blond. The moodily posed and lit Trippelex is a suitably Satanic presence. And I love Chang's Metropolis, it looks like a genuine US city (his Daily Planet building should become the standard).

What's more, his action scenes are the bees' knees, bursting with life and incident. A far-out-man spread showing how Trippilex was defeated long before he knew it vies with the closing splash as my favourite piece of artwork this issue. If anyone knows where Chang is turning up next, pass it on, eh?

The cover's a winner too, as you can see. The credit goes to illustrator Mahmud Asrar and colourist Guy Major.

Next month, another temporary Supergirl creative team begins their stint. It feels like DC is just marking time with this book until they can announce the Next Big Name Writer (Likely To Quit After Three Pages). Happily, Peaty and Chang have proven that they're far more than mere placeholders. Come back soon, chaps.

Thursday, 19 May 2011

Alpha Flight 0.1 review

Alpha Flight 0.1 as a jumping-on point? Oh for goodness sake, Marvel, get a grip. Presumably this means we're getting a zero issue too? At the rate new titles are cancelled these days I'll be delighted if this relaunch manages to hit issue #1.

I dunno ...

I do know that as pseudo-first issues goes, this isn't at all bad. The heroes are introduced naturally by writers Fred Van Lente and Greg Pak, with no clunky, smartarse intro boxes to knacker the narrative flow. The villains are well-drawn, their powers illustrated as clearly as those of the Alpha Flight members. And a storyline involving Canada's new government is neatly set up.

It's good to have, Puck apart, the classic Alpha Flight line-up back. They're a likeable bunch, with little of the angst carried around by most Marvel heroes. Guardian helps wife Vindicator through a melancholy moment with a gentle smile, Northstar's personal life is going well, Sasquatch and Aurora are young heroes in love, Shaman and Snowbird adore their lives, Marrina is unnervy and cranky ...

... oh well, you can't have everything. And her actions at the end of this issue do add spice to the mix.

There's also fun to be had in the unique way one member ends the conflict after former Beta Flight member Kara Killgrave/Purple Girl/Persuasion disrupts election day with a truly crazy creation. She's teamed with a heavy named Citadel, one of Marvel's never-ending parade of adamantium experiments turned rogue. He's likely appeared previously and I fell asleep. Still, Citadel does the job, providing a means to showcase the easy teamwork of the recently reformed Alpha Flight.

And as drawn by Ben Oliver, everyone looks so good. The work is photo-realistic without seeming too studied or stiff, which is perhaps down to the soft yet sharp lines of veteran inker Dan Adkins. Whatever the reason, the characters have character, they show real emotions as they fight hard to keep Canada safe. And they're wonderfully coloured by Frank Martin (though, hasn't Heather Hudson always been a ginger rather than a brunette?).

Phil Jimenez's cover illo, coloured by Frank D'Armata, is mostly lovely, the exception being Guardian's face - too feminine, and his mask makes him look sleepy. 

Overall, a very enjoyable first issue. Sorry, first-ish.

Wednesday, 18 May 2011

Batman: Gates of Gotham #1 review

Someone is blowing up the bridges of Gotham. Three so far, killing and injuring ordinary folk going about their business. A note sent to the press indicates a vendetta: 'The families will fall by the gates of Gotham.' The bridges were once referred to as 'gates' but who are the families who built them? That's what Batman and Red Robin learn in this first issue, with a surprise assist from Cassandra Cain - Batman Incorporated's Hong Kong hero, Blackbat - and count-on-it hectoring from Damian Wayne. Damian's peeved because one of the bridges was masterminded by his forefather, Alan Wayne, whom we meet in flashback at the beginning of this issue.

It's a good while since I've bothered with a Batman mini-series. I think the last one was the superb Batman Unseen. But the excellent scripts Scott Snyder is currently providing for Detective Comics pre-sold me on this five-part series. Snyder is writing with Kyle Higgins, who also handles the dialogue, and the result is a pacey first issue in which Gotham's past and present are linked by a mystery. The only possible spanner in the works of my enjoyment is the presence of Tommy Elliot, the overused, under-interesting foe known as Hush. Or as I think of him, STFU. Hopefully he'll prove to be a bit player, a tool of the main villain to be speedily seen off.

Who that is, I can't say, but he looks fantastic in his final page debut. Trevor McCarthy draws this clockwork-motif character so creepily that I'm itching for more. Unfeasibly tiny waist apart, he also draws a mean Cassandra Cain - she's smart, confident, as much a player as any of the Bat-boys.

Who, by the way, look great both in and out of costume. It's a sign of how lazy most artists are with regard to fashion that I nearly gasped at seeing Dick and Tim with 2011 haircuts. It's good to see the heroes look a little cutting edge (no pun intended, heck, it's barely there), with the added bonus that for once, street-clothes Tim doesn't look like Dick's Mini-Me. Damian looks excellent too, not quite Quitely - I think of Frank Quitely's Damian as the seminal version, despite his not originating the wee fella visually - but full of character. A little cuter than usual, but recognisably Robin.

The action sequences (click to enlarge) are also a treat, with Dick and Tim fighting to save lives when the bridges of Gotham County go bang. And a moody scene of corpses bobbing around the batboat is headed straight for tonight's bad dream. 

A word of praise, too, to Guy Major; his colour work is always superb, but he complements McCarthy to a ridiculous degree, lending the streets an atmosphere that's dark, but not depressing. Jared K Fletcher's lettering is terrific, and he deserves bonus praise if he came up with the stylish logo that sits so well with McCarthy's striking cover illustration.

I'm not sure where Bruce Wayne is while the events of this issue take place, but the Batman Family can handle things, I have no doubt. And I plan to be their cheering section.

What? You're disappointed I never showed you the haircuts? Oh, go on then ...

Booster Gold #44 review

Booster Gold and robotic sidekick Skeets are in Coast City, investigating the enigma-ridden blackboard that appeared in time master Rip Hunter's secret lab a few issues back. They're looking for Green Lantern but find themselves attacked by a military machine which mistakes Booster for the enemy - an Atlantean attacker.

Atlantis at war with the surface world? In the world of Flashpoint, yes, and that's where Booster finds himself. Not having read Flashpoint #1, Booster doesn't know anything about this new reality, so he retreats from the next attack in a bid to catch his breath. But he's assaulted again, this time by a beam from a satellite. Realising they've been unknowingly transported from Rip's lab, Booster and Skeets try to return home and that's when the gravity of the situation really becomes apparent ...

Writer/artist Dan Jurgens builds the sense of threat page by page, showing  us the escalating attacks by the military men, so fearful of Booster that they're willing to sacrifice a city block to take him down. We see Booster and Skeets deal with assault after assault, never panicking but gradually realising that freaking out would be a reasonable response. There's a cameo by the Flashpoint version of Silver Age stars the Sea Devils, apparently targeted more towards taking down devils from the sea than swimming in it. And there's a surprise villain on the final page who I'm even less happy to see than Booster, though my reasons are different - fear in Booster's case, boredom in mine.

The nearest thing to a misstep in this script is the recap of Booster's history, something this book seems to throw up far too often. I suppose Jurgens wants to serve new readers arriving for the Flashpoint tie-in, but surely most DC Universe fans know who Booster is - he's been around for over 30 years. Plus, there's a handy legend on the splash spread.

We don't learn much more about the Flashpoint world here than we already know - Cyborg appears on TV screens as the big hero and it's apparent that having conquered Europe, Aquaman wants the US too - but I don't mind that. This is Booster's book, and so the story should focus on him; I'm sure more juicy details will be added as we go along.

I doubt Jurgens' layouts could be bettered so far as storytelling is concerned - we zoom through the issue without ambiguity, while being given plenty of interesting perspectives and action shots. Finisher Norm Rapmund adds texture and weight to proceedings, making for some fine-looking artwork. And it's all splendidly coloured by Hi-Fi Designs, while Carlos M Mangual handles the lettering nicely.

Wrapping up the book is a powerful cover by Jurgens and Rapmund that will sit perfectly on the eventual collection.

This issue should give Booster his best sales figures since the early issues. I hope plenty of the first-timers stick around. If quality counts, they will.

Monday, 16 May 2011

Birds of Prey #12 review

There's a new crime lord in Gotham and he's hiring. He's taking on a pair of twisted sisters by the name of Trissa and Somnia. Before they meet the big man, though, they accompany his lieutenant, Mr Tripe, to a meeting with blonde bombshell Miss Hargison, a helpless beauty who wants him to bury her sordid past. Miss Hargison has associates of her own: another blonde, a white-haired woman and a burly chauffeur. 

You'll have realised that Miss Hargison and colleagues are Birds of Prey, but if you're assuming it's Black Canary taking point, think again. For Miss Hargison is Zinda Blake, ace pilot Lady Blackhawk who, as a literal refugee from the Forties, knows a thing or two about playing the femme fatale. While she distracts Tripe, having persuaded him to leave the new help outside, Dove and Black Canary attempt to get into the crimelord's private quarters via perilous means, while Hawk hangs around upstairs and proves a less than natural espionage agent. But he looks fantastic in a chauffeur's uniform.

There's a B-plot, involving the Huntress and potential Oracle operative the Question, Renee Montoya, tracking down some bad cops in the Gotham sewers. While the sparky relationship between these two always rewards, I initially found this the less enticing of the issue's two threads. Then, the sequence takes a very dark turn, and it becomes obvious that both storylines involve the unknown crimelord.

So who is he? Well, there are clues in the hiring of twin sisters ... Two Face? He's nicknamed Mr J ... the Joker? Nah, and I'm happy to say I guessed who writer Gail Simone was bringing into this book by page 3. Let's just say that if you read Simone's superb Secret Six, you'll likely work it out pretty quickly, something that doesn't so much spoil the book as increase the tension as you're paging through.

There's very much a Secret Six feel to this issue, with Simone ratcheting up the sexual element, making the sense of menace grislier than ever. I'm nor sure I'd want every storyline to be this dark, but given who the Birds are going up against, the more disturbing sensibility makes sense.

As well as a masterly script - the dialogue sparkles, the plot impresses and the well-established characters convincingly surprise - this issue sees the debut of Jesus Saiz as regular artist. And the pages are beautiful. First of all, the former Manhunter illustrator takes care to give the heroines different features, strong, recognisable faces. Then he dresses the undercover birds demurely, professionally. He doesn't even use the exercise session of Barbara Gordon (her face a homage, methinks, to TV Oracle Dina Meyer) as an excuse to put her in a teeny bikini. The only flesh on display belongs to the twins in a panel that sets up a mystery centred on their past.

Then, Saiz moves his cast around the page with naturalistic body language; there are no awkward poses, no frozen moments  - the characters are moving, we're simply seeing them for a second at a time.
Take, for example, Saiz's depiction of the confrontation between Huntress, Question and the corrupt cops - it's energy and grace in motion (click to enlarge). Finally, gasp at the creepiest cliffhanger you ever did see. And it's all behind Saiz's confident, sly cover.

Nei Ruffino's colours perfectly complement Saiz's art, underlying the somber, tense mood of the story. And the fine lettering of Carlos M Mangual makes for easy reading. This really is a creative team to reckon with, and if editors Janelle Asselin and Katie Kubert manage to keep them together for awhile, this book will soar.

Aside from corralling the gang, I'd ask the editors to avoid lettercol spoilers - some of us like to read the mail page before the story, so no surprises in the first par, please. Especially not in screaming upper case.

If you're not yet a Birds of Prey fan, try this issue. It's sophisticated superhero action with a side order of madness.