Thursday, 30 June 2011

Wonder Woman #612 review

World's worst gods. That's what Diana's had in the last several years. If they're not trying to kill or rape her, Wonder Woman's supposed patrons are abandoning her, leaving the playing field at the first sign of a challenge. It's happened again, we learn this month, as the Olympians stand revealed as the shadowy figures who haunt Diana from time to time. 

Too afraid of their sister Nemesis, newly empowered, Zeus, Hera, Ares and the rest hide under antimacassars, which, as we all know, are the one true defence against an upstart goddess. Having had no such protection, Diana feels the wrath of Nemesis's agents, the Morrigan, as we begin this issue. One of 'em - no idea who, they're too rubbish to remember - is spraying Diana with Death Vomit, in order to convert her to the Morrigan ways. Luckily, the dying Artemis fires an arrow into her throat, trapping the vomit, and the witch explodes, destroyed by the Fart Cosmic

Zeus, King of the Gods
A lovely antimacassar to keep chairs ungreasy

This takes out the building too, leaving Diana trapped in the wreckage, helpless, until the Amazons' pet cat priestess shows up with the magic lasso and suggests that escape might be A Good Thing. That's when the gods of Olympus/Grandma's living room show up and shed their soft furnishings disguise. Are they ready to join Diana in the fight against Nemesis?

Are they heck as like! Only you, Diana, powerless but armed with lovely womanly qualities, can possibly defeat her. Bye-bye Diana, we'll have the kettle on when you get back. Try not to get killed.

Yep, rubbish. Supposedly Nemesis, as 'goddess of the unjustly slain, the murdered, the war dead', is fat with god-power due to the constant fighting on Earth. Ares, your actual god of war, doesn't look to have benefited at all, although he now insists that the gods should have fought back. 'Put 'em up, put 'em up' ... he's the Cowardly Lion of Olympus.

So off Diana goes to fight, the soldier on the frontlines while the generals take tea in the Officer's Mess. And once again she's being told what do to, a constant theme in J Michael Straczynski's Odyssey storyline. It's one thing for the gods to tell Diana she's learned loads, it's another for the reader to believe it. This woman can't put one foot in front of another unless there's a domestic pet there to egg her on. Heaven knows how she dresses herself in the morning. Which may explain why she's tied her shoelaces on her arms ... 

Diana's entrance into the realm of Nemesis yields the issue's highlight, as she meets her newly departed Amazon sisters and long-dead mother. They're in a monochrome world, crying out words Diana can't hear, crowding her with outstretched arms. It's a truly creepy moment from scripter Phil Hester, artists Don Kramer and Wayne Faucher, and colourist Pete Pantazis - something this run could have done with more of. 

The script's fine throughout this instalment, but it's serving a story that's just going on and on and on, like a little kid telling a tale. 'And then, and then, and then ...' Something I believe is already being done rather more amusingly in Axe Cop. And the art's generally nice - the exploding skyscraper is just fantastic, seriously, while Diana looks formidable when she actually remembers she's the star of the book.  

The issue closes with Diana facing Nemesis and learning that she is ... herself! Falls back in amazement, no one saw that coming. I say 'herself', I should say 'an incredibly badly drawn version of her old self, with massive eyes, nose and mouth, and rubber legs'. As far as money shots go, I'd give this one about 10p. Should do better.

Someone who does do better is Lee Garbett, who draws this month's cover - easily the best of the Odyssey debacle. Dave Meikis inks, Paul Mounts colours, all excel.

Hey ho, two more issue to go. Yes, why am I buying this comic?

Wednesday, 29 June 2011

Avengers: The Children's Crusade #6 review

Her memory and sanity restored, the Scarlet Witch resolves to undo the madness of 
M-Day, when she depowered most of the world's mutants with three little words - 'No more mutants'. Before that, she learns that Speed and Wiccan may be her lost boys.

The meeting between the three, which is as poignant as one might wish, is just one highlight of this issue. Others include Hawkeye's back and forth with Jessica Jones about taking 'tea' with a Wanda who was likely a Doombot, and the unexpected appearance of X-Factor members Madrox, Rictor, Shatterstar and Strong Guy.

Hawkeye, Jessica and the Beast standing around while the Young Avengers and 
Ant-Man explain what's going on recalls one of the worst aspects of the original Avengers Dissassembled storyline. There, dozens of Marvel's mightiest quivered at the gates of Avengers Mansion for what seemed like years as Wanda went loony. Here, though, it's a quick, necessary exchange, with shared information likely to make the difference between living and dying (again, in the cases of Hawkeye and Ant-Man).

The arrival of X-Factor makes sense, and moves the story forward, while the Avengers are on their way to New York from the backwoods of Europe after their free-for-all with Dr Doom and Magneto. If Wanda manages to undo the havoc she wreaked, there's a chance Wolverine won't gut her - a fate she feels she deserves.

Allan Heinberg ladles out the drama in gorgeous dollops, spiked with thrilling dialogue. Like Wanda, he's undoing the damage of Avengers Disassembled and subsequent storylines, using his likeable cast to best advantage. This issue feels less like a Young Avengers book than usual, but then, it never claimed to be that. It reaches out of the Avengers corner of the Marvel Universe and further into X-Men territory, showing us that Peter David's X-Factor stable is safe in his hands.

My favourite line is spoken by the Beast. when he tells Wanda: 'In a moment of psychological ... instability you said three words that robbed every mutant on the planet ... and perhaps even the Omniverse ... of his or her mutant abilities.' That's one way of putting it. Me, I'd say, 'in a moment of convenient ... character assassination'.

Sadly, when Wanda says she can't guarantee being able to fix things, Hank misplaces his brain, replying: 'Still there's no harm in trying'. Errrr ...

Oh well, can't be the big brain all the time! And I'll forgive one duff line when we have page after page of the real Scarlet Witch, for the first time in a decade. I'll be truly disappointed should the promise of this series not be met, and Wanda be thrown back into a mindless state. This limited series may never address the dangling questions from earlier storylines - why did Dr Strange claim there was no such thing as chaos magic (Skrull!), and why did198 mutants retain their powers? - but  so long as we're left with a redeemed Wanda, I'll be happy.

Penciller Jim Cheung continues to prove the perfect partner for Heinberg, his compositions complementing the script at every stage. He squeezes out all the emotion, without ever having the characters overact. There's a naturalness about these man-gods that makes them relatable. Kudos, too, to whichever member of the inking trio of Mark Morales, John Livesay and Dave Meikis handled the X-Factor scene, as the look is perfectly in keeping with the characters' appearance in their home title. 

The colours of Justin Ponsor recall the horrors of Disassembled, then mimic the 
X-Factor sensibilty. It's typically fine work. And VC's Cory Petit's lettering neatly underscore the script's big moments. The cover, by Cheung and Ponsor, is another beaut, with the presentation of Wanda's face a neat summation of the heroes' dilemma.

The book closes with a clever last line, one which could have massive repercussions across the Marvel line. Whatever happens, we're certain of another superb instalment next time.

Canterbury Cricket #1 review

It's the world of Flashpoint and in England super-powered resistance fighters Etrigan the Demon, Godiva, Mrs Hyde and Wicked Jinny Greenteeth are in battle with the Amazon invaders. They're in trouble until a new combatant enters the fray, a man-sized, metallic insect whose chittering sonic boom turns the tide. As they lick their wounds, the Canterbury Cricket tells his - what else? - tale, a story of youthful folly, saintly relics and exploding cathedrals.

Oh boy. I'm not entirely sure how far in its cheek this comic has its tongue. On the one hand, the razing - and indeed, raising - of the UK is a serious matter. We see the Cricket, teamed with a familiar band of Ambush Bugs, breaking into Amazon Central just as they use earthmoving teen Terra to put the British Isles out of reach of Atlantean tidal waves.

On the other, we have characters who take dialogue cues from ancient Errol Flynn movies.

'I assure you I was a vile and heinous human'

'Fate had something completely different in mind for the future of the Jolly Olde'

'It's the only thing of beauty we've encountered on this accursed mission'

and the frankly bamboozling:

'Anyone born in the kingdom owes his very existence to her sovereign future'

You don't have to be British to find dialogue of this quality painful. The sad thing is, there really is no excuse: DC has enough British freelancers that it could easily whiz the script past one or two. That would also mean catching such errors as the borderline offensive 'England and her United Kingdom'. And someone, at some stage, might have blue pencilled the Cricket's real name, the Pinocchio-esque Jeramey Chriqui, because the surname is winking, while the forename is just strange - Jeremy, maybe ...

There are things to enjoy in the script by Mike Carlin. The inclusion of the hair-raising Godiva from the old Super Friends is fun, and Carlin's not at all bad on the Demon's rhymes. Mrs Hyde is an intriguing soul, but Wicked Jinny Greenteeth outmonsters her while having a certain charm (I wondered if this was someone having a cheeky pop at cliched notions of British dental hygiene until Mr Internet revealed that she's a 'real' river hag!). The little character legends on the splash spread are clever, making me want to know more about the Resistance members, and the Amazon attacks are suitably dreadful.

The biggest problem I have is the Canterbury Cricket himself. He comes across as a 'silly arse', a throwback to a world of toffee-nosed twits which bore little resemblance to the UK - sorry, England - in the first place. On this showing, I'd be happy for a passing Amazon or Atlantean to squish him.

The pencils by Rags Morales are full of life - big, brash and well-suited to the story. He's great at conveying emotion, excels at action and shows an affinity for collapsing cathedrals. Inking him is Rick Bryant, someone whose byline I've not seen for many a year; it's good to have his lush blacks back. Adding the non-blacks is talented colourist Nei Ruffino, while Rob Leigh provides wonderfully Chaucerian title lettering for The Scoundrel's Tale.

This one-shot is useful in filling in a bit more of the Flashpoint backstory, and spotlighting the Resistance, but I can't see it launching young Jeramey (it hurts just to type it) as a breakout character. He's too stupid. And that's just not cricket.

Friday, 24 June 2011

Justice League of America #58 review

The JLA's battle against Eclipso and his horde continues, with brains proving as important as brawn, as the team recognises that the Shade is key to defeating the dark god. Batman organises the fightback into two fronts - one subteam distracts Eclipso while another shoots a bullet - carrying the Atom and Starman - into the Shade's brain. As the Atom and Starman reach Shade's corrupted control centres, Donna Troy is revealed as the JLA's secret weapon against Eclipso. And she dies ...

... well, maybe. She's certainly skewered, but the Blue Lantern, Saint Walker, has set up an expectation that Donna will be renewed with energies certain to prove potent against Eclipso. The key is Donna's ruddy miserable past - dead husband, lost child, thousands of tragic alternate lives ... this sort of thing changes a gal. Basically, Donna is going to beat Eclipso with continuity.

And it's continuity that is key to several surprises here. Atom is summoned by Batman Dick because he remembers that Batman Bruce was once given micro-surgery by him (in a 1974 issue of the Brave and the Bold, no less); Congorilla is used as a sharpshooter rather than a brute because he's also big game hunter Congo Bill; and long-lost L.E.G.I.O.N. member Lydea Mallor appears in an effective piece of foreboding.
Robinson is strong on character too, with all JLA members and guests getting something to do, but no one hogging the action, even while Donna gets the splashiest moment. This Rise of Eclipso serial really has seen Robinson's JLA click as a team, facing a massive challenge and proving worthy of it. I'll be sorry to see this era end - had it continued, I can only see the book getting better.

Especially with the addition of new penciller (according to the lettercol - yeah, right) Daniel Sampere. He doesn't actually draw the whole issue, sharing the pages with Miguel Sepulveda, but as it's all rather stunning my speculation stands, I think. Donna's costume is a tad skimpy, but in the grand scheme of things - page after page of excellently choreographed action peopled by powerful, expressive heroes - it's a minor matter. Sepulveda inks himself, while Wayne Faucher adds blacks to Sampere's lines. Well, presumably - DC aren't breaking down the credits as they should. The artists gel superbly, and every page has something to offer. Standouts include a splash spread on the moon showing the forces of good about to confront evil, and a right old ruckus featuring giant gorilla vs giant cephalopod (click to enlarge, and I'm only using big words cos I don't know if that's an octopus or a squid!).
Colourist Andrew Dalhouse and letterer Rob Leigh's contributions are also noteworthy, as is that of most recent regular artist Brett Booth (hey, he must have done at least three issues), a cover showing Donna at her most determined.

I've no idea how the post-Flashpoint Justice League comic will shake out - with Geoff Johns and Jim Lee in charge, it'll certainly sell - but I hope this run one day gets the raves it deserves.

Thursday, 23 June 2011

SPECIAL GUEST POST: Iron Man: The Iron Age #1 review

Before we get to the review proper, a confession. Despite Mr Gray's tireless and cheerful efforts to recall me to the cause, I'm a lapsed comic book reader. Sure, I enjoy gorging on the odd graphic novel (Secret Six collections are always a treat, and Batman RIP was a joy) but it's been years since I diligently followed a series. Which is my way of saying that (forgive the turn of phrase relating to Iron Man) I'm a little rusty.

So, to work. It's the Iron Age, we're told, and the tale begins with a Bond-style villain plotting a terrible revenge on ol' Shellhead, in an underwater lair surrounded by Iron Man-style robots, which he despatches on their mission.

Meanwhile, in New York, Tony Stark is holding a fundraiser which, after a testy exchange with Luke Cage and Iron Fist, the robots crash.

Luke and Fist do their best to help, but are (a little too quickly for my taste) dispatched, while Tony is quickly swatted down, his armour useless. Back at his lair, the cardboard-cut-out bad guy, Dr Birch, gives a by-the-numbers "you ruined my life" speech to Tony and, with the help of Dark Phoenix and one of Doctor Doom's rebuilt time machines, blows up the universe. Maybe a bit of an overreaction, but as a plot device goes, it's hard to beat.

Tony wakes in a rain-drenched alleyway after being blown through time, and, after a moment mourning the loss of, well, everything, picks himself up and wanders off to enlist the help of a certain alcoholic billionaire with a penchant for hi-tech suits of armour.

There's nothing particularly wrong with the scripting by Rob Williams, while the artwork by Rebekah Issacs is clean and effective - with strong, bold inks and a good sense of pace - especially in the New York battle. The problem is that it's all a little comic book by numbers. Evil villain from hero's past? Check. Hero must battle to save the world? Check. Hero must also face demons of his past? Yup.

My other problem is the lack of emotional content. Tony Stark, with his battles with alcohol and troubled relationships with other heroes, is a fascinating, flawed and rounded character, yet when he sees the universe destroyed, with "everyone I've ever known, all gone", he mopes in a rainswept alley for half a mo, shrugs it off, then gets moving.

The whole issue feels rushed - a scene setter for bigger dramas ahead. I hope so, because on the strength of this first issue, The Iron Age has a bad case of metal fatigue.

Brightest Day Aftermath: The Search for Swamp Thing #1 review

So, Swamp Thing and John Constantine are back in the DC Universe and we get to pretend they've never been away. As you might expect with these two, weird happenings are afoot - and not all of them seem intentional on the part of the creators. 

First, we have the strange case of the appearing and disappearing Hawkman and Zatanna, the shifting face of John's pal Chas, and the question of John's Brightest Day travels, all detailed at Bleeding Cool. Then you read the comic and there's an odd incident involving Batman's manservant, Alfred.

John is in London when the Swamp Thing summons him to Kew Gardens (via a newspaper, which is surely dead and so not actually connected to The Green). There he's attacked by a tree, but escapes with the aid of trusty cabbie chum Chas. Wanting to get to the bottom of the mystery, John flies to Gotham City to find the World's Greatest Detective and 'charm the geezer into doing me legwork for me' (yeah, 'geezer' - I know. John also uses such decidedly non-British terms as 'schooled' and 'bromance' but turnabout is fair play - it's not as if British writers always get US usages spot on).

In Gotham he saves a cabbie from a robber, and when John says he's looking for Batman, he's directed to a certain signal in the Gotham night (John's just not used to looking up to the heavens). We then see the Dick Grayson Batman in the Batmobile, in an alley, sending a message to Alfred concerning the decidedly botanical death of a mobster. Alfred, a screen reveals, is unconscious on a floor somewhere - my guess would be the Batcave, but John appears and says he knocked Alfred out to get Batman's undivided attention. So it's obviously not the Batcave. But where is Alfred? If he were in the Batmobile, Batman wouldn't be contacting him by computer, he'd be turning in his seat. 

Anyway, Batman listens to John - one of the men who raised him is lying on the ground somewhere, and Batman gives the time of day to the man who did it. Yes, he beats John up some, but surely he'd knock the stranger out, attend to Alfred, then consider what the Englishman has to say? Having the conversation take place immediately helps move the story along, but it doesn't make sense for the character. Then again, neither does John assaulting or zapping fellow Englishman Alfred for no good reason.

I didn't hate this comic. Slightly off-moments aside, it's good to see John interacting with super-heroes again, I like his impertinent attitude to them - guess who dares light up in the Batmobile? - and their bemusement towards him. Jonathan Vankin's narration and dialogue is generally good (I'll excuse the unlikely radio call 'Batman to Alfred' as a scene-setting shortcut), especially when Zatanna shows up to help Batman with John after a trip into the Green ends badly. Zee's spell to stall John's spore infection is a classic. And Marco Castiello and Vincenzo Acunzo's illustrations are good stuff, somewhere between John's Vertigo look and the DCU house style. Their Batman is terrific, evocative of David Mazzucchelli's at times, and there's a tremendously spooky scene outside the city limits. And it's all beautifully coloured by Barb Ciardo, who excels when we enter The Green.

So there's enough quality here to bring me back for next issue's middle episode. But with a wobbly start like this, I have a terrible feeling this is going to be another DC series that promises much, then ends badly.

Wednesday, 22 June 2011

Kid Flash: Lost #1 review

Kid Flash loses his super-speed in this Flashpoint tie-in, but he certainly gets his groove back. Under the pen of Sterling Gates, the former Impulse finally rediscovers his misplaced personality. He's rash, funny, smart - this is the wee fella we've not seen since Impulse was cancelled and Bart Allen became Bit-Part Allen as the Teen Titans' Kid Flash. 

The story opens with Bart being verbally abused by grandpa Barry Allen, and while he takes it for a while, Kid Flash soon twigs that something's wrong. Having spent years in a virtual reality environment, and inherited some of reporter grandma Iris Allen's observational skills, he's able to analyse the situation. Soon he breaks the hold a brain machine has on him, encounters his captor, Brainiac, and is rescued by a familiar, yet decidedly different, version of recent irritant Hot Pursuit. The issue ends with a time-twisting cliffhanger that guarantees I'll be back for the next two instalments. 

Gates builds his story from Bart's personality and past, not tying directly into Flashpoint but rather giving us a (so-far) standalone side episode spun out of Bart's disappearance in last month's Flash #12. The script is as pacey as you could wish for from an Impulse - sorry, Kid Flash - story, even in the quieter moments (click to enlarge image). 
Gates' sparky script is brought to life by penciller Oliver Nome and inker Trevor Scott, who prove adept at conveying super-speed via after-images and crackling energy. Their Bart has the character, humour and determination that marks him as a worthy carrier of the Flash flame. They also do a mean - in both senses - Brainiac and a wonderfully spunky Hot Pursuit II. Backgrounds, technology, storytelling ... this art team more than earns their pay cheque. The final touches are added by colourist Brian Bucellato, who gives Central City that warm glow we've gotten used to in his work with Francis Manapul. The pair reteam for this issue's striking cover (possibly a homage to Bart's 1994 debut in Flash #92). Letterer Dezi Sienty does a fine job too, with this narrative heavy - but never leaden - tale. 

There's a bit of fun to watch out for on the brilliant splash spread ... it looks like an error, but it's not, it's a hint that all's not right with the world. Honest! In fact, I'd say someone deserves extra credit. And as a fan of logos, I'm thrilled to see the Flash masthead appear five times on a single page - it's just good old-fashioned comics goodness.

On the evidence here, DC have put together the perfect team for an ongoing Kid Flash book. Let's hope one is forthcoming after the initial wave of post-Flashpoint titles.

Lois Lane and the Resistance #1 review

Would someone please give DC Comics a clue? Or better still, an atlas? Anyone looking at the expository panel on the first page of this Flashpoint tie-in could be forgiven for thinking that the United Kingdom is a synonym for England. It ain't. The UK is 'The United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland'. That means Wales, Scotland and NI must appear on maps too... sheesh, didn't anyone go to school?
The UK as we like to imagine it
Did Aquaman sink a few UK nations too?
Things get better, quickly. If there's a funnier moment in the Flashpoint event than Perry White trying to sell Lois Lane on the value of haute couture I'll be pleasantly surprised. The grizzled old newsman bidding to convince Lois - and himself - that covering a fashion show is a suitable use of her skills when the planet is at war is a smart, speedy way to signify that the world really has gone mad.

Their presence at Paris Fashion Week puts Lois and pal Jimmy Olsen at the heart of the Atlanteans' sinking of the City of Light. Jimmy dies a hero, while Lois survives, to be rescued by Amazons in invisible jets - heartless women who refuse to save a Christian priest for being 'a worshipper of a false God'.

Over in the UK - dubbed New Themyscira, looking titchy and sprouting Graeco-Roman temples - Lois learns that there was more to Jimmy than big-hearted photographer, as his camera proves to be a 'smart metal' device given to him by Cyborg, who we learn is the 'national security advisor'. Jimmy had been tasked with making contact with the resistance movement on the superhero's behalf, but never got as far as the UK. Lois volunteers to pass on information herself, as she's headed for the Amazons' re-education programme. After three months the day comes when she has to break free, or risk becoming a monster should Amazon science fail to transform her into a superwoman. (Interestingly - well, to Doctor Who viewers - the transformation into Amazons is being attempted at London's Battersea Power Station, where the Cybermen once turned unfortunates into recruits via extremely painful means.)

It's then that she meets British freedom fighter Penny Black, who stamps her authority on the women warriors pursuing Lois, until someone turns up who can in turn lick her - the Amazon Artemis, with Hawkwoman at her side.

Wonder Woman doesn't appear here beyond a montage panel, but it's good to hear Lois's assessment that she seems conflicted. This isn't quite good enough when you're nevertheless enslaving the UK but it offers a glimmer of hope that Diana will see the light; I trust Lois's observations and instincts. There's still no clarification or refutation of claims that the Amazons are mutilating the menfolk, all we know is that they taken away somewhere.

This is another fine tie-in from writers Dan Abnett and Andy Lanning. I've detailed the plot points, but what elevates this from being simply a collection of incidents is the characterisation, delivered through dialogue that hits all the emotional notes. Lois, Jimmy, Perry, the priest - they're beacons of humanity in a world turned cold. It feels like years since Lois has been given so much to do in a story, and while this isn't the regular continuity Lois, it's yet the Lois I know and love - smart, fearless, ready to do what's right. If she gets a story along the way, great, but she puts people first. And the risks she takes are measured - there's no jumping off high buildings in the hope a passing hero will save her. 

Little details such as the Amazons' invisible aerial surveillance add a sense of danger and urgency - it does feel that Lois could be discovered at any moment. It's a testament to her strength of will that she fools the Amazons' psychological testing techniques, enabling her to continue with her mission. I'll be disappointed if Lois doesn't survive the next two issues and help bring about the Amazons' (and Atlanteans') defeat, but in this interim world between DC's current and coming continuities, there's no guarantee. 

The pencilling by Eddie Nunez at times looks like someone's told him to impersonate Ed Benes, all unlikely waists, massive boobs and arched backs, but it's expressive and gets the story told. Nunez is very good at showing movement, and there's a terrific panel in which he captures both Lois and Jimmy's characters with simple silhouettes (click on image to enlarge).
Shadows and shakes
A tiny niggle: Nunez - or perhaps it's inker Don Ho - does that thing with the hair of highlighting via random blocks of light ... I don't think colourists Hi-Fi are behind that, it's not something I've noticed in their collective efforts. It's distracting in that it just doesn't work.

While inside the book Lois spends three months in a fancy frock chosen for the fashion shows, the cover has Lois in proper reporter mode, magnificent in a mac. I like that. I also like the promise of an appearance by the Canterbury Cricket, my favourite character who's never actually appeared on-panel. The logo's a bit weird, mind, with the main portion looking more suited to a cyber-insect character than a girl reporter, and the latter part looking like it should go on a Clayface strip. 

She's not been given one of the 52 new titles DC is producing post-Flashpoint, but I hope this issue persuades the DC higher-ups that, written properly, Lois still has what it takes to carry a book. With the ongoing horrors visited on Wonder Woman in any continuity you care to name, and the constant fiddling with Supergirl, more than ever, Lois Lane has claim to be the first female of DC Comics.

Tuesday, 21 June 2011

A month of comic book sites

A big thank you to Brian Cronin of the Comics Should Be Good blog at Comic Book Resources for plugging this blog at his current A month of comic book sites feature. It's been running just over a week and has introduced me to some superb blogs I'd not previously come across - do check them out, if you haven't already. I'm rather honoured that we're in there.

Monday, 20 June 2011

Legion of Super-Heroes #14 review

The Legion of Super-Heroes' efforts to stop the reborn Legion of Super-Villains' reign of terror continue in entertaining, if occasionally infuriating, style.

The entertainment comes mainly from the action and interaction between the rich mix of characters on both sides of the morality line. There's Professor Harmonia Li's brushing off of Dream Girl with unknown powers when the seer protests at the pain Li is putting Star Boy through. There's Star Boy's reunion with Dream Girl when he comes out the other side, sane for the first time in ages. Saturn Queen's murder of one of her lackeys. Ultra Boy's assisted defeat of Immortus. Brainiac 5's attempt to comfort his mourning people with a balance sheet. And more.

The infuriating part comes from Li, who can't - or won't - stop being mysterious. And Green Lantern torchbearer Dyogene, equally adept at speaking in riddles. Both have been playing Ms and Ms Mystery for months now, and while an enigmatic character is useful at the start of a storyline, I'm well past ready for them to spill the beans. There's a good chance Li, at least, gives some answers to a demanding Mon-El and Dream Girl as they and Star Boy head for Colu, before setting off for the world of wisdom where the LSV are. After all, they have a whole journey to pass, and it would be weird were the Legionnaires to drop the subject simply because the reader is directed elsewhere. But we readers aren't privy to any new information that does emerge.

So here's what we now know of Li - perhaps someone has worked her out. She's hundreds of years old. She not only turned down a chance to become a Green Lantern, emerald energy pains her. She spent time on a world of wisdom but left to undertake research into the time stream. She has wind powers. And she's as enigmatic as she is arrogant. Anyone?

I spoke of scene changes earlier, and I'd like to renew a point I made awhile back - we really need caption boxes telling us where we are at any one time, for new readers, and old readers with memory gaps. Encylopedia Galactica entries would be best, but a quick 'Colu' or wherever would do.

Another wee mystery is: who's inhabitating the body of invulnerable cyborg Immortus who, we find out this issue, is also long-lived, having planned his move to a robot form for centuries. My best guess remains Doom Patrol enemy General Immortus, whose immortality was something of a curse due to his having the body of a gnarled old man. Perhaps inspired by his enemy Robotman, he decided to forgo the flesh.

We still don't learn the nature of this storyline's bad guy, the child who controls the Blue Flame. A reborn Darkseid has been a popular guess, but now he's a tweenie, he doesn't have that look about him. He's itching to take out 'the one who seeks me as her power grows close', which must be Li. Mustn't it? Also, he speaks of a 'dark lady' to come, weakening 'all barriers between worlds'. The Legion has its own dark lady in the Black Witch, but that's too obvious. There was also Lydia Mallor, Shadow Lass's ancestor, but she's already shown up, years previously, as a servant of Darkseid. Again, all suggestions welcome.

So many questions, so many reasons to keep reading. Harmonia Li is getting on my nerves with her refusal to give a straight answer, while demanding help from the Legion, but the other enigmas are more tasty teases, and indeed, teasers. Another one: will Dream Girl's vision this issue of, possibly, Star Boy's funeral pan out? I do hope not, we've only just got him back after extended service with the Justice Society in the 21st century.

Writer Paul Levitz continues to impress with his handling of multiple strands, building towards a massive confrontation between heroes and villains. He's ably partnered by Fernando Dagnino and Raul Fernandez, whose artwork is as attractive as their storytelling is effective. The opening scene, with its intense confrontation between Li and Dream Girl over the suffering Star Boy, is especially good. And I like the world of wisdom they depict, run by one Master Kong - aka Confucius.

DC has announced that the Legion of Super-Heroes is one of the few series whose current status won't be affected by the Flashpoint event and, given the quality of this book, I couldn't be happier.

Thursday, 16 June 2011

Grodd of War #1 review

As Aquaman holds forth over continental Europe, and Wonder Woman bestrides the UK, Super-Gorilla Grodd rules over the entire continent of Africa. But, as the witty opening to this story makes clear, while the rest of the world cowers from Atlanteans and Amazons, few people even know his name.  

Clever as the opening is, it's also grisly, and Sean Ryan's efficient script never lets up. Whether it's Grodd feasting on wildlife he's ripped apart, eviscerating Congorilla or tearing off Catman's head, you need a strong stomach for this Flashpoint tie-in. It doesn't help that artist Ig Guara - last seen drawing Marvel's cuddly Pet Avengers - produces such realistic art. There's no hiding from the gore, the pain on these pages, which are inked by Ruy Jose. Bodies hanging by the roadside, a boy soldier being forced to kill his friends ... it's all good T for Teen 'fun'. 

A few pages establishing Grodd's cruel rule and a more sedate rest of the issue would have been fine, but we're almost in torture porn territory here. And that's a shame, as subtler aspects of the tale, such as Grodd's apparent death wish, are almost lost as the story revels in its gruesomeness. Grodd's decision to take Europe from its conquerors should make for good drama when this strand is picked up elsewhere in the Flashpoint event. I just hope he leaves his nastier appetites back home.

Tiny Titans #41 review

The super-speedster Titans decide to have a race, five times round the world, losers buy the lemonade. Blue Beetle is all set to make some moolah with his lemonade stand, but some stupid alien backpack has forgotten to pack the fruit. Raven makes sure she's out of the way of the 'Flash mob'. And Wonder Girl decides to try wearing  a mask.

It's the usual fun and games as creators Art Balthazar and Franco gather the fastest kids on Earth - Kid Flash, Inertia, Mas y Menos, Jesse Quick and Peek-a-Boo (who I remember as a teleporter, but she does have well-oiled roller skates). The art is as bright as the script, whose gags as as good-natured as ever, and there's even a tie-in to a certain crossover.
Well, it works for me!

Batgirl #22 review

In which Batgirl jets off to jolly old London town and teams up with Squire, greatest heroine of the United Kingdom. Steph has been sent across the Atlantic on Batman Inc business, but she doesn't meet him until the final page of this issue, as she and Squire have places to go, things to do, villains to squash.

Said villain is the Orphan ('always wants some more'), who uses a sword called the Greenwich Mean to stop time as part of a dastardly plan to knobble Knight. Happily, Batgirl and Squire put paid to his ambitions, though twisting time means no one will ever know they saved the day. What does that matter, though, when you make a new friend? Oh, and save the world.

Writer Bryan Q Miller has fun with some British cliches, while putting Steph and Beryl in mortal danger. No, not from the Orphan – who fits in nicely with the lowlives Paul Cornell invented for the recent, brilliant Knight and Squire mini-series. From their flaunting of traffic laws. Teenage crimebusters should not be zooming through London on a motorbike and sidecar without wearing crash helmets.

Mind, Steph does look spiffing in her tourist tat Busby (click to enlarge image).
The dialogue is as zingy as always with this comic, though the script loses a point for misspelling the exclamation 'oi!' as 'oy' – unless Beryl is Jewish. Which she might well be. The artwork from Pere Perez makes a better fist than most of capturing things British. He doesn't quite get the Union Flag the correct way up, but no one ever does. Perez's Squire is a little spitfire, perfectly in keeping with Jimmy Broxton's in the aforementioned mini. The whole creative team does a bang-up job, including colourist Guy Major and letterer Carlos M Mangual. Dustin Nguyen's cover is a winner too. I'd like to make all the people behind this comic honorary Brits. But they likely wouldn't want it.

The big question this issue, one Steph doesn't get answered due to an interruption, is: does UK chocolate taste like US chocolate? 

Nope. It's so much  better. 

Legion of Doom #1 review

The Legion of Doom is a name that warms the cockles of a generation, the fans who followed Luthor, Sinestro and their dastardly acquaintances on the Challenge of the Super Friends cartoons. Me, not so much - I don't think those shows ever reached British TV. 

Still, the high quality of Flashpoint tie-ins to date was enough to persuade me to take a chance on this comic. Had I noticed that the guy on the cover is Flash rogue Heat Wave, I'd have been slightly less inclined to pick this up. A few years ago writer Geoff Johns retooled him as a fire-fixated psycho, a regular Johnny One-Match. Since then he's been rather too 'oh, pretty flames' for my liking, and while this comic takes place in a tweaked DC Universe, it's recognisably the same fella.

So as the book opens, he burns Jason Rusch to death in the hope he can join Ronnie Raymond as half of the Nuclear Man (apparently not getting that Firestorm's hot head is simple decoration). Ronnie looks to be in big trouble when Cyborg appears and roundly dispatches Heat Wave in an entertaining action sequence. Interestingly, Cyborg seems to be using New Gods technology. Or at least better SFX (click to enlarge image).
And that's where much of this story takes place, with Heat Wave narrating a tale that seemingly wants to be Oz for the Flashpoint world. The only real Legion link is the appearance of a prison, The Row, based on the old Hall of Doom, which rises - rather randomly it seems - from a swamp. Other villains do have roles (Amazo as prison guard, Cluemaster as stooge, Mr Zsasz as prison annoyance) but I don't believe any were ever Doomed souls. The story is basically another Heat Wave spotlight which only surprises in the final two pages. 

Darn, that's me buying next issue.

It's not that the script is bad - Adam Glass does a thoroughly decent job of giving us a Johns-style villain focus - it's just that more than any Flashpoint stories so far, this felt like a regular DCU book. Tough-talking, maiming, murder - that's just your average issue of Brightest Day. What I wanted was a compelling insight into the changed world, but we have to make do with a brief mention of the Amazons and Atlanteans, and Cyborg finally showing he's the big hero his Flashpoint PR claims. With luck, next issue will see the villains take over The Row, and become a true Legion of Doom. The question then would be: whose side will they take in the great war?

Rodney Buchemi's pencils serve the story well, bringing out all available drama, and showing us the desperation, the hate in prisoners' eyes. Jose Marzan Jr is the perfect inker, having spent years on the Flash strip, and his blacks add plenty of weight to the pages. My favourite piece of art, though, is Miguel Sepulveda's cover, coloured by Jose Villarrubia, which carries a tremendous sense of foreboding.

Flash fans are likely to enjoy this book more than most, Legion of Doom nostalgists can give it a pass. But of course, that could all change next issue, if Toy Man and Giganta turn out to be running the prison canteen ... hang on, didn't Tiny Titans already do that?

Wednesday, 15 June 2011

Deadman and the Flying Graysons #1 review

One of the particular pleasures of Flashpoint is its global reach. Usually in comics heroes visit other countries solely to watch them getting blown up. While it's true this changed reality crossover has plenty of devastation – the French are drinking more than the odd bottle of Evian, while millions of Brits have swapped eating kebabs for becoming them – I'm enjoying seeing heroes and villains moving around the world.

In this first of three, Dick Grayson and his equally acrobatic parents are travelling with Haley's Circus around the parts of Europe not in thrall to either Amazons or Atlanteans. Sharing the bill with them is Boston Brand, the aerialist styled as Deadman. They're moving from town to town, constantly wary of being caught up in some war atrocity or other, but making the best of life. The Graysons find plenty to smile about, because they're a loving family. Boston thinks that's something he doesn't need, insisting that Dick is limiting his potential by sharing the spotlight with past-it parents.

Also on the bill are 'freaks' familiar from the regular DC Universe – the Ragdoll contortionist Peter Merkel, the terrifying King Shark, and Kent Nelson, who has flashes of the future while wearing the helmet of Fate. And it's this golden helm which brings the circus to the attention of Wonder Woman's Furies, who will do anything – kill anyone – to gain its magical power.

In regular continuity, both Dick Grayson and Boston Brand began their crimefighting careers after bullets rang out under the big top. For Dick, it meant the loss of his parents, and for Deadman, his own life. This issue's cliffhanger hints that at least one of those scenarios is about to occur again, with Amazon swords substituting for gangsters' rounds.

JT Krul's script gives us something we've rarely seen, Dick's relationship with his parents. They're a delightful trio, revelling in their family bond, but ready to invite others in. Dick is older here than he was when the Graysons died in the non-Flashpoint world, letting us see that had he never become Robin, then Nightwing, he'd have been pretty much the same – a great guy. Boston, though, is different, not the gregarious friend to sad clowns and dopey strongmen his other self was, but a loner. He risks his life, but doesn't enjoy life. He doesn't even seem to come alive when he's performing – Boston truly is a Deadman.

Kent Nelson is more like the Smallville TV show's Dr Fate than his comics counterpart here, nigh driven mad by the whisperings of the Egyptian wizard Nabu's helmet. It's speaking of a different world, one in which Dick becomes a laughing young Robin Hood, and Boston a body-hopping ghost. The helmet is a clever way to reference events both in the Flashpoint and regular DCU, and the maguffin to drag the circus away from Europe's backroads and into the firing line.
The art by illustrator Mikel Janin and colourist Ulises Arreola is magnificent. The circus atmosphere is evoked by page one's vignettes of the 'freaks' before a roomy splash showing the Graysons and Deadman soaring about the centre ring brings a real sense of wonder. After that we travel from Austria to Poland with the circus, and get a sense of the community it hosts. The Graysons look every bit the lively, athletic trio (cutely, all wearing the Nightwing mask of regular continuity), contrasting with the spooky, self-contained Deadman. King Shark pitching a tent may appear incongruous to those of us used to seeing him snack on people in Secret Six, but here, in another time, another place, it makes perfect sense. As depicted by Janin and Arreola , the arrival on the scene of the Amazons – avenging angels in armour – bursts the circus's bucolic bubble in dramatic fashion.

As great as the interior artwork is, Cliff Chiang's cover is differently, but equally, splendid. The circus poster design is the perfect entry point to the world of Deadman and the Flying Graysons, and typical of the care with which this issue has been put together. Like Haley's Circus, it's not the greatest show on Earth, but it's blooming entertaining.

Wonder Woman and the Furies #1 review

Wonder Woman and Aquaman, a match made in mythology. The heirs to fabled kingdoms, willing to undertake a marriage of state to strengthen their realms in the eyes of a world they're rejoining after thousands of years apart. She the finest of the Amazons, he the greatest son of Atlantis.

But when the leaders of two isolationist lands decide to come into the sun, there are bound to be dissenters. And so it is that on the day Diana and Arthur are to exchange vows, Queen Hippolyta of Themiscyra is murdered by the tossed trident of an unseen assassin.

Garth, Aquaman's ward, is framed and killed, as the murderer is revealed to the reader as the Amazon Artemis, at the behest of Diana's aunt, Penthesilea. But the latter isn't working alone, she's hand in hand with Aquaman's brother, Lord Orm. And Hippolyta wasn't the target, it was Diana.

What a tangled web writers Dan Abnett and Andy Lanning weave in this first of a three-part Flashpoint tie-in series. The machinations of state have rarely seemed as fascinating in comics as they do here, with the arranged marriage making perfect sense; Diana and Arthur don't profess love, but it's obvious that they're open to the possibility (click to enlarge image).
They're fascinated by one another the moment they meet, as the young Aquaman helps the future Wonder Woman fight off a 'baby' sea monster. As written by DnA and, especially, as illustrated by Scott Clark and David Beaty, the characters produce a chemistry that would dazzle the world. This charismatic couple could win round the doubting outsiders who see a marriage of state as merely a marriage of convenience, a negative. Sadly, they aren't allowed the opportunity.

Diana has an appeal here she's not displayed in her comic for quite a while. She's the young adventurer who doesn't need the excuse of a good-looking man to prompt exploration of the outside world. In her tiny boat, seeing a jet and an an ocean liner for the first time, does she quake with fear and talk of clockwork birds and whales? Does she heck – she laughs, excited at the wonders to be discovered. And Arthur has an open heart and a wisdom beyond his years. Hippolyta, Orm, Artemis, Garth and Penthesilea, in their brief scenes, are similarly believable, perfectly filling their roles.

And as drawn by Clark and Beaty, they all look magnificent. The royals and warriors on either side appear stately and martial, rather than sexy slave girls and Disney mer-folk. The Atlanteans in particular benefit from Clark's design sense – the last time they looked this good was in the Neal Pozner/Craig Hamilton Aquaman mini of decades ago. While I'm less keen on the occasional Photoshopped-in temples and transport – they look off against the hand-drawn artwork – if that shortcut is what gave Clark time to draw such beautiful figures, I can live with it.

It's good to see what really happened on the aborted wedding day after hearing a skewed view of events in last week's Emperor Aquaman #1. The Themiscyra/Atlantis war isn't the first to be based on a lie, and I'm dying to see what the real story is behind the Amazons' supposed slaughter of millions of UK citizens.

Abnett, Lanning, Clark and the entire creative team do such an excellent job with this issue, it's a shame they never got a crack at a regular Wonder Woman or Aquaman series. They conjure up appealing characters and send them out to play in a fascinating world, something they could have done in the regular DC Universe. The starting point would have been different – Diana and Arthur are long past being young enough for a dynastic pairing – but I don't doubt a memorable run would have ensued. Still, Editorial can't know which creative teams gel with which characters until they test them. Having seen this issue, I trust DC will bear them in mind for future Wonder Woman and Aquaman stories.

Meanwhile, there's more of the world of Flashpoint to explore …