Thursday, 28 July 2011

DC Retroactive 1970s Justice League of America #1 review

Longtime DC comics editor Julie Schwartz was known for a number of things - reviving the Golden Age characters, pioneering parallel worlds, stories packed with scientific facts, tales based on unlikely cover images ... but who know he was a keen housebreaker (click on images to enlarge)?

That's what happens when heroes come to visit from a parallel Earth, you get so excited that your morals go out the window. Julie's having fun, and that's what I had with this adventure looking back to the 1970s JLA book. 'Enter Justice League Prime' sees Wonder Woman, Zatanna, Flash and Green Arrow follow Adam Strange to the alternate world - supposedly the one we're all sitting in - when he's tossed there/here after a problem with the Zeta beam that carries him across the universe. Adam's lost his memory and if the JLA can't make him remember who he is, they won't learn what evil alien Kanjar Ro is planning back in their own reality. Can Julie somehow succeed where the heroes failed?

Back on Earth 1, guided by Red Tornado, Green Lantern and Hawkman are trying to track down Kanjar Ro, only to fall victim to his new Zeta beam powers in probably my favourite Retroactive panel yet.
Of course, Kanjar Ro is defeated when the rest of the team returns with Adam, in what can pretty fairly be described as a superhero romp. For there's no angst here, no one gets too worried at the prospect of Kanjar Ro becoming all-powerful. They make concerned noises, but really, the JLA is having a good time solving that day's puzzle.

Cary Bates certainly looks to have had a good time writing it up, giving us a typically Seventies story while adding a little more sly humour than he was allowed back then. 
I love to see the Super Friends just hanging out in that satellite which Bates really should have mentioned was 'in geosynchronous orbit 22,300 miles above the Earth'. Still, I forgive him, for this is a cleverly plotted done-in-one that fits right in with the fare we were getting 30 years ago. Bates sets the story a little while after his run on the book, allowing Zatanna - awful ponytail and all - to be on hand for teleportation and disguise purposes.
Oh yes, the disguise. How great is Wonder Woman's look when she, Zee and Barry visit DC Comics? She's jumped straight off the cover of issue #168 of her own book, back in the Sixties. And dig those flares on Barry!

Other nice touches include Barry's faith in Julie following their previous encounter, the old Hawkman/Green Arrow bickering, Wonder Woman's sisterly ways ('Fortitude, Alanna') and the narrative's calling out to 'dear reader'. That's how it was, and it's sweet to revisit the period.

JLA illustrator of the time Dick Dillin having passed on, other pencillers pick up his baton, with Gordon Purcell handling the Earth Prime scenes and Andy Smith the Earth One pages. Jose Marzan Jr inks Purcell, while Smith inks himself. The split works well. Smith gives us solid, straightforward superheroics while demonstrating a real knack for interestingly angled shots. And Purcell has plenty of panels of characters apparently looking directly at us, as if the JLA can't forget that they've entered a world where they're viewed as comic book characters. Carlos Badilla keeps the colours light and bright, while Wes Abbott ensures the letters are neat, but not too perfect.

If you were reading in the Seventies, you'll likely enjoy this. If you weren't, but like light-hearted superheroics, ditto. It's not just the JLA that travels a long way with this story, it's a massive nostalgia trip for me too, right down to the cover by Smith, 1970s stalwart Ernie Chan and Badilla. 

The reprint is also an Earth Prime story, also by Cary Bates - with Elliot S Maggin, Julius Schwartz, Dick Dillin and Frank McLaughlin - but unlike the new offering, it's incomplete, being the first half of a two-part team-up with the JSA and featuring Bates and Maggin. DC did the same thing in last week's DC Retroactive 1970s Wonder Woman #1 and it's really irksome. As with the Diana Prince story, they might have directed readers to the conclusion, this time in one of the Crisis on Multiple Earths volumes (see below - hey, I'm being helpful!), but don't.

I hope this trend for messing up the back half of the book doesn't continue, as I'm enjoying the Retroactive project overall. Heck, I'd love a regular DC book telling new stories from old continuities. Anyone else?

DC Retroactive 1970s Green Lantern #1 review

Hal Jordan meets a relative of Abin Sur who arrives on Earth in a parallel to the incident which saw Hal named Green Lantern of Sector 3814.

Green Arrow must track down a mad archer who shoots both Black Canary and a grasping lawyer.

They're the strands which writer Denny O'Neil plays with in this look back to Seventies Green Lantern. So how do they come together? They don't. Not unless you count Hal and Ollie telling one another about their day at the end of the book. Which I don't, meaning that what we have here are two short tales shoved into the one 'story'. 

Of the two, the Green Arrow script is better, being merely weak. Neither Ollie nor Dinah shows any interest in who shot her until Mr Walk-On Part Lawyer is also pierced - they simply wander out of A&E and continue with their day. Detective Ollie eventually tracks down Argy the Archer by dint of Argy leaving a note on a roof revealing his identity to him. This lets Ollie visit Argy at home, and take his bow away from him. Dramatic. 

Argy, you see, is a gibbering loon, talking at his dead father about how he's better than Olly thinks he is. He met Olly at a monastery to which Green Arrow retreated after accidentally killing a man, and felt slighted after misunderstanding something Olly said.

Given the quality of this script, I don't doubt it.

Hal, meanwhile - actually, no, it's 'Fifteen minutes earlier', for no particular reason - must fight off a bunch of unknown attackers in a strand that's nowhere near as good as 'weak'. Defeated, the gunmen 'explain' that their leader told them that 'only by slaying our enemies can we be ennobled'. We don't learn who the leader is, or where exactly these events are occurring, beyond the Southern hemisphere. Abin Sur's lookalike 'Klatch mate', Zu Sur, then, well, see for yourself (click to enlarge image):
Yes, he realises that he's been dead since being shot a few minutes earlier, something we weren't actually shown. What the message is, we'll never know.

O'Neil very nearly got there: the vibe of the narrative isn't so far away from the feel of the Relevance period, with its ultra-earnestness and naive hippy sentiments; Hal is every bit as dumb as he was back then; Black Canary is made to look useless ... even the separate plots isn't unprecedented. But the script lacks polish, with the Hal strand especially making no sense - as with O'Neil's work on last week's DC Retroactive 1970s Wonder Woman #1, the story lacks any sense of a strong editorial hand. I'm guessing that the soldiers killing only because they're told to is some kind of heavy-handed social comment, but who knows? O'Neil is one of the most experienced comic book writers and editors still with us, but that doesn't mean his scripts don't need occasional tweaking (click on image to enlarge).

Am I taking this too seriously, when I shouldn't be 'sweating the outcome'? Should I be happy to see something vaguely evoking the Seventies without wanting a great story in a book that costs $4.99? I don't think so. 

The saving grace of this book is the Mike Grell artwork, moodily coloured by Allan Passalaqua. Grell wasn't actually working with O'Neil in the Relevance period - Neal Adams and Dick Giordano handled the art. The pair got together later for a series of science fiction and superhero stories in which Hal adopted an annoying space starfish named Itty Bitty. Really. But I'm always glad to see Grell, and he's on great form here, showing that he can still evoke Adams with the best of them, while having come a long way since his awkward - yet promising - first steps in the DC Universe. I am surprised, though, that given how Grell went on to become a respected writer himself, he apparently thinks this script is OK.

For our money we also get a reprint of 'No Evil Shall Escape My Sight' from GL #76, the book's first teaming of Hal & Ollie, and O'Neil & Adams, in the story that kicked off the short-lived Relevance period. Hal gets a stupid lecture about not caring for Earth's non-White people, and Ollie and a Guardian of the Universe jump into a truck together. It's a bona fide classic, even if it has been reprinted ad nauseum.

I like Grell's cover, but Hal's cosmic crotch doesn't bear close examination. Look to the light!

Wednesday, 27 July 2011

DC Retroactive 1970s Superman #1 review

Superman's having a bad week in this Retroactive special. Criminals are popping up when they shouldn't, doing things that are beyond them - Metallo's flying, Bizarro am speaking perfect English, that sort of thing. Lois Lane is annoyed at Superman paying attention to Lana Lang, Supergirl and Van-Zee think their Kryptonian cousin is super-cranky, Clark Kent's colleagues reckon he needs a long rest ... 

Writer Martin Pasko returns to the continuity he was working with back in 1979, managing to recapture the Superman house style of the time. Pasko's no nostalgia act, but he puts concept before cool by opting for an omniscient narrative voice that likely seems cheesy to today's kids, but was the only game in town back then. He gives those of us who were there a treat by including regulars Lana Lang, all 'luv' and 'ta' after a few years in Europe, overgrown jock sportscaster Steve Lombard and TV producer Josh Coyle, forever suffering heartburn due to newscaster Clark Kent's last-minute shows on set. Great Krypton, Superman even yells the odd old-fashioned oath!

There's humour from the surprise villain, old-fashioned editor's notes referring to contemporary issues and a caring Lois indicative of the character maturity that enabled the Superman/Lois relationship to deepen around this time. It all makes for a thoroughly entertaining callback to my childhood reading which I'm able to appreciate both due to nostalgia, and its own merits.

Drawing part of the comic is Eduardo Barreto, a talented artist who began being used by longtime editor Julius Schwartz just a few years after this story is set, so he fits right in. It's a delight to see him return to the old cast, especially Supergirl in her Seventies hotpants outfit, which remains my favourite to this day. Christian Duce takes over as illustrator for pages 13 and 15-26 and does a fine job of echoing Barreto's style. Hopefully we'll see this talented artist given free reign to draw for DC in his preferred style soon. 

The production is pretty much dead on, with the subtly different Superman logo in place, along with the splash page legend used back then. And Carlos M Mangual matches the old lettering style (compare it to Ben Oda's in the back-up), right down to the raggy title design. The only thing that sticks out like a sore thumb/Fortress of Solitude key is the colouring, which is too dark for the time, over-textured. It could be that Andrew Elder was told not to go for Seventies-style flat tones, or perhaps he didn't know what paper the book would wind up on (a rather nice stock that's like thick newsprint). Not knowing the details, I shan't judge too harshly, but it's a shame.

You can see how vibrant, how joyously gaudy the story should be by looking at the back-up, 'Superman Takes a Wife'. I expected the Retroactive reprint to reflect the new strip, so this is a surprise. Originally published in 1978's Action Comics #484, it features the wedding of the Earth 2 Superman and Lois Lane, marking the 40th anniversary of the title. Written by Cary Bates, drawn by Curt Swan and Joe Geilla, lettered by Ben Oda and coloured by Tatjana Wood, it's a typically twisty turny tale and great fun, but not really representative of what was going on in the Superman strips of the time.

But what the heck, it is, as I said, a lovely little story - better than that other time Clark and Lois wed.

Barreto's cover is a spot-on late Seventies cover concept, though Allan Passalaqua colours Lois's hair with grey, rather than blue, highlights. Blah blah, nitpick nitpick, I know - but that's how it was in the Seventies, readers liked to spot 'boo-boos'. Pasko himself was a lettercol regular early in the decade, with his sharp-tongued notes leading Editorial to nickname him Pesky Pasko. Well, old Pesky, and all the team gathered by editor Ben Abernathy, should take a well-earned bow - they've done Seventies Supes proud.

Wonder Woman #613 review

It's part 842 of the Odyssey story and the finish line is in sight. In this issue, Diana fights Nemesis, goddess of Exposition. Clad in Diana's original form - the star-spangled heroine of the regular DC Universe - Nemesis battles the new model we've been following for the past year.

And finally, readers get answers. As she fights NuDiana, Nemesis talks. And talks and talks. Her narrative reveals that Regular Diana confronted witch trio the Morrigan, having learned they planned to attack Themiscyra, but it turns out they wanted her to know, to get her close enough for Nemesis to take her over. The convoluted plan of the Goddess of Retribution was to use Wonder Woman's power to kill Humanity, so that Man can War No More and pesky dead people quit crying out for vengeance. Can't a goddess get some peace?

The logic's not great - kill everyone at once and everyone will cry out at once, for your blood. And that really will be an Olympian-sized headache.

Still, the plan went ahead with one niggle - as revealed a few months back, the Fates broke off a sliver of Diana's soul and placed it in a pocket world, to protect her essence. And now that Diana, weathered by a series of trials, is taking on Nemesis, armed with less power but an overwhelming love of humanity, a knowledge that her cause is right.

And she wins, cleverly reuniting herself with the form inhabited by Nemesis, tossing the goddess out in time for next issue's finale.

Huge credit to scripter Phil Hester for making sense of the J Michael Straczynski Odyssey storyline here. Like the Fates, he weaves together the disparate, frankly messy, parts of this run into some semblance of sense. NuDiana's constant losses? That was Nemesis and the Morrigan: 'We hounded you into Man's World, knowing their murderous ways would turn you bitter.' That NuDiana prevailed shows her for the heroine she's meant to be, the woman she once was. And it's in this issue's conflict that, even before reunification with her true form, we finally see the complete Wonder Woman - brave, resourceful, compassionate.

And while the talky fight scene might make for a boring read in other hands, Hester's a good enough writer to keep the interest going by ensuring pencillers Don Kramer and Travis Moore have interesting moments to bring to life. And his script is strong throughout, especially in NuDiana's thoughts on the shades that surround her. The flashback scene is suitably dramatic, while the present day match between NuDiana and TrueDiana/Nemesis is clear and engaging, culminating in a nice splash of Wonder Woman declaring that she's back.

I could do without the bloodiness, mind - Diana is gutted twice this issue, but hey, comics are for kids and kids these days are gruesome little buggers.

Overall, this is the best-looking issue in a while, with the two pencillers, and inkers Wayne Faucher, Walden Wong and Drew Geraci, seemingly working towards a common goal. Lordy, Diana's new costume, now that those awful arm straps have settled down, is even looking good to me (certainly better than the first post-Flashpoint visuals).

And the cover is dynamite, with Lee Garbett, Dave Meikis and Paul Mounts producing a gorgeous, fierce image.

One more issue to go, and based on previous form, it's not a given that we'll get a second consecutive enjoyable instalment. But I live in hope.

SPECIAL GUEST POST: Barbarian #3 review

Now this is an odd little comic. Starting out as your average hack-n-slash barbarian vs sharp-toothed, purple-skinned monsters tale, complete with retro sound effects (I'll see your 'koom!' and raise you a 'rraar!' and a 'thawack!'), manga-style visuals and the odd hacked-off limb, it morphs into a cautionary sci-fi story where the big, scary monsters are actually saccharine-sweet, peace-loving veggie good guys, and the hero is really a living weapon they grew to protect themselves from the nasty humans on the planet they crash-landed upon.

I'll admit, I'm not totally sure what's going on here, as I've missed the first two parts of this comic. But after a bit of a shaky start (the initial fight scene goes on for about a page too long) and some seriously corny dialogue - 'Those fireballs are coming right for us!' - Barbarian shaped up to be a decent and interesting read. Granted, the old evil-looking monsters as good guys storyline isn't exactly original, but it's presented here with a light, tongue-in-cheek flourish that gives it a refreshing twist. 
The art, by Jim Lai, is as big and brash as you would expect from a title with Conan-style characters, while the script, by Scott Amundson, clips along at a fair old pace, even if it does occasionally stumble over some clunky dialogue and cliched moments.

If you've read my previous review, you'll know that I'm a bit of a lapsed comic geek, so Recondite Pictures isn't a line I'm familiar with. However, on the strength of this third issue, I'd be happy to seek out the rest of the series - it's available on the 
comiXology platform - and maybe taste a few other titles while I'm at it.

Legion of Doom #2 review

Heatwave continues his bid to break out of flying prison the Hall of Doom, aided by Eel O'Brien, the stretchable stinker who hates to be known as Plastic Man. They battle unofficial prison guards Atomic Skull and Animal Man, and find out who's controlling the executing Amazo android that put paid to KGBeast, Slipknot and Shadow Thief.

It's Ray Palmer, the Atom, one-legged in the World of Flashpoint due to white dwarf star radiation poisoning. He winds up crushed between Heatwave's fingers. Animal Man has his nose bitten off, before Heatwave kerbs and kills him. Oh, and the issue begins with Cluemaster turned into a human kebab.

By the end of the book, Heatwave has triumphed over all, with neither metahuman abilities nor access to his heat gun. Yep, he's been egging Plastic Man on, but his win is mainly down to writer Adam Glass favouring him in this second of three. Glass's attitude seems to be that as Flashpoint is basically an Elseworlds and heroes can be killed, well, may as well moida da bums. And if you can laugh at the ghost of the Comics Code Authority along the way, huzzah.

It's my own fault. I didn't enjoy last issue, and came back this time only to see what the deal was with Plastic Man. I was hoping to see Eel's basic good nature break through, but it turns out he's as much of a scumbag as Heatwave.

While the brutality isn't to my taste, the self-deluding Animal Man - willing to kill Heatwave out of self-interest but telling himself he's a hero - is intriguing. I'd be interested in learning who did murder his family, a crime he denies carrying out. 

And the link to the Green Arrow one-shot is smart, while the disability twist on the Atom is clever - it's  just a shame that the twist is followed by a squish. Glass seems to enjoy prison brutality too much for my stomach, and if this mini-series is an indication of his approach to the upcoming Suicide Squad book, DC won't be getting my pennies.

Oh, and despite the title, there's still no grouping of villains that may be considered a Legion of Doom.

Rodney Buchemi's layouts are efficient, and he does well with emotion and movement. Jose Marzan Jr's finishes are typically lush. And Arthur Fujita manages to set the orange prison uniforms against the facility's green walls without ever making me feel ill. Together, the artists create a tense, visceral world that serves the nasty script well. And it's all nicely lettered by Dave Sharpe and topped off with a fantastic cover by Miguel Sepulveda and Jose Villarrubia - I rather like the treatment of Animal Man's costume, with that rubbery 'A'.

With one more issue to go, I can see me buying the finale to see what happens, but after two reviews saying this just isn't my cup of caffeine, I promise to shut up. 

Monday, 25 July 2011

Power Girl #26 review

Last month regular writer Judd Winick ended his current association with Power Girl with a story that paid tribute to Karen Starr, as a hero and a person. If the next two issues of the series, fill-ins before the post-Flashpoint DC Universe wipes out this book, were stinkers, we could easily pretend the comic ended as of #25.

Well, #26 is here and it's anything but awful, as Matthew Sturges writes his own tale making it perfectly clear that Power Girl is one of DC's best.

The cover had me expecting jokes at the expense of cosplayers, a soft target if ever there was one. Instead, the story gives the convention-goers credit for the way in which they respect Power Girl. They're not wearing the costume and working the hair because they dream of being a busty blonde powerhouse - they want to emulate her heroism (click to enlarge images).
They get the chance when one attendee, Rana, turns out to be an alien with an agenda 
- she wishes to steal Power Girl's Kryptonian mojo. She says her reasons are pure, but Power Girl sees through her attempts at self-justification. What happens next is thrilling and heartwarming, making for a pitch-perfect, done-in-one superhero story.

Sturges's script is a little gem, masterfully plotted and executed. He captures Power Girl's voice and makes the new characters people I'd love to see again. Especially L'il Pee Gee ... and if the current continuity were continuing, I somehow think we might see the wee dynamo.

Hendry Prasetya's illustrations are beautiful, there's a sincerity about them that perfectly suits this story of people choosing to be the best they can be - or not. He makes everyone individuals, with players showing the facility for acting that has become one of this book's trademarks, from Amanda Conner to Sami Basri to Prasetya himself in Winick's last two issues. The fight sequences are a joy too (click to enlarge).

Sturges and Prasetya get to close out the series next issue. Power Girl couldn't be in better hands.

DC Retroactive 1970s Batman #1 review

The still of the Gotham night is broken by a new threat to the citizenry, the Terrible Trio, cheering a bored Batman up no end. The Fox, the Shark and the Vulture have stolen the MO of the Silver Age villains of the same name, and they manage to outwit Batman twice before the Gotham Guardian ends their mini-crime wave - with a little help from Lucius Fox and Alfred Pennyworth.

Along the way Bruce Wayne gives a few parties, Lucius worries about son Tim, Alfred frets about Bruce's ever-tearing cape ... it's a refreshing callback to a consistently entertaining period in the Batman book when Len Wein was writing, Irv Novick was pencilling and Paul Levitz was editing. Sadly, the stalwart Novick is no longer with us, but Wein is here for an encore and no one could accuse him of coasting on past glories.

For he fixes 'Terror Times Three' firmly in 1979's storylines, when corporate raider Gregorian Falstaff was becoming a business irritant to Bruce Wayne, and foreshadows a tale in which Talia al-Ghul turns up in Gotham. But you don't need to have been reading back then to get this comic as Wein, professional that he is, provides all the context the story needs. He also has a little fun with such comic book tropes as the quiet night that explodes with activity the moment that the peace is commented upon, and villains whose equipment costs more than the stuff they're stealing. This wasn't something writers were encouraged to do at the time, but today Wein' is perfectly at liberty to tickle the genre, and he's good enough to do it without throwing us out of the comic book. 

Wein's Batman is chattier than readers today are used to, but he's recognisably the same man, especially to fans of Grant Morrison and Chris Burnham's Batman Inc. His dealings with the (truly) Terrible Trio - hack villains who announce themselves at every opportunity - make for a lovely, light-hearted diversion (click to enlarge images).
Drawing the issue is Tom Mandrake, a terribly underrated artist who's been making great comics since the Eighties, with long runs on Firestorm and the Spectre. He's no stranger to Batman and here he perfectly captures the atmosphere of the late Seventies - I'd swear his Bruce is a nod to the late, great Don Newton, who was also drawing Batman around this time - while adding a few flourishes of his own. The action sequences are especially good, clear, dynamic and stylish, and his Talia is to die for.

Talia stars in the comic's closing image which, while vaguely cliffhangery, plays fair in that, as with the Falstaff subplot, it's dealt with in the Batman books of the time - unlike the ending-that's-not of this week's frankly appalling DC Retroactive 1970s Wonder Woman #1. Anyway, I said that the editors of that book should take some of the blame, so kudos now to this book's editors, Chynna Clugston Flores (also one of that book's) and Jim Chadwick. The entire creative team does a fine job, so let's also namecheck colourist Wes Hartman and letterer Dezi Sienty.

Wein and Mandrake are talents too good to be confined to nostalgia events such as this and DC Legacies (which was nicely written by Wein). Given free reign to play in the coming, new DC Universe, who knows what gems they might come up with.

This giant issue is rounded out by 'Dark Messenger of Mercy' from 1979's Batman #307, an entertaining mystery by Wein, John Calnan and Dick Giordano. It's plot heavy and talky, but given that comics of the time only had 17pp to play with, I appreciated the value. Wein is on form, with marks subtracted only for some appalling Cock-er-neys. Gregorian Falstaff also gets a mention, and Lucius Fox and Alfred are present and correct, one supporting Bruce Wayne, the other, Batman. Commissioner Gordon is likewise on hand and on form in both stories.
And while Calnan - unlike such Batman artists of the Seventies as Walt Simonson, Frank Robbins, and Jim Aparo - didn't have a strong artistic signature, I always enjoyed his clean, no-nonsense style. And Giordano, of course - another artistic angel - was the Seventies Batman inker par excellence due to his work with Neal Adams.

I can't imagine a better example of a DC Retroactive book than this. It gives us a new story that fits perfectly with the old, and an old story that entertains both as a nostalgia nugget and on its own terms. 

SPECIAL PREVIEW REVIEW: Princeless #1 review

Postmodern takes on fairy tale tropes aren't new. In comics there's Fables, the big screen gave us Enchanted and Tangled, TV had The Charmings and the musical stage, Into the Woods. That doesn't mean there's no room for another entry in the mini-genre, especially when it's as good as Princeless #1, which is barbed yet affectionate, funny, smart, and like any good fairy tale prince, charming.

The story begins with a bedtime story read by a Queen, familiar stuff about a young royal rescued from a tower by a prince who slays a dragon. Princess Adrienne isn't impressed, pointing out such plot holes as a supposedly mighty dragon that can be killed with one blow and the lack of any sane motivation for locking up a sweet young thing. Mother isn't impressed by the questions, insisting that lots of families put their girls in towers ('They want only the bravest suitors for their daughter').

Fast forward several years and Adrienne has a tower of her very own, complete with dragon guardian and regular visits from princes who wind up not so much Charming as charred. She's rather peeved at the latest big hero, who doesn't get that while she may be a looker, she's anything but 'fair'. After finding a sword under the bed while he's seen off by 'her' dragon, Adrienne decides that the only way she's going to be freed is if she rescues herself. Persuading dragon Sparks that they're both part of an unjust society 
- one day the old girl's going to end up on the wrong end of a prince's blade, collateral damage in a twisted economic system - Adrienne sets off with her new partner to first prevent her youngest sister becoming the next prisoner, then free her elder siblings.

Meanwhile, the most recent Prince to fail is thrown into a pit by her father, while her brother Devin is considered too unmanly ever to inherit the throne. 

Jeremy Whitley's pacy, nicely structured script in this first of four parts is fluffy yet cutting. Adrienne is a delightful protagonist - intelligent, plucky and funny, trapped - like Howard the Duck - in a world she never made. Whatever else happens, I hope her parents get their comeuppance, whether that means tower or pit, and Sparks her freedom.

The full-colour art by Mia Goodwin is gorgeous, cute but with a sharp edge to match the script - there's a real spark to Adrienne that has me cheering her on. And Jung-Ha Kim does a fine job with the lettering, and colours on the book's back-up.

Said back-up, Mr Froggy, shows how Prince Wilcome is sent to Prince Charming's Charm School for Future Kings, to learn how to ride, fight and wear his hair in a bouffant. Full of bravado, he travels to the tower of the latest princess up for rescue and ... winds up in a  dungeon. Yep, this is the chap from Adrienne's tale, now in need of rescuing himself. Will the princess he so carelessly annoyed come for him? 

It's another attractive script from Whitley, with energetic artwork from DE Belton, showing that handsome princes, like princesses and dragons, can be victims too - if not so much.

Out in October and available for order in the August Previews, Action Labs' Princeless is a splendid palate cleanser for superhero lifers like me. I can't wait until it's collected - it's the perfect gift for your little princess. Especially if she's in a tower, bored.

Saturday, 23 July 2011

Supergods review

SUPERGODS: Our World in the Age of the Superhero
By Grant Morrison
Jonathan Cape, 444pp, £17.99

HALFWAY through his memoir, Scottish comic book writer Grant Morrison – he's just about to revamp Superman from the ground up for DC Comics – mentions going on holiday to Kathmandu. When he was there, he claims, beings from a higher plane of reality took him on a fantastic voyage and explained Man's place in the universe.

Most people will simply dismiss this as a drugs trip, but in his book it's the seemingly inevitable climax to a journey that begins in Govan, where he was born to activist parents who would take him and his sister on anti-nuclear demos. Comics – many of whose protagonists gained super-powers from radiation accidents, ironically – were always around in his childhood, both the British weeklies and the more glamorous, full-colour American monthlies. They fired Morrison's creativity, stirring him to produce his own strips and begin to think about becoming a comic book artist. That's when he wasn't imagining life as Captain Marvel, who transformed from newsboy to adult hero with one magic word: "I remember walking alone as a child, chanting every word in the dictionary, in the hope of finding my own SHAZAM!"

After graduating from Glasgow's rich underground "stripzine" scene and having had some success with DC Thomson's Starblazer digests – Commando books in space – Morrison was invited to write and draw Captain Clyde for the Govan Press ("… his enemies, no matter how powerful, tended to instigate their insane bids for planetary domination in the immediate environs of Chris Melville's rented flat in Hillhead").

Eventually he won regular writing work with London's Fleetway, publishers of the hugely popular 2000AD, which was beginning to serve as a seedbed of talent for DC Comics. The Americans liked the refreshingly punkish, art-school approach of the British invasion led by Alan (Watchmen) Moore. Zenith, Morrison and artist Steve Yeowell's thoroughly modern, terribly British take on the American superhero genre, paved the way for his first DC work, Animal Man, in 1988. A revamp of an obscure hero, Animal Man developed from a quirky take on that rarest of superheroes, the family man, to a meditation on what it means to be a comic character. Over time, Buddy Baker – "the man with animal powers" – learned that his reality was someone else's fiction, and met the creator who was destroying his life for the entertainment of an unseen audience. That creator was Morrison, in the first of several memorable comic book appearances.

For Morrison, who had developed an interest in magic, was embarking on an experiment: could he alter his own reality by donning a "fiction suit" and entering the comics? The project – which embraced shamanism, magic mushrooms, speaking in tongues and cross dressing – seemed to pay off. He based King Mob, in The Invisibles, on himself, making him the super-sexy, super-cool guy he wanted to be. Before long, Morrison's real life was a whirl of good fortune and synchronicity. He communed with, for want of better terms, angels and demons and his writing improved: "The world felt intensely awake and alive, as if I'd somehow learned to dance with it a little. My comics began to reflect this new freedom, becoming looser, more personal, and more psychedelic in that word's literal sense of 'mind manifesting'. It was hard to believe that people were paying me for what I soon came to realise was something close to self-therapy."

Whatever was going on, it led to Morrison's vision in Kathmandu, an experience which informs his world view – actually, make that worlds view – and writing to this day. "I understood that we were all holographic sections of something invisible to me in its entirety; I was reminded how to plug into the silver 'grid lines' that zipped and glistened in and out of being all around me. These lattices, I knew, were for the input and output of pure information." Sounds familiar, possibly, but this was before The Matrix.

Admittedly, there was the small matter of a brush with death via a bug caught on his world travels, but for Morrison – at least on this plane of reality – the only way is up. He's become one of the biggest names in comics, with such work as Doom Patrol, The Invisibles and Seaguy behind him.

Even when he works on the most corporate of characters, such as DC's Batman and Marvel's X-Men (in which one storyline was influenced by The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie), he weaves in the biggest of ideas while never losing sight of his players' humanity. All-Star Superman, a 12-issue series produced with illustrator Frank Quitely and colourist Jamie Grant – fellow Scots – eschewed modern miserabilist trends to show us the Man of Steel as he should be – the best of us all, a shining star. And this positive take on an American icon became the best-selling Superman run for years.

If this were just Morrison's story, the reminiscences of an original Scots thinker who works in a medium that silly people scorn, it would be worth your time. The sections detailing the writer's relationship with his father are especially touching. What makes this book exceptional is the history of comics that comes with the history of Morrison.

Starting with Superman's 1938 debut, he takes us through the most significant characters, identifying the motifs that recur again and again – chief among them the primal flash of lightning – and linking them back to the heroes and gods of classical times. Super-speedster the Flash, for example, is a modern Mercury, messenger of the gods, representing the power of language. Giants of the industry such as Jack Kirby are given their due, and the connections between the real world and the comics world are examined, such as Marvel's Sixties pretensions to Pop Art, and the "relevant" period when Green Arrow's boy sidekick, the aptly named Speedy, became a junkie.

My favourite chapter details how 1950s and 1960s Superman editor Mort Weisinger, a regular partaker of therapy, would use stories to address his issues, resulting in work that was inspired in its insanity. One memorable cover, which traumatised/excited a generation, saw eternally frustrated gal pal Lois Lane lash a life-sized Superman puppet while the real thing lay tied to a bench. Morrison writes: "The story itself was tame fare by comparison, but Weisinger's trademark, self-searching ability to transform every dirty subconscious coal into the gem of an idea was never more evident than here. This was a Jungian bowel movement rendered as a story for children."

At the same time, Superman's Pal Jimmy Olsen was finding any excuse to dress up as a girl. In one tale he went undercover as a gangster's moll, only avoiding his beau's mucky mouth by turning the lights off and shoving an amorous chimp at the grateful hood. No one at the News of the World ever went to such lengths for a story.

As a superhero fan, I found this a diverting read. As a people fan, I found it unputdownable. Grant Morrison never found the magic word that would turn him into an instant Superman, but he learned to weave a few magic words along the way, altering not just his characters' reality, but his own. And maybe yours.

Friday, 22 July 2011

Legion of Super-heroes #15 review

Star Boy's multiversal energies are used by Professor Harmonia Li to open the gate to her homeworld of immortals, currently under attack by the Legion of Super-Villains. Thom and Harmonia stay behind to maintain the portal while the rest of the heroes fly through, along with Oan spirit Dyogene. On the other side of the barrier, everyone fights.

That's it. That's the story Paul Levitz gives us in the penultimate issue before this series restarts as one of DC's New 52 in September. And it's great. We've had several issues of set-up, with encounters between LSH and LSV sub-teams along the way, but I'm ready for a big blow-out. And here it is as the good guys show the bad guys what's what, not quite wrapping up the story, but inflicting a fair few bruises. Dawnstar and Tellus are on especially good form, taking on the formidable Saturn Queen. Star of the show, though, is Gates, who well and truly saves their bacon as the hyper-hypnotist's strength of mind tells on his colleagues. Tyroc also shines - or rather, screams - while Sun Boy shows Sun Killer who's the number one solar act. 

Polar Boy proves that super powers aren't just for violence when Timber Wolf is hurt, Lightning Lass, as ever, heads straight for mad brother Lightning Lord .... even Mon-El gets to do something other than chat to Dyogene. Not much, mind - he provides a travel bubble and makes a cage; methinks Levitz finds Mon as Green Lantern as boring as I do. Hopefully the notion will disappear post-Flashpoint.

The mysterious Adversary pops up once more but remains unnamed and doesn't yet reveal his hand. 
Saturn Queen gives him a big hand, mind, on a typically attractive page by penciller Yildiray Cinar and inker Jonathan Glapion. Cinar has improved with every outing - and I enjoyed his work from the off - while Glapion adds a terrific, gritty edge where appropriate, as in the Dawnstar shot here.

The pair's work this issue is exemplary - if I didn't know this was Cinar's last issue I'd think it was his last issue. He really pulls out all the stops, nowhere more so than on a tremendous spread focusing on the overall melee. It's the kind of overview I want to see when the Legion faces a threat that requires the massed membership. I don't know whether Levitz arranged the script - lettered by the talented John J Hill - to leave room for the spread, or Cinar got the nod to move things around to accommodate it. I'm simply glad someone sorted things out - it's the perfect sign-off. (Cinar is illustrating the new Fury of Firestorm book debuting in September, using a greytone style. I'm there.)

The cover by Cinar, Glapion and interior colourist Hi-Fi is well done, but really, Sun Emperor again? Enough with the flaming covers already, weren't #11 and #13 enough? More group shots, that's what the Legion covers need. Maybe next series ...

Thursday, 21 July 2011

DC Retroactive 1970s Wonder Woman review

'Groovy' is the buzz word used to describe this callback to Wonder Woman's days as globetrotting adventurer Diana Prince. After reading the issue, that's not the first term that springs to mind.

As the Sixties ended, plunging sales led to a radical revamp for Wonder Woman. Bereft of her powers, she used martial arts and sex appeal as the DC Universe's own Emma Peel, taking on spies, dragon ladies, barbarians and butch biddies in wacky, fast-moving adventures. The best were written and drawn by Mike Sekowsky.

Others were written by Denny O'Neil.

And it's O'Neil who returns to Di Prince as part of DC's Retroactive project, in which original creators bid to recapture the glories of earlier years. Well, whatever O'Neil's caught here, I hope it's not too infectious. For this story is a mess.

For one thing, it's not even set during the Di Prince years, but some unspecified time afterwards. That's likely because Paradise Island was off in another dimension at the time, but it's a big part of this story. We join Diana as she's parachuting over her homeland, which is being dragged beneath the sea. Diving down, she comes across a mysteeeeeeeerious base where a mysteeeeeeeerious head in a shapeshifting green object - now it's a cube, now it's a pyramid - tells her she's failed, sinned etc. She must undertake three tasks in order to save Paradise Island from a gigantic swinging blade.

Diana reluctantly agrees and the head says that first she must be as she was when she sinned. Her costume changes into one of Di Prince's trademark white outfits, and her powers drain away (not that they were very impressive earlier, given that she could barely swim underwater).

So off she pops through various scenarios, meeting and defeating Joan of Arc and Goliath, while a butterfly hangs around. It turns out the insect is mechanical and when smashed, Paradise Island is restored to the surface and Queen Hippolyta appears to point out that Diana never faced a third ordeal, but maybe a bit of a swim counted as one. We never learn what Diana's alleged sin was and the head isn't seen again, but a hyper-chatty Amazon Wise Woman speculates that the whole experience was caused by some ancient random technology, er … it's hard to spell it out, as it makes no sense even to the characters. The final two panels are simply baffling.
And that's it. The story just stops. No 'the end' (or in proper Groovy style, 'NEVER the end'), no 'to be continued' - just a very worried-looking Wonder Woman, then a reprint of her tussle with a terribly cute Catwoman from WW (first series) #201, courtesy of O'Neil and Dick Giordano. It's not bad, but even that just stops - it was the first of a two-parter involving barbarians Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser, but the next issue blurb has been pulled. If whoever put this book together - hello editors Kwanza Johnson and Chynna Clugston Flores - were on the ball they'd direct readers to the four Diana Prince trades that came out in the last couple of years. But they don’t, so no sales there (I'll do it myself then - see below!) just a chance to enjoy some utterly sumptuous Dick Giordano artwork.

The main story is drawn by the talented J Bone, who does a nice job in the Di Prince sequences, but Lord, his Wonder Woman is grisly, a heavy-eyed crone in crumpled, star-spangled granny pants. Any kids who see this woman will run off screaming. Hippolyta is drawn as a brunette rather than the blonde of the period, which is typical of this comic's sloppiness. Another anachronism is O'Neil's use of narrative captions rather than thought balloons - I don't care what the kids today do, either we're going for a Seventies vibe or we aren't.

It's not all awful. I liked Diana's humorous, no-nonsense tone, and Bone's martial arts sequences are great. The cover's rather pretty, even if the presence of two Di Princes to one Wonder Woman has me scratching my head.

But it's mainly awful. The story, with its quest set-up, reads as if O'Neil thought he was writing a Sixties Retroactive comic and came up with a Robert Kanigher plot, then realised it was meant to be the Seventies and tweaked the story. Denny O'Neil likely knows what the story is about - given his interest in Eastern mysticism it's perhaps a metaphor for Diana on a drugs trip - but he's not given the reader much to go on. It's amazing to think that a man who's won awards and taught the skills of comic writing can produce a story so unsatisfying, so badly structured. Maybe the final page just dropped off the printer?

Whatever the case, don't buy this. If you want to see Wonder Woman as she was then, get the trades or check them out of the library. But don't reward DC for putting out this shoddy product.

Daredevil #1 review

Look Ma, no ninjas!

Matt Murdock's back in New York City, fighting villains in court and on the street. In this debut issue's opening salvo he saves the day when a surprise supervillain crashes a Mafia wedding, finds that it's not easy being an attorney when your secret identity's a bust and is attacked by someone who knows that when you're facing a guy with radar sense, firing glorified confetti at them is the way to go.

There's more, of course - law partner pal Foggy Nelson's unstinting support, new Assistant DA Kirstin McDuffie's strong suggestion Matt goes back to private practice and an unexpected kiss (click to enlarge). While this is a brighter take on the Man Without Fear, Matt's troubles of the last decade aren't swept under the carpet; they're front and centre as the motivation for his upbeat attitude.
Whatever the reason, I'm thrilled to see the return of the swashbuckling Daredevil, a hero we've not seen since the Marvel Knights run began several years ago. Matt's perkiness may mildly alarm Foggy after his bout of madness in the Shadowlands storyline, but it actually brings Matt back to what he once was - a serious hero with a playful way about him.

He also has a bad case of the hormones. Lordy, is Matt down with the ladies, driven near-mad with desire by the smallest sniff of a sexy scent. Again, it's the man grabbing at life, and it's refreshing. The grim Marvel Universe needs a few characters who can smile as they save lives, and if Matt's going to fill one of those slots for awhile, wonderful.

The villain of the piece is Spot, a Spider-Man foe whose seeming silliness is a declaration that this latest Daredevil series won't have angst as the default setting. Spot is actually a bit of a player, his teleportation powers and willingness to kill making him a challenge for Daredevil's radar and heightened senses.

Writer Mark Waid finds a pleasing balance between the opposing forces within Matt - beleaguered battler and nice guy who wants to let life in. And he does a brilliant job of demonstrating how the radar sense works. The background characters have their own voices and parts to play, while the cliffhanger is another reason to come back next time.

The story looks wonderful thanks to artists Paulo Rivera and Joe Rivera (are they perhaps related?). The layouts sing with action and emotion while the pages are finished with a tender precision. The Riveras bring Waid's fresh look at radar sense to life, while the hero in movement is classic Daredevil. And teamed with colourist Javier Rodriguez, they create a gorgeous New York, standing proudly in the morning sun.

There's more love for the Big Apple in a back-up story - this book is $3.99 and worth every penny - by Waid and Marcos Martin. It focuses on Matt's relationship with Foggy, who can rightly claim to be Matt's personal superhero. The latter is having a marvellous time explaining why he loves New York, and what it means to experience the city via radar sense, but Foggy has other things on his mind. He's concerned that the super-happy Matt is in denial. Matt, well, hopefully you'll buy the issue to find out ...

And to gasp, just a little, at Martin's layouts and finishes. From the hell that a noisy eater represents to a person with heightened senses to Matt showing that he's a regular Quicksilver when it comes to learning a musical instrument, it's pitch perfect, boundary-breaking comic art. The eye-popping highlight is a spread showing the friends walking the streets, appearing at various points in the massive panel, with cut-ins making it apparent what's catching Matt's attention. It's an awesome piece, a thematic companion to one Martin drew for Amazing Spider-Man #655 and a distillation of the teamwork that's gone into this strip. Waid's script is a gift to Martin, who executes it superbly. Colourist Mutsa Vicente makes the insets glow while Joe Caramagna (who also letters the first story) ensures the busy balloons work with the art.
If Marvel produces a 2011 end of year collection, like DC's old Best Of .. digests (and both companies may take that as a hint!) this story would be straight in there. It's a stylish reminder of who Matt is, what he can do and why he needs Foggy.

The issue also features a smartly executed opening page by Fred Van Lente, Martin and letterer Nate Piekos laying out the Daredevil story and a fabulously friendly lettercol feature tipping the hat to recently departed artistic legend Gene Colan.

Then there's Rivera's brilliantly conceived cover, as perfect a summary of Daredevil's uniqueness as you could wish for.

It all makes for a lovingly produced package reintroducing Matt as Daredevil, one honouring the past while looking to the future. With Waid, Rivera, Martin and co sticking around, this looks set to be a classic run.