Wednesday, 30 November 2011

FF #12 review

Last week, in Fantastic Four #600, the Future Foundation kids teleported the Baxter Building's upper three levels away in order to escape Annihilus' insectoid incursion. We rejoin them as they phase onto the top of a mountain in Latveria, just as an alternate world Reed Richards, time traveller Nathaniel Richards, super-villain Dr Doom and his adopted son Kristoff waltz around one another.

Coincidence? Unsurprisingly, no - infant genius Valeria Richards arranged the destination at the behest of Grandad Nathaniel, so he can use the FF's mixed bag of prodigies to, er ...

I have very little idea. Writer Jonathan Hickman is playing a very long game involving a gang of parallel Reeds, Nathaniel's connection to the Illuminati-ish version of SHIELD, four hidden civilisations and heaven knows what else. When there's a chart, I'll get back to you.

I do have hope of being able to work things out soon, now FF has split into two books - this one, and mother series the Fantastic Four. With two locations in which to tell his convoluted epic, Hickman can wrap things up much more quickly.

Or allow the various story strands to breathe still further. Maybe add some new ones.

Oh Lord.

Anyway, as a unit, this instalment is a more-than-pleasant diversion. The kids get some nifty dialogue - I love the contrast between manipulative Val and wannabe hero brother Franklin, while mini-Wizard Bentley has a delicious black streak of humour - and there's definite forward motion in the story, as alt-Reed bids to return home. Oh, and it's amusing to see Nathaniel Richards mess with the other adults' heads, and experience a Doombot with a sense of theatre.

The big revelation this issue is new penciller Juan Bobillo. On She-Hulk, a few years back, he produced delightfully whimsical superhero art. He's recognisably the same guy here, but his work has gone up a notch or two - it's a little more dramatic, as the more serious FF series demands, but it's also brighter, more open and attractive. Thankfully, he draws terrific children - moppet brainiacs, mutant scrappers, otherworldly urchins, all with appropriate expressions and body language. He's not half-bad at adults, either. And landscapes. Castles. Dragon Man. Doombots ... (Click on image to enlarge)
I especially appreciate that unlike lots of artists, he remembers that Franklin and Val aren't the same age - he's about eight, she's just beyond toddler (making her machinations all the creepier).

Credit, too, to longtime inking partner Marcelo Sosa for some splendidly delicate finishes, and colourist Chris Sotomayor, whose only 'sin' is to tint Alex Power's hair mouse rather than blond. Clayton Cowles supplies the commendable lettering. A demerit to whoever laid out the much-appreciated recap page, for misspelling 'Bobillo' (and merely mentioning this guarantees that this review will be full of typos, but you never know, someone at Marvel may actually see this and fix the error).

Previous FF artist Steve Epting provides a cover that's not in keeping with the new artistic approach, but goodness, it is lovely. Sadly, the FF logo remains rubbish, a clever design but bereft of any impact on the shelf.

Marvel could easily have labelled this as a new #1, given the slight tweak of emphasis, so good on them for not doing so, likely in recognition of the fact that most first-time readers wouldn't find this the most convenient jumping-on point. But for fans of Franklin, Val and their mates, students of Hickman's challenging tapestry of the Marvel Universe and devotees of wonderfully characterful artwork, this is the place to be.

Tiny Titans #46 review

The Protector may be the cover star this time, but he's not the most interesting thing about this issue. That can be found inside the comic - the mysterious lady in the purple robes ...
Yup, the enigmatic entity who helped the Flash tweak the DC Universe in Flashpoint #5 shows up here. Sort of. For older fans, it's a cute nod to the universe-shaking shenanigans of the last few months. For young kids, it's simply the Tiny Titans wondering who 'the lady in purple' is. They also get possibly their first lesson in the joys of comics confusion as Cyborg explains a rather big concept ...
Easy peasy!

But that's not my favourite panel this issue. That would be the moment Talon (evil Robin from a parallel world) enlists help to spoil the fun of the Protector (Robin substitute from a Teen Titans anti-drugs campaign).
Writer-artist Art Baltazar and co-writer Franco deliver another fun dollop of Titans for the titchies, full of sweet, jellybean-jewelled drawings and amusing banter. It's good-natured comics guaranteed to lift the spirits ... and it reveals just who the Purple Lady is. But I'm not telling!

And finally, the cover is signed 'after Jim Starlin' by Baltazar. I really should be able to recall what's being homaged, but I can't. Anyone?

Monday, 28 November 2011

Astonishing X-Men #44 review

It's been a rough few weeks for mutant leader Cyclops. Wolverine has decamped for Westchester with half the population of Utopia, leaving Scott Summers with a team of morally dubious characters to wrangle. Scott's physical recovery following a knockdown, drag-out fight with Wolverine is progressing well, but mentally and spiritually, he's in a bad place. Blasting apart the lockers of lost lieutenants Wolverine, Kitty Pryde and Beast would be our first clue.

Resident maddish scientist Dr Nemesis reckons it may simply be an oncoming storm that's making the permanently broody Scott extra-irritable. And a storm does indeed arrive - or rather, a Storm. Ororo Munroe, mohawked, magnificent and mischievous. Spotting that Scott needs breaking out of his funk, she greets him in the time-honoured Marvel superhero manner - with an attack. Scott rises to the challenge, using his powers in new ways, impressing watching Utopians and cheering himself up immensely.

Soon the pair are teaming up to take down Sentinels in Santo Marco, and their easy success leads to this issue's intriguing cover scene. It's the married Ororo who instigates the kiss, and while any resistance looks to be passive at best, Cyclops protests.

This isn't the Storm he knows, as becomes very obvious when he wakes up somewhere else, in a very sticky situation ...

With so many X-books being relaunched right now, the question arises: what is Astonishing X-Men for? Uncanny X-Men covers the quest for mutant equality, Wolverine and the X-Men re-establishes the school for gifted youngsters, Uncanny X-Force handles black ops. And so on - every title has a defined purpose, leaving Astonishing as the X-book without portfolio.

Incoming writer Grek Pak looks to have concluded that this is the perfect place for a spot of character building, and Cyclops is the lucky man. Good choice - Scott's been a miserable git, the authority figure who can't afford to lighten up, for years now. Giving him a mission away from his team lets him show just what he can do on his own; when he's not worrying about leading, or political agendas, or the safety of his fellows. The mere fact of having Scott use his force blasts in different ways this issue - pulses aimed at the ground to alter his momentum mid-air, blocking Ororo's lightning with his beam - makes him a little bit more interesting - he's growing. And his subsequent euphoria makes Scott more human, more likeable.

And we're also getting an alternate world story, one that reminds me of the glory days of the Exiles series. After this issue's climax, there's no way I'm missing the rest of the arc. Truth be told, though, I was sold on this storyline, Exalted, by the time we got to Santa Marco, scene of the X-Men's first encounter with the Brotherhood of Evil Mutants. It may not be relevant in the larger story, but fun nods to the X-Men's rich past equals extra value, and the quality of characterisation here is a joy to see. As well as Scott starting a journey, there's Ororo, refreshingly devil-may-care, but not so different to the Storm we've occasionally seen that it couldn't be 'our' weather witch. It's not like she hasn't changed her hair previously ...

And then there's the artwork. Mike McKone produces probably the best Cyclops since the days of John Byrne and Terry Austin - it's something about the way he draws the ruby quartz visor, it just is Scott Summers. And his Storm has the beauty, grace and strength Barry Windsor Smith gave her.

Not that this is a book of homages. He channels the sensibility of his predecessors, but McKone's way with a page is all his own. There's a rare dynamism to the book, as panel arrangement on the page and action within the frames work together to carry us from beginning to end at the right pace. Splashy panels give the big moments the weight they need, but the quieter points are never undersold.

McKone's artistic partner is Rachelle Rosenberg, a very gifted youngster indeed. The pages have a gorgeous vibrancy, none more so than the interior version of that Scott/Ororo 'moment', as blazing, exploding Sentinels contrast with that tender kiss. Fine letters, too, from Cory Petit.

Marvel solicitations call this 'the biggest, most exciting X-Men story in years'. Time will tell. For now I'm happy with 'one of the best comics I've read this month'. Because it's been a very good month.

Friday, 25 November 2011

Flash #3 review

As openings go, Flash #3 has a winner. Barry zooms up into a plunging plane and vibrates it through a Central City bridge and on to the surface of the river below, saving many lives. It's not easy for him, but he manages it due to his newly activated speed-thinking. He's now able to take in all the information around him, extrapolate possibilities and choose the right course of action. Sounds neat, eh?

The plane falls due to a blackout-causing electromagnetic pulse over Central and Keystone Cities. That means a busy time for Flash both in and out of costume, as he bids to save as many people as possible from harm in his super-hero guise, and aid his police department colleagues in his civvies. Being released from the lab gives Barry and gal pal Patty Spivot a chance to search for Barry's missing friend Manuel and investigate his connection to the pack of crooked clones known as Mob Rule.

They find Manuel - well, most of him - but are spotted by the villains. Barry manages to push his friends on to the street and to safety, giving him a chance to turn on the super-speed and save the day. With speed-thinking, it should be easy.

Not so much ...

Flash #3 is another home run from writers/artists Francis Manapul and Brian Buccellato. While Barry is, rightly, the focus of the story, they make room to show how reporter Iris West, and boffin Darwin Elias, work the same case. The former is trapped inside an Iron Heights cell with Captain Cold (looking older and colder, his power internalised), but safer with him than in the corridors where prisoners run wild; the latter bumps into the teenage Trickster, a couple of mystery men, some Mob Rule goons and a tank from last week's Flash-guesting Captain Atom #3 (or so an editor's note tells us - there are tanks in there, but the connection is far from obvious). We also find out a little more about the plausibly sounding mad science behind Manuel's one-man army. Let's just say: oink.

It's a packed issue, typically good-looking with artwork that demands to be 'read' at least as closely as the words on the page - especially in the shocking climax which shows that Barry's newest ability isn't quite the boon it seems.

We hear about Barry's other super-speed tricks in the opening sequence, a smooth-running blend of script and art that helps us get to know the speedster better. The writers have found an appealing voice for Barry, something he's not had in a long time.

The one tiny bump in the visuals is the opening graphic, which lays the hero's name into the cabin of the jet. There's not enough room for a full wingspan, and so much going on - a visual of passengers and crew, the super-size logo treatment, colour blocking - that it's not terribly apparent that we're looking at a plane. But I love that Manapul and Buccellato are striving to give their book a unique visual identity, the foreground figure of the Flash is stunning and they've slipped in a freehand version of the Seventies DC Comics cover font, tickling my nostalgia noodles.
And as implied, the other 19 pages are pretty darn great, with Manapul's illustrations and Buccellato's tones pulling us into the story, emphasising the most relevant information ... and sometimes just giving us a fantastic visual, such as Barry and Patty playing mounties on the streets of Central City, or Flash running across two pages. Every character is distinctive, every scene has its own flavour.

There are lots of great DC New 52 books, but none so successfully rethink how super-hero script and art can blend for the better. The experimentation makes for a ridiculously fresh reading experience. Buccellato and Manapul are going to win readers and awards alike with this series, and they deserve them all.

Thursday, 24 November 2011

Fantastic Four #600 review

It's anniversary time, as the Fantastic Four celebrates 600 issues and 50 years. You likely know that we've never seen issues #589-#599, with the series restarted as FF earlier this year after the FINAL ISSUE that was #598. You likely never believed that claim and didn't believe Marvel expected you to believe it.

Just as no one believed that as of the previous issue, Johnny Storm was dead. And he wasn't. But then he was ... we'll get to that later.

The 100-page book is split into five connected stories, all written by Jonathan Hickman, so let's look at them one by one.
First off, the Future Foundation - Mr Fantastic, Invisible Woman, the Thing and Spider-Man - rally the Avengers to stave off a Kree invasion of New York. There are several superb moments, the best of them - in terms of action and dialogue - involving Sue Storm Richards, de facto leader of the team in her husband's presence (click on image to enlarge). The Thing goes looking for girlfriend Alicia in SoHo and fights a Kree Sentry alongside Red Hulk and She-Hulk (the real one). Reed, though, doesn't do much other than subtly dismiss Spider-Man's brainpower - they're both geniuses with maths and science, but whereas Spidey has humility, Reed Richards is all hubris - only he can run the figures that will keep the Kree at bay. So it's Spider-Man who breaks away from the throng and winds up fighting the horde of Annihilus in the Baxter Building - he's too good a soul to hang around and argue that it's Mr Self-Proclaimed Fantastic who should be checking on his children.

Said kids Franklin and Valeria are front and centre as the Future Foundation class proves endearingly competent before blasting off into a subplot. And the Avengers get a good showing courtesy of Hickman's sharp script, with Ms Marvel and Red Hulk's knowledge of military tactics proving useful, while Iron Man - yet another Marvel Universe hyper-boffin - combines skill sets with an FF member to save Manhattan.

No, not Johnny Storm, he doesn't show up until the final splash, in the last of 28 gorgeous pages illustrated by penciller Steve Epting, inker Rick Magyar and - celebrating his 100th Fantastic Four assignment - colourist Paul Mounts. Their scenes of New York under siege are glorious, and if there's a person in the Marvel Universe this trio can't make look superb, I've ... hang on, the Kree Supreme Intelligence is in here, still looking like Lockjaw's greener brother.

It's the SI who ordered the attack on Earth. He has his own complicated reasons but I shan't dwell on them as they're connected to that mecca of boredom, the Inhumans subplot which filled/killed two issues of the FF book recently. Really, they boil down to 'destroy all humans'.

The second story spends a great deal of time - 48 pages - showing us what Johnny Storm's been doing in the Negative Zone since his 'death' in Fantastic Four #587. Refusing to help Annihilus break through to Earth saw him thrown into a painful cycle of death, rebirth and gladiatorial games. Finally he persuades his fellow prisoners - another dull batch of Inhumans - to break free, putting him in a position to return to Earth.

Hickman writes a terrific Human Torch - brave, stoic, inspiring - but goodness, does this story drag on. Carmine Di Giandomenica draws in a pleasantly loose style, somehow managing to make the kiddie Annihilus imposing and scary, as the monstrous ruler of another dimension should be. He also makes the most of some memorable images gifted him by Hickman's script, such as what passes for medical stitches in the Negative Zone. The colour work of Andy Troy lends a pleasingly unearthly touch to proceedings.

Next up, it's off to the Inhumans' home of Attilan as Madame Medusa and husband Black Bolt have a head-to-head. Literally. They meld minds as he bids to persuade her to put up with the horde of butt-ugly extraterrestrial 'wives' he's suddenly taken on. 'I did not choose this,' he bleats, apparently in thrall to the SI. She agrees to accept her 'sisters', which is as stupid a move as you'd expect from a woman content to spend her life as a glorified Speak & Spell machine.

I think this is the first time we've seen how the couple communicate, and as visualised by Ming Doyle and colourist Jordie Bellaire, it's engaging. But every night I pray Hickman will get over his obsession with Inhumans politics or move it over into some other book - Marvel Double Filibuster, anyone?

There's more weird alien communication in a brief strip showing Reed and Sue having a cosy chat with Galactus. The Devourer of Worlds gives them a Magimix Cosmic or somesuch to save the planet from some undefined future threat. Maybe the one at the front of the book, I have no clue. Galactus wants the Earth in one piece so that he knows the whereabouts of a 'Galactus seed' - likely to one day spawn a usurper to his role as Force Of Nature With Surprisingly Good Conversational Skills. It's an OK short, but indicative of Hickman's over-cerebral approach to the Fantastic Four, showing us pieces being placed on the playing board in advance of their being needed, rather than having the heroes find and grab 'em at breakneck speed mid-story. Still, we do get the beautiful pencils and inks of Leinil Francis Yu and Gerry Alanguilan, and colours of Javier Tartaglia. An extra layer of visual interest is added by letterer Clayton Cowles, who makes Galactus' word balloons suitably otherworldy.
There's more plot-seeding in the final story, as Hickman delivers an intriguing script allied to a cute gimmick - Franklin's eye-view artwork courtesy of Farel Dalrymple and colourist Jose Villarrubia. The naive approach suits the story to a tee. Ages ago, a future version of Franklin Richards reignited the godlike powers of his younger self. We see that since then, young Franklin and mutant pal Leech have been visiting a brand new Earth he's created inside a closet. At the end of the story, a whited-out figure appears and basically offers to visit daily and train him to be a god ... Asked who he is by Franklin, the figure replies: 'Just consider me your biggest fan.' It could be Older Franklin again, but Franklin's already met him, so why blanch him out? The beard and physique hint at the Wingless Wizard, but the head dome should be bigger. I'm getting flashbacks to someone drawn by John Byrne, but can't place the memory ... anybody?

So, lots going on in this massive comic, most of it entertaining, some of it exceptional. I'd say that in terms of today's market, you get your $7.99 worth - if you want a big, fat issue of the upstart FF. But as this issue sees the return of the Fantastic Four title (FF is continuing as a separate series), I'd like to have seen the focus firmly on Reed, Sue, Johnny and Ben as a team, working together to save the day. Instead, the focus is all over the place as Hickman continues to give us seemingly all his Fantastic Four stories at once. Hopefully, with two books the kitchen sink plotting will settle down and the pace will speed up somewhat.

Meanwhile, this is a decent anniversary issue for fans of Hickman's FF run, filled to the brim with colourful characters and Byzantine plotting. Sadly, with only 100pp to play with, a conclusion was too much to hope for.

Wednesday, 23 November 2011

Teen Titans #3 review

Kid Flash breaks out of the N.O.W.H.E.R.E. facility, taking another prisoner, Solstice, with him. Wonder Girl dresses up as a nurse to get information out of one of the brothers who comprise the villainous Thrice. And Red Robin, travelling cross country by train with teen insect queen Skitter, meets another new hero, Bunker.

Ah yes, Bunker. Advance DC publicity tells us he's gay, and I was dreading the arrival of The Gay Titan, complete with stereotyping and/or agenda baggage. Happily, as presented by writer Scott Lobdell and artists Brett Booth and Norm Rapmund, so far he's just a character who happens to be gay. I don't think the G-word is even mentioned this issue. He's gay all right, but it's in the original sense of the word - Miguel Jose Barragan is a sunny fella, open, funny and great company. He's a splendid foil for the oh-so-serious Red Robin, and I can see these two becoming big buddies.

He also has psionic powers that are going to be very useful when he learns to apply them properly. Think purple Teen Lantern and you're pretty much there. He can build bricks with lavender (ahem) energy, using them as a battering ram, to reinforce a fist, that sort of thing. Now if he can just find a decent name ... Bunker, Lord, it's as bad as Skitter ('Why would someone call herself ...' begins Bunker, Bibilical physician). And the costume colouring, red and purple, isn't attractive.

Another future Titan who's been having problems using his powers as smartly as possible is Kid Flash - in the debut issue he made a blaze situation worse with his grandstanding. Here, though, he gets a standout scene, combining super-speed and the knowledge that's allowed him to glean to rescue Solstice. In an eye-catching spread, Booth and Rapmund show multiple Barts zipping around the N.O.W.H.E.R.E. prison while numbers and a red through-line guide us through the action. Booth's storytelling is good enough that we'd be able to follow even without the graphics, but their addition makes for a distinctive opening to the issue. It's followed by an amusing moment in which Bart realises that boots built for traction are a speedster's best friend.

Other fun scenes include Red Robin's encounter with new villain Detritus - a grubbier version of old JLA baddie The Construct - and its aftermath; Solstice learning a little of what she can do; and Wonder Girl having a great time with a spot of play acting. Lobdell finds a pleasing balance between wittiness and smart-arse self-awareness, best evidenced in the opening exchange between Red Robin and Detritus.

It's all energetically presented by Booth and Rapmund, with plenty of big moments. The story is brightly coloured by Andrew Dalhouse, and Dezi Sienty's lettering puts the script across clearly. The cover, by Booth, Rapmund and Dalhouse could showcase Bunker a little more effectively - Red Robin dominates - but it's not half-bad.


Three issues in and this series is gelling nicely, with likeable, distinctive characters coming together for a very good reason - to protect themselves from outside forces. I don't know whether this is meant to be a metaphor for young people growing up in a scary world they never made ... I do know that this is a thoroughly entertaining super-hero comic. And next issue the Teen Titans unite for the first time - if the quality continues to improve, it'll be well worth checking out.

Friday, 18 November 2011

Red Hood and the Outlaws #3 review

The Red Hood, Starfire and Arsenal descend into the depths of the Chamber of All in search of the Untitled, slayer of assassins' guild the All-Caste. Yes, the names are the pompously vague type typically associated with Himalayan mystical realms in comics, but don't be put off - this is a gripping issue of the new team title. For it gives us our first real insight into who Jason Todd, Koriand'r and Roy Harper are in DC's recently tweaked reality.

The device facilitating flashbacks is S'aru the Proctor, millennia-old gatekeeper of the Chamber. In return for allowing the Outlaws to pass, he grabs their most precious memories, to be returned if they find their way back. Red Hood and pals descend into the Chamber via a staircase inspired by MC Escher, and it's a structure apparently attuned to Jason's memories given the inclusion of gigantic Joker mouths. Inside, they battle a horrendous ogre in pursuit of a shining globe atop a monstrous plinth.

Outside, S'aru peeks at the memories held dearest by the three adventurers - the girl Koriand'r showing her alien slavers that while she's their prisoner, she's not their plaything; Roy Harper attempting to fulfil a death wish in an encounter with Killer Croc; and Jason Todd ... well, that would be perhaps one spoiler too many. It's one of those moments you'll probably see coming while worrying that it won't arrive, and it's a bittersweet emotional beat on which to close the issue. Just two months on from some unfortunate first impressions, we're gifted insight into our three leads, showing that writer Scott Lobdell really does know what he's doing.

Even if he does misspell 'Kory' throughout.

Oh all right, new continuity, new rules - let's say he re-spells the shortened form. Doesn't mean I won't pull a face!

But that's the only problem I have with this issue. Jason. Kori (ugh) and Roy are nicely differentiated in terms of personality, methods, background and attitude, but they gel marvellously. There's an easy camaraderie fueled by affection that manifests as teasing and bickering, but when the proverbial chips are down, the gang of three have one another's backs. Lobdell's jokes fit the characters, and he places them sparingly and well, without losing sight of the bigger drama - who is The Untitled and why did he, she or it kill the All-Caste?
The presentation of Kori is heartening, as her dialogue makes it clear that despite apparent memory problems in the debut issue, she remembers her past (click on image to enlarge). According to S'aru her brain processes memory differently to that of Earth people, but it seems she's all there - just very guarded in what she chooses to address, share. And she's certainly given respect in the field, as the team member with the best warrior instincts. That's not to say the skills of Red Hood and Arsenal are shabby, but her martial background and years of imprisonment have honed Starfire's fighting and survival skills to incredible levels.

Penciller Kenneth Rocafort and digital inker Blond are Lobdell's perfect partners, their art a pleasing mix of bombast and delicacy. The monster is the equal of any you'll find so far as fearsome looks are concerned, and the steps to the Chamber make for a mouthwatering spread. But there's a lightness to the rendering that lends an air of fairytale that suits this story of superheroes on a quest. The artefact they finally find is more Rosebud than Rosetta Stone, but it's a clue, and intriguing as designed by Rocafort.

The flashback scenes show how comfortable the artists are with different environments, as we go from a Citadel prison on some alien world to the gritty rooftops of Gotham and the more rarefied atmosphere of stately Wayne Manor (complete with a Shakespeare bust reminiscent of the Sixties TV show). As well as inker, Blond has his more familiar colour credit, and what a superb job he does, for example, laying down jewel tones for scenes with S'aru and sickly greens and yellows for the monster.

Rocafort and Blond also supply the outstanding cover, which gives us a good look at the revised Robin costume worn by Jason as a lad - it's very odd in the leg department, with strange, faffy bits. Points for uniqueness, though. Speaking of the cover, why isn't Blond credited alongside Lobdell and Rocafort? As colourist and inker he's playing a sizable part in the book's unique look.

Red Hood and the Outlaws is superheroes meet Indiana Jones in a buddy movie, a uniquely entertaining  mix that justifies its place in DC's tranche of new titles. Next issue promises to explain that 'outlaws' bit of the logo. I can't wait.

Thursday, 17 November 2011

Legion of Super-Heroes #3 review

The Dominator fleet is ready to set down on the United Planet watchworld of Panoptes but a team of Legionnaires aren't taking the threat lying down. They leap into the sky and wipe the graveyard grins off the faces of their longtime foes. The bad guys don't know new members Chemical Kid and Dragonwing, recognising only Phantom Girl and Chameleon Boy, and assume the quartet won't be much trouble.

Wrong. Cham changes into a massive winged beast to attack the space destroyers, while Tinya uses her intangibility to first enter, then cripple, several ships. Chemical Kid throws himself into the fray, speeding up fuel reactions, while Dragonwing sprays firebreath and acid venom around.

Elsewhere on the world, other Legionnaires try to take down Daxamite Res-Vir, the planetary patriot who opened the door to the Dominators. But with fellow Daxamite Mon-El, powerhouse Ultra Boy, matter transmuter Element Lad and the very distracting Shadow Lass on hand (I'm being literal, not sexist!), he doesn't stand much of a chance.

While these five are tussling, nearby other members attack the Dominator fleet, with Sun Boy and Comet Queen proving useful, and Polar Boy devastating.

Across the galaxy, on Daxam, Cosmic Boy, Lightning Lass, Shrinking Violet and Invisible Kid try to learn more about Res-Vir. And on Earth, even as he's advising his teammates via interplanetary hologram, Brainiac 5 tests the limits of teenage witch Glorith's powers.

Whew! A busy one this. And easily the best Legion comic since the New 52 relaunch - writer Paul Levitz really knows his characters and is one of the few writers who regularly has metahumans use their powers in smart, surprising ways. So here we have Phantom Girl doing some Kitty Pryde-style mechanical disrupting, while Polar Boy uses the ships' cold-proofing against itself.

What's also wonderful is the camaraderie between the team - while there are occasional fallings out back at Legion HQ, in the field this gang acts as one. Not for Mon-El any lingering resentment over Shadow Lass having left him, he's too busy praising her heroism. Newbies Chemical Kid and Comet Queen are fitting in nicely, while Dragonwing is less irritating than she was (she's still attention-seeking, mind). With little touches such as the protocol when disembarking onto a new planet, Levitz reminds us that the Legion are professionals. And hurrah, Res-Vir gets a villain name - the Renegade - this issue, as the Dominators reveal that they have 'our answer to the Legionnaires' almost ready to launch.

Illustrator Francis Portela gets better by the month, choreographing massive battles like a veteran, and giving almost every member a moment in the artistic spotlight. Only Invisible Kid seems to vanish into the background, but for all I know he could be having a big old hero moment right in front of me. Portela seems comfortable with all the character designs, with Phantom Girl and Cosmic Boy apparent favourites, and he looks to relish Cham's transformations. He's also getting a little wilder with the layouts, giving us panel designs that progress the story while tickling the eyes. My one request would be to tweak Dragonwing so that I stop mistaking her for the Secret Six's Ragdoll.
I'm used to bright and shiny scenes from Portela, but he surprises with the interior of the Dominators' ships and the horrible visages of its operators. I don't think they've looked so scary since Todd McFarlane drew them over 20 years ago. Praise is also due to the talented duo of colourist Javier Mena and letterer Pat Brosseau, both of whom are vital to this good-looking comic.

The Dominators look differently eerie on that Chris Sprouse/Karl Story cover up top, while the Legionnaires are suited and booted and ready for their close-up.

Levitz and co seem to be hitting their stride now, so hopefully superhero fans will sit up and take notice. It's about time the Legion had a hit comic once again, and this could well be it.

Wednesday, 16 November 2011

Supergirl #3 review

Kara Zor-El can't believe her newly super-ears. The man claiming to be her cousin is telling her that her homeworld, Krypton, is no more. Because he has no evidence to show her, because only three days ago she was babysitting the child this ... Superman ... claims to be, Kara turns tail. She flees China and returns to Siberia, where the pod that brought her to this strange new world came down.

There she finds no pod, but is joined by a hologram, avatar of an Earthling she can't understand. But we readers can, so are introduced to Simon Tycho, a 28-year-old trillionaire who pays national governments for the right to reclaim any extraterrestrial objects which land in their territory. He's taken Kara's pod to his satellite base above Earth, and lures her there for a series of trials.

An encounter with mechanical, heat beam-blasting butterflies reveals a new wrinkle to the regular super-power set, while a transparent brain being makes things a little sticky. Kara overcomes both, only to fall to a bad case of irony.

Writers Michael Green and Mike Johnson provide the best issue yet, striking a fine balance in their presentation of Kara. She's annoyed, yes, but understandably so. Unlike last issue, she doesn't lash out at Superman, she removes herself from his confusing presence. And she shows insight into people, realising that whoever this Superman is, 'there's something in his voice. Like he can only ever tell the truth'. And she recognises that the holo-smile of Tycho isn't the smile of a friend, it's that of a crocodile. She's using her brain, trying to work out what's going on and how to control her new abilities.

It's all very engaging.

Superman also does well out of this script, with Green and Johnson providing one of the best summations I can recall of what he's about (click on image to enlarge).
And how beautifully the cousins are rendered by regular artist Mahmud Asrar and visiting inker Bill Reinhold. Teamed with colourist Paul Mounts' sensitive tones, they produce stunning work, marrying dynamic layouts to delicate expressions - the feeling is as important as the force in this issue, and the three artists capture that. And look, they sneaked in Superman's banned kiss curl - ha!

The only thing I don't like about the art isn't their fault - how Supergirl and Superman look in their new costumes. When Mattel comes to make the next round of action figures there'll be no having to work out the points of articulation (let's just hope they have enough skin tone for Supergirl's Arse of Steel).
Rob Leigh, as he does in many comics each month, produces splendid lettering.

The cover, also by Asrar, is another winner, with Kara suitably stunned and the green of the exploding Krypton reflecting how sick she feels on hearing - and inwardly, believing - that her home and loved ones are gone. It's a terrific opening to a terrific issue.

Wonder Woman #3 review

In which the Amazons bury their dead and Diana learns that she has a father as well as a mother.

Last issue, in the midst of tricking Amazon into killing Amazon, demi-goddess Strife told Diana that they shared a father - Zeus. Diana didn't believe this, her mother Hippolyta having told her that she was a clay statue brought to life in answer to her mother's prayers.

Believing herself to be responsible for the slain, Hippolyta feels ashamed. She admits to Diana that Strife speaks the truth - she is the result of a passionate affair between Queen of the Amazons and King of the Gods. Learning she was pregnant, Hippolyta concocted the magical birth story to hide Diana from Zeus' wronged, vengeful wife, Hera. Feeling her life to be a lie, Diana goes into the Amazon jungle (no, not that one) and smashes things for awhile, before emerging and announcing that she is no longer to be referred to as Diana, and certainly not by the dismissive nickname Clay - from now on, it's Wonder Woman.

Clay? Really? The queen allowed her beloved child to be referred to so dismissively while growing up? It's one thing to keep a lie going, but allowing your child to be hurt in the process? Not cool.

Mind, Diana seems sanguine about the nickname; less so about her mother's well-intentioned deceit. While I'm not buying writer Brian Azzarello's self-evidently silly argument that having a father who's a god is more relatable than Diana being a transformed statue (not a Golem, that's a culturally specific term), the comic book Hippolyta of earlier continuities has form when it comes to lying to Diana 'for her own good'. And Diana has been angry at her previously, on learning the truth. This lie, though, is rather massive, changing Diana's sense of self - her mother is her genetic parent; she has a dual heritage as Olympian as well as Amazon; and >ulp< she's likely to be murdered by one of the most powerful of the gods. It's a lot to take in, and given that praying to her deities for succour might not be the wisest move right now, I can understand her smashing a few things. 

But I'm not delighted that when she comes out of the jungle she immediately puts the trash-talking Amazon Aleka in her place, with a well-placed punch. Yes, Aleka is stirring up ill-feeling against Diana, but she does have a point - knowing that the mortal Zola was being hunted by Hera's monsters, bringing her to Paradise Island wasn't the wisest of ideas. Rather than lash out with a closed fist, Wonder Woman should hold out a conciliatory open hand - love and understanding is meant to be the core of her being.

And while I'm not judging Hippolyte for her unwise choice of  man/god, her obvious pleasure in sharing the details of her shenanigans while purporting to be ashamed makes her seem like a daft old tart. Then there's the crab fight on the beach as Aleka rabble rouses - it's not subtle.

Things I do like in the script include the spunk of Zola, which is enough to stop gods in their tracks, and the mischief of Strife, always stirring the pot. And it's good that Azzarello obviously know just where his story is going, and he has a fine turn of phrase.

It's just a shame that he's turned Diana into the kid who's OK with who they are, only to suddenly find themselves the scion of a rich clan - the Adam Carrington of the superhero set. I truly hope this series isn't going to be filled with godly, godawful soap opera. At its best, the Wonder Woman strip is a delicate balance of superheroics and mythology - go too far in the one direction, confine her to one milieu, and Diana loses a big part of her appeal.

And never mind Zeus, Diana's real-life father, William Moulton Marston, intended Diana to inspire. Wonder Woman's powers weren't innate, they were the result of Amazon training. She strove to become the finest, wisest warrior on Paradise Island - her only birthright was her mother's love. So making Diana an actual demi-god cheapens the ideal of Wonder Woman, takes away from her message that any of us could become a wonder too.

On the artistic side, Cliff Chiang continues to dazzle. His Diana has the physique of an athlete rather than a whippet-thin model, while - partnered with colourist Matthew Wilson - he choreographs action and sets the mood superbly. There's one panel in which Diana's body is a little off, and unfortunately it's the capper to the issue, but disappointing Chiang is still pretty nice

And there's one hilarious panel in which ... wait, I'll show you ...
I'm a great proponent of 'sometimes a cigar is just a cigar' but Lord, that's one big fat Cuban. Still, the Zeus scenes have the requisite sexy intensity to them, probably more than a Teen-rated comic should have. This is a good-looking book, it's a well-written book. I just hope the creative team remembers that it's supposed to be a Wonder Woman book.

Justice League #3 review

Wonder Woman joins Superman, Batman, Flash and Green Lantern as winged beasts wreak havoc in Metropolis, destroying property and kidnapping citizens. Meanwhile in Detroit, another attack by the aliens sees STAR Labs scientist Professor Ivo carried away as colleague Silas Stone bids to save son Victor from succumbing to burns received as the monsters arrived in a tunnel of energy. Filled with advanced nanobots, Victor's mind links to that of the massive creature rising from the Metropolis ocean. And another hero enters the fray ...

I think it's fair to say this book is firing on all cylinders now, delivering a solid mix of story advancement, characterisation and action. The introduction of Wonder Woman in this five-years-ago serial shows us that she's new to the United States and being babysat by the military. Leaving via the wall is apparently her way of reminding her minders that she's not their prisoner. There is one minder whom Diana doesn't seem to mind, though - liaison Steve Trevor. He follows her onto the streets of Washington DC as she searches for a winged creature news reports say is assaulting citizens, and frets needlessly about her safety.

Diana's interaction with a little girl and a street vendor are delightful, demonstrating that while she's fierce when there's a monster to be stopped, she's all about enjoying life. And her introduction to her future League colleagues, and their reaction to her, hits some entertaining notes.

The heroes don't yet know they're facing para-demons from Apokolips, and that the thing rising from Hobbs Bay is Darkseid, but they do know they're up against an evil too powerful for a single hero.

Geoff Johns jollies the story along nicely with a well-paced narrative, and offers some gems of dialogue ('Has anyone seen a harpy?') while penciler Jim Lee and inker Scott Williams produce their best artwork yet on this series. The pages blaze with incident without looking cluttered and the struggle between heroes and villains makes for an entertaining ride. We see the power of Superman, GL's concentration issues, Flash's multi-tasking and Batman's ability to hold his own without powers. There are a few splashes and spreads, all used well in the pursuit of impact.

The only thing I'm not happy about is Diana slicing and dicing with an (apparently extendable) sword. It's been said many times, but she's not Xena, Warrior Princess. The creators of Xena copied her - she's Wonder Woman, and the only weapon she needs to defeat any opponent is her magic lasso. Yes, it restrains, but it can certainly lash a beastie if necessary, and can put a foe down without killing them. You know, like a hero should. Using a sword makes Diana look less impressive, not more.

It's interesting to finally see how the new costume designed by Lee for Wonder Woman works when he draws it; I'd not previously noticed that the tiny chest eagle head is part of a star design, which is clever, but if there's one thing this outfit doesn't need, it's more stars. Sure, Diana has far fewer on her shorts than in previous times, but they've migrated to her bustier, a choker, an armband ... and there are so many jagged edges it seems Wonder Woman likes a bit of pain as she moves. But then, Lee really does go for bits of costuming that get in the way of free movement, such as Superman's long sleeves that cover the back of his hands, and his and Green Lantern's high mandarin collars that would give any normal person a crick in the neck. Fussy fussy fussy.

Still, I can stand a bit of bad superhero fashion if the comic is good, and it's not like it'll last. Meanwhile, you won't find a bigger, noisier superhero story for your $2.99 (US) this week.

Sadly, this book is $3.99, and after the 22 pages of fun we have another look at Jim Lee's sketchbook, showing us how he's made GL's costume needlessly complicated with all kinds of noodling that will be ignored by other pencillers, inkers and colourists the minute his back's turned.

Worse, we have a five-page 'extract' from an in-universe book, The Secret History of Atlantis, by one David Graves. Sounds interesting? It isn't. This is pure Amazon.com 'Look Inside' space-wasting, with a bare cover, library card page, About the Author, dedication and foreword. Don't waste your time looking for interest, here's the meat: 'Atlantis may exist'. Oh, and Sea Devils leader Dane Dorrance is mentioned, whoop-de-doo.

DC really is stealing money with this filler material. We need a Justice League to stop them.

Friday, 11 November 2011

Legion Lost #3 review

Good Lord, what a horrible creature on that cover.

It's Dan DiDio in an OMAC tee shirt!

Kidding ... well, not about DC's co-publisher, there he indeed is, just above the barcode. But I mean the monster Timber Wolf's fighting. It's one of the alien/human hybrids created by the Hypertaxis Plague released by 31st-century terrorist Alastor into the 21st century. And it's out for blood, hunting and killing other victims of the virus.

The why is revealed on the final page, but before that we see Timber Wolf, this issue's narrator, steal a police car as he tracks down the killer. Teammates Tellus and Dawnstar are using their telepathy and tracking to find other victims of the plague, while sonic boomer Tyroc and energy being Wildfire attempt to rebuild their disabled tech.

It's another improved issue of the new Legion of Super-Heroes spin-off, building the momentum and continuing the character work. It also adds a couple of new mysteries to the storyline - as well as the nature of the killer's quest, there's the identity of the woman glimpsed by Tellus on a telepathic sweep. It seems she's keeping tabs on the virus too, could she be connected to the Metacontrol organisation referred to by an air traffic controller left in Dawnstar's super-speed wake?

We also see Timber Wolf using his heightened senses in a disgusting, but effective, way, prior to a blisteringly good fight scene that ends when the hero gains a surprise advantage.

Other good moments include glimpses of 'native' DCU heroes during Tellus' mental recce, and the Legionnaires' difference of opinion over whether they should ask them for help. Then there's the ending ...

Read DC's publicity for this issue and you learn that the killer beast is named Red Rage, a fact not made clear in the story, though it is the name of the chapter. More interestingly, we're meant to learn the answer to the question: 'What secret does Tyroc hide in plain sight'? After several reads, all I can say is: beats me. The goggles that seem glued to his forehead finally cover his eyes, as he works on the knackered tech, so perhaps he's short-sighted. Shocking.

Anyone? Or is this a case of Solicitation Gone Wrong?
What hasn't gone wrong is the story and art. Fabian Nicieza's script is a fine balance of searing action and quieter moments, peppered with sparky dialogue. Pete Woods' illustrations get stronger by the month as he makes the Legionnaires his own. The scene in which Timber Wolf smashes into the mall, leaping from a police car at, yeah, Red Rage, is outstanding. And every page is superbly coloured and lit by Brad Anderson (who also tones that great Woods cover), and lettered by Travis Lanham. The whole creative team - and that includes editors Darren Shan and Brian Cunningham - is really gelling, having taken this book from ho-hum to hoo-hah in just three issues.

Legion Lost? Hardly.

Wednesday, 9 November 2011

Marvel Point One #1 review

Every three years Uatu, Earth's Watcher, takes a break. For 42 minutes he uploads memories to the Watcher Collective, leaving the 616 Universe occupied by Marvel's heroes unobserved. This provides the opportunity for dodgy scientists to sneak around the Blue Area of the moon and look into the 'wall of memories', portals into other universes - a What If? Wall, if you like. This sequence - efficiently scripted by Ed Brubaker and drawn with Ditko-esque daring by Javier Pulido - frames half a dozen past, present and future hints at what's coming from Marvel next year

They see: Terrax the Tamer, former Herald of Galactus, ignore Nova's warnings to evacuate the planet, resulting in him and the people he affects to protect being eaten by the Phoenix force. Jeph Loeb scripts in charmingly bombastic style, Ed McGuinness and Dexter Vines provide generally good-looking art, but choose to draw the Human Rocket as a ten-year-old. The colours of Morry Hollowell are outstanding.

A peaceful future in which mutants have displaced humanity is disrupted by a group calling themselves, stupidly, the X-Terminated, the last five humans alive. David Lapham provides the tough-talking script while Roberto De La Torre supplies the intense illustrations. The lovely colourwork here is to the credit of Lee Loughridge.

Kaine beginning his new life as the Scarlet Spider, fighting the instincts that tell him to kill. The short is brought to us by writer Chris Yost, who handles Kaine's internal narrative well, and artists Ryan Stegman and Michael Babinski do a fine job of making a Spider-Man knock-off in a hoodie rather sinister.

Heat and cold-controlling twins Dragonfire and Coldmoon learning that they're pawns of an evil corporation. Fred Van Lente writes a pleasant, unremarkable opening, apparently ignorant of the fact that British readers will titter heartily at the forename Wanxia. Salvador Larroca and colourist Guru-EFX produce juicily crisp artwork.

Dr Strange finding that realities colliding could mean the end of all in a pedestrian script by Matt Fraction, nicely drawn by Terry and Rachel Dodson - but Stephen Strange looks a right Wanxia in a bowler hat.

The Avengers in an apocalyptic battle against an army of Ultrons. Brian Michael Bendis is sparing with the dialogue but the script has a good blockbuster quality. Penciller Bryan Hitch benefits from the laser-sharp inks of Paul Neary, but their dramatic art suffers from some off-register printing.

And the bad boffins of the framing sequence reveal their ultimate plan - to facilitate the murder of The Watcher by someone known as The Unseen.

And unseen, by me at least, is what most of the continuations of these threads will be. The Ultron business looks like another Days of Future Past scenario, but instead of X-Men and Sentinels we have Avengers and Ultrons. Plus, it's being run in Avengers by Bendis, whose work I find usually begins well, before rambling into nothingness. And Kurt Busiek already gave us an ultimate Ultron War.

The X-Terminated are showing up in X-Force as the Age of Apocalypse gets another go-round ... I found the first time bad enough. Plus, it features some of the least-interesting X-Men villains - William Stryker, Donald Pierce, Graydon Creed, preachy types all.

After the excellent Spider-Island I've been intending to pick up Scarlet Spider, but even though he's not killing anyone here, Kaine is far too keen on slashing for my taste. I'll likely give it an issue or two, see if he gets a tad gentler.

The Defenders, too, I was already planning on picking up, but the Dr Strange taster dims my enthusiasm; I realise a first chapter can't have the hero enjoying the big win, but Stephen Strange is naive to the point of uselessness here. Perhaps the addition of Iron Fist, Silver Surfer, and, well, none of my actual favourite Defenders, will help. I'll try issue one, at least, in the hope that Nighthawk, Hellcat and the other fun Defenders show up.

Super-powered twins, hot and cold powers - it all feels over-familiar, but I love that Coldmoon and Dragonfire smile constantly, and wouldn't mind following them, for a while, at least. Shame this book doesn't mention where their story is continued - I suppose their meeting the Avengers points towards one of that team's 19 Bendis-written books, so that's that.

The framing sequence likewise ends without telling us where to go next - possibly one of Brubaker's Captain America titles, but who knows? 'Kill The Watcher' seems a little too cosmic for a Cap story.

Talking of over-Cosmic, the reason I liked Nova in his early years was that he was an unashamed Spider-Man rip-off: amazing powers + rubbish home life = a fine superhero soap. I'm not interested in him as a full-time space cop (somehow back from the Cancer-verse he was recently thrust into). Plus, his new costume is a terrible tweak of a classic, especially the helmet. Instead of a charming bucket, it looks like Nova is wearing a Starro on loan from DC Comics. And again, we're not told where the Phoenix story will be taken up before becoming some line-wide monster.

Marvel Point One fails in its aim of getting me excited about 2012's events. There's nothing in the way of fresh notions on display, it seems to be more a case of revisiting some of the former House of Ideas' greatest hits. I don't doubt some of the stories will be well done - there's undoubtedly a high level of craft on display here - but Marvel's current crop of creators have stood on the shoulders of giants so many times, the big guys are toppling over. Just one or two new concepts of the type Marvel's founding fathers would come up with, month after month, that's all I ask.

All in all, this is a useful comic from Marvel, a giant-sized special telling me what I won't be reading next year. I will be reading Daredevil, Avengers Academy, Secret Avengers, Spider-Man - books with steady creative teams who are, for the most part, left to go their own sweet way. Bloated events? No thanks.

Batman: The Brave and the Bold #13 review

Mystical man of mystery the Phantom Stranger gathers Robins past, present and future to save the Batman, riddled by bullets after an incident in Crime Alley. Can Dick Grayson, Jason Todd, Tim Drake, Stephanie Brown, Damian Wayne and Carrie Kelly revive Batman ... or will it be a case of 'Batman Dies at Dawn'?

Longtime readers will recognise the title, and the Phantom Stranger's splash page posing with a comatose Batman, as a homage to one of the most-famous stories of the Silver Age, Robin Dies at Dawn (Batman #156), but that's where the similarities end, as this issue strikes out into new territory. Can the most experienced Robin, Dick - here in his Nightwing guise - wrangle his very different successors long enough to save their mentor?

Of course he can, but the lack of suspense in this area is more than made up for by the joy of watching such little-seen Robins as The Dark Knight Returns' Carrie, and short-lived Steph, fight alongside one another. The solution is one that a fair few readers will see coming, but there's a satisfying twist, followed by a delightful coda.
It's another superb issue from writer Sholly Fisch and artists Rick Burchett and Dan Davis. Differentiating Boy, Girl and Teen Wonders with dialogue and fighting styles, they demonstrate that when Batman takes on a new Robin it's never a case of trying for a Dick Grayson clone. Rather, it's Batman tweaking the Robin role to fit the personality of the occupier (click to enlarge image).

As ever, a cleverly worked plot is studded with gems of dialogue - it's no wonder Grant Morrison has had Fisch assigned to the role of back-up writer in Action Comics, after naming Batman: The Brave and the Bold his favourite comic. Glad it's not just me! As well as the main action, there's a prologue with Nightwing teaming up with Speedy to fight the Royal Flush Gang, shortly after Dick graduated to the role of adult hero. Suffice to say, the teen archer's not impressed with the new look.

If you've yet to try this book, here's another chance. With luck, Morrison's patronage will bring in new readers and ensure a healthy run for the only series currently embracing the full delights of DC Comics' seven decades-long library.

Tuesday, 8 November 2011

Wonder Woman and origin(al) sin

Every day, people come up to me on the street and ask the same question: 'I know Superman came to Earth in a rocketship and Batman saw his parents shot, but what's the origin of Wonder Woman?'

In the past, I've explained that she was a clay baby given life by the gods after her Amazon queen mother prayed for a child. The questioner looks blank, and tells me they just don't understand a word I've said, and therefore can never, ever try a Wonder Woman comic.

With the coming of Brian Azzarello and Cliff Chiang's version of the Amazon, I can tell them: 'Daughter of a god.' Immediately, they subscribe.

/////////////////////////////////////////////////////////////////////////////////////////////////////////////////////////////////////////////

Why am I making this rubbish up? Because of the interview that the writer and artist of the relaunched Wonder Woman gave to Hero Complex this week. In it, they explain why Wonder Woman's origin - the same since 1941 - has been changed:

Azzarello says: 'We’re kind of forging our own trail right now. We’ve cleaned her up. You can describe who she is now. She’s got the specific description now just like Batman or Superman. She’s the daughter of a god. It’s weird, through the years people don’t have a strong grasp of her. In the general popular culture, she’s huge, not that anybody really knows anything about her. I’ve asked people –what do you know about Wonder Woman and they say, ‘The Amazon, right?’ And that’s about as far as it goes. They don’t know what her origin is. The idea of the character is bigger than the character herself. She’s recognizable but not known. And when that happens they go to the side stuff, they talk about [the accessories] like the lasso and the bracelets.'

Right. The one thing stopping Diana winning the hearts and minds of non-comics readers is the fact that they don't know her origin. How about this for a radical thought - try telling them it. 
Worried that they may think the clay baby bit a tad silly? It's no sillier than an ordinary man dressed as a bat who takes serious blows every night of his life and doesn't wind up in a wheelchair after a month. Or a hero who goes maskless but isn't recognised by the reporters he gives interviews to regularly.

Or Marvel's legion of irradiated humans who gain powers rather than die horribly. Or talking ducks with girlfriends. Fantasising beagles.

Let's not underestimate the willingness of the public to go along with an idea if there's something compelling to grab on to. And with Batman, Superman, the Hulk, Spider-Man, Daredevil, Donald Duck and Snoopy, there's a great visual and there are compelling stories.

Wonder Woman has the great visual. Certainly, the traditional star-spangled 'bathing costume' look is a mite outlandish outside of the comic strip context, but it's memorable. And Lynda Carter showed, in the Seventies live action TV show, that it can work on an actual human being. I don't recall the programme suffering in popularity because it didn't decide that Diana was the daughter of a god. She was a magic Amazon - it's loony, but delightfully so, and certainly no loonier than anything else. 

No one is confused by Diana's origin. Comic readers know it. Non-comic readers who don't ... can you actually be confused by a knowledge vacuum? Surely it's bonkers to care about people not having information they'll never need? Somehow, I get by without knowing how to re-inflate a hot air balloon, or the GDP of Peru. What does it matter if people who aren't comic readers don't know the ins and outs of Wonder Woman's background? If they're interested, they can look the origin up online in ten seconds flat. 

'The Amazon, right?' That's really all you have to know about Wonder Woman to begin reading her adventures. Newcomers will learn the origin as soon as it's relevant to the story. It's up to Azzarello and Chiang to make the stories rip-roaring and original enough to keep new readers around long enough to learn.

If not knowing really is stopping anyone reading a Wonder Woman comic, DC have the perfect entry point - The Circle storyline by Gail Simone, Terry and Rachel Dodson, handily collected in an affordable package. It takes the clay baby anecdote and expands it into a dark, compelling look at the Amazons of Wonder Woman's homeland, Themiscyra. It's a superbly scripted, beautifully drawn tale of passion - Queen Hippolyte's desire for a child, and the jealousy felt by some Amazons at Diana's existence - and good old superheroics.

I recommend it wholeheartedly. I don't, though, think it's a vital read. The person in the street isn't itching to know Diana's back story - they know as much about her as they do about Batman and Superman. She's an Amazon who comes to America to fight for peace. There you have it, in a single line. The concept has been presented in the aforementioned live action TV show, years worth of Justice League cartoons, a recent full-length animation and, more importantly, thousands of comic book stories. Anyone who reads US comics knows Diana, princess of the Amazons, we've grown up with her. Little boys may snub her title, but they definitely recognise her; how else would they know she's (eurgh!) soppy?

As for '... they go to the side stuff, they talk about [the accessories] like the lasso and the bracelets' - well, a magic lariat and bullet-deflecting bracelets are indeed part of Diana's bag of tricks. What's actually wrong with that? They're unique, they're cool. 

The genie is out of the bottle. Azzarello and Chiang have already put the idea that Diana is the daughter of Zeus out there, in their eminently readable Wonder Woman revamp. Can we expect DC to fund a massive ad campaign telling the world, hey, she's a demigod, it's safe to read her book? Because otherwise, the average person's perception of Diana isn't going to change one jot.

I'm actually fine with the demigod bit, it's a tweak that could bring some fascinating stories. And it's a change that decades of comics reading tell me will be gone within a few years - in superhero lore, the classic version always comes back. Always. So make your change, and I'll give it a chance.

But don't tell me it's necessary.

Thursday, 3 November 2011

Amazing Spider-Man #673 review

Manhattan's tenure as Spider Island is over. Having been given Spider-Man's abilities, then transformed into giant arachnids, virtually the entire population is waking up after the cure with a fuzzy memory ... and a distinct lack of clothing (click on image to enlarge).
So there's no better name for this epilogue than The Naked City.

Happily for the New Yorkers, they don't have to display their big apples for long; superheroes are on the scene with trousers aplenty.

Having shown with Spider-Island that despite the evidence of Fear Itself, Marvel can still do satisfying big events, the Amazing Spider-Man team demonstrates that they can do epilogues too. This issue is crammed with little codas to the storyline, and pointers to upcoming events. There are turning points in Peter Parker's relationships with former partner Mary Jane Watson and current girlfriend Carlie Cooper; new plots hatched by mad scientist The Jackal; clone Kaine sets off with one of Peter's hi-tech suits to strike out on his own as a super-hero; Eddie Brock, who gave up his Anti-Venom abilities to facilitate the cure, is New York's big hero; J Jonah Jameson makes a decision; Madame Web delivers an annoyingly cryptic warning (nothing new there!); and Peter learns that in rallying the good people of Manhattan to help out in the previous days' crisis, he's weakened a certain spell cast by Dr Strange.

It's all go in Amazing Spider-Man, and all entertaining. Writer Dan Slott has a tremendous handle on the tangled web that is Peter Parker's life, and a whole issue exploring it without the noise of  a super-villain battle is a treat. Peter's days have been pretty good of late, what with being on two respected super-teams, having a fulfilling job and dating one of New York's Finest, so he's due some of the old Parker luck. And while he gets understandably angry as things go south, he keeps his priorities straight, and he doesn't wallow.

Artist Stefano Caselli interprets the script beautifully. Compositions, figurework, backgrounds - they're all strong and work together to ground the story physically and emotionally. The colouring by Frank Martin is note perfect, with the first Peter/MJ chat a masterclass in lighting a scene for the time of day it's set - in this case, morning. Storm, appearing in one panel, looks distinctly Caucasian and I really hope the moment doesn't inspire a slew of articles yelling 'racism'. Ororo's such a big name character that there's no way Martin will have gotten it wrong; it's a glitch. Luke Cage and Robbie Robertson also look far lighter than they should, backing up my feeling. On the lettering side, Joe Caramagna turns in his usual fine job.

And the cover? A cute, appropriate take on a classic by Caselli, marred only by the massive, unnecessary Spider Island title lettering and baffllingly prominent hashtag.

I'm not a fan of the $3.99 price tag of this comic, but while Slott and co only have 22 pages to play with, editors Stephen Wacker and Ellie Pyle look to have sent out a memo instructing creators to pack them with story - Spider Island chapters have been dense, rewarding reads. And so long as that's the case, I'll keep buying.

Wednesday, 2 November 2011

Action Comics #3 review

Three months into the Superman relaunch and we get our first look at Krypton, as Jor-El warns Lara to get out of Kandor just in time for her to see it stolen by, presumably, Brainiac. A quarter of a century later, on Earth, Clark Kent dreams of the catastrophe, witnessed by him as a babe-in-arms. A rude awakening sees his flat raided by Metropolis police - rattled by Clark's anti-corruption exposes - and someone disovering his makeshift super suit.

Later, Lois Lane tries to persuade Daily Star reporter Clark to join the Daily Planet, which is owned by Superman's least-favourite businessman, Glen Glenmorgan. And Lex Luthor's transformation of military man John Corben into an anti-alien super-soldier is interrupted by the incursion of an alien hive mind - Brainiac has reached Earth..

This issue reads rather choppily, with no obvious focus, but Grant Morrison's zippy script nevertheless carries us along. I'm not delighted to see the revised origin of Metallo/Corben, and the shrinking of Kandor again so soon given they were dealt with in depth in the old DC continuity, not so long ago. Still, new readers start here, and all that.
What I really don't like about this issue is Rags Morales and Rick Bryant's depiction of Clark Kent (click on images to enlarge). I get that he's less powerful at this 'five years ago' point in his heroic career, so picks up bruises, but with his hair super-tousled and the bruises looking like dirt, the man could pass for a tramp. And an ugly one, at that. Other than that, the artists' work serves the modern day sequences well, with Metropolis a bustling hulk of a town and its inhabitants characterful enough to survive it.

The Krypton flashback is simply gorgeous, with Jor-El, Lara and their family looking like sparkling gods, and the removal of Kandor awe-inspiring. Kal-El has never looked more like a 'star-child' than in the opening panel. Art Lyon's colours sizzle in this sequence, while Brad Anderson does a great job with the Earthbound scenes.

Finally, I'd like to drop Krypto's fluffy canine corpse >choke< on whichever DC bean counter decided to charge us $3.99 for just 20 pages of strip. Eight pages of advertorial about the new Superman books? I'll buy that for a dollar - because I have no choice. It's a Marvel-style rip-off and no mistake.

Avengers Academy #21 review

It's a new term at Avengers Academy. The Fear Itself crisis saw their interdimensional headquarters, Infinite Avengers Mansion, destroyed. One student, Veil, quit after feeling forced to kill in battle. Teachers Speedball and Justice resigned to go on a road trip.

Relocating the Academy to the old Avengers West Coast Compound, headmaster Giant Man takes the opportunity to open the doors to new students. He reckons the current class - Hazmat, Finesse, Mettle, Reptile and Striker - will benefit from contact with other super-powered kids. Ones who weren't tortured by Norman Osborn, and aren't at such high risk of winding up as super-villains. 

So it is that the likes of Butterball, the teen She-Hulk and (randomly annoying spelling alert!) Juston Seyfert and his pet Sentinel are having a whale a time by the pool at the renamed Avengers Campus. And as the new kids play, the existing students train. And seethe. And worry.

Like a child with a new baby sister or brother, they fear they're being usurped, that the Avengers will kick them out to embrace the new kids with their lack of baggage. Cue a raging argument with visiting Avengers Captain America, Luke Cage and Hawkeye which leads to fisticuffs. The incident ends only when faculty member Jocasta makes a rather insistent plea for peace.

The Avengers explain that rather than dispense with the current group, they want to provide one-to-one mentoring, but their display of aggression has the older heroes wondering if the kids are indeed worth bothering with. While everyone calms down something happens that is sure to bond the generations - the apparent murder of one of their number. And that's not the only surprise this issue has before the end.

Hmm, should I even mention that there's a second surprise? You're perhaps less likely to be surprised if you're expecting a surprise. But on balance, I'll stick with the previous paragraph - even knowing something's coming, it's not something that can be guessed, the surprise will hold. I'm hoping to persuade anyone who hasn't yet tried this book to give it a shot, and intrigue always helps.

This really is one of the best comics Marvel puts out, packed to the gills with fascinating characters and situations that change and grow from issue to issue. It also features some of my favourite Avengers as teachers - along with Giant Man there's Tigra and Quicksilver and, as of this issue, another longtime team member. Plus, the core class is joined by Julie Power, aka Lightspeed from Power Pack aka, according to Hazmat, 'Double Rainbow Barbie'. And this month's version of the White Tiger, Ava Ayala, steps in to add a few sparks.

Christos Gage is one of the best plotters in comics and his scripts are brimming with character and his love of classic Avengers lore. One favourite scene this time has killer robot Ultron characterised as a deadbeat husband to Jocasta ('she claims she hasn't heard from him in months'), while Hawkeye's earliest arguments with Cap see him sympathetic to the trainees' frustrations and rudeness. All this and the kind of twisted teen romance that's a log way from Riverdale.

The pencils of Sean Chen are deliciously clear, and sharply finished by Scott Hanna. The pair do a fine job of telling the story visually, handling a couple of dozen individuals without making the pages seem cluttered. And the bright colours of Jeromy Cox and Veronica Gandini, and clear lettering of Joe Caramagna, are always appreciated. Rodin Esquejo joins the comic as cover artist and produces the perfect image to ring in a new era. I've no idea what the post-Fear Itself banner, Shattered Heroes, refers to, but the '1ST ISSUE of a new era' blurb is just clever marketing.

The new Avengers Academy has no need of another .1 issue - although the comic's entry in the ongoing Marvel promotion was excellent - as editor Bill Rosemann has your jumping-on point right here. Enrol, enjoy.

Uncanny X-Men #1 review

Utopia leader Cyclops gathers his lieutenants and announces his latest notion - the Extinction Team. They'll protect mutants and humans alike, and their world-saving displays of power will hopefully deter humans from victimising mutants. His thinking is that as non-mutants fear the X-Men without any show of force against them, they may as well amp up the forcefulness and make the ordinaries so afraid they'll back off.

While telling non-mutants that, really, we just want to live side by side, embracing peace.

It's rather the mixed message, and the team membership isn't exactly one to soothe the nerves: as well as Cyclops, Storm and Hope Summers, there's Magneto, Emma Frost, Namor, Magik, Danger and a Juggernauted-Colossus.

Storm's concerns bring the book's best moment (click on image to enlarge).
Indeed. Still, everyone decides to give Scott's plan a crack, and as they wait for a suitably big menace to tackle, the Utopia community goes about its business: new mutants train; Dazzler's 'street team' tackles San Francisco crime; the boffins of the X-Club upgrade Danger's frankly terrifying head; Hope keeps an eye out for emerging mutants; and Psylocke squats to show off her arse ... oh all right, she's handling security and watching for threats, but I do get tired of 'porno' being her default pose.
A problem finally arises - the Dreaming Celestial, the unmoving, giant, ancient god which looms over Golden Gate Park, is giving off strange energy readings. Cyclops and co rush to the scene and find that behind it all is old X-Man villain Mr Sinister, but before they can learn his plans he takes off in the being's head, reshaped to resemble his own.

This leaves the X-Men to fight battle-bots launched from the Celestial's body. The likes of Magneto and Colossus get to show off how truly powerful they are, which should make Cyclops happy ... but one member is maimed. Mr Sinister, meanwhile, demonstrates that the X-Men aren't the only ones who can create their own sovereign territory.

And that's the bare bones of the first #1 issue Uncanny X-Men has ever had (the previous version didn't gain the adjective until well after its hundredth issue). The meat includes sparkling dialogue from writer Kieron Gillen and - Betsy Braddock's bottom apart - irreproachable art from penciller Carlos Pacheco and inker Cam Smith. Gillen obviously knows what he's doing and Pacheco and Smith, with their epic staging, will make it look great. The sharp opening, which goes from whimsy to horror in seconds, is followed by a richly characterised discussion among the senior X-Men, and that's succeeded by plenty of action leading to an arresting final image - it's exemplary work all round.

But I don't think this is the comic for me - there are so many villains as members that it may as well be called the Brotherhood of Evil Mutants. Cyclops compromised by decisions he's taken. Colossus struggling to fight off the Juggernaut's demonic tendencies. Storm hanging around only to temper a team she sees as liable to go all-out evil at any moment. Hope working some hoodoo on the emerging mutants ... the only member regularly beinging humour to the team is Emma Frost, and she can get a tad one-note.

As for the villainous Mr Sinister, I like his new look, but he's just so dreadfully panto. I can never read a line of his dialogue without imagining a green light on him and kiddies booing and hissing. Hopefully he's just around for the first storyline.

Back-up features include a cute 'who's who on Utopia' and Cyclops' message to humanity, which seems not wholly unreasonable until you get to the FAQs at the bottom. Scott Summers truly is the heir to Magneto.

I can see the more hardcore X-Men fans loving this book. It's very well crafted, includes fan favourite characters and continues the 'nobody like us, everybody hates us, think we'll go and eat worms' storyline of the last 20 years or so. I'll certainly give it an issue or two more, see where it goes. But I suspect I'll be packing my bags and moving the Jean Grey School for Higher Learning full-time. At least until the X-Men become a group of heroes again.