Thursday, 29 December 2011

Justice League Dark #4 review

Good Lord, this is dark stuff. Of course, the clue's in the title, but I've rarely seen a non-'mature' book play with such disturbing imagery. Scalping, killer kids, women losing their heads ...

The opening serial of this DC New 52 series sees a bunch of supernatural players - 'heroes' might be overstating it, in some cases - out to stop the menace of the Enchantress. The sometimes hero/sometimes villain has lost her host, June Moone, and all hell is breaking loose across the DC Universe. The superheroes have retreated, hoping the likes of Deadman and Zatanna can save the day. Also involved are Shade the Changing Man, John Constantine, Madame Xanadu and a character first seen in the Flashpoint event of last summer, Mindwarp. One of these characters, it turns out this time, may actually be to blame for the Enchantress problem. All of them are feeling a bit out of their depth - but unlike the squeaky clean likes of Superman and Green Lantern, they're not giving up.

It's all rather inspirational, in a twisted way. Writer Peter Milligan keeps the plot bubbling like a witch's cauldron while spotlighting the personalities involved. There are a couple of missteps: portraying veteran mystic Madame Xanadu as engaging a drug dealer to help her cope with visions - to my mind, that's not something someone in the position of hero should be doing; and showing Constantine slapping Xanadu rather than giving her a chance to explain something - OK, I know these are intense people, heroes are always fighting, and she bashes him back, but the scene left a nasty taste. A more minor irritation is the Mindwarp fella; I can't get a handle on his character or powers, while he manages to annoy with every appearance.

The artwork is out and out stunning, with Mikel Janin letting his imagination run riot as he interprets Milligan's literate script. All the old characters are nicely on model - well, apart from poor old Enchantress - while the new nightmares grab the eyes. And the colours of Ulises Arreola are just beautiful, even when illuminating horrific moments.

The cover, as you can see, is also stonkingly good, as Ryan Sook presents a scene that's, pretty much, actually in the book. Maybe it'll start a trend?

The Flash #4 review

How's that for an eye-catching cover. It's Flash using his newly discovered ability to see all possibilities in a  situation. Sadly, last issue this led to a bout of over-thinking which was the death of him. Apparently.

Unsurprisingly, Barry survived, his super-speed instincts kicking in and stopping a bullet to the skull from proving fatal. We don't learn this straightaway, though - writers Brian Buccellato and Francis Manapul keep us on tenterhooks for 16 pages before we rejoin a just-waking Barry. Much of this space is taken up in revealing how Barry's CIA agent friend Manuel spawned the multiple man menace known as Mob Rule. It's basically a more detailed/icky version of what we already know - spy gets regenerative abilities, extra bodies ensue - but the detail helps bring Manuel to life, and ties in with the issue's theme of roots. What we don't get is an explanation for the horrible name Mob Rule ... nobody would call themselves that.

Members of Mob Rule are explaining their background for a good reason; they want another of the Flash's friends, Dr Elias, to help stabilise their metabolisms, stop them dropping dead after only a few months. Being a good guy, and obviously relishing a challenge, he agrees to help, but it'll take tapping into an experimental power source.

That's because a massive electromagnetic pulse soundly buggered up the power grids of sister cities Central and Keystone, leaving the police trying to maintain order on horseback. One cop, Barry's lab partner and girlfriend Patty Spivot, gives Manuel Number One a piece of her mind over his leaving Barry to face the music last time, reminding the selfish spy what it means to be a friend.

Bubbling under we have the Iris West subplot, which sees her trapped in Iron Heights prison mid-riot, and about to break free via some leftover ice from the missing Captain Cold.

When we finally join Barry we get the best part of the story, as he states what being a hero means to him. Unlike Manuel, we can be assured Barry won't ever prevaricate over doing the right thing - heroism runs through him like 'Blackpool' through candy rock. Ironically, though, his desire to do right may have been stoked by Manuel's words years before, when the tyro CIA agent told him: 'You gotta do something meaningful in your life and take a stand.'

The final two pages really are something, a succinct, flashy statement of who Barry Allen is today - a good man, a man of action. It's another fine sequence from Manapul and Buccellato who, as well as writing, draw and colour the book respectively. Their creative synergy gets better by the issue, with script and art gelling beautifully. Well-rendered flashbacks and sail-powered cars are just two of the visual treats on offer this time. The only tweak I'd like to see with the art is some ageing-up of the characters - a lack of facial lines make it seem we're in a world of 20-year-old Botox addicts.

There's a nice link to another DC series here, one which doesn't require us to buy that comic, it simply adds texture to the New 52 world, knitting it together. So far as this book is concerned, little script mysteries such as what caused the EMP, what Captain Cold's up to and the small matter of Dr Elias' mystery power source, add intrigue and value.

Four issues in, and there's no sign of The Flash slowing down. It's one of the hits of the DC New 52 and rightly so.

Avengers: The Children's Crusade #8 review

Dr Doom has the power of a god and he intends to rule all ... benignly. 'I shall make ours a planet free of poverty, disease and war.' Former mutants will have their abilities returned, dead heroes will be restored. He doesn't ask that the world's peoples bow before him, just that they accept his rule once they see him making amends for his sins.

Doesn't sound a bad deal? The Young Avengers aren't so sure. 'A benevolent dictator is still a dictator,' points out Hawkeye-Kate. And onetime Avenger the Scarlet Witch - her sense of self returned after years in the mental wilderness - fears he'll be corrupted by such massive reality-altering power, as she was before he took it from her. She offers to fulfil his wish that she marry him ... if he gives up the magic. But he zaps the heroes from Latveria back to New York as he's having none of it.

And X-Man Emma Frost isn't having the Scarlet Witch, believed to have destroyed much of the mutant 'race', roaming free. She uses her mental power to shut Wanda down, instigating a conversation between Avengers old and Young, X-Men and X-Factor on the subject of forgiveness. Cyclops, leader of the X-Men, says he wishes to bring Wanda to 'justice', though he's not too clear on what exactly that would mean. Her son Wiccan responds by demonstrating an ability rarely seen in Cyclops' world: logic (click on image to enlarge).
Cyclops' reaction isn't recorded, sadly, as the all-new, all-different Victor Von Doom appears, offering miracles in exchange for fealty. Cue fight scene, cue the apparent death of two heroes and likely death of one. More interesting, though, is a revelation - or at least a claim - that cuts to the very core of the supposed Wanda problem, one which pulls the rug out of the horrible story that was Avengers Disassembled. I daresay we'll learn the truth of the matter next time, when this nine-issue, 15-year series concludes.

Yeah, I'm having another wee pop at the (in)frequency of this book, but it's a compliment: this really is a cracking series, with talented creators telling an important story in a tremendously entertaining manner. Writer Allan Heinberg's character work with not just his Young Avengers cast, but every last hero and villain in here, is just stellar, playing to their classic selves while throwing a few surprises our way. That scene above, for example, popping Cyclops' bubble of self-delusion, is one that demanded to be played out, but I never thought it would happen.

And the artwork of penciller Jim Cheung, inkers Mark Morales, John Livesay and that man Cheung again, is stellar - their messianic Doom is especially appealing. There are no spidery eyebrows for this guy; mask-less and clad in angelic white tunic he really does radiate benevolence. Credit, too, to colourists Justin Ponsor and Paul Mounts and letterer Cory Petit.

Next issue's finale promises to be a feast of action and personality, pushing the Marvel Universe into its next phase and the Avengers vs X-Men series. I'm not especially excited about the coming crossover, but Avengers: The Children's Crusade looks set to be a favourite for a long time to come.

Wednesday, 28 December 2011

Arak, Son of Tom

Hanging around Twitter this week, I was intrigued to see comic artist Tom Raney ask if anyone had any ideas for a character he could sketch for fun. I suggested an old favourite of mine who's not appeared in DC Comics, if memory serves, since the Crisis on Infinite Earths in the Eighties - Arak, Son of Thunder. I was also keen to see how Tom, whom I know from such superhero work as Avengers Academy, would handle a sword and sorcery character.

Rather brilliantly, as it turns out. Thank you Mr Raney! Anyone want to join me in suggesting a DC New 52 Arak comeback?

See more of Tom's personal art at Deviant Art.

Tuesday, 27 December 2011

Red Hood and the Outlaws #4 review

Continuing his quest to find the killers of the All-Caste, eastern martial artists who trained him after he quit as Robin, Red Hood Jason Todd turns up in a Colorado bar. Wingman Roy Harper, aka Arsenal, leaves Jason to it when he instigates a fight, apparently due to his liking for the ladies. As it happens, he began the fracas so he'd get the attention of the local sheriff, who turns out to be one of the Untitled. They're the ancient, inhuman race believed to have gone against a peace treaty and slaughtered the All-Caste. She denies involvement, and is on the verge of eating Jason's liver when Roy arrives with some especially useful shafts.

Meanwhile, Kory is floating above a local church, knowing she wouldn't blend into the saloon too well. Her peaceful reverie is shattered when she's attacked by a monster with a grudge against her race. The son of scientists killed when they ran into a Tamaranean spacecraft outside Edinburgh (the Tamaranean taste for deep-fried Mars Bars is awfully under-publicised), Simon Amal has dedicated his life to learning about the aliens who inadvertently took his parents' lives. And transformed himself into a horrifying cross between Man-Bat and Killer Croc - Crux.

Noticing Kory's energy signature in the distance, Roy rushes to assist Starfire.

Crux isn't strong enough to take Starfire. He is wily enough to lead her into a trap which leaves her, it seems, without her energy blasts. The issue closes on Jason facing the disfigured, and thoroughly peeved, Untitled sheriff.

And that's another fine comic from writer Scott Lobdell and artist Kenneth Rocafort. They manage to progress the Untitled storyline while finding room for a Starfire-focused strand, providing new opportunities for character layering. The flighty Kory of the first issue is long behind us as Crux, doing the old villain bit of trying to bore the hero to death with backstory, feels the full force of her no-nonsense attitude.

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Along the way, Lobdell lets us know a little more about our heroes in this post-Flashpoint DC Universe: Jason was Robin for two years, Roy is a recovering alcoholic and Kory sees herself as 'a princess ... captivated by these two court jesters'. Roy says of Jason, 'His whole life is about trying to bring order ... to make things right.' And beyond the information we have three very likeable characters bonded by belief and chemistry.

Rocafort's artwork looks better every issue, with page after page of enticing images that combine to tell the story. Favourite moments, apart from the panel above, include Kory hovering above the church like an orange angel and the first appearance of Crux. I also love how Jason is drawn, with world-weary, sad-eyes. I'm less keen on the way the sheriff does the weird tits-and-ass S-bend thing, but perhaps she's a shapeshifter. The bright, but not garish, colours of Blond also deserve praise, while Carlos M Mangual breaks out some fun fonts.

Getting better every issue, Red Hood and the Outlaws should be on every superhero fan's shopping list.

Legion of Super-Heroes #4 review

The conclusion to the Legion's latest encounter with the Dominators begins with rogue Daxamite Res-Vir, aka The Renegade, breaking free of the inertron chains with which he's been bound. Enraged, he attacks the Legionnaires but Chemical Kid overcomes his panic to save the day when, guided by Element Lad, he disrupts Res-Vir's metabolism, bringing him down to earth with a very large bump. Mon-El and Ultra Boy handle the clean-up.

Above the planet Panoptes, a transformed Chameleon Boy eavesdrops on the Dominators' plans for a last-ditch assault on the Legion. They believe that luring the team back to their own space sector will see them regain the advantage. Can Cham get a message back to his colleagues?

On Daxam, Shrinking Violet, Cosmic Boy, Lightning Lass and Invisible Kid learn that Res-Vir's anti-lead poisoning serum is Kryptonite based, making it dangerous to recipients over time.

Back on the Dominator mothership, Cham is detected but he turns the situation to his advantage and finds his way to the engine room, offering the chance to disrupt the enemies' plans.

At Legion Headquarters on Earth, Brainiac puzzles over teenage witch Glorith's abilities and, via a chat with Dream Girl, realises that she's displacing energy through time.

Cham hasn't got a message out to the rest of the Legion, but his teammates aren't without resources of their own - Mon-El bursts onto the scene, leading a sub-team in a frontal assault. Facing the power of Mon, Sun Boy, Polar Boy, Dragonwing and Shadow Lass, the Dominators have no chance. Soon Mon is reading them the riot act, ordering them to pack in their experiments on Daxamites and get the hell back to their own territory.

The story ends with Mon's team, joined by Cham, journeying back to Panoptes to pick up Ultra Boy and the other members guarding Res-Vir. And Shadow Lass noticing that Mon is once more the man she fell in love with ...

... methinks an old Legion romance is set to be rekindled and it's probably a bad sign that the prospect gave me the biggest kick of anything this issue. Certainly, the story is as well-plotted as ever by Paul Levitz, but it's the little moments of sharply scripted characterisation I enjoyed most. Such as the oblique reference to Shrinking Violet's time as a kidnap victim, and Lightning Lass's subsequent display of affection; the chat between Cham and Dreamy, the Legion's biggest brain and a woman who's no slouch herself in the smarts department; Vi emphasising that you dont need a telepath when you're a detective; Element Lad's mentoring of new boy Chemical Kid.

The actual main storyline is less affective - sure, there's a nice fight scene at the end of the issue, but it's all of one page. I expected, hoped for, a massive confrontation between the Legion and the Dominators or some super-powered proxies. Instead, we get a calm laying down of the law by Mon, and the Dominators allowed to slope off. I realise that hauling the Dominators back to Earth to answer for their crimes might lead to all-out war, but emotionally I wanted a bigger pay-off.

Illustrator Francis Portela improves by the issue, with the Legionnaires nuanced in their expressions and poses and the Dominators just plain creepy, the storytelling clear and the backgrounds pleasingly detailed. The art is coloured with style by Javier Mena and Santiago Arcas, while Travis Lanham varies the lettering to suit the situation.

The cover is less successful - check out the copy, then count the Legionnaires. Granted, Element Lad is present and supportive, but if you're telling us Chemical Kid is alone and in deep doodoo, show him on his own. That apart, it's a rare dull composition from Chris Sprouse and Karl Story.

Next issue, Walt Simonson guests on art and I'll be amazed if Levitz doesn't come up with something special for the occasion - hopefully it'll make up for this decent, but disappointing, issue.

Monday, 26 December 2011

Tiny Titans #47 review

It's adventures in babysitting for Bumblebee, Miss Martian and Mrs Atom as they take the Justice League's little ones into Metropolis for ice cream. The hope is that Bumblebee will earn her Team Nucleus babysitting patch by showing she's a responsible young heroine.

Team Nucleus? That would be the shrinking heroes of the DC Universe, comprising Atom Ray, Atom Ryan, Molecule, Ant and, as a treat for fans of the Eighties Suicide Squad, Atom Adam Cray. Shockingly, Mrs Atom doesn't seem to be a member, but that does make her available to help Bumblebee out.

The babies are Arthur Jr, son of Aquaman; Damien and Jason Toddler, Batman's bairns; Kid Devil, claimed by Trigon as his own; and Miss Martian - not actually a baby, but she's around and J'onn J'onzz offers her assistance.

There follow hi-jinks as the babies go missing, including a wonderful sequence of Aquababy commanding sea creatures, and the Bat-brats encountering a tiger. Plus, there's what looks like a cameo by Jimmy Olsen, maybe that's creators Art Baltazar and Franco getting set for their upcoming Superman Family series.

And, in the realm of 'panels worth the price of admission', there's Jason Todd, with his prototype red hood/bucket, enjoying an ice lolly:
Just three more issues and the delightfully amusing Tiny Titans is no more. Never mind an ice cream, relish this comic while you can.

Sunday, 25 December 2011

Have a very super Christmas ...


... or perhaps that should be a Wonder, Green or Flashtastic Christmas? Whatever the case, hello to anyone passing by - I hope you're having the best of days, whether with family or friends, or in solo mode. Thank you so much for visiting this blog, it's a bit of fun for me and I always appreciate any comments. I've been a bit rubbish at getting reviews up this week, what with festive travel and so on, but expect normal service to be resumed soon.

For now, though, may your snow never be blue (full marks to anyone who gets that reference to one of our cover stars' enemies).

The image from Comic Cavalcade #13, Winter 1946, is borrowed with permission from Tim Hanley's enviably good Wonder Woman blog, Straitened Circumstances. It's well worth a regular visit!

Saturday, 24 December 2011

Wonder Woman #4 review

Having learnt that she's the product of a dangerous liaison between mother Hippolyte and king of the gods Zeus, Diana has flounced off Paradise Island for her home in London. This leaves her mother that little bit more vulnerable when a very peeved Mrs Zeus, Hera, comes a-calling ...

Diana's not alone in the English capital, as she hangs out in a music bar, drinking her troubles away; nearby are godly messenger Hermes, and Zola, the backwoods gal she's protecting should a vengeful Hera come calling - Zola is the latest mortal to be carrying a child of Zeus. Less-welcome company is newly revealed half-sister Strife, not just Zeus's spawn, but Hera's daughter too. And always ready to live up to her name and spread discord. Threatening Zola's baby bump shocks Diana out of her funk - why the heck was she putting up with Strife, responsible for the deaths of many of her Amazon sisters? - and leaves Strife bloodied and bloody-minded.

Over on Paradise Island, Hera does indeed appear, resplendent in cape of peacock feathers. Knowing she has no chance against a goddess, the warrior queen bows down and asks for forgiveness. And Hera seems set to look with compassion on the weaker woman, so vulnerable to her husband's charms.

In London, back at Diana's flat, a chat with Zola prompts her to reconsider her reaction to Strife's revelation that she was born not of clay, but of woman. She borrows Hermes's Caduceus, the wand which can transport her across the world, and seeks out her mother. Diana finds Hippolyte, but she's in no fit state to accept an apology thanks to the departed Hera. She's been petrified, and her Amazon sisters are in equally dire straits, having been transformed into snakes.

Away from this issue's main action, in war-torn Darfur, the sun god Apollo finds his brother Ares, the war deity, and implores him not to stand in his way as he bids to fill the power vacuum caused by the disappearance of their father, Zeus.

While my preferred Wonder Woman is a straightforward superhero, that's not writer Brian Azzarello's vision for Diana. His stated aim is to make this a horror book, and on that basis, it's difficult to fault his script; there's a palpable sense of menace to this world he's created, with precious little sign of light at the end of the tunnel. Diana, Hippolyte and co know they're minor players in the gods' grand drama, pawns who can be easily crushed. But with the knowledge that she's a demi-god, Diana looks set to find a greater will to kick against the capricious Olympians.

This issue is about facing up to facts - Hera cares not that the adulterous Hippolyte never intended to hurt her, while Diana admits she felt defined by the belief that she came from clay. Coming to terms with reality is proving painful for mother and daughter - literally.

The conversation between Diana and Zola is my favourite scene, as they talk about what home means to them. This is followed by my top visual moment, the broken-footed Hermes sprawled out on a comfy chair in Diana's flat, a pale, sharp-faced god, wildly incongruous in modern clothing, TV zapper in hand. And that's despite my not liking how chubby the new Wonder-corset, as drawn by Cliff Chiang, makes Diana appear in that very same panel.

Chiang's standout character is Strife, dark-eyed and darker of heart, and perfectly coloured by Matthew Wilson; she looks every bit as insidious as Azzarello's dialogue makes her sound. Hera is less successful. I guess there's meant to be a sexiness to the fact that she's naked under that peacock cloak, but ... not so much. She looks like a drunk old broad who's forgotten how to dress, and the lighting tricks necessitated so as not to scare the horses bring some awkwardly contrived shadow play.

Still, I'm a Chiang fan and very pleased he's applying his talents to this book - he's a splendid storyteller and full of interesting design ideas, most of which work. And his collaboration with Azzarello makes for some sharp comic booking - not necessarily the Wonder Woman I want, but a Wonder Woman I can enjoy for awhile.

Justice League #4 review

Aquaman is the star of the cover, and the show, as the Justice League finally comes together. This being comics, the actual scene - future sea king standing over a beaten Green Lantern - isn't to be seen in the story, though there is a thematic match; Arthur wipes the smile off Hal's doubting face when he demonstrates just what a man who 'talks to fishes' can do.

The scene with Aquaman summoning giant sharks to a tasty meal of parademons is probably my favourite of this series to date, pure superhero fun. That's not to say it's the only attention grabber this issue - there's lots going on.

Aquaman, on meeting GL, Flash, Wonder Woman, Superman and Batman, quite reasonably asks who's leading this tyro team. He then suggests that the super-shiny GL acts as a lure to the parademons while the rest of them thin out the endangered crowds. He lays out his own qualifications to manage strategy - raised to be future ruler of much of the planet, that sort of thing. Where he might agree to at least give Aquaman's plan a go, GL gets right up in his face, waving his massive green ring about. Rather than skewer GL with his trident, Arthur sends out a quick mental push, bringing the sharks out to feed.

After four issues of GL's asinine ways, we finally get some insight into why he's acting like the worst kind of high school jock, courtesy of a brush with Wonder Woman's magic lasso. Its truth-compelling abilities make for an amusing moment, and hint that he'll become more bearable soon.

Cyborg makes his debut this time out, as the advanced technology used to save Victor Stone's life after he was caught in an explosion kicks in. After discovering that one hand can morph into a white noise cannon and blast monsters to high Heaven, he finds himself transported by boom tube from STAR Labs in Detroit to Metropolis waterfront, and the side of the superheroes. Just in time for the arrival on Earth of the parademons' lord, Darkseid.

Batman, Superman and Flash don't have much to say or do, though Wonder Woman gets to show her prowess with Bullets and Bracelets - it's good to see that she won't be simply slicing and dicing every issue. The bullets come courtesy of the Army as we learn that 'the entire US Military is under strict orders to engage with any non-humans, demons, super-people, whatever'. Nice. Only Wonder Woman's liaison, Captain Steve Trevor, seems to dislike the order - expect him to throw an iron or two into the fire before long.

Writer Geoff Johns runs a well-plotted show, doling out the big moments with pleasing regularity. The dialogue is fine, bar one seriously naff line which has GL exclaim that 'I thought Aquaman was a joke on Conan O'Brien'. Can't Aquaman just be presented as the proverbial 'bad ass' without pandering to the real-life pillocks who wouldn't know one side of an Aquaman comic from another? It makes zero sense that people in the DC Universe would make fun of Aquaman.

I do, though, like Diana's remark, 'Greetings Aquaman. What a day for a fight!' Could be she knows him of old.

The art by Jim Lee and Scott Williams is as big and flashy as ever, with the highlights being Aquaman's muscle flexing, Diana's beating off the bullets and Darkseid's two-page display of power on reaching Earth. The only moan I have is the previous splash of Darkseid, which is one of those unmotivated sideways displays - why? It breaks the flow, having to turn the comic around.

The strip is 22pp, the rest of this $3.99 book being taken up with STAR Labs personnel files on Provessor Ivo, TO Morrow, Silas Stone and Sarah Charles ... interesting enough, but hardly earth-shattering, and anything relevant really should show up in actual stories. Then there are two pages breaking down Flash's new costume, letting us see the faffy boot lines and 'electric seams' close up. Exciting stuff.

Back matter apart, JLA #4 is a good read, though the six-weekly schedule is a drag. Hopefully when Lee leaves, as DC's busy co-publisher is bound to before long, we'll get the monthly read a splashy team like the JLA deserves.

Sunday, 18 December 2011

Legion Lost #4 review

The forward momentum nevers stops in this series, which follows a group of Legionnaires trapped in the 21st century out to stop a virus that's turning humans into alien hybrids. This month sees Timber Wolf, Tyroc and Wildfire tackle the creature Chameleon Girl has become, as Tellus and Dawnstar search for Alastor, the terrorist who released the virus. Along the way we see how well Tyroc and Wildfire fight as a unit, as they escape a bunch of ungrateful policemen, and watch Timber Wolf become increasingly amused by the ridiculous odds they're facing. Tellus uses his telepathy to help super-tracker Dawnstar sift through all the information she's absorbing until a eureka moment finally allows her to pinpoint their prey.

And because Tellus is linked to the other Legionnaires, Dawnstar is perfectly placed to take the series' narrative baton. As she comments on her teammates and the action, we see that she admires their capacity for optimism, their 'See. Do. Simple' attitude. Eventually she throws her natural caution to the wind, presaging a typically explosive conclusion.

Typical, but not boring. Writer Fabian Nicieza provides another perfect cliffhanger, topping off a chapter choc-full of well-plotted superheroics. The overarching virus plotline moves forward as we learn the current state of Alastor and new players enter the game, while the characterisations are polished nicely as the action plays out. And I learned a new word on looking up the issue's title, Coseismic, so feel smarter. Nicieza is on his A-game and it's a shame personal circumstances have him leaving the series with #6.

Artistic partner Pete Woods continues to make this Legion sub-team his own while having fun with the alien/human hybrids. Favourite moments this issue include Dawnstar showing off her in-flight yoga and Tyroc and Wildfire's takedown of the misguided cops. The range of facial expressions is impressive, and the power depictions suitably flashy - I'm finally noticing Tyroc's wonderfully loopy flight trail. Plus, there's eye-catching colour work from Brad Anderson, and energetic lettering from Carlos M Mangual.

If you've not tried this series yet and were put off by early reviews (ahem), go back, find the issues - physically or digitally - and dive in. I doubt you'll regret it.

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Building work is preventing me from accessing my scanner so the cover image this time is borrowed from the Grand Comics Database, one of the best comic websites around. Thanks chaps. hope that's OK.

Wednesday, 14 December 2011

Batman: The Brave and the Bold #14 review

It should be Happy Holidays, but Ragman's not in a festive mood. The residents of his rundown Gotham neighbourhood are feeling the squeeze from a property developer, and crime is on the increase. Happily, a visit from Batman equals improvement after tatterdemalion, caped crusader and embattled citizens stand side by side for justice. Along the way we hear the tale of Chanukah, and the story ends with Ragman finding new hope.

The story begins with a mini team-up between Batman and Blue Beetle against colour criminals Crazy Quilt, Dr Spectro and the Rainbow Raider. 'Surrender to our demands or Gotham will never see another White Christmas,' they threaten. But Batman's not having tinted snow in his town. Especially yellow.

So that's Chanukah and Christmas efficiently covered by writer Sholly Fisch in a typically smilesome script. I especially like the name he's come up with for the troublesome property developers - the Macguffin Group. It's always fun to see Ragman, the only supernatural hero who really fits into Gotham, complete with a short origin recap. And I'm all for a bit of religion and sentiment at Christmas. There's even an editor's note from good old Johnny DC!
Rick Burchett and Dan Davis supply the usual friendly art job, popping with energetic panels and people - everyone has their own look, from tall and skinny Rory (Ragman) Reagan to titchy Rabbi Samuels (click to enlarge). And it's all coloured and lettered with seasonal jollity by Guy Major and Dezi Sienty respectively.

Buy a copy of this for yourself, as a seasonal palate cleanser. Then if you can stretch to it, buy a second for a friend, as a gift. Happy Holidays!

The Ray #1 review

Struck by a particle beam of experimental light, Lucien Gates becomes The Ray, able to travel at the speed of light, create energy blasts and alter the way light reflects off his body.

This last may bit may not sound immediately impressive, but when any clothes you wear against your glowing form burn, it's pretty useful. So it is that The Ray becomes the most prominent naked superhero since Dr Manhattan (not that he was noted for his >cough< prominence). In this first of a four-part mini we see lifeguard Lucien adjust to his new abilities with the help of his parents. Are the Gates STAR Labs scientists? Retired superheroes? Nope, they're New Agers who know the value of yoga when a person needs to find their centre. We also meet Lucien's party animal pal Darius, and slightly serious girlfriend Chanti. Right off the bat, every member of this likeable bunch knows Lucien has powers, and everyone accepts the situation. This further helps Lucien gain the relaxed attitude that's needed if he's to properly use his sun-powered energies to fight enormous telepathic jellyfish over San Diego.

Lucien himself is a suitably sunny guy, and very bright, able to finesse his powers on the run. So I've little doubt he's going to overcome the villain introduced at issue's end, and be good company along the way. Credit to writers Justin Gray and Jimmy Palmiotti for a sharp, breezy script; the only aspect of it I don't like is Lucien's narration, which puts us in the position of DC Universe resident. Nope, I don't know Darius's famous record producing dad, you can't be talking to me.

Lucien's origin and face-changing abilities put me in mind of long-lost Starman WIll Payton, no bad thing. All I can say is that Will had a pup and readers loved it, so Lucien should have a dog too.
Drawing the issue is former Supergirl penciller Jamal Igle, one of comics' most underrated talents (click on images to enlarge). He's not flashy, see, just bloody good, delivering page after page of attractive, nuanced characters (well, the jellyfish aren't nuanced, but I'd likely lick one, given half a chance). Lucien's just your average muscle stud, while mom Judy radiates warmth and wisdom. His dad looks to always be on the verge of laughter, Darius gives great exasperation and Chandi is the golden girl with smarts to spare. Igle also gets to draw some amusing victims of the Sun Gun which hits Lucien, and comes up with a wonderful visual for The Ray in flight - think John Byrne's Vision meets Art Deco train. Finishing the linework is talented inker Rich Perrotta, while Guy Major supplies the ravishing tones.

I'm not keen on The Ray's 'costume', the purple and cream don't sit well together - hopefully Lucien will finesse  the look, on reflection. And the cover tagline - The Light of Vengeance strikes! - is just daft. Nevertheless, this is an effortlessly assured superhero action comedy, by creators at the top of their game. Four issues is in no way going to be enough.

Batgirl #4 review

"Oh Barbara, get over it. Really, it's beyond tiresome. An assault put you in a wheelchair, but you've had a miracle cure. Stop whining about it. Sure, there are still thousands of wheelchair users in the world, but you're not betraying them by regaining the use of your legs - you never asked to be poster girl for differently abled vigilantes."

What's that? Why am I talking to a fictional character? Because Barbara Gordon is trying to shake off her fictional chains, she's been infected with metatextual dreams. When DC announced that the New 52 revamp was ending her tenure as Oracle, allowing her to run across the Gotham rooftops again in bat-tights, there was uproar in some quarters of fandom. Supposedly DC was betraying wheelchair-using readers by robbing them of a hero they could identify with.

Which I can see - Oracle occupied a powerful position in the area of superhero diversity, showing that a person didn't need to be a super-athlete to be a winner. Decades of Barbara as Oracle demonstrated that, in or out of a chair, she's a hero.

I was a Batgirl fan long before she became Oracle, so relished seeing her find a new way to fight for justice while refusing to be a victim. But now, decisions at a corporate level mean Barbara is back in the role in which she's best-known to the non-comics reading public, back in the cape and cowl. DC has made its decision, and if I want to continue to follow Barbara as a character, I have to move on. Move forward.

I just wish she would. Here we are in the fourth issue of this book and still we're bogged down by the past. Writer Gail Simone's disinclination to just tell us how the heck Barbara was cured hangs heavy over the book, with little teases here and there but no real information. This issue we learn that a South African clinic was involved, leading me to think that, oh, by #20 we'll know the full story.

Meanwhile, Barbara is having her own version of survivor's guilt, a dream version of her chastising her for embracing a cure (click on image to enlarge).
Seriously?

It's an embarrassing scene, addressing the fans who feel DC is letting them down with all the subtlety of a brick. But they've had their say, and aired some interesting points. Newsarama, for one, printed an interesting conversation about the subject between Simone and wheelchair-using blogger Jill Pantozzi. All DC owes any of us readers for our US $2.99 is entertainment, and having decided to let Barbara walk, they should have - pardon me - ran with it. Established Barbara as the Batgirl of choice by having her fight her way into the future rather than have her full of angst about the past.

And maybe introduce a new wheelchair-using hero or two (perhaps Steph Brown's pal, Proxy, will make a comeback).

The guilt surrounding the miracle cure also clings to the villain of the piece, The Mirror, a man murdering people who 'miraculously' survive tragedies which kill others. He has his own logic, but it's stupid and I'm glad to see Barbara defeat him with her brains this issue. This is where Barbara impresses, not worrying about her responsibility to the wheelchair community, or fretting that she's going to damage her spine again. An assertive Batgirl who embraces life is what fans want, that's why predecessor Stephanie Brown was popular. A Batgirl throwing angst-arangs is simply a turn-off.

Barbara's also a downer when it comes to her new flatmate, Alysia, a wee firecracker who's shown she could be a good friend. She's worrying about giving too much away, opening up. Which is fine, I can see a superheroine not wanting to drag a pal into her dangerous life, but it's not like Barbara has no options - live with super-powered pals, or live alone. Just don't mess people about.

The best scene of the issue has Batgirl rescuing a couple from street robbers who may or may not be linked to Hugo Strange - she's feisty, she's funny and Simone tops the incident with a good, believable gag. The story is nicely structured and there's also a splendidly soapy surprise ending.

Penciller Ardian Syaf and inker Vicente Cifuentes produce beautiful art, featuring a tough, attractive Batgirl. The opening splash, moodily coloured by Ulises Arreola, may irk me with its subject matter - miserable Batgirl in a wheelchair - but it's sharply rendered and sets the tone for the rest of the book. What's more, the letters of Dave Sharpe are excellent and Adam Hughes offers another striking cover - literally.

This is so close to being a great super-hero book, but it needs to stop trying to appease detractors with 'I feel your pain' winks, and win them over with original storylines, compelling characters and dynamic artwork. Let Barbara move on, and maybe we'll all follow her.

Thursday, 8 December 2011

Hawk and Dove #4 review

We join Hawk and Dove soon after the events of last issue, as they interrogate the murderous Condor about their mutual connection. Along the way we're filled in as to how the fight between the heroes, Condor and his ally Swan at the White House panned out, and learn that Deadman has a bigger part to play in this storyline than 'annoying ghost boyfriend'.

There are also mysteries - Condor claims to be 200 years old while Dawn insists she wasn't always a peaceable type - and the usual action in the best issue of this series to date. The usual action there may be, but there's less of it, allowing for the intrigue and plot movement mentioned above. And calmer things to draw seem to have slowed penciller Rob Liefeld down, bringing his best work yet. There's no let-up in the dynamism of the fight scenes, but Liefeld also finds the drama in the quieter moments, using intelligent layouts and expressive bodies to bring the best out of Sterling Gates' nicely measured script. Hawk still has the manic intensity, the killer grin, but the look is restrained, less warped.
The inks from Adelso Corona and Liefeld himself are similarly noteworthy, with pleasing effects, such as background figure blurring. This may be a Photoshop trick, and if so, fine - a tool is a tool, the clever bit is knowing when to use it. An impressively hands-on finish sees a close-up of the elderly Condor come off like classic Joe Kubert, partly thanks to the fine colouring of Matt Yackey (click on image to enlarge). The final element of the pages, Dezi Sienty's letters, are equally sympathetic - this is a creative team that's gelling extremely well.

If you've been dubious about this DC New 52 book, give this issue a try - it's slambang action with a side order of suspense.

Action Comics #4 review

Brainiac's invasion of Metropolis continues, with his computer virus motivating the creation of thousands of 'Terminauts' across the globe. But they're not out to terminate humans, only Superman. The other part of their mission is to preserve - read, 'steal - Mankind's treasures.

Clark Kent, visiting an industrial plant with Lois Lane and Jimmy Olsen, splits off from his colleagues to go into action as Superman. He's soon facing not just the rampaging robots, but John Corben, 'Steel Soldier' turned host of the Brainiac colony. Help from an unexpected quarter gives Superman a chance to draw breath and see that an entire neighbourhood has been ripped out of Metropolis ...

And that's the main story in Action Comics #4, a rip-roaring tale of men, mechanics, monsters and miniaturisation from the ever-inventive, often-homaging Grant Morrison. As well as the bravery of Superman and his new ally, Lois shows her gutsy nature as she throws herself into the path of the unpredictable Corben, reminding him of his humanity in a bid to help Superman (click to enlarge).
Jimmy's pluck takes another form, as he films the chaos for the public record. Showing no courage at all is the fleeing Lex Luthor, who can't believe a  fellow mad scientist - even an alien one - would betray him. The story ends on a note of hope, with Superman informing an unusually conciliatory General Sam Lane that he has a plan, and annoyance, as readers are advised that the story continues in Action Comics #7.

Still, as next month promises a team-up of this Superman and his future self from the Superman title, alongside the Legion of Super-Heroes, I'll probably survive. I believe the two-part fill-in, drawn by Andy Kubert and Jesse Delperdang, is to help series penciller Rags Morales with his deadlines - DC are obviously keen that the collection of this storyline will be all Morales, but really, I'd rather see a monthly serial with rotating pencillers and a strong, stylish inker - a Karl Kesel, or Klaus Janson, say - brought in to iron out any niggly style differences.

I'm not anti-Morales - his art this issue is my favourite of his Superman work to date - but if I'm engaged by a story, I don't want diversions, even when they're adjuncts to the main storyline, as the upcoming fill-in looks to be. Let's have the classy fillers in between the big stories, not interrupting them.

Morales really does do a good job here, partnered by inkers Rick Bryant and Sean Parsons. His Superman is a dynamo of activity in defence of a Metropolis that isn't sold on having him around. His Lex is a weasel, Lois a fox and the Terminauts have a terrifying vibe. Then there's the unfortunate Corben and a half-glimpsed, fully scary new Brainiac. And all the players and movement are set against one of the best-realised cities you'll see in comics, with backgrounds just packed with buildings and activity.

Colourist Brad Anderson deserves a nod for smartly helping differentiate foreground and background action, and changing New 52 Jimmy's hair back from Bieber brown to classic ginger (a move that cheers me as much as the replacement of 'Sgt Steel' Perry White with the traditional version in last month's Superman). I also like that Superman's S-shield tee shirt this issue is white - he's obviously planning a merchandising line.

I've been coy about who helps Superman, purely to keep something back for when I got to the 8pp back-up strip. Which I have now. In it we see John Henry Irons, designer of the Steel Soldier outfit, don his own version and take on Corben. All the while, his internal narration tells us how he's inspired by the American folk legend of John Henry.

It's a tight little script from writer Sholly Fisch, and while the obscure legend doesn't resonate particularly with this Brit, neither does it overshadow the main event - John using smarts rather than fists to beat Corben. And there's a fabulous final line. Thanks to illustrator Brad Walker and colourist Jay David Ramos, the sequence comes to life on the page with real verve.
The Steel armour as introduced this issue, mind, is horrendous compared to the magisterial looks John Henry has sported in the past ... I'm praying it's a prototype. John Henry himself is younger and slimmer than in his pre-New 52 incarnation, which is a shame ... he had a good, strong look and now he's gone Hollywood. Still, I'm sure the Suicide Squad's Amanda Waller will be up for a date.

So, a more than decent little tale.

But no more please. If Action Comics isn't going to present 28pp Superman stories for our $3.99, I'm very happy to get 20pp stories for a dollar less. By all means spotlight the Superman Family in its own book, but seeing the same story from two perspectives in one issue? No thanks.

Wednesday, 7 December 2011

Defenders #1 review

The Hulk asks old pals Dr Strange, Silver Surfer and Namor to seek out and destroy Nul, Breaker of Worlds - a kind of Black Hulk. Bruce Banner himself daren't go near the beast for fear of merging with it, but points them towards a Hulk who can get involved - his occasional wife, Betty Ross, the red She-Hulk. On a quest to avoid boredom, she's only too happy to come along, so long as she can bring her 'big-ass swords'. The team is rounded off by Iron Fist, needed not for his mastery of martial arts so much as his ruddy great jet ... it seems Dr Strange's teleportational abilities aren't what they were.

So it's off to Wundagore Mountain, Nul's projected destination, and scene of the issue's explosive conclusion.

How big a threat Nul is, I can't tell you, having bailed out of the Fear Itself crossover in which he debuted. Writer Matt Fraction, happily, doesn't demand prior knowledge, showing Nul to be big and dangerous, and linked to all manner of weirdness in Bucharest. While Nul likely has a part to play in this series' opening storyline, this first issue is more interested in sketching in the lead characters. By the end we've seen that Strange loves a mystery, Surfer is a mystery, Namor is imperious, She-Hulk wrecks and Iron Fist just wants to read comics. I can relate to at least one of these positions.

Speaking of positions, both Iron Fist and Dr Strange are shown post-shag (no, not with one another ...) but given that neither encounter is presented as particularly fulfilling (that may be on-off partner Misty Knight in Iron Fist's bed, her bionic arm miscoloured) I won't assume Fraction was trying to make the heroes look cool. And if the Seventies-style bottom-of-the-page teases ...
... are to be believed, at least one of these encounters is setting up a future plotline (nope, it's not one of these two).

The core Defenders wound up as comics' original non-team because they didn't play well with others, but here Strange, Surfer, Namor and Hulk show that over the years they've become brothers (even the little matter of having been banished a few times by Strange doesn't deter Hulk from asking his help). It makes sense that they'd seek out one another. Iron Fist's presence is less convincing ... if the Defenders need a playboy with a jet, why not try a Defender they've all worked with dozens of times, Nighthawk? And what's Red She-Hulk got that tried and tested Green She-Hulk Jennifer Walters - Bruce Banner's cousin - hasn't?

Oh well, it's Matt Fraction's party and he can write who he wants to. Both Iron Fist and She-Hulk are likeable here, and admittedly, they freshen up the old mix. Plus, Betty acts as a viewpoint character for newer readers. But should Fraction suddenly have an itch to bring in Nighthawk, Hellcat or Valkyrie, dump them both!

Not overtly referencing Fear Itself makes sense, given how few people seem to have liked - as opposed to bought - the crossover. I'm OK with Nul as the maguffin that sees the team get back together, ahead of the big things Marvel publicity promises for this title. Supposedly, it's going to knit together disparate strands of comic book history into a Unified Theory of Marvel. That promise will have me coming back for a few issues.

Otherwise, I'd drop this comic right now. It's thoroughly competent - Fraction's handling of the characters is engaging, while Terry and Rachel Dodson produce their dependably strong, pretty art - but it feels like a generic Marvel book. There's Namor, currently with the X-Men and just seen with the Thunderbolts. One of three - or is it four? - female Hulks. The always boring Silver Surfer. And Dr Strange and Iron Fist, who are already on a team together, the Avengers.

Speaking of whom, a plot point has it that the Defenders can't tell the Avengers about their mission; how does that work when they are Avengers?

My favourite moments this issue see Strange divining on the cheap, and Iron Fist having the most token, gotta-get-an-action-scene-in skirmish ever.

Going  back to the art, Dr Strange has a new look, which is a lot like most of his old looks sans the most interesting, recognisable element - the Cloak of Levitation. Heaven knows where that is (did Brother Voodoo get it?), but I hope it shows up soon. It's not a trifling detail, it's iconic. And while I'm making sartorial requests, could Iron Fist please have his classic green suit and yellow slippers back? The white boilersuit makes him look like a refugee from Flashdance.

The colouring is handled by Sonia Oback, and her bright palette meshes well with the Dodsons' page designs. There's a technical hitch with the Surfer's narrative boxes, making them very tough to read, but it turns out that as ever, he's just wittering on about his search for meaning and self.

I'm not sure if letterer Clayton Cowles dug out the retro mini-logos, but like the page teasers, they're a nice touch that puts this book in touch with the Defenders' heyday.

At $3.99 for 20pp of story and art, this is hardly a bargain, but it's solid work from good creators. I hear things kick up a gear next month as Fraction and the Dodsons get used to working Marvel-style. I'll check it out, but meanwhile, I'd say this issue is skippable.

Monday, 5 December 2011

Legion: Secret Origin #2

Assassination attempts - you wait forever for one, then three come along at once ...

Someone really doesn't like RJ Brande. He's only just getting over one attempt on his life when two more come. Once again, though, the billionaire industrialist is protected by Saturn Girl, Lightning Lad and Cosmic Boy, who he's decided to organise as a Legion of Super-Heroes. Also throwing herself between Brande and danger is Triplicate Girl, another recruit. When things calm down again, Brande tells aides Pheebs and Marla Latham to find more potential members, to provide his proteges with back-up.

Meanwhile, across the universe on the world of Anotrom, new acquaintances Brainiac 5 and Phantom Girl face an attack of their own, from someone with forcefield technology similar to Brainy's.

Watching this last assault is Admiral Allon of the United Planets fleet, but he's interrupted by son Gim, who indicates that he's wanting to hook up with this new Legion. So much for the Science Police career ...

Also monitoring/spying on the young heroes are the three members of the UP Security Directorate, tasked with helping worlds ease back into a position of peace after something known as 'the Sundering'. Two of them, Anisa and Zarl, see great things ahead for the Legion. The third, Mycroft, views the Legion as 'an accidental army' which he, rather then Brande, should control.

The mysteries continue in this second issue of DC's most detailed look yet at the origin of the Legion. What was the Sundering? Who's behind the attacks? What dark future is Naltorian prophet Anisa seeing for the Legion? Zarl points out that the weaponry used against Brande seems to be of human design, being 'almost anachronistically simple', while the tech employed on Anotrom is 'totally alien'. 

Technology spanning time and space? I wonder if traditional Legion foe the Time Trapper is involved? Hopefully someone splashy will show up soon, because an in-depth origin piece cannot live by detail alone. I'm enjoying the new information on, for example. Phantom Girl's abilities, but a compelling threat is needed, preferably one with a strong visual. A redesigned Time Trapper could be just the thing (those purple robes are just so last Inquisition).

Then again, if Brande is as manipulative as Mycroft asserts, it could be that he's the one setting up threats against himself.

Mycroft emerges from Paul Levitz's script as the most interesting character here, followed by Phantom Girl and Brainiac 5. The rest of the Legionnaires barely have two characteristics to rub together. And while that's exactly how they were presented in their earliest Silver Age appearances, that doesn't cut it today. Hopefully Levitz will soon show us just who these idealistic heroes are. He obviously has the story all worked out, we just need a few cherries on top.
The artwork of Chris Batista and Marc Deering continues to be attractive, really coming to life in the action sequences. And there's a tremendous variety of well-rendered sound effects here, which may be to the credit of letterer Dezi Sienty. Whoever it is, well done - I love a bit of sound and fury. Wes Hartman colours, keeping things bright for the new team, and suitably dim for the shadowy Security Directorate. This is a great artistic team, and hopefully they'll be given something to really stretch them soon. Finally, Tom Feister's cover is a beaut, really, just look at it.

In all, another solid, entertaining issue, but lacking the X - or rather, LSH  - factor.