Wednesday, 25 January 2012

Legion: Secret Origin #4 review

As the newly formed Legion of Super-Heroes grows, the mysterious attacks on backer RJ Brande continue. Chameleon Boy, Invisible Kid and Colossal Boy sign up, though Brainiac 5 resists the idea when Phantom Girl suggests he does too. The Science Police gripe to the United Planets about the Legion poaching its potential recruits, but the politicians are happy that the team is giving UP youngsters a role model to rally around. Out in space, UP Admiral Allon - Colossal Boy's dad - keeps watch over a wormhole after incursions by an unknown power, while on Earth Circadia Senius enlists Brainiac 5 to unravel the secrets of time travel.

It's all go, I tell you ... and still there's room for a fun fight with robots who don't respect Asimov, representing the Legion's first tussle as an official team. With less of the politicking of previous instalments of this mini-series, and more of our title characters, this is the best issue yet. Fun touches include Brainy using his force field to keep the dirty hordes of 31st-century Metropolis at bay, an experiment connected to the Silver Age of Comics and Invisible Kid's unexpected reasons for signing up with Brande. And it ends on a wonderfully hopeful note, delivered by Jaclyn Smith-lookalike Phantom Girl.

Speaking of Phantom Girl, Brainy seems a little in love with her, and he's not the only one, if Chris Batista's gratuitous shot of her intangible arse is anything to go by. Tut.
I really do like the penciller's work with Mark Deering, though, even if figures occasionally look as if they're being squeezed sideways. There are some superb expressions at play, and the background work is first-rate, with the 31st century looking most inviting. Top work, too, from colourist Wes Hartman and letterer Dezi Sienty - this story is going to make a fine-looking trade. And it doesn't read badly, either, with interesting parallel storylines and lots of character quirks from writer Paul Levitz. As a love letter to the Legion, this series is strictly niche, but it's a heckuva nice niche.

Secret Avengers #21.1 review

Captain America takes Hawkeye on a hush-hush mission to one of those ultra-corrupt little nations that populate spy fiction. Hawkeye's bombastic ways see things go awry, annoying Cap, who so wanted his pal to succeed - unknown to Hawkeye, Cap was testing his covert op skills in the hope he could succeed him as Secret Avengers leader.

Hawkeye is understandably miffed, given that Cap's known him for years and he's every bit the Avenger Cap is. Hawkeye goes off in a huff, Cap gets captured by a new Masters of Evil run by loincloth-loving Life Model Decoy Max Fury, Hawkeye rescues him and it looks like he'll get the job for which he never applied.

Well, it's the Secret Avengers, of course you'd not know you were up for a new position.

The last six issues have been the peak of the Secret Avengers series, as Warren Ellis and top-notch artists produced clever little connected one-offs showing superheroes as spies really could work. And perhaps Marvel should have quit while they were ahead, 'cos if this Point One issue is indicative of the future of this book, it's in trouble.

Because it makes no sense. As mentioned above, Cap has no need to test Hawkeye, he's worked with him on and off for years and knows his strongest areas. He seems to expect Hawkeye to see it as a compliment that he's even considering him, but Hawkeye is rightly perturbed. But does Cap apologise? No, he launches into a personal, insulting rant that's beneath him, and one Hawkeye doesn't deserve.

Then, in order for them to come good, Hawkeye is made to take out not just Max Fury but his pet super-villains - Whiplash, Vengeance and (a new?) Princess Python - with a few tricked-up arrows. They get a panel each in which to fall.

It's not all bad, with Rick Remender supplying some crisp, witty dialogue, Patrick Zircher doing a beautiful job on the illustrations and Andy Troy providing cool, textured colour art. The early action sequences, with Hawkeye and Cap escaping casino guards, are excellent (click on image to enlarge). Remender and Zircher gel well, with the pictures used to give us additional information rather than merely underlining the script. And I love that Hawkeye emphasises that 'Avengers don't kill' - he may have to retrain a few Secret Avengers ...
But the whole notion of the issue is so wrongheaded, the falling out of the heroes so unbelievable, that it makes for an ultimately unsatisfying read.

On the other hand, Remember is a fine writer, with standout work such as Uncanny X-Force under his belt. And for his coming run, beginning with #22 next month, he's teaming with the very talented Gabriel Hardman ... and Captain Britain is in there. So I'll try a few issues, and put the clunkiness of this good-looking, readable comic down to it being a Point One book, not so much a jumping-on point as a bump in the road.

Zircher, with colourist Dean White, provides a terrific movie poster-style cover. Marvel's marketing department almost ruin it, with a ruddy great advert for an event not starting for three months - are they scared we won't get our orders in early? Newsflash, Marvel, every cover ad is going to sour me towards Avengers vs X-Men just a little bit more ...

Justice League #5 review

Darkseid has landed in Metropolis and has his eyes on Flash and Superman. More specifically, his omega beams, the deadly force blasts that can lock on to a person, making evasion almost impossible.

'Almost'. The fastest man alive finds a way to escape being blasted to atoms, and while Superman isn't so lucky, he is tougher so survives the painful burst of energy. Mind, he's stunned enough for Darkseid's flying monkeys - sorry, parademons - to whisk him away.

Flash shares the bad news with pal Green Lantern and new acquaintances Aquaman, Batman, Cyborg and Wonder Woman, who are pulling themselves together after being downed by Darkseid debris last issue. GL fires himself at the silent alien dictator but is beaten down while his colleagues flail around like an Enterprise crew on the command deck. All but GL - with one arm broken - and Batman wind up blasted streets away, bringing the issue's big emotional scene as Batman bids to persuade GL they should find their colleagues - GL is fighting mad and raring to go up against Darkseid again, even if it gets him killed.

Batman unmasks in front of Hal, to prove he's just an ordinary guy like him, trying to right wrongs. After giving GL a pep talk cum lecture, Batman leaves the mask off, peels away his chest symbol and gives himself up to the parademons, figuring that's the quickest way to find Superman. A becalmed GL finds the other heroes, passes on Batman's pep talk and they shuffle off to find Darkseid. Batman, meanwhile, finds himself on the other side of a Boom Tube and staring at the hellish heart of Armaghetto on the planet Apokolips.

This doesn't yet feel like a Justice League comic, but it's getting there. The heroes have stopped bickering in favour of addressing the big picture - the threat of Darkseid to all life on Earth. Hal Jordan's oafish behaviour comes to a head, bringing the promise of a calmer Green Lantern, while Flash impresses with his super-speed tactics. Batman intrigues with his very odd undressing on the battlefield, and an understandably scared Cyborg steps up into a literal baptism of fire. GL's reaction to Batman's reveal is priceless.

It's not all great, though. Aquaman gets something like four words, while Wonder Woman, in her dozen or so, comes across as a slash-happy dimwit. Hopefully writer Geoff Johns will up his game with regard to Diana, in particular, sharpish.
And if artist Jim Lee could perhaps draw her not looking like a blow-up doll, so much the better (click on image to enlarge).

Everyone else looks fine, but his Diana, in that scrappy tiara-effort, is rubbish - maybe I should blame one or more of the four inkers, but I seriously doubt any of them are tinkering with the boss' breakdowns. Darkseid is imposing but Lee's redesign isn't a patch on Jack Kirby's original, just as none of the New 52 costumes better previous versions ... they're all just fuss and faff, tweaking for the sake of it.

The best scenes are those involving Green Lantern: whether he's tickling Darkseid, bemusing Batman or playing big brother to Cyborg, GL is imbued with a rare intensity by Lee that matches Johns' script.

Next issue brings the origin of the new JLA to a conclusion, and after that, in #7, a Shazam back-up, signalling an end to filler nonsense such as this issue's sketchbooks showing the new designs for Aquaman, Wonder Woman and Cyborg. Maybe then this book will feel like $3.99 well spent.

Teen Titans #5 review

Superboy has pretty much beaten Wonder Girl but before he can turn her over to his masters at NOWHERE, her new friends - christened the Teen Titans by Red Robin - arrive on the scene. After a bunch of individual tussles, they lie defeated but score something of a win ... Superboy tells the shady organisation he wants answers and won't be their lapdog anymore.

I've been enjoying the latest take on DC's long-running teenage team, but this issue lets the side down badly. It's a dumb comic. Having announced on page two that his secret weapon is tactile telekinesis, the Titans don't use that knowledge against him. They're not a team yet, but they at least have numbers and could round on Superboy as a unit, destroying his concentration. But no, they attack one on one. Kid Flash runs off half-cocked and winds up tossed right across New York (and not even by Superboy). Bunker's super-Lego proves spectacularly ineffective. Solstice bolts to save Kid Flash before he crashes into a boat in New York Harbour ... by blasting said boat in two and putting civilian lives at risk.

Red Robin finally tries the 'break his concentration' idea, but not having any actual super-powers to back up his assault, proves easy meat for the super-powered clone. And when Wonder Girl jumps back into the fray, she's apparently squished by a subway train.

I say 'apparently' because while we see the train coming, the impact panel is taken up by a nifty, but unhelpful, sound effect. It's safe to assume, though, that there will have been more injuries to innocents.

All of which goes to show that these kids shouldn't be allowed out; they're just not bright enough to cohere as a team, or to prioritise the safety of civilians. I'm not saying give 'em to NOWHERE - Solstice talks of 'everything NOWHERE has done to me, and made me do on their behalf', so they're hardly an after-school club - but these Teen Titans are in need of heavy mentoring.

Also, better dialogue. Superboy's aforementioned moment of stupid exposition is bad enough, but writer Scott Lobdell also has him use Silver Age Memorial Phrase 'vaunted intellect'.

To be fair, at the beginning, Red Robin does suggest they need a plan, but the guy is so patronising ('Follow my lead, guys - it's our only chance') that you can see why individuals might run off half-cocked.

I really hope this NOWHERE plotline wraps soon, as it's taken up ten issues of Teen Titans and Superboy and is getting wearisome. Plus, his dealings with them have made Superboy so scarily unlikable that I can't see how the Teen Titans could ever sign him up.

I can see that this battle was inevitable as part of the Titans' journey - not necessary, but inevitable in a genre where stories progress through dynamic physical conflict - but it doesn't make for a gripping issue. The feel is very much 'going through the motions' as we wait for Superboy's inevitable u-turn. In fact, the most interesting thing about it is trying to work out who that is on the Missing poster - it looks like the original, John Byrne-created Wonder Girl, but it's not going to be her. Any guesses?
The art by Brett Booth and Norm Rapmund is suitably big and bold, with good facial expressions (check out Kid Flash's tongue hanging out as he concentrates, or Wonder Girl's fear as she's dragged below the streets). There's an almost tangible sense of danger sizzling off the page, not something you can say about many comics. The costumes remain awful - outside of Solstice's starkly black look - but hopefully they'll get replaced in time.

The colours by Andrew Dalhouse complement the art well, while Dezi Sienty's lettering is just the job (bar Wonder Girl describing her magic lasso as 'a grift from the gods' - then again ...).

Groundbreaking only in that Superboy rips up the pavement, this is an entirely skippable issue. 

Friday, 20 January 2012

Red Hood and the Outlaws #5 review

Artist Kenneth Rocafort and colorist Blond present a killer cover for the fifth issue of this consistently excellent DC New 52 original. The imposing monster. Helpless hero. Hurting heroine, hair flowing like blood. And all imposed on a gorgeous winter scene ...

The artwork's just as impressive inside, in a more sequential way, of course. The battle between the reptilian Crux and desperate Arsenal is fun to follow, with incident and emotion easily apparent. This being the case, writer Scott Lobdell is able to use narration and dialogue to add detail and fizz, as Arsenal - 'recovering hero' Roy Harper - subdues the creature he suspects of harming his friend Starfire, aka Koriand'r of Tamaran.

Crux's grudge against her arises from a spaceship belonging to her people having accidentally killed his parents - hardly her fault, but the formerly human Crux doesn't care - he hates aliens, and her kind most of all. He's failed, though, in his bid to remove Starfire's alien powers, due to not knowing her history.

Mind. she's not much use when it's round two between him and Roy - happily, Arsenal is ready to make the sacrifice necessary to end the fight once and for all.

Nearby, Jason Todd - Robin turned Red Hood - fights for his life against a member of the hidden race known as the Untitled. Along the way he learns that his foe, who has been serving as town sheriff, had nothing to do with the slaughter of his friends, the All-Caste league of assassins. Red Hood doesn't care, and murders her anyway, using a previously unseen ability that's shockingly unpleasant.

Mid-battle he flashes back to the time Ducra - Yoda-meets-Terminator matriarch of the All-Caste - supervised a ritual known as The Cleansing. She hinted that one day he'd expel the anger within him (the small matter of the Joker having beaten him to death and Batman failing to avenge him) and be glorious. Not this day, though, as the lifeless Untitled sheriff would attest.

Ace Jase reunites with Roy and Kori, and tells them they have to get out of town because an angry mob is on his tail - he's realised that the Untitled are taking over communities, controlling the good burghers. They flee, taking the injured Crux along ...

... and so ends another issue packed with incident, action and characterisation. It becomes obvious this time that Roy doesn't share his friends' attitude towards killing - Jason has been brainwashed into believing that offing someone is akin to giving them a marvellous gift, Kori's martial upbringing and past as a tortured slave have her primed to execute Crux, but Roy? He venerates life, and it'll be interesting to see if he can persuade at least one of his pals to come around to his way of thinking.

The only off-moment this time is a comment from Crux that implies he read the controversial first issue of this title (click on image to enlarge).
That's just a tad too meta for my liking.

Great page, though - Rocafort really imbues Crux with sinewy power, making Roy and Kori's situation seem suitably dire. The artist does similarly fine work throughout, with dramatic storytelling and dynamic layouts. Blond's colouring is the icing on the proverbial cake - bright where it needs to be, subdued elsewhere. And relative newcomer Carlos M Mangual has fast become one of DC's go-to letterers with intelligent, stylish calligraphy. The script from Lobdell is worth Mangual taking time over, being full of little revelations and big moments. I especially like the way the Outlaws' (no one has actually called them that yet!) camaraderie is morphing into friendship.

Lobdell and co are producing one of DC's best books, as fascinating, likable characters (and I'm not normally one to enjoy 'good guys' who kill) negotiate a confidently worked-out mystery. I'm here for the long haul.

Thursday, 19 January 2012

Uncanny X-Men #5 review

This issue the Brotherhood of Evil X-Men handles a dangling plot thread from an X-Force story. Angel had become evil old Archangel again (he'd fit right in here) but Psylocke was too soft to kill him, meaning 5,000 people died in a nuclear blast. Oops. The spot where they perished is now a temporal anomaly nicknamed Tabula Rasa, a kind of Savage Land from the other end of time. Inside are future folk worshipping X Force, and monsters who need bashing.

But that's not important right now. What is, is the fact that the plot maguffin allows writer Kieron Gillen to split Cyclops' Extinction Team into pairs, elicitng some elegant character moments. There's Magik bringing brother Colossus-cum-Juggernaut out of his funk; Hope dropping the tough girl bit long enough to enjoy a flirt with Sub-Mariner; Storm and Cyclops discussing the mutant schism; and Magneto forcing Psylocke to admit she knows more about Tabula Rasa than she's telling anyone. Only the robotic Danger is left out, with Cyclops, as is usually the case, restricting her to communications - and don't think the formerly murderous AI hasn't noticed.

The best thing Gillen does this issue is begin the rehabilitation of Cyclops - there's not one instance of him being a pompous asshole; instead, he's the smart, nurturing leader he was meant to be. There are even signs that ill-feeling lingering after the schism won't last long. 
The much-maligned Greg Land turns in the best work I've seen from him for years - very few loony toothpaste ad model grins (Magick, and she is meant to be a little skewed) but plenty of action-appropriate poses. And he produces not simply isolated images, but proper storytelling. Like this page (click on image to enlarge):
There's a pic of Storm having a bit of fun amid the danger that may well have started out as an ad, or glamour image, but it works and Ororo doesn't get enough spotlight moments these days ... the woman used to be a star! And Magneto looks magnificent, never has his helmet looked so shiny (ahem).

Backing up Land with one of the most gorgeous colouring jobs I've seen are Justin Ponsor, Laura Martin and Guru Fx. And Ponsor it is who adds the hues to Land's grabber of a cover.

There's a cliffhanger as the bad guy shows up, but he's no one I know. Apparently a Celestial. Celestials are boring, so hopefully not. Then again, Gillen books are never boring, so perhaps the - Immortal Man, is it? - will display a previously unremarked wit. And tap dancing ability. Yeah, I'd buy that for four dollars.

Wednesday, 18 January 2012

Legion of Super-heroes #5 review

'One day, a thousand years from now ...' the Legion of Super-Heroes takes a breather. With no universe-shaking crisis to beat, the members enjoy a rare day of downtime. They train, they love, they party, they work. Over the course of 24 hours we check in with, by my count, 29 members and reserve members, the most we've seen in any issue of the Legion since its recent relaunch.

If you're looking for big dramas, this isn't the issue for you. But if you're wanting perfect cameo portraits of the members who make up the galaxy's greatest super-team, don't miss it. There's Cosmic Boy obsessing over the missing, presumed dead, team currently to be seen in Legion Lost; Harmonia Li putting the lie to her name with a disastrous spot of music making; teenage witch Glorith disturbed by ... something; Polar Boy drunkenly carousing; Dream Girl seeing 'a weird image of some big old stones ...' and more.

And it's not just the current team make-up, as we check in with the likes of child-raising founders Saturn Girl and Lightning Lad; odd couple Blok and Black Witch (in tabloid-speak, the Blok Witch); and Academy graduates Power Boy and Gravity Kid, who I'm happy to see are considered part of the gang.

The Dominator incursion plotline bubbles along, while there's foreshadowing around the nature of Glorith and those stones. The latter show up for real on the final page, which melds hope and foreboding in a single image. Overall, this done-in-one story is a box of chocolates without a solitary hard caramel, and congratulations to writer Paul Levitz for pulling it off (click on image to enlarge)
Joining Levitz is another Legion veteran, though one whose service record is a tad spottier. Still, I'll forgive this deserter as it's the great Walt Simonson, who drew the odd Legion story back in the Seventies. His loose line is perfect for this lighter tale of the Legion, his knack for body language brings the members to life and his kineticism proves handy when it comes to depicting such things as Ultra Boy playing ball. My favourite scene shows Vi on a tiny running machine by the bed she shares with Lightning Lass - it's just so ordinary yet, as she grows to full size, extraordinary.

Dan Green and Sean Parsons provide strong inking support, while Javier Mena's colours highlight such things as Element Lad's seeming depression and Glorith's fears. Pat Brosseau, meanwhile, keeps the script straight with his usual smart lettering job.

I love Day in the Life stories, because they show what the heroes are protecting - the status quo, the joyful Ordinary, that's worth fighting for. And this is a splendid one.

Supergirl #5 review

Hoping to learn what happened to her world, Kara follows the sunstone's lead through hyperspace to a blue orb, where she finds her home, Argo City. But it's deserted, in ruins. The sunstone plays a message from her father, Zor-El, telling Kara how he planned to save the city from Krypton's destruction, but unsure he'd be successful, placed her in a protective pod and sent her offworld. His hope was that Kara would one day be reunited with him and her mother ...

... tragically, it will never happen. Zor-El is distracted by something off camera, something that approaches and slaughters him. Kara is filled with grief and anger - in the space of minutes she's learned that as Superman claimed, Krypton is dead; Argo City survived awhile, but it's now dead; her father, too, is dead.

She begins hitting out at things around her, a terrifying engine of destruction. It's then that perhaps the only other being on Argo makes herself known - Reign, another woman of immense power, with an offer to make Kara. Supergirl, though, isn't listening, instead lashing out against the newcomer even as distance from Earth's yellow sun dampens her powers some. She can't beat Reign, and has to listen as she explains that she's a sentient living weapon linked to Zor-El, a Worldkiller.

Now Reign wants Kara to join her as she conquers Earth, convinced there's a secret on 'that little ocean planet' that makes it a haven for Kryptonians. Realising Kara won't help her, she instead leaves Supergirl to die as Argo finally fades.

This is my favourite issue of Supergirl yet, a fast-moving balance of action and explanation. While I could live without Supergirl's first reaction to the arrival of a  stranger being to beat them up (see also Supergirl #2), I accept that she's under stress and immature; just let this be the last time for awhile. I do like that we get some illumination as regards Supergirl's background - I was afraid the mysteries would drag on forever. And her mix of wonderment and fear as she realises that she's flying through space on a single breath makes sense. I'm less keen on a second appearance for her ability to release yellow sun energy from within ... I prefer my Kryptonians to have the standard power set.

New character Reign (originally planned to be a fresh take on old character Maxima) has potential as an ongoing antagonist, given her strength and ties to Supergirl's heritage. And she has a creepy look as drawn by Mahmud Asrar, with heavy brow, perma-sneer and something of the White Martians about her.

Asrar's work is pleasing throughout, though Argo might look a tad more fantastic. His new take on Zor-El works and the fight with Reign is nicely varied in composition. The contribution of Dave McCaig deserves extra praise, now Asrar is working without an inker. They pair kick off the issue well with a well-balanced, dramatic cover.

With luck, the origin arc will be over soon. Good as it is, I'm keen to see what Kara's status quo will be in terms of her new life on Earth. Meanwhile, I'm enjoying this new take on the Supergirl legend.

Wonder Woman #5 review

Diana's having a breakfast of tomatoes in London with pals Zola and Hermes when a stranger, Lennox, brings a side order of obtuseness.

'It must be something to learn yea has a dad the same day yea learn he's scarpered off the ... call it the immortal coil?'

Well cor bloimey and lor luvvaduck. Rather than tell the fella to get back to Mary Poppins, Diana lets him speak, and believes his story that with Zeus being dead, some of his children are jostling for position. She also takes on board his claim that he's a member of her newfound family too, one who discovered his links to Olympus on the battlefields of the Second World War.

So she takes Lennox at his word that she has to be on Tower Bridge at 'six bells' or live to regret it. Who should turn up at 6pm but Poseidon, god of the seas, not in familiar old guy pose, but as the biggest, ugliest fish you ever did see? Diana changes into her Wonder Woman outfit to have a chat. Poseidon says he's going to be the new lord of Olympus, Diana stirs the pot by lying, telling him that Hera has her eye on the prize.

Meanwhile, Lennox has gone into the London sewers, met three-headed devil dog Cerberus and been saved from becoming dog food by, presumably, Hades. Dig that beehive gone bad.
Back on the rain-sodden streets of London, a pair of (masked!) centaurs appear behind the crowd watching Diana. And on some godly plain, Hera seethes at Diana's weasel words.

So Wonder Woman's plan to take on Hera, who has killed her mother and threatens Zola and her child, is based on a lie? I'm taking it that she aims to get Poseidon and Hera at one another's throats and hope they take one another down. I get that Hera's power levels are far beyond her own, but truth has always been one of the most powerful weapons in Diana's arsenal. I'm all for using it, not abusing it.

I'm baffled as to why there's such a long gap between Lennox's arrival at breakfast and Poseidon's at teatime - we're told Diana and Zola have spent the day together, which isn't very proactive for a superheroine; she should be rounding up troops against Hera, not sticking by Zola's side for Hera's inevitable attack ... act, don't react. Take the offensive. Even Hermes sees that sticking close to Zola just makes her a bigger target.

Mind, this Diana isn't the sharpest tool in the Amazon armoury, suggesting that Zola having Zeus's child somehow makes Zola her aunt. Why does Lennox gain Diana's trust so easily? Who's told him to go into the sewers? Why doesn't Diana ask more questions?

Five issues in, and as atmospheric as this story is, as nicely written as the dialogue is when Brian Azzarello isn't reaching for local colour, I'm impatient for the wrap-up. Wonder Woman seems far from the star of this book, which is basically Clash of the Titans meets Dynasty. It's a seemingly endless parade of gods and godlings knocking on Diana's door, telling her things. There's no spark to Diana, no optimism, no sense of her taking control. She should be unifying the Amazons to storm the gates of Olympus, not cowering in London waiting for the next thing to happen.

Cliff Chiang is absent this issue, but fill-in penciller Tony Akins produces more than decent work, keeping the Chiang feel. Diana, Hermes and Zola are all on-model, he can draw realistic street clothes, his London is convincing - he gets across the idea of rain swimmingly - and his creatures of myth are suitably unearthly. Not that all the monsters work - Poseidon looks just ridiculous, like a fat refugee from The Little Mermaid with his daft 'crown' of shells. There's no sense of grandeur, or threat - he looks plain silly.

In all, this is another good issue of Azzarello and Chiang's Wonder Woman, but if someone told me they were leaving tomorrow, I'd be fine with that. The title character in this run isn't DC's most famous heroine, she's a bit player in a tale of gods and monsters, Percy Jackson in a swimsuit.

Monday, 16 January 2012

Legion Lost #5 review

'Never stopped you either, energy-sock.'

And there you have it, my favourite line in this week's comics. But who said it? Stick around, embrace spoilers and I'll get to that.

As we rejoin the storyline, Dawnstar is fighting super-villain from the future Alastor - three of him, due to his manifesting the powers of a Carggite. As she attacks physically, Tellus tries to beat him mentally.

Elsewhere, a new demonstration of Tyroc's powers allows Timber Wolf to escape US security forces with the stricken Chameleon Girl, and he and Wildfire to join Tellus and Dawnstar. They know the latter two are in trouble, having felt the cry of pain from Tellus as Alastor resists.

Alastor, in his rage, causes a truck to crash, sending the driver through the windscreen. This in turn prompts an impressive display of super-tracker Dawnstar's ability to instantly calculate 'every movement of the truck ... the driver ... every individual piece of glass ... trajectories, angles'. But even as she hurls herself forward on angel wings, Dawny knows she won't be able to resist the oncoming truck.

She also knows Wildfire will arrive to save her, a matter not of super-powers, but of faith and love. And he does, before showing Alastor the extent of his anti-energy's force. It's Tellus who finally gets the drop on their foe, though, showing Alastor that while he intended to destroy the human race for supposed future crimes, he's actually guaranteed the universe that supposedly caused the death of his sister. Ah, sweet irony.

The revelation finally causes Alastor to shut down, meaning he misses the issue's big surprise - the return of thought-dead Legionnaire Gates. His and Wildfire's mutual joy at being reunited motivates the quote at the top of this review, a gem from writer Fabian Nicieza. Have some context, and a typically splendid panel from artist Pete Woods (click on image to enlarge).

That's not the final surprise of this issue. But I should leave something for anyone still to read the book. It's another pacey, enjoyable episode from Nicieza and Woods. They're extremely good at splitting their overall story into immensely satisfying nuggests. Former Legion writer Jim Shooter was writing at his blog this week about the lack of clear fight choreography in superhero comics, and I suspect he'd approve of this series - cause and effect within panels is clear, and it's easy to imagine what there's not room to show; logical new uses for powers are found; characters are clearly identifiable ... this is 'simply' good storytelling.

And the praise must extend to colourist Brad Anderson, who is excellent at leading the eye where it should go, and producing dramatic lighting effects. And letterer Travis Lanham, for some distinctive work - he does an especially nice job with Tellus' narration, an easy on the eye yellow-out-of black treatment.

The only art tweak I'd suggest would be a return to a more classic costume for Wildfire, who currently looks more like a robot than an anti-energy ghost. Other than that, it's all good, with moments such as Tellus's mental battle with Alastor, and its resolution, outstanding.

Other commitments mean next issue is Nicieza's last, which is sad. Here's hoping successor Tom DeFalco keeps the momentum and character moments coming. Whatever happens, for the moment at least, we have one of the best Legion of Super-Heroes series in years.

Thursday, 12 January 2012

52 - 6 +6 = The Newer 52

We all saw it coming and here it is - the first cull of titles which debuted as part of September 2011's revamp of the DC Comics line. After their eighth issues, the following series will be no more: Men of War, Mr Terrific, Static Shock, Blackhawks, Hawk & Dove and OMAC.

I can't say I'll be shedding any tears for the first four of these, having disliked them sufficiently not to bother after their first or second issues. Hawk and Dove I stuck with until this month's #5, which seemed like quite enough. OMAC, though, I've been enjoying hugely, as Dan DiDio, Keith Giffen and Scott Koblish produced a monthly love letter to Jack Kirby. Perhaps we'll get the occasional special - there has to be some perk to being a pet project of DC's co-publisher, DiDio.

Determined to keep that New 52 momentum going, though, DC have immediately announced replacements: Earth 2, World's Finest, GI Combat, Dial H, The Ravagers and Batman Incorporated. Here's what we know, in italics, courtesy of DC's The Source blog, with my comments immediately after each entry.

  • BATMAN INCORPORATED – Writer: Grant Morrison. Artist: Chris Burnham. The acclaimed ongoing writer of ACTION COMICS, Grant Morrison, presents a fresh take on BATMAN INCORPORATED, in which the Batman brand is franchised globally in preparation for a major international threat.
  • How odd to describe Morrison in terms of Action Comics when he's already the 'acclaimed ongoing writer' of Batman Inc. While it seems there will be tweaks, this isn't especially new, it's the return of one of the best Batman series for years. Most issues have had thoroughly enjoyable scripts by Morrison (acclaimed non-ongoing writer of Aztek!), while recent collaborator Chris Burnham is a huge new talent. I'm looking forward to seeing how things go now we know Talia is behind evil organisation Leviathan.
  • EARTH 2 – Writer: James Robinson. Artist: Nicola Scott. The greatest heroes on a parallel Earth, the Justice Society combats threats that will set them on a collision course with other worlds.
  •  This is the series we thought would be called JSA, but it seems the scope will be larger that 'just' the finest heroes of a generation. It sounds as if we're getting a series of stories akin to the old annual JLA/JSA/Obscure Team summer blockbusters of the Seventies and Eighties. I'd have been happy with a simple JSA series in which they're the greatest heroes of their world, whether set today or in the Second World War. As well as that, we're getting a gimmick, one which could provide a lot of fun for Robinson, who just adores little-known characters. And it's about time Nicola Scott, one of the best and most reliable pencillers around, received a spotlight project.
  • WORLDS’ FINEST – Writer: Paul Levitz. Artists: George Perez and Kevin Maguire. Stranded on our world from a parallel reality, Huntress and Power Girl struggle to find their way back to Earth 2. Perez and Maguire will be the artists on alternating story arcs.
  • Now this is a nice surprise. The current Huntress mini-series has been showing that the heroine has an affinity for cats, hinting that this is Helena Wayne, daughter of Batman and Catwoman, rather than Helena Bertinelli. And it looks like writer Paul Levitz hasn't been toying with us, as he helms a book teaming this original-style Huntress with her old best friend, Power Girl. Peege has been much missed since the New 52 began, although a pale shadow of her other identity, Karen Starr, has appeared in (bye bye) Mr Terrific. With luck, this will be the confident, warm, funny heroine who starred in her own book in recent years, who knew she began life on another Earth. And with George Perez and Kevin Maguire on board, we're guaranteed a beautiful-looking comic.
  • DIAL H – Writer: China Miéville. Artist: Mateus Santoluoco. The first ongoing series from acclaimed novelist China Miéville, this is a bold new take on a cult classic concept about the psychological effects on an everyman who accidentally gains powers to become a hero.
  • I've read only one comic book story by China Miéville, in Hellblazer #250, and it was ruddy good, so I'm excited to see what he does with Dial H for Hero, one of those Silver Age DC concepts that keeps coming back. Well, a dial that bestows super-powers is pretty much every reader's wet dream. I'm good with a darker take, just so long as we readers are invited to design the odd settee or tank top. I don't know Mateus Santoluoco but a Google image search has me optimistic that he'll produce work worth looking at.
  • G.I. COMBAT – Writer: J.T. Krul. Artist: Ariel Olivetti. Featuring the return of a classic DC Comics series, THE WAR THAT TIME FORGOT, along with rotating back-up stories and creative teams – including THE UNKNOWN SOLDIER, with writers Justin Gray and Jimmy Palmiotti and artist Dan Panosian; and THE HAUNTED TANK, with writer John Arcudi and artist Scott Kolins.
  • Oh, this sounds right up my street, some classic DC strips in there, to be handled by favourite creators. The best thing they could do would be to stay as faithful as possible to the original concepts, the ones that worked, while not trying too hard to be retro. The Blackhawks, and Sgt Rock in Men of War, it could be argued, show that a familiar name isn't enough - you need to find that original magic, and ladle on originality of your own. Gray and Palmiotti know this, at least; it's what they've been doing in All-Star Western.
  • THE RAVAGERS – Writer: Howard Mackie. Artist: Ian Churchill. Spinning off from TEEN TITANS and SUPERBOY, this series finds four superpowered teens on the run and fighting against the organization that wants to turn them into supervillains.
  • Oh dear. I've pretty much had enough of teens on the run in the current Teen Titans book, I like things nice and settled. And then blown up. Still it's years since I've read a Howard Mackie comic, I'm intrigued to see how he's developed while he's been wherever. And Ian Churchill is a popular artist, though he never sees to stay on books very long.

The six new series will replace BLACKHAWKS, HAWK AND DOVE, MEN OF WAR, MISTER TERRIFIC, O.M.A.C. and STATIC SHOCK, all of which will conclude with their eighth issues in April. Many of the characters from our canceled books will appear in DC COMICS-THE NEW 52 titles, and in some very surprising ways,” said Harras. “We’re developing stories that reach from cultures around the globe to parallel worlds. We’re just getting started.”

So there you have it. Six out, six in - I rather like the idea of a wave of fresh titles wiping away a bunch of ones deemed not to be working. Obviously, most of us will lose the odd favourite - ever Men of War has its fans, over at Bleeding Cool - but new favourites should emerge too. And there's also the likelihood OMAC and a few other outgoing characters will return (aha, confirmation comes in Vaneta Rogers' excellent interview with Bob Harras at Newsarama).

The only real disappointment is the lack of genre expansion. Still no romance title, no out-and-out humour book, no cop comic ... does everything have to fit into one of the 'family' lines (Superman, Batman, JLA, Young Justice, Dark, Edge, if memory serves)?

So, come April and DC are guaranteed another big round of mainstream publicity, and fans have some new titles to, hopefully, enjoy. But enough of me - what do you think of today's news?

House of Mystery cover borrowed from the Grand Comics Database, thanks guys!

Wednesday, 11 January 2012

Batgirl #5 review

I love a mystery and there's a fine one here - how can the number 338 cause a mobster to murder his three loyal sons and try to kill himself? How is knife-happy strongwoman Gretel connected? And why does her hair switch from green to pink?

Batgirl is less keen on the intrigue, she just wants to keep Gotham citizens safe - including billionaire Bruce Wayne when his chauffeur proves part of the apparent mind control conspiracy.

And away from the costumed action, is Barbara Gordon's mother - not seen since she walked out on Babs and husband Jim years previously - on the level when she says she just wants to be friends? Given that Babs getting paralysed years previously didn't bring her running, why now? And what was her reason for leaving?

Plus, where will Detective Melody McKenna's obsession with Batgirl lead now she's been tasked with investigating the vigilante by none other than Commissioner James Gordon?

Writer Gail Simone is on top form here, mixing action and intrigue and putting a likeable, relatable character at the centre of it. For the first time since she reclaimed her title of Batgirl in DC's New 52 revamp, Babs is just getting on with it. The post-traumatic reaction to guns is no more, we're told Babs walks again due to neural implant surgery and the comic finally seems to be looking forward. The narration is particularly sharp this time, my favourite line being: ''Crazy lives here on a longterm lease'', and roommate Alysia looks to have dropped the annoying habit of referring to her new friend as 'Gordon. Barbara Gordon.'
The fight sequences written by Simone are beautifully laid out by penciller Ardian Syaf and inked by Vicente Sifuentes - who also handles some pencils this time, clever lad - and take place in one of the most-realistic looking comic book cities around ... perfect for their spitfire Batgirl. They could happily tweak Babs mom - she's a little heavier of frame, but otherwise identical to her daughter, right down to the hairdo - but otherwise, it's all good. New character Gretel has a simple look, but a striking one that suits her MO. It's a shame, mind, that her first full on-panel appearance is undersold.

The cover is another lovely effort from Adam Hughes, a real asset to this series.

As the beginning of a new storyline, this is an excellent place to jump on board. Then maybe you could explain the title to me ... 'A candy full of spiders'. Say what? Has Gretel come straight from the witch's house? Is there a Hansel yet to show up? That's another fine mystery.

X-Men Legacy #260.1 review

'We didn't get to be kids. But we're gonna make damn sure they do.'

That's Rogue, sharing her mission statement now she's resident at the Jean Grey School for Higher Learning.  Listed as 'senior staff member', she may not have a specific role, but if this issue is anything to go by she's set to be the heart and soul of the school. She begins by turning an American Football game into a training exercise, teaching young mutant Rockslide more about his powers in two minutes than he's learned in years. Then she leads all available older mutants against an old enemy of the X-Men, while ensuring the students are oblivious to the situation. All the time she's keeping morale high, encouraging her friends to be the best they can be.

Said menace is the N'Garai, interdimensional demons who feast on the blood of innocents. One drop from a student and they win. But while their power and numbers are immense, they're not too bright, whereas years as a mutant terrorist - and more years as a superhero - have made Rogue a tactician par excellence. Plus, her mimicry abilities have taught her how to mix and match abilities for optimum effectiveness.

This comic isn't as light-hearted as sister title Wolverine and the X-Men, but it's a hoot watching Rogue keeping the school running smoothly while all hell breaks loose outside. And it's superb to see the characters set to be regulars - Iceman, Husk, Cannonball, Gambit, Frenzy and Rachel Grey - cut loose in angst-free battle scenes. They're not fighting for the future of the so-called mutant race, they're acting for the actual human race of which mutants are just part. And they're good.

His Avengers Academy experience equips new writer Christos Gage perfectly for the dynamics of the Jean Grey school - he can do young characters, he can do older characters, he can blend action and soap seamlessly. Off-the-battlefield highlights this issue include siblings Cannonball and Husk disagreeing over how to commemorate fallen students, old rivals Gambit and Frenzy finding common ground and Rockslide's hard-earned nous showing through. Clever use is made of classroom lessons and the natural friendship between Rogue and Rachel is a joy to see.

And then there's the dialogue, which offers such gems as: 'Your power ain't an anti-depressant' and 'But magic isn't an exact science'. I'm confident Gage will do great things in his X-Universe stint.
And if penciller David Baldeon and inker Jordi Tarragona stick around too, all the better (click on image to enlarge). I love their page designs, straightforward without being dull, with the action and emotion crystal clear. The quiet moments are as well-thought-out and effective as the big scenes. I could do without the PhotoShop effects, mind, and they can't draw Gambit's ears for toffee, but who cares about the X-Men's answer to Pepe Le Pew?

Kudos, too, to colourist Sonia Oback and letterer Cory Petit, for good work throughout, and Mark Brooks for a spiffy cover.

Looking at the membership, the only regular I'd send to detention would be Frenzy ... a bad girl in an X-comic is about as predictable as a hairy teen, plus, her power set (super-strong, durable) is dull, her haircut is nasty and I keep thinking I'm looking at rubbish Team Titan Mirage.

Knowing Gage, mind, she'll likely be my favourite within a month.

Forget the silly numbering, X-Men Legacy #260.1 is as good a first issue as you'll see this year. Lesson learned.

Batwoman #5 review

Now if that isn't the spookiest cover you'll see this week, courtesy of JH Williams III ...

A spot of meditation helps Batwoman - 'proud lesbian' Kate Kane, as the page one legend so subtly puts it - realise how to stop the water spirit who's been stealing Gotham children. She confronts the ghost, Maria, at the scene of her death, and puts her plan into action, sending the spook into the afterlife ... but not before Maria gives Kate a chance to come to terms with some ghosts of her own. Finally, the dissipating demon provides a clue as to where she's stashed the kids: 'They are in Medusa's coils. But you can still save them ...'

Medusa? Is there a gorgon in the house? No, but Mr Bones and Agent Cameron Chase of the Department of Extranormal Operations are at chez Kane, to make Kate an offer. That's offer spelt B.L.A.C.K.M.A.I.L. - she joins the government organisation and takes down the global criminal cartel Medusa (aha!) or her father goes to prison for helping Batwoman's operations.

Later, Kate sits at the bedside of critically injured cousin Bette, the heroine formerly known as Flamebird whom Bones tricked into revealing Batwoman's real name. Batman appears, and of course, he knows that Kate is set to take up Bones' 'offer'.

And that's pretty much that. The ghost is gone, and it seems she really was a ghost - I thought such things weren't allowed in the Bat-titles. We see that while old bossyboots Kate made more experienced heroine Bette re-train under her, clad in an ugly boiler suit ('I burn your colourful garb - I am the Proud Lesbian in this family') and going by Plebe, she's the one everyone is getting the drop on ...

Seriously, one minute the DEO bods are making themselves at home in her apartment, the next Batman surprises Kate and it's obvious he's bugged her place. Batwoman is great in the field, but seems a rank amateur when it comes to other aspects of the hero game. Methinks she needs to spend less time dabbing herself with freakily white clown foundation and more improving her security.
Still, the story by Williams and W Haden Blackman holds the attention, while Williams' art is a wonder to behold. The problems I've sometimes had with his showy layouts are absent this issue, and there are several standout scenes, such as the confrontation between Kate and Maria the Unfriendly Ghost. The colours of Dave Stewart and letters of Todd Klein complete the spooky effect. Then there's the full-page illo of Bones and Chase making their presence known; it's three figures, no action, yet utterly magnetic. Kudos to DC for gathering the intricate story pages together and moving the zillion house ads (bring back the lettercols!) to the rear of the book.

I believe this storyline has one issue to go, and it's been quite the ride. Admittedly, Kate gets on my nerves occasionally with her inability to reach out, her haughty attitude, but my gosh, she stars in one compelling comic book.

The Shade #4 review

You may recognise the old dear on Tony Harris's witty cover ('Stygian Darkness' indeed!) as one of the most ... singular ... characters of the Golden Age. If you don't, I'll leave the details to come as a surprise when you read this comic.

Because it's not one to pass up. The Shade #4 is written by James Robinson at his Starman best (it's even a tale of Times Past, the popular done-in-one interludes from the ongoing arcs); pencilled by New Frontier's Darwyn Cooke; inked by the extremely talented J Bone; features The Shade's first foray into fighting the Nazis as he finally acknowledges the family he left behind decades previously; includes spies, turncoats and not one, but two guest stars from the dawn of superhero comics; and it feeds back into this splendid maxi-series' ongoing plotline.

From the wry opening lines ('It was April 14, 1944. And I confess, until that day my only anti-German act had been abstaining from pumpernickel') to a touching close, this is just a wonderful story. It uses DC's rich family history, without demanding any familiarity from the reader. So while it may enrich your experience to note that a plotline originating in a 1940 Quality Comics strip is finally tied up, if you don't know, the detail works simply as a coda to one character's story.

Robinson also lets us get to know the Shade a little better, shining light not just on his attitude to patriotism, but on the knave's identity he has constructed for himself. His descendant, Caldecott, manages to come across as a truly good man without seeming in the least sanctimonious. And as a snapshot of America during the Second World War, the script works a treat.
And it's all beautifully brought to life by Cooke and Bone, whether we're with the Shade in his gothic study, on the shiny streets of Opal City or over the Atlantic in an experimental aircraft. There's a real spark to even the most minor player, while the street look adopted by the Shade for a spot of daytime deviltry is a sharp alternate take on the sometime villain. This really is first-class cartooning, delightfully coloured by Dave Stewart. Letterer Todd Klein, meanwhile, applies his intelligence and mastery of style to the story: small font for pleading, wavy words for punch drunk, elegant script for a journal, and so on. The only phrase not in Klein's vocabulary is 'phoning it in'.

Whether or not you followed the Starman series which hosted Robinson's reinvention of the Shade, even if you've not read the first three issues of this series (and you should), I urge you to give this one-off a try. It's simply a fine comic story.

Death Curse #1 review

Horror hosts Mr Latch and the Curse offer a quintet of unsettling tales in the first issue of this adults-only new book from writers Brockton McKinney & Bo Fader and their artistic chums. Our fictional storytellers are a creepy guy with a pudding bowl haircut and a puppet baby who looks as if he'd eat you as soon as look at you. They share their wares via video nasties, an oddly dated concept, but I suppose you gotta have a gimmick. The framing sequences are visualised by Chris Moreno - who also provides the eye-catching cover - and very well-staged.

First off, the new recruit to a scout troop gets more than he bargained for in 'Pack 666', a breezy fable drawn by Bridgit Scheide, whose work can go from cute to cutting in an instant. And the use of grey tones - Death Curse is printed in black and white - enhances the already appealing artwork. You may guess what's coming, but it's a lot of fun getting there.

More surprising is the tale of 'Vacculus', because it's so darn out there - this Count is one sucker you don't want to be having a dust-up with (click on image to enlarge). As with the introductions, the dialogue's a tad coarse for my delicate English sensibilities, but the air of good-natured grossness prevails. Chris Moreno obviously had a ball drawing this, giving real expression to his characters in wild layouts. My favourite panel shows the legal aftermath of a car crash, it's hugely atmospheric and almost alive with movement. I do think, though, that if the hooker has to get her (massive) bits out, so should the client. Equal objectification in horror anthologies, if you please.
'Haven and Larry' is puzzling, as horror hosts from the neighbourhood ('the Haven of Horror', apparently) drop in on Mr Latch and Curse, offer to relate one of their gems, and are roundly dismissed. I think it may be a stealth ad for a future companion title. It's drawn in a pleasant, scratchy style by Jason Strutz, but again, the semi-clad Haven implies that this book isn't even considering that anyone other than teenage boys might wish to try it.

'Parting Out' is an accomplished offering involving a cute young biker and a sinister old mechanic. There's suspense to be had in wondering who is actually stalking whom, before a well-composed reveal. The illustrations by Larkin Ford are spot on, hitting all the dramatic beats, and there's a nice use of Letratone.

And finally, we learn the 'Storybook Origin' of Mr Latch and Curse in a disgusting little vignette drawn by Jonas Britt, whose soft storybook style makes the horrific scenes all the nastier. This one went a little far for my tastes - I'm more The Haunting than Saw - but it does what it does very well.

So with Haven and Larry being the only unwelcome guests at this Lost Story Studios party, I'm voting Death Curse #1 a hit, a fun update on the old EC horror comics for today's viscera-demanding kids. Me, I'm rather relieved it's in black and white ...

Tuesday, 10 January 2012

Secret Avengers #20 review

Now here's a real time twister. Black Widow stars in a done-in-one story that spans seconds, weeks and decades, depending on your perspective. Natasha Romanov's perspective is that she's going to undo the killings of Steve Rogers, War Machine and Sharon Carter after an assault on the Shadow Council goes wrong.

The obvious thing to do would be to use the time jump device a dying War Machine hands her to pop into the recent past, grab some Avengers big guns and come back before the deaths, and prevent them. But it's not that easy, Avenging brain Hank McCoy tells Natasha on a briedf foray to one month earlier.

So it is that Natasha must embark on a complicated journey across time and around the world, using enemies as allies, to gather the information and technology that may save her friends.

If this non-linear trip demands concentration from the reader - and believe me, it does - imagine how much more complicated it is for the Widow as she plays four-dimensional Jenga ... one misstep and never mind not saving the Secret Avengers, she could destroy time itself.

There are no missteps from writer Warren Ellis as he retools a classic science fiction concept to suit the Black Widow. We're used to seeing her in fast-paced action strips, and that's just what we get here, but barring the present-day sequences, the action is of the cerebral, rather than the physical, kind. And while there are Avengers with more-lauded minds, I doubt any of them could better Natasha on this mission, her cool resignation proving perfectly suited to the challenge

Drawing this back-and-forth bonanza is Alex Maleev, and he conjures up the consummate Black Widow, the Russian beauty who moves like liquid lightning. To make things even more interesting for artist and reader, Ellis gifts Maleev a short sequence in the style of the Modesty Blaise newspaper strip. It's a pitch-perfect homage to Peter O'Donnell and Jim Holdaway's sexy secret agent, a nice nod to Natasha's sometime-influence and all the better for being so unexpected. I'm not sure if the authentic formatting is all Maleev, or whether Marvel production staffer Mayela Gutierrez had a hand in it, so let's just shout out all the key creatives; as well as the aforementioned, that's colourist Nick Filardi and letterer Dave Lanphear.
The issue is topped off by a cute John Cassaday and Paul Mounts tribute to Jim Steranko that's wonderfully appropriate for a story that's more spy-fi than superheroes. When more organised bloggers count down the Best of 2012, don't be surprised to see this entertaining, intelligent, fascinating story in there.

Saturday, 7 January 2012

Hawk and Dove #5 review

HAWK!
DOVE!
DONE!

I think this will be my last issue. A big part of my jumping on this book, when it debuted as part of DC's New 52 promotion, was the presence of Sterling Gates as writer. His Supergirl work showed a huge talent for story, plotting, action and characterisation. Interviews and the first couple of issues made it clear Gates was angling this revamp to suit the talents of artist Rob Liefeld - action all the way with a side of characterisation. And I was OK with that, so long as Gates' own instincts and interests weren't completely subsumed.

But we're up to #5 and the imprint of Gates is barely there as the Liefeld machine pummels forward. This issue Liefeld is listed as co-writer, and as of next month Gates is off the book altogether as Liefeld goes it alone. If this chapter is any indication of what's to come, it's time for me to go too.

The two mysteries set up early on in the series - the truth of Dove's origins and the secrets of the bird avatar cabal - look set to drag on and on. Hank is beyond stupid and selfish, Dawn is a weird combination of grim and sappy, the supporting characters are barely there, the villains are for the birds ...

'Cages and Crossroads' sees the opening storyline wrap, as our heroes search for Dove's fella, Deadman, who's been kidnapped by bad guys Condor and Swan. They talk to Deadman's chum, Madame Xanadu - off-panel - who tells them that a demon named Bob, in Salem, will be able to help. So they beat up a demon named Bob, in Salem, until he tells them they need to return to Washington DC and find the entrance to something called 'the War Realm'.

En route to save Deadman from they don't know what, Hawk insists Dove stop for a chat. He reckons she should consider dumping Deadman because he's brought only trouble their way. Dove is understandably peeved and insists they get on with the rescue mission

An old cinema hosts the entry portal to the War Realm, which sounds exciting and mysterious but Condor's hideaway proves to be a mundane city rooftop - I wouldn't have bothered. Condor, who at the beginning of this issue is a lookalike for Hawk, is now a giant birdman. His partner, Dove double Swan, is now dead. So there's been a betrayal, a death and a transformation - off-panel. A fight ensues and while Hawk doesn't do too well, Dove turns out to have an undefined light power that squishes Condor.

This climactic sequence happens in titchy panels, where you might reasonably expect larger views, maybe a splash page. But no, the spreads are used for a massive headshot of Dove, and a generic, sideways image of H&D diving off a roof. These money shots do feature decent Liefeld art - especially if you're a fan of improbable arses - but they don't help the story pacing. The Bob interlude uses up more room in a very random manner - who is this guy, how does he know anything, why Salem?

The coda sees an apparently Botoxed Deadman break up with Dove - like Hawk, he believes, 'I'm dangerous to you'. Dove is devastated - as a superhero, she's hardly going to be fretting about danger - while Hawk pretends to be sad for her. Next month, a Batman team-up which likely won't leave room for subplot progression.

While Liefeld pencils and inks, he doesn't handle the art alone. There are 'pencil assists' by Marat Mychaels and inks by Adelso Corona. As noted above, as a Liefeld art job it's fine ... the only panel I hate is the shot of Dove as Dawn, in which no one's bothered to draw any clothes on her upper body - Matt Yackey's colours and a few cuff-lines are the only indication she's meant to be dressed. It's lazy, but worse, it looks weird and takes you out of the story.
It's a shame that the finer points of storytelling, such as motivation, explanation and believability, seem to be on the way out. Only last issue, things were looking very promising for this series, with a pleasing balance between the talents of Liefeld and Gates. But with this month's sidelining, and next issue's removal, of Gates - he was meant to be writing #6 - I don't see this comic fulfilling its potential any time soon.

Friday, 6 January 2012

Thunderbolts #168 review

Luke Cage doesn't just take the cover, he takes the spotlight this issue, complete with Bronze Age splash page legend ('Carl Lucas was a felon going nowhere ...'). The Thunderbolts director is busy rounding up pesky escapees from supervillain prison The Raft. Colleagues Songbird and Mach V, meanwhile, are confronted by the even more annoying apparatchiks of FACT - the Federal Advisory Committee to Thunderbolts.

The issue kicks off with its best scene, as Luke tracks down deeply dodgy Spider-Man villains The Enforcers to a Wild West bar. His action-packed encounter with the Silver Age losers is sheer delight.

The main part of the book sees Luke face the things that give him sleepless nights, courtesy of Mr Fear's fear gas - and it's not just the obvious, such as harm coming to wife Jessica or baby Dani. There's the fate of the time-lost Thunderbolts, for one. The possibility all his teammates will die under his watch. Worst of all is the notion that he killed former Thunderbolt Joystick ... I think. This is where the story loses me. There's a woman in the hallucination referred to as Janice, and the only Janice I can recall in this series was the frankly rubbish Joystick. I don't recall her having any particular history with Luke, and so far as I know she's alive. So it may be another Janice.

A-ha, a slow pacing back and forth through the comic tells me Janice is likely the crony of Mr Fear whom Luke faces pre-hallucination (she seems to be called Soundwave, but introductions are absent and the only Marvel character of that name I can find reference to online is a Transformers character). Luke chokes her in the dream. When he returns to wakefulness, he sees that if she is dead, it wasn't his doing. Hurrah.

Luke's fear dream is further complicated by the apparent presence of Thunderbolts member Ghost, the cyber terrorist he had dive into a time portal a few issues back (it's complicated). He says he's been changed by the experience, is no longer a physical being ... but is this part of the illusion too?

Then there are the intercuts with the FACT conversation, which occasionally feed into Luke's vision - he 'murders' Janice to a commentary from Songbird about Thunderbolts being considered 'lowlifes' willing to kill. Apparently, at some level Luke fears he's still Carl Lucas, street criminal with more bad than good in him.

Songbird and Mach V tell the politicians just what they think of the way Washington is running the Thunderbolts programme. Interrupting the chat is a British insurance broker who brings a mysterious message ... just as Luke breaks out of his nightmare to find Mr Fear gone.

The old bit with a hero facing his fears usually involves long-held insecurities, so it's no wonder the mid-dream 'death' of an unrecognisable lackey confuses. Thunderbolts under writer Jeff Parker has long been one of Marvel's most reliable, entertaining reads so this confusing instalment is very much an aberration. My big fear is that the more often Thunderbolts double ships - as it does this month - the more we'll get less than stellar issues (last month's was no great shakes, either).

Ah well, at least the book looks superb, with Matthew Southworth providing some great strip work. Songbird, Mach V and Luke have never seemed more human, while the (possibly) new-look Ghost does indeed have the tinge of the grave about him. And Frank Martin Jr's colours distinguish brilliantly between the issue's two main environments.

The cover by Kev Walker and Chris Sotomayor is good old-fashioned fun, but the splash features one of those Eric Canete illos that make poor old Luke look like a lunatic, melting walrus.

While I can't recommend this issue to first-timers, I would say try pretty much any issue since Jeff Parker's run began with #138. With sharp plotting, surprising character work and strong art from regulars Kev Walker and Declan Shalvey, it's one of Marvel's best books. Usually.

Thursday, 5 January 2012

Justice League International #5 review

A recent edition of John Siuntres' excellent Word Balloon podcast saw Marvel 'architect' Matt Fraction talk about the difficulty of writing 20-page comics. It's not just a matter of cutting two pages from a 22pp story, apparently ...

Which confused me. As a kid raised in the days when all comics had just 17pp of story, 20pp seems pretty good. Can writing a satisfying instalment of a superhero comic of that length really be rocket science?

I dunno, but any writer having trouble with the mechanics should study an accomplished pro like Dan Jurgens, who month after month delivers first-rate superhero stories that don't leave the reader feeling short-changed. Here's another example, as he closes the new JLI's first storyline, 'The Signal Masters'.

In 'just' 20pp he recaps the threat to Earth from Peraxxus, has the JLI escape a death trap, travel to the planetary leech's starship, battle the alien, persuade his ship to stop strip-mining Earth, send its master running and quiet their UN liaison's hectoring. Unlike in, say, the Avengers of Fraction's fellow Marvel architect Brian Bendis, there's no standing around by team members while one or two favourites hog the action: everyone here - Booster Gold, Guy Gardner, Ice, Fire, Vixen, Godiva, Rocket Red, August General in Iron, Batman - has a part to play in the story's resolution. What's more, every scene is rich with characterisation as the heroes gel as a team while individual friendships and rivalries form. As team leader Booster Gold points out, job done.

Bringing the well-paced script to life is penciller Aaron Lopresti, whose own storytelling instincts complement Jurgens beautifully. His heroes look marvelous whether in well-choreographed fight scenes or the issue's quieter - yet still intense - moments. What's more, Lopresti sells the story's cosmic qualities beautifully with his convincing space scenarios and interstellar craft. Lopresti's regular partner, Matt Ryan, inks with style, while Hi-Fi and Travis Lanham provide exemplary colours and letters respectively. The striking cover comes from David Finch and Richard Friend.

I don't for a minute believe it is simple, but the creators on this book really do make telling memorable stories look easy. Any creators intimidated by the supposed tyranny of 20pp, study well. 

Action Comics #5 review

Krypton is dying and Jor-El sees just one way to save his family - sanctuary in the ethereal prison that is the Phantom Zone. Unfortunately, the criminals already there put paid to that idea, ending the hopes of survival for he and wife Lara. But their son can perhaps be saved, if a tiny, experimental interstellar craft can take Kal-El to a world where he can flourish.

The rocketship lands on Earth, at the feet of Martha and Jonathan Kent. Spotting the helpless babe inside, the childless couple see their chance to become a family. Knowing the authorities brought by the craft's earthfall will expect to find a tiny passenger, Jonathan fools them with some gruesome sleight of hand, allowing Martha to hide the child.

Years later, mysterious figures - the Anti-Superman Army - steal the rocket's Kryptonite engine, a deadly tool in their fight against Superman. But the Man of Steel has friends at his side - the adult Legion of Super-Heroes.

And so goes 'Rocket song', the latest retelling of Superman's origins. As ever, there's a mix of classic and new detail, while the conclusion leads into next issue's Legion team-up before we return to the main storyline - Brainiac's abduction of Metropolis. Brainiac's in here too, as the artificial intelligence running the rocketship, and narrating the sequence. If I'm reading things correctly, this early Brainiac takes root on Earth, preparing to make it a Krypton-style planet, decades before its brother Brainiac deploys shrinking technology on Superman's hometown.

Grant Morrison's dialogue in the Krypton sequence is awfully stagey ('There are threatening figures emerging through the colourless fog') but this has to be deliberate melodrama, connecting this retelling to the Superman strip's origins in early SF stylings. By the close of the story the words are more naturalistic, well, as naturalistic as comics starring Superman and the Legion can get ('We're up against something that can erect impregnable shields around events').

That last bit of business, along with terms such as 'superspace' and 'untime', shows that Morrison is going into All-Star Superman mode, bringing on the big shiny ideas that helped make that book such a standout. The extrapolation of said ideas should make perfect fodder for the Legion's guest appearance next month.

Details I like include Lara being involved with the rocket design - in previous histories she had been a trainee astronaut - though I could live without the awful term 'mothermatician'; Jor-El specifically telling the computer to find a planet that would let his son 'seem to fly', presumably to allow him to escape any future planetary extinctions; the mention of Kal-El hearing Krypton explode, a memory that will haunt him; Jonathan and Martha's resourcefulness at the start of their relationship with Kal mirroring Jor-El and Lara's at the end of theirs. And I'm not sure how Morrison did it, but this telling of the origin made the latter seem closer to us, not so much aliens sending their child into space in a rocket as parents tossing their baby out of a burning building and hoping that, somehow, he'll be okay.

The artwork of penciller Andy Kubert and inker Jesse Delperdang, with blazing colours by Brad Anderson and letters by the stalwart Patrick Brosseau, is outstanding. They give great Jor-El and Lara (the beardy superdad of recent years is, happily, gone), and draw an eye-catching end of days for Krypton, with slanted panels adding to the sense of unease. The spread of the rocket bursting into space as Krypton expires makes the oft-seen scene seem fresh. Their adult Legion costumes are majestic.

And they give Lara this hat.
How many of us could look that cute at the end of the world?

Superman's other mother, Martha Kent, doesn't get a cute hat, but she does sport an elegant veil in the issue's back-up, 'Baby steps'. Writer Sholly Fisch and artist ChrisCross show us Jonathan and Martha Kent's life from their wedding day through to the arrival of that rocket. Actually, not all aspects of their life, just their attempts to have a child; like many young couples, they assume children will just show up.

Sadly, this isn't to be for the Kents and we see how they supported one another through the disappointments. Despite their plight, the tale ends on a note of optimism that bodes well for Kal-El's future - there's no doubt he's destined for a house of love.

Fisch's script is outstanding, making the Kents' love, and sorrow, equally believable, while ChrisCross's art is nuanced enough to capture emotions big and small.
And on a shallow note, ChrisCross, as well as conducting their wedding ceremony, draws the hottest Ma and Pa Kent ever ... it's weird to think of the Kents as sexy but heck, they are newlyweds here.

The story also has highly commendable colouring from Jose Villarrubia (check out the texturing on the church) and fine lettering from Carlos M Mangual.

A fill-in this issue may be, but it works as both a standalone detailing of Superman's beginnings in the DC New 52 universe, and a pleasing side sequence in the main story. And that's far more than I expected.

Tuesday, 3 January 2012

Legion: Secret Origin #3

In which Phantom Girl signs up, Invisible Kid shows up and a spaceship blows up. Said unfortunate craft is coming through a wormhole in United Planets space, and it's assumed to be the latest assault from whoever attacked the planet Amatrom. Given its seeming size, Admiral Allon's fleet is taking no chances and with the aid of teenage genius Querl Dox - who likes to be called Brainiac 5 - they calculate the proper firepower to take it down.

That's the climax of this issue; before that we have Tinya Wazzo meeting the UP Security Directorate to hand over the data her homeworld, Bgtzl, has gathered on the Anotrom attackers. The big revelation is that Bgztl somehow moved itself out of reach before it was itself harmed - presumably, like Phantom Girl Tinya, the world can phase from the UP's plane of existence. Job done, she's off to join the Legion.

On Earth, Legion financier RJ Brande learns from telepath Imra Ardeen, the future Saturn Girl, that his would-be assassins were brain-addled dupes. Legion leader Cosmic Boy, aka Rokk Krinn, ponders how to sift through the best applicants coming forward to join the tyro team, and is thinking of an initiiation test. Brande, though, has other ideas - his aides Mala Lathan and Pheebs will take a look at the candidates. One fellow he pushes to the top of the pile looks to be a Durlan in off-planet form ...

Losing the admin frees up Rokk for a walk through 31st-century Metropolis with Brande, and a discussion about just what their new super-hero club will do. One obvious inspiration is the fabled Superman, whom Rokk insists existed - Imra having done the research. Ushering Rokk away, Brande utters the issue's best line: 'Now shoo, boy. I have to go over to UP Council and see today's price of cooperation.' The departure of Brande's 'bodyguard', though, opens the door to another attempt on his life - one stopped by an unseen employee - Lyle Norg, Earth-born Invisible Kid.

This is writer Paul Levitz's best issue yet in his extrapolation of the Legion's origins. While it still lacks the presence of a big, colourful foe, 'Connections' isn't lacking in interest. I enjoyed the surprise arrival of Invisible Kid hugely, while Brande's subtle 'sponsorship' of Chameleon Boy for membership seems to affirm that he remains Reep's father in this tweaked continuity. The characters of the young members are starting to show through - breezy Tinya, responsible Rokk, superior Querl - while the mystery of the Anotrom invaders builds.

On the art side, penciller Chris Batista, inker Marc Deering and colourist Wes Hartman are a fine team. My favourite sequence this time is the stroll through Metropolis taken by Rokk and Brande, showing us how densely - and fascinatingly - populated the mega-city is. It's a full page splash split into four and ... actually, it's easier to simply show you (click on image to enlarge):
Love that Protean with the briefcase.

By the end of this issue the Legion has five official members (Saturn Girl, Lightning Lad, Cosmic Boy, Triplicate Girl and Phantom Girl), with two more teenage heroes around (Brainiac 5, Invisible Kid) and two others (Colossal Boy, Chameleon Boy) likely to show up at any minute. It's not quite Legion numbers, but we're getting there.