Wednesday, 29 February 2012

Justice League #6 review

Earth is under attack by parademons from the evil world of Apokolips but seven superheroes have assembled to form our planet's last, desperate defence. While five face down the leader of the invasion, Darkseid, two are stranded on his hellish world.

Set five years in the past of the rebooted DC Universe, this comic features heroes with considerably less experience than we're used to. Happily, Darkseid, too, seems strictly bush league. Instead of using his planet-shaking strength as a New God to inflict damage on Wonder Woman, Aquaman, Green Lantern, Cyborg and the Flash, he stands around dumbly as they pile on. The terrifying, unstoppable Omega Beams of previous issues go unused before two of the heroes put paid to that idea by getting stabby with their weapons. And as for sending Darkseid back home with his tail between his legs, wouldn't you know it? Cyborg has an app for that.

Yep, I'm underwhelmed. We've spent five issues building up Darkseid as a massive threat only for him to be defeated by his accidental creation of Cyborg mid-incursion. His own tech, seeded into the metal suit created by Victor Stone's dad, sends him packing. Which is ironic, but far too pat - Cyborg happens to have the means, something the suit handily tells him.

The one moment which sees the heroes use their brains - Aquaman and Wonder Woman disabling Darkseid's eyebeams - is undersold. With neither mention nor display of the Omega Beams this issue, newer readers might assume the heroes are simply homaging the old 'injury to the eye' motif.

We do get to see the beginning of teamwork, even if it is pretty much of the 'all pile on' variety. That's fair enough, this is the origin of the League so the members-to-be don't necessarily know one another's shticks. And Batman and Green Lantern prove useful at geeing up a doubting Cyborg, while GL helps Superman resist Darkseid's grip.

A big scene last issue saw Batman tear off his mask, cape and chest-symbol and allow himself to be taken to Apokolips, in the hope of finding Superman. As we join him, it seems the parademons didn't bother sticking him on a meathook, a la the unfortunate background players, meaning he's free to skulk around as henchman Desaad reveals what Darkseid is after (for once, not the Anti-Life Equation). Maybe Batman used his escape artist knowledge to get free, but some reference would have been nice. It's not like this 24pp story is packed with plot detail that needs the space - nine pages are given to splashes.

Batman proves basically useless on Apokolips, with Superman escaping the torments of Desaad only because Cyborg makes some Mother Boxes go 'ping'. It's very odd, after last month's big set-up - the unCaped Crusader with no plan, and no improvisation. All he does is yell at Superman to wake up and get through a Boom Tube.

Mind, none of the heroes do anything amazing with their powers or skill sets - there are no super-speed tricks, clever green creations, Amazon feats, Kryptonian power combinations, Aqua-action ... it's all bish bash bosh. Hopefully, as time goes on, writer Geoff Johns will show what the heroes can do other than luck out and maim enemies with handy magical weapons.

After the big fight, we move forward a few weeks. An Everyman who appears at the start of the issue, presumably in a belated attempt to put a human face on the cosmic threat, writes a book christening the Justice League. It's a better name than the in-joke tag Flash comes up with at a presidential ceremony honouring the supposed team. And the cover of the book, assuming it features a subsequent JL adventure, warms my heart.

As for this story overall, I'm lukewarm. Johns has provided plenty of big moments for artist Jim Lee to draw, but there's been very little emotional meat. Darkseid sent a bunch of demons to Earth, heroes got together and, mid-bickering, sent him away again. Read as a whole, I suspect this origin will entertain the eye, but leave the mind wondering why so many pages were necessary

It's taken six issues, but by the end of this book the Justice League stands together. Physically, at least. They're still not all delighted at the idea of being a team. Which is disappointing - sure, heroes can be flawed, but when they're in costume I want DC's finest to be shining lights who together form a beacon of hope. Not grumpy buggers who can barely stand to be in the same room together. With luck, as the story catches up with the present day, the Leaguers really will be 'super friends', with more banter than snarking.

Because Johns is good with the banter - there are a few nice gags here that don't disrupt the story tone. And Lee sells them well, alongside the aforementioned big moments. Some of the smaller scenes are less successful, such as this.
Anyone know what happened there? Darkseid's about to hit Diana, but there's a wodge of white. Cyborg's white noise blast? A passing box of explosive soap powder?

Overall, Lee's work - inked by Scott Williams, Sandra Hope, Batt and Mark Irwin - is fine for this kind of story, all noisy and Nineties. The cover's a tad dodgy, mind; the staging of the heroes doesn't draw me in, though fans of strong backs will likely enjoy it. Keith Giffen, back in the Eighties, took the same basic idea and went for a more straightforward composition. I think it works better.
In other news, there's actually a back-up in this $3.99 issue, rather than the customary text padding. It sees the mysterious woman who merged universes to form the New 52 Universe named as Pandora. She and the Phantom Stranger have mysterious conversations, presaging some crossover to come. She's going to do something, he's agin it, she shoots him with guns I can only describe as mysterious. He's fine cos he's already a spook. Or an angel. Or, as this story would have it, a cross between rubbish DC character Pariah and Marvel's Watcher.

Anyway, it's a decent six pages of fannish porn written by Johns and nicely drawn by Carlos D'anda, but the very idea of a huge, titles-crossing storyline so soon after the launch of the new 52 makes my head hurt.

So, that's the opening storyline of the new Justice League, if not ended (there are intriguing mysteries for the future/annoying loose ends) so much as stopped. Lots of flash, not much substance but selling by the bucketload. The big test will be how many newer readers come back after this opening arc.

Hyped as the flagship New 52 book, Justice League fails in DC's stated aim of giving us fresh storytelling approaches to bring in a new audience. The narrative isn't broken into chapters so much as random lumps. Events come and go with little explanation and the significance of occurrences is rarely clear. Familiarity with characters is taken for granted. Recaps? What are those?

The people who will get the most out of this book are those intimate with Jack Kirby's Fourth World saga, able to envision the grand designs in which Darkseid specialises; if you don't know Darkseid and his parademons, the JLA are simply fighting random monsters. Johns does Darkseid a serious disservice, giving one of comics' greatest bogeymen a charisma bypass.

There's little here to bring me back next time, nothing I can see that would make anyone a JL fan. Curiosity will have me back next month to see how the League of 'today' functions, and to check out the debut Shazam back-up. But unless this book starts delivering less drawn-out, more satisfying stories - the 34pp tales of Steve Englehart and Dick Dillin in the Seventies Giant issues would be a useful template - I'm gone.

Saturday, 25 February 2012

Teen Titans #6 review

Kid Flash's run-in (sorry) with Superboy has left him out of synch and in danger of vibrating to death - can the rest of the Teen Titans find someone to save him? Who's the emotion-controlling loony at STAR Labs who uses Skitter against the other teen heroes? And why is someone from the 31st century impersonating a current day police officer?

These are the questions raised in an above average issue. Some of them are even answered. Kid Flash's problem is quickly solved because this is the DC Universe, where geniuses are ten a penny. What's gratifying, though, is that as the Titans are in New York the genius in question gets to be Virgil Hawkins, aka fellow teen hero Static. It turns out that not only is he a pal of Red Robin's, he provided him with his new wings.

Other things we learn are that Kid Flash was raised an orphan and is a wanted man in the future, Bunker* is smart enough to give Red Robin a run for his money as leader and while Wonder Girl can speak Spanish, she has a lousy gaydar.

There are other incidental pleasures, but I shan't spoil them all. Instead let's have, not a complaint, exactly, but a query. How the heck is this guy speaking? Grymm looks like Joker Jr but it's another Batman villain, the Ventriloquist, he brings to mind with his closed-mouth jabbering (click on images to enlarge).
I enjoyed that; let's have another question. Wonder Girl, is this really the best way to carry a lariat that seems to be, basically, electrified barbed wire? There's trippy, and then there's tripping oneself up.
And back on the subject of communication, if Superboy really has caused Bart to accelerate to the speed of thought, how is anyone understanding a word he says?

Oh well, the main thing is that this is an entertaining issue that lets us get to know our heroes a little better, drops a new mystery on us, introduces a villain with definite possibilities and presents a (hopefully) future team member in Static. I'll say 'job done' to writer Scott Lobdell, even if if he does insist on having the very silly Skitter around. I don't have a favourite moment this issue - I have two. One sees Red Robin explain to Virgil why he reckons he has more chance of helping Bart than the Flash. The other involves Bunker's knowledge of Supervillain 101. They're two fine character moments, the type that lift a standard teen book above the average.

Brett Booth and Norm Rapmund mesh well as penciller and inker, their layouts crackling with energy. And while, Solstice apart, I don't like the Titans costume designs, they work well together - everyone has their own look that reflects a little of who they are. And they draw a great Virgil - let's hope they're called on to depict him in costume soon. There's also smart colour work from Andrew Dalhouse and lettering from Dezi Sienty.

As I said, a good issue, helped by the fact that the NOWHERE plotline takes a backseat. Hopefully, once the upcoming Superboy/Legion Lost crossover is over it'll vanish completely and give the Titans room to relax and find new, more engaging challenges.

* Love the character, hate the name ... I can never bloomin' remember it. Just call Miguel Brickboy and have done with it!

Friday, 24 February 2012

Aquaman #6 review

Mera goes shopping for dog food, breaks the arm of a sex pest, nearly kills a murderer, is confused by humans and makes a friend. She thinks back to how she came to Earth from a watery dimension intending to kill Aquaman, but changed her mind on learning that he's a good guy.

Yes, it's a busy day for Mrs Aquaman, but luckily she has plenty of room - Arthur is absent until the final page. So the creative crew can show us how awfully 'badass' Mera is, taking no nonsense from anybody. Appropriately named shop owner Randy winds up in an ambulance, appropriately named killed Ryan Slayter winds up half dead. There's no denying Mera does good in teaching the local caveman a lesson and taking a killer off the streets, but she's more brutal than a hero should be.

I enjoy seeing characters use their powers in imaginative new ways and Mera sucking the moisture from Slayter's body, to simulate days without water, certainly qualifies as that. And it's fun to see her control the liquid from water coolers.

But she's so very angry. For 50 years' worth of comic stories, Mera was formidable with her hard water powers - think undersea Green Lantern - and knack for leadership. She didn't lose her temper easily, though tragedy caused bouts of madness. Then Johns 'revealed' that she originally came to Earth from a lost Atlantean colony to murder Aquaman. Happily, she married Aquaman rather than murdered him. But don't think love tamed her entirely ... you don't make an enemy of Mera.

I'd love DC's New 52 to have taken the opportunity to wipe away this retcon. But here it is. Mera remains a woman whose first instincts are to lash out.

Johns bids to make Mera's responses seem justified by surrounding her with provocation; it's not just sex pests and killers, it's members of the public who, rather than listen to her, laugh at 'Aquawoman'. I've written previously about how silly I find the idea that the public considers Aquaman any less a hero than the rest of the Justice League, so won't go into it again here. Let's just say I'm disappointed to see the conceit extended to Mera.

While I'm not a fan of the characterisation, Johns does a good job of writing his Mera - a haughty woman who keeps her vulnerability to her private moments. There's hope that in time she'll conquer the instincts formed by her background and be the hero Arthur is. Her making a friend can only help, though it's a shame Jennifer - previous focus of the frankly unbelievable Randy's harassing ways - is set up as the One Good Person in Town.

For now, Mera is the very model of a modern superheroine - so sexy you can't help looking, but stare for too long and she'll take your head off. I can imagine the fan clubs forming ...

The artwork is easy on the eye. As laid out by Ivan Reis, drawn by Joe Prado and coloured by Rod (gorgeous skies) Reis, Mera is bewitching and her displays of power fascinating. Her confrontation with Slayter is especially well-rendered, her power building along with her rage. The flashbacks to Mera's past are presented with due intensity, the backgrounds are numerous and convincing and 'Team Aquaman' depicts a very cute doggy. The only niggle I have is that, facially, Mera and Jennifer are a little too alike. 

I can see this being a very popular issue. It panders to many readers' preference for kickass protagonists. It reads decently and looks terrific. But while heroes who struggle against their worst instincts can be interesting, Mera never needed to join that band. Give me noble queen over reformed water witch any time.

Wednesday, 22 February 2012

The Flash #6 review

See that fridge in the kitchen? It's a lot smarter than its equivalent of five years ago. And so is Captain Cold. The head of the Rogues' Gallery has dumped his cold guns after internalising his power and is back to wage war on the Flash.

And this time it's personal. The electro-magnetic pulse which recently rang through Central and Keystone Cities has been blamed on Flash - and it's wrecked Cold's attempts to help sick sister Lisa. So Cold menaces a boat-turned-restaurant to bring Flash out in the open. As luck and comics would have it, Flash is there already in his other identity, Barry Allen, with girlfriend Patty Spivot and reporter pal Iris West. Having defeated Cold many a time, Flash expects, if not an easy ride, a successful one. But Cold has a few new tricks up his ...

... oh.

No sleeves. Captain Cold has a new outfit. It's a tad fey.

Never mind, the original will be back - the classic looks always reassert themselves eventually. Meanwhile, the Flash must work extra hard if he's going to save the innocents menaced by Cold - not previously a killer - and bring in his man. An extra wrinkle is provided by Flash's link to the Speed Force, which means that if he hits a certain level of energy release, the time barrier is breached, bringing Heaven knows what through.

This thoroughly entertaining issue also includes a twist on one of the Flash's old toys, romantic shenanigans with Patty and a kidnapping mystery. Writers/artists Francis Manapul and Brian Buccellato continue to shine, bringing a thoroughly fresh take on Barry Allen that retains plenty of good stuff from years past while offering up original ideas. I'm not kidding. These guys aren't 'simply' adding a sheen of modernity to proceedings, they're rethinking what it means to be a speedster. And I like the answers they come up with each month.

I also like their layouts, which somehow manage to dazzle with their ingenuity without ever bringing the story to a full stop. As usual, the splash spread is among the highlights, as Manapul incorporates the strip's title into his linework, and Buccellato adds extra vibrancy with his colours. And there's something just plain likable about their people, a quiet humour. Well, except for the understandably peeved Captain Cold, who gets a bit of a makeover out of costume too.

I don't like the costumed Cold's new look, but I do like the new-look Cold as he taps his full potential while still viewing himself as just another working stiff. And is the name of the eatery an Easter egg, a coincidence or a hint that there's a Jay Garrick, the Golden Age Flash, in the DC New 52 world?
The only thing I'd change about this issue would be the way it's plotted. The story, as I've indicated, is a winner, but the ordering? Not so much. We go from Now to Yesterday to Last Night to Now to This Morning to (an unannounced) Now to Fifteen Minutes Ago to Five Minutes Ago to Now. I get it, Manapul and Buccellato wish to open on action and sprinkle a little mystery as to how we got to this point. But the technique, pioneered on such TV shows as Alias, has become as cliched as the end montage accompanied by the dreadful Hallelujah. It's a way of ramping up the drama that feels artificial. And it's not needed in The Flash - the creative team puts enough great stuff into this book to justify every scene being Now - an ongoing Now.

And if we really must start on action - heaven knows why, I'm sure all readers will trust something to up the adrenalin will come along soon enough - comics do have a tried and tested tool. The p1 splash page previewing events later in the book. It worked in the Silver Age and it's ripe for reinvention; and it isn't as if it would be needed every issue, I'm sure some instalments would naturally begin on action.

Here endeth the backseat editing. And the review.

Superman #6 review

It's Superman vs Supergirl. Again. We first saw this match only four months back, in Supergirl #2, but here it is once more.

There are differences. That time Kara Zor-El, new to Earth, was lashing out against its greatest defender. Now she's protecting the citizens of Metropolis as Superman lashes out against the city.

And in fact, this isn't Superman at all, but a human-sized batch of alien nanites out to transform Earth into a copy of its lost homeworld. We learn this when the real Superman, who had been cast out into space, returns to Earth to help Supergirl who, despite her considerable powers, is caught offguard by the imposter's savagery.

Superman drags the fake across the world to icy wastes where he proceeds to beat him down with the scariest power of all - super-exposition.

This really is one wordy fight scene, as Superman explains to the suddenly confused imposter why it's been smashing up Metropolis, killing criminals and generally besmirching his hard-earned good name. Superman's knowledge is a result of sharing the being's memories while out in space. The scene - and an earlier solo infodump enjoyed by Superman - makes sense of the last five issue's worth of weird alien attacks but it's a tad convoluted, and doesn't make for the most elegant battle ever.

But ... last week I was having a right old moan about not understanding what was happening in Wonder Woman #6, so it would be a bit rich to out and out condemn this issue for its big dollops of explanation. Writer George Perez is determined we'll understand all, and DC generously gives his story room to breathe - this is 23pp for $2.99, not the line-wide standard of 20pp.

It turns out that the pseudo-Superman ties into the Collector of Worlds storyline currently playing out, in fits and starts, over in Action Comics. That's where, in a fortnight, we'll see what happened years ago that led to this storyline.

It's all a bit baffling - DC wants new readers for the New 52 Superman revamp, but rather than let Action Comics play out its Five (or maybe Six) Years Ago story, and do something separate here, they tie the two together. Instead of two discrete, satisfying tales we get interconnected ones that are awfully drawn-out. And when it seems this comic's strand is played out, there's an epilogue by the coming new creative team tying things to Stormwatch and the Daemonites inherited from Wildstorm Comics.

It's all a bit much. If you want to be reader friendly, DC, shorter stories are the way to go. Multi-parters linked to other multi-parters tying into continuity from the Wildstorm Universe, isn't. The New 52 should feel refreshing, not cluttered.

Judged on its own merits, Superman #6 is pretty decent. Perez's script is well-paced, if not perfect. Never mind the big talk scene, I could really have done without references to a reporter soiling his pants when dropped from a height by Fake Superman - what is this, the Poo 52?

But Perez handles Supergirl well, following the lead of her own title by making her ever more a hero of Earth. His Lois Lane is the capable, caring journalist she should be. In fact, the entire large cast is choreographed well. And I like Superman referring to heat vision and super-hearing as 'optic fire' and 'auditory power' - that's Clark Kent, noted overwriter, that is. My favourite moment this issue sees Kara applauding Kal after he defeats the pretender - it's a turning point in the relationship between two people who might be close, but are yet strangers (click on image to enlarge).
The pencils and inks of Nicola Scott and Trevor Scott (are they perhaps related? Probably not) make for a very good-looking superhero book. Nicola's well-composed pages, replete with excitement and emotion, are sleekly - but not coldly - finished off by Trevor. Brett Smith adds another layer of excellence with eye-catching colour work. The Super-Cousins look excellent, even allowing for the dodgy new outfits. And in a nod towards the fact that these books are meant to appeal to women as well as men, Nicola ensures neither Lois nor Kara are super-busty.

As for that final page, it's the work of writers Keith Giffen and Dan Jurgens. The latter provides layouts for finisher Jesus Merino, and it's very professional, but not my cup of tea. I'm already sick of Daemonites, and I don't even read Grifter or Voodoo.

Perez signs off with an impressive cover image, attractively coloured by Brian Buccellato. This is Perez's last issue and while the new Superman comic hasn't set the world on fire, within the constraints of the relaunch I suspect he's done a better job than we'll ever know. 

Thursday, 16 February 2012

Legion of Super-heroes #6 review

Sun Boy, Element Lad and Chemical Kid venture to China to clean up an environmental disaster, while Dragonwing visits her sister elsewhere in  the country. At Legion HQ, Dream Girl puts the kibosh on Star Boy's hopes of a long snogging session because she has a science project. On Panoptes, Brainiac 5 and Mon-El lead the clean-up after the recent Dominator problem. And on the Dominator homeworld, a caste warrior learns what it means to fail his betters.

This issue, creators Paul Levitz and Francis Portela do what I thought impossible - they make me like Dragonwing. The surly, snotty Legion Academy graduate shows her love of her family, while also demonstrating that she's Legion through and through. It turns out that she's not the only person in her clan to have super-powers - sister Bao Pai looks to be a human spider-crab. And she's fallen in with a very bad crowd.

Luckily, Dragonwing has learned some moves from Duplicate Damsel, and has help in the shape of her sister's abandoned shar-pei, Fu. As drawn by Portela, this is one cute pup and I do hope she takes him back to Metropolis if she survives her homecoming.

Actually, everything drawn by Portela this time looks magnificent, with the colours of Javier Mena deserving massive praise too. The flaming sea we open with looks amazing. Sun Boy in human torch mode is fabulous. Dream Girl and her holographic display is utterly splendid. And Dragonwing on the streets of China, translucent cape flapping against the neon in the rain, is marvellous. Then there's Mon-El throwing a stone that reflects his frustration, the Super-Size Me Dominator chief and his adorable plush-like lackeys, the icky Bao and more. Portelo and Mina's rain art is especially dazzling - is that a great angle at the bottom or what (click on image to enlarge)?
Levitz's script is wonderfully assured too - he really knows how to make the day-to-day dynamics of a superhero team interesting. The mix of longtime and newer members is working well, while he's transforming 31st-century Earth into a place almost as magical as Silver Age Krypton. The new threat introduced this issue, a villain team out to dominate China, looks set to be interesting, I'm dying to see what Dreamy is up to, and the way humour turns to horror in the Dominators scene is masterful.

The cover by Chris Sprouse and Karl Story isn't half-bad, but it's time Portela was allowed to lead off his own stories.

One of the better LSH issues since the relaunch, this has me itching for next month's continuation.

And more plush-sized Dominators. DC Direct, are you listening?

Wednesday, 15 February 2012

Supergirl #6 review

And this is where it all comes together. For five issues we've seen Kara Zor-El struggling to come to terms with being a stranger on a very strange world and the idea that her planet - her family, her friends - is lost. But this issue sees Kara accept the truth of her losses and fly towards a future unlike anything she could have imagined ...

The book begins in the past, as Kara receives some tough lessons from a physical combat robot - now we know where she learned to throw that punch she's so quick with. The memory has surfaced in what may be her last moments. Defeated by the living weapon known as Reign, Kara is pinned to an Argo City wall as the last remnant of Krypton hurtles into a sun. She's not alone, though; visions of parents Zor-El and Alura help her break her bonds and fly free, but with a heavy heart. She taps into the powers she thought faded and flies into space, in time to see Argo City disappear forever. 'My home is gone. And I have only one place left to go.'

Reign, meanwhile, has reached Earth, where she challenges the authorities to battle her, presumably for the right to rule. The army fights fiercely but are no match for the Kryptonian 'Warkiller'. But Supergirl may well be. Reign, though, is pleased by the arrival of her enemy, despite an almighty slugfest - if Kara won't rule alongside her, well, she has something else up her sleeve.

This really is the best issue to date. Writers Michael Green and Mike Johnson show us Kara's indomitable spirit - it's not simply a case of the 'ghosts' of Zor-El and Alura giving Kara strength, it's her inner strength that's conjured them up in the first place. She's the last daughter of Krypton and she won't give up (click on image to enlarge).
But now she's choosing to be a daughter of Earth, too. The above contains my panel of the week - I just love that soldier, and Kara's determination to save her new world. She's not moping, she's not viewing Earth as second best - it's a different 'best'. A planet she'll protect at any cost - this is Supergirl for Earth.

Interesting moments include the addition of a silver-haired young Irish immigrant to Supergirl's pretty much non-existent supporting cast - anyone who's been following Kara for a couple of years can guess who she'll turn out to be (if they've not already been spoiled by solicits); and Reign strongly implying that Supergirl is more capable than Superman. Green and Johnson really are hitting their stride. I have just two complaints, one to do with story detail, and one with presentation.

Firstly, why does Supergirl have such a problem getting free of Argo City? So far as we can see, Reign's axe isn't actually pinning her to the wall, it's pierced her cape. Take it off, dear.

Secondly, an issue that's coming up again and again with regard to DC's new 52. Splash pages. They're everywhere. Unless circumstances are exceptional, a 20pp story shouldn't have more than a couple. Even before last September's line-wide relaunch it was common for DC comics to have three splashes - one of the opening three pages, the final page and perhaps one big moment along the way. This issue has a page three splash of a broken Kara that's powerful, but basically another view of the cover. There's one page of Reign arriving on Earth. Two pages of Kara leaving Argo City behind. One page of Reign smashing up New York. One page of Kara punching Reign's lights out. And a closing spread showing us what Reign has up her sleeve.

That's eight pages - almost half the book - taken up with extra-sized images. And I'm not saying they're not great images - Mahmud Asrar is producing outstanding pages, and Dave McCaig's colours do the work proud. And the spread of Kara weeping as she bids her past farewell is beautiful, the emotional culmination of the reader's half-year journey with Kara. I'd defend its inclusion to anyone. But the rest? Arguable. We could easily reduce the opening splash to half a page as the cover has already given us the information therein. Reign doesn't deserve two spotlights, the arrival splash could be cut. And the final, annoyingly sideways spread, could easily be a single page. So we keep the poignant space double-page, Reign wrecking NY, Kara defending it and the surprise ending. Five pages of splashes - that has to be enough for anybody? And I think three is easily enough in a non-landmark issue.

Asrar's designs for daily life on Krypton work well, blending aspects of versions seen down the years. I especially like the wacky training robot, and Supergirl's energy armour. The fight with Reign is outstanding, as Kara finally has a target worth hitting. The malice in Reign's expression is chilling. And his design for the Oirish newcomer shows Asrar can do earthly as well as unearthly.

Green, Johnson and Asrar are developing superb creative synergy on Supergirl - if only they'd be just a little less splashy about it.

DC Universe Presents #6: Challengers of the Unknown

Brought together for a reality TV show, a group of minor celebrities are on their way to the Himalayas when a weird face in the window of their jet presages a crash. They awaken in the land of Nanda Parbat, but not before Challengers producer June Robbins has a dream in which a horrific version of her boyfriend Ace, who'd been co-piloting the plane, stabs her through the heart.

In the waking world, Ace is absent. A man who introduces himself as the high priest of Rama Kushna tells June, 'He was not one of yours, therefore not here.' All the others - science writer Prof Haley, singer Red, athlete Rocky, production team member Clay, billionaire Ken, internet star Brenda and co-pilot Maverick - are fed and watered. Or rather, poisoned. Something the monks give them causes the visitors to pass out, just as they're warned of the challenge of 'what lies ahead'.

They awaken on the side of the mountain, by the wrecked plane, apparently weeks later. Their radio's wrecked but a working GPS brings hope of rescue. And a helicopter duly arrives. But so does a monster ...

As for what happens next, I say give the comic a try. Longtime DC fans, or indeed, anyone who read the last few issues of this tryout title, will have caught the Namba Parbat and Rama Kushna references. Yep, we're back in the mystical realm overseen by a distinctly dodgy goddess; Deadman's boss, Rama professes to be watching out for mankind but her haughty manner and offhand treatment of her agents make her less than trustworthy.

And now it seems the Challengers are to be her lackeys. Living on borrowed time, they're ready for some predestined mission, but will they have the courage and skills to fulfil it? Will their time run out? One of the cast is already culled by issue's end, while Ace remains missing and possibly a monster. I'm looking forward to the continuation next month.

The Challs have been around in one form or another since the dawn of the Silver Age. Originals Ace, Prof, Rocky and Red were soon joined by June and occasional substitute members. Here we have several new characters, but writer Dan DiDio gives everyone enough screen time for at least an inkling of their personalities to be gleaned.
I'm not immediately thrilled by the Nanda Parbat add-on to the team's traditional survivors-of-a-plane-crash origin, as I like series to stand on their own, but we'll see where it goes. If Deadman shows up, as he did in the team's Seventies series, I shan't complain.

I shall complain about the fact that only one member of the cast winds up stripped to their scanties. Dream June. And then she's stabbed in the chest, blood spurting towards her bra. I really can't see the need - in stories I've read, honorary Challenger June was always treated as a full partner, not the decoration to be threatened. This just feels exploitative.

On the upside, the reality show is a clever way to get the Challs together, and the expanded cast allows for a bit more diversity than just four white guys - Maverick is African-American, Ken Asian-American. I don't know if the new people will stick around awhile, but they're here for now.

Jerry Ordway is the perfect artist for this series, a proper craftsman with great storytelling instincts - I don't like June's dream, but there's no denying Ordway captures the horror of the sequence, with distorted perspective and close-ups of a manic Ace. And the opening page of this scene is one of the cleverest in the book, as script and art gel to great effect. With the aid of inking trio Ray McCarthy, Andy Lanning and Mario Alquiza, Ordway does a fine job of making the characters unlike one another, and does a nice line in Kirby-esque nasties. The colours of Tony Avina are well chosen for the various settings and moods, while the lettering of Travis Lanham works well with the art. And whoever designed that stylish logo, sitting over Ryan Sook's pulp throwback cover illustration, deserves a Hostess Twinkie.

While never massive stars, the Challs were the first DC heroes to break out of a tryout comic - they debuted in Showcase #6 back in 1957 - and given the quality here, there's a chance they could do the same thing in the New 52 era of 2012.

Wonder Woman #6 review

In which Wonder Woman and newly discovered semi-sibling Lennox sort out the tussle for Olympus between claimants Hades and Poseidon by, er ...

... to be honest, I don't really know. I know what I see, but not how the moments shown work together to tell the story.

Diana, Lennox and pals Hermes and Zola are in a tunnel by the Thames with Hades, and Poseidon looking in from the outside. Hera, the other claimant to the Greek heaven, shows up, naked but for her ridiculous feather cape. Diana and Lennox are suggesting that rather than fight, the brothers treat Olympus as a timeshare - Poseidon's by day, Hades' by night - with Hera as resident queen.

It makes no sense, obviously, but the idea distracts the three long enough for Lennox to snap a candle from Hades' head and throw it to Diana. Hermes tosses his teleportation staff to her, too. Diana throws the candle at Hera. There's a magical wave on the floor. Lennox protects Zola from an explosion. Diana and Hera are suddenly in her Olympian palace. They threaten one another across a shiny surface. Diana teleports away.

Zola observes that Lennox is made of stone, and Poseidon apparently refers to Hera as having been blinded. Neither of these things were obvious from the preceding pages. There is some kind of rocky effect in the panel of Lennox covering Zola, but there's no sense that he's generating, or becoming, stone. And there's nothing at all to indicate Hera has lost her sight - perhaps Poseidon is using 'blinding' as a synonym for 'distracting', who knows?

DC's solicitation for this issue, among other things, asks: '... what does Lennox know that Wonder Woman doesn't?' I have no flaming idea.

What I do know is that the climactic pages of a six-issue story should be a lot clearer than this. What's the deal with Hades' head candles? What's that pool? Why did Diana take Hera across the dimensions for a simple pouting match? Since Hera zapped her way into the tunnel once, why doesn't she do so again after Diana cuts and runs?

If a lifelong Wonder Woman fan who has read every issue of this New 52 relaunch can't figure out what's going on, what chance has a first-time reader trying this book because of the buzz? Oh for a Marvel style recap page - they're great at explaining things that have never been seen in the actual stories.

Art and script just don't gel .Things happen but the progression from incident to consequence isn't there. Writer Brian Azzarello seems more interested in the gods throwing daft puns at one another (Poseidon to waxy-headed Hades: 'Oh lighten up!') than in making clear what's going on. At the beginning of the book, for example, Diana is fighting Poseidon on the surface while Lennox chats to Hades below. It seems Lennox is somehow transmitting the conversation to Hades, but it's not clear how, or whether the impression is the result of attempts to link scenes in a stylish manner. Instead we're given nudge nudge wink wink exchanges about sex, and excruciating lines such as 'Jus' Lennox, Lord Hades. Leave the mistah for me sistah.' Letterer Jared K Fletcher was likely in pain while having to spell out that one.

It's not all bad; there's a decent - if over-bloody - scene of Diana beating centaurs with a spot of pole vaulting, and a decent surprise ending leading into Diana's upcoming trip to hell. The art of Tony Akins and Dan Adkins has some good moments outside of those confusing three pages, and Matthew Wilson's colouring is pleasant. The cover by regular artist and co-plotter Cliff Chiang is a striking take on a classic idea.

But overall, this is one unsatisfying comic. After six issues I'm no closer to knowing who this latest version of Wonder Woman is. She wins the day, but only with a plan Lennox came up with, and the rest of the 'week' looks to be more of the same. Gods and monsters and clever-clever cryptic dialogue and mysterious plots and bargains ... I enjoyed the first couple of issues but the increasing starring role of the gods, and parade of half-explained events, has me frustrated. Editor Matt Idelson really needs to sit down with his creators and explain that we readers don't actually know the story that's in their heads. Spell it out. And remember who the star of the book is meant to be.

Sunday, 12 February 2012

New Mutants #37 review

I love it when comic books do holiday issues. This week DC tackles St Valentine's Day in Batman: the Brave and the Bold #16, while Marvel takes up the love theme in New Mutants #37.

But while I adored the former, I didn't love the latter.

The idea of lava lass Magma going on a date with Mephisto, Marvel's most dangerous demon, is so out there, it has real potential. The embodiment of all evil courting a young mutant? Whatever could he want, really?

It's a question asked throughout this issue; the other New Mutants, not actually being stupid, tell her to weigh every word he says and every response she gives. After all, Mephisto is the Lord of Lies, always out to trick people into becoming trapped in his fiery realm. She's only going out with him because she made a deal to win the team's freedom from Hell. Teammate Sunspot is especially antsy as he has a crush on Magma.

Mephisto turns up at the kids' home in San Francisco's Mission, flowers in hand, flash car at the ready. He's clad in a nice suit and is ... wearing glasses? This doesn't merit so much as a blink from the assembled teens, though the sight is deemed so exciting for readers that it gets a whole page. Another entire page is devoted to a remarkably unremarkable visual of Mephisto showing Magma his table setting, with a nice view of Hell and famous dead musicians standing by. Trust me, it's a lot less exciting than it sounds. The splash page, earlier, is Magma looking in the mirror. It's a tad more eye-catching, as she apparently fixes her hair with a flaming hand, framed by a heart, little burning skulls at the bottom of the shot.

Really, though, pleasant as the art by David and Alvaro Lopez is, there's no money shot, nothing especially memorable. Flicking back through the issue, the best moments are the mildly comic: Magma's 'tech-tag' bouncing down the street; an enthusiastic Asgardian pup; Mephisto, in his human form, 'enjoying' his first taste of chipotle after the pair remove themselves to an SF diner.

It's not all the fault of the Lopez brothers. Usually reliable writers Dan Abnett and Andy Lanning have given us a change of pace issue, but not an especially intriguing one. The biggest moment of drama comes as an understandably sceptical Magma tells Mephisto to stop messing about, she's willing to sacrifice whatever he wants for the longterm safety of her friends. But he assures her that he's simply after some human contact.

Abnett and Lanning's radically different presentation of Mephisto as a gauche teen can work only if the guy has an angle, and so far as I can see, he doesn't. The evening ends with Magma being safely delivered home and half-smitten by Mephisteen.

Now, I may have missed something. Perhaps at some point in the story Mephisto does get one over on Magma, trapping her into something or other to be revealed at a later date. She does come home with a rose, she's pecked him on the cheek ... a sequel may be coming. If it follows the lead of this tale, though, the biggest thrill that would offer would be Magma and Mephisteen going to the soda shop.

Please, if you've read this story and caught the big twist I've missed, let me know. As it is, this seems to be an OK issue featuring an exceedingly unlikely encounter. The script is readable, though unambitious, while the title, 'Hot Date' is cute. The art is splendidly coloured by Val Staples. Joe Caramagna's lettering is as good as ever. And Kris Anka's cover is lovely.

But overall, this is entirely skippable if you're not a New Mutants completist. Don't worry, there'll be another issue along in a minute ... this is one of several books Marvel is double-shipping for our delectation this month. How lucky are we?

Friday, 10 February 2012

Kevin Keller #1 review

Recent Riverdale recruit Kevin Keller isn't worried about his new responsibilities as class president. He has other things on his mind - his first date. The guy who seems to be good at everything is a nervous wreck at the prospect of going out with someone.

But help is at hand. It's not help he's asked for, but such is life among Archie's pals and gals. Reggie suggests he does one thing, Betty tells him the exact opposite and Veronica agrees with one of them. Archie has tips relevant to no one but himself. Jughead lays out his predictably amusing idea of the perfect partner. And Kevin's parents are quietly supportive.

When the big day finally comes, Kevin realises the best thing to do is, well, you can probably guess, but that doesn't take away from a charming tale with plenty of smiles. Kevin is Riverdale's first gay character, but I bet most of us will empathise with his predicament. Who hasn't panicked over the first date? And the second. And the third ...

Writer/artist Dan Parent indulges in some fourth wall-breaking to introduce Kevin to new readers now he's no longer piggybacking on Veronica's comic. And while we accompany the likably klutzy Kevin through his week we're given a good look at the world of Archie, useful for anyone brought in by the media hoohah around Kevin's sexuality but unfamiliar with the Riverdale set.

The script is cute without being sickly, studded with the kind of simple home truths that it never hurts to hear again. And Parent's art fits the Archie house style while having a verve of its own. My favourite sequence sees Reggie take Kevin to pick an outfit for the date, a scene which is the perfect excuse for a fashion spread soliciting ideas from readers. I might have sent a look in that's just perfect for the gay lad about town, but - courtesy of Parent and talented inker Rich Koslowski - Reggie's already wearing it (click on image to enlarge).
Where Kevin goes from here, I can't say, but I hope he finds not just a nice young chap, but a readership. Not because he's gay, but because he's starring in a fun comic that leaves me feeling warm and fuzzy. I like that.

Wednesday, 8 February 2012

Secret Avengers #22 review

It's a changing of the guard. New creative team, new members, new threats.

Secret Avengers #22 sees Captain America hand over the reigns of the Avengers' covert ops team to Hawkeye and recruit Captain Britain to join Valkyrie, Black Widow, Beast and Ant-Man. Their first mission takes them to Pakistan, where a frightened young mother has been kidnapped by terrorists after manifesting strange abilities. The Avengers want to rescue her, but they're not the only metahumans on the scene - four people from all corners of the globe gather to recruit the woman they see as a fellow 'descendant' of some mysterious 'father'.

In battle with the Avengers, the newcomers show they can adapt to any power set, and redouble it, putting the Avengers at a distinct disadvantage. The 'Adaptoids' get away with the woman and her son, heading for (I'm guessing based on appearance) Bagalia, the outlaw state which debuted in last month's Secret Avengers #21.1 Gathered there are other adaptoids, some with appearances based on members of the Avengers. What they don't know is that a real Avenger is about to show up - Ant-Man has stowed away with the Adaptoids.

Adaptoids, eh? It seems we have here relatives of classic Avengers baddie the Super-Adaptoid. That alone guarantees I'll be back for a least a few issues. The dialogue from debuting writer Rick Remender also helps. After a bumpy start during a vignette with Captain Britain in Merrie Olde England ...
... things improve greatly when Brian (decades after his debut, I notice that Brian is mere letters away from Britain!) arrives at the Secret Avengers' new headquarters, The Lighthouse, which, like SHADE HQ over at DC, is a miniaturised Wonderland. He's soon bantering with the Beast and being rubbed up the wrong way by Hawkeye; this is proper Avengers and no mistake! Remender captures Brian's character nicely, the way he veers between confidence and arrogance. Hawkeye, too, is on form, a charming blade, while the Beast is the loquacious genius of old, Black Widow the spicy spy, Valkyrie the grim Asgardian, Ant-Man the cheeky cynic. The different personalities make for a group with a lot of potential (I can't say I'm thrilled that Venom is joining next month, though).

Lord knows what's meant to be covert about them, mind. Yes, the new base is teeny-weenily hidden from prying eyes, but they're still diving into foreign countries in full costume, using their own names. Oh well, we'll see where Remender goes.

Wherever he goes, I hope artist Gabriel Hardman and colour artist Bettie Breitweiser accompany him. Together they produce naturalistic work that suits the slightly harder edge a covert ops Avengers book should have. They ground the fantastic in the real. So far as individual designs go, their Captain Britain is remarkable - he has the vibe of defining artist Alan Davis without being a second-rate homage. And Valkyrie is stunning, as serene a warrior as Asgard ever produced (now, if only someone would give Val her winged horse and cape back!). In fact, everyone looks marvellous, apart from that strange person above claiming to be the Queen - oh well, it's not like there are 60 years of photo reference online.

The splendiferous cover is the work of illustrator Arthur Adams and colourist Laura Martin. Terrific figurework and a striking background. More please.

So, a good start. Not quite good enough to stop me resenting the $3.99 Marvel is charging for 20pp of story and art, but I'm plonking down my money. So far.

Superboy #6 review

This issue picks up where Teen Titans #5 left off ... hang on, that's not quite right. This issue begins a few pages before the end of Teen Titans #5, wasting its first five pages on the exact same moments. I might not care so much were DC not telling us to read that issue (which was a bit rubbish) in an editor's note on page 1.

So, Superboy feels bad about beating up the Titans, but headbutts last girl standing Solstice anyway, and then quits shady organisation NOWHERE. Supergirl shows up, having spotted her family crest on Superboy's chest from miles away (that's some awfully specific super-vision she has) and wondered if they have any connection beyond bad fashion. Her touch fills Superboy's mind with images of Krypton dying (it seems telekinesis isn't his only mental power) and he learns of a war between clones and Kryptonians. Along the way, Superboy absorbs knowledge of Kryptonese, meaning he can understand Supergirl, and tell her that he's a clone.

Regular readers of Supergirl will have guessed what's coming next. KWOOM, she bashes Superboy into the upper atmosphere, while crying out 'KON-EL'. Has she just named our moody hero, via some butchering of the word 'clone'? Whatever the case, Supergirl is at it again, thumping first and asking questions later (see also Superman, Reign ...). Cue fight, one that only ends when a helicopter appears and begins strafing them, and she instinctively steps in front of Superboy, believing he needs protecting. He uses his TK to send the helicopter safely away, and Supergirl grabs the opportunity to get away from Superboy, intending to find cousin Kal-El and see what he knows about this ... brrr ... clone.

Superboy then returns to his usual story arc, heading for NOWHERE headquarters to tell them what's what, where he finds Rose Wilson waiting for him, mad as heck.

OK, the good, in fact, the very good - the artwork of penciler RB Silva and inker Rob Lean is lovely: Superboy looks strong and capable, Kara looks formidable and bright, backgrounds, buildings and tech look great. Particularly commendable is that they draw Kara's red patch more as proper shorts than Lolita Lass mini-panty shield. The flashback to Krypton's destruction is immensely powerful (click on image to enlarge).
The dialogue and narration from Tom DeFalco (in what I believe marks his return to DC after 30 years with Marvel) is note perfect.

The colouring from Tanya and Richard Horie is bold, the letters from Carlos M Mangual attractive. Shane Davis, Jonathan Glapion and Barbara Celardo provide a decent cover (though it's not as attractive as the interior artists' work).

No, what's wrong with this issue is Scott Lobdell's plot. It's more supposed superheroes bashing one another for no good reason, which seems to be all that Superboy, Supergirl and the Teen Titans ever do (I know it's not, but the impression is building). Everyone's so angry, and misunderstood. We even have Superboy and Supergirl serparately whining in this issue that everyone is always hitting them for no reason. Super-Pot meet Super-Kettle.

It's all gotten really tired - can't these kids just have a conversation before fighting? Just once.

And next issue, it's Superboy vs Rose. I'm ready for a change in direction, for Superboy to stop being such an oaf and to start being allowed to hit proper criminals rather than every kid in the DC Universe.

There is a tiny bit of plot progression, as Superboy learns about Krypton, and Supergirl tells him that clones tend to turn into nutso killing machines, but it's a shame that the information couldn't come out as the two teamed up against an actual villain, rather than one another.

A couple more issues of the current direction, and I'm out - it really does feel as if this book is going nowhere. Or rather, NOWHERE.

Batman: The Brave and the Bold #16 review

The Mad Mod has invaded Gotham Fashion Week, determined to nab the specialised costumes Batman has loaned out for the occasion. There's the Undersea Batman, Mummy Batman, Azbats and more. Soon the Mad Mod and his mobsters (Modsters?) are working the looks, ready to use them in a crime spree. Such bare chic! Happily, the Caped Crusader easily gains the upper hand via the suits' emergency shut-off systems. But Batman's biggest fan, Bat-Mite - the magical imp from the Fifth Dimension - isn't pleased at Batman's 'cheat' and hands the upper-hand back to the Mad Mod, forcing his idol to show off his 'super-hero awesomeness'.

Which he does - not that Bat-Mite is paying attention after Batgirl shows up. This is the babe for him! In a bid to win the Dominoed Daredoll's heart, Bat-Mite employs all his magical wiles. He offers Batgirl her own comic, shows her there are much worse beaus around, demonstrates his skills as damsel-catcher ... but Batgirl is one kitten that ain't smitten. Finally, the imp finally turns his attentions elsewhere, to another heroine who may be perfect for him.

If there's another comic as enjoyable as this St Valentine's special in 2012, I'll be as amazed as I'll be delighted. For this is page after page of smiles and laughs as we're given homages to everything from Silver-Age Lois Lane and Wonder Woman stories to Roadrunner cartoons via Peanuts. Throw in the Fiddler, Pied Piper and Music Meister, the return of Mister Polka Dot, and giant props, and you still don't have the full picture of how brilliant this issue is (click on image to enlarge).
The script is witty and frothy, skewering all its targets, the art is brave and bold and bright. Writer Sholly Fisch and artists Rick Burchett and Dan Davis have produced a love letter to DC Comics in general, and Batman in particular, that reads like an issue of Ambush Bug circa 1985. So far as comedic comics go, I have no higher praise.

The only downside of this gem of an issue is, it's the last. Batman: The Brave and the Bold ends here. But don't despair - like Bat-Mite, it could pop back at any time. I hope so, because with DC's New 52 revamp it's the only comic that's been acknowledging the company's storied history, in tales that could be enjoyed as much by young kids as ancient fanboys.

Tuesday, 7 February 2012

42 years late ... The Witching Hour #8 review

Indulge me for a minute or two, as I take a look at a comic I've wanted to read most of my life. The eighth issue of DC's 1970s mystery anthology The Witching Hour, hosted by weird sisters Mildred, Mordred and Cynthia. That cover haunted me, as I came across it in numerous DC house ads of the time. Who was that poor old woman? How had her servant fallen in with demons, ghouls and a gorgon? Would the old dear wind up with cheese and pineapple on a cocktail stick?

As a six-year-old, I was unable to trawl newsagents looking for it, and anyway, distribution of American comics in the UK back then was spotty at best - random issues came over as ballast on ships.

Lack of copies at the time meant there was little chance of finding this issue as a back issue, so it's only now, with the first 19 issues of The Witching Hour available as a chunky black and white Showcase Presents paperback, that I can read the story behind the image.

The issue opens with 'The True Picture of the Servant Problem at the Witching Hour', a short framing sequence by two greats, writer Sergio Arigones and artist Neal Adams (alternating his own style with that of the witches' founding father, Alex Toth, to fascinating effect). A hapless photographer is escorted to the ladies' castle by Egor, the servant whose face is ever-unseen, to take a portrait of the weird sisters (click on my snapshots, to enlarge). Before the snapper can begin, though, a tale from Mildred ...
... Above and Beyond the Call of Duty, by the aforementioned creators, is a neat little entry in which a rich old man desires the youth of his manservant, and the affections of his maid. To get them, Jonas Sentry sells his soul but - wouldn't you know it? - he hasn't thought through the consequences. For one thing, it's not wise to kick your old body to its death down the stairs when the Devil is on hand to call the cops and report a 'murder', ensuring that while you're guaranteed a long life, you're spending it in prison.
And then, it's the cover story, as related by Mordred. A kindly looking domestic shows up at rich old Emily's house, offering to clean the place for three days, '...just for the joy of being in this beautiful house'. And not only is she a first-rate domestic, Winfred also makes a mean cup of tea. Special tea. Tea so strong it sweeps Emily off her feet and into her sickbed. Soon, Winifred is turning away visitors - the cousin, the doctor, no one can get near. Until, on the third night, Emily hears noises. Locked in her room and weak, all she can do is drag herself to the keyhole and see the horrors without - witches and monsters ... doing the Frug.

The freakish noises drive Emily half-mad, and she finally passes out. Next day she's awoken by Cousin Elmer and Doctor Buchanan, who find a note from the departed Winifred: 'Dear Miss Emily. I thank you for the use of your lovely home! It made our annual meeting a great success. You really must learn to relax more! Get well! Love Winnie. PS We hope to see you again next year ... that is, if we don't find a BETTER place!' And on the doorknob we see scratched, 'Friday 13th'.

So on the one hand, the status quo is restored; on the other, there's that kicker - the threat that Winifred and her weirdos will be back. Somehow I don't think Emily will be hanging around to find out.

It's a marvellous little tale from the prolific pen of Arigones, with art from the masterful Nick Cardy. Over the course of the story's six pages, the pair ratchet up the tension with a sharp, sly script, and art whose mood veers between claustrophobic and all-out madness - below, within two panels. Cardy manages to make the monsters ridiculous - check out the gorilla in bib and tea - while unsettling. Quite the trick.
I've waited decades to read this story, and it doesn't disappoint. Neither does the cover. Unlike many DC titles of the time, whose covers regularly promised more than serial storytelling would allow them to deliver, as an anthology The Witching Hour has no need to cheat with its cover - and so the grabber image by Adams is a direct representation of the story.
And finally so far as the issue's theme goes, we have another servant-centred story, 'ComputErr', written and drawn by the great Alex Toth and told by the super-sultry Cynthia. Matched by computer, Kipp and Rod set up home at his country seat, watched over by toad-like servant Ferencz. As Rod embarks on ever-longer, more-frequent business trips, Kipp is forced to spend time with Ferencz. And while he only wishes to please her, she's repulsed and finally snaps, telling him to leave her alone. Frustrated at being denied contact with the world beyond the house, Kipp tries to walk out. But Ferencz locks her in a room until Rod returns. That's when she sees her chance. Kipp leaps into the car he's stepped out of and drives off, but not before (deliberately?) reversing into Rod, leaving him like a crumpled doll. Happily, Ferencz can put him back together - Rod was a robot, created to seduce a bride to keep the  less-than-Adonis-like Ferencz company. And now he's going to have to start again, with a new-look Rod to net a fresh computer-bride.

But that's not all. There comes a knock at the door. The police. Rod's car's been in an accident and, at the scene, the broken body of Kipp. She was a robot, too!

Well, that's what happens when you rely on a computer to sort out your love life, or so Toth reckoned four decades ago. And while his story is dark fantasy, a fair few horrific matches have been made in the interim. It's a smart little script, lushly illustrated by Toth, who doubles the number of panels you might expect to find on a page to produce a primitive computer-tape effect. The emotions are big, and I couldn't help but feel a little sorry for the lonely Ferencz in this Twilight Zone-style fable. And while a sci-fi horror might seem out of place in The Witching Hour, Cynthia was one hip young witch.

And then it's back to the framing sequence. Poor Renay has been petrified by the spooky stories - literally. Egor tosses him into the swamp and vanishes into the night, and the sisters despair of ever showing his face to us. Then, a banging at the door, assumed to be readers, annoyed at being denied a look at Egor. In fact, it's a little girl, with a present for the three ... a photograph of her with Egor. Such a shame his face is masked by the trees' shadow. Unusually, maybe uniquely, these framing stories were a serial, so the mysterious tyke returns in #9. I can't wait.

After a one-page text story - to recreate the authentic Seventies experience I've not bothered to read it - a bonus 'Twice-told Tale'. It seems the comic was educating readers in urban legends long before Supernatural and the like. This is the tale of young lovers, a sports car and an unattached hook. It's an efficient two-page chiller from writer Ron Whyte and illustrator Jack Sparling. Cynthia presents the tale as an anachronism from the Fifties ... who knew it'd still be scaring teenagers today?

After reading this issue, I'm even more sorry that the 1970 me missed it - it would have fed my nightmares for years. I'd read some more issues, but not right now. After all, it's 12 O'Clock ... The Witching Hour!

Wednesday, 1 February 2012

Justice League International #6 review

After five months of the Signal Masters storyline, which culminated in the new JLI sending the godlike Paraxxus packing, it's time for some downtime. For the heroes, though, that doesn't mean sitting around - it means cleaning up loose ends around the globe - giant robots, citizen bombers, that sort of thing.

This issue, then, is in the main a series of sub-teams getting to know one another. There's Batman imploring Booster Gold to keep the JLI going even if the United Nations withdraws its backing, while they track down the protesters who bombed their Washington DC headquarters back in #1; Ice, Guy Gardner and Rocket Red discussing Booster's leadership ability as they dismantle a robot behemoth in Peru; Godiva and August General in Iron dealing with a bomb in New York over a hotdog; and Booster, Vixen and Fire arguing the case for the JLI's continued existence with the UN's Security Group.

Plus, there's an explosive cliffhanger, a phrase I suspect I'm using a lot in relation to DC comics lately - exploding teams are the new ripped-off arms, it seems.

Still, it's great to get to know the members a little better after the breakneck pace of early issues. Ice gets back an old origin; Rocket Red gets mind-zapped; Godiva loses the cod-Cockney while getting a bit of depth and a new friend in August General in Iron (what a mouthful - anyone for Augie?). And I love that Batman has total faith in Booster's ability to make a go of the team - there aren't many non-Gotham heroes whom he sees as a peer, but Booster's one. And the man himself puts his future past to good use in telling the UN bods just where to get off, tickling Vixen and Fire.

That, and intervention from Augie, sees the UN deciding to retain the JLI, positioning them in relation to the independent Justice League as 'a group without secrets'. I do hope not, that'd make for some dull comic books. But the UN wants the team to help inspire faith in governments, by being noble and transparent - the people's heroes.

I'm intrigued to see this new tack instituted by writer Dan Jurgens, as it makes the JLI sound positively socialist. I hope he does something with the idea, rather than ignore it and have the JLI carry on like any old super-team. I'm convinced he's better than that, though, Meanwhile, he's given us an issue full of incident and character dynamics, a fine coda to the team's first storyline. The only moment that gave me pause was Augie bothering to rip off his shirt before stopping a careering van - wotta ham.

Jurgens is aided by guest penciller Marco Castiello and inker Vincenzo Acunzo, who retain the vibe instigated by regulars Aaron Lopresti and Matt Ryan while making strong storytelling choices of their own. Their Batman is especially impressive - Bat-Office take note! Augie also looks superb, with the excellent colour work of Hi-Fi Designs proving key (click on image to enlarge).
The good-looking cover is the work of illustrator David Finch and colourist Richard Friend. (Come on Booster, give Godiva her hair back ...)

Justice League gets all the marketing, Justice League Dark is the most intense, but this is my favourite Justice League book because it looks and feels like classic League. And that's a big compliment.

Avengers Academy #25 review

Science meets sorcery in Hybrid and the old Rom villain is hungry - hungry for the students of Avengers Academy, a tasty power source for an energy-eating beast. Recent issues have seen him take control of some students, as well as staff members, with the help of Reptil. But not Reptil as we know him - the dino-teen has had his mind taken over by his future self, who believes that facilitating the deaths of his old classmates is the only way to save his timeline. (What the problem is, we're not told - I suspect a goatee plague.)

As we join the Academy this issue, Reptil has had enough. He's realised that this isn't the way, that no one deserves to be sacrificed on the altar of his future. So it is that while Giant Man leads the fight against the horde of Hybrid, Reptil enlists aid from very surprising quarters.

And once the newcomers have helped see off Hybrid and his mind-controlling ways. they deliver a brand new headache.

As ever, writer Christos Gage shows that personality and action don't have to be mutually exclusive in an Avengers book. His characters reveal aspects of their natures, they change and develop, but they do it while saving the world rather than, say, speaking into a dictaphone. And little by little, we're seeing teamwork emerge naturally. My favourite moments this issue see Hazmat showing supposed love rival X-23 (superhero, or bus service?) who's boss, and Reptil demonstrating that if the hero work ever dries up, he'll make a teriffic relationship counsellor. Then there's Finesse hinting that if any Academy student is going to wind up a villain, it's not her.

And speaking of Finesse, there's a hint from her future self as to her father's identity - someone prone to memory problems. Any ideas?

The only disappointment with this issue's script is that Rom doesn't put in an appearance. Surely Marvel and Parker Brothers will eventually sort out their legal kerfuffle, allowing the space hero to return to comics? He's referenced here merely as 'one of the spaceknights'. Boo!

Penciller Tom Grummett presents big, bold layouts perfect for fight scenes involving a couple of dozen players, while inker Cory Hamscher complements Raney's clean, open style. Extra points to them for being the first artists to make Hawkeye's new movie-led costume look good on the page.

A splendid package for $2.99 includes the best intro and recap page out there, and a regular letters column in which Gage engages in honest dialogue with the readers. Topping off the book is a cracking cover courtesy of Rodin Esquejo and while Reptil is the wrong colour, it's a better one. The logo placement is a bit rubbish, but you can see why. Two months to go until A vs X! Like, thrillsville.

Action Comics #6 review

It says Action Comics on the cover, but we're firmly in All-Star Superman territory here, as Grant Morrison dips into his bag of high concepts. In doing so, and with the aid of artists Andy Kubert and John Dell, he gives us the best issue of this comic since the DC New 52 relaunch.

A side-story amid the ongoing Brainiac storyline, 'When Superman learned to fly' sees the Superman of 2012 travel five years into the past - the regular Action time setting - to 'save the life' of the rocket which brought Kal-El to Earth. At his side are the founders of the 31st-century Legion of Super-Heroes - Saturn Woman, Cosmic Man and Lightning Man. Last month members of the Anti-Superman Army stole the rocket's power source which, the mad scientist addressing the troops informs us, can yield different varieties of Kryptonite guaranteed to give Superman a headache - and worse.

We soon learn the surprising location of the villains' secret headquarters, get a new spin on Titano the Super-Ape and see the true significance of that oft-told first meeting between young Clark Kent and the Legion.

I could go into more detail, but most comics are better read than described and if you're at all interested in Superman, this isn't an issue to miss. There are hints about the gathered villains (amusingly, one of 'em will be familiar to Golden Age fans as Lois Lane's niece, Susie Tompkins*), insights into how Clark felt about being sent across space and more personality for Lightning Lad - sorry, Man - than he's had in years.
Good lines abound, my favourite being a toss up between 'How about no teeth?' and 'We'd built him up as this idol in our minds, this myth, and he was just a gawky caveman kid.' Check out the book to see how much better they are in context.

Action Comics #6 is mainstream Morrison at his best, with character as much to the fore as ideas in a story that requires concentration, but no PhD. And the odd iffy face apart, penciller Kubert and inker Dell do a tremendous job delivering powerful visuals that grab the eye without compromising the storytelling.

The story ends with hints about the future, while the comic closes with a back-up tale focusing on the past, specifically the day Clark Kent left Smallville. He goes with a typically generous gesture to a neighbour, and the love and support of pals Lana Lang and Pete Ross. Writer Sholly Fisch delivers a heartwarming, but never cloying, snapshot of Clark's life just before he moved to Metropolis, while illustrator CrisCriss and colourist Jose Villarrubia make the memories sing. There's one almost-full-page panel for Clark and Lana that's simply gorgeous in the way it marries the everyday and the super.

This is the first comic I've read this week, but I'll not be surprised should it be the best - it's issues like this that will ensure Superman survives the 21st century - and maybe even reaches the 31st.

* Susie image borrowed from the excellent Supermanica, used with permission!