Monday, 30 April 2012

Teen Titans #8 review

The creature called Harvest sets his lackey Omen onto the Teen Titans in his efforts to corrupt them into joining his Ravagers. Omen has the ability to manifest a person's worst fear, breaking mind and body. This brings revelations both external and internal - Red Robin fears turning into a literal red robin; Wonder Girl fears losing control of the invisible armour that gives her Olympian abilities. Kid Flash fears failure and insect critter Skitter, being parted from her host body ...

... host body? I thought the teen known as Celine turned into an insectoid, not that she was bonding with one. And did we know Cassie Sandsmark was wearing unseen armour? And how did Tim Drake get such a wacky fear?

As it turns out, and thank the stars, Red Robin's biggest anxiety is something else altogether, if I'm reading the issue's close correctly. Whether I'm right or not, I did enjoy the snippets of information we get here that let us know our tyro team a little better. There's even a revelation about the villain - Omen's real name is Lilith, seemingly making her the DC New 52 version of longtime telepathic Titan Lilith Clay, who did call herself Omen for a time. That it's the rarely-talkative Skitter who 'outs' her makes things even more intriguing.

There are a couple of other intriguing references in Scott Lobdell's lively script this time. Omen makes passing reference to Red Robin having 'stared into the hypnotic eye of Two-Face', which is a new one on me. And the Suicide Squad's Amanda Waller, at the scene of the Titans' recent spat with Superboy alongside some guy named Kurt Lance, alludes to them both having been members of (a version of) Wildstorm group Team 7, which Wonder Woman's pal Steve Trevor also had links with, according to Justice League #8. And Lance looks to be a renamed Larry Lance, husband of Black Canary and believed killed by her. I get tickled by these hints about the revamped DC Universe that are popping up in various books, and look forward to learning more - though a trick eye for Two-Face strikes me as terribly unnecessary.

Another thing I got a kick out of this issue was its, probably inadvertent, callback to one of my favourite Teen Titans stories ever, 'Through these doors pass the bravest Titans of them all' (hey, I never said the title was any good) in 1972's #38. That also saw Lilith causing Robin and co to face their fears, though for rather more benevolent reasons. It's a decidedly different superhero drama, and available for cheap viewing in the second Teen Titans Showcase volume.
But back to 2012 business. Regular artists Brett Booth and Norm Rapmund are absent this time (they're likely busy doing next week's Annual), allowing the very talented Ig Guara and JP Mayer to step in. The style appears pretty similar to my untrained eye, but this may be more due to the layouts than look of the characters; the Titans themselves are a tiny bit cutesier than usual. Guara and Mayer sell the action and reactions well, with the only disappointment being the depiction of Omen, who looks like a cross between a Nineties Goth girl, Miss Haversham and a parrot. So not a good look for a fearsome super-villain ...

Mind, the design is likely the doing of the aforementioned absent regulars.

Oh, hang on, Booth and Rapmund are indeed here, providing the cover, in which our heroes look like a particularly tragic Tron tribute act. Never mind, they'll be back to their normal selves after the starting-now Culling storyline is over. Not that the regular costumes are much better, mind.

Teen Titans #38 cover borrowed from the Grand Comics Database.

Wednesday, 25 April 2012

New Avengers #25 review

Centuries ago, Master Yu Ti, ruler of K'un Lun, dreams of the Phoenix Force. He sees a young girl with crimson hair rise to fight the fiery destroyer with a dragon avatar. On waking, he asks his bodyguard, Lei Kung, if he knows of such a girl, but he does not. Unused to the universe withholding knowledge, Yu Ti scries in a pool and learns that the fire bird comes from the cosmos.

And one day, he finds her - a redhead born to an Asian mother and named Fongji - 'bird of fire'. Yu Ti takes her back to the temple of K'un Lun, to be trained as the first Iron Fist in 75 years.

Today, the current Lei Kung, Iron Fist's trainer, is trusted with knowledge of this past. The Phoenix's history with K'un Lun has been a secret, but now the entity returns, and his own Master Yu Ti charges him with telling the latest Iron Fist, Avenger Danny Rand, the part he has to play.

So, not your average New Avengers issue. And certainly not your average Brian Bendis script - there are no superheroes or villains, the story is tight, the dialogue formal with nary a gag. I enjoyed it greatly, both as a change of pace from the usual superhero soap and a chance for Bendis to flex different muscles. I'd say he succeeds, finding and maintaining the perfect tone needed for this Avengers vs X-Men side story.
And speaking of perfection, there's Mike Deodato and Will Conrad's gorgeous linework, delicately coloured by Rain Beredo (click on image to enlarge). The trio bring a lyricism to the page for the K'un Lun scenes, while the Phoenix dream sequences are filled with fire and majesty. Their martial artists combine strength with grace, Yu Ti's dark quarters reflect his mood, an angled shot of the ruler coming down among the K'un Lun people subtly tells us we're on a mountainside ... I could go on, but take a look at this book for yourselves. It really is worth buying for the artwork alone. And that includes Joe Caramagna's letters, carefully worked to complement the visuals.

Where the story goes from here, I don't know. If I were to be flippant, I'd venture that this strand of the crossover arises from something as random as Danny Rand sporting a Jean Grey-like sash. But this issue is a good stepping stone towards convincing me that the Iron Fist and Phoenix legacies are indeed linked. And if nothing else, it's a tie-in that's trying to do something different. And I like that.

Superman #8 review

Now that's one creepy cover. The men behind it are Ivan Reis, Joe Prado and Rod Reis, the artistic team making the current Aquaman series look so good. With luck, some of their fans will be enticed to check out this book starring the Sea King's fellow Justice Leaguer, Superman.

I know, it's 2012 and Aquaman has buzz. Superman deserves buzz. OK, the book doesn't have a mega-moody lead character, a zoftig heroine and gory deaths everywhere, but it does have the original superhero. The Man of Steel. And here he is at his best, showing an unfriendly extraterrestrial where to go while explaining why he loves Earth and its people (click on image to enlarge).
It's not a boring speech, it's heartfelt and feels real. It reads like a statement of intent from the Superman creative team that no matter what costume or origin tweaks he enjoys/endures, the Man of Steel is never going to lash out unless it's as a last resort.

This issue begins with a glimpse of a world in which Superman is hated and feared, an 'it' to be hunted down by the authorities and Justice League. It's an Earth that's the culmination of the attitudes faced by Superman in the Five Years Ago issues of Action Comics, and thank goodness that's not where we are today. As it happens, this world is a fantasy, a vision conjured up by exiled Daemonite Helspont to persuade Superman that Earthlings will turn on him, as his people rejected him. Helspont's 'low-grade cerebral shunt' manifests as some kind of cross between an insect, a plant and classic JLA baddie Starro the Conqueror ...

... yup, this is co-plotters Keith Giffen and Dan Jurgens apparently homaging Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons' classic 'For the man who has everything' maguffin. Instead of the Black Mercy parasitical plant that makes its victim so happy with Utopian fantasies they never want to wake up, though, the shunt conjures up a darker world.

Whether by accident or design, the device works for the story, showing that Superman is over his early fears of never being accepted on Earth, and has the willpower to wake up from the nightmare. It also sets up the issue's big fight scene, with Kryptonian and Daemonite throwing down in the Himalayas. Where scripter Giffen has Superman sound natural, his Helspont is a corny soul, spouting dialogue Dr Doom would find naff, so it's a treat to watch Superman wipe the smile off his face.

The episode also progresses a couple of subplots, something we don't see enough of in superhero lines today. In one, Lois Lane's kid sister Lucy arrives in Metropolis and moves in with her; in the other, bedbugs force Jimmy Olsen into Clark's apartment - stupidly, he brings his own pillow. Anyone care to bet against these fine young people deciding they should get a flat together? Anyone else actually old enough to remember the pre-Crisis Jimmy and Lucy romance? He was a pultroon, she was a cow, but eventually he grew up, she turned nice and ... Lucy pretty much disappeared from continuity. Typical! So I want these kids to have a nice little romance.

And one drawn by Dan Jurgens and Jesus Merino would look lovely. There's an appealing strength to their work, with Merino adding a certain roughness to Jurgen's sterling layouts without disguising the essential attractiveness. Their vision of a battered alt-Metropolis works well, while the scenes between Superman and Helspont pulse with energy. The colours of Tanya and Richard Horie are a big help here, sizzling across the pages - well, except in the scene set in Lois's apartment - the girl really does like drab colours.

The only point at which the art doesn't work for me is when Helspont tells how his fellow Daemonites turned against him. The flashback is small on the page, then toned in pale blues. The moment should have power, but it's undersold.

Never mind, though, overall this is a fine Superman comic, one for which Jurgens, Giffen, Merino and co should get more attention. Perhaps throw in a few fish?

AVX: Vs #1 review

The Phoenix is coming. Blah blah blah.

While the Avengers Vs X-Men 12-issue series focuses on the different attitudes of the teams to this event, this six-parter provides close-ups of individual bouts limited to just a few panels in the mother book. I wasn't expecting much.

I got Christmas.

Seriously, this comic shows just how great old-fashioned Marvel slam-bang action can be, something I'd forgotten over the past few years of super-extended, would-be cerebral storylines. We get two short features starring four of Marvel's classic characters - Iron Man vs Magneto, and the Thing vs the Sub-Mariner.

The first tussle showcases the resourcefulness of the combatants as they try to gain the upper hand: Iron Man faces Magneto in carbon armour. Magneto lands a building on him. And so on. Each man shows just how much power they can grasp when necessary, tapping into cosmic forces. And when one wins, it's not really because the other has defeated him, leaving room for a foreboding thought that ties back into Avengers Vs X-Men.

The second fight is more a matter of  ferocity, with Namor and Ben Grimm using everything they can find undersea to win the day. And while they've fought dozens of times, I can't remember any more entertaining encounters. Every other image could probably win a Panel of the Week nomination, with my favourite seeing Namor discover just what the phrase 'hard cash' can mean (click on image to enlarge).
 Still, in for a penny ...

As with the issue's other fight, who comes out on top is more a matter of accident than design, but a win is called regardless. I hope these results don't set a pattern for the series - I don't mind if the victories are shared evenly, but a clean win for one fighter on the day is what I want. The other guy can always prevail next time.

Niggle apart, the creative teams deserve lots of cake. Jason Aaron perfectly captures a Downey-esque Tony Stark and dignified, weary Magneto, while the appallingly underrated Kathryn Immonen supplies the Thing with the best quips he's had since the heyday of Stan Lee and Jack Kirby - it's such a shame that being underwater means Namor can't hear them ... if it were a banter contest Subby would go down on the first page. Mind, while Namor's dialogue is strictly arrogance and bluster, he makes a splendid straight man. And there's no denying his sea-born strength.

Both writers embrace the device of the 'AvX Fun Fact', wry commentaries on the action that remind us we're here for a good time. What's more, they are educational - never mind the distance of Jupiter from Earth, who knew about Magneto's secret talent?
Adam Kubert illustrates Aaron's story, eschewing showy layouts but always nailing the money shots - and there are many, from Tony assailing Magneto with a 'super-magnet swarm' to Magneto and Iron Man swapping punches in space. The latter scene gives Morry Hollowell room to show off his intelligent eye for colour, with the twinkling stars against the blue of space, the sun reflected off Magneto's impromptu armour and the flame of Iron Man's boot jets making for the proverbial visual feast.

So far as the second tale goes, Stuart Immonen pencils, Wade Von Grawbadger inks, Jim Charalampidis colours and if Marvel isn't deluged with requests for a revival of Ben's old Marvel Two-in-One book I'd be amazed - this is big, beautiful work, with Ben the powerhouse he's meant to be. And their Namor is magnificently imperious. Then there's this big guy who turns up near the end ...

The lettering is by Joe Caramagna throughout, and it's pacy, good-looking work. Given how often I moan about editors (and rightly so!), a tip of the hat to Nick Lowe amd Jordan D White for overseeing a tremendous series opener. OK, it's $3.99 for 20 pages, but that's not their fault. Oh, and the cover is a tad event-generic, a waste given the layout is perfect to spotlight the two fights behind it.

Next issue it's Colossus vs Spider-Man and Captain America vs Gambit. I don't know who the creative teams are, but they've a lot to live up to - even the intro page here is a hoot.

Monday, 23 April 2012

DC Universe Presents #8 review

Last issue ended with Challengers Prof Haley and Kenn Kawa killed by friend-turned-lunatic Ace Morgan, joining Clay Brody, offed in the first instalment of this three-part showcase. This time we find that Haley survived, learn that Ace's body is actually possessed by someone called The Forgotten Lord and see two more Challs - Brenda Ruskin and Rocky Davis - lost. While Brenda is 'merely' sucked into an otherdimensional hole, Rocky is stabbed to death by, er, I've forgotten.

On the bright side, TFL is blown apart by being given too many of the mystical talismans for which he, and the Challs, have been hunting - too much power. The issue ends on an optimistic note as June points out that the forged-by-fate team is 'dealing with things beyond our understanding, outside the realms of time and space', so their dead/lost chums could still be out there somewhere. She's even had a dream showing everyone alive and well. So the survivors - herself, Prof, Red Ryan and Marlon 'Maverick' Corbet - will seek out all seven talismans in the hope they'll reunite the eight souls who were 'living on borrowed time'. And meanwhile, they'll continue to Challenge the Unknown!

Good luck with that. In three gory issues the newborn team has lost half its loose membership. I expect the rest will be stabbed to death off-panel and we'll hear nothing of the Challs until their next revival. Which is a big shame, given writer Dan DiDio's stated love of the concept, not to mention the enthusiasm of penciller Jerry Ordway - before getting the assignment on this tryout he'd put his own proposal for a revival to DC. Knowing how strong and experienced a writer Ordway is, I'm pretty sure he could've masterminded a more-than-satisfactory three issues. To be fair, the story was planned to span five instalments, but was cut back so more new series could get houseroom in DCUP. But it doesn't half show.

Sure, the villain is done away with - the power overload surely qualifies as death by old chestnut - but without us learning anything about him beyond 'generic dark lord'. The mystery of the talismans is left hanging. We don't know how the monks of Nanda Parbat are connected to the Challs. And June apart, we've not got to know any of the supposed leads much beyond name and job description. It's tough to care about characters when they're quickly introduced, gifted barely a line, then shuffled off this mortal coil. Using versions of eight of the people who have been Challs in DC history was a mistake, despite the clever reality show set-up making it possible - a 60pp introduction piece just isn't long enough to service everyone's back stories and characters while setting out and solving the talisman mystery.

I've been cheering this short series on, having rather enjoyed the first issue, so it's disappointing for it to prove so ultimately unsatisfying. And that's despite strong art from Ordway and inker Ray McCarthy: the action sequences are thoroughly diverting and the quieter panels feature good 'acting' and fun bits of background business. Colourist Tony Avina, letterer Travis Lanham and cover artist Ryan Sook also bring a high level of craft to the table. The parts of DiDio's story that actually make it to the page are pretty good, with nicely worked individual scenes and more than serviceable dialogue. This month's run-in with giant ants is a classic Challs caper, the talismans maguffin has legs and in June, Didio gives us a likeable, strong character who happens to be female. For Easter egg spotters, there's a wink to an entry in upcoming sister book National Comics.

But there's just too darn much storyline for three short issues. I'd be delighted were DiDio to use his co-publisher power to get this opener wrapped up somewhere in DC's New 52 line sharpish - preferably bringing everyone back and establishing that individual Challenger missions will be capped at five operatives. Then I'll be able to recommend folk trawl back issue boxes for DCUP #6-8. Until that day comes, though, this run is strictly for nostalgists with a strong stomach, and Jerry Ordway fans.

Friday, 20 April 2012

Supergirl #8 review

It's been one fight after another since Supergirl arrived on Earth, but this issue she gets some time to breathe, to relax. Not much, and she first has to evade the military who confuse her with the Warkillers she fought last month, but still, any downtime is good.

And it's downtime in the company of a new friend, as Irishwoman in New York Siobhan Smythe takes Kara under her wing. And vice versa - she loves being flown around, high and fast, by the superheroine. What's more, she can understand Kara's Kryptonian speech, having a supernatural gift for languages. Kara tells Siobhan about lost Krypton, Siobhan reveals that she's an orphan too, trying to make it as a singer in the big city. And as Kara needs somewhere to stay, Siobhan invites her into her humble - and very untidy - abode.

Later, Kara accompanies Siobhan to her coffee shop gig, where the audience are enchanted first by an Irish ballad,  then by an Irish badass - guess whose da is indeed dead, and loving it? The Black Banshee seems more than a match for a Supergirl who's weak after her most recent fight. He's pounding her with supernatural energy when another metahuman appears - the Silver Banshee. Siobhan.

In 1985 George Perez drew the death of the original Supergirl. In 2012 he brings new life to her successor. While I don't want regular artist Mahmud Asrar to go anywhere, Perez shows that some comics veterans can keep up with the new kids. And then some. He takes on board Asrar's feisty version of Kara and adds classical elegance, even managing to make the problematic new costume look good. His Kara has all the power of Asrar's and just a little more grace. Which isn't to say he dilutes the scrappy aspects of Kara's character here, as she's ever ready to defend herself from agressors. There's an especially good action moment in which Kara saves Siobhan from bullets that's like no Supergirl scene I've seen. Take a look - click on image to enlarge.
The page design is perfect, with the angled, ragged panels around the central image suggesting confusion, violence. The spinning conveys Supergirl's invulnerability and speed, and the all-fired-up Kara is obviously one very angry girl. Then look at Siobhan, far from the cookie-cutter female so many artists default to. Inked by fellow comics legend Bob Wiacek, coloured by the superb Paul Mounts and lettered by the estimable Rob Leigh, this is a page to treasure.

And a big hand, too, for the art team's backgrounds. Perez didn't spend all those years on Avengers and New Teen Titans without learning how to draw the Big Apple, and I should be used to how good how is by now ... but boy, his city streets still take my breath away. And it's not just straightforward backgrounds - the page in which Kara and Siobhan walk to the coffee shop is a perfect evocation of colourful, vibrant and most of all, loud New York.

And Kara looks mad cute in civvies.

Of course, Perez and co aren't working alone, they're interpreting Michael Green and Mike Johnson's script, and terrific material it is too. Kara continues to grow as she tries to understand this strange world, the confusing people in it and her new abilities; there's a wonderfully chucklesome scene in which she encounters Earth telly for the first time. And Siobhan manages to do the spunky and perky thing without being sassy-annoying, while her dear ol' da makes a big impression in his short appearance.

There's not a page here that didn't have me smiling, but the most charming scene sees Siobhan demonstrate that her gift for languages isn't limited to people (maybe she could introduce Kara to a wee ginger cat).

Other things I like are Kara's vulnerabilities - she's a powerhouse, but can get tired. And she's apparently not great with magical creatures. It's all good, not even a member of the Superman Family should be at peak power all the time. That way lies short comics.

Plus, Kara manages to trust someone, the very likable Siobhan. I hope she's around for awhile, even if she does have to play the 'frenemy' on occasion.

Eight issues in and we're finally past Kara's origin. Sure, there'll be growing pains aplenty in future, but to see Kara settling in on Earth is gold. This is easily my favourite issue yet, and yes, I believe I have said that previously. A good sign, surely?

This splendid comic is topped off by the clever cover from Perez and colourist Dave McCaig - that's one tight corset.

Thursday, 19 April 2012

Avengers Vs X-Men #2 review

Last issue was the set-up: Cyclops wants the Phoenix Force to possess Hope Summers, Captain America fears that would bring about the end of the world. The chapter closed with X-Men and Avengers leaders at odds, their team-mates watching from the sidelines.

Well, almost no one's on the sidelines this issue, as dozens of heroes fight one another. Like idiots, they leap headlong into battle, exchanging blows and blasts rather than reasoned arguments. By the end of the issue it's all moot, as the Phoenix has entered Hope, and she's set to confront the Avengers' biggest guns outside the Earth's atmosphere.

And that's pretty much all there is to this instalment, one big fight. Individual confrontations will be expanded upon in other Marvel books, but we see enough here to realise they're probably not worth buying. Namor chats away underwater while fighting the Thing. Iron Man sics 'microscopic telepathic tasers' on Emma Frost. Black Panther and Storm talk marriage guidance.

I'm not making it up. That would be Marvel's 'architects', the brains trust who plot this series; as well as Aaron, there's Brian Michael Bendis, Matt Fraction, Ed Brubaker and Jonathan Hickman. All I can say is, should do better. Aaron, bless him, tries to perk things up with a lyrical narration in which he pithily describes the various bouts. So, for example, as Emma thumps Iron Man, it's: 'Organic diamond meets multi-million dollar armour. The most expensive punch in history.' I quite like that. As a repeated device, though, it's wearing, and it doesn't help when typos turn up: 'Marital discord. With hail and lighting [sic] and hurricane-force winds.'

But as I say, points for trying. Aaron does his best with this committee-led carbuncle. The biggest problem is the art. Last issue we had a few off-panels from penciller John Romita Jr, this time, well, it's as if the Joe Kubert School had asked him to provide teaching materials for Rushed Artwork 101. Close-ups, they're great, no problem - the shot of Storm in the panel quoted above, for example, is lovely, packed with power and emotion. But group shots, blimey, 'dodgy' is putting it mildly (click on images to enlarge).
Hawkeye and Daredevil Mini-Mates, Black Widow the voodoo doll, a brigade of Giant Men, lollipop-headed mutants ... Romita and inker Scott Hanna can do so much better than this. As I said, they demonstrate as much in this very issue. Take a look at that panel I mentioned of Storm, and a random shot of Hope, nicely coloured by Laura Martin.
Lovely work, appropriate for the characters and situations - and a far cry from much of the rest of the issue. Is it too much to ask a couple of industry veterans to produce consistent, decent work for a whole issue? This is Marvel's biggest series of the year, but it's full of amateur hour panels. Just how pushed were they drawing this one?

One good thing about the art, mind - it distracted me from noticing the AR flashes on first reading. Is anyone bothering to get out the smartphones and tablets after last issue's 'augmented reality' nonsense?

Two issues in and I'm Avengers all the way. Cyclops hardly helps his case when he comes out with rot like: 'Ugly stepchildren. That's all we've ever been to them. As soon as we get a messiah of our own, they want to swoop in and take her away ...' Well boo-hoo, you nutter. We see just how thick Cyke's head is when it survives a blow from Cap's iron/vibranium/adamantium/uru shield - there's not so much as an 'ouch'.

Well, 'ouch' is the way I feel after paying $3.99 for this dog's breakfast.

And yet ... I think I'll be back in a few weeks for #3. It is rather funny.

Wednesday, 18 April 2012

Justice League #8 review

Green Arrow wants to join the Justice League. Trying to persuade the world's greatest super-team to - ahem - give him a shot, he starts showing up for their missions. And while he's actually pretty useful, his requests for a trial are turned down. Aquaman doesn't like him. Green Lantern thinks he'd be useless. Batman says there's a reason they don't take on new members ... only Superman, with his belief in the underdog, thinks Green Arrow could be valuable.

Finally, League government liaison Steve Trevor pops up in Green Arrow's equipment van to tell him to give up, there's no way he'll get on the team. And what's more, he knows that the hero is actually billionaire Oliver Queen, and that he has a dodgy past. Ollie says that's the point - he wants to make up for his misdemeanors, and bring a social conscience to a group he sees as comprising gods among men. As it happens, Trevor has another offer for him ...

... meanwhile, the JL-ers are recalling what happened the one time they considered another superhero for membership, and it wasn't pretty - they wound up in battle with mega-powered Martian Manhunter J'onn J'onzz.

And across the galaxy, the Stormwatch member's ears must have been burning, as he makes a doom-laden pronouncement about the League.

Current DC text pages are all about world-building and this issue fits right in with that notion: it connects Steve Trevor to the Wildstorm Universe by referencing something in his past, gives us our first DC New 52 look at old League foe Amazo and features a battle with the Talons currently bedeviling Batman. It adds texture to the League's world with a problem connected to Cyborg's Boom Tube teleport tech, forces us to ask what the Red Room is and apparently drops Aquaman into Green Arrow's origin.

With so much going on, I loved this issue. There's a real feeling that the League are at the centre of the DCU, constantly getting together to fight the foes no single superhero can withstand.

It's not a perfect story. The League still exudes an air of ass-wipery, but at least writer Geoff Johns acknowledges that they're not what they might be ('Let's try to act professional around the agents, okay?').  Wonder Woman's sword-happy nature has gotten old, Batman is weirdly protective of the League's image given that he sanctions two other versions of the team and the politicians are one-note annoying.

But overall, it's a great read and the revelation of the League's run-in with J'onn J'onzz is the perfect capper to an issue that's been pretty light-hearted ...
What's more, the flashback is beautifully depicted by Ivan Reis and Joe Prado, in the best piece of artwork this book has yet seen. The composition and execution make for a mighty powerful image and I'm itching to be told the story behind it.

The bulk of the instalment is drawn by Carlos D'anda, and elegantly so. I like his sharp style, his clarity in storytelling. Based on his work with Ollie here, D'anda should be booked for the Green Arrow title as soon as there's an opening - it's like he's been waiting all his life to draw the Emerald Archer. One thing D'anda can't do is make the bulked-up Cyborg look good. I suspect no one can.

Gabe Eltaeb and Alex Sinclair provide the vibrant colours, while Pat Brosseau handles the lettering - the latter injects extra energy into the splash page with a dose of vanishing perspective on the credits. Sinclair also handles the cover colours, and don't I just love the yellow and green logo - unusual and attractive. The illustration by Jim Lee and Scott Williams is pretty good, too.

And there's more. The Shazam back-up continues with errant orphan Billy Batson meeting his new 'brothers and sisters', one of whom, spunky Mary, is guaranteed to turn out to be his twin. As suspected, these are the kids from last year's Flashpoint event, who combined to form the heroic Captain Thunder. Heaven knows how they'll fit in here, but they're an interesting callback to Golden Age kid gangs. Mind, there's a tiger in Billy's photo of his parents so perhaps writer Geoff Johns will have the New 52 Mr Tawny eat them.

I hope not, as this re-imagined Captain Marvel story, being so obviously not Proper Captain Marvel, may as well go nuts in the opposite direction as it bids to entertain. Johns is obviously having fun, and Gary Frank's fully illustrated work has never looked better to me. It's complemented by the considered colours of Brad Anderson and delightfully neat letters of Nick J Napolitano.

For the second month running, Justice League feels like the flagship DC Universe book it's meant to be. If things keep improving I'll soon be forgetting the moribund opening arc. Who knows, we could yet have a classic series on our hands.

Wonder Woman #8 review

Wearing armour newly forged by Hephaestus, and carrying 'love guns' borrowed from Eros, Diana journeys to the realm of Lord Hades, guided by Hermes. They're out to rescue Zola, the young woman carrying the child of Zeus.

Hades isn't what Diana expects. Rather than a fiery place of screaming souls, it's a silent, twilight version of the London she calls home. But, Hermes explains, the dead are all around them, forming the very landscape, the buildings, reflecting the whims of Lord Hades.

And they're not unwilling - these souls are happy to serve Hades, happy to attack Diana and Hermes. With Diana fully equipped and Hermes no longer lame, though, they're no easy pickings. Diana is a spitfire, taking down the monstrous warriors with her sword, while Hermes shows just what the clawed feet of a bird can do.

Hermes persuades Diana to leave his side and find Zola. What she finds is Hades himself, hidden among a tableau of statues, horrific figures he leads against Diana. Impressive acrobatics and unerring aim with her blade see Diana more than hold her own until she's rejoined by Hermes. After seeing off Hades and friends, they follow a light and come across the wishworld version of Zola's backwoods home, and the woman herself.

While it's been days by Diana's estimation, Zola has spent the equivalent of several Earth months down here, and she's finally showing. She's desperate to get back home, but as Diana and Hermes lead her away, Hermes rises from the farm's fireplace, this time in his own, waxy-headed form. And he's not going to let Diana go without forging a bargain ...

And that's the bulk of the best issue to date of DC's relaunched Wonder Woman series. For the first time it feels as if Diana's the star of the show, front and centre in this latest encounter with a hostile Olympian. I'm not a fan of a sword-wielding Diana by any means, but given where she is, and what she's up against, it makes sense. I'm even less keen on the idea of Diana shooting folk, but must admit to disappointment that we don't get to see the loony cover scene played out inside the comic.

We do get to see beautifully drawn, very creepy scenes of conflict courtesy of artist Cliff Chiang, but my favourite moments are Diana and Hermes carefully making their way through the Underworld; there's real drama in their body language, their expressions. At the same time, Chiang cuts away to the 'statues' shedding their outer shell to reveal the sinewy beings beneath.

On a sartorial note, Chiang's version of Diana armour, as coloured by Matthew Wilson, is one of the best I've seen, giving us a Wonder Woman kitted out for war, yet blazing with optimism. It even looks good when he's drawing Diana tumbling into battle.

Writer Brian Azzarello doesn't come up with any moments to match last issue's controversy, seeming happy to give us a straightforward, satisfying, chunk of Diana's odyssey. His dialogue recalls the Wonder Woman I want to see, emphasising her intelligence, compassion and detemination. So far as the other characters go, he still has me trusting Hermes, despite the minor jibes Hephaestus sends his way. Zola comes alive at last, seeming like a woman who might attract the attention of a passing god. And Hades is a wonderfully twisted brat. What's more, Azzarello's ideas as to the nature of the Underworld are novel, and fit his vision of Wonder Woman's world.

While not the Wonder Woman series I want, this is a well done, entertaining instalment of the New 52 revamp. A gripping tale, told with no little flair, it's deserving of your attention.

Friday, 13 April 2012

Superboy #8 review and Legion Lost #8 review

If the comics can link up, I reckon the reviews can too. So what have we here, as DC's 'Young Justice' titles start their first official crossover?

First off, Superboy, in which the Clone of Steel faces his biggest threat yet, the teenage powerhouse known as Grunge ... for no reason I can see, unless you link his naff appearance to Nineties musical fads. 

A lackey of NOWHERE puppet master Harvest (aka OddGob - have you seen that mouth?), who showed up at the end of the last Teen Titans, he's a metamorph and immune to Superboy's telekinesis. Never mind a tendency to talk about himself in the third person, this idiot gives Superboy enough information about himself to make speedy defeat a certainty. So much for recruiting Superboy to his nasty gang of Ravagers.

Elsewhere, NOWHERE security wallah Rose Wilson goes even more nuts than usual, thanks to the mental manipulations of another new baddie, Leash. Happily, Teen Titan Solstice is on hand to talk her down. And talk, and talk ... her verbal diarrhoea is worse even than Grunge's.

Butch strong girl Caitlin Fairchild, meanwhile, purloins a shuttle pod from STAR Labs - in order to save innocent lives, she tells the poor working stiffs she nearly kills in the process.  

The issue closes with Superboy, totally knackered by the fight, in a very bad spot indeed as he's thrown to the wolves - or rather, two more Ravagers.

This is OK, in a big daft fighty sort of way. Superboy acquits himself well, using his brains and learning to finesse his TK powers. And he begins to feel a kinship with the Teen Titans, who risked a lot to save him in their aforementioned book. A big problem is Grunge, who's just awful - appearance, personality, dialogue, it's all bad. I suspect someone misspelled 'Cringe'. Equally annoying is Solstice, who witters on in a sub-Raven way. It's like she's in some kind of exposition contest - but she's not the uncontested champion. That would be this gal (click on image to enlarge).
I don't know if Tom DeFalco spent too many years writing books aimed at Marvel's younger audience, but this really is terribly awkward, obvious stuff. Of course, as he's scripting over regular writer Scott Lobdell's plot it's possibly a rush job. Still, editors should be sharpening up the more flaccid lines.

On the other hand, Superboy's internal narration is pretty acceptable, showing him growing as a person and a hero. More of this and less of that, please.

Regular penciller RB Silva is joined by Iban Coello and they're a pretty good match - characters have a certain smoothness without being all-out uncanny, and the action sequences shine. My favourite spans the top of pages two and three, it's simple and effective ... and too long to post here. Have a flip-through the comic, eh? It looks to be that Coello inks his own stuff, with Rob Lean handling the Silva side. Whatever, it works, while Richard and Tanya Horie emphasise the story beats with their varied palette.

The Hories get to use a garish green in one panel, for no reason I can fathom - Rose and Harvest are covered by a globby effect ... presumably it's a story detail that will be explained later.

Shane Davis, Sandra Hope and Barbara Ciardo provide the rather intense cover, showcasing Grunge's ability to change his flesh into other materials. What you don't get is an idea of quite how naff Grunge looks. This may be deliberate.

Over in Legion Lost, more NOWHERE men appear, attacking the time-stranded Legionnaires. And it's not like they were having a quiet day, what with the usually placid Tyroc blasting Timber Wolf for nicking cash from drug gangs. Storming off, Timber Wolf is attacked by sword-swinging Rose Wilson - busy girl - and chubby cyborg Psykill. 

Back at the hotel, Tyroc, Chameleon Girl, Gates, Tellus, Wildfire and Dawnstar face agents of NOWHERE 'glorying' in such names as Misbelief, Windstrom, Crush and Hammerfist. There's a big one, a stretchy one, a windy one, a generic one ... oh, hang on, they're all generic. They fill a few pages, though, allowing the Legion to show off their power, skills and spirit.

And they allow guest artist Aaron Kuder to show just how well he can draw battle scenes. How well? Awfully. There's one spread in particular, of Rose swooping down on Timber Wolf and his (presumably meant to be) comic relief acquaintance Oz, that's pure comics; there's a fabulous panel-to-panel kineticism even while he varies Rose's poses.
Not all the pages are outstanding - Kuder seems to have rushed through the talkier scenes to get to the excitement, with Tellus and Gates, in particular, suffering. 

DeFalco's scripting again - writing the whole thing, truth be told - and there are some nasty bumps. Chameleon Girl, for example, when surprised by something she believes to be her husband, exclaims 'Colossal Boy' as if they've barely met. And the Ravagers, as I say, are a pretty limp lot.

But let's not forget that it's DeFalco who writes the action moments Kuder draws so well, and he does have a couple of Legionnaires hint at more things going on than we know. Again I say, come on editors, do some editing - do I have to put this phrase on tee shirts before you do something?

Regular Legion Lost artist Pete Woods and interior colourist Brad Anderson supply the cover, an effective spin on an idea we've seen many times.

Superboy #8 and Legion Lost #8, you may notice, have 'The Culling Prelude' banners slapped on 'em, but I'd say we're pretty much already in the Legion/Superboy/Titans crossover leading to the release of new series The Ravagers (heck, the latter two titles have been crossing over since their first issues). I'm not enthused - the characters we've met so far are the very definition of Nineties Throwback - but so long as the individual comics contain plenty of good moments I can likely ride out the overall arc. 

Thursday, 12 April 2012

Fantastic Four #605 review

Some time back, the Future Foundation kids produced a serum that allows the Thing to revert to Ben Grimm for one week every year. Suspecting a certain side effect, Reed quietly has his father, Nathaniel, use his time-jumping tech to take the two of them to the New York of 3012, 4012, 5012 and 6012. And there they find not only Reed's godlike son Franklin surviving, but Ben too - getting older, certainly, but always ready for 'clobberin' time as a member of future Fantastic Fours.

Sadly, as he gets older, Ben gets lonelier, especially once Franklin leaves 'to run with the gods'. Yes, he keeps his game face on, but there's no missing that his twinkle's fading as his rocky beard grows.

Back in 2012, Reed doesn't tell Ben what he's seen. Instead, he joins him in watching sport on TV, and passes Ben a beer.

Yes, he passes Ben a beer. Obviously, Reed is giving Ben something to counteract the reversion therapy, to spare him a lonely ooooooooooooooooold age.

Or not. There's no sign Reed does any such thing, the only real hint being Reed's downward expression, towards the bottle. It's not as if Reed has any right to take away Ben's annual Ordinary Guy Week, or the promise of a future that likely contains a lot of joy before the sadness.

So maybe he did the deed. And maybe he didn't. Perhaps Reed is planning to instigate a conversation. I rather like the uncertainty, preferring not to know whether or not Ben lives pretty much forever alongside Franklin and his naff little ponytail.

So nice one writer Jonathan Hickman for a done-in-one story that made me think. It's not perfect - the future scenes themselves are pretty dull, full of jet sleds but scant wonder, and there's this headscratcher of a comment from Nathaniel ...
A hereditary epidemic?

Overall, though, this is a decent read. I'd be amazed were Hickman not to follow up on the implications of Reed's new knowledge - he even has Nathaniel point out that such 'can complicate relationships in unforseen ways' - but if he doesn't, I'm fine with the book as is.

The art by guest artist Ron Garney captures the story's melancholy mood, and it's well coloured by Jason Keith. I especially like the way they suggest the emotions of Reed and Nathaniel. I do wish, though, they'd been given something truly out there to draw ... thousands of years in the future and New York simply looks like a shinier version of New York (there's even a Baxter Building, though I can't see how Reed recognises it, as it doesn't reflect any version I can recall). And I'm not keen on their Thing, who looks like a Bendy Toy, devoid of definition.

See that cover? That's Bendy Ben right there, snarling in a way he never does in the story. Such drama. I smiled at the nod to the FF's debut on the gravestones, even though it makes no sense in Marvel Time.

There you go - a  whole Fantastic Four review, and not one mention of the ugly new costumes ... oops.

Sunday, 8 April 2012

Justice League International #8 review

With several JLI members out of action after a bomb attack on the UN, Batman calls in help - Batwing, Batman Inc's good man in Africa. After visiting his old friend Vixen in hospital he helps Booster Gold take on Lightweaver, one of the villains behind the atrocity, as he attacks the unit. Blows and blasts are exchanged but Lightweaver escapes, as Booster saves Batwing rather than take off in pursuit.

Elsewhere in New York, the man who planted the bomb, Roland Norcutt, murders the policemen taking him away - it turns out he's a metahuman, Breakdown, with the power to take things to pieces and reassemble them. There's no reassembling here, mind, with the hapless guards left in a distinctly skeletal state. Free and unchallenged, he's soon joined by Lightweaver, and another bad guy - or rather, girl - Intersek, a downmarket version of Stormwatch's Projectionist.

Back with Booster and Batwing, Batman shows up, information is swapped and Booster resolves to find the escaped Norcutt. Batwing's thoughts tell us he finds Booster 'brash, assertive. The kind of man I tend not to like.'  The newcomer asks Batman: 'Is he always like this?', which is needlessly snitty - Booster here is nowhere near full-on, he's acting like the leader he's become since the team was formed. It's also terribly ungrateful, given Booster's just saved his arse.

Over at Eastside Hospital, Green Lantern Guy Gardner is visiting the injured Ice, while Godiva and August General in Iron hang around in a corridor. A hospital administrator asks them to leave for fear they attract another attack on the facility, which is fair enough, but he's an ass about it. And the UN's Chairperson Bao is her usual pain in the neck. Still, the JLI members realise that Ice, Vixen and Fire do have a better chance of recovery if they're not there.

But their leave-taking comes too late, as a new threat arrives ... the creature called OMAC.

I'd say it's all kicking off, but really, 'it' never stops in this comic - the team has barely had a chance to breathe since forming in JLI #1, and by this point some members are breathing only with assistance. I've no idea whether OMAC is being lined up for membership now his comic's been cancelled (he's not exactly a team player), but Batwing is definitely joining. On the evidence of this issue, I'd rather he didn't. The way he judges Booster and finds him lacking, two minutes after arriving in New York, makes him seem the arrogant one - the JLI's leader isn't grandstanding, he's not acting up, he's simply trying to hold things together. I realise Batwing's likely in the book for two reasons: filling in for a too-busy Batman, and giving his own series a boost. And he's an 'international' character. But the attitude has to go. Hopefully Batwing will soon realise that Booster deserves respect.

The other aspect of writer Dan Jurgens' script I wasn't keen on is minor, but it raised an eyebrow - the fact Batwing knows Vixen, having met her while she was nursing patients and he was 'volunteering in that Tanashan Aids clinic'. Africa is a massive continent, and yet these two heroes happened to meet as civilians? It's a quick way of ensuring Batwing has an immediate friend in the JLI, but a massive stretch. And unnecessary - they could have just met during some superhero adventure.

Minor, as I say. Overall, this is another first-class script from Jurgens. The brief scene with Guy and Ice is lovely, Norcutt's political speech to his guards elevates him beyond filler villain and the scene with Bao is very effective. August General and Godiva have charisma, the actual team-up between Batwing and Booster provides thrills and OMAC's arrival fair pops.

And it all looks superb courtesy of penciller Aaron Lopresti and inker Matt Ryan. Lopresti really knows how to pace a page, and his heroes and villains look like legends - new baddie Breakdown has real presence, with a tremendously creepy visual. Their OMAC shows it's not just Keith Giffen and Scott Koblish who can make Brother Eye's monstrous lackey imposing. And Booster's debrief with Bats Man and Wing is quietly dramatic.
This panel intrigued me - is the admin chap a secret Super? Is it possible to walk without having one foot on the ground? Or are we simply looking at an artistic blip?

The cover's a keeper too, thanks to penciller David Finch, inker Richard Friend and colourist Jeromy Cox (whom I'd assumed to be Marvel exclusive). The interior colouring is by Hi-Fi and is just edible, while Travis Lanham's lettering is good looking, but there's a spelling error - just the one so far as I can see, but I'm mentioning it because we're seeing more and more typos in DC comics of late and editors - in this case, Darren Shan, Brian Smith and Mike Marts - should be catching 'em. Fix it for the trade, lads - if you can find it!

Friday, 6 April 2012

Supreme #63 review

At last, the comic you've dreamed about is here! The Supreme Story of the Year ...

Given that the last issue of Supreme appeared in 2000, Image Comics might like to call this The Supreme Story of the Millennium. Whatever anyone else is calling it, I'm calling this an unexpected treat - Alan Moore's final tale of the Ivory Icon, as drawn by Erik Larsen and Cory Hamscher. I never even knew there was an unpublished Moore story.

For those coming in late/those who weren't yet born ... created by Rob Liefeld, Supreme was his attempt at a Superman analog, but taken to extremes. When Moore took over the writing he basically made Supreme into Superman himself, but a Superman plonked down in a minefield of metafiction. The hero became aware of his status as a fictional character, subject to continual revision. He met earlier versions of himself, his friends and enemies in the Limbo-like dimension named the Supremacy, and Moore had a ball. A hymn to a more innocent time, his stories - drawn by the likes of Chris Sprouse, Rick Veitch and Silver Age great Jim Mooney - are collected in Supreme: The Story of the Year and Supreme: The Return. And they're just wonderful.

Well, if you were raised on Silver and Bronze Age DC Comics. Younger fans may not enjoy them quite as much as me, but I don't doubt they'll like them.

Supreme #63 is very much a continuation of The Return, but I venture that anyone could dive right in. As a craftsman, Moore knows the value of introducing his characters and concepts, so you're told enough about Supreme, arch enemy Darius Dax, girlfriend Diana Dane and sister Suprema to get into the story. The episode sees a comic book clue New Dax in on the likelihood of the Supremacy's existence as an equivalent to his already discovered realm of Daxia, where hundreds of alternate versions of himself - including a Daffy Duck type - live in less than harmony.

Meanwhile, Diana is waiting for Supreme to return and resume their date in the Fortress of Soli ... sorry, the Citadel Supreme. She's not alone, with Supreme's old girlfriend Luria the angel, and Suprema for company (click on image to enlarge).
As for what happens next, let's just say 'lots of fun stuff' and leave it at that. If you're already a Supreme fan, or reckon the book sounds interesting, you'll want to find out for yourself. I will say that this is Moore on great form: we get a brain-bending story, perfectly structured and paced; intriguing characters interacting in fascinating ways; whip-smart dialogue full of wordplay; homages that are never lazy; and big ideas everywhere. All this, and two very different ways to court Diana Dane.

As I understand it, Larsen provides layouts to which Hamscher adds final pencils and inks. This gives Hamscher a chance to make the final art job his own, but he's obviously a Proper Professional, so the overall effect is Larsen. The dynamic poses, big-eyed expressiveness, scratchy finishes, packed panels, it's very Larsen. But then, I'm not familiar enough with Hamscher's own style to recognise the nuances he brings to the book (I suspect the Ditko-esque scene of New Dax in his lab, for one). Whatever the case, I like the stripwork here, so credit to both chaps.

The other two artists to hand are master colourist Steve Oliff and acclaimed letterer Chris Eliopoulos (I spotted one spelling error, but going big on it guarantees the Hubris Elves would stud this review with typos aplenty. Or rather, 'aplenyt').

The cover - one of several variants - wants to be an infinity cover, but bottles it. Darn. Anyway, it's by Larsen alone, and isn't quite as pleasing as the interiors with Hamscher.

Larsen continues Supreme's revival next issue and plans to incorporate Moore's run without attempting to copy the Big Man. I wish him luck and look forward to seeing what tone he brings to the book. For now, I'm happy just to get one more brilliant issue of Alan Moore's Supreme.

Thursday, 5 April 2012

Action Comics #8 review

Oh. My. Word. If there's a page in this week's comics more likely to make you jump out of your chair than the full-page shot of Superman flying towards the reader, I don't wish to see it. Here I'll show you ... no, I'm not sure you're ready. Get a stiff drink, bear with me as I witter on awhile and then I'll show you. Maybe.

So, Metropolis has been shrunk and placed inside a bottle by the Collector of Worlds. Superman is on his ship, in a hall of similar cities and sundry souvenirs of dead planets, trying to persuade the alien to return his city to Earth. The Collector, though, wants to conduct a Nature vs Nurture experiment - Superman can save either his adopted home, or Kandor, last surviving city of his homeworld, Krypton. Which will he choose?

You'll not be surprised to learn that Superman's answer is a resounding 'Neither/Both', that he uses his wits to win the day. He also employs a fair bit of brawn against the multi-formed creature which Lois Lane, in the same way she named Superman, christens Brainiac.

To be honest, I found the battle with Brainiac rather confusing, full of patented Grant Morrison alien/machine talk that I suppose is clever, with myriad layers of meaning. It's great that Morrison credits the audience with the brainpower to get what he's doing, but sometimes, after a hard day at the office, I'd be happy to be spoon-fed some. So, any sharper readers who can tell me just what happened with the Kryptonian crystals, and why, will have my gratitude (well, more than you already have for reading my ramblings). I did get that Superman learns Kryptonian, represented in amusing phonetic form as a lot of la-de-da.

The parts of the story after the big battle, once Metropolis and sundry other cities are restored, are what grabbed my interest this time. There's a touching conversation between Clark and Daily Star editor George Taylor paving the way for a new chapter in his career. Clark's chat with landlady Mrs Nyxly about secrets brings a surprise nod to Morrison's Superman Beyond. Superman telling the people of Metropolis about his origins and getting the key to the city, setting his thoughts on an interesting path. John Henry Irons has a decision to make, Lois asks Superman a tough question and Luthor has a lot to ponder. We learn the fates of Metallo, corrupt businessman Glenmorgan and Brainiac's ship. Clark returns to Smallville to talk to the Kents. And the manipulative little man who hung around Glenmorgan finds a new pot to stir.

It all makes for a wonderful multiple coda to Morrison's story of how Superman went from the tee-shirted vigilante of five years ago to the solid - indeed, armour-plated - citizen of today. I'd actually value a few more stories of Clark's early years as an anti-authority crusader, but either Morrison or DC don't fancy going down that road. Not to worry, so long as Morrison continues to populate Superman's stories with compelling colleagues and crazy concepts (some of which I might even understand), I'm not too fussed about where in Superman's timeline we are.

Despite all this goodness, my favourite moment in the issue comes mid-fight. It comes and goes in an instant, but it's significant (and especially good to see after the most recent issue of Wonder Woman).
So it seems at least one DC hero comes with a built-in moral compass, traceable back to his people. For the first time in decades Superman's innate goodness is attributable not just to the Kents, but to Krypton too.

Rags Morales is joined by recent Action back-up artist Brad Walker on pencils for this 30-page conclusion, and most of the pages look good. The action sequences are nicely choreographed, the designs for Brainiac are creepy as heck, and Smallville and Metropolis are a treat. What doesn't look great are Superman and Clark Kent, which you may agree is a problem in a Superman comic. Often, Superman appears awkward - his head ill-proportioned, his mien rubbery - while Clark seems about ten years younger and shorter than his alter-ego. You'd have no problem at all believing this Clark and Superman weren't the same person. By the time he reaches Smallville, it's not a question of looking too young - Clark has morphed into a gnarled lunatic.

I don't think the problem is due to this issue's inkers, as Rick Bryant and Bob McLeod are both talents. No, I think Morales and Walker are actually trying very, very hard to give Clark life, and occasionally get carried away.

And Walker - well, I think it's Walker, as no page credits are given - does deserve credit for having a crack at giving us an iconic Superman moment - not the usual 'Superman at peace with the world' splash, but a real in-your-face, never-saw-it-coming image.

But my gosh, it scared me for a second.
And you know what? The more I look at it, the more I like it. There's an exuberance, a joy that just fits Superman, and we get a useful angle on the costume showing us, for example, the thickness of that chest shield. After that initial turn of the page, Morales' bold image rears up and shakes me by the hand.

Is it a bird? Is it a plane?

No, unnecessary new costume notwithstanding, it's most definitely Superman.

Wednesday, 4 April 2012

Avengers vs X-Men #1 review

It's coming ....

That's what massive, intrusive blurbs on Marvel covers have been telling us for months, and now it's here. The Phoenix Force is at the centre of Marvel's big 2012 crossover, in which Earth's Mightiest Heroes fight the Children of the Atom. The prize is Hope Summers, supposed mutant messiah, the woman expected to kickstart the fortunes of Homo Superior following their decimation by a maddened Scarlet Witch.

The opening chapter gets off to a pleasingly flashy start as the cosmic entity arrives on a planet far from Earth, its bird-shaped energy signature enveloping all, erasing all. On Earth, a member of the intergalactic Nova Corps crashes down, wrecking a passenger jet and knocking the top off the Chrysler Building. The Avengers manage to save hundreds of lives in a convincing display of power. 'It's coming' is the Corpsman's only cry before passing out, but the distinctive taint of the Phoenix Force tells the Avengers what 'it' is. Captain America and Iron Man brief the President of the US on the threat level - the devastation of New York doesn't merit a mention, apparently - and assure him they're throwing their big guns at the problem, hopefully intercepting the entity before it reaches Earth.
Meanwhile, on the isle of Utopia, X-Men leader Cyclops abuses Hope with his lunatic training sessions (click on image to enlarge), sparking a spontaneous display of power. A Phoenix-like charge knocks him across the training ground. Soon Captain America turns up, demanding that the X-Men hand Hope over to the Avengers before the Phoenix reaches her. Rather than point out that he's likely too late, Cyclops refuses, blasting Cap. Cap's response, 'Avengers Assemble', summons a SHIELD heli-carrier and over a dozen of Earth's mightiest - including Cyclops' former partner Wolverine. And the image of the Phoenix fills Hope's eyes ...

And there you have it. Lots of sound and fury, and a great comic if you ignore one or two things.

  • Such as the rewriting of Marvel history to ignore all the manifestations of the Phoenix Force since the Dark Phoenix Saga, meaning Rachel Grey, the living mutant with the most experience of the entity and a teacher at Wolverine's school, doesn't get so much as a mention.
  • Such as the retcon that the Phoenix never inhabited Jean Grey, but created a duplicate body and left an injured Jean at the bottom of Jamaica Bay for months. It's back to Jean having been taken over, corrupted and killed by her own hand.
  • Such as the idea that rather than simply wipe out a world, the Phoenix creates something new. Here, Cyclops plucks out of the air the notion that the Phoenix will somehow re-seed the mutant 'race' rather than raze the planet and every last person on it.
  • Such as two teams who have worked together many times, and shared several members, confronting one another with super-testosterone rather than simply making a phone call and suggesting a round-table pow-wow.
  • Such as the cliffhanger of the Phoenix, apparently welling within Hope - she already manifested its image and power in Avengers: X-Sanction #4. And, oh, in this very issue. Is it coming, is it here? Danged if I know, but I am at least trying to care.

I expect Marvel would say ignore these points, relax and just enjoy a blockbuster adventure, but the company crows about how, unlike DC, it's never done a big reboot of its universe. Yet here dozens of stories are wiped away, and character arcs erased. And this in an 'event' co-written by Marvel's 'Architects', the writers supposedly so much better than the rest of the company talent pool. Could the combined wit of Brian Bendis, Jason Aaron, Matt Fraction, Ed Brubaker and Jonathan Hickman really not give us a story using the Phoenix that acknowledges the past, without getting smothered by it?

The script is by Bendis, and it'll likely please his fans. Sure, the Avengers come across as pretty childish when not in battle, but that's Bendis' Avengers for you. His Cyclops, while a nutter, is at least in line with the more extreme end of Scott Summers' obsession-fuelled bonkersness of recent years. On the other hand, Wolverine is terribly mopey at the prospect of a Phoenix return, rather than the feisty fella we know him to be. But I do like Bendis' Captain America, he's firm but fair, withholding his sledgehammer until convinced Cyclops is a nut needing to be cracked.

John Romita Jr is a good choice for penciller, having experience drawing both the X-Men and Avengers series. The big moments, such as the Phoenix manifestations and arrival of the heli-carrier, suit his bombastic style, and the pages as a whole are decently inked by Scott Hanna. There's thought been put into the body language of Hope, and in just two panels the pair makes an alien child's recognition that the End is Nigh almost unbearably poignant.

Kudos, too, to Laura Martin for a bold colouring job, and Chris Eliopoulos for some fine lettering. A minor demerit, though, to whoever decided to letter the story title over the fold, making it look as if we're reading AVENGERS VE RSUS X-MEN,

A far bigger annoyance is the regular appearance of a distracting AR flash over the artwork. Get to the end of the book and a house ad tells us it's Marvel's way of signalling the spots at which we should direct our phones and tablets in order to experience Augmented Reality. Really? We're going to be thrown out of the story regularly in order to be reminded that there's a new technical gimmick in town?

Find another way, Marvel.
I suggest dumping the whole idea - I had a look at the AR moments and rather than enhancing the story, they distract from it. Editor-in-Chief Axel Alonso (above) teleports in and out to pat Marvel on the back. Brian Bendis tells us about his favourite scene. We see a mini-profile of Hope. Pencils turn into inks. And so on. I was expecting flashy effects, but the most exciting moment comes as blobs circle the screen and the world LOADING appears. Really, don't bother.

The cover by Jim Cheung uses one of comics' classic layouts, the two teams rushing one another, but it's too crowded to be effective. And it looks as if the opposite sides are having a sing-off.

All in all, this is OK so far as marketing-fuelled crossovers go, but awful if you care about Marvel continuity. And hasn't Marvel spent 50 years training us to care about such things?

PREVIEW REVIEW Jack Hammer: Political Science

Private detective Jack McGriskin has been hired to find a tech firm's missing employee. He finds him all right - dead. The company pays him and says to let the case lie, but he wants answers. And he finds them in this sharp mash-up of hard-boiled crime and superheroics.

Superheroics? Yep, as well as being a crime comic, this is a superhero book - the unnaturally strong McGriskin was once the hero named Jack Hammer. He no longer goes looking for super-powered fights, preferring to use his abilities in a less flashy operation. With the aid of secretary Ramona, driver Stu and cop Charlie, Jack bids to find out who killed Eddie Newman. The search takes him from the back alleys of Boston to the corridors of power, introducing us to such characters as gambling boss Romano, corporate lackey Ms Gorsch and supervillain Howitzer. There's also a very nicely dressed Big Bad, but I'll let you discover him for yourself.

The first three issues of this story were released a couple of years back, before some hiccup or other took the book away from its original publisher. The concluding chapter finally appears here, making for a satisfying, attractive whole. Brandon Barrows' characters are suitably likeable or hissable, the story moves along at a fair lick and the traditions of the detective genre are given a fresh coat of paint that keeps cliches at bay. Jack's a fun character to spend time with, and this case has me wanting to know more about his backstory. And it's not just Jack who impresses - Barrows makes an effort to give all his characters their own voice and it works; they come across as people, rather than cyphers.

There's humour too, with such gems as Jack giving a kid five bucks and telling him to buy a comic book, or the name of a superhero-friendly politician, Stan Goodman.

Comparisons to Brian Bendis and Michael Avon Oeming's Powers are inevitable, but given the mass of superhero books around, there has to be room for two looking at the genre through the lens of street crime.

My biggest negative criticism is that the inciting incident doesn't make much sense - Eddie Newman discovered his employers were dirty and disguised himself as a homeless man? Why, exactly? If he was out to get avoid the thugs who finally killed him there have to be easier ways than playing dress-up while leaving his wife vulnerable at home.

The artwork by the peculiarly pen-named Ionic is dynamic and refreshing - the players have an urgency to them, in part due to the brash brushwork. They look fantastic, too ... most of the time, at least. There's a habit of leaving people in midshot as faceless blobs, and while I don't mind a bit of impressionism in my comics, when a series is nodding to a traditionally realistic genre ('tec fiction, not superheroes), it jars. And a soul patch has no business sitting on the chin of a private dick (or any chin, truth be told), but perhaps Jack is one of those hipsters I keep hearing about. These niggles aside, this really is splendid stuff, as characters with actual character move around a believable world. Dodgy five o'clock shadow apart, the colouring is excellent, to boot.

I had a ball with this story, from Action Lab Comics, publishers of the priceless Princeless. Coming to comic shops and digital outlets in June, it's well worth checking out.

Monday, 2 April 2012

Legion: Secret Origin #6 review

It's the final issue of this expanded look at the origins of the Legion of Super-Heroes and it's confirmed that the figure behind the attacks on team benefactor RJ Brande is the Time Trapper. This issue starts with him influencing United Planets Security Directorate member Mycroft to take out Brande, but it turns out Brande isn't alone - Chameleon Boy has been on hand, disguised as a bug. Soon Cham has the upper hand - or rather, tentacle.

Out in space, the rest of the Legion prepares for the next, inevitable attack by the armada that's been making attempts to get out of a wormhole and into UP space. Pondering Phantom Girl's extra-dimensional origins, Brainiac 5 comes up with the idea of using the chronal energy of a damaged Time Bubble to destroy the portal once and for all. Brainy's up for the dangerous mission of delivering the craft to the splinter in space, Ultra Boy seems ready to take the job on, but finally, Phantom Girl  insists she'll do the deed, returning to her homeworld of Bgztl in the process.

Back on Earth, Cham is confronted by the Time Trapper, the twisted personification of Entropy. He's able to switch off Cham's transmuting abilities and the Durlan teen looks set to become the first Legionnaire to fall when the Trapper is pulled apart, or at least, away ... Phantom Girl's errand was a success; the wormhole is gone, and with it, the Trapper's connection to the 31st century.

And Phantom Girl's decided not to return home after all - she kinda likes these Legion guys. The story ends with a delicious spread of the founding Legionnaires, and the promise of more members to come.

And that's it, six issues of breezy teen superheroics, giving us our first detailed look at what happened in between the first meeting of Lightning Lad, Saturn Girl and Cosmic Boy, and their recruiting of Superboy. It's quite funny to see here just how obsessed Saturn Girl is with getting the legendary Kryptonian on board - if I didn't know better I'd say she had quite the crush. One crush there's no doubt about is Ultra Boy's for Phantom Girl, whose beginnings we see here in a priceless panel involving a blushing Brainy.

Given his status as the Legion's greatest foe, it's rather good to see the Time Trapper actually began bedeviling the team earlier than we knew. It fits, given that the first time he/sometimes she was mentioned in Adventure Comics, he was already known to the 'Super-Hero Club'.

Then again ...

Given his status as the Legion's greatest foe, it's rather a shame that  the Time Trapper's not more of a problem for the team over the course of this mini-series. Powerful on a cosmic scale, all he's really done is send minions to (not) kill Brande, in the hope this would nip the Legion's legend in the bud. I guess that simply wiping the members off the face of reality would be too big a risk, for some reason, but still, he should be a lot more impressive than he's come across as. There's never been much sense of danger in this origin event - the aliens attack, the Legion knocks 'em back; Brande is targeted, Brande is saved. It's all been just a little bit too cosy, with the Legionnaires given little chance to truly impress.

Nevertheless, this has been an enjoyable romp, as newly revealed episodes instantly hit the nostalgia buttons. Writer Paul Levitz made the members likeable, feeling no need to dollop on the interpersonal conflict that today passes for deep characterisation. Legion: Secret Origin is a tribute to a more innocent time and, as such, it has many more merits than flaws.

One such merit is the art by penciller Chris Batista and inker Mark Deering. The characters look heroic, they're fluid on the page and the feel evoked is that of a classic Silver Age comic. I'm still not keen on the updated costumes, the odd moments of super-skinniness, Tinya grinning like a loon and the Time Trapper's wonderfully corny purple robes being swapped for a shadow-man effect. And it's not terribly clear where Cham comes from before rescuing Brande - that's one tiny bug. But what the heck, I'd be happy to see Batista and Deering back on the Legion anytime.

I hope this series sold well enough to greenlight other Legion projects outside the main Legion of Super-Heroes and Legion Lost titles - if  not more mini-series, then at least the odd annual or special. Perhaps even more untold tales. Hopefully, though, more intense ones.