Wednesday, 30 May 2012

Animal Man Annual #1

Socks the cat, former avatar of the Red, tells Animal Man's daughter Maxine of an early attempt by the Rot to rule all. More than a century earlier in Canada, a Swamp Thing and an Animal Man fought back the forces that devastated their community, but the Rot promised it would return.

Which it did, which is why Maxine, her mother, brother and grandmother are on the run while dad Buddy seeks out the present day Swamp Thing to beat back the Rot that's been trying to wipe him out for the first nine issues of his title. And which, it seems, will continue to do so right through #17 of his series, and sister book Swamp Thing.

What a lot of Rot. I'm all for an epic storyline but I'm already tired of mangled monstrosities attacking the Bakers. I was hoping the annual would provide some respite via an untold tale, or a side story bringing in a guest star. Maybe a page to colour in and a maze or two. Anything to provide a palate cleanser.

But no, just as Batman expanded its page count to give us yet more background on the Court of Owls, so Animal Man gets a 38pp extra story and we get more on the Rot.

Which isn't to say this isn't a quality Rot-Fest. Writer Jeff Lemire tells a decent tale, and relates it even more to Buddy's present day woes via a vision predecessor Jacob has after Swamp Thing Jack Crow opens his mind with a tuber. Jacob not only 'meets' Buddy, he sees a modern Metropolis in which the Justice League has been utterly beaten by the Rot.
And Timothy Green II draws up a storm, giving us an adorable Maxine, a sour Socks and a great-looking flashback. Jacob is a sympathetic figure, while this past Swamp Thing is memorable in his perambulating green bean way. I like how Green draws Jacob as if hanging, as his world turns upside down. And there's an especially spooky moment as we see the two men Buddy knows as the Hunters come together for the first time. Lovern Kindzierski's colours, meanwhile, add extra dimensions both natural and unnatural, while Jared K Fletcher ensures the calligraphy is creepy.

But it all seems so unnecessary - we already know Alec Holland comes from a long line of Swamp Things, and could easily surmise Buddy wasn't the original Animal Man. That there has to be a balance between the Green and the Red and the Rot is pretty obvious. So why spell it out again? Jeff Lemire has proven he has a formidable imagination, as recently as last week in his Justice League Dark debut; it's a shame he went back to the Rot well again for this issue.

On the other hand, if you can't get enough of the Rot storyline, this annual is unmissable, with its well-crafted script, handsome artwork and extension of the threat into both past and future. There's even a cover by the regular series' starting artist, Travel Foreman. It's just not for me.

Superman Family Adventures #1 review

It's just another day in Metropolis. Superman saves the city from a giant meteor; Lex Luthor plots to steal Superman's powers via robotic invasion; Supergirl, Superboy and Krypto fight the good fight; Perry White screams at Jimmy Olsen for coffee ...

While Superman is wearing his new suit (it's admired by Dan DiDio), the all-ages story here isn't totally 2012, with the pre-New 52 Conner Kent the featured Superboy, Supergirl the modestly garbed Teen Titans version, Lex in Bronze Age mode and Perry White played by Ed Asner.

And, from the dawn of the Silver Age, welcome back Fuzzy the Krypto Mouse!

It all makes for a spiffy debut for Tiny Titans creators Art Baltazar and Franco's latest project. The chaps' script hangs together nicely, while Franco's full-colour artwork is deceptively simplistic and all-out charming.

The gags don't come as thick and fast as might be expected, but it's worth bearing in mind that Tiny Titans took awhile to find its form. This book is certainly worth $2.99, with it's done-in-one fun story and feature pages. I can see young kids loving this as a First Superman Reader, and older kids lapping up the light-hearted, nostalgic nonsense of it all.

The big question for me is, what will the Superman Family's equivalent of the Tiny Titans' Aw Yeah! rallying cry be? So long as it isn't the 'chillax' that comes out of Krypto's mutt mouth, I don't mind ...

The Ravagers #1 review

If a new comic book wants a better chance in a crowded market, showcasing the star in existing titles is a good way to go. The Inhumans, the Silver Surfer, Moon Knight ... all bounced around the Marvel Universe for a while before getting their own books. Over at DC, the likes of Deathstroke and Lobo did the same. Their titles may not have survived long-term, but there was at least some recognition among fans when they got their shot at the big leagues.

So, from the pages of Teen Titans, Legion Lost and Superboy, here come the Ravagers ...

... I fear we should leave them there.

Because sometimes, exposure to new characters destined for their own book is enough to make you think: No thanks.

Which is why I almost didn't give this DC New 52 second wave title a try. The Ravagers - abused metahuman teens trained to kill - haven't exactly had the aura of breakout stars. The likes of Thunder, Lightning and Ridge should be wearing tee-shirts emblazoned with the words 'crossover cannon fodder', so generic are they. We're talking an angry man monster and angst-ridden super-siblings.

As for Fairchild, Terra and Beast Boy, revisions of old DC/Wildstorm characters, it's tough to see how they deserve to front a new team book, when they could easily fit into the Teen Titans.

Still, I thought, give 'em a chance, maybe they have a unique selling point that wasn't evident in recent crossover The Culling. The concept is handily blurbed across the cover - 'trained to be killers - can they become heroes?' To which anyone who's been reading comics more than a couple of minutes would reply, 'yep'. Sure, we may get the odd Ravager so emotionally twisted by rubbish supervillain Harvest that they'll go fully to the bad and pay the price. Exactly that happens this issue with one of the other teen metas who escapes from evil organisation NOWHERE's freezing facility. But most will be just fine, and assimilate into the superhero community in time for this book's inevitable cancellation.

Because if a comic as shamelessly Nineties as Hawk & Dove can't survive in the current market, this has no chance. It's competent so far as outlining the plot is concerned, but there's nothing fresh here. The teens Harvest hoped to turn into Ravagers are on the run from his existing, all-evil Ravagers, led by Rose Wilson and Warblade. Some are killed in patented New 52 grisly manner, while our protaganists bicker and snark.

There's some interest in that Fairchild, having worked undercover at NOWHERE, knows the backgrounds of the kids where they themselves have forgotten. And I'm interested to see how Beast Boy, traditionally green and now red, links up with the Animal Man/Swamp Thing Rot/Red storyline.

But the focus needs to shift away from NOWHERE pretty darn quickly, as we've had months of the terrible Culling storyline. Let Rose and co fade into the background, and let's spend time with the book's headliners, get to know them as they face new challenges.

Number one should be getting Thunder to the hairdressers to get rid of the two-hairstyles-in-one thing she has going on. It's certainly distinctive, but unless it's a tragic side effect of mutant powers, there's no way a kid on the run would be able to maintain it. Perhaps it's a sign of insanity.

And while he's on, penciller Ian Churchill might work on making Fairchild the heroine more distinct from Fairchild the scientist, as to all intents and purposes her only ability seems to be making her breasts bigger. Which is impressive in its own way, but still ...

That aside, this is solid superhero work from Churchill and inker Norm Rapmund, with clear storytelling and dynamic figurework. And the colour work by Alex Sollazzo is first class.

Howard Mackie's script, meanwhile, hits all the necessary beats, recapping details from The Culling and beginning to introduce the featured Ravagers in terms of powers and personalities. He emphasises the horrors suffered by the kids enough that their extreme actions here are understandable, if not excusable. While the dialogue's not awful, it's mostly interchangeable, with only the supposedly British Ridge showing any personality ('Bloody hell' he says. Twice). As I said though, so far, so generic - there's no obvious slot this book fills in the New 52 'offer'.

It must be said, though, that this is better than any individual chapter of The Culling - it's readable, whereas what came before was the comic book equivalent of a bad migraine.

Churchill's cover gets points for namechecking the characters. Then loses them for the blatant cheesecake of Fairchild, who is, happily, covered up inside.

I'll likely check back in with this series next month, to see if there are signs of a unique direction emerging. But The Ravagers is on a very short leash - if it continues to draw out the dregs of The Culling, I'm out.

Monday, 28 May 2012

Ame-Comi 1: Wonder Woman #1 review

A comic strip centred on DC heroines as interpreted for manga-style statues? Now there's an off the wall idea.

But here's a terrific digital first comic. Writers Jimmy Palmiotti and Justin Gray reinterpret the classic tale of the Amazon Princess who wants to grow beyond the restrictions placed upon her by her mother, and gets her chance when war breaks out. In 1941, it was the Second World War, and Diana left Paradise Island to fight Nazis in Man's World. In this 2012 take, it's her own home she's defending as soldiers from 'the sovereign nation of Kasnia' parachute onto Themyscira.

But that's the end of this opening chapter. Before that we have Steve Trevor briefing the President on why he should be the man to make first contact with the legendary lost nation of the Amazons; Diana training with minotaurs; a warning from the Oracle; and the young princess being confined to her quarters.

The snappy script is brought to vibrant life by Amanda Conner, whose widescreen depiction of the Amazons is more in line with traditional Wonder Woman than the statue had me expecting. Her Diana's a firebrand, but not without humour and compassion. Hippolyta is the stern warrior queen, while Steve is as blond and dashing as you could wish. The minotaurs are magnificent, fearsome and sheepish by turns, as personality-filled as all the other animals Conner draws. The island itself is a Graeco-Roman wonderland, the fight choreography thrilling. And it's all sumptuously coloured by Paul Mounts (click on image to enlarge).
The Amazons talk a bloodier fight than I'd like, but that seems to be the DC line in any incarnation of Wonder Woman these days. I have a problem with Diana bashing Amazon guard Areto (Deeto?) so she can slip away to defend the island - I'm sure her friend would have been up for the fight. And, dash it, there are horses, there are deer, there are kitties - but no kangas!

Overall, though, I love this to bits. It's a glorious take on Wonder Woman's world by creators who understand that she was created to star in big, bright adventures, not to be a bit player in a grisly Olympian soap. Given the Gray/Palmiotti/Conner/Mount team's success in making Power Girl as likeable as she is powerful, I can't wait to see where they go with Diana.

We're also promised three-part weekly stories featuring Batgirl, Duela Dent, Power Girl and Supergirl, prior to an ongoing team-up series. Fingers crossed the quality will be as high as with this debut entry. And at just 99c a pop - 69p to me - for around 20 pages of original story and art, Ame-Comi is a bargain to be cherished and encouraged. 

Sunday, 27 May 2012

The Fury of Firestorm #9 review

Adding guest stars is a great way to put an ailing comic before a wider audience. Making no concessions to visiting readers isn't the way to flip them into becoming regulars. I came to this comic having found the first two issues of The Fury of Firestorm a mess. I tried again last month to see how new writer Joe Harris was gelling with continuing co-writer Ethan Van Sciver and it took four attempts to get through the comic. But I love the Firestorm concept, like the new JLI and so decided that #9 would be the make or break.

Well, it's break. As broken as the Eiffel Tower in this issue-long slugfest between good and bad Firestorms and the Justice League Interrnational. Folk blast things and repair stuff and shout at one another and there's nothing approaching a recap or introductions for non-regular readers. Van Sciver and Harris know what their story is, Yildiray Cinar draws it big and bombastic, the inks and colours are impressive ... but how the heck are newbies meant to know what's going on? I thought one of the tenets of DC's New 52 was that individual issues would be accessible? Instead, it seems to be that editors get to sleep on the job.

An example of the boneheadedness of this comic is Booster Gold and Batman grabbing the French Firehawk, mid-battle, for a chat about one of the Firestorms signing with their international team. Then there's JLI leader Booster ordering two of his colleagues to stop the massive tower toppling - Guy Gardner and ...Batwing?

Van Sciver draws the enticing cover which, of course, misrepresents the comic's events.

I don't know how much longer this series is going to survive, as sales aren't brilliant - JLI, which has more paying readers, is already losing its place in the New 52. Issues like this aren't a great argument for keeping it on the stands.

Friday, 25 May 2012

Superman #9 review

Superman rescues a Russian submarine in trouble under the Bering Strait, but rather than receiving thanks he's sent packing by the commander. It seems the heavily lead-lined craft is hiding something.

Meanwhile in Metropolis, it's TV producer Lois Lane who's sending someone packing - blogger Victor Barnes, who claims to have proof that Superman 'walks among us' in a secret identity. She finds the idea ridiculous.

Across the city, a super-strong young woman robs a bank, claiming the trinket she takes from a safe deposit box is her property, locked up by her neglectful father.

Outside the Daily Planet building, Victor sees his suspect in an alley, snaps a picture and takes it to Lois' boss, Morgan Edge, who decides to run the story on one of his other stations.

Clark, having been ordered by Lois to buy dinner for herself and sister Lucy as an apology for failing to give a lift to the latter, rushes away on hearing of the bank job. He's soon tussling with the robber - who calls herself Anguish - and learns that she's a tough nut ... he can't touch her, but boy, can she give him a good thumping.

Anguish is leaving the scene just as the secret ID story goes live on giant TV screens, and learns that the man she's fighting is also known as ...

... ah, but that would be telling. Suffice to say that someone's day gets unexpectedly interesting.

This issue won't break the internet. No one dies. No marriages are magicked away. Jimmy Olsen doesn't come out of any closet, unless the underwater models he's imagining are male.

It's great fun though! Superman is unambiguously heroic, using his powers to help wherever he can, and no one questions his integrity. He's no genius - he can barely recall which is latitude and which is longitude - but he's smart, and calm in a crisis. Lois and Jimmy are likable as they play against Silver Age type - Lois doesn't believe Superman would have a secret ID, while Jimmy is incredulous when Barnes uses the phrase 'scoop of the century'. There's the mystery of the sub's cargo and the question of Anguish's family life (and awful choice of codename). We see that Lois cares enough about Clark to want Lucy to like him. There's the return of post-Crisis Metropolis eatery Carlini's (can Bibbo's be far behind?). Heat vision, not laser. A definite S-curl at times.

And with luck, Morgan Edge's annoyance at Lois for turning down the big 'scoop' will see her demoted back to the Planet newsroom, where she belongs,

It's all good in Keith Giffen's script, co-plotted with penciller Dan Jurgens. These two comic vets have the energy and imagination of hungry whippersnappers, and I'll be sorry to see them go in a few months. Jurgens' storytelling, finished by Jesus Merino, is as strong as ever, powering the narrative forward. The colour artistry of Tanya and Richard Horie brings an extra dimension to the pages, whether it's ripples on the sea, textured stone at the bank or a sound effect made transparent to match the phasing of Anguish.

The cover by Ivan Reis, Eber Ferreira and Hi-Fi isn't my favourite, with the composition not taking logo placement into account. And while the colouring is appropriate for the scene, it's not great for impact on the stands. Then again, that submarine-covering  logo is rendered in white and red, my number one combo for this classic piece of design.

Forget the stupid armour, forget the spit curl ban (sssh, it's in here), this New 52 Superman is simply classic Superman - the hero we need.

Thursday, 24 May 2012

Astonishing X-Men #50 review

Northstar's getting married in the mor-ning ...

Well, not quite. Jean-Paul Beaubier does indeed propose to boyfriend Kyle this issue, but the answer is a big fat no - Kyle reckons JP is popping the question 'just to put a Band-Aid on our problems'. Which he kinda is, but there's no need for Kyle to be quite so whiny about it, flouncing off with tears in his eyes.

Northstar sheds a few sobs too, as he flies back to an urgent X-Men mission he took a break from in order to ruin Kyle's day with his declaration of love. But that's how it is, he's a fighter and a lover. He's about to rejoin Iceman and Gambit at a private prison connected to the Marauders when his mobile phone rings, alleging that a kidnapped Kyle is at the base.

As it turns out, the Marauders are dead, having apparently killed one another while mind-controlled, and a hoodooed Gambit and Iceman are ready to murder Northstar. As is Wolverine, who's at the jail after learning the ins and outs of the prison's history from Black Widow, who's not an X-Man but is in a very popular summer movie.

Someone who's neither of these things, but is the best thing in the book, is Warbird, Shi'ar bodyguard to Wolverine's pupil, Kid Gladiator. Accompanying Logan on his fact-finding mission/lunch, she steals the few panels she's in with her haughty warrior ways. A few more pages of her and a few less of the Northstar and Kyle soap would go some way towards making this a good comic. As things stand, it's a generic X-Men tale with a well-publicised stunt in the move towards Marvel's first on-panel gay marriage. Writer Marjorie Liu's dialogue is a pleasure when it's superheroes swapping banter, but painful when it's Gays of our Lives. I can't believe that someone as traditionally fiery as Northstar would pine over a wet dishrag like Kyle, who almost has a breakdown because he can't get his wi-fi to work (hmm, if only he had access to a brilliant blue scientist, a machine empath or a walking, talking Danger Room).

The biggest problem with the script is Northstar leaving mid-mission to attend to his lovelife, without so much as a 'see you later, guys'. In one scene he's in the middle of the prison investigation, a few pages later he's in civvies and catching up with Kyle, after that he's flying back to the jail and being, frankly, a pathetic wassock (click on images to despair).

The art by Mike Perkins is stagier than I'm used to from him, with the Black Widow scene actually awful - panel after panel sees her posing rather than interacting. Though I do love her little black (widow) dress, a cross between her first two uniforms.
The proposal pages are the best-drawn sequence, with believable emotions and a nice bit of business involving a vendor's hat; it's just a shame the narrative is so cringe-making.

The cover by Dustin Weaver and Rachelle Rosenberg is just glorious.

I admit, I've not bought this comic in ages, but curiosity about the proposal persuaded me to give it a go. I won't be back next time to see Northstar rescue Kyle (who's likely tied up and fretting about the colour of the ropes) because this is an issue that's average at best, poor at worst. It's stunt-driven, and while I love a good stunt, this one is just bungled and really not worth the $3.99 Marvel charges for it.

Wednesday, 23 May 2012

Justice League Dark #9 review

In the Amazon jungle, longtime Justice League foe Felix Faust is gathering an army. The magician is stronger than ever, having gained control of a devastatingly powerful mystic artefact. US Government mage Dr Mist has been captured after being sent by Colonel Steve Trevor to learn Faust's plans.

Who ya gonna call?

Justice League Dark, of course. Except the loose alliance of supernatural heroes went their separate ways after their initial missions, with two of them - Shade the Changing Man and Mindwarp - apparently lost for good. Trevor appeals to John Constantine, Hellblazer, to get the band back together to rescue Dr Mist and stamp on whatever Faust's plans are. And the con man magician agrees, on being promised a few minutes alone in the government's legendary Black Room, treasure house of mystical artefacts - Trevor's happy to turn a blind eye while a trinket or two goes missing.

And that opportunity persuades Zatanna to come along too, once Constantine asserts that the storehouse contains the top hat of her father, Zatara. It's something she'd give her right arm for. With Zee on board, a reluctant Deadman and vampire Andrew Bennett sign up too. Madame Xanadu, who initially brought the group together, refuses - she's had enough of Constantine and his double talk. But they do have a new ally to make up the numbers, mysterious plant being Black Orchid, who works for Trevor.

The team confronts Faust and his cult near the border of Peru and Brazil, beating back wave after wave of magical creatures to rescue Dr Mist. He reveals the hiding place of Faust's power source, an 8th-dimensional map to the 'four most powerful magical artefacts that ever existed'.

As for what they are, well, I enjoyed being surprised and if you buy the book, and are familiar with the magical side of DC's Vertigo imprint, you will too. It's safe to say the items are something I thought gone from DC lore for good.

And with one issue, Justice League Dark flies to the head of the New 52. New writer Jeff Lemire keeps well away from Shade the Changing Man, who never works in a team setting; Mindwarp, a Flashpoint oddity no one this side of creator Pete Milligan understands; and Enchantress, who was well and truly booted from heroinehood in the opening arc. And while I've liked Madame Xanadu since she opened her Doorway to Nightmare, she works best as a distant mystical presence rather than a frontline mage.

As for those who do make the cut, Zatanna fits because she's a longtime team player; Constantine is fun since while he professes not to play well with others, his knack for manipulation makes him a natural leader; Black Orchid has the disciplined mindset of the trained spy; Deadman thinks of himself as a superhero; and Andrew Bennett is a formidable wild card.

As for Dr Mist, he's an unknown quantity right now, but at the very least, he's getting a fantastic costume.

Lemire introduces his cast and their mission stylishly and efficiently, ending on a note that promises a wild ride over the next several issues. With suspicion, sarcasm, disdain and haughtiness among our motley band's personality characteristics, there immediately arises an entertaining chemistry (click on image to enlarge).
While Lemire underplays how dangerous Faust has been over the years, he shows that the enchanter is no fool. For one thing, he understands Constantine's true power ('That tongue of yours is poison'). I do love Constantine as channelled by Lemire, as it seems he has a knack for working class English argot, using phrases such as 'dead effective' and even slipping in a cheeky 'wanker'.

Tying the story into the recent DC New 52 Free Comic Books Day special via the Black Room should give this title a readership boost, and hopefully people will like what they see. I know that while I enjoyed earlier issues, I like this a whole lot more - there's the same enjoyment of great characters in a spooky story, but a more accessible narrative style and greater engagement with DC's wider universe.

I'm delighted, though, that artist Mikel Janin has stuck around, as his characters are simply wondrous to behold. Constantine, Deadman and Black Orchid retain their classic looks, Dr Mist is getting that makeover and I Vampire is sex on a stick. The only visual I'm unhappy with is Zatanna - Zee looks like just another brunette in a frilly corset. I hope Constantine isn't lying about that top hat (we don't see the photo of the Black Room he claims to have viewed) as donning it would instantly restore some of the backwards magician's visual spark.

And it's not just the look of the players, it's the environments too; whether it's John's London flat, Zee's theatre or Faust's lair, the settings convince, and don't vanish after one establishing shot. As for the magical effects, crucial in a book such as this, colourist Ulises Arreola captures lightning in a brilliantly toned bottle.

If the first few issues of this series weren't what you were looking for in a mystical Justice League book, give this story a chance - a new team on the creative side makes for a splendidly entertaining new team in the comic itself.

Batman Incorporated #1 review

We begin in a graveyard, with a broken Bruce Wayne talking to Alfred by a familiar tombstone, then move back a month, as Batman and Robin chase a goat-masked thug through the rain and into an abbatoir. As butchers pull down masks to become literal citizens of Gotham - 'the Goats' town' - the place turns into a bloody battlefield. The crazy fight ends with one villain dead at the hands of his boss ... and Robin a vegetarian.

The head of the masked gang, Goatboy, is a small-time killer turned taxi driver, meaning he knows the city as well as Batman. Having shot his friend from a rooftop, he makes good his escape, to take another pass at Robin later. It seems that Leviathan, the criminal organisation run by Talia al-Ghul, has put a hit out on Robin - her 'traitorous' son, Damian Wayne.

Across the city, Leviathan takes over the territory of local hoods the Brothers' Grimm in a grisly dining scene guaranteed to reinforce Robin's new convictions.

Later, Batman and Robin come across a mutant gang shifting gear for Leviathan, giving Goatboy a second shot at Robin.

And in San Francisco, an unexpected branch of Batman Incorporated is eating fondue.

Given that this issue is so preoccupied with meat, it's perhaps appropriate I give you just the bare bones of the story. There's a ridiculous amount to love in Batman Incorporated's second debut, as it rejoins DC's line having taken a break for the New 52 to settle in, and you'll enjoy discovering the details for yourself. All you really need know is that writer Grant Morrison and artist Chris Burnham are back, and providing an alternative for those of us currently feeling rather 'owled out'.

The story is assured, pacy, with dialogue both darkly dramatic ('The others ate beef ...') and archly amusing ('I was trained to rule the world, father') as Morrison shapes his Gotham and the relationship between Bruce and Damian. While there's something to enjoy on every page - there's no fat in this 22pp opener - my favourite moment comes as Damian declares that he's changing his dietary habits I won't spoil it, but if you've ever read Art and Franco's Tiny Titans, you'll laugh hard.

While this book doesn't reference any Night of the Owls business, it does acknowledge recent Bat-books as Bruce voices disapproval over Damian's willingness to kill. And it ties into Frank Miller's Dark Knight Returns with the Gotham mutant gang.

Mainly though, this comic goes its own way, continuing the massive story Morrison's been telling for several years. That it remains so coherent is a tribute to the man's craft, and the comic's editors.

Returning artist Burnham dazzles with his vision for Gotham, never skimping on the details as almost-proud dad Batman and perma-disgruntled Robin dart across the page. His storytelling is first class - no matter how small he goes with the frames, things remain clear. And he captures the comedy beats as well as the drama, with many a standout scene. My favourite, apart from a certain Aw Yeah! moment, shows the new Dynamic Duo swinging past Gotham's towers, with the buildings serving as panels. Colouring the artwork, Nathan Fairbairn adds to the experience with his intelligent design decisions, while Patrick Brosseau's letters sit well on the artwork.

And that cover by Burnham and Fairbairn is just delicious in its rightness.

It's been a while coming, but Batman Incorporated is back and with issues this brilliant, fingers crossed it sticks around a long time.

The Hypernaturals preview review

Having served a long tour as Marvel's masters of the cosmic, writers Dan Abnett & Andy Lanning fetch up at Boom! Studios for a new superhero sci-fi series. We're in the 100th year of the Quantinuum and Earth's greatest heroes, the Hypernaturals, are in their 21st iteration. Sent to investigate a cosmic storm threatening the 1.7 billion strong colony of 28 Kosov, they're an impressive bunch.
They're also, none of them, on the cover ...

On emerging from the 'trip' teleporter onto 28 Kosov, their communication system for reporting back to Earth dies, and Astromancer begins seeing something, a presence that's here, then not. Leader Magnetar is doubtful, but Halfshell knows to trust her colleague, and flies off to investigate. Something grabs the semi-cyborg, prompts her to tell her teammates to kill her. Then everything goes black.

Back on Earth, retired members of the Hypernaturals learn of their successors' missing status. There's Clone 45, who spends his days getting drunk. Thinkwell, brainiac turned academic. Prismatica, heroine turned mom. And Creena Hersh, Hypernaturals media liaison and Magnetar's lover. Somehow, I think the band is getting back together.

Well, three of these guys are on the cover ...

I hope that some of the current gang do make it back to Earth, as their designs alone make me want to know more about them. Tom Derenick draws 'em big and bold and full of potential. Brad Walker and Mark Irwin, meanwhile, handle the scenes featuring the veterans, bringing a certain world weariness that contrasts with the gung-ho feel of the rest of the book.

Abnett & Lanning bring their skill with team books - honed on the likes of the Legion of Super-Heroes and Guardians of the Galaxy - to the job, providing a pacy start to proceedings. The chunks of backstory are easily digestible, never slowing the narrative, and they make one of my bugbears, the back and forth narrative ('Four hours earlier...'; 'Now...'; 'Three hours, fifty-four minutes earlier ...'; 'Now ...'), bearable. And crucially, their dialogue is first class.

The cover, by Francesco Mattino, is excellently rendered, if a little too 'SF mystery' for my tastes. This is an SF mystery, but it's also a superhero book, and I'd prefer a more Atari Force style.

Never mind, it's a tiny observation, not really a moan. I'm just grumpy because I have to wait until July to see what happens next. If you want to see what happens first, there's an online version of this book available at Comic Book Resources.

Atari Force cover borrowed without permission from the exceedingly Grand Comics Database

Tuesday, 22 May 2012

Bloggers United for young performers

Fellow comic blogger Tom Badguy asked me to post this, so here goes!

The Mental Cast is having a fundraiser for the Staten Island Academy of Performing Arts.
Please tune into The Mental Cast at on May 22nd, 2012, from 6pm - Midnight EST

Friday, 18 May 2012

Legion of Super-Heroes #9 review

Brainiac 5 and Harmonia are at Circadia Senius' lab, disagreeing about the possibility of beating the blockage in the time stream, when Dream Girl drops by. She's had a premonition that something important is going to occur.

And occur it does, as two unknown assailants pop up. Literally - they come out of a Boom Tube that isn't quite a Boom Tube - it's black rather than white, and instead of going 'BOOM' it goes 'PLOINK'. Brainy's force field belt fails due to one alien, Dys, being able to dampen tech-based abilities. But Harmonia's elemental powers are natural, and Dream Girl's knack for anticipating a foe's moves makes her a mean martial artist. Brainy stops pondering the fact that his flight ring is also kaput long enough to enter the fray, belting Dys with a veeblefetzer (or perhaps it's a framistat, I always get them confused). This peeves Dys enough to grab Brainy with his tentacles and slam him into unconsciousness. Dream Girl quickly follows.

By the time Ultra Boy arrives to help Harmonia battle the other enemy, Trog, Dys has escaped with Dream Girl, Brainy and the tech he's disabled. Trog, having been stopped from entering the Ploink Tube by Harmonia and thoroughly pummeled by Ultra Boy, commits suicide, devolving to slime. Dys reports back to his masters - the Dominators. They wanted Brainy because he possesses 'the accelerated intelligence gene' but Dys gambled and brought back Dreamy too, correctly sensing that she's almost as bright as Brainy. What's more, 'she seemed his companion'.

Across United Planets space, Mon-El is accompanying Legion Academy graduate turned Science Police officer Gravity Kid to the cell occupied by Validus. The Legion fears someone is trying to put a Fatal Five back together, and the giant with the mental lightning was the original's most fearsome member. But he's safe and sound in his cell of inertron, the galaxy's toughest metal. Apparently, at least.

Back on Earth, an energy signature links Dys and Trog to the Dominators, and the Legion readies to take the fight to them - until Mon-El arrives with the news that Earthgov won't authorise such a move. There's a treaty with the Dominators in place and not enough evidence against them to risk wrecking it.

One Legionnaire won't stand for this: Star Boy, still recovering from traumas connected to a 21st-century time trip, indicates that if the Legion won't rescue Nura, he's quitting the Legion and going after her himself.

Paul Levitz melds tense action with clever characterisation, building on last issue's hints of a Fatal Five rebirth while upping the threat posed by the Dominators. Interaction between the team members is natural and enjoyable, while there's an enticing tease of what might be to come in Dys's opinion on the Dream Girl/Brainy relationship (a call back to the Mark Waid/Barry Kitson Legion series). There's a fun moment when we see that Ultra Boy doesn't always time his one-power-at-a-time switches to perfection, and the news that the Legion is still scouting for Academy recruits*. Best of all is Star Boy's decision to go it alone - it's classic Thom Kallor.

Francis Portela's illustrations are simply delicious. If anyone at DC or Marvel paid attention to the Legion books they'd be grabbing this guy for the fluidity of his line, the character he puts into faces, the way he lays out both the high drama and the quieter times. Simply put, Portela is proving one of the best artists this series has ever had. And doing his illustrations justice is colour artist Javier Mena, whether it's giving Ultra Boy his very own speed trail or lighting the fight scenes according to the energies unleashed (click on image to enlarge).
The cover, by classic Legion artist Steve Lightle, is a beaut, showing two of the longest-serving Legionnaires are as vital today as when they debutred. And Guy Major uses Dream Girl and Brainy's trademark colours on both illo and logo to make the cover pop further.

This is a wonderful issue all round, the highlight of the current run. The Legion is always at its best as dark forces gather, and here are two separate sets. If you've yet to try this book, dive right in - Levitz, Portela and their teammates make it easy.

* Who, if my translation of Interlac is correct, are named Otaki and Mwifadji. Er ...

Wednesday, 16 May 2012

DC Universe Presents #9 review

After 16 years apart, a father and daughter are reunited. Sounds touching, but when the father is immortal villain Vandal Savage and the daughter is FBI agent Kass Sage, expect sparks to fly. And they do, as an electrically powered inmate interrupts their meeting at Belle Reve prison.

Kass is after insight into a serial killer who has copied her father's methods and kidnapped a senator's daughter. And Vandal gives her something. But if she wants more help, art connoisseur Vandal says he needs to see the scenes of the earlier crimes.

And of course, we're all thinking Silence of the Lambs, with Vandal cast as Hannibal Lecter and Kass as Clarice Starling. But the set-up is just that - set-up. We're at the beginning of the journey here, as we're introduced to the present day version of the barbarian from Demon Knights, and one of his children. This isn't the New 52 version of Scandal Savage from the much-missed Secret Six book; all Kass has in common with Scandal is her father. Where Scandal is, at best and being very generous, an anti-hero, Kass is on the side of the angels. And while the former inherited something of her father's incredible constitution and favours blades in combat, Kass relies on training and sidearm. She hates what her father did to his victims, what he did to her mother, but if it'll help someone, she's going to face him.

And Kass certainly doesn't believe Vandal Savage is an immortal, his killings sacrifices to forgotten gods.

Writer James Robinson gives Vandal a touch of the Jack Knights, with his love of art and penchant for vintage pornography. That's it, though - I wouldn't be at all surprised were he not wanting to get Kass alone so he could eat her organs or somesuch horror. Robinson's Vandal is a compelling fellow, and Kass may well be a match for him ... certainly she's not afraid of the man, even though she must know the father she loved is long gone. There's a satisfying balance of smart talk and well-worked action in this first of a three-parter, and it grips from beginning to end.

Robinson's partner in crime is Bernard Chang, whose work never fails to engage with stories in interesting ways. His Vandal is the classic version, somewhere between caveman and nobleman, while Kass is pretty without coming from Central Casting; there's a strength in her eyes, the way she holds herself. The action sequence blazes across the pages, while the quieter moments command the attention. And Chang is well served by his colourist, one Bernard Chang. There's sharp lettering, too, from Steve Wands.

The cover is by Ryan Sook, and is a typically effective composition, even while Kass looks like a man in drag.

If you're looking for a DC comic with a different flavour, a cerebral superhero thriller, give this issue a try.

Justice League #9 review

The JLA are split into teams this issue, as two of their old villains break into detention facilities. Superman, Batman and Cyborg defend Arkham Asylum from psychic vampire the Key, while Flash, Green Lantern and Wonder Woman interrogate the Weapons Master after stopping his assault on Central City's Iron Heights.

It turns out that both bad guys have recently had run-ins with a third, one who wanted to know how to hurt the Justice League members, and have been left terrified. They're happy to be locked away, for their own protection.

Meanwhile, their tormentor, David Graves, is threatening JL liaison Steve Trevor's family to learn from him how to access the team's satellite headquarters.

Along the way there are flashbacks to earlier, sadder times for the JL members, and an opening flashback shows us the moment Graves - fatally irradiated during the League's battle with Darkseid years previously - went from the League's unauthorised biographer to perhaps their deadliest foe. We see Trevor annoyed by the celebrity-hunting media, meet his sister Tracy, get the first confirmation since last year's DC revamp that Batman and Superman are friends rather than simply colleagues, the Flash makes a Very Good Point about his super-speed and Wonder Woman gets to use her Lasso of Truth.

This series continues to improve after the lacklustre opening issues, with writer Geoff Johns weaving a confident, entertaining superhero tale. The characterisation is a little subtler than previously, so that Green Lantern is no longer an ass; he's actually likeable, making his Good Cop/Bad Cop routine with the Flash thoroughly smilesome. And they're interrogating the Weapons Master, for goodness sake - a no-hit wonder from the Dan Jurgens Justice League. It's fun to see the obscure ones.

It's also fun to see the classics, and The Key certainly qualifies here, having fought the League several times from his Silver Age debut, getting more powerful, madder and scarier as time went on. It says something if Graves can spook him. As for why the two crooks were breaking into facilities, and the heroes were having flashbacks, hopefully we'll learn that as the story continues.

Aquaman is absent this issue, while Cyborg may as well be ... he doesn't seem to have the personality of the classic incarnation. Heck, Booster Gold's robot pal Skeets could fill his role as team GPS system, but with a spot of wit. Even on Jim Lee's admittedly cluttered cover, he looks like a spare part. Let's hope Vic Stone comes out of his metal shell soon.

Jim Lee and Scott Williams produce the best art this series has so far seen; it has Lee's patented scratchy dynamism, but more care than usual seems to have gone into the storytelling. The opening two-hander between Graves and his doctor is a mini-masterpiece of mood, with the wobbly lettering of Pat Brosseau and intense colours of Alex Sinclair and co adding to its effectiveness. The final shot of this sequence, a downward looking splash, is fine comic art. And the Steve Trevor torture sequence is unpleasant without being over the top.

All in all, an above average first chapter for The Villain's Journey arc.

And in back-up land, Billy Batson has an eventful first day at Fawcett High, defending his foster siblings from rich bullies, then getting it in the neck from the principal for fighting. Guardian Mr Vasquez forgets his (stupid) principles that say fighting is always wrong to defend Billy from bullies' dad Mr Bryer, while in Egypt, Dr Sivana has his eye opened to the world of magic.

So it's three chapters in and Billy has yet to gain the power of Shazam, and I couldn't care less - Geoff Johns, artist supreme Gary Frank and their colleagues are crafting perfect little dramas, revealing their characters bit by bit. This time we get to know Freddy Freeman a little more, and he proves a likable little fixer. His new look - Freddy has gone from the traditional brunette to dirty blond - is the only thing I don't like about the art on this series, it being random and distracting. Otherwise, carry on crew.

So that's two strips featuring engaging characters and plotlines, by top creators, with contrasting yet complementary moods. For $3.99 DC gives us 31 pages of story and art, compared to Marvel's 20pp and a code for a digital copy you don't need, having already bought the comic. Win to DC.

Wonder Woman #9 review

A punny thing happened on the way to the wedding. Actually, several punny things, and I'm getting very tired of Brian Azzarello's penchant for wordplay. All too often the point of scenes in his Wonder Woman run seems to be to get a pun into play, yet rarely does said pun move the story forward.

For example, this issue opens with weirdo goddess Strife visiting her Uncle Ares at a Damascus cafe to ask if he'll be her date at the wedding of Hades and Wonder Woman. It'll be a blast, she laughs, as a suicide bomber blows everyone to smithereens.

Ho Ho.

That's two pages wasted, unless you enjoy viscera flying at you. Look, we get it, the gods must be crazy. We're nine issues into this run of Wonder Woman and know Hermes isn't the only mercurial Olympian, they're all a sandwich short of a picnic. Even more gods show up this time, as the royal family members discuss whether or not to attend the nuptials. Aphrodite, goddess of beauty and apparently too zoftig to be properly shown on panel, isn't going because there's no room in hell for Love. Hubby Hephaestus is accepting his invite, and taking demi-god Lennox as his Plus One. Eros is going too, while Hermes stays on Earth to protect the human Zola, who's carrying Zeus's child. Persephone, self-harming first wife of Hades, has no choice but to be there.

Hades himself is chatting to his father, Chronos, whom he's using as a throne. The guy's starving, but Hades offers nothing from the feast before them. He does give niece Strife a drink - the bloody tears of Chronos - when she shows up to make a suggestion to which we're not privy.

And Diana? Who? Oh yes, Wonder Woman, the bride herself, having accepted Hades' proposal as a means to free Zola from his clutches. She's in here too. Barely. Seven pages out of 20 feature the book's title character and while there's a hint of defiance on her face, she does bugger all, content to let gorgons dress her in freaky finery. The book ends with Hades playing a new mindgame with her, presumably suggested by Strife. He demands Diana prove her love to him, though why he entertains the notion she might actually want him, rather than be plotting an escape route, I have no idea.

I have even less idea why I'm buying this book, given that more often than not it disappoints, frustrates and annoys me. I've never not read Wonder Woman, I'm a sorry get ... but more than that, I'm an optimist, always expecting the next issue to be more true to classic Wonder Woman. But in purchasing, I'm telling DC to extend this approach to their most marketable female. To continue to let Brian Azzarello churn out an Olympian soap opera in which, more often than not, Diana is a bit player. Some might say she's central to the book, as the prize desired by some gods, and the annoyance of others, but really, she's just a McGuffin - the excuse for the Olympians to parade their peculiarities.

The best moment this issue comes as Zola yells at her protector gods to get off their mythological bottoms and do something to help Diana. The worst is, well, this (click on image to enlarge):
Does Azzarello actually think this puerile stuff is clever?

The art by penciller Tony Akins, inker Dan Green and colourist Matthew Wilson isn't bad. Their gods are impressive, standouts being Stryfe and Chronos, while their Diana, well, it's not like they're called on to draw her much. She's fine - out of costume, so don't expect the enticing scene on Cliff Chiang's cover to show up - but recognisable. Mind, poor Zola looks a fright, like a lunatic ten-year-old boy ... which is especially unfortunate in the scene which has Aphrodite calling her beautiful. She must mean internally.

If you're good enough to leave a comment on this review, feel free to add: 'Drop the book, loser'. And maybe suggest something I should be reading. Because until Wonder Woman gets her comic back, I should get my coat and go

Monday, 14 May 2012

Mystery in Space #1 review

Mystery in Space #1 has a beautiful cover by Ryan Sook, evoking celestial wonder.

As for the rest of the book, the only wonder is that someone thought it was fit to publish as a $7.99, 80pp giant. For while the revived Silver Age one-off hosts a few decently written and drawn stories with an intriguing idea or two, much of the material proved a slog to get through.

It's bullet point time ...

  • Verbinsky* doesn't appreciate it by Duane Swierczynski and Ramon Bachs: A man kidnapped by extradimensional aliens and kitted out with a cybernetic arm to fight a war isn't adjustng to being back on Earth. There's a twist, and it's not a bad one, but to get to it we have to spend time with unlikeable bit players swearing unnecessarily - yup, we're in a cutting edge Vertigo book, folks. At one point someone shouts 'Scoats' randomly. I have no idea what that might mean. The art features a lot of grimacing, and people have dirty lines on their noses and blotches on their hair, which may be Manga-esque or it may be lack of an eraser. *Or 'Verbinksy', if you're laying out the title page.
  • Transmission by Andy Diggle and Davide Gianfelice: Connecting to the cover, here's a tale in which the tense relationship between humans and their AI supposed servants takes a new turn. Star of the show is an ambassador who may have to end the lives of 40 billion beings to stop a plague spreading. The last line's awfully corny, but this is a smart, enjoyable short. It makes me want to see more SF strips from Diggle, one-time editor of 2000AD. The art is wonderfully clean and expressive, with Gianfelice managing to make a conversation between woman and machine look as tense as it reads.
  • Asleep to see you by Ming Doyle: This features a delightfully clever punning scene transition, but overall this tale of a woman abandoning a less-than-perfect relationship to become a space stewardess isn't my cup of tea. The optimistic ending is sweet but the journey is soporific, which given the protaganist's long space sleep is either irony or genius. Doyle's script and art complement one another well but the pervading air of melancholy - which may be intended - isn't for me.
  • Here nor there by Ann Nocenti and Fred Harper: There's another troubled relationship here, but no escape for the married undersea explorers involved. Or at least, there isn't until they come across an ET which bends the laws of science. What might have been interesting is made intolerable by Nocenti's cutesie-clever dialogue, a maguffin that's a-too-obvious metaphor and the fact that one leading character is a vicious bitch, the other an effete loon... you can't believe for one minute that these two ever got together. I rather like Harper's art, as he gives Armand and Heidi distinctive, expressive faces rather than Male Head A and Female Head A, and he gives great pussy cat.
  • The Elgort by Nnedi Okorafor and Michael Wm. Kaluta: A jungle explorer who can fly tracks walking whale-thingie the Elgort, chats to her talking necklace, and is perhaps killed by an alien ship or an omniverous plant or smugness. I dunno - I swear a page dropped off in the production process, as the strip just stops with nary an END. Okorafor's script is breezy in parts but our journey with 'windseeker' Ifeoma is slowed considerably by unnecessary extracts from her field guide. And Jared K Fletcher's sudden fondness for faffy fonts doesn't help either, as narration fights field guides fights necklace and nobody wins. And if the 'ending' is indeed the intended end, both writer Okorafor and editor Joe Hughes should be fed to a mutant cactus for crimes against clarity. Comics legend Kaluta produces typically attractive art, beautifully coloured by Eva De La Cruz; it really does seem as if we're on another world. 
  • Breeching by Steve Orlando and Francesco Trifogli: This would be the Young Adult section of the comic, as half-horse, half-human teens endure a ritual, drug-induced battle against their divided selves and fall in love, with a love bite apparently a marker of new freedoms. To be honest, apart from the fight sequence this is unintelligible, and Orlando loses points for calling his characters 'fauns' when they're patently 'centaurs'. Trifogli's art is attractive - clear and nicely paced.
  • Contact High by Bob Rodi and Sebastian Fiumara: A gay threesome in space comes to a sticky end via the ultimate orgasm. With a confident, smart script by Rodi and masterly art by Fiumara, this is one of MiS's better stories, though the 'insert stripping hunk here' moment is boringly blatant. Still, the last panel is everything The Elgart's isn't - a definitive climax.
  • The Dream Pool by Kevin McCarthy and Kyle Baker: Explorers from two worlds join forces to investigate a 'tree of life' and an academic discovers the lengths she'll go to in order to produce a career-making paper. Well, kudos to McCarthy for giving us this comic's only actual mystery in space, as three big questions require answering. And well done on catching me out with the ending. Nice one Kyle Baker, for some wonderfully wacky artwork based on McCarthy's layouts. Yup, I liked the script, I relished the art ... but blimey, they don't mesh. The story's basically serious, but the art is a thing of whimsy. Perhaps the disparity between the two approaches is meant to make the ending all the more dramatic; rather, it distracts throughout.
  • Alpha meets Omega by Mike and Laura Allred: A man dies but his end is also the beginning. This is lovely to look at but the hippy-trippy central idea is a tad passe for a comic supposedly looking to the future.

And there you have it, a collection of shorts with individually good elements, but rarely blending into a satisfying whole. This book had me longing for a straightforward Adam Strange or Captain Comet story, full of talking gorillas and puzzles to be solved. Yes, I'm living in days of future past, but if Vertigo is going to update an old DC title, why not hew a little closer to the original material? 

Thursday, 10 May 2012

Superboy #9 review

Captured by bad guy Harvest to fight in his gladiatorial games, Superboy, the Teen Titans and the Legion Lost crew join forces against lackeys the Ravagers.

So Part 2 of The Culling crossover is pretty much like Part 1 in last week's Teen Titans Annual #1 - young metahumans making war, making friends and making like dead folk. The difference is that where that comic was an absolute mess - zillions of people but few characters, no real plot progression, sub-par dialogue, messy illustrations, headache-inducing colouring - this is a little more enjoyable. This being a solo character's title, the spotlight is forced onto one player, meaning Superboy serves as our focus for the big fight; he's battling Harvest loyalist Warblade physically, while mentally resisting the villain's entreaties to join him, follow his supposed true nature.

This issue's subplottery sees Kid Flash recognised as a refugee from the future by Timber Wolf, raising the latter's hackles more than a little. Whatever Bart did in the Legion's 31st-century timeframe - and Bart himself can't remember - it sounds to have been pretty bad. The resolution of Timber Wolf's encounter with Bart is intriguing, to say the least.

Tom DeFalco, scripting from Scott Lobdell's plot, gives Superboy a fun line as Dawnstar helps him out, considering his Superboy predecessor's longtime Legion service. 'Thanks, um ... Feathergirl. So many codenames to remember.' And another wink to Legion fans comes as Red Robin mentions that his wings are made of Inertron, the Legion series' answer to adamantium, though preceding it by several years.

The point of The Culling seems to be to launch upcoming series The Ravagers, but read this issue, and that Titans annual, and you'd swear the intention is to deter us from buying. For the Ravagers we've met so far are a dull bunch, grumpy teenagers with talons and tasers. I'll need a lot of convincing that the DC Universe needs another bunch of young super-folk mooching around, but maybe DC has a surprise up its sleeve, and the Ravagers will be a new spin on Young Heroes in Love, or Hero Hotline or some other series with a USP. Heck, even Superboy and the Ravers would be a start ...

My favourite thing about this issue is its novel approach to good and bad guys fighting - tossing rocks at one another. Seriously, 'Lost Claws' contains Dawnstar's finest moment. Legion Lost leader Tyroc, he of the sonic scream, also gets some time in the sun.

The art, by RB Silva, Rob Lean and Iban Coella, is better than the story deserves - clearly laid-out and cleanly finished, so that you can actually follow the action. The smart colours of Richard and Tanya Horie help a great deal. It's a shame that the team aren't getting to draw the Legion and Titans in their usual costumes, rather than the unpleasant, unexplained Tron-alike threads here. It may be no coincidence that mentalist Legionnaire Tellus, whose fishy form sees him escape New 52 tailoring, looks the best of anybody in this issue - if a Legion strip lies in Silva's future, I'll not complain.

And I'll certainly not complain when The Culling is over. It's the culmination of pretty much the first year of Teen Titans and Superboy, and has now dragged Legion Lost into its nonsensical net. The sooner it's over, and the three titles can truly find their own voices, the better. At the moment, all I'm hearing is screaming, and it ain't Tyroc.

Batman #9 review

Back in the Silver Age, Batman had a suit for every occasion: undersea action, jungle japes, cold capers ... he had it covered. And there's a callback to the old days here, as Batman turns to his 21st-century 'war suit' to fight off the Court of Owls' army of Talons as they invade his cave. They've come for Bruce Wayne, little expecting that he's Batman.

Little caring, as it turns out. As far as they're concerned, Bruce being Batman isn't a cause for anxiety, it's a toofor - they'll get to off two enemies for the price of one. They don't blink twice, continuing their surge through the cave. Safe behind the doors of the cave's armoury - for the moment, at least - Alfred drops the temperature outwith, to scuttle the Talons' tweaked physiologies. But will the freezing air drop them before it wrecks the war suit, harming Batman too?

That's the set-up for this issue, one which leads to Batman turning the tables on his attackers, with help from friends large and small, living and less so. Talons taken down and it's out into the city to save the two solid citizens not protected by Batman's allies from other Talon assassins. First off, there's Jeremiah Arkham, necessitating a  trip to Arkham Asylum and ... SEE DETECTIVE COMICS #9 - MIKE

Oh. So much for not having to read all the tie-in issues to get the whole story. We're even reminded that the various issues of Nightwing, Batgirl, and Batman and Robin are available via cameo panels. Cheers for that, DC.

OK, back to the story we do get. It's entertaining stuff. I'm ready for the Court's henchmen to be taken down a peg or two, and that's what happens here. Mind, I don't quite understand why Bruce is getting chillier within the war suit during his bout with the owls, given he specifically says it's designed for 'temperatures as low as the arctic winter. Did I miss something?

There's a death this issue that seems such an obvious 'death' intended to send Batman in a certain direction, that it has to be a double bluff. Writer Scott Snyder is dealing with comic readers here, we've seen it all.

(Then again, the depressing lauding of Batman's unbelievable victory in Batman #6 shows that a lot of hype-happy fans just don't worry about internal logic when Bruce gets to be 'Bat-ass'.)

The way Bruce and Alfred vie to protect one another is touching, there's a clever bit of history around Wayne Manor that serves the story and Snyder has fun when it comes to Batman taking down the final Talon. The plotting is impressive, with plenty of incident and there's a teensy bit of forward movement in this apparently never-ending Owls sequence. The dialogue is fine, as Batman gets to be the predator for the first time in awhile.

And the art from penciller Greg Capullo and inker Jonathan Glapion is just stupendous, as Capullo's storytelling instincts match his stylistic excellence and Glapion adds necessary emphasis. The entire book looks great, with my favourite panel the one in which someone puts their foot down, once and for all. And a big hand to colourist FCO Plascencia for moodiness without dullness. As for the lettering, there's a typo on the first page - tut.

Good as this issue's inst-owl-ment was (sorry, Burt Ward was my babysitter), a back-up with a different tone would be nice. Instead we get a flashback to Alfred's dad's time as the Wayne butler, with the cliffhanger arriving - if I'm reading this correctly - on the night the Waynes were killed. I hope I'm not, otherwise a clunky retcon may be coming Batman's way.

We shall see. For what it was - another layer of the Owls storyline - this short is decent, with an efficient script from Snyder and James Tynion IV and splendid pictures courtesy of illustrator Rafael Albuquerque and colourist Dave McCaig (mind, I'm surprised by how, let's say, characterful, Alfred's father is, facially).

But the longer this owl business goes on, the less I'm feeling excited, engaged. I'm still reading, in the hope that questions I asked in an earlier review are addressed, but if next issue doesn't deliver I may cease to give a hoot. 

Saturday, 5 May 2012

Free Comic Book Day: The New 52 #1 review

Hundreds of years ago, a court representing various pantheons judges three people they consider the Trinity of Sin. One man, apparently Judas Iscariot, is sentenced to 'walk the earth as a stranger to Man, as a witness to what greed can do'. The Phantom Stranger.

A second, forced to forget his own name, has his features wiped out, condemned to 'forever question your identity and forever search for answers you will never find'. The Question.

A woman is given '... an eternity of loneliness. An eternity of pain. An eternity of being told I AM evil ... because I opened a box.' Pandora

In present day Detroit, dormant extraterrestrial technology in the government's top secret Red Room is becoming active. STAR Labs scientists Sarah Charles and Silas Stone disagree as to whether they should ask the latter's son, Justice League member Cyborg, for assistance.

In Washington, meanwhile, JL liaison Colonel Steve Trevor is called to the government's clandestine Black Room - same deal as the Red Room, but with supernatural objects of power - where an unknown woman is stealing Pandora's Box. 'Reclaiming' may be a more appropriate term than 'stealing', given that the woman is Pandora. The arms of Trevor and his military aides prove no match for Pandora's mystic pistols, and she gets away and opens the box, revealing a golden skull with three eye sockets. She vows to deal with the box once and for all.

In 'the near future', Batman wears the skull on a ribbon around his neck, as an unfamiliar Green Lantern fights to grab it from him. Superman, yielding a ruddy great stone column, puts paid to that idea. And he's not alone, we're in the midst of a massive superhero battle also involving Wonder Woman, Flash, Green Arrow, Mera, Aquaman, Black Adam, Deadman, Hawkman, Atom, Cyborg and Vibe.

Yes, Vibe! The character find of 1984, dead since 1987 but occasionally seen in alternate realities and TV cartoons, is making his DC New 52 debut. And he's bringing Element Woman, one of the more interesting debutantes from last year's Flashpoint event, with him. We can expect to see the Before and After of this big battle as part of DC's upcoming Trinity War storyline, and this taster has done its job and gotten me eager to see it. For it's a sad fact that pretty much all DC has to do to grab my attention is toss a little continuity porn at me.

So as well as the revelation that the previously unknown third person in the Trinity of Sin is The Question, we get mentions of Black Orchid and Dr Mist as associates of Steve Trevor, learn that someone from Earth 2 is signaling across the multiverse, see the Haunted Tank in the Black Room and find out that Trevor has a sister ... it's sad but true, no snippet is too tiny to get me smiling. And just what is The Circus which Trevor is so desperate to protect?

As for the main plot writer Geoff Johns is seeding, I'm definitely grabbed by Pandora's quest, and how it links back to the Flashpoint event which gave rise to the New 52 Universe. I'd definitely like to see her bring down this latest version of DC's mystical court, the Quintessence, as they seem a right bunch of cosmic asses, yelling hysterically at the so-called Sinners, only one of whom - the man who becomes The Question - shows neither regret nor humility. Pandora's crime amounted to curiosity, while the Phantom Stranger played his part in a drama whose ending was written by God himself.

The art is by an all-star cast of illustrators: Ivan Reis, Joe Prado and colourist Rod Reis handle the judgment opening; Kenneth Rocafort and Blond take us to STAR Labs; Gene Ha and Art Lyon look after the Trevor and Pandora sequence; and Jim Lee, Scott Williams and and Alex Sinclair close with the future battle, most of which is a four-page fold-out poster panel revealing the combatants. It all makes for a good-looking 16-page story, with the only thing I don't like being the design for the guy who may be Shazam - he looks like a Rio drag queen.

As I say, I'm all over this comic, it's sharply crafted superhero fun. I've no idea how any new people brought into shops by the freebie promotion will react, mind - they may be put off by the barrage of characters and concepts, they may be charmed by the promise of a world of weirdness to be discovered. Certainly DC deserves some credit for not going the lazy reprint route for Free Comic Book Day, instead gifting readers an entertaining set-up for what looks likely to be a blockbuster event.

Thursday, 3 May 2012

Dial H #1 review

We begin with two losers. Nelson Jent, not yet 30 and smoking himself to death after a run of bad luck. And Darren Hirsch, healthier in body but mixed up with a very bad crowd. When Darren is beaten up by thugs working for his boss, XN, Nelse runs into an old phone box to call for help.

But it's not Nelse who leaps out, it's Boy Chimney, scourge of, well, anyone who likes to draw breath rather than draw on a ciggie. Like a warped, heroic version of Nick O'Teen, Boy Chimney sees off the bad guys and, on returning to normal, Nelse gets Darren to hospital. Guessing that his transformation was linked to the phone box, he returns to it and manages to hit the four holes that turn him into ... actually, I'll leave that one for you to find out for yourself - the very name made me laugh hard. Coupled with the character's dialogue and appearance, I'd say we have a winner.

Of course, the guy's likely a one-off, this being an update of DC's classic Dial H for Hero concept (and that's the title on the indicia, if not the cover). Thinking on, given that it's set in Littleville, home to original Dialler Robby Reed, it could well be a continuation. Whatever it is, this comic is a hoot. Writer China Miéville gives his two heroes delightfully distinctive speech patterns and schticks, their natures apparently linked to Nelse's stare of mind at time of dialling. And they're not the only weirdos around, as the mysterious XN sends a black bile-spewing old lady to take on the transmogrified Nelse, and looks set to follow up with a sucker-fingered fellow. And on another intriguing note, Nelse seems to retain his own mind even as his other self is chatting away.

I loved this. The urban atmosphere reminds me of the old Monolith comic from DC (recently decamped to Image), with a dash of Hitman, while Nelse and Darren convince as friends, bound by suppressed affection and manifest disappointment. The scenes with the two heroes are wonderfully bizarre, in equal part due to the ornate artwork of Mateus Santolouco. His people aren't super-handsome, but neither are they grotesques - they're recognisable, helping root this slice of dark whimsy in reality. And when the scenes of high fantasy come, Santalouco goes wild with the character and page designs, ensuring that the tiredest of eyes will likely open with admiration.

Tanya and Richard Horie's colours are perfect for the piece, full of browns and greys, punctuated by flashes of brightness. Steve Wands' letters, meanwhile, subtly underline the mundanity and magic of the moments. And Vertigo editor Karen Berger pops back into the DC Universe to edit Miéville's script, his first for DC since, I believe, Hellblazer #250.

As for the cover, it's by Brian Bolland, so is a masterly summation of the comic's contents. By my estimation, this is Dial H For Hero's fourth shot at fame - five, if you include Superboy and the Ravers' Hero, but let's not. I think this time we can finally Dial H for Hit.

Nico O'Teen image borrowed from The Fortress of Baileytude. Do visit!

Wednesday, 2 May 2012

Worlds' Finest #1 review

Trapped on a world not their own, Supergirl and Robin take very different approaches to life. The former, Kara Zor-L, founds a hi-tech empire under the new name of Karen Starr in a bid to build her way back home. The latter, Helena Wayne, identity hops while fighting crime as urban legend the Huntress, believing they'll never get back to where they started so she may as well get used to her new world. As we join them, it's been five years since a mysterious event whisked them from Earth 2 to Earth 1, and something of a turning point.

The Huntress is erasing her life as mafia princess Helena Bertinelli after the events of her recent mini-series, while Karen believes she's finally found a way home in the shape of a 'quantum tunneler' designed by heroic ex Mr Terrific. Industrial espionage at Starr Enterprises' new Tokyo R&D lab puts paid to that notion, and introduces our heroines to irradiated villain Hakkou, just as Karen finally adopts a new superheroic identity - Power Girl.

But that's not all there is to this issue, as the present day sequences share the book with flashbacks to the Worlds' Finest teams' early days on their new world. We see Helena steal 'seed money' from Wayne Enterprises which she uses to buy equipment for her Huntress role, while Karen invests it in her business. And as in the main run, we see the close relationship between two heroines who are, to all intents and purposes, sisters.

For they're both heirs to their world's greatest heroes - Helena raised by father Bruce and mother Selina (Catwoman) Kyle, Karen having lived since arriving from Krypton with Clark and Lois. They've both lost the people most important to them, but while Kara still cries over her loss - not yet 20 and already she's lost two worlds - Helena's moving on. These women are chalk and cheese, but they're best friends, sticking together not just because they're all they've got, but because they genuinely like one another. They're complements, as shown by this belter of a scene, in which writer Paul Levitz demonstrates that meta-commentary can be subtle.
The sleek art is the work of George Perez, drawing the present day sequences with the back-up of inker Scott Koblish and colour house Hi-Fi. His eye for character and detail never flags, my one quibble being the new look for Power Girl; never mind the frightful new costume, she's lost the distinctive face that's part of her charm. There's still a hint of the sly humour Levitz's dialogue gifts her, but it's just not Karen. There are no such problems with his Huntress, this is the woman we've known for so long.

And yet, in one way, it isn't. The opening page makes it clear that in this new continuity there was a 'real' Helena Bertinelli, but she died, leaving her life open for Helena Wayne to inhabit. And while this Huntress shows respect for her predecessor Helena, it yet feels that DC is speedily washing its hands of the woman who was the Huntress in comics for 25 years.

That apart, I loved every minute of Levitz's script - he's having fun, and it shows in the heroines' easy rapport. The alternate narration device works well, given us insight into Power Girl and the Huntress with none of the contrived echoing some writers strive for. I suspect his biggest challenge will be finding foes suited to this new crimefighting duo, but who knows, Hakkou may prove the character find of 2012 - if only it were Haiku we could at least expect some especially interesting dialogue for letterer Carlos M Mangual to tackle.

There is one puzzling moment (click on image to enlarge):
Er, isn't he your dad, Helena? Perhaps there's a subplot on the horizon ... after all, if she believes Bruce Wayne won't notice a spot of accounts theft she's got another think - and crossover - coming.

The other key creative, Kevin Maguire, shines on the flashback sequences, his trademark facility with facial expressions serving the characters well. His Karen is more like the Peege of old, though handicapped by having to look somewhere between a traditional Supergirl and Power Girl. Anyway, as coloured by Rosemary Cheetham, the scenes of the young women leaving Earth 2 and settling on Earth 1 are a joy. I can't remember the last time a comic had co-pencilers as talented and experienced as Maguire and Perez - long may it continue.

Given the amount of Superman and Batman Family titles already published as part of DC's New 52 initiative, it's hard to justify one more courtesy of the Newer 52. But a comic this fresh, and fun, it's hard to argue against.

Earth 2 #1 review

The war between Earth and Apokolips rages. Superman, Batman and Wonder Woman enact a desperate plan to save the world from Steppenwolf's Parademons, but the price is high. And when the dust clears, the only heroes around to welcome a new dawn are Robin and Supergirl. And them not for long ...

... five years later, Earth is a world without superheroes, but not inspiration, as broadcaster Alan Scott ensures people don't forget the sacrifices made. Meanwhile, college graduate Jay Garrick is discovering he's anything but a hero to his exiting girlfriend, as she rips into his character. By issue's end, at least one of these men is on the verge on a destiny he couldn't have dreamt of.

So here it is, Earth 2, one of four replacement New 52 comics debuting this week from DC. And even given the track record of core creators James Robinson and Nicola Scott, this is better than I could've hoped for. True, this isn't your father's Justice Society of America, but the comic rings with the values held by DC's first super-team: valour; friendship; sacrifice; love. Forget the pre-publicity from DC that had fans fearing the Earth 2 versions of Superman, Batman and Wonder Woman would be bloodthirsty anti-heroes, they're very much the heroes we know - but ones viewed through the lens of war. Wonder Woman slices through Parademons, but the creatures from Apokolips have killed so many dear to the heroes, and if allowed to live, will only kill more. We don't see Superman slaughter, and I suspect he still holds back. As for Batman, it's fair to say he takes out a few baddies.

The other fan fear was that the so-called Trinity would dominate the book, to the exclusion of such promised heroes as the Flash, Wildcat and Green Lantern. Not gonna happen. The Big Three are taken off the chessboard, clearing the way for a second wave of heroes.

And that's 'wave', not 'generation'. The heroes about to be born are still the first generation of Earth 2 heroes, they just debut a little after the founders, as they did in the Golden Age of comics. And as it was in the halcyon days of All-Star Comics, Superman and co won't be around, but their presence will surely be felt.

Robinson's script is a cracker - pacey, confident, revealing characters through the fires of war and the quieter conflicts of peacetime. We get to know Superman, Batman and Wonder Woman, and are introduced to Supergirl and Robin before circumstances shunt them off to Earth 1 (and another of this week's new titles, Worlds' Finest). The Apokolips conflict also introduces US Army sergeant Al Pratt, who's set to show that might isn't a matter or height as the Atom. And there's a grunt named Harper, who may turn out to be a new version of the Guardian.

There's no doubt Jay is going to be the Flash, and there's a welcome twist to his origin here, one that makes sense in terms of his traditional image, while linking him to one of the lost heroes. As for Alan, he's on his way to China, so I'd not bet against him coming across a lantern of emerald hue.

My favourite scene sees one of Wonder Woman's patrons manifest on Earth to tell her just how desperate things are, and to deliver a very personal message of thanks. It fits the story perfectly, while reminding me just how much I miss the relationship Diana once had with her gods.

It also gives penciller Nicola Scott and inker Trevor Scott a standout moment in a book that is nothing but standout moments. The visitor blazes across the page, leaving no doubt that this is an unearthly creature, and one whose influence will be felt for a long time to come. The emotion Diana feels is palpable, spurring her on to greater heights.

It's wonderful, and sad, that the Diana we meet here seems so much more like Wonder Woman than the New 52 version; a beacon of hope and courage. And her costume looks so much better than the 'real' Wonder Woman's that it's ridculous. The same goes for the outfit worn by Superman, a sleek update on the classic. As for Batman, well, you can probably guess.

The battle against the parademons is glorious, as both sides attack as their natures demand, in a fallen city.

And when the peace comes, Scott, Scott and colourist Alex Sinclair, whose contribution is immense, show they're equally good at drawing the everyday. Well, the everyday so far as a universe filled with heroic potential is concerned.

Kudos, too, to Dezi Sienty for a top job of lettering this extra-sized issue, editors Pat McCallum and Sean Mackiewicz, and everyone else involved in this corker of a debut. Such as cover artists Ivan Reis, Joe Prado and Rod Reis, who produce a great tease for the interiors.

This book immediately enters my list of top five DC comics. it's not perfect - forget the deaths and devastation, James Robinson makes a longtime supporting cast member thoroughly unlikable - but it's a smart, exciting superhero comic that's tapping new potential in classic characters. If you've ever been a fan of the JSA, give Earth 2 a try - I think you'll like it.

Legion of Super-Heroes #8 review

It's old home week as Steve Lightle, much-loved penciller for a tremendous run of Eighties Legion of Super-Heroes stories, returns for one issue. Not the whole issue, mind - another former artist, but much more recent, also stops by for a done-in-one short, Yildiray Cinar. It's safe to say the issue is in fine artistic hands, with both craftsmen reminding us how very, very good they are.

Lightle draws Paul Levitz's script 1 of 5, in which Invisible Kid encounters a gang stealing something from the hospital where his sister's been looked after for years. A combination of invisibility and Shadow Lass-taught martial moves sees him capture most of the motley crew, but one gets away with their prize. As it turns out, the item stolen wasn't the 'Computo circuit' which once turned Danielle Foccart into a menace, but a gold chip used to power longtime Legion foe Tharok. After Ultra Boy and Mon-El's bid to recapture the chip fails, Brainiac 5 delivers his doom-laden supposition - someone is trying to recreate the Fatal Five.

The script is typically efficient, with plot and character melding nicely, but unmemorable baddies. This book sorely needs villains as powerful and charismatic as the Fatal 5, so let's hope Brainy's correct. I was surprised by Jacques' reference to his sister still being in hospital, as I recall Brainy exorcising Computo from Danielle. Either I'm forgetting something (hugely likely!) or a bit of continuity has been tweaked, for story purposes down the road.

The art is a total treat, with nostalgia not necessary to get a kick out of it - history or no history, Lightle is a master. His Legionnaires sit firmly between godlike and all-too human, while his layouts are stunning - the fight scene starring the sorely underused Invisible Kid features minimal narration but is easy to follow. In the old days he used inkers, here Lightle's work looks crisp and bright with 'only' the aid of colour artist Javier Mena.

Mena also tones the second story, Founders' Night, which sees Levitz gift Turkey's own Yildiray Cinar a sequence set in 31st-century Istanbul (not Constantinople). I think I spotted Sultan Ahmet Mosque, but obviously, architecture has moved on, meaning the cityscape is barely recognisable. The vibrant city is the perfect spot for a night out as retired Legionnaires Saturn Girl and Lightning Lad drop by - at Brainy's request - to force team leader and fellow founder Cosmic Boy to take a much-needed break. It turns out they're not the only Legionnaires there, with Academy teacher Night Girl lying in wait for Cosmic Boy - her former flame. Sneaky old Imra and Garth were apparently as confused as readers by the revelation that Rokk and Lydda had broken up off panel, and decided to get them back together. They're certainly having a great time as Garth flies off to sort out a problem with the local weather patterns, allowing Cinar and ever-superb inker Dan Green to show Lightning Lad versus lightning storm across two pages.

Where the previous story is setting up an arc, this is a much-needed catch-up between old friends - the founders and the readers. The action sequence is obviously tacked on, but it's flashy fun and shows a hero cutting loose, something I always enjoy.

Lightle's cover is de-Lightle-ful (I know, there's really no excuse), though I wish it were split between the two stories, with room for Cinar to strut his stuff too. Still, this is a great breather issue, a callback to the Legion's storied past and a hint at what the future holds ... and isn't that what a Legion book should be?