Thursday, 26 July 2012

Wolverine and the X-Men #14 review

Once they were Love's Young Dream. Now Kitty Pryde and Peter Rasputin are on opposite sides of the Avengers vs X-Men conflict. While Shadowcat tries to keep the Jean Grey School running with most of the staff off fighting alongside the Phoenix Five, Colossus - empowered by the cosmic force - has been changing the world 'for the better'.

But if his personal Paradise is to be attained, he needs to win back his sweetheart. So he asks Kitty on a date and despite her feelings for him having changed, she agrees. Well, it's a chance to suggest that swanning around flaunting omnipotence isn't actually a good idea when the power you're using belongs to the corrupting madness that is the Phoenix Force.

Things don't go well ...

Well, not for Kitty and Peter. We readers, though, are treated to probably the single best Avengers vs X-Men story yet. Not just for the hardly romantic reunion between Kitty and Peter, which runs the gamut from hilarious to horrific. No, there's also Iceman's powerful realisation, while supportng Phoenix Fiver Magick, that he's on the wrong side - writer Jason Aaron allows Bobby Drake to display the maturity that befits a veteran hero and certified accountant.

And best of all, there are the endlessly amusing attempts of headmistress Kitty to wrangle her ragtag staff - Husk, Toad, Doop, Warbird and 'Substitute Teacher Deathlok' - into covering classes they're seriously unqualified to teach. Some of the gags tend towards the delightfully black, such as the private manifestation of Toad's crush on the skin-shedding Husk (click on image to enlarge/feel ill).
Kitty is, frankly, magnificent, managing to stay calm while surrounded by idiots, some of them godlike idiots. And her bravery in the face of the creepy Colossus is inspiring, showing why she's such a big favourite among X-Men fans. Peter is as pathetic as he is powerful, the ultimate ex who won't take no for an answer; I really hope that post-Phoenix Five he falls on good times, as I don't think this sweet soul has had more than two consecutive good days in decades of comics.

The dramatic highlight comes as Peter spouts a very familiar motto, showing that he's well on the way to being more Dark Phoenix than Colossus. Which is terrific, as it means that as well as a memorable character piece amidst the sound and fury, we're getting some movement in the bigger story.
The pencils and inks are by Jorge Molina and Norman Lee, and they're breathtaking. Kitty looks like a delicate flower, but the steel  is evident, while Peter's sensitive side and Phoenix forcefulness battle before our eyes. The dramatic beats of Aaron's script gain their full impact, while the comedy is likewise mined to best effect. Intelligent use of angles pulls us into the story, while the fight scenes - in particular, the Thing vs Magick, Iceman and Angel - are fantastic. And when the school staff face off against Colossus - wow! Is it wrong to want to hug Krakoa the Living Island?

Adding to the effectiveness of the artwork are the colours of Morry Hollowell, who may have hit a career best here. His intense, intricate tones set the pages pulsing with life

It's a reviewer's cliche, but if you buy just one Avengers vs X-Men tie-in, make it this one, Because despite the event livery, it's actually a brilliant X-Men story in disguise.

Wednesday, 25 July 2012

Superman Family Adventures #3 review

While this week's Superman promises secrets of the new super-suit and fails to deliver, Superman Family Adventures promises no such thing, but tells us a secret anyway: why the new suit was necessary.

OK, the reason is never going to be canon, but I laughed. I laughed a lot this issue, as the book really begins to find its feet. In one story, Jimmy Olsen tries to impress pals with his Superman signal watch, with chucklesome results. Then there's Supergirl and Superboy out to help Clark allay Lois Lane's suspicions that he's Superrman. And Fuzzy the Krypto Mouse gets some training. There isn't a page that's not adorable, but highlights include another spin on the meteor gag of the first two issues, Metropolis' very descriptive citizenry ...
... and a certain line from Superman: the Movie instigating Clark's secret identity crisis - think pink!

With big-hearted story and art by Art Baltazar and Franco, it's 20 pages of fun that readers of all ages - especially Silver Agers - can enjoy. I adored the Super-Pets appearance this time, and hope someone in DC marketing dusts off the old plush licenses ... kids would love a cuddly super dog, cat, horse, monkey and, if we're very good, a Fuzzy mouse.

Superman 11 review

How's that for a cover line? I'm down to learn the 'secrets of the suit'. Why does the invulnerable Superman wear an armoured union suit? We know, courtesy of Action Comics, that it has morphing abilities, can take on different looks, but that's an aspect we've not seen Superman actively use. So what else can it do?

Oooh, excited.

As it happens, no secrets of the suit are revealed. We see in close-up how the 'Kryptonian bio-tech' manifests, and the issue ends with it damaged, so we may learn stuff next time, but this month? Nah. Don't buy this comic in the hope of learning about Kryptonian cross-stitching.

Do buy it if you want an extremely solid chapter in the adventures of the present day Superman. The mystery of the Russian sub from two issues ago is picked up, and our hero meets a most intriguing secret agent. And in the fisticuffs department, Superman learns not to assume every fight will be an easy one.

The superheroics are good stuff, but the highlight of the issue is Clark's dinner with Lois, sister Lucy and Lois' man pal from back in issue #1, Jonathan Carroll. I never saw it coming, but Lucy's intrigued by Clark, while Carroll proves not to be the cliche he seemed. And Lois and media baron Morgan Edge try not to scratch one another's eyes out.

With Grant Morrison tasked with laying down the new Superman status quo in his ongoing five-years-ago Action Comics story, it seems writer/artist Dan Jurgens has been told by DC to keep this book in a holding pattern. The villain is a generic Predator type and the soap, while superior, will be forgotten once it's hit the plughole. Still, so far as running on the spot goes, you could do far, far worse. This isn't the wet Superman of Justice League, or the inexperienced tyro of Morrison's run; it's the world's greatest superhero, using his powers imaginatively to defend people of all colours and creeds. He's not perfect, but he learns from his mistakes.

He's a good-looking chap too, as depicted in the dynamic compositions of Jurgens, which are finished by Jesus Merino, Vicente Cifuentes and Rob Hunter. Not as good-looking as he is on the cover, mind - years of working together means Jurgen and Norm Rapmund never produce less than superb superhero art. Their Superman is big, shiny - it's only the daft new costume that keeps him from looking iconic. He even has the old kiss curl sneaking in.

The colourwork by Tanya and Richard Horie, and Hi-Fi Design, is rather tasty - bright without hurting the eyes, and full of impact. Rob Leigh does a good job on the lettering, especially the title page design.
Jurgens has only a few more issues before Scott Lobdell and Kenneth Rocafort take on writing and art duties, and early publicity suggests that unlike Jurgens, and George Perez before him, they'll be allowed to instigate an actual direction. With stories that might even move the Superman legend forward. Lucky them. Meanwhile, Jurgens, like generations of Viennese waltzers, shows that going round in circles can be a lot of fun.

National Comics #1 Eternity review

Christopher Freeman died, returned to life and now he has the ability to summon the newly slain, with a 24-hour deadline to solve their murders. In this debut story he's compelled to team up with the ghost of an antiques dealer, while trying to save his job with the Coroner's office - his boss is unimpressed with his constant lateness.

Christopher has his reasons, though, and they add a touch of sweetness to this DC Universe spin on the police procedural. An efficient voiceover courtesy of writer Jeff Lemire sets up Christopher's situation, before he 'goes live' and lets dialogue and action propel us to the issue's end.

And what an end ... it's not a cliffhanger, but it's a terrific set-up for a sequel and beyond.

While the story is titled 'Kid Eternity', after the Golden Age character who inspired this new take, Christopher doesn't call himself Eternity here. The nearest we get is seeing the word on a poster early in this issue. It doesn't matter, though. What does is the skill with which this one-off has been put together by Lemire and the rest of the creative team. It's a straight-on, done-in-one that satisfies while leaving a few questions hanging concerning the nature of Christopher's powers and perceived mission.

And there's one question that's not raised directly, but it's there from the moment we see how Christopher died - who was behind the weapon that killed him? Can he solve his own murder?

In the Forties, Kid Eternity summoned historical characters and storybook folk with the cry of 'Eternity'. Christopher's collection system is rather less clean, but a lot more dramatic; I like it. The interplay between Christopher and murder victim Darby Quinn is entertaining, and it helps us get to know both players' characters. And the resolution is pleasingly plausible rather than convoluted.

Bringing Eternity to life on the page are penciller Cully Hamner, inker Derec Donovan and colourist Val Staples. Hamner's panel-to-panel storytelling is sublime - he seems unable to make a bad artistic choice - and his renderings of people and settings are equally good. Donovan and Staples enhance Hamner's illustrations, strengthening and emphasising every step of the way. I especially like the contrast between the vibrant police squadroom and the clinical silence of Christopher's examination suite. The loneliness and confusion in his eyes is telling, and the simple visual cue that he's in touch with the dead, smart and attractive. The banality of death, the horrors of the not-quite afterlife ... everything comes together splendidly.

The only thing I don't like about this issue is that a supporting character who used to be a portly guy is now a big ol' hunk, a DC New 52 phenomena we could perhaps call 'being Wallered', or 'getting Candied'. It's so predictable, and while nodding to diversity, the change is actually pulling in the other direction, implying that fat folk can't be front and centre. And you'll not be surprised to learn that this chap who was formerly White, is now Black.

Still, the character in question has charisma to spare, and I hope we learn more about him. I'm dying to see more of Eternity, full stop - let's hope we don't have to wait forever.

Friday, 20 July 2012

Legion of Super-Heroes #11 review

When DC's New 52 initiative began, only three franchises escaped the big reboot - Batman, Green Lantern and the Legion of Super-Heroes. With other DC Universe books we have little idea of who the characters are, how many of their old stories 'happened'. Not so with Batman, GL and the Legion. And of the three, it's the Legion who keep the most history - Batman has had a 15-year career scrunched into a third of that time. Missing DCU players mean that entire epic storylines can't have happened for Hal Jordan and co as we saw them play out.

But the Legion? Divorced from the rest of the line of DC superstars by 1000 years, they get to keep the vast majority of storylines and relationships. Odd details have changed - Duo Damsel has become Duplicate Damsel, for example, and Brainiac 5's force shield belt is now an heirloom rather than his own invention - but these are very much the exception to the rule. After several reboots, the original Legion is back, and moving into the future with its history mostly intact.

And this month sees writer Paul Levitz, on his third tour of duty with the team, show yet again just how much a book's continuity can enrich proceedings. In fact, I'd say this issue contains the best scene yet in his latest stint. The players are founder Cosmic Boy and veteran teammate - and current leader - Mon-El. The former is frustrated that the latter has failed to organise a rescue of Dream Girl and Brainy from the clutches of the Dominators. And here's what transpires (click on image to enlarge).
It's an understated moment of drama between two old friends, centred on their conflict between loyalty to their loved ones and fidelity to the bigger picture. Plus, we have the revelation that Mon-El was in on Star Boy's assembling of the team to extract Dream Girl and Brainy. Penciller Andres Guinaldo takes Levitz's subtly powerful script and adds the acting, the visuals that sell it to maximum effect. It's a terrific palate cleanser after the forced, character-wrecking melodrama of this week's Justice League. I love it.

The rest of the issue is a rollicking good read too, as we follow that rescue team to the Dominator Homeworld and see that even a ragtag group consisting of, in Cos' words, 'two reservists, a Legionnaire on medical leave, a youngster recovering from a mindwipe ... and two prospective members', can whup Dominator arse. Their secret? Teamwork and team spirit, of course, something their 21st-century supposed inspirations sorely lack for.

It doesn't all go smoothly, though, as Brainy decides he can't leave without getting his force field belt back from his captors, and Star Boy's rescue squad hangs around to provide back-up. Worse still, a betrayal from within their ranks leaves things looking very dodgy indeed.

Levitz' script is just great; dramatic throughout, with the funny lines arising from well-worked characters reacting to their circumstances and one another. There's some especially good work done here with Brainy 5, as we see how he feels about his bred-for-super-genius status, and find he has some new tricks up his purple sleeve. And prospective Legionnaires Otaki and Mwindaji make a fine impression.

The pacing is spot-on too, with every scene getting enough room to make its mark, then ending before the impact is diluted. And that betrayal? Heartbreaking, if we're to take it at face value.

Including the scene above, Guinaldo pencils just six pages, with Dan Green inking. Their work here looks a little looser than last time, with a refreshing vibe of Keith Giffen's late Baxter style in the Mon-El/Cosmic Boy confrontation. And they gain extra points for giving new character Otaki, an empath, a lovely old-fashioned Letratone-style dot head-cloud. Blimey, it's hard to find the proper phrasing. This!
The rest of the book is pencilled and inked by the ever-excellent Francis Portela, who never fails to make the Legionaires look proud and heroic - well, except when one is betraying another (which, let's face it, is itself a proud Legion tradition). Of all the characters Portela draws here, my favourite is Duplicate Damsel who, on this form, will have me voting for her in the next Legion elections (click on image to enlarge).

The woman has style and guts to spare, and Portela shows it in her eyes, and the way she fights and moves.

Those vibrant colours are the work of Javier Mena and Santiago Arcas. They're the opposite of drab, perfect for the wildness of 31st-century space.

Steve Lightle has put a lot of work into this cover, and I'm glad he did - it's the classic superhero scene, with characters in dire straits surrounded by grinning heads of eeeeevil. And very nicely coloured by Guy Major.

One of the few DC books that gets better every issue, I'd love the company to kick Legion Lost to the kerb and make this twice monthly. Levitz can easily provide two scripts every 30 days, while Portela and his back-ups could keep things looking good. The Legion isn't a top seller, but DC can always bank on a certain number of loyal fans buying - how about it, DC?

Thursday, 19 July 2012

Justice League #11

The Justice League members recover from the assault of their opponent, memory manipulator David Graves, only to find him gone. Gone to the home of Tracy Trevor, sister of their government liaison, Steve Trevor. Boom Tube teleportation gets the team there just as he's blipping out, having terrified Tracy with tales of what he has in store for Steve. An angry Tracy blames Wonder Woman, who flounces off in search of Graves, proclaiming: 'I'm going to find him - I'm going to cut off his head - and I'm going to bring Steve home.'

Which is shocking enough. The Amazon's behaviour is compounded as she not only turns down the helping hand offered by Green Lantern Hal Jordan, she assaults him. Punches him across the street.

Then slices him open with her sword.

Then she lays into Superman with a sucker kick. Diana finally calms down and the whole League goes looking for Graves. Finding his home empty, they travel to the Valley of Souls, where a surprise awaits ...

It's a shame the Eisner Awards have just been given out, because if there was a Most Contemptible Portrayal of a Superhero gong, writer Geoff Johns would walk it. I know the current DC thinking is that Wonder Woman is nothing more than a Xena copy, a knock-off of a knock-off - that's one of the reasons I've stopped reading her title. But at least the warrior princess has charm and humour - this Wonder Woman is a battle-crazed harpy, a loose cannon barbarian no sane person would tolerate on their team.

Johns even has Diana make a barbed comment about Hal's sexual prowess (click on image to enlarge). It's tacky stuff.
I've previously bemoaned the presentation of Hal Jordan in this book as a fratboy with a magic ring, but here Johns gives him an excuse, as he alerts Diana to the horrors he faces in space. 'Being with the League is a vacation compared to my time with the Green Lantern Corps.' So while Diana's character is hung out to dry, Hal - not coincidentally, written by Johns - gets a free pass. What's Diana's excuse? She was 'worried', according to a pathetically wimpy Superman.

We've seen enough of Johns' Diana in this book to indicate that either he really doesn't get Wonder Woman as loved by generations, or he just hates the idea of a wise, compassionate female fighter who isn't one mood swing away from slaughtering you.

To put all my critical acumen into one clever phrase - gah.

It's not all bad news this issue. There's a nice little mystery set up around the nature of Cyborg's existence, and Tracy Trevor is appealing in her short scene with Graves. Jim Lee's pencils combine with the inks of Scott Williams and Jonathan Glapion to tell the story well enough, with the creepier moments being the best. The fussy lines and shading on the heroes' costumes is annoying, and Batman's hand is bigger than his head, and Wonder Woman has strange things under her eyes, but what do I know?

The Shazam serial continues, with Black Adam intrigued by Dr Sivana while slaying his colleague, and Billy and Freddy annoying the local rich kids. The story ends with Billy one step closer to his destiny. It's solid work from Geoff Johns, illustrated superbly by Gary Frank and coloured by the excellent Brad Anderson. The casual murder has no place in a strip built on the work of CC Beck, but that's the New 52 DC ... forget what made characters unique, and beloved - it's a horrible world out there.
And I don't like that Billy's almost as big a jerk as the bullies - I get that he's had a tough life, and is scared to let people get close, blah blah, but there's a real nastiness in his eyes (above). Let's hope an encounter with an old wizard makes him a little sunnier. Otherwise, what is the point of him?

I'm beginning to wonder what the point of following this book is. I know it's become a bit of a joke to call the Justice League 'Super Friends', but that's exactly what they should be - DC's greatest heroes, providing an example of how people can work together for the greater good. I despair of the current portrayal, which presents DC's biggest icons as idiots, simpletons and now, psychopaths. And while Shazam has been the bright spot of late, if the tone is going to be one of spite, and if the murders keep on coming, well, there are plenty of other books out there.

Wednesday, 18 July 2012

Captain Marvel #1 review

New name, new costume, new attitude - that's Carol Danvers as she gets another crack at a solo series. The last Ms Marvel title saw Carol determined to step up in the ranks of Earth's superheroes, prove to everyone - and herself - that she could be the best of the best. That didn't quite work, as close ties to the Civil War storyline made Ms Marvel the worst of the worst, not someone you'd wish to be around.

This is a fresh start, and Carol has nothing to prove. She's an experienced Avenger with awesome powers at her fingertips. A brief team-up with Captain America displays an easy friendship between the Forces veterans - she Air Force, he Army. They barely need discuss tactics to take down the Absorbing Man, but the banter makes for a satisfying opening scene and tells us they're very much equals.

And it's Cap's respect for Carol that leads her to take on the mantle of Captain Marvel, after years of letting herself be seen as, in his words, 'an adjunct'.

Out of costume, Carol herself is giving out encouragement, helping Tracy Burke, an old friend from her journalism days, as she deals with cancer. The other story thread takes us to the past, showing how tyro pilot Carol met mentor Helen Cobb, record-breaking flier.

Writer Kelly Sue DeConnick gets this book off to a great start, with a script that nicely balances action with recaps and hints of things to come. The dialogue is smart and natural, as she emphasises Carol's status as a woman born into the Air Force life. DeConnick shows us how, for Carol, handling planes compares to flying under her own Kree-power. Best of all, she makes Carol likeable and fun, someone I want to get to know again.

The interior art by newcomer Dexter Soy is a shock after the super-clean, ultra-bright cover; the first impression - as Carol and Cap battle the Absorbing Man - is one of murkiness. Soy is handling the full art job, which is impressive, but the colouring here doesn't work - he gives Carol and Cap a sickly green tinge to their skin tones.

Our first look at Carol in her new Stark Industries costume (left) is marred by her face being steeped in shadow, which makes sense given her position within the scene, but not as the first shot of the star. We're four pages in before we get a clear view of her, and then she's looking ugly, scowling. I'm not saying the new Captain Marvel shouldn't be serious in battle, but the confidence of Carol's dialogue hints that she's having more fun than we can see, suggesting an inspiring shot or two. The fight choreography, though, is impressive, with dynamic compositions that jolly the story along.

Things get better all round in the civilian vignette with Tracy (below, click to enlarge). Carol's face can be seen clearly, and a quiet strength and compassion is evident. And Soy pulls off the little moments that add magic to a domestic scene. The flashbacks are impressive too, with a younger Carol dreaming not of life as a superhero, but as a flier.

So yes, I didn't love every aspect of Soy's work, but I'm optimistic that he's only going to get better as he sees his art in print, notes what works and what needs a tweak or two. There's a sinewy, Earl Norem quality to Soy's metahumans that's interesting. He draws Carol's new outfit well, barring the horrific headpiece and utterly bonkers new hero hairdo. Marvel needs to dump both as soon as possible ... Ed McGuinness and Dexter Vine's cover show how much nicer a bare-faced Carol looks - open and heroic, whereas Kree helmets never look anything less than sinister.
Overall, I'm pretty pleased with this issue. Instead of a mission, Carol has a life, and I look forward to following where she goes.

Wednesday, 11 July 2012

Fantastic Four Annual #33 review

Babysitting the Baxter Building while the Invisible Woman and Mr Fantastic holiday with the kids, the Thing and Human Torch become embroiled in a time travelling, dimension spanning tale guest starring Dr Strange. Also sharing the spotlight is Vincent, the most mysterious member of the Clan Destine, a genie/human hybrid family who prefer to enjoy their centuries-long existence in peace rather than in public.

It's this attitude that sees Vincent Destine wig out - there's so much sadness in the world and while his massively powered family could help, they instead devote themselves to private pleasures. Vincent's breakdown, which spans several historic periods and versions of himself, puts the Torch, Thing and Dr Strange in massive danger as they try to work out if he's hero or villain.

This is quite the romp. The time travelling gives writer/artist Alan Davis and inking partner Mark Farmer the chance to dazzle us with dinosaurs, roll out the Romans and welcome us to Woodstock in page after page of dead-on storytelling. Other members of the Clan Destine also put in appearances, among them Dom, Walter, Gracie, Albert, Jasmine and the man who started it all by falling in love with a genie, Adam. Little known they may be to the Marvel readership at large, but Davis's creations are a compelling, charismatic crew (click on image to enlarge).
Davis handles Johnny, Ben and Stephen with aplomb - they sound like their classic selves and, better yet, look it. This being set a few years in the past means that the heroes are all in their classic outfits. I get that Marvel and DC feel they have to update their characters' looks, make them more 'realistic', but I'll take a Kirby or Ditko design any day, thank you.
The colours by Javier Rodriguez are suitably sumptuous for art this gorgeous, while Clayton Cowles does a nice job with the lettering (the backward magic here has Zatanna beat!).

While this story is self-contained, you could view it as part of a bigger tale by checking out August's Daredevil and Wolverine annuals, also by Davis (and hopefully Farmer), and also featuring the Clan Destine. I certainly shall.

Batman #11 review

It's Batman vs Owlman in the finale to the Court of Owls storyline. Lincoln March, now claiming to be Thomas Wayne Jr, snares Batman and drags him into the sky to show off his version of Gotham - a twisted reflection of the one Bruce Wayne knows.

Batman takes a fair few knocks, but finally triumphs, and Owlman vanishes as the showcase building Bruce was giving Gotham collapses. Later, recovering in Wayne Manor, Bruce gives Dick Grayson his opinion of March's claims.

I didn't half enjoy Owlman's oration as he flies across the city with Batman. He goes on and on and on; about his tragic childhood, how the Court saved him, his plans, his devotion to dachshunds (I may have made one of these up) ... it's like he's trying to talk Batman to death. I bet that under that owl mask he's twirling a mustache. Owlman's notion that his city is a skewed mirror image of the one Batman knows, because he saw Gotham reflected in a skyscraper, makes no sense unless said building was lined with funhouse glass. 'Reversed and unnatural'? Er no, just reflected, and everyone gets that view at times. Try looking to the sides of the building, kid.

And his claim that he felt trapped in Gotham because the position of airport runways in relation to Willowwood Hospital meant he never heard planes leaving is desperately tenuous.

Still, this is big, daft melodrama and Owlman is the lead nutter. No doubt giggling as he types, writer Scott Snyder gives us a close-up of Owlman's psyche, positioning him for his inevitable return.

There's Sixties-style daftness, too, as Batman plunges to certain death at one point. What can he do but yell: 'Switch to high-velocity bat-rope, NOW!'
And lo and behold, stiff rope appears to save him. What is switching to high-velocity bat-rope, I have no idea. Anti-mechanical shark repellant, maybe. Anyway, it's another example of Snyder putting Batman into an unwinnable situation and basically magicking him out of it - see also his rallying in the Court's labyrinth back in issue #6.

Much as I enjoyed the flight over Gotham, my favourite moments come with Bruce and Dick's chat at the end. It leads to one of those touching rapprochements we get every few years in which, after a bit of a falling out, the two men show what they mean to one another - Bruce with tender words, Dick with japes.

Greg Capullo's pencils are superb, capturing the intensity of the conflict between the Bat and the Owl, the grandeur of Gotham's manmade canyons and the awful prospect of death by jet engine. It's a shame March's owl mask, and the cloth number below it, prevent Capullo from showing us his expressions as he's speechifying, I don't doubt they'd add to the drama. The quieter moments with Dick are effective too, as the men talk, surrounded by the ghosts of Wayne Manor.

Working with Capullo, inker Jonathan Glapion and colourist FCO Plascencia add light, shade and tone - this story is going to make a very good-looking collected edition. It's as if the artists have absorbed the craftsmen who've come before them to produce their own version that honours their forebears. There's a bit of Mazzuchelli in the opening punch-up, some Aparo around Bruce's eyes ... yet there's no sense that the stripwork is just a series of homages, everything blends beautifully.

Capullo's cover is a keeper too, and the image actually works with that usually-intrusive movie ad.

The back-up strip shows us the fate of Jarvis Pennyworth, Alfred's father and the Wayne butler when Bruce was a child and Martha's car smash robbed Thomas Wayne Jr of the life he might have had. We see that Alfred has no interest in irrefutable answers as to his father's demise, while a line or two from Jarvis leaves a lingering doubt as to what really happened to the lost child.

Working with James Tynion IV, Snyder delivers a tight conclusion to 'The Fall of the House of Wayne', while illustrator Rafael Albuquerque and colourist Dave McCaig produce pages that are intense and contemplative by turns. And Alfred looks delightfully pimp.

So it's goodbye to Owlman and the Court of Owls. After almost a year's worth of storyline, I hope they'll stay put in the Wayne Manor barn (of course there's a Wayne Manor barn) for a good while without popping their beaks out. Of course, they'll appear in the upcoming Talon/Demented Chicken title, and there's an epilogue in Batman #12, but the main Bat-books should focus on other challenges for awhile.

Avenging Spider-Man #9 review

Her new comic isn't out until next week, but here's our first look at Carol Danvers as Captain Marvel. The former Ms Marvel/Binary/Warbird/Ms Marvel (again) teams up with Spider-Man for ... a flight to Boston. Having bought a light aircraft, Carol is giving Peter Parker a lift to the city, where Aunt May now lives. En route, though, they bump into a self-styled Robin Hood on the run from corporate thugs after robbing a bank.

The jet-packed stranger's plunge from the sky gives Carol a chance to show off her pilot skills, while Spidey demonstrates that wingwalking is a doddle when you have sticky feet. Soon the heroes are embroiled in a confrontation between the young woman and the battle-suited 'Blackbird'. And just when things seem to be calming down, a sudden escalation ensures this story continues next month.

I'm a little disappointed that we don't see more of Carol in Captain Marvel mode, but what we do see is good - she's a confident, likeable hero once more, having finally shed the stench of the Civil War event. And it's good to be reminded that Carol doesn't need powers to be a hero - she's a first-rate flier. Given that this issue's writer, Kelly Sue DeConnick, is handling the new Captain Marvel book, I'll definitely be checking out Carol's series.

DeConnick also gives us a delightfully zingy Spidey - witty without trying too hard, and while airborne action is out of his comfort zone, seeing someone in need ensures he adapts quickly. Plus, I like the easy friendship between him and Carol a lot.

It's fun to see the young woman, who spends a fair amount of time trying to decide on a superhero name - the authorites call her a bank robber, she says 'cameralistic liberator' - out-gab Spidey. I could see her being annoying as a constant prattling presence, but here she's a breath of fresh air.

Penciller Terry and inker Rachel Dodson look to have had a ball bringing DeConnick's breezy script to life, giving us some priceless Peter and Carol facial expressions. And their action scenes power us through the book; you can practically hear Carol's plane as it buzzes a bridge in a tasty split-panel spread. Credit to colourist Edgar Delgado, too, for trusting that we'd not get bored with a constant blue sky - the naturalism, ironically, grounds the drama in the sky. It helps that he uses a beautiful blue, of course.

I'll need to see more of Carol's new costume before I decide whether I'm fully on board with it - for one thing, I'm not used to her fighting sans mask. I believe she's getting a Kree helmet, so let's see how that works. The new haircut isn't here, happily; I've seen various interpretations of it, some better than others, and heard DeConnick explain the thinking behind the meringue-cum-Mohican - but I simply don't like it. If Carol can't have some variation on her traditional long hair - which the Dodsons and Delgado make look great here - a simple buzz cut might be best.

Poor printing on a couple of pages makes the dialogue difficult to read, so I'll check out the digital version that comes with this $3.99 issue. I'd still rather pay $2.99, though, that's a fair price for 20pp of entertaining superheroics.

Still, this issue bodes well for the next stage of Carol Danvers' comics career. I wish her, and the creative team, luck.

Thursday, 5 July 2012

Night Force #5 review

One of the most-ignored DC comics around, this is also one of the best, as Marv Wolfman and Tom Mandrake produce a horror story that never fails to grip.

The seven-issue mini-series has the enigmatic Baron Winters gathering ordinary people to thwart an occult threat to the USA.

That's the idea, anyway. By the end of this chapter his two chosen, Jim Duffy and Zoe Davis, are in serious trouble. Both consider Winters a dangerous kook, but he's dragged them into his ambit because they were already embroiled in gruesome events without knowing it - he's opening their eyes and giving them a chance to save themselves as they right the situation.

Cop Jim is investigating a cult that for centuries has been kidnapping women to breed ever more psychic children, wiping their memories after they give birth and placing the babies with new mothers. Decades before, Jim's father was investigating the cult's business, and it led to his awful death. Today, the cult is on the verge of getting a 'Generation 9', Senator Brian Greene, into the White House, and they're willing to sacrifice over 100 of their 'Dormants' to do it.

Like her mother, Zoe is at both ends of the insidious equation, having been born of the plot, and herself had a child without recalling she was ever pregnant. Supposedly safe in Winters' mystic mansion, she's being stalked by one of the Cult's hideous 'Harvesters'.

Meanwhile (sort of), Winters and his pet leopard have been tossed into a 17th-century London dungeon by the cult's enforcer, Simon the Gatherer.

As well as the regulars, we see one of the cult's victims kidnapped from a funfair in a sequence that knows most of us find clowns and smiley Furries pant-wettingly creepy.

Wolfman is among the most elegant and erudite of writers, and not afraid to be unfashionable; not for him, the treatment of comics as film storyboards. Nope, he gives us full-on narration in the opening scenes, laying down an atmosphere of foreboding in both the 17th and 21st centuries. He knows how to balance description and dialogue. His storyline is strong, his pacing perfect and there's not a person in this comic who doesn't show a bit of personality. And while the overall tone is dark, there's humour in the Cult's treatment of world domination as a business plan ('We're behind projections, but we can catch up if we can birth four more 10s this quarter'). I truly hope that somewhere, Wolfman is teaching classes to comic writers of the future.
Mandrake is magical, interpreting the script with natural talent and a veteran's skill. He ekes out all the drama in the forefront of the script without skimping on backgrounds or incidental detail. Plus, he makes the good guys sympathetic and the bad guys - both human and creature - equally horrific in their own ways. Wes Hartman's colours are exemplary, always adding to the art, emphasising mood and incident, while Wes Abbott sets things right with his lettering.

Add in a superbly composed and rendered cover by Leonardo Manco and you've a cracking package for just $2.99. I doubt comic shops ordered highly enough that you'll find back issues, but there's always digital (with a dollar off, to boot). If you enjoy creepy comics, give this a look. Maybe even give that stranger behind you a read, too. You know, the one in the robe, with the lizardy skin and big teeth ...

Avengers vs X-Men #7 review

'No more Avengers.' When Cyclops uttered those words at the end of last issue, we knew big things were coming this time. After all, he has the reality-changing power of the Phoenix, and his words echoed those of Wanda Maximoff, the Scarlet Witch, when she removed the powers of almost every mutant on Earth.

Let's file this one under False Promises. It turns out that all Cyclops meant was that the X-Men would hunt down the Avengers so they can't keep trying to wreck Project Utopia - enforced peace on Earth. So Round 7 of this event brings back the spats that filled earlier issues. The difference is that now the massively powered Scarlet Witch is at their side, the Avengers have someone even the Phoenix Five - Cyclops, Emma Frost, Namor, Magik and Colossus - are wary of.

The engine of this issue is Iron Man's quest to understand the nature of both the Phoenix Force and Wanda's energies. To this end, he asks Wanda 'to stay focused on the data skews', whatever the heck that means. Tony aims to use this information for a suicide attack on the Phoenix Five, to make up for having been instrumental in their gaining cosmic power. Fellow genius the Black Panther tells Tony that's a rubbish solution and decides to consult the spirits of his ancestors. As you would.

To 'buy time' for Tony and T'challa to get some good ideas, Captain America sends the Avengers out to confront the quintet of Phoenixes. Wouldn't it make more sense to stay out of sight rather than risk members against beings who can kill with a blink? One Avenger actually does fall this time, burnt to a crisp (though we're immediately told he'll be healed and thrown into Magik's limbo penitentiary). Maybe the Avengers are after grabbing more data, but this has to be inferred from Tony having a eureka moment as Wanda fights Namor.

That's Matt Fraction's script for you. Several times I struggled to understand the story, as panel follows panel in a parade of headscratchers. Has Magick split into two after Wanda's attack? How can Hawkeye's arrow give the Phoenixed Emma pause? Why is Emma snogging Namor this time? Beats me, but as this book has six editors, it has to make sense, leading to the conclusion that I'm as thick as a brick rejected by a Marvel Architect.

There is one simply wonderful page, the opener, as the Phoenix Five get terribly bitchy about the Avengers. Other laudable moments include Cap yelling 'Avengers scramble' and Cyclops coming down firmly against murder. More of this please, and less of Dr Strange overusing the word 'egress' and the Vision running his sentences on.

Oh, and I demand that the Black Panther be defined by this moment for the next several decades.
I don't know whether the art by Olivier Coipel (pencils), Mark Morales (inks) and Laura Martin (colours) is responsible for some of the story issues I have, but it looks wonderful. The individual characters, from Polaris in a very Scarlet Witch outfit (they're long-lost half-sisters on alternate Tuesdays) to a be-vested Tony sitting amid a ton of litter as he collects that dang data, are striking. The battle sequences look impressive, even if the script means I can't always parse them. And the closing tidal wave attack by Namor, while something we've seen many times, feels brand new.

This is a step down after the delights of last issue, but the art almost makes up for the choppy script.

Wednesday, 4 July 2012

Action Comics #11 review

Believing Clark Kent has been getting in the way of his vocation as Superman, the hero has killed off his reporter alter ego and taken on a new role - Metropolis firefighter Johnny Clark. The new guy will keep his distance from colleagues, so there's little chance of anyone guessing his secret.

This issue we see Johnny take part in a rescue in the Bakerline district and it's a wonder he doesn't immediately run back to the Daily Planet - Clark never had to carry around stinky cats on litter trays. He stick with it, though, visiting Daily Star editor George Taylor in hospital. Injured in the blast which 'killed' Clark, Taylor mourns 'one of the best reporters I've ever known'.

Superman is having doubts, it turns out, and visits Batman to share them. His fellow Justice Leaguer tells him to leave the problem with him, and Superman retires to his new home in space, the Collector of World's onetime alien museum, where he guards 204 miniaturised bottled cities. Having fought Metalek, a Transformer-like alien intelligence, earlier that day, he asks the Brainiac AI why Earth is suddenly seeing so much interest from extraterrestrials. Brainiac warns of a world-ending threat known as the Multitude. It has 333 planets on its death list, but isn't unstoppable - Superman learns that his own father, Jor-El, once pushed it back.

On Earth, meanwhile, Lois and niece Susie are confronted by a glowing stranger with massive mental powers, who tells Susie he has to take her away. He claims that 'you're one of us, a Nutant. Neo-Sapiens born one-hundred thousand years ahead of our time to prepare the way and inherit the Earth.' By the time Superman shows up, via another Metalek encounter, Lois is in a bad way ...

Action Comics #11 is another issue with loads happening. The stranger's story will have bells ringing with longtime readers - a man with mental powers born 100,000 years ahead of his time, eh? And I didn't even mention the name of his spaceship. All together, veterans - the Cometeer. It seems writer Grant Morrison is giving us some riff on Silver Age DC hero Captain Comet. Despite the familiar chest emblem, and facial markings reminiscent of lines on one of his costumes, I don't think this guy is actually Adam Blake, onetime star of Strange Adventures. Well, he's rather unsavoury and I can't see Morrison making such a traditionally clean-cut character bad. Also, next month's story is entitled Return of the Forgotten Superman' - given that Bronze Age stories have Captain Comet predating Superman in the heroic community, and that Blake comes from a farm in the Midwest, he has to be the 'Earth's First Superman' referred to in solicitations.

Predating Fifties star Comet is Susie, troublesome minx in several Forties Superman stories. She doesn't seems a naughty girl here, though I suspect she's subconsciously convinced Lois she's her niece and that they're not actually related - because Lois never mentions her unseen sister's name, and in the Five Years Later stories currently appearing in Superman, Lois' sister Lucy seems too young to have a daughter of Susie's vintage.

I'm less interested in the alien invasion threat; the New 52 relaunch is under a year old and already aliens seem passe. I'm quite taken by Superman's weird logic, mind - he removes Clark because he's getting in the way of Superman's work, but takes on a new full-time job as another man. How can he tell his journal that 'Johnny allows me to be Superman 24/7' when it's patently not true? And guess the number of Johnny's fire truck. Yup, 1938, just as WGBS Action News is on Channel 38 - it's like some odd Metropolis fetish.

Oh well, the story is enjoyable throughout, whether we're in the realm of high adventure, hamster-husbandry or community construction. Morrison's script reads well, with the dialogue believably natural, while the confidence with which he doles out stimulating story information and beats makes for a comfortable read.

There is one lingering story point that's confusing me, and please do tell me if I've missed something - why does Superman wear the tee-shirt in Metropolis, and the nasty Kryptonian armour elsewhere?

Pencillers Rags Morales and Brad Walker do beautiful work here. The basic split is that Morales, inked by Rick Bryant, handles Superman adventuring, while Walker gets the quieter moments. Walker's hamster scene is a treat, with Susie given real personality, while Morales' hooded Nutant looks very spooky. Yes, I'm guessing a Captain Comet type, but the look also has echoes of Morales' Hourman design, with some Apokolips in the mix too.

This issue's back-up sees Sholly Fisch reveal where Clark Kent gets his 'S' tee shirts from. 'Exactly where you'd expect', is the answer, but it all makes for a briskly entertaining tale, elegantly drawn by Cafu. Jay David Ramos's colour palette for the flashbacks is smart and attractive.

Morales and colourist Brad Anderson's cover is striking, though the cover copy is a bit OTT. It was ever thus.

I believe we have just five more issues of Action to come from Morrison. I'll be savouring every one.

Earth 2 #3 review

From the ashes of a train smash in China, Alan Scott rises to become the Green Lantern. Rescued by a sentient flame, he's given a mission; to be the Earth's greatest defender when a great evil assails the planet.

In Poland, meanwhile, a woman who calls herself Hawkgirl reveals to the newly super-fast Jay Garrick that she was told where to find him by 'Fate'. She then tests his prowess with an airborne attack, before noticing that all around them, things are dying amid a sea of grey.

And yes, Alan's boyfriend, Sam, doesn't make it out of the train alive. I expected writer James Robinson not to go the obvious route and kill him to spur Alan on to great things ... but that's exactly what we get. The engagement ring he was giving Sam as the train blew up is reforged into a green ring, to focus the energy Alan now carries within him.

Alan barely reacts at all to Sam's death here, seeming more interested in what the 'green, talking bonfire' has to say. Don't get me wrong, I'm sure I'd be fascinated were a weird creature asking me to embody 'all the power of the earth' - but I'd also be a weeping wreck had my partner, and hundreds of other people, just been fried in an act of sabotage. And very angry, when the green god flickering before me pretty much admits it chose to save only me.

Perhaps this just proves that Alan's made of strong stuff, and is the perfect man for the job, but it's as if he's already lost just a bit of his humanity. There's a heart-wrencher of a panel later, when Alan says goodbye to Sam, but still ...

The scene with Hawkgirl and the yet-unnamed Flash is entertaining, with some zingy dialogue. I'm not keen on how it ends, though, with Nature itself under attack. Yes, it's old Swamp Thing menace The Grey, summoned to new wickedness by the appointment of a new champion of The Green. I'm already a tad bored with a year's worth of Animal Man and Swamp Thing stories having been taken up with the spat between The Green, The Red and The Rot, and I don't want more of the same here. Earth 2 should have its own flavour, not be echoing Earth Prime, or 1, or whatever the main New 52 world is called.

In the merit, column, though, this issue closes with The Grey becoming its own champion, giving a frightening new look to an old Earth 2 character. The spin isn't entirely original, but penciller Nicola Scott produces a fantastic last page.

She also produces a fantastic previous 19 pages, truth be told. While Alan barely mentions Sam in his rebirth scene, look at his face and you can infer that the horror of Sam's death isn't far from his mind. Alan's costume, sadly, is very dull - yeah, yeah, people laugh at the Golden Age Green Lantern's colour scheme, and I can see that red, green and purple is wacky, but I liked it. OK, by all means tweak the colours, but at the very least keep the cape with the magician collar - it's the biggest visual signifier that Alan isn't a member of the Green Lantern Corps.

What does he look like now? Just another member of the Green Lantern Corps, 'the' or no 'the'.

Hawkgirl's appearance, I like for the most part. I'd prefer a feathered headpiece to a helmet that's somewhere between Jay's and Bulletgirl's, but the sleek outfit looks good, and the massive plait could double as a mace. It's gladdening, too, that Scott doesn't shrink the wings, visually, when Hawkgirl's standing on solid ground - they arch upwards, off the floor.
Adding an extra layer of stunning to the Polish scenes are the colours of Alex Sinclair and/or Pete Pantazis (I suspect the latter), which blaze off the page even more than the green flame.

And while I don't know if he hand letters, or uses machine fonts, Dezi Sienty makes the words look good.

Ivan Reis captures the rage Alan should be feeling on his cover, inked by Joe Prado and coloured by Rod Reis, though the image is a little too intense (and that ruddy awful movie ad doesn't help). If she has time, I'd love to see Scott handling the covers.

I didn't enjoy this issue as much as the previous two, but I remain optimistic that Robinson, Scott and company will give us great things on Earth 2. Just, less of the Earth 1, please.