Friday, 31 August 2012

Phantom Lady #1 review

Years ago, in Metropolis' Suicide Slum, crusading reporter Harry Knight and his wife were executed by a mob boss. Today their daughter Jennifer fights crime as the superheroine Phantom Lady, armed with a black light ray which can cause dense fog, manifest hard light objects and extend to form a 'shadow slide'.

Flash back six months earlier and Jennifer works as a gossip hack while trying to take down the now late crimelord Robert Bender's sons, Eli and Cyrus. In particular, she aims to prove Cyrus murdered his own father. Her method is to go undercover. Literally - she's sleeping with him under an assumed name.

As the first part of the assumed name is Jennifer, perhaps she shouldn't be entirely surprised when he rumbles her. Cyrus knows she's sniffing around his operations, and he tries to scare her into sticking to the gossip circuit by beating up her pal Ginger as she watches, without protest.

Jennifer's also sleeping with shrink tech scientist Dane Maxwell, who's a dab hand at retrieving information hidden in data systems such as Cyrus' phone, which Jennifer has stolen from him. Possession of the cell brings trouble for Jennifer and Dane, causing the scientist to transform for the first time into Doll Man.

So, all hail the new heroine on the block. She's shagging a crime boss for info, shagging a boffin for tech support, and stands by while a pal is brutally assaulted.

Writers Jimmy Palmiotti and Justin Gray are taking a risk here, gambling that we'll find enough to like in this debut issue to come back and see Jennifer evolve. So far, her methods are dodgy and her morals a mess; she hasn't even noticed Dane is in love with her, so focused is she on her mission of vengeance. Given that Gray and Palmiotti don't tend to write nitwits, I'm sure that as we learn more about Jennifer she'll appear more sympathetic, less the user. Or perhaps she'll have an epiphany, and change.

I don't know. I'll give them that chance because they've entertained me over the years with such great series as Jonah Hex, Power Girl and Monolith. And they have form in revamping this Golden Age property, in Uncle Sam and the Freedom Fighters. That Phantom Lady, 'Stormy' Knight, initially seemed like a one-note party girl, but we soon saw that she had depth. They're likely going to pull a variation on that trick here.

Freedom Fighters also had a version of Phantom Lady's Quality Comics stablemate, Doll Man, and while I'm sad to see him (and Stormy) gone after just a  few years of publication, I'll give the new guy an opportunity to impress me. His puppyish devotion to Jennifer implies that there's more to her than dodgy detective, and now he has powers we'll see if he's got what it takes to be a hero; given that he gets shrinking abilities after running away from a fight, leaving Jennifer alone and unprotected, it seems he has some way to go too.

I'm not sure that setting this story in Metropolis is a good idea. It's hard to believe that the crime desk of the Daily Planet has failed, over several decades, to pin down the unfortunately named Benders even while the police department and Mayor's office colluded with the crooks. And now Superman is on the scene, the question is begged: why hasn't he brought the Benders to justice? The location is possibly to motivate a guest shot around issue #3, but I hope not - Jennifer and Dane should be the stars here.

I do like that the Bender family originates from Kansas, a la Clark Kent - it may be entirely random, but I suspect not.

The new Phantom Lady's powers are reminiscent of DC's Nightshade character, which seems a shame - I want Nightshade to show up in this New 52 continuity and it doesn't help if someone else is stealing her gig. I'm curious to see if Gray and Palmiotti actually tie Jennifer to Nightshade in some way. The shadow slide I could do without, the way they extend her arms is too oddball for superhero noir (click on image to enlarge).
The artwork by penciller Cat Staggs and inker Tom Derenick serves the story more than decently. Jennifer and Dane are well designed, and while the Bender brothers are pretty boy bland, there's no real reason they shouldn't be. The attractiveness of evil is a cliche, but it makes having sex with crooks a little more palatable. The panel-to-panel storytelling is fine, and editor Harvey Richards unleashes a secret weapon in colourist Jason Wright. Last seen - by me, anyway - as regular colour artist on the much-missed Secret Six series, Wright manages to tone scenes realistically without them seeming as dull as real life can get.
We only get a decent look at Phantom Lady's costume on the cover and one page inside. The purple and yellow colour combo is striking, the hood a nice touch ... but I miss the classic, in whatever version. Yes, it's overtly sexy, and possibly sexist (though Doll Man showed a lot of flesh too!), but it's also a big part, no gag intended, of the reason Phantom Lady keeps getting revived. She's always been comics' sexiest gal, visually, and it's a shame to lose her USP.

I'm a huge Amanda Conner fan, but while her cover illo is attractive, it's wrong for the book. The kittenish expression and cutesy Doll Man, combined with the bright colours of Paul Mounts, say that this is going to be a light-hearted romp, akin to the aforementioned Power Girl series Conner worked on with Gray and husband Palmiotti. In fact, this is a dark drama set on the seamier sider of the DC Universe. It'd be interesting to see what Staggs, Staggs and Derenick, or Derenick alone - as well as an inker, he's a formidable penciller - might do. Or the book might even go for a full-on Ms Tree treatment, proper femme fatale stuff.

With the recent excellent Ray mini-series, and now this, it seems Gray and Palmiotti are once again building a version of the Freedom Fighters for DC. While I'd be happy had the last lot simply transferred over when Flashpoint changed continuity, credit to Gray and Palmiotti for trying new things. Let's hope it works with Phantom Lady and Doll Man.

Thursday, 30 August 2012

National Comics #1: Looker review

When you don't show up on film, and burst into flames in sunlight, fashion model isn't the easiest career. So mannequin turned vampire Emily Briggs tells the world she's been struck down by a form of Lupus and swaps the catwalk for a talent agency named Looker. She rarely appears in the daytime, but at night? That's another matter.

At night she can move around the city freely, tracking down the creepy character who's killed one of her girls and abducted another. And when she meets the mystery murderer it's a case of red in tooth and claw. But mostly tooth.

I was prepared to dislike this comic. After all, the least interesting thing about the previous version of Looker - a member of Batman's team of Outsiders - was her latter-day vampire iteration. The fascinating facet of Emily Briggs was that she got what she always wanted, good looks, and found that life didn't suddenly become a bed of roses. She was a superhero but still had the unhappy marriage, the unsettled personality. This version of Emily, though, has always been gorgeous. She's single, so no heartbreak. She went from mortal to Undead without ever being a superhero, without ever wearing one of the most horrible costumes in creation. This girl has style.

She also has my heart. Sure, it's a shame that the Outsiders Looker likely won't appear now, but then again, I doubt anyone was clamouring to revive her for DC's New 52. Taken on her own merits, the new Emily Briggs is a find. A bitch in life, dying brought out the humanity in her; rather than seducing the world, she now has a few close friends, and she looks after them. She's also witty, thanks to writer Ian Edginton in this cleverly plotted and scripted one-off.

Business associates Roma and Charles know Emily's secret, while blind ex-cop and sculptor of the Weird Paul is in the dark. Of the three, I particularly like Paul, because he's drawn by Mike S Miller as slightly older than Emily, with a crinkly humanity - should Looker return after this 'pilot episode', I hope he does too.

Miller finds an appealing balance between temptress and girl next door, and conjures up Emily's high-class world with sharp, economic lines (click on image to enlarge). I prefer Miller's Emily to Guillem March's version in the clever, gorgeously rendered cover illustration - that lady's just a little too sleek for my liking. Colourists Rex Lokus and Antonio Fabela bring the bright to the catwalk and the dark to the city streets, while Emily is both red and dead.
Emily doesn't manifest many of the traditional vampire powers - she has fangs with which to bite, but mainly she uses TV budget-friendly acrobatics to get her business done. She is, though, able to see memories connected to the blood she's drinking, which helps the story along.

Her adversary, mind, is a nightmare, with a gimmick that would look tremendous on screen. And if he's too scary for you, there's a lovely puppy to calm the nerves.
Emily's powers are secondary - what's interesting is the character and the set-up. I'd like to see more of Emily, follow her as she tracks down the stranger who turned her. If this issue is as successful financially as it is artistically, perhaps we'll see that.

Wednesday, 29 August 2012

Justice League International Annual #1 review

JLI members Batwing, Godiva and Guy Gardner save hostages in Africa, but back in Washington DC, team leader Booster Gold isn't entirely happy with how the mission went. He's hoping rookie members Blue Beetle and the Olympian will usher in a new era of glory. We learn why each has signed up before all heck breaks loose - evil computer Brother Eye has control of OMAC and plans to take down the JLI as practice for attacking the 'real' Justice League.

OMAC displays the stupid attitude that's permeated the just-cancelled JLI series - the idea that the global heroes are second stringers compared to the Justice League. Again and again we've seen Booster Gold's gang step up, with heroism and heart. Heck, I've found them a deal more admirable and effective than the Justice League of Frat Boys. The news that this annual, the JLI's final fling, was to be written by JL writer Geoff Johns, and DC co-publisher Dan DiDio, had me worried. The man who runs the 'real' Justice League and the chap who's overseen DC's descent into a darker universe. What's more, Johns isn't shy of maiming and killing B-listers for the sake of a shock splash panel in a big story.

Would anyone this side of fan favourite Guy Gardner survive?

But I forgot one thing: Johns adores Booster Gold. He took him from B-lister to star via the weekly 52 series and Booster's own spin-off. So Booster gets a great moment. And that love for Booster seems to have sparked goodwill towards his team - I won't reveal the fates of the various members, but it's safe to say that August General in Iron, Godiva, Olympian, Guy, Batwing, Blue Beetle and even that nasty OMAC live to fight another day. The OMAC plotline is being transferred to the Justice League title, while a surprise guest outlines the future of a few members, and it's one of which I heartily approve.

One thing I really like is that this issue loops two threads of pre-DC New 52 history into the new continuity: one involving Booster, the other Batman. Also heartening is that the JLI members aren't treated like losers, they're heroes through and through, with Godiva emerging as my favourite - compare the wimpy woman from JLI #1 to the brave Brit of this issue and you'll see she's come a long way. No, it's the regular Justice League members who come across as asses, and apart from Batman, none of them actually appear.

As Johns seeds future storylines left, right and centre, I cheered at the assertion by Surprise Guest that the Wonder Woman/Superman hook-up in this week's Justice League #12 is A Very Bad Thing. I could have told him that.

We don't have any reference to absent members Ice, Vixen and Fire, so I'm going to assume they're pretty much recovered from injuries sustained in the regular series, and about to leave hospital.
I don't know how the workload breaks down, but Johns and DiDio deserve credit for a fast-moving, satisfying, always entertaining script that caps the JLI's time together with style. And extra credit to whoever assigned Jason Fabok to this book - presumably editors Mike Marts and Brian Smith - because he makes the script sing. There's a power and grace to his characters that adds a sense of the epic to the tale. His storytelling is spot-on, his action scenes explode with energy and his quieter moments convince. I've a couple of favourite visuals: the tense confrontation between Godiva and the Olympian (click on image to enlarge), and the creepy aftermath of OMAC's encounter with August General in Iron. If memory serves, Fabok is off to one of the Batman titles; on this showing, I'll be following him. Colourist Jeromy Cox adds an extra dimension, his well-chosen tones upping the dramatic mood, while Travis Lanham's letters are well-placed.

So it's farewell to the Justice League International, gone, but in a blaze of glory the likes of which would warm Booster's heart. 

Justice League #12 review

The Villain's Journey ends as the Justice League takes down David Graves. Green Lantern is the only hero not fooled for a second by the demons pretending to be the ghosts of their loved ones, and he leads an attack on the bad guy. The other MVP here is League liaison Steve Trevor, far from dead and able to surprise Graves with his sharpshooting. Other heroes get blows in too, but it's Hal and Steve who are the heroes of the hour.

What a shame, then, that once Graves has been sent to Belle Reve prison, these two aren't thrown a parade. Au contraire. Hal quits the League, feeling that the public needs a scapegoat after his stupid scrap with Wonder Woman last month. And Steve is sacked as League liaison by Wonder Woman, because she hates the idea that he's in constant danger because of her.

Aquaman feels the League needs better leadership, and volunteers, but current chief Batman isn't having it. Suicide Squad boss Amanda Waller asks Graves to write a book that will destroy the League, as his previous one made their reputation. And Superman and Wonder Woman have a pathetic, needy kiss.

This isn't a brilliant issue. Graves's master plan - to make the League better heroes by forcing them to understand loss - was whacko last time writer Geoff Johns used the idea, with Zoom in Flash. Even more whacko is the League deciding that, yes, they were responsible for the death of Graves' family because they didn't consider every possible source of civilian casualties in the aftermath of the Apokolips war. The idea that they saved the world, but because people still died they're not fit to be called heroes, is just stupid. And Diana's logic is weird - she pushes Steve away but seems OK with some new League liaison having a target painted on their back. Plus, the recap at the start is a headscratcher, with the media apparently knowing more about Graves than the League.

But I like that Graves is despatched pretty quickly once the League members begin working together. And the new information we're given about Wonder Woman's past, and beliefs, fills in some needed detail, while Steve is a compelling, admirable fellow. Aquaman calling for a more committed, better League is a nice callback to his forming the Detroit League back in the day. And I love that Hal is the one who sees through the spirit illusions, and is willing to sacrifice himself for the good of the League (even though he's wrong to take the blame for last issue's shameful spat). And who knew that Doris Lessing is such a big seller in the New 52 DC Universe?

This issue is one of the better Justice League scripts since the series began, though that's not saying an enormous amount. Jim Lee's artwork looks pretty good, even with numerous inkers on board. While we still get lots of splash pages, they're offset by loads of tiny panels which jolly the story along- suddenly it feels as if we're getting value for money. The action is big and daft and enjoyable, while the quietest scene - Superman and Wonder Woman 'finding' one another - plays out sweetly. I'm not thrilled by the prospect of a Diana/Clark fling, but it's something DC has to get out of the way whenever they reboot, so bring it on, and kick it to the kerb.
Wonder Woman also features in the other standout scene, a visit to the recovering Steve. Diana's not demonstrating the wisdom she's meant to have, but at least Johns and Lee power the encounter with convincing emotion, something this series has lacked overall.

The issue closes with previews of what's to come in the next year and a bit - the new Justice League of America, a traitor, Captain Marvel (bah to Shazam!) joining up. Let's hope it's better than the first year of this series, which has been uneven, with a leaning towards the bad.

Educating Kara - Bring on Supergirl: Cosmic Adventures in the 9th Grade

Kara Zor-El enjoyed one of her best runs in comics in 2009's all-ages title Supergirl: Cosmic Adventures in the 8th Grade. Landry Q Walker and Eric Jones reinvented the Girl of Steel for today, as a spunky youngster dealing with all the typical school problems - fadeaway super-powers, evil best friends, that sort of thing. As a Brit, I barely know what the 8th Grade is, but as a comic reader I loved this six-part series, which got better and better after a more than decent first issue.

But it's been almost four years years and still DC Comics haven't seen fit to allow Kara to continue her education. Walker and Jones have a multi-year series of mini-series planned out, taking Kara right through grade school and into high school. If those stories are as good as the original mini, readers are in for a treat. I certainly want to see, for starters, Supergirl: Cosmic Adventures in the 9th Grade. 

The first mini apparently wasn't a soaraway success - otherwise we'd be reading the 11th Grade stories by now. But it was a critical success, and seems to have been loved by all who read it. I'm sure that with the proper marketing push subsequent series would at least break even as periodicals, and more material would make for more collections to be sold in outlets other than comic book stores.

Given that Supergirl is among the most popular Hallowe'en characters for little girls, and Kara has recently been seen in the DC Nation cartoon strand, why not have a real crack at picking up sales in that market? Let's get the kids who love Supergirl actually reading her adventures; and not the adventures of the New 52 version, good as they are. No, let's give the girls a heroine they can more easily identify with - one for whom school is every bit as challenging as an alien invasion.

If you'd like to see Kara back in class, Supergirl fan supreme Valerie is running a letterwriting campaign to persuade DC Comics to think about greenlighting a second series, details here. And while letters may seem old-fashioned, there's no denying publishers take them more seriously than internet pleas. And waffles.

Who knows, we may get Kara educated yet!

Avenging Spider-Man #11 review

Peter Parker and his Aunt May meet at the gravestone of their beloved Ben on the anniversary of his killing. Husband, uncle, inspiration - the immediate pain of his passing is gone, but the sorrow lives on. Yet the sorrow stems from the good memories of a man who helped his wife and nephew find their inner strength. They've both moved on - Peter as Spider-Man and scientist, May as wife and partner to Jay Jameson - but they'll never forget.

And I won't forget this lovely issue for awhile. Fans of slugfests should look elsewhere, as the obligatory super-villain is despatched by the end of page two. But fans of good character writing are likely to like this look at Peter and May's relationship as much as I did. Writer Zeb Wells captures the quiet grit, wisdom and humour of the woman who raised a teenager alone, all the while dealing with mounting bills and ailing health. And he deftly demonstrates that Peter has tried many times to tell May the full story of the night Ben was killed by a burglar, but she doesn't want to know.

If there's a failing in this smart tale, it's the idea that even though she can't believe it would be Peter's fault that her husband died, May doesn't at least let him unburden himself. If she knows just why he believes he shares the guilt of Ben's death, she's in a much better position to reassure, or forgive. Especially given the hint that she already knows about Peter's double life.

I still really like this issue, though. Peter, May and, in his brief appearance, Jay feel like people I know, good folk engaging with life even in the bad times. The dialogue is understated, steering well clear of the bombastic soap with which Marvel made its name; there's still a time for melodrama, but this issue isn't it.

Chris Samnee's unusual cover composition works well, with the Spider-Man figure adding drama to what might be too quiet a scene for many potential purchasers. Inside, Steve Dillon does an excellent job of capturing the dazed bemusement of Peter and May in the flashbacks, while lending them appropriate serenity in the current day sequences. A script like this might tempt younger artists to give us a talking heads issue, with photocopied panels, but not Dillon. He varies the angles and compositions to emphasise the story beats, controlling the reader's emotions.

Well, this reader's, anyway. I won't deny a little tear dripped onto the final page. If Aunt May were here, she'd pass me a hankie right about now ...

Thursday, 23 August 2012

I, Vampire #12 review

Just look at Clayton Crain's cover - Midnighter, Apollo and Jack Hawksmoor attack as vampire lord Andrew Bennett readies to bite on-off lover Mary, Queen of Blood. Horror meets sci-fi superheroics in a beautiful, intriguing design, superbly rendered, and topped by a lovely
magenta logo.

Well, you can judge this book by that cover, because here we have the best issue of  I, Vampire yet. Shadowy global protectors Stormwatch land smack bang in the middle of the war between Bennett's vampire nation and the zombified Van Helsing cult, blows and quips are swapped and matters take a surprising turn.

Writer Joshua Hale Fialkov folds Stormwatch into his ongoing storyline as smartly as he did Batman and Justice League Dark a few issues back, capturing their voices and methods with apparent ease. This isn't just a sales-boosting cameo, the featured trio's personalities move the story into its next phase - Fialkov never throws away plot points, but neither does he allow things to get stale. And it's this constant movement, the motivated changes, that mean I couldn't switch to tradewaiting for this comic - I want my monthly fix.
Bringing Fialkov's words to glorious life - where relevant - is Andrea Sorrentino (click on image to enlarge). The lush pages invite us to pause and stare, but the storytelling is strong enough that we barrel on to the end, knowing that the gorgeous detail can be savoured on second, third and fourth look. The figurework, the sense of place, the building of pace - it's masterly, and made all the more ravishing by the intelligent colourwork of Marcelo Maiolo. A lord of light sources, Maiolo ups the atmosphere and adds the magic. And while Patrick Brosseau's contribution isn't among I, Vampire's eye candy, his lettering is vital, and excellent.

If you're not reading this title, this issue is as good a jumping-on point as any, with an excellent recap - witty, but not silly - and handy character introductions. It's the anti-Twilight, an unsentimental, decidedly non-maudlin take on the undead. I think you'll like it - if I had a reputation, I'd stake it ...

Wednesday, 22 August 2012

Batman Incorporated #3 review

Batman revives his underworld alter ego, hustler Matches Malone, to pump Gotham lowlives for information on the Leviathan organisation that serves Talia al-Ghul. Along the way he flirts with chanteuse Lumina Lux, and her need for a knight in shining armour lands Matches in big trouble.

Damian, meanwhile, kicks against Batman's grounding of Robin by sneaking out in a new costumed identity.

This is a highly satisfying issue from writer Grant Morrison and fellow conspirators. Matches is Batman having a sly smirk at the underworld while gathering information he can't get from online sources. Lumina is the classic Gotham siren, maybe a bad girl, maybe not. Nightwing is on hand to play Batman and make Matches look good/bad, and better still, annoy 'little brother' Damian. And Batcow is revealed to be linked to Hamburgers of Doom,

Plus, we learn how Leviathan has been slowly extending its influence in Gotham, and the plausibly grim logic of it all is far more convincing than the 'oh, it was just always there' non-explanation for the Court of Owls over in the Batman title.

The criminals haunting the city bars, such as Small Fry and the Turnip Twins, have me hoping for a Gotham Underworld mini-series starring Matches and femme fatale-ish nitespot singers. And Chris Burnham would be the perfect artist for such a  project, given how well he evokes the murky world of small-time hoods.
Mind, such a project would likely mean him taking a break from this book, something that would pain me. For Burnham's presentation of Batman's world is perfect - creepy, but not hysterical. He handles straight drama and comedy with equal aplomb, and his compositions sing as sweetly as Lumina Lux. And I can't wait to see him draw Nightwing's new cape - when did he get a cape, or is this it? - in action.

Nathan Fairbairn's colours add to the mood, bringing a late evening feel to proceedings, while Patrick Brosseau's letters sit well with the artwork, never getting in the way.

Only nine more issues of Morrison and Burnham's series to go; if it continues to be this great, we have a modern classic on our hands.

Amazing Spider-Man #692 review

I've been away from Amazing Spider-Man for a few months - too many extended storylines, new costumes, the $3.99 price point ... but I do like an anniversary issue, and this one marks 50 years since Amazing Fantasy #15 saw Peter Parker gain his powers.

I like the main figure of Spidey on Humberto Ramos's cover, but the multi-image background isn't to my taste - it's too cluttered with all those temporary looks which didn't last because, well, they're not as attractive as the Steve Ditko original, which also features.

Ramos also draws the main strip this issue, which introduces a new character, Alpha, who looks set to be Spider-Man's sidekick for a while. And a pretty uppity one at that.

Unpopular Andy Maguire gains powers in a science experiment gone awry on a school trip to Horizon Labs. As Peter Parker was running the experiment, he feels responsible for what happened (he isn't), and takes Andy under his wing. Soon he's being tested by the Marvel Universe's top scientists, who learn that his raft of powers - strength, speed, force field, flight and energy projection - can be accessed just one at a time (a la Ultra Boy of the Legion of Super-Heroes). Powered by the newly discovered Parker Particles, he's only going to get stronger, and frighteningly so, meaning he'll need some fast lessons in superheroics. Soon Andy is working for Horizon Labs as super-powered spokesman Alpha, with Spider-Man keeping an eye on him. And frankly, Alpha is a bit of a jerk. By the end of the story Peter realises he has a challenge ahead. And if he only knew that someone else is taking an interest in Andy, he'd be even more worried.

This isn't a bad tale, with a strong spine, good gags and cameos that move things forward. Writer Dan Slott's use of the Spidey origin as the template for Alpha's makes sense within the story, as does Andy's quick descent into selfish lunkhead ... it's wrestler Spidey all over again. Hopefully Alpha won't have to lose one of his idiot parents to learn that 'with great power comes great responsibility'.

I'm not sure I'll pop back to see how Andy gets on, though Slott is a talented enough writer to not go for the obvious and have him quickly learn what it is to be a hero, or get killed. The simple fact is that Alpha doesn't grab me - every time he comes on panel, I'm wishing him away. What I want from a Spider-Man book are challenging villains, plenty of Peter Parker, and supporting characters charismatic enough to have their own subplots. I don't want an arrogant kid as a major player.

Maybe I need to see Alpha drawn by someone else - Ramos, inked by Victor Olazaba, depicts Andy as a mad-eyed loon with a chin you could use as a hole punch; it's one of those faces you'd never tire of slapping. Plus, his costume - designed by master seamstress Peter - is utterly nondescript.

The issue's second story takes place after ASM #50, after Peter dumps his costume in a trashcan. We see someone come along and use the outfit for nefarious purposes, and there's a twist harking back to one of the best-loved Spider-Man stories. For me, the ending is too saccharine, taking away from what comes before it. Still, it's an entertaining enough piece from writer/artist Dean Haspiel, and the colour choices of Giulia Brusco are a pleasing shout-out to the tones of the late Silver Age.

Finally, we have Peter struggling to get across New York to give a science lecture, and being thwarted at every turn by the old Parker luck. But the day isn't entirely bad, and the story ends in classic feelgood style with a message that manages not to rot the teeth. I, Vampire writer Joshua Hale Fialkov exercises different storytelling muscles here, capturing Peter's world, voice and attitude in fine style. I hope Marvel has more Spidey assignments for Fialkov. And while Nuno Plati's Spidey is a tad too stick-man for me, and he's overly fond of red/brown tones, his breezy, energetic style suits the story.

The issue is rounded out with - or more accurately, opened by - a one-page 'Who is Spider-Man?' recap by Fred Van Lente, John Romita Jr and Klaus Janson which is efficient and good-looking.

With 56pp of quality story and art for $5.99, Amazing Spider-Man #692 is great value, honouring Peter's past while looking to the future. Here's to 50 more years of webslinging.

Monday, 20 August 2012

Supergirl #12 review

Supergirl finally reaches out to Superman to learn what he knows of Krypton's fate and it turns out that he's learned one or two interesting things. First, that the comatose Kara orbited Earth's sun for quite awhile prior to landing on Earth, explaining why she was so powerful on emerging from the pod that brought her from Argo City. Secondly, that a large piece of the shattered craft may be on the ocean floor.

As you'd expect, Superman offers to accompany Kara on an exploratory mission into the depths. And Kara tells him to sod off, basically. Until she knows for definite that they're cousins, she's not trusting him.

So it is that a solo Supergirl must fight off mutated sea creatures while following a Kryptonian voice summoning her to a crystal structure. There, she learns that she's been duped by an old enemy.

Serves her ruddy well right, that's all I can say. Superman opens his fortress to her, shows her the bottle city of Kandor and shares the research he's done on her behalf, and does Kara say thanks? Nope, she insults him and threatens a fight should he try to stop her going off half-cocked.

Stupid girl. And annoying script. Finally we were at a point at which it would make sense for Kara to start trusting Superman a little, but writers Michael Green and Mike Johnson go down the stroppy teen route again. I get that Kara's been attacked a lot since she came to Earth, but Superman's not given her a reason to distrust him. Au contraire, she's giving him another reason to distrust her judgment.

Really, Kara's behaviour is getting old. She's fine with having a banshee for a pal but won't extend an open hand to someone she knows is recognised as a hero? I'm not one for having the title character of a book upstaged, but please let Kara have to be rescued by Kal-El. Heck, bring in the Silver Age Superman to give her a spanking ...

More pleasing aspects of this first-year closer include Kara's understandable qualms about drowning, before learning she can breathe underwater, and the mystery of who caused Kara's pod to orbit the sun. This issue's returning bad guy makes some sense, and the concept that stepping into the crystal palace feels like an emotion rather than a physical sensation is good.

I'm less pleased with her manifesting a personal force field, as I like my Kryptonians to share the same basic power set; hopefully this, and the earlier sunburst power, will be explained away by her being super-charged at the moment

I'm not delighted with the introduction of crystal architecture, it's an aspect of screen Supermen I've never liked. Crystal buildings are so much duller than the coloured structures of classic Krypton, and talking crystals are lazy and naff. Please God there won't be any interactive holograms of El patriarchs.
Mahmud Asrar's art didn't quite hit the spot for me this time - Kara looked mopey and dopey, and Superman about 14 years of age. Having two inkers on the pages Asrar didn't finish may explain the look. Plus, the crystal structure really doesn't merit the splash page it's assigned. I dunno, maybe there was a deadline crunch. I do like the new look for Last Page Villain, it makes the character more interesting.

So, not my favourite issue. The origin storyline is dragging and I'm dismayed to see the return of sour Supergirl after progress in recent issues. Next month's zero special promises answers - I hope they're good, and that we can then move onto something else for awhile.

I just hope 'something else' won't be Supergirl joining Animal Man and Swamp Thing' 428-part Rotworld storyline ...

Saturday, 18 August 2012

Legion of Super-Heroes #12 review

The Legion are invited to dinner - and guess who's on the menu?

One look at Dominator chief Primus Dom - acres of fat and massive, sharp teeth - and most of us would be terrified. Not the Legion, though.

First to turn defiance into action is Dream Girl, who bypasses the 'junky locks' to attack her captors. Soon, other members are free and full-on battle has commenced. The Dominators release their latest genetic experiment, a creature combining Daxamite characteristics with their own (read: sharp teeth), and while he's scary, he's just one newborn clone. The Legion are a team.

More, they're a family; they know one another's strengths and weaknesses. Brainiac 5 comes up with a plan that needs Star Boy to push himself beyond known limits. And he's already ill. But Dream Girl, his partner, helps Star Boy marshal his strength long enough to down the clone.

Still, dozens of troops surround the three, along with fellow heroes Duplicate Damsel, Bouncing Boy, Otaki and Mwindaji. The Legionnaires will fight on, but things look bad.

Happily, reinforcements arrive, and the Dominators are no match for a team boasting Mon-El and Ultra Boy. Soon, the Legion members are heading home, with one big question remaining - what made one of their own, Comet Queen, betray them to the Dominators?

Wrapping up the Dominator storyline, Paul Levitz shows that while not all Legionnaires have equal power, they share one powerful trait - the ability to work as a team. The Brainy/Dream Girl/Star Boy sequence is classic Legion. Duplicate Damsel prompts husband Bouncing Boy to take down a second monstrous Dominator creation. And drafted-in Legion Academy kids Otaki and Mwindaji are spurred on to do their part by their more experienced colleagues.

I love that Dream Girl demonstrates what idiots the Dominators were to underestimate her - we aren't shown just how she gets out of her restraints (manipulating them with her flight ring was my first guess, but if memory serves, the Dominators stole them), but I suspect she picked up some escapology tricks from former member Karate Kid. Then again, she's a science whiz, it could be she just worked it out.

It's a treat to get a cameo from Legion reservist Sensor Girl, as she shows EarthGov that, yes, the Dominators have kidnapped Legion members. I hope she rejoins the team soon, pausing only to change out of the hideous version of her classic costume.

The reactions of Otaki and Mwindaji to their first look at Mon-El and Ultra Boy in action is a pleasant reminder of just how awesome these guys are, with their immense power and extensive combat experience. And then there are Duplicate Damsel's reactions to their reactions - wonderful stuff.

While the DomDax clone is speedily taken out, I see potential for him to be a recurring nuisance once he develops - he may have Dream Girl's precognition and Brainy's intellect. As for the other Dominator creation, a massive walking tree bearing more clones in cocoons, I love that Bouncing Boy - seen by non-Legion fans as a joke - is the hero to end its threat.

The only off-note in an issue that combines moments of blistering action and pleasing gobbets of characterisation is Cosmic Boy's railing at Mon-El - after last issue's chat I'd have expected the former to can the hysteria.

What loose ends there are - the fate of Primus Dom, primarily - can be tied up in time. My immediate interest is focused on why Comet Queen betrayed her teammates last month (the smart money is on mind meddling by the evil Saturn Queen awhile back).

Steve Lightle's cover is crowded without being cluttered, a tremendous action set-piece. Behind it, there's the usual excellent stripwork from Francis Portela. I reckon he's going to miss drawing those dastardly Dominators, there's obvious joy in their leering portrayal. And hopefully Levitz will notice how well he depicts Mr and Mrs Legion, Bouncing Boy and Duplicate Damsel, and make them active members again - I adore this pair's unsentimental romance. And no one who sees them in battle would call them 'weak'.

Stepping in to help out for a few pages is Tom Derenick. His Earthbound scenes are fine, but he excels on the final two pages - Ultra Boy and Mon-El mopping up Dominators, and Duo Damsel's post-fight chat with the new recruits. Colourist Javier Mena makes the transition smooth, continuing the pink tones that characterise the Dominator homeworld.

The Legion of Super-Heroes is one of my most-anticipated comics each month - this issue amply demonstrates why.

Wednesday, 15 August 2012

DC Universe Presents #12: Kid Flash review

Kid Flash takes over DC's showcase title for a fun romp featuring dinosaur teens.

Well, why ever not? Teen Titans is part of DC's Young Justice line, meant to appeal to younger readers. And what kid doesn't love dinosaurs? They're giving Bart Allen trouble in this single-issue special, but even he thinks they're cool.

The Saurians - pterodactyl girl Dac, Steg the stegosaurus boy and Teryx the, er, Hoodiesaurus kid - stowed away when the Teen Titans escaped the mysterious Mystery Island. Now they're in New York and looking for fun. Unfortunately, for one of them, 'fun' equates to turning the human race into hybrid 'dinosoids' with his mutagenic mists - oh yes, we're talking evil genius dino-teen.

When Dinosaurs Walked the Earth (That Would Be Today) is wilfully daft, making it lots better than many comics on the stands, which are just daft because they're overreaching. And while this issue is daft, it's a long way from stupid. Because Fabian Nicieza is writing, and he's one of the smartest, funniest mainstream writers around. What this means is that he takes Scott Lobdell's characterisation of Bart from Teen Titans and perfects it. Bart's essential light-heartedness remains, but the emphasis is on his brains and heart - never mind the fastest, this is the most empathetic boy alive.

Which isn't to say the super-speed stunts are neglected. Bart does everything from rebounding over the streets of New York to sorting out a tangled washing line (listed in order of impressiveness). Away from the Teen Titans, we see that there's not a lot he can't handle - frankly, I think Wonder Girl, Red Robin and the rest are holding him back!

For about ten seconds I was annoyed that we were being told stuff about Mystery Island that I'm pretty sure wasn't explained in Teen Titans, but then Bart puts things in perspectiive.
And he follows up with some top Chinese takeaway jokes, which went nicely with my 'obviously-left-over-from-last-night-and-reheated-by-China-Palace-cos-they're rock-hard' chicken balls. Then Bart addresses his bad rep with the NYPD, showing that's he cares that people know he's a decent kid. And finally, there's a Q the Winged Serpent nod, which is always good.

I'd be happy for the Serpent Teens (my name, and far better, obviously) to stick around, with one joining the Titans and the other two getting punched regularly. We'll definitely see them again soon, as this story continues in Teen Titans #12, and I only hope it's the fun ride this is.

The art of Jorge Jimenez is very attractive, all fluid lines and dynamic compositions. I don't think I've ever seen the revamped Bart's super-speed look so good on the page. Credit for this must be shared with Guy Major, who turns in one of the best colouring jobs I've seen from him, and it's not as if his work isn't always excellent. The tones are wonderfully well-balanced throughout, complementing Jimenez' lovely illustrations. Especially impressive is that we can 'read' Bart even though his eyes are hidden behind his mask. I'd love Jimenez and Major to work together regularly on some book or other.

Heck, I'd take a Kid Flash series on this basis of this issue. He's more focused than adult Flash Barry Allen, has a great sense of humour and isn't tied to echoing ancient continuity beats - Bart can go anywhere.

The only thing I don't love about this issue is the cover. Ryan Sook is a favourite, but his Bart looks too washed out. It's a terrific composition though, pretty spectacular on its own terms. Then there's the logo - the 'Kid' added to Barry's 'Flash' looks to be wrongly angled at the bottom. That's the sort of thing Bart would fix ...

Batwoman #12 review

Still on the trail of Gotham's missing children, Batwoman enlists the help of friendly were-beast Kyle Abbot. He leads her through an abandoned funhouse that's anything but fun - they're attacked by an urban legend come to life, Bloody Mary. They stop the legendary murderess, but fail to find the kidnapper Sune, aka Maro, 'a sadistic shapeshifter'. As she dissipates, though, Mary tells Kate Kane that Maro has fled to the protection of the Queen of Monsters, Medusa.

Elsewhere, Batwoman's cousin, Bette Kane, is recovering from injuries inflicted by the Hook and is about to have an important chat with Kate's dad. And Detective Maggie Sawyer is pilloried by press and public for the lack of progress in finding the lost children. Kate, back from being Batwoman, tries to be there for Maggie, but she's pissed off at Kate's obvious keeping of secrets from her.

Meanwhile, Wonder Woman is fighting to crush the Serpentine cult, which sacrifices children to raise monsters (is the snake-haired Medusa behind this too?). Taking a breather after ending their horrific schemes, she's confronted by Batwoman, who believes that Diana's background in Greek myth is needed if Medusa is to be beaten.

First, the bad: this ruddy kidnapped kids storyline still isn't resolved - it's been a year, and I know how those angry Gotham citizens feel.

The good - pretty much everything else. Kate Kane seem somewhat less selfish than when I packed this series in a couple of issues back, showing concern for both Maggie and Bette. The coming team-up with Diana is organic, with Medusa - previously presumed to be an organisation rather than a monster - having been a presence for quite a while. While Kate and Diana don't meet until the end, Diana's presence is smartly folded into Batwoman's ongoing storyline via adjacent imagery.

Smart layouts include one spread that's half-framed by the Bat icon, half by the stars associated with Wonder Woman. Another has a central image of a tentacle-slicing Diana surrounded by images of Batwoman and Kyle on their separate quest, with the funhouse setting perfectly motivating multiple warped panels.

In the past I've moaned about JH Williams' clever, imaginative spreads being fantastic to look at, but not serving the story. Not this time - the art has all the bells and whistles we've come to expect, yet the storytelling is clear as a bell.

Williams' Diana is suitably fierce - the New 52 Wonder Woman being required to hack and slash at all times - while looking a bit silly in the new costume. The classic may be a glorified bathing suit, but I'm so used to it that it never pulled me out of the story. The 'update', with its many seams and surfaces, looks like a boring knock-off.

Still, Williams' close-ups of Diana are splendid, and the fantasy setting she's battling in, and creatures she faces, are gorgeous. I can't wait to see how he melds the style he sticks with for Batwoman pages to a Classical mode more suited to Diana. This time, Williams shows his versatility with a more naturalistic style for the daytime scenes with Kate, Maggie and co, while still using the odd showy layout.

Great as the art is throughout, this one throwaway detail is my favourite - Department of Extranormal Operations boss Mr Bones dressed for summer.
The story by Williams and W Haden Blackman is thankfully linear - recent scripts that hopped around in time like a kangaroo with fleas were another factor in my dropping the book (the chance to see someone other than Brian Azzarello and Geoff Johns writing Wonder Woman has me back for a peek).

As for Diana, the writers handle her well, but the lyrical inner monologue she's gifted shows just what a pretentious bore the New 52 heroine is: Wonder Woman is all about the mission and her magnificence, there's no suggestion of humour or a life outside her armour. She's all Amazon, no Amazing.

Still, Williams and Blackman are dealing the cards they've been dealt, and at least here we'll see Diana fighting alongside a peer, rather than being a straw in the wind of godly hurricanes.

I don't like that Kate seems happy to go into the team-up loaded with hi-tech DEO surveillance equipment to feed Mr Bones information on Wonder Woman. That's hardly meeting Diana in good faith, and it's also stupid - Wonder Woman tends to know when she's being lied to, and she doesn't like it.

But overall, as a chapter this issue works well, the coming confrontation with Medusa suggests this initial story is finally going to wrap and the dialogue serves plot and character - if the Batwoman boat stays this steady I could easily see myself sticking around after the current team-up.

Williams, colourist Dave Stewart and letterer Todd Klein work together to ensure the differing aspects of the artistic package come together into a coherent, stunning whole. So different colour palettes are used for Williams' various style; distinct fonts and treatments distinguish between the speech and thoughts of Batwoman, Wonder Woman, Bloody Mary and so on. It all makes for a book that looks like nothing else in DC's line.

The cover is striking, too. From the fantastically real image of Batwoman confronting Bloody Mary to the more impressionistic Wonder Woman to the reflected logo - it's a winner. Take away the cliched blood on Diana's sword and it'd be perfect.

So I'm back with Batwoman. More issues this fine and I won't be going anywhere.

Sunday, 12 August 2012

Superboy #12 review

Dragged out for a night on the town by new landlady Dallas Sorrentino, Superboy meets her posse and finds he doesn't like alcohol. He likes the thugs who threaten Dallas even less. And as for their boss, moneylender Kavi is a full-on devil woman, bewitching the Clone of Steel with her mind powers. She's not ready for what she finds inside Superboy, though, and is forced to slink off into the night. Elsewhere, another woman is taking a big interest in Superboy - 31st-century detective Jocelyn Lure.

You'll notice that evil organisation NOWHERE, which has bedevilled this book with plotlines that go nowhere, is nowhere to be seen this issue. They're mentioned on the final page, but that's it. And apart from a couple of pages with Bunker and a one-panel Wonder Girl flashback, the similarly page-hogging Teen Titans are absent. Superboy #12 is new writer Tom DeFalco stepping away from the macro-plot and doing some proper character work.

This includes addressing Superboy's casual attitude to bank robbery last month, having him form an instant opinion on the wisdom of drinking alcohol, and not worrying unduly about using his powers in front of casual acquaintances. DeFalco elaborates on his known powers by having Superboy discover the very Silver Age gift of super-taste, manifest a Spider-Man-like danger sense and do something wonderfully weird with his telekinesis.

Better than the meta-abilities, though, is the fact that he shows some empathy, wishing to protect Dallas from danger. He's following his human instincts rather than denying them, hiding behind his status as a clone. While Kiva's reaction at the end of the issue hints that there's something monstrous inside Superboy, the signs are that he'll overcome it.

Which is what I want. The more DC teases the 'is he a good clone, or a bad clone?' angle, the less I like the book. DeFalco stressed this line of character development in a recent interview, but I suspect he's not planning to drag it out.

The introduction of an instant supporting cast this issue is a positive sign. As well as rich and mysterious Dallas, there's party boy Raz, nice girl Jules Bennett, athlete Sam Mendez and rich geek Hartford Howard Wellington V aka (and I love this, it's positively Peanuts) Fifth. They're all archetypes at the moment, but DeFalco is an old-school writer who's bound to develop them into characters, given half a chance. Right now, they're Not the Teen Titans, which is good enough for me - I want Superboy to own his book, rather than have it be an adjunct to DC's teen team. His own backing players is a big step in that direction.

Teen Titan Bunker, though, he can stick around. He's acting as Jiminy Cricket, helping Superboy develop his conscience. He's also a lot of fun (though he hits the same tired gay stereotype note that shows up in Batman this week - he just loves clothes and has great taste).

Villainess Kiva is a bit of a one-note witch so far, but again, it's her debut appearance, she could go in any number of directions. The only thing that seems off in this day and age is that she refers to herself as 'Kiva, Mistress of the Lost Domain!'. Does she not remember the name, then?

There's a similar moment of clunky introduction at the end, when Detective Jocelyn Lure, talking to herself as she watches video of Superboy's scrapes to date, says her name out loud. Ruddy drama queen. Editor Chris Conroy should be catching this sort of thing.

Otherwise, this issue's script is excellent, just good superheroics. There's a great moment when DeFalco has Superboy show impressive fighting skills - it's rare for non-superpowered combat in comics to seem anything other than throwaway, but here we have action that's easy to understand, and plausible (click on image to enlarge).
Clap your hands, then, for artist ... oh, hang on, there are two pencillers and no page breakdowns. Robson Rocha and Eduardo Pansica share the layouts job. I think the above is Pansica, but if anyone can confirm or deny, please do. (Nope, wrong - inker Greg Adams clarifies in the comments below, but in case you don't get that far, he says: 'The page in question was penciled by Robson Rocha, and inked by Greg Adams. They did the art pages of #1–4, 7-11, 19 and 20. Thank you for the kind words!' And thank you, Greg!)

Whatever the case, the issue looks sharp throughout. There's one instance of a pipecleaner cheesecake girl (bends any way you want her), but she's mostly hidden by text. Otherwise, there's nothing to object to and much to admire. Superboy's emotions are front and centre, the new cast members are distinctive and bad girl Kiva is memorable. There's a dual perspective on the big fight scene that works well and an amusing moment when the battle just happens to result in Superboy's outfit getting ripped and showing off his new 'S' tattoo - expect that to occur a lot!

Credit also needs to go to inkers Greg Adams, Mariah Benes and Andy Owens, for sharp finishing. With so many hands on deck this issue could have wound up a mess, but it's a good-looking whole; colourists Richard and Tanya Horie also deserve credit, for setting the mood for everything from a laser-lit nightclub to a savage land via a dirty back alley. Kiva's spooky voice comes courtesy of Travis Lanham's eye for fonts. There's even that rarity among DC's New 52 books: a double-page spread that earns its keep by advancing the story and looking pretty spectacular.

All this, and a Steve Lightle cover coloured by Hi-Fi!

All told, Superboy #12 is the best issue of this series to date, hands down. It has character, action, mystery, humour and looks great. More please.

Wednesday, 8 August 2012

Legion Lost #12 review

Legion Lost nemesis Alastor has a new power - body-hopping. He spends this issue bouncing from member to member, stealing their knowledge, revealing their secrets and generally messing with their heads. Physically and mentally, he sets member against member. And when he's not possessing Legionnaires he's inhabiting members of the Meta-Marines, the enhanced humans sicced on the team by the US government. But there's one member he can't possess, and they're key to getting rid of the man who released the Hypertaxis virus on 21st-century Earth.

If you can't guess who that Legionnaire is, turn in your flight ring at once - after you finish this terrific issue. Sure, writer Tom DeFalco still has Tellus doing Yoda impersonations, and the scene transitions remain bonkers ('Five blocks south and seventeen east'), but he skilfully wrangles seven Legionnaires, a bunch of US super-soldiers and one out and out villain. What's more, nearly everyone gets a good moment.

The finest scene of all belongs to dimension-hopping space-Marxist Gates (click to enlarge).
How could you not love the little guy?

The best thing about this issue is that it wraps up the Alastor plotline (I know, I've said that previously) and his spitting out the members' recently tacked-on secrets implies these strands will come to a head too. Let's hope so, as hidden agendas simply aren't Legion.

Pete Woods does another tremendous job with the art, rendering the Legionnaires with due care and attention for their powers and personalities. One thing he's especially good at is coming up with scary monster forms for Chameleon Girl Yera - boy, that woman can be scary. All this, and great storytelling.

The colours of Brad Anderson deserve applause too, being bright but not brash, pulling our eyes to where they need to be in the panel.

While I'm still hoping this book gets cancelled and replaced by a second 31st-century set Legion book, or a bi-weekly version of Legion of Super-Heroes, I have to say that this is the most entertaining issue in ages. I could actually feel that good old Legion spirit. And that's something I'll pay good money for.

Gambit #1 review

When Gambit needs some me time, it's time for a bit of thieving. But given he's an X-Man these days, he steals from criminals. In this debut issue the mark is Borya Cich, who finances costumed bad guys' schemes and, if their plans don't come off, takes their scientific or magical gimmicks. So it's off to a party at Cich's house, where a mix of wits, weapons and feminine wiles (er, someone else's) helps his heist come off.  Gambit doesn't want anything in particular, just the challenge. He has to take something, of course, which makes for a killer ending.

Writer James Asmus gives us a Gambit for today. Gone is the Pepe Le Pew soundalike, instead we have an instinctively intelligent guy who'll be whoever people want him to be if it'll help his goal. And today, no one wants him to be a heavily accented cartoon skunk.

Which isn't to say he doesn't employ the old charm, but the guest with whom he flirts obviously has her own agenda - he'd have had to work pretty hard not to have her 'fall' for him.

And I'm not wholly convinced Cich isn't playing Gambit too - the heist goes far too smoothly, considering the mutant uses his own name for the party and Cich knows Gambit's reputation.

All of which is a matter for future issues. This one, despite a cliffhanger, is pretty much a done-in-one. Like last week's Hawkeye, it features a hero out of costume, away from his regular team. Current storylines in the main book don't impinge one whit, allowing us to relax and just enjoy the comic at hand. There's a terrific panel of party guests talking about life in the Marvel Universe, but it adds texture and humour without demanding special knowledge on the part of the reader.

This opener is enjoyable. Remy is cocky without being arrogant, smart in the use of his powers. He's a good-looking chap too, as drawn by Clay Mann - fans will be delighted at the opening page's cheesecake. Slug-like criminal aside, penciller Mann and inker Seth Mann drew everyone real purty. The problem is that their action sequences aren't always clear. What, for example, is Gambit tossing an explosive tiepin at in this sequence?
A car presumably, but there's an establishing shot missing.

Later in the book there's a sequence of panels in which Ganbit is preparing to steal what looks to be a metal scarab beetle, but it's not at all clear why he's putting a metal clip on the stalk holding it up.

If Asmus and Mann can keep the storytelling tight, and the book away from crossovers. this could be a very enjoyable series. It's definitely off to a great start.

Batman #12 review

Emancipated siblings Harper and Cullen Row don't have it easy. Scrimping to get by in Gotham's Narrows district, electrical engineer Harper worries about her brother, the victim of regular gay-bashings. One day Harper stands up to the bully boys, and gets some unexpected aid - from Batman. She decides she's going to help him back. and finds new purpose.

This is an offbeat issue, as writer Scott Snyder properly introduces Harper Row, who appeared briefly in #1, and helped restart Batman's heart a few issues later - electrical engineering is cool, kids! Clever-clever name apart, she's an endearing sort: cute, smart, plucky - perfect fodder next time Batman has a fortnight's opening for a female Robin. It's a shame Cullen isn't equally admirable - he's stereotypically queeny in his desire to make his sister look nice, and caves before bullies. Sure, he's younger than Harper, and a gang of bullies isn't the easiest thing to stand up to, but Harper does. It's as if Cullen exists just to make Sis look good.

To be fair, though, Cullen has made precisely one appearance. Maybe he'll grow, and grow on me. Meanwhile, we have one attractive new supporting cast member with skills that can help Batman. She's the human face of the Narrows district Bruce Wayne aims to regenerate, a useful support for that ongoing subplot.

While not earth-shattering, Ghost in the Machine is a decent story, a good way to fill in the background of Night of the Owls events that went unexplained at the time. Batman barely appears, but he makes a big impression in just a few pages.

There's a metaphor here that's a bit strained, but it's OK - at least Snyder is trying. The only seriously daft moment comes when Harper finds one of the super-secret 'ghost grid' boxes that Batman uses to both borrow from, and boost, Gotham's electrical system - it has a massive great bat symbol  on it. Genius.

The art is a treat. Becky Cloonan - with some inking help from Sandu Florea - draws most of the book, giving the story an airy, indie feel, while Andy Clarke comes on for the final few pages (which are co-written by James Tynion IV). FCO Plascencia's sharp colour palette helps knits the different styles together.

While the limited appearance by Batman works for the script - this is Harper's tale - from a visual point of view, I'm disappointed Cloonan wasn't required to draw more of him. Because her Batman recalls early Bob Kane, or Walt Simonson - a weird figure of the night - and is cracking.
I'm a big Clarke fan - his REBELS work was excellent - but I'm not sure why he's been called in ... a whole Batman strip by Cloonan would've been tremendous. Maybe she just never had the time, even though this is a planned break for regular artist Greg Capullo.

Capullo's art and design skills are present on the cover, which is striking.

So thanks to all concerned for a decent done-in-one - I'm always interested to see spotlights on those who live in the shadow of the Bat. 

Thursday, 2 August 2012

Earth 2 #4 review

Five years ago, soldier Al Pratt was caught in an atomic weaponry experiment. Today, he's the secret hero of Earth 2's World Army and about to go public. The Rot champion, Grundy, is destroying the world's ecosystem and the Atom plans to stop him.

Before he gets to Washington, Hawkgirl and the Flash are on the scene, she attacking Grundy with a laser crossbow, he getting members of the public out of the way. And they're joined by the one Grundy has risen to destroy, the Earth's 'Jade Knight', Green Lantern. But three against one doesn't mean an easy win, as Grundy keeps regenerating from attacks, and two of the new heroes have problems getting the most out of their powers.

When the Atom does parachute into the battle, he's not what longtime readers might have expected - and there's existing bad blood between him and one of the other heroes.

It's all going terribly well. Not for the heroes, obviously, but for readers. With Atom debuting this time, and everyone in the same fight, we're a lot closer to the formation of a Justice Society than we were. The differing personalities are creating sparks, even if some of writer James Robinson's dialogue could benefit from his reading it out loud before committing it to the page. Grundy, for one, is equal parts Rot - dig that maggoty tongue - and exposition machine. So far as the bigger story is concerned, there's a real sense Robinson has things planned out nicely, with characters and plot points ladled out at a satisfying rate. And as with the Atom this time, he always has a surprise or to ready to land.

The cover's implication that we get Hawkgirl's origin proves specious, though we do learn that her name is Kendra and see how handy she is with that space age crossbow. Her sending the less-experienced Flash off to do rescue rather than frontline work comes across as sweetly protective where it could seem patronising, and Jay's reaction suggests a foundation for romance. The all-new Atom is military to his bones. And the determination of Green Lantern is inspiring.

Nicola Scott and Trevor Scott have help with the pencils and inks this issue, with Eduardo Pansica and Sean Parsons swapping in on a few pages. It's difficult to see the join, with the whole book fitting the style laid down by the two Scotts in this series' opening three issues. The heroes look vital, Grundy frightful, while the super-action convinces. The visual for the Atom that debuts here is strong, being distinctively superhero - or, as they say on Earth 2, 'Wonder' - but with military stylings suited to Al Pratt's status as a serving soldier.

It seems appropriate, therefore, that I salute the creative team for another fine issue. Keep 'em flying!

Wednesday, 1 August 2012

Hawkeye #1 review

What does an Avenger do when he's not saving the universe? If you're Hawkeye you try to help your neighbours escape the clutches of a Russian ruffian. And get a dog.

This is a simple tale, but one skilfully and stylishly told. While Clint Barton references his Avengers status, he's in civvies throughout, and there's not a super-villain in sight. Clint's narration, courtesy of writer Matt Fraction, is packed with personality; his Hawkeye is an adventurer rather than a thrillseeker, easygoing, yet focused, and if he had a super-power, it'd be his humanity - Clint isn't super-sweet, but he's a good friend to his neighbours and always ready to make new pals. He's no genius, but he's savvy, willing to meet people at their own level.

And he's in love with New York - the sights, the sounds ... the dodgy smells. Not for him the swank of Avengers Mansion or sterile floors of Stark Tower, not when there are grotty, vibrant apartment buildings to be had.

And as drawn by David Aja, the streets look magical. With just a few lines, some thick, some thin, he conjures up a cityscape, fire escape or cab-filled thoroughfare. Sometimes the effect is impressionistic, at others it's specific. And the unshaven, slightly bedraggled Clint fits right in (click on image to enlarge).
He does, mind, smarten up for part of the book, and looks great suited and booted - Aja puts many a comic artist to shame when it comes to drawing clothes that hang realistically. And while we don't see Clint in costume after the first couple of pages, Matt Hollingsworth's colours recall Hawkeye's outfits. They also do wonders when it comes to separating scenes, as we flash back and forth over several days. Chris Eliopoulos's letters, meanwhile, are as friendly as you'd wish, for this presentation of Hawkeye.

The only quibble I have is that Hawkeye acts like Daredevil villain Bullseye. Not in the sense of killing folk, but in his use of small everyday items as weapons and tools. After page 2, there's no bow and arrow, as Clint instead uses coins, cards and his own fighting skills.

I get that in a Seventies-style crime tale such as this, with Hawkeye out of costume, it's not easy to fit in a ruddy great bow and hi-tech quiver, but archery is Hawkeye's thing, his USP. There must be twanging.

The cover, by Aja and Hollingsworth, is wonderfully different - with luck, it's very difference will make it stand out, though I noticed the book only when I compared pull-list to purchases, and went looking for it. I'm reluctant to suggest eye-assaulting primaries, but there's a reason so many covers feature blasts of red.

Minor moans aside, I can't recommend this book enough for fans of Hawkeye, street-level fun or just well-crafted comics. It doesn't bother acknowledging the terribly convoluted continuity of Hawkeye over the past several years - Mockingbird doesn't merit a mention. Rather, it gives us a clean, tight, done-in-one that anyone with a fondness for Clint would have to work very, very hard to dislike.

Justice League International #12 review

I was worried about this one. It's the last issue of Justice League International, and the cover hints that Rocket Red isn't the only one being buried.

Inside, we're in epilogue territory. The super-powered terrorists the JLI fought over the last few issues are defeated, but some members are injured and one is dead. The able-bodied gather in a Russian cemetery to say a private goodbye to Gavril Ivanovich aka Rocket Red, and are attacked by Malik, brother of fallen villain Lightweaver. Can the downhearted League members rally to defeat this surprise attack?

Of course they can! This is the little team that could - derided by the so-called big guns of the original Justice League, under-promoted by DC Comics, they apply power and compassion to win the day. The other big difference between the JLI and JL is that they actually like one another, meaning the teamwork comes easily. Surely DC aren't really putting them out to grass so soon?

With UN backing and funds withdrawn, leader Booster Gold doesn't see how they can continue to function. But while Batwing plans to go back to Africa, and Batman reckons Gotham and the JL is enough for one hero, the latter does have faith, and resources. He's already having JLI headquarters rebuilt in Washington, and has put ongoing funding in place. OMAC, Green Lantern Guy Gardner, August General in Iron and Godiva want to stay on. Vixen and Ice - in hospital but at the ceremony via GL-vision - are game. And Fire will likely be up for it once the small matter of her being in a coma is overcome.

The League stands. Yay!

They even have an annual coming in a month's time.

Oh. An annual written by Geoff Johns. Writer of the 'flagship' Justice League book. A fan of maiming and death. That doesn't bode well.

Let's hope I'm just being a pessimist. I can bear the JLI book being canned, so long as the team is still out there, fighting the good fight. Heck, I could even stand the JLI being broken up, so long as the individual members are OK. Maybe one or two will join the Justice League, which is due a shake-up in its 12th issue. 

But the heroes of the JLI certainly deserve more than death or comics limbo. Writer Dan Jurgens, artists Aaron Lopresti and Matt Ryan, and the other creatives who worked on this run have given us a team worth caring about, one I wish to see grow. Even in this last issue, the creatives refuse to phone it in - the character interaction sparkles, with team bonds only strengthening, and several great lines of dialogue. The artwork is a feast for the eyes, from the splendid opening spread through to the inspirational final panel (if Lopresti isn't snapped up by a Batman title soon, I'll be amazed ... his Caped Crusader is first rate, whether looming in a tree or leaping across a graveyard). There are excellent colours, too, from Hi-Fi Designs, who manage to light scenes realistically without sacrificing drama. And Travis Lanham's letters are easy on the eye.
As for that cover by David Finch, Richard Friend and Sonia Oback, it evokes an elegiac mood beautifully.

So it's goodbye to the JLI monthly, one of the small number of New 52 titles that has kept quality and my interest up. The book deserves tributes rather than gravestones.