Wednesday, 31 October 2012

Action Comics Annual #1 review

Two old Superman villains make their DC New 52 debuts in this bumper issue. First up is the Kryptonite Man, whose deal is pretty similar to the already introduced Metallo - angry guy exuding deadly energy. The difference is that while the former has a Kryptonite heart, the latter glows from every orifice - right down to his nostrils. Lovely. Styling himself K-Man, Clay Ramsay gives Superman a hard time, with a personal grudge behind the blows. It's only the aid offered by John Henry Irons, in his Steel suit, that stops Superman succumbing to the green radiation.

Truth be told, the battle is pretty standard, as is K-Man's origin - he's transformed into an anti-Superman 'defence' by a mysterious scientist. What adds interest is writer Sholly Fisch's treatment of the characters: everyone convinces. There's General Sam Lane, obsessed with protecting the world from an alien he doesn't trust; Ramsay, fixated on his lost wife; and Superman and Irons, on the way to becoming friends. Fisch really gets what Superman is about, using Irons as his mouthpiece: '... maybe that's the mark of a superhero. Not just incredible powers or saving the day, but the effect you have on other people.' While over in the Superman title the world can't decide if he's saviour or threat, this book emphasises what generations know - he's a friend. Superman even holds a rescue pose long enough for Jimmy Olsen to take a cracking photo.
'Vulnerable' wanders back and forth over the course of a few days, a storytelling bugbear of mine, but Fisch's script keeps things transparent. And Cully Hamner's artwork is a treat, with standout panels aplenty and expressive people abounding. Especially gladdening is that Superman is allowed to smile, sincerely and broadly. The only disappointment is K-Man's costume, a generic jumpsuit with glowing lines ... I say let him make the most of his threat level, and go naked next time.

Or better still, dump him and bring in the classic Kryptonite Man - an alien imbued with Kryptonite energy who even had a Kryptonite dog for Krypto to fight. Put a non-human on the table and comparisons with Metallo recede.

Hamner's open style leaves plenty of room for colourist Val Staples to weave his magic, with clever bits of business including Irons holding up a green-gloved hand as he's assuring Superman that they're on the same side. Letterer Steve Wands completes the core creative team, presenting the script in attractive fonts.

There's nothing for a letterer to do in the back-up strip by filmmaker Max Landis (Chronicle) and artist Ryan Sook. It's a wordless short allowing Sook to show his storytelling chops as a scientist transforms into the Atomic Skull. We get the broad strokes - accident, power, exile, acceptance, resolve - but actual detail would be helpful. For example, there's one page in which the unnamed protagonist eats a boar cooked by his new atomic blast vision and, well, click on the image to enlarge and you tell me ...
Atomic belching? Transformation into a Star Sapphire? Knowing that Ryan Sook would be supplying both gorgeous illustrations and colour, I see a writer's temptation to let the artist do the talking - but it's Action Comics, not Action Storyboards. By the end we have yet another glowing villain - albeit one with a more grabby visual than K-Man - but no particular reason to care. A few well-chosen and placed words could have rectified that. Oh well, if Landis does more DC work, he's gotten this particular gimmick out of his system. At least, I hope he has.

All in all, this is a decent superhero comic, but missable. Despite a well-crafted story, K-Man fails to fascinate, while the Atomic Skull is one energy baddie too many for this issue - a detailed origin elsewhere would serve him better.

Thursday, 25 October 2012

Teen Titans #13 review

Cassie Sandsmark explains to Superboy and Red Robin how she came to be Wonder Girl. Accompanying her archaeologist mother Helena around the world, she was something of the master thief, stealing antiquities wherever they went. One day, a youth going by 'Diesel' steamrolled over her heart, and soon he was following the Sandsmarks around the world, snatching afternoons of sex with Cassie and joining in her crimes. When a mystical suit of armour threatened to steal his soul, Cassie took on the burden herself, becoming the super-strong Wonder Girl - but the longer she wears the invisible, whispering armour, the more of her own soul she loses.

And that's what passes for a superheroine origin in the DC New 52 - scumbag girl meets scumbag boy and their foolishness gets them into trouble. The message seems to be that greed plus hormones equals power. That Cassie has used the armour to help people since this comic began a year ago is nice, but it's redemption by default, as she's been rather the reluctant heroine.

The telling of Cassie's tale is motivated by an angry, power-hungry Diesel coming into her life again and taking the armour from her. The Titans trio are travelling halfway across the world to retrieve it, and Red Robin figures that knowledge is power, so Cassie finally reveals her background. I'm not buying that she's a daring thrillseeker, somehow worthy of sneaking admiration - she's a stupid kid with no respect for herself, her mother or others.

Of course, none of this puts the lid on Red Robin's crush; those Batman boys do like their bad girls. Thank goodness for the presence of Superboy, ever ready to puncture the pair's self-delusions with a bit of banter. He's the high point of a pretty dull issue ... Cassie's origin is far too drawn out, with the only real bit of interest being a surprise connection to a classic Teen Titan who made her New 52 debut this month.

The issue ends with a bit of story-setting involving Suicide Squad boss Amanda Waller and former Team 7 colleague Kurt Lance. I really am tiring of the same people popping up across the New 52, there are just too many mini-crossovers. We're over a year into this book and the first storyline still isn't resolved - how about DC wrap things up with mysterious bad guys NOWHERE before throwing new business at us?

To be honest, I'm tiring of this book. It's dragging, with no sense of focus. I can't remember anything that happened in the last few issues, other than that some dinosaur kids showed up. I know current penciller Brett Booth is leaving the book - apart from the sensationalistic cover, he's absent this time, but Ale Garza does a decent enough job of getting the story told. Maybe regular writer Scott Lobdell should go too. He's only half here anyway, supplying the story which Fabian Nicieza scripts. I'd like to see the reins handed over fully to former New Warriors writer Nicieza, and him given free reign to craft some storylines worthy of the Teen Titans legacy. The individual characters have potential - even Wonder Girl - but the book needs some tightly focused scripts, rich in incident, interest and theme.

If change doesn't come, I think I'll be leaving this series behind very soon.

The Fury of Firestorm the Nuclear Man #13 review

Yep, that's Nuclear MAN, singular. Writer/artist Dan Jurgens comes on board and it's no more Jason Firestorm and Ronnie Firestorm, no more two heroes merging into anger monster Fury. It's just the Firestorm, with Ronnie in the driving seat and Jason as back-seat driver.

That's not to say Ronnie gets to be star attraction, as Jason is very much the equal partner, on hand to discuss strategy and supply the chemistry knowledge to affect molecular changes. And cajole and nag too, because that makes for fun reading. But vitally, there's none of the outright hostility of earlier issues - the teenagers have found common ground, realising that they have to work together to survive. And they may not admit it out loud, but each seems to be enjoying spending time with someone they'd once have crossed the street to avoid.

The threats this time come from a shady organisation gathering information on Firestorm, headed by all-purpose Army creep General Eiling. First there's a robot, Dataxen, that adapts to resist the hero's powers of transformation. Then there's a trio of meta-villains, Black Star, Relay and Skull Crusher, who are also kitted up to give the Nuclear Man a hard time.

The soap comes via Ronnie's mother Joanne and Jason's dad Al, who find that they have more in common than superhero sons, and Jason's girlfriend Tonya, as she lends Ronnie a helping hand. What's more, sharing headspace means Ronnie and Jason get to talk domestic stuff alongside the tactics (click on image to enlarge).
And on the final page, there's the return of a DC hero not seen since, oh, last month.

There's nothing radical here but there is a highly enjoyable story introducing the comic's new status quo amid high-octane superhero action. Veteran Jurgens uses his supportng cast to bring new readers up to speed and wisely eschews any mention of the international Firestorms who previously bogged down this book. So it's goodbye wannabe Green Lantern Corps, and hello to the pure Firestorm concept. Done right, Firestorm doesn't need to dance to anyone else's tune, because the character created by Gerry Conway and Al Milgrom in the Seventies has his own storytelling engine - jock and brain combine to fight crime.

Jurgens concentrates on the relationship between Jason and Ronnie and how it makes them a particular kind of hero. The extremely unlikable kids of earlier issues are gone, replaced by a pair who aren't perfect, aren't best pals, but likewise aren't irredeemable arses. He gets the basics right immediately, freeing himself to take Firestorm places he's not been before.
The introduction of the three human baddies is a little clunky, with lots of awkward namechecking, but I'll take clarity over 'cleverness' anytime.

As for Jurgens the artist, it's the usual clean, solid work that it's very easy to take for granted. But Jurgens has mastered his craft and it shows on every page, with the civvies sequences being every bit as interesting as the action moments. Ray McCarthy inks and embellishes, ensuring the work looks suitably sharp before Hi-Fi applies the vibrant colours. As has been known to happen in a DC New 52 book, there's a gory killing, but Jurgens' panel design and Hi-Fi's hues ameliorate overt nastiness. Travis Lanham letters, turning in a good, clean job and giving Ronnie and Jason distinctively shaded balloons and fonts.

If you've been put off Firestorm by unpleasant characters and a muddied concept, try this issue - it's back to the Firestorm of old, without ever feeling tired.

Wednesday, 24 October 2012

National Comics #1: Madame X review

TV psychic turned law firm investigator Madame X turns her tarot towards finding out who killed a New Orleans politician in this one-shot pilot issue. A vocal critic of a wannabe witch queen, could Councilman Ben Meachum really have been killed by a zombie, as neighbours claim?

Madame X? X for Xanadu, presumably, as DC already has a card-reading mystery woman on the books and it would be distinctly weird to create a wholly separate character. So it's Madame Xanadu and yet it's not. It's Madame Xanadu via TV's Medium, as the heroine uses her gift to help law enforcement. Nima is a more urban character than the Arthurian Nimue featured in Demon Knights and Justice League Dark, less mysterious and all-knowing, more klutzy and endearing. Partnered with lawyer Salinger, she works for Mr Lynn, a deeply moral man who won't take on just any client, no matter how fat their wad of cash.

Said client is Lauren Goucuff, 'current owner of the sobriquet Voodoo Queen of New Orleans', a mocking femme fatale who admits threatening Meachum, but denies knifing him to death. The relationship that develops between her and Nima is fascinating, raising questions of desire, belief and meaning. The resolution to the mystery is well-crafted and satisfying, being half-guessable and wholly plausible.

And after the mystery? The set-up for Madame X's next adventure, something I hope we'll see (along with the continuation of Eternity's National Comics outing - heck, team them up).

So, not the most original comic out there, but it is a splendidily written, good-looking one. Writer Rob Williams paces his one-shot well, revealing character and relationships via pithy, witty dialogue. While I didn't understand the reason a billionaire sued Nima in her backstory, that may just be me.
Artist Trevor Hairsine piles on the mood, with the opening zombie encounter especially atmospheric, and dares to present a lead character more often homely than beautiful (click on image to enlarge). The colours of Antonio Fabela add to the feeling of dread. What's more, Fiona Staples supplies a cute and clever cover, topped off with a wonderful blurb.

If you're in the mood for a New Orleans zombie comic but can't face Vertigo's Dominique Laveau: Voodoo Child (few could - she's been cancelled!), give Madame X a try.

Superman #13 review

On the sixth day, he rested. For five days, Superman has been bench-pressing the earth's weight, testing his limits with 'omniologist' Dr Shay Veritas. Back in Metropolis, he walks in on roomie Jimmy Olsen having sex in the shower with an unnamed woman. At the Daily Planet, in his Clark Kent mode, he lectures colleagues Lois Lane and Perry White on journalistic values before giving boss Morgan Edge a similar rant. Believing that it's time for good old-fashioned reporting to fight back against 'infotainment', Clark quits. Inspired by his move, gossip reporter Cat Grant follows, declaring that she wants to join Clark in his new endeavours.

Cat's left alone when Clark rushes off to change to Superman, a gigantic winged monster having appeared over Metropolis. A fight ensues, Superman and space dragon wind up in Ireland, and Supergirl appears, mad as hell at her cousin.

Again. The angry Kara bit has gotten really old. Here she's annoyed because Superman had told her the pair of them were the only survivors of their world's destruction, yet he must have known he was fighting a Kryptonian beastie. God forbid Superman might not have recognised the creature, having left the planet as a baby ... no, in cranky Kara's eyes, he's a big old liar and she's ready to punch him.

And it's not like I can blame lack of coordination between the Super-books, given that this issue is the prologue to a crossover with the Supergirl and Superboy titles, H'el on Earth. Probably, Kara's mood will lighten, being an end-of-issue Big Dramatic Moment, but I'd rather another storytelling choice had been made.

Otherwise, Scott Lobdell and Kenneth Rocafort, the third creative team in this book's short existence, get off to a confident start. I like that attention is being paid to Superman's life in civvies, even if Clark is coming across as a self-righteous douche. I work in a newsroom, and heaven knows, he's right about the tsunami of press releases masquerading as real stories - but chewing out your colleagues? Railing at your boss? That's not the way to bring change, and it's not like he's in a moral position to lecture anybody, having spent days being Superman on company time. When Perry points out that he's not filed anything all week in his role as Superman correspondent, the slovenly dressed Clark simply gets surly. The man has a bad attitude.

And a guy who speaks like this - see left - really shouldn't be nagging fellow journalists about anything (click on image to enlarge).

As for ethics, what happened to his? He clearly has no respect for Lois, reading her private texts to learn that boyfriend Jonathan is moving in with her. Stalker. And given that in Justice League he's all over Wonder Woman, which is acknowledged here, Clark comes across like an immature teenager, not knowing what he wants. I'm all for a Superman with identifiable human emotions, but 'likeable non-idiot' is good too.

Have we ever had such an obvious indication of someone having sex in a Superman comic as soapy Jimmy and pal? I realise this series is rated T for Teen, but I think of Superman as an all-ages character. By all means imply that stuff is happening, in a way older readers will pick up on - in the Seventies there was a running gag around boeuf bourguignon - but show? I'm not so sure. And besides, I like my Jimmy to be a loser with the ladies ... let's at least hope the naked girl is a disguised alien from Dimension X.

Things I like about this issue include the intriguing Dr Veritas - why does she appear multiple times in one panel, how did her right side become impaired and is she Tamaranean or simply tanned? It's good that the supporting cast is getting some attention, especially Cat Grant, who's not had a chance to make an impression in the new continuity. Lobdell's narration is engaging, particularly the throwaway references - 'Seven Sisters of Sin and Avarice'; 'Talking Sun of Alktos Prime' - which could have come straight out of All-Star Superman, which supplies this month's title: 'They will join you in the sun.' And there's a cute trick Superman pulls off in Ireland which involves a clever blend of brainpower and super-powers.

Rocafort's artwork is a breath of fresh air, signalling that we're in one of those Bold New Eras comics used to give us every now and then. The cover's not great - he's trying far too hard to be true to the abhorrent armoured costume - and the punching pose looks awkward. After that, though, things get a lot better, very quickly. The opening scene in Dr Veritas's lab near the centre of the earth has a certain wonder, while Metropolis looks like the City of Tomorrow it's meant to be. The compositions are dynamic, the Kryptonian monster is a fine update on Silver Age designs and Lois, Cat, Perry and co look splendid, with real animation to them. As for Superman himself, he's a good-looking, strong chap, as he should be, and it's great to see that - New 52 be damned! - he still has red shorts.
There's a new sound effect for super-speed, which appears several times, without ever convincing. I mean, FOS? Otherwise, the art's all good, with Sunny Gho's colours brightly emphatic.

So, not a perfect issue, but solid and showing ambition. If Lobdell and Rocafort can find the form they've shown in Red Hood and the Outsiders, and DC's higher-up give them a bit of creative freedom, the Superman book could be in for interesting times. I'll give them a pass for the next couple of months, as inter-title crossovers tend to hobble individual ambition. But after that? Impress me.

Thursday, 18 October 2012

Justice League #13 review

What a difference a few months makes. It's not that long ago that Wonder Woman was attacking her Justice League teammates for the very suggestion that they might help with what she considered private business. But here she is, persuaded that the rest of the League should assist her in finding a lost tribe connected to longtime foe the Cheetah.

Partly, Diana's acceptance is due to persuasive words from Superman, colleague turned potential boyfriend. But I'm choosing to believe that she's growing, further evidence being that she doesn't loose her sword on the Cheetah during the scrap that kicks off this issue. Instead, she's a Wonder Woman I recognise, appealing to the friendship she once shared with Barbara Minerva, antiquities expert turned host to 'the goddess of the hunt'. It seems that in the DC New 52 universe, the big cat goddess shares - or fights for - territory with Diana's namesake, adding a new layer to the Cheetah and Wonder Woman's traditional enmity.

We learn the Cheetah's origin via back and forth scenes: Steve Trevor tells it to Batman and Aquaman from his hospital room, while Diana fills in the other JL members at the Watchtower. All the superheroes finally converge on the Amazon jungle, where a nasty surprise awaits.

Other business sees Wonder Woman and Superman ponder what last issue's kiss - which has been going on for two months, given they're still super-snogging as we join them this time - means for them; and Cyborg and Flash bond some over the former's enigmatic existence. This second scene is my favourite part of the issue, showing that the Leaguers can be more than the suspicious frat boys they've seemed to date.

For whatever reason, writer Geoff Johns gives us his best JL script in awhile, with a satisfying blend of villainous antics and deepening character. Another thing in the book's favour is the absence of regular penciller Jim Lee and his inflatable Diana doll. Instead we have Tony S Daniel, who's equally adept at the big moments, but stronger than Lee when it come to the acting. For example, he really sells the attraction between the League's heaviest hitters (click on image to enlarge).
The only thing I don't like with Daniel's pencils - which are inked by the very able Batt and Richard Friend - is Superman's constant floating around his team-mates, a distancing tic inherited from Lee. Tomeu Morey's colours are fine throughout, and add an extra lushness to the Amazon scenes.

There's no Shazam back-up this time, instead, there's a prelude to the upcoming Justice League of America series. Amanda Waller tells Steve Trevor she's replacing him as JL liaison, and Oliver Queen, aka Green Arrow, shows up with a mysterious object. It's six pages of fun foreboding courtesy of Johns, Jeff Lemire, Brad Walker and Drew Hennessy. The artists do well in distinguishing between Steve and Oliver - they're both lantern-jawed blonds but it's easy to tell then apart, and the composition throughout is first class.
One question. Who's Waller referring to here? Justice League Dark member Black Orchid, who's known to use disguises, or someone we've not seen yet? Would it be too much to hope that chameleon girl Gypsy is an as-yet-unannounced member of the upcoming JLA team?

I guess we'll find out once January, and the JLA's debut issue, rolls around. Meanwhile, I'll be watching this Cheetah serial with interest, hoping for yet more improvements.

Wednesday, 17 October 2012

Marvel Now! Point One #1

This oversized issue sets the scene for, or gives the flavour of, some upcoming Marvel launches. So let's just launch into its contents.
  • In a prelude to the Guardians of the Galaxy, we meet the future Starlord on the day young Peter Quill's life is shattered by strange visitors. Brian Michael Bendis provides an affecting, sharp script, while Steve McNiven and John Dell's finely crafted, thoughtful artwork puts me in mind of Gary Frank.
  • The new Nova who showed up in last year's Marvel Point One gets another strip, by the same creative team of Jeph Loeb, Ed McGuinness and Dexter Vines, and this time with the promise of an actual series to follow. His encounter with Diamondhead is engaging enough fluff, but fails to trail the series properly - unless the book is going to be old Richard Rider villains mistaking new guy Sam Someone for him. I said it last year, but it bears repeating - Nova looks like a really young kid. He is, though, meant to be old enough for Thor to have invited him to join the Avengers - perhaps McGuinness and Vines could bear this in mind? Oh, and fans of in-jokes may enjoy a brief trip to Kansas, though the scene doesn't hold up to examination.
  • Ant-Man Scott Lang, who's one of the new FF members, stars in a short courtesy of that book's creative team, Matt Fraction and Michael Allred. He's sneaked into Latveria to take revenge on Dr Doom for the death of his daughter Cassie, the Young Avenger named Stature. Ant-Man's commentary on his misadventures is great stuff, but the pay-off, while smilesome in a whimsical way, is horribly off-key given his motivation. The art from Allred and colourist Laura Allred, though, pops throughout.
  • The best of the bunch is Kieron Gillen, Jamie McKelvie and Mike Norton's Young Avengers prologue, which sees the new Miss America meet Kid Loki for a bite to eat on Earth 212. It's thoroughly entertaining, sets up mysteries, features a fun fight and ends with a cute full-page flyer inviting us to join the new Young Avengers. And while I'm by no means young, I'll be there, if only to try Volstagg's 'Asgardian Korean fusion'.
  • Forge fixes a weird robot thingie, then Cable drops in to ask for help with his dicky arm in a dull entry by Dennis Hopeless and Gabriel Hernandez Walta. Forge talks to himself a lot while looking like the Prisoner of Zenda, while Cable merely shows up at the end in his Knowing Future Man way. It's advertising Cable & X-Force, and while I wish the book the best of British, it's not for me.
  • There's another Knowing Future Man in the framing story by Nick Spencer and Luke Ross, and he's the most annoying person ever to appear on the printed page. Lifted by SHIELD after taking over the world's markets in a single morning on the stock exchange, he spends page after page wittering cryptic warnings without ever saying anything. I'd have thrown him from the helicarrier by the bottom of page two, but Agents Coulson and Samuel L Jackson let him ramble on and on until things get out of control. Supposedly, he's telling the stories in this issue, but the conceit's unconvincing. There's a fight scene that makes Coulson seem clever in retrospect, but that doesn't excuse the lack of clarity in the barney itself. Anyway, if the new Secret Avengers book this story is selling us is going to be about averting terrible futures, count me out - Marvel's done the idea to death. Plus, the idea of a team of Avengers constantly being mindwiped by SHIELD - they're that secret - is ridiculous even for superhero comics. Fans of in-jokes may enjoy one of Cryptic Guy's predictions ... but I doubt it.

So there you have it, 49pp of strip for $5.99, which by Marvel standards is a positive bargain. If it were a DC comic, though, this would likely be a dollar. Still, it's an entertaining time passer - certainly better than last year's equivalent - with one outstanding short and a terrific cover by Adi Granov. It's Marvel NOW!, if not quite Marvel WOW!

DC Universe Presents #13: Black Lightning and Blue Devil

I do enjoy a good pair of mismatched heroes. Green Lantern/Green Arrow; Power Man/Iron Fist; Blue Beetle/Booster Gold before they became a two-headed idiot ... now here's Blue Devil and Black Lightning, making their DC New 52 debuts.

I expected light-hearted supernatural stuntman and streetwise gangbuster bouncing off one another. Instead I got two gritty heroes brawling, despite being after the same ganglord. Said baddie is Tobias Whale, the only memorable enemy of the original Black Lightning. He's running the rackets Blue Devil is smashing when this issue opens. A trash-talking demonic figure, Blue Devil stamps down on a drug deal, as Black Lightning watches from a distance. Despite the former attacking Whale's thugs, the latter assumes he's working for the crook, and a fight ensues. It's trident, chain and athletics vs black bolts of electricity, with Blue Devil winning until the arrival of police distracts him, giving Black Lightning the upper hand. The heroes flee the scene separately.

The rest of the issue introduces us to Black Lightning, aka Jefferson Pierce, in his teaching day job, and his reporter father, who's also trying to end Whale's reign as Los Angeles kingpin. We see Whale ordering his men to find out who the new heroes are. We learn that Blue Devil is a character, a dangerous movie effect worn by a guy named Dan, against the advice of his grandfather. There's another fight with Whale's men, and a tragic ending ...

So two relatives are introduced in an origin story and one looks set to die by book's end. Quelle surprise. That's the DC New 52 for you, a version of superhero comics in which fun seems verboten. Blue Devil aims for Batman-style scare tactics while Black Lightning is so serious he can't tell the difference between friend and foe. They operate in a gritty urban milieu and don't like one another.

But Mark Andreyko's Manhunter work proved him a clever writer capable of surprises and this, the first of a five-part story, shows he still knows how to produce a pacy script. Surely - surely - he's going to subvert New 52 expectations and make Blue Devil the happy-go-lucky hero he was during his Eighties run. And I can't believe he'll make Black Lightning all serious, all the time. Otherwise, what's the point? The DC Universe that debuted in 2011 is full of one-note types who couldn't crack a smile to save their lives - maybe this is where that changes. One mainly funny hero, one generally serious guy - that equals a niche, a USP, and that's what I want to see

Robson Rocha and Oclair Albert's art is effective, presenting a convincingly grimy LA, peopled by thugs and prostitutes. The heroes look impressive on the page, though the stars' character designs aren't my cup of tea. Blue Devil has a ridiculous open chest panel, ugly clawed feet and dumb dangling chain. Black Lightning has a dull outfit that looks like one of Nightwing's cast-offs, while his energy bolts come across as rather apologetic.

Tobias Whale, mind, looks tremendous - powerful, imposing, full of rage, while Jefferson and his dad are a convincing father and son. Overall, this is good superhero stripwork, easy to follow, full of dynamism and vibrantly coloured by Gabe Eltaeb.

Ryan Sook's cover is good work too, showing our heroes as belonging to, literally, different worlds. And the joint logo is excellent, with its cute lightning bolt and devil horns.

I'll give this series-within-a-series another look next month, hoping for a change in tone or some signs of interesting personalities. So far, it's not a bad comic, just not what I want to read.


Sunday, 14 October 2012

SPECIAL GUEST REVIEW Red She-Hulk #58 by Eugene Liptak

Bruce Banner’s love interest Betty Ross has played an important supporting role, for better or for worse, ever since the Incredible Hulk debuted 50 years ago. Her reincarnation as the Red She-Hulk during Jeph Loeb’s time on the Hulk titles has gained popularity thanks to Greg Pak and Matt Fraction’s respective runs on Incredible Hulks and Defenders. As part of Marvel NOW! her new solo series begins with General Reginald Fortean successfully demonstrating the capabilities of three volunteers from his Echelon super soldier programme to a small gathering of the military-industrial complex. The joy proves short lived when Red She-Hulk makes her splash page entrance with a heavy tank held above her head. The three Echelon soldiers initially gain the upper hand by wrapping the tank's gun barrel around Betty. Betty, however, is the master and in short order she teaches the recruits that being superhuman means one has to absorb plenty of physical and verbal punishment (click on image to enlarge).
Despite the rout suffered by Echelon, along with Betty’s warning that more of the same will follow if he continues with his programme, Fortean soon has Captain America searching for her from his Avengers Quinjet. Machine Man, flying alongside, soon detects Betty in her human form, infiltrating an Echelon facility in Virginia. Betty arrives just in time to find recently paroled, and very muscular, programme volunteer Vin Corsico about to tear the clothes off a female lab technician.
A brutal slugfest ensues that leaves Betty caught in a headlock, with Corsico suggesting they should participate in some government-funded coupling. Betty’s enraged response results in Corsico’s right arm snapped in two before a fatal left hook leaves him crumpled on the ground before her, ending the issue.

Writer Jeff Parker succeeds in setting up a compelling story, with Betty’s strength and fighting skill the main attractions. Machine Man’s character profiles of Betty and her father are woven into the story, cleverly catching readers up with her recent history without interrupting the narrative. The reason Betty has gone rogue against Echelon is not fully explained, but her precision-guided maelstroms against it, risking a collision course with the Avengers, are enough to have me impatiently awaiting the next issue. 

One nitpick is the fact that General Fortean is part of the United States Army Air Force - which has not existed since 1947, unless General Billy Mitchell’s dream of a separate air force went unrealised in the Marvel Universe. 

Pencilers Carlo Pagulayan and Wellington Alves choreograph Parker’s script nicely without any jarring transitions between their respective art styles. Colourist Val Staples provides subdued hues that highlight well the little details like Betty’s red streaks and glowing yellow eyes. 

If Pagulayan's cover is any indication, Betty will soon deal with plenty of familiar faces. One wonders what Jennifer Walters has to say about what Betty is up to.

Eugene Liptak is an author and a librarian. He is currently writing a book about US Navy special warfare units of the Second World War for Osprey Publishing.

Thursday, 11 October 2012

Batman #13 review

He's been gone from Gotham for a year, but the Joker is back and Batman's on the back foot. The knave rampages through GCPD headquarters killing cops. He reenacts the murder that first got Batman's attention, years before. And he tweaks another of his greatest hits, stymieing the Gotham Guardian's attempts to outthink him. Finally, a Red Hood impersonator appears with a message for the Batman - your many allies have made you soft, but don't worry, the Joker is going to do you a favour and kill them all, 'so that you may be reborn as The Bat-Man this city deserves'. And while Batman is having his time wasted by the rouge rogue, the Joker is already enacting his plan ...

Seriously, the Joker makes Batman look like a rank amateur here. The hero gets ever more rattled throughout the issue, until he's screaming at an unmasked Harley Quinn - er, spoiler alert - for information. But why? I really don't get why the reappearance of the Joker is such a huge deal that Batgirl and various Robins are wetting themselves over the phone. Yes, he crippled Batgirl, murdered Jason Todd and, if previous continuity holds, killed Gordon's wife Sara. But he's just a man; he managed these very personal crimes because he caught the victims off-guard. A Batman Family watching out for the Joker should be able to outmanoeuvre him. He's a lunatic, but could he really be so unpredictable as to constantly surprise people who have, between them, foiled him dozens of times? Isn't the enemy to be feared one you've never met previously, rather than an old foe whose MO doesn't vary a great deal?

But to get the most out of this story, which is running through, at my count, nine titles, over the next five months, we have to accept that the Joker is a nigh-unstoppable, almost supernatural terror, his coming presaged by such portents of doom as the birth of two-headed zoo animals.

Which I don't. Unless he's taken off the board early, an in-character Damian Wayne would strafe the Clown Prince of Crime with a sub-machine gun.

Scott Snyder's script has lots of good touches, from Gordon's efforts to give up smoking, to Batman and the Commissioner having a chat in an elevator shaft. He conjures up a very creepy scene in the arrival of the Joker at GCPD (whose members seem even more shamefully inept than Batman), and the idea of the Joker hiding under Gordon's bed as he sleeps is genuinely unnerving. What's more, he writes a mean Damian - literally.

But the aftermath of the police station massacre is laughable (click on image to enlarge).
'He told a joke.' Meet Jim Gordon, Master of the Bleeding Obvious. What next? 'Hawkman flew.' 'The Flash ran fast.' Get a grip, man - I'm all for a bit of melodrama, but let's try to stay on the right side of Silly.

The art by penciller Greg Capullo and inker Jonathan Glapion hides some of the weaknesses of the script; everyone looks jolly panicked so perhaps the Joker is that scary. I like how they're simplifying Batman by the issue, making him more of a shadow than a man. Conversely, it's gladdening that once the mask is off, Bruce Wayne is recognisably human, and vulnerable. Aided by colourist FCO Plascencia, Capullo and Glapion produce a wonderfully moody opening vignette of Gordon and sidekick Harvey Bullock in the rain. And the fight with 'Red Hood' is masterfully presented.
There's more brilliant artwork in the linked back-up, this time by Jock. Working from a sharp, punchy script by Snyder and James Tynion IV detailing the encounter between Harley and 'Mr J' that led to her brief Red Hood gig, Jock dazzles with his full colour stripwork. The Joker has rarely looked so terrifying, Harley so vulnerable and haunted. In an ingenious touch, Harley's colouring evokes Benday dots, as if she's a cartoon given life. And the final image? Brrrrrr.

If DC doesn't look at these pages and immediately commission a graphic novel with Jock artwork, then someone's asleep at the wheel - there's a classic out there, waiting to be willed into life.

The USP of this issue, if you ignore this week's Batgirl, is the die-cut Joker mask attached to the cover. Suggesting that if Damian doesn't kill the Joker, gingivitis will, it's an attention grabber, while being annoyingly flappy. A few more of these things and I'll be ripping them off the comic and attaching them to random cats.

The Joker would be proud.

Wednesday, 10 October 2012

AVX: Consequences #1 review

Avengers Vs X-Men is over and the consequences are:
  • The Black Panther's people don't want help from the X-Men to rebuild Wakanda after it was razed by Namor.
  • Cyclops is in a regular prison, his powers kept on a leash via a new inhibitor collar the Government intends to roll out now the mutant population is once more on the rise.
  • Having fulfilled her supposed destiny and sent the Phoenix Force packing, Hope Summer tells Captain America and the Scarlet Witch that she just wants to live a normal life - likely as a cover to go looking for her foster father, Cable.
  • Iron Man and Captain Marvel are searching for Cyclops' ally Magneto.
  • Cap suspects a traitor in the ranks is helping former Phoenix Fivers Namor, Emma Frost, Magik and Colossus stay one step ahead of efforts to find them.
Basically, it's subplot after subplot, all of which could - and likely should - be addressed in one of the several dozen existing X-Men or Avengers books. Kieron Gillen's script is decent, but at base this reads like the result of a 'Get more product out there' memo; there are none of the character flourishes or wacky concepts with which Gillen can dazzle when he's on an under-the-radar book. Never mind Scott Summers, it's the writer who's in chains here. 

Tom Raney pencils and inks and the results are variable. The pages with Wolverine, Storm and the Jean Grey kids are exemplary, really good looking. A scene with Wolverine towards the end, coloured by Jim Charalampidis, is also excellent (click on image to enlarge). 
But then there's the less-successful sequence with Iron Man and Captain Marvel, which looks as if Raney is trying for the tone Dexter Wong evokes in the latter's own book. And the Hope scene, which reminds me of an especially wonky Mark Bagley. It's weird, I think of Raney as super-dependable, one of the unsung heroes of mainstream comics. Was he rushed, experimenting with styles or simply having an off-day? I don't know - but I still reckon him underrated.

As a Legion of Super-Heroes fan, I'm a bit of a sucker for 'traitor within the team' stories, but with five more issues of Consequences at $3.99 for 20pp of story, I think I'll pass. I don't doubt Gillen and Raney will make this entertaining, but at the prices Marvel charges, books need to feel essential.

Batgirl #13 review

The gimmick cover promises that this is a Death of the Family Prologue. And if one page counts as prologue, that it is. For the rest, though, this is the continuation of Batgirl's battle with Knightfall, and that's fine by me - we're in the middle of a gripping storyline and I don't want it short-shrifted to fit some crossover schedule. I can wait another month for Barbara Gordon's run-in with the Joker. 

As we join Batgirl she's bleeding out, stabbed in the gut by murderous vigilante Knightfall. After several pages of nicely choreographed action, and help from an unexpected quarter, the tables are turned and Knightfall is on her way to prison. Batgirl and latecomer allies Batwoman and Det. McKenna know she'll soon be back on the streets - as rich girl gone mad Cherise Carnes, Knightfall can steer the wheels of justice away from her - but they're making a point: not everyone can be bought. When Knightfall shows up again, she'll be challenged.

Back at her flat, roommate Alysia introduces a delighted Barbara to her new cat, Alaska. Barbara would be less enthusiastic about the furry darling were she to know who'd given it to Alysia - her own psycho brother, James Gordon Jr. James Gordon Jr who was watching her fight with Knightfall over CCTV.

Across town, meanwhile, Barbara's mom's home is being invaded by Joker henchmen who seem to have formed a Killing Joke tribute act ...

My distaste for the level of brutality aside, this is a terrific comic. Writer Gail Simone's Batgirl is by now as engaging a heroine as in her Oracle days, a great fighter and probable genius who never allows herself to be cocky - she knows she's just one wrong move away from death. And while Barbara's constantly checking her feelings, she's a million miles from being self-obsessed: if she can help just one victim, any amount of pain is worthwhile.

The guy she's helping here is Ricky, a car thief who had his leg hacked off by Knightfall's crew in their twisted version of justice. I hope Simone adds him to the supporting cast, I love it when Barbara helps people find the right path, and given Ricky's injury, the formerly crippled hero could help rehabilitate him on two fronts.

Knightfall is barking, and we see just what that means this issue, as she gives Batgirl more of her backstory. She's certainly the most engaging of this book's new villains to date, and I look forward to her return.

Pencilling and inking, Ed Benes gifts this book possibly its best-looking issue yet. Fractured panel arrangements and postures make for a frenetic ride, while the emotions are always evident on the players' faces. At times Benes goes for a finish reminiscent of Bill Sienkiewicz, something rhat's especially effective as we're reintroduced to Knightfall's prisoner (click on image to enlarge). 
What's more, he makes Alaska just beautiful. And the colouring of Ulises Arreola tends towards the naturalistic without neglecting the drama.

Gimmicky as the cover by Greg Capullo and FCO Plascencia is, it's also well done - the ultra-close-up of Batgirl's head behind the Joker mask is rather striking.

This book has been getting better by leaps and bounds - and it wasn't bad to start with. If the basically irrelevant cover brings in a  few new readers, I shan't complain. I doubt they will either.

Uncanny Avengers #1 review

With the Avengers/X-Men war over, Captain America begins putting a new team together. His first potential recruit, Havok, proves useful when Avalanche attacks New York City, declaring that the mutants are back. Lives are saved but Avalanche, whose brain is operated on by an unseen figure at the start of the issue, escapes.

At the Jean Grey school, Wanda the Scarlet Witch lays flowers at the memorial to Professor Charles Xavier - killed by a Phoenix-possessed Cyclops. Her mental pledge to continue Xavier's dream of humans and mutants peacefully co-existng is interrupted by the X-Man Rogue. Rogue whacks Wanda one, declaring that the witch set in motion the events that led to Xavier's death.

Rogue tries to absorb some of Wanda's hex power, but apparently fails. Something happens though - an attack by a bunch of goofy villains glorying in such names as The Goat-Faced Girl and the Living Wind (fnar). One heroine gets gutted.

The story ends with the mystery villain revealed. It's the Red Skull, and he's eschewing his usual MO of going after such super-maguffins as the Cosmic Cube and Bloodstones, instead extracting 'the most powerful weapon on Earth' - Xavier's brain.

Yuk. that's almost as nasty as the new outfits worn by our heroes. Cap has swapped his regular costume for a bathmat tunic and coal scuttle helmet. Wanda has given up the swimsuit and cape for tight trousers and red raincoat. Havok is wearing a dulled-down version of his Neal Adams look. It's all rather alarming. I realise that the classics will be back eventually, it's just a shame we have to look at these new-for-Marvel-NOW efforts in the meantime.

Other than the outfits, and the awkward-looking cover shot of grumpy heroes, artist John Cassaday does a commendable job, especially in the opening pages; the shots of  Avalanche's surgery are fascinatingly grisly, while the scene of Wolverine preparing to give Xavier's eulogy has a quiet power. His work is complemented by the splendid colouring of Laura Martin.

Rick Remender's script is pretty good as he balances backstory and set-up with hints of excitement to come. The team membership could yield interesting dynamics, though the overexposed Wolverine and Cap should be swapped out for, well, anybody - Wonder Man and Beast would be smashing.

Remender doesn't bother having Cap repeat his Avengers Vs X-Men #12 claim that he should have done more to teach the world to sing mutants' praises, likely remembering that Cap led an Avengers that was 50 per cent mutants - one of whom was Wanda - as far back as Avengers #16 (1965). Instead, it's a matter of him just presenting Havok with the idea that he wants 'Avengers and X-Men working together. Setting an example of cooperation.'

We see how this could work as Cap has Havok blast him with a plasma bolt, sending him spinning across the city to the scene of Avalanche's attack. We aren't privy to how Cap survives the landing - perhaps it's those stylish new kneepads.

The one moment I really didn't like was yet another superhero being disembowelled (but not really). It's gotten very boring.

My favourite scene sees Havok visit imprisoned brother Cyclops and tell him how thoroughly he's bungled Xavier's dream of humans and mutants united. Which is fair, though I do feel Cyclops should be cut a little slack for his actions while corrupted by the Phoenix Force.

And best line? Wanda telling Rogue: 'I'm so bored with this martyrdom routine.' Me too, so let's hope this book is indeed more about mutant outreach and less about mutants hiding away from the world and arming themselves. I'm just delighted to be reading an Avengers book by a writer whose characters don't all aspire to Mamethood, one with a track record of ending stories as well as he starts them.

There's a news/advertising page in here, The Assembly, but I didn't manage to read it as IT'S ALL IN SHOUTY UPPER CASE!

As debut issues go, this first Marvel NOW entry is quite entertaining. With just 22 story pages, though, it's not worth $3.99, so if you can hold out for a better-value trade or digital sale, that may be the way to go.

Monday, 8 October 2012

In the Wake of Heroes #1 review

It's easy to believe there are no original ideas left in comics.

Well, here's one. A group of war veterans decide they aren't prepared to simply sit in care homes, waiting to die. They'll meet their maker on their own terms - fighting the good fight. And if that also means their funeral costs get paid for, so much the better (click on image to enlarge).
Yep, as well as an unusual spin on the war book, writer Lee Kolinsky and artist Sham Arifin are confronting the issue of healthcare in the US.

In the Wake of Heroes posits a care system so shamefully poor that heroes would rather run suicide missions than spend another day in it. Is it true? Or are these simply the kind of combat-happy Joes who'd be itching to die in battle rather than bed, no matter how plush the mattress?

Maybe we'll find out as the series continues. For now, here's Korea veteran Colonel Jason Roman, offering the services of his motley crew to son Riley, a general in today's army. Jason asserts that there's no need to send young men with their lives ahead of them off to die, when veterans in their final years could do the job. Riley's not convinced, so Jason declares himself an independent contractor, and takes his pal Larry to Russia, where an organ thief is destroying lives - literally. How Larry takes out the man could prove controversial, but  it's certainly clever.

As is the method by which the old soldiers are chosen for missions. I won't give it away, but if you're familiar with the kind of games played in old folks' homes, you'll likely guess.

Kolinsky does a good job of bringing us up to speed, flashing backwards and forwards without ever confusing. It's too early to have a handle on the characters, with only Jason given much panel time, but I can see a few regulars hanging in long enough to make an impression - the headshots we see in a full-page legend at the end promise an intriguing bunch.
Arifin's figurework can be a little stiff, proportions skew whiff, and facial tones uneven - but the storytelling is fine and I appreciate an artist who cares enough not to stint on backgrounds. And his Korea battle scene is very nicely done. The lettering is far too small for the balloons, and there are a few spelling errors, but nothing that detracts from the story. More proofreading, though, lads.

My only other qualm is the title, which is far too portentous for an action romp, even one wearing its Purple Heart on its sleeve. Maybe something corny like Roman's Soldiers would have been better.

But In the Wake of Heroes is out there, so it's too late to tweak the title. It's not too late for you to try this Blue Eye book, though - if you're looking for a different kind of war comic, give it a shot.

Friday, 5 October 2012

Action Comics #13 review

Linus was right. The Great Pumpkin does bring wonderful gifts at Hallowe'en. What else could explain the best issue of Action Comics this year showing up in October?

'The Ghost in the Fortress of Solitude' is presented as a fable for a dark, autumn night, with an omniscient narrator telling us what happened on October 31 on Krypton, and on Earth. Spinning out of Silver Age Superman lore, cryogenics abuser Doctor Xa-Du becomes the first Phantom Zone prisoner, projected there by Superman's father, Jor-El. Of course, he swears vengeance, and decades later escapes into Superman's sparkling new Arctic fortress and throws the Man of Steel into the Zone. There, Superman meets the Phantom Stranger, and a very old friend - Krypto, his childhood pet.

Unsurprisingly, our hero gets free, and wins the day, but can he retrieve the handsome hound?

I found this story hugely satisfying. It uses classic DC mythology with love and respect, shows Superman as a smart, confident hero, and brings several well-known knaves from Krypton into the revamped continuity. The idea that Krypton experiences Hallowe'en, when the barriers between 'seen and unseen' worlds thin - even if nobody knows it as such - is the perfect set-up for this story. And I'm pleased the Fortress is now in its most-famous spot, even if it does look like a quick-frozen sea anenome.

Writer Grant Morrison and artist Travel Foreman present the Zone prisoner's life as terrifying in a way we've seldom seen - it's no wonder so many inmates go ga-ga. As for the Phantom Stranger, we learn that as well as being a Wandering Judas, he investigates hauntings, which sounds a lot of fun, 'ecto-technology' and all. And he's useful in the story as a quick source of information for Superman; I don't doubt our hero would have figured things out for himself sharpish, but a super-speedy response to Xa-Du's breakout is needed, and it's Superman who puts the Stranger's words into action.

Superman and Stranger alike toss out some excellent lines, while the narration's measured tones contrast nicely with the increasingly frenzied events. There's no 'arf' from Krypto, as is traditional, but I can wait. The main thing is that the scenes between man and dog convince - these guys love one another.

One question - how long was a Kryptonian year? Jor-El is a grown man when he sends Xa-Du to the Zone, and 20 years later the planet blows up with the scientist looking exactly the same. I recall that Krypton's red sun is bigger than Earth's yellow star, but that would mean Krypton's years were longer, not shorter, surely? I may have to write to the Metropolis Mailbag ...
Guest illustrator Travel  Foreman - click on image to enlarge - gifts Action Comics one of its rare consistent art jobs. It's lovely work, as Foreman and colourist Brad Anderson find the perfect, spooky tone for the Zone. And the Fortress scenes transition from colourful sci-fi whimsy to locked room horror within panels. Xa-Du is scary both in his first, intermediate and final forms, and I look forward to seeing him again. As for Krypto, he's bigger than in the old days, but equally adorable.

This story is great work all round - letterer Steve Wands deserves a nod, too, for mood-setting font choices. One thing I'm not keen on, though, is the cover illustration, by fan favourite Bryan Hitch, in which Superman's  head resembles a particularly unlovely pig carcass.

The back-up strip is a happier affair, taking us through Krypto's life on Krypton and life (very) beyond. It turns out that the 'ghost dog' a hobo once told Clark was watching him has actually been by his side since his Smallville days. The unknowing Clark was never able to respond, but Krypto loved and protected his friend anyway. I'm so glad these two are now properly reunited to romp through space.

The one thing I don't like in Sholly Fisch's elegant story is the detail that Jor-El ensured dog/boy bonding via a spot of 'helix interweaving'. He should have trusted the pair to become friends, not stick the poor pet into a gas-filled booth . It's better than Silver Age Jor-El sticking Krypto into a prototype rocket and losing him, but still, this blog is agin unnecessary alien animal experimentation (we're sponsored by the Space Canine Patrol Agency, don'tcha know).
The one thing I don't like in Brad Walker and Andrew Hennessy's tasty stripwork is Jor-El's glowing, shield-shaped kneepads - nobody needs a couple of accessorised  flashlights on their legs. But yes, otherwise it's all good, especially the montage showing that Clark's never been parted from his old pal.

If editors Wil Moss and Matt Idelson are reading this, perhaps watching from some DC version of the Phantom Zone, a reminder - don't leave the back-up strip creators' names off the cover. I can't see sales falling if Grant Morrison superfans aren't conned into thinking he's writing the whole book, and good work deserves recognition.

Or do I have to send my dog Eartho around to bite you on the bum?

Thursday, 4 October 2012

Animal Man #13 review & Swamp Thing #13 review

Buddy Baker returns from his trip into The Rot with Swamp Thing to find that a year has passed on Earth. The Rot played a trick on the heroes, distracting their biggest opponents in their realm for what seemed like hours while they attacked an unprepared world. And now most people are rotting, warped slaves of The Rot - including superheroes and villains.

Animal Man is immediately attacked by one of The Rot's elite warriors, a gnarled, mindless Hawkman. Luckily, help appears in the form of Black Orchid, Beast Boy and Steel. They've stayed safe due to Beast Boy's connection to the Red, Black Orchid's status as 'an anomaly' and Steel's decision to abandon his fleshy form and dump his mind into a robot body. They believe the battle is lost, but keep calm and carry on, looking for their chance to take back the world.

They're based in the Red Kingdom, a city of transformed animal totems, where John Constantine tries to make Buddy face up to a grim reality (click on image to enlarge).
We see what happened to wife Ellen, daughter Maxine, son Cliff and mother-in-law, er, Ellen's Mom, one year ago, on the night Buddy entered the Rot, and it's not pretty ...

I'm surprised I'm here for Rotworld: Part One, being rather tired after a year of Buddy and family driving around, staying in motels, arguing and being attacked by especially bad-tempered lumps of meat. What kept me with the book was the Baker family, a compelling lot - everyman Buddy, supportive wife but worried mom Ellen, increasingly powerful Maxine and tragically mulleted Cliff. I wanted to see them get out of this. Yet on hearing that the battle with The Rot was continuing for at least another six months, across both Animal Man and Swamp Thing, I was ready to bail.

But Rotworld is an alternate future tale, and I love those. Dead heroes, warped heroes, villains working for good, everything to play for ... it's my personal Nerdvana. And so far, I'm glad I stuck around. Jeff Lemire's script piles on the intrigue and ups the tension as The Rot storyline powers towards a conclusion (please God!). Buddy's never-say-die attitude, his cautious optimism, is tremendously appealing, while the special guest heroes are great value - we see Black Orchid use her powers in ways unseen in Justice League Dark, Steel adds emotional spice and Beast Boy seems less irritating in his New 52 mode (though I miss his green skin).

The art duties are shared between Steve Pugh on pencils and inks, and Timothy Green II on pencils, inked by Andrew Silver. It all looks great, with Pugh's Rotworld both nightmarish and rather awesome, and Green and Silver's present day sequences so pin sharp as to make the encroaching Rot all the more horrible. A special commendation to Pugh for the Steel design, which is miles more appealing than his debut look in a recent Action Comics. The colouring by Lovern Kindzierski is superb, with such subtle touches as Buddy and John's differing shades of blond, and Maxine caught in headlights.
Buddy's hell is happening on America's west coast. Across the country, in Swamp Thing #13, muck monster Alec Holland is on the same learning curve. The Rot holdouts he meets are Poison Ivy and Deadman - she Green-connected, he a ghost. But where Buddy is accepted by his new colleagues, Swampy is treated with contempt by Ivy, who believes he and Buddy hid away for a year. Even Deadman entering him, and backing up his story of a meant-to-be-brief trip to The Rot, doesn't turn off her tap of disdain. Still, she leads him to the Green Kingdom, where the Parliament of Trees - currently little more than sprouts - tell Swampy of how the world fell.

We see something of this in flashback sequences that show Abigail Arcane flying across Europe to confront her rotten roots. There are no snakes on the plane, but something far worse.

The Parliament's story is interrupted by a Rot attack - not just transformed humans but a zombified version of the Teen Titans. And even if Swampy, backed by Ivy, Deadman and an army of Swamp Thinglets, prevails, the Parliament has bad news for him ...

While Swamp Thing #13 hits several of the same story beats as Animal Man #13, that's inevitable in parallel first chapters. As it turned out, I rather enjoyed comparing the heroes' particular brands of woe. Scott Snyder's well-wrought script makes for a riveting read. The addition of the sparky Ivy and sardonic Deadman freshens up the ongoing Rot business, while the Abby flashback hits a fine note of horror.
Yanick Paquette's artwork is exemplary, whether we're talking creatively composed pages or fine figurework. The organic panelling evokes The Rot and The Green by turns, while Paquette gives characters individual body language - Ivy is the haughty green goddess, Deadman the eternal acrobat, Abby the confident fighter against fate and Swampy the most magnificent of heaping man-things (even with the stupid antlers he's recently sprouted). As for the monsters, they could give David Cronenberg body horror bad dreams. Nathan Fairbairn's colours are as good as Kindzierski's, toned for setting, time zone and, of course, drama. I especially like how Ivy's red hair pops against the green backgrounds. Fairbairn also colours Paquette's splendid cover, while Kindzierski does the business on Pugh's Animal Man grabber.

All in all, a fine start to the second year of these two breakout hits of the New 52. I'll be thrilled when we're free of The Rot, but if the next five months' worth of both titles are as entertaining as their opening chapters, I'll be a very contented reader.

Wednesday, 3 October 2012

Avengers Vs X-Men #12 review

And so it goes. Another Marvel event ends, this one with several bangs and the odd whimper. The bangs, you'll be unsurprised to hear, come as the Scarlet Witch and Hope Summers join forces to attack Cyclops. He's turned Dark Phoenix and is popping up across the globe to rain fire from the sky, cause tidal waves, birth volcanoes - in his eyes, it's a cleansing. In the eyes of the Avengers and X-Men, it's possibly the end of the world ... and time to try something different.

And that's Faith. Faith in Hope, the presumed likely landing point for the Phoenix Force if they manage to knock it out of Cyclops. Maybe she'll become as corrupt as the Phoenix Five did, and Jean Grey before them. But maybe, just maybe, she can chart another path.

And when the time comes, and the combined power of witch and mutant have knocked Cyclops to the floor, the cosmic entity does indeed target Hope. A fiery angel, she zaps around the world, repairing the damage wrought by Cyclops and co. Filled with the power of a god, Hope announces that she will be White Phoenix, 'the saviour of all'.

And she means it. But the Phoenix Five - Cyclops, Emma Frost, Namor, Colossus and Magik - started off with good intentions, and were soon dropping naysayers into a Hell on Earth. Wanda persuades Hope that the best thing to do with the Phoenix power is give it up - something no one else has had the strength to do. Hope and Wanda join hands and say: 'No more Phoenix'. The cosmic hex sends the Phoenix Force away from Hope and across the world, activating new mutants, undoing damage caused by Wanda's own madness, years previously.

Afterwards, Captain America and Cyclops face one another across the table of the latter's prison cell. Cyclops wants to take full responsibility for the terrible things he did, while asserting that killing his mentor, Charles Xavier, was worth it because it brought them to the point at which mutants are appearing once more. He believes he has won. It's a twisted reading of events, indicating that while the power of the Phoenix has left Scott, it's dark influence lingers.

Other codas see the new Nova offered Avengers membership for attacking Cyclops; a depowered Hope returning to the shattered Utopia; Emma, Colossus, Magik and Namor wanted for their crimes; and the announcement of a new Avengers team to promote the acceptance of mutants. 

It's a busy issue, with several winning moments in Jason Aaron's intense script - Cyclops' echoing of Dark Phoenix Jean's long-ago plea to end her life; Cap's 'non-speech' to rally the troops; the imagery of Cyclops seeing blood on his hands due to his naturally reddened vision.

And if at the end it doesn't feel as if the world has changed - well, it did, but it's changed back again - is anyone surprised? Avengers Vs X-Men succeeded as a big, flashy six-month-summer blockbuster, selling lots of comics. It can't be said to have wrecked Cyclops as a character because he's been acting like Magneto for at least a couple of years. And to me, he stopped being an admirable man the minute he abandoned his wife and baby, when Jean came 'back from the dead', decades ago. If anything, this issue signals the first steps on his road to redemption - his madness peaked and now, something of a broken man, he can heal and become a hero once more. This series caps almost a decade of Marvel events, beginning with Wanda's unconvincing, murderous descent into lunacy at the hands of Brian Michael Bendis. Now Wanda is OK once more, and Scott becomes the Marvel Universe's new hate figure.

There's a new bit of information here. It's presented as speculation, but it seems we're meant to go along with Iron Man's guess that Hope was born a mutant because the Phoenix Force was mighty peeved by Wanda's 'No More Mutants' proclamation back in the day, intended to remove the powers of every single mutant  in the Marvel Universe. It decided to rectify the matter, and soon other mutants were popping up, beginning with Hope.

OK, that would comics-explain why Hope is suited to being a Phoenix host, if not why other people were always so sure of it. But later this issue Wanda has her own bit of speculation, alluded to above (click on image to enlarge).
So the Phoenix Force created the perfect host, but she's the perfect host because she can reject it? Or was Iron Man wrong, since Wanda seems to be right? Or were both correct, and the Phoenix wanted someone who could send it back into space after using its energy to repair the damage done by the Phoenix Five? But if the Phoenix Force wanted to repair the damage, why enter Cyclops and chums - and corrupt them - in the first place?

It all makes about as much sense as Cyclops' initial belief that the Phoenix Force wanted Earth's mutant population to be reborn - his own experience showed the entity was a devourer of worlds, not a creator. It turns out he was correct, but it took the thing long enough to fix Wanda's damage, especially if it was indeed fussed enough to engineer Hope. And there's still no foundation for Cyclops' assertion.

It all makes about as much sense as that initial 'No More Mutants' meaning 'Oh All Right, No More Mutants except the 198 Mutants that are useful to the X-Men line'.

So basically, the story is predicated on nonsense premises. Maybe that's why I don't really care that AvX is wrapped up in a similarly ropey manner. That, and the fact that Marvel's marketing machine has spent the last several weeks hitting us with Marvel NOW! information, implying that the actual 'now' of Marvel doesn't matter - we've even had comics published that are set after this supposed game changer, in which it seems nothing much has changed. What we've had is a big daft 'event' with no compelling consequences - Cyclops is addled (for NOW) and Professor X is dead (for NOW). Marvel has made a lot of money. I've had moments of entertainment - more a question of anticipation than Hope - and the combined plotting skills of Marvel's 'architects' - Aaron, Bendis, Matt Fraction, Ed Brubaker and Jonathan Hickman - prove rather dodgy.

We should probably move on.

Adam Kubert more than does the script justice, producing page after page of packed panels and sumptuous splashes, without once sacrificing clarity for flash. Rather awesome moments include: a world tour of Cyclops' rage; Cyclops routing all opposition; the attack on Cyclops by Wanda and Hope; and a tear from Cyclops on seeing the ghost of Jean. But my favourite visual is a quiet scene - a bird's-eye view of the Avengers discussing their chances of a win. It's a tricky perspective to pull off but Kubert just about does it.

Kubert inks some of his work; otherwise, he's well served throughout the issue by inkers John Dell and Mark Morales. There's a pleasing clarity of finish, leaving plenty of room for colourists Laura Martin and Justin Ponsor to work their own magic. Jim Cheung and Mark Morales' cover is well rendered, and coloured with verve by Ponsor, though the prominence of Iron Man makes zero sense. The Augmented Reality pages failed to work with my iPhone app and I can't be bothered to lift up the iPad.

So it's goodbye Avengers Vs X-Men, a would-be Marvel milestone that's never to be repeated - until, of course, someone realises that they could flip the title and do it all again. Anyone care to bet against X-Men Vs Avengers within the next five years?