Friday, 30 November 2012

Superman #14 review

Intersecting with where Supergirl #14 left off last week, we see Kara arrive at Clark Kent's apartment by the front door, compromising his dual identity. Before we catch up to that, though, Lois Lane drops by Clark's place to ask him to reconsider last issue's sudden resignation from his Daily Planet job. The conversation soon shifts to Lois' moving in with boyfriend Jonathan Carroll, with Clark miffed that she hadn't told him her plans. She says that as her best friend, she knew he'd talk her out of it. Quickly changing the subject, Lois points out that she's noticed a daft grin on Clark's face of late, and wants to know 'who's the lucky girl?' - we see him remembering a kiss with Wonder Woman.

It's then that Kara shows up, insisting on a private chat with an unsurprisingly horrified Clark. Before he can come up with an excuse, Lois jumps to a conclusion - Kara is a cosplayer Clark's interviewing for his new, supposedly serious-minded, blog - and Clark goes with that, while speedily shooing an amused Lois out.

Clark is furious at Kara, who's extremely dismissive of his 'foolish alter ego', and whisks her into Metropolis's Centennial Park, where they're joined by the supposed Kryptonian, H'el. He lays out his claims to a link with the El family and dream of a reborn Krypton. Superman isn't impressed, doesn't believe Hel for a minute, and is appalled when - as in the aforementioned Supergirl #14 - he offers to kill the clone Superboy to prove sincerity.

Superman whacks H'el across the park, asking Kara to watch the unconscious Superboy as he goes off to take care of the cruel H'el. Kara's soon involved, though, as H'el impersonates Superman, insults her and knocks her out; when she awakes, who's she going to trust? H'el then assaults Superboy, prompting Superman to proclaim that the boy is under his protection - unlike H'el and Kara, he doesn't see the genetically created teen as less than human. More powerful than either Kryptonian cousin, H'el shoots off, declaring that with Kara's help, he will resurrect Krypton.

Phew, this is a busy issue, with plenty of action and some good character work on Superman and Lois from writer Scott Lobdell. Lois gets a splash page worth of Cliff Notes laying out how awesome she is, while Clark acknowledges to himself that spying on Lois' texts last time was wrong. It's telling that while noting Clark's recent snogs with Wonder Woman over in Justice League, here he's bonkers about Lois in a way that speaks of real, deep feelings; the sooner his schoolboy rebound over to Diana is over, the better. And while Lois insists to Clark - and herself - that best friends is all they'll ever be, there's a definite spark with Clark, who's standing before her in a tight pair of shorts. The dialogue doesn't quite match up to the cliffhanger in Supergirl, but the snippets we got there are close enough to the scene here, and my goodness, the civvies Lois and Clark are wearing in the linked books actually match - that never happens. It'll be interesting to see how Lois reacts when she sees Superman with the 'cosplayer', as she's bound to at any minute.

I like that Superman, who's been patient with Hurricane Kara in her own book, finally shows the annoyance one family member can feel for another here. Just as good, he quickly calms down, gently holding Kara's hand as he listens to her reasons for bursting in on him.

Kara, though, she's a tad off, with her dismissal of Clark's private life and talk of his 'precious humans' - we've seen in her own book that while she's not happy to be on Earth, she thinks the people are worth protecting. Of course, it could be down to the malign influence of H'el, who seems to have some mind powers. We shall see.

H'el himself, whom we learn was behind last issue's Kryptonian dragon, is certainly shaping up to be a good bad guy, not bothering to try to fool Superman for more than two minutes; he's confident he can force his plans through with Kara's help alone. He also has an imperious attitude that suits a villain.
Illustrator Kenneth Rocafort excels, giving us first a great Lois, then an insightful visual of Clark's souvenir-filled apartment and a terrific Kara, totally on-model with the work of her own mag's artist, Mahmud Asrar (click on image to enlarge). H'el looks like the scary fruitcake he sounds like, while the fight is well-choreographed, with Rocafort's peculiarly shaped panels helping the pace more than they distract. The pages are splendidly coloured by Sunny Gho - bright as a Superman book should be, but not without mood. Rocafort and Gho have brought a vitality, a freshness that's helping this comic stand out.

The new creative team is gelling, tightening up the verbal and visual characterisation while fitting into the H'el on Earth crossover. I can't wait to see what Lobdell, Rocafort and co can do when left to their own devices.

Wednesday, 28 November 2012

FF #1 review

With the Fantastic Four planning an expedition to unknown worlds, Reed Richards wants to make sure the Earth isn't unprotected - even though the mysteries of time travel mean Mr Fantastic, the Invisible Woman, the Human Torch and the Thing are only going to be gone for four minutes. Plus, there are the trainee brainiacs of the Future Foundation to babysit. So Sue, Johnny, Ben and Reed himself each get to nominate someone for one of the slots.

Reed - who has lied to his family about the reasons for the trip - wants a big brain like himself, so approaches the second Ant-Man, Scott Lang. Sue wants a mother figure, and asks Medusa of the Inhumans. Ben wants someone as strong as himself, so goes to see She-Hulk. And Johnny wants his head examined.

Seriously. Writer Matt Fraction plays Johnny here less as the flighty playboy, more as a man-child with the brain of a potato. He wakes up in bed with new girlfriend Darla Deering, remembers a memo on his phone, sees that it says 'ask somebody about the thing' and quizzes Darla on her knowledge of Ben Grimm. Going by the cover, her vague awareness of Ben Grimm is gaining her a spot on the team as Ms Thing. Which makes no sense given that She-Hulk already has that slot covered.

On the one hand, the gig's only going to be for four minutes. On the other, well, in that case why cover the roles at all? Earth has a million heroes Reed and co could ask to watch out for the kids (I'm sure Jarvis and Squirrel Girl could set up a day nursery at Avengers Mansion) without an inexperienced young woman being put on the front lines.

I'm a little cranky, as Ant-Man, She-Hulk and Medusa have all served with the Fantastic Four previously and I know lots about them; it's Ms Thing I'm curious about. But while background is given on all of the vets, we learn nothing about Darla here beyond what we saw in this month's Fantastic Four #1 - she's dating Johnny and has pink hair.That's partly because so much room is given to the Future Foundation kids; on the one hand, that's great, as FF has always been their book. On the other, all the Marvel Now! advertising for this relaunch has focused on the substitute heroes, and it's them I'm interested in. (And with Franklin and Valeria Richards going off with their family, why are they hogging a spotlight page alongside the other FF sub-groups?)

Personally, I've had enough of the lot of them - if it's only going to be for four minutes, lock them in a cupboard with HERBIE.

Scott Lang's story picks up on the fact that he's mourning daughter Cassie, the young Avenger known as Stature. Reed reckons that being around the FF sprogs might do him, and them, some good. Scott isn't convinced. It doesn't help that Reed can't bring himself to actually confront the reality of Cassie's death, referring to it as 'all of that unpleasantness'. What a mealy-mouthed loser Reed is; even that daft euphemism 'passing' would be better, because it acknowledges that an actual person has gone. I really wish Marvel writers wouldn't go quite so far down the line of showing Reed as having lots of practical nous, but no emotional intelligence; it makes his relationship with Sue seem unbelievable. And while it's satisfying that we see Scott yell at Reed for his insensitivity, it's a shame Ant-Man is being built up at Mr Fantastic's expense.

Medusa and Sue's chat positions them as equals, queens even. It gives some insight into where both women are, while defining them solely in relation to their families. Hopefully Fraction will show other sides of the women in this book and Fantastic Four as time goes on.

Ben comes across as a bright guy in his talk with She-Hulk, aware that while Reed says they're going away for four minutes, it could be a lot longer. It's a pity, though, that someone's decision to give Ben a  BIG SHOUTY FONT implies constant anger. As for She-Hulk, she's calm, confident, the hero the FF needs.

The vignettes with the kids are illuminating and not without charm. The spotlight on Alex Power gives him his best moment in years. But I'd rather be spending time with the grown-ups.

In all, Fraction does a decent job of introducing most of the characters, and giving the book a reason to exist. He doesn't, though, give any idea of what type of adventures this new team will have, in an issue that, while cleverly structured, is all talky set-up.

The biggest draw for me was, no pun intended, the artwork of Mike and Laura Allred. The retro illustrations of Mike and poptastic colours of Laura make for wonderful eye candy. More importantly, Mike Allred is a first-rate visual storyteller, building pages that progress the plot while conveying character beyond what's in the dialogue. Check out, for example, the expression as Medusa thinks about Black Bolt (a husband up there with Reed in terms of sheer awfulness), while her hair cuts to the chase.
Or the pain on Scott's face as he considers Reed's offer and the little note of optimism after he's accepted. It's a virtuoso performance from the artist. The only thing I don't like is the random cleavage hole in Medusa's court wear - for goodness sake, it's just not regal! Happily, her upcoming FF costume affords a bit more dignity.

I understand that FF and Fantastic Four will be collected in the same volumes. Hopefully that won't mean a back and forth storyline because I'd like the option of just following one title. And with the Allreds on art and two of my favourite Marvel characters (Medusa and She Hulk) around, this book is the more likely winner.

Monday, 26 November 2012

Captain Marvel #7 review

Avengers Carol Danvers and Monica Rambeau have both had a torrid time when it comes to settling on a codename but there's one that each has used - Captain Marvel. Monica adopted it at the start of her heroic career, Carol has taken it up only recently. And the move is a source of tension between the friends in this latest issue of Carol's new series.

Carol picked up the name years after Monica gave it up. Monica reckons it would have been common courtesy to run the change past her. Both women have a point, and it's good to see that the disagreement doesn't - despite that teasing cover - bring about a fight between the two. As I said, they're friends. The name business is addressed as Carol helps Monica look into a Bermuda Triangle-style mystery that's hit the latter's boat salvage business. While Monica has immense light-based power, she's not comfortable underwater due to a long-ago Avengers mission, so down Carol goes. Plane-crazy Carol's reward comes as she finds some seriously sexy old aircraft that have somehow been dragged into the depths off New Orleans.

She also encounters a couple of sharks, one literal, the other figurative; the second is Frank Gianelli, a former colleague from her days as a magazine editor.

Best. Issue. Yet. Kelly Sue DeConnick and Christopher Sebela's script melds character interaction with a classic plot to produce fireworks. The conversations between Carol, Monica and Frank are rooted in their long histories, but you don't have to have been there to appreciate them - the players are alive on the page right now, and it's a pleasure to spend time with them. And at the end, there's a cracking cliffhanger guaranteeing more, and likely even better, fun next month.
For the first time, I've no qualms about Dexter Soy's artwork. I said when the slightly problematic first issue appeared that he'd likely tweak his style when he saw that one printed, and I suspect he did, and that we're seeing the fruits here (click on image to enlarge). The darker edges have been softened and the colour pallete lightened, while the figurework remains strong. The result? Pages that are a pleasure to look at.

As for that cover, it's a treat from illustrator Jamie McKelvie and colourist Jordie Bellaire.

In a  week full of strong Marvel books, this one really stood out. If you've yet to try the new Captain Marvel, give this seriously smart, witty, action-packed comic a shot.

Friday, 23 November 2012

Supergirl #14 review

In Superman #13, Supergirl was furious to find Kal-El putting down a Kryptonian dragon. Sure, it had been attacking Earth, but so far as Kara's concerned, anything Kryptonian is sacrosanct. This issue, the start of the H'El on Earth crossover between Supergirl, Superboy and Superman, begins with the Super-Cousins watching a post mortem on the dead beast. It's being taken apart by Superman's scientist friend Dr Veritas as she bids to increase Earth's body of xenobiology knowledge.

To this end, she'd also like to put Supergirl under the microscope. Nothing as drastic as an autopsy, just tests similar to those she's already performed on Superman. Kara, though, having recently learned that father Zor-El experimented on her prior to blasting her away from Kryptonian soil, really isn't in the mood.

She returns to Metropolis and the flat of her friend Siobhan, who tells her that brother Tom - who's rather taken a shine to Kara - has returned to Ireland for awhile. Kara might be more disappointed, but she's focused on the mysteries of her past. She zooms off to her secret Sanctuary under the sea, where the AI installed by her father confirms what she knew, but didn't wish to believe - that Superman is indeed her cousin. Her feelings are mixed; here is someone she should be close to, another survivor of Kypton and actual family, but every time she sees him she's saddened by the reminder of everything she's lost. A need for sleep overtakes the dichotomy.

Having barely slept since arriving on Earth due to one conflict after another, Kara welcomes some shut-eye. But her rest is shortlived, as she finds herself on the surface of the sun, teleported there by a darkly charismatic figure, H'El. She attacks him but H'El's immoveable, super-hard body leaves her reeling. He has Kara's attention. Claiming to have been an assistant of Jor-El, sent into space on a mission of exploration, he says he's brought Kara there because her powers need a boost, and indeed, she relishes the feeling of renewal. His years of wandering have brought him to a point of power beyond even Supergirl and Superman and while not family, he feels allegiance to the House of El and wishes the heroes to join him on a mission - to travel into the past and save Krypton from destruction.

H'el tries to allay Kara's suspicions by two means - first, he shows her the 'insanity' of life on Earth, taking her to a warzone, where he saves a child from death. Why would she stay on a world so brutal?

Then he zaps them back to Sanctuary, where Superboy, the Kryptonian clone whose very existence appalled Kara, awaits - psionically bound and unconscious. H'El has brought him there and will kill him if Supergirl just says the word. But with a helpless, threatened and stirring Superboy before her, she sees him as a person for the first time. 'No. Don't do it. Not yet,' she says.

H'El puts Superboy out again, and Kara asks to let her try to persuade Superman to take up his - and apparently her - cause. Her super-hearing guides her to Kal-El, speaking to someone - and she realises that she understands English. H'El has given her a gift, the ability to communicate with the natives of Earth (or at least, the English speakers). Equally surprising, Kal-El is dressed not in his Kryptonian armour, but Earth clothing, including spectacles. And he's in a rather compromising position.

Good Lord, I've spoiled a lot there, but it's a packed issue and I got carried away. While the idea of another storyline focusing on Krypton has me less than thrilled, H'el is intriguing. I never expected the extra powers, so far including teleportation and mind-jiggery which, combined with his stony appearance, put me in mind of Anne Rice's elder vampires. I love that he's 'taught' Kara at least one Earth language - it's logical to assume she has more - as being able to speak with people could go a long way towards easing misunderstandings on both sides. Plus, there's the business of H'El making Kara see Superboy as a person, not a monster - the opposite of his intent. I'd read that 'Not yet!' as 'not ever' - she has qualms about Superboy, knowing Kryptonian clones to be notoriously unstable, but he's a living being, and her instincts won't condone cold-blooded killing.

What's more, He'l has shown Kara that there are a lot of people on her new world whom she could aid with her powers. In time, she'll realise that helping them is better than pursuing a dream that can't come true.

The non-H'El step forward this issue is Kara's being forced to admit that Superman is indeed her baby cousin Kal, all grown up. The knowledge is going to bring them closer together, if only because she now has less reason to keep pushing him away. Writer Mike Johnson's script gives us a Supergirl who's a strong character - nonsense detector always set to max - but one softening at the edges, becoming more rounded. She's not naive enough to just get onside with H'El - his freaky vibe and willingness to snuff out a life he sees as lesser must have raised alarm bells - and I'm sure her leaving his side to seek out Superman is a ploy to give her room to think, and someone to talk things over with.
At the close of the issue she may have blown Superman's Clark cover to Lois - serves him right for not being straight with her about the concept of a secret  identity - meaning I can't miss the continuation in Superman #14. Heck, I need to know what Lois and Clark are doing in an intimate position.

And I'll keep coming back here to follow Kara's journey, as she continues to grow. And to find out what happens with Siobhan, whom we see is struggling to contain the Silver Banshee side of her. Good on Johnson for giving us an actual subplot, a rare thing in DC's New 52 line. It's unlikely we'll see any movement on Siobhan's story while this crossover is running (it seems to be ending in February), but it's something to look forward to.

Mahmud Asrar continues to define Supergirl, from the powerful cover through the final page; she looks typically feisty here, as well as intelligent and graceful. H'El burns with brooding power, the abused Superboy looks properly pathetic, the various settings convince ... his only weak point is Superman, who looks awkward. Standout scenes include the dragon exam and H'El's first appearance (left), while a likely time-saving panel - dialogue coming through a skylight - amuses. Colourist Dave McCaig adds vibrancy to the illustrations with his bold pallete.

Supergirl #14 works as both a crossover chapter and a stepping stone towards Supergirl's settling down on Earth, and the formation of a Superman Family - in a single issue she's become closer to both Superman and Superboy, seeing one as human and the other as an ally. They're baby steps, but Kara's moving forward.

Thursday, 22 November 2012

Captain America #1 review

After years of super-serious, super-spy action, the Captain America series tries a new direction - Jack Kirby craziness. The relaunched Marvel Now! title looks back for inspiration to the Seventies, when Cap's co-creator wrote and drew the adventures of the Sentinel of Liberty, and far-out was the order of the day.

While incoming writer Rick Remender emulates The King's trademark bombastic dialogue in just one sequence, he does put one of his creations, Arnim Zola, at the centre of the action. The fabulous Zola - a Nazi mad scientist with a chest-TV for a head - lures Cap into the weird Dimension Z via monster-filled subway car, there to steal our hero's super-soldier serum for his genetically engineered sons. Of course, Cap escapes, taking one of the bairns with him ... only to realise that there's no way home.

And back home, girlfriend Sharon Carter awaits, wondering if Steve Rogers will ever truly commit to her, or if Captain America will always come between them >choke<.

In the past, four-year-old Steve gets a lesson from his mom in facing up to bullies.

The flashback to New York's East Side in 1926 opens the book, reminding us that Steve was born into a tough area in a tough time. It turns out that his dad was a weak man, given to drink and domestic abuse, but his mother had the grit to stand up to him. It's obvious who Steve grows up to take after - his courage, his hatred of injustice, has nothing to do with super-science and everything to do with a good role model.

You couldn't get a worse role model than Zola, so it's possibly a good thing that Cap manages to carry away one of the Zola children, a baby (knowing Zola, it's probably booby trapped ... baby-trapped?). It stretches credulity that he can smuggle the kid out in his shield, falling into it as he escapes Zola's HQ, without crushing his charge, but let's just say that's down to the shock-absorbing Vibranium in said shield. Or the artificially grown kid being a wee tough nut.

Whatever, I enjoyed this issue a great deal. After the opening flashback, there's the end of Cap's battle with new bad guy The Green Skull, an eco-homage to a certain rouge-faced rogue. This is where Remender truly taps into his inner King, unleashing some amusingly awful dialogue. We'll likely never see this guy again, but he makes for a fun vignette establishing Cap's capabilities and workaholic ways.

The date scene that follows with Steve and Sharon - she takes him off to investigate the mystery subway car - shows that even if these two do tie the knot, life's never going to be boring. It's soapy goodness with sparky banter, demonstrating that while Cap fears no super-villain, marriage is another matter.

Longtime collaborators John Romita Jr and Klaus Janson team up once more on pencils and inks, and thank goodness their interior work is better than the hideous cover. Yes, I've railed against the fussily tweaked costume Cap's wearing these days, but that doesn't mean I want our hero to look like Ninja Action Cap. There's no narrative reason for Cap's face to be obfuscated, and it certainly doesn't look good. Plus, that left arm looks off.

The bulk of the issue, set on July 4 2012, is the Romita/Janson we've gotten used to in recent years, with convincing masked heroes and dopey civilians. So when Cap is in costume and moving, all is well; when he's with Sharon, he's a wonky fella, apparently on the verge of falling asleep. But don't dwell too long on the details and you'll be propelled through the story.
That's one drawn-out conversation in panels 2 and 3
The artists take a different approach for the flashback, with a looser finish, perhaps to evoke the notion of memory. Colourist Dean White excels here, sticking to watercolour tones and damping down the sheen. It's extremely effective.
I'm less enamoured of White's choices for the Dimension Z worldscape - if we're going to the Kirby well-spring, bring on the primaries, the wild contrasts. Not browns and oranges knocking together. Cap standing against a DayGlo world would be something to behold. As it is, even the freakish Zola fails to pop.

Memo to Sharon Carter: if you want Cap to jump into bed with you, don't wear your hair the same way his mother did.

If there's an over-arcing theme for this issue, I failed to spot it (personal responsibility? legacy?) but given time one will likely emerge. For now I'm happy just to read Cap in a big daft superhero adventure. But bigger and dafter would be even better.

Wednesday, 21 November 2012

Amazing Spider-Man #698 review

It's a good day to be Peter Parker. As Spider-Man he's keeping the city safe and is a respected member of the Avengers. Out of costume he has his dream science job and the chance to win back true love Mary Jane Watson.

It's not such a good day to be Otto Octavius. Dr Octopus is in prison, dying. But he's muttering one name, again and again: 'Peter Parker'.

This is the big one, readers, or so Marvel says. Writer Dan Slott's been joking for ages that he'll have to go into hiding after this issue, because we'll all hate its revelation.

Nah. There can't be any comics savvy reader who'll be particularly perturbed by the idea that >gasp< Octopus has somehow swapped minds with Peter. It's been done to heroes previously, for example in Detective Comics' excellent Blind Justice storyline. And Spider-Man readers are tough cookies - we lived through One More Day (Peter and MJ's marriage history is changed by Mephisto) and Sins of the Past (Gwen Stacey had twins with Norman Osborn. Hang on, that deserves italics and a screamer ... Gwen Stacey had twins with Norman Osborn!).

What I hate is all the hype that had me reading this issue trying to anticipate the shocker. It's impossible to just go with the flow, relax and be taken aback by the climax, when Slott and Marvel have been telling us for ages to not miss this comic nudge nudge wink wink (it worked, I've been off this book for awhile - it's $3.99, twice a month - and here I am).

Given the unnatural reading experience, it's to Slott's credit that I didn't guess the ending. It was only afterwards that I recalled seeing the mind swap idea posited in various places. I had noticed that Peter was off, strangely unconcerned about his Aunt May being in hospital. His speech patterns were slightly different, he dons a suit to go to MJ's club, he checks out girls ...

So the deft reveal is appreciated; suddenly the little changes in 'Peter' add up, and I'm immediately re-reading, with the knowledge of Octopus's occupancy putting everything into a new light. It's just good craft from Slott.
Drawing this key issue, Brit Richard Elson skews towards the classic John Romita and Ross Andru runs with his Peter, and it's entirely my cup of tea. While fan favourite artist Humberto Ramos has his strengths, I'm not a fan of his Spidey; to my eyes his webslinger looks awkward rather than agile. Elson, though, gives us a graceful Spider-Man (mind, given that Octavius doesn't have Peter's years of webslinging experience, a lumpen Spider-Man might have made sense). Peter's facial expressions are a pleasure on the first go-round; on second read they prove pitch perfect. And Elson may even be the first Spider-Man artist since Steve Ditko to know how a suit hangs ... it sounds like a tiny thing, but it's shocking how few illustrators bother to/are able to draw street clothes that convince. Plus, his layouts are spot-on for the pace of Slott's tale.
I wonder if this panel is foreshadowing: it's Spider-Man arriving at The Raft prison, with a quartet of Avengers hugged by sea mist. But all those members have died at one time or another, and the mist could be read as clouds and the looming entrance as the Pearly Gates - the image is hinting that Spider-Man is already dead. I know, I'm reaching, but the thought struck me.

Antonio Fabela is credited with 'color art' rather than the more usual 'colors' so it could be that he's doing more work than your average hewer of hues. Whatever the ratio of labour, he and Elson make a fine team.

Paulo Rivera's cover is icky and creepy, all the more so once you know that this is Peter we're looking at. And I love that the Spider-Man 50 Years symbol is shattered here, it's a clever, subtle, appropriate touch.

So, Dr Octopus is Spider-Man and Peter is dead. Or is he? Spider-Pus leaves the prison cell as a medic fights to save his old body. We see neither his death called, nor a flatline. And earlier in the book an octobot escapes The Raft, muttering 'Peter Parker'. Hmm.

Anyway, it's a very good issue. I'll likely check out the next couple before this title wraps with #700, prior to a Marvel Now relaunch, and see where this story goes. I'm not thrilled at the concept of the relaunch, Superior Spider-Man, not starring Peter (the speculation has Spider-Man 2099 in the role), but that's a stunt for another day.

Thursday, 15 November 2012

X-Men: Legacy #1 review

This comic book boasts a fantastic collage cover - take a bow Mike Del Mundo - and a good joke relating to the protagonist's hair.

Which is something. I began reading this with my supper, got two pages in, and swapped it for the new Wolverine and the X-Men, which was pretty good, thank you very much. I went back to Legacy post-pizza, so I wasn't chewing two things over at once.

I do appreciate that even though this is the relaunch of a rather unloved X-book, Marvel are trying something different. After all, no one was crying out for a comic starring the mentally disabled son of Professor X, no matter how much his unlimited power set might excite us. British writer Simon Spurrier isn't an obvious choice for a high-profile launch, while Tan Eng Huat marches to one very individual artistic drum.

So hurrah, something new and different.

And not for me. The first couple of pages throw us in at the deep end, deep inside Legion's mind. Into a prison, the Qortex (geddit?) Complex. There, the personalities that control his various powers - once purely psionic, now more 'think of a number' - are tortured by The Xtractor. They dream of rebellion, and escape.

Trouble is, Spurrier dresses the scenario up with all kinds of annoyingly cutesy sci-fi terminology. Like so (click on image to enlarge).
Maybe I've simply not read enough science fiction, and students of the genre delight in This Kind Of Thing. Me, I glaze over as I try to connect with the story. It's not as if I'm entirely unfamiliar with Legion, aka David Haller - I was reading New Mutants when he debuted. But back then he had a handful of personalities linked to such powers as telekinesis and pyrokinesis. Now he's like that villain in Grant Morrison's Doom Patrol, The Quiz, who had every power you hadn't thought of. It seems he can do anything, but not without some random soul's backstory being dredged up.

Legion is at a commune in India for 'neuronauts' - lost souls whose psychic powers have left them frail and confused - being counselled into some semblance of sanity by Merzah the Mystic, one of those streetwise Yodas beloved of comics who exists for but a short time to impart wisdom, then get killed (see also Ducra of Red Hood and the Outlaws 'fame'). Rather unsubtly, Merzah's surrogate dad credentials are cemented by his being unable to feel his legs just before he pops his clogs.

David is pretty self-aware, and not rattled by his prisoners' escape attempts. He helps a distressed old neuronaut, and tries to make peace with a group of pitchfork-wielding locals. It's when David feels Professor X's death that all hell breaks loose, and Merzah is caught in the crossfire. Dying, he helps David see that carrying on his father's work, showing the world that mutants aren't all bad, is the way to go. That's your Legacy right there, readers.

David isn't convinced by Merzah's entreaties that he make friends with the X-Men, having just had a rather big hiccup on his road to enlightenment, but his psychic outburst alerts them to his activities. As the issue ends, David is set to go on the run from the people most likely to accept and help him.

I enjoyed Eng Huat's work here more than I did his Doom Patrol stint, several years ago, there's a fascinating animation to it - at least, in the real world scenes. He takes Bill Sienkiewicz's unique Legion design and runs with it, enjoying the madness of his hair, his lean muscularity - what we wind up with is a mutant version of Daniel Day Lewis. I wasn't so keen on the weirdness inside David's head, likely because I was so irritated by the words that I had a hard time marrying the images to them. The colours of Jose Villarrubia are a real asset, adding another level of separation to Legion's two worlds.

I relished Spurrier's non-mindscape dialogue - for once David actually sounds like a Brit. I liked Merzah, for his cheeky chappy guru-ness. The notion of a truly damaged young man trying to heal the rift between humans and mutants has potential. And Eng Huat has an artistic signature that shines on the right project.

But Lordy, those mindscape sequences, they're virtually unreadable. Tone down the alien psychobabble, and I may try another issue. Or better still, dump such scenes completely, find some other way to make David's situation manifest. I don't know. What I do know is that X-Men: Legacy starring Legion is going to be a tough sell. I hope it finds an audience, but I can't see it including me.

Wednesday, 14 November 2012

Thor #1 review

A millennium past, young Thor feasts and carouses after saving a village in Iceland from Frost Giants. A mutilated corpse washes up on the shore - the body of a Native American god.

Today, Thor brings rain to the planet Indigarr, having been summoned by a child's prayer. Hearing that the world's own deities have long vanished, he investigates their dead realm. There he finds an entire pantheon, rotting on butchers' hooks - and the pet of the monster behind the considered carnage.

In the far future, the elderly God of Thunder is the last of his kind. Lonely and tired, he would welcome death, but that doesn't mean he's going to fall down before the beasts that assail Asgard - the hellhounds of Gorr the God Butcher.

>Phew< You can't fault writer Jason Aaron for lack of ambition, when his debut on this Marvel Now! relaunch spans the ages and spaceways, and Thor himself shows several sides - warrior, big brother ... even detective. There's plenty of interest in his triptych of tales, as dark drama is leavened with humour. The changes in Thor's narration as he moves from ebullient youth to god in his prime to elder deity are subtle, yet distinct. And the mood of foreboding is strong.
Said mood is enriched by the atmospheric artwork of Esad Ribic; don't let the unintentionally comedic cover pose fool you, there's some sterling work in here (click on image to enlarge). Even the beyond boring costume, boasting not a sniff of Kirby bling, looks better inside, while the past and future variations are perfect. Ribic proves adept at presenting not only a Dark Ages Iceland, but a cosmic fortress and a palace in a ruined Asgard - it'll be interesting to see what he comes up with should Aaron actually place Thor on contemporary Earth. And good on Ribic for not eschewing sound effects - Dean White's masterful colour job means the overall effect is painterly, but this is still a superheroic comic book, and rightly unashamed of the fact.

And let's give a shout-out to letterer Joe Sabino, who gives the tri-period narrative boxes individual treatments (insert my usual complaint about the annoying, unnecessary 'god font' for Thor's 'voice' here).

Thor relaunches seem to be an annual event these days, but if this latest series fulfils the promise shown by this beginning, this run deserves to be around for awhile.

Avengers Assemble #9 review

They're both scientific geniuses, but Tony Stark and Bruce Banner are poles apart. Tony is a futurist, believing that technological breakthroughs can only make things better, while Bruce is wary of unfettered change. Tony's also a gamesplayer, and he suggests that he and Banner race to Antarctica to check on some scientists cut off by a scheming colleague - Iron Man vs the Hulk, hi-tech vs old-school science.

Spider-Woman takes Bruce's side, while Thor flies alongside Tony. They get to the cold region around the same time, and there things quickly take a turn for the serious.

If there's the Mighty Avengers and the New Avengers - which there are - this would be the Inessential Avengers, begging to be ignored by the continuity-mad hordes because it doesn't reference a dozen current storylines. Even the original USP of the book - a team mirroring the movie Avengers - is no more, with the Black Widow relegated to a one-panel cameo and Hawkeye nowhere to be seen. Instead, Spider-Woman and Captain Marvel are front and centre, alongside the aforementioned Iron Man and Thor, and Captain America.
This is fun, though, as writer Kelly Sue DeConnick fires zingers by the dozen in an easy-to-digest story (click on image to enlarge). I like that the heroes can add a fun element to a mission - it's been years since the Marvel Universe felt like a place where people would take the time to enjoy themselves, maybe actually pause and marvel at things. There are perhaps too many pages devoted to Brian Bendis-like banter, making the issue feel just that little bit too light, but this is her debut - a writer as smart as DeConnick will soon work out any pacing issues. As for the tone, the general flightiness underlines the seriousness of the final page.

Stefano Caselli's illustrations are a delight - strong and characterful, with facial 'acting' better than you'll find in 94 per cent of superhero comics (I checked). His Hulk and Iron Man leap off the page, full of power and charisma. Making things look even better is Rain Beredo, whose colours pick out bone structure and skin texture without ever falling into blotchiness. The overall feel is brighter than in most of the line, making Avengers Assemble seem more like a Marvel Adventures all-ages book than your average comic from the company. Not a bad thing.

I can't see Avengers fans rushing to buy this comic, but likewise, I can't see any Avengers fan who buys this comic not enjoying it - it's old school superhero fun with a modern twist.

Fantastic Four #1 review

After a trip to dinosaur days with Sue, Ben and Johnny, Reed retreats to his lab to his lab to check out an arm injury he's picked up. It turns out that his powers are fading - he's breaking apart physically ... and if it's happening to him, surely the rest of the Fantastic Four face the same fate?

Being Reed Richards, of course, he doesn't actually share his concerns. Instead he announces - Mr Fantastic never suggests - a year-long trip through time and space as part of the Future Foundation kids' education. He's hoping to find a solution to the powers problem, while giving everyone the time of their lives - as opposed to telling his family that their lives may soon be over, giving them the opportunity to spend their final days as they see fit

In subplot land, Johnny takes girlfriend Darla Deering on an unusual date, Ben finds the Yancy Street Gang surprisingly tech-savvy and Franklin has a nightmare which could be a premonition.

In all, this is a decent first Fantastic Four script from new writer Matt Fraction. He builds on the work of previous scribe Jonathan Hickman while setting off in a direction of his own. The short action scene at the start nicely conveys the frenetic feel of a Fantastic Four mission. And while there are a couple of missteps - Sue would never leave Franklin under the care of the sinister-looking 'Mombots, while Reed doesn't know what 'physiognomy' means - the heroes are basically themselves. My favourite moment involves Johnny Storm - it seems that while he's grown as a hero of late, he's still a tad clueless with women  (click on image to enlarge).
A close second is a scene showing that though Ben and Sue are used to Reed's futuristic technology, the mundane realities of the internet escape them.

The only moment that felt really off was Reed claiming unstable molecules as the basis of the team's powers - or did I miss something?

I've not seen inker Mark Farmer over Mark Bagley's pencils previously, and I have to say, I like the result. Farmer shores up Bagley's occasionally wonky faces, with the result being a book that's reminiscent of the classic Alan Davis/Farmer team. Which isn't to say Bagley is a passenger, because his layouts convey the story beats with energy and heart.

Now, if only someone would give the Fantastic Four their traditional blue costumes - Hickman and Spider-Man are gone, let's have the FF looking like the FF once more.

I laughed at this issue's lettercol, looking back at Hickman's most recent issues. It's Marvel admitting that while this is technically a relaunch, it's really just the next issue. Still, as next issues go, it's a good one.

All-New X-Men #1 review

Scott Summers is out of prison and leading a new band of mutants. With Magneto, Magik and Emma Frost, he's travelling the world and recruiting new mutants as they 'break out' - and assaulting the authorities at every turn. At the Jean Grey school in Westchester, his former X-Men colleagues watch with dismay, wondering how he's finding the fledglings before them. The obvious response is to confront Cyclops and co, but Storm can foresee only one result - a mutant civil war which everyone, mutants and baseline humans alike, would lose. They need a smarter approach ...

And if you've seen any of the publicity for this Marvel Now! launch, you'll know the score. The Beast travels back to his own early years, to persuade the original X-Men - himself, Cyclops, Marvel Girl, Iceman and Angel - to come back to the future (the reference is unavoidable, with a cute line of dialogue acknowledging the stories' commonality). The reactions of the young heroes to the world that is to come will power this series: Jean will learn she's dead, Cyclops will see that he's consorting with villains, Beast gets a preview of his furry form this very issue - it's an intriguing concept.

Writer Brian Michael Bendis sets things up nicely here, in the best script I've read from him in years. The storyline looks to have a shape and the smartass back-and-forth dialogue that derailed so many issues of Avengers is absent. Instead we have modern-day Iceman and Hank reacting in character to the fine mess they find themselves in, with next generation X-Men Storm and Kitty Pryde adding their own perspectives. There's a definite sense that we're at a key moment in human/mutant relations, and Bendis resists any temptation to deflate the drama with inappropriate humour. 

Readers can see that any half-decent lawyer or advocate could quickly sort things out for the two new mutants - time-stopper Eva and healer Christopher - and they could get on with their lives, quietly mastering and then using or ignoring their powers as they see fit. Instead, Cyclops is dragging them into his personal crusade for redemption. The man's a fanatic, but his twisted charisma makes it plausible that followers will come.

The Beast is interesting in both time periods - in 2012 he wants to 'put the world right for mutants once and for all', while in the non-specific past, young Hank is ready to quit heroics after the latest attack by ungrateful humans. Like Cyclops, he has fears and frustrations, but unlike Cyclops, the Beast isn't embracing all-out force to change the world.

Eva and Christopher will add another point of view, if they're not simply plot kickstarters; the latter is on this issue's back cover, so I expect Bendis has plans. And Eva's brother is an overprotective buffoon in the grand Marvel tradition of Quicksilver and Northstar, so there's likely a backstory there to be mined. He certainly has plans for the present day Beast, with the poor guy undergoing yet another mutation, one he's sure will kill him. Oops.

Stuart Immonen and Wade von Grawbadger's storytelling is good, with our attention always directed to where it needs to be - they're a real asset with a chapter as sprawling as this in terms of character and location. They're especially proficient at showing just how scary Cyclops' team must look to the rest of the world as they wade in, heavy handed, to 'rescue' the youngsters, assaulting cops and destroying property. If I had to pick the one character they draw best of all, it'd be Storm - they evoke her intelligence and beauty, with serenity on the surface and fury never far away (click on image to enlarge).
The generally gloomy tones of Marte Gracia complement the story, while Corey Petit somehow finds room for the busy script to breathe.

While I'm not happy at the $3.99 price point - that's Marvel Now!, kids - and 14-times a year frequency, the creative team does enough here to bring me back in a couple of weeks. Once the focus shifts to the original X-Men, as it surely must, we'll have a better idea of the book's tone and vision. I'm rather looking forward to seeing where it goes.

Monday, 12 November 2012

Flagging up the Justice League of America

As you may have heard, DC is publicising the upcoming Justice League of America #1 by releasing 52 variant covers - one for each of the existing states of the Union, plus Puerto Rico and Washington DC. The difference is minimal, with the only change being the flag hoisted by heroes in homage to Joe Rosenthal's Raising the Flag on Iwo Jim.

As gimmicks go, it's not a bad one - I can see media in every locality giving the book a shout-out, which should help towards a strong launch.

But that's not important right now ... how great is the Too Dangerous For a Girl variant above, as created by my talented chum Anj, creator of the unmissable Supergirl's Comic Box Commentary blog? Thanks Anj,

I wonder if other bloggers might come up with similar 'variants' - can we get the 52 Blogs of America? (OK, so I'm a UK citizen, but you know what I mean!)

Friday, 9 November 2012

Action Comics #14 review

I've heard complaints that Grant Morrison isn't imbuing Action Comics with the same sense of wonder that pervaded his All-Star Superman run. As if to answer those critics, 'Superman's Mission To Mars' opens with a sequence showing just how awesome the Man of Steel is - without actually showing him. There's real grandeur as super-hearing, speed and flight combine to demonstrate that this truly is Earth's greatest hero.

Picking up cries for help from a manned mission to Mars, Superman shoots across the solar system to bash Metalek alien automatons akin to those that recently tried to take over Earth. He knows that if Metalek are on Mars, the bigger threat of The Multitude can't be far behind. And Earth is on their hit list. He's been waiting for the cosmic menace to appear since his encounter with the Collector of Worlds, but has no idea what form they'll take.

It's fair to say he wasn't expecting thousands of angels. At first, sheer numbers and a locust-like ability to eat everything in their path forces Superman back, but when he remembers their true nature, he's able - with the help of the Terran scientists - to send them packing.

It's then, though, that the ultimate threat makes himself known - and he's familiar to anyone who's been reading this comic regularly. It's escaped 5th Dimension prisoner Vyndktvx, once again using his magic to bedevil Superman. And he's no longer playing games.

Yep, Vyndktvx, quite the descriptive name, because he's rotten to the core. And the freaky form he takes this issue, combined with images of Superman fighting angels, took me right back to my childhood and Superman #236.
That Neal Adams and Dick Giordano cover fair freaked me out. I wonder if Morrison also read the issue, and the imagery stuck?

Not that it matters, as his nicely worked story doesn't rely on nostalgia for effect. It's a pretty decent chapter in the longform story he's telling, and I'm chuffed to bits that the little man finally declares himself; time for a comeuppance, methinks. The fight with The Multitude is satisfying, even if my guess that they're a Bismollian toga party proves incorrect. I like that Superman uses birth father Jor-El's experience to save the day, and that even with his immense powers, he needs an assist from the regular humans.

Most of all, I like that none of them treats Superman with the suspicion that's been a trademark of DC's New 52 relaunch. No one fears him, they trust that he'll save the day. And even when circumstances cause that trust to waver, Superman doesn't wobble - he just does his best and in so doing, inspires others (click on image to enlarge).
Rags Morales' storytelling is very good overall. Apart from that fine opening sequence, there's a majestic splash, an intense fight with the angels and the Vyndktvx reveal. There are a few awkward panels, and I wonder if that's due to Morales' discomfort with the appalling new costume and its silly seams. You can see what I mean by glancing at the issue's cover up top - poor artists. Said artists include Mark Propst, whose inks look rather fine over Morales' muscular layouts. Colourist Brad Anderson does a spiffy job with the Martian setting and sundry threats, while Steve Wands' letters are clearly perfectly placed. Editors Wil Moss and Matt Idelson have assembled a splendid team here.
This issue's back-up, 'Star Light, Star Bright...' also shows that Superman-phobia isn't as widespread as we've been led to believe. It's a simple tale of Superman being given a gift by New York's astrophysicists - a rare chance to see Krypton in almost real-time. And why such an elaborate present? Because they think Superman is the bees' knees! Other DC books take note - to paraphrase Superman in the long-ago Action Comics #309 - 'If you can't trust Superman, who can you trust?' He's not a messiah, he's not perfect, but he is loved, and he does bring out the best in people.
Said people include real-life scientist Dr Neil Tyson, seen here marvelling that Superman is actually wearing a worse outfit than him. You may have read that Dr Tyson, at DC's request, worked out a possible position for a 'real' Krypton, which is wonderful, in a pointless way. Apparently Dr Tyson was voted People Magazine's Sexiest Scientist several years back - presumably he didn't wear that passion killer back then.

The stunt nature of the short makes for a drier script than usual from Action Comics back-up king Sholly Fisch, though he does have enormous fun with a couple of pages featuring the Justice League - the campaign for Fisch to write that team's title starts here. 

The story's close, as Superman sees Krypton die, aims for poignancy, but I've seen this scene so many times in this first year of the New 52 alone that I'm all Kryptonned out. Still, that's not the fault of Fisch, and as a standalone story this works. 

Drawing the tale is Chris Sprouse, a rare but welcome visitor to DC interiors. Let's remember him for his great cartooning on Tom Strong and the Legion of Super-Heroes, rather than judge him by his depiction of the Superman armour. As I said, poor artists. Sprouse's regular partner, Karl Story, supplies the attractive inks, while the commendable colours and letters come from Jordie Bellaire and That Man Wands respectively.

This isn't the greatest issue of Action Comics ever, but it's certainly one of the most positive depictions of Superman and his world in the past year or so. Bravo

Wednesday, 7 November 2012

World's Finest #6 review

If the Batman's daughter Huntress is smart enough to steal millions from Bruce Wayne, is it surprising that Batman's son Robin can catch her out? Helena is appalled that this little snot is wearing 'her' colours and using 'her' name, whereas Damian is wondering why her fighting style is so familiar.

Away from Gotham, Power Girl is piggybacking an energy detector onto a Galaxy Communications satellite. She's hoping to find Apokolips waves of the kind attached to the monster she recently fought in Tokyo that may help Helena and herself return home to Earth 2 from Earth 1.

Helena's immediate concern is putting down the surprisingly dangerous Damian before civilians get caught in the crossfire ...

The fight between the Wayne almost-siblings makes for an amusing central conceit to Paul Levitz's engrossing tale. I'm surprised at how free Helena is with hints as to just who she is - she already knows Damian is 'Not-Dad's' son - but surprise is good. As is the dialogue - I can't recall if Levitz has written Damian previously, but he should certainly write him again, superbly capturing the assassin prince's haughtiness.

Wish granted - at issue's close, Levitz sets up a new mystery that ensures a team-up between Huntress, Power Girl and Damian next month.

Sharing the art duties, as ever, are George Perez and Kevin Maguire; veterans they may be, but there's a tyro energy to their work, a joie de vivre in slam-bang superheroics that does them credit. The former handles the Power Girl solo sequences while the latter gives great Gotham. Perez's partner is inker Sandra Hope, whose clean line perfectly suits the pencils. Maguire goes solo with pencils and inks, showing off his trademark talent for animated expressions (click on image to enlarge).
Colouring comes courtesy of Rosemary Cheetham and Hi-Fi, and it works for me, with the Gotham sequences being, unsurprisingly, moodier than the Asia-based Power Girl's. The opening spread is a bit washed-out, mind - a technical problem, or some subtlety in the art that I'm missing?

Carlos M Mangual makes the most of said title spread to show off some fun display lettering, before settling down to the rest of the book.

I love the vibrancy of the cover, its composition and colouring, though closer examination shows Huntress to be rather the licorice-legged lady. Eat, woman!

World's Finest #6 is a spiffy addition to DC's mini-genre of 'Damian vs ...' stories, as well as a useful chapter in the overarcing story of our heroine's fight to get back home. Recommended.

Iron Man #1 review

Tony Stark has put together a checklist of things to do. Stark Resilient is prospering with Pepper Potts in charge and he has plenty of smart people in the lab. So why not take some time and find out just what it is he believes in? Just how does a man of science see the universe when he's regularly mixing with self-proclaimed gods?

Before he can take off, a storm breaks involving Maya Hansen, co-inventor of the Extremis process which runs Tony's Iron Man suits, and twisted science cabal Advanced Idea Mechanics. Soon Tony's in a thoroughly clever disguise at an underworld auction, and fighting AIM for the return of the Extremis tech. The issue ends with Tony vowing to get the sinister genie of uncontrolled Extremis back in the bottle.

This relaunch - part of the Marvel Now! promotion - gets off to a terrific start, thanks to Kieron Gillen's smart, witty script. The Tony Stark who narrates this issue is a fascinating figure, one whose curiosity about what's out there has led him to finally begin examining himself. After years blurred by his drink problem, and then lost to crisis after crisis, he at last has time to breathe, step back and wonder about the big picture. He's still the playboy, spending time with a very keen Blonde and infuriating Pepper with what she sees as boyish whims and an incipient midlife crisis - but the minute a problem hits, the flightiness is gone. Throughout, Gillen displays his usual knack for believable dialogue, whether he's revealing character through conversation or filling in backstory with an elegant hand.

Compelling as the Extremis strand is, it's the Blonde's chat with Pepper at Mary Jane Watson's New York nitespot that's my favourite part of the issue. Given that she's never named here, the longtime comic fan's reaction is to wonder if this is someone we might know, a disguised figure from Tony's past with an agenda. Madame Masque, say. Or Fin Fang Foom. I hope and suspect, though, that her angle is just what she tells Pepper it is - it'd make for a refreshing change. I do hope we see the Blonde again soon.

Greg Land illustrates 'Demons and Genies', the first chapter of the five-part Believe storyline, and as ever, rouses mixed feelings. His Iron Man, garbed in cracking new armour, floating above the city, is wonderful; it's Tony as the 21st-century knight, wondering just what his Holy Grail might be. Land's layouts and compositional choices work a lot of the time, and individual images - such as an AIM thug surrounded by flames - are striking.

But civilian Tony and the Blonde, in the nightclub scene, are a little more problematic, due to an apparent over-reliance on photo-referencing ... the fixed grins from various angles and distances are unnerving. Yet Land's Pepper is great, there's real emotion in her body language, her eyes. It's as if the Land with the reputation for taking shortcuts is fighting the Land who drew the likes of Birds of Prey, and gave us more relaxed, livelier art. I know who I'd like to win.

The rest of the core creative team - inker Jay Leisten, colour house Guru eFX and letterer Joe Caramagna - do sterling work, with sharp lines, intense tones and nicely laid out words abounding.

Land's front page image, I like. It's just a shame we can't see more of it - the super-busy Marvel Now! cover dress, combined with the positioning of the rubbish new logo (and whoever okayed the slapdash '#1' by the hero's name should be soundly slapped), have the front cover looking like a back page ad. Oh, and I really, really hate those 'Augmented Reality' boxes that bring the story to a clunking halt when they appear - can't Marvel just list the relevant page and panel on the linked page explaining the process? To save you the bother of activating an app, the four instances here give us a reading of a piece of dialogue; two looks at the art process; and Gillen providing a bit of insight while we wonder why there's a shoe on the table in front of him.

I've complained about the $3.99 price point of these Marvel Now! books - and this is a 14-times-per-year shipper - but Gillen does make a big effort to give value for money*. Once the art problem is sorted (he said optimistically - I wish to encourage Land, not get him off the book), I'll be happier.

On balance, this is a jolly good start to the latest Iron Man era, one nodding to Tony's past while looking firmly into the future.

* Listeners to Gillen's excellent Decompressed podcast, in which he talks craft with fellow creators, will know that he's not actually big on decompression, going so far as to count story panels. Good man!

Tuesday, 6 November 2012

Joe Kubert Presents #1 review

Artist, writer, teacher ... legend. Joe Kubert worked in comics for an astonishing 70 years. He died in August, leaving a legacy to the industry that comprises three parts - an immense body of gorgeous, thoughtful stripwork; countless professionals trained at his eponymous school; and his artist sons, Adam and Andy.

But Kubert was also an editor, steering such titles as Our Army at War and Tarzan while also providing stories and art. And in Joe Kubert Presents he's once again curating talent and characters, presenting the type of stories he missed seeing in comics. The six issues see Kubert showcase fellow pioneer Sam Glanzman, veteran Kubert School humour teacher Brian Buniak and, happily, himself. As well as writing and drawing, all three look to be lettering and colouring their work, making for a purity that's rare to see; what's more, DC have printed the work on heavy stock, allowing for sharper reproduction.
Thunderbunny and Mad alumnus Brian Buniak begins a serial featuring Sixties DC characters Angel and the Ape -  detectives Angel O'Day and Sam Simeon. She's human, he's a comic-drawing gorilla, and it's good to have them back. The story sees a rich guy who's being preyed upon by a gold-digger ask the pair to stop him being murdered, and it's a lot of fun. So far, Sam's not talking as he did in the old days, something I hope will change pretty quickly, allowing for some banter. That's not to say Sam is absent characterisation - Buniak's energy-filled artwork and occasional grunts clue us in as to what's on his mind. The pages are packed with sight gags and Easter eggs, such as a parade of earlier artists' versions of Angel by Sam's desk, ensuring this strip rewards multiple readings.
In the Second World War Sam Glanzman served on the destroyer USS Stevens, and over the years he's told dozens of stories about that time, both at Marvel and DC. Sadness permeates every panel of this issue's tale of Patty and Jerry, two guys who worked on the guns, along with authenticity; I've rarely felt so close to the experience of the ordinary heroes to whom we owe so much. Glanzman is another octogenarian - he draws himself looking back - and his powers remain impressive.
And then there's Kubert himself. Incapable of not creating something new, here he debuts Spit, an unloved orphan who joins a whaling vessel. Presenting the harsh narrative in pencils only, with a grey wash effect, emphasises the ragged hopelessness of Spit's days. By the end of this short opening chapter there's the slightest hint that he may soon have a life rather than an existence. This is bleak stuff, but Lord, the craft ...

... Kubert's mastery of the comics form is also evident in the book's joyfully coloured feature-length strip, a story of the Silver Age Hawkman and Hawkgirl's first adventure on Earth (Katar's blond here, like his Golden Age counterpart Carter Hall, making him look more than ever the classic comics hero). They're sent down by authorities on their homeworld Thanagar not to study police methods, but to report on Earth's increasing threat to the universe. It's not stated outright, but there's a sense that Katar and Shayera are judging Earth's people, that Thanagar may take drastic action if there's no cause for optimism. The all-business Katar foregrounds the implications of their mission, but the cheerier Shayera chooses to concentrate on the potential for exploration and adventure. She's not stupid, just approaching their mission from another angle.

Having them land in a canopied part of Africa, filled with animals of the jungle and veldt, allows Kubert to bring a Tarzan artistic sensibility to the story. And while the local people wear animal skin and shake spears - there's even a witchdoctor type - they don't feel like comic book caricatures, so much as classic adventure strip denizens. There's an inarguable message about pollution, but mainly I loved this strip for its stripped-down approach to Hawkman and Hawkgirl - the continuity contortions of recent years are absent, this is just a pair of winged wonders, space aliens who can talk to the animals, getting to know earth. It's easy to find a messianic subtext - sent from on high, they're here to save us from themselves else their 'father' finds us wanting - but it's equally easy to ignore such things (the inescapable Jesus parallels are coming next month, as Kubert's long-lost Eighties project, Redeemer, finally appears).
The art is a dream, marrying the fantastic to a naturalistic line that makes characters and landscapes come alive. Shayera's mask is redesigned slightly, making her eyes more freakily birdlike, but I could look at this Hawkgirl and Hawkman every day for the rest of my life and never tire of the sight. And Kubert's colour choices and lettering style complement his illustrations perfectly. We even get to see the man himself, on an introduction page that leads into the story's gorgeous opening image of soaring Hawkpeople and floating cities.

I don't know enough about illustration to say for certain, but the cover illustration looks to have been done on textured paper or board, lending a timelessness, a poetry, to its image of Katar, Shayera and elephant chums. The signature-turned-logo and unobtrusive contents lettering sit well beside it.

A packed issue - 52 high quality pages for $4.99 - is rounded off with an essay by Kubert explaining the concept better than I have here, and an addendum by his friend and collaborator Pete Carlsson.

There's a production problem, and I mention it only in the hope that someone at DC might see this and take a look at what's very much a nuts and bolts, not a content, issue: the two slight staples are too weak to maintain the integrity of this heavier-than-the-norm comic. Even before I read it, the central four pages had come away.

With Kubert gone, and his final strip already printed in this week's Ghosts #1, there's a bittersweet tinge to this series. But with quality work of the calibre contained in this first issue, I can see subsequent releases being something to treasure for reasons far removed from justified sentimentality. Joe Kubert understood how to make a comic book story sing, and even after his death, he's showing us how it should be done.

Saturday, 3 November 2012

Never too busy to visit Colin

Too Busy Thinking About My Comics is among the best blogs I know. It's where Colin Smith puts forward his thoughts on everything from the latest DC and Marvel titles to the best of indie and European stripwork. Colin's smart mind, wide range of knowledge and incisive opinions make for extremely readable, thought-provoking discussions. Recent highlights have included wide-ranging discussions of Henry Pym, Sean Howe's Marvel Comics: The Untold Story and James Bond comics. You may already be a TBTAMC fan, as I am.

And now I get to play over at Colin's, with a guest post on the comic that turned me from a young reader into a budding fanboy. You can find it here. Please pop across, Colin and I would love to hear any comments you may have.

And soon, Colin's going to be over here, with his thoughts on ... well, that would be telling!

Thursday, 1 November 2012

A+X #1 review

After several months of Avengers vs X-Men split book AvsX, Marvel flips the formula to reflect the friendlier relationship between the two teams. And decent sales.

So here's another $3.99 series featuring two stories spread over a stingy 21pp, but it's team-ups rather than tussles. First up is Captain America and Bucky in the Second World War, joined by Cable for a spot of prototype Sentinel-bashing. Cable's not the only time traveller on hand in a thoroughly enjoyable yarn - I never knew I wanted to see an Iron Giant-style Sentinel operated by punch cards, but apparently I did.

Dan Slott's script is assured, pacy and throws in pleasant nods to continuity without getting bogged down by Marvel's larger universe. Ron Garney's pencils are brilliantly bombastic, as one of Cap's best artists revisits the character (his take on the classic costume totally shows up the clunky new version). The art's not at all hurt by having three inkers - Danny Miki, Cam Smith and Mark Morales - while Wil Quintana's colours are perfect for the scenario. Clayton Cowles letters, and does a generally decent job ...

... there's an error that really shouldn't make it into a comic book, though - Adolph Hitler. I don't wish to specifically blame Cowles, because someone higher up the production chain - Slott, or editors Jordan D White or Nick Lowe - should have caught such a clunker.

More time travelling fuels the second story, which sees the Hulk and Wolverine smash and slash future versions of themselves - Maestro and Days of Future Past Logan. The latter pair pop up in Avengers Tower looking to kill the Red Hulk, but he's not in the house. The shamelessly slight 'story' ends with a paradox and the promise/threat of more to come. Jeph Loeb's script is fine for what it is, a two-minute fight scene, but a bit of ambition would be appreciated. It's great, though, to see another classic penciler return to a character with whom they're heavily identified, as Dale Keown pencils the Hulk once more. The jade giant has rarely looked more formidable, while his Wolverines are proper little spitfires. Danny Miki inks, Frank D'armata colours and Albert Deschesne letters this good-looking trifle.

I can't see this book surviving a year. Sure, it's an Avengers title, it's an X-Men title, but unlike AvsX, it's not tied to a crossover, and even fan favourite creators have a hard time selling books which continuity-is-all Marvel Zombies consider inessential. And this one wears its throwaway nature on its contents page sleeve. It's certainly a fun diversion, and I'd love to see it continue at $2.99, but the current price point is going to hobble it something rotten. Yes, Marvel gets away with overpricing on some books, but this won't prove to be one of them.

Ghosts #1 review

It's Hallowe'en and I'm sitting in Edinburgh, one of the world's spookiest cities, with the lights down low. How could Ghosts, the one-shot revival of DC's Bronze Age mystery title, fail to frighten me? While the original was rarely outright terrifying, the stories were always readable, the art lush and atmospheric, and the twists often surprised. And all within the confines of the Comics Code Authority. What horrors could be unleashed with a 21st-century version, published by DC's 'sophisticated suspense' division, Vertigo.

Some pretty dull scripts, that's what. They're not all bad, but this is a profoundly disappointing comic book. Even Dave Johnson's cover, at first glance a winning update of the original series' tropes, loses its magic when it's repeated twice over the course of two contents pages.

  • The issue opens with 'The night after I took the data entry job I was visited by my own ghost'. Said ghost isn't your traditional spook, it's an aborted future version of the narrator, who goes on to steal his life. It's slacker wackiness from writer Al Ewing and artist Rufus Dayglo (in Jamie Hewlett mode), cheerily diverting on its own terms, but it wouldn't spook a toddler. I'd have expected a more traditional suspenser to open the book, with this thrown in midway as a change of pace, but by the end of the issue it's apparent that there simply aren't any stories harking back to the old ways.
  • The Dead Boy Detectives from Neil Gaiman's Sandman show up in 'Run Ragged', a story by writer Toby Litt and artists Mark Buckingham and Victor Santos. Well, 'story' is overstating it; what we actually have is a few pages with Charles and Edwin hunting a missing cat ghost named Twinkle and being chased by a Pink Floyd-esque schoolteacher. The artwork is wonderfully whimsical and eerie, including a thoroughly engaging page drawn from the perspective of said dead pussy. But while the narrative is intriguing, it stops abruptly and we get '... to be continued in the next Vertigo anthology'. Continue away ... just don't expect me to be there.
  • 'Wallflower' follows a young couple through the decades as they move from vibrant love to ghostly loneliness. I'm not sure I caught all the nuances - the ending certainly went over my head - but it's at the very least an interesting mood piece, delicately written by Cecil Castellucci and exquisitely illustrated by Amy Reeder. Just look at that first page, as the couple's love colours their life ...
  • 'The Boy and the Old Man' is the last work from legendary comics creator Joe Kubert. It's a fragment, a piece left unfinished when he died in August - pencils only, with lettering overlaid on Kubert's notes. It's fascinating to get such an intimate peek at Kubert's workmanship, and I'd love to see a version inked by one of his sons, Adam or Andy. As it is, we have the story of a dying native American and his grandson fighting Death itself. Once more, there's no traditional ghost, but there is a satisfying conclusion.
  • 'A bowl of red' is a quirky piece about what the world's most hellish chilli will do to you. We learn just what that is on page one, but the story goes on for seven more sides, dragging out the one idea way beyond boredom and ending without so much as a tiny twist. Neil Kleid's script is readable, if a little too pleased with itself, while John McCrea channels the EC vibe to admirable effect. So far as ghosts go, there's a ghost pepper and an undead pepper, which is something!
  • There are no spooks in 'Bride', just a weirdo loser carrying around his dead wife's ashes while reminiscing about their rather icky sex life, as a Greek chorus of creeps commentates. It's written by one Mary HK Choi, apparently a very funny New York columnist. So perhaps this is satire, and I missed the jokes, and the point, and it only reads as self-indulgent, adolescent pish because I'm not smart enough to appreciate it. The illustrations by regular partners Phil Jimenez and Andy Lanning are typically impressive, but they don't manage to make sense of the disjointed narrative. I doubt anyone could.
  • 'Treasure Lost' concerns royal siblings kidnapped by 'pirates of the ghost ship'. And that phrase is as close as this story gets to fitting into a comic called Ghosts, because it's science fiction, perhaps commissioned for Vertigo's Strange Adventures or Mystery in Space books but left on the shelf (as 'A bowl of red' might have been intended for Unexpected). With talent like writer Paul Pope and artist David Lapham at the helm, it's unsurprisingly a readable, nice-looking piece. But Ghosts it ain't.
  • There are ghosts in 'The Dark Lady', written and illustrated by Gilbert Hernandez, which provides the one haunting image in this fat $7.99 book. It also delivers a wee twist, and an alarmingly easy payday for colourist Lee Loughridge, whose contribution seems to have been turning the borders of the black and white pages aqua, and maybe even adding red to the credits. Could it be that Loughridge was assigned to colour the pages and did so, but Hernandez then requested they go mono, yet the credit remained? It's the biggest mystery in the comic.
  • Finally, there's Ghost-For-Hire, in which a man and his departed brother make a living scaring people. It's a charming piece by writer Geoff Johns and artist Jeff LeMire, and it styles itself as the first of a possible series. I'd be happy to see more, because this is the most humane piece in the book, and it even has a proper ghost doing some proper haunting. Credit, too, to Jose Villarrubia for a terrific, autumnal colouring job.
If you're going to purchase Ghosts, do it for the art, of which there's a splendid, accomplished variety on display. Don't buy this comic looking for chills. You'd be better off scouring eBay or back issue boxes for any random copy of the original series. Or cheaper still, just having someone yell 'boo' at you. Seriously, that would be more horrifying, as this comic is almost totally lacking in creepy ideas and disturbing imagery.

Because as with previous Vertigo anthologies, this is full of writers trying far too hard to give us their unique, hip spin on the theme, rather than just having a blast with tried and tested genre traditions - whether they be science fiction or supernatural. I'd love the next horror revival to appear under the DC imprint, edited by some Seventies stalwart who knows how short stories work, and has a passing familiarity with Shirley Jackson or MR James. Someone out not to impress, but to scare ...