Wednesday, 19 December 2012

FF #2 review

The Fantastic Four were only supposed to be gone for four minutes. As the deadline comes and goes, with no return of Ben, Johnny, Sue and Reed, the replacement FF get to know the Future Foundation kids. And a villain comes a-calling.

This is more like it. After a slow introduction via Fantastic Four #1-2 and FF #1, some action and a chance for substitutes Ant Man, She-Hulk, Medusa and Ms Thing to make this book their own. Which they do, showing off their characters as they settle into their new roles. It's easiest for Medusa and She-Hulk, having both served with the FF previously. Medusa relaxes and wonders why a Royal such as she isn't being waited on hand, foot and hair. She-Hulk touches base with her Jennifer Walters day job by giving the students a lecture on law as it relates to superheroing.

Ant Man is also a longtime FF associate, having been hired as electronics expert while Reed was missing, so he knows the score. Scott Lang isn't hugely perturbed when the kids quiz him about what the papers mean when they describe him as an 'ex-con'. He even uses the moment to teach the sprogs a life lesson - it seems that despite Scott's own doubts, Reed did indeed pick the right man for the job.

It's the ultra-sweet Darla for whom this is hardest. The Human Torch's pop star girlfriend, she signed on for a lark, an unpowered placeholder. But when the Mole Man attacks, mighty steamed at the 'imposters' usurping the name of his greatest enemies, she realises that this is serious. Even an old Thing suit mooched out by Dragon Man doesn't settle her nerves, and crisis over, she makes a decision about her future.

Even the oft-annoying kids are good value here, constantly challenging the senior staff with humour and not a little charm.

Writer Matt Fraction and artist Mike Allred produce one of the most enjoyable Marvel comics for years. With economy and skill, they focus in on their major cast members, while throwing in the Fantastic Four's first-ever foes, Mole Man and big green lackey Giganto. The fight sequence is a lot of fun, with everyone but poor Darla playing their part. I still don't quite understand what Ant-Man's new droopy costume strands do, mind. Can't we just have a few flying ants?

Have I said that the pages rendered by Allred and colourist wife Laura are pure Pop Art Comics (click on image to enlarge)? If so, it bears repeating: the work is big, friendly, fun - and very skilful - cartooning. Allred, Mike can get more personality into a face with a few lines than bigger name artists can with hundreds. He can do a mean Kirby machine. And with three out of four members female, it's a real boon that Allred isn't one of those one-face-fits-all guys; Darla, Medusa and Jennifer have their distinct faces, and would be recognisable uncoloured and bereft of hair.

Not that that's how I want to see them - I love Medusa's flaming, spidery locks, Jen's green mane, Darla's pink hair. These are the best-tressed heroines around. And in a Marvel line featuring mostly 'realistically' coloured books, I treasure the super-vibrant world of the FF.

Oh, and there's a cliffhanger. A very good cliffhanger.

Throw in a truly splendid cover by the Allreds that's no doubt bound for a trade collection and you have probably the best comic this week from Marvel.

And having said that, I'd better go and read some more to test the assertion. I'll be back here if anything jumps out. Preferably not Giganto ...

Legion of Super-Heroes #15 review

An eerie voice wakes sleeping Legionnaire Glorith and bids her follow their words. In a daze, she enters a glowing cloud and finds herself in Barcelona, and attacked by a mob whose members want to burn her for the witch that she is. Back at headquarters the next morning, pals Dragonwing and Chemical Kid are worried, but Harmonia reckons she's probably just gone off to visit mentor the Black Witch across space. Senior Legionnaires Brainiac 5 and Cosmic Boy take different sides of the argument.

The debate over whether to take action is curtailed as the Science Police summon the Legion to tackle a 'timestorm' in, you guessed it, Barcelona. Mon-El and Ultra Boy take point, arriving in Spain's largest city to find dinosaurs fighting cavemen. They're soon saving the citizenry, aided by later arrivals Brainiac 5, Harmonia, Dragonwing and Chemical Kid. Glorith, meanwhile, is about to be burned at the stake, and with no suitable spell ready to save herself, is in big trouble ...

If you're not a Legion fan, the parade of personages I mention will likely mean nothing. If you're a first-timer actually reading the comic, there's no problem. Writer Paul Levitz introduces each new arrival with a short caption giving name, homeworld and powers. The personalities, he reveals via their words.
These panels, for example (click on image to enlarge) demonstrate Brainiac 5's super-intelligence - an ability with no visual hook - while Harmonia commentates on it and younger members Chemical Kid and Dragonwing react. Earlier in the issue Harmonia is shown to be a rationalist, and here we see that's she has a sense of humour. Levitz's characters are never one-note, never interchangeable - younger writers should be studying his approach to plot structure and character building.

If there's a weakness in Levitz's current Legion run, it's that he takes a little too much time getting to the big threats. The good character work he does could be contained within big splashy storylines. This month's one-shot tale looks to be signalling the return of an old Legion foe, and it's an entertaining entry in the Legion canon (a phrase to make longtime fans laugh and cry alike). But the last several issues have been building towards the debut of a new Fatal Five villain team. There's one page this issue showing Levitz hasn't forgotten this, as Legion Espionage Squad head Chameleon Boy summons Shrinking Violet and Lightning Lass to a meeting, but I'd rather we got to that main event than spend an issue building up the mystery of Glorith.

There's my quibble. One thing this issue isn't is boring, with some entertaining uses of powers and the aforementioned strong characterisation. There's even a 'hurrah' moment as a powerless Glorith does exactly what I was telling her to do in order to save herself.

And the story looks glorious. Artist Francis Portela is back after a few issues away and perhaps as a reward, Levitz sets the story in his home town, one thousand years from today. Portela grabs the baton and runs with it, showing a city that while evolved, is recognisable to 21st-century eyes. The key is the inclusion of Gaudi's magnificent Sagrad Familia, and the conceit that the cathedral has continued growing for ten centuries. The futuristic structure, grown to the size of a city, looks magnificent, and it's the perfect backdrop for this tale of superheroes vs cavemen and dinosaurs.

The Legion members are majestic, sleek and powerful. Even the odder-looking members, such as Dragonwing and her magical pakamac, ooze nobility and heroism. The dinosaurs, meanwhile, would delight any ten-year-old child reading. And is that a Barcelona FC player I see vanishing into the timestorm? Page after page, Portela gifts us with great storytelling and fantastic-looking participants, enhanced by the bold colours of Javier Mena.

And isn't that a terrific T-Rex on Steve Lightle's cover? What big teeth, and all that.

It's a plea I've made previously, but again, if you've never tried the Legion and like smart, great-lookng superhero action soaps, give the Legion of Super-Heroes a try.

Wonder Woman #15 review

I checked out of this Wonder Woman series a few months back, but couldn't resist checking back in for the debut of Orion of the New Gods in DC's New 52 continuity. Nothing much seems to have changed while I've been away: Diana is still following her fellow demi-god brother Lennox around like a clueless puppy. Zola has had her baby but, the child having been stolen, is babysitting Queen of the Gods Hera instead. Orion is looking for someone and has gone to old friend Milan, who presents as a hobo but is apparently an Olympian. Diana and Lennox are, coincidentally or not, looking for Milan as part of a quest to find some sister I missed, Siracca. Hephaestus tweaks Diana's bracelets so that they can create swords, which comes in handy when Orion and Diana must fight because, well, they're in a superhero comic. And some lost firstborn of, probably, Zeus is in Antarctica and pretty darn miffed.

Last week, while reviewing Legion Lost, I argued for DC to institute a Marvel-style recap page to avoid writers having to shoe in acres of unconvincing expository dialogue. There's no such problem with info-dumping here - Brian Azzarello assumes that the only people reading are those who've been with Wonder Woman from the start of this seemingly endless tale of petty-minded, idiotic gods. Or those who will read this in one massive collection. Super. Having been around for many of the issues, I've a better chance than first-timers of 'getting' this comic, but Wonder Woman #15 certainly won't bring me back as a regular. The old problem remains, encapsulated by Orion in a refreshingly meta piece of dialogue as he barks at Lennox: 'You and your stupid damn riddles.'

Indeed. Lennox isn't the only offender - all the gods sound like cryptic crossword clues - but he's the worst because Azzarello has somehow gotten even worse at writing 'English' speech patterns:

'I don' let him do anything - why you think I 'ave control over this?' 
'There be older powers at play.' 
'Why I always stick myself with the 'orrid jobs?' 

As Jack Lemmon said of Tony Curtis's impression of Cary Grant in Some Like it Hot, 'nobody talks like that'. Lennox sounds like a cross between Ali G and Worzel Gummidge. It's as if Azzarello is typing with a tin ear.

Of course, this could be his subtle way of hinting that Lennox isn't the English godling he claims to be; in which case, get on with the revelation, and stop hurting my brain.

As implied by the line above, Orion is a far more straightforward guy than the Olympians, who couldn't cross the street without building a labyrinth and dumping a minotaur in it. If he can cut through some of the nonsense and bring the main storyline - whatever it is, I can no longer remember - to a close, excellent. Once he and Diana get their obligatory fight scene over with, they'll likely team up to do whatever (while Diana wants to find Siracca, it seems Orion has been searching for Diana).

The scenes I really like this issue see Zola and Hera acting like kids over the TV remote, before they address the tension between them - the fact that Hera's hubby Zeus dallied with Zola. Two women on the road to resolving their differences by talking rather than fighting - that's classic Wonder Woman right there. The scene plays out well, thanks in large part to the nuanced art of Cliff Chiang (click on image to enlarge).

Chiang's work is a pleasure to look at, with all the characters distinct and, well, characterful. Even the annoying lummox - sorry, Lennox - looks adorable, a confused man-baby, while Hera is all stately bitchiness, Zola the impatient homegirl and Diana, pretty darn magnificent. As for Orion, he's surprisingly true to Jack Kirby's classic design, burly, heroic and the most thoughtful bruiser around. He lacks the awe factor, though, looking more like a biker than a space god, while the astro harness resembles a piece of gym equipment. Chiang's storytelling is as sharp as I remember, always interesting, always getting the job done. My favourite image is Diana swooping down on Orion after he challenges her, looking like the star of the show that she never seems to be in this series. And the colours of Matthew Wilson suit Chiang's work down to the ground, knowing when to be flashy and when to be naturalistic; the Boom Tube lighting is especially fine.

All in all, this seems a pretty good issue of the Azzarello Wonder Woman series, but I won't be back next time - there were too many gods when I left, and here we are months later, with still more being introduced, even without New God Orion. The Amazons still look to be missing, Diana's mother Hippolyta apparently remains dead and the Zola's baby thread is being spun out ever thinner. And Diana? Diana is no more than the member of the ensemble cast who gets to appear on the cover. There's no sense that this comic is about her, that's she's driving the story.

The DC New 52 Wonder Woman is what it is, but it ain't for me.

Ain't? Er, 'isn't'. Don' 'old that against me, oi?

Thursday, 13 December 2012

Legion Lost #15 review

One more issue and this book is gone. I can stand it. Not just because the Legion of Super-Heroes is meant to to be the 31st century's biggest team, so splitting off members and dumping them in the 21st century harms the concept. The main reason is because, more often than not, this series is painful. Yes, there have been some good issues; this isn't one of them.

As the book opens, the Lost team is fighting thousands of drones allied to planetary assassins Daggor and Thraxx. They're teamed with contemporary super-teens The Ravagers, and mutual enemies Harvest, Psykill, Warblade and Leash. Also in the fray is the clone Superboy, who's been switched into killing machine mode by his supposed creator, the aforementioned Harvest.

Blah blah and indeed blah. If it hurts to read this stuff in summary, try getting it from acres of unnatural expository dialogue.
Every DC comic is now written for the trade. It makes no sense to hobble good craftsmen like writer Tom DeFalco by forcing them to contrive these kinds of lines when a Marvel-style recap page would do the job better, and make for a smoother read when collected.

I might be less grumpy right now if just once DeFalco would remember that when Tyroc is using his sonic scream, he can't talk. Or if he wouldn't make up rubbish like Wildfire 'recharging' his anti-energy. Or have Dawnstar forget that Wildstar can't be killed, merely dispersed. Or have man of the people Gates consider abandoning his friends for an instant to save his own skin.

DeFalco turns in an enjoyable script on this week's Superboy, so why is this comic so bad? Maybe there was a deadline crunch, leaving no time to polish the dialogue (I'm especially sick of people saying 'We're Legion/I am Legion' as if they're in an Exorcist movie - 'I'm a Legionnaire' is how a human being would put it). Or perhaps his heart wasn't in it, what with having to deal with characters from three ongoing titles and the awfulness that is Harvest. I don't know. I do know that the sooner this comic disappears, the better.

A couple of things did give me a laugh, mind - Superboy's repeated 'KILL! MAIM! DESTROY!' line and Daggor's poetic inclinations - but I don't think they were meant to.

The one or two pleasing moments - Wildfire yelling 'Long Live the Legion!' and double agents Chameleon Girl and Jocelyn Lure coming down on the right side - aren't enough to make up for the poor script.

And neither is the art. Regular guy Pete Woods isn't around, leaving us with serviceable, unremarkable work from penciller Andres Guinaldo, inked by Mark Irwin, Marc Deering and Sean Parsons. Again, I suspect a deadline crush, and should probably be congratulating them on doing such a decent job, all things considered. The best moments involve Wildfire and Psykill's space battle with cosmic barbarian Daggor and winged monster Thraxx - Guinaldo has room to cut loose, what with the other several thousand characters being back on Earth.

So yes, there's one more issue for DeFalco to tie up an awful lot of plots and subplots. Can he do it? On the evidence of this issue, he has to be saving the best til' last.

Superboy #15 review

Superboy is dying after being assaulted by supposed Kryptonian H'el. Superman takes him to the Fortress of Solitude where scientific advisors Cyborg and Dr Veritas puzzle over Superboy's three strands of DNA. They're breaking down, leading Superman to suppose that his Kryptonian armour might boost Superboy's healing the way it did his own, years ago.

And it does. Superboy is soon back on his feet, but the armour is affecting his tactile telekinesis, diverting it to make his muscles stronger than ever.

Meanwhile, In Supergirl's undersea Sanctuary, H'el is poisoning her mind against Kal-El. And in New York, Jimmy Olsen discusses the apparent links between Superman, Supergirl, Superboy and H'el over the phone with Lois Lane, before running into rubbish supervillains Bonesmasher and Streak.

Back at the Fortress, a panicking Superboy pulls off the armour, causing him to collapse. Superman persuades him to put it back on for his own good, just as the antagonist H'el reappears and blasts them right out into the icy wastes.

There's not much advancement on the crossover front here, but H'el on Earth has brought Superman and Superboy closer to an understanding. Superman gets an indication that the kid is his clone, at least partly; and Superboy learns that unlike Supergirl, Superman only wants to help him. I won't be satisfied until all three characters are getting along famously, but this is a step forward. While Supergirl gets just one line of dialogue, the look on her face after H'el disappears on her hints that she's becoming less naive by the minute.

While I like that Superman consults with Cyborg and Veritas, I'm not impressed by how suddenly he dismisses them when he has the armour idea - he comes across as the arrogant type Superboy prejudged him to be. (And poor Cyborg: since being 'promoted' to the Justice League, he's become less and less interesting as a character - DC writers seem content to treat him like an all-purpose AI, rather than a battle-hardened science hero.)

Writer Tom DeFalco's script is a model of efficiency, telling a satisfying chapter in the life of Superboy, deepening the mystery of his donors while showing that he's his own person. And the presence of old Marvel sparring partner Ron Frenz means big, bombastic breakdowns for penciller Roger Robinson to work from. The finishes on the few pages by Iban Coello and Amilcar Pinna are poles apart, but I love both - one sharp and cartoony, the other silky smooth. Most of the book is left to Robinson himself, giving us a grainier look that's rather fascinating (click on images to enlarge, and pray Superman has his red undies on in that first page). And as coloured by Richard & Tanya Horie, and Jeromy Cox, the pages pop. Excellent cover, too, from Tyler Kirkham, Batt and Jason Wright.

Frenz and Robinson

Frenz, Robinson & Pinna
Frenz, Robinson & Coello
All this, and proper use of editorial notes from editor Chris Conroy, make for one of the better issues of Superboy. The only sadness is DeFalco's obvious refusal to reimagine his seminal Seventies creation the Human Cannonball for the New 52. I may just have to start a proper campaign ...

Wednesday, 12 December 2012

Batman #15 review

Stop me if you've heard this one ...

The Joker can do anything he likes in Gotham City. He can stand in front of a bunch of Gotham cops after massacring their brothers, and not be shot on sight. He can have his men ambush said cops with explosives. He can waltz into Arkham Asylum and scare the guards into transforming it into his personal palace.

Yes, it's another issue of the Death of the Family storyline, in which The Joker is out to destroy the bonds between Batman and his proteges. The issue begins with Batman bound by the Joker on a bridge outside Gotham, but circumstances free him to grab the Joker - without his gloves on. Smart. Batman is, of course, immediately dosed with some Joker venom or other. He wakes up to find that the Robins and Batgirl have wound up the case, and faithful manservant Alfred has ... turned into a Joker. AAAARGHH!

Oh, it was all a dream. How clever, please inform the Eisner awards committee.

I really am tired of Scott Snyder's cheats. The writer is good at character beats, and moody descriptive passages, but he just loves the unearned resolution, the deus ex machina, the 'don't worry, he's Batman!' moment. We've had final page exploding buildings that do Batman no harm; Batman fine to fight after a week being driven mad, starved and disembowelled; a remote control exploding bat-suit to beat drowning in a tank of chemicals ... Snyder gives readers the super-dramatic scenes, without working harder for a fair resolution.

End of rant. Back in the comic, Batman wakes up for real, and he has some 'splaining to do. Nightwing, Batgirl, Red Hood, Red Robin and Robin want to know what Joker meant when he said Batman had his calling card. It turns out that years earlier, after a run-in with the Joker, Batman found one of his trademark cards in the Batcave. Batman insists that no way could the Joker have gotten into the cave, but his partners aren't so sure, and fear their identities have been compromised. Both Nightwing and Batgirl have reason to believe that the Joker does indeed know their real names.

But Batman isn't having it, flouncing out to follow up on a clue.

And the younger set let him! The Joker has their friend Alfred. Batman is showing dodgy judgment. And five experienced Gotham knights let him wander off alone.

Imagine me here right now, sighing theatrically. I realise these are comics, but we're meant to associate them at least a little with the real world. I'm fine with Batman not calling Superman in to instantly find Alfred via x-ray vision, because this isn't the JLA or World's Finest. But in terms of the Batman Family of titles, it makes no sense that not one of the five strong-willed, smart heroes he's trained would insist on providing back-up. If they're going to be in this chapter of the crossover, we need a reason as to why they're sitting back and letting Batman go head-first into another trap.

Which seems to be exactly what he's doing, as he heads for Arkham Asylum, having needlessly terrified a guard's family over dinner. As the issue's main story ends, Batman is terrifying himself, with an interior monologue about how the Joker is 'just a man'.

Yes he ruddy well is, and unless he's suddenly gotten 5th Dimensional super-powers, six Bats beat one Joker any day of the week.

Oh, and I really hate this suddenly mincing, in-love-with-Batman Joker - are we seriously meant to equate 'gay' with 'sinister' in this day and age?

Do I sound frustrated? There's enough promise in recent issues to hint that Snyder has a great Joker story in him. Maybe even a couple. But expanding the current encounter to fill several months of interwoven titles has led to a bloated storyline in which all sense is farted away. I do not believe that taunting streetwise cop Harvey Bullock about his alcoholism would throw him off his guard. I do not believe that if there was the slightest chance the Joker got into the Batcave, Batman wouldn't warn Dick, Jason and the rest. Too much of this storyline, and the Owls business that preceded it, is made up of dramatic, crowd-pleasing moments that just don't stand up to examination.

Greg Capullo continues to sell this story with his pencils, giving us a rain-sodden Gotham as dark as Joker's soul. Batman looks suitably fierce and driven, Joker horrifying, the Robins stern and annoyed, Batgirl ... well, a bit strange as Barbara, but it is a dream. I've no complaints about the artwork, as inked by Jonathan Glapion. And the colours of FEO Plascencia complement the stripwork, with the flashback treatment a highlight.

Capullo and FEO are also behind the striking cover, which wraps up one aspect of the story in a memorable image (one which evokes a classic from the Seventies).

There's a linked back-up, showing us Joker treating Arkham Asylum as a fixer-upper, and dragging the Riddler into his plans. It's a good reminder of why the Riddler isn't so silly as some people think, but it loses points for animal cruelty. I'm used to Joker killing civilians randomly, but let's not upset the Bronys ...

Snyder and James Tynon IV provide the warped script, while illustrator Jock and colourist Dave Baron conjure up the images that are going to wreck my sleep.

All in all, a decent issue, but one which could have been a lot better with a tighter editorial hand.

Thanks to the Grand Comic Book Database for the link.

Avengers Arena #1 review

Sixteen young heroes, kidnapped by Arcade and taken to the new Murder World. In 30 days, just one will walk out alive. The rest will either have been killed by the villain's traps - or one another.

Or so Arcade says. Any hero familiar with the man won't be shaking in their boots, as in numerous encounters with Marvel heroes, he's not managed to kill anyone.

He's changed. Suddenly he has the powers of a god, and the will to use them. He kills one of the teenagers in this debut issue, after the kids' pile-on fails to shake him. They refuse his demand to choose the 'weak link', the least powerful captive (that would be Sentinel-wrangler Juston, I guess), but Avengers Academy student Hazmat puts herself in the frame. Ever one to face down a bully, she blasts Arcade, and he turns on her. She's going to be slaughtered ...

... until her boyfriend Mettle steps forward, offering to die in her stead. And he does, his metal-framed body blasted apart. Welcome to Murder World.

On the cancellation of Avengers Academy, writer Christos Gage was sanguine, happy to have created and developed characters who could be used in the Marvel Universe in the years to come. One month later, Mettle - a character he's enriched over numerous storylines - is dead. In this issue's lettercol, Avengers Arena writer Dennis Hopeless says of Mettle: 'He died a hero's death and will be missed by all of his fans, me among them.'

Dennis Hopeless. Not a man to have in your corner.

I get it. To show this book means business, killing an established character is the way to go. Hopeless even gives Mettle and Hazmat a good scene pre-Murder World, and some battlefield characterisation, so that readers who don't already know them can care. But blimey, it seems rude, grabbing a hero from a just-cancelled book and immediately offing him - in silhouette, but still on-panel, and horribly. Even if the ever-generous and professional Gage is fine with it, I'm not - Mettle is an interesting guy, and I looked forward to seeing him grow further. Will I care as much when Hopeless slays some of the new characters he's come up with here, such as Anachronism or Kid Briton? Nope, cos I've not been following them for three years, and anyway, they've been created to be cannon fodder.
I'm not sure I'll be here for future deaths, mind. The idea at the heart of this book is pretty vile, even while the execution is more than decent. The fires of war aren't the only way to show what people are made of; let's see the heroes in all kinds of situations, not just life and death ones. Everyday moral dilemmas can be just as interesting as ones taken in war zones. But given that Marvel isn't going the rip-off route and charging $3.99, I'll maybe give this comic an issue or two, see where it's heading.

At the very least I'm guaranteed great-looking pages, with Kev Walker on art duties. Walker is as adapt at emotion as action scenes, knowing when to pull back, when to go close and when to let loose. And his pages just look exciting. Colourist Frank Martin also serves the script well, knowing when to go splashy and when to dial it down. And the Battle Royale homage cover by Dave Johnson references one of this book's influences as honestly as does Arcade in the script ('Got the idea from a couple kids' books I read in the pen.').

This isn't really Arcade, of course. Not the one who's been bugging Marvel heroes since his debut in Marvel UK's Super-Spider-Man comic in 1977. Hopeless may tell us it is, but it isn't. Arcade isn't a god. He doesn't kill if there's no money involved. He gives heroes a slim chance of escape from his traps. And if, as he claims, he wants to rescue his reputation, he knows that murdering new heroes rather than name characters really isn't the way to go. Nope, this guy is the Eeevil Dr Maguffin, there purely to get the story going. Hopeless would've been better off just inventing someone new rather than rewriting an existing favourite.

As for the kids, they capitulate far too easily, standing around like the mis-written Avengers in the Disassembled storyline, waiting to be picked off. Yes, this Arcade has immense power, but there are 16 heroes here. Would X-23 not hack at him until she dropped? Would Nico of the Runaways really not find some way to cast a spell with her staff?

Apparently not while there's exposition to be given.

This all happens on Day One. The book actually opens on Day 29, when the last two standing, apparently -  Hazmat and X-23 - are having a brutal fight. It's a well-written, intensely dramatic scene. Why Hopeless would give so much away, though, I have no idea; he could be kidding, but at the very least the tension around Hazmat's fate at the end of this issue is well and truly scunnered.

The more I think about this comic, the less I want to read future issues. The characters I like in here, I don't wish to see slain, or get killed because they refuse to kill or let someone die. The characters I don't know, I can live without. And supporting this book sends Marvel the wrong message - I'd rather it were cancelled quickly and the talented creative team reassigned. Decision made - I'm leaving Murder World.

Thursday, 6 December 2012

Action Comics #15 review

... or Mrs Nyxly Explains It All. There's an awful lot of exposition this issue, but it's anything but awful, as Clark Kent's landlady, recently revealed as an emigree from the Fifth Dimension, gives him the big picture. In a truly fascinating instalment we see Superman on the roof of her building, remembering the confrontation with evil magician Vyndyktvx and the Anti-Superman Army on Mars that began last issue. Which is confusing to him, because he's recalling a fight that's not happened yet - Mrs Nyxly tells him it's more than two years in the future.

She reveals to Superman that Vyndyktvx messes with time and memory, displacing the flow of reality 'when he closes in for the kill'. Writer Grant Morrison gets the feeling across wonderfully with this panel (click on image to enlarge).
Mrs Nyxly tells a tale of magic and love and jealousy, one which reduces Superman to the status of just another ant, before restoring him to Featured Player. It's complicated, beautiful and demands to be read. Short version: failed court magician Vyndyktvx is envious of Mr Mxyzptlk's success in making the King-Thing laugh. This Mxy does by pulling not a rabbit, but a universe containing 333 worlds, from his hat. Whether that means he created New 52 Earth, or is 'merely' presenting it from his extra-dimensional viewpoint, is a matter for another day. The point is, Mxy's charm and charms earn him the favour of the king, and the love of his daughter, Princess Gsptlnz. Which eventually leads to 230 worlds slain at the hand of the Multitude, the king's death, his daughter's exile, Mxy's displacement to Earth and Superman's current, past and future situation, with an insanely powerful wizard after him ... if Mxy really is God, Vyndyktvx is the Devil.

And how do you fight the devil? It turns out that Mrs Nyxly had three wishes given to her by Mxy. She's used up two, but perhaps the third ... nope, she's killed before Superman's horrified eyes, without making that final wish. At least, she's told him she's not used it up.
But look at the last panel here, her words, the subtle special effect over Superman - I wouldn't be surprised if she's just pushed the story in the right direction, with that drink, and a blood-spattered S-shirt, being vital elements in the spell's success. Let's hope so, because the story ends with Vyndyktvx about to destroy Clark in three time periods - on the night of his Smallville senior prom, in the moment after Mrs Nyxly's death, and in the future on Mars.

This is the issue that brings together everything author Grant Morrison's been doing in Action Comics, revealing how Vyndyktvx, the little man who first appeared in #1, has been meddling in Superman's life, and explaining the odd leaps in time and space that this series has seen. It gives Superman a massive dose of perspective, showing him there are higher powers that he's basically helpless against. And it sheds light on how Ma and Pa Kent died - for now.

The dialogue between Superman and Mrs Nyxly is touching, as he realises that she's been a bit of a guardian angel to him, making her death all the sadder. And the Easter Eggs are just wonderful - Morrison drags Silver Age super-pet Comet the Super-Horse and cartoon filler feature Super-Turtle into New 52 canon, along with some other familiar names and faces. Page by wonderful page, Morrison shows us that we've been reading one massive story and on this form, I don't doubt he has a killer ending ready to be revealed.

Regular pencillers Brad Walker and Rags Morales are both present and correct, and while I don't know the exact breakdown, it doesn't matter - both men do fine work, with inking support from Andrew Hennessy and Mark Propst, colours from Brad Anderson and the lettering talents of Steve Wands. They capture the drama and emotion of several worlds and lifetimes, bringing a pleasing intensity to the page. And the scenes flashing back to the Fifth Dimensional realm of Zrrff are done in a delightful storybook style, one which makes the slowly emerging horror all the worse.
The storybook style continues in the linked back-up (above), which focuses on the romance of Mxy and Gsptlnz, and the question: just what is Mr Mxyzptlk's greatest trick? The answer is surprising, sweet and may well feed back into the main story. This is a gorgeous companion piece to the lead feature, courtesy of writer Sholly Fisch, artists Chris Sprouse and Karl Story, colourist Jordie Bellaire and letterer Taylor Esposito.

With two spellbinding tales, Action Comics #14 is a late contender for DC's Best Book of the Year.

Wednesday, 5 December 2012

Thunderbolts #1 review

The Punisher is in trouble, tied up in a New York warehouse as someone sends his picture and location to hundreds of local mobsters. His only way out is to accept the offer of the man with the phone - General Thaddeus 'Thunderbolt' Ross. The situation is set up on page one, the decision made on page 21, and in between we see that Ross has been travelling the world to recruit other members of his planned team of Thunderbolts - Venom, Deadpool, Elektra and an unnamed pink-haired woman I'm guessing is Diamondback. Lots of people are killed as writer Daniel Way establishes the characters' kick-assery.

Way describes this new iteration of the Thunderbolts as anti-heroes, rather than villains. Me, I don't think it's semantics to call killers for hire such as Elektra and Deadpool villains. And while the Punisher punishes only crooks, he's still wandering around murdering at will. Venom, I believe, is these days a government operative, while Diamondback, I thought, had reformed and was an ally of Captain America. Ross, as Red Hulk, has recently been a member of the Avengers, which surely puts him in the hero category.

So I'd say it's a willingness to kill that will define this bunch of Thunderbolts. That, and the fact that - possibly Diamondback apart - there's not a single character I have any affection for. Them being unrepentant killers and all.

Still, I like to try the new Marvel Now! books, and I've always enjoyed Steve Dillon's art. It's fair to say that no one does 'faintly surprised to have been impaled' better than Dillon, and he gets to put that talent to good use here. In addition, he nicely underplays the confrontation between Ross and the Punisher, keeping melodrama at bay. The Punisher's reaction to a massive revelation from Ross serves the story well. Guru eFX adds depth and mood with some sterling colour work.

The cover by Julian Todena Todesca is executed with energy, while the emphasis on red, white and black makes it stand out further.

While this is a decently put-together book, and it is what it is, it's also what I was expecting - rough guys and gals stabbing and shooting. I won't be back for the second issue. We aren't told why Ross wants to bring this group of killers together, and maybe that knowledge would have swung me. As it is, I'll let this title run its course, as I await the return to publication of a Thunderbolts comic starring Songbird, Moonstone, Mach Five ... you know, the actual Thunderbolts.

Human Bomb #1 review

Former marine Mike Taylor has a recurring nightmare: he's at the White House, receiving the Medal of Honor, when energy seeping from him blows everyone up. In his day job as a construction worker at Ground Zero, he's idolised by colleagues, who are impressed that he's due to meet the President in a couple of weeks following heroism in Afghanistan. When a member of his unit shows up unexpectely on-site, as reports hit of suicide bombs throughout New York - including one killing the Mayor - Mike is understandably alarmed. Soon the guy is dead and Mike's fighting a man in black who says he's an experiment gone wrong, and must be terminated ...

Writers Justin Gray and Jimmy Palmiotti provide an efficient introduction to their latest Quality Comics revival, following recent mini-series starring new versions of The Ray, Phantom Lady and Doll Man. As in those books, head of super-human monitoring organisation group SHADE, Uncle Sam, appears. There's also someone named Joan who must be the superheroine known as Miss America. So we meet Mike, learn something of his past, and see how he reacts to a terrifying situation just as he's settling into civilian life. A flashback teases the encounter that led to his gaining super-power, and shows us that this isn't a man to be thrown for too long by the unexpected. Mike's in reaction mode for most of the issue, so it's a pleasure to see him cut loose towards the end.

Jerry Ordway is one of the strongest artists in superhero comics, with superb storytelling skills, a mastery of figurework and an understanding of how to compose a dramatic page. He never stints. working to give us a wide variety of people, getting backgrounds right and generally making the ride from first page to last smooth, but never boring. A couple of things I especially like are Mike's protective mask, a nod to the Forties Human Bomb, and the design of the antagonist - simple, but very effective.

It's an ongoing complaint in these parts, but I do wish comics companies would take more time to proofread; there's at least one typo in here, and one missing word. If I can spot them as a reader, why not editor Harvey Richards?

This doesn't feel like an unmissable comic, but it's very solid, entertaining and as a DC book, $2.99. If you have that spare, give it a shot.

Amazing Spider-Man #699 review

As I said in my review of last issue, we never did see Dr Octopus' body flatline, so it's no shock that this issue opens with medics on The Raft super-villain prison fighting to save him. But remember, the 'him' is Peter Parker, his mind swapped with that of Otto Octavius. So even as the villain lies back, waiting for death, 'Spider-Man' is over in New York, armed with Peter's powers and secrets, doing Lord knows what.

Down, but not out, Peter figures that if Otto could footle around in his mind, he should likewise be able to access the memories of the battered old body in which he's trapped. And he does, learning that donning Otto's octobot control helmet 100 issues ago unlocked the door into his brain that the villain has recently fully opened. Peter comes up with an escape and reclaim plan involving the octobot that made final contact with him, and a fairly random assemblage of super-villains - the Trapster, the Scorpion and Hydro-Man. The big concern, though, is that innocents may get hurt as Peter seeks to use bad guys for good.

Writer Dan Slott is on excellent form here, giving the reader back the hope that seemed lost at the end of last issue. Peter may have lost his body, but he's alive and fighting back. Slott even finds room for humour, though it's black as night, tapping into that time Aunt May was engaged to Dr Octopus. Poor Peter.

He's not my favourite Spider-Man artist, but Humberto Ramos's work is effective this issue, complementing Slott's script with suitably creepy images (if you think the grotesque Otto body is disturbing, wait until you see Aunt May ...). There's only one panel to hate, and that's an imagined scene of Spidey snapping Captain America's neck - it's carelessly ugly. I wonder if inker Victor Olazaba wanted to fix it, but isn't allowed to change the work of a bigger name.

With one issue left of the current run, it looks as if Peter will get his win, though in the classic Spider-Man tradition, I suspect triumph will be followed by tragedy. If Amazing Spider-Man #700 is as accomplished as this issue, though, we'll be going out on a high.

Avengers #1 review

On Mars, a figure named Ex Nihilo is firing 'origin bombs' at Earth. Millions of ordinary people are being transformed into beings of the future, strange, gnarled souls. Earth's mightiest heroes fly to the former Red Planet - suddenly it has become a verdant landscape - but are defeated by Ex Nihilo and his comrades, Aleph and Abyss. Thor, Hulk, Iron Man, Hawkeye and Black Widow are bound, to be evolved by Ex Nihilo. Captain America, though, is rocketed back to Earth, to warn Man not to intefere with his judgment.

Mistake. Captain America and Iron Man have been making plans, for a bigger squad of Avengers to deal with bigger threats. After three days recovering from his wounds, Cap sends out the call: Assemble at dawn ...

Writer Jonathan Hickman makes a confident Avengers debut, introducing new threats, promising big things and couching it all in a framework that manages to feel mythic, but not pompous. Ex Nihilo, apparently a 'Higher Evolutionary', has the calm arrogance of the supposed superior being, while main Avengers players Iron Man and Cap carry the assurance of men who have stared down gods, and beaten them. The capture of  five Avengers, prompting Cap to break out the new team, has echoes of the All-New X-Men's debut with Krakoa, but it's a classic set-up because it works. And the difference here is that Iron Man saw that something this big was coming, so he and Cap have spent the previous month signing up new recruits, putting them on call.

We see some of the new members on the final page, along with existing Avengers, and I love that I don't recognise them all - one of the joys of growing up an Avengers fan was occasionally being introduced to fresh characters (Who's that bald woman? And the girl with antennae?). Another was seeing neglected favourites step up to the ranks of Earth's Mightiest, and here we're teased with Cannonball and Hyperion. And I'm delighted to see Falcon back with an Avengers squad. Yep, I think I'm going to like this Mightier Avengers; the idea has been done previously, but not for an extended period of time, as seems to be the plan here.

There's a hint of things to come in the upcoming New Avengers relaunch, as Cap dreams about the Illuminati, and of a massive space battle that will presumably be played out here. Hickman is trying his best to  hook readers, hoping we'll commit to spending $3.99 every fortnight, and while I can fault the price point and frequency, I can't argue with his enthusiasm and craft.

There's also commendable work on display from artist Jerome Opena. Whether he's drawing intimate conversations at Avengers Tower, or awe-inspiring space vistas, Opena pulls us into the story, constantly finding the interesting perspectives that make even the most familiar scenes seem new.
Apart from his monkey-man Hulk, the only thing I don't like is Opena's Captain America redesign, which is sinister and terribly fussy (yes, I've been negative about it in other reviews, but this is the first time we've seen Opena himself draw it in a book). I mean, will you look at those gloves ...
And don't mention that panel two nose!

Ex Nihilo, though, he works - he's bulky, like a space minotaur, and an omega chest symbol gives him a familiar hook. Aleph - why an apparent alien is named for the first letter of the Hebrew alphabet is something we'll hopefully be told later - is a pretty generic robot-type, while Abyss is also unremarkable, though her floaty hair is a nice touch. Dean White deserves a big nod for thoughtful colour work throughout.

While the pagination here is above that of most Marvel Now! books, a full spread given over to title, credits and indicia is a terrible waste. There's also a page showing an Avengers graphic on Iron Man's screen which looks to be one of Hickman's patented designs. Again, I'd rather have story, but if we didn't have this we'd likely just have a house ad, so let's go with it.

I'm not keen on Dustin Weaver's cover illustration, with Cap towering over us like Giant Man, and everyone lost in a storm of flashes. Plus, that new logo is a very dull thing indeed, I hope it's there for the first few issues only.

Looking at the big picture, though, this is a fine first issue, with story and art gelling into a coherent whole. There's a credible threat, new team dynamics to look forward to and signs of a vision, an actual reason for yet another new Avengers book to exist. Avengers #1 is nicely assembled.