Wednesday, 27 February 2013

The Fury of Firestorm #17 review

In a week which sees Batman Incorporated #8 get all the publicity, I'm taking a moment to salute Firestorm, the Little Comic That Couldn't. Couldn't find enough readers to survive the latest culling of DC's New 52 line. And that's a shame, because despite being on its third creative team in 18 months, this one is working. Writer Dan Jurgens and penciller, er, Dan Jurgens have found a creative synergy not unlike that of our heroes Jason and Ronnie, who combine bodies and personalities to form the Nuclear Man.

This issue they're intent on undoing some of the damage caused by recent attacks on them, not simply because they're being blamed, but because it's the right thing to do. It's great to see our heroes discover that Firestorm's power has limitations linked to the specific task and their own knowledge of how things work. I'd be happy with an entire issue of do-gooding, along with the soft soap operatics Jurgens does so well, but this is a traditional superhero book, so you gotta have a gimmick battle.

Step forward Red Robin, who persuades fellow Teen Titans Kid Flash and Solstice to pay Firestorm a visit, on the offchance that he's one of the corrupted young super-folk working for shady organisation NOWHERE. The Titans show up at a branch of STAR Labs the boys want to fix, and immediately attack and accuse. The unnecessary fight scene makes the Titans look as inadequate as heroes as Red Robin is rash - isn't Tim Drake meant to be some kind of boy genius? Here he is, provoking an incredibly powerful metahuman based purely on circumstantial evidence, when he could just try talking to him.

A conversation eventually occurs and the four heroes wind up on friendly terms, but the fight scene weakens the issue. I get that forced fights are an old and beloved superhero comics tradition, but the credibility-straining is just too much. Adding to the head-scratchiness is Robin saying (claiming?) that he knew all along that Firestorm was at STAR Labs to do good ... so why the attack?

Earlier in the issue there's a moment when Ronnie - in the Firestorm driving seat while Jason advises from a headspace - shows that he's developing the maturity to try talking his way out of problems, rather than embracing a fight or flight reponse. And towards the end, as Ronnie, he makes a decision which could cost him - again, because it's the right thing to do. Either the time he's being forced to spend with brainiac Jason is making hothead jock Ronnie a more rounded person, or the dangerous powers he wields are encouraging him to think before acting. Whatever the case, it's good to see a protagonist mature before our eyes (Red Robin might wish to take notes).

And hopefully, Jason will get equal spotlight time before series end - I'd like to see him in charge of Firestorm on alternate missions, for one thing.

Jurgens' pencils are stellar, crisply composed, always taking the reader's eye where it needs to be, while ensuring there's plenty of interest around the edges. And inkers Ray McCarthy and Karl Kesel, and colourist Hi-Fi Designs complete the visual feast, drawing us into a sharply rendered, enticingly bright world of excitement. While the fight with the Titans is too contrived by half, this terrifically composed, completed and coloured splash pretty much makes it all worthwhile.

Even the lettering of Travis Lanham is a treat, with Ronnie and Jason's speech bubbles having contrasting, complementary tones.

If the generally grim tone of the New 52 has you missing traditional, but entertainingly well-crafted, comics, with unambiguously, non-'edgy' heroes, sample the Jurgens run of Firestorm which began with #13. The bad news is, it's a limited engagement - the good news is, it's a ruddy good read for not much moolah.

Batman Incorporated #8 review

I think I'm safe to assume anyone reading this knows what happens this issue, DC having self-spoiled to the media a couple of days back. And if you hadn't heard, I hope Chris Burnham's cover here - don't look! - gets the message across in a darkly elegant manner.

Damian Wayne dies, slaughtered by his own clone during mother Talia al-Ghul's assault on Gotham city. 'Big brothers' Nightwing and Red Robin are unconscious across the lobby of Wayne Enterprises, so can't help. His father is fighting for his own life across the city. Batman Inc's other agents are scattered around Gotham, dealing with the brainwashed hordes of Talia's Leviathan organisation.

But Damian's courageous fall is witnessed. Wayne employee Ellie, whom he's been defending, watches in horror as the other Damian - aged to adulthood as the younger was advanced by around five years - runs his parent/brother through. Damian saves everyone, destroying the 'world bomb trigger' with his crossbow bolts, but it's the witnessing of one woman that brings the tragedy home. Here we have a ten-old kid, fighting a grown version of himself for the life he might yet have. Damian, the cockiest Robin of them all, begs the mother he knows will be observing, to 'call off your monster', but if she hears, she's too tied up with Batman to even consider the request.

So Damian becomes the second Robin to be slain, following Jason Todd.

Which may prompt regular readers to rightly ask: 'So?' As well as being a Wayne, Damian is an al-Ghul, a creation of super-science. His grandfather, Ra's al-Ghul, guards the mysterious Lazarus Pit, which can bring the dead back to life. Bludgeoned to death by the Joker and caught in an explosion, Jason was placed in the pit by Damian's own mother. Damian was fighting alongside Jason - now going by Red Hood - only hours before his demise.

So while it upsets me to see a tiny child brutalised and skewered while pleading for his life, it's extremely difficult to care beyond the immediate moment, to believe the killing will 'take'. Heck, it's a (boy) wonder he actually died, given how much punishment his father can take - it's not long since an exhausted, drug-crazed Batman had this experience in Scott Snyder's Owls storyline over in Batman #5.

I've heard some readers defend Batman surviving evisceration by 'explaining' that the hero imagined it while drugged. Even if I accepted that, the Batman Inc storyline is firmly set in a world which has seen members of Damian's family return from the dead. So I don't believe that our little Robin will remain with the 'bleedin' choir invisible'. I don't believe writer Grant Morrison would waste a character he's invested so much effort in, having taken Damian from hateful brat to massively popular hero without changing his character. I fully expect Damian to be hale and hearty once more by the close of Morrison's run (and likely the series).

In the meantime, I'm fine with Morrison and his fellow DC writers squeezing every last bit of angst out of Damian's death. It's happened, so we may as well have the dramatics. I'm not fine with DC spoiling the experience of Damian's fans, the readers who've spent hard-earned cash and several years on following his progress, for the sake of a few column inches in the likes of the New York Post. Do newspaper readers really care? I'd wager not, but if they have to be told of fictional events, why not wait a day or two until the comic is actually out? The book's meant to be on sale for a month, if a buzz builds, people can buy it anytime after today - it's a great opportunity to grow the online side of DC's business.

Plus, I trust Morrison enough to expect Damian's demise to have an important role in the storyline, yet the marketing makes it impossible to read this issue as anything other than a stunt comic.

But enough of the death. What else happened? The ongoing Leviathan plotline shambles along - I've long since forgotten what Talia's plan actually is, with the last few issues being big daft crowd scenes, spiced up with the death of another character I like. But there's a wonderful scene between Nightwing and Robin emphasising the relationship they built up when Dick filled in as Batman and Damian was his Robin. Talia and Batman bicker over a radio. Damian flies through Gotham in a mechanical suit. Man-Bats. And Red Robin fights a mop. Oh all right, he does more than take on a cleaning implement, battling a gang of assassins with one of those giant penny souvenirs Batman obviously bulk manufactures, but it made me laugh.

Regular illustrator Chris Burnham doesn't do the whole book, Jason Masters fills in on pages 6-9, the Red Robin sequence. I like what Masters gives us for the most part, the players look good - especially Ellie, who has more character than the average bit-part player - and the art is open, kinetic and sharp of finish. Red Robin's exit from the issue is rather too understated, though, it took me several passes to see what happened to him. And a gob-kicking sequence results in too much streaming blood on the page - but perhaps that was in the script.

I appreciate that Burnham is one of the few artists who remembers that Damian is a small boy, making his murder more horrible than if one of the pencillers who depict him as a muscular teen were on the book. It should be horrible. And it is horrible, even as Burnham puts Damian in deep shadow and colourist Nathan Fairbairn takes a step away from naturalism with a panel filled with blood red and intense orange. And the pages leading up to it are equally nasty, despite the use of tiny panels featuring teeny figures - the intent may be to mitigate the ugliness of what's occuring, but mini-panels mean many more panels of bloody bone smashing.

Plus, Ellie turns into a teeny-weeny doll child in several panels; it's distinctly odd.

Letterer Taylor Esposito chooses his fonts intelligently, varying size, slant and emphasis according to the desired 'voice' - while today's computer fonts may have lessened the art and graft of lettering, there's still a place for heart and craft.

Despite the talent involved, despite some good moments, this comic doesn't rise much above the decent. There's a marquee death, but real world decisions make it seem more cynical than it likely is. And that's a shame - Damian Wayne deserves better.

Thursday, 21 February 2013

Supergirl #17 review

You wait ages for a great Wonder Woman story to come along ... and it shows up in Supergirl. Still, I've stopped expecting Kara to get a fair crack of the whip in the H'el on Earth crossover. She does get a fair crack of Diana's magic lasso, as Wonder Woman fights to convince Kara that H'el has set in motion a plan that will destroy the Earth. Signs of cataclysm are happening across the planet, from flooding cities to temporal blips.

Yet still Supergirl fights to hang on to the lies H'el has told her, the notion that he's simply releasing energy from the sun to power a trip back in time to save Krypton, not stealing it wholesale. Even Diana's truth-releasing magic lasso can't get past Kara's resolve, causing her to manifest the sunburst power we've not seen in awhile.

That Kara has the power to not only go toe-to-toe with Diana, but to throw her off guard, is heartening; it's just a shame that said power is in the service of H'el. Diana comes across beautifully here; patient, understanding, slow to anger. Kara, though, remains shrill, angry, refusing to listen to both her own instincts and Diana's natural ability to speak true. It's sad to say, but I wasn't simply hoping Wonder Woman would get through to Supergirl, I was cheering as Diana kicked Kara's barely covered arse. Who could argue with Diana's assessment of Kara's fighting style (click on image to enlarge)?
Which isn't to say Kara is ineffective - by cracky, she gets her licks in. But in the end, it's Diana who comes out on top. Kara is exhausted by the time Diana knocks her out of Superman's Fortress of Solitude, forcing her to look up in the sky, see the dire situation she's helped bring about. The truth dawning on Kara brings H'el to their side, and his super-super powers allow him to whack Diana aside. But the damage has been done - Kara finally sees H'el's plans for what they are. The issue ends with H'el pleading one last time for Kara to stand by him, as a recovered Diana strides to her side. I think the crossover finale in next week's Superman #17 will see Kara tell him where to get off - I only hope that she plays a big role in saving the day; Heaven knows, Supergirl has a lot to make up for.

I can't say I enjoyed Mike Johnson's script, with the continuing, editorial-dictated shaming of Supergirl, but it's efficient for what it is. With Kara forced into the role of villain's stooge, of course Wonder Woman comes out as the better person. Regardless, Johnson shows a fine understanding of classic Diana, and gives us some lovely Bullets & Bracelets/heat vision and magic lasso moments. Go Diana!

Looking for a bright side, the fight does give Mahmud Asrar a chance to cut loose, and he gifts us several great images. I'm sorry to say that my favourite panel is one of several in which Kara is getting whomped, but that's been her role for much of this crossover, and I really do love this composition.
That said, this issue isn't without the odd wonky visual moment, mostly involving crazily scrunched faces. And a couple of shots looking down Diana's chest are simply seedy.

I'm not keen on Asrar's cover depiction of Diana, either - her breasts aren't quite bigger than her head - tut. And the copy is too sensational, there's never a point at which Kara sees herself moidering Diana.

The colouring of Dave McCaig is excellent, as he takes advantage of the Arctic Circle setting to bring on the greens and yellows of the Northern Lights. There's one colouring error and it made me smile enormously, as Superman's red shorts return. For a moment, I saw Superman! I also heard him, as Johnson has him react angrily to H'el's taunts about his Earth parents. (And check out the comments below for a treat from That Man McCaig himself, after I made my own flub, originally attributing the colours to Dave Stewart ...)

But mostly I saw Kara. Poor, stupid, outclassed Kara. It's hard to believe Supergirl is meant to be the star of the show here. I truly hope DC realises how far they've gotten it wrong as regards the Girl of Steel in this crossover, and resolves never to let it happen again. Supergirl deserves better, and so do her fans.

Wednesday, 20 February 2013

Vibe #1 review

DC's ad campaign for this book has baffled me. 'The unlikeliest hero' proclaims the cover. 'The League's most unlikely member ...' yells the house ad. Yes, the original Vibe wasn't a popular character when created for a 1980s JLA revamp - blame breakdancing and dodgy street slang. But that was the 1980s, and the character was killed off well before the end of the decade. Several generations of comic readers have come and gone since then. I know he's appeared in DC's TV cartoons, but I believe the animated Vibe went down rather well.

This isn't the same Vibe. The Paco nickname has been sidelined in favour of Cisco (as in Francisco). And as well as creating shockwaves, he has a range of vibratory powers due to a run-in with a Boom Tube during the Apokolips attack on Detroit detailed in the recent Justice League relaunch.

Cisco himself doesn't know the extent of his abilities in this debut issue, which begins on the day he gained his powers - and lost a brother. Elder sibling Armando was killed by a Parademon, other big brother Dante blames himself for being too scared to help (as if he could have done anything but get himself killed). Five years on, Cisco is working in an electronics shop and saving for college. Dante is a bit of a no-hoper, always cadging cash and dreaming of being a big-time gambler.

Then Cisco is picked up off the street by Dale Gunn, agent of ARGUS, the US government's superhuman oversight organisation. By introducing Vibe to a Parademon that's been preying on the neighbourhood homeless he gives Cisco a shot at gaining justice for Armando - in truth, it's more straight-up revenge. But it gives Cisco a taste of just how powerful he is, after he's previously operated as a small-time hero. Gunn invites him onto the new Justice League of America, with the enticement of training to reach his full potential. And behind the scenes, Gunn's boss, Amanda Waller, is hiding some dirty little secrets.

As first issues go, this is a winner. Co-writers Geoff Johns and Andrew Kreisberg make Paco likeable without being drippy, giving him dreams, a love of family and a natural inkling towards heroism. By the end of the issue Vibe has a role unique among DC's heroic community - he's the interdimensional 'border cop', Darkseid's incursion having left Detroit something of a crossroads between worlds. If any uglies come through, Vibe will stop them - and if the problem is too big for him alone, he can call on his JLA colleagues. That's quite the gig. The expanded power set means Vibe can not only stand alongside DC's most powerful heroes (the first Vibe's earthquake abilities were pretty formidable), he can fight for good on a cosmic scale.

Someone Johns and Kreisberg don't make likeable is Waller - the original, pre-New 52 version, was a hard-ass fixer who could be ruthless when she had to be; the new iteration seems to have 'ruthless' as her default, forever expecting the worst in people and ready to put them down for it. And she has zero sense of irony.

Incidentally, we're told that because he's now naturally out of kilter with Earth's vibrational frequence, Cisco can't be photographed. So I guess that's an artist's impression on Waller's wall over in Justice League #1.

I'm glad to see the close of this issue picking up on a dangling plot thread from the Justice League's run-in with Darkseid, though if you weren't reading those issues - and if so, I envy you - you can easily jump on board here.
Artist Pete Woods engages from the first page, with his endearing portrait of the Ramon brothers in downtrodden Detroit. There's a lovely humanity to the work, which makes the following spread all the more effective in its bizarre imagery. And the great pages just keep on coming. The organic breakdowns, skilfully finished by Sean Parsons, are especially effective in the seqiuence of Cisco really cutting loose, and I love their leering Parademons.

One thing that isn't so great, visually, is Vibe's costume. I actually prefer the corny yet characterful pre-Crisis look to the new outfit, which looks like one of Hank Pym's more utilitarian cast-offs.

On balance, though, this is a terrific first issue. It introduces us to a new superhero who radiates old-fashioned sweetness and places him firmly at the centre of the DC Universe and some intriguing mysteries. Johns and Woods are known for sticking around on books so I'm optimistic we'll get a nice long run of entertaining yarns developing Cisco and his world. Anything else really would be unlikely.

Legion of Super-Heroes #17 review

The joke among longtime Legion fans when it was announced that classic artist and writer Keith Giffen was returning to the 31st century was, how long until he kills his hated Karate Kid yet again? Well, here he is, co-plotting with continuing writer Paul Levitz and no martial artists die. That's the good news.

The bad news is that one of the Legion's longest-serving, most popular members is no more by the fourth page, horribly crushed while saving teammates Phantom Girl, Polar Boy and Invisible Kid by crash-landing a failed Legion cruiser on an unknown world. With all their tech out of commission, the members can't communicate with the locals, a failure which perhaps motivates another horrific occurrence.

And it's not just the heroes' flight rings, translators and transport that aren't working. Across the galaxy, Ultra Boy finds that his homeworld, Rimbor, is having similar problems. He and Glorith are looking for the criminal Tharok, thought to be leading a new Fatal Five, when their camouflage suits fail. While Chameleon Boy is his own disguise, he's shocked into  dropping his jellyfish-mushroom look on being attacked by an angry local.

As the action shifts back and forth between the two locales, we learn that the first world's settlement is built on the arm of one of the legendary Promethean Giants, while on Rimbor Glorith shows that it doesn't pay to manhandle her.

And throughout, there's a real sense of tension, a feeling that the stakes have been raised. As the book ends, with multiple attacks by the reborn Fatal Five, we see just how big a threat the Legion is facing.

Even without the unexpected death of Sun Boy, this would be an issue to remember. After a brief reunion in a recent Legion Annual, longtime collaborators Levitz and Giffen are back together once more and this book is on fire. Giffen injects drama into every panel, with powerful close-ups, unexpected angles, imaginative aliens, characters bursting off the page and a gorgeous spread harking back to Jack Kirby's Marvel peak. And I must give a big shout-out to Scott Koblish, who embellishes Giffen's pencils with flair.

The intensity of the character visuals, or perhaps the simple promise of working with Giffen again, inspires Levitz to heights we've not seen for awhile. I've praised his Legion characterisations over and over, but here they seem to have risen by a level again. There's Phantom Girl's despair as her first mission as Legion leader is hit by tragedy, Polar Boy's frustration and fury, Invisible Kid's polite pragmatism ... it makes me desperate for more Levitz/Giffen Legion.

Which is why I'm so upset that for whatever reason - perhaps the coming solo book for 'Greed Lantern' Larfleeze, spinning out of Threshold - Giffen is gone again after next issue. With a beginning this great, a brilliant Legion run would surely have followed. The good news is that Francis Portela is coming back as Legion artist, and he's only been getting better with each outing. What I hope is that Portela, who has to be a Legion fan after sticking with the series for so long, is given a shot at co-plotting with Levitz, who always shines brighter when sparked by an artist bursting with ideas. Portela may not be that artist, he may not want to take more responsibility - but I'd be happy to see him given a chance.
Javier Mena does his usual superb job on colours, heightening the intensity, while Dezi Sienty really earns his money, giving the aliens a language font that's visually disturbing - all the more so when you realise what they were probably saying to Polar Boy throughout the issue.

Oh, and this comic taught me a new word: cauchemar. Given the context, I rather wish it hadn't.

Justice League of America #1 review

Five years ago, crooked scientist Professor Ivo and a shadowy figure plan a response to the appearance of ever more super-heroes.

Today, a hooded figure is hunted to ground by what appears to be the Justice League, before escaping into a forest.

Meanwhile, in Washington DC, US government security wallah Amanda Waller summons former League liaison Steve Trevor and tries to persuade him to wrangle a new team, a Justice League of America. She wants '...a Justice League we can count on. A League that isn't hiding 22,000 miles above us in a satellite. A League that can help other superhumans ... or stop them if necessary.' There's the rub. Waller wants a pet League that can take down the original team should they ever grow too big for their super-boots.

Waller tells Trevor who she has in mind, and how she'll persuade the more reluctant to sign up. There's Hawkman, Stargirl, Vibe, new Green Lantern Simon Baz, Katana, Green Arrow and Martian Manhunter. Each is intended to match a particular Leaguer's power set. Despite being uncomfortable with the mooted involvement of assassin Katana and the brutal Hawkman, Trevor suggests the criminal Catwoman as a necessary foil to Batman, and goes out to find her, giving us this issue's most satisfying action sequence.

Writer Geoff Johns plays with time a little, shoehorning the Steve/Catwoman sequence into the middle of his talk with Amanda, but it's clear that it comes a little later. And the vignettes of potential members work nicely too - Waller gives some background and we see what they're up to. Most interesting is the Stargirl scene, as Courtney Whitmore makes her debut in DC's recently revised continuity. Akin to a Hollywood starlet, she seems a suitably sunny sort, smiling for the public despite a couple of hinted-at difficult areas (I suspect the fearful murmering of the name 'Pemberton' and her night terrors are connected, though I hope not).

The heroes chasing the hooded guy in an English forest - I won't reveal who he turns out to be, though you've likely guessed - are likely androids created by Professor Ivo, given the character's background in previous JLA continuities and their reference to a 'creator'. And that's fine by me, because if it's Ivo androids, can old favourite Amazo be far behind? And there's definitely a super-villain team on the horizon.

Johns does an excellent job of referencing the wider DC Universe and setting up future plotlines, acknowledging Booster Gold's disappearance, and letting us know that Silver Age JLA villains Starro, Despero and Chronos made it through the Flashpoint event.

One thing this comic lacks is humour; there a cute meta-moment as Waller tells Trevor stuff he patently knows, for the benefit of the readers, but a few witticisms wouldn't go amiss. Perhaps once the team gets together ...

I like this issue. The thinking behind the team structure is laid out in a straightforward manner, while spotlighting the difference between Waller's manipulative ways and Trevor's old school thinking. His discomfort with the suggested structure implies that this won't be a book in which heroes get to kill without hard questions being asked.

Mind, there's one key question that isn't raised: if Waller doesn't trust the regular League after five years of do-gooding on behalf of the planet, why is she willing to gamble national security on a bunch of harder-edged heroes, including newbie Vibe, loose cannon Hawkman and villain Catwoman? I hope this comes up for discussion; meanwhile, I'm looking forward to seeing the character dynamics between the team members. Johns has me on board with his most compelling script for a long while.

And then there's the artwork. David Finch produces his best work yet for DC, with dramatic compositions filled with characters who look to have inner lives. Finch's work with Hawkman and Trevor, for example, shows a real gift for body language - these aren't cardboard cut-outs, they're strong personalities living in a very dangerous world. I also appreciate that he doesn't skimp on background detail, giving each scene a convincing setting and sticking with it beyond the establishing shot. Colourists Sonia Oback and Jeremy Cox only emphasise Finch's strong performance, presenting a world that's neither too bright nor too bleak. And Rob Leigh's letters do their part, working with the artwork to sell the script.

The marketing-led cover is a bit rubbish. I get the historic reference, but it means we wind up with a composition in which the superheroes fail to dominate their own debut issue. And that dreary purplish background lends no visual 'pop' at all.

Nevertheless, this is an entertaining opener. If future issues are as good - and with a $3.99 price point they need to be - then DC's New 52 line has another hit.  

Sunday, 17 February 2013

Uncanny X-Men #1 review

They've been part of the All-New X-Men book since the first issue, and now Cyclops' team of Magneto, Magik and Emma Frost get their own series, one Marvel is marketing as the lead comic in the franchise. Whereas Wolverine and the students of the Jean Grey school want to teach young mutants to live alongside 'baseline' humans, Cyclops and co reckon there's a war between Homo Sapien and Superior coming, and they need to prepare new mutants to be on the winning side.

So far, they've recruited a young woman who can stop time, and a young man who can heal wounds. Both are on hand in this debut issue as the militant X-Men rescue another new mutant from the authorities, a chap who's spontaneously manifesting Swiss exercise balls from his body (as you do). The moment of triumph is shortlived, however, as Sentinels attack. The giant mutant hunters are no match for a new manifestation of Cyclops' powers, but the incident proves the final straw for another member of the team, who turns traitor.

For this issue's action has a framing sequence, as one of Cyclops' seconds goes to SHIELD agent Maria Hill, and tries to persuade her that the government's super-spies should take him down. Despite the growing popularity of his mutant rescue campaign with ordinary members of the public, says the mystery man, Cyclops remains a 'murdering monster'.

Given that the traitor turns out to be Magneto, though, this is rank hypocrisy of the first order - how many people has he killed over the years in the name of mutant superiority? Still, he's switched sides so many times that the betrayal is no huge surprise.

When we learn just whose chin we've seen in close-up throughout the issue, it seems we're meant to gasp, 'the traitor is ... Magneto?!' But the lack of set-up by writer Brian Bendis that the unidentified figure was at SHIELD as a turncoat, rather than as an emissary of Cyclops, takes away from the moment. As does the fact that Magneto has had his hair shaved off, making him unrecognisable when drawn in civvies by Chris Bachalo.

That apart, this is a decent opener to a spin-off series. It's not compelling - I'm not especially excited at the prospect of another issue in a couple of weeks - but hardcore mutant fans will likely be satisfied. Certainly, slotting Magneto back into his traditional role of adversary rather than ally puts Cyclops in a better light by comparison - if the X-Men's greatest foe is no longer with him, perhaps he's not gone so far towards the dark side as it seemed. But the script's a tad flabby around the edges, a la Bendis' Avengers books - the first couple of pages, for example, are simply Hill chatting to colleagues as she approaches the interview room and could easily be excised.

Bachalo's art, coloured by himself and inked by Tim Townsend, Jaime Mendoza and Al Vey, is attractive, though a couple of moments in the action sequences are a tad unclear. And the new costumes - with one exception - are weak compared to the looks they replace. The exception is Magik's, whose new look suits her demonic sensibility.
My favourite image of the issue is Cyclops-as-revolutionary-poster-boy, above, a stark graphic that demands to be extended and slapped on mugs and tee shirts. Runner-up is the excellent spread revealing the Sentinels, which is as dynamic and kinetic as you could wish.

Given that Cyclops' mission is part of the backbone of the All-New X-Men book - his younger self and the rest of the original class have been brought from the past to calm him down - I don't see the need for this series. If the originals aren't focusing on the grown-ups, they're wasting their time. But if Brian Bendis is going to write one book about a team, you can bet he's going to write two ... and probably more. Let's hope he can find a match here for the entertaining vibe of All-New X-Men. So far, I don't see it.

Saturday, 16 February 2013

Katana #1 review

First off, I must declare a non-interest. I've never liked Katana. I found her obnoxious in the original Outsiders, equally unbearable in the team's recent revamp and just plain unlikeable in the New 52 Birds of Prey book.

It's the last version who gets a shot at solo stardom in this new series, timed to ride the wave of hype surrounding the upcoming Geoff Johns/David Finch Justice League of America series. And I like her.

As written by Ann Nocenti, Katana's a little more vulnerable than in the past, with a ready sense of humour. She's surprisingly good company in a debut issue which sees her move to San Francisco's Japantown district to seek out a young woman whose tattooed body holds secrets connected to her sword. Before Katana, aka Tatsu Toro, meets Shun, however, she encounters wise old fox Junko and grasping landlady Nori, and sets up a training area in the basement of her tiny apartment.

She also has a disturbing dream in which a lovemaking session with her dead husband, Maseo, turns out to involve her enemy, Coil. This motivates a creepy sequence in which she snuggles up with her katana sword - within which she believes the soul of her husband resides - and tells it: 'You are the only one welcome in my bed.'

The close of 'Way of the Outsider' (a nice nod to the character's comic heritage) has Katana take on a bunch of swordsmen out to steal her mystical sword. She takes them down but has a tougher time with their leader, the aforementioned Coil.

Nocenti's script is nicely judged, with the exception of Katana's civvies wardrobe, whose elements - earrings, hair sticks, skirt, 'whiplace' - double up as weapons. Oh, and her mask becomes a hat. This sort of thing was OK in the Sixties, with Barbara Gordon's librarian togs becoming Batgirl's costume, but it seems a little silly in 2013.

Japantown is a clever choice of setting, as it's thematically in keeping with Katana as a character, without being too far removed from most of the potential audience. It also allows for a contrast between the dark and the whimsical, as Katana fights for her life surrounded by kawaii cuties.

And as depicted by the delicate lines of Alex Sanchez, Japantown looks gorgeous, exotic without being alien. As does Katana, whose visual mix of serenity and confidence give her a quiet power unusual in a comic heroine. The secondary characters are full of personality, too, with Shun particularly memorable, her bearing evoking unspeakable sorrow. And the panel to panel storytelling is spot-on, complementing and embellishing Nocenti's tale; the action sequences are especially strong, even with the House of Flying Hair Sticks business. Matt Yackey's colour work is sublime, tending towards the naturalistic with added glow and some attractive colour graduations, while Taylor Esposito's lettering choices work a treat.

There's a mighty fine cover too, courtesy of JLA's Finch. I'm not yet sure whether I prefer our heroine with white eyes, as here, or on-show peepers, as seen inside. Decisions, decisions ...

Katana #1 is a breezily entertaining read, with a sparkling script and terrific visuals. Away from the rest of DC's heroes, Katana stands out, while the Japantown setting is refreshingly different. There's a mystery as regards Katana's interest in Shun and the secrets of the sword, and supporting characters that could lead to a few decent subplots. All very promising. It's good to be surprised by a comic.

Thursday, 14 February 2013

Batman #17 review

Last month's Batman Family titles pointed towards a tragic conclusion to the Death of the Family crossover, as the Joker - apparently a fan of Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? -brandished a dome-covered silver platter, some unseen atrocity beneath.

This wrap-up opens with the revelation that there's no single plate, but one for each of the four Robins and Batgirl. They're sat around a dinner table in the Batcave, bound, hoods covering their heads.

The Joker summons Bruce Wayne's kidnapped butler, Alfred. He's been 'Joker-fied' into the Clown Prince of Crime's own manservant. Alfred removes the cowls, to display bloodstained bandages covering the young heroes. Joker lifts the lid on the plates to show they've been 'face-scalped'.

And so on. I've an earlier cut of this review with much more of the back and forth, but it's all a bit 'and then ... and then'. Short version - the Batman and Joker fight, but the Joker falls to his quotemarks death after Batman rattles him by revealing that he's deduced his real identity. The Batman Family members look doomed at various points, but fortune favours the brave. Batman wins, but the Joker wins really.

This issue can be divided into a series of 'oh no' and 'phew' moments. If someone's face looks to have been cut off, be assured it's just a spot of Joker fakery. If someone gets 'Jokerised', don't worry, it's a previously unheard-of temporary transformation.

So if you wish to be teased, this is the book for you. Hints that one member of the family wouldn't be making it out alive aren't borne out - marketing hype and DC's track record had fan expectations going one way, but the story finally goes another. The Death of the Family proves to be a thematic title rather than a literal one. No one dies, but the trust which the Robins and Batgirl had in Batman is shattered - Nightwing, Batgirl, Red Hood, Red Robin and Robin, none of them can face Bruce as he tends to Alfred's recovery because the villain whispered Bad Things to them.

Um, okay. The young folk did just learn (Batman #15) that years ago, the Joker may have gotten into the Batcave, and so could have worked out their secret identities, and certain that it wasn't true, Bruce never warned them. Which was stupid of him. But still, when you've lived and worked with a man for years, why the heck would you believe the twisted whisperings of his greatest foe, a lunatic with everything to gain by sowing dissent? It makes for a dramatically downbeat ending, but in terms of the characters, it makes no sense.

Then there are the big awful events of Scott Snyder's script that prove to have no consequence - since when has it been possible for someone to be cured after being Jokerfied, for example? How can a spray burn through Batman's mask - it's actually steaming - without leaving a mark on Bruce Wayne?

And in terms of out-of-nowhere story points, since when has the Joker's real name been such a big deal to him? Even if he has forgotten who he was, why would Batman muttering it to him - of course, the reader doesn't hear - send him even pottier than usual? And how can it be true that Gotham Police have never gotten their hands on Joker DNA? Batman is forever punching the Joker, how hot a boil wash do those bat-gauntlets get?

The worst moment in this issue is Bruce's announcing to Alfred that years ago, just after taking in Dick, he confronted the Joker in Arkham Asylum as Bruce Wayne, making it obvious he was Batman. Sure, the Joker didn't seem to be in a state to notice, or care, but taking the risk rather dents the notion that Batman is the smartest hero out there.

There is one scene this issue I really like, Bruce's nursing of Alfred; Bruce's concern for his own father figure, Alfred's annoyance at being waited on ... it's a tender, wonderfully human scene. I appreciate the true reason Bruce gives for not killing the Joker, beyond 'it's my code'. And credit to Snyder for the final two pages, which are pretty darned clever. I don't know if the science referenced works, but as a clever coda, it's good. Yet to get to those moments we have to wade through page after page of the Joker wittering on about his special relationship with the Batman, and cast members with Plastic Man-like physiologies, able to shake off any horror perpetrated on them..

The leering, fly-ridden Joker of artists Greg Capullo and Jonathan Glapion, cuddling a two-headed cat, continues to revolt, while the first shot of the transformed Alfred is truly creepy. They convey the horror of Batman's partners even through bandages via body language and eyes. And back at Wayne Manor, the aforementioned Bruce/Alfred emotion is nicely conveyed. The reveal that Damian - and therefore, everyone else - has kept his face is underplayed, but it's one off-panel from Capullo in a generally effective piece of storytelling.

So that's Death of the Family. The tension levels have been high, but the incredulity factor has been off the scale; the message of this story is that the Joker can do anything he wants, bring down anyone with just a word or two in their ear. Batman can't beat him, but never mind, because the Joker's only playing. Sure, Gotham's citizens, police and prison officers get mutilated and murdered, but the Batman Family, despite the whole point of Joker's plan being to remove them, are safe. We've been given thrills, but they've been cheap ones, shocks for the sake of shocks. As for the emotional fallout, it's implausible.

In 17 issues we've had two storylines, one centring on the Court of Owls, the other on the Joker. There's been a done-in-one featuring new character Harper Row and she's getting another go-round next month, before Snyder begins a Riddler storyline. I hope it will be short and tight, rather than rambling and packed with cheap fan service. Based on the evidence so far, I'm not putting money on it.

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For a splendid meditation on Batman's attitude towards killing the Joker, pop across to Colin Smith's always thought-provoking Too Busy Thinking About My Comics. 

Friday, 8 February 2013

Green Arrow #17 review

... or perhaps, Green Arrow #1, take three, what with this being the book's second relaunch in its short existence. The new creative team is writer Jeff Lemire and artist Andrea Sorrentino, both of whom have proven able to negotiate the choppy waters of DC's ongoing New 52 promotion and produce quality comic books with the likes of Animal Man and I, Vampire. So how will they fare with Star City's favourite bowman?

We open with Green Arrow in dire straits, wandering in the heat of the Arizona desert. He thinks he's going to die.

Flash back a few weeks and Oliver Queen is having  a differently bad day. The company he was to inherit has been taken by corporate rivals and Queen Industries chief Emerson is giving him a weird pep talk about how the loss could finally unlock Ollie's potential. Just as he's about to reveal the secret of Ollie's 'true birthright', Emerson is murdered by an unknown archer perched in a building across the street.

And things only get worse, with events not so much spiralling out of control as proving never to have been under Ollie's influence at all. There's a big picture but with another master archer on his tail, it's possible he'll not live long enough to see it.

And ... wow. Talk about a breath of fresh air, Lemire comes on the series and immediately throws all Ollie's toys out of the pram: riches, supporting cast, trick arrows - gone. Our hero's being forced to go lo-tech while facing an Everything You Thought You Knew Was Wrong scenario. Almost certainly, he'll find that the only resource he really needs is himself, but meanwhile we're in for a dramatic few months.

On the one hand, I'm not doing a Snoopy dance over some of the things that happen here, as I always feel bad for hapless supporting cast members tossed aside in favour of a Bold New Direction. On the other, I'm not so attached as to have been following these people monthly. Yes, the housecleaning here is rather drastic - it's fair to say the odd fridge has been filled - but it's obvious Lemire has a plan to make Green Arrow one of DC's top tier books. There's an intensity to the script that, happily, stops short of hysteria; we're seeing a new Oliver Queen form from the cocoon of boy billionaire Ollie Queen. As time goes on I suspect Green Arrow will be less flighty, more sardonic - the archer fans loved for decades before his DC New 52 rebirth.

Also deserving of massive credit is Sorrentino, whose full-colour artwork gives this book a unique look at DC - well, now his previous assignment, the superb I, Vampire, has been cancelled (click on image to enlarge). I wondered how Sorrentino's spooky style would translate to the daylight world of Star City, but I was working from a foolish assumption. It's not a case of Sorrentino being a horror artist, he's an artist talented enough to adapt to whatever genre he's working in (at least so far; I don't know if he'll be drawing Sugar & Spike anytime soon). It takes a few pages for him to settle into the book - the flashback's very wordy opening provides little room  for manoeuvre - but once the first big surprise arrives, this book is cooking with gas. At its best, there's a David Lloyd (V for Vendetta, Night Raven) vibe that grounds the outlandish in the real. There's an excellent use of small panel inserts and colour palette to focus our attention on significant details, such as the unknown archer's activities across from Queen Industries, and Ollie's flight from the crime scene. At times, Sorrentino goes overboard with frames within frames, rather than trust his pictures to draw us in, but overall, the art works, as writer and artist begin to develop synergy.

With this issue, Green Arrow becomes a must-read for me. Lemire is writing Ollie into corners that will mature him as a character. It looks like we're going the route of urban archer again, as seen in the classic Mike Grell years, which would fit with Green Arrow's spot on the upcoming Justice League of America title, which claims to feature DC's most dangerous heroes. I hope that doesn't mean a kill-happy archer - he swears rather drastic revenge this issue - so much as a hero to take seriously who doesn't take himself too seriously.

And if along the way we also see the addition to the cast of a crimefighting partner, a pretty bird whio enjoys chili, so much the better ... 

Thursday, 7 February 2013

Young Romance Valentine's Day Special #1

Young Romance was one of DC's titles aimed at female readers, an anthology of one-offs and serials that ran from the Forties until the Seventies, notching up an impressive 208 issues. Here's the title revived for the new millennium, and the new millennium audience; instead of college girls, nurses and young wives, it's all superheroes and villains. OK, received wisdom is that a straightforward update on the classics would never sell to today's DC audience of teenage boys and old gits like me - but would this title at least have the soul, and wonky charm, of the original romance comics?

It may break your heart to hear it, but the answer, for the most part, is 'no'. Kenneth Rocafort's decidedly unromantic cover - Superman grinding his Phantom Zone projector into Wonder Woman - pretty much says it all. Let's take a look at the six strips on offer:

  • Catwoman thinks back to the day she met Batman, a February 14, as luck would have it. She's robbing from her neighbours with the help of some guy named Billy (is he brother, is he boyfriend? Writer Ann Nocenti doesn't deign to tell us). Batman stops the robbery and gives Selina the chance to become a better person. We're not told why, presumably he sees something there worth encouraging - skintight leather and massive boobs? In the present, Selina is rather pathetic, having not taken on board Batman's hint that she might be more than a thief in fetish gear - she could be a heroine in fetish fear. Nocenti's script is serviceable, but nothing to cross the street for, and would fit into Catwoman's own series just fine. The art by Emanuela Lupaccino, though, is gorgeous, with real animation and character alongside the surface gloss.
  • In Gotham City, Batgirl is smoked out by petty crook Ricky, who lost his foot during a run-in with a supervillain in the regular series. He's lovesick after she kissed him in a feint to save his life. He wants another snog, Batgirl explains why that would be a terrible idea. And kisses him anyway. Which I kinda liked, as it's a crap, very human decision. And I love that a guy so apparently out of Batgirl's league is taking her advice and dreaming big. We're promised a continuation of this storyline in writer Ray Fawkes' first of two Batgirl fill-ins, #17. There's a nice urban feel to the illustrations of Julian Gopez, but his Batgirl lacks the allure needed in a story turning on sexual chemistry. I blame the ugly current costume - Gopez draws it so realistically that Batgirl may as well be a man. And even more than with the Catwoman story, this isn't special enough to merit a place in a St Valentine's title - it stars a character with her own book, spins out of a story that took place there, and feeds back into it: Batgirl is where these pages should appear. (Incidentally, I know there's a talented artist named Julian Lopez - we're not dealing with a typo in Mr Gopez, are we?)
  • Peter Milligan and Simon Bisley serve up a character study of Midnighter and Apollo, showing their nascent romance has turned distinctly rocky. And surprise surprise, we're advised to find out more by reading their home book, Stormwatch. Veterans Milligan and Bisley demonstrate the craft you might expect, but this just isn't very interesting.
  • Nightwing stars in ... oh, doesn't he have a book of his own too? Anyway, his love life is all to pot because he's out fighting crime, you know how it is. He meets a bodyguard named Ursa Major and they get on rather well, but the path of true love, etc. Ignore the awful Ursa Major design - she looks like a tween at a pyjama party - and Kyle Higgins and Sanford Greene deserve credit for a bittersweet offering.
  • Wonder Woman and Superman are on a date in their civvies, when Diana's cousin Eros and a couple of sirens throw a spanner in the works. There's a clever ending, if you can stomach a lot of saccharine, but I'd rather be re-reading this encounter between Superman, Wonder Woman and Eros. This short is notable mainly as upcoming Action Comics writer Andy Diggle's first story featuring Superman. It's fine, as is the art by Robson Rocha and Julio Ferreira, but eminently missable.
  • You know what? There is one great story in this issue, and while it features a character with a book of his own, there's no way Cecil Castellucci's sweet, clever Aquaman tale would fit into the regular series - for one thing, there's not a single impalement. Aquaman's wife Mera discovers centuries-old letters telling a tragic love story centred on a woman who once lived in the lighthouse shared by the heroes, and the sailor she adored. The action shifts between the Regency-era romance and the attempts of Aquaman and Mera to save lives during a storm, and the juxtapositions work wonderfully well. Doing his share of the heavy lifting is Inaki Miranda, obviously having a whale of a time with the Jane Austen-era stylings of the flashbacks - and of course, the young lovers are drawn to resemble Aquaman and Mera. Enchanting.
So, one great story, one decent tale and an awful lot of fluffy filler that belongs elsewhere. I realise DC needs - or at least thinks they need - headine acts to bring in the punters, but does every strip have to feature a series character? Look, there's Wonder Woman and Superman on the ick-worthy cover, why not let them anchor the book and feature characters who might actually benefit from a spotlight? Cyborg is always good for some romantic angst. What's Static up to on Valentine's Day? Who's this Element Girl currently in the Justice League/Aquaman crossover, she must have a weird love life? Why not a single story done as a homage to the occasionally kitschy, sometimes brilliant romance stories celebrated by Jacque Nodell over at her Sequential Crush blog?

You can likely think of better ideas but the point remains, why not make a special special? Something different, rather than more of the DC New 52 same? Especially when we're being charged a whopping $7.99 for 48 pages of story. That's just four more pages than you'd get with a couple of $2.99 books; even the 'free collectible' of cute mini-St Valentine's cards doesn't make this comic worth the money. The production design is excellent, from the classic-style logo to the heart-enclosed folios via the contents page, but overall this is a missed opportunity.

And I wanted to love it.

Wednesday, 6 February 2013

The Fearless Defenders #1 review

Sword-slinging shieldmaiden Valkyrie and bionic urban detective Misty Knight make for unlikely partners, but on the evidence of this debut issue, it just might work. They come together when an Asgardian relic begins singing, summoning the dishonoured dead - Viking rogues not fit for Valhalla. Instead, they've been lying in a grave on Earth, and when summoned to un-life, they're out for blood. Sadly for them, they prove easy meat for longtime Marvel heroines Misty and Val.

Despatching the warriors is simply the start of the story, though, raising the question: who's behind the raising of the dead, and why does the singing statue point the finger at Val?

I love magical singing statues, have done ever since I first had Jack and the Beanstalk read to me, so as maguffins go, it gets my attention. It's just one of many aspects of Cullen Bunn's script that works. There's a pithy pen portrait of Val, standing, eyes closed, in a shower of blood that she's hoping is only water. There's Misty's tussle with pirates who have made off with relics from an archaeological dig. Two mysterious villains on the high seas. The introduction of archaeologist Annabelle Riggs, who takes to Val with surprising enthusiasm. And dead Vikings, who are right up there with singing statues in my estimation. Events move along at a satisfying pace, with the only negative being Misty's *!&@? cussing, which is a rather lazy way to say 'streetwise'.

Will Sliney's artwork gives us an appealing pair of leads - Val's Nordic cool and Misty's American sass provide an appealing visual contrast, with their fighting styles further differentiating them (click on image to enlarge). There's Misty, right in the fray with her Stark Industries gadget-filled arm, while Val - initially at least - hacks and slashes from winged steed Aragorn. The dead Viking throng members are creepy as heck, while Annabelle fills the 'normal' person slot nicely. And that singing statue is, of course, lovely. In terms of setting, it's rare for a comic to have two fight scenes that are as different as the pair we're given here - modern pirates, ancient warriors. There are a couple of tweaks I'd like to see ... Val really needs her old cape to evoke the regal feel of an Asgardian warrior, while I miss Misty's massive 'fro from her Heroes For Hire days.

The colours of Veronica Gandini light the pages perfectly, bringing the artwork into further focus. Topping off the issue is the splendid cover by Mark Brooks, telling us that as well as the Norsemen, we're due ninja types.

While the Fearless Defenders comprise just two non-members here, a familiar face shows up next issue and we're promised an all-female non-team before long. Unlike the upcoming X-Men book that's full of femmes, there's an in-story reason for the Defenders' make-up. But I can get to that when the time comes. For now, I'm content to welcome another Marvel Now! title that shows a lot of promise.