Sunday, April 29, 2012

Nick Spencer & the Poorly-Paced Mystery (Part 2 of 2)

Part 1 of this column can be found 4 entries below, or jumped to here.

When Morning Glories starts out, it seems like it's going to be an awesome supernatural mystery. But it provides too few clues, and slowly at that, so it becomes overbearing with its questions as time goes on. In some ways, T.H.U.N.D.E.R. Agents and Ultimate Comics X-Men suffer from the opposite problem. What appear at first to be pretty standard superhero adventure series quickly overwhelm their readers with too much new information too often. Any time an interesting thread is introduced, it is then quickly set aside in favor of some fresh character or concept, and so nothing gets explored or explained satisfactorily. Unlike Morning Glories, Spencer actually manages to complete some of the narratives he begins in these other two titles, but often in ways that undermine whatever made the stories interesting in the first place.
     In T.H.U.N.D.E.R. Agents, the problem is primarily one of trust. Double-double-crosses, sides we didn't even know existed, dead characters who aren't really dead...pretty much every single issue of T.H.U.N.D.E.R. Agents contains at least one reveal that undoes or contradicts something previously (and sometimes only recently) established as true. The twists never stop, and you begin to expect them, not due to any well-placed hints, but merely because the plot relies on them to move forward. It's one thing to have a book that keeps its audience guessing, but when you give the readers nothing to hold on to, nothing we know to be definitively true, right down to which characters we are supposed to be rooting for...what are we even reading? Why are we reading? Again, I wouldn't mind as much if it didn't happen so damn often, but we never get to catch our breath between gasp moments, and the overall effect is less having the rug pulled out from under us and more lying on the rug and rolling around aimlessly.
     Then in the final two issues, Spencer undoes the entire concept behind T.H.U.N.D.E.R.: that its agents give their lives in exchange for their powers. And, again, why does he do this? What purpose does it serve other than to make one more thing into a lie? Toby and Dunn are still dead, and those are the characters we actually got to know, aside from Colleen. Having Dynamo and Lightning living under assumed aliases does nothing for me, except cheapen the promise I was given when this title started that these men were going to sacrifice themselves for a cause.
     The possible exceptions to this rule of a steady stream of misinformation are the four issues that tell the Iron Maiden story, but they have a pacing-related problem all their own. Which is that, basically, they should be combined into one well-written issue, rather than stretched needlessly over four. None of the five-page back-up stories give us any information we didn't already have, nor do they paint a particularly vivid or compelling image of the original Dynamo or Iron Maiden. And the main narrative could lose pages upon pages of uninteresting fight scenes, chase scenes, and vegetable chopping scenes. Not even sure anything in issue #7 is all that important. So while there may not be a lot of big reveals in those issues, it's mostly because there's just not a lot of anything there.
     Ultimate Comics X-Men lies somewhere in the middle of the Morning Glories-T.H.U.N.D.E.R. Agents spectrum. There is definitely an overarching mystery that is taking a frustratingly long time to develop (MG's), having to do with all these supposedly dead characters (TA) returning and doling out pseudo-religious missions. We've seen three of them now---Stryker, Xavier, Magneto---but still have no sense of what they are, what they want, who controls them, how, or why (MG's). But what's even more annoying is that rather than stretch out that mystery only, Spencer switches his focus to entirely new casts and locations (TA), so that there have now been three consecutive issues which, as far as I can tell, don't touch on this mystery whatsoever. So in addition to having to remember all the dead people stuff that came before, there's this whole Camp Angel business as well as Jean Grey/Karen Grant's totally unclear role and motive in Tian. Man, that Karen Grant issue (#8) is an example of Ultimate Comics X-Men swinging way over to the T.H.U.N.D.E.R. side of things. Seriously, what am I meant to believe about her and what should I think is a lie? Because I don't know, and Spencer hasn't brought it up since. And the man only has two issues left before a new writer takes the helm, so my hopes are not high to have all the threads tied up before his term on the title ends.
     Most disappointing is that it took a while for Ultimate Comics X-Men to really fall victim to Spencer's pacing and lack of focus. By the time Professor X took up the entire last page of #6, though, things had really started to slip, and it's only gotten messier.
     What all three series have in common is this: at the end of the day, I'm just not sure what they are about. Ultimate Comics X-Men seems to be about a whole new thing as often as it feels like. Sure, there's the idea that mutants are a government mistake that has more or less been holding things together, but there's no emotional core or even protagonist, yet, and if you can't find that in ten issues then why would you expect it to ever develop? T.H.U.N.D.E.R. Agents definitely tells a complete story by the end, putting all the characters thorough their own personalized trials and changes, but it sort of feels like it ended up being about Toby, Colleen, and the Menthor helmet. Which I don't know how I feel about, since Colleen is a big fat liar, Toby's dead, and the Menthor helmet is one of the most ridiculous and vague concepts I've ever had the pleasure of trying to understand. Then there's Morning Glories which, in one more issue than the entirety of T.H.U.N.D.E.R. Agents, has yet be about anything other than a weird school with weird people doing random strange and violent shit for unknown reasons.
     Nick Spencer is not a bad writer. His characters are usually quite rich, his dialogue full of humanity and humor, and his ideas are often bold and big and bright. But he can't seem to get the reins on them, for one reason or another, and his writing is worse for it. If he could see the difference between having readers be confused and surprised and having them be genuinely interested in or impressed by a story, I think his work might greatly improve. But of course, he already has my money, and the money of so many others, so there can't be much incentive to change.
     Then again, T.H.U.N.D.E.R. Agents has ended, Spencer is soon departing Ultimate Comics X-Men, and Morning Glories concludes its current arc next issue. Perhaps there's never been a better time to give up Nick Spencer for good...

Saturday, April 28, 2012

Smatterday 04/28/2012

The Even Newer 52
So next week is the beginning of DC's "Second Wave" of titles for the New 52 (or whatever we're calling it now). Six new titles will be coming out, and while I am only really committing to Dial H, G.I. Combat (for the Unknown Solider stuff, primarily), and Earth 2, I imagine I'll check out the first issues of the other series as well, since it'll only be three more. Also because The Ravagers is spinning out of a crossover I plan to check out. Also because I still support, conceptually, the whole New 52 project and hope that this pattern of brining in new titles to replace those that are failing continues until DC has a full list of interesting, varied, successful comicbooks. A man can dream, can't he?

Not Comics
Is anyone else surprised by the continuing, ever-growing surge of superhero movies and TV series? When it all started to pick up steam several years ago with the first X-Men and Batman and Spider-Man films, I did not expect it to last this long or get this big. Some very popular, hotly-anticipated stuff is still coming out. Not something I'm especially happy or upset about, just genuinely surprised.

Spider-Man's Midlife Crisis
So as we all know Spider-Man turns 50 this year, and while the Internet is celebrating the milestone in a big way, Marvel's only official plans amount to another major arc from Dan Slott in Amazing Spider-Man, and the kind-of-interesting but also totally-tainting-the-whole-idea-behind-the-Ultimate-Universe mini-series Spider-Men. I'm excited for "Ends of the Earth" since Slot has been doing such a good job so far, and Spider-Men I could take or leave, but the real point is that one limited series and a big storyline seems somewhat small-time for one of the world's most popular superheroes. He does appear in almost all of Marvel's titles, I guess, so maybe they figure they celebrate his existence enough. Also Broadway and a second movie franchise. On second thought, they should consider scaling it back a little.

Good For You, Chris. Seriously.
Chris Roberson disassociated himself from DC this week, citing no personal problems with the people he worked with, but more sort of philosophical/ethical problems he had with the company's treatment of other creators. And they are good ones, and he backs them up. I love him for this, because so much of what you read in interviews and hear at conventions are creators toeing the party line about how great it is to work under the Big Two and how crossovers are fun to write for and all the other nonsense we basically understand to be untrue. There are plenty of people saying the opposite, too, but Roberson went ahead and quit his job over it, and in the name of creators other than himself, which is a pretty unique and applaudable thing to do. Good on you.

Friday, April 27, 2012

Pull List Reviews 04/27/2012

So...I don't know whether or not Monocyte #4 came out this week. I thought it was supposed to, but they didn't have it at my local store, and the Internet isn't being helpful so I'm not certain if it was pushed back again or if my place just failed to order it. But other than that (and being late a day) pretty fair haul this week:

Astonishing X-Men #49: Some really nice moments here between Kyle and Northstar---a very well-written and emotionally resonant romance. Other than those few pages, though, nothing really stands out. A pretty boring fight with an even more boring and somewhat cliched resolution, which leads us to an even MORE cliched and totally obvious conclusion to the issue. I appreciate that Marjorie Liu gave most of her cast something to do, and there wasn't anything especially bad about this story, but there wasn't anything especially good, either. The same is true of Mike Perkins' art, which is rough and sloppy in places (like the horribly jumbled splash page in the middle of the fight) but generally serviceable if not impressive. And hey, am I supposed to know who the woman revealed on the final page is? Because I do not, and it weakened the effect of the ending, to my mind. Overall I walked away from Astonishing X-Men #49 feeling unenthusiastic about the future of the title. Not a bad read, but not one that particularly makes you want to come back for more.

Daredevil #11: Well, it's official. "The Omega Effect" was a bust. I read all three parts, and while none of them were spectacular, this finale was especially disappointing because it made the entire crossover feel totally pointless. What happened? Plenty, I guess. But what changed? Nothing. The Omega Drive is still in DD's hands, and now he has a "new plan" to deal with it, but based on how much of a waste of time his first plan was (meaning this issue right here) I find myself none-too-excited to learn what comes next. To be fair to Daredevil #11, Marco Checchetto delivered some incredible art, and the first third of the issue was pretty solid in terms of story: fun action with solid characterization of Spidey, DD, and Punisher all. And for just a second it seemed like this whole Omega Drive situation might actually be developed in an unexpected way. But as soon as Murdock took off after Alves---I use the name she prefers, and I honestly don't understand why no one else will---it got boring, everything was undone, and the status quo returned. Congratulations, Marvel, you tricked me into buying two extra comics this month for no reason. Four, arguably, because I probably could have just gone straight from Daredevil #10 to Daredevil #12 without feeling like I missed a thing (and there was that stupid ass .1 issue before TOE really kicked off). It's a bummer, because TOE had massive potential and awesome talent behind it, but alas, it ended with a fizzle rather than a bang.

Justice League Dark #8: I'm not sure how much needs to be said about this issue, which is Peter Milligan's last as writer of Justice League Dark, and you can feel him not giving a shit about it on every page. The super-forced exit of Shade, the Changing Man felt like it might have been the comicbook representation of Milligan's own exit from the title: the chaos of this thing he is supposed to be controlling becomes too much for him to handle, and so he just gives in to it and leaves. Next month we get a shift in the lineup of the team, a new writer, and, fingers crossed, a believable and compelling reason for these characters to even work together in the first place. That lack of focus or motive has been a problem for Justice League Dark since its debut, a fact that has never been more apparent than in this choppy, lackluster crossover issue.

Moon Knight #12: I know there were some naysayers, but I have been enjoying the story of Moon Knight vs. Count Nefaria in spite of their obvious power imbalance. There were definitely a few moments in some of their encounters where it seemed like Nefaria was holding back for no real reason, but in general I thought Brian Michael Bendis did a good job of keeping it believable and interesting. So going into Moon Knight #12, knowing it was going to be the conclusion to that tale, I had my hopes set pretty high. So maybe it's partially my fault for being so excited up front, but this issue was a massive letdown. He calls in the Avengers? Seriously, Bendis? That's the solution you came up with? After a year of Moon Knight steadfastly fighting this battle on his own terms, in his own city, with his own resources, he dials the superhero emergency line and lets somebody else finish the job. In one hit, might I add. Weak. But don't worry, there's a reason for it: Tony Stark gets to tease the upcoming Age of Ultron for two whole pages. WEAK! Don't plug your new project in the final throws of your old one, Bendis, ya schmuck. That's just classless all over. And now we'll never get the innovative, inventive, awesome finale this series deserved. Instead we're stuck with this forever. A cop out closing with below-the-bar art from Alex Maleev, less-badass-than-usual behavior from our title character, and what basically amounts to a commercial for a new title at the end. Nasty.

Rebel Blood #2: Though not quite as strong as its opening issue, Rebel Blood #2 continues to tell a singularly entertaining story of one man trying to cope with unimaginable horror all on his own. Chuck is a great blend of improvised action hero and terrified victim, responding to each new development with a combination of stunned shock and survivalist violence. And the brief trips we take into his unstable psyche in the midst of all this madness help to add both realism and surrealism to the book, grounding it in human fears, memories, and desires while at the same time building an uncertain reality and history for Chuck. As he is swept up by the unthinkable situation that surrounds him, the reader is carried right along with him by the fluid, restless storytelling and artwork from Alex Link and Riley Rossmo. It seems like the primary goal of Rebel Blood is to make the reader and Chuck one-and-the-same as much as possible, as far as our emotional and mental states while the narrative advances. And more often than not, that's exactly what happens. All of his disgust and anxieties are shared by the reader as the issue powers forward, never settling down long enough to let us or our protagonist get too solid a grip on anything. But even with that pacing, because this isn't a typical "group of survivors" story, we are able to fully experience what Chuck goes through, externally and internally, and that's precisely what makes Rebel Blood so good. Well, that and Rossmo's kinetic, brilliant artwork, which highlights the horrific elements of the story perfectly and is just rough enough around the edges to add to the surreality of the comic without detracting any clarity. In fact, in some places, like the flashback sequence, the art tells us more of the story than the letters do. We're already halfway through this series, and while it feels like it'll end too soon, I'd probably also be more than satisfied if the two issues we've seen so far were all that ever came out.

Secret Avengers #26: As far as event tie-ins go, Secret Avengers #26 is an exemplary comicbook. The story it tells, while spinning directly out of the main AvX narrative, stands largely on its own and could easily be enjoyed by someone who isn't following the event proper. It is, perhaps, a bit simplistic---a team of Avengers fight and fail to contain the Phoenix Force in space---but Rick Remender has a good handle on the voices of every single character (and there are quite a few), and gives each of them something to do without ever seeming like he's forcing it in. Each of their roles is logical and natural, and it gives the issue a real "team book" feel that Secret Avengers has been missing since Remender took the helm. And it felt for a while like Noh-Varr and Ms. Marvel were going to be ignored, but turns out they actually have pivotal roles to play in by the end of the issue (or, at any rate, they most likely will have said roles in the next issue). It's a fun and well-orchestrated story, but what really pushes Secret Avengers #26 over the edge is the team of artsit Renato Guedes, and colorists Bettie Breitweiser, and Matthew Wilson. I name all three because the soft yet vibrant colors are a major part of the overall affect, but Guedes is the champion, from his two-page Phoenix spread to his close-up on Captain Britain's nose bleed and everything Remender asks of him in between. As loathe as I am to say it, this tie-in has been my favorite of Remender's issues on Secret Avengers. Best art, best lineup, best story.

Spaceman #6: Losing a bit of momentum this time out, Spaceman #6 had a lot of characters communicating information to each other that we already knew. The scenes that took place on Mars were still good, but even they felt a little more by-the-numbers than they have in previous issues, merely moving the story of the space mission forward a step or two without offering any new insights. The moment where we see The Fence and all that surrounds it was important and well-done, but I wouldn't use those words to describe very much else in the issue. I mean, Eduardo Risso kills it as always, packing detail and emotion into every panel, but so much of what he draws is people standing around and talking that even the art deflates a little. And Brian Azzarello's script is the least interesting or original of this series so far. It's still a cut above any number of other titles, but the progress made in Spaceman #6 is so small that it felt like filler, which you don't want in a nine-issue limited series.

Teen Titans #8: Scott Lobdell clearly knows his cast, and their distinct voices and viewpoints have been a highlight of this title so far, but in Teen Titans #8 the one-by-one characterization was laid on a bit thick. It's still a fun read, but its only real purpose is to lead us into the upcoming "The Culling" crossover, and so that's all we get. I'm not complaining, really, just saying this issue was a tad light. One at a time, the Teen Titans are prepared for whatever Harvest and his followers have in store for them next, which is the main event, presumably, that Teen Titans has been ramping up to for some time. I'm excited for "The Culling" because Harvest is a pretty interesting villain (as are his lackeys Omen and Leash) and Lobdell has been doing good work with this cast. This prelude issue made me a little impatient since not a lot actually happened, but Solstice's dialogue with Bunker made the impending final confrontation between the Titans and N.O.W.H.E.R.E. seem even scarier and more exciting, and nothing here actively dampened my enthusiasm for "The Culling" so I guess, really, it was a solid prologue. Fluffy, maybe, but as good for new readers as old, and a probably necessary first step before leaping into the crossover.

Ultimate Comics Ultimates #9: I like Esad Ribic's art a lot, and he has been a major part of why Ultimates has been such an entertaining title, but I always find myself irked by the way he draws widely opened eyes or mouths. Any time anyone is yelling or surprised, and even sometimes in battle scenes, Ribic makes their eyes bug so much you expect them to pop out in the next panel, and their mouths take up half of their faces. Normally, this is a small complaint, but in Ultimate Comics Ultimates #9, for some reason, it happened an inordinate number of times. I'm nitpicking, because the rest of his art was at its typical high standard, but it was something I couldn't help but notice.

Aside from that, a middle-of-the-line kind of issue. Jonathan Hickman advances all of his numerous plot threads, but only a little bit, and not in any truly surprising ways. No one expected Zorn to be the solution to the City, but it was also not shocking when he did have the power to do some actual damage to it. And Reed Richards' retaliation against the U.S., while it looked cool, was pretty much to be expected. A shade decompressed for my taste, but no less high energy or interesting for it.

Uncanny X-Men #11: Kieron Gillen deals with the obligation of doing an AvX  tie-in by showing us some scenes which we've already seen in the main title through the eyes and inner monologues of three characters from Uncanny X-Men. It's a fine enough approach, although I doubt it would be the least bit enjoyable for any Uncanny fans not following the event. And while Namor and Colossus both have strong voices here, neither of them says anything that felt all that new. I get why Namor likes mutants, and I get why Colossus struggles with being Cyttorak's avatar, so even though I didn't dislike their scenes, they were very much non-essential reading. Hope's part actually did teach me a thing or two, like Hope and Logan making a deal for him to kill her, or that she has an actual plan in her mind for dealing with the Phoenix (although how much do you wanna bet it doesn't go the way she wants?) but it was an extremely brief section of the issue, plus it's probably information we'll get somewhere else in another month or two, anyway. Greg Land's art was inconsistent at best. He seems to have difficulty with smaller panels, as many of his close-ups look unnatural and stagnant, but he nails most of the fight moments that take up a larger portion of the page.

The press release at the end was just stupid, and I choose to pretend those two pages don't exist.

Thursday, April 26, 2012

Traffic Delays

So here's a ridiculous story: yesterday, there was some kind of car accident involving whatever truck was bringing all the new comicbooks for the week to Austin (where I live). So literally NONE of the comic shops in town, of which there are quite a few, received this week's new issues. Obviously this means I didn't get or get to read any of them either, yet, so this week's Pull List Reviews is going to be a little late, I'm afraid. Hopefully Diamond will manage to get everything here today but nobody knows for sure, so we'll have to wait and see. Should have the new PLR up by this weekend sometime, ideally.

As lame as this whole situation is, it is also a little bit cool, you know, conceptually. A whole major US city deprived of its new comicbooks. Countless fans and retailers joined in simultaneous disappointment and anxiety. It's not that much fun to live through, but it is sort of fun to think about. Plus it was an interesting visual effect when I walked into my usual shop yesterday and their new comics shelf was totally empty, a bunch of blank pieces of cardboard staring back at me.

Anyhow, be glad you're not in Austin this week, and expect new reviews as soon as I have new material to review.

Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Nick Spencer & the Poorly-Paced Mystery (Part 1 of 2)

I want to like Nick Spencer more than I actually like him. The pitches for his series tend to hook me, but more often than not I find myself disappointed by the actual thing. Now, Spencer hasn't been around all that long, and I haven't read everything he's ever written, so maybe it's too early for me to generalize like that (or to generalize in the ways I'm about to). But I have read all of his work on of Morning Glories, T.H.U.N.D.E.R. Agents, and Ultimate Comics X-Men, and those are the titles I want to talk about here. On the surface they seem pretty distinct and disparate. The first is a creator-owned series from Image, the second a reboot of a classic DC superhero/spy series, and the third a major title from Marvel's Ultimate Universe. But I found all three to be equally frustrating letdowns, and when I examine them together, the reason becomes clear: Nick Spencer has terrible pacing. Not just because he dramatically decompresses his narratives, which he does, but so do many other writers to varying degrees of success. Spencer's problem is that even while slow-cooking his stories, he can't stop himself from constantly adding new ingredients, and the result is a dish with so many combating and confounding flavors that you can't tell what it was supposed to be in the first place. In their own ways and for their own reasons, all three of the above-mentioned comicbooks suffer from this problem, but the clearest and most aggravating example is Morning Glories, Spencer's own creation.
     In its very first issue, Morning Glories doesn't seem like it's going to be the infuriatingly slow, muddled story it has since become. We actually get a whole lot in that initial installment: we meet our six protagonists and get clear, succinct introductions to their personalities; we learn that Morning Glory Academy is full of evil and lies and has an unseen Headmaster behind the wheel; we see that weird giant spinning thing for the first time; and we discover that the school is looking for a particular kind of child (also born on a certain day) and that anyone who doesn't fit the bill---"The boy's not one of them," says Gribbs---is expendable. We also end up with a vast list of questions, like, what does "For A Better Future" mean? What was happening on the first page? What, exactly, does the school want from these kids? Who's that ghost-looking guy and why'd he kill somebody? What is the giant spinning thing? Are Casey's parents really dead? And why? And how could the school get away with that? In fact, how does it get away with ANY of this while simultaneously being so reputable?
    The problem is, not only have none of these questions been answered, but virtually every issue that's followed has served only to pile on the confusion and mystery. So now we're seventeen issues deep, and still have little to no understanding of the school's purpose or goals. Meanwhile, the six main characters who seemed so familiar at first have each been given their own twists and revelations, shrouding them now in uncertainty. Hunter has a problem telling time when it matters, but the significance of him always seeing 8:13 is unknown. Zoe's a murderer, but we can't tell if she's aware of it. Casey went back in time somehow and is going to do something to save everyone, maybe. Jun is actually his own twin and the school doesn't know about it. Jade can talk to herself from the future, apparently. Ike killed but also didn't kill his dad who is also Abraham. And yes, all of that is pretty cool...but what does any of it mean? Why do I care? Couldn't these seemingly disconnected facts about the characters be greatly enhanced by telling us why they matter? At all?
     It's an awful lot of story space to use up without shedding any light on what's really going on, and it makes it extremely difficult to keep track of the innumerable tiny but supposedly significant hints Spencer drops along the way. Like the nine random images flashed before Casey and the reader's eyes in issue #13. Or the shit Hunter mutters before the explosion in #15. Or literally anything that happens in the whole of issue #6 (by far the most aggravating and unanswered chapter to date). If I were to try and list ALL of the small details provided and the big questions raised by the series so far, my fingers or my keyboard would probably break. Every plot beat is another mystery, but nothing ever gets solved.
     I understand that all of this is by design. Rather than give us a few questions, then some knowledge, then some questions, then some knowledge, Spencer chooses to bombard us with the questions first. Then, in theory, somewhere down the line there'll be a turn and suddenly we'll be showered with answers. And it is clear that Spencer does have something planned, because even though we don't know what the fuck is going on, things are confusing in a consistent way. Lots of cryptic phrases are repeated and we see characters like Abraham showing up in the lives of all our main characters, so it's evident that a destination exists. But the longer we go without so much as a snippet of what that destination might look like, all the while dealing with a steady stream of new but not helpful information, the less I care to stay on for the ride. No matter how fully-formed and fun to watch the cast may be, when the stakes of the game they are playing remain so obscure, my emotional investment and interest naturally tapers off.
     Spencer has said on more than one occasion that he imagines Morning Glories running for something like 100 issues, which means we're not even though the first twenty per cent of the overall narrative yet, so perhaps I am being impatient. And of course part of the main thrust of the story is the very fact that the kids don't know what's going on at Morning Glory Academy and are trying to figure it out before the school...does whatever it's trying to do to them. So a certain amount of the answers, I am certain, must remain secret for now out of necessity. But Spencer spends pretty much all of issue #17 in a conversation between Ike and Jade that is almost entirely recap. Then there's #12, where all we really get is the briefest of introductions to Miss Hodge---she's popular and helpful but her history and motives are just as unknown as the rest of the staff's---who then acts as a vehicle to check in for a page or two with each of our six kids, offering no new insights into any of them, just sort of reminding us who they are. And as I've said, the worst of the bunch is #6, which takes place entirely in what seems to be the future, uses almost all new characters who we haven't seen since, and devotes its entire last page to a splash image that is an obvious, meaningless dud of a reveal. Even if you have 2,200 pages to work with, that is a waste of space.
     So Morning Glories trudges along, inch by baffling inch.

Next time: The more enjoyable but just-as-annoyingly-paced T.H.U.N.D.E.R. Agents and Ultimate Comics X-Men

Saturday, April 21, 2012

Smatterday 04/21/2012

I Got Engaged
Hey so I got engaged to m'lady yesterday, which involved some semi-complicated planning and prepartion, and as such I have not had a lot of time the past couple days to mine material for this week's Smatterday. I did track down some comicbook-related engagement and wedding photos, just for fun.

Lobo Movie
One thing that did catch my eye this week was the report of a new writer/director for the Warner Bros. Lobo movie. I don't love the character, and like others, the director in question fails to excite me, but something about the project not dying completely after losing Guy Ritchie makes me smile. Lobo's a weird and probably risky choice for the big screen, and I support weird and/or risky choices when it comes to the comicbook world expanding and potentially to gaining new fans/appreciation/attention.

One Last Tiny Tidbit
Warren Ellis is a super cool and talented and interesting dude, and if you don't believe me, he's out there proving it himself to anyone who'll listen, with his new e-mail newsletter. Whether you're a fan of his work or not, bound to be some cool/insightful/original stuff in there.

Thursday, April 19, 2012

Pull List Reviews 04/19/2012

Big fat stack of comics this week so let's get to it.

Avengers vs. X-Men #2: What a misfire. Really across the board, this issue was a letdown. John Romita, Jr.'s pencils were highly inconsistent and never impressive. For a book all about two teams fighting, he sure had a hard time drawing more than a couple members of either team in any given panel. But even worse, I am sad to say, was Jason Aaron's script. From the out-of-place, over-the-top, unnecessary narration to some laughable moments of dialogue (e.g. Storm screaming about a marriage counselor in the middle of combat) Aaron failed to make me the least bit interested in what was going on. Which was not much, anyway, just some rehashing of the weak, half-baked "reasons" each side has for fighting this fight, lots of punching and smack talk, and Hope continuing to be sort of a brat about the whole situation. The end. This event needs to pick up some steam real fast, because it's gotten worse each issue so far.

Batman #8: This whole Court of Owls thing is getting a bit tiresome, so I am excited for the crossover to get rolling and get over with. I don't hate the Court as villains, but I'm not wowed by them either, and there have been some very questionable decisions and reveals along the way from Scott Snyder and company. Luckily, Batman #8 mostly avoid those kinds of developments, telling a very brief and effective story about Wayne Manor coming under attack and how Bruce and Alfred work together to save themselves, their home, and their city. It's a lot of fun and very fast paced, with the tension and action ramping up quickly and then staying quite high for the rest of the issue. The partnership between Bruce and Alfred is very natural, and Greg Capullo makes their fear in the face of their enemies and their concern for one another come through in his art. He does a better job with Alfred than Bruce, but they each have some great moments. The best visuals, however, come from the army of slightly varied but still somehow uniform Talons. An impressive and frightening group.

I was not wild about the closing page of the main story---we'll see where it goes before passing final judgement, I guess---or any of the back-up tale (although YAY for Rafael Albuquerque Batman art!) but up until those final pages, a definite win.

Birds of Prey #8: This title is nothing if not reliable. Solid superhero entertainment every month, with this issue acting as a particularly nice example, if only because it more or less stands alone. Not that everything is neatly resolved at the end, but the bad guys which the Birds deal with this issue have nothing to do with Choke, the evil mastermind of the first arc. And though some larger developments are left to be resolved later, the immediate threat of the issue is handled all in one fully-contained and very well-done fight. That threat, a team called The Infiltrators who has it in for Black Canary, is a bizarre group in both their powers and personalities, but Duane Swierczynski and Jesus Saiz introduce them deftly and rapidly and in a way that never slows the story or detracts from the fun. Indeed, one of The Infiltrators, Napalm, was the funniest and most enjoyable part of the issue. I have yet to be truly floored by this title, but also yet to be at all disappointed.

The Defenders #5: Matt Fraction's story was a bit up-and-down here, but I thoroughly enjoyed Mitch Breitweiser's art. Particularly in the underwater sequence that makes up the first half of this issue. In fact, that first half was much stronger than the second in almost every way. It had all the action and humor and mystery this title is always seeped in, but somehow it was still a bit calmer than usual, less frantic and overwhelming, and I think Breitweiser's art is a huge part of that. Once our heroes came out from the sea and began to excavate the Nautilus, things started to get a little bit jumpy, and while nothing was all that confusing, it definitely became a few degrees more muddled. Still, from cover to cover, Fraction did a great job with Namor's voice (more than anything this made me wish Fraction could just do a Namor series) and for the few lines he had, Danny Rand's voice, too. I wish it had been a steadier story, but I suppose it was really none too shabby, and perhaps the best looking issue of this incarnation of The Defenders so far.

Hellblazer #290: A really good ending to a pretty good storyline, Hellblazer #290 continues to add to the ever-growing dysfunction of John Constantine's family. John's relationship to his sister Cheryl, his niece Gemma, and his father-in-law Terry all go through some pretty significant developments here. Not to mention his wife Epiphany's own relationship to Terry. And we get set up for yet another appearance of the Demon Constantine in coming issues, which is good news for us as readers. Peter Milligan has definitely found a groove on this title, and even when nothing spectacular happens (like here), he keeps me coming back for more, always anxious to see what might go down next.

Prophet #24: This was EXACTLY what I wanted to see after the incredible opening three-issue arc of this Prophet reboot. A brand new John Prophet in a brand new world, but still a story that builds on the notion of a universe full of these men working toward some mysterious, cosmic common goal. Farel Dalrymple provides exceptional artwork throughout, especially the little girl guide and what she turns out to really be, but the true star of this book as always is Brandon Graham. His captions are so excellently written, so deliciously paced, and always know exactly what and how much to leave to the art. It's pretty uncommon that this kind of stylized-yet-understated narrative voice is so expertly employed in the comicbook medium, because so much of the comicbook world is filled with bombastic, over-powered archetypes. John Prophet is none of those things, and it makes his book all the more worth reading. It creeps closer to the top of my list of favorite titles every issue.

Also, much better back-up story than last time. A bit of an old lesson, perhaps, but told in a very fun and simple new way. And just like in the main story, really interesting and reliable art.

Rachel Rising #7: While not as strong an installment as many of the preceding ones, Rachel Rising #7 certainly isn't weak, either. It's just that rather than having any new deaths or very much new horror, this issue takes some time to set up important stuff for the future. Jet is undead just like Rachel, which can't be anything less than hugely significant. There's now a local detective involved in all this madness, which is bound to add some tension to the whole scenario. And then there's the final sequence, which I won't spoil, but is higher up on the insanity scale than perhaps anything Terry Moore has given us in Rachel Rising so far. And that's most certainly a good thing. Perhaps a bit slower than what came before it, but still full of rich, compelling characters trying as hard as they can to deal with an impossible situation. That's good fiction, no matter what.

The Shadow #1: Essentially what Garth Ennis offers us in this debut is a chilling character study of the titular "hero." And it's the perfect way to kick off The Shadow, a character who has been reinvented and interpreted numerous times over the decades. It doesn't matter what, if any, preconceived notions you have of Lamont Cranston going into this book, because Ennis and artist Aaron Campbell make it brutally clear what their version of the man is going to be like: unrelenting, unforgiving, brilliant, deadly, and arrogant. Even when dealing with his allies, he's intentionally a pain in the ass. Hell, even with Margo Lane, maybe especially with her, his I'm-above-it-all attitude shines through. But from what we've seen so far, he can back that attitude up all the way, and it makes me thrilled to see what else this new series has in store.

T.H.U.N.D.E.R. Agents #6: Pretty weak sauce. The worst Wes Craig art to date on T.H.U.N.D.E.R. Agents (which is really saying something) and also the least interesting script of Nick Spencer's entire run (yes, all 16 issues, not just the six that make up his second volume). Not the worst script, maybe, but by far the dullest. Mostly just Colleen talking to whoever it is she was seen talking to in Sri Lanka waaaaaaaay back in the first issue of the first volume, info-dumping so the reader doesn't have any hanging questions at all. And in a spy series, that kind of sucks. Everything gets so neatly tied up that it feels too neat, almost out of place for a title that has been hard to slow or pin down since it began. Cafu draws the Sri Lanka segments and does a really great job, but he has so little to draw (again, pretty much just Colleen's face or the face of her companion) and it is cushioned by such wonky Wes Craig nonsense that the overall effect is weakened. I've been a bit cool on this title for a while now anyway, I suppose, but at the very least I expected the finale to be dynamic and adventurous and full of fatalities. I got zero from that list.

Thunderbolts #173: No question, this was a better chapter than the first of this Thunderbolts vs. Thunderbolts story. Fixer has been a highlight of this title under Jeff Parker's writing all along, and watching him interact with his younger, wilder self is both a lot of fun and quite poignant, and takes the story in at least one unexpected direction as we prepare for the last issue before the change to Dark Avengers takes place. The best part of Thunderbolts #173, though, was Baron Zemo, not just because Declan Shalvey makes him look so awesome with his mask off, but because everything he does perfectly in character while still moving the story of the current Thunderbolts forward in great strides. He's the smartest guy in the room, and that means he can aid a team he was just fighting while simultaneously serving his own wicked goals, and it makes his solution to the long-running time travel conundrum of this title come quickly while still feeling natural. Only one issue to go before a change in name, cast, and, presumably, focus for this book, but Thunderbolts #173 renewed my faith that Jeff Parker will bring us something enjoyable and at least partially surprising for the closing chapter.

Uncanny X-Force #24: It's back! After a rare misstep in the "Otherworld" arc, Uncanny X-Force returns to its former glory. Phil Noto on pencils, a clear target for the team to kill, and major advancement on the always interesting Psylocke-Fantomex romance. The main thrust of the issue is AoA Nightcrawler (can we just call him "Nightcrawler" yet?) killing AoA Iceman, with a little help from Wolverine and Deadpool. Rick Remender does a really great job fleshing out this Nightcrawler through not only his captions but also his tactics during the fight against his old friend. It is an inventive and emotionally powerful battle, for the reader and the characters, and it serves as a reminder of the true potential for greatness in this book. According to Remender in recent interviews and whatnot, another major mega-arc is about to kick off, and this standalone tale (also acting as a grat epilogue to "Otherworld") is the perfect way to transition into whatever Remender has planned. It brings the cast closer together, helps completely establish the newest member, and brings back the grim and awesome violence and assassination this title does so well. Bravo!

Wolverine and the X-Men #9: As far as tie-ins to major events go, this was a pretty satisfying effort. It begins before the first issue of Avengers vs. X-Men, chronologically speaking, and takes us all the way to the end of that same issue seamlessly, which is an impressive accomplishment. And Jason Aaron manages to give Wolverine's choice the necessary gravitas without losing the lightweight, humorous tone that Wolverine and the X-Men has established for itself. I loved the opening sequence on Planet Sin, and had a few smiles during Captain America's visit, the brief moment of tenderness between Toad and Husk, and the conversation between Logan and Idie. All good, believable, engaging stuff. Chris Bacahlo, for his part, delivered some of the clearest art I've seen from him, which was a pleasant surprise, since I typically find myself confused for at least one whole page when he is on art duties for this book. Not a lot of big important story beats (except for maybe the last page) as far as the whole AvX conflict goes, but a solid tie-in issue nonetheless.

Wonder Woman #8: While Brian Azzarello's work on Wonder Woman has been really good all along, one thing I've noticed is that a lot of the time, Diana is overshadowed by the rest of the cast. Not because she isn't awesome, it's just that she is so steady and consistent and, in many ways, familiar, while the rest of the characters in her world are new and strange and full of insights and/or knowledge which she does not posses. It's not necessarily a bad thing, but the truth is Wonder Woman doesn't always feel like the star of her own title. This month, however, that all changes. In an awesome issue that sends Diana and Hermes to Hades in the hopes of rescuing Zola, we get a great version of the underworld, some really spectacular action, and most of all we get to see Wonder Woman in the spotlight. He new armor, brilliantly designed by Cliff Chang (who kills it on every page like usual) and her confident swagger make her stand out in all of her panels, and while Hermes kicks plenty of ass himself, it is Diana who leads the charge and fights the hardest. A somewhat obvious "twist" at the end, but one which makes me super excited for next month all the same. Even though it didn't deal with the controversy from last issue (and that does need to be addressed at some point for sure) Wonder Woman #8 did just about everything else right.

Also, "In its brevity is where life's importance lies." YES!!!

Tuesday, April 17, 2012

The Cheese Stands Alone: Green Arrow #20

The Cheese Stands Alone is a semi-regular column featuring examinations of single issues that can be understood and appreciated on their own, without reading any of the preceding or following issues of the series.
In Mike Grell's amazing 80-issue run on Green Arrow, he sort of took the "super" out of superhero. Nobody ever refers to Oliver Queen as "Green Arrow," he loses his mask early on, and he pretty much never interacts with any of the other super folks operating in the (presumably shared) DC Universe. He lives with Black Canary, of course, though she goes by Dinah Lance and is more often a florist than a hero under Grell's pen, but otherwise the cast of the book is fairly "normal." Even Queen's foes, while often highly-skilled, tend to be unpowered. However, in Green Arrow #20, we see a familiar face from the DCU for the first and, I believe, last time: Hal Jordan, the most prominent Green Lantern. Of course, this is still Grell's book, so even Green Lantern remains just Hal, never donning his ring or mask. He's not there to aid Oliver in battle against some gigantic threat; he wants only to help one of his oldest friends bounce back from a dark and tragic time. It is a simple, direct, and effective issue that completely stands alone.
     Now, if you want to get technical about it, Green Arrow #20 is the second part of a two-parter titled "The Trial of Oliver Queen." But some of the strength of that story lies in the fact that both of its chapters more or less work on their own, each one putting the hero through a different sort of trial. In the preceding issue (#19), Oliver shoots---with an arrow, don't worry---and severely wounds a child who he believed at the time was about to gun down a police officer. It is discovered too late that the kid had only a paintbull gun, and so our hero is taken to court, where the judge comes down hard on him for his vigilante activities. Oliver then comes down on himself even harder, nearly drowning in alcohol and guilt. It's a great opening chapter, and well worth reading, but here's the thing: it pretty much gets summed up for you in the first six pages of Green Arrow #20 anyway. Through some tightly-scripted police dialogue and a visually dynamic dream sequence, Grell and penciller Ed Hannigan bring up to speed anyone who might be coming into this issue cold, and they do it in a way that still moves all the essential characters forward in their own stories. This kind of seamless, natural recap is a rarity in comics, and a tactic that could and should be used more often, and it is a major part of why I selected Green Arrow #20 for this column. Though it's hardly the only reason.
     The best part of the issue is the scene between Oliver and Hal. At a campsite on Mt. Rainier, Hal forces his old friend to stop bingeing on booze and self-pity and start living again, which Oliver gets pretty pissed about at first. As their conversation becomes an argument and then a fistfight and then, finally, a moment of clarity followed by a hug, the reader learns just how much these two men mean to each other. It's clear even if you knew nothing about either of them beforehand, and even though the exact details of their history remain obscure. The way they speak to one another---with language that is simultaneously blunt and caring, comfortable and strained---and their transition from violence to tenderness make the depth of their friendship obvious. It is a well-handled scene, in both its words and images, and it gets Oliver back on his feet in a way that's space-efficient (in terms of page length) without feeling rushed or cheap. After understandably falling to pieces over harming and nearly killing a child, Oliver is reminded that no man, hero or otherwise, is infallible; what matters is how we handle our mistakes. As Hal says, "It's your choice. If you let it, it will destroy you."
    This message is an old one, but still appropriate and true. Same goes for Oliver's speech at the end of the issue to Officer Egan, one of the cops involved in the accident with the paintballer. By the story's close, Egan is in a hospital bed after encountering another underage criminal, who this time had a real gun and used it. The policeman requests that Oliver visit him, and it is the first time in Green Arrow #20 that the two characters come together, even though the catalyst for each of their individual narratives is the same. Prior to the hospital, Egan's story in this issue is more or less separate from Oliver's, and in some ways the inverse. Where Oliver tried to run from his shame and let it ruin him, Egan deals with his own shaken confidence by diving right back into his job. And instead of ending up with a renewed sense of righteousness as Oliver does, Egan gets himself shot, presumably bringing his continued competency as a police officer even further into question than it was in the issue's opening pages. It is as sad a story as Oliver's is hopeful, and creates an interesting mood for their scene together. Oliver delivers a passionate pseudo-rant about the difference between "law" and "justice" and why the world needs men like him. It's almost a thesis statement for the character and the title, perhaps laid on a bit too thick in some of the specific examples and the generally overbearing tone. But the person to whom these words are spoken and the setting that surrounds him are so still and peaceful and tragic that Oliver's big, victorious finish is dampened, and it helps to bring what could've have been an over-the-top moment back down to Earth. Which is, of course, what the whole of Grell's run on Green Arrow did to the character and the superhero comicbook in general.
     But I'm not here to discuss the entire run. I doubt if I could find the space. This is about a single, excellent installment, the tale of two men reacting to a horrible accident in very different ways and ending up in very different places. And also the tale of an old and meaningful friendship saving a tortured soul from itself. And also, remarkably, an explanation of vigilantism and superheroism in the big picture, and why one man does what he feels is necessary in the battle against evil.

Green Arrow #20 was published by DC comics and is dated July 1989.

Saturday, April 14, 2012

Smatterday 04/14/2012

As If We Didn't Have Enough Spider-Titles
So the cat is officially out of the bag on Brian Michael Bendis and Sara Pichelli's Spider-Men. It's going to be the current 616 Spider-Man (Peter Parker) meeting up with the new Ultimate Spider-Man (Miles Morales) in some sort universe-hopping adventure. As much as the Bendis-Pichelli team has been rocking it on Ultimate Spider-Man, I find myself not too excited by this series. I like that the Ultimate Universe is and always has been distinct from the 616 Marvel U, and because Ultimate Peter Parker is such a huge figures in Miles' world, and such a major factor in his origin story, I'd really rather have Miles never meet the man, even a version from another universe. Hopefully once the story actually comes out it will be handled in a way that's better than I am predicting, but either way, seems pretty dumb to mix these two universes that were, initially, all about existing apart from one another and telling different kinds of stories. Sure Marvel can change its mind (read: lie to its audience), but they better have a good reason for it.

Also, this is a good point.

Sin City: A Dame To Kill For is going to be a movie after all this time! I was exactly the right age (i.e. still in high school) when the first Sin City movie came out to totally fall in love with it and all it's splash-color, hyper-stylized, comic-aping nonsense. I hadn't read the comics themselves at that time, and still have not read A Dame To Kill For, but you better believe I'm going to now!

There is some doubt as to whether or not this is going to really come to fruition, but I have faith. Because the part of me that wants this movie to exist is still young enough to have faith in other people.

The Digital Age
The Chicago Comic & Entertainment Expo (C2E2) is this weekend, and one of my biggest personal takeaways from the coverage of the event, and comicbook news coverage in general these days, is that there is now a MAJOR push toward digital comics taking place. Of course, really this has been several years in the making, but the level of attention now being paid to digital publishing feels unprecedented and a bit sudden. Marvel's got a brand new digital comics store, DC and Archaia both have new digital-first comics titles coming, and Mark Waid is starting an all-digital comics website, And most exciting/interesting, although perhaps the least likely to make a splash, is Edgar Wright and Tommy Lee Edwards' The Random Adventures of Brandon Generator, an interactive online comic experiment of sorts. I am also just the right age to LOVE having a hard copy of a comicbook in my hand, and am therefore resistant to this trend, but I appreciate its inevitability and hope that, at the very least, people do new and worthwhile things with this change in the medium. If we have to go digital, let's explore the possibilities and capabilities offered to us by doing so. Am I right?

Thursday, April 12, 2012

Pull List Reviews 04/12/2012

Sort of a light week, but lots of god villains! I love a good villain...

Frankenstein, Agent of S.H.A.D.E. #8: I know it was said a lot last month with #7, but I still can't believe the difference having Walden Wong on inking duties makes to Alberto Ponticelli's art. It's not worse, exactly, it's just much more normalized. Closer to a traditional modern comicbook art, rather than Ponticelli's usual frenetic and kinetic style. Wong calms everything, taking away some of the usual energy. I don't mind it, but I do miss the old Ponticelli.

Luckily, this month's Frankenstein tells a calmer story than usual, so Wong's inks feel a bit more appropriate. As Frankenstein and Lady Frankenstein search for and eventually find their escaped son, we get to learn the details of their family's tragic history, and it helps to flesh out not only Frankenstein but also (and especially) his wife. Other than being completely badass and sassy, Lady Frankenstein hasn't had a lot to do in the series so far, but in this issue we see her undergo several major decisions and changes. Jeff Lemire keeps us on our toes and continues to grow the world of S.H.A.D.E., from Father Time's secrets to Ray Palmers character turn to, of course, Lady Frankenstein abandoning the cause. A solid standalone story in a title than continues to be reliable entertainment.

Saga #2: I was admittedly not sold on Saga after its debut issue, but I am a full-fledged fan as of this one. Brian K. Vaughn follows up on all the ideas and character introduced last time, and still uses a bulk of his pages to show us an impressive new villain, The Stalk. And he continues to make Marko and Alana's relationship more complex, compelling, and genuine with each panel they're in together. They show humor and affection in the face of great hardship, and it helps their love ring true.

The real star of this title, however, is Fiona Staples. Somehow she makes everything and everyone we see part of a clearly shared universe even when they are simultaneously so visually different. The prince with the TV head, The Will's freaky giant skinless cat-thing, The Stalk's spider-body, and the Horrors on the final page would most likely seem like they each belong in their own books if you saw the just character sketches. But Staples pulls it off, and makes it an absolute treat for the eyes while doing so. You could press the mute button and still have a whole lot to enjoy in Saga #2. Definitely a triumph all over.

Secret Avengers #25: At last, the Rick Remender I've been waiting for! I only know Remender from his amazing work on Uncanny X-Force, but after seeing Flash Thompson bring some much-needed humor to what has been a grisly title for the last few issues, I'm tempted to catch myself on Venom as well. He stole every scene he was in, and brought some of the best action to the issue, too. Though there was plenty of that to go around. Jim Hammond also had some great lines and moments of daring heroism all his own, and he's another character I'm excited to see more from (assuming he recovers fairly soon). But the best part of Secret Avengers #25, for me anyway, was when the little boy these superheroes have all been struggling to rescue manages to not only save himself, but to defeat one of the seemingly unbeatable opponents. I hope we see more of that kid in future arcs, though I'm sure that's just wishful thinking.

The other big thing I enjoyed about this issue was that we got some actual teamwork and team-building from our heroes rather than a lot of bickering and failure. And Gabriel Hardman was firing on all cylinders as well. The panel where The Swine smacks Venom, the two-page spread of the master mold sentry, and the previously mentioned kid-saves-himself scene were all stand out moments in a marvelously-drawn book. I'm bummed that AvX is interrupting Secret Avengers next issue, because with #25 it finally started to feel like the new creative team was hitting some kind of stride. And don't forget that reveal on the final page! I can't wait to see Father's agenda unfold...

Smoke and Mirrors #2: A big step down from its debut, Smoke and Mirrors #2 really has very little to recommend it. The main character, Ethan, and his new teacher/friend (Mr. Ward? Is that his real name?) are both sort of duds. Ethan's more annoying than he is interesting as a lead, and Ward just keeps saying the same things over and over. Actually, I guess they both kind of do. I really love the interactive elements being incorporated into the series, because people don't do cool shit like that in their comicbooks very often and it's always nice to see the medium expand. But with consistent yet never-impressive art and main characters I couldn't care less about, I'm starting to wonder if I'll even finish reading the rest of this title. I'll give it at least one more issue, but either the plot or at least on member of the cast needs to do something pretty interesting ASAP.

Ultimate Comics X-men #10: An enjoyable if predictable story. The revolution sparked by Storm last issue goes through all the necessary beats: rise up, take the day, lose some people, uncover some secrets, take the power from the bad guys, and then the revolutionaries start to vie for power and argue amongst themselves. Nothing new or particularly unexpected her from Nick Spencer's script, but in a series that can pull the rug out at any moment, it was actually refreshing to have such a classic, straightforward chapter. And Colussus' decision at the end, while not necessarily surprising, was certainly interesting and effective, in no small part due to a few choice panels from Paco Medina and Juan Vlasco, whose artistic storytelling matches the clarity and directness of the narrative. And it was good to see this whole Camp Angel story tie more directly, even if just for a page, to the events we've seen in the earlier issues of this series. Maybe now we can take steady steps forward rather than so often jumping around. Fingers crossed. But this time out, at any rate, a tidy and fun little comic.

Uncanny X-Men #10: Just like Venom made me want to read his title, Unit makes me want to read S.W.O.R.D. Sure he's obnoxious and way overpowered and looks sort of dumb, but...I love him. His whole calm-and-polite-but-still-horrible-and-heartless personality has completely won me over, and I love watching my heroes get handily defeated by a new foe. It can make their ultimate, inevitable victory over that foe all the more delicious if and when it pays off. Sometimes the ball gets dropped and difficult enemies are defeated in improbable or fully unbelievable ways, but Kieron Gillen has been delivering such good stories so far in Uncanny X-Men that I trust him to wrap this one up satisfactorily. And Unit is his character, so chances are there's a plan in place.

It's too bad this issue came out after AvX officially started, because the brief exchange between Cyclops and Captain America about Scott's priorities is a clear set-up for that conflict, and also sums up so perfectly my problems with AvX so far. Scott has put Hope's safety above all else, and while I understand his motives and I appreciate that he is consistent on this, it's pretty damned infuriating, and makes it hard to side with the X-Men. Be a superhero, dude, not a zealot.

While the artwork by Carlos Pacheco, Paco Diaz, and Cam Smith was quite good, I found myself more taken with the coloring of this issue than the drawings themselves for some reason. The amount of white, perhaps, I'm not really sure. No mater the reason, a quick shout out to Guru eFX for that.

Tuesday, April 10, 2012

Dearly Departed: Vengeance

Dearly Departed is a semi-regular column where I look back on recently completed or canceled series.  

The covers for the six issues of Vengeance each sport an incredible image of one of the most significant villains in Marvel history: Magneto, Bullseye, Doctor Octopus, Loki, Red Skull, and Dr. Doom. And that is pretty much where the similarities between this series and other modern superhero comics end, because Vengeance is about parts of the Marvel Universe (and parts of the whole comicbook hero-villain dichotomy) that you rarely ever see. It's primarily a story about a team of "good guys" (The Teen Brigade) protecting various old school "bad guys" from a new team of younger "bad guys" (The Young Masters). But even that oversimplifies the plot, because what The Teen Brigade is really protecting is the balance of order and chaos needed to keep the universe intact. Their goals are much loftier than those of your average superhero. The Teen Brigade isn't out to merely thwart the plans of the newest baddies in town or even to act as a symbol of hope and justice for the common man. What they do is more nuanced, and ultimately higher-stakes: working behind the scenes to keep the whole machine operating, helping to prevent evil and disaster and the end of all things without ever asking for or even desiring recognition. And this attitude is a big part of what makes Vengeance so gripping from the start. Even the opening page of the opening issue immediately expresses the belief that people like The Teen Brigade are a necessity, because the world is too damaged and unthinkable to be saved by the ideals or heroes of times past. The biggest, ugliest evils lie in the shadows, and they can only be defeated by opponents who operate just as comfortably there.
   While this behind-the-scenes-superheroes idea is definitely one of the most interesting aspects of the title early on, the glue that holds it together throughout isn't any one concept, character, or theme. It is the magnificent storytelling from writer Joe Casey and artist Nick Dragotta. In a story which argues that chaos and order need each other, Casey and Dragotta manage to prove that point by so deftly balancing those two forces within the comic itself. There are panels or even whole pages offered to us that are meant to be confusing or seemingly random at first, but each and every one of them leads us to a big payoff down the line, often in the form of a major plot development (e.g. Tiboro's one-panel appearance in the final moments of #1, only to have him properly introduced and explained in #5...but in such a spectacular way!) For the first two issues, you might legitimately believe you were reading three distinct and separate stories: one about The Teen Brigade finding a new and mysterious recruit, one about The Young Masters forming, and a third about Kyle Richmond and his Defenders trying to track down whoever is leaking top-secret S.H.I.E.L.D. information. Then you dig into #3, and the connections between those stories fall into place so naturally and quickly that the entire last half of the series gets to just steadily ramp up the madness and importance of the plot, adding new complications and revelations at each turn.
     In the hands of lesser creators, a narrative so layered and constantly evolving would most likely be fumbled. Key pieces of the puzzle would be poorly explained or left out, the aforementioned confusing scenes would never have their necessary resolutions, etc. But Dragotta can make a four-person psychic trip look as stunning, natural, and comprehensible as a massive demonic invasion of Latveria or a crowded nightclub scene or just Red Skull standing in the snow. He is a perfect artist for this book, because it relies on heavy detail, intense action, moments of great disorientation, and heavy emotion. Dragotta delivers reliably on all fronts for all six issues. He also finds an excellent partner in colorist Brad Simpson, who highlights all the right aspects of Dragotta's pages and maintains the clarity in even the most psychedelic scenes. And it seems to me that the overall effect of The In-Betweener---his distinct role as a character who has his own unique knowledge, perspective, and therefore side in the conflict---is due as much to his stark black-and-white coloring as any of his actions or dialogue
     The true creative force of nature behind this incredible title, however, is Joe Casey. My understanding is that a large number of the cast and concepts central to Vengeance had been used in Casey's previous work for Marvel, of which I have admittedly read very little. But my lack of familiarity with what came before  didn't seem to make Vengeance any less full or enjoyable an experience. I suppose I don't really know how much would be added if I did read all of Casey's earlier Marvel material, but Vengeance does such a fantastic job of introducing and developing all of its characters, themes, and big ideas that it could almost be read without even that much preexisting comicbook knowledge. Certainly the big-name villains who show up each issue are best appreciated if you're up on your Marvel U history, but the major themes of the book are universal, and the most important characters are instantly clear, relatable, and consistent, even if most of them have extreme personalities. Casey handles his massive cast with remarkable skill. It's not just the unique voices of each character, but their carefully individualized viewpoints, motives, and moods as well. Even though each team works together, it is rare that you find two members of the same team who are there for quite the same reasons. Or who even have the same opinions about how to handle whatever situation they're in. It makes the combat a little looser, the adventure a little bit more free-form, and the whole story much more compelling to have so many shades of good and evil constantly bumping up against one another (in some cases literally) for so many different reasons.
     Take Ultimate Nullifier's (leader of The Teen Brigade) one night stand with Black Knight (half-hearted member of The Young Masters) after their initial conflict. Both of them know he's there to get information as much or more than sex, but Black Knight never resists or even tries to play him for her own gains. Instead, she volunteers more information than he wants or needs, of a kind he wasn't seeking. She lets him in on an old and horrible government secret, in an attempt to prove to him not just the futility of his own actions, but also the actions and goals of the entireties of both their teams. Of course, in what has by that point become his typical quick-witted, laid-back, devil-may-care fashion, Ultimate Nullifier responds with a partially sarcastic nod to one of the book's major themes: Of course the world has powerful, hideous, unknown evils. That's why it needs equally powerful, sexy, unknown agents of good.
     So much of what we thinks of as part of the make-up of a typical superhero character is his or her reputation. Not just how well-known they are in our world outside of the comic community, but public opinion within their own stories. Sometimes the people of Gotham see Batman as their champion, sometimes as a dangerous maniac. Ditto the X-men. Spider-Man's relationship with the media has always been a contentious issue. Even in Grant Morrison's recent re-imagining of Superman in Action Comics, a running thread has been Metropolis' reaction to their new alien citizen. And let's face it...they almost all wear masks or disguises. They use code names. These people are worried about how the world sees them.
     Vengeance offers a new model for the superhero and therefore, arguably, for the superhero comicbook. These are heroes who actively avoid being recognized for their work, even by their allies. At the end of the series, as The Defenders stand around in the post-battle afterglow, The Teen Brigade jets off as quickly and quietly as they can, because they all agree, sticking around would have been pointless. That world-saving mission is accomplished, on to the next one.
     I wish so much that the adventures of these characters didn't end there, but I doubt if we'll get to see any further exploits of Casey's Teen Brigade anytime soon. Their reasons for being, their modus operandi, and the scale at which they operate are all outside of the mold of standard superhero stories. So we will have to live with just these six issues, I suppose, for the foreseeable future. Of course, I say "just these six," but the fact is there is a wealth of enjoyable material contained within them. Because it's not just a great story, it's an exemplary use of both the genre and the medium in which it tells its tale.

Vengeance was published by Marvel Comics and is dated September 2011-February 2012.

Saturday, April 7, 2012

Smatterday 04/07/2012

ECCC 2012
As we all know, Emerald City Comic-Con was last week in Seattle, and even though I couldn't go, plenty of other awesome people did. And it seems like they got to see some pretty amazing stuff.

Personally, I wasn't too excited about most of the news and announcements coming from ECCC this year, but there were a few nuggets of interest. Michael Oeming's got a new creator-owned series, Victories, coming out in the fall that promises to look badass even if the story sounds less cool than I think Oeming thinks it is. Who knows, though? Maybe it'll be an incredible story that I judged too quickly. Wouldn't be the first time.

Of course, this biggest news was that Scott Pilgirm is getting full-color hardcover editions. YAY!!!!! And there was much rejoicing.

Also, Revival sounds alright. If I remember, I'll give that a look when it comes out.

Avengers vs. X-Men vs. Shipping Schedules
Officially, Avengers vs. X-Men #1 came out on Wednesday (04/04), but for an unknown number of readers (myself included) it actually came out last Wednesday (03/28) because Marvel, employing their typical bizarre business sense, shipped them all a week early in order to be sure retailers would have them in time. However, apparently neither Diamond nor Marvel included any kid of special instructions to retailers explaining what the deal was, so numerous stores went ahead and sold the issue a week early.

I mean...duh, right? I get that Marvel maybe didn't trust Diamond completely (who does?) with getting so many of such an "important" issue out in time, but shouldn't they have made some kind of effort to be sure that retailers knew the situation? I know Marvel can't contact evey comicbook store in the country, but some kind of insert or special packaging or SOMETHING to have Diamond include with the orders seems like a no-brainer. Or else you get exactly what you got.

In general, the Internet seems to have been cool about respectfully waiting to review or discuss the issue until this week, so no real harm done. And I mean whatever, comic info leaks online all the time so this is nothing new. But it's a pretty silly blunder, and feels like it could have been so easily avoided.

Best New Awards Controversy
Also this week, the 2012 Eisner Nominees were announced, but due to a lack of "contenders that reached the level of quality they were looking for," there is no Best New Series category this year. And people are pretty pissed. I guess the defense of the decision was that in order to qualify, a title had to be an ongoing series and also have had at least two issues published in 2011, which I'm sure does, in fact, narrows things down. Not so much that it justifies cutting the award completely, I don't imagine, but I can see where they are coming from. I think the real issue is that the difference between Best New Series and Best Continuing Series seems to be pretty thin. Three of five nominees in the latter category were new in 2011, so...what the hell? Maybe put some more established titles in that category, Eisner folks, and let Best New Series stick around. Like we all want.

Watch But Don't Listen
Everybody (even me) already hates the Avengers Movie soundtrack just based on the listing. Except depressed middle-schoolers from the nineties.

Thursday, April 5, 2012

Pull List Reviews 04/05/2012

So, still no Astonishing X-Men #48 at my store. I'll probably just have to pick it up somewhere else, but won't bother reviewing it at this point. However, I did get my other missing comic from last week...

Ultimate Comics Ultimates #8: For the first time since the Ultimate line hit restart several months ago, Ultimates was actually kind of dull. Last issue, we were promised both Hulk smashing and Zorn revenging, but neither paid off this week. After a few pages, Reed handily calmed and won over Banner, and Zorn was in transit the entire time. While both of these things made for stunning visuals from Esad Ribic---particularly the Hulk-Reed scenes which I hope we get a few more of before this storyline concludes---neither were especially interesting plot beats. The stuff with the President is certainly in keeping with the spirit of the title so far, by which I mean it's high-power and batshit insane, but it only inches forward this issue. A decision made early on is only officially announced on the final page, and there's not quite a satisfying portion of meat in between.

Even the scene where the announcement is finally made loses weight because of the ridiculous facial expressions. In fact, my one quibble with Ribic's art in general is that his surprised faces are all laughable. Stark, Hulk,'s the same look every time and it is not flattering. Otherwise a beautiful if low calorie read.

Animal Man #8: In terms of actual story progression, not a lot happens, but several significant character turns take place that I enjoyed. Buddy finally whole-heartedly leaps into the fray. Maxine discovers some impressive if frightening new powers, and then promises to put an end to that sort of behavior while her father is away. And Ellen and her mother each reach their respective breaking points in the face of all the horror they've seen. A new chapter begins here, even more so than in this arc's official first chapter, for nearly every member of the Baker family (Cliff no so much) and it keeps me excited to see where they all end up.

On the art side of things, while Travel Foreman does a fine enough job with his portion, Steve Pugh really has all the best moments, including his first two pages (6 and 7) and his final one. As much as Foreman was one of the best parts of this series at the beginning, Pugh is a very welcome addition (and no stranger to the character). Plus I'm excited to see Foreman on Birds of Prey.

I do have one burning question, though, and it applies to Swamp Thing #8, below, as well: If the Rot has become such a worldwide problem, and the military are showing up en masse and everything, then where the hell are all the other superheroes? I mean...I'm glad the Justice League isn't showing up awkwardly in these titles, but if I am supposed to believe they exist in this world, why would I believe they choose to sit this one out? Did I miss an explanation at some point as to why they wouldn't try to take on The Rot themselves? Just something that popped into my brain while reading this week.

But other than that long, disconnected question, a solid issue throughout.

Avengers vs. X-Men #1: The page with the line ups of both teams really makes things look bleak for the X-Men, huh? I'm just talking numbers (even though, of course, there are TONS of Utopians not mentioned...but why?) And I also thought that, basically, this issue was exactly what everyone expected it to be in the most disappointing ways possible. A long, long set up that leads to the first blow in the fight we've been told for months is coming. Pretty boring stuff, really. Bendis does a good job with his dialogue and Romita, Jr. is serviceable if not impressive on pencils. Really nice colors by Laura Martin, but otherwise nothing to write home about. This whole Marvel-wide fight basically starts because Cyclops and Captain America decide to be dicks to each other immediately. Especially Scott, who seems like he walks into that conversation looking to pick exactly the fight he picks. Namor says that things are already ramped up, and he's 100% on the nose with that call, but why things get so ramped to quickly is sort of unclear and sort of dumb.

Other dumb thing: the Marvel AR tags all over the place. Like roaches in a TV set.

And we hear a lot of talk about fans choosing sides in this fight, but I'll tell far, the fight seems to be about whether protective custody or mutant boot camp is the best way to handle the Phoenix Force, and I just simply do not care or even see why those two sides are necessarily at odds with one another. Fairly weak sauce beginning to the year's blockbuster event.

Casanova: Avaritia #3: Matt Fraction can catch you up on the story so far and confuse the shit out of you in the same panel. It's really an amazing style and voice he brings to every chapter of Casanova, and this one is no different. While the primary Casanova-Xeno-Sasa threesome/escape plan was totally interesting and bananas, the best parts of this issue focussed on other characters. Suki Boutique gets a nice bit of spotlight, Seychelle re-dons the creepy villain cap quite naturally, and Kaito just generally kicks ass. I have missed the shit out of him, and his return to the title this week is more awesome and terrifying than I could have imagined. And of course, Gabriel Bá and Cris Peter go to town every page, Peter more noticeably than Bá this time, keeping the red foundation of "Avaritia" but also generous and intelligent with greens and using the blues of "Gula" for Kaito's split-second flashbacks. Entertaining, fast-paced, high-concept comicbookery for all (as long as you don't mind sex and violence and swearing and whatnot.)

Daredevil #10.1: The last six pages are pretty good, but everything before that is sort of a dud. A no-stakes flashback fight and a recapping Daredevil's long-term and short-term history, since this is meant to be an issue where new readers might jump on. Murdock goes to see a potential client who was put in prison by Daredevil after trying to assassinate Murdock. Not a bad idea, not even a BAD story, but most definitely not that interesting in execution. And Koi Pham's is quite underwhelming. Again, in the final scene where Daredevil and the megacrime stooges have their little scuffle, things really come to life, but in the Murdock scenes Pham's faces often lack detail or shape, and sometimes his bodies as well. He puts very little detail into anything, and it gives a real sense of the art being rushed or maybe just sloppily finished. Check out the part where fat Daredevil takes on two even fatter bank robbers. Weird stuff.

Art that felt rushed, a story that felt stretched. Meh.

Fairest #2: If I thought some of the other titles this week were boring, Fairest #2 gives a whole new meaning to the word. To be fair, if you ignored all the words, Phil Jimenez, Andy Lanning, and Andrew Dalhouse offer a really soothing and stunning visual trip. The Ice Queen and all of her minions look gorgeous and foreboding at once, and in the Sleepy Beauty backstory sequence, we get a great splash page of the fairy godmothers, followed by an even greater and more detailed double spread of an incredible royal hall.

That sequence, though, as far as story? Really, really lame. And why doesn't Sleeping Beauty know about it? Yeah she was young, but she's grown now. She's lived in our world. Wouldn't she have heard some version of this story? But none of that is the real problem, the real problem is that all three of the heroes (Ali Baba, Sleeping Beauty, and Panghammer) are obnoxious as hell and won't shut up. Am I rooting for them? Hell no! The Ice Queen looks the coolest, acts the coolest, and has friends who know how to keep their mouths shut. THAT is who I root for, every time.

Green Arrow #8: Uh...what? Seriously...???

Swamp Thing #8: Scott Snyder does an interesting thing in this issue, filling it to the brim with combat and filth, letting Yanick Paquette and Marco Rudy pretty much run things (despite an abundance of captions for some pages). It all feels very deliberate. The art highlights the violence, the violence highlights the art, and plot more or less stands aside to let that take place. We get a big development for Abby at the end, but not an unexpected one, and beyond that little really happens. It's almost like an alternative first issue for all the naysayers who were upset at the amount of Holland and lack of Swamp Thing this series had in the previous seven installments. So now it's all Swamp Thing all the time, at least for one month, and even if it's perhaps overly simple in its narrative, you could study the panels of Swamp Thing vs. The Rot for hours without boredom. Plus this new design for Swamp Thing is balling.

Thunderbolts #172: I have no strong feelings about this issue either way. The Thunderbolts vs. Thunderbolts concept is a perfect ending to both the time travel story that has been running through the title for a while now, and for Thunderbolts as a title at all, since once this arc wraps it will become Dark Avengers. As cool as the idea is, though, this opening chapter is less than thrilling. All of Jeff Parker's usual humor is there (especially with Boomerang, who is always my favorite part of the book) and the fight that makes up the last half of the issue is fun and in a cool setting and generally well-drawn by Declan Shalvey, but it's all a little straightforward for my taste. I'm very excited to see if Fixer's foreshadowing pans out (or, I should say, HOW it pans out), and the cliffhanger ending definitely makes me excited for whatever comes next with Moonstone, but nothing exceptional in-and-of itself here.

Ultimate Comics Spider-Man #9: Three extremely well-done scenes. Admittedly, my experience with the Ultimate line before its recent reboot is extremely limited, so I do not know if Captain Frank Quaid is a new or returning character, but it hardly matters because Brian Michael Bendis so succinctly introduces him here. I really hope he's going to be a recurring character now, because Miles could use somebody like that in his corner, and also because I just like the guy.

The main event of the issue is Prowler vs. Scorpion. Both characters slowly reveal to each other, and therefore to the reader, the scope of their abilities. Prowler expects to disarm and surprise Scorpion with his new toys, but Scorpion clearly has some older, scarier, innate abilities that make him one hell of a foe. It's a fun escalation to watch, and it's also satisfying to see Uncle Aaron gradually go from arrogant to terrified. He's a pretty despicable dude (seeing as he blackmails his nephew into helping him deal with a supervillain), which makes the panels where all he can do is panic and run are some of the best in the issue, with David Marquez evoking Aaron's stunned horror perfectly.

Marquez continues to be an excellent substitute for Sara Pichelli all around, brining all the attention to detail and character and expression she always did. And all of this seems to be tumbling toward a Spidey-Scorpion meeting, which I can't wait to see.

Wolverine & the X-Men #8: Beast fighting Sabretooth in space is a great goddamn idea that misses the mark here. I mostly blame Chris Bachalo, who's art is unclear everywhere, but particularly during the climatic final moments of that fight. I'm sure Bachalo's style is appreciated by many, but I have always found it a little too bizarre and inconsistent to really enjoy. And he gives his characters such animal-like faces. I know Beast and Sabretooth are meant to resemble cats, but why Angel and Kilgore, and why only sometimes?

Jason Aaron's script has its highs and lows. Again, conceptually, Beast vs. Sabretooth on S.W.O.R.D. HQ is sweet, but it feels sort of cramped in the same space of the other story. The same is true of that story, wherein the students go back to Planet Sin to get a cure for Wolverine. Even though the exchange between Angel and Genesis is a highlight of not just this issue but the series to date, the rest of that mission goes by in such a blur its hard to get invested in it before they're already returning home. Between that frantic pace and Bachalo's sloppy pencils, Wolverine & the X-Men #8 just fell short for me this time.