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!!!