Thursday, May 31, 2012

Pull List Reviews 05/31/2012

Light week, this fifth Wednesday of the month, made even lighter by my shop somehow including only the Batman Annual but not the Animal Man one in my folder before selling out of both. I love them because they give a generous discount, but they've got to get more consistent or I'm switching back to the old place. Just another mostly empty threat made online. Anyway...

Batman Annual #1: It claims to be a part of "Night of the Owls", but for me, the only thing about this story that didn't work was it's unnecessary attempt to be connected to the crossover. That's a mild complaint, though, because mostly I like this even-crazier Mr. Freeze. He doesn't seem to veer too far from the classic interpretation, except that the unreasonableness of his obsession has been beefed up a little. And I'm almost always in favor of making an insane character even less stable. This annual is 100% an origin story for the New 52 version of Freeze, and it succeeds inasmuch as I look forward to the character's future exploits. The biggest strength of this first new Batman Annual, though, is Jason Fabok, colored by Peter Steigerwald. Everything has a sort of elevated realism, an inherent drama that fits Mr. Freeze's extreme personality. Particularly the Wayne-Fries scenes, where Bruce is a stark and impending black figure in the midst of Victor's spacious white lab. And of course the opening and closing pages of a young Victor and his mother, which were practically a complete short story all their own. A gorgeous one.

Monocyte #4: From the very beginning, Monocyte has been, as a title and a character, a sort of non-stop engine of forward momentum and insane imagery. The finale is no exception. Monocyte, aka Augustus, has been killing off all the major players one by one, and once his final target dies in this issue, he heads back to his master to sacrifice himself, as he was always meant to do. Now, to be honest, I don't recall exactly who the winged woman is or why she wants to save Monocyte, because it's been kind of a while since the last issue came out, but she manages to convince Grod, who up to now has seemed quite the villain, to lend a hand, and so the "hero" of the story is saved. I think. Truth is, this title is far more fun to just stare at than to read, and even though I always take my time with it, ultimately it is Menton3's mad, unsettling artwork that sticks long after the words and plot details have faded. This issue, there are also eight pages by Chris Newman, and even though at times they are a bit more confusing than Menton3's, they fit in nicely overall. Then we get a two-page spread from Ben Templesmith which depicts a scene of obscure, bloody chaos that I'm not even sure is part of the story, but I enjoyed nevertheless. I always enjoy the look and feel of Monocyte, which is singular and fully-realized and creepy but in a comforting way. But as I read through this issue, I found myself feeling glad it was ending. I've had my fill of these bleak, verbose characters and their blackened world. Not a bad ride, but a simple and, in the end, fairly repetitive one.

Rachel Rising #8: I think of Rachel Rising as always being quiet and eerie, but this issue was especially so. Usually, there's one or more major acts of violence involved, or at least some extreme, insane moment somehow connected to death. But in Rachel Rising #8, the only real violence lasts for one brief panel, and we never see its results. Other than that, the closest thing is a wordless, inscrutable scene of wolves being guided through eating a corpse by the silent woman who has been a powerful presence since the beginning. Rather than greatly up the ante here, Terry Moore more simply checks in with numerous members of his ever-growing cast, giving each one of them an individualized moment. From the first page with Dr. Siemen and his beloved dead woman to the last one with the terrified young girl. It may not be as drastic or intense as previous chapters, but it feels good to have this brief calm, to let things simmer rather than boil for a minute. Then, of course, central to all this is the ever-more-endearing relationship between Jet and Earl. Watching that blossom is my new favorite thing about this series, and watching it grow, in whatever direction it takes, is the thing I am most looking forward to. Because there's no telling exactly where anyone is headed in this story yet, but I already know it'll be bizarre and compelling, so I want to follow them there.

Ultimate Comics Ultimates #11: Penciled by four different artists and colored by two others, on top of being scripted by two different writers, Ultimates #11 is a little bit jumpy all around. The art more or less transitions naturally, with the biggest exception probably being Butch Guice's two pages. They're very good, but distinctly different in style than the others. Honestly, though, it's hard not to notice all the art changes, and they come in rapid succession, each one meaning a new location. The story is a tad uneven as well. It takes a long time for Stark and Thor to talk to the President, then we don't even see most of that conversation, and it's all set-up anyway for what we really want: Stark making his move against The City. Alas, that is not to come until (fingers crossed) next issue. Meanwhile, the rest of the Ultimates get their asses handed to them, which is an alright fight scene but not particualry great and, again, a lot of it happens off-camera, so what the reader gets is more of a highlights reel. Finally, there's a very weak ending, which I won't "spoil" here, but it's such an obvious reveal I'm not sure why they bothered saving it for the last page. This title seems to be sliding a bit as the creative team switches, so here's hoping they can get their footing and tell a stronger, surer story soon.

Wolverine and the X-Men #11: This series seems to be spinning its wheels a bit under the Avengers vs. X-Men banner. For the first two-thirds of the issue, we get an awful lot of fighting that doesn't conclude, is jarringly brief, and serves no narrative purpose. Except toward the very end when, once again, Hope goes all Phoenix on everybody, and Wolverine is forced to face the fact that he'll never be able to kill her. That, right there, is more or less the only actual bit of significant story or character development which takes place. It supposedly justifies Wolverine's behavior in Avengers vs. X-Men #4, but it does so kind of weakly and in an oversimplified way. The one thing Jason Aaron is doing in Wolverine and the X-Men during this event that I do really like is the Kid Gladiator stuff. He's been a fun part of the cast since the title started, and had all the best moments in this issue. Nick Bradshaw's art is a little bulky for my taste, especially when drawing Wolverine. His head looks like a big weird block. The same is true for Red Hulk in several panels, actually. Still, generally Bradshaw handles the fight scenes well, even if they are pointless space-fillers in a pointless, space-filler issue.

Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Superb Heroes: Ultimate Comics Ultimates

Superb Heroes is a semi-regular column celebrating comics that are exemplary and/or exceptional in their treatment of superoheroism.

NOTE: What I am discussing here begins and ends with the Jonathan Hickman/Esad Ribic/Dean White era of the Ultimates (issues 1-9). I realize that within those issues there were several guest artists and colorists, but for simplicity's sake I'm only talking about the three primary creators.

To me, superheroes are all about stakes. Because they have such incredible powers, they get to deal with problems far beyond the capabilities of regular people. Yes, there are many excellent superhero tales which focus on characters dealing with things of a more personal, even mundane nature, but generally speaking, what makes superheroes so much fun (and part of the reason, I'm sure, they became so popular in the first place) is that more often than not they are fighting on such a grand scale. They save the entire city, the world, the universe, or even the very fabric of existence. And at their best, superhero stories reflect humanity's real-world potential and problems even while relating these fantastic adventures.Ultimate Comics Ultimates (henceforth referred to as "Ultimates") wholeheartedly embraces this philosophy, telling a high-stakes, high-powered narrative which simultaneously holds a mirror up to the modern world. These days, we all seem to be worried about which threat will wipe us out first: nuclear war, the Large Hadron Collider, the Mayan gods, a random asteroid, etc. Elevate this fear of the end to a superhuman level, along with the threats which might bring that end about, and what you get is Ultimates.
     The first time I read Ultimates #1, when I that saw pages two and three were both devoted to nothing but an action-movie-style title card, I remember mentally scoffing at the spectacle of it and the waste of space. But had I known then what I know now, I would've realized the title card was a perfect introduction to the what would follow. The bombastic, blockbuster story promised by those two pages is delivered before the first issue ends, and the series has never let up or slowed down since. Right off the bat, several giant shits hit an even bigger fan: a nuclear device goes off in South America, the citizens of the SEAR gain superpowers and assemble the floating kingdom of Tian, and most terrifying of all, The City arrives and starts to mercilessly and efficiently gobble up Germany. These are epic threats, even for a superhero book, as evidenced by the fact that we have yet to see our heroes truly claim a victory for themselves. They strike out against their opponents with everything they've got, but with each passing moment the good guys lose more footing, control, and hope. They become fractured and scattered, yet every one of them keeps the fight alive. Losing repeatedly on multiple fronts, the Ultimates still refuse to accept defeat, even when we as readers would probably forgive them for doing so. If this bravery in the face of the unbeatable isn't classic superherosim, I don't know what is.
     There's actually a whole mess of classic ideas, plot points, and character moments contained within Ultimates. The hero who loses his family, making the conflict personal (Thor). The depowered hero who keeps fighting in spite of his loss (Thor). The martyr who attempts to sacrifice himself in order to defeat the villains once and for all (Thor again, also Zorn). The hero manipulated by the villains and tricked into helping them (not Thor this time, but Iron Man and Hulk). This list goes on indefinitely, and it's true on the bad guy side of things as well. Reed Richards is the mad scientist, world conqueror, and thinks-he-is-really-the-misunderstood-good-guy archetypes all rolled into one glorious megalomaniac. Each of these elements of his character is heightened and made more extreme because of the others, which is why he is such a frightening and convincing foe. There are scenes, even entire issues, where the reader is practically rooting for Reed and The City. What he says often makes a lot of sense, even when he's arguing in favor of humanity's extinction, and that makes him one of the most compelling and dangerous supervillains around.
     Richards is also, in many ways, a template for the entire book: concepts that've been used and reused countless times in the superhero genre (and other places) being pushed to their extremes. This is, I guess, the supposed goal of the entirety of Marvel's Ultimate line of comics, but Ultimates does an especially excellent job of it. When an assault on Asgard goes down in this series, the corpses of former gods rain from the sky. The President isn't just assassinated, he's eviscerated, along with a significant chunk of the rest of the U.S. government. Whatever we expect to see next, we get the biggest, most intense version of it.Ultimates is a series of constant escalation. Even though the stakes were set remarkably high from the get go, writer Jonathan Hickman keeps finding new ways to expand and exacerbate the situation, steadily ratcheting up the levels of power and danger in the story. And still, in spite of it all, our heroes valiantly keep at it. As Tony Stark points out in issue #8, during times like these there are only a select few who are both willing and able to save the day. The Ultimates know that if they aren't up to the task, no one will be, and so their desperate, noble sturggle continues.
     I've mostly been discussing the narrative strategies that Hickman brings to Ultimates, but I'd be ever so remiss if I didn't take time to point out Esad Ribic and Dean White's excellent artwork as well. Because all the insane villainy and selfless heroism and superpowered excitement in the world doesn't mean jack for a comicbook if the art lets it down. Luckily, Ribic's drawings perfectly capture the scale of this series. He's at his strongest when drawing The City itself, like the breathtaking double-page spread in issue #3, but Ribic does a great job across the board. His designs for The City's Children of Tomorrow mix scary futuristic technology with just the right amount of a strange kind of innocence. Yes, they are the primary villains of the title, but aside from their leader Reed Richards, there's not a lot of hate or even really evil motivating them. Instead, what they posses is curiosity and a genuine desire to find new opportunities for growth, and their external appearance expresses this. But of course, Ribic's impressiveness doesn't end with the Children. His Thor is every bit the hardened warrior, his Iron Man a perfect blend of smug and thoughtful. And Nick Fury, the real star of Ultimates, exudes all the intelligence and anger you want in a general, barking orders when needed but equally capable of a careful, reflective pause. I mention these three because we see the most of them, but honestly Ribic nails the entire cast. His Hulk-Richards scenes underline the differences between those men beautifully, and for the few moments we've seen him Captain Britain has projected an entertaining swagger and arrogance. As for women in the cast, only really Black Widow gets any significant stage time, but her directness, confidence, and strength all come through, and for a nice change of pace in the superhero realm, she has a realistic build and outfit. Ribic has put together an intimidating, formidable cast, which makes all the intimidating, formidable events in their lives that much meatier and more fun.
     While Ribic highlights the larger-than-life elements, Dean White's colors act as a sort of counterbalance, adding a soft richness to the title that helps to bring it a step or two back down to Earth. Ribic may build the cast and set pieces, but it is White who transforms them into a cohesive world, adding a consistent tone and texture to everything. When appropriate, White can amplify things, too, able to make his palette pop or explode if needed. Whenever Thor uses his hammer, for example, there is a brilliant wash of blue light involved. Generally, however, what White offers is a touch of realism in an otherwise fantastic tale. Because Hickman and Ribic both move so forcefully in the other direction, White's colors are the perfect final component, enlivening the art and enriching the narrative, both.
     It's a damn fine comicbook, Ultimates, and an especially fine superhero one, set on a stage that covers the globe and telling a story about the fight for humanity's future. It's the kind of narrative the very concept of superhero yearns for, and with the Ribic-White combination, it utilizes the comicbook medium to the fullest. Hickman, Ribic, and White have all either left the title or will be departing shortly, which is a real shame, because during their run they set the bar incredibly high.

Ultimates Comics Ultimates #1-9 were published by Marvel Comics and are dated October 2011-June 2012

Saturday, May 26, 2012

Smatterday 05/26/2012

WhatsAMatterday: Making a Spectacle of Gay Heroes
So, usually what I do for these Smatterday things is a bunch of links leading to different bits of news from the comicbook world, along with my own brief thoughts on them. This week I'm trying something new, the first of what I plan on making a semi-regular feature called "WhatsAMatterday" where I focus on a single topic which has been bothering me (still with numerous links), and talk/rant more completely about what I dislike about it. Today, I'm annoyed over both Marvel and DC's recent handling of their homosexual characters.
     Of course, the Internet has been exploding with people discussing this topic, and as some have pointed out, participating in further online ranting over it is, in many ways, adding to the problem. So know that I am aware of the self-defeatism inherent in this column, and I'm choosing to write it anyway. I hate myself just a wee bit for it, but I'll live.
     Earlier this week, Marvel announced on The View that one of their superheroes, Northstar, would be proposing to and then marrying his boyfriend Kyle in Astonishing X-Men. DC, meanwhile, said that one of their "iconic" male characters, who had been straight pre-New 52, would soon be revealed to be gay in the new universe. In both cases, the companies got a ton of attention and coverage, both positive and negative, from sources big and small. Just hours after the words were spoken, the whole freaking world new about it, and we were all making up our minds about whether or not it was a good idea before any of us had even read any of the actual comicbook material involved.
     And therein lies the heart of my problem with all the media hullabaloo generated (intentionally) by these announcements. Before the characters themselves get a chance to propose or come out of the closet---or however the DC character's sexuality is revealed within whatever series he'll be in---those of us in the real world all already know about it, and so our reactions to it as readers are unavoidably influenced by external factors. And I just HATE that. I hate being unable to enjoy a comicbook story or, truthfully, any work of art, without the outside world effecting my experience.
     I understand that may sound a little ridiculous in this day and age. We're all so connected and information spreads so quickly that it seems impossible to entirely avoid spoilers or other people's opinions, especially as a comicbook fan. Because of course there are endless teasers, previews, interviews, advance reviews, etc. coming out every day for any number of titles. But the difference between the everyday industry hype and the media storm surrounding these recent gay superheroes seems pretty clear to me. It's not about hooking us with a cool story, or idea, or even character. It's about promoting the simple fact that homosexuals exist in these universes.
     And why is this even news? You know what other major life events superheroes go through ALL THE TIME? They die and are reborn. They completely change their personalities, sometimes donning brand new outfits and/or monikers. They create alternate realities with their minds and trap everyone in the world there without their knowledge. So why is a change in marital status or even sexual preference such an enormous attention-getter? Of course, I know the reason why. It's because Marvel and DC want some credit for advancing the cause of gay rights. But guess what, idiots? You're the last ones on that bandwagon.
     Movies, TV, theater, music, even non-superhero comicbooks have all been telling stories with and about gay characters for a long, long while now. Having the first gay superhero wedding take place in 2012 is not something to be proud of, and neither is egging on a bunch of speculation about who is or isn't gay in your universe. The Big Two need to stop patting themselves on the back for finally, and still only occasionally, recognizing the diversity of our world, and start apologizing for how long it took them to do so.
     And ideally, they'd do it in a way that doesn't spoil any more stories.

Thursday, May 24, 2012

Pull List Reviews 05/24/2012

First off, my shop got shorted on its order of Teen Titans #9, so that'll have to wait, but luckily there was a lot of great stuff this week, anyway...

Astonishing X-Men #50: I don't want to talk about all the hype surrounding this issue here, for one thing because I plan on talking about it elsewhere, but mostly because I feel like, for the purpose of a review, it's best to ignore that sort of external circumstance and take the issue on its own. And on its own, this issue was a lot of fun. Marjorie Liu clearly knows her characters, and writes them all with strong voices, which helps to add a bunch of really great humor, particularly whenever Wabird's around. There's also a bit of heartbreak, as Kyle turns down Jean-Paul's proposal, forcing Northstar to finally come to terms with the true problems in their relationship. Both the proposal and Northstar's eventual guilt are sad and touching moments, and help to progress the story which has been central to this title since Liu took the reigns. Namely, Northstar and Kyle's love trying to survive in this world full of superpowers. Mike Perkins' art is still a tad uneven, especially when it comes to Wolverine's cowl, but he has some really great moments as well, like when Iceman goes all scary monster and attacks Northstar. All-in-all, a pretty middle-of-the-road chapter, but one which a bit more fun and interesting than the first two. I think that once Liu and Perkins have fully settled into this title, we're going to see great things from them.

Justice League Dark #9: At long, long last, Justice League Dark is as fun and funny as it was always meant to be. Jeff Lemire shakes up the book's  lineup and their reasons for working together, and the end result is much, much stronger than anything from Milligan's tenure on the title. There's a semi-rocky start because, like Milligan, Lemire can't seem to resist having the comic talk about itself---Deadman joking about "real superheroes," Steve Trevor referring to the title as a cute/silly nickname for the team, etc. But once we get past that, there's some really great, magic-filled action and several good moments of characterization which also help to make the whole story more personal for at least some members of the cast. Mikel Janin delivers some of the best artwork this series has seen, too, particularly when drawing Black Orchid, and also Felix Faust. But he does a nice job with everyone, adds a slight but fitting grittiness to the book, and nails the horror elements completely. The inherent potential in this title has always been clear, but only now, nine issues deep, do we finally have a creative team who seems to fully understand and appreciate it. The future looks bright for Justice League Dark.

Mind MGMT #1: I admire and cherish any comicbook that really takes advantage of its medium. Mind MGMT #1, written, drawn, lettered, and designed by Matt Kindt, does just that, with hilarious and intelligent bits of background info written in the page margins, and extra story material on both inside covers. Right there, it wins me over, but of course that's not all it has to offer. It opens with a question about dreams, a question which it never comes back around to answer (yet, anyway), and in truth the whole thing has a dreamlike quality. Some of that comes from Kindt's soft, fuzzy artwork, which helps to keep things calm even when there are moments of fear or violence. But there are elements of dream in the script as well. We get only hints at what is happening and what's to come, but like a dream, even though we may not understand everything, we can feel the weight of it. The importance. Kindt obviously has big plans, and has a lot more figured out than he's sharing with us yet, but he laces this debut with a feeling of impending doom through the narrative captions, so we can sense that big things are building up around the bend. Until that happens, we have a compelling protagonist in Meru, a woman who seems like she might be dreaming a bit herself, or at any rate sleepwalking through her life. She's a strange and fascinating hero, and even though her adventure has only barely begun, I look forward to watching it play out.

Prophet #25: It just gets better and better. Brandon Graham's Prophet has been amazing all along, and this issue is no exception, but there's a subtle shift in personality at work that I thoroughly enjoyed. Partly, this comes from artist Giannis Milonogiannis, who stays true to the established feel of the series but adds a certain roughness to things. The John Prophets we've seen have all been hardened men, but under Milonogiannis' pencils they become so close-mouthed and tight-eyed you can barely see their faces. This is not at all a complaint, because the look more than suits them, and it suits the somewhat harder nature of their mission.  Before, it was always one Prophet struggling to get somewhere, to reach his brothers. Here, not only do we have numerous Prophets working together and already fully-awake, but essentially, they're on a hunting trip. An awesome hunting trip for incredible game---the Nephilim were the best thing, visually and conceptually, about this issue---but nevertheless a hunting trip. This slight but significant change in tone, along with the visually and emotionally stunning ending which pushed the scope of an already massive story out even farther, made Prophet #25 an excellent read through-and-through. The title has firmly cemented itself as my favorite current ongoing series.

Rebel Blood #3: I love Rebel Blood, and while I am still a huge fan of this issue, it felt a bit less inventive than the first two. More of a straightforward zombie survival narrative. Of course, Riley Rossmo was still drawing it, so it was one of the best-looking zombie survival narratives ever. The pack of rabbits charging through the broken window was my personal favorite, but things like Chuck stomping on a fetus or dragging a guy on the back of a tow truck were badass and unnerving and delightful as well. And the story, while perhaps more direct than it has been, was no less impressive. Alex Link has built an understandable, likable hero in Chuck, and it makes sense that he would try to save Red, his only real friend in this fight so far. It also makes sense that his rescue attempt would fail, because when he finally does make it back to his family (which is his endgame), we want him to be alone, to either save them or lose them himself. So I deeply enjoyed everything that actually happened in this issue, even if it was somewhat more by-the-numbers than I've come to expect. With only the finale left to read, I'm hoping Rebel Blood has at least one or two tricks left up its storytelling sleeve, because as a series, its primed right now to be one of the best of the year.

Secret Avengers #27: Rick Remender should teach a class to other comicbook writers about how to handle tie-ins. Linking directly to the themes of AvX, Secret Avengers #27 is be about heroes fighting each other over what to do about the Phoenix, yet at the same time the actual narrative of the main event title has almost nothing to do with this issue. Unlike pretty much any other tie-in I've read, this truly works and makes sense entirely by itself, with absolutely no preliminary reading of the event it's tied to being necessary. Now, having said that, I should also point out that if you know nothing about Mar-Vell (and I know a pretty limited amount myself) then his return may not pack the emotional punch it's meant to, but Remender deals with this by tapping us directly into Mar-Vell's thoughts. We get more than enough of his history this way, as well as his present state of mind, and it does a lot for our understanding and enjoyment of the story. The thing is, though, it hardly matters WHAT the story's about (which is a rarity with a Remender script) because the art is just so damn fantastic. Renato Guedes, with serious assists from colorists Bettie Breitweiser and Matthew Wilson, manages to top himself artistically from last issue, which is no small feat. Thanos' face on the opening page, Vision pushing back against whatever is brainwashing the Kree, and every bit of the Thor vs. Mar-Vell fight are gorgeous. Somehow, even in the midst of so much violence and, ultimately, death, the art is soothing. It invites you in and warms you, calms you while you read about the possible extinction of an entire planet. I wish more superhero comicbooks were this visually pleasing, and I'm going to miss the shit out of this creative team whenever they depart from the title.

Smoke and Mirrors #3: In some ways, the bulk of this issue is what I wanted Smoke and Mirrors to be a from the get-go: a story about a stage magician from our world trapped in a world where magic is real. So far, instead, it's mostly been about Ethan, the boy who (sort of) befriends said magician, and Mr. Ward's own story is certainly more interesting than Ethan's. But now that we're already so familiar with how Ward gets by in this world, the details of his early days there are a bit less interesting than I think they would've been if they'd come sooner. It also means that when we finally return to Ethan's part of the story in Smoke and Mirrors #3, it feels a bit out of place, because we've already spent so much time focusing on Ward. Still, on its own merits, it's a solid issue, telling a clear, quick tale about a man struggling to adapt to an unthinkable situation, and it handles that narrative quite well and realistically. I'm also warming to Ryan Browne's artwork, which rests somewhere betwen "realistic" and "cartoony." But, I realized reading this, that's actually pretty perfect for a book set in a world that runs on magic, and his characters are emotive and strong. Plus, seriously, this title gets props for including a working magic trcik in each issue, and this one had, by far, my favorite. Now that Ward and the closest thing to a villain we've seen yet are finally face-to-face, I hope the ending of this series can pick up a little steam.

Ultimate Comics X-Men #12: By no means terrible, but a bit of a snoozer. I mean, in my fanboy head, I was thrilled to see Ultimate Layla Miller, Mr. Sinister, and... Apocalypse? Someone who goes by that name, anyway. But it took an awfully long time to get to the Sinister/Apocalypse reveal, without a whole lot else really taking place beforehand. Havok, another character who hasn't been in the title since the reboot (I'm not sure anyone who appeared in this issue has), is rescued from a mental hospital in a weird way, for strange and cryptic reasons that I don't know why I should care about. And I mean, that's pretty much it. Nick Spencer has yet to really whet my appetite with Ultimate Comics X-Men, telling too large a story in such tiny increments. Luckily, this marks his departure from the title, and even though it seems rude to add a bunch of new threads without tying any up before you hand it off to a new writer, I'm excited to see what Brian Wood does with the pieces he's been left. I should say, though, for all my griping about the script, Paco Medina's art actually stepped up a notch this issue. It seemed surer of itself somehow, steadier and more confident, which really helped to carry the dry, meatless story. And all the panels of people being rapidly aged to death (of which there may have been more than necessary, but who cares?) really worked for me. Still, not quite enough to enhance the overall effect of the issue too greatly, as the story dragged its feet from cover to cover.

Tuesday, May 22, 2012

Dearly Departed: Who Is Jake Ellis?

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

No individual element of Who Is Jake Ellis? is particularly new or original in-and-of itself. We've seen this kind of spy action-thriller countless times, where one character has to improvise a fight against some large and powerful organization. And we've seen characters dealing with voices in their head, real or imagined or somewhere in between, on numerous occasions as well. Hell, in some ways the series even follows a buddy cop formula: two men forced to work together who don't necessarily get along at first but over the course of the story come to understand, respect, and care for one another. My point is, there's not a lot of groundbreaking ideas contained within Who Is Jake Ellis?, but the storytelling is so well-executed, in words and images both, that the end result is a series far, far greater than the sum of its parts. As a story and a comicbook, it is a lesson in contrasting forces cooperating to create a cohesive whole: Jon and Jake's opposing styles and priorities, the stark artwork coupled with the subtle scripting, and within the art itself the various degrees of shadow accompanied by brash, bright coloring. And of course there's the ending, which somehow wholly satisfies and addresses the story's central mystery while at the same time serving only to raise further, larger questions than we had before. It's an excellent little series---by which I mean only five issues---well-paced, action-packed, and filled to the brim with compelling characters and stunning visuals.
     One of the strongest aspects is the way writer Nathan Edmondson so carefully feeds information to the reader. Take the opening scene in the very first issue. Rather than holding our hands and explaining to us what's happening, or even starting at the beginning of Jake and Jon's adventures, Edmondson throws us immediately into the action. For the first few pages, we're as confused as the criminals from whom Jon runs. The book then rewinds and shows us what we were missing: Jon has an unseen, possibly-imagined ally in this fight in the form of Jake Ellis, a man who seems to live in Jon's mind, yet somehow has access to knowledge and information which Jon does not. From there, we continue to learn about both men, the nature of their partnership, and their histories not through info dumps or even, at first, through flashback. Instead, Edmondson crafts subtle, realistic conversations between his main characters that let the reader in on what's happening without ever feeling forced. It's not easy to write expositional dialogue that still feels organic, but Edmondson clearly has a knack for it, and even in later issues when we do have some flashbacks and more overt explanations, this technique is never abandoned and always well-used.
     It helps that Edmondson creates such strong characters to work with, and that his two stars rarely see eye-to-eye. Jon worries about short-term survival and hardly ever wonders where Jake came from or how he does what he does. Jon basically assumes Jake must be a figment of his own fractured psyche. Jake, on the other hand, has been planning for the future, and wants nothing more than to solve the mystery of his existence. So the two have plenty of legitimate reasons to discuss and debate not only their current situation, but the experiences they've shared in the past, and because we're fortunate enough to overhear these arguments, we get to learn about our heroes along the way. Who they are as people, how they differ, the ways in which they work together, and the horrible things they've lived through all come to light gradually and naturally.
      Edmondson doesn't deserve all the praise, however, and if I am being honest he may not even deserve half of it. Because the art of Who Is Jake Ellis?, handled top-to-bottom by Tonci Zonjic, is simply spectacular. Zonjic's work grabs your attention, especially his brilliant use of color. Often, an entire panel or even a full page will be a wash of one bold color, but it always serves a distinct purpose. Like the transition from deep, soft blues to alternating Day-Glo panels as Jon and Jake move from couch to dance floor at a nightclub. Or the harsh red lighting of the labs and alarms in The Facility. Or, one of my personal favorites, the rich tans and muted maroons of Marrakech, covered in thick clouds of sand and dust. Even something as seemingly simple as the gray-on-black design of Jake Ellis brings a lot to the book. Immediately, we see that this is a man who isn't a whole man, who's there but not really there. This look alone does as much for our understanding of Jake as anything Edmondson provides.
      It's not just in the coloring that Zonjic impresses, though. His action sequences are alive and clear. His characters are consistent and expressive, even the near-faceless Jake. And each new location, of which there are many, has as much detail and care devoted to it as the last. Zonjic really builds a world in these five issues, a stylized, sexy, beautifully-lit world that I only wish I could somehow spend more time in.
     One more thing I want to point out about the art: Zonjic's treatment of death. There's a fair deal of action in Who Is Jake Ellis? but not that great a number of fatalities, and only three characters who have any lines ever die: the girl Jon sleeps with, the DIA agent, and the bald old doctor at the end. Each of these deaths is given a specific weight and significance in the way it's presented visually. The young woman Jon spends a night with takes a bullet through the head, which we see as a stark black silhouette on a bright yellow background. It's a powerful image, with the thick blood spatter like black paint flung carelessly at a canvas from its brush. And it's a powerful moment for Jon, watching an innocent die in his place, because of his actions. He is rattled by it, and it reminds him (and teaches us) of the kinds of enemies he has. The same is true of the DIA agent's unexpected assassination. For that, Zonjic gives us a perfect portrait of surprise: the agent's stunned look as his head explodes against the car behind him, Jon's gun flying through the air as he abandons his grip on it, the startled fear in Jon's face as he rears back from the blast. And in the next panel, reflected in a mud puddle where Jon's gun lands, we see the agent's face again, frozen in that same terrified expression. As the weapon sinks into the dirty water, the loss of a potential ally sinks in for Jon and the reader alike. For both deaths, Zonjic displays the sadness and especially the suddenness that make these kinds of violent attacks such brutal experiences.
     Then there's Jon's murder of the doctor (or whatever he is---Jon calls him "this doc"). Though it begins as suddenly as the other two, the actual moment of the doctor's death is slowed down a little while still being contained in one panel. He is bathed in the flash of the gun, made so pale as to appear almost ghostly, except for his strong black shadow being cast on the white wall behind him. Jon fires two bullets, and without any sound effects added we see both shells expelled from the weapon and both entry wounds on the doctor, one on each side of his chest. We may only be seeing half a second more here than with either of the two deaths discussed above, but really that's twice as much time. This is the closest thing to a victory against their oppressors as Jon and Jake ever get, so Zonjic gives it special attention, making it last as long as it can in the physical space of a single panel.
     If there's one thing Zonjic and Edmondson's styles share in this book, it's this expert use of space, this careful pacing. Edmondson tells us exactly what we need to hear, and Zonjic shows us what we want and need to see. So even though the ending doesn't explain in any detail the goals or methods of The Facility, or what exactly connects Jake and Jon to each other, by the time we get there it hardly matters. Because Who Is Jake Ellis? does for its readers the same thing Jake does for Jon. It guides us through this incredible adventure with more knowledge than we have, but still only limited information. And it gets us to care about Jake as a person, it makes us want to see Jon step up and try to figure out who Jake is. Which is exactly what happens. Jon finally gets to take on the bad guys all by himself, watching Jake's back instead of vice versa, and while we may not know the details of Jake's background (or Jon's, really) we know now that he is, in fact, his own man, and that The Facility no longer has him in their grasp. More than enough to make me happy, and of course on the final page Edmondson throws us a bone, leaving the door open for possible sequels. Sequels which I will consider "highly-anticipated" until further notice.

Who Is Jake Ellis? was published by Image Comics and is dated January 2011-October 2011.

Saturday, May 19, 2012

Smatterday 05/19/2012

R.I.P. Ernie Chan
So soon after the death last week of Tony DeZuniga, another incredibly talented Fillipino comicbook artist was lost to us, Ernie Chan. Best known for his work on Conan and Batman, I admit I have almost no experience with Chan's work myself, but anytime anyone who made great comics dies, it is a tragedy. My thoughts go out to Chan and his loved ones.

R.I.P. Maurice Sendak
As if Chan and DeZuniga weren't enough, Maurice Sendak, legendary writer and artist of children's books like Where the Wild Things Are, also passed away. The response has been appropriately huge, which is somewhat comforting, to know that even as adults we still love the creators of our childhood. Personally, I would submit Where the Wild Things Are for consideration as the single greatest children's book of all time (it's only competition: Harold and the Purple Crayon). It certainly stuck with me the first time I read it (or it was read to me) and I have enjoyed it countless times at various ages since then.

Hopefully Sendak, Chan, and DeZuniga are all in the same place, cooking up some new dark and twisted children's comicbook together that we can all read whenever we get there.

Let's End Things on a Lighter Note
In the midst of all the sadness and death, another recent trend that has caught my attention is people paying inordinate amounts of money for comicbook material. First, there was the $850,000 purchase of Batman #1, and this week has seen both a $72K sale of the first Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles sketch ever done, as well as one of the highest prices ever paid for a single comicbook page ($155K) going to a random Kirby/Sinnott page from Fantastic Four #55. So it's a good time to be an insanely wealthy comicbook fan.

Thursday, May 17, 2012

Pull List Reviews 05/17/2012

Avengers vs. X-Men #4: Somehow, even though so little happened, I ended up liking this issue slightly more than the previous three. Partly it was John Romita, Jr. who, despite some noticeable mistakes (the guy cannot get a handle on Colussus' helmet, huh?) generally delivered stronger work than before. The Polar Bear was nice looking, and Romita seems to have finally pinned down Hope. Mostly, though, I just enjoyed the Hope-Logan interactions as written by Jonathan Hickman. To my knowledge, he's fairly new to these characters, but I warmed to them. For a while, anyway. In the end it all got ruined because Wolverine decided that being a dick on the Moon is somehow different/better than just doing it on Earth, and then there was some dumb yelling, and then we were done. The middle was also weak, showing us tiny and often poorly-drawn glimpses of fights taking place in other titles. Still unimpressive overall, but just the tiniest bit less so than the earlier issues.

Birds of Prey #9: I understand that, ostensibly, Birds of Prey lives within the bat-family of titles. And it takes place in Gotham, too, so I see the argument for including it in the "Night of the Owls" crossover. However, so much about this issue felt forced: their reasons for joining the fight, the solution they reach to kill the Talon, and especially the incredibly rushed ending. Travel Foreman is a welcome addition, and draws the hell out of the Talon, so if upcoming villains can similarly fit his style I think he's going to elevate the series overall. He did make Starling a bit more scantily-clad than necessary when seen through the Talon's twisted perspective, but he killed it with Katana and Canary both, so I think I can let that slide. But all Foreman got to draw here was one long, drawn out fight, and no matter how good that looks it gets boring. Hopefully once Duane Swierczynski doesn't have to shoehorn a crossover story in, he can return to the excellent superhero action-thriller he's been writing all along.

Daredevil #13: I just don't think Khoi Pham is right for this title. He did an OK job with Daredevil himself, but his Foggy Nelson and Matt Murdock are both failures. And the panel where we see things as they look through Daredevil's pink sonar-vision things was a mess. Come to think of it, the New Avengers didn't look too great, either. Though not quite as bad as his first time on the title, Pham still feels like a poor fit here. Unfortunately, the story doesn't do all that much to help. I'm not a big fan of trick endings, but more than that, the whole thing felt more complicated than necessary, particularly when Daredevil ended up giving the drive to someone who asked for it ages ago. I know DD wanted to give Megacrime a new target, but I just wasn't thrilled with the solution Mark Waid cooked up. Still, Waid has earned a lot of credit with this title so far, and now that the Omega Drive stuff is winding down I'm anxious to see what's next. Plus, you know, DD in Latveria intrigues me...

Hardcore #1: A fairly standard first issue: introduce the high concept, the good guy, the bad guy, and the hook. I guess it's not totally obvious yet if Drake or Markus will be the ultimate hero of this tale, or if either of them even will be, but for the time being the roles seem set. The basic premise is a pretty cool bit of spy sci-fi, and Robert Kirkman introduces it clearly, but the exposition is largely delivered through kind of lame dialogue. While overall the character voices are strong, in those moments where they are explaining the concepts or their own actions they sound unnatural. Brian Stelfreeze handles the action scenes and the sci-fi elements all very well, and brings a nice energy to the overall feel of the book. His characters have some generic details, like facial shapes and glasses and such, but we know who's who and there's a lot of fun, entertaining stuff. I'm definitely curious to follow the title from here.

Hellblazer #291: I see why this is officially the epilogue to "Another Season in Hell" but truthfully it's more of a standalone story. A really good one. Constantine assembles a simple enough plan to take down his evil twin, puts it into action, and succeeds. Sometimes it's nice to just watch the hero win. Sometimes it's what they and the reader need. And it always feels good to have a major plot thread like this finally reach its resolution. Gemma is seemingly shuffled off the board for the time being, after being an integral part of the cast for a long stretch, and it feels not just right but good to see her go. First, of course, we get to see her torture the shit out of her own personal demon, and that feels just as good as her departure. Gael Bertrand really knocks out the artwork during Gemma's attack, and actually did a pretty fantastic job all over. At first his style was a bit jarring, but once I settled in it felt totally fitting. In a story about luring out a demon, Bertrand makes everyone looks a bit demonic, which sets a nice mood. Peter Milligan continues to tell wonderful tales of dark magic and violence and the Constantine clan, offering up a done-in-one story that still has major significance for the larger series.

Saga #3: Yes, this series is Brian K. Vaughan's idea, but make no mistake, Fiona Staples is the reason it is so excellent. Vaughan kicks ass in his own right. He keeps us plugged in to all the previous characters and advances their stories while still primarily using the issue to introduce Izabel, the ghost girl with no legs from the cover. And Izabel is a lot of fun. She's perhaps a bit of an archetypal chatty teen, but her history is interesting and I appreciate her go-getter attitude. I also continue to love The Will, and adding a bit of bitter romance to his character through The Stalk was a brilliant development. However, as I said, Fiona Staples' art is the reason to be reading this book. I finally realized it when I got to the page of The Will eating cereal with his cat. It so perfectly set the mood of the character for the conversation that followed. But really everything Staples draws, right down to her awesome colors, is breathtaking. Even the violent bits soothe the eyes. Vaughan and Staples are carefully constructing a universe together, and so far it looks and feels amazing.

Scalped #58: Very much a middle chapter, Scalped #58 is great, but the actual events of the issue didn't wow me. Important and heavy stuff happened, yes, but really Jason Aaron just turned the temperature up a little bit on all the chaos, bringing things that much closer to truly bubbling over. The cast seems to be getting set up for a final confrontation of some kind where everyone is trying to kill everyone else, but in this issue all we get are a few small moves in that direction. Important moves, yes, but small ones, like Dash learning about his child or Dino proposing an attack on Red Crow. Still, with only two issues left, Aaron and artist R.M. Guera both clearly know what they're doing from here on out. Guera brings his typical A game, which I mention as a courtesy since it's basically a given that any issue of Scalped which he draws will look phenomenal. Guess what? This one does, too. As big a void as it's going to leave, I'm more excited to read the conclusion to Scalped than anything else currently coming down the pipeline.

The Shadow #2: Garth Ennis' take on The Shadow is superb. Lamont Cranston is a no-nonsense, no-mercy kind of hero, who feels a genuine hate toward his foes. He acknowledges a certain darkness within himself, and embraces it, gladly giving up his own soul to fight the good fight. He's also a total badass, able to handle himself in a fight on an airplane where he is outnumbered and outgunned. And the details of his powers that we discover this issue make him all the more terrifying and fascinating. Ennis also writes a fully-realized and highly-likable Margo Lane. She's strong and capable but ultimately kind, an ideal counterbalance for Cranston whose just strong and hard from head to toe. They're a fun couple, and as we learn about them they also learn about each other. Aaron Campbell has a few rough moments on art, but mostly triumphs. The champagne glass in the eye is a great image, as are the fire extinguisher going off and The Shadow's initial entrance. Campbell is a talented noir artist, which is, of course, exactly what this story calls for. The Shadow is very quickly climbing up the list of my current favorite titles

Thunderbolts #174: A very Thunderbolts kind of ending, to be sure. Fixer being at the heart of the story helped with that, as did Jeff Parker's skillful use of his entire enormous cast. Parker and artist Declan Shalvey both have clearly hit a real groove with this series, and I am relieved the name change doesn't mean a change in creative team or, necessarily, cast. There will be additions, but based on this issue pretty much all the old-timers are sticking around, somewhen or another. That's definitely good news, but I appreciate that the end of the title Thunderbolts included the end of one its founding character's stories. An intelligent and satisfying way to make the transition.

Uncanny X-Men #12: So, why is Cyclops comfortable with ALL OF THE OTHER CHILDREN being in Avengers custody, but not Hope? I get that he wants the Phoenix to get to her and is afraid the Avengers will prevent that or whatever, but it still felt like it undermined his position somewhat the way he so forcefully brushed that topic aside. That's just one small gripe, and truth be told I have many. This title seems to really suffer from being forced into a crossover, because so far all that its tie-ins have offered is a bunch of fighting with no victors and no point. Visually, Greg land continues to underwhelm, particularly with Hepzibah and Namor. Their faces kept bothering me, as did their less-than-witty flirting from Kieron Gillen. The saving grace of this issue was the Tabula Rasa guy (whose name escapes me or maybe doesn't exist). He had some really fun bits all throughout, and his final assumption that all this fighting would lead to mating was awesome. A perfect little fuck you to the whole event. Even if that's not the intention, that's how I choose to read it.

Wonder Woman #9: So, so frustrating. I know Brian Azzarello likes wordplay, but Strife's stupid little turns of phrase alone made me want to pull my hair out. As if that wasn't enough, Tony Atkins doesn't make her look nearly as cool or powerful as when Cliff Chiang is drawing. And she's on practically as many pages as the title character. Speaking of, Diana was especially passive here. I'm starting to find this take on the character less of a stoic badass and more of an impossible-to-read, weird sort of blank slate. Her conversation with Persephone was as dull as it was uncomfortable. Ditto her chat with Hades at the end. Meanwhile, we meet not only Persephone but Aphrodite, Hades' father, and those weird dog-women maidens, too. I assume they have names from classic mythology, but I don't know 'em. The point is, Azzarello is piling on new characters, racing through his mission of building a complex world for the gods of Wonder Woman, and sacrificing storytelling along the way. This series impressed me so much when it started that I have tried to stick with it in these recent, rocky months, but this was a definite low point.

Tuesday, May 15, 2012

Doesn't He Seem Familiar?: The Many Faces of the Unknown Soldier

The Unknown Soldier is a classic DC property, a character who became popular enough in the '70s to take over the title of Star Spangled War Stories and make it his own. I have extremely limited experience with this original incarnation, only grabbing a spare issue here or there when I find it, but I've read all three versions of the title that have been published since. Now that Jimmy Palmiotti and Justin Gray are once again re-envisioning the so-called "Immortal G.I." as part of The New 52's Second Wave, I thought I'd take a look back at the preceding series from authors Jim Owsley, Garth Ennis, and Joshua Dysart to see what they share and where they differ. What has The Unknown Soldier meant over time, and how has he changed? Of course, there's the ever-present notion that one man in the right place can change a war, but the similarities are deeper than that. There is an insanity, a righteous but often blind rage that seems to be a necessary component, or at any rate a consistent one. But the victims of that rage vary, as do the reactions of each series' main character to their personalized brands of madness.
     That madness is generally fueled by the same thing: trying to escape an inescapable situation. In Owsley's series, the Unknown Soldier continually attempts to quit his job. He lasts a little bit longer each time, but is always sucked back into the killing one way or another, because it's all he knows. And because there are several high-powered individuals who refuse to leave him alone. Ennis' Soldier also wants out, and his entire story is based on him trying to find an adequate replacement. He still believes in the need for an international enforcer of America's might and will, but can no longer personally live with the incessant war and lies. Finally, there is Dysart's version, who is by far the craziest of the three. In many ways, Dysart's whole run is a character study of a man slowly but oh-so-steadily going insane. So rather than merely trying to get out of the job, he is fighting to escape the persona of the Unknown Soldier and return to that of pacifist and healer Dr. Lwanga Moses. For all three, the constant violence becomes overbearing, but their methods for trying to bring it to an end are quite different.
     Naturally, none of them succeed. Owsley's guy strikes back against the people who control him, but even once they're dead his final sentiment is, "The war goes on." The potential replacement in Ennis' series, CIA Agent Clyde, kills himself in defiance of the Soldier's wishes. And by the end of Dysart's book, Moses gives himself up entirely to the voice in his head who, once in control, remembers that Moses was an invented personality anyway. The Unknown Soldiers all futily thrash against their cages, sometimes upsetting or frightening those around them, but never truly freeing themselves.
     The other side of this coin, though, is that in all of the Soldiers there exists the contradictory belief that some of the killing they do is justified, even necessary or good. For all their supposed desire to escape, they also find joy in war. It makes sense to them, it's what they've been groomed for, and even if the people in charge of them are despicable, the opposing forces are often many times worse. So what we get is a character not only at war with the world, but at war with himself, simultaneously depending on the violence and trying to get away from it. Owsley and Dysart's characters both seem to take things moment-to-moment. One day they're retiring to a house in the sticks, or working as a doctor, or announcing out loud that they're through with all the death. Then some villain pisses them off or provokes them and they change their minds entirely and switch back into vicious killer mode, often fighting more fiercely and determinedly than ever before. And often openly admitting to themselves that they like it, even reveling in it. The internal conflict for Ennis' version lies, as I've said, in the fact that he thinks of himself as a necessity but can't stand to play his part any longer. So he sabotages himself, trying and failing for, we learn, the second time to select a successor.
     Why is it, exactly, that the Unknown Soldier always struggles with these opposing wants? Is it impossible to imagine him as a Punisher-esque anti-hero who fully believes in killing the bad guys? Or alternatively, can we not picture him as a wholly unwilling agent of an overbearing, bloodthirsty government or agency? All of the other elements of the character could, in theory, remain: his namelessness, his seemingly superhuman skill, the respect and fear he commands with his presence, even his insanity. Yet all the writers who have offered their take on the Soldier have held onto this notion that he is a character torn, a man at odds with himself, wishing to escape the never-ending war that is his world but not knowing how to live a life free from bloodshed. Is it coincidence, or is this duality in some way essential to the spirit of the timeless, faceless warrior?
     In the fourteen pages we've seen so far, Jimmy Palmiotti and Justin Gray certainly seem to be going in a different direction. All the craziness is apparent in their Solider, as is his righteous anger and the pleasure he takes in killing his foes. But rather than feeling trapped, this newest incarnation actually forced his way into the war after the military turned him down. He is the Unknown Soldier all his of predecessors were scared they'd become, a voluntary weapon in the arsenal of his superiors. This is mostly speculation, of course, as we've had only the briefest introduction, but if that is indeed the route Palmiotti and Gray have decided to take, I'll be curious to see how it holds up. Is removing the trying-to-escape aspect of the character an improvement, a detraction, or just an interesting and unusual choice? Certainly it gives me hope that this version might be more popular or successful than those which have come before, if only because it's trying something new.

Saturday, May 12, 2012

Smatterday 05/12/2012

R.I.P. Tony DeZuniga
Jonah Hex co-creator and all-around talented artist Tony DeZuniga died on Wednesday at age 79. He'd been in critical condition since last month, and had been fighting something of an uphill battle, but his death is no less tragic because of it. My thoughts go out to him and his family.

Classic Literature Goes Graphic
This month sees the release of the first volume of the Graphic Canon. It's a pretty cool project, taking a bunch of talented comic artists and having them create graphic versions of classic literature. Seems to be going chronologically, and is pulling all sorts of different pieces of the "canon" from all over the world. Ambitious, bizarre, and full of new comic art! Hooray for trying things!

Selling Like Hotcakes
Two bits of comicbook sales news/info that caught my eye this week. The first was this awesome, super-expensive sale of Batman #1. Way to raise the bar, rich anonymous comicbook collector! Secondly, mixed in with all the buzz and positive reviews generated by the Avengers movie, there's been some chatter about how this won't necessarily translate to increased comicbook sales. What people keep pointing out, though, is that the exception to this rule is The Walking Dead TV series. Which at first confused me, but the more I read/think about it, the more it makes total sense. Ongoing comicbooks and TV series are both serialized mediums, so fans of the show are used to getting a long, developing, linear story and bound to want more of it in between seasons. Whereas Avengers movie fans who aren't existing comicbook readers may not be as interested in investing an indefinite amount of time and money into following even one Avengers title. It's too bad ticket sales don't mean comicbook sales, but I get it.

Speaking Of...
I still haven't seen the Avengers movie myself, but I totally plan to within a week, and when the time comes I am definitely on board for the recent movement to match the price of my tickets with a donation to the Hero Initiative. With all the continuing, intelligent, awesome discussion going on about creator's rights these days, it seems important for each and every fan of the comicbook medium to do what we can, to keep the momentum going so that hopefully, someday, somebody won't get screwed by the Big Two. And for the love of God don't buy Before Watchmen. Any of it!

One Last Awesome Thing
And eight-year-old Batman saves the day. Yes. Yes everywhere.

Thursday, May 10, 2012

Pull List Reviews 05/10/2012

Batman #9: Well, the giant bat-armor from last month was sort of a bust, huh? I was really hoping Bruce had some kind of awesome contingency plan in place that involved the awkward metal suit, but, alas, it was just an awkward metal suit to fight in. Still, it was nice to see Batman's rage unleashed, and to finally give him some useful knowledge about the Court of Owls. Now maybe he can kick some ass and lay this story to rest for a while. Greg Capullo's art was actually somewhat more contained/restrained this month, which was interesting since Scott Snyder's script was mostly about Batman cutting loose and tearing mercilessly into the Talons. I'm not complaining about the art, because there's still a lot of great imagery, like the bat swarm or the dinosaur foot stomp, but if there was ever a time for Capullo to let his line work go a bit crazy, it seems like it would have been this issue. The backup feature I enjoyed a bit more than the main story, perhaps just because I love Alfred so much that any insight into his personal or familial history is welcome. And that final image of the Talon in the rain is stunning. Rafael Albuquerque continues t be an ideal Batman artist, highlighting the shadow and fear inherent in that world.

Fairest #3: I find Fairest #3 to be particularly challenging to review as a whole. As has been the norm with this title for all three installments, we have here an example of some truly excellent artwork that is telling just a dreadfully boring story. We have no reason to care about any of the characters, and in the case of the guy who does the most talking (a bottle imp named, I believe, Panghammer), we don't even have a convincing reason to like him. Even he knows he's a pain in the ass, and the story he's narrating to the rest of the cast would only be interesting if it wasn't being pointlessly drawn out. A series full of misfires from Bill Willingham so far, and if I didn't already know he'd be leaving the title fairly soon (along with his dumb, dumb crop of characters) I might well be dropping Fairest from my pull list. However, the saving grace continues to be Phil Jimenez's pencils, as well as the ink and coloring work by Andy Lanning, Mark Farmer, and Andrew Dalhouse. Whether it's a sentient flying boat, a royal hall filled with a bright and blustering party, or just The Snow Queen and Panghammer surrounded by whites and blues in her palace, every single page has art worth a second (or third or fourth) look. It's sort of astonishing how far from each other the story and the art are in terms of quality. How, exactly, did a script so bland inspire such lovely visuals? Anyway, that seems to be par for the course on this title.

Frankenstein Agent of S.H.A.D.E. #9: I have complained a couple of times about the change that took place when this title started using Walden Wong to ink Alberto Ponticelli. This month, we have a new inker, Wayne Faucher, and I think with him we've found a happy medium that (hopefully) we can all agree on. Not quite as wild as when Ponticelli inks himself, but without muting the energy which his pencils always bring to the table.

Now that that's out of the way, I'll say that this was an exceptionally fine issue of Frankenstein all over. The title has always been a string of monster battles for Frank to fight, with each new enemy causing him to question/examine himself in some new light. This issue is no exception, and tells a tidy little tale of Frank and Dr. Mazursky battling against the forces of The Rot (from Animal Man and Swamp Thing). Unable to simply kill his foes in the usual fashion, Frank goes to an extreme measure, calling in a "blackbomb" which only targets living things and therefore does not hurt him. However, this causes him further frustration/sadness, because he is forced to admit that he is not really "alive" in, at least, the scientific sense. It's a quick but effective tale, and it serves to advance Frank's relationship with himself, S.H.A.D.E., and Mazursky all. And the Ponticell-Faucher-Villarruba art team comes through as well, like I mentioned. Particularly the splash where Frank and Nina find the corpse of the cop they're looking for. I want that as a wall-sized poster.

Higher Earth #1: If the concept behind Higher Earth interests you---a whole bunch of Earths in different universes that each have their place in a hierarchy of Earths---then you'll no doubt enjoy this first issue, since most of what it does is to introduce that concept. Luckily, it does interest me, and Sam Humphries makes the intelligent decision to have one of his main characters, Heidi, know as little about the details of the book's reality as the reader. She stands in for us, and like he is for Heidi, the nameless man who comes to save her from her Earth is an intriguing enigma, yet somehow easy to trust with his mater-of-fact attitude and battle-readiness. Francesco Biagini's artwork is similarly direct, always expressive and effective, but never especially impressive. He does some cool stuff with the edges of his panels and other kinds of layout moves, but otherwise it's fairly middle-of-the-line work. I'm excited to see this series develop, assuming it lasts long enough to do so, but Higher Earth #1 is no more than a simple, clean, clear introduction to the key players and ideas that will move the story forward.

Morning Glories #18: My aggravation over the snail's pace at which this series drags on is well-documented, and Morning Glories #18 is no exception. Virtually ignoring the previous issues of this arc (and, by the way, wasn't "P.E." supposed to conclude this issue, not the next one, originally? Am I making that up?), Nick Spencer decides to instead switch focus back over to Jun. I have long thought of Jun as the most interesting of the Glories, and I really liked his interactions and the development of his romance with Guillaume, but at the end of the day it was mostly more cryptic nonsense, spouting of meaningless mottos, and characters with unclear motives. Plus I get especially annoyed by Spencer when he actually has a character talk about the lack of answers in Morning Glories, which he's done several times, and does with Abraham here. Stop making excuses for yourself, jerk, and just tell your damn story already! Joe Eisma is Joe Eisma, reliably turning in consistent work on this title since the beginning. It never gets any worse or any better, it's just what Morning Glories looks like. At this point if another artist came in or if Eisma changed his style too much, I feel like it would be jarring, because the look of this book is so firmly established now. As is the narrative style, and it happens to be one which drives me kind of crazy.

Ultimate Comics Ultimates #10: Sam Humphries joins Jonathan Hickman on writing duties with this issue, but it's not an obvious shift in tone. I suppose there's slightly less action this issue than in many of the preceding nine, but that has more to do with where we are in the story, I suspect, than because of the addition to the writing team. Either way, a thoroughly entertaining issue. It took time at the beginning to bring home the full effect of the attack on D.C., and still managed to advance each of its characters and plots point forward, however slightly. And it's fun to watch the Ultimates battle against S.H.I.E.L.D. on top of everything else, especially now that they are so fractured. The City continues to be a unique threat, provoking bold reactions from our heroes that make for great superhero fare. Luke Ross, on the other hand, was somewhat uneven on art, mostly struggling with figures who were in motion. It wasn't a huge detriment here, and it's not like he messed it up every time, but there were several awkward or impossible poses, and in an issue with heavier action I'm nervous about how Ross will perform. Hopefully Ultimates #10 will be the exception, rather than the rule. Beyond those specific things, though, totally serviceable artwork and a fun, logical chapter in this grand tale.

Ultimate Comics X-Men #11: Here, we have a similar waste of story space from Spencer as in Morning Glories above, but with a slightly stronger showing from Paco Medina on art. Not a lot of new information here, or any real character insights or developments. Primarily just a series of checking in scenes for each bundle of characters, watching them each react in turn to the horrendous Sentinel attacks. It's an alright story, just lacking in meat or even much flavor. Nothing unexpected happens, we hear about the Southwest United States getting jacked up way more times than we need to, and then we get an ending that seems pretty mundane considering the work the Sentinels do in the rest of the issue. Medina, however, draws the crap out of those Sentinels, from their two-page spread at Camp Angel to those creepy pages where we see shots of several cities burning, to the reveal on the final page. He doesn't do a remarkable job with the rest of the issue, nor does he do a bad one, but for some reason I really enjoyed his Sentinel-based pages. Otherwise a bland offering.

Uncanny X-Force #25: A fascinating and well-written examination of the motives of each member of X-Force. Even Deadpool, in his own warped way. For a title that is clearly ramping up for something big---notice Genesis and Angel returned in this issue, and whoever's behind this White Sky/Omega Clan situation is bound to have other things in play, plus Rick Remender has been saying so in interviews---it's a smart move to take a minute and remind the readers why these characters are on this team. Or in some cases, why they're not on the team anymore (for now). Remender, as he has from the beginning, knows exactly how to handle his cast, and gives each of them a moment to shine. Fantomex gets the least of it, but his few lines and final action speak volumes. Wolverine, the leader and only remaining founder of the team, as well as the most direct connection to the new Omega Clan, gets the most time in the spotlight, and it is time well used. He deeply but quickly examines the many complicated reasons he has for keeping X-Force alive, and they all make sense and ring true in his voice. It's compelling stuff, aided in no small way by Mike McKone's drawings and Dean White's colors. Their best moment as an artistic team has got to be the two-page spread of the White Sky Showroom, but they also knock it out of the park on the introduction of the Omega Clan and Nightcrawler's flashback panels. There is one terrible drawing of Beast, but otherwise a strong performance across the board. And then, if McKone doesn't do it for you, there are some twenty extra pages of Jerome Opeña art as well, his and Remender's first Wolverine and Deadpool stories. Opeña's art is less stylized here than it has been on Uncanny X-Force, though that may have something to do with the coloring. But it's still quite good, and the stories are fun if simple, as any comicbook shorts are bound to be. Overall, a fitting anniversary issue, and one that excites me for the future of this title in a way I haven't felt for a while.

Wolverine and the X-Men #10: Two unexpected things happened for me while reading this: I loved Chris Bachalo art, and I agreed with Cyclops. The Bachalo thing was a pleasant surprise, as more often than not I find his style confusing and/or off-putting. But Krakoa rising up, that super-complicated two-page spread with like a dozen tiny panels and a couple huge ones, and especially the very opening page were all great. As for agreeing with Cyclops, I still mostly just feel like, "Why can't they all just work together? Why wouldn't they want to?" But Scott's arguments to Logan sounded far more reasonable and well-thought-out than anything he's said in a while. Not all of it, mind you, but enough of it that by the time Wolverine was losing staff members to the other side, I was totally rooting for them over him. Here's a question, though: when does this issue take place? After the fight on Utopia, but before Wolverine is thrown from a plane? Hardly seems like he had time to do all of this in between those two events. And also that would make Rachel Grey's role in AvX #3 confusing as hell. But if this after he gets back from the plane...why isn't he more pissed off at the Avengers for throwing him from a plane? Right? I also don't understand when, exactly, Cyclops had the time to make this visit, but I'm hoping AvX #4 can shed some light. I don't know if I expect it, but I'm hoping. Aside from that bit of confusion, though, I was impressed by Jason Aaron's script for it's take on the mutant side of things, and impressed by Bachalo's art for not bothering me for once. So...impressive issue.

Tuesday, May 8, 2012

Superb Heroes: The Maximortal

Superb Heroes is a semi-regular column celebrating comics that are exemplary and/or exceptional in their treatment of superoheroism.

Superheroes and comicbooks are obviously, inescapably linked. They helped to popularize each other, and even in this current environment of incessant new movies and TV series, we all know that comicbooks are the true stomping ground of the spandex-clad superhuman. In his seven-issue series The Maximortal, writer/artist Rick Veitch explores the concept of the superhero, the history of the comicbook industry, and the ties that bind them together in a vicious, hilarious, intelligent and original way. Breaking the usual mold, Veitch's superpowered characters are morally ambiguous, their origins and motives more complex than we're used to. Comparatively, the regular humans he focuses on fill the more traditional comicbook hero and villain roles, with their direct, simple belief systems and constant battle for power. The end result is an incredible examination on the effects that superheroes have on people, in their own worlds and in ours. They have power over us beyond their actual "powers," which Veitch simultaneously celebrates, condemns, and perverts in The Maximortal, making it a thorough and thoroughly enjoyable discussion of superheroism's importance and potential.
     The titular "maximortal" is Wesley Winston, a child in mind and appearance, but possessing superhuman strength, flight, shape-changing abilities, heat vision, and physical invulnerability. At first glance, Wesley appears to be no more than a slight twist on Superman. He even crashes to Earth in a mysterious protective vessel and is discovered and adopted by a poor, rural couple. But as the series advances, Veitch pulls Wesley further and further from the Man of Steel, and in the end True-Man (Wesley's superhero moniker) is more a physical manifestation of the concept of superheroism than he is a parody of any particular character. That's a very literal statement, because we come to learn that Wesley's "origin story" is, essentially, that a fictional version of True-Man grew to be so popular, the idea so universal, that it actually became reality. The mass social belief in the character gave him life. Then in a classic time paradox, the now-living True-Man went back in time, slept with a human, gave birth to himself, and then launched himself into space so that he could someday return and be discovered. In other words, the conclusion to the series is the same as the beginning of the series, with True-Man's origin an infinite loop of self-creation. After all, not only did he birth himself, but the whole reason he becomes True-Man is that, as Wesley, he sees a True-Man comicbook and decides to take on the look and persona of the character. So True-Man parents Wesley, who then becomes True-Man.
     No doubt that all seems a bit confusing, but it is to Veitch's credit that he explains it fully and carefully within The Maximortal, taking his time with each piece of the puzzle so that by the final issue we've already more or less figured out the cyclical nature of Wesley's life. Then in that final issue, Veitch spells it out for us plainly, just in case. And even without the never-ending circle that is his creation, Wesley is just as fascinating and unique a superhero, because despite his immense power he is still a child. He has a child's innocence, ignorance, and fluid morality. This leads him to murder his adopted father, and then an entire California town, not out of malice or anger but because he doesn't fully understand what he's doing. While most superheroes are informed by their childhoods, Wesley's childhood is informed by his superpowers, and so in his early years he isn't really a hero or a villain in the classic sense, but more a force of nature in human form. It is only much later, after he has been trapped and used by humanity for years, that he decides to take up the fight for good and righteousness.
     This narrative of a child slowly but steadily being transformed into a hero is the main focus of The Maximortal, the strongest and most consistent through line from issue to issue. And honestly, I imagine it would be more than enough to tell a meaty, awesome story on its own. But Veitch doesn't stop there, as his bizarre tale is also populated by non-powered characters whose beliefs and personalities line up much more succinctly with what he think of as archetypal superheroes and villains. Primarily we see this dichotomy between Jerry Spiegel and Sidney Wallace. Spiegel is the writer who creates the True-Man comicbook, and while the real-world Wesley is amoral and destructive, Spiegel actually embodies all of the virtues he includes in his version of the character. Truth, justice, the rights of the common man---all of these things are near and dear to Spiegel, and he writes his stories not for any selfish dreams of fame or recognition, but because he feels the world needs a hero like True-Man to lead the charge against corruption and evil. Sid Wallace is Spiegel's publisher and, for all intents and purposes, his arch-nemesis. A power-hungry maniac who also happens to be overcompensating for crushed testicles, Wallace rips Spiegel off, stealing credit for the creation of True-Man and getting filthy rich off the royalties. The two butt heads several times, and each time sees Wallace with a little more power than he had before, and Spiegel with a little less. Plus Wallace gets to use as many dirty tricks as he likes knowing full well Spiegel will never stoop to that level, and therefore never be a threat. They represent creativity vs. capitalism, truth vs. lies, the little guy vs. the corporation, good vs. evil, and any number of other well-worn conflicts. Like the characters of countless superhero comicbooks, Spiegel and Wallace are two extremes battling against one another. The only difference is that they don't have superpowers, code names, or costumes. Though Spiegel does ultimately don a True-Man costume to confront and, he hopes, defeat Wallace once and for all.
     The point of all this is that True-Man is an idea so big he can inspire genuine heroism (Spiegel) while simultaneously fueling greed (Wallace). And the point of The Maximortal as a series is, to my mind, that all superheroes, indeed superheroism in general, will naturally and necessarily influence the world in both good and bad ways. The characters themselves, the values and causes they espouse, are theoretically the best aspects of humanity, and therefore could and should promote those aspects within us as readers. But of course, there is an industry behind the telling of these fables, and so they're often used not so much to point mankind toward good, but to further the goals of a few publishing companies (namely, sales). Even if we leave the comicbook industry out of it, the much bigger threat of superpowers, as Veitch takes pains to point out, is that were they to ever truly exist in our world, they'd be far more likely used as tools of war and/or commerce than forces for justice or peace. As concepts, superheroes and the stories around them are easy to fall in love with, in The Maximortal so much so that they bring themselves to life. In practice, though, even True-Man isn't safe from man's corruption and greed. It isn't a overwhelmingly positive message, but its apt, and it argues as much in favor of  superheroes as against them. No easy task, but Veitch is more than up it.
     The Maximortal has so much great stuff I haven't even touched on here, but I think I've said what I wanted. Seriously, though, there's a whole story about Wesley being used as part of the A-Bomb in WWII, and another one about the actor who plays True-Man in the movie version and how the character takes over and eventually ends his life. Then, of course, there is El Guano, an even more mysterious and non-traditional superhuman character who plays a major role in Wesley's life. It's all excellent, and all totally on-message with what I've discussed above, but the overall effect is the same. Veitch holds everything we know about superheroes and the comics they live in under a bright, unblinking light. What he finds isn't always pretty, but it's always worth the look.

The Maximortal was published by King Hell Press in association with Tundra Publishing, Ltd. (#1-6) and Kitchen Sink Press, Inc. (#7) and is dated August 1992-December 1993.

Saturday, May 5, 2012

Smatterday 05/05/2012

Happy Free Comic Book Day!
So today is Free Comic Book Day, which is always tons of fun. Every publisher on the planet puts something out for free, in the hopes of getting us all to buy more of their stuff throughout the year. Comicbook fans all over the country get to be the belle of the ball, with new suitors on all sides vying for our attention. I love it. Plus this year it's just one day after Star Wars Day, which is total gravy. Personally, I've got two different shops to hit up today, and I can't wait.

The Ghost of FCBD Past
The other thing that's so nice about FCBD, now, is it's been going on for years. To me, it feels like a legitimate holiday, partly because FCBD played a pretty big role in my own comicbook fandom. Though I've been reading comics off-and-on since I was just a wee lad, it was actually Blackest Night #0 that pulled me back into the world of serious, weekly collecting. Which, of course, is precisely what it wanted to do. I no longer follow the Green Lantern family of titles, but I did for a while there, and I've been an avid and consistent consumer of comicbooks ever since.

Stan, Stan the Lawsuit Man
So Stan Lee finds himself embroiled in a lawsuit over POW! Entertainment. The man is a lawsuit magnet, apparently, which is just a bummer. I mean, the guy's a living legend, and so many people owe him so much...can't we let him put out the few comicbooks he's still involved with in peace? I don't pretend to understand the details, so maybe Lee deserves all this, but I choose to believe he's a kind, aging genius whom the world has decided to take advantage of. I'm probably way off, but I don't care. You get 'em, Stan!

Avengers Review Round-Up
I haven't seen The Avengers yet, but everybody else has, so I've read a whole helluva lotta reviews of it. Won't you join me?
Vancouver Sun
New Yorker-This one feels particularly stupid. To me, anyhow.
CBC News
LA Times
Comic Book Movie
Tim Hanley
Rotten Tomatoes

Thursday, May 3, 2012

Pull List Reviews 05/03/2012

Animal Man #9: In terms of story, pretty damn boring. I mean, yes, everything we see here is probably necessary. We certainly had to learn what Buddy "dying" at the end of last issue meant and where it would lead. But this issue is literally just characters traveling without getting anywhere, which makes for a less-than-thrilling read. Steve Pugh's art continues to suit the title perfectly, and there are numerous stunning visuals in Animal Man #9: the Bone Orchard, the Shepard, the Island of Decay or whatever it's called. Detailed and compelling images, to be sure, but the story they're telling this month is lightweight at best.

Avengers vs X-Men #3: So, when this event started, despite my general hate of massive events, I was devoted to reading all twelve issues of the main title. No tie-ins from series I wasn't already reading, none of the AvX: Vs. stuff (it's a cool enough idea but I don't care to spend my money on it), just one, fifty dollar, six month commitment. So here we are at issue #3, only one-fourth of the way to the finish line, and I find myself already so underwhelmed by what I've seen that I am seriously considering dropping this title outright. This issue, written by Ed Brubaker and still haphazardly drawn by John Romita, Jr., felt like so much wheel spinning. The Avengers and X-Men talk to each other, then the X-Men run away and the two teams talk privately, then Captain America becomes an even bigger asshole than Cyclops, for no reason other than to give readers the cheap thrill of watching Cap throw down with Wolverine. And even that fight is uninspired and ends in a stupid, stupid way. I'm not sure what exactly I want from this title, but it is most assuredly not what I've been getting.

Blue Estate #11: I appreciate that here, as the "first season" comes to a close, Blue Estate didn't bother with any new complications or twists. It's been full of them up to this point, and has done a great job of juggling all the balls in the air, but with only one issue left before this story concludes I was glad to have a more straightforward installment. Also, Clarence and Rachel finally getting together was a big moment, and their relationship is just as strong and as much fun face-to-face as it has been during all their previous phone conversations. Maybe more so. Blue Estate #11 is a lot more action than story, it's true, but this final, enormous fight scene between the two crime families has been a long time coming, as has the Clarence-Rachel team-up, and it is all well-executed here. I've never been wild about the art style in this book, put together by a team of artists under Victor Kalachev's guidance, but it's certainly reliable, it tells the story clearly, and in the midst of this termite-infested gun battle it even heightens the chaos. Not bad at all.

Daredevil #12: The friendship between Matt Murdock and Foggy Nelson has always been an excellent one, and in Daredevil #12 we get a bit of an origin story for the two old chums. It works well, with the right blend of humor and sincerity, even if it doesn't teach us a lot of new information about the characters. The same is true of the present-tense date between Murdock and ADA Kirsten McDuffie, a blossoming romance I am actively rooting for. Chris Samnee's artistic contributions are solid as well, clean and crisp and fitting. Not a fan of those last few pages. I mean, if Black Spectre can be "reborn" so quickly, then why did "The Omega Effect" happen at all? Why is the Omega Drive even a threat to these megacrime organizations if one of them can so easily bounce back? But since that ending was basically disconnected from the rest of this issue, I'll ignore it for now and focus on the excellent personal stories Mark Waid tells instead.

The Defenders #6: What is going on with this title? Remember just a few issues back when it was an awesome, end-of-the-world, madcap adventure series? Now that Matt Fraction has changed his focus from The Defenders defeating a clear threat to The Defenders stumbling over an enormous cosmic mystery, it seems like the series has lost its juice. Fraction still has a really good handle on the voices of his cast, and I got some laughs out of Iron Fist and Silver Surfer trying to communicate. But beyond that, this was mostly a bizarre and not-that-entertaining history lesson coupled with some semi-educated guesses about what these concordance engines might be/do. And Victor Ibañez, while not doing a necessarily bad job, definitely brings us one of the worst-looking issues of The Defenders to date. The monster Silver Surfer turned into was alright, but the whole thing was a bit cartoony without really committing to that style, and the overall effect was big time meh. Meh everywhere.

Dial H #1: As far as first issues go, Dial H #1 is simply marvelous. From the very opening scene, China Miéville expertly introduces us to the strange and depressing world in which this series takes place, and I would like to spend as much time there as possible. Our main character, Nelse, is perfect. He's depressed and maybe even a little hopeless, but a genuinely kind man and good friend, which makes him an ideal candidate for these numerous bizarre superhero identities. And the heroes themselves, in this first issue anyway, were logically connected to Nelse, one having cigarette-related powers and the other having sadness-related powers. The real treat, though, is how Miéville handles the psychological aspects of Nelse's transformations. While it never stops him from fighting evil or accomplishing his goals, it was nice to see the confusion and disorientation that come with suddenly taking on a new persona and set of powers. And Mateus Sanolouco's art complements the story perfectly, adding a gritty reality to things  and launching the madness into the stratosphere when needed. There were some really excellent villains introduced as well, and others only hinted at, so it seems evident that Dial H has big plans for itself. I, for one, can't wait to see how they unfold.

Earth 2 #1: James Robinson uses an interesting approach in this debut. Rather than fully introduce us to the characters who will star in Earth 2 (we see a little of three of them at the end) he takes almost the entire first issue to instead teach us the history of this alternate reality. It's an awesome little tale of struggle and sacrifice, of an inter-dimensional war and the heroes who fight it, and of how Earth 2 lost its first wave of superheroes five years ago. So now we're set up to see who will take their place, and as anxious as I am to meet them, I still had a pretty great time reading what was, basically, this prologue to their future adventures. Not least of all because of Nicola Scott on art who, even if there are a few smaller panels with awkward expressions or angles, generally kicks ass. So much of this issue is huge, high-powered, chaotic violence, but Scott never loses us in the insanity, and makes all three of the DC Trinity look good in spite of some lame costume redesigns. And those moments with Mercury were spectacular. Pretty good opening chapter, even if all the main characters in it were killed off by the end.

G.I. Combat #1: Both the "War that Time Forgot" and "Unknown Soldier" features felt they like suffered from having to share this title with each other. The former, essentially, did nothing except for introduce its concept in the most basic way: soldiers find dinosaurs and fight them. Little else to say about that, except that Ariel Olivetti can draw some damn convincing dinosaurs. On the "Unknown Solider" side of things, it was kind of the opposite problem: too much going on in too little a space. Plus the jumps in narrative point of view were awkward, and I still do not understand how, exactly, this guy ended up riding with the U.S. military. I hope at least one of these stories can find its legs, and fast, because all this opening issue did was briefly introduce us to the main ideas behind each feature and nothing else. Nothing to come back for, yet.

Green Arrow #9: No surprises here, as Ann Nocenti continues to tell one of the most confusing, least interesting comicbook stories I've ever read. Even worse this month, we get her pathetic attempts at writing old-West-style dialogue, which she simply does not grasp whatsoever. I've been really enjoying Harvey Tolibao's art since he joined Green Arrow, but under Nocenti's breakneck pacing, his fluid line work starts to feel a little overwhelming. Like the images themselves are being swept up in the ridiculousness of the narrative. I'm hoping the next arc can take a quick breather, settle into some kind of real status quo for Green Arrow and then go from there in a better direction. It's a creative team with definite potential, but so far they've been dropping the ball in a significant way.

Pigs #7: For a long time, Pigs frustrated me. I wanted it to be about the complex moral and emotional issues inherent in being a sleeper agent. That seemed like what is was setting itself up to be, and the idea thrilled me. What we've been getting instead is more of a blockbuster spy action series, and if you read it at that level, it's fairly high-quality stuff. The break-in and subsequent violence in this issue were inventive, well-drawn, well-paced, and even pretty humorous when they wanted to be. That's absolutely all Pigs #7 has to offer, and I wish it had more. I feel like it wants to have more. But my theoretical vision of this series is not the scale by which it should be judged, and as far as shoot-em-up spy stuff goes, Pigs is doing a consistently enjoyable job. I will say that the cover positively sucked and made no sense, and that in the flashback sequences drawn by Will Sliney I could not get over the stupid way he draws a bunch of weird lines on everyone's noses. But the main narrative was what Pigs has been for a while: a group of young assholes raising hell and killing folks. No more, no less.

Swamp Thing #9: For the second month in a row, art trumps story in Swamp Thing. Lucky for us, Swamp Thing #9's art is even better than last issue's, from both Marco Rudy and Yanick Paquette. The two are an amazing match, and the transition from one to the other is hardly noticeable. And every single page has something astounding to stare at, even if its just the layout (although it's never just the layout). I would like Scott Snyder to maybe pick up the pace a bit, and some of the stuff in this issue was kind of lame, like the trick with the canned peaches or the totally predictable and long-ago announced "cliffhanger" at the end. But Alec and Abigial are good together, and their reunion felt earned, so I was glad for that. Really, though, it's all about the art with this series. And the art is fucking great.

Ultimate Comics Spider-Man #10: Pretty good issue, if badly paced. The discussion Miles and his Uncle Aaron have is definitely interesting and important, but I felt like it took too long. Bendis loads the first two-thirds of the script with this conversation, and while he can write dialogue for days, I wish he'd cut it down a little here. The scenes that followed---Miles considering going to The Ultimates, Miles at home with his parents, Miles actually deciding to go after the Scorpion---all deserved a page or two more than they got, and I think that space could easily have been found by trimming the opening chat. Still, I am excited to see how this Scorpion story unfolds, and David Marquez did an impressive job on art duties as always, keeping me interested in the Miles-Aaron talk even as it started to drag. Hopefully more goes on next time.