Saturday, June 30, 2012

Smatterday 06/30/2012

Sadly, friends, I am at work today, sacrificing a portion of my weekend for a lil' overtime money, and as such won't have time to assemble my usual Saturday collection of comicbook news & links. Instead, here are 10 pictures of overweight superheroes:

Thursday, June 28, 2012

Pull List Review: Wolverine and the X-Men #12

I have some pretty strong complaints about this, but because they have more to do with the whole of AvX and less to do with this specific issue, I want to start by saying that, by and large, I enjoyed Wolverine and the X-Men #12. It was mostly a big fight, but an inventive one with a lot of strong humor and a massive, varied collection of combatants. And most of all, it played to Chris Bachalo's strengths. It was bombastic and chaotic and huge in its scale, and Bachalo, who I am usually not a fan of, clearly had a blast with the whole thing. That in-your-face two-page spread when the two teams collide was phenomenal, and there was so much rock and ice and blood filling the air throughout the issue, which helped to fill out the pages and create an atmosphere of relentless, all-encompassing violence. Did Bachalo still have a panel or two which I couldn't decipher? You better believe it. But the vast majority of these drawings were kinetic and energetic and alive. I was surprisingly impressed.

Jason Aaron's script seems to be aiming for cool and/or funny moments first, with the establishment of an actual plot being less important. The focus is on Rachel Grey, who's meant to be struggling with the decision to return to the role of a hunter, but this personal conflict doesn't ever get enough momentum to hold my interest. And her conversations with Cyclops were just so annoying, because Cyclops is just so fucking annoying now, that I ended up wishing Aaron had cut the throughline about Grey completely in favor of giving the fight another few pages to breath. Not that the fight needed to be bigger, but it wouldn't have hurt, I don't think, and it certainly couldn't have been worse than the obnoxious, half-assed narration and dialogue we got instead.

My aforementioned larger problems lie in what are, yet again, apparent contradictions between this tie-in and the event proper. Because, unless my memory has turned on me, I'm pretty goddamn certain that Beast walked out on the Avengers in Avengers vs. X-Men #6. And I know for sure that was before the Avengers got custody of Hope, since that's what happened, like, immediately after he quit. So what is he doing here, not only fighting alongside them, but being kind of a huge dick to Iceman in the process? I have no idea. And here's something else: if the Phoenix Five are each capable of reshaping the world, and Phoenix Colossus can actually talk villains into helping the cause, why is Phoenix Namor just another dude throwing punches in this issue? Shouldn't he be, I don't know, defeating the Avengers by himself in a matter of minutes? And come to think of it, if the X-Men want Hope back so badly, why only send Namor? Where are the rest of the Phoenix Five during this fight? Cyclops clearly cares about its outcome, seeing how he interrogates Rachel afterwards, but I guess he was too busy standing on a platform overlooking the world with his hands behind his back to actually get involved. So, yeah, I was taken out of the story on several occasions as my poor mind tried to make what I was reading match up with things I'd read the week before. Is Marvel just too lazy to keep this shit consistent? And even then...isn't Aaron one of the guys writing the main event book? Shouldn't he know whether or not Beast is even on the team? Seems obvious to me...

Whatever, taken on its own, this was a fun, knock down drag out issue with art to match, so I'll quit my bellyaching.

For now.

Pull List Review: Ultimate Comics Ultimates #12

While conceptually I enjoyed many aspects of the conclusion to this story, the execution of it in within this specific issue was piss-poor. After eleven damn issues of Reed Richards being this unstoppable, unimaginable evil genius, Tony Stark gets lucky with a sentient tumor and, in one fell swoop, saves the day. What? A brain tumor with a mind of its own that can control technology? That is the best solution Jonathan Hickman and Sam Humphries could come up with? Richards and his City made for some of the boldest, most compelling new supervillains I've come across in ages, and the key to defeating them ends up being...a fluke. A health problem made into a power. Dues ex machina taking the form of intelligent cancer.


I understand and agree with the idea that the City might see Richards' recent behavior as counter to its own goals and then turn against him. These are the parts that worked for me. And visually, I admit it was pretty great to watch a giant Iron Man and Hulk duke it out over a Mr. Fantastic who was stretched to his limits. Luke Ross actually brought some of his strongest work to this issue, I thought, and that fight in particular looked great. But come on, one of the guys who happens to be on the Ultimates also happens to have an undetectable secret weapon growing in his brain? I call foul.

This rushed, half-assed story isn't helped by two jarring artist changes. When Ron Garney takes over on page 14, all the credit Ross managed to earn up to that point is quickly undone and replaced by smudgy, sloppy imagery. And then the final two pages by Butch Guice, while actually quite strong, are so stylistically distinct from Ross or Garney that you feel like you're reading a preview for another series. And, in some ways, you are, since Guice's pages are a lead-in to the impending "Divided We Fall" crossover, and have literally nothing to do with the Children of Tomorrow story which gets wrapped up in the rest of the issue.

I've been singing this book's praises for the better part of a year now, and it had everything to do with the strength of Reed as a bad guy and the City as a concept. To have it all so briskly and unsatisfactorily brushed aside is a tremendous bummer. I guess the City remains in the Ultimate Universe, so perhaps we'll see more of it in the future, but I'd almost rather not. It's been tainted now, spoiled somewhat by the godawful handling of Richards' defeat. This title seems to be on a steady downward slide in quality. I hope it can bounce back before I'm forced to bail entirely.

Pull List Review: Teen Titans #10

This is a difficult issue to sum up. It was...pleasantly nothing. I mean, in terms of story, nothing goes on. The Titans find themselves on a strange island full of dinosaurs, hang out there for a while, and then leave. That's pretty much the size of it.

Of course, this lack of plot leaves room for lots and lots of character moments, and many of those were excellent. Kid Flash and Solstice's tender little love scene felt natural, and I think their romance will probably be quite enjoyable as it develops. And even Red Robin's conversation with Superboy, while it started out feeling forced, ended up being an important exchange between the two biggest names on the team. Best of all, though, was Bunker. God, Scott Lobdell is just nailing it with this character. He has been the brightest, funniest, and most interesting member of this team since he showed up. There's a wisdom he brings to this superhero game that his fellow teenage heroes lack, and it makes him an invaluable part of the cast. I just wish he could give his "This isn't a zero sum game" speech to the hyper-intense, nobody-dies version of Spider-Man we have now, because it's a lesson which that dude desperately needs to learn.

Anyway, this character work is the thrust of the issue, and even though there's more good than bad, it still ends up being kind of a boring read. This isn't helped by the wedged-in death of Danny the Alley at the end, which just lacked the weight it wanted to have because Danny is such a new character to the title, and one we've seen so little of even since his introduction. Then there's the final page with Amanda Waller, essentially a teaser for whatever the next big arc of this series will be, and it felt even more shoehorned than Danny's demise. So, a story with no real movement than fails to stick the landing. Not exactly terrible, because we needed a post-Culling palette cleanser, and not disposable, either, because it advanced some of the team's relationships in significant ways, but just...pleasantly nothing. You just have to take is as it is for now, I guess, and hope the excitement kicks back in next time.

Pull List Review: Spaceman #7

It's been a long time coming, and here we finally arrive at the confrontation between Orson and Carter, handled well from top to bottom. We get a few pages to build the tension, and then when they finally notice each other, the shit hits the fan in pretty much every possible way. Orson is laid flat by his old friend a few times in a row, and their scuffle allows the other kidnappers to make off with Tara. Inevitable stuff, maybe, but paced intelligently and given a lot of emotional depth by Brian Azzarello and Eduardo Risso, both.

Risso delivers some of the best individual panels of the series so far. Orson leaping through the air to protect Tara was powerful in spite of its size, and the scene of Ottershaw eavesdropping as his colleagues plan his murder is heartbreaking. The smear of blood on his face, the strangely-angled lighting, the awkward and crumpled frame of a man who knows his time is up. If there's one thing Risso has down pat, it's this kind of evocative character moment, and because Spaceman #7 is such a significant beat in the story for so much of the cast, he gets to draw a whole lot of 'em.

Azzarello, for his part, seems to be more comfortable with his strange, stilted futuristic language here than ever before. I guess some of that must be me getting used to it, but I think it may also have to do with the emotional weight of the events of this chapter. In the flashback scenes, Orson and Carter discussing their current predicament is enhanced by their bizarre, limited vocabulary. It's not exactly groundbreaking, this notion of a group killing one of its members in order to protect the rest, but the overwhelming sadness and difficulty of it all is underlined by the brevity and bluntness with which these characters hash it out. What could and would normally be a long debate on the morality of the situation is boiled down to two pretty quiet pages of sad, simple men agreeing to something they both abhor.

As Spaceman enters its final act, forces collide and the sadness of this already-bleak future is intensified. In Orson, Azzarello and Risso have built a lonely character living in a lonely world, and as his new friend is lost to him, an old one arrives only to become an enemy. It's depressing stuff, yes, but because of his earnestness and kindness, Orson somehow remains, to my mind, a character of hope. He may be at a low point now, but he's still in the game, and I take solace in that.

Pull List Review: Scalped #59

Here at the end of its chaotic, brutal saga, Scalped doesn't need to pull any gimmicks or big twists. On page one, Jason Aaron and R.M. Guera step on the gas by having Red Crow spear a guy, and the pedal stays to the metal from there to the end. This is the final confrontation between the title's angriest, most violent characters, and it does not disappoint one bit. Red Crow's untamable rage, Catcher's madness and near-mystical use of dogs as his allies, and Bad Horse's determined, smoldering baddassery are all spot on. And why shouldn't they be? Aaron and Guera have both spent years digging into the hearts, minds, and souls of these men, and all that's left to do is stick them in a room full of guns and wait to see who comes out alive. If anyone does.

There's a ton of awesome shit in this issue: the craziness in Catcher's eyes when he begins his assault on Red Crow, the one page where each of the main characters gets a single panel to express his thoughts in this climactic moment, the detailed forensics that finally point to Catcher as the man who killed the FBI agents all those years ago. But none of that amounts to jack when help up against the last three pages. Guera outdoes himself with each new panel, and by the time I got to the end, I honestly felt like I didn't need any more. If this had been the last issue of Scalped I ever read, I would've gotten an incredible longform narrative with pages and pages of unforgettable art and a fully satisfying ending. That there is still a whole finale issue left to go is, at this point, pure frosting.

Pull List Review: Prophet #26

While this book has always had a strangely quiet feel to it, Prophet #26 is even more subdued than usual. Maybe it's the shift in narrative voice, or the lack of any real violence, but something about it feels almost sleepy. It works, of course, because the main character of the issue has only just woken from a long sleep, and the calm of the story did nothing to lessen the urgency of his mission. But there was definitely a dreamlike quality to the whole thing, and one which was hard to pin down.

Brandon Graham not only writes but draws the issue, and does an excellent job at both. Jaxson, our protagonist, is quite a different character than the Prophets who starred in earlier issues, yet the challenges he faces and his ultimate goals are similar enough to create a cohesive whole. Similarly, Graham's art, which has an alarming level of detail, is very much his own without straying dramatically from what has come before. All of this works to make Prophet #26 a story that, on the one hand, is very singular and contained but, on the other, fits snuggly into the rest of the series and adds to the larger narrative in possibly more ways than anything which preceded it.

There are numerous stunning visuals in the issue, including two different two-page landscapes that are simply majestic, but my favorite aspect of the artwork was Graham's use of red. For a long while, the palette is mostly one of neutral tones and muted greens, with red used sparingly throughout. As we move deeper, though, we see more and more red being utilized---like when Jaxson finds his brother, Xefferson, sitting in the middle of a red pool---until, suddenly, it dominates the page. That moment when Jaxson comes out the other side of the Cyclops rail and is washed in red light from a nearby sun is just awesome, and the rest of the issue, similarly saturated in red, is as gorgeous as it is strange.

Prophet is the most reliably excellent title I've seen in some time, and as it builds its reality and its narrative, brick by beautiful brick, it only gets harder to put down.

Pull List Review: Justice League Dark #10

Mikel Janín has been a welcome addition to this title. His artwork is grounded enough to add some realism to the story, but this doesn't prevent him from drawing the shit out of the more fantastic elements, too. And almost all of his characters are incredibly strong. Black Orchid and Dr. Mist in particular are hard to look away from, especially in action scenes. And even though she's wearing the same skimpy costume as always, Zatanna never seems overly sexualized under Janín. Xanadu, either. But his best work in the issue, I think, is with the villains. Faust and his demon pets are disturbing and disgusting in the best possible way, and have a mocking, wicked confidence about them.

It is only Janín's take on Constantine which disappoints me, but not because of any real specific weaknesses or inconsistencies. I just prefer a more rugged-looking version of the character, although I will say that as this New 52 Constantine slowly slides into the role of a possible villain, it does make his clean, dashing look seem more fitting. I like a bad guy who looks like a storybook prince. It's less expected and often more fun.

This shift in Constantine's character is a fine enough story for Jeff Lemire to be seeding, but I appreciate  that even with some of his attention on the distant future, he continues to, rather quickly, build on the present-tense story, too. The dynamics of this "team" are finally developing in such a way that I believe these people might actually work together, and the immediate threat of the maniacal Faust is kicked up a notch by the issue's conclusion. All steady forward progress, with the singular exception of Andrew Bennett's forced exit, which is easy to forgive because, honestly, I'm not sure what that character was doing in this book in the first place. Never got a strong sense of him or his role on this team, and though his return is assured, I'm not too anxious to see that happen.

The new creative team, and the new lineup of the team within the book, are now two for two on being stronger than any preceding issue. For now, it's more than enough if they can just stay the course.

Tuesday, June 26, 2012

This Exists!: The Adventures of Quik Bunny

This Exists! is a semi-regular column about particularly strange, ridiculous, and/or obscure comicbooks I happen to have stumbled across.

Apparently, in 1984, Nestle and Marvel teamed up to put out a free (although it claims "a 60¢ value") promotional activity/comicbook titled The Adventures of Quik Bunny. Now, I'm a longtime avid fan of comicbooks and NesQuik---or Nestle Quik, as it was called in '84---but was unfortunately born a few years too late to get my hands on a free copy at the time it was published. Luckily, about two years ago, I happened upon it in the "A:Misc." section of my local shop's back issues for the relatively fair price of a dollar. Somehow it had actually increased in value, according to them. So be it, I couldn't go home without it.

Now, obviously, it's for children. Very young children. So I'm not going to say that, on the whole, it's got any truly high-quality storytelling or art. But for what is, basically, 40 pages of Nestle Quik ads disguised as reading material, there's actually a lot of decent stuff in there. There are three complete and quite different stories with varying levels of humor, sometimes intentionally and sometimes less so. And the activities in between are, in a few instances, legitimately challenging.

We begin, logically enough, with Quik Bunny's origin story, "A Star Is Born." By far the least interesting tale, it's basically just Quik Bunny explaining that he came to Hollywood to be discovered, got noticed by a director while drinking Quik one day, and therefore became the star of all of Quik's commercials. What I like about this is that, even in this comicbook world wherein he's a real rabbit, he's still a commercial spokesman. A nationally famous commercial spokesman, but still just that, as opposed to, I don't know...the inventor of Quik or some similar nonsense. There's no attempt to make the character any more than he's ever been. In this first story, at least.
     Next is "Treasure Hunt" which is essentially about how reading stimulates imagination. Certainly a solid and positive message. It's sort of lame that the bulk of the narrative takes place in Quik Bunny's dream, but at least that way we get to see him punch a guy in the face, since it doesn't really count. The real gem of this story, though, is one of Quik Bunny's friends, Paula. All of the kids QB hangs with in this tale choose to read books of very different genres, and Paula chooses one about a "space princess." This inspires the following hilarious moments in QB's dream:

Amazing. In the end QB is awoken by his pals and immediately sets to reading a new book so he can have a new dream/adventure. Because books are cool and reading is fun.
     Finally, we have "Magic Time" with special guest star Spider-Man...sort of. There's no denying that the webslinger is, technically, present in the story, but he's not very much of an actual presence within it. Spider-Man chooses to help QB track down his stolen magic tricks, but for reasons unexplained does so entirely from the background. He leads QB to the thief and even offers some assistance when the time comes to take the bad guy down for good, but does it all without ever revealing himself or really even actively participating in what's going on. He uses his webbing to keep a strange level of distance from the action. I get it, this is Quik Bunny's title, so he and his chocolate milk need to be the ones to save the day in the end. But I'm not sure why that meant using Spider-Man as such a disconnected character instead of telling a proper team-up story. An odd decision, to be sure.
     Regardless, the best part of the whole affair is the villain, Harry Houddidit, from his name to his look to his idiocy. Not exactly a criminal mastermind...

...but a fun and fitting sort of buffoon to cast in the role of QB's enemy.
     The Adventures of Quik Bunny is a silly, stupid little comicbook, pretty much by design. It wants to sell Nestle Quik more than it wants to do anything else, if, in fact, it wants to do anything else at all. But if you were the target age for this book (I'm thinking 5-8) and actually went through it cover to cover, reading all three stories and fully completing each activity, I imagine you'd feel more than satisfied. Especially since, presumably, you wouldn't have spent a dime on it, and you'd be enjoying a delicious glass or carton of Nestle Quik while you worked.

The Adventures of Quik Bunny was published by The Nestle Company, Inc. and Marvel Comics Group and is dated 1984.

Saturday, June 23, 2012

Smatterday 06/23/2012

Kid's Kickstarter Convention
This shit makes me so happy. Everett Watford, a 17-year-old comicbook fan who's worked in the industry in various capacities already, is kicking off his very own independent convention today called Vert Con. This project is essentially five years in the making, which, I mean...when I was twelve, I could barely stay on top of following the few monthly series I liked. This guy was planning a damn convention and already making the connections he needed to pull it off. So, truly impressive stuff, and while I'm bummed I couldn't make it to Chicago for the con's first year, I hope it kicks ass and everybody has a wonderful time, especially Watford. 

Stan Lee Keeps Doing Stuff
Fresh off his POW! Entertainment settlement, Stan Lee is back in the news this week for "The Annihilator," a new Chinese superhero movie he's developing. While Lee and others involved in the project are intensely enthusiastic about its potential, there's already a fair amount of skepticism and downright naysaying going on. Stan's recent track record is certainly less than impressive, and I don't exactly think of him as an expert on Chinese culture, but who knows? I'm hesitant to dismiss this too early on, even though my gut says it'll most likely be a train wreck, because I think it'd be really cool if it worked out. The world of superheroes continues to struggle against (correct) impressions that it lacks diversity, so it might be beneficial if a legitimately good, high-profile, brand new Chinese hero came on the scene. Not holding my breath, just kind of quietly rooting for it.

Matt Groening Stops Doing Stuff
Creator of The Simpsons and Futurama, Matt Groening probably hasn't had any specific need to keep producing his 32-year-old comicstrip "Life in Hell" for ages. But he's been steadily doing so nevertheless all this time, until, last week, when he finally decided to end it. I'm not a regular reader of the series, which evidently had 1,669 installments over the years, but I've certainly seen numerous strips in my lifetime and have been a fan of Groening's work since well before I knew his name. Obviously it's sad to see such a hilarious, unusual piece of comic awesomeness come to a close, but Groening is a brilliant and talented guy, so whatever he feels is right for him probably is. Adios, "Life in Hell." You had a longer life, in Hell or otherwise, than any number of your colleagues. 

Friday, June 22, 2012

Pull List Review: Uncanny X-Men #14

In theory, Uncanny X-Men should be one of the core titles of the X-book family. And between Schism and Avengers vs. X-Men, that's exactly what it was. However, since this latest event kicked off, the series has been in the tricky situation of having most of the members of its primary cast occupied in another title being handled by other writers. Kieron Gillen's solution to that problem in Uncanny X-Men #14 is to spend the entire issue checking in on Mr. Sinister. I admit, if you described the plot of this issue to me, I would be less than enthused, but Gillen writes such a wonderfully charming Sinister, and his story is so enormously aided by Dustin Weaver's art, that the issue ends up being just...delightful.

The story of Uncanny X-Men #14 is less important than what it accomplishes, which is to give us a tour of Sinister's new base of operations, Sinister London, and let us in on his newest wicked plot. For the first half of the issue, we see this all through the eyes of one of the countless Sinister clones who dwell in the underground city. The clone fancies himself a rebel, the one cog in this enormous evil machine who isn't content to play his role, and we learn he's got a plot of his own to try and change things. Unsurprisingly, this plan fails, because the clone inadvertently makes his move against another clone, and the real Mr. Sinister shows up to explain that even rebels are a planned part of his perfect system.

I say "unsurprisingly" not because the reveal wasn't well-handled, but just because I don't think anyone ever reasonably expected Sinister to be defeated by a copy of himself. The actual moment of the poor clone's realization that he's been playing into his master's hands is, in fact, remarkably well-done. And even better is the seamless transition that follows, where we switch from rebel clone narration captions to the real Sinister explaining himself and his plans out loud while he and another clone walk through his castle. Because, as one Sinister or another says on the issue's best page, "Who doesn't love a castle?"

All of this carries us to another big twisty moment at the end, and while the second reveal was more surprising than the first, it also didn't exactly blow my mind. It certainly sets up exciting, emotional things to come, but really the best aspect of it here wasn't the fact of what Sinister had been up to, but the image of a room full of Madelyne Pryors.

It is just one of 20 pages full of rich artwork from Dustin Weaver, who really is the perfect artist for this story. The level of detail he puts into each of the three Sinisters means that there's never even a panel of confusion for the reader as to which is which. And there are three full-page splash images in this issue that are so majestic and beautifully textured that it almost makes Sinister London seem like a place you'd want to live: the establishing shot of the city itself, the distant view of the castle, and the final page where Sinister, his clone guards, and his collection of Madelynes gather around his throne and eagerly await their enemies' arrival. We as readers are also left anxious for the moment when the X-Men make their move against Sinister, because based on what Gillen and Weaver show us here, that confrontation may be one of the strangest, most beautiful, most challenging conflicts the mutant heroes have ever participated in.

Pull List Review: Wonder Woman #10

I feel like I might be missing something in Wonder Woman #10, because I'm very unclear as to why Hades stops fighting part way through. It seems like very the notion of someone genuinely loving him is what quells his rage, but I guess I'm confused by why that would be enough. He's still not getting any of the things he wants, and Wonder Woman is still going back on a deal they made last issue, right? And she's been lying to and manipulating him this whole time, since the thing with Poseidon. That's how the whole mess started. So why isn't he pissed about getting ripped off yet again?

I have a hard time sussing out the motivations and/or attitudes of a lot of the other characters in this title, too. Strife's an enigma, Eros has little-to-no personality, and Wonder Woman herself, it's been pointed out a ridiculous number of times, is a mostly blank slate. When she declares that she loves everyone, I can't tell if I'm supposed to already know that. And either way, I'm not entirely clear on what she means. What's her definition of love in this case? Who is this Diana, what makes her do the things she does? I'm not sure Brian Azzarello cares to answer these questions, or maybe he believes he already has, but I have yet to firmly pin her down, and the strange flow of events in this issue didn't help.

Some of that strangeness came from all the over-the-top, corny discussions of love. I don't disagree with the messages in Wonder Woman #10, but I wished they'd been delivered a little more subtly.

Kano and Tony Akins both do solid work, although I think Kano had the stronger pages overall. Just a firmer grasp on Diana's look, and he got the bulk of the good action. There's a definite sense of otherworldliness the two artists create together, amplified by Matthew Wilson's use of pale greens and rich reds. Hell is a sickly place in this series, because its ruler is, evidently, lovesick.

Again, he lovesick? Am I reading that correctly? And if he is, why is he? Wonder Woman already has such a sprawling cast and narrative, I'm afraid it threw too many balls too high up in the air before any of us got a good look at them. Now, uninformed and confused, we drift through the stories, accepting what happens as fact but not understanding the reasons for it.

Pull List Review: Secret Avengers #28

We all knew Mar-Vell wasn't sticking around. The upcoming Carol-Danvers-fronted Captain Marvel series is old news by now, so when Mar-Vell returned in Secret Avengers along with Carol a few issues back, it wasn't a huge leap to figure out that he'd be there only long enough to inspire her to take on the mantle. But just as the careful writing and outstanding artwork has made all of this Secret Avengers AvX tie-in story stand out and up without any assistance from the event itself, in the finale they come together to make even the most classic and predictable of superhero sacrifices a great and moving piece of graphic storytelling.

I've been saying it for months now and it's still true: Renato Guedes kicks ass on this book. The Minister's murder of his son and subsequent suicide were unforgivingly sudden and brutal. They were also very grounded, the Minister most of all, which added to their strength in the midst of, mostly, large-scale cosmic scenes. In either, though, Guedes has a way of making his drawings seem calm, or anyway they have the effect of calming me, perhaps especially in the more bombastic scenes. The brief return of Danvers as Binary, Mar-Vell's final moments with the Phoenix, and Captain Britain's noble attempt at battling the fire bird are all moments of massive power, but the artwork invites you to linger over them, to let them engulf you. And if you give in, it's strangely comforting.

More than any of this violence, however, the strongest art is on the final page. It's a gorgeous and majestic setting for Mar-Vell's resting place, and not only Guedes' work but the carefully-selected greens and browns from Matthew Wilson and Jeremy Mohler make it a page worth studying. As do the mysterious plants which slowly emerge at the very end.

For his part, Rick Remender handles Mar-Vell's departure by having Carol Danvers narrate the issue, and it's an effective tactic. Her love and admiration for him, as well as her obvious understanding of his psychology, make her the perfect person to tell his newest tale. But my favorite part of the story was actually the tying off of Captain Britain's self-pity thread. Britain was one of the permanent cast members Remender added to this title when he came aboard, and at the time I admit I was a little baffled by the decision. But despite a tendency to bitch and moan, the character has grown on me under Remender's pen. He is a man struggling with his own self worth, and since his superpowers are based in his confidence, this makes for an interesting dilemma. So watching him finally quit the bellyaching and man up against the Phoenix was excellent. Even though I knew it was impossible, for a minute or so I wanted to believe he might actually win.

But, like Mar-Vell's death, the Phoenix's escape from this team of space-faring Avengers was never in question, because it's on its way not only to another planet but numerous other titles, too. What's so impressive and unusual is that, by the time we got to that moment within Secret Avengers, the story was so complete and so completely satisfying that the event-based conclusion didn't even matter.

Pull List Review: Saga #4

Fiona Staples is easily one of the best artists currently working in the comicbook medium. Every single issue of Saga has been not only beautiful but original. Because Staples is building this whole damn universe from the ground up, she has ample opportunities to show us some new creature or location or technology, and never wastes a one. In Saga #4, we visit Sextillion, essentially a planet-sized fetish club, and we’re treated to angels, demons, and all manner of beast in between rolling around in their own kink. Staples finds a splendid mix of the lovely and the creepy on Sextillion, all while following The Will as he walks through the endless debauchery with his typical detached calm.

That calm maintains until he is offered a six-year-old as a sex slave, and it is in that scene where Staples truly pulls out all the stops. All of The Will’s barely-contained rage seeps out of the pages, and of course we have the stunning and gruesome panel where he crushes the child’s pimp’s head with his bare hands. But before any of that there is the full page splash of the girl herself, a staggeringly heartbreaking image if ever there was one. It makes the reader cheer when the man responsible is killed, not because we’ve now warmed up to The Will, necessarily, but because we’re so overwhelmed with sadness and empathy for the girl, anything that makes her life even incrementally better is cause for joy.

Sadly, in spite of this remarkable artwork, Brian K. Vaughn’s writing is less impressive in Saga #4 than it was in the first three issues. Not a lot of forward progress, which is good in some ways because it gives Staples’ art more room to breath, but also makes for a duller chapter. Marko and Alana’s conversation about his ex-fiancé is too by-the-numbers for me. I suppose in theory it holds some insight into Marko’s character, but since he claims to have been a different person when he got engaged because it was before he became a soldier, I’m not sure how much we really learn about him from the simple fact that he once considered marrying another woman. My guess is that in the future Marko’s ex will play a semi-major role in the narrative so that, looking back, the importance of this discussion will be clearer, but on its own it feels like a subject given too much attention with too little payoff.

But seriously, the story is secondary to the art in this book, and as long as Staples stays on board I’m betting that will always be the case. Even if you hate science fiction, Brian K. Vaughn, and love, I suggest you pick up an issue of Saga and just stare at the pictures.

Pull List Review: The Shadow #3

This is clearly going to be a slow-burn kind of series, but that suits me, and the story it’s telling, just fine. There are a lot of players, creating even more secrets, lies, and hidden agendas, so keeping the pace relatively slow helps everything and everyone stay clear. But, decompressed or not, this was a solid issue with a hell of a lot going for it. And, now fully introduced, Garth Ennis’ take on Lamont Cranston gets to be the guy calling the shots here, a role he was clearly born to play.

Cranston’s relationship with Margo Lane is the most compelling aspect of the issue, and possibly of the whole character. Even though he is blunt, forceful, and occasionally just plain nasty with her, he has a definite respect for her, too. He may not see her as an equal, because in his eyes nobody ever will be, but she’s close enough to be his ally. He is honest with her where he’s deceitful with everyone else, and more and more it seems like his hardness isn’t mean-spirited. It’s a tool he uses to keep her tough, prepared for whatever violence and horror they’re bound to face together. And he acts that way only because he knows she can handle it.

Compare Cranston’s conversation with her to the one he has with Finnegan, the man who’s meant to be in charge of him, and the height of his opinion for Miss Lane comes even more sharply into focus. He’s a wicked, manipulative son of a bitch, there is no doubt, but he may be just a smidge less wicked and manipulative when it comes to Margo Lane.

Aaron Campbell’s art continues to complement the hard-as-nails attitudes of the characters and narrative. But what stood out to me the most in The Shadow #3, as far as the art was concerned, were the dynamic page layouts Campbell employed once The Shadow showed up. It displays both the swiftness of his actions and the power behind them to have such a dramatic shift in the panel arrangement, as if he is literally capable of reshaping the world to his will when he dons his hat and cape. I’m not sure whether or not this is something Campbell has been doing all along, but he does a superior job of it here, regardless. 

Ennis and Campbell jumped into The Shadow head first, and their version of the character has been spectacular thus far.

Thursday, June 21, 2012

Pull List Review: Rebel Blood #4

It felt inevitable as it was unfolding, but I admit I did not see the big twist of this series coming. I took it for granted that the zombies were real, and even though Chuck's sanity was always in question, and even though from the very beginning the book had a decidedly surreal feel to it, I was surprised to discover what had actually been going on. Luckily, even after the reveal, the surreality didn't disappear altogether, and the exact reasons as to what drove Chuck to this level of madness are up for debate. It's a perfectly horrific and tragic ending to a remarkable series, not to mention a brutally violent one.

Riley Rossmo's artwork is a bit more contained when he's drawing the "real" world. The linework is less frenetic than usual, underlining the solidity of that reality. On the other hand, the violence and horror are at their ugliest here, and so is Chuck. In his own mind, he's at the darkest part of his hideous quest, and for the reader he is slowly transformed from the hero to the villain. This issue is all about that disconnect, the difference between Chuck's version of the story and everyone else's, and so Rossmo stylistically straddles the same line.

Rossmo obviously has a lot of love for this project, composing the panels in dynamic ways, using his space intelligently, and generally taking great care with the visuals. The largest example lies in the character of Red, who either is or is connected to the terrifying deer-monster-spirit creature who has been looming in the shadows of Rebel Blood all along. Here, Rossmo dresses him in the darkest, dirtiest shade of his own name as possible, and for a page or two lets the evil seep from him in the way he holds himself and his general detachment from the death around him. Then in one quiet but formidable panel, we see his creepy antlered shadow stretching long behind him, and his wickedness is no longer merely implied. It's a strangely satisfying if unsettling moment, set up and executed perfectly.

The narrative of a man so broken by life that he commits suicide via a killing spree fueled by a twisted delusion of grandeur is not one I've come across before. Rossmo and Alex Link tricked us into thinking they were just doing an original take on zombie comics, and instead crafted a tight psychological horror book that just happened to have zombies in it, too.

Pull List Review: Higher Earth #2

The characters in Higher Earth continue to be mysteries. Our main hero is still unnamed, and even Heidi, who clearly has some special purpose or destiny or history or something like that, is pretty vague when it comes to the details. Their personalities are strong, but the how's and why's of who they are remain largely unknown. For the time being, Sam Humphries weighs on the side of world-building, opening the issue with an ad for the titular Higher Earth, and giving use more information about its society within the story than about our protagonists.

This strategy works so far, because the world and its inhabitants are interesting and complex, but I'd like to get some insight into our cast sooner than later. Heidi doesn't seem like she's the kind of person who patiently waits for her questions to be answered, though, so my hope is that in the near future she demands some explanations and we can get the ball rolling. In the meantime, I can revel in her nameless guardian's skilled violence as he fights back against the armored cops of this reality.

There is some great-looking action in this issue, to be sure, like the shot of a terrified head as it's severed or the guy being cut in half by a blade that's almost as long as the page. But where Francesco Biagini and Manuel Bracchi truly excel is in the more bizarre moments. Heidi's nightmare funhouse interpretation of Higher Earth was especially eye-grabbing, and both the robotic and actual dinosaurs looked majestically terrifying.

It's a good-looking book all over, with a style that adds to the insanity and enormity of Heidi's new situation without making it too horrible or grim. And because we keep jumping from one Earth to another, the zany quality of the art creates a tonal consistency while still allowing for drastic visual changes. Like, for instance, at the end, when we move from a futuristic distopia to a prehistoric wilderness without our heroes ever seeming out of place.

Of course, the whole point of the story is that they are, in fact, out of place, and as of now the significance of that is unclear. But I still want to find out, because Higher Earth continues to be an interesting sci-fi concept, and since Heidi and friend obviously have an important role to play within that concept, I'm hooked. A successful second issue in that sense, and one which cements the narrative and artistic voices of the series.

Pull List Review: Hellblazer #292

Two things that, more often than not, mean a great issue of Hellblazer: standalone stories, and Simon Bilsey. And, nowadays, another surefire sign of an excellent Constantine story is one centered on his wife Epiphany. Peter Milligan has built a romance that's stable and comfortable but still freaky enough to satisfy Constantine, and any new layer to that relationship is welcome. So even before getting to the first page, Hellblazer #292 has incredible potential in its ingredients, and the dish it serves lives up to that entirely.

I'm tempted to describe the issue as a children's story for adults, but I don't know if that's accurate. It's about a child, at least partially, and Bilsey's art (along with the enchantingly smooth, dark colors from Brian Buccellatto) definitely has a storybook quality to it. But a fucked up storybook about extra-hideous werewolves. These wolfmen make for all the coolest images, in particular the initial full-page reveal of the man changed by young Epiphany's potion, and later Constantine's own two-page transformation. But while these beasts give the strongest first impressions, the more lasting images are of Constantine and Epiphany together as grown-ups, their faces and bodies showing love for one another but their eyes hiding shameful secrets.

I said before that the art had a twisted storybook feel and, upon further reflection, I think I see that more in Terry Greaves' appearance than anything else. The shape of his head and smile remind me of the art of Lane Smith (The Stinky Cheese Man) in an odd way. And because we are, theoretically, seeing Greaves through the lens of Epiphany's childhood memory, it makes sense that he'd be exaggerated and warped to fit the worldview of a mature, abnormal child.

Or maybe not "abnormal" but definitely unique, talented, and powerful beyond her own understanding. It's nice to visit Epiphany's younger years and see what a capable force of magic she was and is in her own right without Constantine. Most importantly, though, we learn that long before they became the occult power couple they are today, the two of them were somehow drawn to each other, and that they're still bound by a secret they unknowingly share. It's a significant new facet of their past and present, and one which I wouldn't be surprised to see come up again down the line. But whether it does or not, whether they ever discover it or live out their days in ignorance, I'm glad to know about it, and their love is even lovelier to me now that I do.

Pull List Review: Dark Avengers #176

This title has some really incredible artists, huh? Declan Shalvey has been doing great work in his own style on the book for a while, but Kev Walker shows up and blows up every time he's on art duties. From giant sharks to a tattered Dr. Doom to, more than anything else, his thorough and impressive Man-Thing, Walker captures the size and spectacle of this issue without sacrificing one shred of detail. When Moonstone and Satana threateningly stare each other down and Satana is surrounded by flame, the tension and danger of the moment come through, but Walker still makes it fun, somehow. The same is true of Man-Thing's appearance. As he rises from the depths he is a powerful and terrifying presence, but it still feels right when he says, "What up?" This blend of a fun and lightweight tone with more serious images is perfect for Dark Avengers, and seems to be just what Jeff Parker's script is aiming for as well.

Man-Thing's dialogue is probably the strongest example of that mixture. Having him speak in a universal language allows Parker to give him the biggest joke lines and the most serious pieces of information. Man-Thing returning with a new intelligence is a delicious addition to the constantly-shifting cast of this book, and already his relationship to the rest of the team is fascinating. I'm excited to explore his new personality (or personalities). And the issue has a lot to love even before Man-Thing's arrival, creating some friction within the Thunderbolts because of all the uncontrollable time travel they've been up to. That time travel problem also finds its resolution in Man-Thing, only to immediately be complicated anew through the revelation that Dr. Doom is now in the mix. Both of these beats work well and keep the continuing saga of the time-lost T-bolts fresh without having to, yet, tie a bow on it and/or send them home.

If you weren't convinced by the last issue, Dark Avengers #176 should set your mind at ease that the change in this book is in name only. Luke Cage and his new team are nowhere to be seen here, and I appreciate that Parker continues to do exactly what he was already doing with this series in spite of the new title and characters. It's a bold decision to not only ignore the only-just-introduced half of the cast but also add another member to the half we see, but Parker sells it with his tight pacing and big ideas. I do find it a bit silly that nobody noticed the man they were rescuing was Dr. Doom, but again, Parker makes it work with all the Man-Thing madness acting as a believably huge distraction. And either way, I want very badly to watch the Thunderbolts go toe-to-toe with a heavy hitter like Doom, so I'm willing to forgive a slight plot hiccup if it gets me there.

All told, this is a particularly fine issue of a consistently entertaining comicbook. You never know quite what you'll get with Dark Avengers, but you can be sure it'll be an off-kilter superpowered adventure of the highest order. 

Pull List Review: Daredevil #14

One of the things I've most enjoyed about Mark Waid's Daredevil run is that the stories take full advantage of the superhero genre and universe in which they take place. So in Daredevil #14, not only do we get a trip to Latveria, but also a wicked plot involving gas that contains microscopic surgical robots. It's supervillain science fiction at its best, and even though the actual scene where the plan is explained felt forced, everything else about Waid's story was a success.

Daredevil is on his A game, pulling off death-defying acrobatics, winning fights against incredible odds, and the whole time strategizing and formulating a plan to escape. Daredevil's a talented tactician, using the constant flow of new information from his heightened senses as a means of better assessing and dealing with his situation. But then those horrible little robots start to knock out his senses one by one, and the challenge of his flight is increased exponentially. As Waid introduces this threat to DD and we watch our hero figure out what's going on, his fear and our own steadily rise, so when he reaches the border and makes his final, desperate grab at freedom, we're right there with him on the edge of our seats. It's exactly where we should be when a character known as the "Man Without Fear" becomes terrified , and it makes the punch of the ending all the more powerful.

Any faltering in Waid's script is saved by Chris Samnee's skilled pencils. Samnee makes DD a bit scrawnier, perhaps, than other artists, but it doesn't take away from his obvious physical prowess. This is just a take on the character that emphasizes the acrobatic aspects of his physicality, and in an issue with an extra helping of jumping, diving, and running, it only enhances the visuals. And while it's the worst scene in terms of script, the images of the tiny robots in the lab rat's brain are some of the best in the issue. A nice bit of balance there, if nothing else.

After some missteps during and following "The Omega Drive" crossover, Daredevil is back to form. Good news for us as readers, but bad news for the titular hero, trapped now in a hostile foreign country with no power. It makes my brain hurt to imagine the experience of being alive but having no senses, but I bet Mark Waid will write the hell out of it.

Pull List Review: Casanova: Avaritia #4

Like both of the earlier Casanova series, I suspect that once I read Avaritia from top to bottom, I'm going to find I enjoy and notice a lot more about the finale than I did on my first read. This is a dense book, busting at the seams with chaos, and so this last issue is primarily just each of the innumerable plot threads charging forward to their inevitable, madcap conclusions through the force of their own momentum. What I'm saying is that, while visually stunning and still a whole lot of fun, there wasn't a great deal of newness to the content of Casanova: Avaritia #4. Things we'd already seen developed were played through, and in satisfying ways, but with the exception of the very final scene which, I assume, will help launch us into the next series, most of this felt unfortunately familiar.

Even if Matt Fraction's script wasn't all that spectacular, Gabriel Bá's art and Cris Peter's colors are worth the price of admission several times over. The sequence where every page shows panels of Sasa Lisi, Ruby, Benday & David X, AND Casanova is just stunning, and even better than that is Kaito's assassination of Cornelius. Best of all, though, is the gorgeous, haunting shot of Xeno's empty bandages flailing in the wind. In the midst of some of the most action-heavy insanity this title has seen, we have this powerfully poignant and quiet moment, and it steals the show completely.

As I said above, my problems with the story will probably be dissolved upon a reread, and it's not as if I take issue with any of the specifics of what happened. Everybody ends up in an appropriate place, and the Seychelle story seeded at the end looks like it's bound for greatness. The trouble is that, for this highly-anticipated closing to a long-awaited series, I wanted a few more surprises and less of a straightforward wrap-up. I was glad to see what I saw here, but not surprised by it, and I guess I was just expecting something more unexpected.

Pull List Review: Birds of Prey #10

Initially, I was excited when I heard Travel Foreman would be coming on as the regular artist for Birds of Prey. After this issue, though, I'm far less enthused. It's not like Foreman does bad work across the board or anything, and there's actually a few moments of greatness. The full page of the disgusting plant monster attacking, for example, or later when Katana slices her way through a horde of smaller plant soldiers. But when it comes to the other characters, there are some clear inconsistencies, and in the case of Black Canary, some straight-up awkward, unnatural-looking panels. I understand that Foreman makes Canary's mouth unrealistically wide on purpose to display her scream-based powers, but the result is jarring and weird. And her strange, shifting facial features don't stop there, anyway, the worst example being when she's arguing with Batman. Her cheeks seemed stretched, like the bottom of her jaw is barely attached to the top, and while that may have been intentional on Foreman's part, he didn't stick the landing, and she ends up looking like she's made of putty rather than flesh.

The ultimate feel of Birds of Prey #10 is that the art was more concerned with the nameless monsters than the stars of the title, because there's more detail in the plant creatures and, despite being scientific impossibilities, they're more lifelike. Maybe Foreman is getting used to the cast, figuring them out one by one or something, because his Katana is appropriately imposing and even Starling has more good panels than bad, but overall there are too many weak or distracting artistic moments in this issue.

It's not the most stable of narratives, either. This sort of felt like a time-killer issue, not a great choice after last month's "Night of the Owls" crossover which felt very much the same. The Birds are attacked mysteriously in a strange place, and though the final page has Poison Ivy promising to explain the situation, all we get this time out is a drawn out fight/chase scene to set up the new arc. Duane Swierczynski clearly has a longer-term plan for this location and its threats, but for now that plan is wholly obscured, and the new villain or villains are nameless and faceless, which doesn't make a strong case for readers to come back next month.

I did enjoy Swierczynsk's expansion of Black Canary's powers, conceptually at least, but it sort of came out of left field for her teammates and the reader alike. Ditto the flashback with Batman, which I'm not convinced served any narrative purpose other than needlessly tying together last month's issue and this one. And maybe that's the real problem with Birds of Prey #10---it tries to follow a lame, ill-fitting tie-in story, reconnect back with the events that have come before, and kick off a new arc all at once. That may just have been one too many goals, and so the issue as a whole feels loosely cobbled together, in story and art both.

Pull List Review: Avengers vs. X-Men #6

So, Avengers vs. X-Men is actually just an exercise in turning popular heroes into maniac villains, I guess. That's my takeaway from this issue. I'm not necessarily complaining, because taking the Marvel Universe's two largest teams and warping them into dick-headed bad guys who just want to one-up each other is way more interesting than having them squabble over Hope, but...I'm surprised and maybe a little nervous now that we're moving in this direction. In a conflict where, at first, choosing sides seemed pointless, what's happening now is that choosing sides seems...dangerous. I no longer trust any of these characters, save for Beast, to behave in a way that I would consider right or good, and I find myself rooting for some third party to step in an course correct these assholes. I suppose maybe that'll be Wanda's role. It certainly seemed to be her intention in this issue. Also seems like she's being set up as the true intended host for the Phoenix, which is...fine, if not entirely unexpected.

The point is, from the very start Avengers vs. X-Men could have been named Heroes Behaving Badly, and with issue #6 Jonathan Hickman pushes that concept to new extremes. The X-Men, now, are basically the Hyperclan from Morrison's run on JLA: claiming to be the dawn of a new age of heroism and peace, they force their objectives and opinions on the world through their massive power and the implied threat of force. Or, maybe they more closely resemble the Children of Tomorrow from Hickman's own work on Ultimates. Certainly Cyclops and Ultimate Reed Richards would admire and understand one another. The Avengers, meanwhile, are acting more like children than villains, or maybe villainous children. "Wahhhh! It's not faaaaair! We want to be the ones who win the Phoenix fight. We want to be Earth's mightiest heroes. We did it FIRST!" So they attack the X-Men at home, this time in an overt kidnapping attempt that never even pretends to be diplomatic or peaceful, and predictably get their asses handed to them. Then Scarlet Witch shows up for reasons still undefined, and we get the "No More Avengers" line promised long ago, and delivered in a way that I think is far less dramatic than intended.

I know this all sounds like I didn't like this issue, but that's not the case. I think the second act of this series opened in a bizarre way, but it's far more compelling a story than anything offered in Act 1. And Oliver Coipel elevates the art tremendously from the sketchy sloppiness John Romita, Jr. had been providing. His take on the new Utopia is breathtaking, and he captures the unimaginable power of the Phoenix Five perfectly. Best of all, though, is his Beast, who steals his only scene not just through dialogue but simply by drawing the reader's eye more than anyone else we see. Coipel's Magneto, too, is an imposing figure, and opens the issue with the appropriate level of gravitas.

Despite the strangeness and unlikability of basically the whole cast, Avengers vs. X-Men #6 is a step up in quality on all fronts. The conflict between the two teams now has some clarity of meaning, and even if all they are is two equally stubborn and misguided sides railing against each other, their reasons for doing so have become far more interesting. This shift in story is welcome, as is the accompanying shift in art, and while I wasn't exactly blown away by this issue, it definitely ignited a small fire of hope that this event might not be a total waste after all.

Pull List Review: Astonishing X-Men #51

For an issue that had a shitstorm of preliminary attention, Astonishing X-Men #51 ended up being quite a snore. It was a lovely wedding ceremony, sure, but that's all it was. Certainly a wedding, even one that goes relatively smoothly, could make for a solid single issue. In this case, though, the romance behind it is so thinly-established that I can't help but think the whole thing would've be many time stronger if they'd waited a few more months before even attempting a wedding issue.

I'm not arguing that Northstar and Kyle's love, itself, is weak. I believe wholeheartedly that these two men care deeply for one another, and always will, and I have no doubt that getting married was the right decision for them as a couple. Marjorie Liu has done an excellent job since she started on this title of making the affection between them genuine and strong, but it hasn't really had the time or space for the readers to fully understand or embrace it. I believe in their love, but don't especially care about it, because I only just met these guys, and other than being crazy about each other, I don't know that much about them, individually or as a couple. If they'd had a few arcs together, if I'd seen them go through more then what still feels like just the first half of some confusing mind control adventure, I might be more excited by their ceremony. As it is, though, their wedding is like any distant acquaintance's wedding: I admire the beauty of it and I wish them all the best, but I don't see any reason to actually be in attendance myself.

It doesn't help that Mike Perkins art is still fairly shoddy. There's plenty of serviceable stuff but nothing really catchy, and a lot of the time when Perkins is trying to show a character expressing a strong emotion, he takes it a bit too far. In the opening scene, Northstar doesn't just seem anxiously happy, he look intensely manic. And later, when his sister suggests he might want to bail on his wedding, what is meant to be an angry scowl looks more like the face of a guy getting punched in the gut. It's not that Perkins can't ever handle his characters expressions, but sometimes the impact of a scene is diluted by this over-the-top acting.

The wedding itself looked really nice, though, and Perkins did a great job every time he had to draw the massive crowd of superheroes there. Also, the final page, which might also have been the strongest story beat, was visually delightful and disgusting all at once. So Perkins does shine in places, and even when he misses the emotional mark, his work is never terrible. Mostly, though, the art suffers from carrying a story where so little takes place.

I'm sure people who picked this up without having read the preceding issues but wanted to join in the celebration of the first gay superhero wedding will be pleased. But as another chapter in a long-form narrative, this wedding comes too soon to be as effective or moving as it wants to be. There's a lot of talk within the issue about how fast everything has been moving, and I agree with that sentiment 100%. If Liu hadn't rushed her characters into this ceremony but, instead, taken her time establishing for the readers the rich, deep romance she obviously sees in Northstar and Kyle, I think their marriage would have been a much more exciting event. Here, it falls flat, despite the lovely setting, honest vows, and loving characters involved.

Tuesday, June 19, 2012

Gimmicky Nonsense Done Right: Amalgam Comics

Recently, I reread my collection of Amalgam Comics. For one reason or another, my nine-year-old self wasn't aware of the original run, by in 1997 my ten-year-old self actually managed to be devoted enough to get all 12 issues of the second wave. At the time, I probably only understood half of the references and in-jokes involved, but even at that age I appreciated the concept of the project. So I gathered them all, read them without fully understanding what I was reading, and forgot about each one pretty much as soon as I'd finished the last page. They were light fare, silly and pointless and ultimately insignificant, because they took place in an imagined universe that I'd never see again. But reading them now, in the shadow of DC's New 52 and Marvel's Avengers vs. X-Men and any number of previous events, crossovers, reboots, or similar tricks used to gain attention and boost sales, I have to admire Amalgam. It's just as dumb and obvious as anything that preceded or followed it, perhaps even more so, but it did two things which are rarities when it comes to these kinds of gimmicks.
     Number one, it actually generated new material. Sure, the characters were all derivatives of established superpeople, and so their stories borrowed details from the worlds which inspired them. But they combined aspects of two very different universes, and the end result was something uniquely strange. Like Lobo the Duck or Generation Hex, both instances where the larger plot ideas came from one title (Lobo/Generation X), but the characters and narrative tone more closely mimicked the other (Howard the Duck/Jonah Hex), providing original outlooks on familiar concepts. That was Amalgam's mission, to shake up old ideas by smashing them together, and while that may not have been the most inspired of strategies, it produced fun and original comicbooks.
     Secondly, each Amalgam issue was designed to stand alone as a complete story, which, for me anyway, earns them a ton of points. In modern events, not only do we usually get a lengthy overarching narrative told over several months, there are often myriad tie-ins as well which, while theoretically "non-essential," are still telling parts of the massive primary story. Through Amalgam, DC and Marvel put out 24 self-contained stories (though, again, I personally read only the latter 12), and while their levels of quality varied, it was still an ambitious and impressive endeavor. Give any Amalgam comicbook to someone who's new to the medium, and they can enjoy it, even if they aren't familiar with the characters or titles upon which it's based. The same can certainly not be said for most major event books, let alone the monthly ongoing titles of today.
     I'm not saying Amalgam was specifically targeted at new readers. Far from it. In the case of some titles, like Super Soldier: Man of War and Challengers of the Fantastic, the ideal audience really would've had knowledge of both current (in '97) and classic comics from Marvel and DC. And honestly, the entire thing was aimed at longtime readers, people already familiar with numerous characters and narrative styles and artwork. Amalgam was meant to feel like an established company publishing stories in a large, shared universe, and that's exactly what it did. Meaning in a sample of 12 "random" titles, you got varying levels of talent, technique, and seriousness in the storytelling. So admittedly, if you were inexperienced with superhero comicbooks and read the Amalgam stuff, it might not exactly hook you on the genre. But no matter how good or bad, every title clearly at least tried to be accessible, to explain its characters and world. Most of them included an origin story, and those that didn't offered some amount of exposition and backstory through dialogue. Sometimes it was clunky, sometimes confusing, but this effort to be understandable by everyone is uncommon, and should be appreciated and applauded even in those cases where, perhaps, it falls short.
     I guess that's sort of my outlook on Amalgam overall: they may not be the greatest comicbooks I've ever read, but even fifteen years after the fact I value the core idea of creating self-contained tales with new characters and worlds, or at any rate in new contexts. Are there endless examples of muscly 90's art, sloppy scripting, and rushed plot work? Sure are, most notably in the big team books: JLX Unleashed!, The Exciting X-Patrol, and Magnetic Men featuring Magneto. But there are nearly as many examples of inventive humor and careful, rich characterization. Plus there's some truly stunning artwork. John Romita, Jr. on Thorion of the New Asgods is particularly great, but there's also excellent horror stuff from Rodolfo Damaggio in Bat-Thing, and Spider-Boy Team-Up's Ladronn kills it with the whole huge cast, particularly when drawing cyborg characters. My point is, just like any arbitrary sampling of titles from any month's worth of superhero books from the Big Two, there's both good and bad and wholly mediocre---I'm looking at you, Iron Lantern---material. But very much unlike such a sampling (if taken today), none of the Amalgam stories were inaccessible or incomplete due to being part of a serialized story embedded in confusing continuity. Amalgam is proof that the overall quality of a group of books doesn't have to suffer from using this approach of standalone tales, even if the true goal isn't so much to tell good stories as to pander to fans with gimmicks based on conversations nerds have been having for years. I don't expect every event or crossover to do this, but it would be nice if this kind of thing happened more often. I suppose that's what "Night of the Owls" wants to be, and hypothetically the AvX: VS. mini-series as well, so perhaps it's not as uncommon as I claim. But in both of those cases, the supposed self-contained stories spin out of either an 11- or 12-issue-long larger narrative from another title, so I'm not sure if they really count.
     At any rate, rereading these 12 Amalgam books from '97 definitely made me want to track down the original 12 from the year before. And lucky for me, it doesn't matter what order I find them in or how quickly, because each one will make sense and tell an entire story on its own.

P.S. Dark Claw Adventures is the only thing I read but didn't mention above, so...I'm mentioning it here. It's pretty good. Drawn in the style of Batman: The Animated Series, so that's a bonus.

Saturday, June 16, 2012

Smatterday 06/16/2012

New 52 Still New, Still 52
So DC has announced another round of cancellations and replacement titles for September. Only four series total are getting the axe this time, including the already-announced Justice League International, and it's all tied into the fact that in September, all of DC's titles will come out with a "zero issue" that takes place before the events of their debuts. It's been interesting to watch the ongoing publishing strategies of the company since the universe-wide reboot last year, and even though I don't fully understand their devotion to the number 52, I actually quite enjoy the idea that any cancellation means a new series begins and vice versa. The practice of regularly bringing in new blood and sweeping up the ideas which aren't working is a good one, and in my mind right now it's the largest difference between Marvel and DC. The specific titles launching in September don't really thrill me, although I'm definitely going to read Sword of Sorcery #0 and see what an updated Amethyst is like. And I think it's too bad Resurrection Man is going away, but I'm sure the character will show up elsewhere. Conceptually, though, I support the whole mess. Well...I do not support numbering the issues with #0, since that's just one more example of the Big Two's incessant campaign to render issue numbers entirely meaningless.

Legal Battles End & Begin
Yesterday, the news came out that Stan Lee had settled one of the several lawsuits he was involved in, the one over control of POW! Entertainment. So that's one down for Stan the Man, who's been embroiled in various legal troubles for years.

Meanwhile, cartoonist Matthew Inman, creator of, was recently threatened with a defamation lawsuit by for his (correct) claims that they had posted his material without his permission or giving him credit. Inman's awesome, hilarious response to this threat was to raise a whole bunch of money for other, better causes and rub it in Funnyjunk's face. Also there's a drawing of Funnyjunk's owner's mom making love to a bear involved. It all seems pretty silly to me, and Inman obviously has the approach of highlighting that silliness, but sadly Funnyjunk's lawyer isn't so amused. So this may well not be the end of this bizarre story, though I'd honestly be surprised if there was much more anyone could do about the situation at this point.

Seriously, Too Many Deaths This Year
So, this week, two great men died, adding to the ever-increasing list of incredible artists we've lost this year. Although not really a comicbook creator, Ray Bradbury's death is a huge blow to creativity and fiction in general, so I wanted to take a moment to pay my respects to him on this site. Others have already said more about him than I ever could, but his influence on science fiction and, truthfully, on the world at large cannot be denied and should never be forgotten. Most writers struggle their entire careers to put something together as powerful, timeless, and intelligent as Fahrenheit 451, but for Bradbury that book is just the largest of many such triumphs.

Robert L. Washington, III, co-creator of Static, one of the best, coolest, most important comicbook characters of the past twenty years, also died this week. There has been an outpouring of sadness and respect for this talented creator, who had seen some incredibly hard times even while alive. I especially want to mention the really great donation program set up by Hero Initiative to raise money for a proper burial. Static was the most popular character of an excellent, admirable comicbook company, Milestone, and being a part of his creation is no small accomplishment. Washington and Bradbury both deserve our reverence, and even in the wake of their deaths, their work's lasting impact and importance is clear.

Thursday, June 14, 2012

Pull List Review: Ultimate Comics X-Men #13

It can't be easy to take over a title from another writer, especially when that writer left so much unanswered and half-formed, but Brian Wood has found a logical way of handling the transition as he takes the helm of Ultimate Comics X-Men from Nick Spencer. Basically, this issue is Wood's mission statement for the series, and as the title switches focus and direction, so, too, does its main character, Kitty Pryde. Wood has Kitty literally shed her old costume and name (in an, admittedly, bizarre and, I think, needless scene) and announce to the reader and her teammates in no uncertain terms that she has a new goal, a new purpose in life. Kitty stands in for Wood, and her change in attitude represents a similar change in the series as a whole.

Unfortunately, that's about all this issue has room for before it comes to a close. Because of the twelve previous chapters with Kitty and crew largely dragging their feet, it takes a fair amount of space before they can fully switch gears. We get insight into Kitty's thought process, watch her make her bold transformation, and then she explains it to her friends and they set out in a brave new direction, but exactly what that direction will look like remains, for now, unclear. Also, Johnny chooses to stay behind with the younger mutants, which was maybe my favorite moment in the whole issue and definitely a thread I'm eager to see developed. Essentially that's how I feel about the whole of Ultimate Comics X-Men #13: while the present-tense of the story is relatively interesting, mostly all it does is make me excited for the title's future.

Paco Medina's art was actually better here than it often is in this book, with no truly awkward or unpleasant panels. I do wish his work was more reliable---he fluctuates from very grounded characters to broader, more cartoony figures frequently and arbitrarily, which can be jarring and take the reader out of the story. Even if it's just for a moment, the damage is done, and I think Medina would benefit from locking in a steadier style. Still, his storytelling is clear and his characters, while inconsistent in their appearance, are always expressive and alive.

Not a failure by any means, but not exactly a great success either, Ultimate Comics X-Men #13 has, at the very least, set the stage for faster-paced and more interesting issues than what has come before. The first page asks us if we've been holding our breath this whole time, and the implied promise in that question is that the wait, at long last, is over. Kitty is coming into her own as a hero/terrorist, and I'm anxious to see where it takes her and her companions.

Pull List Review: Uncanny X-Force #26

I wouldn't have thought X-Force needed to have arch-nemeses, but I am loving the ones who're showing up. This new Brotherhood of Evil Mutants just won't fight fair, and it leads to some brutal and hilarious stuff. Most brutal: psychically attacking Betsy with the memories of both her lost love and the brother she killed at once. Most hilarious: Deadpool shouting, "Steve Holt!"

Rick Remender lets each of his main characters have at least one scene as narrator, with the exception of Deadpool who just gets the best line (see above), and it seems a fitting tactic for an issue that introduces a new threat to the team. The audience gets a chance to remember---or, if you're new to the title, learn---who the heroes of the series are before the villains fully arrive. And as always, Remender has a firm grasp on everyone's voices. But what I most admired about the scripting in this issue was the number of one-page scenes that were still full and significant and great. The opening with the skinless man (is his official name Barrister Skinless?), the conversation between the Shadow King and whoever else he's with, and my personal favorite, the portion of the fight with Nightcrawler's voice-over were all contained on a single page, yet all carried a definite weight nonetheless.

Phil Noto and Dean White bring a classic, rich, down-to-earth feel to the title, but at the same time they make things like a comically bloated Wolverine or Deadpool's attack robot, Alpha Achromic, fit in seamlessly. The only thing about the artwork that didn't totally jive for me was Noto's take on Psylocke, but I think that mostly has to do with him having a look for her that is distinct from what I'm used to, but not actually any worse. And he certainly captures her terrified sadness on the final page.

There's a lot of terrified sadness for X-Force this issue, and a fair deal of just plain terror and good, old-fashioned depression as well. This is a dark chapter in the history of a team that works in darkness, and Noto and White each do their part to capture that. Noto puts a lot of feeling into every character, even (or especially) the evil ones, and so we as the reader are just as bombarded with despair as anyone in the story. And White uses a muted palette, even when Fantomex is surrounded by neon lights, that dampens any hope and underlines all the horror.

Best of all was the false flashback of the Omega Clan (another excellent one-page scene). The fuzzy panel borders, stark black backgrounds, and in particular the red wash over everything really sold the all-encompassing fear and loss that might motivate someone to become a murderous, vengeful super-being. And, in terms of story, I deeply enjoy the idea that the fight is personal, but only for one side.

Just one more way in which this incarnation of the Brotherhood fights dirty, and I'm genuinely looking forward to discovering what other nasty tricks they have in store.

Pull List Review: Frankenstein Agent of S.H.A.D.E. #10

I was confused by this issue. Right from the first scene, with the weird woman who was clearly in love with Frankenstein but didn't matter and never appeared again. And many such details were glossed over after that. Velcoro apparently defeats an elevator full of bad guys off-screen. The team's "sci-bug" (whatever that is) locates their target, but we don't know how. Frankenstein suddenly quotes poetry instead of just going, "Hrrn..." It felt like maybe Matt Kindt was overly eager to pack this first issue with new information, a new attitude for Frank, and a bunch of big monster fights, so rather than doing any of those particularly well he delivers something a tad more jumbled.

The actual story of this treacherous group within S.H.A.D.E. seems to only be getting started, as evidenced by the still-unexplained panels of a woman being strangled, an angry dog, and a straight jacket. I'm curious to see what those are all about, and what happens to Frankenstein once he hits the extra-dimensional water, but for now all of that remains mysterious, and the set-up surrounding it is, unfortunately, disjointed.

Alberto Ponticelli's art is similarly uneven this month. The page of the Creature Commandos on jetpacks looked great, as did the following two-page spread of Untropolis, and I thought the Scare-Eb Agents were very lifelike and creepy. But the roundtable scene at S.H.A.D.E. HQ was full of awkward faces, and Griffith's whole fight sequence seemed a little rushed. Still, by-and-large Ponitcelli remains a good fit for this title, even with the authorial change, because he brings the right balance of lighthearted fun and larger-than-life action. Just a sight less consistent here than usual.

The last page, though, with Frank falling into the water and transforming or dimension-jumping or something on random sections of his body, is visually excellent. So it ends on a strong artistic note as well as a strong narrative one, even though getting there was quite a bumpy ride.

Pull List Review: Batman #10

I suppose I should warn of major spoilers ahead, but I feel like the reveal of this issue has been long-spoilt elsewhere already. But just to get it out of the way, turns out Lincoln March is actually Thomas Wayne, Jr. According to him, anyway. I'm fairly confident it will end up being the truth, and my response to it, at this point, is pretty mild. I don't have any strong objections to the addition of a second Wayne boy, but I wasn't exactly wowed by the discovery, either. I am more interested to see how it effects Bruce in the long term, how it effects everyone in his world, than I am in the piece of information itself.

Everything that leads up to that reveal is much stronger, though. The very opening scene was classic Batman, getting all up in some punk criminal's face. Equally classic was the Alfred-Bruce conversation, where the poor, determined butler tried as he always does to convince his boss that it was time to call it a day, to let a case rest. And actually, I quite liked the story of Willowwood, and hope it's a location we get to revisit for some reason or other in future Gotham escapades.

The art in Batman #10 trumps anything accomplished by the story, though. Greg Capullo has gotten better and more refined with every issue on the title, and this is definitely some of his strongest work. Not just when drawing Batman, who is back to full strength and such a powerful, imposing figure, even alone in a room and seen from a distance. No, Capullo brings his A game to every page: his design for March's Talon suit, the detail he puts into the Willowwood ruins, Mrs. Powers creepy bird hand, the owl mask cracking against the elevator's a solid, spooky issue with a lot of memorable images.

Just as strong if not stronger than Capullo's pencils, though, are FCO Plascencia's colors. They struck me first on the splash page of the dead Court of Owls members at their dining table, but then came on even stronger once we were inside Willowwood. Just a perfect mix of dulled greens and reddish browns to display the rot and age of the place, and it added a lot to the eeriness of the whole scene.

I thought the back-up story was a bit stronger this month than last, but not by a great deal. Definitely helping to flesh out the main story in interesting ways. And Rafeal Albuquerque draws a truly disturbing suicidal owl. But ultimately it felt pretty disposable, which I'm never a fan of. Perhaps I'll be proven wrong in the end.

Tuesday, June 12, 2012

The Cheese Stands Alone: Secret Avengers #20

The Cheese Stands Alone is a semi-regular column featuring examinations of single issues that can be understood and appreciated on their own, without reading any of the preceding or following issues of the series.

As much as, in my heart of hearts, I want every issue of every series to stand on its own and tell a complete story, I recognize that fitting something wholly self-contained into a mere twenty comicbooks pages is far easier said than done. Similarly, it's no simple task to tell a satisfying time travel story, even though in theory it's a fascinating topic. Fiction, science and otherwise, has explored the questions/problems inherent in time travel fairly extensively by now, and we often get little more than some slight variation on the typical character-accidentally-displaced-in-time-tries-to-find-a-way-back story. In Secret Avengers #20, Warren Ellis scripts a tale that begins and ends entirely within the single issue, and also one that takes a fresh, fun approach to the time travel narrative. Black Widow doesn't move through time by accident, and she isn't simply attempting to return to her own time. She wants to change it without changing anything about it. She needs to save it, but worries her attempts to do so may end up destroying it. Yet even in the face of such a daunting, apparently contradictory mission, Natasha remains always the perfect picture of a level-headed heroine. Anyone else in her position would doubtlessly have a moment of pure freakout, but not Black Widow, not under Ellis' pen, and her attitude toward the whole situation may be the most important component of the issue's ultimate success.
     It's worth noting that any one of Ellis' six Secret Avengers issues would be a worthwhile topic for this column. Each of them is an exceptional standalone issue, and the whole run was recently released as a trade, so I highly recommend tracking that down. But there are several factors which make Secret Avengers #20 the creamiest of that very creamy crop, not the least of which is the detailed, moody, pitch-perfect artwork by Alex Maleev.
     In the opening scene, it is Maleev more than Ellis who grabs our attention with a four-page shitstorm of a fight scene. A small team of Avengers battles a much larger group of Shadow Council operatives in front of a massive, bright, gaping portal of some kind, and though we don't understand exactly why this is taking place, Maleev makes one thing painfully clear: the good guys are getting their asses kicked. Right in the first panel we see Captain America being blasted through the air like a rag doll, and we know then and there that the situation is dire. This is quickly followed by a two-page spread of mad, explosive action---Black Widow against the horde. Already, she is the last hero standing, and already she demonstrates composure under fire. Even as she takes the "Escape Hatch" device from War Machine as a last ditch effort to save the day, she is calm, determined to help her friends but not frantic or scared because of the insanity surrounding her. And honestly, while it surprises her for a minute, even showing up at a safe house five years in the past doesn't phase Natasha.
     It is after this time jump that Ellis' script kicks into gear and becomes the issue's driving force, but Maleev's work continues to enhance the effects of the story and highlight the best parts of Black Widow's character. Because his linework lies somewhat closer to the sketchy side of things, there is a natural feeling of chaos to the art, a sense that everything is only tenuously held together. This goes hand-in-hand with the notion that Natasha wants to alter the future without upsetting the time flow, and it adds to the disorientation both she and the reader feel. She races through her mission, jumping around in time and location, unable or unwilling to take any pauses because of the seriousness of her work, and the story moves at the same dizzying pace. Maleev's drawings amplify that rapidity, but there are also a lot of carefully chosen visual details, like the Escape Hatch's text or the intricate pieces of technology in Harry Evans' lab, and these remind the reader to pay close attention to each and every panel, even while the larger narrative rushes over us. Also, Maleev, along with colorist Nick Filardi, creates a general mood of unsettling, dark creepiness (just look at their take on Dr. Druid!) and this helps to underline Black Widow's cool, collected demeanor. There are things at work which she perhaps does not fully understand, and the hypothetical consequences of her failing are incalculable, but she never loses her head or, even, her humor. In an awesome sequence set forty-four years ago, for which Maleev switches momentarily to an old-school, newspaper comicstrip format and style, Natasha kidnaps Count Oscar Khronus, an essential part of her endgame. But even in this violent, significant scene, she finds time for levity: while charging toward him, she corrects Khronus' husband and bodyguard Kongo, saying, "He's not a real count."
     When I said before that Ellis' script turns into the driving force behind the issue, this is the kind of thing I was talking about. As another example, Natasha's wry, semi-serious "I hate you" relationship with the Escape Hatch computer is developed early on and quickly demonstrates her intelligence and her ability to stay cool in the face things overwhelming. The same is true of her brief scene with Beast, where she knows exactly what to say and, more importantly, what not to say in order to have him answer her questions without tipping her hand or otherwise disturbing the time flow. She's a professional, is the point, a top notch super secret agent, and while it is clear she appreciates the gravity and delicacy of what she's doing, she never lets it fluster or derail her. There is no break down, no moment of I can't do this on my own! Black Widow is too experienced, too self-assured to let a little time travel and the possible death of her entire team shake her, and every step of the way, right up to her closing line, she remains confident, strong, and sure.
     This is not to say that she's emotionally detached from her mission. In fact, Ellis & Maleev do an excellent job of letting their protagonist's feelings shine through. The panel where she cries at Khronus' grave is the strongest single example, but really it is the care and concern Natasha has for her teammates that fuels everything she does. She may not express this out loud---because quite frankly that would be a waste of time and I don't get the impression that wasting time is Black Widow's style---but her goal is, first and foremost, to keep her friends from dying.
     Of course, she accomplishes that goal by the issue's close, and manages to tie up all of her loose ends along the way. Sometimes, a story can feel too tidy when there is nothing left hanging, making things seem unrealistically wrapped up for the purpose of reaching an ending. In the case of Secret Avengers #20, though, the tidiness of the conclusion is key. Because at the start of the story, and most of the way through, the reader has to live with a certain amount of confusion, unsure of how long this all has been going on or how, exactly, it will be resolved. But once we reach the final scene, the details of Natasha's plan have sneakily become clear to us, as well as how her actions and their influence on history have made that plan both possible and necessary. The Escape Hatch was built only because she commissioned it, she can disable the Shadow Council's guns because she's the one who made it possible for them to obtain the weapons' design in the first place, and so on and so forth in the infinite, head-scratch-inducing time loop Ellis so skillfully builds. By the time Natasha comes to the rescue, her doing so has shifted from being seemingly impossible to totally inevitable. It's tight and impressive storytelling from Ellis and company, landing on a note of utter satisfaction for Black Widow and the reader alike.
     Despite its title, Secret Avengers #20 is a Black Widow comicbook, and it makes a strong case that the world could do with more of the same. I'd like to see this character in any and every situation I've ever seen other superheroes in, because she's got a much more interesting approach to it than the rest of them. She uses deception, careful dialogue, and strategy more than any of her combat skills (which she also has plenty of) to get this job done, and all without ever questioning it, or even really straying off track. In 18 weeks she modifies the course of history, but with a class and subtlety, not to mention a total lack of desire for credit or recognition, that is charmingly, disarmingly rare in mainstream comicbook protagonists. This is a high-stakes, grand-scale adventure told in a through a more low-key main character, but that doesn't detract from the overall urgency, excitement, or quality one bit.

Secret Avengers #20 was published by Marvel Comics and is dated February 2012.