Sunday, December 30, 2012

Monthly Dose: December 2012

Monthly Dose is a semi-regular column where I reread one issue each month of long-completed series.

100 Bullets #2: Despite her general air of self-confidence, Dizzy is in quite an unstable place right now, and 100 Bullets #2 is all about destabilizing things even further. Her old friends are no longer leading the lives they used to, because they all have children with absentee fathers now. Dizzy's own family is dead, and though her mother insists that she move on, there's no obvious place for her to go. And because of what Graves gave her in issue #1, there are seeds of doubt growing in her mind about the circumstances of the loss of her family. She's lost, hurt, and unsure of what to do next, and there really isn't anyone for her to turn to. The closest thing she has to an ally or confidant is her brother Emilio, but more than anything else, what this issue does is raise questions as to how trustworthy he actually is. He and several minor characters talk an awful lot about what a big shot he is on the streets these days, how much fear and respect he's earned. Yet we never see him do anything to support his badass reputation, and at the end of the issue, when Dizzy asks him why he doesn't retaliate after several older members of his crew are gunned down, his answer is not only unsatisfying but downright suspicious. He might claim to have his sister's back, but it's obvious that he isn't telling her the whole truth, either. What he's holding onto, and why, is still anyone's guess at this point, but Emilio slid much closer to the villainous side of things this issue than he did in the first. That shift in his character is the most significant aspect of the story here, with Dizzy finally deciding to take her gun out coming in close second. We don't know what she has planned, but where the first issue ended with her nervously, even fearfully peeking at the weapon in its briefcase, the final panel here shows her smugly and confidently taking it out. All told, this chapter is a tad slower-moving than the preceding one, but no less interesting or important. Not as many big events go down, but the one that does is a brutal mass murder, so it ends up feeling just as heavy. But the real point is that Dizzy moves from being unsure of her next step to finally taking matters (and her gun) into her own hands. It's a great position to leave her in at the end of the issue, because it absolutely amps me up to see whatever plan she has play out.

The Intimates #2: I rather enjoyed the off-balance pacing of this. At first, it feels a little aimless. We see the superhero students at an assembly watching (or ignoring) guest speaker Desmond, a former professional sidekick, as he urges them to find their own way in the world and not immediately do what their parents and teachers want. It's a pretty on-the-nose speech, stating out loud and in very plain language some of the themes present in the rest of this issue, as well as what was established in the debut. But once it ends (which only takes three pages), we get a disjointed series of scenes between several members of the cast we met last time. Destra and Empty Vee talk boys in the bathroom. Duke and Punchy play a game of basketball, during which Punchy cooks up a plan to try and break into a supposedly secret area of the school later that night. Duke nervously tells the school nurse about his constipation and is given hyperlaxatives, told sternly to take only one, and promptly swallows a handful of them. These scenes, sometimes intercut with one another, take up a decent stretch of pages, and while all of them expand the characters and/or the school, and they're all a lot of fun and very sharply written, they don't seem to have anything to do with one another and, initially, don't appear to even be making an attempt at telling a traditional narrative. They come across as vignettes, and when you factor in the info scrolls, shooting out random and similarly unrelated details on every page, there is a strong atmosphere of disconnectedness. But it rather quickly morphs into something else, a strange, unexpected, kind of genius comment on teenagerhood. Duke's hyperlaxative overdose catches up with him and he has an explosive, draining bathroom experience. This rolls into Punchy attempting to wake Duke up so they can carry out Punchy's scheme of breaking into the Seminary's secret teleportation room. But between Duke's exhaustion and Punchy's general distractedness, the plan never goes off, and rather than have a daring superpowered adventure together, the two boys talk video games and pass out. That is teenaged superheroism in a nutshell, and it applies to real-world teenagers as well. Often the biggest, boldest plans end up only as amusing conversations, but are never seen through, because the realities of dealing with your body, school, and your stressful social life always get in the way. It's a curve ball, and a ballsy kind of move, to have the conclusion of the issue be two of the protagonists falling asleep, but it works because it is so perfectly in line with the spirit of The Intimates so far. This isn't a series about superheroes who happen to be young, it's children who happen to be superheroes, and the non-adventure that takes place here underlines that. I also think it's a great move to get rid of the info scrolls for this Punchy-Duke sleepover scene. It makes it seem like, at the start, we're about to see some real action go down. It sets a mood of seriousness, and the panels get a little more dramatic as well. But then, wah wah, nothing happens. It's hilarious and true-to-life, and it highlights exactly what this title is all about.

X-Force (vol. 1) #2: In a lot of ways, this issue had the exact opposite effect as the first. Where the debut was a fast-paced and packed tightly with content, X-Force #2 dragged and had very little meat on its bones. It opens on a fight between two new (to this title) characters, Weapon X and Deadpool, and even though it's a good-looking sequence overall, it is ultimately meaningless. The point of the scene is just to have Bridge show up and ask Weapon X to help him against X-Force, and then even that falls flat when Weapon X turns the offer down without even really considering it. I'm assuming that's not the last we've seen of him, but within the pages of this issue it's all he does, and so the entire opening scene comes across as wasted time. Unfortunately, the rest of the issue feels much the same, taken up by an X-Force training exercise that goes wrong because Feral can't control herself (who'da guessed?) and severely injures Cannonball. I guess the purpose of this scene is to show the reader that this is a new team, not yet comfortable or even familiar with each other, and that even Cable, the supposed leader, doesn't quite have a handle on them all yet. This is certainly worth establishing early on, but it definitely could've been done more quickly, leaving room for this issue to still have an actual plot. The real weakness, though, isn't in the emptiness of the events, but the flaccidity of their conclusions. Weapon X says no, leaves. Cannonball gets hurt, lives. Cable is upset at Feral, does nothing. All rather anticlimactic. The very, very end of the issue, where Juggernaut shows up in an awesome two-page vertical splash, is probably the strongest part. Definitely the best-looking, though Liefeld's art is as reliable as ever all the way through. And Juggernaut is certainly a draw for me, so even though his appearance is in the Gideon/Sunspot story (which, thus far, is still not connected to X-Force directly) I am excited to see what he has in store next month. So a successful cliffhanger, tacked onto the end of a dud of an issue. Or...not a dud. That's the wrong word, because it still has all the energy of the previous issue, just not as much heft. It's marshmallow fluff, with Juggernaut acting as a dollop of peanut butter added at the end.

Tuesday, December 25, 2012


Merry Christmas!

This year, I find myself home alone for the holiday. Just me and my two dogs, hanging out lazily around our apartment with nothing to do. My fiancé is in Florida with her family, and I was just in Pennsylvania visiting mine, but came back to Texas a couple days ago to look after the pups and also because originally I thought I'd have to work yesterday. So here I am, no plans and nothing to do. It could be a super boring situation, but luckily I still have a fat stack of comics from last week to read.
     Because I was home in the pre-Christmas week, I didn't get to go to my local comicbook store to get my folder until yesterday. And it was a MIGHTY full folder. Since basically nothing is getting released tomorrow, I had like twenty-one different titles come out last week, so that's how I get to spend Christmas this year. In my underwear, by myself, digging into the tallest pile of new comicbooks I've had in ages. I didn't even know it until I got to this point, but that's a perfect holiday for me.
     Some of them are probably going to be crappy. I've already read Cable and X-Force #2, for example, which officially landed that book on the "Cut From Pull List" list. Not wasting any more time or, more importantly, money on a series that doesn't even seem interested in itself. But there's also the debut of The Black Beetle, new issues of Rachel Rising and Hellblazer and Where is Jake Ellis?, and at least a handful of other books that I have no doubt with be great. Then there's any number of toss-ups, like Hawkeye or Secret Avengers or Birds of Prey, so here's hoping they come through for me during this grand Christmas reading project.
     Anyway, once I get through all the new books, my plan is to watch Alejandro Jodorowsky's El Topo. I'm a big time fan of some of his other films, and I know he has comics as well, though I've never read any of them yet. And El Topo will also be new for me, so I'm pretty stoked to see what that's like. It will no doubt be insane, full of symbolism, and incredibly dense and trippy.
     This month has been an unexpectedly successful one here at Comics Matter, as far as both my own productivity and the traffic which the blog has received. And that's been true this past week in particular. So before I disappear into my comics and film, I wanted to extend my thanks to anyone and everyone who has been reading along. Whether you're one of the people who know me personally, a total stranger, or something in between (whatever that means), I love you and I thank you for your interest and support. I hope all your Christmases are as fun as mine promises to be.
     Now without any extra ado, I'm going to get reading.

Saturday, December 22, 2012

Superb Heroes: The Umbrella Academy

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

I'd argue that superhero stories are soap operas more often than not. The emotions are big, even exaggerated; the plots and character relationships are vast and complex to the point of sometimes becoming convoluted; the casts are large and always growing and/or shifting; the villains are extra villainous, selfish schemers with some personal grudge against the heroes; and so on. This doesn't apply universally, but it tends to be true. So while it is undeniably, wholeheartedly a superhero comicbook, Gerard Way & Gabriel Bá's The Umbrella Academy is just as much a family soap opera, and it uses that fact to its advantage as often as possible. Completely embracing the tropes and cliches of both worlds, it becomes something grander than either, and throws in a fat sack of elements from other genres (sci-fi, fantasy, what have you) for good measure as well. It makes for a big, boisterous, kitchen-sink type of series---well, technically it's two series but I'll get to that---with something for everyone to love, yet still maintains a strong clarity and consistency in both the story and art. As fun and funny as it is dark and hard-hitting, as critical of superheroes as it is celebratory, Umbrella Academy is a storm of talent and originality drenching the far-too-similar and often-quite-dull comicbook landscape.
     The members of The Umbrella Academy are a group of adopted siblings who were brought together by the cold and uncaring Reginald Hargreeves so he could train them to save the world. Though he successfully developed their powers, Hargreeves was godawful as an actual parent, and so there is rampant dysfunction amongst his children in their adult lives. They secretly love or openly hate each other, are scattered across the globe (except Spaceboy, who lives on the moon), and each and every one of them is emotionally still a child in one regard or another. They are powerful, yes, but still petty and immature, and though we see them save the world twice, in both cases they find themselves unable to fully deal with the whys and hows of their adventures. The world may remain intact, but The Umbrella Academy always winds up far more broken and battered than they were when they started. And not just physically, but emotionally and psychologically, because they are ill-equipped to handle the kinds of insanity their superhero lifestyle forces them to regularly face. You might think that after a time the team would become jaded, unable to be so deeply affected by what they do. That may be true in the case of The Kraken, the dark and brooding anti-hero loner of the group (though I don't think so, really), but for the rest of them there is too much emotional investment in their work. For various reasons, they cannot separate their individual identities from their superpowered personas, and it makes saving the world into an ugly and deeply personal business.
     Apocalypse Suite, the first of the two six-issue series that make up The Umbrella Academy*, pits the family against one of its own members: Vanya, also known as Number Seven and, over the course of the story, The White Violin. Vanya was the only sibling to not have any metahuman abilities as a child, and as such was left out of the exciting and dangerous escapades of her brothers and sisters. Obviously, this led to jealousy and bitterness, so when, as an adult, Vanya is offered immense power and a chance to destroy the world, she accepts fairly eagerly (after her family pushes her away) and finds that the role of villain fits her like a glove. But even though her plan is to erase the entire planet from existence, she can't help but start things off with a more personal attack, murdering Pogo, the sentient chimp who helps to run the Hargreeves household, and blowing up the family's luxurious home. That single moment is, to me, the entirety of this title in a nutshell: no matter how powerful they become or how enormous the events they're dealing with, for this group of characters family drama will always come first.
     It's equally true in Dallas, the follow-up to Suite that has Number Three (a.k.a. The Rumor or Allison) and Number Five (no code name or real name due to being lost in the future for 20 years) traveling back to 1963 in order to stop another, older version of Number Five from preventing the Kennedy assassination. Got all that? Two of our "heroes" go back in time to ensure that JFK is killed. And why would they agree to such a thing? Because the Temps Aeternalis, an agency responsible for protecting the time stream, threatens to kill Number Five's mother in the past while she is still pregnant with him and his twin brother, Number One (a.k.a. Spaceboy or Luther). And Number Three is in love with Number One, despite their supposed sibling relationship, so in order to save his life she takes the life of a US President. Talk about personal/familial issues trumping all other concerns, amiright?
     The point being, The Umbrella Academy's superheroics only extend so far, because their lifelong problems as a family unit constantly, inescapably get in the way. At the same time, their family matters never get fully resolved because their obligations as superheroes incessantly interrupt. Their father's funeral ends abruptly because of a robot attack. Luther and Allison's romance is cut short by Vanya's vengeance. Number Five finally makes it back home from the distant future only to be dragged back to the past to murder JFK. And every time one of these superpowered events goes down, it fucks up the family dynamics even further. These characters were raised from infancy to be masked protectors of the planet, and as much as they might want to make dealing with their interpersonal issues a priority, none of them quite know how and the world won't let them, anyway. They're actually pretty great at saving the day, but that's all they're good at, and they don't even seem to genuinely enjoy it.
     You know...I was not expecting this post to zero in so narrowly on the dysfunctional nature of the Hargreeves clan and the reasons behind it. I was expecting that to be only one of several points made, all the while discussing the creative team's amazing work. Gerard Way is an exceptional writer, especially for this to be his first foray into the comicbook medium. He expertly paces every issue, finding a careful balance between necessary moments of long exposition (there are some complex ideas to explain and stories to tell) and scenes of intense action, and he laces a playfulness and powerful sense of humor throughout. Meanwhile, Gabriel Bá, along with colorist Dave Stewart, builds a world that is familiar and singularly strange all at once. There is such a powerful and unique sense of design in this series, from the characters to the settings to the props, and it's one of the biggest reasons for the book's overall quality. But where Bá most stands out and impresses is in the fight sequences, all beautifully choreographed and structured for the optimum sense of excitement and danger. Particularly when The Umbrella Academy battles Dr. Terminal's robots at the carnival. Just some stunning comicbook violence there.
     But The Umbrella Academy is an examination of what a lifetime of superheroism could and likely would do not only to an individual, but to a group of people sharing in the experience, and so that accidentally became the focus of this column. Even without the family element, growing up as a costumed crime fighter would be necessarily traumatic, and lead to deep-seeded problems later in life. Add the typical sibling rivalries, arguably inappropriate romantic feelings, and a father who never showed any love or even concern for his children, and it's a wonder all seven of these kids haven't ended up in an asylum or jail cell or coffin by now. They keep playing hero, decades later, and even after their dad's death. Hell, for some of them (namely The Rumor), it is Reginald's demise that brings them back into the superhero arena in the first place. Unable or unwilling to lead a more normal life, they chug along in the only one they've ever known, even though they can see how miserable and damaged it's made them. Saving the world has never been sadder.

*So far. There is supposed to be a third series, Hotel Oblivion, in the not-too-distant future. And there are actually a handful of short stories in addition to the two limited series, but I haven't read any of them so they are not a part of this discussion.

Tuesday, December 18, 2012

My Best of 2012 Thing (Not a List)

Over the past few weeks, all of the "Best of 2012" or "Top Ten of 2012" or similarly-titled comicbook lists have started to emerge, and I always enjoy reading them. You see a lot of the same titles showing up, but there's also plenty of variance and, even in the cases of series that everyone seems to adore, their reasons for said adoration differ. So I wanted to do my own take on what worked in 2012, but without making an official list of any kind. I don't read enough to definitively tell anyone what the ten (or even five) best comics of the year were, and even if I only pulled from the series I do follow, I'm not sure how to best compare/rate them. Do I split it up by limited and ongoing? What about individual issues that were astounding in the midst of not-so-spectacular runs? Do I award artists, writers, and books separately, since I sometimes love the art of a shittily-written series or vice versa? These are the kinds of needless questions I can't prevent myself from asking, so instead of doing a real list, I thought I'd just talk more loosely about my personal year as a comicbook reader and what stands out in my memory here at the end of it.

I gotta start with Rebel Blood. Now, I did a fairly extensive discussion on the blog last month about much of what I loved about this mini-series, so I'd just as soon not get into that again here. And while I am not setting this up to be a numbered list, Rebel Blood was, without a doubt, my #1 favorite comic from 2012. So, so, so much of that is because of Riley Rossmo's artwork, which I always love and was particularly on point in this book. Nobody does chaotic-but-clear like Rossmo, whose work has a very powerful kinetic energy to it. But the artwork alone doesn't put this title at the top of my list. It's a psychological character study buried in a zombie horror/action story, expertly plotted and paced by Rossmo and writer Alex Link. It has a likable but deeply flawed lead, a whole lot of dark humor, some truly brutal violence, and more than one major twist/surprise. If that doesn't sell you on it...I don't know what to tell ya. Personally, I reveled in every page of all four issues, and was left wholly satisfied while at the same time wishing there could be more. The strongest title I read all year.

As far as ongoing series from 2012, my top pick is probably Prophet. I know it's a reboot of a Liefeld character, but I have zero familiarity with the original version, so I couldn't compare the two. But even though it's not technically his character, Brandon Graham has been slowly building a one of the year's most original and interesting stories, accompanied by some truly breathtaking visuals from an amazing group of artists like Simon Roy, Farel Dalrymple, and Giannis Milonogiannis. A strange sci-fi war story about a man (John Prophet) fighting an empire that uses an army made of of his own clones, the greatest part of Prophet is the expert and expansive world-building. The story planet-hops regularly, and Graham's succinct and stylized descriptions of each new location are some of the best shit I've ever read. His imagination is vast, and literally every issue introduces numerous new places, races, cast members, and/or conflicts. It's been a surprising and rewarding experience so far, with no real missteps or moments of weakness.

If any series gives Prophet a run for its money, it would have to be Terry Moore's Rachel Rising. The first few issues of this were published in 2011, but this year was when the bulk of the series came out, and it has been consistently excellent. It's missed a month or two here and there between issues, but has always been more than worth the wait, and it's definitely the title that sticks in my mind the longest after I read it every month. There's a lot going on and the whole cast is so rich; it's easy to get caught up in and hard to forget. Again, this is a title I've already blogged about, so I don't need to repeat myself now, but Rachel Rising is also right at the top of my list when it comes to current ongoing comics.

For the last several years, a book that was similarly reliable and always a favorite was Scalped, which reached its expectedly violent and grim conclusion this year. I didn't adore where everything ended up in the final issue, but the lead-up to it had a lot of moments and events that I'd been waiting to see for ages, so all told it went out with a bang. I still haven't gone back to the start for a glorious 60-issue reread of the entire series to see how the final storyline holds up in context, but I'm highly looking forward to doing so.

If I'm talking superheroes, this summer saw the relaunch of Valiant comics, which included Joshua Dysart and Khari Evans' Harbinger. Although arguably not a superhero comicbook in the strictest sense, it's an exceptional series about a young man trying to deal with having superhuman abilities. What's so great about Harbinger is that Peter, the hero, is pretty shitty at handling himself and his powers. He's a well-intentioned and intelligent young man, but too inexperienced and angry to be responsible with what he can do, which is basically control people's minds, along with some crazy-powerful telekinesis and scary glowing eyes. Watching him make massive mistakes and then have to deal with the fallout makes for a much more realistic and compelling kind of superpowered narrative. And there's a strong supporting cast that's growing steadily even stronger and larger, plus a villain who you just can't see ever being completely defeated. Like Prophet, this is a reboot of a title I've never read a page of, but even coming into it cold it has been a gratifying and unique read.

The biggest surprise of the year would have to be Infernal Man-Thing. I've read a Steve Gerber Man-Thing story or two, but not "Song-cry of the Living Dead Man" to which this was a sequel. A sequel that was written decades ago, but only completed and published now. There is some ambitious and beautiful writing from Gerber, but Kevin Nowlan's painted pages steal the show. The way he chooses to depict Man-Thing is particularly effective, as is his a blend of the gruesome, the depressing, and the cartoonish. Much like Rebel Blood, this book is an exploration of one man's insanity and the power it has over him and those around him. I didn't really have any expectations when I started reading this, but figured a three-issue commitment for some new Gerber would be worthwhile no matter what. Luckily, it turned out to be a standout series for the whole year.

Some titles I would stick in the Honorable Mentions category are Spaceman, Dial H, Uncanny X-Force, Daredevil, Wonder Woman, and Garth Ennis' run on The Shadow. While none of these books rocked my world, they were all far more good than bad this year, and are series that I'd strongly recommend to others.

Finally, 2012 was my first and only full year of reading Hellblazer. I only jumped onto that series in the middle of last year, but Milligan's work made me fall in love right away. I was looking forward to a long future with what seemed like the stablest book on the shelves, but alas, we're now only three issues from the last one ever. I'll have to be happy with what I got (and eventually catch up on the 250+ issues that precede my introduction to the series), and what I got was several very strong stories with some brilliant, memorable, unsettling art. Most of which was drawn by Giuseppe Camuncoli, who I love. So 2012 will always be a significant one for me and Hellblazer, whether it was one of the year's best series or not. I imagine that's true for many fans, since this is the year we found out it was ending.

I guess that's it for the comicbook highlights of my year. On to the next one.

Friday, December 14, 2012

Pull List Review: Ex Sanguine #3

It's funny. Last month I reviewed this title, and talked a lot about how much I loved the bizarre romance between Saul and Ashley. This month, the cover of Ex Sanguine #3 actually advertises that romance explicitly, yet the story of the issue pays it the least amount of attention. Luckily, and somewhat surprisingly, putting the theoretically central relationship on the back burner for one issue doesn't detract from the series whatsoever. As a matter of fact, it strengthens it in more ways than one.
     The goal of this issue is more to build character than advance plot. The agents (whose names I guiltily admit I still don't know) who are trying to catch Saul and Ashley are given some much-needed depth. The man agent doesn't get much in terms of history, but we see him in the role of genuinely concerned partner, and learn a bit more about his approach to detective work. The lady agent (god I need to go back and commit their names to memory) has her history filled in with more detail, all in a single and powerful page, and it both gives her a personal investment in this case and shows us what a badass she can be if necessary. Before now, these two characters were feeling a bit empty to me, and while their scene in this issue doesn't exactly fill them up, they're much more real and interesting with a bit of backstory and some well-done development of their dynamic.
     The world of Ex Sanguine is expanded as well, mostly just by showing us that, along with vampires like Saul, there are apparently shapeshifting man-rats of some kind, too. Not sure if this is another vampire breed or a lyncanthropy thing or what, but I like the idea that there are all different kinds of monsters in this series. It opens up the future a bit more if we don't know exactly what horrible creature(s) might show up, and I loved that the rat man spoke in plural pronouns. Plus he was used to add a new plot element and further complicate the budding love between Saul and Ashley, so that ain't bad, neither.
     It's Ashley who gets the full-scale origin story treatment, though, and once again this book pulls out some nice surprises. Even though the bullies of her childhood are a tad cliched, the hint that her father may be a vampire (possibly even the same one who kidnapped our lady agent...?) was an unexpected and disturbing moment that added a whole lot to her as a character, a killer, and a woman with a vampire lover. Still not clear what her plans for the pen are, long-term, but her personal connection to it is now firmly cemented through her terrifying writer dad, which makes me all the more curious to see what she intends to use it for.
     In general, Ex Sanguine #3 just pulled me further into its narrative. I was already enthusiastic about it, but that feeling has been amplified by all the new info discovered here. Joshua Scott Emmons and Tim Seeley have clearly put a great deal of work into fine-tuning their story. The levels of detail they've put into their cast and world are impressive, and even more impressive is the careful pace and structure through which they share those details with us.
     Seeley's art, assisted by Carlos Badilla's coloring, is right at the same level as the script, if not a step higher. Particularly the flashback scenes, with their muted colors and sloppier, thicker panel borders. Memories fade and warp over time, and the art here represents that. It also highlights the sadness of Ashley's childhood, and the creepiness. And that's the great thing about Seeley's work on this book overall---he can play up the horror elements when needed, drawing graphic murders and terrifying monsters, but he's just as capable of capturing the calmer, more playful, human moments.
     Which brings me to the single best thing about Ex Sanguine #3: Julius the fish's funeral. Saul's pet yellow tang dies, and as the vampire dumps his companion out into larger waters, he gives a pitch perfect and poignantly hilarious little eulogy that I adored. And Saul's deep, genuine sadness at the loss of his tiny friend is rendered expertly, most of all in the panel where he notices the fish has passed. It's touching and funny and a tiny bit discomforting, which is a pretty good description of the series as a whole.
     Here at the 3/5 mark, Ex Sanguine is shaping up to be one of my favorite current titles, and the only thing that upsets me about it is that there are only two chapters left. With all the balls in the air after the end of this installment, it's hard for me to even take a stab at how everything will resolve, but this book has yet to do anything I expect of it, anyway. That's why I like it so damn much.

Pull List Review: Archer & Armstrong #5

Something just isn't clicking for me with this book. I don't feel invested in its story or characters yet, and seeing as this issue is the beginning of a new arc, that's problematic. I don't dislike Archer and Armstrong, but neither of them has done anything to properly win me over, either. They're a bit too flat, not one-note but maybe only four-note characters, making the same points over and over with little progress or change. When Archer seemingly runs away early in his and Armstrong's battle with Gilad, we know he's going to come back and help his friend, because the kid is easy to predict. And later, he points out his ally's own predictability, saying that if Archer were to admit to being a virgin then Armstrong would try to get him laid. There just aren't a lot of surprises in this issue; everything goes as expected, right down to the "cliffhanger" on the final page.
     Emanuela Lupacchino's pencils are fine enough, with my only real complaint being that Archer's face doesn't always look the same. Not his expressions (which actually do all sort of look the same) but the actual shape of his head. Overall, though, everything looks good, if not particularly interesting. The fight scenes are easy to follow, but they lack a bit of fluidity, which makes them feel less real and harder to get excited by. The most notable exception is the large panel of Gilad driving a bus toward Armstrong riding in a rickshaw, with the rickshaw driver screaming for his life. That single image has all the liveliness and movement I want out of combat scenes, which is far less present in the rest of the book. Other than maybe the two-page splash of Gilad diving into an army of enemies, there's nothing visually memorable in this issue.
     The writing from Fred Van Lente is, unfortunately, even less sturdy. The sequence from 210 BC is alright but, like the titular heroes, there's nothing inherently interesting about it and it isn't developed enough to get me to care. And it's weakened later in the issue when we flash back to it again for two panels so that Gilad can tell Armstrong the end to a story he already knows and we as readers don't need to hear. That's actually my largest complaint with Archer & Armstrong #5: Gilad won't shut up. He has so many long-winded, needlessly expository lines. It makes sense inasmuch as he is more of a plot point than a fully-realized character right now, but I don't want talking plot points. I want interesting villains who give me a reason to pay attention to them.
     I admit, some of my disinterest comes from a total lack of understanding about what the Geomancer is and why he/she matters. I'm certain it was explained to me last time (in the rushed finale of the opening arc), and we see in this issue that being Geomancer involves having Earth communication and/or manipulation powers, but the details as to why keeping this person safe is so significant have escaped me. Am I to blame for my forgetfulness, or is it Van Lente's responsibility to explain himself in such a way that the important information sticks? Both, I think. But either way, it took away from my enjoyment of this latest issue.
     I just don't care if any of these characters, good or evil, live or die. And the book isn't having as much fun here as it did in the earlier chapters. Armstrong is still a clown but there's no crazy cult or ninja nuns or anything zany like that. Just two pissed off brothers and an overly-serious teen having a brutal street fight. That's fine enough entertainment, but doesn't make for all that compelling a read, and in the end I find myself thinking of this series as expendable. Not bad enough to drop just yet, but not good enough to miss if it somehow went away.

Pull List Review: Dark Avengers #184

Ok, I loved this issue, but before I tell you why, I have to nitpick a little about some lettering/editorial problems I noticed. At one point, I'm pretty sure there is an entire word missing. Pym says, "I find myself instead on other projects in the lab," and I have to believe the word working belongs in there somewhere. Also, just a few pages later, a dialogue balloon that's clearly meant for Pym is given to Toxie Doxie, actually linked to her previous line. This is really sloppy stuff, and even though the rest of the issue soared, I was jolted twice out of the same scene by these easily-catchable mistakes. It's a shame, and I wouldn't even bring it up except that in both instances it broke the rather enjoyable rhythm of my reading experience by confusing me and forcing me to reread the guilty panels a few times before figuring out what was going on. Without those interruptions, I might well have loved this more than I already did, so it matters, even if these seem like tiny mistakes.
     Alright, that's out of the way. Let's sing some praise, shall we?
     What do you do when you finally wrap up an expansive story about a team lost in time, and have to start a fresh arc with an almost entirely new cast? Why, you make them a team lost in a parallel universe, of course! It's a brilliant move on Jeff Parker's part to drop the Dark Avengers in an even darker alternate reality, one where they are familiar with many of the faces but don't know the rules of the game just yet. It certainly ran the risk of being too similar to the time-tossed Thunderbolts we've been following in this series for a while, or even just being too reminiscent of the innumerable other parallel universe superhero stories that've been written over the years, but it's to Parker's credit that he creates a fresh and full enough new reality to avoid those problems. His meaner, more militant Iron Man and Dr. Strange are both given just enough time and attention to make them understandable but still intriguing. Acting as generals in an endless turf war, they are both gruffer and more direct in their language than the versions we're used to, which make them sound and act more like classic villains than heroes, though I suspect the truth is more nuanced than that. But it's great and efficient characterization from Parker, who also continues to write an intelligent, daring, and very funny Moonstone, as well as already appearing more than comfortable with Skaar and Toxie Doxie. Oh and his dark Hank Pym is great, very unsettling with his whole detached (because of mind control) attitude.
     Also yay Tigra! I hope she gets to do more stuff. Also Agamotto Alert will be the name of my dance music project, if I ever start one.
     Speaking of Agamotto Alert, the page where that goes off is a serious artistic feat, the most impressive panel in a generally quite well-drawn issue. Neil Edwards is a good fit for this new universe. His design for dark Iron Man (actually, the whole fleet of Iron Men) was excellent, a strong way to kick the issue off, and the small yet important changes he makes to this world's Dr. Strange help set the appropriate mood of lurking creepiness. The massive floating eyes don't hurt that, either.
     There's some really strong color work from Sotocolor as well, like Moonstone being lit in bright reds while Skaar, further behind her, is still his solid green. And, again, the legion of Iron Men, each with his or her own color scheme yet still fittingly uniform. The book is called Dark Avengers, the arc is called "Darkness," and the colors underline that darkness without feeling the need to become obscured. It's a carefully-struck balance that I appreciated here.
     Where art and story most successfully come together, though, is in perhaps the least important scene of the issue (though I expect that it'll be more significant down the line). Janet van Dyne is stuck in her tiny form, and so her husband has her on a microscope slide so he can experiment on her and try to bring her back to normal size. The panels of Janet fleeing a protozoan and subsequently sobbing amidst a mess of particles were my favorite part of this issue. I can't even pinpoint certainly starts with an attention-grabbing image, and the conversation between Janet and Hank is very sad and interesting, but I think it's just a matter of the overall effect being something greater than sum of its parts. I just really dug that scene, and hope it's not the end of this Janet's story.
     Any worries I had about the final, decisive shift in cast for this book have been firmly laid to rest. I was looking forward to seeing some USAgent action this issue, but didn't miss him when he never showed up, because Parker gave me plenty of brand new characters to enjoy, while keeping up the solid work he's been doing all along with the members of the titular team. In many ways, Dark Avengers #184 is the beginning of a new series, but it's one I'm already glad to be reading.

Thursday, December 13, 2012

Pull List Review: Change #1

Change #1 is an intentionally uncomfortable comicbook. Morgan Jeske's art is strange and warped, a little larger than life and also a bit sadder. Ales Kot's dialogue is deliberately just shy of sounding natural. Everyone is somehow just a bit more honest out loud than people normally are, more matter-of-fact in their conversations than the topics of those conversations would suggest. After discovering three cloaked, dagger-wielding strangers in her house, Rhubarb Maya calmly turns to her husband and says, "I think this is a home invasion." It's not an inappropriate reaction, just an atypical one, and Change #1 is full of those sorts of off-kilter moments. It creates an atmosphere of uncertainty and instability, making the reader more and more uneasy with each page. I didn't realize it until it happened, but I was waiting for some violence to erupt long before it did, not because of any specific clues, but because I could tell from the overall mood of the book that something significant and scary was on the horizon.
     I actually still feel that way, even after completing the first issue. It ends on a note of impending terror, as well as even more discomfort and confusion. We don't know what the astronaut sees in the ocean, where it's headed or what it'll do, but the fear he feels upon spotting it is palpable. And even before we reach that final page, it's evident that a whole lot of significant, scary stuff is going on underneath and behind the present-tense events of this issue. Why does Werner try to murder Sonia so suddenly, and who are the men watching them? Why do they call her a prophet, and what do they hope to gain from her death? Are they related to W-2 & Rhubarb's hooded attackers? Clearly there is still a lot to be learned and discovered about the reality of this book, and based on what we've been shown so far, I'd bet that each new piece of the puzzle will only serve to heighten the insanity and horror.
     Kot treats his audience like intelligent and careful readers, not providing easy or overt explanations to everything but still crafting a story that has all you need to understand it. It's a challenging read in the way it jumps from moment to moment, skips over some details, and uses slightly stilted and hyper-stylized narration. But his characters are a lot of fun, even in this somewhat dreary setting, particularly Sonia, whose strong and confident voice is very quickly and firmly established. She isn't expecting to be fired from her current project, nor is she expecting to have her boss try to stab her, but she handles both without ever completely losing her cool. It reassures me that she'll be able to deal with whatever comes next, since her problems have obviously just begun. Same goes for W-2, who acts quickly and decisively to defend his home and his wife. Whoever it is that wants these people dead, they've got their work cut out for them.
     Jeske invites the reader to pay close attention as well. When the violence finally goes down, we don't get the usual comicbook fight sequences with large panels of fast-paced action. On the contrary, Jeske closes in on things, showing us a panel of a knife's blade meeting a defensive palm, crazed eyes staring hatefully at their target, a tongue, a lapel button, and more of these kinds of small details. It's closer to pulling the reader into to violence than trying to show us what it looks like from the outside, and it's an effective method in that regard. The danger feels more immediate, the pain closer than usual. This isn't cartoony superhero slugfest fighting, this is real-world attempted murder by knife---intimate and sudden and fierce.
     It'd be easy to breeze through Change #1 and come out of it feeling visually stimulated and mentally baffled. Jeske's artwork is haunting and gorgeous, and does some really interesting stuff with sound effects, so even without Kot's script this would be an enjoyable and worthwhile comic. But if you take the time to study all of the words on the page, to take note of each of the tiny panels in the fight scenes and what they mean, to really delve into the meat of this book, you end up with a far more satisfying experience than a first pass could provide. It's all right there, available to us and for our consumption, but Kot and Jeske won't spoonfeed their readers. They've already cooked up a tasty meal, and now our job is to slowly savor every bite.

Pull List Review: Batman #15

Batman kind of sucks at his job these days, huh? The Court of Owls had secret locations covering the city, yet Batman had no idea. Joker has been hiding and planning for a year, and Batman isn't prepared for his return whatsoever. Arkham Asylum and all of its guards have apparently been under the Joker's control for quite some time, to the point where he actually had materials brought in so he could build...something big and loud and scary, I'm sure. How could Batman not keep tabs on that? Does he never check in, take a quick tour of Arkham? Make sure all the baddies are still locked away, double check that his arch freaking nemesis isn't running the whole show, that kind of thing. I mean what does he monitor? He's got a whole crew of kids supposedly helping him watch this city, but nobody had eyes on the asylum for the criminally insane where all of their opponents end up? Ridiculous.
     I guess that's sort of the Joker's point in this "Death of the Family" story: Batman has grown soft because of his extended network of allies, and isn't protecting Gotham properly anymore. But it's one thing to have the maniac villain believe that and another to have it actually be true. The level of incompetence from Batman under Scott Snyder's pen is kind of astounding, and there is a part of me that's starting to feel like he deserves whatever the Joker has in store for him. I'm not rooting for the Joker just yet, but I'm not really in Batman's corner, either. If he's going to be this careless, then he shouldn't have the job.
     This issue underlines his carelessness even more with the story of him finding the Joker's calling card in the Batcave years ago. Evidently he just decided, without doing any investigating (because it's not like he's meant to be an amazing detective or anything) that the card could not possibly have meant the Joker got into the cave, and so he never did anything about it. He only even tells the story when ALL of the other members of the Bat-Family get up in his business about it. If they hadn't conversation-ambushed him en masse, he would've kept the whole thing a secret, and even when he does tell them, he's a stubborn jerk about it. No matter how reasonably they argue that the card could very well mean Joker has all of their secret identities, Batman insists that's impossible and, eventually, just leaves.
     And they let him go! A room full of capable heroes, and nobody does so much as grabbing his arm to try and force him not to keep going solo on this case. He's doing a crappy job on his own, but all his little minions just accept it anyway, even with Alfred's life at stake. The more I think about it, the more I agree with the Joker. The Bat-Family is bad for Batman, and, taking it a step further, I think he's bad for them. If this issue is indicative of their dynamic, then Gotham is screwed.
     Greg Capullo, at least, is still doing excellent work on this title. I finally think his Batman looks better than his Bruce Wayne, which is a long time coming and as it should be. And I do love the new bandaged Joker. It accomplishes just what it seems to be aiming for: making a man who's already obviously unhinged look like he's reached a whole new level of insanity and depravity. So the opening fight scene between Batman and Joker all looked spot on, most notably the page where Bats jumps out from a wall of flame and punches Joker hard enough to make his mask slip.
     The strongest visual sequence, though, was the two-page flashback, done in a faded and scratchy style as if the pages were being watched through an old projector. It's a very interesting and effective technique, and I actually hope we get some more visits to the past like that before this storyline wraps up. Also the Joker's gas blimp looked hilarious.
     But Capullo is mostly drawing a large group conversation, and though he never makes it unclear, some of those pages do feel cramped, barely fitting in something like 8-10 panels each. While he handles all of the Bat-Family well, things get a tad claustrophobic by the end of the dialogue, which is too bad, especially considering that if the immediately preceding and entirely pointless two-page dream sequence had been cut, there might've been more room for the real conversation.
     So yeah, I was pretty frustrated with this. Theoretically, I don't mind having a hero who's not at the top of his game. But Snyder's Batman raises the question of how he ever got to where he is today. If he is truly so over-confident and capable of such enormous ignorance when it comes to what's going on in Gotham, then why is he such a popular superhero? How did he get these kids to follow him? How did he ever defeat the Joker before? And if the idea is that Snyder has intentionally made Batman worse than he could and should be for the purposes of this crossover, well...that's fine, but it makes me want him to lose. If he's slipping, if he's losing his Batmojo, then he needs to step down and let someone else watch over his city. So, good luck, Joker, you violent sociopath, you! I hope you bring the Bat to his knees!

Pull List Review: Cable and X-Force #1

Though I personally have little to no experience with his work, I'd heard/read some not-so-flattering things about Salvador Larroca before going into Cable and X-Force #1. Luckily, he does a good job here, though not exactly an impressive one. Cable looks fittingly grim and rough around the edges, cocky and capable but still rather worn down. It's the right tone for the character, particularly in a series where he seems to be walking the line to some extent between hero and villain. Larroca had some strong moments with Dr. Nemesis and Domino, too, their humor and confidence shining through. And for the two panels we saw him I thought Colossus looked appropriately jacked up and menacing, and I'm looking forward to him getting some more stage time.
     Hope was less visually solid, her look not remaining entirely consistent from page to page, but that was the biggest artistic hiccup. In general Larroca's work is easy to understand, detailed, realistic, and enjoyable, though again, there's nothing here that overwhelms me with awesomeness. It's steady but somewhat forgettable art, weakened by an almost entirely forgettable narrative.
     As a debut issue especially, this was one hell of a snooze. So little happens, it hardly seems like the comic cares if anyone comes back for the next installment. Dennis Hopeless kicks things off with a scene coming right after a big fight, so we get only a flash or two of action rather than anything truly exciting to watch. Then we jump to days earlier, and there is a lot of empty chatter leading to an awkward and rushed reunion between Cable and Hope. If you already adored these characters and their history together, I guess that might be enough, but it left me wanting a lot more.
     There is an attempt at a cliffhanger ending, but it's both unoriginal and uninteresting. And though I'm sure it's on the horizon, we get not even the tiniest inkling of what the hell was going on in the opening scene. Basically we are only half-introduced to anything or anyone for the whole of the issue, and so the question remains: Why would I come back for more? What is this series even really about, other than showing me the daily life of a bizarre, tiny group of characters with whom I have no particular attachment? Some of them I like, historically, and some not so much, but either way there's got to be more to this book than the strangeness of its lineup. So far, though, that's all there is. Cable has some mysterious health problems, eventually there'll be a big fight somewhere over something, but there's no obvious reason to be invested in either of those plotlines thus far. Cable and X-Force #1 feels half-baked, and though I'm not jumping ship just yet, the second issue needs to step it the hell up if it wants to keep me around for much longer.

Tuesday, December 11, 2012

The Cheese Stands Alone: Batman #422

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.

Technically speaking, Batman #422 is the conclusion of a two-part story begun in the previous issue, but it works all by itself for a couple of reasons. First of all, the opening page efficiently recaps all the information you need: two men, Karl Branneck and Vito Procaccini, have been murdering women together, and now Batman is on to them, which frightens Vito but only strengthens Branneck's resolve. Secondly, Batman #422 focuses narrowly on Branneck, who narrates for most of the story and is on more pages than anyone else, and because it's more a character study than it is the latter half of a Batman story, we get a full portrait of this serial killer contained in a single issue. Not a flattering portrait, or even necessarily an enjoyable one, but a complete one nonetheless.
     Karl isn't just a scumbag and a murderer, he's an aggressively sexist egomaniac who sees his killing spree as a political statement on contemporary gender dynamics. Pissed off over women who refuse to be subservient to men, Branneck views his actions as righteous, and seems to consequently think of himself as not only beyond reproach but, to some extent, untouchable and/or invincible. He isn't at all bothered by Batman being on his trail, apparently unimpressed by the hero's abilities, and even describes himself as a "match" for the Dark Knight. And even after Bats breaks his jaw and brings him in, Branneck stays smug and self-assured, to the point that when his case is thrown out of court, he decides that it's because he was "born under a lucky star." This level of hubris, coupled with his excessive, insane hatred of the opposite sex, immediately makes Branneck a truly despicable villain, and the more captions we get in his ignorant and rage-filled voice, the more disgusting he becomes as a character.
     In fact, I'd say that Branneck's narration, more than anything else, is what makes Batman #422 such an effective tale. Early on, it starts to feel like maybe writer Jim Starlin could've cut a handful of the caption boxes, because Branneck seriously never shuts up, and after a while all his misogyny and cockiness becomes wearisome. But it is right around the time that you start to think you can't take another panel of this madman's self-important ranting that his next would-be victim suddenly turns the tables and slashes his throat with a straight edge razor. Of course, even as he bleeds to death in the street, Branneck doesn't let up, but it is much easier to read his nonsense when you're watching him die. Whether or not Starlin intended it to be this way, having Branneck's internal monologue be so constant and repetitious ends up being the most unlikable (and therefore important) part of the character, right up to the very end of his life. While I might normally complain about the excessive amount of heavy-handed captions, here they are a necessity, because they make me so sick and tired of this horrible man that I am actually able to root for his killer and cheer at his death.
     The woman who finally takes Branneck out is Judy Koslosky, sister of one of his previous victims, who's been tracking Branneck & Vito for a long time. When she finally discovers who they are, she begins following Branneck around everywhere he goes, and we see him notice her several times in the issue before their final confrontation. She gets his attention on purpose, staring at him, making sure she's right there whenever he turns around, until he grows so sick of seeing her that, naturally, he selects her as his newest target. Unfortunately for him, this is exactly what Judy wants, because it allows her to get close enough to exact her revenge. When questioned by the police, Judy shows no remorse. She's not even the least bit shaken up about killing a man. She calmly, proudly confesses, points out that no jury will convict her, and argues that what she did wasn't murder, it was putting down a "mad dog."
     The moment where Judy strikes her fatal blow is easily the strongest scene of the issue. We know ahead of time that she'll be an important character, because she is so strongly set up throughout the issue by Branneck noticing her wherever he goes. But there's no reason, necessarily, to expect her to be anything other than another victim, perhaps a woman who Batman will save at the last minute or who will act as a way for the audience to really see Branneck at work. Instead, in a single, sudden panel, she becomes his downfall. Though Mark Bright's pencils are strong and clear for all of Batman #422, it is this scene where they really shine. Not only because of how quickly and determinedly Judy strikes, but also the subsequent shock and horror we get from Branneck. Looking down at the blood on his hand and realizing it's pouring from his jugular, Branneck becomes a terrified child, literally crawling away from his attacker in desperation and fear. After all the smirking and swagger he's shown us so far, it's immensely satisfying to watch him so quickly become scared and pathetic. And then we get a gorgeous full-page splash wherein Branneck is visited by the ghosts of his victims, surrounding and overwhelming him in his final moments. Here his terror reaches its peak, and again, it's a warm and welcome feeling to see this self-important ass finally brought down several pegs and given a taste of his own medicine.
     I know it sounds like I am endorsing the notion of murdering a murderer, when really I am against it conceptually. I'm not a proponent of this kind of eye-for-an-eye justice, yet in reading Batman #422 I wholeheartedly support and side with Judy Koslosky. Even though really, with her self-righteousness and smug attitude, there's a fairly thin line between her and Branneck. Why is it, then, that I so completely agree with Judy's actions? Partly, as I've said, there's all the legwork done by Starlin, Bright, and company to make me utterly despise Branneck while he's alive. And of course there's the fact that he's a fictional character, so his death isn't as heavy as it would be if he were real. But perhaps more than either of those factors, there's the weak, insincere (or, at best, half-sincere) speech Batman gives to Robin at the issue's close. The Robin in question is Jason Todd, and this issue comes only a handful of months before the Joker kills him, so by now he's firmly established as the angry, out-of-control Robin with something to prove. So he, too, sides with Judy in this case, as happy to have Branneck dead as she is. Batman, as is his duty, tries to convince Jason that this is not the right answer, that taking the law into your own hands and killing someone, no matter how awful they may be, is always going to be the wrong decision. Yet he says this all in decidedly lackluster fashion, even admitting out loud that he sometimes wishes things were different, i.e. that he could just go ahead and take his opponents out permanently. And it's just one page in a comicbook chock full of pages devoted to making the reader wish Branneck would go away forever. The weakness of this counterpoint, both in terms of the space it's given and the lack of enthusiasm with which it's delivered, is likely the strongest reason for my cheering Judy on. Without being given a convincing or even inviting alternative, I remain as pleased as ever that Branneck is dead.
     It's a strange place to land at the end of a superhero comic, to be sure. I'm not usually left rooting for the morally ambiguous character and thinking of the "good guys" as wimps, but here we are. Is this the intention of the issue? Hard to say. But it's the result, regardless of what the creators were aiming for. They did such an outstanding job making Branneck into an unbearable prick that watching him die in the street felt great. And I assume that this is precisely what they wanted, that the whole point of the issue is to make the reader root for Judy despite, perhaps, our better judgments. It's certainly the effect it has on me every time I read it, and it always makes me reexamine my stance on the concept of capital punishment, revenge, etc. Ultimately it's not persuasive enough to change my mind in the long-term, but that a single issue could even raise such powerful doubts is impressive enough. Batman doesn't kill, but doesn't and shouldn't are two very different things. It's a facet of the classic character well worth exploring, remembering, and, once in a while, reconsidering.

Thursday, December 6, 2012

Pull List Review: Hawkeye #5

I hate this kind of ending. Having a mystery we didn't even know existed and couldn't have seen coming be explained to us (via it being explained to the only character not already in the know) is a boring, tired, cheap, lazy move. It tanks the conclusion of an otherwise pretty fun story, and leaves me feeling oh so deflated. Also, this is the first thing I've read with Nick Fury, Jr. and the guy came across as such an asshole. Arrogant and foolhardy.
     The ending might have held up if the rest of the issue were amazing, but it's mediocre and sometimes worse. There is one pretty great scene where Madame Masque threatens to put cigarettes out on Kate's face, but it's too brief and never even comes close to actually happening, so in the end who cares? Other than that, it was a lot of poorly-paced action. Like why have the first page take place seconds after the next page? What is the point of that awkward, tiny time jump? It added nothing. Along those same nothing-to-add lines, Kate and Clint have a moment when, facing down a room of villains, they do a cutesy "Ready, Hawkeye?"/"After you, Hawkeye," thing, which is all well and good on it's own. But literally two pages later they stop, realize they need to go back for something, and face down the same exact group of bad guys while counting to three before charging back the way they came. These two pauses are way too similar to each other and too close together, and both are weakened because of it. If you want to prove to me that the Hawkeyes can handle a room full of evil-doers together, once is enough.
     So yeah, Matt Fraction's script is lacking here. It feels rushed or, worse, less-than-fully-thought-out. And there's not a great deal of assistance offered by artist Javier Pulido. His pencils are fine as far as they go, but not to my taste and, I think, not as strong as they want to be. It feels like Pulido is aiming for something fairly grounded, but his style slides too far to the exaggerated side of the scale to pull grounded off. Everyone has big eyes and wide faces, and it's off-putting. There were one or two awesome pages, specifically when Masque fires her gun at Kate and Clint gets in the bullet's way, but beyond that it's middle-of-the-road stuff.
     I will give Matt Hollingsworth's colors a nod because they more than deserve it. The coloring adds a lot of flavor and energy to the book. They're vibrant, almost pop art hues, and it works for the frenetic pace of the issue. So high fives for that. 
     But yeah, god, that ending. So lame. And needless. Why couldn't it have been Hawkeye who assassinated that dude? He fired and explosive arrow at a giant window in front of a room full of people. This is not a guy who seems worried about the well-being of his enemies. And if the Avengers are a government-sanctioned team now, shouldn't they be allowed to do things for the government? I don't get it, and ultimately it feels like what Fraction is aiming for is to make Clint seem noble and selfless through protecting the identity of the soldiers who actually did assassinate somebody. If that's the case, though, Fraction misses the mark, and instead we get this flub of a wrap-up.
     Enough with this issue. Bring on the glorious return of David Aja!

Pull List Review: Storm Dogs #2

Storm Dogs really hits its stride here, fleshing out its cast, its world, and its central mystery all. While the debut was strong, it didn't entirely grab me, but this issue did so immediately and never let go. I'd love to point to a specific thing, a particular narrative tool used or an especially well-drawn panel, but the fact is this is just a rock solid comicbook from cover to cover. It does everything right.
     David Hine has given himself a fairly large cast, all brand new characters operating in an unfamiliar world. It's no simple task, then, to introduce and establish each of them as detailed and unique individuals, but he manages to pull it off quite deftly. Because the main team is new to the world of Amaranth, not used to living in a place that's so technologically underdeveloped, they have a lot of questions and a lot to learn. This allows Hine to do some world-building through dialogue, particularly between the group's commander (cannot for the life of me remember her name and didn't see it in the issue anywhere) and Starck, the local sheriff. The commander believes in always strictly following the letter of the law, whereas Starck is considerably looser about rules and regulations, only enforcing them when he feels it's necessary. So the two of them butt heads a few times as we learn about Starck's laxness when it comes to drug users, keeping Amaranth's indigenous races separate from the Union, and even the planet's restricted technologies. An even more extreme pairing is Professor Zendra and Bronson, Starck's deputy. In Zendra we see a woman with genuine concern over the well-being of the races of Amaranth, worried that the Joppa and Elohi cannot avoid being corrupted by the society which now shares their world. Bronson, meanwhile, not only isn't concerned but has a clear and open lack of respect for these beings. It's a powerful dichotomy and, again, it works to very quickly build up these characters while simultaneously educating the reader on some of the details of Amaranth as a setting. This is all done over only a handful of pages, which leaves ample room for the star and single best character of Storm Dogs #2, Jered.
     Jered opens the issue and acts as an occasional narrator, and I liked having a chance to get into his head. He's a talented, intelligent man, passionate about his job, but otherwise rather quiet and reserved. He's very likable early on, and when he's approached by Doll, a prostitute of unclear or possibly mixed gender, it adds a bit of humor to their interaction. There is a sweetness and almost fearfulness that Jered brings to the their conversation and subsequent sexual liaison that I found endearing. Of course, it's also why he is willing to share a secret with Doll that leads to a break-in at the morgue, but as bad as that is for the characters, for us as readers all it means is the mystery has widened. Or deepened. Whichever you prefer.
     For all the personality Hine's script gives this cast, though, it is Doug Braithwaite's art that truly breathes life into them. It's not just the people, even. Everything has an incredible richness to it, an impressive level of detail and realism. It doesn't matter if it's a subtle facial expression from one of the protagonists, a massive bar brawl between humans and Elohi, or handful of tiny green slug-like creatures called "dream bugs," Braithwaite pours life into every panel. Even with the corpses in the opening scene, you can feel the softness and coldness of their dead flesh, see that these people were only recently alive. As strong a premise as Storm Dogs has, the visuals are what push it from good comic to amazing comic. The design of the Joppa and Elohi might be my favorite thing Braithwaite contributes, because the Joppa look so pathetic and small next to their Elohi, yet they are the more intelligent race and, seemingly, the ones in charge. I enjoy that contrast immensely, and the rest of his design work is just as strong. There's a well-balanced mix of sci-fi and wild west details in the setting, and a bizarre but consistent sense of fashion amongst the people living there. And the villain introduced on the final page looks wonderfully menacing and unstable. Can't wait to see that guy in action.
     There's so much else to love: the concept of wireheads, people who rent their bodies out for others to control; a gun with a "crowd control" setting that stuns an entire room at once; even the fundamental set-up of Amaranth being a planet full of criminals who couldn't live anywhere more advanced without getting locked up. It's all great stuff, and we learn about it without needing any expository pauses or unnatural info dumps. Hine and Braithwaite weave together a world and narrative that fires on all cylinders for every page. Storm Dogs is only one-third complete, but already a deeply rewarding read.

Pull List Review: Dial H #7

Sadly, Dial H is becoming a bit repetitive these days. Nelse and Manteau are trying to figure out the mystery of the dials but making very slow progress, and in the mean time their relationship doesn't really change. Manteau takes things more seriously than her partner, who just wants to have fun and be a hero. This was established pretty firmly last month, so for the first chunk of pages of this issue to do nothing but reestablish it feels like a waste. Things do pick up from there, but only slightly, with a tiny clue being discovered and a new bad guy ever-so-briefly introduced. Not a bad comicbook, but not a good one, either. It was extremely, consistently middling, and I know this title can do better.
     David Lapham's artwork is pretty strong, but it just doesn't mesh with the tone of the book in the way Mateus Santolouco's somewhat zanier style did. It is just this side of being too reserved, and it detracts from the wacky humor this series has thus far employed. He does an ok job with the various ridiculous superheroes that Nelse or Manteau transform into, but they aren't funny like they should be, somehow. The Planktonian, for example, looked spectacular when it first showed up, and impressive when it formed itself into the weird blue giant, but it was never any fun. Dial H is so silly as a concept, there needs to be an underlying silliness to the art for it to be at its full potential, and I just don't find that in Lapham's work. He's a talented guy, and there's nothing confusing or poorly laid out or obviously bad here, it's just that I think he's a weak choice for this book.
     But China Miéville is not at the top of his game here, either. As I said above, the beginning drags and feels unnecessary, and from there things only ever improve so much. The storyline with The Centipede trying to track down Manteau had some alright moments, but I'm not sold on him as a character yet. His dialogue was a bit mechanical, and as cool as his power set seems to be, it's not obvious from what's here what exactly he can do. Seems to be kind of like Multiple Man but with all the dupes being controlled by one mind. And, I guess, they're all connected to each other. But that could be me misreading things (though really that's a visual issue and not a story one).
     I guess the problem is that this issue feels like it's gearing up for bigger and better things, and while I'm excited to see those things, the trip there just has me underwhelmed. I'm sure this issue was a necessary step, and it certainly advanced the plot in several ways, but I'd like a bit more excitement and hilarity. Also, I think it's time to start seeing some of the better heroes return. I know part of the fun of the title is seeing new weirdo superheroes pop up every time the dial is used, but the endless stream of gags needs to someday come back around so we can see the characters we most loved again. That's a 100% personal taste thing, though, so I can't really count it against the issue. And I did like The Planktonian a lot, conceptually speaking.
     There's nothing to loudly bemoan in Dial H #7, nor is there anything to cheer for. That sentence could've been this whole review.

Pull List Review: Earth 2 #7

I fucking HATE being lied to by a cover. It's one thing to make it thematically fitting without showing an actual scene from the issue, but in the case of Earth 2 #7, the cover clearly promises an aerial battle between Hawkgirl and Green Lantern. It has huge freaking letters saying "Flight to the Death!" I'm sorry, but if we're literally not even going to see either character fly, let alone fight, then don't do that. It's a whack tactic.
     Whack Tactic is now my punk band's name, if I ever start one.
     Ok, so what about the stuff inside the cover? It's alright. James Robinson makes the strange decision to have the bulk of the issue focus on the power struggle between Amar Khan and Terry Sloan in the World Army. It's certainly an interesting and important conflict, I'm just not convinced it needed this much space. Khan and Sloan have two separate conversations about how much they dislike each other, and they're such similar dialogues I can't figure out what the purpose of including them both could be. It comes across as a way to fill out the issue, to pad the pages, rather than a necessary narrative point. But in between these conversations we get to see a team of Sandmen battle and capture Mr. Terrific in Sloan's secret base, and it is easily the high point of the issue. So, if nothing else, the boring parts were punctuated with action.
     And even though it made the cover into a big fat lie, I liked the opening scene with Kendra (Hawkgirl) and Alan (Green Lantern). It didn't make any real progress, but it gave us some background on Kendra and really solidified her voice for me. She's confident almost to a fault, and obviously not one to willingly take "no" for an answer. Intelligent and collected, but with some real rage bubbling underneath. I'm excited to see more of her as the series develops. And Khan is much the same way, except that his rage is buried deeper than Kendra's, to the point that Sloan openly notices an absence of anger where Khan should be seething. Robinson writes both of these characters impressively, handling the disconnect between what they feel, what they do, and what they say quite well.
     Yildiray Cinar doesn't quite bring the level of detail that Nicola Scott typically does, but the artwork is still full and focused. His Sloan stood out to me as being almost featureless in the face, save for his one distinctive scar, which I found odd. But the rest of the cast looks good, most notably the Sandmen. The two-page splash where they and Mr. Terrific first come info conflict is astounding and, again, the strongest single moment in the issue. I also loved the level of creepiness Red Tornado gives off. Saw just enough of her here to establish that she's going to be a significant threat down the line.
     Earth 2 #7 is a bit of a breather issue, and as such does little to thrill me. But it has it's exciting moments, and does some very enjoyable character work along the way. I'm still upset about the cover, though. Seriously...don't do that.

Tuesday, December 4, 2012

Wanting More Out of Wild Dog

Like any number of grown-up comicbook fans, I was introduced to the medium as a kid through my dad. Though I didn't become a "serious collector" until college (by which I mean I started using bags, boards, and longboxes), when I was younger one of my favorite things to do was dig through my dad's old comics in their boxes in the garage. Often this was so I could create homemade action figures by cutting out individual characters and gluing them to cardboard, but sometimes it was actually for reading. Though there were plenty of stray issues to explore from a variety of titles, he also had decent runs of Grell's Green Arrow, old Batman and Detective Comics issues from the late 80's (like from "Year One" on), and a sizable pile of Action Comics Weekly. Earlier this year, in full-on "serious collector" mode, I finally went through all of his old boxes again, this time deciding which of his comics I wanted to permanently inherit. The Action Comics Weekly issues all made the cut, but more because they were in order and had very few gaps than because of any enthusiastic interest I had. They looked like they'd be fun reads, and I'm always game for an anthology series, but I wasn't excited to dive into them for any particular reason.
     In the months that followed I gradually made my way through ACW #'s 601-623 (#601 was the first issue to make the change from monthly to weekly), and it was pretty much what I expected. Unspectacular stories told with strange pacing due to their eight-page-per-week limit (or fewer, in some cases) but still with a lot of fun ideas, cool characters, and talented creators involved. Nothing that wowed me, but lots of sturdy comicbook superheroism.
     There was one character, though, who stood out to me for several reasons. Firstly, unlike any of the other characters or teams, I'd never heard of him before. He was seemingly unpowered, just a guy with some guns and rage issues doling out justice vigilante-style. And it was apparent that this character had been established in a series of his own, a series I very much wanted to read, because I saw a lot of potential in the cast and concepts involved, but in the limited spacing of ACW, it all felt rushed. And maybe a little diluted. Of course, I'm talking about Wild Dog, and once I'd completed my ACW reading, I set out to find the original four-issue mini-series that marked his creation. It was not difficult.
     Written by Max Allan Collins and drawn by Terry Beatty, Wild Dog has some strong ideas and artwork, but ultimately falls just as short of its potential as the ACW stories did. The elevator pitch for the series might go something like: A slightly higher-tech Punisher, but operating in small-town middle America, and with a secret identity. Though it's not the world's most original idea, there's some definite room for compelling, fresh storytelling there, particularly when you get into the details of it. The story revolves around the sudden appearance and subsequent search for the true identity of this violent, masked crime fighter (or, more accurately, terrorism fighter). There are four possibilities presented for the man behind the hockey mask, all of whom are close friends and teammates from college, and still living and working in the Quad Cities where they went to school. There's a cop, a journalist, a spy (he claims to work for the "Internal Security Agency" but it's heavily implied that what that means is the CIA), and an auto mechanic who, as the least obvious choice, of course ends up being Wild Dog. In theory, the title character's three best friends all having motives and means to "out" him should heighten the tension and emotional weight of the narrative. But what happens instead is that this aspect of the story is shunted to the side in favor of over-emphasizing the setting and, more than anything, the excessive violence. These kinds of poor choices in focus, as well as similar missteps when it comes to pacing and structure, plague this title from start to finish.
     For three issues, Wild Dog is a non-character. We don't know who he is at first, and even when the clues point to everyday auto mechanic Jack Wheeler, we have no way of understanding his motivations, and therefore no reason to sympathize with or root for him. Each issue, a group of homegrown terrorists makes some kind of misguided attack, and Wild Dog always shows up to single-handedly defeat them despite their impressive arsenal and overbearing numbers. These battles are always well-drawn by Beatty, very clear and well-choreographed and cinematic, but the trade off is that they take up a lot of page space, meaning any real plot or character development has to wait for the violence to subside. And watching a "hero" with no background, no story, no real character at all continually whomp on his enemies with little difficulty becomes very boring very quickly. If Wild Dog's history was given to us earlier, or just more seamlessly woven into all the gun-blazing action somehow, it'd be easier to get invested in these fights. But Collins holds off on even definitively naming Wheeler as Wild Dog until the final issue, at which point we get a rushed info dump of an origin story, followed by an abrupt and anticlimactic conclusion to the series. Wheeler's story itself actually could've been interesting and hard-hitting, had it been handled differently. As a marine, he watched terrorists kill the rest of his squad, and when he came home from the war he fell in love with a girl who turned out to secretly be the daughter of a mob boss. A fact Jack only discovers after she's gunned down in the street in front of him. Now, had I gotten to actually spend some time seeing their relationship, maybe her murder would've had an impact on me. Also seeing Wheeler as a marine, watching him deal with losing his friends in the present tense and not through flashbacks narrated by his friends---yes, someone else tells his story for him, and they're not even talking to him about being Wild Dog, just rehashing their old friend's life story despite the fact that they already know it so why the hell would they even have this conversation but whatever I'm getting sidetracked---might very well have allowed me to understand and perhaps even support the violent hatred of terrorism that drives him to start taking justice into his own hands. As it stands, the structure of the series makes Wild Dog seem as much an out-of-control maniac as any of the people he fights against, if not more so, until the poorly-paced fourth issue offers a halfhearted and overly-expository explanation as to why I'm meant to see him as a hero. It's too little and far too late.
     There's a lot of telling instead of showing throughout the series, not just when it comes to Wild Dog's origin. We keep getting told that police lieutenant Andy Flint, one of Wheeler's friends and another of the men suspected of being Wild Dog, absolutely hates terrorists for his own reasons, but he never does or says anything to support this. And the supposedly deep, long-established friendships between all four of the Wild Dog candidates is discussed very matter-of-factly by all of them, but doesn't actually show in their interactions with one another. I see no obvious love, respect, or even concern between these characters. They speak whatever lines are required of them to fill the time before the combat commences, and are then ignored while Wild Dog kicks ass, takes names, and is generally unstoppable. So it's not just the titular hero, but in fact the majority of the cast who're weak and two-dimensional (or one-dimensional), with very little in the way of personal details to make me care about or even distinguish between them. Maybe if the book was longer or the cast was smaller or the violence was taken down a notch, Collins would've had the room to make everyone into a fully-realized human being. But now they're not even archetypes, they're just empty paper figures, puppets with little or no personality going through the motions of the featherweight story that surrounds them.
     Look, it's not, strictly speaking, a bad comicbook. It's not without any redeeming qualities. There's a very strong argument to be made that all it wants to be is a wham-bam action romp, a sort of anti-terrorist propaganda story with no need for the kinds of personal, emotional depth I'm looking for. If that's the lens you use to view it, Wild Dog is a definite triumph. As I said, Beatty's art is consistently easy to understand, and he can draw the hell out of a good gun fight or brutal, fatal hand-to-hand brawl. And while Collins' script is lacking in the areas of character and structure, he writes convincingly self-deluded and fanatical terrorists, spitting out half-meaningless rhetoric about change and tearing down the old ways as an excuse to blow shit up and shoot people. So as hard as it is to get behind the good guy, the villains are easy to hate right away. I fully acknowledge that what I want is a completely different book, a series that prioritizes my way and emphasizes entirely different aspects of the narrative. Perhaps that's unfair, but it is what it is. I went into Wild Dog excited to get the full story behind the only character to pique my interest in a 23-issue run of Action Comics Weekly, and I still had to slog through three full issues of shoot-em-ups and awkward dialogue to get it, at which point is was delivered in the least satisfying fashion possible.What I thought was a watered-down version of the character in ACW turned out to be exactly the same as the guy from the eponymous series, because despite the massive increase in total pages, Wild Dog is no fuller a story. It was a frustrating and disappointing read, and though deep down I still think there is a ton of potential in some of the foundational ideas, it's hard for me to imagine a world where I ever get the Wild Dog I was hoping for. 25 years later and he's still a character no one else has ever bothered to revisit in any significant way. And why would they? So little is offered in this initial four-issue mini or the ACW short stories that follow, I'm not surprised that the character hasn't inspired other creators to try their hand. What we're left with is a strange, saddening failure from 1980's DC that no one seems to miss and was barely ever there to begin with.