Thursday, February 28, 2013

Monthly Dose: February 2013

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

100 Bullets #4: Following a remarkable opening arc is not easy, and unfortunately this doesn't quite live up to the task. Lee is a far less sympathetic hero than Dizzy was before him, and less interesting. Yes, he is an innocent man whose life was ruined, but his response to that disaster was to become a self-hating, self-pitying schmuck. I can't get behind that, and it makes the story drag when I'm not invested in the protagonist's struggle. Still, the idea that some random, rich, much younger stranger would frame Lee for child pornography is intriguing enough that I want to hear the whole story. So I am eager for the final confrontation between Lee and Megan, it's just not for the reasons I feel like it's supposed to be. I don't care if he shoots her or not, or really what happens to either of them at all. I just want the details as to why she ruined him. Eduardo Risso's art is still on fire, even if Brian Azzarello's script is somewhat less so. Lee's anger and sadness are evident on every page, though the best example is when his son rejects him and we see a very literal visual representation of how small and alone it makes Lee feel. And of course the dark, careful lighting in the scene with Lee's favorite stripper was pitch perfect. The strongest scene, or the most powerful, I guess, would have to be when Lee fantasizes about blowing out the back of Megan's head as soon as she walks into the bar. Even as it's happening, we know it can't be real, but Risso makes it so sudden and brutal that it still carries some hefty weight. It's an emotional peak for the issue, though, and after Lee abandons the idea, things settle into a duller rhythm again straight through to the end. I'm excited for part two of this tale, but also relieved it'll be the conclusion, because very much more of this character as the leading man and I might lose interest.

The Intimates #4: I'm really into what Joe Casey does with the structure of this issue. After a few introductory pages, we get a scene implying that there may be something sinister about Devonshire Foods, the company that supplies the Seminary with all of its cafeteria meals. It's a fun new thread, and a very clever place to stick a big bad guy for a this book. In real life, the cafeteria and its food are sworn enemies of high schoolers all over the country, so at a school for superhero teens, it's an obvious and hilarious choice of villain. But then as soon as this threat is introduced (and even then only cryptically), the issue drops it in favor of focusing on The Seminary's first student dance. Which, again, is a brilliant and very funny choice on Casey's part. School dances are a key aspect of the typical adolescent experience, given more importance than they deserve by the kids who go to them. By mapping that onto The Seminary and its students, we get an amplified version of such an event. Pranks, secret hook-ups, and even regular dancing all warp slightly but significantly when superpowers are involved. And Giuseppe Camuncoli continues to give an artistic boost to Casey's ideas, capturing the awkward discomfort of teens at a school dance exactly at first, and then doing an excellent job of transitioning that into the kids enjoying themselves. His strongest single panel has got to be when Venus De Mighty gets electrocuted by her fruit punch, but that might be mostly because she was asking for a good jolt with her self-importance and lies. Anyway, the events of the dance are a lot of fun, for characters and readers alike, and though a few bits of drama go down, all in all it's a success. It may sound dry and a bit too normal to be the plot of a comicbook, but Casey and Camuncoli make it work by keeping things lively, utilizing their entire cast, and doing such a damn accurate job of putting teeanged dances on display. Also, having the narrative be a bit more focused and cohesive made the interruptions of the info scrolls much easier to handle, so I found myself enjoying those again. Which is especially nice because this is the issue that straight up asks, "Who is curious enough to read these info scrolls?" I am, and I do so every time I revisit the series.

X-Force (vol. 1) #4: So this is the sideways issue, where all of the pages are designed to be read vertically instead of horizontally, adding nothing save for the frustration of having to hold the comicbook differently than normal. Rob Liefeld doesn't do anything cool with it, or use the opportunity to draw things he couldn't have drawn in traditional comicbook format. It is a gimmick for its own sake, which I despise. Don't put me through the hassle of reading something uncomfortably if there's no point to it. Technically, this is also part 2 of a crossover story, but since it's just the conclusion of a fight started in X-Force last month, I didn't feel like I had missed much by skipping the issue of Spider-Man that takes place in between. Which is a nicer way of saying that there is practically no story here. It is the boring, slow end to a boring, slow conflict, and Fabian Nicieza's script makes very little effort to spruce things up. But I blame the overall sloppiness of this particular issue far more on Liefeld than Nicieza. Characters appear out of nowhere (happens with Domino, Siryn, and Cannonball at various points), the action is too large for the space it's given, and a confusing thread involving Deadpool is wedged in at the end. Oh, and the whole fucking thing is needlessly sideways. So that's on Liefeld, through and through, and I feel like any weakness on Nicieza's part can be overlooked in light of the inconsistent, ridiculously-laid-out artwork he had to work with. It's memories of reading this book in the past are much more positive than the feeling I am left with after four issues of this month-by-month reread. Perhaps it's just a matter of the title working some kinks out early on, or maybe it's that I was more into this stuff when I was younger and now I can't recapture that enthusiasm. Or maybe next month things will get back on track. Who knows? I'm not expecting much right now, but I'm still hopeful that whatever made me an X-Force fan in the first place can rekindle that fire soon.

Monday, February 25, 2013

A Review by Request---TDSA: The Teenaged Defending Squad of America

For the sake of transparency: Creator/writer/artist/publisher George Morrow contacted me about a month ago, asking very nicely if I would read a free digital copy of his YA graphic novel TDSA: The Teenaged Defending Squad of America and review it here on the blog. Never one to turn down new or free or independent or obscure comicbook material, I agreed. What follows, then, is the promised review.

I'm not sure what the last young adult book I read was, but I'm sure it was when I was a young adult. I've worked with kids in my adult life, but never teenagers or even preteens, so I am fairly disconnected from that world. I don't know what's popular amongst modern twelve-and-ups, let alone kids of that age who're into superhero comicbooks. What titles sell in that age range? Does that information even exist anywhere? How could it?
     Anyway, in assessing TDSA: The Teenaged Defending Squad of America, it's hard for me to judge it on YA-specific criteria, such as how appropriate it is, how popular it might be within the target age group, etc. I can make educated guesses, and they'd probably be not distant from the truth, but that's not the lens through which I read it. I tried to take it at face value, with the understanding that it would be necessarily a bit simpler in its storytelling and more vanilla in its content.
     Even with those considerations in mind, it's not a very strong comicbook. Though the seeds of some good ideas and underlying messages are present, George Morrow doesn't follow through on any of them or flesh them out enough. It is almost an examination of the dangers of teenaged celebrity, and/or those of children trying to live like adults. But ultimately the kids who make up the titular superhero team don't really suffer any consequences for their lifestyle. Throughout the book, they teeter on the edge of having their violent and dangerous jobs ruin other aspects of their lives, but in the end everything is peachy and everyone gets exactly what they want.
     Which is too bad, because a book aimed at modern teenagers discussing how overwhelming, challenging, scary, and destructive fame can be sounds like a really good idea to me. These days, when becoming a celebrity is sometimes as simple as putting a hilarious home video online and having it noticed by the right corner of the Internet, the message of how suddenly and dramatically that kind of attention can uproot your world is a valuable one. And it's all here, in theory. Jack Kempostowski, the main character, misses class and watches his grades fall steadily once he signs up with the TDSA. His best friend, Lori Rosenbaum, who also arbitrarily decides to be a superhero, almost loses her girlfriend over it. They both fight with their parents, and strain under the pressures of their new schedules and secrets, until finally they are inches away from breaking down completely. But they never do, and by the book's conclusion they've got their parents' support, help from their employers with getting out of school, and not only does Lori's girlfriend stick around but Jack gets one of his own. So the message at the close of TDSA isn't "be careful what you wish for" but "everything works out even when you make reckless decisions and then lie about them."
     The narrative follows Jack and Lori as they learn about the new teenaged superhero team in their town, force their way in by interrupting a fight and winning through blind luck, and then almost ruin their lives before ending up with perfect ones, as described above. It's a little unfocused, introducing new threads and characters at odd times and often for reasons I can't explain. Partway through the book, it becomes apparent that the government agency in charge of TDSA are actually villains, but that storyline isn't resolved within the pages of this novel, left dangling for, I imagine, a hypothetical sequel. The problem with that, though, is that what we get here is confusion with no payoff, especially frustrating for a plot point introduced so late in the game. There's a lot of stuff like that, with the narrative jumping around and several scenes that do very little to progress any of the myriad conflicts.
     There are other, smaller things, like the blandness of the main supervillains' plans, the sparse and jarring use of curse words, or the repetitive jokes that don't even quite land the first time, but much of that is nitpicking. My core problem with the writing was the lack of focus and lack of consequence. But even with those issues, the script was stronger overall than the art.
     Morrow is, by his own admission, not much of an artist, which only serves to further weaken the story. This is, after all, a superhero book, so there are many big, multi-page fights scenes involved. However, Morrow renders them so sketchily and/or confusingly that I often have no idea what's happening, who's doing what to whom. There are major characters who I still couldn't tell you what their powers are. I'm pretty sure Dynamo Boy's only ability is to suck at throwing a bolas. But it's true with every fight, no matter who's involved, that there are always at least a handful of indecipherable panels. It's too big a percentage of the story to be drawn so weakly.
     Bodies are disproportionate, faces are largely featureless, and the costume designs are far too generic (though that goes with the generic pseudonyms almost everybody has). And because they are all done in black and white, but with an absence of much detail, there is a general lack of energy to the visuals.
     Though it had the potential to be a book with an important message delivered clearly, TDSA: The Teenaged Defending Squad of America chose instead to be a silly, sometimes-meandering story about two kids whose dreams come true for no reason. I think the nugget of a solid project exists here, but it would need a complete overhaul with a new ending, artist, and focus. But hey, as I said, maybe if I were twelve none of this stuff would matter to me. I can't judge it from that point of view, but my best guess is that even a kid would find this all pretty dull and disappointing.

Friday, February 22, 2013

Pull List Review: Birds of Prey #17

And so Duane Swierczynski's tenure as the writer of Birds of Prey ends not with a bang but with a quiet, rushed farewell. It didn't feel like Swierczynski saw his departure coming, because there's a lot of unseen action and sudden exposition in this issue. Basilisk, presumably the primary villain of the arc, is defeated off-panel, so that Black Canary and Strix can have more time to get to know one another. And though I enjoyed Strix's attempts at communication, Black Canary's speech about her power spikes being connected to her late husband was far to rapid and unnatural, so the scene fell flat overall. And there was a lot of that kind of dialogue, like when Starling was talking to Amanda Waller. First of all, did I miss something? Was I supposed to know they worked together? And secondly, their conversation explained their relationship in such a forced manner that it took me out of the story. I was so distracted by trying to figure out if this was new information and make sense of what they were saying to each other that I forgot what I was even reading for a minute. Very awkward work.
     The arrival of a paramilitary strike force comes out of nowhere and isn't resolved, nothing really develops with the recent weirdness of Black Canary's powers, and Strix is the only member of the team we get to see in action. So there are a lot of holes and missteps in Swierczynski's final script, but it is so difficult these days to know whether to blame author or publisher. It could be that DC took this title from Swierczynski with too little warning, forcing him to tie up all his threads in a final twenty pages when he had been expecting much more space to do so. Either way, this was an unimpressive showing.
     Romano Molenaar, inked by Vicente Cifuentes, does stronger work, but is still wobbly. It seems to depend on who is being drawn. Strix basically always look great, detailed and sharp and menacing. The same goes for Starling, who's spiritedness and sass shine through brightly. But Batgirl is far less consistent, with the shape and thickness of her mask varying, as well as the face underneath. And Condor's helmet grows and shrinks with every panel he's in. It seems like Molenaar just has a better handle on some of the cast than others, a problem I hope gets fixed as the new writers step in. After an issue by Jim Zub we'll get Christy Marx, who I think could be a good fit, but she'll need the support of solid visuals if she wants to return this series to its former glory.
     There were a few banging panels, though, like Strix attacking Black Canary or Strix being shot. They mostly involved Strix, who hasn't won me over entirely yet as a new member of the team but looks great, at least, in Molenaar's hands. So I am excited to see her developed, perhaps even devising some means of speaking with her teammates, since she seems to have no voice. Swierczynski gives us a bit of that here, and I liked what he came up with, so there's potential for her to be a breakout character, I think. I suppose that is true of anyone right after they are introduced, but the potential still hasn't been squandered with Strix.
     I'm not sure how bright the future of Birds of Prey looks right now, but Swierczynski's run ends, sadly, on a low point. He hasn't really gotten his groove back since the wedged-in "Night of the Owls" crossover, and now it seems he'll never get the chance. Too bad, because for a while this was one of the New 52's strongest titles. Maybe fresh blood will bring it back, but with the rocky artwork and petering out of this issue, my hopes aren't especially high.

Pull List Review: Saga #10

Fiona Staples is an impeccable artist, but partway through this issue I found myself thinking, "Yeah...she's still doing it." Not that I was disappointed, just that by now she has set the standard of her work on Saga high enough that I've started to take it for granted. Which is my problem, not Staples'. And the flaming ghost gorilla really did it for me, so it's not like she can't impress or make an impact anymore, but I've grown comfortable enough with the characters and the settings of this series that I'm just used to seeing them look the way they do.
     But then, kapow, I hit that two-page spread of the world hatching and my at-easeness imploded on itself. What a gorgeous goddamn moment. I didn't even notice that there was a dialogue balloon on one of the pages because I was so wrapped up in the planet-sized alien baby being birthed before my eyes. So applause for Staples for being able to shake me up and surprise me at exactly the right time with exactly the right image. I'll never again make the mistake of thinking I know what to expect from her.
     Unfortunately, Brian K. Vaughan's script this issue is less compelling. I did quite like the opening scene, even though I'm not sure it was needed. The details of Marko and Alana's history are interesting enough, but I understand their love even without seeing their past. All the same, it was a touching conversation between them, and I am glad to have actually witnessed the moment they first decided to go for it, to risk everything for each other. After that, though, the script sort of lazily rolls along on the momentum of last issue. All of our heroes get back to their ship, their pursuers catch up to them, but nobody gets caught yet. The reasons for that were maybe not expected, but they weren't exactly unexpected either, and none of it felt all that exciting. It was more like...get on with it already.
     The ending, which I won't entirely spoil but will say involves someone dying, was definitely a stunner. I'm actually still surprised at how hard it hit me. I was not anticipating another character death so quickly, and maybe least of all the character in question. And though I knew that this was a character I adored, I don't know if I expected to be so hurt by the loss. So far in Saga, death has been permanent, which I like in my fiction. But it puts me in the weird position now of hoping that one of my favorite characters will never be seen again. Rough stuff, handled deftly.
    So Vaughan and Staples each blindsided me in the best way once this issue. And I like that, I want it more than anything from the books I read. If I can see everything coming, then what is the point, you know? Saga #10 didn't have the meatiest story, just a few inevitable beats in an extremely slow-moving tale. But it looked amazing and it threw a few impressive curveballs, so kudos for all of that.

Pull List Review: Revival #7

I find myself digging the pacing of Revival more and more with each new issue. Though highly decompressed, it still finds a way to regularly fit in major, shocking events. Yet there is an underlying sense that the things we've seen so far, no matter how intense, horrific, and/or significant they seem, are only the tip of the iceberg. There are still countless questions about the revivers, really as many as there were when the series started, and the answers are not going to be pretty. While the cast searches for them, though, they continue to have exciting and unexpected adventures, so the book hums along and provides moments of clarity and closure while keeping its central mystery alive and obscured.
     A whole lot of stuff goes on in this issue, thanks in part to writer Tim Seeley's intelligent use of some one- or two-page scenes. He places and structures them deliberately, allowing himself to advance numerous threads in a small space so the primary narrative of the issue can have all the room it needs. Of course, that narrative centers of officer Dana Cypress, the star of Revival from the beginning and easily its most compelling character. In all the talk about strong female leads in comicbooks I see these days, Revival seems to get left out by-and-large, which is crazy. Dana is the epitome of a realistic, independent, powerful, admirable woman. Not just woman, person. Even when the vengeful, back-from-the-dead Anders takes her gun and throws her to the floor, Dana calmly and logically explains to him that she has to place him under arrest. Don't let the issue's cover fool you, this woman is not scared by the horrible things she sees. She understands that dealing with the revivers is going to mean difficult, terrifying, impossible-to-explain things, and she takes it all in stride and continues to do her job by the book. And Dana remaining so unphased is a big part of what I talked about above, the feeling that we have yet to see the worst of what this title can offer. Until Dana freaks out, I don't feel like I need to, because if she thinks she can handle it I implicitly trust that she can. Someday, perhaps someday soon, she'll be forced to face something that truly rattles her, and that'll likely be when Revival pulls out all the stops and becomes the most insane, horrific comicbook on the shelves. It's coming, y'all.
     Anyway, Dana's pursuit of and struggle with Anders is the bulk of this issue, and makes for a disturbing and satisfying conclusion to that particular story. Anders is just the right mix of ugly, old, and angry for a horror villain. I understand his rage because, after all, his own kid helped murder him, but there is such a base wickedness in his eyes that I'm still glad when he gets taken down. It also makes for the best single panel in the issue, the silhouette of Anders falling from the window, his own blood trailing behind him. It is a very tastefully-done bit of gore from Mike Norton, who does the same with most of the blood and guts of Revival. Though there are plenty of grim and gruesome visuals, Norton does a great job of making them look real enough to be upsetting but not so graphic that they're hard to see. This is not a book that relies on splatter for its horror, and really Norton's ability to play it down is another facet of the continuing sense that things could get much worse. If he really cut loose, it's clear that Norton could render the stuff of some awfully twisted nightmares, so I'm thankful for his reigning it in so far. The violence in Revival #7 is brutal and sudden and severe, make no mistake, but it's not so deeply disturbing as I know Norton could've made it if he chose. Again, I think he's saving it for later, and what we're getting now are hints at the enormous things to come.
     Norton walks a similar line when it comes to the overall visual tone of the series. Though not highly realistic or photoreferenced at all that I can tell, this is still an artistically grounded book. The people look real, their emotions and expressions are nuanced and detailed and rich. There is a richness to everything, a fullness to it that captures the spirit of small towns, hard winters, and imminent doom. Seeley's script is right there with the art. His cast acts naturally, believably, yet the wholly unbelievable events in their lives still mesh. It's a tightrope act if ever there was one, but Seeley and Norton make it look fairly effortless.
     The ending of this issue was quite the tasty cliffhanger, and may even be the first step toward the next phase in the series' insanity. But I suspect that even this stunning conclusion is going to seem mild when all is said and done. And that is what I love about Revival: even in an issue where I get all the action and horror I want, I am left with a sense of greater things to come.

Tuesday, February 19, 2013

The Grand X-Factor Investigations Investigation Part 11

The eleventh in a group of 15 posts on X-Factor volume 3.

Meet the Madroxes
It's all about Jamie & Layla's love

There's something like 90 issues between child Layla telling Jamie she'll eventually marry him and adult Layla actually doing it. Peter David didn't have to make good on that promise. He wasn't required to find some means of aging her up quickly enough to be the writer who also handled the wedding (or lack thereof). Anyone could have done that any number of years from now. And it's impossible to say how much of their relationship David had planned out when Layla first mentioned marriage in X-Factor #9, but he's clearly had his sights set on making them a natural and likable couple from the beginning. Though Layla and Jamie are not central to every story---after all, she's absent from the book for a decent stretch---many of the biggest and most significant storylines act as definitive markers in the progression of their love.
     Right away, he saves her from the orphanage where she lives, motivated by something he can never quite pin down. She tells him they'll be married during Civil War, and after some smaller adventures, he loses her in the future during Messiah Complex. Then, once again, things become a bit more boiler plate, until Madrox accidentally absorbs the son he was supposed to have with Theresa. This makes him nearly suicidal, an outlook that drives him straight to the site of his reunion with Layla. Her return leads to the longest-running arc to date, which is also where their dynamic becomes romantic for the first time (now that she's grown). She soon brings Guido back to life and it becomes a point of contention between her and Jamie briefly, until it indirectly leads to his own death. Then his return comes not long before they get hitched, which also more or less coincides with the beginnings of the "Hell on Earth War". When major bombs are dropping in the book, it tends to line up with an important moment in the ongoing saga of Jamie and Layla.
     Plus there's no denying that Madrox, at least, is the star of the show. He narrates like 98% of the issues, leads the team, and has an old personal connection to their first and most commonly-recurring villain. Layla, meanwhile, is the resident scene-stealer. She loves to interrupt, pull focus, or just tell people how they ought to behave, and because she's always right, she gets away with it. Also she's got a great sense of humor, so that goes a long way. But the point is, even as individuals, these two characters tend to get a generous portion of the spotlight, so as a couple they constitute the core of the entire series.
     And they're clearly made for each other. He's the Multiple Man, always able to see all the options and therefore never confident in selecting one. She's Layla Miller, she knows stuff. Already aware of what the outcome is "supposed" to be, she can point Jamie to the best choice in any situation. Though neither are his creations, David must have seen right away how complementary their respective power sets, strengths, and even flaws were. So he stuck Layla right into the first issue of this series, I think already knowing what she would someday mean for Madrox.
      Maybe I am giving him too much credit. Perhaps he just thought she was cool or interesting and then the romantic angle appeared to him later. Maybe it's ALL editorial mandates, and David secretly thinks they make an awful couple. But whatever the external reality, within X-Factor the slow-but-always-burning love between Layla and Jamie has been one of the most satisfying throughlines to follow.
     Of course, they're married now, and yet X-Factor continues, so it could be that their romance is meant as just another of many long-spun narrative threads. But love doesn't end at marriage, relationships don't cease to grow because someone puts a ring on it. As the Layla-centric X-Factor #240 showed, her and Jamie's future still holds a great deal of promise, mystery, and perhaps even tragedy. Though we're no longer holding our breath for their long-anticipated wedding, the trajectory and destination of their marriage are question marks right now.
     There have been other romances in the book, good and bad, failed and successful, all along the way. Some even included Jamie or Layla, though many didn't. And really, their relationship is one of the newest. But it's the oldest, too, because they've both known it would be real for a long, long time. For Layla it always has been, an inevitability she merely had to wait out. Because of that, it is the simplest and strongest love in the series, in spite of the complicated path traveled to get to it.
     I've come to think of X-Factor as the Jamie and Layla story first and foremost, but I'm aware that this may be a skewed interpretation. I happen to adore both characters, adore comicbooks that reward their readers in the long term, and absolutely adore a good, natural, comfortable love story. But I can see how this view of the series might be a little too narrow. After all, this is a pretty enormous cast if David's ultimate focus is going to be on the love of two people. So, if I'm wrong, what is this series about? Is it just another monthly superhero funnybook, or is there a higher concept at play? And do we even need to ask these questions? The best answers I can think of, however unnecessary they may be, coming up next.

Monday, February 18, 2013

This Exists!: The Great Grimmax #0 & Splatterball

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

One of my continuing comicbook collector missions is to acquire everything Defiant Comics ever published. It's not that vast a library, since the company only existed for about two years, but they're somewhat elusive books. Defiant was founded by Jim Shooter after he had already been ousted as editor-in-chief of both Marvel and Valiant. It appears to have been sort of a vanity project for him, with his name being attached to nearly every project as at least creator and editor if not writer as well. And though they don't tend to be comics of the highest quality, I find them uniquely interesting and would love to someday own them all. They tend to have some genuinely good ideas, but with storytelling that's half-hearted, obvious, and/or absurd, so the results are often unintentionally amusing. I like that, and I want more of it in my life.
     My introduction to the accidentally-funny world of Defiant was Splatterball, which I picked up and skimmed at a sale just because of its cover. It was only twelve pages long and seemed colorful and strange, so I figured it couldn't be that bad, and it was cheap enough that I ended up buying it.
Then I read it, and it was awful. But fun awful, the kind of lighthearted, marshmallow-level material that doesn't take itself seriously enough to even be worth ridicule. It's empty calories, primarily a means of introducing readers to a few aspects of PLASM, the planet that was meant to be a major setting in the greater Defiant continuity. The plot is flimsy, because it wants to be character-based, yet all the characters are two-dimensional (at best) and mostly unlikable. But the comic doesn't even seem to be trying for a decent plot. The whole thing is an ad for other comics, a giant finger pointing out a few almost-interesting elements of PLASM. See? The sports on this planet are brutal! or FYI, the government is super corrupt. It's not even numbered as Splatterball #1 because there was never any intention of publishing a second issue. It's promotional material, basically, but I didn't pick up on that until I'd finished reading it.
What there is of a story centers on the championship game of Splatterball, an event that means a lot of violence on the field and gambling on the sidelines. Various forces of evil try to rig the game and control its outcome for their own greedy intentions, but star athlete The Great Grimmax is skilled enough to squelch those plans and claim victory in the end. A shallow victory, though, because it means the death of his entire team and the one they were playing against. Grimmax, the only survivor, is also the only player who ever seems disturbed by the murderous nature of the game, but he still plays to win.
     Lucky for him, in his own book, The Great Grimmax  #0, he has escaped PLASM and is living on Earth as an earnest and naive bicycle delivery boy. Ostensibly this zero issue was intended to introduce the character so that a series could then launch in which he was the star, but according to the Internet, no such series ever existed. It's not hard to see why, because he's a bit robotic for a leading man. His lack of understanding of human behavior is so extreme, it makes it hard to believe that he'd even have a delivery job. And while his dialogue represents total honesty and kindness, he's pretty quick to start throwing punches when cornered. That's too many incongruous details for an eight-page character introduction, and certainly doesn't make me want to read more.
So Grimmax's first and only solo adventure was that of delivering grapefruits to a rough part of the Bronx, and inadvertently teaching one of the local street hooligans a valuable lesson about the importance of life. It is the after school special of sci-fi superhero stories, complete with forced dialogue and a hamfisted delivery of the ultimate message.
But again, as bad as this is, it's a kind of bad that makes me happy. I chuckle at almost every line Grimmax has, not in spite but because of how unrealistic it all sounds. When you pass a certain threshold of awful, you reach a zone of comedy, and both of these books sit there comfortably.
     So I started snatching up other Defiant titles after reading these, not expecting quality material but still hoping for enjoyable experiences. Some of what I've found has been better, and some of it has been even worse, but it all hits that sweet combination of decent concepts and poor execution that makes for fun, funny, easy reading. Sometimes you gotta wade through the muck so that the oasis seems even sweeter. Splatterball and The Great Grimmax #0 both remind me what junk comicbooks look like, so I can more fully appreciate the great ones that share my longbox space with these weaker issues.

Sunday, February 17, 2013

Superb Heroes: Spider-Man Noir

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

Because he's such a classic and popular character, stories about Spider-Man have been done to death. Alternate realities, distant futures, clones, deaths and rebirths, enormous retcons, Doctor Octopus taking over Peter Parker's body...we've seen it all. This is not to say the Spider-Man mine is void of any fresh resources, just that the need for new takes on or examinations of the character has been met many times over. It's a smart if risky decision by writers David Hine and Fabrice Sapolsky, then, to not worry themselves too greatly with sticking to established ideas and/or character concepts in Spider-Man Noir. Instead, they craft a story that could be told through the eyes of nearly any superhero. This series isn't Spider-Man in the 1930s, it's superheroism in general in the 1930s, a chance to take the genre and map it onto an era that precedes it. There are numerous examples of recognizable Spider-Man-specific details in the book, but Hine & Sapolsky use them only when they are a natural fit, and are happy to ignore or dramatically change others if it suits their goals. This makes the series much stronger and more cohesive than it might've been if the Spider-Man mythos was followed too closely, and provides a solid, original tale about trying to stay good in the face of insurmountable evil.
     The biggest, most notable shifts are in the title character himself. This is not shy, scientific nerd Peter Parker. This is angry young man Peter Parker, railing against the ugliness and horror of society with an incessant fury. Even before he has any superhuman abilities, Peter is eager to take up the fight against evil, and refuses to accept the idea that someone as villainous as Normon Osborn---who loses the "green" from his pseudonym in this setting and is known simply as The Goblin---can't be taken down. And when a magic (not radioactive) spider bites Peter and grants him incredible power, there is no indication that it comes with any "great responsibility." On the contrary, he wages a brutal, unforgiving, sometimes reckless war against The Goblin's various illegal operations, using a gun along with his webbing because he's just as happy to kill as disable his enemies. Motivated not by a sense of honor or duty but the much baser impulse of vengeance, this Spider-Man is nearly as ruthless as the man he's trying to defeat. But Parker thinks that ruthlessness is necessary, seeing no other way to effectively combat these incredible evils.
     His rage comes from an odd mix of naivete and experience. He's naive in the sense that he doesn't understand why no one speaks out against The Goblin. Unaware (initially) of the widepsread corruption in the city, Peter can't see how someone as universally hated and feared as Osborn is allowed to stay in power. All injustice infuriates Peter, and he wants the rest of the world to feel the same, so when they don't, he's confused by it and even more deeply angered. As for experience...the Uncle Ben of this noir world was murdered by The Goblin and his goons, and Peter knows it, yet there is no way for him to prove it or get justice for his uncle's death in any way. The Goblin is too well-protected to ever have to answer for such a crime, and because Peter can't yet see all of his opponent's defenses, he is left to futilely and angrily wish that something could be done.
     This impotently pissed off Parker is who we meet at the beginning of the story, though, not who he is at the end. By the tale's conclusion, all of his anger has been focused and weaponized and used to topple The Goblin's evil empire for good. Obviously Peter's magical spider powers go a long way toward achieving that goal, but there is another, even more important element to the Spider-Man of Hine and Sapolsky's world: Ben Urich.
     Urich represents a version of Parker who's grown older and softer, having already succumb to the wickedness around him. Where once he might have been a passionate and noble man, he is now a jaded heroin addict, trading his anger for cynicism and sacrificing his morals for the sake of survival. He, too, hates The Goblin, and even has thick files of information that could bring the villain down if they were in the right hands. But Urich firmly believes that those hands don't exist, that trying to battle The Goblin is a pointless endeavor that can only result in failure. Not to mention that Urich is just as in The Goblin's pocket as anyone. It isn't until Ben meets Peter, full of piss and vinegar, that he summons the bravery to make a move, and it gets him killed almost immediately. But his files make their way to Parker through mutual friend Felicia Hardy, and without them, there might never have been a Spider-Man. Even with his amazing powers, Peter doesn't know how to best strike at The Goblin until he has Urich's files in hand, but once he does he becomes an unstoppable force. And it is even Urich who helps inspire the name Spider-Man, because his nickname amongst The Goblin's crew before they shot him was The Spider. He pulls back the curtain for Peter so the young man can see the depths of the corruption that rules their city, and Peter in turn reminds Urich what it feels like to be enraged by such things. And so the two of them combine forces to become a dark and deadly Spider-Man, even though for Urich it's posthumous heroism.
     I give Hine and Sapolsky mad props for killing off Urich in Spider-Man Noir #2, because up to that point he had been the series' narrator, so cutting him out of the remainder of the book was a bold move. Parker takes over narration duties for the second half of the story, and it helps underline that this version of the titular hero is really two men working together. Urich does more good in death than he ever did in life thanks to Peter, and Peter is more effective than he would ever be if he didn't have all of Urich's info. The spider-whole is greater than the sum of its spider-parts.
     The same could be said about the series itself, which uses some fairly simple, direct ideas and characters to tell a deceptively nuanced and intricate story. The good guy is SO good, all he does is talk about how angry he is over the evils that surround him, right up to the point that he starts actively fighting them. And the bad guys are also SO bad, a gang of former circus freaks who relish violence and openly, aggressively flaunt their power for all to see. In the middle of these two extreme camps is Urich, the only character to go through a significant internal change, but his narration is so honest and direct that, for the reader anyway, he is always an open book. Everyone is easy to understand immediately, as is the world in which they live. But that doesn't mean there are no surprises, or that the narrative ever grows tired or repetitive. Hine and Sapolsky do strong work with their whole cast, pace and progress their story with care, and end every issue on a powerful and enticing moment that keeps the excitement alive.
     All of this skilled scripting might well be for naught, though, if it weren't coupled so excellently with Carmine Di Giandomenico's art. Drawing dark and grounded images with a small but important amount of exaggeration in his figures, Giandomenico manages to capture the grim, ground-level tone of the bulk of the narrative while still fitting stylistically with the more outlandish details. So when Peter is bitten and we suddenly see a two-page spread of some sort of enormous spider demon/spirit speaking to him and gifting him with his powers, it's not as jarring as one might expect in the middle of a story about mobsters and the like. The same is true when, near the end, it's revealed that The Goblin got his nickname due to some sort of skin condition that makes him look reptilian (more reminiscent of classic spider-villain The Lizard than the traditional Green Goblin). Giandomenico displays Osborn's true flesh with enough subtlety and realism that it fits, even in a world where everyone else is essentially a normal human being in appearance. The only possible exception is The Vulture, but it is with that character that Giandomenico does his best and most memorable work on the series, anyway.
     I'd probably read a comicbook called The Vulture if he was drawing it. Actually, I'd want it to be called Toomes (the character's real last name), but that's just me. Giandomenico's Vulture is more feral dog than man, hissing and gnashing his teeth, hunched over, and covered in all black. Only his Nosferatu-esque face is visible, and the occasional glimpse of his pale, clawed hands. Unsettling right away, he progresses to horrifying by the close of the debut issue. And though he is nearly silent, his presence is felt heavily throughout the series. Every appearance adds tension and terror. The Vulture is a constant threat, a living threat, made by The Goblin to all of his enemies at all times. Giandomenico depicts him hauntingly, and as little stage time as he gets, he's still the breakout character of the book.
     He's also Uncle Ben's murderer. Though it was of course an order given by The Goblin, The Vulture eats Ben, emptying his guts and leaving a hollowed-out and wide open corpse for Peter to find. So once he becomes Spider-Man, there is a personal edge to Peter's rampage that culminates in a scene where he shoots The Vulture point blank in order to save Aunt May. It is a moment that highlights the key differences between this and traditional Spider-Man stories, and also brings home some of the overarching themes of the book. Spider-Man has never been one to callously kill, but this is a hardened hero for a harder world. The Peter Parker we all know and love would be unlikely to last a minute in this setting, but the one we get here is perfect for it.
     And that's what any superhero should be: the solution to the problems of his or her own time and place.

Saturday, February 16, 2013

And Many More

It's my birthday today. I'm 26. Guess I should take stock of my life, right?
     Yesterday, I debuted a new column on The Chemical Box all about comicbooks published the year I was born. I feel quite honored and grateful to have been given the opportunity by Alec and Joey and the rest of that crew, and I love that the whole project got to kick off one day before my birthday. Seems fitting, considering the unifying theme of titles from 1987.
     Last week, I also put up my first piece on SquarePop, the culture/entertainment review site I signed up to write for a few months back. It's about "Jeff, Who Lives at Home" and "Safety Not Guaranteed", two films that hold a lot of the same meaning for me. It was an enjoyable diversion to write about something other than comicbooks for the length of one piece, and I'm equally thankful to the managers of SquarePop for letting me do so on a (hopefully) somewhat regular basis.
     All of this is to say that, here at the end of my twenty-sixth year, I'm in a pretty great place as far as my writing. I've been keeping up with all of my personal deadlines for publishing columns on Comics Matter, and been lucky enough to have a few chances to branch out from this blog and write for other people. I don't always love everything I write because, you know, who does? But I keep on keeping on with it, and it is rewarding more often than frustrating so far. So thanks again to The Chemical Box & SquarePop, and to the Internet in general, for the awesome, free gift of a platform from which to jabber about comics and movies and why I dig 'em.
     Ok, writing: check. Check-plus, even. But how goes the reading?
     That's a tougher call. Obviously there are some damn great titles out there right now, but even though I've been on a mission lately to tighten up my pull list, I still find myself reading some real garbage almost every week. And some incredibly mediocre stuff, too, which can be just as annoying. The DC titles I follow, of which there are only six, definitely have a lot to do with the sense of a lack of quality. I would consider all of the following books to be on the "chopping block" as of now: Batman, Birds of Prey, Dial H, and Earth 2. They're all maybe two bad issues away from being dropped completely, except Batman which I may well cut before issue #18 is released next month. The conclusion to the "Death of the Family" story this week was profoundly disappointing. For most of the event, Batman was pretty bad at being Batman, and then in the final chapter The Joker decided to suck at being The Joker, too. Yes, I get it, he totally blew up the trust amongst the Bat-family, and yes, that is a pretty nasty thing to do. But you know what would've been truly evil? Actually HURTING one of them. At all. In like a permanent, maybe even fatal way. The Joker can slay countless innocents, but he keeps himself contained with characters who have their own titles to support. That's stupid. And yeah, he did technically have a plan that could've resulted in their deaths if Batman and company hadn't been able to thwart it, but even that was needlessly flimsy and complicated and, ultimately, the Bat-kids and Alfred beat The Joker's final play inexplicably. They overcome what is supposedly a new and improved Joker toxin by wanting it badly enough. Weak sauce.
     So I am going to probably give that series one last reread, and if it somehow surprises me I'll keep it around. But not even the promise of a Riddler story is going to convince me to spend any more money on a book about a superhero who's off his game but stubbornly refuses to see it.
     Birds of Prey has a new writer starting soon, so I'll wait and see if Christy Marx can return that book to its former glory. It hasn't been the same since Jesus Saiz left, but I'll give the new creative team a fair chance before letting it go. As for Dial H and Earth 2, those titles both had strong debuts, but for the past several months have been in a slump, and the longer their respective downswings last, the less I believe they'll ever climb back up. So if they haven't made clear shifts in the next couple of months, I'll be too tired of waiting to do so any longer.
     If all of those books got dropped, the only DC titles I'd be reading are Wonder Woman and Threshold, the latter of which is new enough to still be in its three-to-five issue probational period, so it, too, may well be dropped soon. And Wonder Woman, while strong overall, has several looming problems. It made the Amazons into rapists, but only after killing them all. It has a tendency to get caught up in the Greek god soap opera elements, sometimes becoming too melodramatic and/or clever in its dialogue, which is tiresome. And of course, there is the fact that it barely stars its title character, and even when she is on the page she is one of the least interesting or developed members of the cast. So, truth be told, two or three shitty issues in a row might well convince me to abandon that series, too.
     So DC is not doing it for me right now. Marvel is better off, no question, with a couple reliably great titles like Daredevil and Thor: God of Thunder. And, though I did not enjoy either of them nearly as much as it seems many others did, Young Avengers and Fearless Defenders both hold great promise. But nothing else I am reading from them gets me noticeably excited. I know Hawkeye is supposed to be one of the best current superhero books, but I don't see it and disagree. It's fine, but not great, sometimes fumbling its humor and often telling boring stories. Ultimate Comics Spider-Man is in basically the same place as Dial H or Earth 2: several issues in a row that were not up to snuff are making me reconsider it. Dark Avengers is solid but rarely incredible, and Uncanny X-Force has only had one decent-but-not-great issue so far, so it's in the same boat as Threshold.
     That leaves Journey Into Mystery, which I actually love right now, but eventually the current storyline will wrap and new creators will be brought in and it could look like anything when that happens. Marvel has the edge over DC nowadays, but it's a slight edge at best, and neither of them compare to Image's current output.
     ChangeProphet, Revival, SagaStorm Dogs, Where Is Jake Ellis?, and Witch Doctor: Mal Practice are all as good or better than any of the Big Two titles I named above. Same goes for Valiant's Archer & Armstrong and Harbinger, though I admit it took the former some time to get warmed up. I look forward to these titles more than anything from the "mainstream," and month in, month out, they deliver the goods. My reading may not be at the overall level I'd like every week, but there are plenty of gems in there keeping my love alive and well.
     Oh, just for the sake of being thorough, there are only four titles on my pull list that I didn't mention yet: The Answer!, The Black Beetle: No Way OutHellblazer, and Rachel Rising. The first two are new but had stellar debuts, and the other two are almost always the best comicbook of whatever week they're published. Hellblazer is a Vertigo title, so technically it's also from DC, but it only has one issue left, which is infuriating, so even though it's good it counts as a point against the company.
     There'll always be more to read, though. My dad has been following some Marvel NOW! titles that I have not, and for my birthday he shipped everything he's collected so far to me as a present. So now I have some catching up to do with those. Plus my fiancee, Katie, and her parents each got me gift cards to the biggest local comicbook store, so I have a day of digging through back issues ahead of me that I can't wait to get started.
     In fact, I think I'll do that now. This masturbatory summary of my feelings on every comicbook I currently follow has been my birthday gift to myself. And, if you're still here, then reading it has been your birthday gift to me. So thank you for that. Sincerely. Now it's time to put someone else's gifts to me to good use.

Wednesday, February 13, 2013

The Grand X-Factor Investigations Investigation Part 10

The tenth in a group of like 12-15 posts on X-Factor volume 3.

Modern Life is Rubbish
X-Factor #241-251 [most recent issue as of this writing]

So here we are, all caught up. And what is the current state of affairs for this mutant detective agency? Well...things are looking pretty grim these days. It all starts with "Breaking Points," perhaps my all-time favorite arc. It's up there. Five days, five issues, five individual stories that come together to tell a tale of a team in disarray, dropping members left and right. By the end of the storyline, one-third of X-Factor is gone, and though the book was ready to shave down its cast (from twelve to eight, so...still sizable), that doesn't make the process any less painful for the team.
     Guido, sick of being scorned by his love interest Monet just because he has no soul, storms off after a fight and never comes back. Rahne finds her son and they have a heartwarming reunion, and she decides to stay with him at a safehouse for a while. Polaris discovers that her own powers were responsible for the plane crash that killed her parents, and it disables her mentally. Well, it does until Banshee agrees to take the place of Morrigan (an actual banshee) and then uses her newfound powers to heal Polaris' pain. However, even once Polaris is feeling better, there is no saving her relationship with Havok, who decides he never belonged on X-Factor and quits, walking away all alone. It's an awful lot of change in a very short time, especially because Guido and Banshee have both been on the team since the debut issue with no pauses or breaks until now. To drop two of the oldest members and one of the newest (Havok) in the same arc is a brave decision on Peter David's part, but also a wise one. Guido's heel turn had been building up for a while, because his return to life as a soulless man had to have serious consequences for him eventually. And while less expected, Banshee's departure also feels inevitable when it arrives. It connects to her father's death, her damaged relationship with Madrox, and her recent encounter with Morrigan, and leaves her in a fascinating place. I have no doubt we'll see her again in this book, maybe even by the end of the "Hell on Earth War." She is a goddes now, more powerful than ever, and as sad as it is to lose her, I can't think of a team member more deserving of such a promotion.
     As for Havok resigning...good riddance, says I. He was never happy on the team, never added much to the title, and always looked ridiculous. So let him be an Uncanny Avenger. It's better for everyone.
     What I admire about "Breaking Points" is that every issue is its own whole narrative, but they're still very much connected to each other through this theme of X-Factor shrinking. And I like how David got a little inventive with the ways people left and their motivations for doing so. It's not just a bunch of different versions of people angrily stomping out, which would've been easy. Instead, some of them leave for better things, happier lives than they were living before. To send away some of the strongest characters without weakening the series overall or upsetting me as a reader is a pretty big task, but David was careful with his choices and found logical, powerful reasons for each of these people to go wherever they go.
     Sadly, what follows is a four-issue lull. I'd guess that this is at least partly so "Hell on Earth War" could officially kick off in X-Factor #250 (landmark story, landmark issue), but it's still incredibly disappointing. Riding the high of "Breaking Points" straight into much duller, not-so-deliberately crafted issues is a drag, but at least they move quickly. And they're not terrible or anything, just kind of chaotic and a little boring.
     I know that part of my feeling this way is connected to Pip getting his profile raised within these issues. I still can't get on board with Pip. He's always been deeply more obnoxious than humorous. X-Factor #246 is centered on and narrated by Pip, and does nothing but underline for me that he's a distasteful little shit. As an example, he hires a guy to pretend to mug a woman so he can then "save" that woman and ultimately sleep with her. That's despicable behavior that makes him a villain in my book, and when the same woman shot him at the end of the issue, I thought, "Great! One more needless member of the team eliminated." Then when he came back to life in Monet's head at the start of X-Factor #248, I was just as pissed as she was at the invasion. Innocent mistake or not, Monet has too many deep-seated scars when it comes to people mentally controlling her, and whatever comedy is derived from the idea of Pip in her brain is nothing compared to how serious a violation it is. I know that, as a troll, he has knowledge that is going to help the team now that they're fighting such powerful, mystical foes, but is it worth having to deal with his idiocy? I submit that it is not.
     In the middle of all that noise, Jamie and Layla finally get married, only for their honeymoon to be interrupted by the murderous ghost of Robert E. Lee. It's a goofy bit of business, but I like it, because Jamie and Layla are married. The story could have been almost anything, I'm just glad to have their relationship solidified. Then, finally, there is a full-team battle against demonic hordes at a botanical garden. It's a big, exciting fight, but maybe too rushed in its execution because it primarily just acts as a kind of prologue to "Hell on Earth War."
     It's hard for me to comment on "Hell on Earth War" right now because we're only two chapters deep. I know this is something David teased as long ago as when he was still the writer on Hulk, so expectations are high. But these first two issues have yet to wow me, still putting the pieces in place and explaining the situation. Basically, Rahne's son Tier, in addition to being a half-god, was also the seven billionth person born on Earth, and that makes him a key part of a bet between all the "Hell Lords" in the Marvel Universe (Mephisto, Hela, Pluto, etc.). Whichever Hell Lord can kill Tier first gets to be in charge of the rest of them, so they show up en masse when Tier arrives at X-Factor. And that's still where we are: X-Factor is trying to figure out how to defend its newest, youngest member from a gang of immortals with unthinkable power who are all hell-bent on killing him.
     It's a powder keg, and now that we finally know what's so special about Tier and why everyone wants him dead, I'm anticipating a lot of no-holds-barred action and some last-minute hail Mary saves. Also Darwin is back, so I'm smiling about that if nothing else. And because David has proven time and time again on this title how damn good he is at providing payoff for stories in the long term, added to the fact that this is something he's been cooking up for fifteen years or more, well...I have absolute faith that "Hell on Earth War" is going to be a standout arc when all is said and done.
     So that's it as far as talking about the issues chronologically. The finish line is in view, folks, but before I call it a day on The Grand X-Factor Investigations Investigation, I want to discuss the series as whole from a few different angles. Starting next time with the argument that, more than anything, X-Factor is a romance starring Jamie Madrox and Layla Miller. 

Sunday, February 10, 2013

The Grand X-Factor Investigations Investigation Part 9

The ninth in a group of like 12-15 posts on X-Factor volume 3.

Those First Few Dominoes
X-Factor #233-240

This'll probably be a quick one, because these are quick little tales.
     Even if you count X-Factor #233 & 234 as one story instead of two (the argument can be made strongly for either) these eight issues still comprise five distinct narrative arcs. That's a lot of story in a fairly small space, but Peter David utilizes it well, getting a ton of set-up work done for things that'll pay off in the future. It does mean some of the A-plots of these issues are fluffier fare so the background material can introduce more important things, but even the lightweight stuff has consequences and/or dangling threads that we know will be tied off eventually.
     The first two issues focus on the team settling into their new enormous lineup now that Havok and Polaris have signed on and Madrox is back from the dead. It's not an easy adjustment for any of them to make, and so we watch them butt heads with each other instead of villains for a little while until they find a place of tenuous calm. Then there's a two-part story about a bad guy from Mojoworld named Scattershot that doesn't fully resolve. Shatterstar defeats him, but then lies to the team about some of the details, and we don't know yet why a new agent of Mojo's would be causing trouble on Earth in the first place. It's a fun ride, though, and Scattershot has a hilarious 90's throwback look, so fingers crossed that we'll see the real conclusion of that story someday soon.
     I love X-Factor #237 because I'm always a fan of the Reverend John Maddox, and his conversation with Rahne is a powerful and necessary step in her personal arc. She's overdue for a bit of redemption, and who better than the Madrox-dupe-turned-priest to deliver it? Also Banshee and Polaris have a nice interplay, and it's the first time Polaris gets to be that big a part of an issue, which is all good to see. A simple story, but significant all the same. It's followed by another two-parter, this one centered on Banshee's struggle against Morrigan, a true mythological banshee who dislikes having her name misrepresented. Like the Scattershot tale, Morrigan's story only partially concludes here, but its final resolution comes very quickly (as in it'll be part of the next batch of issues discussed). What we get for now is a sudden and maybe overly simple temporary fix in the form of help from an unexpected third party, and though it works fine, overall I think these two issues are the weakest of the group. Morrigan needed to be established here, but the story around her introduction isn't all that meaty.
     Lastly there is the Layla-narrated X-Factor #240, which sheds some light on how her future-seeing abilites work and what changed about them after she brought Guido back to life. It also shows us glimpses of her more distant future: a life and family with Madrox and the possibility of losing him too early. I quite like the idea that she is already working behind the scenes to save and secure their love. And even though she'd already explained a lot of it, however cryptically, I appreciated a chance to finally see the "stuff" she knows from her point of view and hear her internal take on it. She's been such an important force in this title since the very start, it was high time we peeked inside her head, even briefly.
     These are a remarkably swift-paced bunch of issues. The amount of new information given and new seeds sown is impressive, and David fits in several complete smaller narratives, too. But I think that the most important purpose this era in the title's life serves is to get all the dominoes lined up so David can knock them over for the incredible five-part arc that follows, aptly titled "Breaking Points." That's where my next post will begin, and it'll end with the "Hell on Earth War" that's currently under way.

Thursday, February 7, 2013

Pull List Review: Earth 2 #9

I know what the cover and credits page said, but this did not feel like something written by James Robinson and drawn by Nicola Scott. When this title debuted, I was impressed right away with Scott's level of detail, present on every page and with every character. Here, though she still has her moments, the artwork is generally a little softer around the edges. I noticed it mostly in the characters' faces. Not that they weren't distinct or expressive, but their smaller features seemed to have been wiped out in favor of smooth, unnatural flesh. Scott's artwork is too realistic to mesh with that, and I found myself pulled out of the story a few times because of the lack of detail.
     Not everything had this problem. When The Flash's mother's house is destroyed, there's a full-page splash rich in tiny bits and pieces, so it's not as though Scott phoned it in entirely. And in general, whenever The Flash was in action the artwork was at its best. He continues to be the strongest character visually, and found a few creative uses for his super speed this month that were quite well-rendered. I'm not sure if time restraints kept the rest of the art from seeming as finished, or if Scott was just a bit off her game this month or what, but overall I was less sucked in by her work than I typically am on this book. Plus she had a stray panel here or there that confused me, like a single shot of a pissed of government agent's face at the bottom of one page or a panel showing a dummy in a Green Lantern t-shirt that isn't explained until a few pages later. Moments like this and a general vagueness to her characters made Earth 2 #9 a much blander-looking issue than usual.
     It is James Robinson's script that I upset me most, though. His dialogue is getting SO unnaturally expository on this series. It was true last month, and continues here from the first scene to the last. Hawkgirl and Khalid (Dr. Fate) have a chat that clearly covers information they both already know, and the only reason to speak much of it out loud is for the reader's benefit. The result is a conversation that feels as forced as it does awkward. From there, we jump to a series of audio clips from various news stations recapping what has happened in the series up to now. I am so fucking sick of that storytelling strategy. It is easy and cheap and tired, and Robinson's career proves he can do better.
     The rest of the story centers on the government trying to apprehend The Flash, abandoning all subtely or strategy in their efforts and instead attacking him with destructive force on his mom's front lawn. The idiocy of that aside, it was a fine enough narrative, giving The Flash a chance to, as I said, use his powers in some new ways. But it doesn't get anywhere. The Flash meets Khalid and they escape, but otherwise nothing changes. The government still wants to control these new "wonders," and the wonders are obviously still not into that. It's an awful lot of page space committed to simply introduce two heroes who already have an ally in common and otherwise maintain the status quo.
     The real kicker comes on the final page. The issue concludes with what should have been the dramatic entrance of a new character, but was watered down when said character introduced herself through a nearly forty-word sentence that was more plot explanation than character background. It turned the ending into a dull chore rather than an exciting cliffhanger, the perfect punctuation for a dud of an issue.
     I am excited for Dr. Fate to show up in full. I am excited for the mysterious impending evil everyone keeps talking about to finally arrive. I am excited to see a New 52 Justice Society, made of a rich and diverse cast of characters who are all easy to understand and enjoy under Robinson's pen. But the longer all of this takes to actually happen, the more bickering and heroes-fighting-heroes scenes I am forced to slog through first, the less excited I feel. I understand that this is how superhero teams tend to get assembled these days, by first disliking and mistrusting each other and duking it out until a greater evil rear's its head and leaves them no choice but to band together. But that, too, is a tired narrative tactic, and it's already been going on far too long with too little progress. Earth 2 seems to be on a downward slide at the moment, and it needs to pick up the slack real soon or it could well become too frustrating a series to salvage.

Pull List Review: Harbinger #0

When I heard Harbinger #0 was going to be about the history of antagonist Toyo Harada, my first thought was, "What's the point?" Don't get me wrong, he's a fascinating character, and the opportunity to learn the details of his history is certainly enticing, but I wasn't sure what would be accomplished in terms of the series as a whole. We already knew so much about his motivations, his abilities, his tactics, etc. that I couldn't imagine what new insights would be offered by turning back the pages of time and seeing him as a younger, less accomplished version of himself. Turns out, this issue isn't so much trying to teach me anything new about Harada as it is showing me that in spite of how much I'd already seen, I'd been underestimating the range of his influence and evil all along.
     This is a story about how villains are made into villains, about the cycle of wickedness that makes good people turn bad. As a young boy, Harada sees firsthand the aftermath of the atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima, an event he only survives because his powers manifest to save him. Watching the world burn around him and constantly being threatened by other survivors, the kid becomes hardened, and ultimately confronts the soldier whose men were sent to bully him. That soldier delivers a speech on how war and evil are inescapable, how oil is thicker than blood and runs the world, and it unlocks a rage in young Harada that I'm not sure has ever fully died down. That conversation is presented as the last straw, the final brick laid in the wall of Harada's villainous persona. Far too impressionable and damaged to recover from such a dismal message, he instead succumbs to it, and it is the first step on his path to becoming one of the richest and most powerful businessmen in the world.
     His origin tale is more than enough to carry this issue on its own, but the real impact of Harbinger #0 is not in the past but the present. Harada tells his story to a young man named Darpan, a powerful psiot who has been with the Harbinger Foundation since infancy. Darpan is in the midst of a mission to capture the President of Syria, and wants the reassuring voice of his leader and father figure to stay with him in case he gets scared. So Harada agrees, and the two of them casually discuss his past while Darpan's powers cause the Syrian president and all of his guards to relive with full emotional force the worst moments of their lives. Held up against Harada's childhood, filled with loneliness and fear, Darpan's makes for a stark contrast. But if Harada became the unthinkable force of evil he is today without any guidance at all, trying to imagine what he has warped Darpan into is a truly unsettling and disturbing proposition. More than anything, that is what writer Joshua Dysart accomplishes in this zero issue. I may have already understood Harada, but I had no sense of what kinds of weapons he'd been building in the minds of his followers.
     Not sure who handled what, exactly, but artists Mico Suayan and Pere PĂ©rezdo both do an excellent job of visually contrasting the two time periods in the same ways the story does. Post-atomic Hiroshima is a dimly-lit place full of tired, grim faces and buildings reduced to rubble or ash. Meanwhile, in present-day Syria, the sun shines brightly as Darpan calmly causes waves of pain and chaos with a smile on his face. What this displays most is the difference in Harada's life. Where once he was a lost, broken, depressed child, he is now a rich and confident man on top of the world. It can be seen most clearly if you look at where he is at the conclusion of each of the parallel narratives. His origin story ends with boy Harada flying into the air screaming, his mental powers causing massive destruction and chaos beneath him. But the issue as a whole resolves with grown-up Harada floating in a meditative pose in a silent, empty room lit with calming candles. In both cases, he's lifted into the air by his abilities, but where one shows the untamed anger of a child, the other displays the intense level of control and satisfaction experienced by the man he is today.
      Toyo Harada has been, from the very first issue, a man clearly not to be trifled with. But in taking an issue to examine the reach of his power, the size of his plans, and the resources at his disposal, Dysart boldly underlines just how terrifying a bad guy this title really has. We've spent so long with the flawed, teenaged heroes of the book, it was an intelligent decision to present us with a picture of a villain without any of those shortcomings. He may have been a slave to his emotions long ago, but now he is the picture of serenity, always so many steps ahead of the game that he knows he has nothing to worry about. And we got to see much more of Darpan than ever before, a sweet and innocent young man who doesn't even seem to realize that he's been weaponized by his handlers. All told, a bleak but impressive portrait of one side of this ever-expanding conflict.

Pull List Review: Fearless Defenders #1

Though the action was plentiful and fun, I had a hard time latching onto the stars of this book. I wasn't too familiar with them ahead of time, and though this issue offers a pretty strong taste of their personalities, there wasn't enough background on them offered to get me fully invested. Not that I needed full origin stories, but I could have used more introduction than giving them each a caption with their name and a one-sentence description. Misty Knight is a character I've only seen in the occasional cameo role, and I was looking forward to getting a stronger sense of her as a person and hero here. Alas, by the end of this issue, all I've really seen of her are some badass fight moves coupled with not-so-badass snark. I liked her, but I wasn't impressed by her in any significant way, because I don't know what drives her, who she really is or why she lives the life she does. She could've been anyone with the same skill set and equipment, which is too bad, since she is one the book's main characters.
     I've had a bit more experience with Valkyrie, mostly in the pages of Secret Avengers, but she was similarly generic and one-note here. Again, other than whomping on some zombies and speaking in her Asgardian vernacular, she had very little to do and the reader was offered no insight into what makes her tick. The opening page almost gives us that, and the conclusion indicates that the larger plot being developed is going to be centered on her, so presumably we'll get deeper into her character later on. But without yet being clued into what, exactly, that larger plot is all about, I didn't have much reason to care about her, either. Like Misty, she was a powerful force of violence for the good guys who I enjoyed watching in action, I just didn't feel that strong a connection or motivation to follow her story.
     Lastly there is Annabelle Riggs who, near as I can tell, is a new character introduced in this issue. If that's the case, she gets the shortest straw, because we see very little of her and she does the least. Other than accidentally causing a problem that needs to be solved by Misty and Valkyrie, her role so far is to have limited knowledge of what is going on but not enough to help. Oh also she's attracted to Valkyrie now because they kiss once, which is fine and a thread I hope Cullen Bunn doesn't let dangle, but, as with everything else, there's too little of it here to fully hold my interest.
     There was no compelling reason to walk away from this title yet, nothing so awful or confusing that I felt like my time or money were being wasted. But there was nothing in the story to excite me for the next chapter, either. Will Sliney's art was not a great help, teetering on the edge of over-sexualizing the cast (Misty in particular) and never delivering any jaw-dropping visuals. It gets the job done, because Sliney can do large crowd fight scenes without losing clarity, and that entails most of what happened in the issue. He varies his zoom, his angle, and the fight choreography enough to keep the combat lively and fast-paced, so overall I imagine he'll be good for this title, which seems to be leaning pretty heavily toward the action side of the superhero story spectrum. So I can forgive, for now, the T&A in Sliney's work, but even if you look past that, it's not dazzling stuff. It tells the story well, and there was only one panel that threw me (when the dead first rise and attack the people working at the dig site, for a second I thought they were dancing), but there were no images that stood out to me or were especially gorgeous.
     I want to be won over by this cast soon, because all the other elements are in place for this to be a fantastic comicbook. Strong action, distinct character voices, the gradual assembling of a new team, undead Norse warriors, and a possible romantic storyline all come together to make an entertaining if underwhelming debut issue. Now if the cast can just hook me, I think we'll have something great.

Wednesday, February 6, 2013

The Grand X-Factor Investigations Investigation Part 8

The eighth in a group of like 12-15 posts on X-Factor volume 3.

Dying Gets the Girl
X-Factor #224.1-232

Peter David is the only writer I've read who has actually used a ".1" issue to do what Marvel says they're supposed to do. Namely, introduce new readers to the book with a fresh story while still providing something for old fans to enjoy. Though a bit obvious in its execution, X-Factor #224.1 finds an in-story reason for Madrox to explain the names and powers of his entire team, includes a huge and hilarious fight scene, and ends on a cliffhanger that leads directly into the next arc. Everyone gets a minute in the spotlight, but Jamie and Layla are the real stars of the issue, which is fitting since they are basically the stars of the series as a whole. I admire David's skill in finding the balance between introductory exposition and beats of new plot advancement, and it's not a line I've seen other writers walk so well in these .1 issues. Far more commonplace to just have a disconnected one-shot story, which David also delivers, but with threads connecting it to the title's past and future both.
     Then we get the arc about the team battling Bloodbath, a demon who drains people's souls and carries a big-ass sword. He's a weird villain, speaking in a lot of movie jargon at first but dropping that later in favor of more traditional trash talk. I don't have any major complaints about him as an antagonist, it's just that he's a bit off-kilter. His rage seems genuine, but he also appears to enjoy himself, reveling in the violence of a fight he feels he can't lose. That attitude isn't easy to get right and keep consistent, and I think David wavers a few times in his depiction of Bloodbath, making him either too nasty or too jolly for a panel here and there.
     But that's not the point of this story, anyway. Bloodbath is a means to an end, or I guess a means to two different ends. Firstly, he puts it out in the open for all to hear that Layla brought Guido back from the dead without a soul. Madrox already had his suspicions, but he was the only member of the team who even knew Layla had that power. Even Guido himself discovers his lack of soul for the first time when Bloodbath brings it up, and the consequences of that are an ongoing problem even in the current issues. The rest of X-Factor have their own reactions to this astounding news, but all of that is overshadowed by the other major shake-up Bloodbath brings about: the death of Madrox Prime.
     Jumping into the deceased body of one of Madrox's duplicates, Bloodbath stabs the real deal through the chest with his sword. It is so sudden and unexpected, not just for X-Factor, but for the reader, too. The details of Bloodbath's powers were unknown at that point, so there was no way to predict that a dupe's corpse could be weaponized against its creator. And Madrox has always been the central focus of this book, its most frequent narrator and star. Killing him off, even as temporarily as this, is a bold move, and the Bloodbath story arc is primarily about reaching that point. From there, all that's left is for Layla to somewhat over-simplistically exorcise the demonic murderer so the next storyline can begin.
     "They Keep Killing Madrox" is also a narrative that's more about the destination than the journey for me. Don't get me wrong, the journey is a blast, but watching Madrox bounce from one alternate reality to another every time he dies can only hold my interest for so long before growing tired as a concept. David paces it well, though, never leaving Jamie in any one place for longer than an issue or two. This isn't an arc that wants to explore the ins and outs of the various elseworlds it visits. If anything, the exploration is that of Madrox as a character, watching him roll with the punches even when he has less than no idea how or why any of this is happening. As a man who's used to feeling like he is in over his head, he can sure handle himself when that's actually the case. So we see his humor and quick thinking in the face of several terrifying parallel worlds, and enjoyable as that is, it is mostly an exercise in patience for him, Layla, and the reader alike. We all know he'll get home eventually, and the anticipation is what pushes everything forward.
     When he does return to his own reality, he and Layla finally sleep together, amplifying their slow-growing romance and making them a full-fledged couple. This is a long, long time coming, and an extremely enjoyable moment when it arrives. With this love connection as well as Wolverine adding Havok and Polaris to the team as Jamie's supposed replacements, it is the finale of this arc that contains all the best and most important stuff. Characters from the other worlds who were introduced along the way will pop up again later, but even that is not as interesting or good as what happens here. And while the solution to getting Madrox home is a bit easy/cheap (magic saves the day), the payoff of his return overshadows it right away. I'm not sure any means of getting him back to his own body would've been any more logical than having Dr. Strange cast a spell, and I appreciate how quickly that method works to bring us to the ending.
     Both of these arcs are very brief and fast-moving, racing toward their snappy yet satisfying conclusions. This speed helps boost the action and comedy alike, neither of which are in short order in these issues. And the discovery about Guido, the death and return of Madrox, and the addition of two new teammates are all significant shifts that continue to shape and warp the team even now. So as quick and light a read as they are, the fallout from these stories lasts.
     The same could be said about the next batch of issues, most of which focus on setting up things that won't be resolved until later. And it will be said, but not until Part 9.

Sunday, February 3, 2013

The Grand X-Factor Investigations Investigation Part 7

The seventh in a group of like 12-15 posts on X-Factor volume 3.

I Can't Think of a Title For This One (or are these technically subtitles?)
X-Factor #213-224

One of my least favorite storylines, followed promptly by one of the best. Well, before either of them begins, there are two one-issue stories first. There's the low-key one about some line-up changes, like Pip obnoxiously forcing himself onto the team, Rictor convincing Rahne to come back despite the half-god baby she's pregnant with, and Darwin quitting X-Factor to set off on his own and figure out what exactly happened to him when he suddenly evolved into a god. That transformation brings about changes in his personality and abilities that he wants to make sense of by himself. His departure rolls into an excellent issue that focuses on Darwin entirely, a sort of send off for the character (who isn't seen again for like 20 issues) that also places him on the path he's still trying to follow in the most recent issues. Wandering through the desert, he stumbles upon a bizarre Old-West-style town that seems to exist outside of time, and is run by an evil sheriff who goes by the name Tier. He and Darwin have a brusque and cryptic conversation, leading to a quick draw competition between them. There, Tier drops a bomb by revealing himself to be the grown-up version of Rahne's still-unborn baby. It binds Darwin to a major event we know is still in the title's future, and also adds to the anxiety and anticipation surrounding the birth itself since we now see what kind of wicked man this half-deity might become. It's a fun but also frightening issue, and a perfect way to say good-bye (for now) to one of the series' best characters.
     After Darwin is tucked away, X-Factor focuses fully on a story arc that had been built up and hinted at in several preceding issues. I do not care for it. The long and short of it is that years ago, J. Jonah Jameson was involved in a sort of expansion of the Super Soldier project called SCARS (Strategic Capture and Retrieval) that resulted in the creation of three nigh unstoppable female assassins, two of whom began to get out of control with their killing. So General Ryan, the man who was in charge of SCARS, had false memories placed in the brains of all three women, and sent them out into the world to live mundane lives. In an earlier issue (#210), one of Ryan's victims comes to Monet for help with a recurring nightmare, and what happens instead is that her true memories are reawakened. She then reactivates her former partners, and the three of them set out to get murderous revenge.
     This is not a bad story per se, but it does nothing for me. The plot feels sort of old, the villains are only slightly interesting at first and become pretty flat before long, and J. Jonah Jameson is always such an ass that it's hard to have him pop up in a book where he doesn't belong. There's enough bickering in X-Factor among the team itself without throwing him into the mix. Mostly I think it's just that the idea of people lashing out against those who took control of their lives and/or gave them powers is something I have seen too often. Not a lot happens that is unexpected or atypical of such a narrative, so this has never resonated with me. Also Black Cat is a second guest star who, aside from one funny moment where her and Longshot's luck powers interfere with each other, doesn't add a great deal. Not sure why she was included.
     Guido does die in this story, which is a shocking moment and an important detail in terms of the series' future. Layla secretly uses her powers to bring him back with no soul, and the fallout from that decision has yet to be measured in full. But the creation of that thread does not improve the arc as a whole. It never does anything terrible, but ultimately I see it as a flop.
      Rahne's baby's birth, on the other hand, is some truly gripping graphic fiction. From the lovely scene in the beginning of Rahne and Shatterstar walking through the rain to the devastating end where she abandons her child (Tier...see above) out of fear, Peter David puts a lot of heart into these scripts. There are innumerable minor characters involved in the hunt for the infant, but everyone is distinct: coy and playful ghost Feral, deliciously unsettling child Agamemnon, and Jack Russel/Werewolf by Night as the true and noble hero of the tale. None of these people, or any of the various deities and demons and such that show up, are characters with whom I am especially familiar, but David makes them immediately familiar with every new entrance. The core team does get pushed aside a bit here and there, but it is always Rahne's story first and foremost, and in the end everyone gets something to do.
     Really, though, for me this arc is all about the scene of the birth itself. That moment, so hotly anticipated and carefully constructed, is a goddamn grand slam. Tier comes out of his mother's mouth, which is fitting and perfectly disgusting. He then viciously attacks Agamemnon, who has been asking for such treatment for pages, so it's nice to see that finally go down. And then, in a heart-wrenching panel, Rahne is so startled and terrified by this savage violence that she harshly rejects her son, turning away from him in disgust. You can see the understanding and deep, deep sadness on the baby wolf-boy's face, and it just chokes me up every single time. And that's how things end between them, too, making it all the more effective. Rahne and Tier's reconciliation will not be for a while, and having this arc land in a place where they are without one another---he ends up under Jack Russell's care---is as hard on the reader as it is on the characters. Her guilt is apparent, but not yet stronger than her fear and shame, so she walks away without even knowing where her baby has ended up. Rough stuff.
      Tier's true importance has yet to be fully revealed, but the currently-running "Hell on Earth War" storyline is all about him and the people who want him dead, so answers should be coming soon. His introduction, though, has already made him a favorite of mine. That single panel when Rahne denounces him is forever burned in my memory. A high point of the entire series.
     Whatever brutality Tier's birth contained is nothing compared to what comes next, though, when X-Factor throws down with a demon named Bloodbath.