Wednesday, January 30, 2013

Monthly Dose: January 2013

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

100 Bullets #3: Though perhaps a bit overly expository in places, the conclusion of this initial arc is a massive triumph overall. Everyone gets precisely what they deserve, which isn't really good news for anyone. Even Dizzy, who gets to avenge the deaths of her husband and baby and get out of the life she'd been trapped in up to now, doesn't walk away without some brand new emotional wounds to deal with. Her brother Emilio reveals himself to be the cause of her family's murder, so Dizzy loses the only person from to whom she still had any meaningful connection. It leaves her future wide open, because her past is about as dead and buried as it could ever be. Her love, her child, and her brother are lost to her, and the crooked cops who're responsible are dead by her hand. At the very end of the issue, she gets in a car with the mysterious Mr. Shepherd, and though we have no way of knowing yet who he really is or what plans he might have for her, it's clear that despite the finality of the events in this issue, Dizzy's real story is only beginning. Eduardo Risso does a lot with shadow in the artwork here, and (along with that) silhouette. This is as emotionally dark as the book has gotten so far, and the visuals match that. I also really love Emilio's whole look, the outward smugness that only tenuously contains the wild young man inside. That wild man spills out once the shit hits the fan and Emilio gets shot by his "partners," and he never really gets a hold of himself again. So the final impression we get of the character is that of an out-of-control, immature, pathetic failure, begging for some forgiveness from the sister he betrayed. She gives him not one inch of it, though, because difficult as it may be, Dizzy is too strong to let herself give in to his pleas. As she says, he's got a hard time ahead of him, but he's brought every minute of it on himself, and at least she lets him live. Brian Azzarello wraps up a very tidy package, providing full and satisfying explanations and conclusions to all the threads and characters of this arc. He does rely on exposition more than I'd prefer, but it's well-written and naturally-fitting exposition. And even as this all draws to a close, Mr. Shepherd shows up and provides the promise of bigger and better things from Dizzy to come. Exactly what I want from the finale of an opening arc.

The Intimates #3: Feels a little bit like the title is coasting through this one. It's got some good moments and it builds to a solid ending, but there's not as much new stuff and some of what we see feels a little tired already. The info scrolls, for example, aren't as focused or thematically tied together here as they were in the first two issues. They still provide valuable and often amusing information to the reader, but they don't seem as sure of themselves this time out. It makes them less enjoyable than before, more of a hassle/annoying interruption to the narrative flow. It's too early for the info scrolls to be wearing thin like this, so hopefully they can pick up some slack in a month. Also there is Destra using her explosive fingernail powers and getting scolded for it, which happened in the debut and isn't utilized for anything all that fresh here. It does set up the idea that Destra is genuinely trying to be kicked out of school, and we also find out via the info scrolls that her parents give a lot of money to The Seminary, so it makes sense that she wouldn't get expelled even after so drastically acting out. You can even see the disappointment in her face when the principal tells her she's sticking around. So there is a bit of detail added to her character, but it's not surprising or even all that helpful, because we already knew that Destra had a bad attitude about school and a rebellious side, now we just have some teensy insight as to why. Anyway, the main story of Punchy finally figuring out that Empty Vee is his secret admirer is much stronger than the stuff that surrounds it. It gives Vee some much-needed spotlight time, and tells a very real and raw tragic teenage romance story. This ain't no Romeo & Juliet bullshit where two kids are so devoted to one another it kills them. This is a lonely and misguided young girl setting herself up to get crushed by the selfish, horny boy for whom she fell. The closing scene where Punchy so brutally and callously turns her down is the highlight of this issue. Giuseppe Camuncoli lights it to heavily add to the drama, and captures Punchy's inner shmuck and Vee's desperate and depressing hopefulness perfectly. Also, like with Punchy and Duke's failed "mission" last issue, the info scrolls go away when this heartbreak scene begins, which is a smart move that deepens the emotion and allows the reader to give it more focused attention. So even if Joe Casey isn't being quite as adventurous or ambitious with his ideas on these pages as he was in the opening two issues, this is a fine read that adds small pieces to several characters and culminates in a powerful final scene.

X-Force (vol. 1) #3: Fabian Nicieza's writing takes a bit of a dive. The script feels more forced and rushed than it has before, like he had less time to put it together or wasn't as inspired by Rob Liefeld's art or something. It starts off right away with Siryn's weird thought balloons that overtly explained the actions we can already see taking place, and only gets stranger from there. Juggernaut makes a Shout brand stain remover joke, Cable says the enemies will be on them "like a lisp on Mike Tyson," and when Spider-Man shows up at the end he refers to Warpath as a "jamochie," "buckeroo," and "rutabaga" all in a single page. Maybe it's humor that worked at the time and has soured with age, but it reads more like weakly-conceived jokes that fall flat right away. And there's a general sense that Nicieza and Liefeld couldn't get on the same page, with lines that don't quite match the facial expressions or mid-battle dialogue that's a lot longer than the action around it would really allow. And this issue is pretty much all action. It's not even a whole fight, just the beginnings of X-Force trying to take the World Trace Center back from Black Tom and Juggernaut. It's tremendously decompressed, taking place over what probably amounts to like 30 minutes and resolving nothing, ending on a cheapish cliffhanger. There is, of course, a new significance today to seeing one of the Twin Towers blown up by villains who're described as terrorists. But within the context of this wham-bam 90's superhero romp, it's too sudden and too typical. Issues like this make it easy to see why Liefeld has adamant supporters and vehement naysayers both. His style craves this level of action, giving him ample chances to do big, bold, eye-catching panels in the midst of a sprawling fight. But there's a level on surrealism to his figures that sometimes distracts, and he can be sloppy at times. Siryn, for example, dominates the opening of this issue, then says she's going to team up with X-Force to stop the bad guys, only to promptly and completely disappear from the action, never to be seen or heard again. She might show back up next issue (or in the issue of Spider-Man where this story continues before returning to X-Force next month) but for now it comes across as a mistake, and a big one at that. So yeah, not a very strong showing from X-Force #3. Too messy.

Monday, January 28, 2013

The Grand X-Factor Investigations Investigation Part 200

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

Three Rescue Missions
X-Factor #200-212

There are three arcs contained within these issues, and each of them tells the story of someone being captured by one villain or another and subsequently freed by X-Factor (or at least some of their number). Though the team has had a few occasions to run rescue operations before, it's never been this common or happened this many times in a row, and I'm curious as to whether or not it was an intentional move by Peter David to line these kidnapping narratives up back-to-back, or if he just coincidentally had three he wanted to tell one after the other. No matter the reasons for it, X-Factor becomes as much a retrieval squad as a private investigation firm for this run, and the stories that result are a lot of fun and all add important details to the big picture.
     First, Franklin and Val Richards hire our heroes to find their missing mother, Sue Richards a.k.a. The Invisible Woman. It's my least favorite of these three tales, mostly because the big reveal of the mystery feels a bit tired and lackluster, especially following the epic, time-hopping storyline that wrapped up just a few issues before. Sue has been kidnapped by Dr. Doom, working with a version of himself from an alternate reality who took control of Reed Richards' body years ago. So X-Factor ends up not only needing to rescue Sue, but also her husband Reed, since he's been replaced by Doom Reed back at Fantastic Four HQ. That's fine as far as it goes, and it's certainly a classic FF type of plot, but I'm just not wild about it. We get such a tiny glimpse of what Doom Reed is really like, he never feels like a fully-realized villain, and while good for a gruesome sort of laugh, his defeat isn't super satisfying either. But really I think what turns me off of this story is the involvement of Doom whatsoever after a much cooler, more interesting take on the character just finished having a key role in the previous story arc. There we had semi-senile future Doom, wheelchair-bound but no less dangerous, and that's just a meatier character than Doom in the body of Richards ever becomes. I understand that this story is in some ways an epilogue to the one it follows, insofar as it explains the relationship that Doom and Layla seemed to have in the distant future, but even that irks me a little. I wish there had been another, separate arc between the two. At the end of the last story, Layla had once again mysteriously disappeared, and to bring her back so quickly feels a little rushed and makes me question why she had to go away again at all. So I guess my problems with "The Invisible Woman Has Vanished" are with where it comes in the series' chronology more than the actual narrative of the arc. Though, again, that narrative isn't particularly impressive even on its own.
     Whatever, it's a plenty enjoyable read. It's short and direct, it sees the team back in NYC, and it makes Layla a permanent, present-day, full-time team member again. So even if I would've preferred to see it further down the line, I'm glad for this arc in the end. And it has some really strong humor. X-Factor plays with different levels of levity and severity throughout its history, and after a dark and intense arc like the last one, it is definitely a good call to do something that can be lighter and more amusing. Shatterstar and The Thing's competing machismo, for example, is the source of a lot of hilarious dialogue and outrageous combat. There's lots of stuff to like in this story, just nothing I especially love.
     The next kidnap-and-rescue tale is the strongest, doubly so at its resolution. That may be connected in part to the fact that it is one of the original and most consistent members of the team, Monet St. Croix, who gets captured. But I think its real strength lies in the choice of villain: Baron Mordo. A classic and terrifyingly powerful bad guy, but not one I would ever have expected to see in this book, Mordo represents an unusual threat for X-Factor in several ways. He is the first fully magical opponent they've had, and he sees them much differently than most of their villains because he's not really aiming to do anything to X-Factor as a whole. Monet's power set and history happen to be tailored to his needs at the moment, i.e. magically battling his cancer by controlling her mind and parasitically sapping her strength. If it weren't for the fact that he was dying, Mordo would never have had any reason to cross paths with Monet or any of her teammates, which also means they are about as unprepared to fight him as they could be. Only Guido even goes after her, and though he holds his own for a while, if it weren't for the intervention of a third party, I have little doubt Mordo would ultimately have killed him and Monet both.
     That third party is a group of soldiers working for Bolivar Trask (who is under the thumb of Bastion), which all has to do with the Second Coming crossover plot that runs parallel to, before finally colliding with, Monet's kidnapping. I am less of a fan of that story, which I tend to blame on my never having read any of the rest of Second Coming. I wasn't deeply into the X-books at that time, and have yet to go back and fully educate myself. Trask's attack on X-Factor makes for some innovative and exciting action, and when he goes down he goes down hard, but Bastion, his unseen master, is defeated elsewhere as a part of the primary event storyline. We see his hand at the wheel in X-Factor, but never revisit him as a foe because other X-people take care of it. Dangling threads like that are just one of the typical pitfalls of any tie-in story, but no less annoying for it. Maybe more annoying.
     The point is, Mordo only lets Monet and Guido go because all three of them need to escape Trask's people, and Monet agrees to let Mordo use her as he initially planned if he gets them out of their mutual jam. And it is that deal they strike that really pushes this kidnapping to the top of the list. Once the Second Coming dust settles and it's time for Monet to make good on her promise, Mordo attempts to betray their contract and immediately drains her of her energy and uses it against all of her allies. As soon as he steps into the street, though, the reader sees that he is in fact still just as sick as before, and it turns out that he was double-double-crossed by Monet, who mentally implanted the image of him taking out X-Factor, when in reality he did nothing of the sort. It's simple, maybe even predictable, but David sells it effortlessly, because it plays to the strengths and flaws of both characters involved. Mordo is, as I said, an unusually high-profile and powerful bad guy for X-Factor, which makes him think himself untouchable, even when he's in the heart of their base of operations. Monet, meanwhile, protects herself above all, and is sometimes underestimated because of her age, appearance, and attitude. She uses all of that to her fullest advantage here, and though Mordo walks away unharmed, he is still summarily defeated.
     Finally, there is Pip the Troll, who X-Factor inadvertently help Norse death goddess Hela recapture and then, mostly out of guilt, they go back and save him from her. I'm still not entirely sold on Pip. After this story, he forcibly adds himself to the cast, and as fun and funny as he is here in his introduction, I never felt myself hoping he'd stick around for the long run. But Hela, like Mordo, is an atypical choice of villain, and it leads to a Thor team-up that I adore for its concept alone. He looks so silly standing in front of X-Factor, too big for them and too confident. It's hilarious, and lasts just the right amount of time so as not to let the joke spoil.
     The real highlight of this arc, though, is the end when Darwin evolves into a death god in order to survive the attack of a death goddess. That moment is probably the character's most important development since joining the title. It is what pushed him onto the path he still walks and tied him into the title's biggest and most ambitious overarching narrative. Also it's 100% badass when it happens. The best use of Darwin's powers by David yet, and they've all been pretty great.
     All of these stories are somewhere in the middle of the pack as far as my personal admiration for them, but it's an exciting and amusing time in the history of the book overall. Layla and Rahne come back, magic and mythology are thrown into the mix, and there's just a lot of really good jokes woven into these issues. Plus Darwin gets to save the day one last incredible time before taking his leave of this title for a stretch, allowing my heart to grow even fonder for him during his absence. The details of that departure will kick off Part 7.

Saturday, January 26, 2013

The Grand X-Factor Investigations Investigation Part 5

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

Ah, Yes
X-Factor #39-50

Right away, this opens with two of my favorite issues, both centered around Multiple Man Jamie Madrox, and the consequences of his self-replicating powers. First up is "Multiple Birth" about the birth and death of Sean Madrox, Jamie's child with Theresa Cassidy (Siryn), who is absorbed by Multiple Man as soon as they make contact because it turns out a duplicate was really the father. This does not go over well with Theresa. Or Madrox. Or anyone, really. Then in "Slings & Arrows" Madrox visits recurring character John Maddox, another duplicate who has his own life established as a priest, husband, and father. Of course, his child can't actually be his because Jamie would've absorbed the kid when they met some time earlier, a fact John is already aware of and seems to be dealing with healthily. It's a stark contrast to Madrox, who is completely broken by the loss of his son, feeling responsible and powerless at once. For most of the issue, Maddox seems like the perfect person to help pick up the pieces. He's been there for Madrox in the past during times of crisis and seems to bring out---and maybe even be a physical representation of---the best in him. Their conversation is open and honest, and though Madrox is claiming to be on the verge of suicide, it's easy to believe that this priest who is a stabler, happier version of the same guy has the ability to pull his maker from the ledge.
     And then Layla Miller comes back as a full-grown woman on the last page of X-Factor #40 and I smack myself in the head for not seeing it coming. No one has ever saved Madrox from himself like Layla, and her being absent from the title is well worth her return coming at such a pitch perfect moment.
     It might even be too on the nose, but I don't care, because I think ultimately this series is really about Jamie and Layla's romance more than any other single throughline. That'll probably be its own post down the line, but the hypothesis gains some serious support from the fact that her coming back and stopping him from blowing his brains out sets off a ten-issue trip to the future that coincides with what's happening to the rest of X-Factor in the present. It's probably the biggest-scale story arc of the series to date (if you don't count the only-just-beginning "Hell on Earth War" because who knows for sure but that seems huge). And though it's not flawless, it is high-quality entertainment with a whole lot of satisfying answers to some of the title's bigger questions, some inventive futuristic world-building, and the violent-then-romantic-then-hilarious entrance of my favorite character, Shatterstar.
     The present-tense story introduces a villain named Cortex, who can mentally control multiple people at once. I'm not always wild about mind-control stories, but I like that, for this one, Peter David always tells the audience exactly who Cortex is in charge of, so there's no weak twists where suddenly someone turns out to have been one of the bad guy's mental puppets all along. Cortex himself is a pain in the ass, and I've always thought the reveal that he is the other Madrox dupe who got sent to the future during Messiah Complex was sort of bungled (mostly artistically). But the narrative surrounding his fights with X-Factor is a great one, and he makes a formidable if not especially pleasant foe.
     I could spend all afternoon trying and failing to come up with a single-sentence synopsis of this story, but instead I'll promise to aim for brevity in the following paragraph: Layla brings Madrox to the future so he can help a small band of mutant rebels, led by an elderly Scott Summers, figure out why their glitch-proof system lost track of one of their members, Hecat'e. The answer to that mystery ends up being that Cortex was hired in the future to go back in time and kill Hecat'e's mother, a task X-Factor keeps him from pulling off just long enough for Madrox to get a senile Dr. Doom to pull Cortex out of our present and into their future. Even once that happens, Cortex has to be properly defeated, there is Doom's double-cross to deal with, and the man who hired Cortex in the first place, Anthony Falcone, shows up with some of the biggest and scariest sentinels ever to try and wipe out the Summers Rebellion once and for all. It's a lot of balls to have in the air, but Peter David never lets one drop, and the ending of X-Factor #50 not only ties a bow on all that but also finally shows us why Layla Miller knows so much goddamn stuff. The assumption was always that knowing stuff was her mutant power, but David gives her a far more compelling one---bringing dead things back to life at the cost of their souls---and weaves a classic time paradox into the already rich tapestry of her character to explain her knowledge of things to come. Turns out that grown-up Layla from the future stuck a chip or something with all that information into the brain of her childhood self once she got back to the present. It's a head-scratcher, and I know that kind of impossible time travel infinite loop story isn't for everyone, but I eat it up. And this is an especially good one, because it was so long in the making and careful in the telling.
     I think of this arc as a return to form from the book's earliest days, when all the small stories tied to a single larger problem and Layla kept stealing the show. It's good and important that the series diverged from that for a time, expanding its cast and enriching their history. But when it comes back in such force here, it clicks.  Loudly. And it's a landmark story in other ways, like including the 50th issue, which is also the last issue before Marvel pulled one of their classic "Let's make all numbering totally meaningless!" moves by adding together ALL the issues from the different X-Factor volumes and then counting from there for the current series. So the issue following X-Factor #50 is X-Factor #200. Dumb, but it didn't hurt anything. I'll start there next time.

*It has become apparent that this project is going to be larger than anticipated. 12-15 is as much a best guess now as 8-12 was originally. Could be more. Whatever, numbering is meaningless (see above).

Thursday, January 24, 2013

Pull List Review: Witch Doctor: Mal Practice #3

When it came out in 2011, I was not as impressed with Witch Doctor as many people seemed to be. It was a ton of fun and had some solid artwork, but for whatever reason, most likely my own tastes, it never quite jived with me in full. Still, it was good enough to being me back for this follow-up series, and I am so glad that I did. Because Witch Doctor: Mal Practice #3 represents a whole new level of fun and excitement for this story.
     There is, first of all, the sheer amount of action in this issue. We've seen Dr. Morrow and his assistants have some big-time fights before, but it's never been quite this straightforward or overwhelming. Faced with a surprise army of golems, Morrow, Penny, and Eric atypically cut their chatter and dive in weapons first, and we get some unadulterated comicbook violence that really sings. Artist Lukas Ketner crams a lot of fighting into only a few pages, but it's never cramped or unclear, just efficient. And it doesn't end there, because even once the golems settle down, the more powerful and intelligent villains have several tricks left up their sleeves. By the end, both Penny and Morrow have been taken out of the fight (though neither is dead as of yet) and Eric is like a split second away from his own probably-fatal encounter. Sure, these guys are always on the ropes, but I'm not sure Morrow has ever been so scared or things have ever seemed so hopeless before. I always want my heroes to be challenged, and not only is that the case here, but it seems the challenge might have been too much for them to handle. Do I honestly believe they won't turn it around in the latter half of the series? Of course not, but because this is a creator-owned title I suppose all bets are off. Penny, Eric, even Morrow might very well die or be permanently affected by these new and horrifying enemies. Whatever happens, victory is far off, and will it doubtlessly take incredible effort and strain to get there.
     I'd like to be able to put my finger on a single element that made me love Witch Doctor: Mal Practice so deeply, but I'm not sure I can. It just felt like it was firing on all cylinders. Everything that happened in the first two issues came to a head here, and the results were as surprising as they were satisfactory. I think it is that sense of surprise that I liked the most. Brandon Seifert had his villains so well-prepared that every new beat of their battle with Morrow brought something unexpected. Not just the golem swarm that appeared from nowhere, either. I was as shocked by Penny's capture as Morrow, for example, and once she was collared I figured the bad guys were all set, but then they had to rip Morrow's chakras right out of his body, too. Even when they had the upper hand, our antagonists kept piling on, and it brought about some excellent twists.
     Seifert has always brought a lot of humor and energy to this project, as well as a lovely blend of medical and mystical jargon. None of that is sacrificed here, but Seifert slips it into what is primarily a high-powered magical street brawl, and everything is a bit more enjoyable for it. The story is now in a place where the villains have everything they want and the heroes aren't even standing, so it's a significant and fascinating spot on the narrative timeline. Just trying to imagine not only how Morrow and company will regroup but what hope they have against these new opponents in another face-off has me buzzing with anticipation. I don't know that Witch Doctor has ever before left me so impressed, surprised, and anxious for its next issue. Fingers crossed that it stays at this level through the end.

Pull List Review: The Answer! #1

You might think that the debut issue of a comicbook called The Answer! would focus on introducing the character with the same name. But what drives The Answer himself (or herself or itself) is still the biggest question at the end of this issue. Luckily, the character we do meet in full is so strong, and the little bit we do learn about our titular hero so interesting and/or action-packed, that remaining in the dark about what the hell is going on is in no way detrimental.
     The real star of the title so far is librarian and puzzle enthusiast Devin Mackenzie. Working alone in a research library after hours, she solves almost instantly the complicated puzzle her mother sent her for her birthday, and it leads to her getting caught up in...something. The solution of the first puzzle takes her to the website of The Apeiron, which is some kind of self-help cult, based on the little bit we see from one of their seminars. Their site, for whatever reason, offers sixty-two increasingly difficult puzzles, and by the time Devin successfully solves them all there is a group of five masked gunmen trying to kill her, and The Answer is already on scene to keep her safe. How he knew to save her, who the gunmen are and what they want, and the truth behind The Apeiron are still unknowns, but based on the name of the book, I'm guessing we'll learn everything soon enough.
     Dennis Hopless' script, which comes from a story he co-created with artist Mike Norton, hums along at a nice crisp pace without being rushed. Devin's intelligence, independence, and humor are solidified within the first five pages. She's not the world's most likable protagonist, inasmuch as she's just the tiniest bit full of herself, but she backs it up by being just as smart and quick-witted as she claims, and there is an innocence to her that's incredibly endearing. Though not exactly built for the madness in which she inadvertently involves herself, I have no doubt she'll be able to handle it. She's sure of herself and resourceful enough to roll with the punches, with the possible exception of any actual physical violence. Hopefully The Answer will continue to keep her protected from that.
     Because that dude can obviously deal with violence. He brutally and mercilessly puts down three men who are trying to rob a gas station, even when it means firing a gun through the legs of a hostage or blowing up the gas station itself. He does not seem to have much regard for the property of the innocent or the lives of the guilty. He's merely getting a job done in the most efficient way possible. To some extent, this is speculation on my part, because unlike Devin, we never get inside The Answer's head. But his actions consistently send the same message: he is a ruthless crimefighter with no time to waste. There is also an apparent element of immortality, since we watch him get blasted point blank in the face with an assault rifle on one page, and see him on a bus with Devin the next. So there's heaps to be learned about The Answer, and I reckon Devin's the exact right person to discover it.
     Mike Norton's art is reliable as ever. He does a lot of subtle facial stuff, most notably with Devin. Her focus and curiosity are clear, as is the joy she derives from all the puzzle solving, but he can just as easily display her crushing fear when the shit hits the fan. I also loved the work he did on the guy who acts as The Apeiron's mouthpiece (and possible founder), who delivers a typical self-help speech that says nothing while simultaneously promising everything. It's tightly written by Hopeless, but Norton is the one who brings it all the way home with the trustworthy confidence that is undercut but a smugness and self-righteousness that's obvious to anyone who cares to look for it. It's exactly the right combination for the man who I am guessing will be a (if not the) major villain before this story is through.
     The Answer is the best single character, though, despite being featureless in the face. His design is so simple but still intimidating, and somehow even without a face, his deep confidence and competence shine through brilliantly. He holds himself sturdily and moves without hesitation, and it makes him easy to trust and root for right away. And his words are scarce and deliberate, which adds to the sense that he always knows exactly what he's doing. Devin is going to be the voice of uncertainty and fear in this book. The title character, as is fitting for someone with his moniker, doesn't come across as the kind to have doubts.
     Hopeless and Norton seem equally self-assured when it comes to this project. They have obviously taken the time to get into the meaty details of their cast and world, and though what we get here is but the earliest introduction, everything is so enjoyable and everyone so interesting that I can't wait for the next installment. Honestly, I forgot I was reading a mini-series, because the story and characters set up here feel right now like they have legs to go on indefinitely. I may be singing a different tune by the time this all wraps up, but after issue #1, The Answer! has my full attention.

Pull List Review: Harbinger #8

Harbinger hops off the rails a little bit this month. Everything still moves forward, but it does so at an uneven pace. A single scene of Harada, a sudden and unnecessary flashback, and the addition of another new character make this issue a bumpy ride. All of the ingredients that have made Harbinger so successful before are still here, but not in the same amounts as they've been in the past, so the overall flavor is a bit blander than before.
     Joshua Dysart continues to handle teenaged dialogue excellently. John Torkelson, the psiot who is recruited by Peter Stanchek and his crew this issue, is physically immobile and spends his days mentally fighting monsters in a fantasy world he calls Torquehalla. The mix of narrative curse words, intense sexuality, and and exaggerated adventure that go down in Torquehalla are spot on, letting the audience know from the first page that what we are seeing springs from the imagination of an adolescent. This capturing of the teenage point of view has been one of Dysart's most important contributions to the title all along, and even in a script that jumps around and feels rushed at the end, the clear and realistic voices of his cast remain.
     The Torquehalla scenes, as good a means of introducing John as they may be, do add to the sense of disjointedness in Harbinger #8. Cutting from our reality to that one, and then watching the two worlds become one in the midst of widespread combat, is all a tad jarring. Not hard to follow, exactly, but accompanied by a feeling of unstoppable narrative velocity. This story whizzes by its readers. It opens with a fantasy world that isn't explained for several pages. It cuts for two pages to five days ago, for the sole purpose of showing us that yes, Flamingo is joining the gang, which we basically knew from last time and could've gleaned from what came in the earlier portions of this issue, too. And there is another example of glossing over Peter's lack of morality when he mentally abuses John's brother Jake in order to more quickly get to his forced meeting with John. Kris does point out the ethical implications of it, but her character can't continue to be the voice of, "Is this right...?" indefinitely before somebody answers with a resounding, "Hell no!" Peter and company need to get ahold of themselves and their abilities and find a less intrusive way to go about finding allies. Even when Peter activates John, he doesn't truly have permission of any kind. He just rolls into a stranger's bedroom and forces incredible powers to awaken within him. The attitude is essentially one of, like it or not, you're in a war now, John. Deal with it.
     Just a few months back, I was incredibly proud of this title when it revisited the mind control that Peter had used to sleep with Kris in the debut, and let us in on the long-lasting damage it did to her to be so manipulated. But since then, Peter's done plenty of almost-as-despicable things, and at most we see Kris admitting they're wrong without doing anything to stop it. I guess I want to see more of the internal moral struggle these kids should and would be going through, and it feels like that's being pushed aside right now for the sake of cast expansion and explosive action. They are a varied, grounded, well-written group of heroes, but I would like to see them strive to be a bit more heroic, or at the very least show me that they feel torn over their more questionable actions.
     Lee Garbett is on art duties and does very good work with all of these characters. Their youth, their sense of adventure, and in some cases (Peter most of all) their deep inner turmoil are all captured in rich detail. And Garbett puts just as much life, energy, and dynamic layout work in a scene of two girls talking at a diner as he does when John punches a helicopter out of the sky. This artistic consistency actually helps bolster the wobblier narrative points, making the whole a bit stronger than the sum of its parts.
     This is still a great book, and still a good issue, but I want the story to give itself a minute and catch its breath. The recent piling on of new characters in exchange for the kind of slow and careful character development that we saw in the beginning of the series is not a trade-off I enjoy, and I'm hoping that there won't be very much more recruitment before Harbinger can settle into a steady rhythm once again.

The Grand X-Factor Investigations Investigation Part 4

The fourth in a group of like 8-12 posts on X-Factor volume 3.

What's Been Up Comes Down For A While
X-Factor #28-38 (and, technically, She-Hulk #31)

Though still tied to everything that came before, the series takes some time to tell more self-contained tales in the wake of Messiah Complex. Peter David still lays the groundwork for things to come in future issues, but the primary narratives here are resolved in the short-term, usually after only three or four chapters. Sad to say, they're some of the weaker stories this book tells, but the pacing of them allows David to do some important cast expansion and status quo shake-ups, so by the time these issues wrap up, the pieces are in place for some really excellent and much slower-burning narratives to kick off.
     First is a pretty solid issue centered on Rahne's decision to leave X-Factor, followed by the story of Arcade's attack on the team, then a Secret Invasion tie-in that crosses over with She-Hulk, and lastly Darwin's kidnap and rescue. All very brief and interesting, and with some unique resolutions, but for their own reasons none of them are the strongest material this title has seen. I suppose "The Only Game in Town" might be better than I give it credit for, but personally I just can't get behind Arcade as a villain. Robot fake-outs and double robot fake-outs and cheesy traps that are built into illusions...none of that does anything for me. It's a bit too campy, and Arcade is always uncomfortably pleased with himself for coming up with it. That makes him into too obnoxious a villain for my tastes, so I was happy to see his reason for taking on X-Factor was money, meaning I'd be unlikely to see him again (and I haven't). To David's credit, he writes Arcade with all the smugness, self-satisfaction, and pun usage that has turned me off of the character in the past, so obviously he gets it right. It's just not for me.
     The destruction of Mutant Town that is a result of Arcade's nonsense sees the team relocate to Detroit, which is a peculiar choice that I wish David had done a bit more with. It ends up putting them in a unique position for the Secret Invasion story, fighting The Talisman, a sort of Skrull high priest whose presence means invasion is nigh. But really that could've happened anywhere, and so could everything else that happens from that point until they move back to New York. I'm not sure what I expected from the change in setting, but it seems like a missed opportunity that keeps being missed for the next twenty-odd issues.
     X-Factor collides with The Talisman, She-Hulk and her Skrull partner Jazinda, and the mutant Darwin all at once, and if it weren't for Darwin being there this whole arc would be something of a bust. Though The Talisman is impressive and important, ultimately this is too early and inconsequential a piece of the bigger Secret Invasion picture. Yes our heroes win the day, but it doesn't stop the larger threat, and they immediately bounce on to the next problem and never look back. The center of the event doesn't involve them, so their time here on the edges of it feels a bit wasted.
     X-Factor #35-38 focus on Darwin being kidnapped and subsequently saved, and though it has its rough spots, this arc definitely marks the beginning of an upswing. David already established Darwin as a likable and natural addition to the cast in the previous story (titled "The Darwin Awards"). He was a source of humor and surprise who also held his own against the big, scary bad guy, and I think it was a good choice to make him central to the this story, too, so his potential and personality could be more deeply explored. The rest of the team has been so fully solidified by David by now, Darwin can be given this kind of space right away, and it's worth it to give it to him. We see his darker, meaner side, and also have his unpredictability and level of power more thickly underlined when he escapes a prison designed specifically to hold him. He's a standout character, even though his full-time tenure on the team is one of the shortest. His place in the biggest, longest-running of the overarching narratives has by now become unexpectedly large, and it is because of the strong work done here in his introduction to the title that David has been able to bring him to that point today. Though the villains and consequences of these narratives are small-time, they allow Darwin some serious spotlight time, and for that I still enjoy these issues.
     Longshot also joins the cast at this point, and even though I love him, I do think David's done less with his character. He slid into the rhythms of the book so quickly and easily that he's never really had his breakout moment yet. Something is brewing with him and Shatterstar (who will arrive in the next set of issues), and he's been integral in solving a lot of cases and winning a lot of fights. So it's not as if I don't want him around. It's just that he has yet to really wow me in the way other new team members have, most of all Darwin, who shows up just before.
     Eleven issues of less-than-A-game material, all told, but they sow the seeds of some delicious fruits. By the end of this section, the team has gotten two members bigger, their government handler Val Cooper's been shot, and Siryn and Madrox's baby is on its way into the world.
     Which is where I'll pick up next time.

Tuesday, January 22, 2013

Dirty Dozen: Prophet

Dirty Dozen is a semi-regular feature with twelve disconnected thoughts on the first twelve issues of a current ongoing series. 

1. Though it is building an expansive world and story at an intentionally gradual pace, Prophet has already told numerous fascinating and complete smaller stories, too. The first three issues (#21-23 because this is technically the relaunch of an old Liefeld title) could have been an entire mini-series and left nothing to be desired. The same is true of several single issues that followed. But every one of them has by now revealed themselves to also be a tiny piece of an enormous overarching narrative, which makes their individual wholeness that much more impressive.

2. The language of the series shifts playfully between the strictly factual and the deeply personal. Nowhere is this truer than the third-person narration captions, which sometimes sound like a tour guide welcoming us to a scenic new area, and other times give significant insights into the nuanced mental and emotional states of the cast. But you can find it in the dialogue, too, most noticeably with the white and red word balloons of the Earth mothers (white tends to be emotional material while red is for facts and orders). This lingual dichotomy is essential to the tone of the project as a whole. It explores this distant future from both scientifically detached and psychologically intimate viewpoints, which helps to weave a more intricate narrative tapestry more quickly.

3. All the artists are fantastic, so here's what I think they each do best: Simon Roy has the strongest Prophets, expressive and stoic in the right mix, with a clear caveman influence to their shape and movement. It's why Roy was the perfect choice for the opening arc, and he plays heavily to these strengths in the most recent issue (#32), which he wrote and drew in its entirety. There, he explores the humanity (or inhumanity) of being a Prophet by bringing one together with a band of primitive humans. Farel Dalrymple creates the most hideous, terrifying aliens, bringing more of a horror edge to this space story. The Ixtano Circus in issue #30 has the most abundant examples, but the strongest is the Prophet in #24 whose body has become twisted and ruined by a toxic environment. It's a thing of beauty in its ugliness. Giannis Milonogiannis is my favorite, because he does grandiosity better than anyone. The slow and ground-shaking steps of ancient beings the size of mountains, scenes of widespread combat from the old war against the Empire, the floating bodies of dead and sleeping space giants. Milonogiannis can capture these enormities in a single image (though, to be fair, it's often a two-page spread) and his visuals last in my memory more vividly and long-lastingly than most. Finally, there is Brandon Graham, who is primarily the writer but handled art as well for issue #26. Stylistically he's somewhat gentler, giving the vastness of space a calming effect. It feels like he has a great reverence for everything he draws, and it makes me feel the same way. The art of his issue may be soothing, but it is no less awe-inspiring when that is what the story calls for.

4. As we learn of the reach and power of the Empire, we simultaneously see some of its weaknesses, not the least of which is the seemingly-tenuous control it has over its army of Prophets. Even the first Prophet we meet questions and sometimes goes against the voice in his head telling him to stick to his mission. The next guy (with the awesome tail) ends up breaking free of the Empire's control completely. And the the most recent Prophet, John Ka, disobeys a direct order from her masters and tricks them into killing the enemies of their intended targets. She still joins up with the Empire as she is supposed to, but only after this deception. So in spite of what is clearly a vast network of well-trained, mentally-manipulable soldiers, the Empire may not have as tight a grasp on the universe as it expects to, and I am interested to see how that plays out.

5. There are many examples of days or even weeks passing in the space of a single panel and/or through the use of a single caption. The events of this book so far seem to span months, possibly even a year or two, and all of it is taking place after many ages of inactivity and slumber from both sides of the conflict. I love that this is a war no one is rushing into. The Empire and its enemies have to acclimate themselves to this future, organize their forces, and plan their next moves, and everyone seems to be doing so at a deliberate pace. So Prophet matches that pace as a series, within each issue and also in its overall storytelling methods. Switching focus from one Prophet to another, spending as much time in the mundane moments of their lives as the exciting ones, the book gives everyone and everything enough space to be completely explained, examined, and enjoyed.

6. There is an astounding singularity of vision considering the rotating group of artists on the title. Yes, everyone has their own artistic strengths and flourishes (see thought 3 above), but there's also a level of visual homogeneity, at least atmospherically speaking. Wide open spaces, settings reminiscent of the Wild West, alien races that are plantlike or buglike or both, John Prophet as grizzled and brooding---these can be found no matter who is doing the drawing, and it adds a cohesiveness that could easily be missing. So often when artists swap in and out like this, the change is stark to the point of being distracting. Somehow, the Prophet team has found a happy medium. Each artist has a distinct style, but the underlying visual feel of the book remains steadily the same.

7. The moment in Prophet #25 when Old Man Prophet suddenly bursts from the corpse of a Nephilim and so swiftly kills not only two other Prophets but their Earth mother commander...chills. I can still remember reading that scene for the first time and physically sitting up straight (I like to read comics lying on the couch) with excitement. And I didn't even know the full significance of the character yet. It was just such a powerful, well-timed moment, and it represented a clear promise of larger things to come. It marked a shift in the focus of the book. No longer just telling disconnected tales of different Prophets trying to survive, it instead became more personal and established more firmly a long-term story through the introduction of this anti-Empire protagonist. That was when I began to refer to this my favorite current series, and I haven't stopped since.

8. Brandon Graham, who wrote or at least co-wrote the first eleven issues, makes science fiction seem effortless. I have no doubt that it is, in fact, the result of tireless work, but the number of creatures, planets, cultures, biological idiosyncrasies, and the like that he introduces every damn issue is just an embarrassment of riches. And I admire that the scope of this series is so large that Graham will quickly abandon a setting or society in order to move us onto and into the next one. It keeps the book fresh, constantly expanding its world and history. Of course, many things are seen more than once as well (Qid-Pids come to mind as a race that's apparently everywhere), establishing a baseline consistency for the story even as it continues to grow outward and upward.

9. Ed Brisson has lettered every issue. Fantastically. Stylized and easy to follow, his work never gets in the way of the art but won't let you ignore the words, either. And the word balloons of alien symbols covered by balloons with their English translations is brilliant in its simplicity. My guess would be that Brisson did not invent that technique (only because it seems so obvious once you look at it as a way to handle translation), but he uses it expertly either way. The best bit of lettering work is the white or red dialogue balloons of the Earth mothers I mentioned above. It heightens their creepiness and, somehow, helps display the extent of their power. Brisson is one of the most regular elements of the Prophet experience, so he must be doing something right.

10. I love the cover art for this title, which almost always consists of either a single Prophet engaged in some adventurous activity or a gorgeous view of some sci-fi scenery. I guess #30 is really more of an alien than it is scenery, but because it's such a plantlike alien it creates the same feeling as the more scenic covers. The point is, this book knows exactly what it's about: Prophets traversing this beautiful, fantastical universe. The covers express that plainly and clearly, which is sort of rare in comics and something I always appreciate.

11. Like Brisson, Joseph Bergin III has been a reliable aspect of the book as the colorist from issue #24 on. The first arc was colored by Richard Ballerman, who is just as skilled as Bergin III, but only ever worked on Prophet with Simon Roy, making him less responsible for aiding the visual consistency I pointed to in thought 6. Bergin III may even deserve most of the credit for that consistency, and certainly a heaping portion of it should be directed his way. He can capture any environment, and move seamlessly between pages that are a wash of one color and those that are more detailed and realistic. Though his palette tends to favor neutral tones, he can pull out the brasher and more startling reds and blues when appropriate, which helps the many and varied action sequences stand out from the pages around them. Again, there's no question that Bergin III is a great talent, because he's been a part of so many issues of such a strong series.

12. Even though they have conflicting goals, I always find myself rooting for whichever John Prophet I am reading about at the time. As versions of the same man, they all posses an admirable bravery and sense of honor, even when they're working for an invasive evil empire. They are tough, quiet, and sure, and even the "bad guys" appear to be decent human beings at their core, despising injustice and desiring companionship. I love that consistency, and it demonstrates how fully-realized this character was in the minds of the creators before the book even began.

Thursday, January 17, 2013

Pull List Review: Threshold #1

Threshold #1 is tightly packed and a lot of fun. The plot of the main story, "The Hunted," is not altogether original, but it isn't directly derivative of anything that comes to mind, either. And there is a lot of room for the idea to grow and blossom into something great. An entire planet trying to hunt down and kill a mere 27 "contestants" could get repetitive and old, but the thread of those 27 people trying to organize themselves into a unified resistance movement definitely opens the doors for more interesting things. Whatever happens in the future, though, this debut issue had a ton of action and introduced numerous characters, all of which served to bring me back for the next installment before even getting to the back-up story.
     Writer Keith Giffen may be trying to introduce one too many things here. We meet like five contestants on the show, and while some of them have fascinating details (like the Green Lantern whose ring is in his chest) we don't spend enough time with any of them to fully understand what they are all about. Still, these quick intros are fine for a first issue, especially because they take place in the midst of a lot of running through sci-fi city streets and fighting angry mobs and other such high-quality entertainment. Similarly, we get only a brief look at the sluglike alien who apparently runs this twisted, murderous, planet-wide reality TV show, but it's just enough of a taste to want to come back for a bigger bite next time. We don't know his history, but we know what he is up to in the present and how callous his attitude is about the whole thing, and though, again, it's not the freshest take on a villain (shades of Mojo to be sure) it's still a good time and an interesting character.
     The Larfleeze back-up story is the stronger section, though. Being able to narrow in on a single character instead of trying to explain an entirely new setting and situation allows Giffen to do some deeper characterization and, truth be told, have a somewhat more complicated plot. The pages where Larfleeze recounts his life were maybe a bit unecessary from my point of view, but they would of course be helpful to anyone new to the Orange Lantern, and Giffen finds a logical and funny enough reason for it in-story that I certainly don't mind. It's more natural by far than the opening page of "The Hunted" which is an info dump for the ages. And the Larfleeze stuff that comes after his autobiographical speech is perfect for the character, unexpected, and intriguing. It ends on a note that is as humorous as it is sad, and if I wasn't in for issue #2 after the opening story, by the end of this one I was absolutely committed.
     Scott Kolins' artwork on the back-up story is a bit better than Tom Raney's in the beginning, too. It's not that Raney does a bad job. He balances the grimness of the story with the flashiness of its setting expertly, and though his characters' faces are inconsistent and sometimes misshapen, they are also always extremely expressive and distinct. Not without its stumbles and bumbles, but generally clear and serviceable art for a story with so much going on and so many people involved.
     Kolins' Larfleeze, though, makes me wish he could get his own ongoing series. It's not just the hungry greed in his eyes, but the rage that comes with it boiling underneath. His fangs and claws are menacing on their own, yet as a whole he is not all that scary, or anyway he's as funny-looking as he is terrifying, if not more so. And that's exactly what I want out of Larfleeze. He exists in this weird space between clown and monster, and it's never been more immediately obvious (that I've seen) than it is here with Kolins on art. Having the calmer, smoother Stargraves to bounce Larfleeze off of didn't hurt none, either.
     Though I wasn't blown out of the water by Threshold #1, it has undoubtedly won me over as a continuing reader for the time being. Two good stories with solid art, strong humor, and loads of potential, both being written by a legend and drawn by two very different but talented artists.

Pull List Review: Daredevil #22

I picked Daredevil as one of the titles to review from my list this week mostly because it's been so long since I have. But the reason for that is that there's not a lot of new stuff to say about this title these days, which I mean in the best possible sense. It's one of the most reliably strong superhero comicbooks (or really comicbooks of any genre) coming out right now, and issue #22 is by no means an exception.
     Chris Samnee is just aces on this book. I've been a fan of his Daredevil from the start, and more and more his Matt Murdock grows on me, too. As a hero, he is fittingly muscular while remaining as trim as he'd need to be for the acrobatics he's always pulling off. And as an everyday lawyer (or former lawyer, in the case of this particular issue) there is the right mix of confidence, intelligence, and insecurity. Matt Murdock is a skilled and self-assured guy, but that attitude is constantly challenged by both of the double lives he leads, and Samnee has really gotten a handle on that blend. He also does some very solid work with Foggy, who can go from goofy to severe in a single panel without it ever feeling jarring or unnatural. And hey, even Stilt-Man was looking pretty good this month, cocky and smug because of his upgrades, which came through crystal clear in the artwork.
     I must say, though, that Samnee's strongest character here may well have been Spider-Man. Now that Doc Ock is in charge of Peter Parker's brain, Spidey has more of an edge than before, which Samnee displays by having his fingers be sort of pointed at the end. They almost look like claws, and though it is a tiny detail, it goes and incredible distance as far as helping to underline the harder, meaner aspects of this Doc-Ock-Spider-Man hybrid. Who, by the way, I was introduced to in this issue for the first time.
     I knew about the recent developments in Spider-Man's life from all the online hooplah, but it is Mark Waid who got to be the writer to show me this "superior" version of the character. And in his hands, I definitely see the potential of the idea. Not enough to want to actually read it, but enough to...see that it has potential, I guess, and leave it at that. It helps that it is through Daredevil's lens that I meet this new Spidey, because I don't think I'd be able to spend much time in his head. For the length of a single fight, though, I enjoyed the shift in his voice and strategy, and it was fun to watch DD try and adapt to them as well.
     I was also glad to see that, though it came from different sources than usual, Waid still made sure to include plenty of humor in this Daredevil-Spider-Man team-up issue. Those two characters have such a hilarious interplay, historically speaking, so it seems important to include some comedy when they get together, even if their dialogue won't be where it comes from. "Thank God for Stilt-Man" was no doubt the single funniest moment, but there were other laugh lines throughout that fight, and in the final scene there was Foggy's bacon and Limburger cheesecake. All genuinely funny stuff, and included in a way that called the reader's attention without being distracting.
     This was a bit of a lighter issue, inasmuch as the main story was a throwaway team-up between Daredevil and the new Spider-Man. But Waid brought it home in the end, tying Spider-Man's motives for chasing down Daredevil in the first place to one of the longer-running threads of the series. And the cliffhanger last page is a freaking bombshell that I won't get into here because I'd rather wait to get the details and development before discussing it. Let's just say that some emotionally-fraught material is on the horizon for Daredevil, and because of how regularly amazing it's been for so long, I'm quite looking forward to that.

Pull List Review: The Black Beetle: No Way Out #1

This sure was a book full of Francesco Francavilla drawing a character and world he's passionate about. Translation: it's fucking gorgeous. As in jaw-droppingly great art. It's not just that Francavilla has designed a strong lead character, or even the level of detail and care he gives to the rest of the book. It's also his constantly-shifting and cinematic page layouts. There are more than a few splashes and two-page spreads, but they punctuate pages filled with attention-grabbing design. I think my favorite was when Black Beetle loaded up and then fired his dart guns. He's such an imposing figure in the center of that page, and all the smaller panels surrounding him keep the pace lively and energetic. But there are numerous other examples, because I'm pretty sure Francavilla never repeats himself, layout-wise. Panels with curved borders or no borders, images that overlap each other, dramatic close-ups and sudden chase scenes and massive explosions. Francavilla makes does it all, and beautifully.
     Another thing I liked about the artwork was this it was so instantly and steadily strong, I barely noticed it at all on my first reading. It opens with a powerful image of Black Beetle that is followed by a two-page spread giving background on the bad guys he's after, and by the time those initial three pages were done I was already so wrapped up in the imagery that I had to remind myself to be impressed with it on the pages that followed. It never takes the slightest dip in quality, and so you almost become used to it as you make your way into the meat of the issue. It's a standard of excellence I wish I saw more often.
     As is typically the case with Francavilla, though, what I ultimately loved most about the artwork was the coloring. Such deep, all-encompassing blacks being cut through by reds and oranges that are a strange mix of bright and muted. It immediately sets up the tone of a dark and serious noir story that is still having a lot of fun with itself. And that comes across in the script, too. Black Beetle never smiles, never really cracks wise. He is stone serious about bringing justice to Colt City, and uses some heavy-handed methods to accomplish it. But even with Beetle as a first-person narrator, there is an underlying sense of enjoyment and excitement in this book, which I assume comes from Francavilla enjoying the hell out of himself while he made it. The art is so dynamic and the pacing so swift that you can't help but get swept up in it.
     Right in the middle of the issue, the writing does feel a bit too rushed, but it still works for the character. Black Beetle isn't interested in wasting time in the gathering of information. He brutally and efficiently finds out what he needs to know from the low-lifes of his city, and because it's such a fast and simple task for him, the story doesn't spend too much time on it. I would have liked to hear the actual voices of the criminals he was interrogating, but even if it was somewhat glossed over, this middle section fits in with the overall portrayal of the series' protagonist. He slows down and gives us the details when we are seeing the handiwork of his mysterious new opponent, but the small-time stuff in between matters little to him and is therefore given less space.
     We get a glimpse of that new villain at the end of the issue that could not be more intriguing, and it sets him up as equally quick and resourceful as our hero. He's a scary-looking man, and has obviously struck fear in the hearts of the city's mobsters in almost no time at all. So I am definitely anxious to see the full reveal of that character, his origins and motives and abilities, in forthcoming issues.
     I'm excited for everything the future of this series potentially offers, but again, the best thing is that this is Francavilla drawing a fully Francavillan title. His love for the work is poured into every page, and we're all richer for it.

Wednesday, January 16, 2013

The Grand X-Factor Investigations Investigation Part 3

The third in a group of like 8-12 posts on X-Factor volume 3.

An Illogical Next Step Made Logical
Messiah Complex

On it's own, Messiah Complex is a fine if not always engaging story. There is a lot to like about it, and in terms of continuity, internal logic, and narrative focus it's miles above the more recent major Marvel events. But reading it as part of this enormous read-through of all of X-Factor, what stood out most was that the characters I was trying to follow were barely in it. X-Factor is a book all about a left-of-center mutant team living and operating in their own tiny corner of the world, and having to mix them in with the greater Marvel U is not the most natural thing to do. Many members of the group end up with minuscule or non-existent roles, so in the middle of reading entirely about them, Messiah Complex feels like a big, loud interruption. Peter David handles it just right, though, and while I have no way of knowing whether it was his plan for the character all along, what he does with Layla Miller in the midst of this crossover is still one of the most important developments of the ongoing, longform story he's been telling from the start.
     Layla follows a Madrox dupe into the distant future and ends up stranded there once the dupe dies and rejoins Madrox Prime in the present. She lives for years in that time period, finally growing up and becoming a sassy and mysterious young woman rather than a sassy and mysterious little girl. It comes to light (well after Messiah Complex has concluded and everyone other than X-Factor has forgotten Layla completely) that all the "stuff" she's always known isn't a mutant ability but, in fact, a result of her getting to live in the future and learn about everything that happens to the mutants of the world. How she is able to get that info to a younger version of herself is a time paradox for another post, but the point is, the essence of the character ("I'm Layla Miller, I know stuff") actually comes from what she does during this event.
     It's a smart move by David. X-Factor is not a title that wedges easily into this kind of crossover story because, as I said, one of the major themes of the book is that its cast is on the fringes of the superhero world, handling the kinds of problems that bigger-name mutants don't have time for (or interest in). So the one time that the series is taken over by a big-time event---yes, it had Civil War issues prior to this, but they weren't even remotely a part of the main plot of that story---David makes the consequences for his team, both long- and short-term, significant and personalized and, most importantly, he fits them into the big, elaborate puzzle he's already assembling for his readers. There are clues before this that Layla's clairvoyance may stem from something other than a mutant ability. We were told way early on that she'd one day marry Jamie, a detail that was hard to believe until she got a chance to mature outside of her own time. And there is a running thread through the whole of X-Factor that they as a team are going to someday be responsible for ruining the planet (that is, after all, Mr. Tryp's whole jam) and when Layla finally does return, much of what she says seems to subtly back this up. So even though the original reason for this adventure in the future was tied directly to Messiah Complex itself, David usurped it and made it his own, a plot point that ultimately meant way more for his book than it did for the larger event.
     After this, X-Factor isn't ever again folded into a Marvel event in the same way. It has its Secret Invasion and Second Coming issues like everything, but Messiah Complex is the first and last time that the title is fully derailed by such a story. Derailed in the sense that it had momentum going in a particular direction and with a specific and well-developed cast, and had to take a three-issue break from that to send a handful of the characters elsewhere. But Peter David doesn't just shoehorn in three issues of meaningless story that get wiped away when the event wraps up so he can jump back into what he was doing before. No, he uses Messiah Complex as an opportunity to advance and explain on of the most (if not the single most) important and interesting characters he has. I wish more writers could get that kind of juice out of having their books involved in a crossover.
     Coming up next, X-Factor hits its pacing groove, and transforms into a series of short stories without ever losing sight of the massive big picture.

Monday, January 14, 2013

The Grand X-Factor Investigations Investigation Part 2

The second in a group of like 8-12 posts on X-Factor volume 3.

Anytime You Have Two Evils, One Of Them Has To Be Lesser
Mr. Tryp and The Isolationist

Mr. Tryp is the time-traveling villain who works against X-Factor through his own organization, Singularity Investigations, run by his past, present, and future selves (who all exist at once). Future Tryp says X-Factor will eventually help the mutant population regain its powers, leading to a world overrun by reckless superpowered maniacs engaged in constant battle. Tryp himself is not a mutant but a "changeling," born with his powers already present, rather than developing them in adolescence like most mutants do. He describes himself, to Jamie Madrox's parent, as a precursor to mutants, and claims that Madrox is a changeling as well, hoping to take him on as a student rather than let Charles Xavier have him. When the Madroxes turn him down, he causes the tornado which kills them, and buries the memory in young Jamie's mind. Obviously this is a foe with immense power, yet his tactics are shadowy and slow: developing a virus to kill former mutants, offering to buy out X-Factor, luring individual members of the team to his base of operations. Even that he bothered to build and maintain a successful high-end security firm speaks to his patience, intelligence, and subtlely.
     HIs abilities and origins are deliberately constructed by Peter David, who lets us see what Tryp can do in small chunks before learning his history and connection to Madrox in similar portions. He is in the background or foreground of the team's struggles for the first twelve issues, and has been seen again recently, still scheming and arranging new ways to try and take X-Factor out of the picture. The good guys---meaning a renegade Madrox duplicate---manage to kill past and present Tryp, but old man future Tryp is supposedly immortal, so he determinedly continues to fight against the world he believes X-Factor will bring about.
     All of this is to say that Tryp works as a formidable, interesting recurring villain. He has ties to the past of X-Factor's leader, he can't be permanently defeated, he's got knowledge of the future, and his powers might be limitless. He works in mysterious ways and with mysterious short-term goals, but we know that his long-term goal is to destroy our heroes. So when the next major enemy to reveal himself is weirdly similar but less discreet, it feels a bit redundant.
     "The Isolationist" (X-Factor #21-24) is a solid arc, and the villain after whom it's named is strong enough on his own. But in the light of Mr. Tryp, The Isolationist seems...overly simple, I guess. His story and strategies are more blunt, his motives more selfish. And though the extent of his influence on X-Factor and his exact reasons for hating them remain unknown to the team, for the reader he's an open book, and it makes for a strangely unsatisfying resolution. When he flees, we understand him, but the characters do not, and so they brush him off and move on, after which he is barely heard from again. Like Tryp, he's popped up lately, but only once or twice and in a more passive role. There is a promise of action to come from him soon, but because of how abruptly and disappointingly his last performance ended, it doesn't excite me as much as the first few moves of Tryp's newest plan already have.
     The deal with The Isolationist is that he possesses the power of every mutant alive, which means M-Day was, for him, an immense relief. Now he wants to finish the job, and uses X-Factor as part of a plan to bring the world's remaining mutants together in one place and eliminate them. At first, actually, he is very Tryp-esque. He sends Siryn and Monet on a fake assignment so there won't be any telepaths around. He builds a robotic girl to take care of Layla Miller. He funds X-Factor's other enemies, including Singularity Investigations. But when he realizes that Madrox has found him out, he abandons all of that careful planning to throw down with most of X-Factor in a destructive street fight. It's a good piece of comicbook action, and his defeat comes from an unexpected source, but for a villain who walks away unscathed The Isolationist accomplishes very little after a tremendous amount of effort.
     Tryp is more dangerous (The Isolationist also has a "mental block" that keeps him from killing mutants), has more power and patience, and his history---past and future---is richer and more interesting. I genuinely like The Isolationist and think that a lot of what works for Tryp is working for him, too. But just not at the same level, and with not as impressive results.
     For Part 3, the one and only event to take the reigns of this series, Messiah Complex, and how David made it an integral part of the long-term story he was already telling.

Saturday, January 12, 2013

The Grand X-Factor Investigations Investigation Part 1

The first in a group of like 8-12 posts on X-Factor volume 3. 

Loads of Cases, Just One Problem
X-Factor #1-20

The first page of the first issue of X-Factor shows Rictor standing on a ledge, thinking about suicide because he's lost his mutant powers. The last page of the twentieth issue is all about Quicksilver no longer being able to return mutant powers to those who've lost them. And though there are several other stories told along the way, M-Day's repercussions are a consistent part of the title that whole time. Peter David explores the implications of a depowered mutant population from numerous angles, through major characters and minor ones, A-Plots, B-Plots, and throwaway conversations. It's a big part of how the series is so quickly able to find its footing and introduce its characters. By focusing on a single incident and all of its consequences, big and small, David gets to tell a lot of different kinds of narratives and use the entirety of his cast.
     As I mentioned, there is Rictor's own loss of abilities, something which he has a difficult time handling and struggles with throughout these issues. And of course Layla Miller is a character created as part of the event that led to M-Day, and for a while her reason for joining X-Factor is to keep them from learning the truth about it. And while David does great work with both of these characters, his best stuff comes from the world outside of the titular team. Riots and protests and fistfights breaking out because humans are less afraid to display their hatred for mutantkind or, even worse, see M-Day as something which was deserved. Pissed off former mutants blindly blaming the government. Quicksilver as some kind of twisted, con artist messiah, with former mutants flocking to his promise of returned powers despite the fact that it usually goes wrong and kills them. It's not easy to imagine what the world would look like if a bunch of people suddenly lost superhuman abilities, but David tries his damnedest to cover all the possible reactions and problems it might inspire.
     The cream of this crop is X-Factor #5, when Siryn is taken captive by Dr. Leery, a depowered mutant who has decided to place the blame on X-Factor directly. It is the book's longest, most heartfelt dialogue (or, I guess, monologue) on what it would feel like to lose such tremendous power so suddenly and unexpectedly. And it's fitting as hell that Rictor is the one to save Siryn, since he, too, is in the middle of being pissed off and going a little crazy over no longer being a mutant. He and Leery are different versions of the same person, a man broken by his loss and looking for a way to regrasp some of what he felt before. Leery just chooses to fight against X-Factor while Rictor chooses to fight for them.
     As a detective agency with powers living in the middle of a mostly-unpowered Mutant Town, X-Factor position themselves as a lightning rod for this kind of madness, and it's why such a long stretch of issues sees them unable to escape the chaotic fallout from M-Day. They even manage to get to the bottom of what happened, only to realize they can't tell anyone without exacerbating the situation further. So they become superheroic janitors, cleaning the incessant messes that spring up. And it is in these janitorial duties that we get to know the team. Rahne and Guido spontaneously step in to stop a street brawl, displaying their short tempers and proclivities for violence. Siryn and Monet similarly put down an anti-mutant rally in France, and it shows that both women have a strange mix of deep compassion, great confidence, and sometimes-excessive attitude. Rictor wrestles with whether or not the risk of death is worth a chance to get his powers back from Quicksilver. It's not that they don't have these qualities in other situations, but watching them tackle various facets of the same problem gives the reader a chance to compare and contrast the team against one another and get a better sense of who they are as a whole.
     The other thing David uses all these M-Day-related stories for is setting up the unique pacing of X-Factor as a series. This is a book that provides its audience with payoff to things that were introduced sometimes as long as years before, and these first twenty issues represent a microscopic version of that. Between Quicksilver arriving and him losing his power-granting capabilities, there are 12 whole issues, and he's not even in like half of them. He shows up spouting his promises, establishes himself in Mutant Town, and then disappears for a while until David is ready to bring that story to a close (not Quicksilver's story, but the story of him giving powers back). On the other hand, issue #5 is a self-contained one-shot, as is #13 when the team all visit a shrink (Doc Samson), so in those we get complete little narrative nuggets. These kind of varied-length stories are a tactic that David uses all the way through. Hell, it is in these first twenty issues that Layla tells Madrox she'll marry him one day, and that just happened this past November. So by opening the debut issue with an M-Day victim's struggle and then carrying that thread through for such a long run, David lets his audience know right away that this is a series which will reward patience and attention.
     There is another throughline in these issues, and it is that of Mr. Tryp and his vendetta against X-Factor. Unfortunately, that'll have to wait for the next post (in a few days), where I talk about him and The Isolationist and ask the question: does the book need both?

The Grand X-Factor Investigations Investigation Part 0

A short introduction to a group of like 8-12 posts on X-Factor volume 3. 

X-Planation & X-Tolment
The week of Christmas, I read all of X-Factor, most of it for the second or third time, though the last 30 issues or so were new to me. Written entirely by Peter David (for over 100 issues now) with a large and rotating group of artists, it was a somewhat varied but ultimately deeply rewarding read, taking full advantage of its medium and serialized format. I want to look at how it works, why it works, and the reasons for it biggest successes and failures. This will be a collection of pieces, first discussing individual sections of the narrative and then talking about some themes and ideas of the series as a whole.
     Before I dig into that, though, I'd be foolish and careless not to mention the trying, frightening situation in which Peter David and his family currently find themselves. Right before New Year's, David suffered a stroke, and though the moving and detailed updates from his wife Kathleen indicate that his recovery is coming along well overall, the family of course needs any support the world can offer. Here and also here is what Kathleen has suggested people can do to help out, and I strongly encourage anyone reading this to pitch in. He's a great talent, providing consistently strong work not only on X-Factor but throughout his long and prolific career, and I wish him as speedy and painless a recovery as possible.
     Later today, I'll talk about X-Factor's first twenty-issue stretch, which I see as sort of a single story, and why it's an excellent introduction to the massive, ever-growing series that follows.

Friday, January 11, 2013

Pull List Review: Secret Avengers #36

From the cover to the conclusion, this issue was full to the brim with fighting. It may have paused for a page or two, but in general there was non-stop action here, and it was all quite well done. I like Matteo Scalera's rough style for this. The stray black smudges in the air add to the sense of despair the surrounds all this combat, and in general their is a liveliness to the artwork that fits perfectly with such a fast-paced, rock-em-sock-em story. The cast is massive, but as he has done all along Scalera keeps the more crowded scenes clear and gives space to the action when needed. For example, the incredible two-page spread of a giant Hank Pym cold-cocking a sentinel. It isn't, in-and-of itself, the logical dramatic climax for this issue, but Scalera makes it so by putting so much emphasis and weight on it. With the enormous KWA DOOOOM sound effect and the thick lines of black smoke rising into the air like paint, the spread really makes the reader feel Pym's punch, which he throws everything he's got into. It's a stellar singular moment in an all-around good time action romp.
     Matthew Wilson's colors go hand-in-hand with Scalera's dirtier linework, keeping things dark and grim but still plenty exciting. This artistic team has clearly hit their grove here at the title's end, and they seem to be having a lot of fun with the various slugfests they get to show us. That sense of fun pervades the entirety of the issue, actually, in the art and script, despite the end-of-the-world scenario and incessant violence it contains. Writer Rick Remender still infuses a lot of humor, and Scalera and Wilson do a great job of capturing the mood of a very real and significant battle mixed in with good old-fashioned superhero silliness.
     Having Spider-Man show up as a guest star doesn't hurt, and Remender also gives Beast a fair number of quips and verbal jabs. Some of them felt a bit out of character, but they were all used well and made me laugh so I am willing to forgive it if Beast doesn't quite sound like Beast. What I liked most about the story, though, was the well-planned match-ups. It was inevitable that Venom and Black Ant would have a face-off after working so closely together in the previous arc, and fitting that Black Widow came along since she is the closest with Parvez, the little robotic boy the team is trying to rescue. Meanwhile, Captain Britain fights the original Human Torch who, it turns out, is the product of work that Britain's father did years ago. Those two characters couldn't get along even when they were on the same side, so watching their egos and fists crash into each other here was rather satisfying. The rest of the team, then, must take Father and his crew head on, so it's good that Beast, Pym, and Spidey are all there. That's some serious scientific smarts all in one place, which is exactly what'll be needed to overcome this particular threat. Plus, of course, we have Hawkeye, the supposed leader of the Secret Avengers, who I imagine will get to have his moment of leadership glory against Father in the conclusion next issue.
     As demonstrated by these character combinations, this enormous fight is something Remender has been plotting and building toward for a long while. And though the beginnings of this conflict didn't grip me, this issue won me back over with it's breakneck pace and the strange feelings of joy it created in the midst of all the punching. Only one issue to go before this title gets the Marvel NOW! treatment, and based on this penultimate chapter, the finale is going to be pretty goddamn bombastic. 

Pull List Review: Dial H #8

What is the deal with Alberto Ponticelli's work for DC these days? It has been depressingly subpar, and for a long time I assumed it was a result of having other people ink his pencils, but Dan Green marks the third (that I can remember) different inker for Ponticelli and I'm starting to think maybe I've been mis-assigning the blame. In Dial H #8, everyone looks a bit amorphous, like they are made of slowly-melting clay. The shape of Nelson's face changes a few times, as does The Centipede's, and don't even get me started on Roxie's giraffe neck in her first scene. It's not that the art is without its redeeming moments. The creation of The Centipede through a failed time travel experiment was superb, and Ponticelli handles several new heroes well. I especially liked Wolf Ticket, who not only had a great design but a palpable energy to him. But even those stronger bits aren't that impressive, and they're padded out by a lot of mushy-looking weirdness that I just don't like.
     I was so excited for Ponticelli to make the move to this title. He seemed like a happy medium between the previous artists: a bit meaner/grittier than Mateus Santolouco but with a more fun, zany style than David Lapham. Instead I got sort of a mess, art that seemed like it couldn't make up its mind. And it was not the least bit helped by the rushed and crowded script.
     As I said last month, this book is starting to get overly repetitious. Nelson and Roxie have the same arguments and fail to achieve the same goals every issue. Something needs to change in their dynamic soon or it's going to become too stale to save. I suppose we almost had that kind of shift this issue when Nelson either began to hallucinate or actually had a conversation with Wolf Ticket and Trash Talk, but is was abruptly pushed aside for the introduction of another new character. That character was similarly removed from the board in hurried and awkward fashion so we could get to the part where The Centipede confronts Nelse, and all told it felt like too many balls in the air. I'm not sure China Miéville has quite got a grasp on how to pace this book yet. The first arc was much tighter, but since then there has been too much introduction to new ideas or people, leaving too little room to develop any of them. I understand that there is a greater mythology surrounding these dials that Miéville is working to establish, but I think the book would benefit from taking a breath and deciding what the single most important thing is for its readers to understand right now. Some of these characters or concepts could surely wait for later issues, only showing up once we fully understand the things that preceded them. Instead, Miéville crams it all in at once, making it hard to latch onto anything at all.
     I do continue to like reading about The Centipede. We got an explanation of his origins and powers here, which made for what was easily the strongest section of the issue. And I liked watching him use his abilities for investigation just as deftly and effectively as he'd used them for violence and infiltration last time. He's an imposing villain, and I hate to imagine what kind of organization would be able to control him, but he is obviously working for someone and I'm excited to see who it is. And to Miéville's credit, no time was wasted in bringing this new threat head-to-head with our protagonist. Introduced only one month ago, The Centipede has already made a strong and daring move against Nelson (and Roxie, by extension) and the fallout from that is bound to be dangerous and action-packed. So there are things to look forward to by the end of Dial H #8, even if there's not too much from it that I can look back on very fondly. 
     I still like this title, but not as much as I want to. It has some excellent stars and brilliant high concepts working for it, but the handling of those people and ideas has been steadily declining for the past several months. On top of that, the art's gotten weaker since Santolouco departed, and not even Alberto Ponticelli, who is one of my favorite comicbook artists of all time, has yet been able to recapture the visual style and playfulness the series had originally. But the cliffhanger at the close of this issue intrigues me, and I can still see the overwhelming potential in this narrative, so for now I remain a fan, if a somewhat more tentative one than before.

Pull List Review: Change #2

The main characters of Change are going through a disorienting, terrifying time, and so the comicbook offers a similar experience for its readers. We know as little about the big picture of this book as W-2 and Sonia, and it makes for an unsettling and sometimes confusing narrative. There are some obvious villains, but their motives remain obscured, and their tactics vary from direct assault with handguns to secretly replacing W-2's wife with some kind of copy whose body unravels and disappears into thin air. What they want, and why this rapper and screenwriter would be such significant targets for them is still unclear, but the two leads are such powerful characters that it hardly matters. Watching them try to cope with these unthinkable, seemingly insurmountable problems is highly entertaining and rewarding on its own, even without understanding what their opponents are after. We know what Sonia wants (to escape this situation) and what W-2 wants (his wife back) and that is more than enough for now.
     Ales Kot has been doing an excellent job of developing those two characters since the opening scene of the debut issue, so it's no surprise that they continue to be my favorite part of Change #2. Here, however, Kot also introduces a new character who, while equally full, is less obviously connected to the main narrative and therefore less compelling. I'm not sure who this man is supposed to be, though there is a hint or two that he's a younger version of the still-unnamed astronaut who the book sometimes checks in on. There are also a few clues that the new character may be Kot himself, inserted into his own comicbook, though if that's the case I'm not sure why. No matter who he is, though, we definitely see him interact briefly with Sonia at the house where she and W-2 lay low for a while, and though his conversation with her feels fraught with significance, in the end it doesn't seem to really lead to anything. I enjoyed Kot's strange, run-on narration when telling this guy's story, which was mostly an exploration of what new love feels like and how it makes people behave. And though it didn't totally mesh with the more surreal tone of the rest of the issue, the scene where this young man argues with his father had some incredibly strong and realistic dialogue. So despite not fully understanding the character's role in the grand scheme of Change, I enjoyed the pages which focused on him (and there were quite a few) and have hope that how he fits into this jigsaw puzzle will be made clear down the line.
     Because the thing is, there are still a lot of unanswered questions. This is a title based on being dizzying, with words and images that wash over the reader the first time through and ask that we slow down, narrow our focus, soak up all the details. Even then, Kot is keeping a lot of secrets, making it impossible for us to suss out exactly what is going on, and it puts us in the same position as our heroes. That is the script's greatest strength here, its ability to stick us right in the thick of things, to fill us with the same horror and wonder as its stars. Kot acts as whatever evil cult or sect it is that continues to hunt Sonia and W-2 down, and his audience will need to be patient to learn the ins and outs of his larger plan.
     So the story is excellent, but not without its flaws, sometimes too surreal for its own good. Luckily, even in those places where I stumbled over the words or plot, there was always deliciously beautiful artwork from Morgan Jeske and colorist Sloane Leong. Every page is gorgeous, fluid, and bright, and the visuals are as jam-packed and attention-demanding as the words. Jeske has a sort of loose, exaggerated style that helps to underline the dreamlike quality of some scenes and at the same time more fully ground the horror of others. The artistic highlight is probably the page where one of Sonia's attackers is rammed by W-2's car, and not only because the actual moment of impact is so sudden and brutal. It is the next panel, the close-up on the man's bleeding and unconscious face that really sells it for me. The mix of pain and relaxation he displays, the bits of rubble and wreckage that surround him, every tiny piece given the same careful attention by Jeske to bring home the weight of the scene. And that's true from cover to cover.
     Jeske handles Kot's bizarre, always-shifting script expertly, allowing for as much clarity and characterization as possible. And, in turn, Leong's colors are the perfect match for Jeske's lines. His palette is made of up hues that are contradictorily brash and soothing. He uses absence of color selectively and with great skill, most notably in the nightclub scene, though my personal favorite example is the panel of Eko's face as his brain gets scrambled by the bad guys over the phone. I'm not sure, ultimately, if it is Leong or Jeske who deserves the most credit for the incredible quality of this series' artwork, but I'd say it's more likely a matter of the whole being greater than the sum of its parts. Each of them brings a deliberate eye and a clear appreciation for the finer points of graphic storytelling, so the final product is full to the point of bursting.
     Change is shaping up to be pretty much what I expected, but only insofar as I have no idea what to expect of it next. And I love that feeling. So often, then endpoints of a comicbook story are too predictable. The serialized format of the monthly funny book means that things are forecast and hinted at and alluded to all along until, by the time you reach the ending, you've seen it coming for months. With Change, you can't even be sure when a given scene might abruptly end and lead to an outer space dream sequence. Trying to see the end is a futile endeavor, made doubly so by the fact that if you're too concerned about the conclusion you'll miss all the tiny, wonderful morsels Kot, Jeske, and Leong have included in the present. It's a rich book, getting richer by the page, and even with a few bumps here and there it is a more enjoyable ride than most things on the shelves today.