Tuesday, April 30, 2013

Monthly Dose: April 2013

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

100 Bullets #6: As much as Lee was a less compelling protagonist than Dizzy, Chucky is exponentially worse. I just don't care if he wins or loses, lives or dies, or really to see another minute of his miserable life. Obviously he did not deserve to have his best friend betray him or to get sent to jail over something that wasn't his fault, but that's also not really an excuse to be a bottomless well of scumbaggery and selfishness. He mistreats Shantay, refuses helpful advice and prudent warnings from her and all of his friends (or whatever they are...associates), actively looks for trouble and danger, and cheats and lies as compulsively as he gambles. There's no redemption in there that I can see, and I'm not even sure if Brian Azzarello is aiming for that. I think he knows full well that he has written a blackhearted son of a bitch in Chucky, and if so it's a total success. And he's a believable character, to be sure, but being believably insufferable doesn't make someone interesting to me. I don't think, technically or structurally, there's anything wrong with the story here, but I personally find it hard to stick with because no matter what happens from here, I won't care. I'm not attached to anyone or anything. Eduardo Risso is till doing his incredible thing, but this issue what really pops about the artwork is Grant Goleash's colors. The textured hues of the desert sky make up the background and/or lighting of most of these pages, and they're always spot on. I also dig the deep purples and deeper black of Pony's back room, establishing in color the undertones of wickedness and deception that are key to that character. It's very strong and understated work all over, which has always been true of this book's coloring, but for whatever reason this issue it impresses me more than usual. Perhaps it's my lack of connection to the story, but I don't think it's as simple as that. Goleash captures the feel of these locations more firmly and completely than before, and it definitely helps what is my least favorite narrative so far.

The Intimates #6: Sykes definitely deserved to have an issue devoted to him, if only because he's been a silent enigma since the very beginning, and that can become distracting if it lasts too long. This issue doesn't necessarily explain all the ins and outs of who Sykes is or what he can do, but it provides some definite insight into his past and at least reveals enough of his world that he can now be set aside as a passive figure once again without fucking with the reader's curiosity. Joe Casey attempts to tell a story set inside Sykes' broken and powerful mind, with every scene seeming to take place in a memory from his past. The narrative moves the way that memories do, with pieces missing and focus jumping around and no real resolution to any of the action. There is a definite, solid conclusion to the larger story of the rest of the students journeying into Sykes' mind, but each of them has experiences while there that get abruptly cut off when Kefong rescues them. As the only member of the cast with the mental powers and training to do so, Kefong avoids getting sucked into the madness, and stays firmly in the "real" world (quotes added by Casey) so he can reactivate the null field that, evidently, keeps Sykes from trapping everyone around him in his bizarre and jumbled thoughts. It's a simple but logical solution, and Gisueppe Camuncoli's rendering of Kefong marching slowly through the "real" world under Sykes' influence is some of the best imagery this series has seen yet. The same is true of the page after Empty Vee turns Sykes' null field off and the world becomes a rainbow-colored spiral as his powers are unleashed, even shattering the info scrolls into tiny fragments, not to be reassembled until the end of the issue when Kefong saves the day. It's not the first time the info scrolls have gone away, but it is the first time they've been absent for most of a whole issue, and it cements for me that they are an ambitious failure. Casey doesn't really try to work them rhythmically into the scripts---they are very much their own, separate thing, even when their content relates to what's happening on the rest of the page. The consequence is that if you read them as you hit the bottom of every page, it breaks up the narrative flow, something that becomes obvious in this issue, which feels much more fluid than any of the previous ones. And I suppose one could read all the actual panels first and then go back through the info scrolls, but that sounds pretty arduous, and not at all worth the knowledge you'd gain after the fact. I think I'll try that approach for next month, because I never have, and see if it helps things. Conceptually I want the info scrolls to work, but having so many pages without them this month makes me thinks that they just never quite will. That was quite a digression, I guess. Anyway, Casey and Camuncoli both get to have a bit more fun and be a little more freeform in this issue. There are times where the dialogue gets too cryptic and pretentious in its language for me, but it's made up for by Camuncoli's excellent designs for all of the characters as tiny children, still in costume. An extra bizarre and daring chapter of a book that's reliably bizarre and daring.

X-Force (vol. 1) #6: As is becoming standard for this book, not much happens. Stryfe talks to Zero about some mustache-twirling business, Toad's Brotherhood manages to bang out an alliance with the Morlocks essentially on the basis that they're both angry, Cable has a redundant chat with Domino about how he needs to be honest with his team, and Boom Boom and Feral get into a spat that leads nowhere. By now we're like 2/3 of the way through, leaving just enough time for yet another scene of members of X-Force doing some training, this time a sparring match between Warpath and Shatterstar. In the end, the Brotherhood interrupts and Siryn gets involved (not in that order) but the fight doesn't really get cooking in this issue. Got to save the good stuff for yet another month, I guess. Rob Liefled's plots are just lazy and messy, and I don't envy Fabian Nicieza having to be the one who tried to turn them into a forward-moving narrative. Because they just aren't that. This is a pretty static book, most of the time, ostensibly trying to introduce its team in these opening issues but never pulling that off all the way, either. Liefeld's art is Liefled's art: muscles, tits, and teeth. I have very little new to say about this particular issue that I haven't said about preceding ones, but I do find it pretty amusing that there's a bit on the cover that boasts about the "Cable Guides" in the back of the issue. These are tersely-written summaries of Cable's relationship with other members of the cast, and they are some of the least interesting backmatter of all time. Not terribly written or anything, but not well-written either, and providing only the most superficial information, much of which can be learned or at least gleaned from reading the actual series. Was this really a selling point back in the day? Probably for someone, but now it just seems like an especially fluffy bit of material to advertise right on the cover. This whole issue is a marshmallow, no calories and only the faintest flavor.

Friday, April 26, 2013

Pull List Review: Journey Into Mystery #651

I haven't had this much pure, childlike fun reading a comicbook in ages. Even if you have no interest in following this series, I highly recommend picking up this issue, because Kathryn Immomen uses it to tell, rather than the beginnings of a new Sif story, a self-contained Asgardia story. It pays off handsomely. A relatively low-stakes but nevertheless significant threat turns up in the form of a released Fenris Wolf, and the noble warriors and gods of Asgardia must rein him in while still wearing their pajamas. A lot of excellent characterization and artwork make the humor of this issue incredibly effective, and there's plenty of it, too. Seriously one of the most enjoyable comics I've come across in some time.
     I suspect "Deal with thine pants!" is going to be the most adored and talked-about line, and deservedly so. It got a raucous laugh from me. I also loved Volstagg's snoring noises, and most of all his relationship with daughter Hilde. Essentially, she ignores everything he says while he hears her every word, which is a perfect father-daughter dynamic. It's also the foundation for one of the funniest, simplest throughlines of the issue: Volstagg tells Hilde to go back to bed, but she doesn't. This happens like four or five times, but always with the right amount of brevity and humanity to keep it from growing old. That's not easy to do with a repetitious gag like this, but Immomen has no trouble.
     I also appreciated that Sif, ostensibly still the current star of this title, got to stand out in the ensemble of this issue. She shoots down brusquely the notion that she and Thor are together, stands up to the Fenris Wolf more boldly than anyone, and just generally seems to be the most level-headed member of the group. While the men are eager for the fight, Sif says they shouldn't wreak havoc within Asgardia, and is smart enough to ask where Fenris' magical leash is now. So she owns all of her moments, even if the issue overall is shared.
     The best part about Sif, though, is that she spends the entire time in a nightie (since everyone has their PJ's on) yet artist Pepe Larraz never makes her into a sex object. The outfit covers her completely, and she wears it into battle as comfortably and confidently as if it were armor. Even the panel where part of it is torn is used more for the effect of battle damage than as an excuse to show some skin. That's a rarity in mainstream superhero books, and I was glad to see Larraz take this approach. Sif has never been one much for cleavage or exposed midriffs, and seeing that carried over to her sleepwear is refreshing.
     Larraz does really great work with everyone. A few enormous panels allow Fenris' size to be fully captured. Hati is an adorable and very lifelike young dog, even with the fire breath. And the general tone is one of lightness and constant motion. The story never really takes a breath, and so the art rolls along with it, everyone always moving, even during scenes of conversation. Hilde telling Volstagg about what's going down could easily have been a series of talking heads, but instead it is a highly animated scene of sandwich-making, collar-grabbing, and similar exaggerated action. This perpetual mobility in the images helps maintain the bouncy pace of the narrative, and amplifies the humor as well.
     An unexpected break from the darker and more violent issues that came before, Journey Into Mystery #651 is a deeply impressive and entertaining read. While Immomen has always had a lot of fun on this title, this was the first time she really cut loose and delivered a script that reads like an episode of an Asgardian sitcom. Based on this, I'd watch that show repeatedly, and though I know this isn't going to be the norm for this book moving forward, I hope it takes the time to do this again, even occasionally, in the future. But whether or not that happens, I'll always have this wonderful, highly re-readable issue.

Pull List Review: The Answer! #4

This would have been a much better issue if it wasn't supposed to be the last of a series. I get the feeling Dennis Hopeless and Mike Norton wanted more space to tell this story, and certainly the ending indicates that they have hopes for either a sequel or an ongoing series to follow this. But because there's no promise that'll happen, this issue is forced to try and bring things to a conclusion, and the results are jumbled at best.
     There's an awful lot of dismissive half-explanations and people saying something "doesn't matter" when, in fact, it totally matters. Chip, presumably the main villain, shows up out of nowhere to info dump on Devin, the protagonist. But what he tells Devin is confusing, half-finished, and undoes a lot of the preceding story. Turns out the Brain Trust that recruited Devin isn't even real, although I'm not sure what that means since obviously there are a bunch of real people there who are really working on things and taking weird mind-enhancing drugs and so on. In some convoluted way, though, the Brain Trust is just a branch of or front for Chip's Apeiron, an evil organization devoted, according to Chip, to specifically hunting down Devin. Why would they care so much about one individual, you ask? Because of some ridiculous backstory tying her to Chip from years ago that gets inserted into the narrative quite forcibly. When she was eight, Devin accidentally unlocked the secret to some magical equation that opens a rift in existence leading...somewhere. Chip witnessed Devin's inadvertent discovery way back when, and has been hunting her ever since to try and get her to do it again. In his delusional mind, entering the rift will grant him power or a new life or...something. I'm not 100% sure what he thinks it will accomplish, honestly, because as unnaturally expository as most of his dialogue is, it still doesn't supply a lot of concrete information.
     We do finally see the face of The Answer's ally, Jay, only to learn that he, too, is involved in this adventure because of what Devin did as a child. Jay was the only person other than Chip to witness it, and just as Chip's been tracking Devin down, Jay's been protecting her in the years that followed. Which is alright as far as it goes, but also makes Jay kind of creepy, something Devin even points out, understandably disturbed by the notion of someone secretly watching her for her entire life. What Jay cannot do is answer any of the innumerable questions about The Answer, such as who he is or how he comes back from the dead so quickly. Which means that the title freaking character, who's name is literally The Answer, remains as mysterious as he was when he first saw him.
     Maybe that's the point? "Haha, his name is The Answer but we don't answer anything about him." And I'm down with that, whether it's intentional or not. He's an enigma with an ironic name, and keeping his identity and powers obscured is arguably the best and biggest joke of the series. But it would feel like a stronger decision if the rest of the story had stuck the landing. With all the rushed and incomplete wrap-up work that fills this issue, ignoring The Answer just comes across as unavoidable. They didn't even have space to conclude the plot satisfactorily, so how could they be expected to explain every character?
     There are some clear pacing problems, too. The dramatic climax comes at just the right moment, where Devin reopens the rift and The Answer has his showdown with Chip, and there is a natural wind down afterward when Devin meets Jay. But then the very last scene is a jarring second action sequence where Devin's library is blown up, a team of heavily-armed dudes shows up to nab her again, and she and The Answer handily defeat them. I can see that the idea here is to show Devin coming into her own, using her new-found rift-opening abilities actively to defend herself against those who would use her for evil. Which is a great thing for her to do...if I'm ever going to see her again. I mean, it's not a terrible or illogical place to have her character end up at the close of this mini-series either, but it reads much more like the end of an arc that will launch into the next one than a true finale. Devin, Jay, and The Answer are fully a team now that Devin knows who's after her and (to some extent) why, so now it's time for them to have their next adventure, right? Certainly that seems to be what Hopeless and Norton have in mind, and I'm rooting for them to get their wish, but I would've preferred it if they'd still treated this issue as the last. There are just way too many questions remaining, mysteries half-solved and loose ends dangling freely. This is not, by any stretch, a bad comic, but it is a weak and rushed last issue.
     Norton still brings it on the art, though, which has been a strength of the title all along. When Chip has Devin visualize herself battling a giant squid, Norton renders the animal in all its terrifying enormity. The library explosion looks great, and I got a damn good chuckle out of The Answer jumping a motorcycle through the smoke while machine-gunning a bunch of the baddies. And though plot details were confusing, none of the action ever was. Norton is a mighty fine visual storyteller, and not one shred of that is lost here, even if the story itself wasn't up to snuff. Most importantly, Devin was perfect on every page as always, her bravery and intelligence coming through powerfully in the art, starting with the very first page, which is a splash of a close-up on her face. She's the real reason to read this book, and Norton appreciates that fact and gives her the appropriate level of detail and depth.
     I liked this series a lot, and I want to see more of it. I want to have my questions answered and have the answers I've been given clarified. I want to spend more time with Devin and The Answer both, either together or separately. And so, I suppose inasmuch as it left me wanting more, this issue was a success. But it was not successful in providing any sense of closure to the story it told.

Wednesday, April 24, 2013

Dirty Dozen: Harbinger

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

1. I have said this before and, no doubt, I'll say it again, but the biggest and most obvious strength of Harbinger is how naturally Joshua Dysart writes the numerous teenage characters. Not every line is exactly "realistic" or "accurate" in terms of how a typical modern teenager might talk, but then again, what is a "typical" modern teenager, and are these kids even supposed to fit that description? Regardless, on the whole they feel like believable and, above all else, consistent characters, each of them damaged but still young enough to possibly heal their larger wounds and grow into more stable, put-together, productive people. Yet that hope for a brighter future is constantly interrupted by the overwhelming and incredibly adult situations in which they find (or insert) themselves. And that, too, is reflected in their voices, the strain and insanity of their new lives affecting each of them in numerous ways, both obvious and more subtle, as the story rolls along.

2. In the debut issue, when we see 18-year-old Harada, we first learn where and when the scene takes place, and only then do we get his name and age. Immediately afterward, we meet Peter at 18, but the information comes in reverse order: first his name and age, then the time and place. This is indicative of their entire dynamic. Harada is a big-picture, long-term thinker, and Peter cares only about keeping himself and the people he cares about safe and alive from day to day. This difference is demonstrated more overtly when they talk in issue #3. Peter sees how luxurious his quarters at the Harbinger Foundation are, and says that way of living looks lonely. He than expands upon this sense of loneliness by looking at the view of Pittsburgh from his room and musing on the fact that, of all the people down there, he only knows Kris and Joe. Harada responds by asking Peter what he sees when he looks at the city, which Peter has essentially just answered, but it doesn't matter, because Harada doesn't want to hear the answer, anyway. What he wants is to give his own answer, but deliver it in second person, to try and sway Peter to his way of thinking. And Harada's answer is all struggle-for-survival rhetoric, humanity competing against itself and needing a new direction that he will provide and so on. These two men aren't even having the same conversation, and this disconnect between them is why they're perfect rivals.

3. I could take or leave the Bleeding Monk, who is a pretty archetypal cryptic old man with knowledge of the future who plays both sides and/or fights for a side all his own. On the whole he doesn't excite me much. But man, that gangster stroll on the final page of issue #5 is delectable.

4. It definitely moves quickly. Kris is introduced, raped through mind control, and released, causing a massive and understandable emotional breakdown, all in the space of two issues in which she is a relatively minor player. Joe's dead by issue #4, in spite of being one of the primary characters up to that point. His presence lingers much longer, but still, that's a fairly short run. I mean, Peter's entire journey from ignorant runaway to student at the Harbinger Foundation to knowledgeable runaway only takes five issues, and I think in a lot of other books with a lot of other writers, it would've been two if not three full arcs. One for him to get off the street, one to realize that Harada is really a villain, and a third to fight back and break out. I do think that the latter half of the series drags a bit, because not all of the Renegades need an entire issue devoted to their introductions. Charlene and Torkelson probably could've been recruited in a single issue wihtout too much being lost, at the very least. Plus the zero issue doesn't provide much new information or plot advancement (though it does serve its purpose), and issue #11, the most recent and the first of several tie-ins to the Harbinger Wars crossover, is more filler than meat. So lately the pace has slowed, but it still has a healthy clip compared to any number of more decompressed titles out there. For me, this is a positive, but I suppose others might make the same point as a criticism, and that's fair enough. Sometimes rapidity can mean glossing over or entirely ignoring important information, but this is such a character-based series, the plot is easy to follow even when it zips ahead. And the characters are all either running from or trying to catch one another, so the relentless forward momentum is appropriate and often necessary.

5. Tull is a more interesting antagonist than Harada. Where Harada is a mishmash of cliched villain tropes pushed to logical extremes, Tull is very much specific to this particular title and some of its unifying central themes. I can't count how many Special Victims Unit episodes are based on the idea of a bad guy who, like Harada, has a great public image, and that's just one crime procedural. And certainly world domination, even under the pretense of altruism and improvement, is not an original motive for a supervillain. His views on psiots are the same as Magneto's on mutants, and his calm and serenity in the face of all obstacles is reminiscent of Watchmen's Ozymandias. But that's fine, those are great characters, and the specific blend of familiar elements that make up Harada is unique. But Tull, though many aspects of his character are just as well-worn, also has a singular attachment to this series that I just don't feel with Harada. Because Tull's mind is wiped by Peter regularly, he loses himself. He has no memory of hunting Peter in the past, and no real desire to do so now, only keeping it up because he's told it is his job. How much damage invading another person's mind can do and the moral implications of it are both ideas Harbinger explores regularly, and Tull is a walking argument against meddling too much or too often. He is a warning against what could come, and a demonstration of how much power Peter (and presumably other psiot characters) actually has. With an only slightly modified power set and goal, Harada would fit in a lot of books; Tull's only home is Harbinger. His last appearance made it seem like he was doomed to die, and that may be, but I suspect we'll see him again. He's too bound to the core of the series for me to believe he's really gone.

6. Kris is the best character, and her issue (#6) is the best as well. One of the things I most like about her is I feel like Peter could die and she'd step up and keep his mission going, but she also has potential, down the line, to replace Harada as the main villain. There's a definite darkness inside of her, and it leads to a certain unhingedness in her personality. Add to that how badly Peter messes her up at the beginning of the series and the fact that she is one of the only non-powered members of the cast, and it's easy to see her going through some pretty transformative shit and coming out the other side as evil. Not that I expect it, I just see her as the Renegade most likely to turn. But what Kris is best for is her humor. "Even if I kill you for what you've done to me... I'm still just giving you what you want?" That's hilarious, and hilariously bleak, which is the heart of Kris' sensibility. She understands, maybe better than any of her allies, how much trouble they've all gotten themselves into and how dangerous their future promises to be. But she manages to stay intelligent, sassy, alert, and smirking through it all, and finds the levity in their lives wherever it exists.

7. Having Joe's last words to Peter be, "You're the most terrifying person I've ever known" is easily the darkest, most tragic thing Harbigner has done.

8. There has been a definite lack of regularity in terms of artists from the beginning, with Khari Evans contributing the most, but even then having only a handful of issues on which he's the only penciler. Yet there is nevertheless a certain level consistency to the style, speaking, I guess, to editorial skill when it comes to picking similar artists. I wouldn't call it realism, but it's definitely more realistic than not, with detailed backgrounds and moody character expressions. Yet the art always manages to embrace the superpowered elements, too, blasts of electricity and glowing eyes and widespread wreckage and the like. None of that ever feels out of place, because all the artists make the rest of their pages just exaggerated enough so that the fantastical moments can cut loose without clashing. Which is all well and good, but there's still a lot of fluctuation when it comes to the finer details, and I would like a more unified visual identity for the book, because even if the ever-changing art team handles things satisfactorily, right now this is a title very much defined and distinguished by its narrative alone. The visuals get the job done, but they're never a draw, because there's no way of knowing quite what to expect from each new issue.

9. Peter is a hero where Harada is a villain because Peter can admit his flaws and shortcomings, and does so regularly, beating himself up over any and every mistake and always struggling to learn from them and better himself. Harada refuses to acknowledge his own personality defects, and that's why there is so much difference of opinion and even dissent amongst his ranks. It's hubris, baby, and it'll be what undoes him someday.

10. Faith is amazing, Charlene is growing on me, and Torkelson's sort of a pain in the ass but I get it. It's important to have Faith on the team because she is the only non-cynic, a true believer. Charlene's history was way too trite for me, but after her intro issue was over I grew to like her quite a bit. She interacts well with each of the other kids, and she's really the only one of them who can. As for Torkelson...he's repetitive and obnoxious, but as Kris says, it's sort of like dealing with a rescued puppy. Literally everything he is experiencing is brand new for him, and he's understandably emotionally stunted to begin with from spending his life confined to a bed in a trailer. He grates on me now, but I'm empathetic to his struggle, and I look forward to (hopefully) seeing him grow.

11. Darpan's on a slow burn, by which I mean we've seen disappointingly little of him so far even though he seems slated to be a pretty big deal before this saga concludes. He obviously has a special place in Harada's black heart, and there MUST be significance to he and Peter being two of three known psiots who were born activated. Also I just like him, have from the beginning. He's a bit simple, but it stands to reason, since everything in his life has been controlled by Harada. All Darpan knows is the Harbinger Foundation. It gave him a home and a purpose and an understanding of his abilities, so he is ever grateful and obedient. He also seems largely unaware of how devastating his powers are. I think he knows that he is the cause, but just has no real moral compass to tell him that forcing others to relive the worst moments of their lives is a terrible thing to do. He's one of the story's biggest threats, but he doesn't know it and likely wouldn't care one way or the other, and that is a nuanced role I want to see expanded rather than set aside.

12. Peter is not easy to like. He fucks up constantly, he wallows, he's got anger and control problems, etc. But he cuts through the bullshit more quickly and efficiently than anyone, even Kris, and ultimately that's why he's the star. Not just his power level but also his point of view make him singularly equipped to push back against Harada.

Tuesday, April 23, 2013

The Cheese Stands Alone: Deathlok #11

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

Most of the time, a successful standalone issue requires a narrowed focus and tightened pacing. With only 20-30 pages in which to tell a complete story, there's not a lot of room for enormous action sequences or too many different ideas, be they new or old or both. It's about zeroing in on a character or concept for the length of an issue and filling in the details. In Deathlok #11, Dwayne McDuffie goes the opposite route, cramming into a single issue enough new material for a much longer arc, on top of reexplaining the core concept of the series' protagonist and anchoring the whole thing with an extended fight scene against a giant robot. And while are there sections where I think this story might actually have benefited from some decompression, it is a well-done one-shot with just enough ambition to be impressively full without bursting at the seams.
     The issue begins confusingly by design, not exactly in medias res but not properly at the beginning of the story, either. An unknown and unnamed character in a strange robotic suit of armor narrates as he breaks into "the main complex of Magnum Munitions." His reasons for doing so are ignored for the time being so that the details of both the complex's defense systems and the trespasser's suit can be explained. It makes for a fun and rich heist/action scene with very little background information but a lot of present-tense info and personality. The whys and wherefores can be filled in later; for now McDuffie wants the reader to have questions, to be hooked by the confusion itself. From there, he begins to rather quickly provide answers, keeping the audience engaged by satisfying the initial curiosities while at the same time promising bigger, more death-defying action to come. And, just in case this is anyone's first time with the title, there is a retelling of Deathlok's origin story, as well as a new character introduced (or, more accurately, an old character repurposed) to be a sort of inverse or mirrored version of that story.
     Deathlok is the brain of pacifistic scientist Michael Collins implanted into the body of a cyborg killing machine. Collins' mind was stolen for this purpose by Cybertek, the company he worked for, when he discovered what they were up to with the Deathlok program. Able to overcome Deathlok's central programming with the strength of his mental resolve, Collins refused to kill for Cybertek, and fought against them until the company went under. Now, he works to keep their tech out of evil hands while seeking his original body so his brain can be returned to its proper home. He is pulled into the robbery at Magnum Munitions because they are the current owners of Cybertek's work, and it is Cybertek information that the unknown armored thief takes in the issue's opening scene. Deathlok's computer brain, which acts as a sort of second, uncontrollable internal monologue for the character, alerts him to the developing situation, and so the grumpy anti-hero sets out to ensure that Cybertek technology is not misused again.
     However, what Deathlok finds isn't some maniacal criminal bent on usurping Cybertek's work to meet maleficent ends. On the contrary, the thief is High-Tech, real name Curtis Carr, a reformed supervillain-turned-legitimate-scientist who wants to develop more advanced prosthetics with the stolen information. This goal lines up quite nicely with the work Collins did before his brain was taken from him, so rather than battle Carr or try to retrieve what he took, Deathlok decides to defend him against the inevitable retribution from Magnum.
     And it's one hell of a retribution, too. The Terrordome is like a gigantic, flying, robotic jellyfish covered in guns that is sent after Carr with every intention of killing him once it gets back everything he stole. Piloted by Mr. Lawson, the man who Carr violently incapacitated during the initial heist, the Terrordome bursts right through the wall at Stark Prosthetics (where Carr works) and the fight which ensues makes up most of the issue's third act. Deathlok wins the day without too terribly much difficulty, becuase by the time Terrordome shows up there isn't really space left to have the good guys be on the ropes for very long. But it's still a lot of fun, with some choice explosions and consistently clear action and tons of Deathlok responding snarkily to the warnings his computer brain gives him. This closing combat alone is entertaining and bombastic enough to make Deathlok #11 a worthwhile read, even if it's just a straightforward shootout between mechanical warriors of different shapes and sizes. But a well-crafted fight scene alone won't make a single issue stand out. It is the work McDuffie does leading up to the finale battle that really fleshes out this story and helps it leave a longer-lasting impression on its readers.
     Deathlok and High-Tech have interestingly similar yet significantly distinct origin stories. Michael Collins was a good man trying to help the world who was pushed into the role of violent vigilante by external forces. He now uses a body designed for war and murder to instead protect others. Curtis Carr, on the other hand, started out as the villain Chemistro, and it was only after an accident claimed one of his legs that he had a change of heart and began working in prosthetics. Even then, he relies on illegal methods to further his research, building the High-Tech suit specifically to steal from Magnum Munitions. So while they begin on opposite ends of the morality spectrum, ultimately they land in similar realms, each of them using robotic bodies to try and do good, but with methods that are questionable at best. Yes, Deathlok uses a "no-killing parameter" to keep himself in check, but he's still toting massive firearms and engaging in fights that endanger innocent lives. And while Carr's day-to-day work is clearly noble and important, it does not necessarily justify trespassing, theft, and assault.
     Both men are aware of the gray areas they slide into, and they understand and even respect one another because of that. Deahtlok has no problem with ripping off corporations like Cybertek and Magnum if it means creating something helpful/healing instead of just more advanced weaponry. And Carr certainly isn't going to turn down assistance from a battle-ready cyborg who also has scientific knowledge that can assist him in his prosthetics work. So after a brief, obligatory clash between the two men when they first meet (which ends in Deathlok absolutely demolishing the High-Tech armor), they learn each other's backgrounds and decide to work together for as long as they have before the Terrordome attacks. This decision is reached somewhat hurriedly, McDuffie giving Carr a single page to tell his story and Deathlok only half that. But the obvious parallels in their histories and hopes for the future make them naturally fast allies, and McDuffie takes the time to return to Deathlok's internal monologue once the two of them get to work so the reader can understand how gratifying it is for him to participate in something other than violence. And it's not as if the brevity of the origin tales detracts from them or makes them harder to understand. They are exactly as detailed as needed to get the information across and provide insight into each of the characters' personalities. And they're about as detailed as anyone could be expected to be when relating a summary of their entire life to a stranger with whom they'd just finished fighting.
     McDuffie's script is oddly structured, but always in the service of telling a complete story while maintaining a certain level of action and fun. The beginning is confounding but fast-paced, skipping over the unimportant beats to get to the meat of Carr breaking in and then breaking back out. It's a smart hook, giving the reader something exciting right at the top that raises enough questions to carry them through the rest of the narrative. Then the middle gets even faster, to the point of feeling almost rushed, with Deathlok going after Carr, the birth of their friendship, and their subsequent collaboration all being squeezed into a handful of pages. Yet upon close examination, one can find in those pages a deliberate exploration of what makes Deathlok who he is as a man, a cyborg, and a reluctant hero, all through the lens of his interactions with Carr. Finally, we get the high-octane resolution, a typical but stimulating fight where the bad guys have more firepower but the good guys beat 'em anyway. It's a predictable ending, perhaps, but still a blast. Terrordome gets more than its share of good shots in, but Deathlok's never really down, and it's refreshing in a way to watch the hero achieve victory without first being put through the ringer.
     If your script is going to race to the finish line, you'd better hope the art can keep up, and overall I think it does so deftly here. Denys Cowan provides the pencils for the issue, inked by Mike Manley with colors from Gregory Wright. The art is smartly done, with generally looser lines to fit the looser story. That style also helps to underline Deathlok's human side, and the human elements of the issue as a whole, rather than playing up the robotic aspects. When Terrordome shows up, there is a real sense of motion to each of its dangling metal limbs, and that adds tremendously to the effectiveness of the fight scene that follows. What Cowan and Manley's linework does best, though, is to bring out Deathlok's personality. His gruffness and sarcasm are beefed up by his detailed-yet-rough expressions, as are the underlying sadness and loneliness that drive him. Not just a tough guy cyborg action hero, Deathlok is also a broken man trying to reassemble himself, and both of those sides of his character are given equal weight by the art.
     Wright's coloring is never spectacular, though it certainly never messes up any of the visuals, either. There is one page where he makes his mark more definitively, though, when Deathlok is relating his history to Carr. Wright does the flashback sequence in a wash of pale blue, which not only helps distinguish it from the present-tense action on the second half of the page, but also deepens the sadness and hopelessness of the scene itself. It is a story of a good man made worse by an evil corporation, suddenly and perhaps permanently, so highlighting the dismal nature of that tale is a strong and intelligent choice. None of the rest of the issue is quite so soft or dark, which means the main character's origin is particularly noticeable and memorable. A good move for a standalone issue, especially.
      I have to assume that letterer Ken Lopez provides the many sound effects found in this issue, though I suppose it's always possible they were a part of Cowan's original artwork. Whoever is responsible, the effects add a lot of energy and life to the story. They are used rather often, arguably too often, and in a different title or with a different story they might feel overpowering. But because of the breakneck speed of this narrative and the extended action sequence that wraps it up, having bold and attention-grabbing sounds fits perfectly with the overall feel. They amp up the fights, match the rough and ragged style of the pencils, and help to fill the few empty spaces in a jam-packed issue.
     McDuffie, Cowan, and crew approach this one-off a bit strangely, setting things up quickly so that the final fight can have all the room it needs to be as big and badass as it wants. But they're careful not to omit any necessary pieces; they maintain clarity and even reintroduce the series' central character just in case. It may not be as tightly crafted as other standalone issues, but it's certainly as much fun and as complete as any of them. Two strong action scenes, exploration and development of the protagonist, a full narrative (there is a cliffhanger ending but it comes in the epilogue and isn't really a threat for the immediate future), and a surprising amount of humor and heart. It may not be the perfect issue, but it leaves little to be desired, either, hitting all the beats it needs to for the story it wants to tell, and having a damn good time doing it.

Friday, April 19, 2013

Pull List Review: The Black Beetle: No Way Out #3

Surprise, surprise, this comic looks amazing. Francesco Francavilla is pouring himself into this series, and every page glows. The visual highlight is easily the fistfight Black Beetle has with a trio of thugs in an alleyway, where the action is so big and bold that the pages literally cannot contain all of it. So the sound effects are in panels that get cut off by the borders of the comicbook itself, while the carefully choreographed combat takes center stage and always looks incredibly fluid and bold. Right before that fight begins, there is a page that does sort of the opposite thing, breaking two static images up into a number of panels. It is the tense calm before the storm, where every second feels like a minute, and then when the tension breaks it bursts wide open, spilling out beyond the edges of the world in which it's contained.
     The very opening page is also intelligently laid out, a grid of tiny panels with musical notes running underneath, showing us a series of stolen moments from a typical lounge/club scene before the amazing two-page title card spread that follows and reveals the club in all of its atmospherically-lit glory. It is a strong opening beat that pulls you right in with its details and warmth, both of which are maintained right until the end of the issue. Perhaps the most notable example other than the very beginning is when Black Beetle is standing in the Colt City medical examiner's office. The eerie lighting of the room and rich, realistic anatomical pictures put the reader on edge while simultaneously welcoming them in. That whole scene, actually, has that effect, getting under your skin but also daring you to look away. It all builds up to the exciting final splash of Black Beetle tearing off in his car, a huge, block-lettered VROOM effect trailing on the road behind his vehicle. It serves as both the issue's final beat and an excellent standalone image of the character, capturing his sense of adventure and pulp look exactly.
     On the story side of things, The Black Beetle: No Way Out #3 is a bitter lighter than the previous chapters have been. There is basically only a single plot point introduced in this issue, the fact that one of the supposedly dead criminals from issue #1 is, in fact, still alive and in hiding. This is a significant detail, and sets everything up for what will become the final confrontation next time, but it is such a simple and straightforward truth, discovered in an equally simple manner, that when I hit that amazing final page I was surprised I'd reached the issue's conclusion. It felt like it was only getting started, and then it ended. But this is the penultimate installment of the mini-series, so having me anxious to see the resolution is probably exactly what it wants to accomplish. In that regard, I guess the pacing of this issue is a success, but I still would've liked a bit more narrative meat.
     Instead of filling in the plot, Francavilla takes some time to lean into the tropes of the genre he's emulating, and that he does quite well. Black Beetle makes an "easy way or hard way" offer to the thugs before he beats them up. There's a somewhat cliched sultry lounge singer in the beginning that he flirts with. Even the notion of a villain faking his death is a well-worn idea. I go back and forth on whether or not Francavilla is relying too heavily on these immediately recognizable details, but ultimately I think that if you want to do an homage to an entire era/style of storytelling, you may as well go big or go home. Francavilla ain't going home, and I wouldn't want him to.
     So perhaps airier than usual, but no less artistically stunning, easy to follow, or fun. And even if the script was on the fluffy side, it left me eager to see the story's conclusion, wishing I was racing toward it with the same speed as our protagonist on the closing page. A consistently triumphant book continues to impress.

Pull List Review: X-Factor #254

I love Tier. He's a bit predictable, maybe, but he's also a kid in the middle of a fight between immortals, so I can understand his being overwhelmed by a few especially strong emotions. Fear, confusion, anxiety, shame, and above all a desire to see this whole mess end. Unfortunately, I am starting to wish the same thing, because aside from some strong characterization for Tier, X-Factor #254 falls flat and fully deflates what was already a not-so-amazing story arc.
     The Hell Lords fighting each other makes up six whole pages of material, and all of it feels like boring filler. When they "kill" each other, there isn't any actual death, just a gaining of power over one another. Worse, though, is that we've been given no reason to care one way or the other who wins their little struggle. They are all evil gods, so pick one and get on with it, because everyone else is damned no matter what. Except, of course, this takes place in a shared universe, so even the havoc wreaked by the Hell Lords fighting is bound to be undone by the time the story ends, which lowers the stakes even further. Don't get me wrong, I am pulling for Marvel allowing Peter David to genuinely and permanently destroy Times Square in his peculiar little X-book, but that just isn't how it's done. There's likely a reset of some kind on the horizon.
     There are hiccups in the rest of the script, too. Shatterstar insists there is no time to talk about Tier's reluctance to kill, and teleports the team away before Rahne can respond. But then the next thing they do is have that very conversation, now standing in the middle of a recently-demolished Times Square. Why would arriving there lessen the urgency of what they're doing? I guess the idea is a new location means they aren't so likely to be found, or something along those lines, because Polaris says she doesn't think it's safe to stay where they are. But if that's the case, it's unclear. And the final beat is not a natural stopping point; I honestly did not realized I'd reached the end until I turned the page and saw the ad for next issue. It feels like it needed one more scene, or even one more page of the scene it ended on. Instead we get Monet and Guido up in the air, mere seconds away from somebody landing the first blow, and dialogue that's way too long to be delivered in such a short amount of time. Just an awkward landing, not terrible or uninteresting, but abrupt at best.
     I don't mean to give the impression that this is a terrible comicbook. Peter David at his most rushed and sloppiest still has strong dialogue, moves his story forward, and stays true to his cast. And Leonard Kirk is doing excellent work, actually adding some life to the less interesting moments. The full page of Mephisto slaying Satannish is excellent, a painful gutshot delivered with a horribly wide and satisfied grin. And I love Madrox's demon look, most of all when he leaps off of Guido's shoulder. There's actually an exorbitant amount of people diving into combat like that. Guido, Rahne, Monet, and Jezebel all do it as well. Not a complaint nor a compliment, just something I noticed that tickled me.
     Kirk also adds a lot to the great work David's doing with Tier. The opening page of him and Rahne is very touching and understated, as well as being perfectly lit by colorist Matt Milla. Tier stands out against the pale blue background even though he's still done in soft shades, because of both Kirk's careful emotional work and Milla's deliberate choices. And there are far more panels of action than not, which Kirk tackles deftly. Lots of motion to his fights, obvious progression and varied angles. Again, it adds to the duller moments and amplifies the stronger ones.
     My one gripe about the art is that Monet looks really weird on the last two pages, bulky in the body and strained in the face. I mean she's strong and furious, so it's not entirely inappropriate, but she just looked uncomfortable in her own skin, which is very much not true of the character. But it's only two pages, and even then it is just Monet---Guido looks spot on in the final splash. Kirk has always been a reliable artist for this series, and overall that doesn't change here.
     It's too bad that "Hell on Earth War" has lost any remaining steam now, because I think there are only two chapters left, so they've got a fairly steep uphill battle in front of them. It's not that X-Factor is any less entertaining, but it has become less interesting, and perhaps less sure of itself than usual. David can still write the hell out of his main lineup, and Kirk carries some serious weight, but it's not enough to raise this issue up to snuff.

Thursday, April 18, 2013

Pull List Review: Dark Avengers #189

One issue from the finish line, Jeff Parker gets to have some ludicrous fun as he prepares to bring this title to a close. What I most like about Dark Avengers is that its total isolation from the rest of the Marvel U means the stakes are relatively low, but in a way that's freeing. Because all of the bad guys are just alternate reality good guys, and the primary good guys are real-world bad guys, it's easy to avoid getting overly wrapped up in plot details and, instead, let yourself go along for a wild and entertaining ride. Not that the details are missing or contradictory or anything, but Parker embraces and celebrates how little this title "matters" by being as zany as he pleases. Tony Stark is a brain in a floating bubble living inside his Iron Man suit. The Thing wants Reed Richards dead more than anything, but refuses to do it himself because they're best friends. Dr. Strange's torso literally eats Iron Fist. It eats him.
     If there is a problem here, it's that the supposed main cast of the book mean almost nothing. Moonstone, as she has always been, is an exception. Her confident personality and leadership shine though, and she continues to be the only character whose fate concerns me. Even Skaar, while I am warming to him, could definitely get left behind in this dark world and I wouldn't miss him. The rest of the team continue to underwhelm, even though the fight they're in is highly enjoyable. They could be any collection of super-people right now, doubly true because they're teamed up with a group of heroes from another reality. There is, however, some solid work done with Ragnorok, who finally wakes up so he can tear Iron Man apart and then, briefly but effectively, expresses a lack of self-identity. It's an interesting route to take with this character, who has always been the poor man's Thor and, now, seems to want to step out of that shadow and make a name for himself. And it looks like he might get that wish when, at the end of the issue, he grabs the Mjolnir of this world's Thor and transforms into...something or someone amazing. It's possible I am meant to recognize the character he becomes, but I don't, yet I'm no less interested to see what he does next. It could've been quite the gripping final page if it wasn't punctuated by a seriously anti-climatic panel of some A.I.M. ships floating around. But one weak beat at the end doesn't ruin what is generally a good time of a superhero action frolic.
     Neil Edwards is still on pencils, and seems to be having as much fun as Parker. I especially enjoyed the stretched-to-his-limits Reed Richards, flopping around as Skaar reluctantly pummels him. The best of the issue's many brawls, though, was Ragnorok vs. Iron Man, a great contrast between a man who just regained his life and one who long ago abandoned his in favor of becoming robotic. Plus it's so gratifying to watch the most dickheaded version of Iron Man ever get torn apart like tin foil.
     I also really liked the effect of having the Dr. Strange vs. everyone and Skaar vs. Richards fights each take up half of a page, above and below one another. It allowed you to either read each page as a whole or read directly across the top line and then the bottom line as you choose, which was a cool and simple thing to do. Unfortunately, the panels had to be very small, and some clarity was lost in the Dr. Strange fight. I'm fairly certain, after reading it something like 6 times, that USAgent deflect a blast of Strange's by tossing his shield the right way after covering it in webbing. This makes the blast hit and kill Clea, so Strange wigs out, but it doesn't matter because by then Ai Apaec has had enough time to jump onto Strange's body and fill him with fatal poison. Why the shield needed webbing, though, is still unknown to me, and I'm not 100% on Strange's powers being rerouted to take out Clea. That's really just a best guess.
     But hey, that's just the top half of two pages, and even then the characters are consistent and detailed, it's just that their actions are a tad unclear. Overall, the issue is just much fun in its pictures as its words. Not the smoothest ride in the world, but no potholes too deep to get out of, either. I'll definitely miss this series when it ends next month, because even without caring that deeply about all of the characters, I love the larger story. And it feels like Parker and Edwards do, too, that they're enjoying their time in this bizarre reality. It's a playful comic hanging out beyond the borders of continuity, and the world needs more of those types of books, not less.

Pull List Review: Wonder Woman #19

About three pages into this issue, I was bored, and that boredom never stopped. So I thought about it for a few minutes, and realized that I'm generally bored with Wonder Woman right now as a series. I can remember being excited by it long ago, and I can't say for certain when I lost my interest, but it's been a while since I felt particularly invested in anything happening in this story. There are several reasons for this, each of them exemplified in their own way in this issue.
     There is the commonly-acknowledge problem of Diana's lack of personality, as well as her passivity. Now, there is a moment in this issue where it almost seems like writer Brian Azzarello could improve both of those points, but then he flubs it at the end. Orion's been overbearingly sexist and idiotic since he showed up, though, admittedly, in a way I think works and provides some solid humor at times. This time out, he makes a wisecrack or two insinuating Diana is sexually interested her half-brother Lennox, and for once she responds in appropriately dramatic fashion, by threatening to tear his genitals off. She kisses him first, to distract him, I guess, while she gets close, but it's a very long and awkward kiss that serves little purpose. But it gets brushed aside quickly when we discover her true intentions, and it's quite satisfying to have Orion finally be put in his place. It is also a flare up of activity and attitude from Wonder Woman that we rarely see in her own book, and for a page or two everything is great, with Orion making another jackass comment and getting decked in the face for it. Things get lame again quickly, though, when his reaction is to storm off and quit the little team Diana had assembled, which she silently lets him do. She looks amazed when he boom tubes away, stunned and scared and sad. Yet she makes absolutely no effort to keep him from leaving, though there is plenty of time to do or say any number of things. This is indicative of Azzarello's whole take on the character, which is basically that she can be a badass when he wants to splash some of that into his pages, but is otherwise mostly a set piece that happens to share a name with the book's title.
     She's not even in most of the issue, which is more about The First Born getting his sword back from Poseidon after they have a dull negotiation in which everyone gets exactly what they want. I mean yes, technically The First Born sacrificed a chance to invade the seas and hell, but he gets his weapon and his armies returned with no hassle so he can run off and attack the heavens. Which brings me to another thing that bores me about this title: The First Born as a character. How one-note can a villain be? And it's not even all that interesting a note, just rage rage rage against the gods. It is ceaseless and unwavering, i.e. he never changes or grows or does anything the least bit unexpected. And the pace of his progress is ridiculously slow. He's been off on this weird introductory side adventure for so long, and yet I feel no excitement at the idea of him finally being integrated into the main storyline. He hasn't hooked me yet, and he's had ample time.
     Lastly, we have the rest of the gods, who Azzarello obviously loves and finds brilliant, but come across to me as a band of kids playing grown-up and doing it badly. All the attempts at clever dialogue wind up as cutesy puns, and for their incessant talk of power, they do so very little. I can't think of anything the gods do more than hang around by the pool drinking, which accounts for multiple pages this month as well. It's the world's dullest soap opera when they're the book's focus, and just as slow-moving and one-note as any of The First Born's material. Here again, it's all about the same prophecy and capturing the same baby as it has been since the very first issue almost two years ago, now. It was a fine if not entirely original hook at the start, but it doesn't have the legs for this distance, and almost every sentence from Apollo, Dionysus, and Artemis (who really goes by Moon in this series) is the same bland "we've got to stop this kid" as always. Blander, even, than usual, because the characters themselves seem a little tired of talking about it.
     The issue looked pretty good. Tony Akins and Goran Sudžuka go well together, so the shifts in art were never jarring. I quite liked the look of the smaller catfish-squid-thing Poseidon that lives inside of his sea monster body. It complimented the larger form without copying it, and was generally very detailed and lifelike. And after Diana punches Orion his face gets super weird, like he ages suddenly or something, and again there was a lot of minute detail in the linework and loads of seething emotion coming from Orion. Nothing was ever unclear, the backgrounds were full and rich, and all the characters looked like themselves on every page. So definitely a solid book, visually. It actually seemed like the most polished work Akins has delivered on this series, since he tends to be a bit more sketchy. I don't know if it was being paired with Sudžuka specifically or just having fewer pages to do or what, but there was none of the roughness Akins sometimes brings to the table.
     But even when it was at its most beautiful, Wonder Woman #19 never grabbed my attention. It didn't even feel like it wanted my attention, except arguably during the gimmicky and absurd kiss. Yet another DC title that feels more worth abandoning every time I consider it. Azzarello is doing his thing, and doing it well. But his thing isn't doing it for me.

Thursday, April 11, 2013

Pull List Review: Archer & Armstrong #9

I haven't reviewed this book in several months, and the main reason for that is that Archer & Armstrong feels to me like one of the steadiest, most reliable books I read. Not a lot of new stuff to say. The quality never jumps up or dives down. The story and characters keep on trucking and bringing me back every issue without having yet won any wild adoration from me. The art is consistent and clear. It's not at the top of my list at all, but it's equally far from the bottom, a beautiful but not load-bearing column in the building of my comicbook collection.
     Archer & Armstrong #9 marks the end of an arc, and is a satisfying if slightly easy win for our heroes. Easy only in the sense that, in the pages of this particular issue, all we see is the good guys' have things start to swing in their direction and continue to ramp up to a victory. Right out the gate, Kay McHenry is visited by the spirits of past geomancers, which leads to her gaining a much more comprehensive understanding of her powers and the purpose of geomancers in general. So in a very sudden, off-screen moment of immense power, Kay shuts down The Null's entire plan by literally rewriting the way the world works. Then, just as suddenly, Archer's consciousness reappears within his mind and he rids himself of The Last Enemy, an agent of The Null who inhabited Archer's body at the very end of last month's issue. These rapid solutions are arguably a bit unearned, inasmuch as they amount to "my powers are good enough to win" versus them being some brilliant, last-minute tactical decision that saves the day. But these are both characters who have been struggling to identify and understand themselves since their respective introductions, so having them wrap up this storyline with moments of self-realization/actualization is actually quite fitting.
     All of our heroes get a chance to shine by fulfilling some inevitable actions. Armstrong saves his brother, finally able to fully put aside their differences. And Gilad in turn not only lets himself trust Archer but goes so far as to provide some helpful information for the boy's larger quest (i.e. setting up the next arc). Fred Van Lente has been constructing a very clear narrative with constant forward momentum, and so when it finally arrives at its destination here, nothing is necessarily surprising, but it's all logical and right and good. Everyone is where we want them to be, and where they want to be, at least on the heroic side of the equation. And in the final scene, Van Lente lets us in on a secret about the current status of some of the series' best baddies, too. It's a well-done final chapter, leaving many doors open for the immediate and distant future, but landing in a place of closure, too.
     It's also a heck of a lot of fun, even though there aren't necessarily as many jokes and jests as usual. There's just a general lightness in the air, bolstered immensely by Emanuela Lupacchino's art. She is an excellent choice for this series because her style lies somewhere between classic superhero and goofy kid's show. Everyone is exaggerated, but the world around them isn't, and even the characters aren't wildly unrealistic in their appearance. It's more the expressions and the action that become larger-than-life. Yet the fights are never needlessly, excessively gory or brutal, so even the violence has a sense of fun about it, or at any rate an energy that keeps the fun alive. When Archer mentally thwarts The Last Enemy, he has a self-confidence that borders on smugness, and the same is true of Kay when she finally reaches her full potential. Having the characters actually enjoy themselves, even in their most serious and high-stakes moments, is a big part of what makes this title work. The Last Enemy smirks right up until the moment of his defeat. Armstrong basically refuses to ever take anything seriously, shouting "Crappity-crap!"when he's nearly blown up. The characters are having a blast, and it creates the strong sense that the creators are, too. Which naturally translates to the reader joining in.

Pull List Review: Threshold #4

Unsurprisingly, when the competition/reality show facet of "The Hunted" is put on the back burner so a few members of the massive cast can be focused on more sharply, Threshold improves significantly. Even with the cliffhanger ending being spoiled by both the cover and the opening scene, Keith Giffen's script was able to interest and surprise me. Jediah Caul and K'Rot were both characters with glaring flaws before now, but here they are not only likable individually but have a strange and enjoyable chemistry between them that's the first example of such a character connection "The Hunted" has ever offered. Actually, I suppose there's a glimmer of a similar thing in the brief scene between Stealth and Ember. I've never felt attached to any of these characters, and suddenly I find myself interested in the futures of all four of them.
     The breakout star of this issue, though, is the robotic cleaning lady of Bleeding Adonis (who I think remains unnamed...if she has a name I did not catch it, but it matters very little). The premise is that she has the personality/memories of the ex-wife of the man who built her, which Giffen not only mines for several strong jokes, but actually incorporates into a major plot point. When Caul and K'Rot are cornered by a massive group of guards, the robot lady valiantly and explosively sacrifices herself to clear their path. And her only reason for saving them is because he ex-husband/creator told her not to. It's hilarious, intelligent, and even a bit poignant.
     Bleeding Adonis is also a lot of fun as the villain, because he so steadfastly refuses to let himself be rattled or even show the tiniest sign of being upset until the moment he is being physically attacked. And even then, when Brainiac pulls Bleeding Adonis' house and all the people in it into one of his bottle cities, Adonis speaks very calmly and matter-of-factly about what a drag it is. There's strong, understated humor like this all over the place, far preferable to the forced and hamfisted sarcasm of the preceding issues. By setting aside the concept of these characters being members of a city-wide televised hunt and boiling the plot down to a more direct, simplistic heist story, Giffen is able to flesh out these characters and slow down his jokes and generally just take his time in a way he hasn't up to now. I hope this is indicative of the future of this series, because based on what's here, I might actually want to follow along.
     There's still the problem of Phil Winslade and Tom Raney clashing so dramatically in their artistic styles. Winslade's work is too shifty and undetailed, feeling unfinished even though I'm sure it's not. Compared to Raney's work, every member of the cast is far less expressive or interesting, K'Rot most of all, who doesn't come to life for me until Raney takes over halfway through. I did enjoy the two-page splash Winslade drew on pages 2 and 3 of a destructive Brainiac attack, but from then on he was forced to draw actual living people, and he's just not very good at it. Look at Stealth when she jumps at Ember. It's so unnatural looking, with Stealth floating inexplicably in the air. There's no motion to it, and the ultimate effect is that Stealth appears to be suddenly floating, rather than jumping out as she is meant to be. So Raney is very much the stronger of the two artists, but the real problem is just that they are so dissimilar it's distracting and frustrating.
     The "Larfleeze" back-up continues to be the real reason to read Threshold at all, though. After next month, Larfleeze is getting his own title, so there's a pretty strong chance I'll be dropping Threshold then. Giffen feels like he was born to write this character. Larfleeze could and maybe even should be the Jar Jar Binks of the DCU, but instead Giffen makes him into a viable star with serious lasting potential. There are two moments I would point to in this particular ten-page stretch: 1.When Stargraves tells Larfleeze that the orange energy constructs are about to steal his butler, the very notion of being stolen from gives Larfleeze the power boost he needs to defeat them, and 2. When Rancor says Larfleeze still has all of his stuff, it is actually a comforting thought, because better for Larfleeze to misplace all of his possessions than actually lose them to someone else. These are jokes, yes, but they also get at the heart of the character, taking the idea of avarice made flesh and displaying how rich it can be. Larfleeze runs the risk of being a one-dimensional buffoon, but Giffen is exploring all the facets of greed, and the addition of Stargraves as someone who understand Larfleeze enough to effectively communicate with and even sometimes manipulate him is a brilliant move.
     Scott Kolins is just as perfect a choice for artist as Giffen is for writer. I've praised Kolins' work on this book before, and it all still stands. It is funny overall but with just enough of an edge to get scary when needed. There's a powerful sense of fun infused into every page, most starkly the almost-full-page panel of Larfleeze hugging Stargraves too tightly and saying, "Mine." In ten pages, Kolins delivers many more impressive panels than there are to be found in the whole of the 20-page primary "The Hunted" storyline.
     A big step up from "The Hunted" and continued excellence (if not even a half-step of improvement) from "Larfleeze". For the first time, I feel zero regret about the four dollars spent on Threshold.

Pull List Review: Fearless Defenders #3

Before this issue, I'm not sure I could have accurately summarized the plot of this opening arc of Fearless Defenders. The concept was clear: Valkyrie assembles a new team of valkyrior made up of various Marvel superheroines. But the details of the threat this team is meant to battle against were a bit hazy for me, because the opening two issues were just too scattered/unfocused for me to sink my teeth into the story. Here, Writer Cullen Bunn takes considerably more care to ensure that everything is clear and understandable, and the result is a comicbook I found much easier to follow.
     The other aspect of this title that seems to have finally fully clicked three issues in is the voices of the cast. Not that they all sounded the same before, but in this issue everyone was a bit more nuanced and fleshed out in terms of their personalities. They felt like a team. A new team, to be sure, still grating each other's nerves and learning each other's skills, but nevertheless a cohesive band of distinct individuals with their own viewpoints and attitudes toward a shared goal. Hippolyta may be the least three-dimensional, but she is also the funniest, so I can forgive some flatness in exchange for jokes. I feel similarly about new character Annabelle Riggs, whose role is mostly just to say that she doesn't belong on the team, but in a mostly endearing and humorous way. There's a strong sense of humor throughout the issue, actually, and it is yet another element of the series that seemed absent or at least weaker in the earlier installments.
     Sadly, even though Bunn is finally on point with much of his script, there are still some areas that need improvement. The largest of these is primary antagonist Caroline Le Fay, who is about as generic a bad guy as I've ever seen. Her speeches are overly expository and entirely uninspired, to the point where she herself seems disinterested in them. The goal of destroying the world is extremely tired and trite, and her reasons for being so evil and crazy thus far amount to the fact that she was beaten as a child. Yeah, Caroline, so were innumerable other character in innumerable other stories, so give me a reason to give a shit or shut the hell up. Does she even ever stand up in this issue? Certainly she spends most of her time seated which, again, makes it seem like she herself is unenthusiastic about what's going on. The Doom Maidens that Caroline and her people raise are somewhat interesting, but still not original enough conceptually for me to be all that invested. And without a fresher main villain to back them up, they fall that much flatter.
     Really, I think my problem with Fearless Defenders is that it feels like the world's most generic superhero book, but with women. If our world were run by women instead of men, we would have seen this series done a thousand times over, probably in both significantly worse and better ways. Of course, we don't live in that world, so I give some credit to Marvel, Bunn, and artist Will Sliney for simply producing an all-female title, but...it should still be something more. Thus far, it has only barely achieved the status of dull, run-of-the-mill cape comic with ladies on both sides of the conflict. If nothing sets it apart other than the gender of the characters, it isn't doing enough.
     Sliney, at least, reins in the T&A this issue. He still can't draw breasts without them looking inflated and stiff and weird, but at least there are no angles in this issue overtly designed to draw attention to the ladies' anatomy. His designs for the Doom Maiden costumes---I am assuming these are new villains? If not, and someone else designed them, apologies---are definitely more bathing suit than battle armor, but again, he does not call direct attention to that fact, and the women inside the outfits are by no means sexy. So significantly less objectification this month than we've seen in the past from Sliney, though I'm not entirely sure that's even a compliment. "Good job, man! You were hardly sexist at all!"
     Sliney's art is otherwise just fine, boiler plate superhero stuff in the same vein as Bunn's script. At least they match in that respect, and Sliney does everything just right. Solid layouts that also vary, strong and clear action sequences, and a strong sense of who each of the characters are. Though, just as she is in the script, Le Fay looks far less finished and detailed and...alive than the heroes of the story. Otherwise, though, all the valkyrior and all the Doom Maidens are distinct and unique and immediately recognizable on every page, which feels like common sense but is not something you always get in a team book. So props to Sliney for what is overall an easy-to-read style of visual storytelling. It may not dazzle, but it never deeply disappoints.
     Three issues is typically the first mark where I reexamine a title I am following and decide whether or not to cut it from my pull list. Fearless Defenders definitely made a case for itself with this issue, but I'm afraid it may only have climbed from "definitely dropping" to "probably still worth dropping." No final decisions until I reread all three issues, but I'm afraid it's just too bland a series to keep me around.

Monday, April 8, 2013


I've been absent on here for a bit, mostly because I spent the last several days with my parents visiting my younger brother in Boone, NC. It's a beautiful little college town in Appalachia that I quite enjoyed, but there was't a great deal of very reliable Internet access up there in the mountains, and so the few things I was hoping to put up have been delayed.

Hopefully today I will have time to get them banged out so they can be published in the not-too-distant, but I wanted to get SOMETHING new up in the meantime, and since I wasn't doing much writing this weekend I got to do a bunch of catching up on various recent Marvel books. When Marvel NOW! was announced, my dad thought it'd be a good chance to get back into reading current comicbooks, and so he's sampled many of the titles. I know he is at least still following Uncanny, New, and adjectiveless Avengers, and I believe All New X-Men as well. However, he's not so much a collector as a reader, and he's given many books a try that didn't stick, so as he finishes with various issues/titles I typically inherit them. He brought me a few things on this visit, and I had with me some books he'd sent a couple months ago that I still hadn't read. Now I am all caught up on that material, and so here are my basic impressions of the handful of Marvel titles I just finished reading.

Avengers #1-3: Jerome Opeña is easily the best part of this arc. Jonathan Hickman does a alright job of introducing some big, cool, new Hickman-esque ideas, but with worse art I think his scripts would've felt far too dry. There's a lot of expositional dialogue, and the pace drags for two issues before the third rushes to wrap everything up. Also, new/obscure characters are brought into the fold with some very jarring introductions, most notably Captain Universe. I like this direction for the Avengers, not only the idea of expanding the team but simultaneously amping up the threat level. They should be dealing with the worst, biggest, most unthinkable threats comicbooks have ever seen. But I wish Hickman took more care with his structure and, more than anything, his character work. Anyway, Opeña colored by Dean White is always fantastic. All three of the villains introduced here are distinct, original, and alive. And though I wanted to get to know them all better, the massive cast is handled deftly by the art team. Everyone is given the same level of detail and life, nothing ever gets crowded or confused, and in those rare moments that Hickman does shine a light on someone's personality, the visuals always capture it perfectly. Also, issue #1 makes the strongest case for returning Captain America to his old uniform I've seen yet. He wears it initially and looks incredible, and then after a full page of putting on the new suit, he takes center stage on the final splash and looks bulky, awkward, uncomfortable, and stiff. This helmet-and-armor look is doing no one any good.

Fantastic Four #1-5: There's a lot I don't like about the premise of this series, particularly the idea that I could possibly give a shit if Reed Richards lives or dies when all he's done so far is lie to his family for wholly selfish and cowardly reasons. Kick rocks, Reed. You don't deserve the wife or kids or even friends you have, you fucking villain. Literally everything he says and does, including those moments where he supposedly feels remorse and/or realizes his mistakes, are like nails on the chalkboard of my mind. Everyone else would be safer and generally better off if he did die, or, at least, if he went on this foolish and reckless mission of self-preservation on his own. I don't know if Matt Fraction means for Reed to be so godawful, but based on some of the shit that Sue says to him, it certainly seems intentional: "You behave like a human for once so well, it makes us forget what you really are." Yeah, no thanks. That's not what I want from my superheroes and, more than that, it's not what I want from the fathers and husbands I read about. Not if they are supposed to be good guys, even in the broadest sense. There's other stuff. The story takes forever to get started and then, once it does, the self-contained escapades of each issue keep the main narrative from developing. The kids have changed dramatically under Fraction (compared to Hickman's time on the book) and not in a way that works. They've become generic kid characters instead of intelligent and unique forces of personality. Franklin is practically as annoying as Reed with his incessant crying and generally infantine behavior. He's seen enough shit not to be reduced to a sniveling baby every time he has a nightmare, no matter how intense or precognitive it might be. So yeah, Fraction's take on Marvel's first family just does nothing for me. Everyone is a little too one-note and, on top of that, most of the notes are sour.

Iron Man #1-5: Dullsville. Never terrible, never great, and never interesting. Kieron Gillen seems to take too simple and easy an approach to this opening arc. It's set up SO obviously and never breaks form: one by one, Tony Stark has to hunt down the Extremis kits, each time using a new Iron Man suit tailored to the specific mission. It feels like so much borrowed material, and there are no surprises along the way. The uses of Extremis by each group are at least varied, but every issue follows the same structure of Stark picking a target, explaining why he needs the armor he does, and then successfully thwarting the plans of whichever group he goes after. And then, when it's all wrapped up nice and tidy, it turns out the whole arc was really just a drawn out introduction to a new stage in Stark's life as do-gooder. Just very fluffy stuff. Gillen's Stark is fine, and his Pepper Potts is maybe a step up from that, but they don't dazzle me. Everything Stark says is shit we've heard from him a million times before, and that's true of pretty much everything he does, too. He's built all kinds of different Iron Man armors before, he's dealt with Extremis before, he's womanized and ignored his responsibilities and on and on and on. It is an entirely too basic take on the character and his world, helped not at all by Greg Land's art. Almost the right choice for Iron Man, Land looks like he is drawing robots no matter what he's actually drawing. It works for those few armored fights, but there are actual human beings on the page more often than not, and Land never makes any of them look the least bit alive or even motive. They are frozen wax figures with speech bubbles floating around them. So definitely a dud all around.

The First X-Men #1-5 (aka the whole miserable series): This is not technically a part of Marvel NOW! since it predates that effort by several months, but it happened to catch my dad's eye since it's by Neal Adams and so he picked it up and gave it a look. It's pretty awful. Adams' art is more good than bad, but never the best stuff he's done, not even close. There's too much inconsistency in the cast, and at the same time all the men's faces look too similar to each other. But he's still a skilled visual storyteller, and overall gets the job done. Trouble is, the story being told is far too ridiculous and ill-fitting to be taken seriously. I mean, come on. Wolverine and Sabertooth recruiting a team of teenaged mutants not only before Xavier but actually serving as the inspiration for Xavier's school (and Magneto's brotherhood)? Dumb and wrong. And yeah, in general I advocate that continuity is pointless and everyone should choose for themselves what stories count or matter or are real or what have you. But this is just too far out of character for too many well-established characters for me to swallow. Yes, these are meant to be younger versions of these people, so the argument could be made that they don't need to act like themselves, but it'd be nice if they were recognizable. I never buy Logan or Creed as dudes who would care enough to do this, and if you can't sell me on that, then the whole story falls to pieces. Add to that a few indistinguishable federal agents and half the kids never being properly introduced or at all developed, and you end up with something bordering on total dreck. I would like to see Virus as a villain done by someone more inventive, but even that I could take or leave. Otherwise, nothing about this held my attention or interest at all.

Basically, I didn't much care for any of the Marvel stuff I got caught up on, but what the heck! It was free, it was fast, and it helped fill some of my vacation time. Plus now I know for sure that I have no interest in following any of these books, something I wondered about beforehand.

Tuesday, April 2, 2013

Anniversary vs. X-Men

So it just dawned on me while I was washing my hands that I technically started Comics Matter a little over a year ago. I did have a three-month hiatus pretty early on, so it hasn't been a full year of productively writing about comicbooks. But it has been a year of steadily obsessing about them, reading anything and everything I can on the topic, latching onto various news/criticism sites and podcasts and Twitter feeds and such so that my days are a fairly steady stream of comicbook chatter. It's been a year of total immersion, though admittedly my immersion began well before I launched the blog. Still, having this space in which to permanently put down some of my thoughts on the medium I so adore has definitely changed the way I interact with the comics I read. I see them more crticially now, even when I am trying to turn off that part of my brain and just enjoy myself. And every new title or even issue I come across holds the potential to be the topic of a column down the line, so I'm always on the lookout for inspiration there. The order in which I read things has changed, because my reading schedule tends to be influenced by my writing schedule now, as opposed to the other way around. So if I am not expecting to write about a series, no matter how excited I am to read it, it will get set aside indefinitely in favor of the comics I plan to discuss here.

I am still very much finding my footing and my voice as a comicbook blogger or critic or journalist or whatever term you prefer. I'm learning all the time how to write about things in new ways, to explore them more deeply and completely. In another year, I would like to think that anything I've written in these first twelve months would seem immature and/or overly simplistic to me. I want to evolve, to constantly and endlessly improve. I don't know if that's happening, but I strive for it, anyway, and with any luck I'll make even incremental steps upward as time presses on.

I've got to thank my parents, who support me tirelessly and read every single thing I post, regardless of their interest in or understanding of what I'm talking about. Also, my deepest gratitude to Alec and Joey over at The Chemical Box, who were awesome and kind and brave enough to give me a regular column on their site, one that I thoroughly enjoy writing and hope to still be putting out regularly this time next year. Another thanks is owed to Meredith Roberts, who wrote this awesome Wonder Woman piece for me that is currently one of the top 5 most viewed posts on the blog. And finally, a huge, as-loud-and-long-as-Ican-sustain-it THANK YOU to all y'all, anyone and everyone who has ever spent even a second reading anything I've written here. I would honestly be doing this even if I was just rambling about comics in a vacuum, but it's much nicer to know I'm not. I hope it has been worth your while, and will be even more worth even more of your while in the future.