Thursday, April 30, 2015

Monthly Dose: April 2015

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

100 Bullets #30: This story was quite the dud. Nothing changes except that a relatively minor new character dies, and other new characters of varying importance kinda-sorta become better people for it, at least for a minute. Wylie is a drag and an immovable asshole, Shepherd's cryptic nonsense has gone on so long even Dizzy is openly complaining about it, and this time around we get Angelina, and offensive caricature of sexuality who's mostly there as a prop for Dizzy and Wylie to talk about. Also, the reveal where the contraband wasn't drugs or guns or anything like that but exotic animals was weak, unoriginal, and pointless. It didn't work as a joke, it didn't teach us anything new about this story except for the simple fact of what Wylie had in the truck, and the only real purpose it served was so Hopper could scare the birds with gunshots when he freaks out about Doctor Dan dying. He could just as easily have destroyed more run-of-the-mill illegal goods, so the birds felt like a fake-out for the sake of it, like the real point was just to make it hard for the reader to guess what was in the truck. I didn't even care about what was in the truck, to be honest, and like Wylie, I would've been fine never knowing. It might even have been preferable. This arc seemed most interested in introducing Wylie, but it did that pretty well in like the first couple scenes three issues ago, so much of what follows is water-treading, a series of random and often dull interactions between Wylie and Dizzy, Dizzy and Shperherd, and Wylie and various criminals, strung together into a narrative just to fill the space or pass the time. One of the nice things about 100 Bullets is that whole new locations, situations, and groups of characters can show up at any time, so I'm still excited for whatever comes next, but this last storyline was, in the end, a waste.

Automatic Kafka #6: Why does the only female superhero in the $tranger$ have to get her powers from sex? It just seems too easy, and it's a tendency of Joe Casey's writing I don't like. Not that all his characters have sex-based powers, but that when he writes women there's frequently something aggressively sexual about them, their personalities or their histories or the way other characters see/treat them or any combination of those things. I guess there's aggressive sexuality from both genders in Casey's writing, and I'm just as unenthusiastic about it either way, as evidenced by how little I enjoyed Sex. There were other huge problems in that book, too, and there's nothing wrong with graphic sex in a comicbook in and of itself. On the contrary, there is most certainly value is this kind of head-on, intense, comically in-your-face sex, but it's not as compelling for me as the main themes of Automatic Kafka, the discussions of celebrity and washed up superheroes trying to find their place in the world. That's all here, but it gets overshadowed by the sex, and the fact that this sudden erotic supercharge arrives at the same time the first major female character is introduced is gross and sexist and lame. Come to think of it, all the women in this book so far have been hyper-sexualized, from Death to the NSA agent who tries to seduce Kafka to the Bill of Rights to Helen of Troy here. Maybe I take back when I said about both genders before; I've read other comics by Casey where men and women are on more equal sexual footing, but this is not one of them, and this issue is such a loud, long reminder of it that it's more frustrating than anything else. I dug the flashback sequence because it had more to do with superheroing than fucking, and it hinted at the origins of the baby bombs that seem mysteriously central to this series. But beyond that and the awesome look and soothing blue speech bubbles of the character who shows up at the end, this was mostly superhero porn, which is all well and good, but I've seen lots of porn and I'd much rather read comics that give me something I can't get other places.

X-Force (vol. 1) #30: The first caption on the first page of this issue says, "This is all either of these two young men have ever wanted." Then there are 5 captions worth of explaining who the men are (Shatterstar and Adam-X) and that they've been forced to fight each other by Arcade. Then you turn the page, and the first caption of the second page says, "It is not what either of them want." Ummmmm...what? You literally just told me it was all they've ever wanted. One page ago. So yeah, I think I'm done with X-Force. As I'm sure everyone remembers, back in my first ever Monthly Dose, I mentioned that I wasn't necessarily going to read every issue of this comic. At the time I owned the first 24, and then several months ago I bought #25-30 just to keep this project going. No more. I know that, years from now, if I keep at it, I'm going to get to some really good stuff in this book. Someday, I'd still like to read that. But I'm not interested at all in the comic in the state it's in right here, at issue #30. The art, no matter who's drawing it, is way too bulky and 90's and cramped, and the story is so all over the place with such uninteresting characters that I can't hang on long enough to get into anything. Enough is enough of that. I understand the action-packed, in-your-face-jam appeal of this title, but it's not targeted at me, and I can't possibly justify spending any more money on it just to keep bashing it on my blog.

Monday, April 27, 2015

Weekly Action Comics Weekly Review: Issue #621

In 1988-89, DC changed Action Comics from a monthly Superman-focused series to a weekly anthology, also changing its name to Action Comics Weekly. It lasted 42 issues before reverting to a monthly format. I am going to review all 42 of those issues, one per week (sort of) for 42 weeks. This is the twenty-first of those reviews.
You guys! My copy of this issue has two covers! Not two different ones, two of the same cover, front and back. They just put the cover on it twice. Or two covers got stuck together when they did the stapling or something. I love it. It's really fun to open the cover and have it still be there. Is this something that happens? Why have I not seen this before?

Also—I'm halfway through these issues now! And this one is coming in on time! Exclamation points! Don't worry, my enthusiasm is about to go way, way down when I start reviewing the stories.
So I went back and looked at the end of last issue's Green Lantern story, and it does promise that this week would have "a new beginning," but I didn't expect that to mean a whole new creative team telling a brand new story from zero. The Freak Show/Hawkes Sisters shit just got interesting after being so-so for a long time, and now it's been replaced, even though it was far from resolved. The only conclusion we got last time was Hal and Arisia finally breaking up, but the A-plot had only just barely hit what felt like the end of Act II. I was bummed to see a whole new direction here, and even more bummed once I read it, since so much of it was just Hal explaining the various steps taken to test new planes. It's crazy dry, even though a lot of the information is delivered while Hal is moments away from crashing, because it's just such intensely uninteresting information. I don't care about the finer points of your day job, Hal, except insofar as they affect your life as Green Lantern. Is it possible that the malfunctioning plane is going to connect to some superhero stuff down the line? I suppose, but there's no indication of that, and on its own, the plane-related material is a snooze. Before that, we see Hal save an alien ship from the sun, responding to a distress signal he says he got but that we didn't see. We also don't see the results of this rescue; Hal saves and releases the ship, and then that thread is dropped so the plane nonsense can happen. At the very end, Hal' power battery explodes and something mysterious and yellow comes out of it, which is probably where this story should've begun. It's the first thing that happens which does anything to draw me in, and it's on the final page, a cliffhanger unrelated to anything that precedes it, one alright beat after a whole bunch of junk.
Wild Dog and the Night Slasher have their final confrontation, and as expected, Wild Pup shows up to ruin everything and gets himself stabbed. What is with this kid? He has one move, which is to jump of the back of the bad guy like he's getting a piggyback ride. How would that be helpful? He is, at best, a distraction, and at worst a target, which is exactly what happens here when the Night Slasher gets him with her knife. I'm not going to say I wanted the child to get hurt, because obviously the ideal outcome would be if he learned his lesson without getting injured, but it was a pretty sure thing that this would happen eventually, and I am glad it's over with now. Next week this story will be concluded and we can all move on with our lives for a while, Wild Dog-free. Wild Pup getting stabbed is, of course, the last panel, and before that scene there are a few extremely tired scenes of Wild Dog talking to his cop and reporter friends, having the same arguments as always, acting just as much the stubborn, arrogant ass as ever. I've really grown to hate Wild Dog over the course of this Action Comics Weekly project, and since he never changes or does anything new, that hate just festers and flares back up every time I read another story. I'm very much looking forward to the upcoming hiatus, because I'm sure we can all agree that my incessant complaining about Wild Dog is as worn out and obnoxious as anything the character does.
I liked this installment of the Secret Six in large part because it reminded me of some of the long-forgotten names of the characters, most of all Tony, the guy who's running for his life. He has the most exciting plotline right now, and the most compelling, since he basically kidnapped a woman so he could use her car to flee his pursuers. Now her life is derailed and in danger, and he's trying to keep her safe, but at the same time his min priority is saving his own skin and rejoining his team. It's a situation that positions Tony right on the line between hero and villain: he's fighting the good fight tooth and nail, but in the process he's risking the life of an innocent passerby. This is the kind of thing you see a lot in this story. Mockingbird has righteous goals but uses questionable (at best) methods to reach them, so the entire Secret Six organization sits somewhere in between being good guys and bad guys. Tony's current circumstances are a small-scale version of that larger conflict, getting to the core of what makes the Secret Six interesting characters to being with. Indeed, Ladonna's situation at the end, where she is posing as a real student and has to pretend to be dating that student's boyfriend in order to get information, is another strong example. Stealing one person's identity to betray another's trust is kind of gross behavior, yet it's in the name of completing the mission and stopping several evil corporations from continuing to go unchecked. This chapter was a strong reminder of what works about the Secret Six as a concept, and it pulled me back into a narrative I'd felt a little distanced from since it came back after its initial hiatus. Hopefully the momentum continues in this direction from here.
This was sort of disappointing in that all that happens is Superman handily defeats the muggers from last week, then switches back into his Clark Kent look to actually revive Galt. All of that was to be expected, and having it go down in such predictable fashion isn't ideal, but there are is at least some effective comedy during the fight, particularly the guy who knows that Superman can't be hurt by bullets but goes after him with a knife, hoping that'll do the trick. I just love the insane logic of believing Superman might be immune to bullets specifically, as opposed to merely being invulnerable enough to withstand them. So that's good for a laugh, and Curt Swan really sells the slapstick hilarity of that knife-wielding mugger being thrown into his friends. So it was a fun first two-thirds of the story, but then the final moment where we see that it's Clark Kent, rather than Superman, who comes to Galt's aid is needlessly drawn out and not all that exciting. I guess we're meant to wonder why Superman would feel the need to become Kent again instead of telling Galt the truth, but actually that makes a lot of sense to me without any explanation. Galt believes Superman is his personal savior and protector, and that's a delusion he's suffering from, so giving evidence in support of it is probably not for the best. Superman wants to keep Galt safe, but also to help him get over his hopeless hero worship, so helping him directly as Kent and in secret as Superman adds up. So while the reveal of Kent is overly dramatic, at least it fits with what's come before, and everything else is good, solid Superman action-comedy, even if he does drastically outmatch his foes.
As with the original Deadman story in Action Comics Weekly, this one is starting to lose focus and become too unruly. Really important stuff happens off-panel this time, and is then explained way too quickly and confusingly, leaving me unsure of exactly how the major events of the story went down. The little girls do...something to Deadman while he is in Legros' body, and it allows them to escape somehow, even though Madame Waxahachie was outside so you're think she would have seen if the girls left. Also, what happened to all the other zombies in the building? At the end we see the girls raising a new army of undead at a graveyard, but what of the army already assembled at Legros' house? Even the fact that Legros went from being the main villain to getting replaced by these twins is an example of this narrative's meandering nature. The biggest problem I had with the first Deadman story was that the threat Deadman was facing kept changing. While the main problem is still a zombie invasion, changing the source of that invasion from one person to two others seems like a pointless shift and a waste of time, especially when we don't even get to see all of the important parts play out on the page. Kelley Jones is still my #1 pick for best Deadman artist ever, but as has been a problem all along, Deadman doesn't have much to do in this tale, mostly a passive observer who has the context of what's going on explained to him by Waxahachie. And even when he's active, it's almost always in another person's body, which I know is his whole deal, but that doesn't mean we can't see more of him. This chapter might actually have had the most Deadman so far, but it still felt like too little, even though every time we did see him, he looked freaking amazing. In some ways, this story seems to have finally gotten its bearings, so it could improve from here, but I'm not hopeful based on the disjointed narrative Mike Baron constructed with this character in this title before.
I really the title of this Blackhawk section, and it was probably the best part of this narrative so far. Now that Blackhawk and the main female character have had sex, the story can move on, and it does so pretty quickly. The strongest sequence centers on three of his crew finding a pretty clever yet simple way to escape their captors. There's a lot of good, quick dialogue between them, and some nice visuals, too, once the escape plan actually gets put into action. Most of the story cuts between that and scenes of Blackhawk and the two CIG agents (Central Intelligence Group, get it?) making their way back own the mountain to try and get out alive before the volcano erupts. Meanwhile, the villains make their own preparations to depart before the lava starts flowing, so what you end up with is a race-against-the-clock atmosphere, several small groups all working toward the same goal but also working against each other. It should make for a fun, fast-paced final confrontation, which gets set up in the end when the baddies find the same truck Blackhawk plans to use as a means of escape. Shit is about to hit fans in several different spots, and for the first time I'm actually eager to see where things go. It's a hesitant eagerness, because this was just one enjoyable chapter in a story that's never had me fully invested, but if it can keep ramping up the stakes and action like it did here until it crosses the finish line, I might up really really liking this story in the end.

In conclusion, here are all the stories from this issue, listed from worst to best:
6. Wild Dog/"Fatal Distraction Chapter Seven: Stab in the Dark"
5. Deadman/"Part 4"
4. Green Lantern/"Gremlins!"
3. Blackhawk/"It's Not the Heat, it's the Futility"
2. Superman/"Let the Punishment Fit the Crime"
1. Secret Six/"Guess What we Learning in School Today?"

Sunday, April 26, 2015


I wrote about Jason Little's Borb on PopMatters a couple weeks ago, which was a challenging, engaging, significant book. It's never easy to discuss real-world problems in a funny, charming way that still gets at the heart of the matter, but Borb makes it seem effortless, almost natural. This week, my new 1987 And All That went up on Comics Should Be Good, reviewing issues #13-22 of Booster Gold. I'd never spent nearly that much time with Booster Gold before, and never spent any time with him as the star of his own book, so it was interesting to discover just how full of himself and pigheaded he can be. I'm not a major Booster Gold fan or anything now, but I did seriously appreciate Dan Jurgens' ability to make such a pain-in-the-ass character work as the protagonist of his own superhero comic.

Something I Failed to Mention
I didn't touch on Booster Gold's sister Michelle at all in the CSBG column, even though I took the time to break down the supporting cast. I actually failed to include Rip Hunter, too, come to think of it, but in both cases I excluded them because they were more like temporary additions to the cast than full-time members of it. Michelle, though, ends up dying, and her death marks the only time in the ten issues I read that Booster completely, 100% owns up to his mistakes. He maybe even overcompensates, blaming himself entirely for Michelle dying when, at worst, he is only partly at fault. He makes a few bad decisions while trying to rescue her from other-dimensional kidnappers, and it could be argued that if he'd been smarter about that situation, his sister would've survived. But I also think it could be argued that if she had lived, he'd have died, or at least been stuck in enemy territory, so while I understand his guilt, I don't agree that he's wholly responsible. Anyway, Michelle's funeral is like the last thing that happens in the last issue I reviewed, so it served as a nice little cap, Booster facing his own flaws and inexperience head-on in a way he'd steadfastly refused to do before. As such, I probably should've brought it up, and only didn't because I write those columns in the order the ideas come to me, and sometimes that leads to stuff getting left out because it doesn't pop into my head until after the piece feels complete.

Monday, April 20, 2015

Weekly Action Comics Weekly Review: Issue #620

In 1988-89, DC changed Action Comics from a monthly Superman-focused series to a weekly anthology, also changing its name to Action Comics Weekly. It lasted 42 issues before reverting to a monthly format. I am going to review all 42 of those issues, one per week (sort of) for 42 weeks. This is the twentieth of those reviews.
I know nobody is keeping track as closely as I am, but I'm starting to get sincerely pissed at myself for not sticking to my one-a-week schedule for these reviews. So help me, I am determined to get back into that flow starting with this issue. And I will, goddamn it! I do swear it!
Huh...this Green Lantern story went ahead and got interesting out of nowhere. What has up to now been a pretty blah story about GL wrestling with the Freak Show and their mysterious benefactor Veronica Hawkes suddenly became much more complicated. It turns out Veronica's mousy sister Lillian isn't nearly as frail or oblivious as she seems. It is Lillian who may really be controlling the Freak Show, and though her motives are unknown right now, her ruthless methods are made very clear when she guns down Castle with great relish in order to cover her tracks. Having a character who seems weak and frightened secretly be a scheming, wicked villain is nothing new, but I was genuinely surprised when Lillian was revealed to fit into that mold. Because Veronica, Lillian, and the Freak Show are all new characters, I took their introductions at face value, so this twist caught me off-guard, something I always like from my fiction. And the fact that even Veronica doesn't seem to know what her sister's really like adds new wrinkles that make me really eager to see where this story goes. So that development would've been enough, but on top of it, Veronica gives Green Lantern a pointed, concise speech about how macho and ultimately sexist he is, automatically playing a protector to the sheepish Lillian and an opponent to the more assertive Veronica. Her points make sense, and Hal Jordan seems to agree, as in the end he finalizes his impending break-up with Arisia, believing he may be with her for the wrong reasons, more attracted to her helplessness than her actual person. It's fun to see Hal so shook up, and I hope we'll see it carry over into his future interaction with either or both of the Hawkes sister. Peter David and Richard Howell took a stock superhero story and added more than one effective new wrinkle in only eight pages, and after a while of feeling lukewarm about this narrative, I'm totally reinvested now.
I've complained about how much I dislike Wild Dog as a character and a hero lots before, but something occurred to me reading this chapter that I'd never really articulated before: I pretty much hate all of these characters. Lt. Flint bitches and bitches about Wild Dog's activities but refuses to do anything about it out of a weird combination of misplaced loyalty, cowardice, and laziness. Susan King is the stereotypical reporter character who only cares about getting the story, which is equal parts obnoxious and cliché. And then there's Wild Pup, the kid who's so into Wild Dog that he insists on putting his own life (and the lives of many other people) at risk so he can be the sidekick his hero doesn't want. Watching this child stubbornly ignore Wild Dog's orders to stay out of the way gets less tense and more frustrating with every page. At first I worried about the kid, but now I just want something bad to happen to him as it is inevitably going to do so we can just get it over with already. He can learn his lesson, Wild Dog can hopefully learn one, too, and this damn narrative can end. The Wild Dog universe is populated top-to-bottom with character I can't stand, and orbiting around a central figure whose moral code and entire reason for being I disagree with. I'm not going to harp on it any longer, because I feel like the most broken of broken records by now, but the it seemed a noteworthy realization that it isn't just the title character that drives me so crazy but also almost every member of his supporting cast.
Half of this was a tight, suspenseful action-adventure comic that I loved. The other half was talky, info-dumpy, and full of old information, so I liked it considerably less. To be honest, even during the good parts, I was pretty lost. The break Secret Six took from Action Comics Weekly was long enough, and the narrative complex enough, that it's been a little hard to get back into the swing of things since these characters returned to the title. Still, Frank Springer and Frank McLaughlin make the opening sequence thrilling enough that it clicked for me in spite of the fact that I wasn't totally sure who I was watching or why they were fighting each other. I'm like 98% sure it was one member of the Secret Six escaping from enemy forces, and some of the opening conversation was clearly trying to put things into context for me, but there are so many moving pieces in this tale, I'm not always following them all with equal focus. I like it a lot that the Secret Six fights corporations and the like, that they combine espionage, violence, and research to accomplish their goals, and that they can do multiple things at once because of the size of their team and the range of their expertise. So conceptually, all the disjointed bits and pieces are key, and they're something I support. In practice, though, it means sometimes we're following the more obscure and/or less fascinating threads, and that it's easier to lose track of stuff than it would be in a simpler or more straightforward narrative. The ambition is a good thing, and it produces lots of good results, like the title page above and the two action-packed pages which preceded it. But I'm not as locked into the Secret Six as I am with other characters in this comic, and all told this was an uneven segment of their story.
I don't know if this gets credited to penciller Curt Swan or letterer Bill Oakley, but the "SMEK" sound effect when Bob Galt punches one of his would-be muggers was my favorite part of this Superman chapter. It's a well-done panel all over, with priceless looks on the faces of all the muggers, but that noise really sold it for me. I also enjoy that the way Superman finds Galt is to save him from a crime. It's a good way to reunite them, maybe even an obvious one, but earned through Galt's bravery and unshaken faith in the face of danger. If he wasn't so admirable in that moment, then having Superman come to his rescue might've seemed too easy, but Galt stays courageous and loyal to his idol even with his well-being on the line, so he fully deserves the protection from Superman that he already assumes he'll receive. That's all the happens in these two pages, starting with the muggers' initial taunts and ending with Superman's arrival, and as much as I liked it, I'm itching for a slightly faster progression of this story. Hopefully Galt and Superman being together again, now that Superman has slightly more info, will help them get to the heart of the mystery more quickly. It's been a long, slow ride to try and figure out who it is that wants to destroy Galt and his fellow Superman worshippers, and I know that two pages isn't a ton of space, but I'd like to see the villains more fully revealed sooner than later or my interest is bound to start waning. All the same, for this week, I was on board with everything that went down, and it should be fun to see how Galt's assailant react to Superman next time.
I feel like there's something wrong with the stakes of this Deadman story. I just cannot muster up any concern for what's happening. Deadman's not really personally connected to it at all; he's an outsider who got semi-randomly involved, and therefore he's annoyingly passive. Madame Waxahacie explains everything to Deadman and tells him what he should do, then he does it. That's boring, and slow, and it gives me as the reader no good way in. The only character I can latch onto at all is a protagonist who doesn't entirely understand what's going on, has no plan of action, and barely seems interested himself. He seems to be participating mostly because he has nothing better to do, and because he's obligated as Deadman to try and fight against evil. Those are weak reasons for the main character to be involved in the narrative, which in turn weakens my own commitment to it. So whatever, Legros continues to try and build his zombie army, and Deadman and Waxahachie feebly try to stop him. Then in the final moments, the Brogden twins who appeared to be victims of Legros expose themselves as villains/forces of evil in their own right. I'm not sure how that works yet, but it's a final beat that almost makes me want to come back for more. It is, at least, something unexpected, and having children as the antagonists in any story always makes for a nice moral dilemma to torture the hero. Still, it's too little too late, a small glimmer of something I might care about reading that shows up only in the last panel of the third chapter.
Ohhhh...he was taking his belt off so he could whip a snake with it. That excuses the implied rape from the end of last issue...NOT! I know it's a little silly to review this chapter based on the conclusion of the last, but it just still really bothers me, two weeks later, that the previous Blackhawk installment ended that way. And that this week ends with the same two characters having consensual sex doesn't help, and in fact makes it worse somehow. With all the impending danger, it seems like a pretty inappropriate time for them to do that, especially since they just met. I don't mean to sound like a prude, and there's nothing inherently wrong with sleeping with a stranger, but doing it under an active volcano while an ally is wounded and unconscious nearby and you're in the midst of trying to escape the people who kidnapped's ridiculous, and Martin Pasko wedges it into the last two pages not because it makes sense there but because this is Blackhawk and he's got to be a ladies' man all the time no matter how illogical it may be. In between the rescue and the sex scene was a TON of exposition that I had a hard time paying attention to and an even harder time understanding. The whole reason for this mission and this narrative gets explained, and I couldn't tell you what it is, because it's written dryly and hurriedly, like even the creators don't give a shit. Which they probably don't—this could all well be an excuse to write some gunfights and love scenes hung on the frailest of frames. That's definitely how it reads, and I'm sick of it.

In conclusion, here are all the stories from this issue, listed from worst to best:
6. Wild Dog/"Fatal Distraction Chapter Six: Tailed!"
5. Blackhawk/"Most Guys Just Leave Her Hanging There"
4. Deadman/"Part 3"
3. Secret Six/"Just a Little Bug That's Going Around"
2. Superman/"Too Late, the Hero?"
1. Green Lantern/"Last Gasp!"

Sunday, April 12, 2015


This week, my newest 1987 And All That went up on CSBG covering issues #4-10 of Star Brand. It was the first time that, rather than talking about the defining attributes of the series, I found its lack of consistency the most interesting aspect, and wrote the whole column about that. Not the best reading experience, but a pretty fun critical one. Meanwhile, on PopMatters, I wrote about Copperhead. That series really caught me off-guard, and I'm super glad I gave it a chance.

Something I Failed to Mention
There's a scene in Copperhead #4 that's so funny and well-written, I could probably get a whole column out of it alone. The local self-important tycoon, Benjamin Hickory, very quickly finds himself at odds with new sheriff Clara Bronson so, as egomaniacs are wont to do, he tries to find a way to get rid of his problem. He calls up another cop who used to work with Bronson to try and get some dirt, and then we get the following exchange between them:
It's simple, but the wry delivery from Bronson's old boss, and the final silent panel of Hickory realizing he's being insulted in numerous ways, totally sells it for me. Plus it only takes up one page, so it's the perfect amount of space for a gag like this. It's a nice bit of development for a slow-moving subplot, it helps cement Bronson's personality without her even needing to be in the scene, and it's just solid comedy, classic in its sensibility and gorgeous in its delivery. I read and enjoyed this page four times in a row my first time through the issue.

Sunday, April 5, 2015

Weekly Action Comics Weekly Review: Issue #619

In 1988-89, DC changed Action Comics from a monthly Superman-focused series to a weekly anthology, also changing its name to Action Comics Weekly. It lasted 42 issues before reverting to a monthly format. I am going to review all 42 of those issues, one per week (sort of) for 42 weeks. This is the nineteenth of those reviews.
Whoops! Missed a week! That will most likely continue to happen here and there. As formulaic as these posts are, they can be time-consuming since I gotta write six separate reviews for each one. Anyway...
So we finally see Veronica's face, and it signifies nothing. Also, it's kind of hard to pay attention to her face when her body is so bizarrely shaped. Could a person with a waist that small even hold their torso up straight? It's crazy. Veronica offers Green Lantern a tour of her facilities in order to convince him she's not the power behind the Freak Show, but of course, since she really is that power, the whole thing is actually a trap. Lantern gets ambushed by the Freak Show and this time they are a bit more coordinated in their attack, so they seem to very quickly get a strong upper hand. That's where the story ends this week, with Lantern being burned alive and held in place by the Freak Show, our hero seemingly stuck in a deadly situation with no obvious way out. It's a good cliffhanger, but the trip there isn't all that interesting, with half of these pages being spent on Lantern's dull argument with Victoria and/or his even duller tour of Hawkes Industries. And even once the fight with the Freak Show begins, it's not particularly thrilling, a few quick shots from either side before Lantern gets his ass handed to him. I did love that the closing line was just Castle saying, "Bitchin'." Other than that, though, this neither impressed nor frustrated me all that powerfully. It was a logical next beat in terms of plot, but the Victoria reveal was anti-climatic, her character design was laughable, and the action sequence at the end was less than exciting.
I'm tired of making the same complaints as always about Wild Dog. Assume they all still stand. Instead of repeating them again, this week I wanted to talk about how all the Wild Dog stories have been only seven pages long rather than eight, at least since the character showed up for this second storyline. I think the same is true of Blackhawk, but I have other things to say about Blackhawk in this issue (see below). I'm sure the decision to shorten these sections was editorial as opposed to creative, but whatever the reason, it seems a very bad call. Eight pages is already a challenge when it comes to telling a complete, satisfying story, even if it's just one part of a larger narrative. And Wild Dog in particular suffers frequently from endings that are too abrupt and boring, almost never offering a real hook to make the reader want to know more. For me, having a little less Wild Dog in my life is kind of nice, but I also have to wonder if the additional page every issue might not help beef up these stories, even just a little. Space is such a valuable commodity in comics, so it's a shame that some of it had to be usurped by...I don't even know what. Additional ads? Probably, since the total page count of each Action Comics Weekly hasn't changed. It was 48 in the beginning and it's 48 now, but the stories themselves have gotten shorter, so I suppose it has to be the commercials that get to occupy those pages. Yuck.
After Kelley Jones showing up and blowing up as the ideal Deadman artist last week, this week the title character appears in only two panels, including the credits page above. The rest of the time, he's either in the body of the resurrected cop he got trapped in last time or the schoolteacher he moves into once the cop is re-killed this time. It's a tremendous drag to get so little of Deadman, even though Jones' other contributions are pretty fantastic. Madame Waxahachie is a fittingly bold, terrifying force of humanity, and there are a handful of really interesting perspectives in these panels. Lots of dramatic close-ups and moody shading, and best of all is the panel where Deadman, in the cop's body, looks down at the knife in his belly with an unphased stare. It's a nice, darkly quirky moment, and it comes right before the second (and last) appearance of Deadman in his natural form, so it's for sure the best sequence in the story. I did like the narrative itself more this issue than last, if only because Deadman was more active, and also a little bit because the ending genuinely surprised me. After Deadman and Waxahachie seemingly thwart Legros' plan to steal the Brogden twins, having the twins get immediately kidnapped worked as a final twist. There was an assumption of temporary safety for the kids, because Legros had only so recently failed to get them, and whether or not he is their kidnapper now, having somebody nab them so soon after they avoided that same fate was genuinely unexpected. All the Voodoo stuff still seems offensively clichéd, but there's a bit less of it here, and it's a bit more reserved, so overall this is a step up. Not amazing, and disappointing because of little we get to see Jones draw Deadman, but there's hope.
Even though Superman is effectively not in this, I enjoyed it quite a bit. It's so rare, in fiction or reality, that someone in an argument listens to reason and then admits they were wrong, and I especially wouldn't have expected it from somebody as passionate as Bob Galt. It was a pleasant, quiet resolution to the problem introduced at the end of last week's Superman story, and I liked the shot at California that the cop took as Galt left the store, most of all because it's accurate. Admittedly, the events of this chapter are pretty fluffy, and it's not even clear if they matter at all to the larger story yet. It's sort of hard to imagine how they even would. Maybe Galt wearing a Superman t-shirt is going to lead to extra trouble for him in some way, but if not, then the whole altercation in the store was essentially pointless, a quick, meaningless diversion just to get Galt out of Clark Kent's apartment. Even so, I had a good time reading this, and at the very least it reestablished Galt as a guy who's as honest and decent as the hero he worships, even if he's not quite as thoughtful or controlled. Also, big credit to Curt Swan, because while Superman is only in one of these nine panels, his S symbol is at least partially visible in eight. That's a smart way to keep his presence in the foreground without needing to insert the man himself into a part of the story where he doesn't belong.
The Secret Six are back, and it's as if they never missed a beat. A lot goes on here, with different members of the team working on different missions, advancing several plots at once. While most of them make a move against Sunnydale Farms and their infected pigs, there are others out there trying to get a glimpse of the bigger picture. One goes undercover at Jefferson University, and another dons a disguise and interviews one of the cops who initially investigated the crash that killed the original Secret Six. It's all an effort to figure out Mockingbird's identity and/or motives, and as the Secret Six themselves mention, it seems strange that they'd be able to do so much of their own investigating without Mockingbird interfering or outright shutting them down. In the past, he has seemingly been able to monitor them all the time, but recently they've been operating fairly independently, and everyone is waiting for the other shoe to drop. It's possible that it does here, with one of the Secret Six getting jumped, knocked out, and shoved into a van on the closing page. It's a bit of mysterious excitement for the finale, a solid, near-silent conclusion that brings back  all the intrigue and anything-can-happen awesomeness of the Secret Six's original run in this title. The exposition gets wrapped up efficiently, the danger ramps right back up to its previous level, and the Secret Six are buzzing along as a well-oiled machine just like they were before. It's a perfect return, delivering all the goods and meeting all the expectations.
I kind of barely remember what even happens for the first five pages of this story, because the last two stand out so strongly as such a shitty, stupid, infuriating ending. Blackhawk and the man who claims to be Leslie Richardson get trapped in a cave after a rockslide, and Leslie is knocked unconscious, so Blackhawk heads off to find a way out. What he finds instead is the pilot he cam here looking for, Alice Richardson, chained to a wall in stereotypically tattered clothing. The way Alice is presented alone feels sexist and gross, but then in the final three panels, we see her notice Blackhawk with a relieved smile, which then immediately turns into a look of sheer horror, and then, finally, we see the reason for her terror: Blackhawk is removing his belt. Look...I understand that he's not going to rape her. Next issue, there'll be some kind of explanation as to why he needed to take his belt off to get her down, and the whole thing will be played as a sort of semi-amusing fake out for the reader. But the thing is, it's so not funny, and it's such an idiotic way to end this chapter. Why have her think even for one second that Blackhawk is about to assault her? Is there a compelling reason to put her through that, especially after all the trauma and torture we already know she's suffered recently? And as cliffhanger endings go, making the protagonist—who's already a well-known womanizer—look like he's about to do something so despicable is a very poor choice indeed. I don't really understand the thought behind it, and what's really troubling is that Rick Burchett draws Alice's terrified face so damn convincingly, and in such a tight, detailed panel, the reader can't help but feel her fear with her. So we are left in Alice's position, with no reason to believe anything other than what she believes, save for the fact that we understand, deep down, that the hero of the story isn't suddenly going to become a rapist. Martin Pasko continues to be the wrong writer for this character, a fact that this awful, incredibly misguided ending really cements.

In conclusion, here are all the stories from this issue, listed from worst to best:
6. Blackhawk/"What's a Nice Girl Like You...?"
5. Wild Dog/"Fatal Distraction: One Mass Murderer to Go"
4. Green Lantern/"Veronica"
3. Deadman/"Part 2"
2. Secret Six/"Once More Unto the Breach"
1. Superman/"Protective Shield?"

Saturday, April 4, 2015

Dearly Departed: She-Hulk

Dearly Departed is a semi-regular column where I look back on recently completed or canceled series.

She-Hulk is just a joy to read. That's because it's a celebratory comic, a big, bright, fun-loving look at everything great about comics, superheroes, and the titular character in particular. Oh, and also lawyers, though the series does a pretty good job of talking about what's terrible about them, too. The book only had 12 issues before being canceled, but in that time it told several awesome, amusing, off-kilter stories, including one about the mysterious Blue File that ran all throughout the title from the debut to the finale. And though this isn't the normal format for a Dearly Departed column (which I haven't written a new one of in almost a year-and-a-half) I think that maybe the best way to dissect She-Hulk is to take it arc by arc, and then wrap up with some more macro thoughts at the end.
     The first two issues are sort of each their own thing, but also very clearly work together as a two-part story, the tale of how Jennifer Walters goes from losing her corporate law job to starting and staffing her own practice. It's an awesome introduction to the character and the comic. Jen's resourcefulness and self-assuredness are heavily highlighted right up top, and the core cast is rounded out with the always amusing Hellcat Patsy Walker, and the brand-new, almost entirely inscrutable Angie Huang. The trio works very well together, balancing each other out with different levels of seriousness, areas of expertise, and kinds of intelligence. Plus Javier Pulido's poppy, laid-back, standout style, filled in with Muntsa Vicente's equally poppy and confident colors, gives the series a refreshingly fun look that brightens and bolsters the narratives. This is a hopeful, believe-in-yourself type comic all the way through, from She-Hulk's optimistic self-starterism to Angie's mysterious hyper-competence to Pulido & Vicente's dynamic artwork.
     The next two issues are about Jen taking on Dr. Doom's son Kristoff as a client. Kristoff is seeking asylum so he won't be forced to rule Latveria in his father's shadow, and Jen battles tooth-and-nail to make it happen. She even wins in court, but of course Dr. Doom doesn't give a shit about that and immediately kidnaps his son right back. So Jen goes to Latveria to save Kristoff, and ends up using her sharp negotiation skills to make Doom see why it's actually in his best interests to give Kristoff the freedom to be his own man. What I love about this arc is that Jen gets to be an awesome lawyer, then an awesome superhero, and then just an all-around awesome person. We see her at her best in several different kinds of situations, all related to a single case, displaying how capable and impressive she really is.
     She-Hulk #5-6 (I promise they are not all two-issue narratives, just the first half of the series, plus the last two issues, so...everything but #7-10) is a storyline titled "Blue" that's all about She-Hulk and company trying to figure out what's up with the mysterious Blue File that Jen found randomly in a box some time before this title even began. The file is connected to a case that names Jen and several other super-people as the targets of a lawsuit by a man named Georg Saywitz, but Jen has no memory of George or the case itself, so the existence of the Blue File is something of a nagging anomaly. The Blue File is ultimately the central problem of this entire 12-issue run, so it doesn't get fully resolved in these two issues, but Jen and her crew do interview several of the other people named in the suit, like Tigra, Shocker, and Nightwatch, and discover that discussing the details of the file acts as some kind of weird subconscious trigger that makes people go crazy and attack everyone and try to hurt themselves. Because of that danger, She-Hulk decides to drop the investigation, even when Angie shows up with what she claims is vital information. It's a weird moment, actually, when Jen shoots down Angie, because she's overly aggressive and then immediately seems to forget the whole thing. Clearly, there's more to this Blue File than meets the eye, and if you read this arc knowing how She-Hulk ends, it's pretty incredible how well Soule hints at who's behind the Blue File without giving it away. Ditto Ron Wimberly, the artist for "Blue." I know that, at the time, there were people who didn't like Wimberly's art on this book, but I think he was the perfect fill-in artist for Pulido. His work has the same kind of playful but abundant energy as Pulido's, so the voice of the comic maintains without wavering, even though stylistically the two artists are quite distinct.
      Issue #7 is an Ant-Man team-up, where he, She-Hulk, and Hellcat shrink down to locate and save another genius scientist who shrunk himself and then went missing. It's an amusing, freebie one-shot, a little diversion after the major development of the main plot in "Blue." Also Pulido and Vicente return, and do a marvelous job with the pint-sized adventure, particularly the ant swarm that She-Hulk and Hellcat have to tangle with.
     The best story in the series comes in issues #8-10, "The Good Old Days." It's She-Hulk vs. Daredevil in court, and the focus of the trial is Captain America. I wrote about one of the things I enjoyed in this story—the use of continuity—on PopMatters, but there are other things to admire as well. It's a solid courtroom drama, and an exceptional study of what makes Captain America what he is. It also adds an interesting wrinkle to the story of why he is what he is, without in any way undoing or challenging the established facts of his history. Jen gets to be a hero for a hero, by using skills that most of her super-peers don't have. There's also a nice message in there about the flexibility of the truth and how even without lying, people can tell the same story in wildly different ways. It's about perspective, and context, and how hugely important both of those things are to consider whenever you hear anyone describe any experience. These are relevant points to make, especially these days, and they're made subtly and indirectly but are still impossible to miss.
     Finally, issues #11-12 bring things to a close by revealing the whole story behind the Blue File. She-Hulk #11 is actually just an issue-long fight between the threesome of She-Hulk, Hellcat, and Angie and the duo of Titania and Volcana. The latter pair was hired by Nightwatch to scare Jen and her team off of researching the Blue File, which Angie had secretly been doing all along, despite Jen's instructions to let it go. Turns out Angie uncovered the truth, so after Titania and Volcana's attack, Angie tells Jen that Nightwatch is the real enemy, forcing his hand. She-Hulk #12, then, is the explanation of how the Blue File came to be, and also the final defeat of Nightwatch. The story is that Nightwatch used to be a villain named Nighteater, who hired Shocker, Vibro, and Dr. Druid to help him cast an uber-powerful spell that would make him into a hero in the memories of everyone in the world. Effectively, every past heroic deed Nightwatch supposedly performed is in reality a false memory created by this spell. He erased his past as a bad guy and replaced it with a fake one where he was always a good guy. Also, he wiped an entire town out of existence, save for George Saywitz, hence the lawsuit. Then Nightwatch retired, able to live his days out in peace, relatively unknown compared to many heroes, but still respected and adored by the public enough to get by. He seems like the ideal character for this kind of retcon, in that he's never been that popular or major a figure in the Marvel canon. Not too many feathers get ruffled if you make Nightwatch into a villain, and it fits so perfectly with everything else we've seen around the Blue File, especially Nightwatch's earlier appearance, so it's a very strong conclusion.
     All through this book, She-Hulk is a badass, a hero in every sense, and a hilarious, captivating protagonist. It's everything you want out of the title character of a mainstream superhero book and more, because she's also a lawyer who's actually decent, honest, and admirable. I'd never had a strong opinion about her before reading this, nor even all that much experience with her, but I think of myself as a firmly devoted fan now. Her inclusion on any team is going to make me all the more likely to follow them, and the next time she gets a solo series, I'll be giving it a try pretty much no matter who the creative team is.
     I'm not sure how I feel about Angie. I loved her as the stoic, strange, brilliant super-paralegal, but I'm not wild about characters who have loosely defined powers and always seem to have exactly what they need to solve every new problem they encounter. Over the course of these 12 issues, Angie Jedi mind tricks a few people, comes back suddenly and inexplicably from being shot to death, mentally takes control of Volcana's powers, and figures out Nightwatch is the primary baddie without us seeing how she does it. Also her pet monkey Hei Hei, with whom she clearly has some kind of telepathic bond, grows to be larger than a man, sprouts wings, and seems to develop some kind of super-strength. I don't doubt that Charles Soule knows Angie and Hei Hei's backstory and the limitations of/explanations for their abilities, but within She-Hulk it's all one big question mark, and considering how important Angie's contributions were, I would've preferred some more insight into who she is and what she can (or can't) do.
     The best dialogue in the whole book is actually a monologue from Shocker, delivered to She-Hulk after she chases him down: "Lady, all I know about you is that you're tough as hell. Guys like me, we got a list of people like you. Like a rating system. You got your Daredevils, your Iron Fists---those guys, you fight. Maybe you get lucky, or maybe you're actually good enough to beat 'em. Now any Hulks---lady, dude, red, green, purple---you see a Hulk, you run. As you saw. Thors, too." This tickles me every time, as does She-Hulk's protest that there's just one Thor, and Shocker's reply that, no, everyone like Volstagg and Valkyrie and Beta Ray Bill are Thors, too. A wonderful conversation that can only take place in a superhero reality.
     I think that's all I have on this. It's a phenomenal comicbook, and not just for a Marvel superhero series. It's good all over, and it fits a whole lot of high-quality content into its 12 installments. She-Hulk was never a favorite of mine, Pulido I only knew from his subpar issues of Hawkeye, and the few things of Soule's I'd read before this I had pretty strongly disliked. On this project, though, all three of them were unexpectedly fantastic, as were Vicente and Wimberly, Hellcat and Nightwatch, and all the various guest stars.