Reviews of trade paperbacks of comic books (mostly Marvel), along with a few other semi-relevant comments / reviews.

30 May 2009

New York Times Graphic Bestseller List, May 23

I really tried to give updates of the New York Times Graphic Books Bestseller List. But, you know, from week to week, it gets a little boring. But I’ll make another try. Follow along with last week’s list:

Marvel uses the might of Stephen King to take the top and bottom of the hardcover Top 10 list, with Dark Tower: Treachery and Dark Tower: The Gunslinger Born. Both titles are written by Peter David, with art by Robin Furth. Unlike the lists I looked at in April, Marvel also managed to get some of its superheroes into the Top 10 — Civil War at #7 and Hulk: Red and Green at #9. Marvel also places Marvel Zombies (the list doesn’t specify which volume — I’m going to assume it’s v. 3 by Fred Van Lente and Kev Walker) at #5.

If DC is miffed they’ve lost their stranglehold on the hardcover list, they can console themselves with holding onto most of the top spots while also keeping five titles on the list. The new Superman: New Krypton, v. 1, is #2, the evergreen Batman: The Killing Joke is #3, Batman: RIP is #4, Joker surprisingly remains on the list at #6, and Y: The Last Man: Deluxe Edition, v. 2, checks in at #8.

The paperback list is a different and more egalitarian affair. DC is the nominal winner of the list, with Watchmen at #1, V for Vendetta at #5, Sandman, v. 1: Preludes and Nocturnes at #6, and Batman: The Dark Knight Returns at #8. Still, none of these titles were created in the last decade; can DC hold onto this list with evergreen titles only?

Film is a big influence on the rest of the trade paperbacks. Marvel’s only title on the list, Wolverine: Origin at #4, obviously benefits from the Wolverine movie. IDW similarly benefits from Star Trek (Star Trek: Countdown, the prequel to the movie, at #3) and Terminator: Salvation (Terminator: Salvation Movie Prequel, the … uh, movie prequel, at #10). Image keeps putting Robert Kirkman’s Walking Dead on the list — or maybe Kirkman keeps putting Image’s Walking Dead on the list. Either way, v. 1 checks in at #7 and v. 9 at #9. Dark Horse is the final publisher in the top 10 with Buffy the Vampire Slayer: Season 8, v. 4, at #2.

Manga? Well, there’s Naruto. There’s always Naruto. Volumes 40-44 are #3-7, although not exactly in that order. Neigma!, v. 22, is #1 … I know nothing about Neigma!, really, so I can’t tell you much about it, but the protagonist’s name is Negi Springfield. There’s something so perfectly manga / anime about that name. Full Metal Alchemist, v. 18, is #2, Otomen 2, which appears to be a gender-role comedy, is #8, the popular Fruits Basket, v. 18, is #9, and Vampire Knight, v. 6, is #10.

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29 May 2009

Wonder Woman: The Circle

Collects: Wonder Woman v. 3 #14-9 (2008)

Released: August 2008 (DC)

Format: 160 pages / color / $24.99 / ISBN: 9781401219321

What is this?: A reinvisioning of just what it means to be Wonder Woman, an Amazonian princess in Man’s World

The culprits: Writer Gail Simone and pencilers Terry Dodson and Bernard Chang (with some help)

Many comic fans much more prominent than I have wondered what is compelling about Wonder Woman. Does she have a claim to prominence other than being an editorially mandated peer of Batman and Superman? What is Wonder Woman, other than a female superhero — what’s her schtick?

Is she a warrior? A soldier? A diplomat? Martial artist Diana Prince? A superspy? The ambassador to Man’s World?28 A goddess? She’s been all this and more, really, although she’s never really staked a solid, long-term claim to anything other than a warrior, and warriors in superhero comics are a drachma a dozen.

Wonder Woman: The Circle coverIn Wonder Woman: The Circle, writer Gail Simone goes for the best of all of these things. As helpfully pointed out by writer Mercedes Lackey in her introduction to the volume, Simone has made Wonder Woman into the “Supreme Warrior,” who wants to end conflict — a diplomat, a warrior, a tactician, with compassion and strength. With a bit of the goddess thrown in.

That’s a heck of a standard to live up to, and to be honest, it doesn’t resemble the character I’d read about in Jodi Picoult’s Wonder Woman, v. 2: Love and War. But I have to admit, for the most part, Simone’s Wonder Woman does live up to the billing.

The Circle has two stories: one in which Wonder Woman deals with Nazi invaders and native fanatics in Themiscyra, and the other in which she is brought to a world of aliens, whose prior invasion of Earth she had thwarted, to end a war they are losing badly. The first, the eponymous “The Circle,” is the big one, in which Simone sets up her status quo and tells the reader who her Wonder Woman is going to be. And she pulls out all the stops to make us like her: there’s a couple of fights with intelligent gorillas from Gorilla City, a lot of punching of Nazis. Superpowered Nazis, even. And I’m impressed with how well the mostly-new, a-good-deal-different Wonder Woman works. She converts enemies into allies. She shows a decent handle on diplomacy, although some of it seems to be at the cost of long-term consequences. She tries to use tactics, although again I doubt some of her wisdom. And the reappearance of Lt. Col. Candy comes out of nowhere, but at least she’s a long-standing Wonder Woman character. The point is, Simone tries to pull off her Supreme Warrior Woman, and it mainly works.

I didn’t think the subplot worked, though. In it, Wonder Woman’s mother, Hippolyta, appoints four Amazons as her personal guards before Wonder Woman was born; when they see their queen pregnant, they think the child’s birth will tear the island apart, so they try to murder poor infant Diana. And fail. And when the island is invaded, many years later, they get free and try to kill the adult Wonder Woman. But the four Amazons have the feel of characters ret-conned in for a specific story — even if they weren’t, they have that aura — a story I felt went nowhere. Also, I remained unconvinced as to why those four felt so sure their queen having a baby would be such a catastrophe. Perhaps I underestimate the emotional power of an island full of childless women (who will likely remain childless), but the betrayal felt arbitrary. Simone may be setting them up for a longer-term plot, but that doesn’t make me optimistic.

The second story, “Expatriate,” is much more to my liking. Wonder Woman begins her formal and funny courtship of Nemesis, and an alien race she had trounced before calls her for help. And then a Green Lantern gets involved, and the questions of justice and genocide are put into play, and it really does seem deeper, in two issues, than four issues of punching Nazis and rogue Amazons do in four. The situation Wonder Woman finds herself in makes diplomacy a better option than in “The Circle,” although Diana’s solution should come back and bite someone on the ass, even if it doesn’t.

The art on “The Circle” is furnished by Terry Dodson on pencils and Rachel Dodson on inks. If you’ve seen the Dodsons’ work before, “The Circle” looks exactly like that, down to the identical noseline on every female character. It’s very pretty, and I have no real complaints, other than Wonder Woman usually seeming more like a model than a Supreme Warrior. Ron Randall fills in for half of one issue and most of another and does a good job — the same sort of pretty, smooth line but without aping Dodson’s style. However, I prefer the work of Bernard Chang on “Expatriate.” His Wonder Woman looks stronger, more human, and slightly different — definitely not standard Western European supermodel that most artists provide. His aliens are a little too human in their trappings, I think, but at least his females look different.

The Circle is the best Wonder Woman story I’ve read — not a major competition, really, but still an accomplishment. I have some misgivings about the plot, but I enjoyed the audacity of the character, the depth given to someone who was previously “the female one.” But this doesn’t feel like the same character I’ve read about before, and I have a hard time expressing how uncomfortable that makes me feel. Is this the real Wonder Woman? I have a hard time saying anything but “Yes.” If that’s true, then who was that other woman I read about? For some reason — unlike, say, Batman — I have a hard time considering multiple takes on Wonder Woman. (I have the same problem with Superman.) Given the mediocre / forgettable Wonder Woman stories I’ve read in the past, I’d almost rather Simone have created a new character; but given that Wonder Woman has cachet and a need for a definitive characterization (other than bondage model), then this will do well.

Rating: Wonder Woman symbol Wonder Woman symbol Wonder Woman symbol Wonder Woman symbol (4 of 5)

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26 May 2009

Guardians of the Galaxy, v. 1: Legacy

Collects: Guardians of the Galaxy v. 2 #1-6 (2008)

Released: March 2009 (Marvel)

Format: 152 pages / color / $16.99 / ISBN: 9780785133384

What is this?: In the wake of the Annihilation events, Star-Lord puts together a “proactive” team to fight cosmic menaces and repair damage.

The culprits: Writers Dan Abnett and Andy Lanning and penciler Paul Pelletier

I’ve always felt Marvel should do more with their cosmic characters. I wasn’t sure what, exactly, but there was a great big universe out there in which tell stories — any kind of story you wanted, really, with at least a dozen characters Marvel fans were familiar with. But for a decade after Jim Starlin’s Infinity series, there wasn’t much — no Silver Surfer, very little Thanos, few (if any) events.

Then Marvel released their Annihilation crossovers, and I was happy they seemed well received, both critically and commercially. I didn’t particularly want to read long, involved space crossovers, but if they renewed interest in Marvel’s deep space program, then more power to them.

Guardians of the Galaxy, v. 1: Legacy coverBut when Marvel released Guardians of the Galaxy, v. 1: Legacy, I was intrigued. Playing off those crossovers, with characters who had been among their protagonists, Guardians was telling a new story going forward — more manageable, it seemed, than a sprawling crossover. I decided to get on board, and I’m glad I did.

First of all, the characters as written by Dan Abnett and Andy Lanning are fantastic. Rocket Raccoon is the most fun — how can a talking raccoon who blows up stuff not be? I enjoyed the bluntness / simplicity of Drax, and the telepathic Russian space dog Cosmo is a hoot as well. The other characters are also distinct: Star-Lord is a leader who may be over his head and might like the action a little too much, Gamora is deadly and sensual, the new Quasar is a new hero trying to connect with the father of her former girlfriend. (OK, they are well-worn character tropes — except for Quasar. Still, the old tropes can still work in the right situation.) I’m not sure about Warlock and Mantis, who don’t remind me of what I’ve seen of them in the past, but I’ll chalk that up to the Annihilation crossovers I haven’t read.

The idea of the team is a logical one — a proactive team to fight threats like the Annihilation wave and the Phalanx before they can commit genocide and to repair the damage those attacks did. Still, proactive teams never work in comics — well, rarely work. The Guardians’ standard heroic missions and fights against the Universal Church of Truth are entertaining, and although Skrulls are overexposed, the Skrull / Secret Invasion storyline that makes up the second half of Legacy succeeds; I especially like Drax’s method of rooting out Skrulls.

On the other hand, I am less enthused about Major Victory and Starhawk / One Who Knows (from the original Guardians) and Mantis’s heavy foreshadowing (if you can call blatant prophecy “foreshadowing”). I don’t care for playing with timelines — go read Exiles, if that’s your thing — and prophecies rarely turn out well, either for characters or writers. I am extremely uninterested in Star-Lord’s method of recruiting and a potential breakup of the team; the sooner the next volume is past that, the better.

Paul Pelletier’s pencils are great. The character designs are excellent, and their similarities show the team’s connections rather than being confusing or boring. Pelletier’s storytelling is great, and his art is sharp and beautiful. His aliens are imaginative, vibrant; he even makes each tentacled space beasts distinct.

My misgivings about the long-term plot threatened to lower my enthusiasm about the initial concept, but Pelletier’s art saves Legacy, pushing it past good into very good territory. I’m looking forward to the next volume of Guardians when it comes out in paperback (presumably in the fall; the hardback is already out out this week).

Rating: Marvel symbol Marvel symbol Marvel symbol Marvel symbol (4 of 5)

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23 May 2009

August 2009 solicitations

Is it solicitation time again? Prep the fog machines and cue the music:

For the first time that I can remember, I have no interest in buying anything Marvel’s putting out in a month. Marvel’s solicitations are clogged by “Dark Reign,” but two titles transform Marvel into the House of Dubious Ideas:

  • Marvel Masterworks: Deathlok, v. 1 (hardcover): I can see it, we’re almost there … yes, we’ve just scraped the bottom of the barrel. Marvel should be pleased: I’m sure all twelve hardcore Deathlok fans will shell out the steep Masterworks price for this one. $64.99
  • Marvel Bromance: No. Just … just … no. Has “Marvel Team-Up” become a code word for a homosexual relationship, so they had to use an incredibly stupid term to describe male friendship? I think this is a counterweight to Marvel-meets-Sex-in-the-City Marvel Divas. $24.99
  • Spider-Man / Mary Jane: ...You Just Hit the Jackpot: Some good stories here (and a few not-so-good stories), but is there something I’m missing? Has Mary Jane — oh, she’s making her return to Amazing Spider-Man in August. Be nice if the TPB solicit had mentioned that. $24.99
  • Our Essential for the month is Essential Marvel Team-Up, v. 3. Some good Claremont / Byrne stuff in there. I already have the issues, but if I didn’t, I would shell out $19.99 for it. Of course, it’s Marvel Team-Up, so I’m not sure it’s worth that much, but it will definitely be inoffensive and probably better than I remember.

At budget-conscious DC:

  • The Flash Chronicles, v. 1: Flash joins Batman, Superman, and Green Lantern in getting his story retold from the beginning in color and relatively inexpensively. Are there enough Flash fans out there to make it work? $14.99
  • Icon: A Hero’s Welcome: None of the other three companies on this list have anything like the Milestone imprint. Given that uniqueness, DC needs to do something with it. Keeping reprints of the flagship of the minority-heavy imprint available is the least of it. Also: Dwayne McDuffie and M.D. Bright working together. $19.99
  • The Showcase is Showcase Presents Warlord: Ostensibly, this is to support the new Warlord series, especially since both are written by Mike Grell. But wouldn’t it have made more sense to release this Showcase in the month the new Warlord launched, instead of when #5 comes out? Still, Showcases have two things Essentials do not: a $17.99 price tag (up a dollar, but still $2 below an Essential) and page numbers.
  • Peter & Max: A Fables Novel (hardcover): A Fables novel by Bill Willingham. An interesting idea, at least. Accompanying illustrations by Steve Leialoha. $22.99

Over at Dark Horse, where they’re keeping my interest by picking over the bones of Marvel when they’re not releasing Usagi Yojimbo volumes:

  • Chronicles of Conan, v. 18: Isle of the Dead and Other Stories: Entering an undistinguished patch of the series, this book marks Conan the Barbarian’s halfway point. Weird. Roy Thomas is gone, but John Buscema and Ernie Chan are still there, they’ve got the original covers now, and it’s a decent value — 200 pages for $17.95.
  • Groo Treasury, v. 1: This, on the other hand, is a fantastic value: 336 pages for $24.95. This has the pre-Marvel stuff mostly, with the six-issue Epic miniseries at the end. Also included are commentary and history. If you like sword-and-sorcery parody, this is for you. Get it.
  • The Umbrella Academy: Dallas: Gerard Way and Gabriel Ba’s second Umbrella Academy miniseries, in trade paperback. I haven’t read anything by Way, but both minis were well received. $17.95

For Image, there aren’t any collections I’m interested in, but I want to mention G-Man: Cape Crisis #1, the first issue of Chris Giarrusso’s five-issue miniseries with his own creation, G-Man. If you liked Mini Marvels, you’ll likely feel similarly about G-Man; you can find sample pages at the Image solicitation page. At an affordable $2.99, I might pick up the single issues instead of waiting for the trade.

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22 May 2009

Amazing Spider-Man: Brand New Day, v. 1

Collects: Amazing Spider-Man #546-51, Spider-Man: Swing Shift Director’s Cut, backup story from Venom Super Special #1 (1995, 2008)

Released: May 2008 (Marvel)

Format: 200 pages / color / $24.99 (hardcover) / ISBN: 9780785128434

What is this?: The first collection of post-reboot Spider-Man stories.

The culprits: Writers Dan Slott and Marc Guggenheim and pencilers Steve McNiven and Salvador Larrocca and friends

I’m going to get this out of the way now and then move on: Spider-Man’s “One More Day” was a stupid, stupid idea, as many others have pointed out more forcefully and in a more timely manner. Trading his marriage, his happiness, and his wife’s happiness to the devil for the life of a woman who has been terminally ill since about 1964 makes no sense; I’m sure Aunt May herself would have said, “Don’t be a halfwit, Peter.” And given that Aunt May tends to “die” every 200 issues anyway, well, I wouldn’t bet much on her surviving much past Amazing Spider-Man #600. And what the hell is Mephisto going to do with a marriage, anyway? It’s not a commodity you can sell or trade or even use as a stake in poker game.

That out of the way, I can move on — as Amazing Spider-Man itself did — to Amazing Spider-Man: Brand New Day, v. 1. In it, Peter Parker’s a hard-luck 20-something in New York City, trying to scrape by on a photographer’s income while also being an outlaw hero. His marriage with Mary Jane never happened; Harry Osborn is back from the dead, after bumming around Europe for a while (to be fair, that’s essentially how they brought back his father); and Peter Parker’s back to being a hard-luck superhero, poor and rootless.

Amazing Spider-Man: Brand New Day, v. 1 coverI came to Brand New Day with some misgivings, and I can’t say they were completely mollified. I admit there are some very good ideas here. The change of ownership at the Daily Bugle and Spider-Man’s interaction with superheroes who registered during Civil War are great plot directions; the subplot of a murder who puts Spider-tracers in the mouths of his victims is intriguing. The new villains were in the vein of Spider-Man’s old villains but without being too derivative. But this book seems all too pleased with itself sometimes, from Harry Osborn’s smug face to the Stan Lee-inspired editorial tags and narration. We’re going to back to the basics, it says, if we have to kill Stan Lee and Steve Ditko, dig up and zombify their corpses, and chain them to desks in the Marvel Bullpen so that you can get Spider-Man in the Mighty Marvel Manner!

In moving forward, Brand New Day is continually looking backwards, regressing Peter, rolling the clock back on his development, making Spider-Man a police suspect and Aunt May an activist (again), and generally trying to make it feel like the mid-‘80s (if not the ‘70s or Silver Age). But the past is gone. I am not interested in revamps, reboots (hard or soft), or reimaginings. Characters or the writers’ interpretations must grow and move forward if they’re to speak to new readers; if they don’t, the characters will die. Brand New Day wants to move forward, but it is determined to hold on to that past like a life preserver, little realizing it’s an anchor: it can steady you or give you hope, but it can’t support you.

And it’s a pity that overshadows the stories. Are they classic Spider-Man stories? Although they’re in that vein, they probably won’t feature in a Best of Spider-Man volume any time soon. But they are solid stories, with new and somewhat interesting villains (time will tell how interesting) doing unpredictable evil. There’s little confusion over the new continuity. Writers Dan Slott (Swing Shift, #546-8) and Marc Guggenheim (#549-51) do an imaginative job with the new Spider-Man setup. Editor Tom Brevoort’s manifesto, reprinted at the end of the book, has many excellent ideas: bringing back the supporting cast, creating new villains, sticking with consistent looks and characterizations on the old villains, making Spider-Man funny again. These are all excellent ideas, and they didn’t need a reboot to implement them. And the idea of the thrice-monthly Amazing with a regular rotation of writers and a head writer is an excellent plan; I hope sales remain strong enough to continue it.

Steve McNiven (#546-8) provides the pencils for the first arc, and Salvador Larroca draws the second half (#549-551). Neither really knocks me out, and I’m surprised that for such a high-profile storyline Marvel didn’t get bigger artists (nothing against McNiven or Larroca). I prefer McNiven, who seems to have a good sense of the kinetic nature of Spider-Man and gets the interesting challenge of drawing the chromatically reversed Mr. Negative. Larroca’s art seems stiffer and puffier, although that may be a result of the off-putting coloring, which seems to go out of its way to refuse to show any vibrancy. The names of the artists involved in smaller roles are better known to me: Phil Jimenez on Swing Shift and Greg Land, Phil Winslade, and Mike Deodato on some backups. John Romita, Jr., illustrates a two-page summary of the new continuity at the beginning of the story. For completists, Mark Bagley is the artist for Slott’s first Spider-Man story, a forgettable backup from Venom Super Special #1 reprinted at the end of the book.

After reading Brand New Day, I have a new respect for X-Men: Messiah CompleX. I enjoyed Brand New Day much more — much, much more, really — but as I said in the Messiah CompleX review, that book works better as a statement of what’s to come than as a book. Messiah CompleX says the future’s going to be different that what you’ve seen, so you better pay attention. Brand New Day says the future’s going to be a lot like the past, so if you want to take a snooze, you probably won’t miss much. For that reason, they average out to about the same rating.

Rating: Spider-Man symbol Spider-Man symbol Spider-Man symbol (3 of 5)

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19 May 2009

X-Men: Messiah CompleX

Collects: X-Men: Messiah CompleX, Uncanny X-Men #492-4, X-Men # 205-7, New X-Men v. 2 #44-6, and X-Factor #25-7 (2007-8)

Released: October 2008 (Marvel)

Format: 352 pages / color / $29.99 / ISBN: 9780785123200

What is this?: A massive X-Men crossover in which the X-Men, Marauders, Cable, Bishop, and the Purifiers all fight over the first mutant baby born since M-Day.

The culprits: An accomplished crossover crew, including writers Ed Brubaker, Mike Carey, Peter David, Chris Yost, and Craig Kyle and pencilers Billy Tan, Chris Bachalo, Humberto Ramos, and Scot Eaton

I haven’t read much of the X-Men titles since the “House of M” event — haven’t read anything other than X-Factor and Astonishing X-Men, really, since Grant Morrison left New X-Men. (Also: X-Men: Deadly Genesis, which left me less than eager to read anything else with Ed Brubaker’s fingerprints on it.) But my local library’s getting in all sorts of titles, and this gives me a chance to read X-Men: Messiah CompleX and feel like a Usenet dino.

X-Men was better in the old days! Well, I’ve got that out of my system now.

X-Men: Messiah CompleX cover For those of us who have been away, Messiah CompleX (man, do I hate that terminal capital “X”) is not a jumping on point. It sets up plots for the foreseeable future, yes, but it’s an exercise in clearing out the old. If you’re coming in with no knowledge of the X-Men — or if your knowledge is out of date — you’re going to be a little confused. Who are these New X-Men, and what can they do? Why are they so angry? Why do they die so easily? And why was Cable thought dead? Why does Bishop have a superplane? What happened to Cyclops’s father? There really aren’t any footnotes, although some of the information is given in context (eventually) and some of it doesn’t matter. Still, the New X-Men seem bolted onto the crossover awkwardly, and they aren’t very well explained, despite playing an important part in the crossover.

If you’re looking for action, Messiah CompleX has it. A new mutant baby is born —the first since the Scarlet Witch decreed “No more mutants” — and all the groups concerned with mutants want the baby: the X-Men to protect it, Mr. Sinister’s Marauders to control it, the Purifiers to kill it, the intensely stupid “Predator X” to eat it, and Cable to take it to the future. This gives rise to an intense level of action: the fighting is nearly non-stop, with numerous casualties. By the end, there’s a very real possibility the reader will be numb to the carnage; the number of mutants who are dead, dying, or deactivated is astonishing, given the restricted number of mutants at today’s Marvel.

The coordination of the crossover is a cut above what I’m used to; perhaps Marvel learned something about how to make the edges more seamless during the past decade. Writers Ed Brubaker, Peter David, and Mike Carey and New X-Men co-writers Craig Kyle and Chris Yost do an admirable job writing a story in which the chapters and characterizations don’t contradict each other. This is partly because the big revelations from the ancillary titles, X-Factor and New X-Men, largely happen in those titles. Still, everyone seems to do at least a passable job with the other writers’ characters, and that’s a real accomplishment.

I never thought I’d see the day when Chris Bachalo and Humberto Ramos would be penciling half a major X-Men crossover. Both are good artists but decidedly non-standard; I don’t think either is particularly “hot,” the kind of sought-after artist who makes the lists on Wizard. I’m not sure whether this represents a changing aesthetic on the X-titles or if it’s attributable to the X-titles’ loss of prestige over the years.27 As I said, both are decent artists, with Bachalo keeping his more eccentric tics under control this time around. I can’t tell whether Xavier disappearing at the end is an art mistake by Bachalo or a plot point, though. Ramos … Ramos is an artist who divides fans, and with good reason. I think his exaggerated figures are better suited for a more lighthearted title — I think he was a good fit for Paul Jenkins’s Spider-Man work a few years ago — but Messiah CompleX is not lighthearted at all. I believe Ramos can do serious stuff, but there are times his characters look more comically panicked than stressed, and his tough guys (and gals) will never look as tough as a more realistic artist’s.

The other half of the art is from Scot Eaton, who draws Forge as Robert Downey, Jr., and Billy Tan. The contrast between the two halves is extreme. Tan and Eaton draw a shiny, glossy world where everyone is pretty and even the dirt is attractive, and Bachalo and Ramos create a misshapen setting where even the bondage models are strangely offputting. All of them do a good job — well, except perhaps Marc Silvestri, who’s even more pretty and streamlined than Tan or Eaton in the Messiah CompleX one shot and manages to draw Wolverine with a hint of androgyny — but the differences are startling. Personally, for this crossover, I think I prefer Bachalo and Ramos’s side of the divide, since this is a gritty, not pretty, story. This flies in the face of my usual preference for attractive, clean art, but I realize that’s not appropriate for every comic book.

The blurb on the back cover quotes IGN as saying Messiah CompleX is “easily the best X-Men crossover in a decade.” Assuming the quote is in context — and Marvel has a bit of history of using out-of-context quotes — they’re not exactly setting the bar very high, are they? They’re competing against “Endangered Species,” which ran as backups in the books in 2007; “Eve of Destruction,” which led to the Morrison / Casey reign on the X-Titles; “Dream’s End,” the swan song to Chris Claremont redux; the Apocalypse crossovers of 1999; and various late ‘90s forgettables such as “Hunt for Xavier” and “Magneto War” and various two-parters. “Operation: Zero Tolerance” sneaks in as well; “O:ZT” is one of the few major crossovers during that span, and it’s one of the prime reasons the X-titles shied away from the megacrossovers. None of them will ever be held up against “Mutant Massacre” or “Fall of the Mutants” as a high point of the X-Men. Hell, I wouldn’t say any of them were any better than “X-Cutioner’s Song” of ’92-3, although I admit I haven’t read “Endangered Species.”

As a volume, Messiah CompleX is mediocre — it misses the sweet spot between ultraviolence and story development by a decent margin. It does, however, deliver violent action until you can’t stand it no more. As a statement, a manifesto, it’s much better. It puts a violent, definite end to the past and says the future will be different, something at odds with the directionless wandering of the last few years or the warmed-over Claremont that marked the ‘90s. Whether that future will be better (or even readable) remains to be seen.

Rating: X-Men symbol X-Men symbol X-Men symbol (3 of 5)

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15 May 2009

X-Men: The Complete Onslaught Epic, Book 1

Collects: X-Men #53-4, Uncanny X-Men #334-5, Fantastic Four #415, Avengers #401, Onslaught: X-Men, Cable #34, and Incredible Hulk #444 (1996)

Released: February 2008 (Marvel)

Format: 256 pages / color / $29.99 / ISBN: 9780785128236

What is this?: Behold my mighty hand! Onslaught’s true name is revealed, and he begins his slow, ponderous march across the Marvel Universe.

The culprits: Too many to name or punish.

X-Men: The Complete Onslaught Epic coverI remember the Onslaught “Epic”; although I did not behold his mighty hand first hand until years later, I watched the story unfold from the safety of Usenet in 1996. There was some excitement at the time, since the identity of the X-Traitor would finally be revealed and a big summer crossover would sprawl before the reading public. I don’t know that anyone was expecting it to be any good, though.

That was fortunate, since the crossover was widely panned at the time. But how does it stack up more than a decade later?

About as badly as you might expect. Wisely, the setup for the Onslaught storyline is omitted in X-Men: The Complete Onslaught Epic, Book 1. It was too large and too confusing; the writers admitted they changed the direction of the storyline and at times were working blind. But it’s helpfully referenced in footnotes (when you can read the footnotes, which are often the same color as the text-box background).

The text balloons! They’re everewhere!The plot has the X-Men discovering the identity of the ultra-powerful psychic entity Onslaught, who happens to be one of their own; once he’s flushed out, Onslaught starts gathering his power by collecting Franklin Richards and brainwashing the Hulk. There’s unrealized menace and handwringing and angst and oh God text balloons everywhere. You might expect better from writer Mark Waid; keep right on expecting, because you’re not going to find it here. Waid wasn’t happy with the direction of the X-books or the freedom he was given; that probably explains the wretched pile of X-cess he and fellow writer Scott Lobdell handed in to editor Bob Harras — or maybe Harras ordered them to give him that. I don’t know.

Here’s what happens over 250+ pages and eight issues (plus a larger special issue):

  • Buildup to the revelation (Onslaught taunts Jean, Juggernaut punchy-punchies his way into the Mansion) (X-Men #53-4 and Uncanny #334)
  • Revelation — which was completely obvious by this time — plus fight (Onslaught: X-Men)
  • Yak with the Avengers, during which nothing happens (Uncanny #335)
  • Cable and a mind-controlled Hulk punch each other (Cable #34 and Incredible Hulk #444)
  • Joseph (who was thought to be Magneto) introduced to the plot, for non-obvious reasons (Avengers #401)
  • Onslaught kidnaps Franklin Richards (Fantastic Four #414)

The pacing is appalling. Interestingly, the ancillary titles actually have a decent pace — well, all right, two issues for a Cable / Hulk fight is excessive, but I’ll blame that on Cable. None of them stand out as particularly good examples of the comic book arts; even Hulk, written by Peter David, is sapped of all its individuality by the crossover. They’re either padded or unremarkable large-scale fight scenes.

Orange milkThe art is all over the place, but fortunately, since it’s the X-titles of the mid-‘90s, Marvel had a lot of their best working on this crossover. The two X-Men issues feature the flashy if a bit underdeveloped early Andy Kubert, while the Uncanny pencils are from the manga-influenced Joe Madureira. These work together about as well as you might expect. Kubert and Dan Green get the important X-Men: Onslaught issue; Green’s work resembled John Romita Jr. at the time, and Green had been an X-Men artist earlier in the decade. Interestingly, there are parts that look like the work of neither, but whyever that is, I’m sure the orange milk isn’t either’s fault.

But with the crossover issues, you have the early Mike Deodato on Avengers, which I didn’t care for, and Carlos Pacheco’s early American work on Fantastic Four. Then to end it you have the pretty-but-stiff Ian Churchill on Cable and the hideously unattractive work of Angel Medina on Incredible Hulk. (Those last two are one hell of a whiplash, I can tell you, since they are linked and back to back in the collection.) It’s a real mishmash with the ancillary issues added in. There’s nothing that can be done about it now, and it doesn’t detract from the readability (except for Medina’s work), but it’s a real range of styles.

Behold my mighty hand!The back cover and indicia claim Book 1 contains Fantastic Four #414 and Avengers #400; it doesn’t. There’s only a page from each of these comics in this book, and it’s deceptive to claim otherwise. (It’s the same practice that allows retailers to claim X-Men Visionaries: Jim Lee TPB has Uncanny X-Men #252, 254, 260-1, 264, 280, and 286 when in fact the book contains only the covers from those issues.) On the other hand, it’s better information than you can get on the Internet. The usually reliable (and invaluable) Unofficial Handbook of Marvel Comics Creators claims X-Force #57 and X-Man #18 are included as well; they are not. makes the same claim, as does Amazon. In fact, wherever you look on the Internet, the listed contents of the four volumes in the series are contradictory or overlapping. (If anyone knows the true contents of these volumes, leave them in the comments.)

Much as you’d expect, the Onslaught crossover is best experienced through Wikipedia. Read X-Men: The Complete Onslaught Epic, Book 1, at your own risk.

Rating: X-Men symbol (1 of 5)

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12 May 2009

Son of M

Collects: Son of M #1-6 (2006)

Released: August 2006 (Marvel)

Format: 144 pages / color / $13.99 / ISBN: 9780785119708

What is this?: Pietro Maximoff, the former mutant Quicksilver, attempts to regain his lost powers after his sister declares “No more mutants.”

The culprits: Writer David Hine and artist Roy Allan Martinez

Pietro Maximoff — the mutant known as Quicksilver — isn’t exactly a frontline character. He’s been prominent in a few team books: the ‘90s, Peter-David X-Factor and early, Cap’s-Kooky-Quartet Avengers. He even had a short-lived series in the wake of Heroes Reborn in the mid-‘90s. But he was always overshadowed by his sister, the long-time Avenger Scarlet Witch, and his father, mutant despot / liberator Magneto.

But with mutants no longer a force for the world and the Scarlet Witch missing after the “House of M” crossover, Pietro was all that was left. Son of M shows Pietro in the days after the Scarlet Witch’s reality altering leaves the world with fewer than 200 mutants and many more former mutants. Pietro’s one of those former mutants, but unlike the rest of them, who seem to be taking their loss placidly, Pietro not only wants to do something about it, he can do something about it: use his contacts with the Inhumans (his estranged wife, Crystal) to be exposed to the Terrigen Mists, which gives the Inhumans their enhanced powers and physiology.

Son of M cover The central plot, dealing with the return of the mutants’ lost powers, is something that had to be done somewhere, and Pietro — impatient, haughty, superior mutant and son-of-Magneto Pietro — was the perfect person to do it. His grief over losing his powers feels real, and his desire to help other mutants is in keeping with his character. The Inhuman who helps Pietro’s schemes is made more than just a dupe; he has an agenda of his own. And Spider-Man’s grief and outrage of having his perfect life given and then yanked away — by Pietro and his sister — was something that needed to be addressed; a son who no longer exists and discovering his ideal wife is his dead girlfriend (and not his wife) is a kick in the pants that needed to be addressed.

The mechanics of the plot, however, seem to have left a little less time for the human drama. Crystal goes from worried about Pietro to suspicious and disinterested in him in just a few pages. Crystal and Magneto, who should be major players in the family drama get perhaps less time and characterization than they might deserve. We see little set up for the discontent that allows Pietro to find a collaborator. I think some of the time given to setting up the following miniseries, Silent War, could have been better used for that purpose, but I admit that since I didn’t plot it, I might not appreciate how difficult that would have been. In any event, the Inhumans’ declaration of war was a neat moment.

I do not care for the art of Roy Allan Martinez. He gives everything a worn, ill-fitting look, and the pale palette supplied by colorist Pete Pantazis doesn’t help matters. On the other hand, worn and ill-fitting is a look that’s appropriate for the former mutants, and Martinez’s art does help make the confusing time-travel scenes understandable. So while I really don’t like his work, I can’t say it’s bad.

I didn’t enjoy this book as much as I should have. Hine does a good job telling the story, despite my quibbles, and it’s a story that desperately needed to be told after Marvel’s X-Men staff dropped the ball on the “House of M” fallout. But Martinez’s art … looking at it hurts my eyes. There’s something about his light line and oddly shaped (almost Quitely-shaped) faces that crosses signals in my brain and brings on almost a synesthetic distress. I can’t quite figure it out, and I’m sure most people will not have a similar reaction. I only know I’m probably not going read it again, although I probably will read Silent War.

Rating: Marvel symbol Marvel symbol Marvel symbol (3 of 5)

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08 May 2009

Justice League of America, v. 3: The Injustice League

Collects: Justice League of America (v. 2) #13-6, Justice League of America Wedding Special #1 (2007-8)

Released: June 2008 (DC)

Format: 144 pages / color / $19.99 / ISBN: 9781401218027

What is this?: The Justice League comic crossed with the Superfriends and Justice League Unlimited cartoons — no Wonder Twins, though

The culprits: Writer Dwayne McDuffie and pencils by Ed Benes, Joe Benitez, and Mike McKone

I stay away from the mainstream DC universe because experience and other reviews have told me that they are so mired in continuity that they border on incomprehensible. But I have a soft spot for writer Dwayne McDuffie, and Justice League of America, v. 3: The Injustice League looked isolated enough, so I decided to take a chance.

The good news is that Injustice League requires almost no knowledge of DC history to enjoy, except perhaps that Green Arrow and Black Canary are getting married, but you can figure that out for yourself. The bad news is that Injustice League breaks no new ground, re-treading plots seen before while making the heroes seem not too terribly bright.

I will admit there are some fun parts. McDuffie is a good writer, and his script (if not plot) often shows it. The Wedding Special, with its infuriatingly superior Batman, is a nice touch, and the banter between Black Lightning (who McDuffie does well) and Jon Stewart is fun as well. McDuffie, who was also a writer for the animated Justice League and Justice League Unlimited, does a good job with a large cast, something that can be very difficult.

Justice League of America: Injustice League coverBut Injustice League seems a little backwards looking to me. (And not just because of Benes’s art; zing!) It’s a simple, old-school plot: villains team up to take on heroes, capture the heroes, then screw up by not killing them. There are the rivalries between villains and between heroes and villains. Worst of all, Injustice League seems to take great pride in copying their animated television library. The Hall of Doom, looking exactly like it did in the Superfriends cartoon, gets a double-page spread at one point: Nothing else on the page, just a drawing of building that looks vaguely like Darth Vader’s helmet sitting in a swamp, for no other reasons than to help fanboys who don’t have access to Viagra. The composition of the League is more like the Secret Society of Justice League Unlimited, a large consortium of supervillains joining up to have a chance against the heroes. And then there’s Amanda Waller, also prominently from JLU, showing up to unnerve the heroes and take the captured villains off for some nefarious purpose.

I like the scene at the beginning, with Joker, Lex Luthor, and Cheetah (Cheetah? Really? Needed a Wonder Woman villain, I suppose) selecting the new Injustice League, but even that’s relying on the past, as it mimics the Justice League’s big three selecting the new Justice League at the beginning of v. 2. The difference is, of course, that judging from the size of the new Injustice League, they really weren’t that picky. I also don’t care for the little epigrams at the beginning of each issue; I don’t need my morals spoonfed to me in little yellow text boxes. (Like metal spoons and caviar, it affects the taste.)

Four issues in the main story, three different artists, three different flavors of cheesecake. Normally, I like variety, but not in this case. Look, these are competent artists, but they do have differing styles, and I’d at least like to get used to how females are exploited without having it shifted so quickly. Ed Benes likes him some female buttock — there’s a double page spread where he gets to draw nearly full-page versions of Vixen and Black Canary with their posteriors toward the reader, with a bonus of Wonder Woman spread eagled facing the reader. When he needs to, he contorts the bodies painfully to get a backside view. Joe Benitez seems to like his females standing on their tiptoes, plus he gets to draw a lot of Black Canary in her fishnets. Mike McKone didn’t really have that option. He has to settle for plot-mandated shots of Cheetah’s chest, plot-mandated strippers, and … all right, I’m unfairly lumping McKone in with the other two. Still, he only gets the Special, while Benitez gets #13 and Benes #14-5.

The two backups from JLA #16 strike me as inconsequential. One abandons a cop to an alternate universe and introduces an alternate universe Flash, leaving her lying on the page, without any resolution, characterization, or reason to care; Benitez doesn’t get any women on their tiptoes (plenty of Black Canary, though), but he does get to draw an extremely vacuous, naïve-looking female Flash. In the other, Red Arrow makes a former felon’s Christmas by remembering the old man used to try to kill him. It takes all sorts, I suppose.

This is not bad by any means. If you’re reading Justice League, this is just another volume, and it’s not one that is awful or disappointing. The problem lies with the potential; a huge group of villains against a smaller group of heroes could be pyrotechnic or at least exciting. But McDuffie doesn’t do anything spectacular with the concept, and he doesn’t do much new. I realize he might be setting up future stories, but honestly, even setup should be entertaining in its own way.

Rating: Justice League symbol Justice League symbol (2 of 5)

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Another excuse

I missed putting up a review; a special review will be up tomorrow. You, the loyal reader, deserve a better excuse than “my personal life was crazy” or “I was crushed by the amount of work I had to do this week.” Frankly, you can get those kind of excuses anywhere, and we all know they’re lies, just excuses for being too lazy to put in the kind of quality work an unpaid “labor of love” deserves. So you get a better excuse. Like this one:

I didn’t write an excuse for not posting a review on Tuesday.

I don’t think it needs to be excused.

I was on my decennial trek to Mt. Belmont, where I went through several trials to purge my guilt and obligations. I sat in the rain for hours until a disembodied voice from the heavens told me I could leave. I toured the overpriced markets and bazaars and had to resist purchasing items. I studied. I meditated. I slept in strange beds, ate food I prepared myself, and learned to conquer my fears.

And then I returned home, and I’m already covered with guilt and obligations again. Which is a shame, but there will be a review up today. Probably.

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01 May 2009

Blade, v. 1: Undead Again

Collects: Blade (v. 4) #1-6 (2006-7)

Released: (Marvel)

Format: 144 pages / color / $14.99 / ISBN: 9780785123644

What is this?: Blade gets his own series (again!)! Bet you can’t contain yourself, huh?

The culprits: Writer Marc Guggenheim and artist Howard Chaykin

Of all the characters there could have been to break the Marvel movie jinx, you wouldn’t expect it to have been Blade. He was a supporting character in Tomb of Dracula and had never been that popular. When the first Blade movie came out in 1998, Blade had managed to support one solo series, which ran ten issues in 1994-5. After the movie, Marvel tried two miniseries, one of three issues and the other with six. Neither did well enough to inspire an ongoing series. After the second movie in 2002, they tried again, and another ongoing lasted another six issues.

Whatever appeal a half-vampire vampire hunter has on the big screen, it wasn’t translating onto the page. Perhaps it’s just that people wanted to see Wesley Snipes in a black trenchcoat and fangs. Stranger things have happened. But Marvel was banking on being able to capture that movie audience when it started (yet another) series starring Blade in 2006. Perhaps the fourth time’s the charm, they might have thought.

 coverWell, no, it wasn’t, but we’re left with the results, Blade, v. 1: Undead Again. Marvel tapped television and comics writer Marc Guggenheim to draw in the untapped market. And he tries very hard.

Too hard, in fact. In the first two issues, Blade fights Dracula, a vampiric Spider-Man, a helicarrier full of vampiric SHIELD agents, and Doombots aplenty. He seems to have very little trouble taking them out — even Buffy would be ashamed of how easily those vampires are going down. Dracula, in fact, seems like an afterthought, whereas in Tomb of Dracula all those years ago, he was at the end of a long quest(s). Guggenheim seems to be desperately trying to convince us Blade is awesome, when in fact, he’s convinced us he’s cheating. I mean, Doombots? The man should not be fighting Doombots! Especially not multiple ones! They can’t be staked, and they should be bulletproof and fistproof.

Blade also gets caught up in Secret Invasion, drafted into working for SHIELD; the less said of that, the better. Fortunately, it only takes up part of one issue.

Anyway. Guggenheim also decides we need to see Blade’s past. On one hand, that’s an interesting idea; I’ve never really wondered about what his past must be like, but there’s certainly some unexplored ground there. But there’s no reason for shocking revelations, especially when those revelations come across as ... well, unnecessary. His father being a (white) Latverian noble, who was turned into a vampire, seems weird and uncomfortable rather than intriguing. Why do such a thing? It’s surprising, yes; it’s not really interesting.

Yellow Kid as vampireExploring Blade’s past does lead to some interesting stories — a meeting with Wolverine, learning of how he became a vampire hunter, his training. (If you’re long-lived in the Marvel Universe, you probably met Wolverine before he became a hero. It’s just the law of averages, really.) In fact, after the first two issues, what with their rampant destruction and Latveria and Doombots, the story settles into an interesting groove.

Blade goes on a date, and his cover is blown after he’s arrested for murdering a vampire. He fights a demon who can jump from person to person. He fights Wolverine — that’s someone who is in his league. Half the stories in the book are interesting, combining vampire-fighting stories of a type I haven’t seen before with flashbacks to what made Blade Blade.

I’m not a fan of Howard Chaykin’s art, but I can’t deny he’s an excellent storyteller. There is little doubt about what happens in Undead Again, the characters are clearly delineated, and the action scenes are clear. (I also like using a monstrous “Yellow Kid” as a vampire during Blade’s youth.) However, I really wish he’d realize most heads are not thumb shaped.

There is a core of good stories here, and if it had stuck with them, the series might have been very good. But it tried for bigger things — bigger villains, bigger stories, bigger surprises without setting them up. So it failed.

Rating: Stake symbol Stake symbol (2 of 5)

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