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

26 February 2010

X-Men Forever, v. 1: Picking Up Where We Left Off

Collects: X-Men Forever #1-5 (2009)

Released: October 2009 (Marvel)

Format: 120 pages / color / $16.99 / ISBN: 9780785136798

What is this?: Chris Claremont writes early ‘90s X-Men two decades later.

The culprits: Writer Chris Claremont and artist Tom Grummett

Marvel has a love / hate relationship with writer Chris Claremont’s relationship with the X-Men.

They have continually touted his work on Uncanny X-Men as a tour de force ever since he left / was forced out. They love to tease his return, that he’s going to take them all back to the glory days of the late ‘80s. They allowed him to return to Wolverine for a few issues in the late ’90s. Then they actually gave him control of Uncanny X-Men and X-Men for a year or so around 2000. Since then, he’s worked on Exiles and various out-of-continuity miniseries — letting him play with knockoff X-Men but making sure none of it matters.

And the latest iteration of that plan is X-Men Forever, v. 1: Picking up Where We Left Off, which is supposed to allow Claremont to write stories as if he never left the X-Men.

X-Men Forever, v. 1: Picking up Where We Left Off coverStill, that rings hollow. The title is false advertising. Aside from the “never standing in the same river twice” school of thought — in this case, never being able to read the same Claremont you grew up with — this doesn’t really follow X-Men #3 / Uncanny X-Men #280, which is where Claremont left. Nightcrawler and Shadowcat are inexplicably back from Excalibur. Jean and Wolverine have some sort of love connection that certainly wasn’t there when Claremont left. SHIELD has wormed its way into the X-Men. As Paul O’Brien and others have pointed out, artist Tom Grummett isn’t the sort of ‘90s / Image artist X-Men would have had back then. And this doesn’t exactly jibe with the hints Claremont has given in interviews about the direction he would have gone in if he had been allowed to continue.

But none of that affects how good this story is — or should affect that. Unfortunately, it does color it a little. Claremont is … well, he is as he is today, which is to say his dialogue sounds like him and not that much like different characters. Even Beast sounds like everyone else. On the other hand, the plotting in this first TPB is nothing like classic Claremont — rapid changes out of nowhere, with seemingly little buildup or warning. That’s a function, in many cases, of the abrupt nature of the mandate — here, pick up a story you started 20 years ago, but remember, we don’t have time for that quick buildup crap — but it still rankles.

It doesn’t surprise me that it took me this long to comment on the actual story. (That’s the way it is with Claremont these days; he comes with so much baggage that the story seems almost secondary.) It starts with a fight with Fabian Cortez, which is a direction that flows from X-Men #3, but that just serves to set up Claremont’s new / old team. Once the story gets going, it’s somewhat enjoyable, with a double agent in the X-Men, a new villainous organization, and a death on the team. I’m not convinced by any of the individual revelations — who dies, who the double agent is, Shadowcat’s new power, why I should care about Sabretooth being blinded when he has a healing factor, etc. Still, it seems like an interesting framework to hang a story on.

As I said, Grummett is nothing like the Jim Lee / Whilce Portacio artists who worked with Claremont at the end of his run. I’m not complaining; I like Grummett’s work, solid as it is. It feels like it has real weight, and it’s very good at telling the story while giving the characters their classic looks. I also have to give credit to colorist Wilfredo Quintana, whose work seems bright enough for the nostalgia without letting it overwhelm the scenes.

There’s a decent amount of promise in the first volume of X-Men Forever, and I think fans who were heartbroken by Claremont’s exit from the X-Men and his successors’ efforts will find a lot to like here. I see it too, but I can’t say that it’s enough to make me want to return to the title. There are too many things that pluck at my mind, drawing me out of the story. Maybe Claremont just needs time to settle down, maybe this is just a bump in the road … but I’m not sure I want to spend another $17 to figure it out.

Rating: X-Men symbol X-Men symbol (2 of 5)

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20 February 2010

Birds of Prey, v. 4: The Battle Within

Collects: Birds of Prey #76-85 (2005)

Released: October 2006 (DC)

Format: 240 pages / color / $17.99 / ISBN: 9781401210960

What is this?: The Birds go after violent femme vigilantes, and then everyone tries to stop the Singapore-to-Gotham drug pipeline.

The culprits: Writer Gail Simone

I have been meaning to write about Birds of Prey, v. 4: The Battle Within for a couple of months now, but something always gets in the way: a Snowpocalypse, a Human Target, something. And now, here I am, getting to write about it, and I can’t quite remember what I was going to say in the first place.

Birds of Prey, v. 4: The Battle Within coverI remember being slightly disappointed by Battle when I first read it. Looking over it now, I can’t quite see why. Battle is a heck of a value: ten issues for $17.99. (I tend to say this with the DC books I review but rarely the Marvel books.) It really feels like you’re getting two books in one with this one — and I mean that literally: #76-80 makes up one book, and #81-5 is a completely different storyline. Although it gives the reader more for the dollar, it does take away from a dramatic departure at the end of the first storyline. (On the other hand, that character stays in the book, if not always with the team, so the departure isn’t that big of a cliffhanger.)

The plot seems a little thin in places. The first half of the book follows the Birds as they hunt down female vigilantes; as Oracle later notes, they get a win, a draw, and a loss, and I don’t know that that speaks all that well of the team. Although there are some chances to work some obvious parallels in those five issues, I feel those opportunities were missed. The second half involves stopping a Singaporean drug supplier and an attempt to infiltrate the Gotham mob. The stateside story works fine, but the Singapore side seems too steeped in “honor” stereotypes for me to get into. And I still don’t buy Oracle’s cyberinterface or its complications, which are resolved way too easily here.

Writer Gail Simone keeps the team humming along. The dialogue is excellent, especially when Simone stays away from the sappy moments. Zinda (Lady Blackhawk), who was introduced last volume, shows why she’s part of the team; Simone never forgets that Zinda is both from a different time and very good at what she does, and she manages to get those characteristics across to readers without banging them over the head with it. (I think Zinda is my favorite Bird now.) Simone keeps track of her loose ends and keeps the reader feeling like it’s the characters, not the team or the book’s gimmick, that matters. Simone also uses the DC Universe to her advantage, bringing in characters that advance the storyline without letting those characters overwhelm her story.

The good news: this is the end of Ed Benes’s run on the title. If you’ve read my previous reviews of Birds of Prey, you might remember my complaints about his cheesecake art. Nothing changes about that here: he’s a good artist who lets his predilection for certain parts of pretty ladies show through too much.

Black Canary, Bennett styleHis job is taken over by Joe Bennett, who draws five of the remaining eight issues in Battle. He draws action scenes pretty well, which is good, because he gets to draw a lot of them in Battle. I never warmed to his style, however; his women lack well-defined noses, have slack, open mouths, and generally don’t have much expression on their faces. They look a little like blow-up dolls, to be frank. I really like the art from Joe Prado, who draws a slightly scratchy #76, featuring the Birds vs. a Goth teenage Wicca with real power, and Tom Derenick, who draws #77-8 in a style more than slightly reminiscent of Sal Buscema, whom I never get tired of.

I suppose that feeling of disappointment I remember comes from being slightly underwhelmed by the story. Simone’s characters and dialogue once again meet my high expectations, but I miss the feeling of a deeper plot. Huntress’s storyline is a move in the right direction, and it might be even better in the next volume, but it isn’t quite there yet. I suppose I also didn’t care for the heaviest artistic workloads being given to my least favorite of the four pencilers.

Although, if I had paid for Battle rather than checking it out of the library, I suppose getting so much story for so little might have mitigated those feelings.

Rating: DC logo DC logo Half DC symbol (2.5 of 5)

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17 February 2010

The Quarter Bin: War Is Hell: The First Flight of the Phantom Eagle #1

Trade paperbacks and — God forbid — hardbacks are a big risk; dropping $14.99 to $34.99 on material you’re not sure about can lead to buyer’s remorse and bitter, bitter recriminations. Why didn’t someone warn you that Captain America and the Falcon, v. 1: Two Americas was so bad? A sample would have warned you, but you had to order the whole thing.

Well, I’m not made of money either. So I’m trying out that sampling approach in what I hope will be a new feature, The Quarter Bin. Recent comics that have lower promotional prices, are Free Comic Book Day giveaways, or I have found in that holy of holies, the Quarter Bin, get a quick review and a recommendation on whether it might be worthwhile to pick up the trade. So, without further ado, we have …

The Issue: War Is Hell: The First Flight of the Phantom Eagle #1 (May 2008, Marvel)

The Culprits: Written by Garth Ennis, art by Howard Chaykin

The Hook: Garth Ennis retells the origin of the Phantom Eagle, a German World War I flier who bluffs his way into a British squadron

Collected in: Hardcover ($24.99, $18.99 at Amazon) and paperback ($19.99, $15.59 at Amazon)

War Is Hell: The First Flight of the Phantom Eagle #1Strengths: This is a Garth Ennis war story. You probably already have an inkling on whether you like that or not. It involves blowing someone’s “fun” expectations of war all to hell, experienced soldiers making wry comments about men dying, and a generous helping of mutilated human flesh. The deaths in the issue are unexpected but not quite out of character. The period and the setting feel authentic, although my idea of “authentic” is influenced by mass media influences. Howard Chaykin’s art does capture the brutality of air combat.

Weaknesses: The detached and alcoholic characters whom the Phantom Eagle meets when he joins the squadron seem a bit stock. I have no idea why a World War I pilot, born in Germany, would be singing a song most associated with the American Civil War. The humor seems a bit too understated; if it’s meant to work against the grimness of the material, it doesn’t quite work. I don’t care for Chaykin’s art at all, as the characters look stiff, the non-death scenes are visually dull, and he makes everyone’s face look filthy; that last is understandable for pilots in open cockpit planes, but not so much for officers on the ground.

Mitigation: The book is called War Is Hell; of course there are going to be stock characters. And it’s not like Chaykin’s given much to work with; it’s all conversations and plane flights. Many people who know about comic art will probably enjoy Chaykin’s art, as my particular preferences get in the way.

Judgment: Ennis has a good track record with war stories and a sense of humor that marries well with violence. On the other hand, Phantom Eagle seems a bit less than unmissable — there are plenty of other Ennis war stories to select from, and most of them aren’t saddled with being a reimagining of a Marvel title.

Hardcover, TPB, or Nothing?: I could see myself buying the TPB, although I’m not exactly rushing out to buy it.

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12 February 2010

Human Target (TV show)

The Show: Human Target

Premiere: 17 January 2010 (Fox)

Format: Hour-long TV series, Wednesdays at 8 (7 Central)

What is this?: A bodyguard with a shady past helps people.

The culprits: Mark Valley as Christopher Chance, the Human Target; Chi McBride as Winston, his manager; and Jackie Earle Haley as Guerrero, a psychopathic freelance employee

I’m not sure why I decided to watch the first four episodes of Human Target. I’ve never read an issue of the DC comic starring the character; heck, I’ve never even seen an issue in which he’s been a supporting character. I’m certainly no fan.

Which is fortunate, because as noted elsewhere, Human Target is not distinctively like the comic book. Oh, sure, both feature bodyguards who flush out their clients’ attackers, but what set the comic book version apart was that Christopher Chance, the Human Target, was a master of disguise who could actually take the place of his client. On the TV show, he’s just a clever, athletic guy with a shady past. Frankly, unless Fox was in love with the name, the show could have been called anything and DC never would have had any reason to complain about infringement.

Human Target castSo, that out of the way, how does Human Target do with the premise it runs with? Fine, I suppose, although each episode has been a slow descent into forgettability. (There’s a reason I’m reviewing the first four episodes even though the fifth episode aired Wednesday.) The action is good enough, the character well enough defined (although not always compelling), and it has a bit of a sense of humor. But it never distinguishes itself by being very good at anything.

The pilot began with Chance protecting No. 6 (Battlestar Galactica’s Tricia Helfer), who is now a hotshot bullet train designer that someone wants dead. The action’s fun enough, and there’s a nice mystery element as well. But the action (and most of the episode) is confined to the train, and the mystery is solved by Rorschach (Jackie Earle Haley) off the train. Then, after that, they spend the entire next episode on a plane. (What’s next? A sub? A bus? Wait, I have it — a Winter Olympics tie-in with the entire episode being on bobsleds!) Then there’s the infiltration of a Russian embassy to save Dr. Simon Tam’s (Sean Maher) life and rescuing a criminal and a 1600-year-old document from an isolated monastery under assault by Ethan Rom (William Mapother) …

But even the writers seem to lose interest in those last two plots. There are many ways you can go with getting secret information at a party at the Russian embassy. Locked-room mystery? Wacky buddy comedy with the pretty FBI agent who wants the same information? Super spy sneaking around? No, the writers add in a slow-acting poison that can be quickly neutralized once the antidote is found. A monastery and a lost manuscript should be cool — you can go Dan Brown or Indiana Jones, whichever you prefer, or some other interesting way — but no, it’s just a straight hostage + MacGuffin setup.

Part of the problem is that there is no bite to any of the clients. Only Helfer has had any spark to her character; the rest were either anonymous or bland as Quaker Taste-Free Oatmeal (now with packets of brown!). That puts the onus on the main cast, which isn’t going to work. Valley brings bland handsomeness to the role, but Chance is meant not to be excitable (which also means, in practice, that when he’s not fighting, he’s not exciting — or interesting). Chi McBride is fine, but his character is straight from central casting: uptight manager guy who (although he never says this) is too old for this $&*#. Haley’s character is supposed to be an amusing, wry psychopath, but they forget to add the amusing. Or wry. For that matter, we don’t see him do much violent, except in the fourth episode. We mostly have to take his word for it that he’s actually a violent man.

And part of the problem is the writing. As I mention, the plots are dull, and they’re somewhat predictable. For instance, in the second episode, you have a computer programmer on an airplane. You know, as Chekov told us, that there must be a computer fired at the plane in the final act, and so it is. The humor, which is predicated on the uptight Winston being put in awkward or active situations or Rorschach acting like a jerk, mostly falls flat. I believe Chance had his sense of humor removed in order to make room for a working knowledge of Russian.

There was just enough to make me continue, despite the diminishing returns. Each episode has had an intriguing subplot. Why did Chance decide to become the Human Target? Does Rorschach have a chance to stay on the side of angels, despite his obvious violent tendencies? Will the sexy FBI agent find Chance again? Would she have a chance to find him if she were not attractive? These are questions that will probably be addressed, and I actually am interested in the answers. (Although I don’t want to find out that Chance’s life was turned around when he failed to protect a woman he loved. That’s not very interesting.) But I’m not interested enough to watch more episode. Wikipedia, will you watch the show for me? Thanks!

That being said: The opening titles are very sharp, and the theme song is nice as well. Whoever did the opening titles needs to get more work, and I wouldn’t mind hearing more themes from Bear McCreary either.

Verdict: See if you can get someone else to watch it for you and sum it up, but don’t waste your time on this.

Note: Episodes can be found at

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11 February 2010

A Frozen Excuse II

I missed putting up reviews on Friday and Tuesday. 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:

Steampunk SantaSnowpocalypse. I warned you — I warned you all. But did you listen? Oh, no. We all expected Santa to launch his offensive near the day of his greatest power, and the snowstorm in mid-December was what we got. But everyone let their guard down, and what do we have now? Two straight snowstorms that smacked the capital when St. Valentine should be bestriding the land with his army of cherubim. Did he throw in with St. Nicholas in some fallen-saints-in-rebellion alliance? Or is he merely ineffectual? (I vote for the latter; there are only so many times you can be pierced with arrows before you start to lose your taste for the fight. Believe me, I know.)

So now Santa Claus has shut down our government with his fluffy white onslaught, like a terrorist or a Republican. We can only wait for his next offensive. I’ve been preparing, conferring with others who know the danger those rosy red cheeks will blow our way. Will you be ready?

Will you?

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02 February 2010

The Quarter Bin: Destroyer #1

Trade paperbacks and — God forbid — hardbacks are a big risk; dropping $14.99 to $34.99 on material you’re not sure about can lead to buyer’s remorse and bitter, bitter recriminations. Why didn’t someone warn you that Captain America and the Falcon, v. 1: Two Americas was so bad? A sample would have warned you, but you had to order the whole thing.

Well, I’m not made of money either. So I’m trying out that sampling approach in what I hope will be a new feature, The Quarter Bin. Recent comics that have lower promotional prices, are Free Comic Book Day giveaways, or I have found in that holy of holies, the Quarter Bin, get a quick review and a recommendation on whether it might be worthwhile to pick up the trade. So, without further ado, we have …

The Issue: Destroyer #1 (June 2009, Marvel)

The Culprits: Written by Robert Kirkman, art by Cory Walker

The Hook: Old, brawling superhero learns he’s dying and decides to clean up all his old messes before he goes.

Collected in: Destroyer (premiere hardcover) ($24.99; $16.49 off at Amazon; TPB to follow)

Destroyer #1 cover

Strengths: Destroyer as a family man, as an old man. When Destroyer’s around his family, Kirkman writes an entertaining family man who has to temper his reactions while he’s around the people he loves. In those moments, he’s grounded and almost likeable, although those moments are too brief. Walker draws an excellent civilian Destroyer — an older, vulnerable man who still has a great deal of strength.

Weaknesses: Destroyer, well, destroying. When he’s in action, he’s the kind of overconfident, vulgar superhero that is emblematic of the ‘90s, not a character who’s nearing his 90s. (He’s not really that old, but still.) There’s none of the doubt that you would think would assail a man who is nearing the end of his life; he just resolves to go on a killing spree, starting with his own convict brother. It’s over the top, needlessly crass and violent. I’m not entirely sure about the design of the Destroyer; he looks like a blue Skrull who’s infringing on the Punisher’s intellectual property.

Mitigation: The first issue has a lot of combat, and obviously, with hints that his son-in-law used to be Destroyer and the loss of his wife’s arm, there’s going to be more character moments in later issues. Since that’s #1’s strength, that’s welcome.

Judgment: Even if there’s more character moments, I still don’t like Destroyer. I’m kinda hoping he dies in #2 or at least is forced to give up Destroying.

Hardcover, TPB, or Nothing?: Nothing doing. Judging from #1, I can’t see buying the collected edition.

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