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

30 March 2010

Pointer II — The Pointening

For those of you interested, you can find my comments on the short-story collection The Further Adventures of Batman, edited by Martin H. Greenberg, on Trade Talks, my other blog.


27 March 2010

Excalibur Visionaries: Alan Davis, v. 2

Collects: Excalibur #51-8, Excalibur: XX Crossing (1992)

Released: January 2010 (Marvel)

Format: 240 pages / color / $24.99 / ISBN: 9780785144557

What is this?: Alan Davis continues his second run on Excalibur with a little help from the Marvel staff.

The culprits: Alan Davis, writing and drawing, along with writer Scott Lobdell, penciler Joe Madureira, and others

Excalibur was a spinoff of X-Men that launched in the late ‘80s, featuring three ex-X-Men (Shadowcat, Nightcrawler, and Phoenix II), Captain Britain, and his girlfriend, Meggan. The book was written by Chris Claremont, drawn by Alan Davis, and set in the U.K., and it had some humor and some alternate reality plots that were a legacy of earlier Captain Britain stories. Pretty straightforward, really. By the time the stories in Excalibur Visionaries: Alan Davis, v. 2, came around, however, things were a little muddled.

Excalibur Visionaries: Alan Davis, v. 2 coverPlotwise, this one’s all over the place. You start out with a serviceable cross-time / alternate Earth story, then dive into the confusing backwater of Phoenix continuity, before making a sidetrek into a non-Davis (and very ’90s) story of Captain Britain and Spider-Man fighting a group of foreign-exchange students who transform into various ethnic varieties of dogs and call themselves “the Litter.” (Is there a Eurotrash joke there? I can’t be sure.) After Davis returns to do a Crazy Gang story, readers would be well served to ignore XX Crossing — a pointless story where an assassin with time powers tries to prove himself to Dr. Doom by trying to kill Excalibur in one of the most convoluted ways possible. To finish out the book, there’s two two-part stories: one, a very dark story featuring Captain Britain and Psylocke’s flesh-warping brother, and the second, in which Excalibur fights very stupid trolls, guest starring the X-Men.

Is this a humor book, as it started out? Is it a satellite X-book, which is what it becomes? Is it a waste of time? I can’t be sure. Is Davis sure?

One point the reader has to keep in mind is that there are a few non-Alan Davis issues interspersed throughout the volume — #53 and XX Crossing most prominently, but #57-8 are only plotted by Davis. That’s both a drawback and a blessing; the volume is titled Alan Davis, v. 2, after all, and presumably the book is geared more at Davis fans than Excalibur completists. But it’s also good to keep telling the story; even though #53 is missable (it’s a fill-in flashback story about how Peter Parker made Captain Britain a better hero), leaving it out would create a hole in the sequence that readers would wonder about. On the other hand, XX Crossing isn’t in the sequence, it’s not a story you ever hear about, and it’s not that good, so it could have been omitted for … well, Davis didn’t work on #59-60 at all, but at least you could get it out of the way before Alan Davis, v. 3, collects #61-7.

So, when it comes to the Davis stories, what do we have? Well, there’s the silliness of the dino-Excalibur, then comes the Phoenix exposition, the Crazy Gang, and the very serious Jamie Braddock story, in which Excalibur finally discovers that A Big Secret. Other than the dino story in #51, this book feels like Davis is using his limited schedule to wrap up plotlines. He tries to explain Phoenix as best as he can; he puts the Crazy Gang, who was one of Excalibur’s first adversaries, off the board but somewhere where they can be called in again; and he not only brings back Jamie for the first time since #27 but he also allows Excalibur to discover something that happened in #4 — that Sat-Yr-9 has killed Captain Britain’s old girlfriend and replaced her, working against Excalibur and Meggan, Captain Britain’s new girlfriend. Davis then leaves other writers and artists to tell other stories.

But it doesn’t completely work. First of all, those stories are not up to Davis’s standards. Secondly, they make the stories’ subject matter feel haphazard — yanked in one direction by Davis, another by Scott Lobdell, then back to Davis, etc. Thirdly, the revelations feel sudden; Excalibur was going through roster changes at the time, and Davis’s plot-heavy revelations don’t allow new characters such as Cerise or Feron to express themselves. The seriousness and sadness of #55-6 is moving, but Davis doesn’t have the time to follow it up and make the consequences stick or register the emotional fallout.

Fortunately, Davis’s artwork is beautiful, as always. So crisp, so elegant — it’s a pleasure to read. He provides the art for #54-6 only, though. The cover of the book — taken from the cover of #55 — is ill-chosen, I think. It’s a nice Alan Davis image, but it makes it look like this is Excalibur Visionaries: Alan Davis, v. 2, guest starring Psylocke’s legs and breasts (and all territories in between). The cover for #52, which is used on the back cover, probably would have been better.

Most of the rest of the art is provided by competent artists who come up short when put next to Davis in a volume named after Davis. Joe Madureira, however, stands out with his pencils in #57-8, although his work doesn’t show his manga influences as much as his later efforts do.

This is an up-and-down book that never seems to find its level. Having not read v. 1, I can’t say that reading v. 1 makes a difference. I suspect it doesn’t, although that book is completely written and drawn by Davis. More Davis is exactly what this book needs — the art, if nothing else. As it stands, there’s more disappointment than panels drawn by Davis.

Rating: X-Men symbol Half X-Men symbol (1.5 of 5)

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19 March 2010

Daredevil: Lone Stranger

Collects: Daredevil #265-273 (1989)

Released: February 2010 (Marvel)

Format: 216 pages / color / $24.99 / ISBN: 9780785144526

What is this?: Reeling from Inferno and Typhoid Mary’s manipulations, Daredevil wanders, exploring his heroic motivations.

The culprits: Writer Ann Nocenti and penciler John Romita Jr.

Sorry this wasn’t up earlier — taxes must be done at some point. It’s the law, after all. So in that spirit, today I’m looking at Daredevil: Lone Stranger, which stars the only lawyer comics readers like.38 Fortunately, it’s a little more interesting than preparing taxes.

Daredevil: Lone Stranger coverOn the other hand, there’s nothing in here like the rush of seeing your refund grow (or what you owe go down). It starts out with Inferno and deals with literal demons, Mephisto the most prominent. If you are a connoisseur of the weird and outlandish bits of the Marvel Universe, I’ll say this book has a scene with Daredevil kissing Mephisto and be done with it.39 Neither Inferno, in which machines come alive and start eating people in New York because of off-screen demonic activity, nor Mephisto appeal to me, especially in the adventures of such a street-level hero as Daredevil. (Would you have guessed that superdemon and Ghost Rider villain Blackheart made his first appearance in Daredevil #270? I wouldn’t have, and I’m not sure I will even after reading it.) The supernatural villains don’t quite fit with his milieu, especially since Lone Stranger is just coming off the very grounded, very emotionally charged Typhoid Mary storyline.

That Typhoid storyline is relevant; all that emotion has left Daredevil, and now he’s trying to keep from getting involved. He fails, of course, and his denial of his heroic background gives his adventures in this book an aimless feeling. He wanders into towns, sets things right, and then is off again. There’s almost a Western feel to the book, which makes “Lone Stranger” appropriate. Still, even though we see signs of Daredevil emerging from his heroic stupor at the end of the book, there’s a listless core to writer Ann Nocenti’s work in this one.

The battle against Pyro and the Blob of Freedom Force in #269, for instance, should be more fun or more dramatic, but because the characters lack any energy, it doesn’t make a lot of sense. Why doesn’t their teleporter stick around to help them capture the renegade mutant? Why do they fold so quickly? Why don’t they, you know, show some effort? Why don’t they keep looking for the mutant? Why is Pyro English? Daredevil is uninterested in the legal and moral questions of government mutants hunting down other mutants, and both he and Nocenti seem to be marking time (or serving time) in crossovers from more popular franchises (Spider-Man shows up randomly in #270) until something more interesting comes along.

Once Daredevil picks a fight — with a drug dealer and government stooge against his idealist daughter — things pick up. Nocenti’s never the subtlest of writer, and she makes her point in broad strokes, lumping drug running with the military-industrial complex, human experimentation and brainwashing with inhumane factory farming. I don’t agree with all of her politics, but it’s fun to see Daredevil against some truly villainous villains. It gives Daredevil a direction and someone to protect. (My favorite part involves the man who has developed a Stepford-wife laboratory beneath his factory farm; when pigs start breaking their legs on the grates meant to slough away their excrement under their pens, he orders his geneticists to design a pig without legs.) Still, by the time this storyline starts, two-thirds of the book has gone by, and a seemingly unrelated Inhumans subplot from Nocenti's Inhumans graphic novel takes up space in two issues of this storyline.

Daredevil: Lone Stranger coverPencils are provided by John Romita, Jr. I really shouldn’t have to say more, except that he’s between his ‘80s Spider-Man / X-Men Marvel house style and the more angular and distinct ‘90s / 21st century style that made him a top artist. This is a good blend of the two, actually. He uses a lot of the shading and crosshatching that marked his later style while still being able to draw a smoother, cleaner figure (like Spider-Man or Pyro) in the midst of the rest of the art. (I really like his all-curved-line Blob — probably my favorite version of the character, although as you might guess, I haven’t really been keeping track.) His Pyro does look a lot like Daredevil — similar masks, and in a fire it’s hard to tell the difference in their color schemes — and I’ve never for the style of drawing demons that he uses here. But those are minor nitpicks, and the demons are mainly Marvel house style (scaly, spiky plates, limited color palette), anyway.

(As a final note, I’d like to give Marvel credit for finally adding page numbers to their TPBs. Thank you. Now, was that so hard?)

This one is just too slow and flat for me. However, Daredevil kissing Mephisto? That does raise it above the bottom of the barrel. (How did Nocenti ever sneak that past the CCA and Marvel?)

Rating: Marvel symbol Half Marvel symbol (1.5 of 5)

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16 March 2010


No review today, but you can see my comments on a superhero-related book, From the Notebooks of Dr. Brain, at my other blog.


12 March 2010

G-Man, v. 1: Learning to Fly

Collects: G-Man #1, Image Holiday Special 2005, and various “Comic Bits” comics from Savage Dragon (2004-5 and whenever those Comic Bits came out)

Released: June 2009 (Image)

Format: 96 pages / color digest / $9.99 / ISBN: 9781607060871

What is this?: G-Man, a grade-school hero, written and drawn in the style of Mini-Marvels.

The culprits: Chris Giarrusso

Go buy G-Man, v. 1: Learning to Fly.

Usually I go through the song and dance of considering the writing of a book, deciding if the positives outweigh the negatives, and then add my opinion of the art. I’m going to dispense with that this time: You need to read this book. If you can’t buy it, borrow it from someone who has it.

G-Man, v. 1: Learning to Fly coverLearning to Fly resembles writer / artist Chris Giarrusso’s best-known work, Mini-Marvels. However, instead of using child-sized versions of Marvel’s iconic heroes, Giarrusso creates his own characters and settings. In many ways, this frees Giarrusso from the expectations and constraints of even a scaled-down version of the Marvel Universe. G-Man is just a normal kid who can fly. He has to deal with a bully of a brother, playground bullies, school, and the normal disappointments and problems of childhood. He has friends, such as Billy Dragon and Sparks, and an acquaintance, Skullboy, whom G-Man doesn’t realize is evil. Just as G-Man gives Giarrusso a chance to explore childhood, it also allows him to invoke more comics tropes, including one singularly DC one.

On the other hand, moving from the Marvel Universe takes away some of the comfortable background Mini-Marvels worked against. There was no need, in Mini-Marvels, to explain the Hulk or Wolverine; fans were already familiar with the facets of their quirky characters. That lack of inherent weirdness deprives Giarrusso of some of his humor even as it opens up other avenues. I think it’s part of why there’s no standout character like the Hulk in Learning to Fly: it’s very difficult to set up a character whose outlook is so scene-stealingly different from the other characters in the very short scenes Giarrusso has available.

Most of the stories are one- or two-page gags that originally appeared in Savage Dragon’s “Comic Bits” (think Marvel’s “Bullpen Bits,” only expanded). Impressively, this short format doesn’t prevent Giarrusso from weaving together continuing stories while keeping up the jokes. Other features include “Mean Brother / Idiot Brother,” in which G-Man and his brother tell stories about the same events, highlighting the other’s shortcomings, and crossovers with Jacob Chabot’s Mighty Skullboy Army. The former are throwaway jokes, and the latter feel different than Giarrusso’s normal humor — not necessarily less funny, just different.

Giarrusso’s absurdist sense of humor shines through in all of these, but especially on the longer features from G-Man #1, which shows the character’s “secret” origin, and a Christmas story from Image Holiday Special 2005. His supporting characters’ viewpoints allow no alteration by those around them, leaving G-Man to despair over their lack of logic. Giarrusso’s setups are often bizarre (the sentient Christmas tree is the best). I have a hard time figuring out whether Giarrusso or Michael Kupperman is funnier; I enjoy Giarrusso’s gentler humor more, but I can’t say who is makes me laugh harder.

Giarrusso’s art style is deceptively simple, but it makes me laugh. It’s very reminiscent of the simpler comic-strips’ art — you can still occasionally see the influence of Charles Schulz in a panel or three — but it’s rarely overexpressive. You’re never in doubt of people’s emotions or what’s happening in the story, and the backgrounds are often filled with jokes I didn’t pick up on until the second time around.

The only thing holding Learning to Fly back from a perfect rating is the price: $9.99 for a 96-page digest is a little higher than I think it should be, although I realize there are minimums when it comes to publishing. That being said, the price is only a drawback when you’re looking at the price per number of pages. When you look at the amount of enjoyment you get for the money — well, it’s a bargain.

So go ahead and buy it already.

Rating: G-Man symbol G-Man symbol G-Man symbol G-Man symbol Half G-Man symbol (4.5 of 5)

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