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

19 October 2012

Demon Knights, v. 1: Seven against the Dark

Collects: Demon Knights #1-7 (2011-2)

Released: July 2012 (DC)

Format: 160 pages / color / $14.99 / ISBN: 9781401234720

What is this?: DC throws together some of its medieval heroes to defend a town against a marauding army.

The culprits: Writer Paul Cornell and artist Diogenes Neves

When the New 52 started, I wasn’t that interested. I didn’t object to jettisoning continuity, although I wasn’t interested in figuring out what bits of old continuity were preserved and which weren’t. It was simply that DC’s characters and concepts hold little interest for me, and no reboot was going to make Superman or Wonder Woman interesting. But I did read one or two issues of a few titles with new concepts, lesser-known characters, or favorite creators: Mr. Terrific, Batgirl, All-Star Western, Firestorm. The only one that held my interest was Demon Knights; after two issues, I stopped buying the singles and waited for the trade paperback, Seven against the Dark.

Demon Knights is a fantasy adventure, set in medieval times and featuring some present-day DC characters whose character histories run through the Middle Ages. Writer Paul Cornell assembles Madame Xanadu, Jason Blood / Etrigan, Shining Knight, and Vandal Savage in a besieged town along with new characters Horsewoman, who is cursed to remain in her saddle at all times; Al Jabr, a Muslim inventor; and Exoristos, an Amazonian exile. They are opposed by Mordru and his Questing Queen, who sends a horde, dragons, and magic against the town.

Demon Knights, v. 1: Seven Against the Dark coverI enjoyed Seven very much at the beginning, when the character interactions and brief action scenes were Cornell’s top priority. Unfortunately, the book slowly grows less enjoyable, as Seven‘s main failing is its pacing. It’s a striking contrast with Conan the Barbarian; say what you will about Conan‘s repetitive plots and barely there characterizations, but the stories do not lag. There is no time to. Stories are done in one issue, or occasionally two; in contrast, Seven tells the story of the gathering of heroes and a siege in seven issues. It’s not decompression, exactly, just story choices that blunt Cornell’s and the story’s virtues.

Seven has a strong start; Cornell establishes the characters, and although some of them are close to villainous, they are all entertaining. (Vandal Savage’s brutish, straightforward amorality is a particular pleasure.) The first issue sets up the main conflict, and it throws in some action as a cliffhanger. And then the book settles in for a siege.

Even brief sieges are, by their nature, dull. They are battles of attrition in which attackers hope to overcome the natural advantages of the defender through superior numbers, wits, or supplies. If you want to stop action dead, throw in a siege. Cornell throws in a few attacks and action sequences, but given Cornell’s need to give each character something to do and some personality, the issues drag on. The heroes remain trapped. They’re going nowhere, and neither is the plot.

I know this sounds like a major flaw. It is, but it is only because I like everything else in this story that the pacing annoys me so much. As I said, all the protagonists are entertaining (with the possible exception of the enigmatic Horsewoman). They are flawed and human, and they do not always get along. Each has his or her own “powers” and motivations. The action, when it happens, ahs a real sense of jeopardy.

Cornell decided to make Merlin and the fall of Camelot loom large in the story’s background. It’s a strong thematic choice, tying Shining Knight, Jason Blood / Etrigan, and Madame Xanadu to Arthurian legend; those characters have previous links to those myths, but Cornell didn’t have to keep them. Arthurian myths have remained popular through the centuries because they strike a chord with readers still. Cornell does more than use Merlin as simply a thematic element, though, portraying him as someone with a plan who might actually appear in later stories. On the other hand, the very popularity of those legends has made them overfamiliar, and I am thoroughly sick of them.

Diogenes Neves provides most of the art in Seven. Since the characters are the main allure, Neves’s clear designs are important. Most of his designs are fine; he doesn’t have much latitude with Etrigan, and I don’t know how his Jason Blood differs from previous versions, but Madame Xanadu, Shining Knight, and Exoristos are all simple, good designs. (Madame Xanadu’s costume is a little immodest, but I like the subtle monogramming of her bodice.) Al Jabr and Vandal Savage have one-note costumes, proclaiming them as a Muslim and barbarian respectively. Horsewoman’s outfit is too superheroic — it looks like spandex — and the Knight’s helmet is a little too impractical, but at least each has his or her own distinctive look.

I like Neves’s style, and his storytelling skills are very good. When there is action on the page, it is relatively clear; the omnipresent flame does simplify background and positioning, though. The flow gets muddled in the magical duels, although that’s partially the script’s fault. I’m not convinced by the decision to make the dragons into dinosaurs and mechanical constructs, but at least I can tell that they are supposed to be dinosaurs and mechanical constructs.

I’m looking forward to v. 2, whenever it comes out. I’m not sure if I’ll read beyond it, though. I enjoy Vandal Savage’s antiheroism and Shining Knight’s horribly concealed “secret,” and the rest of the group all have their moments. But another actionless volume, and I’ll drop the series.

Rating: DC logo DC logo DC logo Half DC symbol (3.5 of 5)

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12 October 2012

Planetary, v. 1: All over the World and Other Stories

Collects: Planetary #1-6 (1998-9)

Released: March 2000 (DC / Wildstorm)

Format: 160 pages / color / $14.99 / ISBN: 9781563896484

What is this?: A trio of archaeologists of the unknown travel around the world, looking at weird stuff.

The culprits: Writer Warren Ellis and artist John Cassaday

Do you like action? Fast-paced plots? Interesting characters? Then Planetary, v. 1: All over the World and Other Stories is not for you.

Those questions aren’t important, though. You’re either interested when you hear the creators are Warren Ellis and John Cassaday, or you’re not. And make no mistake: this is very much a Warren Ellis book. It’s full of big, high concept ideas, investigated by hard-bitten, cynical people who smoke. Ellis has refined the style, but that’s the skeleton version of most of his work.

Planetary, v. 1: All over the World and Other Stories coverEllis’ stories are almost entirely built on fictional analogues and familiar genres. Recurring character Doc Brass is strongly reminiscent of pulp hero Doc Savage. Island Zero, in issue #2, reminds readers of Toho’s Monster Island. Issue #3 is a Hong-Kong action movie crossed with a ghost story, although it is nowhere near as cool as that sounds. Since Planetary started in the late ‘90s, Ellis is beginning to lash out at superheroes, and All around the World features superhero analogues that border on the antagonistic. In issue #6, Ellis sets up the Fantastic Four (Voyagers Four?) as major villains, and in the preview issues, reprinted as a bonus, Ellis rewrites the origin of the Hulk. (I personally prefer the massive cancer beast Ellis cast the Hulk as in Ruins to Planetary’s indestructible monster.) And Ellis ties Planetary in with his other Wildstorm work, The Authority.

There’s nothing wrong with using well-worn ideas, especially when having new ideas or new characters intersect with them. In All over the World, Ellis introduces the Planetary team, a trio of “archaeologists” of the fantastic who investigate the weird under the mandate of the mysterious and fabulously rich Fourth Man. But they refuse to do much of anything. In the first four issues, everything works itself out before they get a chance do anything — although Elijah Snow, the new guy, does promise to help someone at some future date. Issue #5 is a conversation between Snow and Doc Brass. Only in #6 does Planetary do anything that poses any danger or involves effort beyond boarding a plane. There are hints and whispers of a larger conspiracy, but there is nothing compelling about it. If you are not captivated by Ellis’s reconceptualization of those older ideas, then there is little in this book that will interest you.

Each “adventure” seems unconnected, with little to suggest the links between them that is the hallmark of serial comic book stories. Even the action in #6 — which should be a welcome relief — is connected to #5 only tenuously, almost as if there is an issue missing.

Planetary features the early art of John Cassaday. How early? The author bios at the end mention only his work on Union Jack, X-Men / Alpha Flight, and Desperadoes. I think it’s safe to say those works are mere footnotes in his career now. His designs for the protagonists and Doc Brass are memorable — except for Jakita Wagner, the leader of the Planetary team, I immediately recognized them, more than a decade after the last time I had read an issue of Planetary. His work with Hong Kong ghosts in #3 manages to balance the ethereal and the real impressively. His one-page illustrations of Doc Brass’s career in #5 are fabulous and easily the highlight of All over the World. However, either the script or Cassaday himself seems to lack confidence in the art. The layouts rarely seem to include the spreads that would allow an artist to cut loose on Ellis’s big ideas, and occasionally important reveals are minimized or kept off the page entirely: the Hulk analogue in the preview story, the monsters on Island Zero, the spaceship in #4. DC even replaced his vivid original cover of the trade with the drab one pictured above.

Planetary has a great reputation, but I didn’t see why in All over the World. There are a lot of ideas here, but faith in Ellis is the only way a reader would believe they would coalesce into anything.

Rating: Wildstorm symbol Wildstorm symbol Half Wildstorm symbol (2.5 of 5)

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05 October 2012

Batman and Robin, v. 1: Born to Kill

Collects: Batman and Robin v. 2 #1-8 (2011-2)

Released: July 2012 (DC)

Format: 192 pages / color / $24.99 / ISBN: 9781401234874

What is this?: The New 52 reboot of the adventures of Batman (Bruce Wayne) and Robin (his son, Damian) against a villain from Bruce’s past.

The culprits: Writer Peter J. Tomasi and artist Patrick Gleason

Oh, DC reboots … I never get tired of you. No, wait, that’s not true — I’m sick and tired of them. This is unfortunate, because at the current rate, I expect four or five full or partial reboots before I start collecting my meager Social Security checks.

But approaching senility, I think, will make the reboots more palatable because I will no longer wonder: what do I need to remember? What should I forget? Because rebooted titles never get rid of everything.

Batman and Robin, v. 1: Born to Kill coverTake the New 52’s Batman and Robin, v. 1: Born to Kill. I read Grant Morrison’s entire pre-reboot run on the title; what do I need to remember from it? Did that series even happen? Did Dick Grayson train Damian Wayne at any time? Or did Bruce Wayne’s son immediately begin training with Bruce? What is Bruce’s relationship with Talia, Damian’s mother? We haven’t seen Damian and Bruce interact much, but is Damian’s character the same?

Admittedly, most of those questions aren’t important or are only important when the writer chooses to address them. But their presence is distracting, and I have trouble dismissing them and others out of hand, especially when writer Peter J. Tomasi seems to have changed who Damian is.

Seems to have changed Damian. One can argue he is acting differently in different circumstances. In Morrison’s series, Damian was a brat, supremely confident in his abilities, and annoyingly dismissive of patience and Dick Grayson. In Tomasi’s series, Damian is unintentionally dangerous, cruel, impatient, petulant, and obsessed with Daddy. I do not like Tomasi’s Damian, either on his own or in comparison with Morrison’s Damian. But it may be fair to say I don’t care for Damian when he’s around Bruce Wayne rather than Dick.

The art doesn’t help Tomasi sell his version of Damian. There are a couple of moments in which Patrick Gleason‘s illustrations are supposed to convey some subtlety of Damian’s character, but the art does not do so. In Tomasi’s pitch for the series, included at the end of Born to Kill, it mentions Damian killing a “sick” bat. But in the actual issue, Damian snatches a seemingly healthy bat out of the air and crushes it. This transforms the act from “morally debatable” to “psychopathic.” When Bruce gives Damian a dog after this, it feels less like an act of therapy or socialization than a death sentence for the dog. (Of course it isn’t, which makes Damian’s bat-killing mystifying or irrelevant.)

In another scene, Bruce angrily scatters some of Damian’s drawings. What upsets Bruce is largely unseen — one drawing has Two-Face’s head split by an axe, but there’s no indication of who wielded the axe. (Seriously, the picture is more high-school doodling than disturbing.) The rest the pictures that are visible are innocuous, leaving the question of what upset Bruce so much: that a boy raised by the League of Assassins and sent into the streets every night to punish criminals and psychopaths would draw violent images? I would be shocked if he did not.

But Tomasi is hitting the father / son dynamic heavily. Bruce has been a father before, to Dick (and possibly Jason?), when Dick was about the age Damian is (probably.) Yet he totally mishandles Damian — his behavior would be a mishandling of any child or any Robin. But Bruce reacts differently when Damian is captured than when any other Robin was taken, threatening to kill his captor and losing his cool … I supposed blood really is thicker than formal adoption papers. It makes me think less of Bruce, though. His concern over Damian’s development if he were to disappear is touching, except that he was gone and presumed dead for quite a while, and Dick did a fine job.

As for the plot, Tomasi installs one of perquisites of the reboot: the continuity implant. Bruce and Damian are menaced by Morgan Ducard, a.k.a. Nobody. Morgan is the son of bloodthirsty manhunter Henry Ducard, one of the men who trained Bruce to be Batman. Morgan’s got his own daddy issues, a grudge against Bruce, and a similar mission to Batman’s. Morgan is a vigilante as well, but he kills the criminals he captures, and he derides Batman for being soft on crime by merely imprisoning the punks. So Morgan goes about killing small-time criminals, trying to convince Damian to become his student, and attempting to kill Bruce. This is … so, so dull, especially spread over eight issues. Morgan knows Bruce is Batman, but he doesn’t do anything clever with this knowledge; he goes for the gloating kill after capturing Bruce, then he tries for a garden-variety seduction-by-darkness of Damian.

Tamosi’s dialogue is sometimes tin-eared, especially in battle scenes; when, for instance, Batman and Robin burst in on gunmen, one says, “What the hell?!,” and Batman responds, “Yes, that’s exactly where you are tonight!” That’s awful. Or sometimes the dialogue just feels wrong for the characters: when Nobody is about to kill a human trafficker in a vat of acid, Damian complains Nobody is “dunking him in acid!” (I don’t think the “dunking” is the sticking point.) But Tomasi does get a few moments right, most of them involving Alfred and his parenting suggestions. But Born to Kill doesn’t collect eight issues of Alfred & Robin or Butlering Comics, so that’s cold comfort.

Tomasi also missed on a few names. He uses Henri Ducard — the alias Ra’s al Ghul uses in the movie Batman Begins — for Morgan’s father and Bruce’s former mentor. 66 Is this to suggest Ducard is Ra’s or draw a parallel between them? Probably not, but that’s what I thought of. Morgan’s nom du revanche, Nobody, is clever if you’re Odysseus or an imaginary friend; otherwise, it’s a mistake, as Morgan has a strong sense of self and leaves an unignorable trail of dead and missing in his wake. And as for the Great Dane Bruce buys for Damian — OK, I can see avoiding Ace (the Bat Hound) as being too obvious. But if you’re going to name a Great Dane after a Shakespearean character, I can think of one involved with a bloodbath and having parental issues that fits. Or, if “Hamlet” is too on the nose, why not “Horatio,” which makes a great name for a sounding board? Either is better than “Titus,” which Damian ultimately chooses.

Other than my previous complaints about Gleason, I have few objections to his art. I liked his design of the Russian Batman, even though he is only briefly in the book. Nobody’s design, though, is a generic mishmash: insectoid (apparent multiple eyes) and black, with glove blasters. Perhaps that fits a character “Nobody” better than a truly distinctive design. Gleason’s action scenes are chaotic without devolving into incoherence; although there are some confusing bits, I never lost the thread of the narrative.

Still Gleason’s art isn’t enough to pull Kill past “acceptable.” Is there anything wrong with Kill? No, not in the long run. I’m a little confused why DC started the reboot in this title with such weak fare, and I’m downright bewildered by the positive blurbs on the cover. It’s a slow story and not a very interesting one.

Rating: Batman symbol Batman symbol (2 of 5)

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