Pixar’s new film Up is terrific.

The journey of retiree and widower Carl Fredrickson (voice of Ed Asner) to South America in a house lifted by thousands of balloons is an utterly ridiculous premise, and it gets sillier as it goes on, with a nonogenarian explorer, dragging the floating house several miles atop a butte, talking dogs and fantastic animals. And yet the whole thing works on its own terms, as it’s really about Carl’s personal journey to find a way to keep going after the death of his wife.

There are two tear-jerker montages which certainly do their jobs: The much-heralded opening sequence in which we see how Carl became the grumpy old man he is, and a later sequence in which he reminisces on his life from a different perspective. In a way they show how two views of a person’s life can say very different things about that person: In Carl’s case, either that he should have seized the day before it was too late, or that he had a wonderful life that he shouldn’t regret. But the story is about Carl making his way from here to there in his head.

But it’s the exuberant characters that carry the day: Russell, the young wilderness explorer (Jordan Nagai) who stows away on Carl’s house, and Dug (Bob Peterson), the talking dog who tags along when he meets the pair, eventually turning on his master, the adventurer Charles Muntz (Christopher Plummer). Dug is especially hilarious, and quotable (“Hi there!”).

If the film has a weak spot, it’s the obsessive villainy of Muntz, who makes an effective heavy, but not a terribly convincing one: While his motivation (chasing after a fantastic animal for decades and not letting anything get in his way) makes a certain gut-level sense, I wondered why he didn’t try to “catch more flies with honey”, as they say. But given how much suspension of disbelief the story asks for just by its nature, a little bit of character motivation is easy enough to overlook.

I think Up is the film that The Incredibles wanted to be: This film’s epiphany works better than that one does, and it feels more true to itself, not tied up in trying to be a superhero film (with a poor understanding of superheroes), a family drama, and a spy adventure all in one. Up is is much more focused on its main character and story, and the whole thing works much better.

Is it Pixar’s best film? It’s hard to pick just one, since they’ve made so many good ones. WALL-E may have been more inventive, but it stumbled in the premise of its second half. Up is more consistent and overall works better. I’ve watched WALL-E, Cars and Finding Nemo many times now; I hope Up holds up as well in repeat viewings.


This Week’s Haul

Wow, nearly every Marvel comic I buy came out this week:

  • Green Lantern #41, by Geoff Johns, Philip Tan, Eddy Barrows, Jonathan Glapion, Ruy José & Julio Ferreira (DC)
  • Justice Society of America #27, by Jerry Ordway & Bob Wiacek (DC)
  • The Literals #2, by Bill Willingham, Matthew Sturges, Mark Buckingham & Andrew Pepoy (DC/Vertigo)
  • Madame Xanadu #11, by Matt Wagner & Michael Wm. Kaluta (DC/Vertigo)
  • Avengers/Invaders #11 of 12, by Alex Ross, Jim Krueger, Steve Sadowski & Patrick Berkenkotter (Marvel)
  • Guardians of the Galaxy #14, by Dan Abnett, Andy Lanning, Brad Walker & Victor Olazaba (Marvel)
  • The Incredible Hercules #129, by Greg Pak, Fred Van Lente, Ryan Stegman & Terry Pallot (Marvel)
  • The Immortal Iron Fist #26, by Duane Swierczynski, Travel Foreman & Tom Palmer (Marvel)
  • Nova #25, by Dan Abnett, Andy Lanning, Kevin Sharpe, Jeffrey Huet & Nelson Pereira (Marvel)
  • Mouse Guard: Winter 1152 #6 of 6, by David Petersen (Archaia)
  • Ignition City #3 of 5, by Warren Ellis & Giancula Pagliarani (Avatar)
Madame Xanadu #11 Madame Xanadu wrapped up its first storyline last month, chronicling how a woodland sorceress in the time of King Arthur gradually turned into the reserved, somewhat dour seeress of the modern day, bedeviled all along by the cryptic guidance of the Phantom Stranger (a long-standing DC character who must frustrate the heck out of everyone he tries to help although they rarely show it, so Xanadu’s honesty in that regard has been rather refreshing). That taken care of, regular artist Amy Reeder Hadley is taking a break while much-lauded cover artist Michael Wm. Kaluta fills in for a 5-issue story.

The series has been kind of so-so to date: A fairly consistent pattern of the Stranger trying to help, Xanadu getting frustrated, and things turning out badly, until the last two issues when she strikes back, and things still turn out badly. Now she’s hung up her shingle as a fortune-teller, and one of her first clients is a woman whose father was found immolated in his home, and she suspects foul play. Xanadu determines that it was likely a supernatural murder, and as she starts to look for the killer, she also reminisces about the days she lived in Spain, during the Inquisition, and had taken on a young woman as a lover.

The modern story (which I think takes place in the 1920s) is fairly interesting, but the flashback sequence is ho-hum, the sort of thing I’d hoped would have been put behind us after the first ten issues, which have really been one large flashback. Let’s stick to moving things forward! I guess Wagner is going for a Sandman-esque feeling of filling in the backstory as things go along, but without a strong set of stories in the present day, it just isn’t working; it feels like the series is still in its prologue, and nearly a year in it really should have gotten started moving wherever it’s going.

Kaluta is a fine artist, although he could use a stronger inker who works in heavier lines, as his light touch with the blacks tends to get washed out once the pages are colored. Oddly, the inking on the cover works better, but the composition is downright odd, with the character’s outsized head and hands compared to her body; not one of his better ones.

While I’d say this is a series that’s had trouble finding its groove, I suspect it’s actually working out exactly as writer Matt Wagner has planned. I’ve just found it slow and not very exciting.

Guardians of the Galaxy #14

Nova #25

The odd thing about Guardians of the Galaxy and Nova coming out the same week is that it’s so clear how much better Nova is than Guardians, even though they’re both set in Marvel’s space milieu and they’re both written by Dan Abnett and Andy Lanning. Both books have had rotating artists throughout their run, and Guardians has the clearly-better penciller this month in Brad Walker (whose sense of form and rendering appeals to my preferences), but it’s the writing that sets Nova apart.

Both series have had a problem in that they keep getting interrupted by silly crossover events that sometimes don’t make any sense for them to be involved with (Secret Invasion), and otherwise detract from the ongoing story in the title itself (War of Kings, the current event). Nova has done a very good job of weaving its ongoing story into these disruptions, while Guardians has gotten completely sidetracked by them each time. Since Guardians also has a large (and growing) cast of characters to manage, that means little about the book really gets the attention it deserves.

Not that there aren’t good bits about Guardians: Star-Lord’s sardonic outlook is consistently amusing, and seeing Warlock take on Emperor Vulcan and the Imperial Guard here is quite a treat, leading in to what looks like a huge slug-fest next month. But overall the book is flailing around a lot and not really going anywhere, which is disappointing. Editorial really needs to just leave it alone for a year or two to find its own path without all these interruptions.

Nova, on the other hand, has remained fairly focused in Richard Ryder’s relationship with the Nova-force and its sentient overseer, the Worldmind, who have been embedded in his head and body since before the series began. It all came to a head recently when the Worldmind went around the bend, formed a new Nova Corps, and ejected Richard from it. Richard acquired Quasar’s quantum bands and has his showndown with the Worldmind here, which is quite effective and comes to a satisfying resolution (although not a conclusion to the overall plot thread). Despite the new Corps dealing with the War of Kings event, Richard’s main story has remained largely divorced from it, which has made the series much more enjoyable than Guardians.

I look forward to the day that crossover events are no longer big sellers and we can just have good, ongoing stories which drives sales. Sadly, I doubt that day with come anytime soon, and consequently that means a lot of otherwise-promising comics are going to be less than they could be.

Mouse Guard: Winter 1152 #6 With Archaia’s financial problems apparently behind them, Mouse Guard has finished up its second series in the last couple of months. Although it’s been a more textured tale than the first one was, I don’t think it’s been a better one. But admittedly the long delays and the fact that it no longer feels novel may have to do with that. Petersen’s artwork is still nifty – the coloring especially is fabulous – and this month we get to see the Guard’s mounts: rabbits! There’s a sense that there is an over-arching story connecting things, involving the Black Axe, the fabled champion of the mice, which has played a central role in the first two series, so I’m curious to see where that’s going to go, if it’s going to be an epic tale or just a series of loosely-connected ones.

I think the biggest flaw in the series is that Petersen the writer keeps too much emotional distance between the reader and the characters, though since the characters are mice with not-very-expressive faces, that’s a hard divide to bridge anyway. But there are some moments in this issue which could be quite poignant, but fall short because the mice seem so reserved and unexpressive.

But overall this is still quite a good series, and I’m looking forward to the next one.

Back on the Bike

After a trial ride over the weekend, I got back on the bike today and rode into work. The newest reach of the Stevens Creek Trail opened a few weeks ago, and it makes my ride when I choose to take the trail a lot easier, since I can avoid one of the more complicated intersections on the route. Very nice! (I have two other routes I take to work, too, but it’s nice to ride on the trail when it’s convenient. Except for going over the bridge over Central Expressway whose wood-slats are slowly eroding and splintering, but that’s another issue.)

One unusual site was biking past a cul-de-sac road and seeing a large (German Shepherd-sized) dog lying on its back in the middle of the cul-de-sac. I hope it was just lying in the sun and rubbing its back on the pavement, and not that something bad had happened to it, but stopping to investigate didn’t seem advised.

As usual for the first ride of the year, my legs are wobbly and I’ve been ravenously hungry (and trying to resist doing things like gobbling down chocolate-dipped croissants). It’ll take a couple of weeks for my body to adjust to the shock of all this sudden exercise. 🙂

Feels good to get out again, though.

A Cool Day in Half Moon Bay

For the long Memorial Day weekend, Debbi and I came up with several things to keep ourselves busy without, you know, being busy. So Saturday we made one of our occasional trips over to Half Moon Bay for brunch at the Main Street Grill, poking our heads into some book stores (used stores Ink Spell Books and Ocean Books, as well as Bay Books), and then walking along the coastside trail.

During the summer it’s tricky to figure out where to park to get to the trail without having to pay for parking, since all the state beaches are charging now. Their charges are a pretty good deal if you’re going to spend the whole day on the coast, since admission to one beach lets you in to the others, too. But if you’re just walking for an hour or two, then the price (which I think is up to around $7.00 these days) is a bit steep. Fortunately over time I’ve found more and more free places to park, as there really is just lots of parking around. You just have to look.

It’s the height of wildflower season along the coast, so it was very colorful. But it was also overcast and a bit chilly, so we were glad we brought a sweatshirt and jacket. But otherwise it was rather pleasant.

We also saw a bunch of neat stuff. For instance, a cat on a fence who seemed to be mousing, but when I went over to get her attention she jumped down and climbed right into my arms, and was happy to jump into Debbi’s arms, too:

Friendly cat with Michael

Friendly cat with Debbi

Friendly cat loves everybody!

The birds were out in force, too: Lots of red-winged blackbirds, and a few yellow birds I hadn’t seen before:

Red-winged blackbird

Yellow bird

Plus some bunny rabbits:

Bunny rabbit!

(All photos by Debbi using her new camera, except for you, know, the two photos of Debbi.)

It never did clear up, but it was a pleasant walk all-in-all. We grabbed some iced coffees for the drive home, where it was sunny and warm. Then we collapsed for the afternoon until heading to Cafe Borrone for the evening.

It’s always fun to head to the coast for half a day.

On the bluffs
(Click for larger image)

This Week’s Haul

  • The Brave and the Bold #23, by Dan Jurgens & Norm Rapmund (DC)
  • Ex Machina #42, by Brian K. Vaughan, Tony Harris & Jim Clark (DC/Wildstorm)
  • Jack of Fables #34, by Bill Willingham Matthew Sturges, Russ Braun & José Marzán Jr. (DC/Vertigo)
  • Far West #1, by Richard Moore (Antarctic)
  • Gigantic #4 of 5, by Rich Remender & Eric Nguyen (Dark Horse)
  • Invincible #62, by Robert Kirkman & Ryan Ottley (Image)
The Brave and the Bold #23 In a way, the best part of The Brave and the Bold is the wonky character team-ups, and matching second-stringer Booster Gold (time-traveling self-promoting superhero) with fifth-stringer Magog (irrelevant Justice Society member based on a villain from an alternate future) is about as wonky as they come. You’d think with Booster Gold creator Dan Jurgens doing the story and art that it would be a nice side-trip from the enjoyable Booster Gold series.

Unfortunately it’s not a Booster Gold story at all: Booster sees Rip Hunter apparently fighting Magog on his way back from another time period, and when Booster goes to see what Magog is up to in the present day, he finds that Magog’s reckless behavior puts innocent people at risk, and he’s disgusted at Magog’s viciousness. But this just tells us what we’ve suspected about Magog all along (although he’s a little nastier here than he is in JSA) and the fact that Booster is the hero who sees is it really just coincidence. There’s a little irony in that Booster used to have a cavalier approach to heroics himself, but he’s grown up now. Magog’s motivations are completely different from Booster’s, though, so the parallel doesn’t really work.

So the story’s thinner than I’d hoped; it would have worked better had it somehow been spun to be a Booster Gold story, not a Magog story. But, wonky team-ups are risky things, since it’s hard to throw two unrelated characters together and make the story work. Jurgens gave it a good try (and his art is as smooth and polished as ever), but I don’t think he pulled it off.

Far West: Bad Mojo #1 My comic shop found me a copy of the first issue of Richard Moore’s Far West to go with the second issue from a couple weeks back. I wasn’t too impressed with Moore’s recent series Fire and Brimstone, but I’ve enjoyed his series Boneyard for several years. (It’s one of the few series Debbi reads, too.)

Far West is somewhere in between: In a mythical Wild West, gunfighters, trains and saloons exist alongside dragons, ogres and spirits. Our heroes are Meg and Phil, a gunfighting half-elf woman and an anthropomorphic bear, who are also the best bounty hunters in the area. In Bad Mojo they’ve pursued their quarries into the Deadlands, where things are decidedly not what they seem.

Far West is predicated on Meg being a tough-as-nails smartass, with Phil playing her straight man as she drags him into situations that are more than he bargained for. It works pretty well, although Phil is definitely the second fiddle to his partner, especially here, in which Phil plays comic relief while Meg’s background is revealed and her personality is tested. The series doesn’t have the variety of character interaction of Boneyard, but it’s also not sheer fluff like Fire and Brimstone. I bet Far West could be a good ongoing series if developed as such, as Moore seems content to do the occasional short piece, like this two-issue series, and that’s fine.

And happily, I understand there will be more Boneyard soon.

Deck List: Cascading Haste

The new Magic set, Alara Reborn, has a new mechanic making a lot of buzz: cascade, in which when you play a spell with cascade, you can play another spell of lesser value – but (usually) selected randomly from your library – for free. Every Magic player loves to play things for free, right? So I had to build a deck with this.

Of course, it took practically no time for someone to come up with a tournament-competitive deck using cascade, which is surely a lot better than my deck. But what the heck.

This deck is based around what seems to be the most popular cascade card, Bloodbraid Elf. The main feature of Bloodbraid Elf is that it’s a 3/2 with haste. So I decided to build a deck around creatures with haste:

2 1(rg) 1/1 Tattermunge Witch
4 RR 1/1 Slith Firewalker
4 RG 2/2 Rip-Clan Crasher
2 2G 2/2 Primal Forcemage
1 1RR 4/2 Viashino Sandstalker
1 1GG 2/2 Eternal Witness
4 (rg)(rg)(rg) 3/3 Boggart Ram-Gang
4 2RG 3/2 Bloodbraid Elf
22 Creatures
4 1G   Seal of Primordium
3 1R   Incinerate
3 RG   Colossal Might
3 2R   Puncture Blast
3 1GG   Gaea’s Anthem
16 Other Spells
3     Fire-Lit Thicket
3     Shivan Oasis
8     Mountain
8     Forest
22 Lands

My goal in building this deck was to minimize the number of cards I could cascade into which would ever be unplayable. Since our metagame makes enchantment and artifact removal a must – especially since this is a largely creature-based deck – I needed a Naturalize-like card, and the enchantment Seal of Primordium was perfect for that. I also like Incinerate and the withering Puncture Blast to clear the way for the creatures. Colossal Might is really the only card which might not be playable (since it can’t target the cascading Elf), but it’s so useful in pumping up the relatively small creatures that I wanted to use it.

With all the hasted creatures, Primal Forcemage is quite potent (and if an Elf cascades into it, then it pumps up the Elf!) – especially with Viashino Sandstalker. Tattermunge Witch provides an outlet for any extra mana and a way to run over blocking creatures.

In play, the deck is a little under-landed – deliberately, since no spell costs more than 4 – and it lacks a true finisher, or a way to deal with big threats. It might do pretty well in duels, but it runs out of steam in multiplayer, relying on drawing 1 or 2 elves for card advantage.

When I rework it, I think it needs a finisher, like Overrun. But larger spells would require more mana. (And then there’s Protean Hulk, which seemed like a great idea when I thought of it, except that creatures fetched when it dies don’t get played, they get put into play, so their Cascade abilities wouldn’t trigger. Alas.)

I’m not sure what I think of the Slith Firewalkers. They’re so vulnerable until they get going. Then again, any 3-cost creature with haste is going to be relatively wimpy; the Boggart Ram-Gangs are really the best you can do in that category.

So it’s an interesting base to start from, but I’m not sure how much potential the deck really has. It is fun to play out a lot of hasted creatures, though, so I’ll tinker with it a bit to see what I can do with it.

(Incidentally, the deck is pretty close to being Standard-legal. Swap in Hell’s Thunder and Jund Hackblade, and replace the Seals and Gaia’s Anthems with something appropriate – more burn, perhaps – and it would probably work pretty similarly. The big loss would be the Primal Forcemage effect.)

Walking Distance

One of the things that threw me when I moved to California is that one must drive everywhere. Okay, that’s not true everywhere in California, but most of the Bay Area is oriented around cars, with little mass transit and large gaps between places one wants to go. My regular routine takes me anywhere within a 10-mile distance of my house every single day. While I could bike that, I don’t really want to bike everywhere (nor do I have the time to). All this is quite different from living in Madison, WI, where I lived right downtown, and could walk almost everywhere I wanted to go. I still drove some places, but a 10-mile drive there would take me to the edge of town.

Even once I bought my house, I still didn’t have many places I walked to. It’s about a 30-minute walk to downtown from my house, which is a bit far for most of the things I go downtown for. Maybe I’ve just been inculcated with the California driving mentality, but I don’t want to spend that much time just travelling around. (I like biking, but not that much!)

Recently, though, I’ve realizing that I actually have several places that I now walk to regularly, because they’re just a few blocks from my house:

  1. My friend Chris hosts our Monday night Magic games and lives at the other end of the block from me.
  2. Another fellow hosts a regular low-stakes poker game and lives even closer to me than Chris does.
  3. We have a 7-11 in one direction and a Starbucks and a decent “fast food” Chinese restaurant in the other direction. There’s hope that the discount supermarket will open in the latter location soon, too.
  4. A great burrito place is three blocks from my house.
  5. And my polling place – which I visited this morning for the California special election – is about 5 blocks away.

I could probably walk even more than I do, but I was thinking this morning while going to vote that it’s nice to have these places to walk to from time to time. Makes me feel more like I really live in the area, rather than that I live in one place, get in my car, and magically end up in some other place.

This Week’s Haul

  • Booster Gold #20, by Keith Giffen, Pat Olliffe, Norm Rapmund, Dan Jurgens & Rodney Ramos (DC)
  • Fables #84, by Bill Willingham, Matt Sturges, Tony Akins, Andrew Pepoy & Dan Green (DC/Vertigo)
  • The Unwritten #1, by Mike Carey & Peter Gross (DC/Vertigo)
  • Echo #12, by Terry Moore (Abstract)
  • The Unknown #1 of 4, by Mark Waid & Minck Oosterveer (Boom)
  • Unthinkable #1 of 5, by Mark Sable & Julian Totino Tedesco (Boom)
  • B.P.R.D.: The Black Goddess #5 of 5, by Mike Mignola, John Arcudi & Guy Davis (Dark Horse)
  • The Umbrella Academy: Dallas #6 of 6, by Gerard Way & Gabriel Bá (Dark Horse)
  • Castle Waiting #15, by Linda Medley (Fantagraphics)
The Unwritten #1 The Unwritten is getting as much buzz in comics as anything I can recall coming out of Vertigo this decade, and the first issue is only $1.00, so it sure seems worth a try. I didn’t read Carey & Gross’ previous series, Lucifer, and I think this might be my first exposure to Carey’s writing, though I’ve seen Gross’ work before. Although his art is on the under-rendered side for my tastes, I like it better than Peter Snejbjerg’s (a comparison I make because they have very similar styles).

The premise is that Tom Taylor is, like Christopher Robin Milne, a grown man who as a boy was the model for a fictional character in a children’s book. Tommy Taylor appears to be a hero much like Harry Potter, whose adventures appeared a couple of decades ago to great acclaim (the series in the story is even more popular than J.K. Rowling’s books), before the author, Wilson Taylor, disappeared. In the present day, Tom Taylor is eclipsed by his fictional namesake, and supports himself mainly through signing tours. Though gracious to fans of the series, he chafes that he has no accomplishments or career of his own.

But it soon comes out that not all in Tom’s life is what it appears, perhaps just a boy Wilson hired from his family to take on tour. Tom’s life collapses as investigations into his background and the fans turn against him. And then things get really weird, when it starts to seem like Tom might just be Tommy Taylor.

Carey and Gross say that The Unwritten is going to be a meditation on stories, and on “the story behind all stories”, which strikes me as both a hugely ambitious hook, and one a lot less interesting than the basic notion of a guy who might be a fictional character and not know it. Pulling off either of these metaphysical, metatextual notions is going to take some careful execution – nothing could kill the story faster than ending up in random fantasy lands devoid of structure or rules – but there’s a lot of potential here, and I do hope they can live up to most of it.

Gross’ art is still under-rendered for my preference (although the last page is quite good), but overall the book is quite intriguing and might well live up to all the hype. It’s off to a good start.

The Umbrella Academy: Dallas #6 I wasn’t as enamored of the first series of The Umbrella Academy as some were: I thought it was a lot of random twaddle strewn about a decent but unexceptional plot, albeit with quite good artwork. The second series, Dallas, seems to have catered to the die-hard fans by reducing the quality of the plot and throwing in a lot more twaddle: Time-traveling assassins, a boss with a fish-in-a-bowl for a head, a side-trip to Vietnam, before winding up in Dallas at the Kennedy assassination. Quirkily weird, it also feels devoid of all meaning, with cardboard characters.

I guess sales have not been as strong as the first series, but no doubt there will be a third one. I’m not sure I’m interested enough to keep going, though; I don’t feel like I’ve gotten much out of the first two.

Star Trek: The Reboot

J.J. Abrams’ new Star Trek film is sort of the anti-Battlestar Galactica. BSG took a fairly goofy old TV series and turned it into a serious adventure drama. Star Trek takes what was a serious adventure drama (well, for its time) and turns it into a goofy movie.

Myself, I’m an unreconstructed original series fan, and I happily enjoy those old episodes and the early movies while ignoring almost everything that followed. So I was just hoping for a good movie. Well, it’s got lots of action and plenty of humor, but it also self-consciously compares itself to the original series at every turn, and the story makes basically no sense, while blazing no new ground. So it was a rollicking ride, but ultimately it’s just another action film.

Spoilers ahoy!

Continue reading “Star Trek: The Reboot”

This Week’s Haul

A friend of mine told me that I read a shitload of comic books. I’m not sure whether he meant an imperial shitload, or a metric shitload, but whatever crappy units you use, this week was another big load:

  • The Flash: Rebirth #2 of 5, by Geoff Johns & Ethan Van Sciver (DC)
  • Blackest Night #0, by Geoff Johns, Ivan Reis, Oclair Albert & Rob Hunter (DC)
  • Astro City: The Dark Age Book Three #1 of 4, by Kurt Busiek, Brent Anderson & Alex Ross (DC/Wildstorm)
  • Power Girl #1, by Justin Gray, Jimmy Palmiotti & Amanda Conner (DC)
  • War of Kings #3 of 6, by Dan Abnett, Andy Lanning, Paul Pelletier & Rick Magyar (Marvel)
  • Far West: Bad Mojo #2 of 2, by Richard Moore (Antarctic)
  • Fire and Brimstone #5 of 5, by Richard Moore (Antarctic)
  • Irredeemable #2, by Mark Waid & Peter Krause (Boom)
  • The Boys #30, by Garth Ennis & Darick Robertson (Dynamite)
  • The Life and Times of Savior 28 #2, by J.M. DeMatteis & Mike Cavallero (IDW)
  • Star Trek: Crew #3 of 5, by John Byrne (IDW)
  • The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen: Century: 1910 by Alan Moore & Kevin O’Neill (Top Shelf)
Blackest Night #0 A friend asked if I was going to review Blackest Night #0, which was part of Free Comic Book Day, and how could I resist a direct request?

Blackest Night is this year’s big event in the DC Universe, although writer Geoff Johns says it’s a story he’s wanted to do since he relaunched Green Lantern. There’s a hint of it back in the Black Hand story in the series’ first year, so clearly Johns has had something in mind since then.

This is one of the higher-quality FCBD issues from the Big Two that I can recall: It’s the beginning of a larger story, written by one of their big name writers with solid art (although I’m not entirely sold on Ivan Reis as a top-tier guy). It also does a pretty good job of recapitulating the set-up of Green Lantern, explaining the assortment of “Lantern Corps” through a series of pin-ups, leading into the main story, and also providing a bit of insight into the hero through GL’s dialogue with the Flash, reminiscing about their fallen friends and especially GL’s relationship with Batman. It’s not a complete story in itself – though you can’t fault DC for using a freebie as advertising for the rest of the story – but for what it is it’s quite good.

As I’ve said of late, Green Lantern is probably Geoff Johns’ best work. This issue might not completely sell you on the series – especially since it has a complex backstory at this point – but it certainly tries its darndest. I approach all big events in comics with trepidation, and I don’t have much confidence that it will, as Johns says in his afterword, “recharge the DC Universe”, but I think it could be a fine, fun story.

So check it out. You can’t beat the price.

Power Girl #1 Superman’s almost-cousin Power Girl gets her own ongoing series this month. Thankfully she’s seemingly past the ridiculous identity crisis that plagued her JSA Classified story a few years ago, but the challenge for the series is to give her a reason for being a headliner. PG has always been at her brightest when she plays a counterpoint to other characters – she was, after all, conceived as a young, upstart counterpoint to the stodgy Golden Age Superman – but she’s had trouble leading up her own stories, because she’s not really grounded in anything but being one of the heavy-hitters on a super-team. I assume her appeal is a mix of her (ahem) physique and her strong, no-nonsense personality. Neither of those are really enough to carry a series, but filling her with angst over her background runs counter to her essential personality, and is why the JSA Classified story didn’t work.

This first issue restores her Karen Starr identity from the 70s, in which she’s the head of a tech company. As PG, she fights a bunch of constructs controlled by the Ultra-Humanite (who must be back from irrelevance for about the fifth time by now). It’s okay, but it’s only the barest of groundwork for putting together a complete series about the character. Abnett and Lanning tend to hit more than they miss, but they’ve got their work cut out for them. At least they’re aided and abetted by the always-terrific artwork of Amanda Conner.

I may be a bit skeptical, but I’m pulling for this one to succeed. And not just because PG is a babe!

Astro City: The Dark Age vol 3 #1 Astro City: The Dark Age finally continues with the third part of – I think – four. For those who’ve forgotten – and given the series’ publishing schedule (for which the creators frequently apologize) – it focuses on Astro City in the 1970s and 80s, especially a pair of brothers, one a cop, one a small-time hood, who witness and frequently get caught up in the larger events going on during the time.

Kurt Busiek has said that The Dark Age is the story he’d originally come up with as a sequel to Marvels, but when Marvel didn’t seem interested in it, he reworked it for Astro City. And then came up with a sequel for Marvels anyway, the currently-running Eye of the Camera. Unsurprisingly, since the two series cover the same time period, they have a very similar feel, a general bleakness and foreboding which accompanies the outre and often violent heroes and anti-heroes who peppered comic books of the era. Both series also whip through a large number of events, focusing on their characters from time to time, but often leaving me with a feeling that I’ve missed an awful lot and that I’m not getting the careful exploration of the main characters that I’ve come to expect from Busiek’s writing. In both cases, it seems like he’s trying to jam too much into the series, and that’s saying something given the length of The Dark Age.

I’m hoping that The Dark Age will come to some transcendent climax which will justify the series’ length and some of the larger-than-life keynote moments (the SIlver Agent’s death, and the Apollo Eleven team, for instance), while still bring a sense of closure to the brothers’ lives. It’s a tall order, really. Busiek’s one of the very best writers in comics, but I wonder whether he’s bitten off more than he can handle, here.

Fire and Brimstone #5 Richard Moore’s Fire and Brimstone wraps up this week. The story of an angel and a demon who have been tasked with rounding up a collection of demons they accidentally unleashed on the world millennia ago has been little more than a diversion from his on-hiatus series Boneyard, with wacky and sexy hijinks and not a whole lot of a story (the cover to the left sums up the tone of the series rather well). This last issue involves a deity-turned-hitman gunning for our heroines, with a somewhat tried-and-predictable resolution. It’s nice to see Moore’s art in color, but overall the series has been fluff.

The second half of a new Far West story by Moore also came out this week – but I missed the first issue, so I haven’t read it yet. Thumbing through it I see the pencils are un-inked; Moore’s a fine artist, but his stuff looks a lot better when it’s been inked.

The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen: Century: 1910 I was resoundingly unimpressed with the third volume of The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, The Black Dossier, which seemed mostly like in-joke wankery and had an utterly lame ending. And it got mixed reviews across the Web, as well. Alan Moore and Kevin O’Neill are at it again, though, with the first of three volumes of a story called Century.

The Black Dossier took place in the 1950s, and this volume takes place in 1910, 21 years after the first League story, so to some extent we’re catching up with the League as it’s evolved in more-or-less continuous existence since the disastrous encounter with the Martians in volume two. The story mainly follows two threads: Mina Murray and Allan Quatermain‘s team’s quest to stop a wizard from bringing about the end of the world – a chase which leads them down a seemingly blind alley, although the reader knows there’s more going on than meets their eye. And Janni, the daughter of Captain Nemo, coming to England, and eventually taking up the mantle as his successor. In the mix is a series of dockside murders which swirl around Janni’s story and are told partly in song (more allusions to fictional figures of the time, naturally), although it kind of splutters out at the end.

I think it’ll be hard for LoEG to ever recapture the sense of fun and excitement it had in its first volume, mainly because in that one Moore hit the nail squarely on the head with a collection of well-known, yet exotic, characters, and a nifty little puzzle for them and the readers to figure out. In later volumes, the lead characters have gotten more and more obscure, and that’s made elements of the series less interesting to people who don’t want to go to great lengths to figure out who these people are, or who don’t have any particular interest in the characters. (In other words, Carnacki, Raffles and Orlando don’t have quite the cachet of Mr. Hyde, Captain Nemo and the Invisible Man) Century: 1910 has the additional problem that it’s just the first part of a three-part story, so it sets up both an over-arching threat, and what will presumably be a significant new character (Nemo’s daughter), but ultimately it’s all set-up. But with the last two chapters taking place in 1969 and 2009, I wonder what it’s going to be set-up for Certainly if Janni and the wizard aren’t major components, it will really diminsh the impact of this volume.

Overall, the story so far works much better than almost all of The Black Dossier did, with more little details that are interesting in and of themselves (such as “the prisoner of London”, which obviously will be showing up again). Also, Kevin O’Neill outdoes himself on the artwork, his characters having more fluidity and a wider variety of facial expressions than he’s employed in the past. While I’ve always appreciated O’Neill’s art for what it was, it’s great to see him evolving it.

I’m hopeful that Century will be a good, solid story when it’s all told. The first volume is encouraging, and I look forward to the rest of it.