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This Week’s Haul

  • Batman & Robin #3, by Grant Morrison & Frank Quitely (DC)
  • The Flash: Rebirth #4 of 5, by Geoff Johns & Ethan Van Scyver (DC)
  • Green Lantern #45, by Geoff Johns, Doug Mahnke & Christian Alamy (DC)
  • Justice Society of America #30, by Bill Willingham, Matthew Sturges & Jesús Merino (DC)
  • Madame Xanadu #14, by Matt Wagner & Michael Wm. Kaluta (DC/Vertigo)
  • Secret Six: Unhinged vol 2 TPB, by Gail Simone, Nicola Scott & Doug Hazlewood (DC)
  • Wednesday Comics #8 of 12, by many hands (DC)
  • Guardians of the Galaxy #17, by Dan Abnett, Andy Lanning, Brad Walker, Victor Olazaba & Scott Hanna (Marvel)
  • The Incredible Hercules #133, by Greg Pak, Fred Van Lente & Rodney Buchemi (Marvel)
  • Nova #28, by Dan Abnett, Andy Lanning & Andrea DiVito (Marvel)
  • The Unknown #4 of 4, by Mark Waid & Minck Oosterveer (Boom)
  • Boneyard #28, by Richard Moore (NBM)
Batman and Robin #3 Reading the effusive praise heaped on writer Grant Morrison by folks like Greg Burgas (who calls him the “God of All Comics”) or Chris Sims often makes me blink in surprise. Over his long career, I’ve always seen Morrison as a fine idea man, but only a pretty good writer, with haphazard plotting and characterizations that lean towards being thin and heavy-handed. Many of his stories are very good, but over the last few years his facility as an idea man seems to have declined sharply, and his ability to play out the interesting ideas he does have seems to be dwindling away even faster. In every respect, I’d say Morrison’s been lapped by Warren Ellis at this point. (I’d say Ellis’ peak is higher, too, with Planetary and Transmetropolitan being better than Morrison’s best work, JLA and The Invisibles.)

All of which is a lead-in to my disappointment with Batman and Robin #3, which wraps up the series’ initial story arc in a decidedly unsatisfying manner. The villain, Pyg, has a master plan to extort Gotham City, and he also performs some exotic surgery on his captives by fixing a grotesque read-haired mask over their actual faces and drugs them into becoming his henchmen, a fate which he threatens to inflict on the captured Robin. But Pyg is a nonentity as a villain, just another overstylized grotesque, a less-comprehensible Joker. His plan, such as it is, is explained after he’s been defeated, with little real threat of it ever coming to pass. A circus is involved, for some reason, but as a backdrop it’s irrelevant.

The best part of the series so far has been the two main characters: Dick Grayson is clearly still crushed by the apparent death of Bruce Wayne, and is not entirely comfortable going to the lengths that Wayne would go in pursuit of justice, as you’d expect since Dick was the original happy-go-lucky boy wonder, the counterpoint to the darknight detective. The new Robin is a vicious and opinionated boy who barely has any respect for his mentor, yet who is highly skilled, even if occasionally over his head and lacking in good judgment. Bringing him up should be a real challenge for Dick. Morrison only really brushes the fringe of his characters, suggesting a great deal but leaving it unexplored, being more interested in the mechanics of propelling his plot. I also suspect Bruce Wayne will be back well before the potential of this set-up could be realized even in the hands of a writer more skilled in characterization, so it may end up being a non-starter anyway. Which would be too bad, but that’s life for a comic driven more by marketing and branding than by serving the interests of the story.

I think I’ve gone into Quitely’s art before: I like his approach to drawing figures, the solidity he gives then, but I often find his characters’ faces to be grotesquely ugly (whether or not they’re supposed to be), and the skimpy backgrounds often drives me (uh) batty – it really sucks the life out of the extended fight scene here. I generally find that what I like about Quitely’s artwork I find in a more attractive package in Gary Frank’s work (although Frank also has a problem with a lack of backgrounds).

Batman and Robin is an okay comic. It’s a pretty shallow story, grotesque for no good reason, but with some good character bits. But what it really wants to be – a strong character drama focusing on the title characters – is not Morrison’s forte, and so I think it’s never really going to reach its potential. And the praise I’ve seen it receive seems far out-of-proportion compared to what the series has actually delivered. But, you know, diff’rent strokes.

Secret Six vol 1: Unhinged I’m sure I’ve read something by Gail Simone before, but nothing comes to mind. I haven’t been avoiding her writing, it just seems like she’s largely been working in areas that don’t much interest me. For example, I dropped Birds of Prey around the time she started, because I felt the concept had been largely played out, having drifted considerably from the early issues I enjoyed. And the current Wonder Woman series was a total disaster for its first year and I bailed before she signed on to the title. Her other current series, Secret Six flew under my radar, since it spun out from a spin-off of another stupid DC event series, and the name comes from an old series that I never had much interest in (honestly, I find DC and Marvel’s tendency to reclaim old names for new premises to be rather distasteful; it’s an example of branding at its worst). Nonetheless, the series has been getting good word-of-mouth in the blogosphere, so with a new paperback collection out this week (which turns out to be the second collection, although the first was of a mini-series) I figured I’d give it a try.

The premise is sort of the mercenary version of the Suicide Squad: A bunch of B-grade (and lower) villains work together to make money. Rather than engaging in the traditional criminal activities – knocking over banks, etc. – they’re for hire for shady and difficult jobs. The team is led by Scandal Savage, daughter of the immortal Vandal Savage (and saddled with an unfortunate name), and includes: Rag Doll, eccentric son of the original; Cat Man, a vicious hunter in a garish orange outfit; Deadshot, the psychopathic marksman late of the Suicide Squad; and Bane, the nutjob who once defeated Batman, who’s trying to stay off the drugs that make him immensely powerful, yet also an unreasoning brute. The sixth member of the team apparently died shortly before the volume begins, and they gain a new member for this story.

The story itself has the team head to California to break a woman out of Alcatraz (which in the DC Universe is a prison for superhumans), since she knows where to find a card which holds great and mysterious value to those in the know. A mysterious crime lord named Junior hires every Z-grade villain he can to bring them down and bring the card back to him, so the team has to run a gauntlet to get back to Gotham to get their payoff. But the card itself is only of use to one person at a time, and once they learn what it is, it sets the team at each others’ throats.

With my references to Suicide Squad, it isn’t a surprise that the story feels like it could be a Suicide Squad story, only with selfish rather than nominally noble motivations behind the team’s actions. Both series are marked by the interactions among the strong personalities – with a few weaker personalities thrown in as followers – and with the characters’ loyalties shifting (or seeming to) as they have to make difficult decisions. Their opponent, Junior, is an unusually extreme and grotesque villain, perhaps a little too over-the-top for my tastes, since we don’t really get a good feel for what makes him tick (although there may be clues in the earlier stories that I haven’t read yet). Simone also knows how to write a climax, as the volume ends with a big one with a couple exclamation points at the end.

Nicola Scott’s a solid superhero artist, whose work I haven’t seen before. I like her work here better than Frank Quitely’s in Batman and Robin, for instance, as she has most of his strengths but draws more intricate panels with nicely-rendered backgrounds. Her style is on the generic side, though, not terribly different from artists like Dale Eaglesham or Jesus Merino or Dan Jurgens.

This collection is entertaining enough that I think I’ll try the regular series for a while.

Wednesday Comics #8 This week’s Wednesday Comics round-up: In Metamorpho, Gaiman and Allred are clearly just having fun playing with the graphic construction of the story, as this week the hero and Urania the Element Girl spent a page imitating half of the periodic table of the elements – the other half will be next week. The creators’ contortions to fit into their self-imposed structures is cute, but it doesn’t leave much space for actual story, which means the thing as a whole has been pretty disappointing.

While Flash is overall the most intriguing and entertaining story in the package, I worry that it’s playing around with overlapping timelines a little too much; I’m having a hard time untangling exactly what’s going on. Although at the end of this page, it appears that Flash may be having the same problem, and it’s coming back to bite him, so that may be the point.

Most of the stories should be having their climaxes over the next 2 weeks (with their denouements in the last 2 weeks), which will determine how good the adventure strips like Strange Adventures and Supergirl end up being.

The Unknown #4 Mark Waid’s series The Unknown finishes its first story arc this week, to be continued in a new mini-series next month. The first story involved Catherine Allingham, the world’s greatest detective (a broad premise Waid also played with in his earlier series Ruse) hiring a new assistant, James Doyle (not the Governor of Wisconsin), to whom she reveals that she’s dying of a brain tumor. The pair investigate the theft of a casket which may hold the clue to proving the existence of human souls, and they follow it to a remote castle where they apparently find the door to the afterlife, to which Catherine is strongly attracted, being curious as to what she’s going to face when she dies.

Despite all this neat stuff, the story felt weirdly disjointed and unsatisfying. The mystery of the disappearing casket is resolved off-panel, and it’s not clear to me what happened to Catherine in the final encounter at the doorway: Was her brain tumor cured? Sent into recession? Or does she still just have a little more time left? Strange.

The best parts of the comic were Catherine’s presence as the ultimate representation of rationalism, yet one whose situation makes her attracted to the fantastic, and James’ presence trying to ground her in the real, even though they really do find supernatural phenomena. It’s a dynamic familiar from The X-Files, only James isn’t a skeptic, he’s just firmly grounded in our world and is not so much skeptical of the existence of the fantastic, as suspicious of the motivations behind and goals of those phenomena. Minck Oosterveer’s art is also pretty nifty, sketchy at times but remarkably solid at others, especially the EC-Comics-like creature who haunts Catherine’s visions. I suspect Oosterveer could benefit from a strong inker rather than inking his own work, though.

Waid is usually much stronger in his plotting, and not so fuzzy in his themes, so I wonder whether he’s got some master plan for pulling the pieces together and giving them more emotional resonance, or if this is an experimental series for him. Tthe series is titled The Unknown, so I guess I could see it go either way. I’m certainly interested enough to stick around for a bit, but if it ends up being one enigma after another, then I’m likely to run out of curiosity much as I did with The X-Files.

Boneyard #28 Think some nice thoughts about one of the best independent comics of the decade, whose final issue was published this week. Richard Moore apparently hadn’t intended to end Boneyard with this issue, but I guess it just isn’t selling well enough for him to devote the time to it anymore. The tale of Michael Paris, the graveyard he inherited, and all the spooks and ghouls that live therein has been part comedy, part drama, and part soap opera for some years now, but it’s always been entertaining. I enjoyed it most when it focused on the interplay of the main characters, and thus this final issue wraps up perhaps my least-favorite storyline in the series, Paris trying to save a childhood friend from an unhappy marriage and getting his fat pulled out of the fire by his vampire friend Abby. Not to my mind the most fitting end to the series, although the last couple of pages between Paris and Abby are sweet.

I’d still recommend going out and reading the earlier volumes of the series (start with the first collection and see what you think), but sadly it’s come to a premature end. A real shame.

Webcomics I Read

I love comic strips. The World Wide Web has ushered in a new golden age of comic strips. And not only do many of these strips have great artwork, but they’ve broken free of the bland mediocrity that plagues strips in the newspaper; webcomics have an adventurousness and irreverence that you won’t often find in the paper (well, maybe in Funky Winkerbean).

There are hundreds of Webcomics out there, and I couldn’t possibly read them all – nor would I want to, since many of them are not to my taste. But I read quite a few, and try new ones that look interesting as I discover them. Most strips I read have good otr even great artwork, although a few have such strong writing that it overcomes their artistic deficiencies.

Here are all the Webcomics I’m reading these days, grouped into inadequate yet hopefully-helpful cateories:

Gag-a-Day Strips

The emphasis in these strips is to provide a joke in each episode. Some of them may have an ongoing continuity, but that’s not (to my mind) their main point.

  • Basic Instructions, by Scott Meyer: A very sarcastic strip featuring the artist as protagonist, with faux-realistic illustrations of the characters. The humor’s all in the dialogue, which parodies “how to” and “self help” books by twisting well-meaning advice into silly situations involving snarky people. It took a while for it to grow on me, but some of the strips are hilarious.
  • Comic Critics, by Sean Whitmore & Brandon Harvey: A group of friends who produce a podcast critiquing comic books, it’s sort of a meta comic strip, in that it’s never clear whether their criticisms reflect the opinions of the creators (I’m assuming not), but which presents critiques of real comic books and creators (consequently, non-comics fans might not find it accessible). It has an ongoing continity, but a loose one..
  • Courting Disaster, by Brad Guigar: Guigar is better known for his Evil Inc. daily (see below), but Courting Disaster is a weekly single-panel strip about love, sex and relationships. It’s sarcastic pillories both genders more-or-less equally, but it’s not very deep. On the other hand, how much depth do you expect from a single-panel weekly?
  • Dork Tower, by John Kovalic: Long-running comic satirizing geeks, especially FRPG gaming geeks. It has some ongoing character threads, but for the most part it’s a gag-a-day strip, often with horrible puns. Kovalic’s art is pretty simple, but it’s his writing that makes the strip work.
  • Garfield Minus Garfield, by Jim Davis & Dan Walsh: The minor media phenomenon, Walsh discovered that if he subtracted Garfield from his own strip, then it became a twisted strip about the foibles of Jon Arbuckle, who talks to himself and reacts to nothing. Walsh cheats a little in his doctoring of Jim Davis’ panels, but mostly it’s amusing and clever. Davis approved of the concept and a collection has been published.
  • Inktank, by Barry T. Smith: Smith used to draw several strips, the best-known of which was Angst Technology, the chronicle of a small computer game company. He ended his other strips a few years ago, and eventually started Inktank, which is semi-autobiographical, but features the AT crew. His humor features a lot of sarcasm, which I appreciate, but his art can get a little repetitive at times.
  • The Joy of Tech, by Nitrozac & Snaggy (Liza Schmalcel & Bruce Evans): Technology industry humor, drawn in a retro style, often with a focus on Apple. Very hit-or-miss, but worth following if you follow the tech industry.
  • Last Call, by Megan Steckler: I stumbled across this one back when Steckler was updating it only occasionally, and it focused on the main character, Abby, drinking at the local bar and talking to her imaginary alter ego, Lily, a scantily-clad succubus only she can see. Since she started updating regularly, it often focuses on the relationship between Abby and her husband Beau, who are both geeks. It seems like Steckler intended to make this a bit of a gamer’s comic strip too, as Abby’s background involves working at a game store, but that aspect never really materialized.

    Anyway, it’s quirky and cartoony and irreverent, which explains why I like it, although it’s got more of a ‘home brew’ feel than many of the other strips I read.
  • Penny Arcade, by Jerry Holkins & Mike Krahulik: One of the most successful webcomics ever, Penny Arcade nominally comments on the computer gaming industry through the persons of its creators’ fictional avatars, although with regular forays into other pop culture arenas or into utter nonsense. It can be crude, bloody, and tasteless at times, and there’s rarely anything resembling an ongoing story. Some of the gags are hilarious, but it’s not one of my favorites.
  • PvP, by Scott Kurtz: Arguably the other most successful webcomic ever, it chronicles the lives of employees at a computer gaming magazine company, one of whom is an imaginary troll. Kurtz probably has his finger on the pulse of pop culture as much as any other webcomics artist, with a particular love of 70s television and of comic books of any era. Ridiculous nonsense is frequently the order of the day, but it also has an ongoing storyline. The strip often blurs the line between reality and fantasy. I’m not sure anything sums up the series better than this episode of The Adventures of LOLbat (and you can read the follow-up storyline for more such silliness). Kurtz is also a very talented artist, whose style has developed from stiff and repetitive into one that’s imaginative and flexible (see, for instance, his satire of Watchmen, Ombudsmen). Not everything in PvP works for me, but when it does work, it’s excellent.
  • Sinfest, by Tatsuya Ishida: The third-most-successful webcomics strip? Hard to say, since the author seems to keep his cards close to his chest; maybe the others just get more publicity. Nonetheless, Ishida is a fantastic artist with a twisted sense of humor, which he brings to bear in an ongoing character drama with a dose of current events satire. Strongly reminiscent of the best of Bloom Country (before Bill the Cat showed up), it’s been running for years and is worth reading from the beginning. Start with the collection.
  • XKCD, by Randall Munroe: Über-geeky strip which comments on math, computers, and romance, drawn with stick figures. The James Bond strip or the Mac sudo strip are good examples. Or maybe the regular expressions one. I’m particular partial to the one on getting some perspective. But I think my favorite has to be duty calls.

    Anyway, be sure to mouse over the image to see the tooltip for an extra punchline.

Humorous Adventure

Ongoing adventure strips with a strong humor component.

  • Evil Inc, by Brad Guigar: Guigar’s main strip, about supervillains running a corporation to, well, support supervillains. With a large cast, often-complex story arcs, it’s one of the more ambitious comics out there. Guigar’s got a cartoony style that translates very well to superheroics. The humor is frequently broad, with sight gags, character-based humor, and puns. Worth reading from the beginning – it’ll take you a while! Alternately, you can buy the collections (four published to date), which tell the story reformatted for a full-page format. (The original strips are better, though.)
  • Girl Genius, by Phil & Kaja Foglio: To be over-the-top about it, Girl Genius is the sine qua non of webcomics. To come clean I’ve been a huge fan of Phil Foglio’s writing and art for 30 years now, and I own nearly everything he’s published that I can get my hands on (most of it in hardcover). His work has been hilariously funny, devilishly inventive, utterly irreverent, and creatively and maniacally drawn.

    Girl Genius adds into this mix a complicated backstory (mad scientists co-opt the industrial revolution, and our heroine is the lost daughter of two of the greatest mad scientist heroes of the recent war), a huge cast, politics, romance, and period attire. While some of the manic energy doesn’t make the transition to this long-form story, and there are sequences that drag at times, it’s still an hugely satisfying ongoing adventure story, with laughs and drama and excitement. Updated 3 times a week, no one else does webcomics better.
  • Rocket Road Trip, by Shawn Boyles & Isaac Stewart: I just discovered this strip this week; it’s the charming story of a semi-competent monster hunter, his disfunctional family, and the monsters he hunts. It’s sort of like PVP crossed with an especially demented Calvin & Hobbes. A relatively new strip, it’s pretty funny.
  • Sidekick Girl, by Laura Cascos & Erika Wagner: I stumbled on this a few months ago and laughed my ass off. Sidekick Girl is Val, a woman who was rejected as a superhero (despite some pretty potent abilities) because she, uh, couldn’t pass the physical. She was assigned as a sidekick to Illumina, who could pass the physical, but whose lights aren’t turned up all the way in her attic. Val doesn’t wear a costume and carries a baseball bat. It’s a fine satire of superhero comics, and a must-read for any fan of the genre. Unfortunately the current story involves virtual reality D&D, but hopefully it’ll get back to its roots soon.
  • Wapsi Square, by Paul Taylor: Wapsi Square has been two rather different comic strips since it launched in 2001. The first few years it was a slice-of-life strip centered around Monica, a young anthropologist, and her eccentric gang of friends. But a few years ago it changed into a light adventure strip in which Monica learns that she and her friends need to figure out how to stop the world from ending in 2012 at the end of the current Mayan calendar. The strip has several supernatural elements (spirits, a minor deity, a sphinx, teleportation, prophecy) and the character interplay has decreased significantly.

    Overall I enjoyed the sillier, more character-driven strips of the earlier days – I think my favorite sequence is when Monica buys a new bicycle – which is surprising considering how plot-oriented I tend to be. But the more recent strips are not as funny, and I have a hard time following (or, really, caring to follow) the ins and outs of the plan to keep the world from ending. It’s a more sophisticated strip, but I don’t think it’s as much fun.

    Taylor’s artwork has also changed a lot over the years. The earliest strips are much less polished, but the most recent strips feel almost too polished, and something about the way he draws faces changed so that the characters today look a bit too artificial. Compare, for instance, this early strip (which is still quite well-drawn – look at the backgrounds), to this strip from a few years later, to this recent strip. I think the middle one is the best of the three, and I tend to prefer the more organic style of the earlier strip over the precise look of the later strip, in which the characters look a little creepy.

    So although I was very enthusastic about Wapsi Square when I first discovered it and started reading the archives from the beginning, the more recent strips just don’t excite me as much. I’d like Taylor to find a happy medium between the complex ongoing plot and the more freewheeling style of the earlier strips.

  • Plan B, by Mitz: I discovered this recently when looking at Chris Sim’s Woman of A.C.T.I.O.N., and loved it immediately. The main character is a supervillain, Veronica (her name and her code-name) who learned she was married to a super-hero, and who turned to a life of crime when their marriage broke up. The details are still being revealed. Veronica is twisted but very self-aware, and also pretty grumpy and nasty, so we see the usual superhero fights and schemes from the villain’s side, although she’s not your usual villain. Despite being a comical deconstruction of the superhero genre, there’s a heavy dose of violence and innuendo in the strip, giving it a sharp edge. It’s sort of the evil version of Sidekick Girl, and really just as good.

Serious Adventure

The hard stuff: Funny occasionally, but these are strips with serious ongoing stories.

  • Afterstrife, by Ali Graham: Megan and Stitch are two young people who pass away and find themselves in a purgatory-like afterlife. Their souls are linked somehow, and so they’re stuck with each other even though they don’t really like each other, but they have to work off their karmic debts in order to move on, and some of the rulers of this afterlife don’t want them to get away. It’s pretty serious and often tense and suspenseful, and Graham does a good job keeping my interest. Graham’s art is inventive but his figures and faces aren’t as dynamic or expressive as some other artists. It seems to be nearing a climax lately.
  • Danielle Dark, by Jay Bradley: A full-page weekly, the heroine is a vampire who was turned in the 19th century, and who moves from place to place since she doesn’t age. Despite this, it’s sort of a “young adult sitcom” with vaguely threatening overtones, with Danielle recently falling for one of her victims – who also happens to be in the witness protection program. Bradley has a nice clean style, although his facial expressions get very exaggerated at times. Early in the strip he endowed Danielle with big boobs, because they attract more prey that way, you see (and readers too, presumably).
  • FreakAngels, by Warren Ellis & Paul Duffield: Comics writer Ellis is the brains behind this weekly post-apocalyptic strip in which a group of telepaths accidentally cause the end of the world, and then set out (well, most of them) to rebuild a pocket of civilization in Whitechapel, London. They don’t really all like each other, but mostly work together towards a common cause. Naturally, the world (what remains of it) is both hostile towards and jealous of them and what they’ve built, so there are threats from every corner, including from within. The first two chapters (try the trade paperbacks) take place over just two days, so this strip could go on for quite a while. Who knows?

    Duffield has a distinctive, clean, style, with a strong sense of place and architecture, and the art is lovingly colored. He really brings the future Whitechapel to life. How he hasn’t gotten a high-profile gig at a major comics publisher, I have no idea.
  • Gunnerkrigg Court, by Tom Siddell: I’ve written before about this excellent comic, chronicling the adventures of the young Antimony Carver at the otherworldly school of Gunnerkrigg Court. It’s one of the very best out there, just a smidge below Girl Genius. Not to be missed. You can also buy the collection.

Soap Opera/Slice of Life

A little bit of everything: Humor, drama, ongoing stories, but mainly tracking the stories of their characters and their relationships.

  • Girls With Slingshots, by Danielle Corsetto: The daily adventuresof two quirky women, and their friendships and relationships. Often rather explicit in its content, it’s also silly and sarcastic. Corsetto has an attractive cartoony style with characters who look very different from one another. Probably my second-favorite strip in this category, behind…
  • Questionable Content, by Jeph Jacques: My first close encounter with soap opera webcomics, and it’s probably the best of them. It follows the lives of a group of friends living in western Massachusetts (near “Smif” college), and despite running for years, the in-strip continuity has lasted less than a year so far. The main characters are the shy Marten and the overbearing Faye, who become roommates early on. Significant characters include Marten’s girlfriend and Faye’s boss, Dora; Marten’s anthropomorphic PC Pintsize; and Hannelore, who has extreme OCD. The strips vary between charming and sarcastic, but are often frickin’ hilarious. Jacques isn’t the best artist on the Web, but he’s good enough for his subject matter, and most importantly does a fine job with expressions and body language, which is what the strip demands.
  • Least I Could Do, by Ryan Sohmer & Lar deSouza: I just started reading this one, but it’s been running for a while. It seems to be the daily adventures of self-centered and promiscuous Rayne and his cast of characters. Its earnestness takes some of the edge off its slightly distasteful protagonist, but it hasn’t won me over yet.
  • Sweet Fat Life, by Lauren & Genny: I came across this recently and other than being somewhat focused on its two protagonists being large women, it feels a lot like a slightly wonkier Girls With Slingshots. Updating has been erratic since I started reading it, and the archives are something of a grab-bag, but if it can get on a regular schedule and establish an ongoing continuity, it could develop into a good one.

I don’t have any particular approach to discovering new webcomics. Going through Comixpedia systematically seems like a way to spend a lot of time while only finding a couple of strips I want to read. I actually check out some of the strips that advertise through Project Wonderful which appears on the front pages of Wapsi Square and Girls With Slingshots, although few of them have seemed like my cup of tea. But it’s not like I have a shortage of strips to read.

What’s good out there that I ought to be reading?

My Green Thumb Turns Brown

Since I moved in to my house, I’ve planted a garden every year. Some years are better than others, and I always have a few mishaps: Some flowers die, and I’ve never been able to successfully grow peppers. But usually we get some pretty flowers and a whole bunch of tomatoes and some cucumbers out of it.

But this year has just been one mishap after another.

Since we were debating how to go about treating our building for termites, I held off planting because my garden planter is up against the building, and would have to be included in the tenting, which would likely kill all the plants. Once that was resolved, I planted some marigolds, a gerbera daisy, and a pair of cherry tomato plants. I also planted my usual assortment of herbs.

Well, the marigolds and daisy have all done really well (except for one marigold plant that didn’t quite make it), but the tomato plants have had a rough time of it. We’ve got some field mice in the yard this year which I suspect have been taking the green tomato fruits (and also licking the grease from the grease trap in the grill – ew). I finally put some netting over the plants, and that seemed to help, but one of the plants has had one of its stalks die, and the rest of it doesn’t seem to be in great shape either. So rather than having a boatload of tomatoes, we might only get a handful this year.

On top of that, the basil plants have not been doing so great, even though I bought a large pot for them this year. Usually they last until the frost sets in, but two of the three plants are looking pretty sickly, and I don’t know why. (The third one is newer than the first two, so maybe the first two were just from a bad batch?).

It’s kind of a bummer overall. We also have some squirrels who like to chew on the bark of the trees over my patio (I’ve seen them do this), which kills the branch they chew on, which means extra dead leaves in the yard in the middle of summer. Annoying. On the other hand, this gives me some incentive to prune the trees back a bit, which they usually need anyway. (Some of the dead limbs are too high for me to reach, though, even with my 20-foot extension pruner.)

On the bright side, the flowers I planted on the upstairs porch have been doing well this year, and we have some holdovers from last year that are still kicking as well. So I don’t feel like a total failure!

I’m gonna miss having the tomatoes, though.

It’s The Little Things

Guess I haven’t really been in a journalling mood lately, as all I’ve been good for are comic book posts. So to keep you in the loop, here’s all the little stuff that’s been keeping me busy when I haven’t been reading (or writing about) comics:

The biggest little news is that we’ve gone out to look at houses a couple of times in the past month. I’ve been in my house since 2001, and Debbi moved in in 2005, and it’s getting a little tight. Plus Debbi loves to look at houses. So we’ve hit about 10 open houses, even though I’m not ready to buy a new house this year. We saw a couple of houses we liked, one of which Debbi seemed to really like. We also saw a bunch of pretty mediocre houses, usually small houses which were awkwardly remodeled and/or expanded by their owners, and it didn’t work very well. It would be nice to find a house next year that we could buy, although I’m not looking forward to going through the effort of selling the current place!

We’ve been visiting with our friends. One set of friends is remodeling their house, although they’ve had a heck of a time getting the plans approved by their city. Another set of friends have infant twins, and we’ve visited them, and then gone out to lunch with them. I gotta say they seem like just about the most well-organized parents I’ve ever seen; or maybe having twins just left them without any effort to stress out about things. And we had other friends over for dinner one evening and I played with their almost-2-year-old daughter for over an hour.

I’ve been on a minor cleaning kick. I’ve been organizing my Magic cards, and then this weekend I went through all my old science fiction magazines and threw most of them out. Indeed, I went through my considerable backlog of SF magazines I haven’t read yet and declared ‘bankrupcy’ on most of them, tossing them out too, once I admitted to myself that I just wasn’t going to get to them. I marked a few stories in about a half-dozen issues to read in the near future, but that’s it. That’s a heck of a lot of paper out to the recycle bins.

I cleaned and lubed my bike chain which happily fixed the squeaking sound I was getting when pedaling, which made me very happy. I’m still biking to work twice a week, which is getting nicer as we head into cooler weather (although, honestly, it’s been a cool summer). This would sound more impressive if I didn’t have cow-orkers who were biking in 4-5 times a week (although in my defense I think I have a longer ride than most of them).

I finished China Miéville’s The Scar, which was okay, although quite long and the early parts dragged quite a bit. The second half picked up and was pretty rewarding, though. Overall I think I like the idea of (and ideas in) Miéville’s books more than the books themselves.

And of course I’ve been reading all those comic books. And playing Magic. And occasionally poker. And I plan to go to boardgaming at Subrata’s tomorrow night for the first time in a while.

No wonder I’ve felt so busy lately!

This Week’s Haul

A couple of hardcover collections this week: Avengers Forever will shelve nicely next to the other collections of Kurt Busiek’s excellent Avengers run from a decade ago (although it’s not as good as the main title was, being largely of interest only to longtime Avengers wonks like myself), while Spider-Man Masterworks continues the silver age reprints of the wall-crawler, which still hold up pretty well today.

Meanwhile, on a technical note, I’ve finally switched away from ImageManager to manage images in my WordPress install, and I’ve moved to the native image management support with Scissors for some additional functionality. So far it seems to provide exactly the same look, which makes me happy; the transition ended up being really easy.

Anyway, on with the haul:

  • The Brave and the Bold #26, by John Rozum & Scott Hampton (DC)
  • Ex Machina #44, by Brian K. Vaughan & Tony Harris (DC/Wildstorm)
  • Power Girl #4, by Justin Gray, Jimmy Palmiotti & Amanda Conner (DC)
  • Wednesday Comics #7, by many hands (DC)
  • Avengers Forever HC, by Kurt Busiek, Roger Stern, Carlos Pacheco & Jesús Merino (Marvel)
  • Marvel Masterworks: The Amazing Spider-Man HC vol 122, collecting The Amazing Spider-Man #100-109, by Stan Lee, Roy Thomas, Gil Kane, John Romita & Frank Giacoia (Marvel)
  • Unthinkable #4 of 5, by Mark Sable & Julian Totino Tedesco (Boom)
  • Invincible #65, by Robert Kitkman & Ryan Ottley (Image)
  • Atomic Robo: Shadow From Beyond Time #4 of 5, by Brian Clevinger, Scott Wegener & Rick Woodall (Red 5)
Power Girl #4 Bwah-hah-hah! I was chuckling through the first half of Power Girl #4, which retreats completely from the big “let’s fight the Ultra-Humanite – again” story of the first three issues, and instead gets down to Power Girl’s personal life. Power Girl takes Terra out to see a horror movie (which PG loves but Terra hates), and PG gets hit on by a character from a TV show I don’t watch. Then they have to head out to deal with an emergency, and Terra totally doesn’t get the idea of bringing her costume with her, so she heads out to fight in her regular clothes. The villain (a young woman on an excessive environmental kick and who has magical powers) refers to PG as “busty airborne lass”, and gets taken down because she’s basically too ridiculous to win against two actual heroes.

(The one awkward thing in all this, as Greg Burgas noted, is that Terra strips down to her panties to head off to fight the monsters. While one could rationalize this by Terra not really being modest due to her backstory, or taking off her pants because her costume doesn’t have legs, it’s frankly a joke that falls flat because it feels creepy. Given that the tone of the comic is light and jokey, not all the gags are going to work, but I think the editor should have talked them down from this one.)

The second half of the story focuses on PG trying to adjust to life running her new company, and finding a new apartment. It’s fairly routine soap opera stuff, but honestly, superhero comics can use some fairly routine soap opera stuff. It shouldn’t be all about the fighting, it should be about the characters. Treating PG as a real character and not just someone who goes out and punches villains is the best way to set this comic apart from all the other superhero comics out there. I’d like to think there’s space for such a comic on the shelves today, especially with Amanda Conner illustrating it.

The one sour note aside, this issue is basically what the first issue should have been, and it’s raised my enthusiasm for the series 100%. Fun stuff.

Wednesday Comics #7 We’re over the hump in Wednesday Comics this week, so the stories should be well into their second acts, with their climaxes not far off.

Doctor Fate shows up in Strange Adventures to help Adam Strange figure out how to get back to Rann. Even though I’m not a huge Paul Pope fan, I would totally buy a Paul Pope Doctor Fate comic, especially if he can write it without having to fit it into established continuity. Heck, set it in the 1940s, that would be cool!

The writing on Hawkman just gets worse and worse and worse. Who greenlighted this? I can’t figure out how the story could start with an alien invasion, end up on an island of dinosaurs, and possibly make any sense at all when it reaches the end. What’s the point?

Recent developments in both Metamorpho and Deadman are interesting, but neither one has really distinguished itself. Though both are quirkier, neither is really any better than Metal Men, which is a pretty generic strip but is enjoyable enough.

I’m perplexed by the fact that Green Lantern is written by Kurt Busiek, since it has none of the depth of characterization which is his signature. The first half was downright boring, and now that the fighting’s started, it doesn’t look like it’ll get any better.

The “big three” strips are all poor: I’m not reading Wonder Woman at all, Superman is just awful in story and artwork. Batman has little snatches of decent stuff, but it doesn’t hold together as a story, and what story there is isn’t interesting.

Flash is still the best strip in the book, but Supergirl has been looking up recently, and Strange Adventures is in that ballpark too, after a shaky start. J.D. loves Kamandi, and I think Ryan Sook’s artwork is terrific, the story is just too routine for me to care (but boy, the artwork really is gorgeous).

This Week’s Haul

And what an enormous haul it was:

  • Blackest Night #2 of 8, by Geoff Johns, Ivan Reis & Oclair Albert (DC)
  • Booster Gold #23, by Dan Jurgens & Norm Rapmund (DC)
  • Fables #87, by Bill Willingham, Mark Buckingham & Andrew Pepoy (DC/Vertigo)
  • Fables: The Dark Ages vol 12 TPB, by Bill Willingham, Mark Buckingham, Peter Gross, Andrew Pepoy, Michael Allred & David Hahn (DC/Vertigo)
  • Green Lantern Corps #39, by Peter J. Tomasi, Patrick Gleason, Rebecca Buchman & Tom Nguyen (DC)
  • JSA vs. Kobra #3 of 6, by Eric S. Trautmann, Don Kramer & Michael Babinski (DC)
  • The Unwritten #4, by Mike Carey & Peter Gross (DC/Vertigo)
  • Wednesday Comics #6 of 12, by many hands (DC)
  • The Incredible Hercules #132, by Greg Pak, Fred Van Lente, Reilly Brown & Nelson DeCastro (Marvel)
  • The Marvels Project #1 of 8, by Ed Brubaker & Steve Epting (Marvel)
  • War of Kings #6 of 6, by Dan Abnett, Andy Lanning, Paul Pelletier & Rick Magyar (Marvel)
  • Echo #14, by Terry Moore (Abstract)
  • Girl Genius: Agatha Heterodyne and the Chapel of Bones vol 8 HC, by Phil Foglio & Kaja Foglio (Airship)
  • Absolution #1, by Christos Gage & Roberto Viacava (Avatar)
  • B.P.R.D.: 1947 #2 of 5, by Mike Mignola, Joshua Dysart & Gabriel Bá (Dark Horse)
  • Hellboy: The Wild Hunt #5 of 8, by Mike Mignola & Duncan Fegredo (Dark Horse)
  • The Boys #33, by Garth Ennis, John McCrea & Keith Burns (Dynamite)
The Unwritten #4 The first arc of The Unwritten wraps up this week. It’s a pretty interesting comic, a mix of outright horror and sophisticated mystery. Tom Taylor’s life has been turned upside down as he learns his writer father – who based his most famous creation upon Tom – had a lot of secrets, and now Tom’s been trying to track down the truth while avoiding both the law and some of the books’ nastier fans. The pacing is a bit slow, but I think Mike Carey’s building up to a much larger story so I’m willing to wait a while to see how it develops. Although this arc doesn’t really wrap anything up at the end, it actually ends on a cliffhanger which definitely piques my interest about what happens next.
Wednesday Comics #6 Wednesday Comics has some welcome developments this week. The most interesting is in Paul Pope’s Strange Adventures, in which Adam Strange returns to Earth, but rather than the young hero he is on Rann, he’s a much older man, an archaeologist, on Earth. This is an interesting twist on the character’s premise (though of course Adam Strange is somewhat based on John Carter of Mars), and I’m curious to see what Pope does with it.

Supergirl has an appearance by Aquaman, a much younger Aquaman who spends the whole page talking on his clam shell phone. Cute. Jimmy Palmiotti’s doing a much better job making a lighthearted strip with this one than Neil Gaiman is with Metamorpho, whose story is downright routine, and the little retro “extras” are rapidly getting tiresome.

The Marvels Project #1 Ed Brubaker and Steve Epting’s Captain America run has gotten a lot of acclaim, but I haven’t read any of it. However, I’ve enjoyed Brubaker’s pulpish work, and I’ve liked what I’ve seen by Epting in the past, so I’m going to give their new series, The Marvels Project, a whirl. It’s clearly rooted – at least in this first issue – in Kurt Busiek and Alex Ross’ terrific series Marvels from 15 or so years ago, covering the emergence of the original Human Torch in the 1940s, as well as the early escapades of the Sub-Mariner. Brubaker fills in some of the blanks of both characters ably, which gives me hope that it won’t just be a retread of that same ground. Though Epting certainly seems to be doing his level best to imitate Alex Ross’ style in that series.

The most interesting bit for me is the opening sequence, in which Dr. Thomas Holloway administers to a dying old man, Matt Hawk, who it turns out was the Two-Gun Kid in the late 19th century. But as long-time Marvel fans know, the Two-Gun Kid got a glimpse of the late 20th century when he spent several months hanging out with Hawkeye and the Avengers in some comics published in the late 70s, so he delivers some prophecy to Dr. Holloway, as well as his own pistols, and it looks like Holloway will use the guns to become a superhero on his own. (It seems that Thomas Holloway is the identity of the future golden age Angel, a character I’m not familiar with at all. But here he’s treated as a human observer, the point-of-view character for the story, and he works very well in that context.)

The first issue is promising, if rather derivative as I said. I don’t know whether The Marvels Project will take place during World War II, or will cover several different eras. Either one could work out. I also wonder what the “project” will be, or if the book’s title will be a misnomer. But Brubaker and Epting are both skilled enough that I’m sure it’ll be readable even if it doesn’t rise above my fears.

War of Kings #6 How not to conclude a big mini-series event: War of Kings #6. After half a year of Emperor Vulcan and sending his Shi’ar troops to fight with Black Bolt, the Inhumans, and their new Kree Empire, the series wraps up with Vulcan and Black Bolt going mano-a-mano on a giant bomb powered by BB’s energies. The two beat each other to a relative pulp before the thing goes off, after we learn that Vulcan can regenerate himself even from being mutilated by Bolt’s voice. The Shi’ar armada is devastated, and they sue for peace, meaning the Inhumans have won.

And then the series ends.

Gah!

So, Vulcan will presumably be back since he can apparently live through anything, even though as a character he’s far, far past his sell-by date at this point. Black Bolt will presumably be back since, well, he’s a classic Marvel character (if something of a fringe one). The Kree and Shi’ar empires have been battered around yet again, and all things considered nothing has been resolved, really, at all. But a rift in space has been opened up which will play directly into the Guardians of the Galaxy series in coming months, or so it seems.

So, really, this big event is just kicking off some new plot threads without resolving any of the previous ones.

What a waste of time.

Y’know, I really liked Annihilation, which was primarily a Keith Giffen story, and I enjoyed Annihilation Conquest well enough. It was an Abnett/Lanning event, as was War of Kings, but there’s definitely diminishing returns here. War of Kings was not good, and I don’t think I’ll be signing up for any further DnA-driven event series featuring Marvel’s spaceketeers. I’m happy for them to keep writing Nova, but I think this milieu needs some new blood. Or, honestly, no more events for a few years.

Absolution #1 Avatar Press specializes in some especially nasty comics, and for the most part I don’t really like ’em. As I described a while back they publish a lot of stuff by Warren Ellis that doesn’t appeal to me at all, even though he’s written some excellent stuff for other companies. My general reservations about Avatar aside, I decided to give Christos Gage’s Absolution a try, as the premise was interesting, although I expected it would contain an awful lot of violence and gore. And I wasn’t disappointed on the latter point.

John Dusk is a superhero in a US where most heroes are cops, which means they have the full support of the law, but also that they have to behave like cops, with all the regulations that implies. But Dusk starts going over the edge, unable to deal with the fact that criminals get off, and live to commit more crimes. So he starts to kill people who he thinks need to be killed because they either won’t be convicted, or haven’t been before. But since he’s going around the bend, it doesn’t quite stop there, either. At least one critic has compared the character to Dexter.

Gage does a good job of making Dusk seem sympathetic, a professional with good intentions, but who’s simply been squeezed to hard and starts to exercise poor judgment. It’s hard to defend a ‘hero’ who acts this way, though, so I’ll be curious to see how long Dusk remains sympathetic, especially since hie girlfriend is also a cop and will presumably start hunting him down at some point. Roberto Viacava’s art is a little stiff, but still within the bounds of artists working for the third-tier publishers (where DC and Marvel are the first tier, and the major indies like Image and Dark Horse are the second). He’s good a good sense of composition and clean lines, which helps a lot.

Absolution could end up going either way, but the start is promising. I don’t have enough exposure to Gage’s writing to have a sense for which way he’ll take it.

DC: The New Frontier

  • DC: The New Frontier volumes one and two

    • by Darwyn Cooke
DC: The New Frontier vol 1 DC: The New Frontier vol 2
DC: The New Frontier
vol 1 & vol 2

DC Comics has seemingly had a long-running – but suppressed – fascination with the 1950s. Some of this is probably due to comics’ ongoing fascination with its origins, and DC’s modern era essentially began in the 50s when the Silver Age heroes debuted. (Marvel’s modern era of course began in the 1960s.) But the 1950s were the one era that DC seemed to completely ignore when it came to what was going on in the world, so it’s as if there’s a big chunk missing in DC’s cultural heritage. That may be what drives its occasional publication of stories using its characters but set in that era. While Justice League of America #144 (1977) is arguably more a continuity detail than a cultural exploration, the fine series Martian Manhunter: American Secrets is set very firmly in 1950s America, while the truly-excellent The Golden Age is very much about the twilight of the 1940s and the dawn of the 1950s, set exactly on the cusp of DC’s Golden Age and Silver Age, and set in the early 50s.

When Darwyn Cooke’s series DC: The New Frontier came out several years ago, I passed on it. Cooke’s art style is not really to my taste, and at a glance it seemed like yet another story about the origins of DC’s Silver Age heroes. Much like the Ultimate Marvel Comics line, I thought, “I’ve basically read this before”, and didn’t pick it up. But thanks to a recent sale at my shop, I decided to give it a try after all, since it’s been a much-celebrated series.

The story takes place out of the mainstream, and starts around the same time as The Golden Age in the early 50s, when most superheroes have retired – voluntarily or otherwise – due to governmental pressure. Superman, Batman and Wonder Woman are still active, but the Justice Society’s day is past. However, new heroes gradually pop up: J’onn J’onzz is involuntarily brought from Mars and begins his life as one of the few honest cops in Gotham City, where he runs across Batman. The Flash starts his career in Central City, and so forth. But the first volume mainly follows many of the characters in their civilian lives, considering the advent of the space age, and with varying degrees of nostalgia for days of superheroics past.

But eventually it comes out that not only has the government been actively pursuing the remaining superheroes (other than those who are working for the government), but there’s another force working in the shadows which poses a threat to the whole world. The second volume focuses on the heroes gradually pulling together and overcoming their differences to face this threat and through defeating it usher in a new age of superheroes working out in the open.

Structurally, The New Frontier is almost identical to The Golden Age: A diaspora of the older heroes, a shadowy threat, and a final pulling together to defeat that threat, with extensive character portraits along the way. While the sets of characters are different – TGA focuses on the older heroes, while TNF focuses on the younger ones – it’s almost like The New Frontier was written as an homage to the earlier series. Overall, the plot of TGA is far stronger, its manipulations of preexisting characters less radical and therefore more believable (although there’s an excellent scene in TNF in which Superman’s odd behavior is explained), and in particular its villain – although no less over-the-top – feels more meaningful than the fairly generic threat in TNF, which has no real ties to any of the characters or indeed to any real or fictional history. I think Cooke is trying to evoke the feel of monster movies of the era, but it’s a poor choice, as the threat just doesn’t resonate.

TNF is told in highly episodic form but some episodes are great and others are a drag. Unfortunately, it opens with a lengthy episode involving The Losers set at the end of World War II, which sort of works to set up the big threat, but really isn’t very relevant and isn’t very interesting. At best it shows that Cooke’s willing to be brutal to his characters, as most of the ones involved in this episode die by the end. After a fascinating summary of the standing-down of the heroes as a result of government persecution, we get a rather tedious bit with Hal Jordan (the future Green Lantern) in Korea, and a slightly perplexing confrontation between Superman and Wonder Woman also in Korea. It’s not really until J’onn J’onzz arrives that the story really takes off, especially an encounter between him and Batman. There’s also an entertaining Flash escapade. But the first volume spends a lot of time covering many different characters and setting the stage, but it does so haphazardly. The Hal Jordan stuff especially drags on and on. The second volume is much better, as things get moving: Hal gets his ring, the Flash decides to retire because the government’s after him now, a mission to Mars goes awry, and then the big threat rears its head.

Cooke’s writing is much better when there’s more going on, as he captures the essence of characters like Green Arrow and Adam Strange even though they get very little screen time, and his depiction of the characters putting aside their differences – especially Flash and the agent who was after him – to work together is very effective and even moving. But it sure took a while to get there. I think the first volume could have been tightened up considerably.

Cooke’s art is not really my cup of tea, as I said. The simple line-work and awkward poses that the style forces don’t entirely work for me. It grows on me eventually – much as the similar style of Michael Avon Oeming did – but it’ll probably never be a favorite of mine. It works well enough in this setting, although compared to, say, Paul Smith on The Golden Age, well, it doesn’t really compare. (Though to be fair I’d rate Smith one of the ten best artists in modern comics.)

It’s interesting that DC seems to set its retro series so far back in the past, as series set during World War II or the 1950s can give some lip service to the problems of the era (as Cooke does with a “John Henry” character here whose story gets shoved to the side in the second volume and never seems to come to a satisfying fruition), but ultimately their themes are about America’s ascendance in the world. Examining DC’s heroes in the context of the 60s or 70s might be a little too dark for their brand. (Though that hasn’t stopped them from doing their own take on the zombie craze in Blackest Night. But zombies and are perhaps less threatening than Vietnam, 60s counterculture, Watergate, and the oil crisis.)

Overall, I enjoyed The New Frontier more than I’d expected to, but I don’t think it’s in the same class as The Golden Age or American Secrets. If you’re looking for a good adventure yarn then this may do it for you, but I don’t think it lived up to the extensive accolades it received. I think it suffers most from feeling a little too generic in its structure and plot, although Cooke’s characterizations are often quite a bit of fun.

This Week’s Haul

  • Astro City: The Dark Age Book Three #4 of 4, by Kurt Busiek, Brent Anderson & Alex Ross (DC/Wildstorm)
  • Wednesday Comics #5 of 12, by many hands (DC)
  • Irredeemable #5, by Mark Waid & Peter Krause (Boom)
  • Sir Edward Grey: Witchfinder #2 of 5, by Mike Mignola & Ben Stenbeck (Dark Horse)
Astro City: The Dark Age book 3 #4 The third part of Astro City: The Dark Age comes to a close this week. The whole series leaves me with a bittersweet taste, and not just because of the story; The Dark Age is a 16-issue story (I thought it was originally going to be 12 issues) which has come out v-e-r-y slowly, largely (I understand) due to Kurt Busiek’s health issues. While I’m sympathetic to the reasons for the delay and I enjoy Astro City enough to keep with it despite the scheduling issues, a 16-issue story unfortunately suffers more than most from such delays, especially when it’s chock-full of teasers and questions that would be difficult enough sit through a monthly comic waiting to see resolved, and with a year or more between 4-issue parts, well, my enthusiasm has waned greatly over the life of the series.

And alas the story itself has not been one of the series’ best. The emotional center of the series is the pair of brothers, Charles the cop and Royal the small-time crook, who struggle with their relationship as a result of their divergent paths even as they’re united in looking for the man who killed their parents when they were children. Their story takes a significant step forward in this part as they each have cut ties with their previous lives and infiltrate the organization where their target works. Of course, since it’s an underground revolutionary group, that means the stakes are high. They make significant progress here, but with one more part to come, naturally it’s not over yet in this issue.

The problem with The Dark Age is that it’s also chronicling the history of Astro City through the 70s and 80s, so it casts its net widely with a huge cast of characters, and many of them just don’t get the time they deserve. The ongoing Silver Agent story is playing out fairly well, but the superhero group the Apollo Eleven see their story reach its climax in this issue, and honestly my reaction was something of a shrug. Usually Busiek has a deft touch when it comes to working superhero battles into the background of the main story, but something about his approach here makes the battle overshadow the brothers’ efforts, yet the battle itself isn’t satisfying.

I wonder whether The Dark Age suffers from being too ambitious a story for the series’ structure (never mind its schedule). But for whatever reason, I don’t think it’s been a standout moment in Astro City‘s history. On the bright side, artist Brent Anderson’s work is as powerful as ever, filled with a wide variety of character designs and page layouts, and doing a fine service to the various emotional tones that the story paints. If I have a complaint, it’s that I find the nature of the grimaces and shouts that his characters’ faces exhibit get to look a little too much the same one issue after another.

On the bright side, Busiek recently announced that Astro City will be going monthly thanks to positive developments in both his life and Anderson’s work approach, which has to be one of the brightest bits of comics news in years. Given the series’ track record I’m cautious optimistic that they can pull it off, but honestly even if they “just” go bimonthly or quarterly, a regular schedule would be an improvement.

Wednesday Comics #5 On the other hand, Busiek’s Green Lantern story in Wednesday Comics is pretty dull, and this week’s page is just a flashback to Hal Jordan’s rivalry with the pilot who started turning into a monster a few pages ago. I think we’ve seen Green Lantern for about 3 panels so far, and none of the Hal Jordan stuff has been particularly interesting. Disappointing.

The Superman page has some memories of Superman being rocketed from Krypton. It always bugs the hell out of me when I see – as we do here – Superman’s ‘S’ shield being used on Krypton, and it has ever since the first Christopher Reeve feature film. The shield to me has always been a symbol of Superman’s humanity and heritage as an Earthman, that he’s Kryptonian by birth but that’s all in the past. It’s an indication to me that the writer or editor Just Doesn’t Get It where Superman is concerned. But that’s been the case for the whole story here so far.

This issue has not one but two heroes saving planes from crashing into the Earth. The Supergirl page is a lot more fun than the Hawkman page – the writing on Hawkman is bad and getting worse. Supergirl at least has no pretentions of being more than an amusing little yarn involving her flying pets.

The best stories in the issue are The Flash (as usual), Metal Men (Dan Didio seems to be surprising everyone by writing a perfectly readable story), and Supergirl. I’m intrigued by Adam Strange and disappointed (after some earlier enthusiasm) in The Demon and Catwoman. This week’s Batman page is the best yet, but it’s too bad it took this long for me to find the story more than bizarrely paced.

Irredeemable #5 Mark Waid’s Irredeemable seems to have gotten a lukewarm response from the comics press so far, with comments that Waid isn’t doing anything new with his Superman-analogue-gone-bad yarn, although he’s doing it very well. Personally, I think he’s doing it very, very well, and it’s near the top of my stack to read each week it comes out.

Waid is playing to his own strengths in considering what a character like Superman could do if he decides to go bad. Although there’s been plenty carnage and dead characters (not to mention millions of dead civilians), the Plutonian seems to be playing with his prey, and that allows Waid to consider that such a character can behave like the villain in a horror movie. With his speed, he can suddenly appear and disappear without anyone seeing them. With his superhuman senses he can be aware of what people are doing the world over and bring secrets to light that no one else could know. That we don’t know what the Plutonian’s motives are (Mind control? Parallel-world double? Or just gone bad as the facts suggest on the surface?) make it all the more frightening. He doesn’t seem to be trying to conquer the world, and the notion that he’s trying to get revenge for having been treated badly doesn’t seem believable either.

Although Peter Krause’s artwork is a little sketchy for my tastes – I think he could use an inker who smooths out and solidifies his pencils – his designs and layouts are terrific, with a classic superheroic look but with just enough of an edge to do justice to the premise.

This week’s issue, #5, is only 99¢, and the collection of the first four issues also came out this week, so I highly recommend checking it out. Maybe it’s not a revolutionary comic, but it is a very good comic. And in particular, anyone who enjoyed Waid’s series Empire ought to love this, because it’s even better.

Walkability

A few months ago I wrote about how I’ve been walking to more places near my house this year, and later how walking to get lunch was a nice fringe benefit of working from home. Now J.D. Roth has written his own entry on walkable neighborhoods.

J.D. emphasizes his most important point:

To me, a “walkable neighborhood” doesn’t mean a neighborhood where people could walk to-and-from stores; it means a neighborhood where people do walk to-and-from stores. That’s a subtle but important difference.

I agree totally. While I could walk to more places in my area, in reality I mostly head into our city’s downtown, which is much more interesting than any of the local neighborhoods (and is, indeed, one of the nicest downtowns in the county, in my opinion). But it’s a 30-minute walk away, and I’m rarely motivated to spend a 60-minute round trip just commuting to and from downtown. In reality, I only walk there when I’m going down to catch the train up to San Francisco. Plus, downtown has abundant parking. So I drive there instead. I think the presence of downtown in easy driving distance, but somewhat more difficult walking distance, greatly reduces the walkability of my own neighborhood. Consequently, although was have a few little strip malls within half a mile of my house, I think the presence of downtown dissuades potential restauranteurs and retail stores from opening up in my area. They’d rather be downtown, where the people are.

Serious walkers – and I know several – may laugh at my being daunted by a 30-minute walk one-way, but honestly my time is more important to me than either getting some walking in or reducing my environmental impact by driving less. I’d rather spend that time biking, and I tend not to use my bike to commute, except to work, for various reasons. Also, my environmental footprint is already fairly small; I drive a Honda Civic, and only put around 7K miles on it a year, which is a minuscule impact compared to most of my fellow Americans, I’d guess.

The other neat thing in J.D.’s post is a reference to Walk Score, which will compute the “walk score” for any address. I both love automated computation engines like this, and view them with suspicion. That doesn’t stop me from playing around with them, though, so, I checked out walk scores for many of the places I’ve lived:

  • The house where I grew up has a score of 62, “somewhat walkable”. This surprised me, since the nearby town center has a Starbucks, grocery store, hardware store, post office, bank, and subway station. Not much retail or dining, though, which might hurt it.
  • The apartment I lived senior year of college has a score of 86, “very walkable”. It was a 30-minute walk from campus, and a 5-minute walk from the New Orleans streetcar line, plus various other stores. It didn’t feel quite this walkable, though.
  • The apartment I lived in during grad school in Madison has a score of 86 too. It was right next to a 7-11, a 20 minute walk from downtown, and had many other things in easy walking distance. It was a great location.
  • The apartment I moved to after grad school has a score of 89, also “very walkable”. It was close to a grocery store and a 10-minute walk from downtown, so this makes sense.
  • The apartment I lived in when I first moved to California has a score of 49, “car dependent”. It was a 10-minute walk from downtown, and downtown was a pretty desolate place at the time (it’s better now, including having a light rail station). But yeah, getting around was difficult. I hated the location, mainly because all my friends lived at least a 20-minute drive away. (The apartment was nice enough, though.)
  • My current home has a score of 75, “very walkable”. This seems high to me, although I agree the area is not really car-dependent.

As you might guess, when we next move Debbi and I would like to get closer to downtown. Though overall our current place is a pretty good location. And it has another advantage that’s the exact opposite of walkability: Outstanding freeway access.

Tower Defense

In case I didn’t need another way to waste time, I recently discovered the tower defense genre of computer strategy games. Specifically, I discovered them for my iPhone. I think this puts me, what, about 3 years behind the curve for the genre, and a year behind for the platform?

Anyway, Tower defense games involve placing towers on a map in order to fend off invading hordes of creatures. The towers are statically placed, but they can be upgraded or torn down. You have a certain number of resources with which to build towers, but you can more resources as you fight off each wave of attackers.

I was initially intrigued when I saw the demo during this year’s WWDC of the game Star Defense (links to individual games herein will take you to the App Store in iTunes). Of course, that was months ago, and I just this weekend got around to downloading some tower defense games. I actually decided not to start with Star Defense since it seemed like a relatively advanced example of the genre, with 3-D maps where many others have 2-D maps.

A cow-orker of mine pointed me at TapDefense, in which the hordes of hell are trying to storm the gates of heaven, and your towers all have medieval or magical themes. TapDefense has the cardinal advantage of being free. It also has the advantage for a newbie of having good built-in help, as well as a tutorial.

But one of the nifty things about the App Store is that so many good products are quite cheap. So I bought two more which seemed to have good reviews: geoDefense, and Sentinel: Mars Defense, which were both only 99 cents. I ended up going right to Sentinel mainly based on this review of its sequel, Sentinel 2:Earth Defense (which itself is only $2.99).

Sentinel has great graphics and sound, but I’m glad I didn’t make it my first-ever tower defense game, since its help is pretty minimal. On the other hand, having had that first experience, it was pretty easy to figure out what to do. The bad guys come in five varieties (fast-and-wimpy, slow-and-tough, flying, teleporting, and big-slow-and-really-really-tough) and each wave consists of one type of baddies which are tougher and more numerous than the last batch you saw of that type. So you need to diversify your towers to deal with all the different types, but you get a bonus if you spend minimal resources in doing so. The Easy setting is really, really easy, while the Hard setting is pretty challenging.

The tower defense genre seems to be a comparatively passive game, where you place a tower or two, do a few upgrades, and then see if your changes deal with the attackers. If they don’t, then you may need to quickly place a few extra towers to deal with any who got by, but for the most part you’re watching the results of your handiwork, which is fun, but also a bit monotonous – in a hypnotic way. I found that a half an hour slipped by in my first game of Sentinel before I knew it – it didn’t feel that long.

As a mix of combat game and puzzle, the genre appeals to me, although the monotony makes me wonder if it will have any staying power with me. Though I’m not going to judge the whole genre on just a couple of examples, as it’s easy to envision variations on the theme. But it’s something new and different to me, and it runs on my phone – a feature of the iPhone I’ve underutilized, this game-playing thing – so I’m going to give it a whirl.