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This Week’s Haul

And… we’re back! A bumpy ride for the server the site’s hosted on has slowed down getting much done around here, but it doesn’t stop me from buying new comics, no sir!

  • Astro City: Astra #2 of 2, by Kurt Busiek, Brent Anderson & Alex Ross (DC/Wildstorm)
  • Blackest Night #4 of 8, by Geoff Johns, Ivan Reis & Oclair Albert (DC)
  • Green Lantern #47, by Geoff Johns, Doug Mahnke & Christian Alamy (DC)
  • Justice Society of America #32, by Bill Willingham, Matthew Sturges & Jesus Merino (DC)
  • Madame Xanadu #16, by Matt Wagner, Amy Reeder Hadley & Richard Friend (DC/Vertigo)
  • Guardians of the Galaxy #19, by Dan Abnett, Andy Lanning & Wesley Craig (Marvel)
  • The Incredible Hercules #137, by Fred Van Lente, Greg Pak & Rodney Buchemi (Marvel)
  • Nova #30, by Dan Abnett, Andy Lanning, Kevin Sharpe & Nelson Pereira (Marvel)
  • FreakAngels vol 3 TPB, by Warren Ellis & Paul Duffield (Avatar)
  • Ignition City #5 of 5, by Warren Ellis & Gianluca Pagliarani (Avatar)
  • Abe Sapien: The Haunted Boy, by Mike Mignola, John Arcudi & Patric Reynolds (Dark Horse)
  • Dynamo 5 #25, by Jay Faerber, Mahmud A. Asrar & others (Image)
Astro City: Astra #2 One way to look at superhero comics history in the so-called Marvel Age of Comics is that Stan Lee and his bullpen humanized heroes by giving them down-to-Earth problems in the 1960s (Spider-Man being the prime example), and creators of the late 70s and early 80s took the next step by – essentially – turning team comics into ongoing soap operas involving the relationships among the crimefighters (the new X-Men and the New Teen Titans). One could see that the next logical step in that progression might be for heroes to have lives and problems which are directly reflective of those of real people, whether they’re your everyday Joe or a worldwide celebrity. But instead comics went in a different direction, moving towards stories based primarily in shock value (violence, sex, gore, and zombies) and incestuous continuity for the hard-core fan. Rather than bringing the content of comics closer to the mainstream, this served to get comics noticed by the mainstream, and then marginalized as commercial art form more than ever before, as sales over the last 15 years have been at historic lows.

Disregarding any oversimplifications I’ve made, the two part Astro City special featuring Astra is arguably a glimpse of how comics could have gone. Astra is a worldwide celebrity with the problems of being a worldwide celebrity – problems you rarely see, say, the Fantastic Four having to deal with – such as trying to figure out what to do with her life after college, under intense media scrutiny which doesn’t always regard her in a heroic light. The genius of Kurt Busiek‘s series is that he considers the natural implications of what a world full of superheroes means, without making it a grim and depressing world as one sees in Watchmen or its legions of descendants. As Astra gives her boyfriend a tour of a slice of her life, we see both the wonders she’s experienced and the downsides of being a famous superhero. Busiek is the best in the business at presenting such nuances with a minimum of authorial judgment, resulting in a rich world full of crunchy notions for the reader to think about. There’s really nothing else like it in comics.

That said, the Astra story was a little disappointing in that Busiek took what I thought was a disappointingly cheap shot in the development of Astra’s relationship with her boyfriend. I saw it coming pages away, and thought, “Geez, I hope that’s not the way this story is going”, but it was. Even making what I thought was this poor choice, Busiek still handles it elegantly, but it still made the story less than I’d hoped.

Nonetheless, any week with a new Astro City is a good week!

Guardians of the Galaxy #19 Guardians of the Galaxy wraps up its various ongoing storylines this month – but unfortunately it’s not good. Star-Lord’s team returns from the future to learn that Adam Warlock managed to prevent the rift opened at the end of War of Kings from dooming that future, but the price he paid is of being transformed into his own evil future self, the Magus, whom the Guardians must now defeat to save the future again. They do so, but at a very high price: About half of the team is dead by the end of the story.

Boy, where to begin? Guardians as a series has been wrecked by crossovers with Marvel events, especially War of Kings. The characters have never been able to develop as a result, the team having been fragmented for months. The initial promise of Vance Astro arriving from the future and the murky threat of the mysterious Universal Church of Truth have been completely swamped by these later, largely unrelated, developments. The story’s developed so haphazardly that there’s really been no dramatic payoff to any of those elements, and killing off half the cast is a poor reward for fans following the series to this point. (And bringing them back would be even cheaper.)

The artwork in the series has gone steadily downhill, too, with Wesley Craig’s work here being its nadir: Simple, angular linework, extreme facial grimaces, minimal backgrounds, it’s very cartoony in appearance and just doesn’t work for me in the Marvel space milieu.

Its fellow title Nova has held up much better through the various crossovers, moving both its main character and its background forward a little bit each year. Guardians seems to have fallen completely apart, having lost its focus and not replaced it with anything. It’s one high-stakes action sequence after another, and that gets tiresome after a while unless there’s something more coherent holding it all together. But just typing the synopsis of the recent issues made me shake my head at how disjointed it all is. It may be time to bail on this series.

(Incidentally, although Kang the Conqueror appears prominently on the cover and does impact the storyline, he does so as a deus-ex-machina and isn’t even the adversary in the book. Talk about misleading!)

Ignition City #5 Warren EllisIgnition City wraps up this week. Cynical and violent, it’s been sort of interesting in pulling together analogs of old SF heroes into one rather depressing milieu. The story works out a little better than most of what I’ve read from Ellis’ series for Avatar, as I don’t really want to read what Ellis comes up with when a publisher lets him unleash the grotesqueries of his mind, but it’s still a so-so read. The world Ellis has concocted is interesting – after the golden age of spaceflight in the 1930s comes to an end, the remaining spacemen are stranded on the island of Ignition City in the 1950s – but we really only scratch the surface of it. The most interesting bit is a Buck Rogers character who’s depressed because of his glimpse of the bleak 25th century. Mary Raven’s quest to avenger her father doesn’t really measure up to the implied backstories of the other characters.

Gianluca Pagliarani’s artwork is okay, although his characters don’t always have a consistent look and their expressions tend toward the vacant; his renderings of the gritty setting are solid, though.

Overall, not one of Ellis’ stronger works, and I doubt I’ll be on board for any sequels.

Dynamo 5 #25 Jay Faerber is I suppose the reigning king of superhero soap opera comics, first with Noble Causes about a famous team of superheroes and the people they slept with, and now with Dynamo 5, about a team of young heroes who each have one power inherited from their father, Captain Dynamo, who fathered each of them with a different woman, and none with his actual wife, who’s now the team’s mentor. I bailed on Noble Causes early in its run due to an erratic publishing schedule, even more erratic artwork, and a story I couldn’t quite follow. I only gave Dynamo 5 a chance recently, and it’s a much better series, with a consistent artist, Mahmud A. Asrar, who’s entirely capable of drawing a fun, dynamic superhero series, with a bit of a Bryan Hitch look to his style but more of a fluid Alan Davis approach to his layouts.

This issue is apparently Asrar’s last, and the series is going on hiatus while Faeber brings a new artist up to speed. But the first 25 issues are a lot of fun, with characters from different backgrounds with powers that don’t always match their personalities, and the usual frictions among the members. This issue culminates the recent storyline in which the team were stripped of their powers, but in a twist reminiscent of Power Pack, they regain them but each member has a different power than they’d had before. So this is a natural breaking point between Asrar’s run and whatever comes next. It might also be a good jumping-on point for a new reader, save for the aforementioned hiatus, which may well see the series cease to be a regular series and go to some different format. Which would be a shame since that’s one of the things that put me off of Noble Causes.

Drawing comics art is hard work, no doubt about it, especially given the high standards artists working at a modern major company are held to by the company and the readers. (Just look at some of the criticisms I level at artists of comics I read.) So I respect both Faerber and Asrar for trying to figure out how to position Dynamo 5 to continue publication in the future. But on the other hand, options like a “series of mini-series” are very hard to pull off, and I think Robert Kirkman’s Invincible has demonstrated how important it is to have a regular artist who can work a regular monthly schedule and produce quality work as well; there’s really no substitute for it. Heck, the musical artist chairs afflicting some series at DC and Marvel have really hurt those series, too (I’m looking at you, Guardians of the Galaxy). Honestly I think finding such an artist ought to be Faerber’s highest priority for Dynamo 5.

All that aside, if you’re looking for some quality science fiction soap opera, check out the paperback collections of Dynamo 5. And then we can see what direction the series takes from here.