Astro City #1

Astro City #1, by Kurt Busiek, Brent Anderson & Alex Ross, DC/Vertigo, August 2013

Astro City #1 It’s been two-and-a-half years since the last issue of Astro City (the Silver Agent two-parter), but it’s back with a new ongoing series. While one always wonders if they’ll rattle off another 12 or 14 issues and then go on hiatus for a couple more years, I’m willing to give them plenty of leeway since Astro City is to my mind the best superhero comic of the last 20 years (and it’s not even close).

This first issue of this new series feels like it’s trying to be a new phase in the comic’s history. Not only has the biggest mystery of past issues been solved (what happened to the Silver Agent?), but it kicks off with a mysterious character named the Broken man, a conspiracy theorist with purple skin and white hair, who spends the issue talking directly to the reader (or so it seems). He takes on a brief tour of the city, focusing on a giant door which materializes over the river. He also suggests that a shadow entity he calls the Oubor is behind, well, something going on in the city. The Broken Man is clearly a few guppies short of an aquarium, and who he is, what he’s doing, and how much of the truth he’s telling (if even he knows) is clearly going to be a component of this new series.

One of the neat things about Astro City has been that the “present day” tracks along in real time, so the earliest issues of the series occurred in the mid-to-late 90s, and this issue takes place in 2013. This means that some heroes have dropped off the grid, some have gotten older, and a few – like the Samaritan and Winged Victory – don’t seem to have aged at all. But we’re also reintroduced with Ben Pulliam, who was the main character in an earlier issue of the series, having just moved to the city with his two daughters. He’s older now, and his daughters are adults, and his mid-life crisis is a component of the story.

I’ve always characterized Astro City as basically being about what people living in a world with superheroes think about that, and how they react to it. And “people” in this case includes the heroes and villains. I suspect Busiek feels he’s writing about people living their lives in this world, but at its best I think the book is about how their lives are different from ours because of these changes. Sometimes they’re extraordinarily different, and sometimes they’re not (one could argue that The Samaritan is just an exotic sort of workaholic, for example). Astro City has a quixotic history (in my opinion) with mixing the cosmic and the mundane; the characters’ thoughts and reactions get lost amidst their actions – this was a problem I had with The Dark Age (which I reviewed in depth here). This issue takes a fairly cosmic turn towards the end, so I have a little trepidation regarding where the story is going. But overall Astro City (and Busiek as a writer generally) has such a strong track record that I’m willing to give it a lot of leeway.

Brent Anderson is one of the most underrated artists in comics, able to bring life to Busiek’s world, as well as character and setting designs by Busiek, Alex Ross, and himself. Occasionally his characters are not the most expressive (he does stern and sad expressions better than, say, joy or surprise), but that’s a nitpick.

Overall I’m just delighted that the series is back, and that they have almost a year’s worth of issues in the can. It should be fun.

Astro City: The Dark Age

Astro City:
The Dark Age

The Dark Age is the longest Astro City story to date, running 16 issues plus a prologue (now collected in books one and two) – more than twice as long as any earlier story. Chronicling the era in Kurt Busiek’s creation from the early 1970s to the mid 1980s, the story has some interesting backstory: First, when it started running back in 2005, I recall it was heralded as the story that would reveal what happened to the Silver Agent, who was one of Astro City’s greatest heroes back in the day, but whose fate left the city ashamed of its behavior. Second – and this didn’t come out until later – Busiek had originally pitched The Dark Age as a sequel to his seminal series with Alex Ross, Marvels, and ended up reworking it for Astro City instead, later writing a different sequel to Marvels (Eye of the Camera).

There are some spoilers below, so if you want to read the whole thing with every little surprise, then I suggest doing so first. But the story is so sprawling that there is plenty I won’t reveal even if you do forge onwards.

The prologue takes place in 1959, where two children, Royal and Charles Williams, witness a fight between the Honor Guard and a high-tech gang named Pyramid. The younger one, Charles, is shown stealing an apple, but the pair are shamed later when they encounter the Black Badge, one of the few black superheroes. The pair go home to their family, and we learn only later that that evening, in the aftermath of the big battle, that their parents are killed when the Silver Agent pursues a Pyramid agent through their building.

The bulk of the story takes place in four parts, each keyed by one of the four seasons. Summer, 1972, sees Charles having grown to become a policeman, while Royal is now a small-time crook. Viet Nam is raging, a crazy variety of heroes are showing up (including the Apollo Eleven, human spacemen who now resemble aliens), and the Blue Knight is stalking and executing criminals. Royal and Charles barely speak to one another until Royal is tagged for execution by the Knight. Meanwhile, the Silver Agent is arrested for murdering a super villain and is sentenced to death. The sentence is carried out at the end of this part – at the same time the Silver Agent is seen saving the city from an enemy of the First Family.

Part two, Fall, 1976, shows how the city has gotten darker and more dangerous in the years since the Agent’s execution (symbolizing the end of the silver age of heroes): Villains turned heroes, heroes turned vigilantes, or tortured by inner demons. Charles has married a gold-digger, and she’s constantly pushing him to get “on the take” on the force, like his partner and several others, but Charles refuses. Royal hooks up with one of the underworld lords in the city thanks to his cool head and clear thinking under pressure, and learns that his boss has called in Pyramid to help. He realizes after a while that the Pyramid liaison is the man who killed his parents. It all comes to a head at the end of the chapter, when a heroine’s powers go awry causing chaos in the city, the Silver Agent shows up to save the day, and Royal has to make a decision to save Charles’ life.

Winter, 1982, is filled with dark events, but it focuses mainly on Charles and Royal putting their differences behind them to pursue their parents’ killer: Charles becomes a member of the international peacekeeping force E.A.G.L.E., while Royal infiltrates Pyramid, who are interested in capturing the Apollo Eleven to tap the power of their unified entity, the Incarnate. The pair are right in the middle of the final showdown between Pyramid and the Honor Guard, which goes wrong when a reckless hero fires a powerful weapon at the possessed Incarnate in order to destroy him, which rends a hole in the fabric of spacetime.

Spring, 1984, shows the Williams brothers as having put together a collection of high-tech equipment to pursue their foe, hounding him again and again but never quite catching him. They encounter a number of bizarre heroes, while their quarry feels cornered and makes a leap to gain powers himself, succeeding but at great cost, The brothers confront him in the final issue with the help of the Silver Agent, who arrives to seal the rift from part three, but the showdown is bittersweet for Royal and Charles.

The story ends with an epilogue in which the dark age comes to an end with the appearance of the Samaritan, and where we learn what happened to Charles and Royal.

The Dark Age is a big, sprawling story chronicling over a decade in the history of Astro City, a period which mirrors the explosion of diversity in superhero comics of the 1970s, as well as the darkening of those comics as not only did heroes change and get weirder (the new X-Men, and depowered Wonder Woman), but DC and Marvel experimented more with non-superhero books, especially horror titles. The decade seemed to have few keynote series (sure, the X-Men are lauded today but they weren’t really big until the early 80s), any of the creators of the big Marvel books of the 60s had left, and small-press and creator-owned titles were starting to appear. It was a weird decade, and I think that’s what Busiek is getting at in the almost-anything-goes nature of the heroes and villains in Astro City in this story.

The problem is that the magnitude of the setting makes the story feel less focused than past stories, and the setting – which has always been as much a character in Astro City as the people themselves – feels too diffuse, no elements given enough screen time to really satisfy. This is true even of the Silver Agent thread: Even though he’s integral to the progress of the story, what we see is still more tantalizing than satisfying, and at the end we feel like we’ve learned a little more, but not nearly enough. (The rest of the Agent’s story is being filled in via the 2-part specials, the first of which came out last week. But still, that didn’t really help The Dark Age, of which my frustration over the Agent’s part was merely exemplary of my frustration with other little pieces we saw.)

Busiek was consistent in saying that The Dark Age is the story of Royal and Charles Williams, and while it’s true that much of the focus lay on them, it got spread around a lot too. And the problem with them is that they don’t number among the most interesting characters we’ve seen in Astro City. I can’t say that they’re ciphers, but their story arc just ended up being disappointing. I think the problem came mid-way through the series, after the brothers had essentially cut ties with the police and the underworld in order to pursue the killer of their parents. Normally leaving your life behind to pursue your own goals would be a defining moment, but instead it feels like they become less men than just overriding drives, making them less interesting to follow. I think to some degree this is the point of their evolution, but in the climax things just abruptly come to an end, and while it’s clearly frustrating to the Williams brothers how things turn out, it’s also a letdown to the reader, where it’s not clear what the dramatic point of it all was.

To boil it down even more, ultimately the story is more that of Royal than of Charles. Charles essentially “grows up” at the very beginning, in the prologue, then he becomes a cop, and is put in an untenable situation and is forced essentially to regress because everything he’s believed in has been torn down. His arc is especially unsatisfying because there isn’t the corresponding build-up at the climax making him into a new mature person; he’s just left dangling (and the epilogue doesn’t really do justice to him, either). Royal has a more traditional arc, of being a crook who finds redemption by helping his brother find purpose after he leaves the police, and then helping his brother see what their quest for vengeance has turned them into. It’s not a bad arc, really, but it feels so understated, so overwhelmed by the other elements in the story, even up to the climax, that it’s not enough to really build the meaning of the story around.

To be fair, one of the big frustrations with The Dark Age is that the series came out very gradually over about five years, which meant it was difficult to really care about it when you’re in part 10 of 16 and it’s not clear how long it will be until the next issue arrives. I re-read the whole thing after the final part came out, and while it holds up better on re-reading, it’s still nowhere near as good as earlier long-form stories in the series (of which Confession is in my opinion the gold standard). There’s too much… and yet not enough of any one (or two or three) things.

Fundamentally, I think the problem is that The Dark Age really did turn out to be about the age and not about the characters. Confession and The Tarnished Angel are both unequivocally about their protagonists, and Busiek throws in characters and background and situations and history as needs dictate. The climax of Confession suffers a little from not going into some of the background of its players (E.A.G.L.E., and the other heroes who join in the fight) enough, and The Tarnished Angel has an awkward twist in the middle before coming back to the main story, but both largely stay focused on their main arc. The Dark Age runs here and runs there, comes back to visit the main characters, then covers some more territory, and keeps going back to show how dark everything’s gotten.

I haven’t said much about the art, and that’s because Brent Anderson is one of the most consistent – and consistently good – artists in comics today, so if you’re familiar with his work on the series in the past, then you have a good idea what you’ll be getting here. He’s not especially flashy, and his work doesn’t gosh-wow me the way George Pérez’s or Jerry Ordway’s does, but you have to give him props in that he draws both the heroes and the ordinary folks, the fantastic landscapes and the mundane cityscapes, and pulls it all together into a coherent visual whole. The book would be a very different thing without him, with someone else on the art chores.

In the end I admit some of my disappointment in The Dark Age is that it was very ambitious and didn’t really achieve its ambitions, to my mind, and also that its emphasis (the Williams brothers rather than the Silver Agent) wasn’t what I’d been hoping to read. But I think it had some real problems in focus and storytelling, too.

This Week’s Haul

Hey, look! It’s another late entry! You’d think I was running out of gas on writing these every week or something!

Last Week:

  • Astro City Special: Silver Agent #2 of 2, by Kurt Busiek, Brent Anderson & Alex Ross (DC/Wildstorm)
  • Secret Six #25, by Gail Simone & Jim Calafiore (DC)
  • Tom Strong and the Robots of Soom #4 of 6, by Peter Hogan, Chris Sprouse & Karl Story (DC/America’s Best Comics)
  • Captain America: Forever Allies #2 of 4, by Roger Stern, Nick Dragotta, Marco Santucci & Patrick Piazzaguta (Marvel)
  • Hercules: Twilight of a God #4 of 4, by Bob Layton & Ron Lim (Marvel)
  • Scarlet #2, by Brian Michael Bendis & Alex Maleev (Marvel/Icon)
  • Mouse Guard: Legends of the Guard #3 of 4, by David Petersen, Katie Cook, Guy Davis, Nate Pride & Jason Shawn Alexander (Archaia)
  • Incorruptible #9, by Mark Waid & Horacio Domingues (Boom)
  • Hellboy: The Storm #3 of 3, by Mike Mignola & Duncan Fegredo (Dark Horse)
  • The Boys #46, by Garth Ennis & Russ Braun (Dynamite)

This Week:

  • American Vampire #6, by Scott Snyder & Rafael Albuquerque (DC/Vertigo)
  • Batman and Robin #14, by Grant Morrison & Frazer Irving (DC)
  • Green Lantern #57, by Geoff Johns, Doug Mahnke & Christian Alamy (DC)
  • Wolverine: Old Man Logan TPB, by Mark Millar & Steve McNiven (Marvel)
  • Irredeemable #17, by Mark Waid & Peter Krause (Boom)
  • The Sixth Gun #4, by Cullen Bunn & Brian Hurtt (Oni)
The second half of Astro City‘s Silver Agent story came out last week, and it wraps up (or winds down?) the story of the Agent, one of the tragic figures in the city’s history, and one of the most-anticipated mysteries from the early days of the series. But I was a little disappointed, not for the reasons Greg Burgas was in that I think he doesn’t see that the Agent’s point of view is just as interesting as the man-in-the-street’s (or, at least, he doesn’t think it’s as interesting), but that it feels like it wasn’t quite worthy of all the attention and build-up.

To be fair, the fact that Astro City has been on an erratic publishing schedule for a decade, and that The Dark Age initially seemed to promise to be the Agent’s story but ended up being something else, perhaps build up anticipation for the Agent’s story way beyond what it deserved. And yet.

Having in the first half seen the Agent (a Captain America character) being saved by a Legion of Super-Heroes type group from the future, now we see him walking back through time to meet his eventually end in the electric chair, and excerpts of his experiences along the way, with a focus on his last two visits, with his nephew. And he does meet his end, but in a weirdly ambiguous way, which seems like it can only be satisfying if it’s the seed for further revelations about Astro City in the future, since it suggests things about the source of the Agent’s powers which aren’t really meaningful in isolation.

I think what I feel is missing from this story is that the world at large felt a great deal of guilt over the Agent’s wrongful execution (which is why they erected the statue, after all), but given that this is a time travel story, I was very disappointed that there’s no interaction between him and the world in the future in which both he and they (obviously representatives of those who convicted and executed him) deal with the issue. He comes to terms with his fate, but the rest of the world doesn’t, and while maybe that’s a lost cause, the fact that this is a time travel story and there’s not even an attempt to try makes it feel like the whole story has been dramatically undermined.

At his core, the Agent is a symbol to Astro City: First, a symbol of the greatness of the silver age, and later, a symbol of the shame of what the city went through in the dark age. While this story focuses on the agent as a man and not a symbol (other than as a symbol out of distant memory in the far future, which is not the same thing), a satisfying treatment of the character I think needed to address both sides, and that’s missing here.

The story is itself fine, and we get a lot of tantalizing glimpses of the future of the world, but I think it went off-track in some basic way, and ended up being less than it should have been.

I’m not quite sure what I think of the finale of Hercules: Twilight of a God. Though it’s refreshing in a way that the title is absolutely truthful: This is the chronicle of the last days of Hercules, in Bob Layton’s future-outer-space milieu. Having suffered brain damage, and with his comrades from his earlier adventures in their own old age, Herc is called on for one final task, to prevent Galactus – who is collapsing into a black hole – from destroying the galactic region where Herc has made his home and spawned a family. He completes his quest, and we see the aftermath and denouement of his adventure. While it’s a glorious end, it also feels rather anticlimactic; Hercules in his dotage is not nearly as entertaining as Hercules in his prime, and the sense of foreboding and gloom surrounding this story is just not as much fun as the earlier tales (especially the second mini-series, chronicling the fall of the Olympians, which was itself a bit gloomy yet was a much better story).

So there’s stuff to like here, but… it’s not the same. And it’s also clearly the end of this series of Hercules adventures, which is in itself saddening.

Ron Lim’s art is okay, but it feels stiff, and not as dynamic as Layton’s own art on the original stories. Sometimes Lim can be quite a good artist, but it feels like he phoned this one in.

I’ll put this series on the shelf next to the nice hardcover copy of Herc’s earlier adventures, but it’s not really the same.

Hey look, I bought something written by Mark Millar this week!

I kvetch about Millar a lot. I think he’s one of the worst writers working in comics these days, and I feel no shame in kvetching because he’s also one of the most popular and successful writers in comics these days. It makes no sense to me, but, well, it’s not the only thing. My basic problem with Millar is that I think his stories are mean-spirited and un-fun, and he frequently just misses the mark in depicting existing characters. I loathed his gratuitously nasty run on The Authority, I hated his depiction of guys who happened to be wearing Avengers costumes in The Ultimates, and I hated pretty much everything about Civil War.

But I was still moved to pick up Wolverine: Old Man Logan, and frankly the main reason is that I’m just a sucker for alternate-future stories. Some of them are good, some of them are bad, but I read most of them (at least featuring characters I’m familiar with) because I just like the genre.

The premise of this one is so simple you can almost see Millar thinking it up: One day all the super-villains team up to take down all the super-heroes, and the ringleaders divide up the United States among themselves. Naturally, a few heroes survive, and 50 years later, Wolverine is living outside Sacramento, an old man who refuses to fight anymore, having been broken in the villain attack. But when the Hulk gang demands their rent, he hooks up with Hawkeye to drive across the country to deliver a package in Washington.

So the story is mostly a travelogue in which we see what happened to the heroes and the country, and learn what happened to Logan.

Considering my biggest problem with Millar is usually that he can’t get characterizations right, he nails Wolverine here, as a broken yet still strong-minded man. The story wouldn’t work at all if he hadn’t made Wolverine work. On the other hand, the story is thin, little more than a reworking of films like Unforgiven, with the Marvel Universe future-travelogue stuff thrown in.

Indeed, almost everywhere you look in Old Man Logan you can see bits that feel lifted from other stories: The Hulk as a tyrant whose creed is that he survives when the weak die (from Peter David’s excellent Hulk: Future Imperfect), Hawkeye being blind (from another David yarn, The Last Avengers Story), the Red Skull’s trophy room (also from Future Imperfect), and one of the signature spreads of art in the story, that of a gargantuan skeleton of Goliath lying outside a city, feels like it came right out of Warren Ellis’ Planetary. A lot of what would otherwise be “the neat stuff” has been done before.

Besides that, the story is decent enough. My biggest gripe in terms of characters is the notion that the Hulk would mate with his cousin, the She-Hulk, and produce a clan of hillbilly enforcers. This so runs against the grain of Bruce Banner and Jennifer Walters’ characters that although the final visuals are cute (Steve McNiven draws some ugly-looking redneck Hulklings) it seems gratuitous and implausible. And while the story’s climax is cathartic, it doesn’t really work if you think about it, either.

McNiven is a terrific artist – he was certainly the best part of Civil War – and there’s really nothing to complain about in any aspect of his work. While his style has echoes of John Cassaday and Gary Frank, I’d say he’s better than either of them, with more intricate designs than Cassaday, a better sense of anatomy than Frank, and more dynamic layouts and figures than either of them. Unfortunately he seems to be a bit too slow of an artist to maintain a monthly schedule, because he has all the tools to be one of the greatest comics artists of his generation.

So all-in-all Old Man Logan may be the best Millar story I’ve read, but it’s still merely okay. At least it’s not downright repugnant like other stuff I’ve read by him, so maybe this is the first of several steps forward.

Is The Sixth Gun the best comic being published today? That’s high praise, and frankly it’s hard to make a firm decision, but wow, it’s awfully good. This Old West supernatural horror adventure (that’s a mouthful!) involves a Confederate general who – we learn in this issue – somehow got hold of six enchanted handguns for himself and his five henchmen. One of his posse, Sinclair, decided this was too much for him and bolted, managing to escape the General’s revenge. At some later point the General was defeated and imprisoned, having somehow become immensely powerful in the meantime. Now he’s back and he’s looking for his gun, now in the possession of Becky, the daughter of the reverend who apparently took down the General.

The comic’s full of foreboding, supernatural conflict, and mystical beings hanging out in the Old West, and features a pair of strong female characters in Becky (coming to grips with the position she’s been put in) and the General’s wife, who matches her husband in ambition and spirit. The backstory is being revealed slowly – but not so slowly as to be frustrating – and it’s not yet clear exactly what stakes are being played for (just how powerful will the General be once he recovers from his imprisonment and if he gets his gun back?). But just four issues in The Sixth Gun has covered more ground than many comics today cover in a dozen (I’m looking at you RASL). And Brian Hurtt’s artwork is terrific, cartoony in the sense that Charles Addams’ work was cartoony, but still dramatic and menacing. His style might not translate into mainstream superhero comics (where he’d surely earn a lot more money), but it’s perfect here.

The only downside is that I don’t know if this is a mini-series or an ongoing series. The story doesn’t feel like it’s poised to end in a couple of issues, but you never know. Nevertheless, this series is a lot of fun: Go buy it.

This Week’s Haul

  • Adventure Comics #526, by Paul Levitz, Kevin Sharpe & Marlo Alquiza, and Jeff Lemire, Mahmud A. Asrar & John Dell (DC)
  • Astro City Special: Silver Agent #1 of 2, by Kurt Busiek, Brent Anderson & Alex Ross (DC/Wildstorm)
  • The Brave and the Bold #35, by J. Michael Straczynski & Jesus Saiz (DC)
  • Superman #701, by J. Michael Straczynski, Eddy Barrow & J.P. Mayer (DC)
  • The Unwritten #15, by Mike Carey & Peter Gross (DC/Vertigo)
  • Echo #23, by Terry Moore (Abstract)
  • Age of Reptiles: The Journey #4 of 4, by Ricardo Delgado (Dark Horse)
  • The Mystery Society #2, by Steve Niles & Fiona Staples (IDW)
  • Chew #12, by John Layman & Rob Guillory (Image)
  • The Sixth Gun #1 & #2, by Cullen Bunn & Brian Hurtt (Oni)
Okay, I get the idea (after all of 2 issues): Adventure Comics is going to have little stories about the Legion of Super-Heroes past (well, relative to the regular Legion comic). This is too trivial for me to care about, especially since the Paul Levitz Legion has never been all that to me. (The Jim Shooter Legion it ain’t.) This issue especially annoys me because I’m dreadfully tired of Brainiac 5 being portrayed as essentially a cranky old Vulcan. I also loathe the faux-Russian speech mannerisms of the Legion’s late benefactor R.J. Brande here. Bad stuff.

This issue also had an Atom back-up that lost me after about 2 pages.

This series isn’t worth bothering with, so I’ll be sticking to the main series from here on out.

On the other hand, the new Astro City is a 2-parter focusing on the Silver Agent. The Agent was introduced early in the series via a statue of the man with the words “To Our Eternal Shame” on the plaque. We saw more of him in The Dark Age as his fate marked the end of the silver age in Astro City and the beginning of that dark age. But that wasn’t the end of the character.

In a nutshell, you could describe the premise of the character thus: What is Captain America were framed for murder, and was executed (with the public’s approval) before the truth came out? But what if just before the execution, he was rescued by the Legion of Super-Heroes, who pulled him forward to the future to help them in a war of their own? And what if he then had to weigh the decision to live the rest of his life in the future, or to return to meet the fate history had laid out for him?

That’s this issue (along with his origin). And it’s really good. The Dark Age felt like it meandered around too much, and this issue feels like it’s getting back the focus the series has otherwise always had. Next issue, well, I’m hoping Busiek and Anderson knock it out of the park, because it’s what we’ve been waiting for for a long, long time.

(And how awesome is the logo on the cover? It looks like it came right off a Marvel comic from the 1960s!)

Getting back to the chaff, J. Michael Straczynski’s The Brave and the Bold has been generally pretty bad, although seeing Jesus Saiz develop as an artist has been nice. But this issue is awful, as the Legion of Substitute Heroes and the Inferior Five “team up” to try to save the world – from the same menace the Legion of Super-Heroes and the Doom Patrol saved it from last issue, explaining a few mysteries from last issue. It’s supposed to be funny, but it’s anything but. It’s actually rather embarrassing. I’m not really sure why people think the Subs are best used as comical figures, since every attempt to write a funny story with them has been just awful. They were used much better in Geoff Johns’ “Superman and the Legion of Super-Heroes” story a couple of years back. Sure, they’re second-stringers, but in a sense that just means they have to try harder. Making fun of them is, well, no fun at al. As for the Inferior Five, well, if ever there was a joke whose time has long since passed, they’re it.

I don’t think I can stand any more of this series, so I’m hitting the eject button.

In a way it’s too bad, because the first year of this series, by Mark Waid and George Pérez, was excellent (especially the first 6 issues), but it really went downhill quickly after that. Nothing really memorable other than the Green Lantern/Spectre issues, which were enjoyable enough.

And speaking of J. Michael Straczynski, Superman #701 is the real first chapter of his series “Grounded”. Superman doesn’t entirely stay on the ground, but he walks across the country to interact with people on their level. It’s basically full of Straczynski clichés: The slightly-too-sentimental rescues, the humor that fails badly, the out-of-place and rather tedious philosophical asides. It’s not quite as bad as all that, but it feels downright trivial, and very much unlike a Superman story. As I said last month, I don’t think Straczynski really gets superhero comics, since none of his really seem to work (other than The Twelve, in which the fact that the characters were superheroes was almost incidental to the story).

The story will need to shift in tone sharply next issue, because this premise as depicted here just doesn’t have legs (so to speak).

John Cassaday’s cover has been getting a lot of favorable reviews, but I think he’s done much better work. The composition is nothing special, and it looks like there’s something wrong with Supes’ head and neck.

A larger disappointment has been the new Age of Reptiles mini-series. The first two series were great stuff, telling actual stories about dinosaurs without anthropomorphizing them too much (just enough to make them a little more sympathetic – or not – to the readers). You could argue that Ricardo Delgado framed everything to make a story out of it.

But The Journey has been more a series of vignettes, without an actual story. Or if there was one, then it was too subtle or too buried for me to pick up on it. So although lavishly illustrated, it hasn’t been a very satisfying read. I got to the end of this issue and scratched my head wondering exactly what the point was. Okay, drawing dinosaurs may be a point in itself, but really this was a big letdown compared to the first two series.

Finally, The Sixth Gun premiered as a Free Comic Book Day giveaway, and the first two issues both came out this week. (The first issue is essentially identical to the FCBD issue.) It’s quite good, being a supernatural horror story set in the old west: An old Confederate general is raised from the grave (if he ever really went there in the first place) and wants his gun back. But his gun is bonded to the daughter of the man who stole it from him, and she’s being spirited away by one of the General’s former posse, whose motivations are still murky.

There’s violence, mayhem, dark magic, ghosts, and all kinds of good stuff, and Brian Hurtt’s art is excellent, expressive and nuanced despite his fundamentally simple style. Overall this is a nice package and a fun read. I’m looking forward to more.

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.

This Week’s Haul

Actually 2 weeks’ worth of stuff, since I was on vacation for a week:

  • Astro City: Astra #1 of 2, by Kurt Busiek, Brent Anderson & Alex Ross (DC/Wildstorm)
  • Green Lantern #46, by Geoff Johns, Doug Mahnke & Christian Alamy (DC)
  • Justice Society of America #31, by Bill Willingham, Matthew Sturges & Jesus Merino (DC)
  • Madame Xanadu #15, by Matt Wagner & Michael Wm. Kaluta (DC/Vertigo)
  • Power Girl #5, by Jimmy Palmotti, Justin Gray & Amanda Conner (DC)
  • Sleeper: Season Two TPB, by Ed Brubaker & Sean Phillips (DC/Wildstorm)
  • Wednesday Comics#12 of 12, by many hands (DC)
  • Immortal Weapons #3 of 5, by Rick Spears & Tim Green II, and Duane Swierczynski & Hatuey Diaz (Marvel)
  • Guardians of the Galaxy #18, by Dan Abnett, Andy Lanning & Wesley Craig (Marvel)
  • The Incredible Hercules #135, by Greg Pak, Fred Van Lente & Rodney Buchemi (Marvel)
  • Nova #29, by Dan Abnett, Andy Lanning, Kevin Sharpe & Nelson Pereira (Marvel)
  • Echo #15, by Terry Moore (Abstract)
  • The Pound #1, by Richard Moore (Antarctic)
  • The Unknown: The Devil Made Flesh #1 of 4, by Mark Waid & Minck Oosterveer (Boom)
  • Invincible #66, by Robert Kirkman & Cory Walker (Image)
Astro City: Astra #1 If you haven’t read Astro City before, or the long delays in publishing The Dark Age have put you off it (or if you just didn’t like it, which I could believe), then this 2-part special Astra is a good point to jump on. Astra is the daughter in a Fantastic Four-type team of superheroes, having previously appeared as a young girl in a good 2-parter a decade ago. Well, now she’s all grown up and is graduating from college, trying to figure out what she wants to do next. You’d think this would be easy for a world-famous superheroine and theoretical in-line-for-the-throne of two exotic kingdoms, but it’s more complicated than that for Astra. This story is very much in keeping with Kurt Busiek’s explorations of the personal nature of living in a world with superheroes.

As Mike Sterling notes, the cover of this issue isn’t a great advertisement for people seeking out the comic; it’s a cute idea, but for a series now trying to reestablish itself on a regular schedule, they should have gone with something more traditional.

Sleeper: Season Two I quite liked the first volume of Sleeper, so I snapped up the second volume as soon as it came out. The first was about a superpowered character, Holden Carver, who was put into deep cover by his spy organization into an international crime organization, but when his boss went into a coma he was left on his own and had to grapple with the fact that he probably wasn’t going to come in from the cold but he wasn’t one of the bad guys either, even though he started to befriend several of them. At the end of that volume, two things had happened: He had pretty much given up on ever coming back to the side of the good guys and had risen in the ranks of the crime group, and his former boss came out of his coma.

So while the first volume followed Carver’s descent into darkness as he adjusted to being on the side of the devils, the second volume dangles hope of redemption in front of him, even as he realizes that the guys he used to work for weren’t exactly angels themselves, and that the only way out is to somehow get away from both of them – a good trick since the leaders of both groups are highly talented planners and manipulators who are using him as a double agent to get at each other.

Although the novelty of the idea has worn off by this volume, Ed Brubaker still spins an intense yarn as Carver plays both ends against the middle in an intensely dangerous game, trying to out-think the thinkers, and bringing the series to its conclusion. As I said in the first volume, it required a big finish, and it gets one, although Carver’s ultimate fate ends up being a little disappointing (Zack Overkill’s ending in Incognito was much more satisfying). But Brubaker’s hard-edged plotting means he really has few options available unless he decides to change some of the rules at the last minute, which isn’t the sort of thing he does; Brubaker always does his best to play fair with his readers. Sean Phillips’ art is terrific, as always, not too flashy (and the super-beings in the story don’t have flashy powers), and very, very dark, as befits the story. If you like Michael Gaydos’ artwork (e.g., on Marvel’s Alias), well, Phillips’ is all that and a lot more.

Sleeper might be Brubaker’s best work, but not by much; Criminal and Incognito were both very good, too. In any event, if you like dark superhero stories and criminal noir yarns, then you should definitely check out Sleeper. It took a while, but Brubaker’s definitely won me over as a fan.

(Hmm, I wonder if this means I should check out Brubaker’s mainstream work for Marvel? I read X-Men: Rise and Fall of the Shi’ar Empire and thought it was okay, but his Captain America series has been very well received and I haven’t done more than thumb through that.)

Wednesday Comics #12 With the final issue of Wednesday Comics, I’ll run down the series, in order from what I think was best to worst:

  1. Flash: Clearly the top of the class of the series, Karl Kerschl played around with story structure, sometimes a little too much, and the ending felt abrupt and a little confusing. However, his artwork was solid-to-excellent, and his handling of the characters of Barry and Iris evoked the Flash’s adventures of the 60s and 70s without feeling dated. I’ve never seen Kershl’s work before, but I’ll keep an eye out for it in the future.
  2. Strange Adventures: I’ve had mixed feelings about Paul Pope’s work in the past, and the first half of the story here felt pretty pedestrian, a straightforward “back to basics” yarn for Adam Strange (who originally was just a step away from being a rip-off of John Carter of Mars). Pope won me over with the second half, with the twist he threw in (Strange is an aged archaeologist on Earth, a young hero on Rann) and how he worked it into the story. He brought it in for a graceful landing, and made me think I’d be happy to read an Adam Strange (or Doctor Fate) series by Pope. Well done.
  3. Supergirl: Jimmy Palmiotti’s story was light and amusing, and had no pretensions of being more than that. Conner seems to be the ideal artist for Palmiotti’s flights of fancy, as we’ve seen in Terra and Power Girl. The last page has a cute twist to it. It’s a big step down from the two stories above, but I still enjoyed it.
  4. Kamandi: I’m not a fan of Jack Kirby’s DC creations, as I’ve said many times before, and Dave Gibbons’ story is trivial and generic. What raises this series above the others is Ryan Sook’s amazing artwork. I’ve seen him develop for a few years now, since his work on Mike Mignola’s Jenny Finn, and this is hands-down the best work he’s ever done. If he’s up for a monthly book, someone ought to pair him with a top-flight writer and put him on a top property, because he’s really that good.
  5. Deadman: An uneven story by a couple of guys I’m not familiar with. It seemed to evoke the Dini/Timm animated cartoons in its look, and it was a pretty straightforward Deadman story overall; it would have fit in well with his shorts in Adventure Comics circa 1980. Pretty good, not great.
  6. The Demon & Catwoman: This story meandered all over the place, and felt like a rehash of any number of Demon stories I’ve already read. Brian Stelfreeze’s art was interesting, since I’ve don’t think I’ve seen him do line art before, just painted work. I’d be happy to see more of it. A few nice moments sprinkled through the otherwise pedestrian script, though.
  7. Green Lantern: A yawner of a script by the usually-reliable Kurt Busiek, although Joe Quinones’ New Frontier-esque art was good. Like the previous story, it had a few good moments sprinkled in, but this was a run-of-the-mill series.
  8. Metal Men: Also run-of-the-mill, which was probably more than most people expected from Dan Didio, whose fiction writing I don’t think I’ve ever seen before. Jose Luis Garcia Lopez is always good for some boffo artwork, though.
  9. Sgt. Rock: Utterly routine story by Adam Kubert, with art that looked like it was phoned in by Joe Kubert. Too bad.
  10. Metamorpho: Neil Gaiman and Mike Allred mostly play around with story structure, very self-consciously. The basic story wasn’t very much, and the structural experiments weren’t very interesting to me, so I don’t count this as a big success. A nice try, though.
  11. Hawkman: Mostly-lovely artwork by Kyle Baker completely sunk by his wretched story and awkward script, complete with an abrupt ending. Probably the biggest disappointment in the series.
  12. Teen Titans: A “nice try” of the story with a twist that came too late to save it, and artwork in a style that doesn’t appeal to me, with an unsympathetic coloring job. The last page doesn’t even feel like an ending, and it ends on a cliché.
  13. Batman: Nice Mazzucchelli-esque art, but Azzarello’s script meandered around the edges of the story, going for a noir feel without any of the impact I expect from noir-ish stories. And ultimately I just didn’t care about the story being told, as the characters were too superficial.
  14. Superman: John Arcudi’s story, about aliens making Superman doubt his identity, just felt completely wrong for the character, so wrong that even revealing what was going on didn’t make me believe in it. Lee Bermejo’s art didn’t work for me at all, with a coloring job that made the pictures look ridiculous. This one just missed on every level, and it didn’t even feel like a Superman story. An Atomic Skull story would have been a step up.
  15. Wonder Woman: Ben Caldwell seems pretty talented (this is my first exposure to his work), but his approach to this story didn’t work for me at all: Way too many panels, very little detail, too many words, and layouts that rendered the whole thing basically unreadable. He seemed to be actively working against the format. I think I gave up after the second page.

So what about the package as a whole? Well, it was very uneven, and it was disappointing that only 3 of the 15 stories were more than mediocre, and there were so many that were just blah, indeed that fully a third of them were downright bad (okay, Sturgeon’s Law applies, but still, disappointing). The art in the series was generally good, but the writing really fell down, time after time, either trying and failing to be meaningful (Superman), being too lightweight (Green Lantern, Metal Men, Sgt. Rock), or trying to be clever about working with the format but failing (Batman, Hawkman). The best strips told stories with their own unique twists or structure, which worked within the page-a-week format but weren’t self-conscious about it.

If DC tries an experiment like this again, I doubt I’d pick it up unless it looks like they’re putting a new twist on it, or the stories appear to be significantly better. Overall I don’t think Wednesday Comics was a successful experiment, and I think it will be quickly forgotten. So far DC hasn’t come close to the artistic success of 52 in their later weekly series.

The Unknown: The Devil Made Flesh #1 Last month, I was disappointed in the ending to the first series of Mark Waid’s The Unknown, as the story ended in an unsatisfying manner. But this first issue of the new series has me excited for what Waid is doing.

In the first series, James Doyle is hired as an assistant and bodyguard to Catherine Allingham, the world’s greatest detective – who has six months to live. Naturally she’s become fascinated by things involving life extension, death, and the soul, perhaps obsessed. In this issue, Doyle is on his own, being hired as a security guard for a park where Allingham will also be present – but Doyle has no memory of meeting her. Moreover, it’s a year later. And Allingham is hiring a new assistant. Doyle starts to regain his memory, and realizes that many things are not right, and he starts investigating why.

This is quite a hook for the series, and explains why the first series was merely set-up; in its way, it’s as big a revelation as the big surprise in Invincible ten issues in, only here it’s the set-up for the story going forward. On top of that, this issue ends on a big cliffhanger.

Waid’s got me. I’m hooked.

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.

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.

This Week’s Haul

The smallest week in recent memory:

  • Tangent: Superman’s Reign #5 of 12, by Dan Jurgen, Jamal Ingle & Robin Riggs, and Ron Marz, Fernando Pasarin & Matt Banning (DC)
  • Astro City: The Dark Age book 1 HC, by Kurt Busiek, Brent Anderson & Alex Ross (DC/Wildstorm)
  • The Perhapanauts #3, by Todd Dezago & Craig Rousseau (Image)
Astro City: The Dark Age book 1 HC On the bright side, the week did deliver the hardcover collection of Astro City: The Dark Age book 1, collecting the first half of this longest of Astro City stories.

I won’t go into detail about what Astro City is about (after all, you can read about it yourself), but as for this volume: The story covers the 1970s, a period of Astro City largely skipped over by earlier stories, except for the hint of the hero the Silver Agent, a sort of Captain America figure who is featured on a monument in the city dedicated to “our eternal shame”. This story fills in some of the blanks in the Agent’s story, while raising new questions.

The prologue takes place in 1959, when the brothers Charles and Royal Williams witness a fight between the Honor Guard (Astro City’s equivalent of the Justice League or Avengers) and a crop of villains. We later learn that disaster befell the Williams family that evening. Jumping forward to 1972, Charles has become a cop who’s suspicious of the heroes, while Royal has become a small-time crook, and the two have a strained relationship. The book is nominally their story, although there’s so much more going on that they simply get more pages than any other set of characters, plus they narrate the tale, but it’s not entirely their story. They follow the tragedy which befalls the Silver Agent, and Charles gets wrapped up in a police corruption ring while Royal hooks up with one of the city’s crime lords. The second half of the volume grows increasingly complex with threats to the city and the world, mysterious figures pursuing strange agendas, and the big mystery of the Agent. This volume ends in 1977, and the second volume will likely cover the next 5 years.

Astro City has long been a favorite of mine, and it’s fair to say I think it’s the best superhero comic of the last 15 years. But The Dark Age isn’t the book at its best. There’s too much going on, and with tantalizing glimpses of neat stuff going on, but not a feel of a whole lot of progress. A big part of the problem is that neither of the Williams brothers are very compelling as characters, certainly nowhere near the protagonists of the two earlier long-form stories, Confession (my favorite volume in the series) or The Tarnished Angel. They’re realistic and sympathetic, but the story goes for scale and intricacy rather than depth and character, and that doesn’t play to the series’ strength. Indeed, the series has often used the feeling of scale and depth of “real” superhero stories as a mere springboard for a moving character piece, so turning the series’ formula on its head just makes it feel a little less special. And the intricacy probably makes it a lot less accessible to new readers.

All that said, there’s still a lot here to delight the regular readers of Astro City, as mysteries of the city’s past are brought to light. And the book reads much better in a single shot than as a serial, especially given how slowly the series has come out in recent years. Brent Anderson’s art is stylish and dynamic as always, chock-full of fun character designs and settings (by Anderson and Alex Ross) and a terrific coloring job.

I guess The Dark Age is only disappointing by comparison with earlier Astro City volumes, which frankly were often just plain amazing. It’s still pretty good and rewards re-reading. And as this is only the first half of the story, I have to allow for the chance that there will be a great payoff to all this set-up in the end. Meanwhile, this is all we’ve got, and with the series’ erratic schedule we can’t know when we’ll see the next set of issues in the series.

Hopefully it won’t be too long.

This Week’s Haul

Comic books I bought the week of 13 February 2008.

  • Booster Gold #0, by Geoff Johns, Jeff Katz, Dan Jurgens & Norm Rapmund (DC)
  • Countdown to Final Crisis #11 of 52 (backwards), by Paul Dini, Justin Gray, Jimmy Palmiotti, Keith Giffen, Mike Norton & Mark McKenna (DC)
  • Salvation Run #4 of 7, by Matthew Sturges, Sean Chen & Walden Wong (DC)
  • Suicide Squad: Raise the Flag #6 of 8, by John Ostrander, Javier Pina & Robin Riggs (DC)
  • Astro City Special: Beautie, by Kurt Busiek, Brent Anderson & Alex Ross (DC/Wildstorm)
  • Nova Annual #1, by Dan Abnett, Andy Lanning, Mahmud A. Asrar, Klebs, Wellington Alves, Juan Vlasco & Nelson Pereira (Marvel)
  • B.P.R.D.: 1946 #2 of 5, by Mike Mignola, Joshua Dysart & Paul Azaceta (Dark Horse)
  • Atomic Robo #5 of 6, by Brian Clevinger, Scott Wegener, & Christian Ward (Red 5)
Astro City Special: Beautie I’ve felt for a long time that Kurt Busiek’s Astro City is the best comic book of the last 15 years, and it’s not even particularly close. Despite its erratic publishing schedule (for which there are good reasons, I understand), this chronicle of the heroes and ordinary citizens of the fictional city full of superbeings is always great human drama. Right now we’re in the middle of the 12-issue series The Dark Age, which is being told in 3 short series, each with an unrelated special between them. Beautie is the second such special, and it’s a great one.

Beautie is a member of the Honor Guard, the foremost group of superheroes in the Astro City world. What she is is a life-sized Barbie doll with super powers – really. She’s actually a robot, who mimics human form but has some frustrating limitations, and not just her problems relating to humans. She also has no memory of where she came from or why she exists, or why there are no others like her, or for that matter why she resembles a Barbie doll (which in the Astro City world is called a Beautie doll). This is the story of her quest to find out who she is, and what happens when she does.

After a fashion, this is the story of a character like Star Trek‘s Data compressed into a single issue, and rendered more realistically: Beautie not only has Data’s emotional hang-ups, she also has physical problems which prevent her from blending in. And not only is she frustrated by her limitations, she’s also not quite sure how to truly react to being frustrated. It’s a satisfying tale both emotionally and in its depth, with a little twist before the story’s climax revolving around the fact that Beautie is an android.

This would be a good issue to introduce new readers to Astro City, as I think it embodies many of the best elements of the series. And it’s another fine entry into the ongoing series, which should make longtime readers happy. I know it did me.

Nova Annual #1 So once upon a time I used to sort each week’s comics alphabetically and read them in that order, which I know provoked a snarky comment from my Dad on occasion. These days I still sort them, but in the order I most want to read them. You can’t take all of the OCD out of the boy, it seems. Anyway, in any other week I would have put Astro City on top of this week’s stack, but this week I ended up reading Nova Annual first, since it’s one of my favorite comics and I thought it would be the conclusion of the current Phalanx story.

I was mistaken, it’s not the conclusion, but it was still a good read.

Rather than wrapping up the story, it instead featured Nova remembering his origin, when he was first recruited into the Nova corps, and also thinking forward to later in life when the restored Nova corps will fight the final battle against the Phalanx, who have completely taken over the Earth. It’s likely that the latter story was simply in Nova’s imagination, but it was still pretty chilling.

In a way this issue is a throwback to Marvel annuals of old, revisiting the hero’s origin, while throwing in some extra stuff on the side. It also explains one of the underlying principles of the Nova corps – they’re not the best and brightest, they’re average citizens empowered to do extraordinary things. It’s a good issue, and makes me wish anew that Nova hadn’t been largely excluded from the Phalanx storyline in Armageddon Conquest. But hopefully he’ll get his own satisfying conclusion when the current storyline ends.