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The Avengers

If you, like me, don’t understand what all the fuss is over Joss Whedon, then be assured that his summer blockbuster film The Avengers (2012) will do nothing at all to enlighten you. It’s near the top end of summer action films, with plenty of action and witty dialogue, but no more than that. “What’s wrong with that?” you might ask. Nothing, really, but it means that it doesn’t challenge the current gold standard of superhero films, held by Christopher Nolan’s Batman Begins and The Dark Knight (both of which are more Christopher Nolan films than superhero films), and last year’s Captain America. While it’s better than, say, Independence Day, it’s a close relative of that film. If nothing else, this will guarantee it a lengthy run on commercial cable TV stations (as if its monstrous revenue this month wouldn’t do that).

Okay, to be brief about it: Action film, witty dialog, minimal characterization, nonsensical plot.

The plot is that the Asgardian demigod Loki (Tom Hiddleston, who as my girlfriend points out rather resembles Tim Lincecum) has allied himself with an alien race the Chitauri in order to procure for them the Tesseract (from the Captain America film, and known in the comics as the Cosmic Cube). He will use the Tesseract to allow them to invade Earth, and after they have the thing then he will be left to rule it, as a sort of vengeance against his brother, Thor (Chris Helmsworth).

He shows up and enslaves several humans, including the agent Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner) and escapes, leaving Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson), director of the global peace agency SHIELD, to assemble a team of extraordinary people to oppose him. These include Captain America (Chris Evans), still adjusting to the 21st century after 75 years in suspended animation, Tony Stark/Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr.), Thor, the Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson) and Dr. Bruce Banner (Mark Ruffalo) and his alter-ego the Hulk. While Loki’s minions assemble a device to precipitate the alien invasion, Loki is captured and works on manipulating the team while in captivity.

The story pretends to be smarter than it is, with a vague notion of punch and counterpunch between Loki and Fury, and Banner, Stark and Cap all suspecting that Fury’s people are using the tesseract for less than noble means. But the plot is really just pretext for a lot of fighting (sometimes among the heroes, sometimes between heroes and villains), and if you think about it much at all, you realize it’s basically people running around without really accomplishing anything (and without anywhere near the panache of Doctor Who, which frequently employed the same approach back in the day).

The film has its good points. Chris Evans has enough weight to pull off being a leader among the rest of the cast, and Downey and Ruffalo are both quite good, especially when they’re appearing together. (I haven’t seen any of the Hulk or Iron Man films that predate this, but I don’t feel like I missed anything crucial.) The actions and special effects are both top-notch, as one expects from a top-tier summer blockbuster. The humor has its hits (the Hulk confronting Loki) and misses (a couple of jokes at Captain America’s expense, as well as Agent Coulson [Clark Gregg]); I suspect Whedon’s sense of humor is a big part of why people like his stuff, but I don’t think it’s any better than other near-the-top summer blockbuster films. Indeed, it often felt like Whedon was basically trying to write a James Bond film. Not a bad thing (I like most of the James Bond films), but nothing special.

You definitely don’t want to think about the mechanics of the plot, which basically involve a lot of stupidity on both sides: Fury being too clever by half in trying to assemble the team while keeping secrets from them, Loki keeping the heroes well appraised of his plan when he could have done nearly everything in secret (I guess one of the rules of the game is that gods never learn from their mistakes), bringing the Hulk onto the SHIELD helicarrier at all (there’s no particular reason anything they were doing needed to be done from a mobile base), and the heroes trying to shut down the Tesseract at the end (why not, I don’t know, cut the power?). And of course, in finest Star Trek: The Next Generation form, the bad guys have a single point of failure. (For a better story with a similar alien-invasion plot, check out Babylon 5: Thirdspace. It’s by no means perfect, but plotwise and thematically it’s steps up from this.)

I think the biggest frustration about the film for me was actually Scarlett Johansson, who I’m not a fan of. The Black Widow has some fairly meaty material here, but I don’t think Johansson really sells it. I wonder what someone like Cate Blanchett would have done in the role. (I think both Johansson and Renner really underplay their roles.)

I went into the film figuring if it was a film about Captain America managing to pull the team together against all odds, then it would be a good film, but if it was Joss Whedon and Robert Downey Jr being amusing then it wouldn’t. And weirdly, it was both. And neither. It didn’t have the heart or weight of Captain America, but you still root for the heroes putting aside their differences to get the job done, even though it’s all staged very haphazardly.

I never saw Buffy the Vampire Slayer, but I did see episodes of Firefly (awful) and Dollhouse (dull), so after The Avengers I still don’t get what the fuss is about Joss Whedon. But I enjoy an action film from time to time, and after the success of this one I imagine we’ll get several sequels in the future. Honestly I’m more looking forward to the next Captain America film.

Oh, and there are two epilogues during the credits: The first one will mean nothing to anyone not familiar with the comics character who shows up, and the second one is not worth the wait.

This Week's Haul

A couple of good hardcover collections this week: The new Marvel Masterworks: The Avengers volume collects the Kree-Skrull War story from the early 1970s, with terrific art by Neal Adams, and surrounding stories with fine work by Barry Windsor-Smith and the Buscema brothers. The sprawling, deep-space story is a tad disappointing by today’s standards, but it was state-of-the-art at the time.

And then, West Coast Avengers Assemble is still a rollicking good time, chronicling the formation of the splinter team in the early 1980s, it’s some of Roger Stern’s finest writing, and a fine follow-up to Mark Gruenwald’s Hawkeye story, collected a year or so ago. The team of relative lightweights putting together a plan to take out one of Marvel’s most powerful villains is one of the best examples of brains-over-brawn in superhero comics history. This was probably the last high point of the Avengers until Kurt Busiek’s run 15 years later.

And with that, on to the regular stuff:

  • Batman: The Return of Bruce Wayne #2 of 6, by Grant Morrison & Frazer Irving (DC)
  • Green Lantern #54, by Geoff Johns, Doug Mahnke & Christian Alamy (DC)
  • Green Lantern Corps #48, by Tony Bedard, Ardian Syaf & Vicente Cifuentes (DC)
  • Madame Xanadu #23, by Matt Wagner, Amy Reeder Hadley & Richard Friend (DC/Vertigo)
  • Power Girl #12, by Justin Gray, Jimmy Palmiotti & Amanda Conner (DC)
  • Marvel Masterworks: The Avengers HC vol 137, collecting The Avengers vol 1 #89-100, by Roy Thomas, Neal Adams, Sal Buscema, Barry Windsor-Smith, John Buscema, Tom Palmer & others (Marvel)
  • Avengers: West Coast Avengers Assemble HC, by Roger Stern, Bob Harras, Bob Hall, Al Milgrom, Luke McDonnell, Don Hudson, Brett Breeding, Joe Sinnott & others (Marvel)
  • Fantastic Four #579, by Jonathan Hickman, Neil Edwards & Andrew Currie (Marvel)
  • Incorruptible #6, by Mark Waid, Horacio Domingues & Juan Castro (Boom)
  • The Mystery Society #1, by Steve Niles & Fiona Staples (IDW)
The guys over at Comics Should Be Good (Brian Curran: “Irving’s artwork is stunning on the comic.”; Greg Burgas: “Irving’s art is the best part of the book, as it’s always a treat to see it”.) are praising Frazer Irving’s art on The Return of Bruce Wayne #2 about as highly as anything they’ve reviewed, but I don’t see it. It’s not awful, mind you, and the splash page is pretty nifty:


(click for larger image)

But the layouts and compositions are pretty bland, and Irving’s style is decidedly over-rendered. Plus his faces range from vaguely-human to comically-grimacing. A few panels that made me raise my eyebrows for these reasons:



(again, click for larger images)

If Irving were drawing the whole series it might not look so strange, but following the very different – and far superior – Chris Sprouse work on the first issue, it’s a big come-down. But, diff’rent strokes and all that.

The story’s pretty good, although it felt very similar to some other stories: The basic structure of a witch-hunter not exactly beloved by even his friends much less the local townsfolk (the role the amnesiac Bruce Wayne plays here) feels virtually lifted from Tim Burton’s film Sleepy Hollow. The character of Annie, the nonconformist who lives in the woods and rescues and falls in love with Bruce, feels much like Madame Xanadu in the story in her own series a year or so ago, in which she was living a similar life during the Inquisition in Spain. The stuff involving Superman and the others is the most interesting part of the issue, especially as Morrison’s telling that end of the story in a non-linear fashion. His depiction of Batman as smarter than, well, anyone, gets a little tiresome, though, and taking that to its logical conclusion as is suggested here is kind of ridiculous.

Power Girl has been a series of lighthearted fun, terrific artwork by Amanda Conner, but the stories by Justin Gray and Jimmy Palmiotti have been total fluff. (You know when you bring out Vartox half a year into your run that you’re not really set on accomplishing anything substantial.) And now, issue #12 is the last of the run by these three. Am I sad to see them go? Well, sorta – mainly Conner, who’s as distinctive an artist as is working at DC these days – but the series never felt like it was living up to its potential, or really even trying.

The last issue is rife with cheesecake (is this awkward, or is it “okay” because it’s drawn by a woman?), but otherwise enjoyable: It brings back most of the supporting cast (yes, even Vartox) for their own scenes, but mostly focusing on Terra, who’s basically PG’s BFF, where we meet Terra’s parents (who are about as peculiar as you’d expect people from an underground city with future-science to be). It wraps up back at PG’s company, which we haven’t seen nearly enough of during the run. It’s a feel-good issue, and enjoyable for what it is.

Comparing Power Girl to Geoff Johns & Dan Jurgens’ run on Booster Gold seems apt: Both are second-string characters given a new title with a solid artist (Jurgens can be a little stiff, but he’s by no means bad). But Booster’s series both felt weightier and meaningful without being depressing, and it felt like it progressed over time. Power Girl’s series just felt like a set of random encounters, and that she basically ended up in the same place where she started. Sure, Booster could have been a little more fun, but it still had some wit and charm to it, while Power Girl just didn’t have any depth. I was sad to see Jurgens leave Booster (especially when I saw what Giffen & DeMatteis were going to do with it), but I’m not really sad to see this team leave Power Girl, other than losing Conner’s artwork, because I’m hopeful the new writer will give the series some more substance.

All-in-all, there were far worse ways to be spending your three bucks a month for the past year than on Power Girl, but that’s not really a strong epitaph.

Hahaha! I was a little doubtful of The Mystery Society going in – I’d heard of Steve Niles, but I don’t think I’d read anything by him – thinking it sounded like a knock-off of Hellboy, but I guess it’s all in the execution: This first issue is stylish and funny and in a completely different way from Hellboy.

The premise is that a husband-and-wife team, Nick and Anastasia, form a group to investigate supernatural mysteries. The issue opens with Nick going to jail for something, and volunteering to tell the beginnings of the society. Cut to one of Nick’s first missions, breaking into a high-security government facility to rescue a pair of twins, exchanging banter over the phone with his wife along the way, as she welcomes (a little awkwardly) an applicant to join their team. Nick and Ana have a playful back-and-forth that I think deliberately evokes the old Thin Man movies, barely taking things seriously, yet Nick at least seems to be taking things very seriously indeed under his enthusastic exterior.

Fiona Staples’ artwork is rough around the edges – the backgrounds are a little skimpy, the inking a little sketchy – but her art has an exuberance that matches the story and the characters. It sounds like Niles has some interesting plans for this series, so I hope she sticks around and we see her develop as an artist.

As origin stories go, the first issue of The Mystery Society is a cut above. I’m looking forward to the second issue.

This Week’s Haul

Actually two week’s worth of comics, since I didn’t pick them up while I was on vacation. This includes Marvel’s notoriously large shipment from that week:

  • Astro City: The Dark Age Book Three #3 of 4, by Kurt Busiek, Brent Anderson & Alex Ross (DC/Wildstorm)
  • Batman and Robin #2, by Grant Morrison & Frank Quitely (DC)
  • Green Lantern #42, by Geoff Johns, Philip Tan, Eddy Barrow, Jonathan Glapion & Ruy José (DC)
  • Justice Society of America #28, by Jerry Ordway & Bob Wiacek (DC)
  • The Literals #3, by Bill Willingham, Matthew Sturges, Mark Buckingham & Andrew Pepoy (DC/Vertigo)
  • Madame Xanadu #12, by Matt Wagner & Michael Wm. Kaluta (DC/Vertigo)
  • Astonishing X-Men #30, by Warren Ellis & Simone Bianchi (Marvel)
  • Avengers/Invaders #12 of 12, by Alex Ross, Jim Krueger, Steve Sadowski & Jack Herbert (Marvel)
  • Guardians of the Galaxy #15, by Dan Abnett, Andy Lanning, Brad Walker, Victor Olazaba & Livesay (Marvel)
  • The Incredible Hercules #130, by Greg Pak, Fred Van Lente, Ryan Stegman, Rodney Buchemi & Terry Pallot (Marvel)
  • The Immortal Iron Fist #27, by Duane Swierczynski, Travel Foreman, David Lapham & Timothy Green II (Marvel)
  • Nova #26, by Dan Abnett, Andy Lanning & Andrea DiVito (Marvel)
  • War of Kings #5 of 6, by Dan Abnett, Andy Lanning, Paul Pelletier & Rick Magyar (Marvel)
  • Echo #13, by Terry Moore (Abstract)
  • Irredeemable #4, by Mark Waid & Peter Krause (Boom)
  • Sir Edward Grey: Witchfinder #1 of 5, by Mike Mignola, Ben Stenbeck & Dave Stewart (Dark Horse)
  • The Boys #32, by Garth Ennis & Carlos Ezquerra (Dynamite)
  • Prince Valiant: 1937-1938 vol 1 HC, by Hal Foster (Fantagraphics)
Green Lantern #42 The interesting thing about Green Lantern #42 – which wraps up the “Agent Orange” story before we launch into “Blackest Night” – is that it so baldly demonstrates how machiavellian the Guardians of the Universe have become. The Guardians started off as mysterious and withdrawn arbiters of justice, and over the years have become less and less sympathetic, pursuing their own agendas, answering to nobody (least of all their own Green Lantern Corps), and making decisions humans would consider questionable.

In “Agent Orange”, a group of Lanterns confronts Larfleeze, the keeper of the orange light, an obsessive collector who desires the blue ring that Hal Jordan has acquired. (For those keeping score at home the lights we’ve seen so far include green for will, yellow for fear, magenta for love, blue for hope, and orange for avarice.) Hal manages to hold him off until the Guardians – Larfleeze’s old enemies – show up and make peace with him by giving him something he wants. What he wants is a blue ring, so they tell him where the two renegade Guardians who are forming the blue corps are hiding, and he attacks them. Yes, the Guardians essentially threw two of their own under the bus to build a treaty with this insane creature. Hal doesn’t know what exactly they gave him, but he knows it can’t be a good thing, whatever it is.

I wonder where Johns is going with all this – and I wonder it in a good way. Are we heading towards an eventual rebellion of the Lanterns towards the Guardians? Is something going on with the Guardians to make them so nasty? It’s hard to see how this status quo can hold without the heroes becoming complicit in the questionable actions of their bosses. Yet it’s also a fascinating romp through the relationships among the powerful beings that inhabit DC’s outer space milieu. Good stuff.

The Literals #3 Well thank the powers that be that that’s over.

The Literals #3 wraps up “The Great Fables Crossover”, which has been so horribly written that it actually made me consider giving up on Fables altogether. The premise is that Kevin Thorn has the power to rewrite reality, and he’s decided that our reality has worn out its welcome, so he’s going to wipe it out and create a new one. He kills his brother, Writer’s Block, and stops his father, his son, and several other characters from interfering, spending eight issues eventually getting around to taking action – before the heroes get to him and do, indeed, stop him.

There was maybe three issues of story here, stretched out to nine issues. The rest of the space is filled with plenty of Jack of Fables’ annoying antics (reminding me why I dropped his book in the first place – I can’t stand reading about him), introducing a new character (Jack Frost, the other Jack’s son), and stretching out Kevin’s efforts to overcome Writer’s Block and other minor obstacles as far as possible.

And honestly I just didn’t give a damn about any of it, especially since most of the setup appeared to revolve around the Jack of Fables supporting cast, and having nothing at all to do with the ongoing story in Fables itself.

The Literals appears to have been created specifically to play out this crossover story, featuring several character who represent various elements of literature (individual genres, as well as more abstract elements). It looks like this was the last issue of the series, which is something of a mercy: While these characters are interesting ideas in the abstract, this story has been the worst possible manner in which to launch a new series.

Honestly I’m not sure what Willingham and Sturges were thinking here. The whole thing was badly conceived, badly written, and unrewarding, a strong contender for the award of worst comics story I’ve read this year. I hope Fables gets back on track next issue and we can all forget that “The Great Fables Crossover” ever happened.

Avengers/Invaders #12 Avengers/Invaders has been perhaps the best of the Alex Ross/Jim Krueger collaborations. Unfortunately, that doesn’t set the bar very high, so this 12-issue series has been merely “okay”.

I’m not sure exactly what it is, but every Ross/Krueger book I’ve read has been ponderously paced, striving to be thoughtful but instead being merely dull. I don’t know whether this is a fundamental flaw in Ross’ approach to plotting, or if Krueger brings out the worst in his storytelling, but either way Earth X, Project Superpowers and this one have all been pretty tedious.

What elevates this series above the others is that it seems more tightly focused (even though it’s told in three discrete four-issue segments), having a clear direction and a reasonable resolution at each stage of the way. The other books seemed to get bogged down in their ambition, losing sight of what they were doing and ultimately just being unsatisfying both to read and to have read. A/I also has more action and some sympathetic characters, from tragic World War II soldier Paul Anselm who is thrown into the present along with the Invaders and who causes the problems they’re trying to resolve in this third chapter, to the two Captains America, the first of whom is currently dead in modern times, and the second of whom is his partner Bucky, who is one of the Invaders thrown forward in time. The cast is way too large to give everyone equal time – most of the Avengers are merely troops supporting the main characters – but the focus on the main figures, especially the Invaders, makes the story work well enough.

Unfortunately, the story isn’t really very original: We have Ultron again, the Red Skull controlling the Cosmic Cube again, characters from the past viewing elements of the present day as downright evil (a theme explored more brutally in the DC Two Thousand JLA/JSA story from 9 years ago). So the story has less of an impact than it might have since it feels largely rehashed.

Steve Sadowski’s artwork is pretty nifty, although I find his layouts to be a little confusing at times, and his action sequences to feel somewhat muted. I think he’s inking himself here, but a stronger inker might bring out his best elements more effectively. (His inks seem influenced by Tom Palmer, whose style worked best over a more dynamic penciller.)

Anyway, I don’t regret having read it, but Avengers/Invaders doesn’t make me optimistic that the Ross/Krueger tandem has turned the corner. And certainly I still have no interest in reading anymore of Project Superpowers.

The Immortal Iron Fist #27 The Immortal Iron Fist ends its run this week, although it’ll be followed by an Immortal Weapons mini-series, focusing on the Fist’s peer heroes from the other Seven Capital Cities of Heaven. (The preview of the first issue at the end of this issue looks pretty good.)

The series on the whole has been quite entertaining, and the switch from Ed Brubaker and Matt Fraction and writers to Duane Swierczynski has barely been noticeable, as the style and quality hardly changed at all. The art has generally been strong, and the book’s strength of exploring the background of the Fist’s mystical city of K’un Lun has been intriguing and often exciting. If I have a criticism, it’s that the characterizations of Fist and his friends has been rather thin, so his personal struggles to maintain his relationship with his girlfriend Misty Knight, retain control of his company, and come to grips with getting older have felt superficial. I guess there’s just been too much stuff to pack into a regular-sized monthly comic to make the characters truly engaging.

(For example, this issue ends with a revelation in the Fist/Misty relationship, which is touching and makes his future a little more intriguing, but it feels like it comes out of left field.

Nonetheless, it’s been a fun ride, and I hope Iron Fist will be back after the interregnum of the mini-series. But if not, well, I’m sure he’ll be back sometime.

Prince Valiant vol 1: 1937-1938 My choice for the greatest comic strip in history would be Hal Foster’s epic adventure strip Prince Valiant. And now Fantagraphics is reprinting the series in a series of spiffy, oversized hardcover collections, with the first volume out this week. And even though I own the whole 40-volume set of the Foster-drawn pages that Fantagraphics published in the 1990s, I’m perfectly happy to buy this new series, with larger pages, better-quality paper, and much better-quality coloring. The first volume covers the first two years, 1937-1938, and while the earliest episodes feel a little primitive by the standards of Foster’s tremendous skills, by the end of 1937 you can clearly see Foster getting his footing and developing into the artistic legend he’s become.

What makes Prince Valiant so great? After all, it’s about a fictional hero from Norway who’s exiled along with his father to the British isles during the age of the equally-fictional King Arthur (circa the 5th century). Val becomes a Knight of the Round Table and embarks on many adventures of varying plausibility, so in the large it sounds like pretty standard stuff.

Well, aside from Foster being one of the greatest pop artists of the 20th century, the story feels like nothing else in graphic storytelling: It’s told in narration rather than in the immediate action-and-dialogue style of comic books, yet it loses none of is impact. Foster conveys action and excitement without many of the conventions of superhero comics. And Val gradually grows up, matures, gets married, and has children during the course of the strip. In this volume he’s a young man of maybe 15 or 16 years of age, full of bluster and passion, yet still finding his place in the world. He’s clever, yet makes mistakes along the way and is often saved through dumb (sometimes tragic) luck. It’s an epic saga a little bit different from anything like it, and Foster’s dedication to his craft makes it better than even the notable stories by his not-inconsiderable peers (Alex Raymond, Milton Caniff, etc.).

The next volume is announced for “spring of 2010”, so it looks like we’ll be getting 2 years worth of pages every 9 months or so, which will make for a pretty slow crawl to get to the strip’s apex in the 1950s. I think it will be worth it, though. It’s excellent stuff, and I look forward to enjoying it all over again.

This Week’s Haul

  • Final Crisis #3 of 7, by Grant Morrison & J.G. Jones (DC)
  • Avengers/Invaders #4 of 12, by Alex Ross, Jim Krueger & Steve Sadowski (Marvel)
  • Hulk #5, by Jeph Loeb & Ed McGuinness (Marvel)
  • The Twelve #7 of 12, by J. Michael Straczynski, Chris Weston & Garry Leach (Marvel)
  • Echo #5, by Terry Moore (Abstract)
  • The Boys #21, by Garth Ennis & Darick Robertson (Dynamite)
  • Star Trek: Assignment Earth #4 of 12, by John Byrne (IDW)
Final Crisis #3 I’m not sure two reviews of Final Crisis #3 could be more different than Brian Cronin’s and what I’m about to write. Cronin loved it, while I, well, didn’t.

Almost everything Morrison does here is either boring, or has been done before. A few people seem to be impressed with how he’s handling bringing back Barry Allen (the silver age Flash), but c’mon, it’s not like Barry hasn’t been popping up from time to time for the last 20 years anyway. The guy’s a time traveller! Maybe he’s back for good, but – so? Hal Jordan (the silver age Green Lantern) died, and came back not once (as the Spectre) but twice (as Green Lantern again, complete with his own ongoing series). There’s nothing in this to get even a little excited about.

Almost everything in the series feels like it’s been done before. The running subplot involves bringing back characters from Morrison’s Seven Soldiers series (and what a mess of a narrative that was). The main threat is of Darkseid and his minions of Apokolips conquering the world – “the day that evil won” as the series’ tag line goes. But Morrison used this exact same premise – and used it very well – in his own run on JLA a decade ago!

This issue also features the conscription of superheroes to fight the threat, hearkening back to the formation of the All-Star Squadron (which is explicitly referenced), but doing so makes no sense: Far direr threats have arisen in the DC universe in the past without resorting to such measures. Why this, why now? History suggests that simply putting out the call to all hands would be sufficient – these are the DC heroes, after all.

This series is just one instance after another of things that either don’t make sense, or just aren’t fun or exciting or thought-provoking. The longer Final Crisis goes on, the more pointless it seems. If this really is the “final crisis” of the DC universe, it’s because the concept has jumped the shark – there are no more interesting crises to tell.

Avengers/Invaders #4 Alex Ross/Jim Krueger projects don’t have a good track record in my estimation, going all the way back to my bitter disappointment with Earth X, but I keep trying them out anyway. Project Superpowers over at Dynamite has been pretty awful, but to my surprise I’m rather enjoying Avengers/Invaders. The premise is that the Invaders from World War II – Captain America and Bucky, the Human Torch and Toro, and Namor the Sub-Mariner – have been accidentally brought forward to 2008 New York City, along with (and without their knowledge) a US soldier of that era. This is problematic since in the present Marvel Universe, Cap is dead, Bucky is the new Cap, Namor is King of Atlantis and has withdrawn from the surface world, and, well, I don’t know what the status of the Human Torch and Toro are, since it seems like it changes every few years. Moreover, the Invaders think this is all some Nazi plot, especially since Iron Man and S.H.I.E.L.D. capture them while trying to figure out how to return them to their own time. And frankly, after the Civil War I can’t really fault anyone for accusing Iron Man and S.H.I.E.L.D. of being Nazis. Anyway, two groups of Avengers end up fighting over the Invaders which is where this issue leaves off.

I think what’s winning me over with this series is that it’s treating time travel seriously and not as some sort of gimmick: The adult Bucky finds the Invaders Cap’s shield and shows up at the end of this issue, clearly having memories of this adventure. The current Namor also recalls what happened and deliberately sends his younger self off without help from Atlantis to fulfill his destiny. And the soldier meets his future self – who’s nearly 90 years old – and compares notes. It’s all played for drama rather than convenience, and with the hint that the Invaders’ removal has also changed history, with dire consequences on the way once the changes catch up to the current day.

Admittedly, none of this is especially original, but it’s a lot less ponderous than the usual Ross/Krueger fare, with good art by Steve Sadowski. 12 issues might end up being too long if there aren’t some new plot twists in store, but so far, so good.

The Twelve #7 Speaking of heroes transported from World War II to the present day, J. Michael Straczynski’s The Twelve starts its second half this month. Like Ross, Straczynski’s another comics writer whose stuff I find to be too slow without much ever happening. (His current run on Thor is a perfect example of this.) The Twelve isn’t exactly gripping, but the mix of plot (which is shaping up to be a murder mystery of sorts) and drama (the heroes meeting their old – now very old – friends and their descendants) is nonetheless engaging. The gorgeous artwork by Weston and Leach helps quite a bit, too.

This issue continues the theme of characters reconnecting with their past 63 years later, as Captain Wonder meets his former sidekick, Tim, now an old man. The guy’s hard a rough time of it, as his wife and sons all died before he was revived. But the ongoing story makes some progress as Master Mind Excello tells the Phantom Reporter of some premonitions he’s had regarding the group, and the Reporter both investigates a murder in the city and then confronts the Black Widow about her nighttime excursions.

There are lots of hints that funny things are going on: Dynamic Man might be involved in the aforementioned murder, the Widow is being used by some demon as an angel of vengeance, and the inert robot Electro apparently has been wandering off as well, but who’s been doing what is still unclear.

The main thing I regret about this series is that the cast feels too large for its scope, as several characters seem both fairly generic and don’t get much screen time, which makes me wonder why they’re there. With five issues left to go perhaps they’ll play a role. But although the series superficially feels a bit like Watchmen, the storytelling is pretty standard and not very dense, so there’s only a limited amount of space per issue to tell the story, so perhaps not. Still, I’m certainly enjoying it enough to want to see how it turns out.

The Boys #21 I’m still enjoying The Boys, Garth Ennis & Darick Robertson’s brutal take on amoral superheroes, but the current story, “I Tell You No Lie G.I.”, has been somewhat disappointing. Early on it seemed like the world was overrun by superheroes, who mostly (maybe entirely) got their powers from a special drug which seemed to have gotten leaked to many companies and governments able to produce these supers, and The Boys were a covert group trying to rein in the worst abuses, especially a few corporate-run American superheroes.

This story reveals a lot of the series’ backstory, and the book’s scope is narrowing to being a conspiracy story: The drug which creates heroes is mainly controlled by a single company (Vought American), which is using it to become a major player on the national and world stage. I find this disappointing because giving the heroes a major villain and target (Vought American) seems just too simplistic; having a few foes who are representative of the larger problems – but a problem which is too big to be tackled by a single covert team – would be much more interesting, I think. The series is feeling more and more like Warren Ellis’ Transmetropolitan, only with superpowers and some gratuitous sex and violence (well, okay, even more gratuitous sex and violence than in Transmet).

Or maybe I’m just tired of this sort of conspiracy story.

This Week’s Haul

  • Countdown to Mystery #7 of 8, by Matthew Sturges, Chad Hardin, Dan Green, Walden Wong & Wayne Faucher, and Steve Gerber, Adam Beechen & Justiniano (DC)
  • Metal Men #8 of 8, by Duncan Rouleau (DC)
  • Avengers/Invaders #1 of 12, by Alex Ross, Jim Krueger & Steve Sadowski (Marvel)
  • Nova #13, by Dan Abnett, Andy Lanning, Wellington Alves & Scott Hanna (Marvel)
  • The Boys #18, by Garth Ennis & Darick Robertson (Dynamite)
Metal Men #8 I feel like I should have enjoyed Metal Men a lot more than I did.

For one thing, Duncan Rouleau’s art is dynamic and imaginative, with a style not quite like anyone else I’ve seen in comics these days. The story is one of loyalty and redemption, and has a heavy time travel element. What’s not to like?

Well, the story’s also told in 19 small chapters, taking place early in the Metal Men’s career, and at several different points later on. And it’s extremely hard to follow. In addition to the cast of seven Metal Men, plus their creator, Will Magnus, the Metal Men switch bodies at some points, and they have substantially different physical appearances in different time periods. I found it to be too much effort for too little reward to try to fit all the pieces together; I would have been happier with a more linear story with a few flashbacks.

Plus there are several other mad scientists running around, and a host of other unrelated robots, for a cast of characters too large to really work. The story tries to focus on our hero Will, but it keeps drifting around and never really finds its emotional center. The conclusion made very little sense to me, but honestly I’d given up trying to figure out what the heck was going on by then.

The story is credited to Rouleau “based on ideas by Grant Morrison”, and edited by Eddie Berganza. I don’t know whether Morrison provided a story outline that was simply too ambitious, or if Rouleau bit off more than he could chew, or if Berganza should have reined him in and just didn’t, but one or more of these guys ended up making a muddle of what should have been a straightforward and fun story. It’s too bad, because it started off with a lot of promise, but just never found its footing.

Avengers/Invaders #1 Hey look, it’s yet another Alex Ross project mining the bygone days of superheroes! Avengers/Invaders sees the Invaders – Marvel’s retconned team of World War II heroes – being shunted to the present day, post-Civil War, where they’ll encounter the Avengers, especially Iron Man, still haunted by Captain America’s death. Cap, of course, is one of the Invaders. And at least two others – Bucky and the Sub-Mariner – are also still alive in the present day. Which could make for an interesting time.

Unfortunately the Ross/Krueger-written books suffer the same problem that J. Michael Straczynski’s books do: Too much reflection and dialogue, and not enough actually going on. This issue is at least focused on two different fights, one in World War II and one in the present day, which is a promising start. I bet it ends up feeling like a story that could have been told in 4 issues rather than 12, though. But it already looks better than Project Superpowers (not exactly a ringing endorsement).

Steve Sadowski’s pencils are solid, as always, but the guy could really use an inker who can bring some subtlety to his linework. I’m not sure if he inked himself here, or if the art was reproduced from his pencils, but the lines are so heavy the art sometimes looks like it was etched in wood.

Nova #13 As usual, it’s Nova to the rescue this week. Nova arrives at a world being devoured by Galactus, too late to try to save it from its fate, but in time to try to help evacuate its population. Some psionic entity has also shown up to sow chaos in the middle of the larger panic for its own unknown reasons. And to top it off Nova has to face down Galactus anyway, since he’s interfering with the evacuation (possibly without his own knowledge), which means the Silver Surfer gets involved. Yaybo!

Abnett & Lanning are at the top of their game here, with some witty dialogue as well as a good feel for Nova’s position. Meanwhile Willington Alves returns on pencils. He’s not Sean Chen, but I like his layouts and his use of shadows. Overall I like his work better than Paul Pelletier’s (who I guess is moving to Guardians of the Galaxy in the wake of Annihilation Conquest).

Overall, yet another nifty issue of Marvel’s best title. I hope the second year of Nova sees him establish himself with his own storylines and personal odysseys separate from the “event” crossover series. The book’s got too much promise to be slaved to editorial dictate.

This Week’s Haul

Somehow I’ve failed to post a single entry since last week’s comics reviews. I’ve gotta get it in gear!

  • Countdown #27 of 52 (backwards), by Paul Dini, Sean McKeever, Keith Giffen, Carlos Magno & Rodney Ramos (DC)
  • Fables #66, by Bill Willingham, Mark Buckingham & Steve Leialoha (DC/Vertigo)
  • Annihilation Conquest: Wraith #4 of 4, by Javier Grillo-Marxuach & Kyle Holz (Marvel)
  • Avengers Assemble HC vol 5 by Kurt Busiek, Alan Davis & Mark Farmer, Ivan Reis, Keiron Dwyer, Brent Anderson, Patrick Zircher, Yanick Paquette & others (Marvel)
  • Marvel Masterworks: Nick Fury, Agent of S.H.I.E.L.D. vol 83 HC, collecting Strange Tales #135-153, by Stan Lee, Jack Kirby, John Severin, Don Heck, Jim Steranko & others (Marvel)
  • What If? Featuring Planet Hulk #1, by Greg Pak, Leonard Kirk, Rafa Sandoval, Gary Erskine & Fred Hembeck (Marvel)
  It’s too easy to keep piling the criticism onto Countdown, but I will make the following observation: Paul Dini‘s track record as a comics writer isn’t too great. His tabloid-sized graphic novels with Alex Ross were pretty weak (Superman: Peace on Earth was probably the best), and apparently his other current series, Madame Mirage isn’t too great either – The Invincible Super-Blog makes this point concisely. Does this make Dini’s best comic work Jingle Belle? Erk.
Avengers Assemble vol 5 HC Avengers Assemble volume 5 finishes off Kurt Busiek’s run on The Avengers from a few years back. It’s surely one of the best runs the long-running series has ever seen (though I think Roy Thomas’ run in the late 60s edges it out). What made it work was that Busiek was able to work with the characters and develop them, and he also had a fundamental respect for what made the Avengers feel like they did at their best. Within this framework he told some terrific stories and had a run of excellent artists, lead of course by George Pérez, but the artists here are also quite good. Basically he successfully updated the team for 21st-century sensibilities without destroying what made it fun. Contrast with Brian Michael Bendis’ run on the title, which has been, well, destructive and depressing.

Anyway, the centerpiece of this volume is a long story in which Kang the Conquerer comes back to conquer the 21st century. While you might say “What, again?!?”, like the earlier confrontation with Ultron, Busiek takes Kang to the next level: He uses his time-travelling ability to outwit the people of Earth and set them against each other, and manages to bring the planet to its knees. There are some lovely character moments in the series, including the resolution of several long-running plot threads involving Triathlon and Goliath, complete with a fairly brutal depiction of what a world war against (effectively) an alien invader might to do the planet, somehow all without getting too depressing. It’s a classic adventure yarn, which means it’s fun to read, suggesting the darker elements rather than getting bogged down in them.

It wraps up with a short story titled “Lo, There Shall Come… An Accounting!”, which is both an amusing glimpse behind-the-scenes of how the Avengers do their jobs, and a nifty little way for Busiek to bring his run to a definitive close.

Every fan of mainstream superhero comics should read these stories, because this sort of thing has rarely been done any better, by anyone.

Marvel Masterworks vol 83: Nick Fury, Agent of S.H.I.E.L.D. Speaking of reprints, I’m delighted to see Nick Fury getting the Marvel Masterworks treatment. The Steranko stuff was reprinted in paperback a few years ago, but it’s good enough that I’d like to own it in hardcover. This volume starts at the beginning of Fury’s run, when Stan Lee and Jack Kirby used the character as their own super-spy, back when super-spies were the hot thing.

S.H.I.E.L.D. was an international law-enforcement agency (although it was always portrayed as a U.S. agency) of which Fury becomes director. Fury is a no-nonsense World War II veteran with an eye patch who bring a certain rough-and-tumble attitude to the stiff-necked agency, with lots of high technology bridging the gap between them. Lee and Kirby of course play it for action and play up the gizmos, while Steranko – when he came on board – both emphasized the spy element, and used it as a venue to deploy his cinematic approach to storytelling, something which was as revolutionary at the time as Neil Adams’ commercial art sensibility was. This volume has a lot more of the former than the latter, but hopefully they’ll do a second volume. In any event, if you’re a fan of Lee/Kirby Marvel, then this one’s for you, True Believer!

What If? Featuring Planet Hulk Planet Hulk gets the What If? treatment, in an issue with a trio of stories written by regular HulkWorld War Hulk. In the second, the Hulk ends up on the peaceful planet he’d originally been sent to, resulting in a continuation of the Hulk/Banner conflict without anyone else around to bother. The third is a one-pager in which Bruce Banner lands on Sakaar instead of the Hulk, with predictable results, played for yuks with art by Fred Hembeck.

It’s not a bad issue, and all three artists are quite good, but I was disappointed that it was so predictable. Either Pak was phoning it in, or else this was an issue mandated by editorial, with all the imagination we should expect from such a thing.

In addition to the usual haul, Lee’s Comics had their annual Black October sale. These days I don’t have a lot I’m looking for that I can’t just get through my usual store, Comics Conspiracy, but I still like to go by nearby sales to check them out. It turns out I was pretty lucky at this one:

  I was pretty happy to pick up this issue of X-Men at a very reasonable price. It falls short of pristine, it’s still bright and shiny and in great condition. It’s a piece of my childhood that I’m happy to have on my bookshelf, even if it has been reprinted several times.
Rex Mundi: The Lost Kings vol 3 Rex Mundi seems to be getting a positive review every time I turn around. In the introduction to this volume, J.H. Williams III (who is an excellent artist, BTW) writes: “I feel when all is said and done this series will be looked upon by future readers as one of the more truly important pieces of comics work to make it to the published arena.”

It’s a pretty good book, but it’s not that good. It’s a fairly convoluted and slow-moving conspiracy story in an alternate 1933 in which the Protestant Reformation failed and Catholicism prevails in Europe. France is a world power and is bidding to become more of one. Our hero, Master Physician Julien Sauniére, uncovers a secret society and starts to peel back the layers of a two-thousand-year-old secret involving Jesus Christ and the lineage of the Kings of France. Characterization is not very strong, and it’s often difficult to work up the enthusiasm to follow the twists and turns of the conspiracies and secrets being revealed. And there’s rarely any substantial threat to the lives and well-being of the characters, so there’s rarely much urgency in the story. Just a lot of ambling around learning things. So it’s not a bad series, but I don’t think it’s a terrific adventure story, nor does it (so far) have anything profound to say about the human condition.

That said, it is a pretty good historical conspiracy story, so if that kind of thing is your cup of tea, I certainly recommend it.

This particular volume is a transition between the first artist (EricJ) and the current artist (Ferreyra). Ironically, I think the interim artist (Di Bartolo) is better than either of them, having the polish of Ferreyra while showing a wider range of expression than either of them. Funny that.

Scarlet Traces: The Great Game vol 2 HC The last issue of this second series of Scarlet Traces came out when I started reviewing comics weekly in this space, and I’d very much enjoyed the first series. This one isn’t quite as good, but it’s still enjoyable.

The premise is that after humans defeated the Martians in The War of The Worlds, we appropriated their technology and substantially ramped up our own. By “we” I mean “Britain”, which became the dominant world power, and in 1898 took the war to Mars. 40 years later, when this series opens, the war has not been going well, and photojournalist Charlotte Hemming embarks on a quest to find out exactly what’s going on. Backed by quirky-and-inventive artwork by D’Israeli, Edginton’s script evokes Alan Moore’s second League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, while telling a more focused story, and one with more than a little relationship to America’s current adventures in Iraq. It moves right along and has a satisfying ending.

I’m hoping there will be more Scarlet Traces in the future, as it feels like there’s plenty of space for further extrapolation. Time will tell.

Comics I Bought After They Jumped The Shark

Greg Burgas writes about comics he bought after they jumped the shark. (Everyone here knows what jumping the shark means, right?) Rarely one to miss a chance to beat a few dead horses, I figured I’d write my own entry.

I grew up reading comic books, and by the early 1980s was buying a large number of titles, but four of them formed the core of my buying habits. All four of these jumped the shark in the 80s, but it took me a while to realize it and to stop buying them. Here they are:

  • The Uncanny X-Men:
    • My first issue: #126 (1979)
    • When it jumped the shark: #201 (1986)
    • My last issue: #229 (1988)

    I count myself pretty lucky to have started reading this just as Chris Claremont and John Byrne were hitting the best part of their run. After all, their run is my pick for the most influential comics series since Lee/Kirby’s Fantastic Four, so I’m very happy I got into it when I did. Byrne left after #143, and Claremont’s scripts got increasingly byzantine; eventually, it was a common joke that many storylines in X-Men never actually completed.

    That said, the comic was actually quite readable – if uneven – for several years following Byrne (with Dave Cockrum and Paul Smith illustrating), culminating in #175 (1983), in which Cyclops – always the series’ main character, for my money – marries Madeline Pryor and gets his happy ending (and they even get their own spotlight issue in which they head off on their honeymoon).

    At this point John Romita Jr. took over as penciller. Romita has always been a decent nuts-and-bolts layout man, but his designs and faces have always seemed uninspired to me, and Dan Green’s inks were especially unsympathetic. The book went off into la-la land in #201 (1986), when – for marketing reasons – Cyclops returned to duel Storm for leadership of the X-Men, and lost. What? By the time I picked up my last issue the even-less-inspiring-than-Romita Marc Silvestri was drawing the book, and I realized that not only did I not have any idea what had happened in the book for the past year, I no longer cared.

    I’ve rarely ever checked in on Marvel’s merry mutants since then. There’s really been no point, since the series for all intents and purposes reached its dramatic conclusion decades ago.

    A lot of people started reading X-Men during Jim Lee’s run in the early 1990s, and I sometimes take delight in telling them that I’d given up on the series long before they read their first issue. 🙂

  • The New Teen Titans:

    This was DC’s ground-breaking series of the 1980s, making superstars out of Marv Wolfman and George Perez. While there’s some truth to the notion that it was intended as a knock-off of (or competition for) the X-Men, it quickly found its own voice with a completely different set of characters. For 50 issues of the first series it was absolutely outstanding. As DC’s best-selling title it was relaunched in 1984 using higher-quality paper.

    But Perez left following vol. 2 #5 (1985), and the series was never the same after that. Wolfman was struck by a lengthy bout with writer’s block, and the stories dragged on and often didn’t make much sense. Even when Perez returned with #50 (1988) for a few issues, the magic was gone. The last issue I bought was part of an ill-advised Batman crossover. I’ve come back for the occasional Titans story since then, but none of them have been anywhere near as good as Wolfman and Perez.

  • The Avengers:
    • My first issue: vol. 1 #179 (1979)
    • When it jumped the shark: #239 (1984)
    • My last issue: #306 (1989)

    This is the only one of these four series where I got on board after the series’ heyday. Really, its first heyday was in the late 60s under Roy Thomas, John Buscema and Neal Adams, but it had a couple of nifty runs in the 70s, first written by Steve Englehart, and later by Jim Shooter. My first issue was just after the Shooter run, and although it was a fun period – with art by John Byrne and then George Perez – I learned years later that the earlier stuff really was better.

    Shooter returned for a controversial run in which one of the heroes has a breakdown and goes to prison. A lot of people hated that run, but I thought it was okay. No, it was really when Roger Stern came on board as writer that the series lost me. To be fair, he was hobbled for a while by the mediocre art of Al Milgrom and Joe Sinnott, but even though I’ve loved most everything else I’ve read by Stern, his Avengers run just never clicked for me. I think the series reached its nadir when the team appeared on Letterman.

    After this, Buscema and Tom Palmer took over the art chores again, and it was a very pretty book, but the series lost many of its stars and the second-stringers who came on board just didn’t interest me. It seemed like the series became one long soap opera with rather uninteresting characters. I can’t honestly say I remember exactly which issue was my last, but I know the overhaul in #300 (by which time I think Stern had already departed) killed whatever interest I’d had left.

    The book got amazingly worse throughout the 90s, but after Marvel’s “Heroes Return” relaunch it experienced a new golden age for nearly 5 years under Kurt Busiek and George Perez.

  • The Legion of Super-Heroes:

    I started reading LSH at the tail end of their second golden age, as #223-224 were Jim Shooter and Mike Grell’s last issues. But, things didn’t go downhill from there, as they were followed by Paul Levitz and Jim Sherman, who produced several great stories. They took over the title from Superboy with #259 and went into something of a tailspin, but actually there was a bunch of fun stuff during this not-much-heralded era (I enjoyed the Reflecto storyline, for instance). Levitz came back a few years later and began his well-known and lengthy run on the title, first with Pat Broderick, and then with Keith Giffen.

    I didn’t care for it.

    Giffen’s art was inventive, but his characters’ postures and faces were very stiff. Levitz turned many of the characters on their heads and although it became a more plausible science fiction superhero title, the spirit of the book seemed to have vanished. But the book truly jumped the shark after it, like The New Teen Titans, was relaunched as a higher-quality-paper series, which started with a 5-part story which culminated in one of my favorite Legionnaires, Karate Kid, being killed off for really no good reason and to no good effect (since his wife, Projectra, largely disappeared from the book at the same time, thus destroying any character drama the death might have had).

    I kept reading the book for years afterwards, and it had a few enjoyable periods, but was never really good again. The series got re-envisioned, then rebooted, and it was again somewhat entertaining for a while, but the magic was long gone at this point. Again, I’m not sure exactly when I stopped reading, but the issue above is my best guess.

    On the bright side, the Legion has been relaunched at least twice since then, and has been fairly entertaining for long stretches. The current series by Mark Waid and Barry Kitson is fun, actually.

Since the 80s I’ve generally been more severe about dropping comics that aren’t doing it for me anymore, mainly because I finally had the revelation that it’s the creators, not the characters, that make a book worth reading. And really, there isn’t enough time to spend reading comics that you just aren’t enjoying. No doubt this is a big reason why I still read comics, after 30+ years.

(By the way, in writing this I was pleased to discover The Big Comic Book Database. Its content is still pretty raw, but the issue lists and covers alone make it a pretty valuable resource.)

This Week’s Haul

I’m going to try a different format this week and see how I (and you) like it.

  • Aquaman: Sword of Atlantis #48 (DC)
  • 52 #37 of 52 (DC)

    This issue reveals one of the ongoing mysteries of the series, and it’s not really a huge surprise to anyone, I guess. It was fun to read, though! Also, in this week’s text page in DC books, there’s a coded message regarding the “big” mystery of 52, so if you don’t mind getting spoiled, Comics Should Be Good reveals the secret.

    Yeah, not really a big surprise. It’s not like it’s something DC ever does anything with even when they do acknowledge it, anyway.

  • Sandman Mystery Theatre: Sleep of Reason #2 of 5 (DC/Vertigo)
  • Red Menace #3 of 6 (DC/Wildstorm)
  • Avengers Assemble vol. 4 HC (Marvel)

    A few years ago, Marvel Comics published maybe the best run of the Avengers ever. Written by Kurt Busiek with art by George Perez (maybe his best work ever, too), it managed to combine good heroic adventure with a respect for characters and continuity and some of the best artwork in comics. It was fun, lavish, exciting, and thoughtful.

    This volume is part of that run, but unfortunately it’s the ugly stepchild of the set. See, Perez left the book after an impressive three-year run, and was followed by an awkward half-year of crossovers and fill-in artists.

    This volume includes the three-issue crossover mini-series Maximum Security, written by Busiek and drawn by Jerry Ordway. It’s not a very good story, and although I’m a long-time Ordway fan, this is not his most inspired work. (For better Ordway material, try Red Menace, above.) The premise is amusing: The alien community in the galaxy gets so tired of humans meddling in their affairs that they quarantine Earth and start using it as a penal colony. Unfortunately it’s got the tired old “It’s all a scheme by some old enemies” kicker and doesn’t rise above the level of workmanlike.

    Steve Epting is a very competent artist who followed Perez (following a one-issue Security tie-in by John Romita Jr.), but I don’t think his style fit the Avengers very well, being very dark and realistic. He’s followed by Alan Davis, who became the regular artist for a while. I like Davis’ work a lot too, and although he’s no Perez, he was a fine substitute. Unfortunately, his first story involved a town in Greece being transformed into a town of Hulks, which mostly leads to a lot of fighting and the amusement of seeing the words “Hulk smash!” in Greek (at least, that’s what I assume “Hoolk Dialysei” means).

    The volume ends with a pair of forgettable specials, one featuring the Hellcat, the other featuring the return of Ultron (again?).

    So, not a great collection. However, volume 5 should feature the end of Busiek’s run, with his epic “Kang Dynasty” story, and that is worth the price of admission. So my completist little heart doesn’t mind picking up this one.

  • Castle Waiting #4 (Fantagraphics)
  • Liberty Meadows: Cold, Cold Heart vol. 4 TPB (Image)

    Frank Cho first came to my attention when his university strip University Squared was collected some years ago. Well-drawn, irreeverent – if more than a little sophomoric – it was a nifty little package. Cho’s wacky humor and clean linework led to a daily newspaper strip, Liberty Meadows.

    Although it had a crushingly weak premise (wimpy Frank works at an animal sanctuary, pines after the sexy Brandy, and deals with the hijinks of the sanctuary’s residents), Cho’s twisted sense of humor and broad knowledge of pop culture was pretty amusing – for a while. But by the time this volume came around, things had gone horribly wrong: Cho was chafing at frequently being censored by his syndicate (and without the sense of humor about such things that, say, Scott Adams has), the wacky hijinks were becoming strained, and the strip was focusing on the romantic tensions among the humans. I think by this point Cho had ended the newspaper strip and was publishing new strips only in the comic book series (but I could be wrong). Spending more pages here on Brandy’s somewhat evil roommate Jen was sort of like Berke Breathed introducing Bill the Cat in Bloom County: It was when the strip jumped the shark.

    Cho has moved on to doing comics at Marvel, but it always seems to me like he’s mainly interested in drawing buxom babes. Now, this is virtually a tradition in superhero comics at this point, but I find it terribly difficult to take Cho’s art seriously at this point. Most of his female characters seem to have the same faces with different hairstyles, and as for drawing men, well, there’s this.

    Cho’s a hugely talented artist, and I guess I shouldn’t hold it against him that what he values in his career is not at all what I value in what I read. But it seems like a tremendous waste to me.

    Anyway. If you’re a big Cho fan, here you go. If you’re not, well, I’d suggest starting with the first volume and see what you think.

This Week’s Haul

It’s taken a long, long time – nearly 20 years – but the Marvel Masterworks hardcover reprints of The Avengers have finally gotten to the good stuff: The volume reprints #51-58 and Annual #2 (as well as X-Men #45, which was part of a crossover story), from way back in 1968 (the year before I was born!). Written by Roy Thomas and pencilled by John Buscema, this set is perhaps best-known for the two issues that introduced The Vision, but to me this volume is important as it contains maybe my favoritest Avengers story every: In #56 the team went back in time to witness the death of Captain America’s partner Bucky, and when they returned to the present – in Annual #2 – they found that time had been changed, and that the original Avengers team had conquered the world and eliminated all the other superpowers people. The likes of Captain America, the Black Panther and Hawkeye had to take on Thor, Iron Man and the Hulk to save the world. Even today, this is great stuff in the superhero genre. (The annual is actually drawn by Don Heck, who – although not a favorite of mine – does some of his best work in it.)

Somehow I missed the second issue of Athena Voltaire, a 1930s-era Indiana Jones-type adventure yarn with a female protagonist. I’ll need to ask my comics shop to order it for me.

The Goon, by Eric Powell, is a weird concoction, part hard-boiled pulp fiction, and part gruesome horror yarn, but mostly it’s all played for humor. The Goon is the head of a local crime mob, and his main opposition is a mob of zombies led by a mysterious evil priest. The Goon is not exactly a good guy (and his sidekick Frankie is always looking out for number one), but sometimes he does the right thing, and sometimes even for the right reason. There’s a lot of blood, gore, and off-color humor, but y’know, I enjoy all that stuff if it’s pulled off well. This isn’t classic comics material, but it’s a fun read, and Powell is a crack artist, reminding me in a roundabout way of both Will Eisner and Mark Schultz. It may not be to your taste, but if you enjoy humor that’s on the sick side, then you’ll like this one.

This Week’s Haul

  • 52 #25 (DC)
  • Hawkgirl #57 (DC)
  • Jack of Fables #4 (DC/Vertigo)
  • Justice #8 (DC)
  • Planetary #26 (DC/Wildstorm)
  • Seven Soldiers of Victory #1 (DC)
  • New Avengers #24 (Marvel)
  • Castle Waiting #2 (Fantagraphics)

52 has a clever cover with three young trick-or-treaters dressed like three of the main characters of the series. It otherwise has a bunch of pointless action sequences, except for one scene where Ralph Dibny (the former Elongated Man) is given a short tour of a place in hell where abusers of magic have been consigned. It’s pretty convincingly chilling.

I started buying Hawkgirl when it changed from Hawkman since I thought there were some interesting things they could do with the character. But writer Walter Simonson hasn’t done any of them, and artist Howard Chaykin mostly just draws the character in cheesecake poses. It looks like Chaykin has left with this issue, and it’s probably time for me to do the same. This whole series has been pretty disappointing, despite some great art in the first two years by Rags Morales.

Jack of Fables is a spinoff from Fables featuring the Jack character from various stories. He’s cocky, egotistical, and trapped in a forced-retirement home for fables. His escape plan gets put into motion here, and it’s a hoot so far.

Justice is Alex Ross’ latest work for DC. Co-written by Jim Krueger with art by Doug Braithwaite and Ross, it’s been tremendously disappointing, feeling at best like a warmed-over version of Grant Morrison’s JLA. It involves a group of villains learning the secret identities of the Justice League and waging all-out war on them. Sounds pretty ho-hum, huh? The secret reason why the villains are doing this is revealed in this issue, but it’s still not very exciting. Only four issues left.

One of my favorite series of the last 10 years is Warren Ellis‘ and John Cassaday‘s Planetary. It started out as a clever sort of homage to various pop culture characters of the last century, but developed into a very clever melange of story elements. Our heroes are “mystery archaeologists”, mapping the secret history of the 20th century. Elijah Snow is a man without a past, who learns who he really is, and who the powers behind the throne since the 1950s are. The whole story comes – rather unexpectedly – to a head, here, and I suspect it concludes next issue. Erratic publishing schedules have dampened my enthusiasm somewhat, but I’m still gonna miss it.

Seven Soldiers of Victory is the long-delayed conclusion to Grant Morrison‘s epic about seven heroes who will save the world without ever meeting. Like most of Morrison’s stories, it’s long on ideas and short on character. The conclusion is also very short on sense; I think Morrison tries to be too subtle for his own good sometimes, and this is one of those times. On the bright side, the art by JH Williams III is absolutely beautiful.

New Avengers continues spotlighting individual Avengers in the midst of the Civil War event, this time covering The Sentry, who is basically Superman-in-the-Marvel-Universe. I think Carla’s assessment is about right – don’t bother. Of course, I feel that way about the Civil War generally.

Castle Waiting continues Linda Medley‘s fun series about life after the fairy tale ends. I’ve forgotten what was happening at the end of last issue, but this is an amusing look at the early life of one of the main characters. Lady Jain (whose source story I can’t place) is gradually having her past revealed, and we know it comes to no good in the end, but the telling is arresting.