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This Week's Haul

While there were a few good books this week – John Byrne’s Star Trek comics are still maybe the best Trek stories since The Wrath of Khan – this week seemed dominated by disappointing and downright bad comics. So much so that it makes me wonder, “Do I really still love this medium?” Well sure I do, but they can’t all be winners. And sometimes you end up – somewhat to your surprise – with a big bucket of losers.

  • Batman: The Return of Bruce Wayne #1 of 6, by Grant Morrison, Chris Sprouse & Karl Story (DC)
  • Booster Gold #32, by Keith Giffen, J.M. DeMatteis, Chris Batista & Rich Perrotta (DC)
  • Fables #95, by Bill Willingham, Mark Buckingham & Steve Leialoha (DC/Vertigo)
  • First Wave #2 of 6, by Brian Azzarello & Rags Morales (DC)
  • The Flash #2, by Geoff Johns & Francis Manapul (DC)
  • The Unwritten #13, by Mike Carey & Peter Gross (DC/Vertigo)
  • Astonishing X-Men: Xenogenesis #1 of 5, by Warren Ellis & Kaare Andrews (Marvel)
  • The Marvels Project #8 of 8, by Ed Brubaker & Steve Epting (Marvel)
  • B.P.R.D.: King of Fear #5 of 5, by Mike Mignola, John Arcudi & Guy Davis (Dark Horse)
  • Star Trek: Leonard McCoy, Frontier Doctor #2 of 5, by John Byrne (IDW)
I’ve been pretty harsh on Grant Morrison’s comics over the last couple of years – Final Crisis in particular was nearly-pure drek – but The Return of Bruce Wayne, despite its bizarre conceit, is actually pretty good. The idea is that rather than being killed by Darkseid in Final Crisis, Batman was instead thrown into the past and – as we recently learned in Batman and Robin – has been somehow fighting his way back to the present. Now we see what he’s been up to, as in this issue he lands in the era of the cavemen where he falls in with a friendly tribe, and then avenges them after Vandal Savage’s evil tribe all-but-eliminates them. Then he mysteriously disappears into a body of water, just before Superman and others show up to try to save him (as I guess we’ll see in an upcoming Dan Jurgens mini-series), saying that if Batman makes it back to the 21st century on his own then “everyone dies”. And the issue ends with Wayne arriving in what appears to be Puritan England or America (though it’s hard to be sure).

Although vaguely evocative of some 1950s Batman time travel story, this is otherwise about as un-Batman-like a story as you can imagine, other than the fight with Savage, which is the highlight of the issue. It doesn’t really make a whole lot more sense than those old stories (in which Batman and Robin would travel through time or – if I recall correctly – to other worlds through hypnosis), as Wayne and the cavemen vaguely communicating through language makes no sense at all, nor (of course) does Batman disappearing through time, or various other details of the story. (It actually would have been pretty cool has Wayne become immortal by being exposed to the same meteor which made Savage immortal, and just living his way to the present, but that would have presented different problems.) But as a light adventure story it’s enjoyable enough. I think Morrison is once again being too clever by half to make it more deeply satisfying, though.

Much of the credit for the story’s success has to go to the always-outstanding Chris Sprouse on pencils. Sprouse has taken many a flawed story and made it enjoyable through the sheer strength of his artwork (Alan Moore’s Tom Strong, Warren Ellis’ WildC.A.T.s vs. Aliens), and I’d love to see him do more regular work or at least get paired with a first-rate story so he can shine even brighter. Someday, perhaps.

The Return of Bruce Wayne certainly isn’t a home run, but it’s got me intrigued, to see if Morrison can end up overcoming the weaknesses in the premise.

When I heard Keith Giffen was taking over writing Booster Gold, I’d had visions of him writing serious, weighty, dramatic material like he did for the excellent Marvel series Annihilation. I didn’t realize he was bringing J.M. DeMatteis and the execrable attitude of the awful Justice League International along with him. Yes, it’s just one stupid gag after another, wrapped up in a story of death and destruction as Booster goes to the 30th century to rescue an artifact from the planet Daxam just after Darkseid has turned all Daxamites into Superman-level killers near the end of the Great Darkness War.

At least they’re honest in the opening credits:

Have pity on poor Dan Jurgens, because Keith Giffen & J.M. DeMatteis are back — ready to soul his cherished creation, just like they did back in the 80s! […] Dan Didio & Jim Lee should really know better.

Yes, they really should. This is an awful, tasteless story of bathroom humor (literally) while people are being massacred, and there’s nothing remotely funny about it. There’s a particularly macabre moment when Booster realizes that in flying off to deal with one threat, he’s left the people under his protection fatally vulnerable to another one – a moment of pathos which might have been effective if the rest of the issue hadn’t been such a piece of trash.

31 issues of pretty good stories, and these clowns destroyed everything it built up in a single issue. I’m so out of here after reading this.

I wasn’t a fan of the first issue of The Flash and I’m even less impressed with issue #2. While the notion of cops from the future coming back to arrest Flash before he commits a murder, the rest of the issue is not good. Starting with the scene in which Flash builds an entire apartment building in a couple of minutes after reading everything about construction from the library, which, okay, I suppose he could do, but it begs the question of why he doesn’t do this sort of thing all the time, indeed, if he’s that fast, why anyone poses much of a challenge for him in the first place.

Francis Manapul’s artwork seems even more sketchy and cartoony than in the first issue, especially the random civilian characters. I don’t find it attractive in the least.

I think I can only take another month or two of this unless it gets markedly better. I hope the current story wraps up by then.

(And wow, I often disagree with Chris Sims when it comes to comics, but I don’t think I could’ve been further from his opinion on this one.)

Did I mention there were plenty of awful comics this month? Astonishing X-Men: Xenogenesis is the third of Warren Ellis’ X-Men stories. Story-wise, it’s off to a weak start: Babies being born in a section of Africa are showing signs of being mutants right after birth, so the X-Men head off to check it out. That’s pretty much all that happens: The issue is otherwise just an excuse for mildly amusing banter among the heroes. This team of X-Men (Cyclops, Emma Frost the White Wueen, the Beast, Wolverine, Storm, and the young Armor) are interesting because almost all of them are adult, experienced, and have known each other for a long time, so they know each other’s foibles and quirks. Emma’s schtick mostly seems to be that she’s a bitch, but everyone else basically respects one another. Yet despite this, the banter is pretty superficial, and mostly seems to revolve around Emma (whom Cyclops has been sleeping with since Jean Grey died). Ellis’ snark can be pretty funny, but it doesn’t work here.

I’ve seen little of Kaare Andrews’ art before, and what I see here isn’t my cup of tea: Exaggerated figures, ugly faces, minimal backgrounds, and facial expressions that run from scowling to grimacing. His covers for the next two issues have taken some hits in the comics blogging community, but the cover to this one is no great shakes either: Not only is Emma’s pose utterly ridiculous (and grotesque – and there are plenty more shots of her exaggerated breasts inside the book), but none of the figures are interacting in any way, even to get out of each other’s ways; it looks like they were drawn separately and then pasted into a single frame.

If this is indicative of the whole series, I’m not sure I’ll be able to make it through to the end.

I’ve become a big-time convert to Ed Brubaker’s comics lately (I’ve just read a big chunk of his Captain America run this past week, and it’s terrific), but The Marvels Project, which wraps up this month, isn’t one of his best works. The title suggests it’s related to Kurt Busiek & Alex Ross’ seminal series Marvels, but it’s only tangentially related, covering the rise of Marvel superheroes in the early 1940s, up to the formation of the Invaders. There’s a framing sequence in the present day, the memories of one of the minor heroes of the era, which at first suggested there would be some sort of event the character’s memories would uncover, a greater purpose to the story, but it’s really just another secret history of those times.

The story’s well-told, and Steve Epting’s art is excellent, as it always is, but there’s nothing new here. It felt like a basically unnecessary series.

B.P.R.D. has been a long-running independent series, spinning out of Hellboy, where the Bureau for Paranormal Research and Defense tries to defend the world against, well, paranormal threats, particularly the ongoing plague of giant frog-men around the world, dating back to the first Hellboy story. Sameness set in on this series several years ago, and I’d just about given up caring, but there were indications that the series was heading to a definitive conclusion, and eventually a statement that King of Fear would wrap up the frog-men storyline.

So here we are, and it’s certainly not been worth the wait.

Honestly I have a hard time summing up what exactly has happened in the last few series, or even in this one. A couple of races of monsters have teamed up to try to conquer the world, a 19th-century occultist claimed that pyromancer Liz Sherman was crucial to saving the world, and the team ran into the accumulated forces facing them in this series… and then it all came to an end, in some way I can’t quite figure out.

King of Fear opens with Abe Sapien, Liz Sherman and the crew preparing to assault the frogs, while Kate Corrigan heads to Austria to save the spirit of their teammate Johann Kraus, and free the spirit of the adventurer Lobster Johnson. In the second issue, Abe, Liz & company descend into the Earth, while Johann comes back to his ectoplasmic suit. Liz disappears, and in the third issue we see that she’s being given a vision of the future where the demonic forces have won and destroyed humanity, including her friends. Abe and company are captured by the allied forces of monsters, apparently being led by the dark entity from The Black Flame, who claims that in fact Abe is the spearhead of the forces which will take over the world. In the fourth issue, the entity suggests Abe is related to the frog-men, while Liz in her vision unleashes her flame, apparently destroying everything in the underground network where the rest of her team is.

Somehow, though, the heroes survive and are convalescing in the final issue, while the director of the Bureau, and Kate and Johann are being grilled by the United Nations. Its not clear how everyone else survived while all the bad guys were destroyed by Liz. Ultimately the UN re-ups the Bureau’s funding, and the issue ends with hints of future threats they’ll face.

Honestly, when I read the final issue I felt like I’d missed an issue, but I went and pulled out the first four, and I didn’t. Liz apparently just killed all the monsters, left her friends still alive, and disappeared from them. It’s about as far from as satisfying ending to 8 years worth of comics as I can imagine. Frankly, I feel kind of ripped off. But I guess it’s my own fault for ignoring my suspicions these last couple of years that the story really wasn’t going to go anywhere.

B.P.R.D.‘s basic problem has been that the storylines haven’t really carried any weight or really had any resolution or catharsis to them, so they just keep going on and on, and the characters don’t really change or develop (they just come and go). There’s just not much point to it, and it lacks the strong character, never mind the wit and excitement, of Hellboy himself. Neither any single character, nor the characters all together, can really carry B.P.R.D.. There are occasionally some nice moments, but as a whole it’s just kind of pointless and unsatisfying.

I’ve also been reading Sandman Mystery Theatre as it comes out in paperback collections, and like B.P.R.D. it is (mostly) drawn by Guy Davis. While Davis’ art took a while to grow on me (mainly because his characters mostly look a little dumpy and all tend to have large noses), it eventually won me over in SMT, largely because of the detail in his period work, and the fact that most of the Sandman characters are supposed to look like ordinary schmoes. Unfortunately his work hasn’t won me over on B.P.R.D., where his layouts and finishes all seem much more simplistic, his characters more cartoony, with faces that look squashed. It just didn’t work for me, and didn’t help elevate the story above its level.

So this is it for me with B.P.R.D., though I’ll probably stick with Hellboy for a bit longer (though it’s been no great shakes, either). B.P.R.D. always felt like it had potential for something cool to be right around the corner, but it never really delivered (save for the two side-stories 1946 and 1947, which really aren’t part of the regular series). Quite a shame, really.

This Week’s Haul

  • Booster Gold #14, by Rick Remender, Pat Olliffe & Jerry Ordway (DC)
  • Fables #78, by Bill Willingham, Mark Buckingham & Steve Leialoha (DC/Vertigo)
  • Justice Society of America: Kingdom Come Special: Superman #1, by Alex Ross (DC)
  • Fire & Brimstone #3 of 5, by Richard Moore (Antarctic)
  • B.P.R.D.: The Warning #5 of 5, by Mike Mignola, John Arcudi & Guy Davis (Dark Horse)
Fables #78 Wow, after a couple issues of adjustment, Fables is hitting the ground running in its post-Adversary storyline. A couple of treasure-hunters in the homelands free what looks like a Really Bad Man aims to cause big trouble for our heroes. Geppetto is still holier-than-thou, and he maybe has some justification. And something really bad happens to a good guy, while something really good happens to a bad girl (and that ain’t good for the good guys). Things could get out of hand quickly for our heroes, and I think that’s the point: They’re heading into uncharted waters against opponents they don’t know much about, one of whom they don’t even know exists.

Willingham’s usual modus operandi as a writer involves characters making careful plans and then navigating the difficulties in executing them. It looks like he’s preparing for a sequence of sheer carnage and mayhem, and I’m very interested in seeing how it plays out. And, frankly, a little nervous, because I foresee things going very, very badly for some of our heroes – and that this makes me nervous is a sign of good writing.

Justice Society of America: Kingdom Come Special: Superman #1 Alex Ross flies solo on this Justice Society tie-in, focusing on the Superman from Kingdom Come. The issue is mainly an exploration of Superman’s feelings and regrets in the wake of the death of his wife and friends on his own world, and it’s quite well-done. Arguably it doesn’t really provide a lot more information than we received in Kingdom Come, but it does provide some depth and nuance, and humanizes the Man of Steel from the parallel world some. The most touching moments are when he tells this world’s Lois Lane what happened on his world, and how it changed him.

The important detail regarding the ongoing JSA story is the revelation that Superman was sent to this Earth when the bomb was dropped on the warring superheroes. This occurs near the end of Kingdom Come, but it’s still before the end. That suggests that Superman’s presence here is part of his redemption at the end of that story, and it also explains his anger in JSA since he hasn’t gone through the crucial experiences in the final pages of that story.

Well, either that, or Ross and Geoff Johns are just messin’ with us. (That would suck.)

The book has an afterword in which Ross describes his process of illustrating the book, which is not painted like his usual work. It’s fairly interesting, although somehow seeing how extensively he uses photographic models takes some of the magic out of his otherwise wonderful artwork.

I’ve given Ross a rough time in my reviews of many of his recent projects, but this one is solid. I wish all his work was this good. Heck, I wish JSA was this good, as character bits like this have been almost entirely absent from that series (a problem I’ve had with it ever since the previous volume was launched back in 1999).

B.P.R.D.: The Warning #5 The latest B.P.R.D. mini-series comes to an end, and although some of the pieces have moved around (there’s a new villain – who might be a hero, but his methods are questionable; Liz Sherman has disappeared; monsters are allying with each other and have decimated Munich), I’m still wondering where it’s all going. It’s been years and it doesn’t feel like we’re getting anywhere.

I know, I’m sung this song before, and anyone who’s been reading me long enough is probably wondering why I keep reading the series. I wonder that myself; every time I decide to give up I figure if I just read one more mini-series, then the answers and resolutions will start coming. Sometimes I read one more series and it’s just good enough to make me curious what happens next. But ultimately I keep being disappointed: I honestly can’t tell whether the plot has really progressed over the last couple of years.

Maybe it is time for me to quit.

This Week’s Haul

  • Booster Gold #5, by Geoff Johns, Jeff Katz, Dan Jurgens & Norm Rapmund (DC)
  • Countdown to Infinite Crisis #20 of 52 (backwards), by Paul Dini, Adam Beechen, Keith Giffen, Howard Porter & Art Thibert (DC)
  • Fables #68, by Bill Willingham, Mark Buckingham & Steve Leialoha (DC/Vertigo)
  • Salvation Run #2 of 7, by Bill Willingham, Sean Chen & Walden Wong (DC)
  • Suicide Squad: Raise the Flag #4 of 8, by John Ostrander, Javier Pina & Robin Riggs (DC)
  • Fantastic Four #552, by Dwayne McDuffie, Paul Pelletier & Rick Magyar (Marvel)
  • Nova #9, by Dan Abnett, Andy Lanning, Wellington Alves, Wellington Diaz & Nelson Pereira (Marvel)
  • B.P.R.D.: Killing Ground #5 of 5, by Mike Mignola, John Arcudi & Guy Davis (Dark Horse)
  • The Boys #13, by Garth Ennis, Darick Robertson & Peter Snejbjerg (Dynamite)
Salvation Run #2 The weird thing about Salvation Run #2 is that it features almost none of the same characters who headlined issue #1, which is to say that the Flash’s rogues gallery is shoved to the side in favor of, first, a group of truly marginal villains trying to survive in the alien world to which they’ve been exiled, and second, the Joker and another heavyweight villain who arrives at the end of the issue.

Willingham goes all-out with the brutality here, with minor characters being gruesomely mauled, and showing that the Joker – whom you’d think wouldn’t be in a great position to survive on an alien jungle world inasmuch as he has no super-powers and mainly relies on lurking in the shadows – can adapt with the best of them even among this group of psychopaths. Unfortunately, as much as I like Sean Chen’s artwork, I don’t think he draw a great Joker, and this is especially brought home by Dan Jurgens’ rendition in Booster Gold this same week.

We also get to see what a bunch of bastards the current Suicide Squad are, which seems like a rather simplistic reading of John Ostrander’s nuanced portrayal in Suicide Squad, which also came out this week.

In other words, it seems like Willingham is phoning in the script for this one, as it relies mainly on being shocking and bloody and not much else. So – as the saying goes – if you like this sort of thing, then this is the sort of thing you’ll like. Personally, I’m disappointed.

Suicide Squad: Raise the Flag #4 When you’re Grant Morrison you can get away with outlandish things in the mainstream DC Universe, such as taking the brain of General Wade Eiling – one of the main supporting characters in the 80s series Captain Atom – and planting it in the body of the indestructible construct The Shaggy Man.

But when you’re John Ostrander, you can go Morrison one better and integrate this idea into your own series, which is what we see in Suicide Squad #4, as Amanda Waller assembles a new Squad and recruits Eiling into it, despite the risks he presents. He also reestablishes the relationship of two of the main characters from the original series, even though one of them is the son of the original one.

Ostrander actually reminds me a lot of Bill Willingham as a writer, in that both of them take very calculated approaches to plotting their stories, and both can be cold and brutal in presenting the ramifications of their characters’ actions. I think Ostrander at his best is a slightly better writer, though, because I think his skill at characterization is deeper: Even his villains have the redeeming or likeable or sympathetic points (unless Ostrander clearly doesn’t want them to, a trait he reserves for only a few characters). And Suicide Squad is Ostrander near his best. Not only does it make me hope this mini-series spawns a new ongoing series after it, it makes me want to pick up the first series and re-read it.

The artwork by Javier Pina and Robin Riggs is also excellent, although Pina doesn’t quite have the flair for facial expressions to make the art really shine. He handles the fantastic visuals and the action scene just fine, though, and you can’t always have everything. Also, Riggs is a much better inker for Pina than the inkers he had on Manhunter, with a much smoother line which enhances Pina’s elegant layouts.

This is a really good series, and I still have no idea what the last 4 issues will be about. But it’s so good despite its unorthodox set-up that I expect it will be terrific whatever it is.

Nova #9 Nova #9 concludes Nova’s adventure fighting zombies in the severed head of a Celestial beyond the edge of the universe – a premise made for Chris Sims. There’s a lot to like here: Wellington Alves might not be quite as good an artist as his predecessor, Sean Chen, but he’s not far off, and he seems to be influenced by Stuart Immonen’s style, which is also a good thing. And Nova uses the tools at his disposal to deal with the zombie threat in a clever manner, and he heads off on his next adventure with some new allies behind him, and an old thread following him.

Some elements of the issue left me scratching my head, though: The zombie battle ended with a lack of closure regarding the central threat or the alien heroes he took over. It felt conceptually messy a threat with little reason for being, and Nova at its best (especially the first three issues) has been heavy on exploring reason or the lack thereof for things the hero encounters.

The issue also ends with a sort of crossroads for the series’ direction: Nova is still infested by the Phalanx technovirus, as are some of his former allies. Knowhere seems like a handy location for Nova to try to recreate the Nova Corps (which were destroyed – other than our hero – in the first Annihilation series). 9 issues in, I think it’s time for the series to establish its direction, or risk being the directionless muddle that Ms. Marvel became.

To be fair, the Annihilation Conquest issues (#4-7) were basically a distraction from the overall series, so I’ll be patient and see if Abnett and Lanning get the series back on solid ground. But I usually expect that after a year a series will be delivering on its promise. Nova started with plenty of promise, and by that measure it has 3 issues to start delivering.

B.P.R.D.: Killing Ground #5 I’m running out of interest in the B.P.R.D. series of mini-series. This latest series was a set-up to reveal something about one of the main characters, but all of the interesting stuff happened in the last issues. The first four issues could easily have been compressed into a single issue. And then this last issue has a dangling ending – which won’t be picked up in the next mini-series, since that one takes place in the 1940s. So we’ll have to wait ’til the middle of 2008 for more progress on the main story.

B.P.R.D. is a perfect example of “uncompressed” storytelling: It lingers over details, presumably to build up suspense (it is a horror title, after all), but mostly it just feels slow. And since it’s a series of mini-series, it’s rare that anything important to the central story gets resolved. And honestly the individual stories are not very memorable; they’ve started to all feel rather the same.

So why have I been buying it for so long? Well, I knew after the first couple of series that it was going to be a long-haul story, but without having any idea how long the haul would be, I figured I’d keep reading and see where it was going. But there’s no sign that it’ll come to a conclusion any time soon, and I’m running out of interest.

Hellboy started off with a big bang, and as a series of individual stories each of which was inventive and weighty-feeling on its own. But Mike Mignola’s horror franchise has ended up as a very even-tempered series of undistinguished series which feel increasingly undistinguished. I don’t know whether publishing so many issues so regularly has diluted Mignola’s energy and creativity, or if he’s just not as interested in series he’s not drawing himself. Or maybe Hellboy and B.P.R.D. have just run their course.

But at this point I’m mainly buying the franchise on inertia. I’ve certainly done this many times before with other series, but once I realize that I’m doing it, that’s usually a harbinger of the end of the line for me.

This Week’s Haul

Actually, two weeks’ worth, since I was away last week:

The Team-Ups volume are really for hard-core Justice Society fans only, really. That said, one of the Atom stories herein is a longtime favorite of mine: Ray Palmer starts aging backwards and Al Pratt has to save him. As Gardner Fox gimmick stories go, it’s pretty good. It’s also interesting that many of these stories are treated as just one more adventure for our heroes, and not the “event” comics that JLA/JSA team-ups would later become.

Wonder Woman #4 ended with a cliffhanger, leading into the final part of the “Who Is Wonder Woman?” story. But #5 doesn’t complete the story, it was released with different content than originally solicited, and the conclusion will appear “at some later date”. The story that actually shipped is a pretty mediocre piece about the impact Wonder Woman has on the world around her, beyond her material deeds. It basically explores in depth what Kurt Busiek simply implies with his Winged Victory character in Astro City, but doesn’t really say anything more. So, shrug.

Fantastic Four: The End concludes the ho-hum series by writer/artist Alan Davis. He sort-of brings a science fictional sensibility to the FF in the future, but it’s really just a standard superhero yarn.

Athena Voltaire #2 actually shipped some time ago, but my shop didn’t get a copy for some reason. So they ordered me one and it arrived this week. Now I can catch up…

Captain Clockwork is a little black-and-white book by Glenn Whitmore about four generations of heroes named Captain Clockwork, who work to save chronology from the 1930 to the 2010s. Whitmore’s plotting and dialog is a little shaky, but his art – though not very detailed – is clean and polished. There’s some promise here, but I don’t think I’m up for “yet another superhero book”. Future installments will need to indicate that they’re going somewhere for me to keep buying. (The web site has a preview from this issue.)

In many ways I enjoy B.P.R.D., but the story has been going on for an awful long time, and with no end in sight. I’d like them to wrap up Abe Sapien’s background and deal with… heck, I can’t even remember exactly what the ongoing threat they’re dealing with is. Or else I’m getting close to losing interest.

Boneyard wraps up their current story with an adorable ending. What a great comic book series.

Evil Inc. is a graphic novel assembled from the first year of the popular webcomic about a corporation run by supervillains. It’s entertaining, maybe even better read in collected form than serially, although I kind of wish it were a more straightforward collection. Apparently there’s already a second volume, but I don’t think it’s yet been solicited through Diamond Comics’ Previews catalog.