This Week’s Haul

  • Final Crisis #2 of 7, by Grant Morrison & J.G. Jones (DC)
  • Madame Xanadu #1, by Matt Wagner & Amy Reeder Hadley (DC/Vertigo)
  • Hulk #4, by Jeph Loeb Ed McGuinness & Dexter Vines (Marvel)
  • Fire and Brimstone #1 of 3 (?), by Richard Moore (Antarctic)
  • The Clockwork Girl #4 of 4, by Sean O’Reilly, Kevin Hanna & Grant Bond (Arcana)
  • B.P.R.D.: The Ectoplasmic Man, by Mike Mignola, John Arcudi & Ben Stenbeck (Dark Horse)
  • Project Superpowers #4 of 6, by Alex Ross, Jim Krueger & Carlos Paul (Dynamite)
Final Crisis #2 Final Crisis #2 is getting some great reviews in the blogosphere. Which just goes to show how much tastes differ, since two issues in I’m pretty well bored with the series. Certainly the book being grounded in Jack Kirby’s Fourth World characters doesn’t help, since as I’ve said before I’ve never found them interesting, and this story has all the hallmarks of yet another scheme by Darkseid.

This issue opens with a tedious sequence in Japan, which nearly put me to sleep during the montage on pages 2 and 3. The rest of the scene felt like a warmed-over scene from one of Warren Ellis’ Stormwatch issues, truly a scene where it felt like Morrison was phoning it in, yet other bloggers enjoyed the scene immensely. This is followed by a series of 1- or 2-page scenes: Terrible Turpin on the trail of some missing kids, a completely pointless triptich page with the JLA at the funeral of the comrade who was killed in issue #1, the villain Libra trying to persuade other villains to join him, and concocting his next scheme.

Then we get to the other extended sequence, in which the JLA, Green Lanterns and an Alpha Lantern investigate the death of the New God Orion, in which the murderer is suggested (using the clichéd “You think you know who it is but their face is obscured you you can’t be sure” mechanism), followed by an encounter between Batman and the apparent link to Darkseid which goes badly for Bats. This sequence would be the high point of the issue if the Darkseid element hadn’t intruded on it, making me lose interest all over again. This leads into another Turpin scene in which he ends up at the villains’ base, which ties the Darkseid threads together, and then a scene with the execution of Libra’s new scheme.

The final scene involves the Flashes (Jay Garrick and Wally West) investigating a clue in Orion’s murder, which leads into the issue’s big reveal and cliffhanger, although one that’s been well-known on the Web for weeks. Unfortunately the natural reaction to this for anyone who’s read many DC comics over the last 15 years is, “What, this again???” A big shrug is in order at this point, along with the thought that there are only 5 issues left, which might be 3 too many.

Final Crisis so far could be summed up as “big ideas writ small”; it’s Morrison taking his “big threats for big heroes” approach to writing JLA and shrinking them down, sucking the drama and excitement and fun out of them, and sprinkling them in small scenes to rob them of any remaining sense of wonder they might have. Artist J.G. Jones is quite good, but his strength are his character renderings, which are far more suitable for a character-and-dialogue-driven book, not a superhero “event” series, which makes the book have a subdued look to go along with its low-impact story.

I can’t figure out what DC Editorial or Grant Morrison were thinking in putting this together. It seems like the best-case scenario for Final Crisis is that the first two issues turn out to be largely superfluous and that the series heads off in some different, more exciting direction for the last 5 issues. But so far this series is making its predecessor Infinite Crisis look like a well-written, well-considered landmark event. It’s bad stuff.

Madame Xanadu #1 Madame Xanadu is the new Vertigo title, whose heroine is an obscure DC character. I picked it up mainly because Matt Wagner is writing it, and because the art by Amy Reeder Hadley looks pretty nifty. I’d expected it would cover some of her backstory but otherwise work with the character in the present day and move her story (whatever it is) forward. However, the whole issue concerns the character’s earliest origins, in which she’s a figure in the King Arthur stories. It’s not a bad story, and the art is quite nice, but these days stories focusing on looking backwards at a character’s past don’t really interest me (I skip Wagner’s Grendel stories featuring the Hunter Rose character for much the same reason). So if that’s all this series is going to be, I’m not going to stick with it for long.
Fire and Brimstone #1 Fire and Brimstone is the new series by Richard Moore, who I guess is taking a break from Boneyard. The premise is that there’s an angel-and-devil due who have been tasked with bringing back to hell a host of demons they inadvertently released into the world millennia ago. Basically, a supernatural odd couple. Moore’s art is spot-on as always, and he’s always a charming writer, but this first issue feels like fluff. Amusing, but lacking the weight of Boneyard or his earlier series, Far West. But maybe Moore will surprise me with the rest of the series.
The Clockwork Girl #4 I was pretty enthusiastic about The Clockwork Girl when it started, but it ended up being much lighter than I’d expected. It focused far more on Huxley the “animal boy” than it did on Tesla the clockwork girl. The concluding issue of the mini-series features a clichéd life-threatening situation, a noble sacrifice, and an improbable reconciliation between the two main characters’ creators. It felt like a mid-grade Disney film, actually. I guess the book is really aimed at kids, and I can see that they might enjoy it, but it didn’t deliver much nuance for adult readers.

Really nice artwork by Grand Bond and Kevin Hanna, though.

This Week’s Haul

  • Action Comics #865, by Geoff Johns & Jesus Moreno (DC)
  • All-Star Superman #11, by Grant Morrison & Frank Quitely (DC)
  • Final Crisis #1 of 7, by Grant Morrison & J.G. Jones (DC)
  • Fables #73, by Bill Willingham, Mark Buckingham & Steve Leialoha (DC/Vertigo)
  • Legion of Super-Heroes #42, by Jim Shooter, Francis Manapul & Livesay (DC)
  • Starman Omnibus vol 1 HC, by James Robinson, Tony Harris & Wade Con Grawbadger and others (DC)
  • Thor #9, by J. Michael Straczynski, Oliver Coipel & Mark Morales (Marvel)
Final Crisis #1 I have a post languishing in my FP drafts which partly has the theme that “Grant Morrison’s writing isn’t all that” (I later published it here). Still, Morrison is one of the hottest writers in comics today, so it’s not surprising that DC tapped him to write their big event mini-series of 2008, Final Crisis. In theory, it’s the culmination of several years worth of storylines, from Identity Crisis and Infinite Crisis through Countdown to Final Crisis and its attendant spin-offs.

The days when event mini-series could be more than a cynical corporate-driven production seem to be far behind us, and Final Crisis #1 seems to demonstrate this. The issue is a series of vignettes setting up the larger story – a tried-and-true but overused device. But the story seems completely disconnected from what was purportedly the set-up for this very series: A group of villains have a sinister gathering, but with no apparent reference to Salvation Run (whose final issue hasn’t shipped yet). A New God is found dead on Earth, but there’s no reference to Death of the New Gods, even though Superman was a key player in that story and he’s present here. And it can’t be that this sequence is a flashback, because the dead New God is a key player in Death. There’s a scene with the Monitors which feels at odds with Countdown, and another with Terrible Turpin which also seems in conflict with Death of the New Gods. (Graeme McMillan has noticed all this, too.)

So either Morrison is playing a deep game – and I wouldn’t put it past him, because he can be a crafty writer, albeit sometimes too crafty for his own good – or he’s pretty much ignoring all the set-up, either for his own purposes, or because DC editorial decided to cut their losses on the Countdown and make Final Crisis stand on its own. Which isn’t a bad idea given how ineptly plotted Countdown was, but it makes for a bizarre read.

Anyway, it’s far too early to tell whether all of this is going anywhere at all, because this is just the tip of the beginning of a story. “In medias res” seems like a lost concept in mainstream comics these days.

J.G. Jones’ artwork is good, although I wasn’t bowled over it like Valerie D’Orazio was. I found his layouts to be very stiff, and his finishes a little too slick. Tony Harris is the master of this quasi-photo-realistic style of comics art, and it’s extremely hard to pull off. I think Jones’ art here would have been better if he’d let a little Kirby dynamism (or even Sekowski quirkiness) creep into his layouts.

In sum, is it a good start? Well, it would be if I wasn’t so cynical about the whole thing, which seems like little more than an endeavor to separate customers from their money more than anything else. It wouldn’t surprise me if, two years from now, Final Crisis proved to be as forgettable as both Identity Crisis and Infinite Crisis are today.

Starman omnibus volume 1 James Robinson’s Starman was one of the best comics series of the 1990s. In fact, I’ve found that people who liked Neil Gaiman’s Sandman often also enjoyed Starman. Oddly, although most of Starman has been collected in trade paperbacks, there were a few stray issues which were never collected. But the answer to that problem has arrived in the form of the Starman omnibus series, which apparently will collect the entire 80-issue series, plus annuals, crossovers and other major appearances of the character, in six high-quality hardcover volumes. This first volume collects the first 18 issues, which fully establishes the main character and his world.

Starman was originally a golden age superhero, Ted Knight, who invented a “gravity rod” which gave him powers somewhat similar to Green Lantern’s, later refined to a “cosmic rod”. In Robinson’s “alternate world” graphic novel, The Golden Age (also well worth reading), he portrayed Knight as having become mentally unstable after he saw that his contributions to physics helped create the atom bomb. Robinson retained that element for the in-continuity series, and also revealed that he’d gotten married and had two children, Jack and David. Jack was a rebel and wanted to tread his own path, completely separate from his father’s career, while David was all-too-happy to take on the mantle of Starman when Ted retired.

Unfortunately David’s career lasted only a couple of adventures, and this volume opens with David being killed as the opening gambit of a crime wave masterminded by Ted’s old nemesis, the Mist. Reluctantly, Jack employs his father’s cosmic rod to stop the bad guys, eventually ending up with a distinctive staff, and eschewing the usual superhero costume in favor of a leather jacket and stylish goggles, with no secret identity. Along the way he gathers his own arch-enemy in the form of the Mist’s daughter, Nash.

Starman is the very best sort of continuity-laden story: Rather than expecting you to know about the character’s background or have read about all the other figures who populate the book, Robinson simply draws together the interesting figures with their own unique histories and employs them as he would supporting characters in any other story. He explains their stories where appropriate, and completely ignores them where they’re not relevant. It’s truly a novel (or series of novels) which just happens to feature characters who have also appeared elsewhere.

The reason all this works so well is that fundamentally Starman is about family and friendships. Jack comes to appreciate and love his father, and his father comes to understand Jack’s need for a distinctive identity. Robinson brings back three other characters who have had the name Starman, turning one of them – a blue-skinned alien named Mikaal – into one of Jack’s closest friends. He creates a fictional setting, Opal City, in which Starman is a valued protector and hero, and whose police force befriends and supports Jack not just for his father’s sake, but in his own right. And Robinson especially has fun with the villains who aren’t really villains, taking pains to examine the motivations of what makes these people do bad things. Some of them are simply insane or avaricious, of course, but his most complex character, the Shade, is sometimes a villain and sometimes a hero and has his own deep motivations and feelings about what he does. The Shade stories are among the best episodes of the series. And there are many other characters who appear later in the series, too.

This theme of family and friendship is one thing that makes Starman similar to Sandman. Also like Gaiman, Robinson has an ear for realistic dialogue, especially for people thrown into the fantastic situations both series naturally feature. (People often praise Brian Michael Bendis’ ear for dialogue in the same way; I find Bendis’ dialogue to sound extremely stilted and unnatural, about as far removed in its way from Gaiman and Robinson as that written by Stan Lee.) Also like Sandman Starman took about a year to really find its footing and feel confident and consistent, and it also has stretches in the middle where it drags on. Nonetheless, it’s every bit the equal of Gaiman’s masterpiece, while remaining a unique voice in its own right.

The first half of the series was illustrated by Tony Harris, whom I mentioned in the Final Crisis piece above. This is some of Harris’ early work, and the first story arc feels rather unpolished, further held back by some very flat and unsympathetic coloring. But the “Talking With David” episode in the middle of the volume shows Harris making a quantum leap in his style and rendering, and by the end of the book the art looks basically the way I remembered it; his growth as an artist is that significant. Harris is such a distinct artist that I don’t really know how great an effect his inker, Wad Von Grawbadger, has on his style. I think Harris is such a strong artist that few inkers could really affect his style in a significant way.

In sum, this is an excellent series which I highly recommend if you haven’t read it before. At 50 bucks a pop this omnibus set will not be a cheap way to read it, but you will get the whole story in a high-quality package. I’m personally going to enjoy the whole thing.

This Week’s Haul

  • DC Universe 0, by Grant Morrison, Geoff Johns, George Pérez, Doug Mahnke, Tony Daniel, Ivan Reis, Aaron Lopresti, Philip Tan, Ed Benes, Carlos Pacheco, J.G. Jones, Scott Koblish, Christian Alamy, Oclair Albert, Matt Ryan, Jeff de los Santos & Jesus Merino (DC)
  • Action Comics #864, by Geoff Johns, Joe Prado & Jon Sibal (DC)
  • Legion of Super-Heroes #41, by Jim Shooter, Aaron Lopresti & Matt Ryan (DC)
  • Ex Machina #36, by Brian K. Vaughan, Tony Harris & Jim Clark (DC/Wildstorm)
  • Glamourpuss #1, by Dave Sim (Aardvark-Vanaheim)
DC Universe 0 DC Universe 0 is the prologue to the upcoming Final Crisis, and is – sorta – the bridge from Countdown to that series. But I think Valerie D’Orazio is right when she says it’s really an ad: It’s a 50-cent advertisement for upcoming storylines in the DC universe, such as Final Crisis, “Batman R.I.P.”, and stuff I care about even less (and honestly my level of caring about those two stories isn’t very high).

This comic is basically a series of vignettes each illustrated by a different art team, with a disembodied narrator sorta tying it all together (but not really). So there’s not really a story here, just the hints of several different stories. The art is generally strong, but of course it changes every few pages. The overarching portent is that evil is somehow on the verge of winning the day over good, a notion which hearkens back to Alan Moore’s run on Swamp Thing, but which is too abstract to have any meaning to me as a reader.

Overall this issue feels completely unnecessary. In years gone by, other writers might have managed to cover this ground in 2 or 3 pages, but DC seems bent on drawing things out as long as possible these days. So we end up with stuff like this, which seems destined for the recycle bin.

Action Comics #864 Despite its problems, I enjoyed “Superman and the Legion of Super-Heroes” enough to keep buying Action Comics for a little while, although promos for upcoming issues make me worry that it’s going to be one big event after another, which will probably drive me away.

Anyway, this issue is also a sort of introduction to Final Crisis, specifically a lead-in to the Legion of Three Worlds mini-series, which intrigues me since I’m a longtime Legion fan, having read all three of the Legions which will be involved in that series. This issue opens with Batman visiting Superman’s Fortress, where Superman is talking with Lightning Man from the Legion, reminiscing about old times. Batman and Lightning Lad get on like oil and water, especially once the bodies of two Legionnaires – who were killed in Countdown – turn up. We also briefly visit with the JSA’s Starman, who’s also a former Legionnaire.

The more I read of Geoff Johns’ writing, the more it seems like its hallmark is putting in as many nifty ideas as he can come up with – especially of the “mining DC’s past” variety – but not really plumbing any of them in depth. Mark Waid went further with the “Batman and the Legion of Super-Heroes” idea in one issue of The Brave and the Bold than Johns does here. Really, one could probably do a good 6-issue story with such an idea. So this issue ends up feeling like no less an advertisement for an upcoming series than did DC Universe 0, which is too bad, because even as a bridge between two Superman arcs, this could have been a much more insightful story than it was.

It was better than DC Universe 0, though, if for no other reason than the scene in which Lightning Man wonders aloud how Batman would have turned out had the Legion contacted him in addition to Superman back when they were teenagers.

Glamourpuss #1 For those who don’t know, Dave Sim is the creator/writer/artist of Cerebus, the longest-running self-published comic book in history. Originally a parody of Conan the Barbarian, Cerebus evolved to parody many aspects of popular culture, and later became a platform from which Sim proclaimed his social and political opinions at great length. The pros and cons of Cerebus are outside the scope of this review, but in short I’ll say that it produced what I think is one of the ten best graphic novels I’ve ever read (Jaka’s Story), and a whole lot of near-unreadable claptrap.

Glamourpuss is Sim’s first comic since Cerebus ended its 300-issue run in 2004.

And it is, frankly, a really bad one.

Sim is still an excellent artist: He reproduces a variety of glamour magazine photos in linework, and also reproduces many panels from the comic strip Rip Kirby. Even if the work isn’t original, it’s still impressive in its attention to detail. Sim can really draw.

Unfortunately, this is a comic book without a story. Rather than assembling a story to which he can apply his prodigious artistic skills, Sim strings together a series of unrelated panels and adds text which is nothing more than a monologue in which he discusses his intention to do a book of “cute teenaged girls in his best Al Williamson photo-realism style”, and goes on to talk at some length about his love for Alex Raymond’s and John Prentice’s art on Rip Kirby.

And boy, I couldn’t care less.

I have some interest in the analysis of comic art, to be sure, but this is little more than navel-gazing; a couple of cheap gags, but otherwise nothing really entertaining. I’d much rather read a prose piece about the strip with some key illustrations, with more historical context about Raymond, Prentice, and the strip itself. But Sim’s thoughts about his admirations for the artists and his striving to emulate them are not worth three dollars, or even the time it took to read this issue.

I keep wondering who exactly Sim’s target audience for this series is, or how long he expects it to keep going. I even wonder if he’s chuckling to himself as having ‘put one over’ on his readership. Probably not. I think this is a perfectly earnest effort to express his admiration for this art style, to have some fun flexing his artistic muscles, and figuring that there are a few thousand people out there who will find it all as interesting as he does.

And he might be right, but I’m not one of those people, and I won’t be back for a second issue (though Jog apparently will be).