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This Week's Haul

Between the death of my beloved cat Jefferson last week, and before that a weeklong visit by my girlfriend’s family, I haven’t had much time for comics reviews. But I’ll get down a few comments on titles from the past week.

By-the-by, if you’re an insane fan of Planetary, as I am, the final 9 issues were collected in hardcover two weeks ago. The regular hardcovers are a really nice package, easily the equal of the large-and-unwieldy Absolute editions, and since John Cassaday’s skills lie primarily in his designs and not his detail work, the art doesn’t significantly benefit from the larger size of the Absolute version (not the way, say, George Pérez’s does).

Two Weeks Back:

  • Astro City: The Dark Age Book Four #2, by Kurt Busiek, Brent Anderson & Alex Ross (DC/Wildstorm)
  • First Wave #1 of 6, by Brian Azzarello & Rags Morales (DC)
  • Planetary: Spacetime Archaeology vol 4 HC, by Warren Ellis & John Cassaday (DC/Wildstorm)
  • Age of Reptiles: The Journey #3 of 4, by Ricardo Delgado (Dark Horse)
  • The Boys #40, by Garth Ennis & Darick Robertson (Dynamite)

Last Week:

  • Batman and Robin #10, by Grant Morrison, Andy Clarke & Scott Hanna (DC)
  • Ex Machina #48, by Brian K. Vaughan & Tony Harris (DC/Wildstorm)
  • Secret Six #19, by Gail Simone & Jim Calafiore (DC)
  • The Unwritten #11, by Mike Carey, Peter Gross & Jimmy Broxton (DC/Vertigo)
  • Criminal: The Sinners #5 of 5, by Ed Brubaker & Sean Phillips (Marvel/Icon)
  • Powers #3, by Brian Michael Bendis & Michael Avon Oeming (Marvel/Icon)
  • B.P.R.D.: King of Fear #3 of 5, by Mike Mignola, John Arcudi & Guy Davis (Dark Horse)
  • Chew #9, by John Layman & Rob Guillory (Image)
Brian Azzarello’s First Wave is a mash-up of a number of 30s and 40s heroes, from Batman and Doc Savage to The Spirit and Rima the Jungle Girl. It takes place outside regular DC continuity, and it’s unclear whether it takes place in the 30s or in the present day; designs and fashions seem to evoke a little of both, but without a clear emphasis in either direction. One wonders whether Azzarello is making a subtle comment about how fundamentally the world hasn’t changed all that much in the last 80 years.

This first issue focuses on the Spirit investigating a smuggling operation, Doc Savage returning to New York after missing his father’s funeral, and Rima rescuing a man who was captured by savages and a giant robot. It’s just the hint of where the 6-issue series is going, so it’s way too soon to tell if it’s any good. But despite the artwork by the always-fantastic Rags Morales (who always seems to get stuck doing not-as-good-as-they-ought-to-be miniseries), First Wave doesn’t start off as particularly intriguing or stylized, indeed it feels a little generic, and definitely way too self-conscious in its handling of Will Eisner’s Spirit, a character who was unique in a way that defined his becoming an icon (the anti-Doc Savage, in a way), yet Azzarello seems to want to put the icon stamp on him here.

Given the breadth of material Azzarello is working with, though, I’ll give him the benefit of the doubt after just one issue. But he’s got some work ahead of him.

(Incidentally, there will be both Spirit and Doc Savage spin-off series coming out in the next couple of months – yes, before the miniseries finishes – but I don’t plan to sign on for either of them.)

The latest Batman & Robin is so silly I almost like it. Robin has been programmed by his mother (leader of the League of Assassins) to take out Batman. Meanwhile, fresh from learning that the Bruce Wayne they tried to resurrect last story isn’t the real thing, they start looking for clues as to where Bruce has gone, and they conclude that he was thrown into the past and has been leaving hints in Wayne Manor to that effect, which leads Batman to a secret Batcave.

Little of this makes a lick of sense, of course: Why wouldn’t Bruce Wayne or Dick Grayson have noticed these hints in the last few decades? Morrison’s suggestion that they hadn’t been looking is of course absurd. Okay, Bruce may have noticed and realized that he would just have to deal with the issue when it arose, but you’d think he’d have confided in Dick at some point, advising him of the quest yet to come to the extent that he could. The set-up seems intended to evoke some of the sillier time travel stories of the 50s (like the “secret origin of the Batcave” one), and it’s a cute little conceit, but it’s also just outright silly.

Very nice art by Andy Clarke, but Morrison just doesn’t seem able to achieve a consistent level of quality in this series. Parts work, parts are so ludicrous that they clash badly with the realistic elements. Little of it feels much like Batman stories, and of course Morrison seems completely lost when it comes to characterization, which is a crying shame since the set-up was perfect for a great character drama.

Brubaker and Phillips’ Criminal, like their other work, bring pulp sensibilities to the table like First Wave does, but unlike the DC series, these guys put their own indelible stamp on everything they do, with Brubaker’s hard boiled writing and Phillips’ heavily shadowed figures. They do some of the most engaging comics around.

The fifth Criminal story is a sequel to the second one, featuring ex-soldier Tracy Lawless, effectively indentured to a crime lord, having an affair with the boss’ wife, and charged with investigating a series of murders of underworld figures. Lawless is a bent but not yet broken man, trying to do the honorable thing without getting himself killed, and he navigates a series of threats (getting beat up more than a little in the process, because that’s the sort of series this is) to clean up loose ends and settle some scores before meeting his own fate. Yet, I bet we’ll be seeing Tracy again in a future series. As always, though, if you like this kind of stuff, you can’t go wrong with Brubaker and Phillips’ take on it.

This Week's Haul

  • Batman and Robin #6, by Grant Morrison, Philip Tan & Jonathan Glapion (DC)
  • Batman/Doc Savage Special, by Brian Azzarello & Phil Noto (DC)
  • Booster Gold #26, by Dan Jurgens, Mike Norton & Norm Rapmund (DC)
  • Fables #90, by Bill Willingham, Mark Buckingham, Steve Leialoha & Andrew Pepoy (DC/Vertigo)
  • Green Lantern Corps #42, by Peter J. Tomasi, Patrick Gleason, Rebecca Buchman & Tom Nguyen (DC)
  • JSA vs. Kobra #6 of 6, by Eric S. Trautmann, Don Kramer & Michael Babinski (DC)
  • R.E.B.E.L.S. #10, by Tony Bedard & Andy Clarke (DC)
  • The Unwritten #7, by Mike Carey & Peter Gross (DC/Vertigo)
  • B.P.R.D.: 1947 #5 of 5, by Mike Mignola, Joshua Dysart, Gabriel Bá & Fábio Moon (Dark Horse)
  • Hellboy: The Wild Hunt #8 of 8, by Mike Mignola & Duncan Fegredo (Dark Horse)
Batman and Robin #6 The second arc of Batman and Robin has taken some criticism due to the fairly extreme stylistic change from Frank Quitely (on the first arc) to Philip Tan (on this one). It is an extreme change, but I thought Tan was fine in issue #4; the problem is his style got progressively looser to the point where it’s actually rather grotesque in this issue. It’s still serviceable, but yeah, I can see where the complaints are coming from.

Then again, the story’s not much, either. The main villain, the Red Hood (a.k.a. Jason Todd, formerly Robin) is portrayed as a vicious counterpoint to Batman, although as a despised character who died and came back to life, it’s hard to care about his motivations. Another villain, Flamingo, shows up here to take out the Red Hood, until Batman and Robin show up to stop them both. It’s a perfect example of how Morrison seems to pack just too much into his stories at times, and Flamingo’s arrival undercuts the drama between Batman and the Hood, which was underdeveloped to start with.

So far, Batman and Robin has been more style than substance, with Morrison unable to properly develop his themes or his characters. In fits and starts he’s pulled together some interesting pieces, but hasn’t really used them effectively so far.

Batman/Doc Savage Special The Batman/Doc Savage special appears to be an introduction to something called “The First Wave”, which from the back of this issue seems to be an upcoming series by Brian Azzarello taking a group of pulp and golden age heroes and introducing them in a new setting, apparently in the present day, but with a mix of styles dating from the 1920s to today. So here we have Batman (at the beginning of his career) and Doc Savage (an established hero), to be joined later by The Avenger, The Spirit, Black Canary and the Blackhawks. I’ve always liked the notion of relaunching established characters in a different milieu, but this is perhaps not the set I’d have chosen. But Azzarello seems to write a lot of pulp-influenced stuff, and it’s his show, so here we have it.

This story involves Batman suspected of murder and Doc Savage coming to Gotham to bring him in. Batman wields a pair of guns (but not to kill), Doc uses his muscle, and the two of course come to a meeting of the minds by the end. Chris Sims’ critique of the story is mostly spot-on, although I disagree about Batman using guns, a facet of his character here that doesn’t bother me, although his wishy-washy use of them is annoying, I agree. Batman has always been a character who could use guns, but mostly hasn’t for various reasons depending on his interpretation. But Sims hits the nail on the head as far as the plot goes: It’s obvious, and dragged out. Additionally, the characters just aren’t very likeable, and Bruce Wayne in particular is portrayed in a very annoying manner (honestly I think the occasional “Bruce Wayne, airhead playboy” schtick that some writers drag out is just plain stupid, and not in the least funny).

So overall this is a pretty weak introduction of a fairly interesting series. But The First Wave will have to be a lot better than this to be worth reading.

JSA vs. Kobra #6 JSA vs. Kobra was a 6-issue miniseries which sort-of spun off from the JSA’s battles with the fictional terrorist organization Kobra from their previous regular series, which doesn’t really explain why it’s being published now. It also relates to Mr. Terrific being one of the leaders of Kobra’s good-guy opposite number, the spy organization Checkmate.

Other than the JSA, none of these organizations matters one whit to me, and the series doesn’t relate to the team’s current adventures at all. So why bother publishing this? And heck, why did I bother buying it?

It’s also not much good. Its plot strives to be a games-within-games match in which Kobra is playing several different angles at once (although to what end, I can’t figure out; if Kobra’s angling for world domination, they’re doing a crappy job of it), while the JSA tries to outmaneuver them. There’s some ongoing tension between the JSA’s co-leaders, Power Girl and Mr. Terrific, mainly over whether Terrific owes his loyalties to the JSA or to Checkmate (the latter of which has been infiltrated by Kobra spies), but it never feels very suspenseful and is resolved almost offhandedly.

Eric S. Trautmann’s script (he’s an author I’ve never heard of before this series) is pretty mechanical, and Don Kramer’s pencils are pretty but not very dynamic. He does seem to meet one of the main criteria for a JSA penciller, though, that being an ability to put Power Girl’s chest front-and-center:

JSA vs. Kobra #6 page 12

At the end of the series, Kobra has been defeated, but obviously will come back in the future. The JSA hasn’t managed to eradicate the group, and none of the JSAers have really had any satisfying story arcs. The whole thing is played very low key despite the high stakes.

If you enjoy superhero pseudo-spy yarns, then this might be for you. Everyone else, give it a pass.

R.E.B.E.L.S. #10 R.E.B.E.L.S. #10 is one of two Blackest Night ring giveaway tie-ins this week (the other being Booster Gold #26, a series I already buy regularly). R.E.B.E.L.S. is a revival of the 90s series, which was the successor to L.E.G.I.O.N., itself a 20th century version of Legion of Super-Heroes that was launched in 1989 when the Legion was struggling to work out its continuity. If that doesn’t sound like one of the least-necessary revivals ever, then I don’t know what is.

Tony Bedard is a decent superhero writer, and Andy Clarke (whose name is misspelled on the cover – way to go DC) has an interesting style reminiscent of Steve Dillon. But issue #10 drops us ring-acquiring drive-by readers into the middle of an on-going story involving the nominal heroes (leader Vril Dox is more of an anti-hero) teaming up with some long-time DC villains to fight an even bigger long-time villain, Starro the Conqueror, who’s been transformed into a rather different entity than his already-chilling original form. (By the way, you can see an homage to the original Starro in the always-entertaining webcomic Plan B.)

The Black Lanterns are almost perfunctory to this story, which focuses on Starro enlisting the aid of Dox’s even-more-super-intelligent son, backing the R.E.B.E.L.S. into a corner, although it looks like next issue will involve a fight between Dox and the Black Lantern version of a former member of the team, as the issue ends on a cliffhanger.

Still, in a book headlined by a rather despicable character, mostly featuring other C-listers I don’t really care about, I might pick up the next issue but this isn’t enough to make me sign on for the long haul, especially since I lost interest in the original version of this team over 15 years ago. (Don McPherson liked it better than I do, though.)

B.P.R.D.: 1947 #5 B.P.R.D.: 1947 was one of the best recent stories of this long-running series, but unfortunately 1948 doesn’t follow it up as strongly. Trevor Bruttenholm mostly stays on the sidelines, and the ultimate point of the story is to drive home to “Broom” that the department’s mission means he’ll be sending a lot of people out to their deaths, and can he live with that? This last issue is pretty good in that regard, but the first four, which focus on the mission in question, were pretty tedious, hamstrung by the fact that Broom stays at home the whole time.

I guess there will be a 1949 at some point, but since I expect to bail on B.P.R.D. after the long-running “War on Frogs” storyline concludes, I may not be around to see it.

Hellboy: The Wild Hunt #8 Similarly, while Hellboy generally has been stronger than B.P.R.D. over the years, The Wild Hunt has been one of his weakest series. Not only does the mythical Wild Hunt only put in a token appearance across 8 issues, but the story involves examining Hellboy’s surprising lineage, and an equally surprising – and, honestly, rather silly – development which comes to a head in this issue. It had me shaking my head, as Hellboy has always done best by staying away from popular mythology, and bring King Arthur into the mix as happens here feels very out-of-place for the series.

Hellboy is at his best when he’s an ass-kicking, wise-cracking fighter of larger-than-life mythical monsters, but over the years Mignola has shrunk that side of his character and expanded him being pulled through various scenarios in scenes that are more talking that action, and that’s a lot less fun. It’s like Mignola’s fundamentally lost touch with the character, and that’s too bad, because he’s one of the most memorable comics creations of the last 30 years.