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This Week's Haul

A big week this time around, but I don’t have much time to write, so it’ll be short.

I will say that the first issue of Power Girl under the new creative team is about as good as the previous team, although I’m not fond of the coloring approach. The new Dynamo 5 series fits right in with the previous series, and is a good jumping-on point if you’d like to read about a group of heroes who each inherited a different power from their Superman-like father. Oh, and a new Girl Genius volume, which is always enjoyable, even if you’ve been reading the webcomic (as I have).

  • American Vampire #4, by Scott Snyder, Stephen King & Rafael Albuquerque (DC)
  • Batman: The Return of Bruce Wayne #3 of 6, by Grant Morrison, Yanick Paquette & Michel Lacombe (DC)
  • Green Lantern Corps #49, by Tony Bedard, Ardian Syaf & Vicente Cifuentes (DC)
  • Legion of Super-Heroes #2, by Paul Levitz, Yildiray Cinar, Francis Portela & Wayne Faucher (DC)
  • Power Girl #13, by Judd Winick & Sami Basri (DC)
  • Superman #700, by James Robinson & Bernard Chang, Dan Jurgens, and J. Michael Straczynski, Eddy Barrows & J.P. Mayer (DC)
  • Zatanna #2, by Paul Dini, Stephane Roux & Karl Story (DC)
  • Fantastic Four #580, by Jonathan Hickman, Neil Edwards & Andrew Currie (Marvel)
  • Criminal: The Sinners vol 5 TPB, by Ed Brubaker & Sean Phillips (Marvel/Icon)
  • Powers #5, by Brian Michael Bendis & Michael Avon Oeming (Marvel/Icon)
  • Girl Genius: Agatha Heterodyne and the Heirs of the Storm vol 9 HC, by Phil Foglio & Kaja Foglio (Airship)
  • Mouse Guard: Legends of the Guard #2 of 4, by David Petersen, Alex Kain, Terry Moore, Lowell Francis & Gene Ha (Archaia)
  • Incorruptible #7, by Mark Waid, Horacio Domingues & Juan Castro (Boom)
  • Dynamo 5: Sins of the Father #1 of 5, by Jay Faerber & JĂșlio Brilha (Image)
Wow, I can’t remember the last time a comic destroyed my enthusiasm for a new creator’s run as has Superman #700.

To be sure, this “anniversary” issue contains three stories, and the first two are okay. The first one seems to be the coda to James Robinson’s run on the book, which featured the Kryptonian city of Kandor, Superman leaving Earth to live with the Kryptonians when they settled on another world, and a war among the Kryptonians. I didn’t follow the story, and the notion of Superman leaving Earth like that made little sense to me. The story here features him returning and being reunited with Lois Lane (his wife, as you may recall), and it’s touching enough even though Supes’ reasons for leaving don’t really hold water.

The second story is a cute little Dan Jurgens tale of years past, when Dick Grayson was a teenaged Robin and wasn’t yet allowed to go out on missions by himself. He does, of course, and Superman has to bail him out – in more ways than one. I like tales like this one, done well, as this one is.

The third story is new writer J. Michael Straczynski’s first chapter of his ongoing Superman story, and Straczynski is pretty much being handed the keys to the kingdom: Superman will appear in Superman only, and Action Comics will focus on Lex Luthor. Considering the Man of Steel has commonly appeared in 2, 3, 4 or even more titles monthly for the last 20 years, this is a big deal.

Unfortunately, Straczynski’s comics writing has been pretty shaky (his run on Thor over at Marvel was terrible, and he never completed one of his better comics of recent years, The Twelve, also at Marvel), and this first chapter is pretty bad: Superman holds a press conference regarding his involvement with the Kryptonians, is confronted by a woman whose husband died because Superman was off on another world and had no chance to save him (even if he could), and is apparently wracked with guilt over his actions. After talking with Batman and The Flash, Superman lands… and walks away.

And yes, the title of the storyline is going to be “Grounded”.

And boy, what a stupid, stupid idea.

Many writers have tried to tackle the notion of Superman not being able to help everyone, not even being able to even try. 20 years ago, there was a great story when Superman was off-world (that’s right, this isn’t even the first time this has happened) about the Justice League going through all his Christmas mail at his mailbox, a touching story of holiday cheer yet also reminding us that Superman is still a man. And of course Kurt Busiek’s character Samaritan in Astro City is a Superman character who tries to help everyone, at the cost of living his own life. But the set-up for this story is contrived, and doesn’t resonate emotionally at all. Presumably Superman is “grounding” himself to gain a human perspective on the world, but come on, that’s just not something I can believe he’d do. Superman has bouts of shaken confidence, but he’s always had a strong sense of self, and comfort with his powers. This just doesn’t ring true.

I appreciate that Straczynski tries to explore aspects of characters in ways that haven’t been done before, but as far as established characters go, he seems to consistently misunderstand what it is what embodied and drives that character. When working with his own creations he actually does this quite well, but when playing in someone else’s sandbox, he comes up with unusually contrived set-ups and changes the character’s essence in some unbelievable way.

So this already looks like another disastrous superhero comic by Straczynski. He’s got about two issues to convince me that it’s something other than what it seems, or I’m out of here. And his track record in convincing me otherwise is not good.

This Week’s Haul

  • Batman and Robin #4, by Grant Morrison, Philip Tan & Jonathan Glapion (DC)
  • Blackest Night #3 of 8, by Geoff Johns, Ivan Reis & Oclair Albert (DC)
  • The Brave and the Bold #27, by J. Michael Straczynski & Jesus Saiz (DC)
  • Ex Machina #45, by Brian K. Vaughan & Tony Harris (DC/Wildstorm)
  • JSA vs. Kobra #4 of 6, by Eric S. Trautmann, Don Kramer & Michael Babinski (DC)
  • Hercules: Prince of Power HC, by Bob Layton (Marvel)
  • Wednesday Comics #11, by many hands (DC)
  • Unthinkable #5 of 5, by Mark Sable & Julian Totino Tedesco (Boom)
  • Star Trek: Romulans: Schism #1 of 5, by John Byrne (IDW)
  • Atomic Robo: Shadow From Beyond Time #5 of 5, by Brian Clevinger & Scott Wegener (Red 5)
The Brave and the Bold #27 J. Michael Straczynski starts his long-awaited run on The Brave and the Bold this month. The comics blogosphere’s reaction to this assignment was basically, “Wait, DC signs one of the biggest names in comics and assigns him to a book whose sales were in a slump the last time big name creators were on it, and has been slogging along through limbo ever since?” B&B was thoroughly Mark Waid’s book, and honestly it should have been cancelled when he left it (although some of the interim stories have been decent). But why put Straczynski on it? Did he request it, to be able to have his own sandbox to play in? Who knows?

The story itself is merely okay. It features Batman and the extremely obscure character from the original Dial H For Hero, and it’s a thin story with a rather simplistic moral about doing something with one’s life.

I’ve written several times before about my criticisms of Straczynski’s comics work, as much as I loved Babylon 5, and this issue is towards the lower end of his comics work. If all he’s going to do in B&B is write a few unconnected stories, then I don’t think it’s going to be worth it. Meanwhile, we’ll see how well he keeps up with the schedule, inasmuch as Thor was consistently shipping late and The Twelve – perhaps his best comics work – seems to be on hiatus. And, more importantly, whether he has a plan for what to do with a series with such a scatterbrained premise.

Wednesday Comics #11 It’s a little hard to believe that Wednesday Comics is coming to an end after one more issue, given that some of the stories feel like they’re not even close to being done after this issue. Superman, even though it’s been a terrible story, feels like it’s about to turn into the second half of the story after the cliffhanger here. Supergirl has been much better, but with her facing down aliens as her super-pets arrive on the scene seems like it’s setting up for several more pages, too. And then there’s Hawkman, which has a climactic moment this page, but then Kyle Baker’s over-the-top writing in this story has featured a climactic moment every other page. But I don’t see how Baker’s going to pull together Hawkman, Aquaman, an alien invasion, and DInosaur Island together into a satisfying finish in one more page. Of course, the writing’s been on the wall for weeks that Hawkman would be a terrible story.

In other episodes, Strange Adventures has a neat touch in dealing with its villain this issue. And although I haven’t read Wonder Woman in weeks, this week’s page finally makes good use of the large-page format with a nice 2/3-page spread. Too bad I’ve long since stopped caring.

Next week we’ll see how things finish up, and I’ll revisit all of the stories in their totalities.

Hercules Prince of Power HC Among the most fun comics I can recall reading were Bob Layton’s two Hercules mini-series from back in the 80s. Hercules, the Greek demigod of myth, had returned to Earth and adventured with The Avengers for quite a few years; although a good guy, he also had a tendency to get drunk and pick fights, and – being a god – was able to shrug off the consequences of his actions much of the time, sometimes leaving a trail of carnage and/or sadness behind him. In short, having Hercules on Earth didn’t seem quite fair to everyone else.

Layton tackled this challenge in novel fashion: Hundreds of years in the future, Hercules angers his father Zeus – again – and Zeus exiles him, but this time he exiles him to outer space, where there are plenty of beings who are Hercules’ equal, or more. This helps Hercules gain perspective on his place in the universe, but Layton also uses it for a series of absolutely hilarious adventures. Accompanied by a Recorder, a robot charged with observing everything he does, Hercules wades through a series of entertaining adventures, before finding himself suddenly aging, and learning that things have recently gone quite poorly for the gods of Olympus, forcing him to return home before he dies of old age to find out what’s going on.

Although at times a moving drama, Layton never relinquishes his light touch on the material, and Hercules generally comes across as a nicer guy – and a more mature one – than the one currently appearing in The Incredible Hercules (although that series is not bad). And now that Marvel’s collected this in a handsome hardcover volume, I highly recommend checking it out. It’s a good time.

(It looks like Layton’s other Hercules-related stuff, including the sequel to these stories, will be collected in a second volume later this year.)

Unthinkable #5 Unthinkable was one of three series from Boom! Studios that piqued my interest this year, but I didn’t enjoy it nearly as much as either Irredeemable or The Unknown. The premise was that author Alan Ripley joined a government think tank after September 11 to try to come up with other unlikely scenarios that terrorists might use to attack America or other countries. Which sounds fine until the think tank is disbanded and some of their scenarios come to pass.

It’s a nifty high concept, but a tough one to pull off, since it plays its premise largely straight, which means having to thread a needle to make it seem plausible in the face of, well, doing the impossible. Writer Mark Sable gives it a good try, but I don’t think he pulls it off; the ultimate story behind the unthinkable events feels a little too simplistic, really in much the same way the climax to Watchmen didn’t quite hold up. I guess when you’re being compared to Watchmen – even flaws in Watchmen – you’re doing something right, but still the story didn’t really work for me. A worthy try, though.

Artist Julian Totino Tedesco isn’t really my kind of artist; his sketchy linework over highly realistic layouts remind me of Jackson Guice, but darker. I think he could have used an inker with a strong sense of line coherence, a Tom Palmer sort, to pull the pencils together. But that’s just me.

Star Trek: Romulans: Schism #1 I’m not sure what to make of John Byrne’s Star Trek series for IDW. Assignment: Earth followed the adventures of Gary Seven and Roberta Franklin in the early 1970s, and then Crew followed the career of Number One prior to becoming Captain Pike’s first officer on the Enterprise. Now Romulans: Schism appears to involve the shaky Klingon/Romulan alliance circa the end of the classic Star Trek TV series (or maybe a couple of years after that, although not much later since Star Trek: The Motion Picture takes place at most 5 years after the end of the series, and the designs here are mostly classic Trek). Number One appears to be back, a little grayer, and the Commodore commanding a Constitution-class ship.

What’s confusing to me is that Byrne usually has a method to his madness, a larger story that the smaller ones fit into, but it’s awfully hard to see how these three series fit together. Assignment: Earth was a set of mildly entertaining short stories, but the characters and plots weren’t really all that exciting. Crew was considerably more entertaining, but seemed to end just as it was about to get really good. Now we’ve jumped forward to focus on the two main villainous races in classic Trek. So where’s it all going? Or is Byrne just content to tell a few independent short stories, and enjoy playing in the Trek universe on his terms? Maybe it’s not going anywhere.

On the bright side, Byrne captures the visuals of classic Trek perfectly; the thing looks beautiful. And Crew was a very well-told set of stories, while Romulans: Schism is off to a good, if rather ominous, start, with a solid cliffhanger at the end of this first issue. Despite being perplexed by Byrne’s ultimate goal – if there is one – this is some of the best Trek material I’ve read in decades, and that makes it worth the price on its own.

(Hmm, on further review, it looks like this might be a sequel to an earlier two-part Byrne story, The Hollow Crown, which I hadn’t heard of before. So apparently I’m missing at least one piece of the puzzle.)

Atomic Robo: Shadow From Beyond Time #5 I’ve been conflicted about Atomic Robo since it began. I appreciate the premise – Nikola Tesla creates a sentient robot who lives into the present day and fights big monsters – and also Brian Clevinger’s wacky sense of humor in setting up the situations and writing the dialogue. Of course, the parallels between Robo and Hellboy are obvious; Robo’s personality is a little more extroverted, but they’re both strong monster-fighters with flippant tongues. The problem is that while Mike Mignola’s stories for Hellboy can be a little erratic, each individual story holds together pretty well, and when the story trails off at the end, it’s usually evident that that’s what Mignola was going for. The first Robo mini-series was a collection of vaguely-linked short stories, and the second one purported to be a single story but scattered to the four winds at the end.

All that said, Shadow From Beyond Time is a solid step forward for Robo. It starts with Robo, Charles Fort, and H.P. Lovecraft in the 1920s fighting a Lovecraftian creature. The problem is that this creature comes from outside time, so Robo fights it over and over in the following years until it all comes to an end in this issue when he figures out a way to deal with it, and even loops back to the beginning to bring some closure to the first chapter of the story. It’s easily the best-told story in the series so far, and it makes me optimistic that things will keep getting better.

Which is good, because as amusing as Robo can be as a character, it’s difficult to get invested in a series which is largely told in retrospect, and whose setting (Robo’s team and organization at Tesladyne) is left, at best, fuzzy. Madcap adventure can only take you so far.

This Week’s Haul

I couldn’t wait for Wednesday, so I went and picked up last week’s comics last night. I walked in on the gang processing thousands of comics they’d just bought. I told them I expected the store to be spotless when I came back on Wednesday. Good thing they like me, ’cause they outnumbered me.

  • All-Star Superman #8, by Grant Morrison & Frank Quitely (DC)
  • Countdown #43 of 52 (backwards), by Paul Dini, Jimmy Palmiotti, Justin Gray, Manuel Garcia, David Lopez, & Don Hillsman (DC)
  • Welcome to Tranquility #8, by Gail Simone, Neil Googe, Jason Pearson, Chriscross, & Georges Jeanty (DC/Wildstorm)
  • Ms. Marvel #17, by Brian Reed, Aaron Lopresti & Matt Ryan (Marvel)
  • Thor #1, by J. Michael Straczynski Oliver Coipel & Mark Morales (Marvel)

Both Greg Burgas and Chris Sims were disappointed in this month’s All-Star Superman, and I’m with them: Devoid of the madcap zaniness of the classic Bizarro stories, saddled by the bleak imagery of Quitely’s artwork, and with nothing particularly deep or insightful to say about the Bizarro world, the whole issue just feels like a pointless aside to the already rather loosely-assembled story which comprises the series. All-Star Superman has certainly had its high points, but this is its nadir.

Ms. Marvel #17 actually has enough stuff in it to get me interested again: A.I.M. undergoes a transformation, Ms. Marvel turns blue and speaks with a different voice and then wakes up normal and has no idea what happened, her S.H.I.E.L.D. team is decimated and she faces a crisis of confidence, her would-be boyfriend is up to something, and a couple of A.I.M. wackos concoct an odd-looking scheme which is surely not going to end well.

If only the first 16 issues had had this much story. I just hope all this goes somewhere over the next few months.

And lastly:

J. Michael Straczynski’s comic books drive me crazy.

There’s always the germs of some really excellent stuff in there: The metaphysical underpinnings of Spider-Man’s powers. The spot-on handling of Peter Parker’s wit. The complex world of Rising Stars. The characterization of the Thing.

But Jesus, his stories take so-fricking-long to develop. It took years for the relatively-simple story of Spidey’s powers to play out, and while that stuff was really good, the stuff in between wasn’t. Fantastic Four never really went anywhere (but arguably got shanghaied by Civil War). And along the way he often hits as many wrong notes as true ones: The inevitable-yet-tedious battle for domination in Rising Stars, or the stilted and cringeworthy characterization of Mr. Fantastic. Really, only Midnight Nation – probably his most personal book – worked all the way through.

Thor brings the god-turned-hero back to the Marvel Universe after an absence due to, well, I really neither know nor care what happened to him, but apparently the other Norse gods are gone, and Thor is back to being bonded with Donald Blake. Straczynski provides some interesting theoretical backbone to Thor’s return and the nature of godhood, and some nice grounding to Blake’s humanity. And then, the questions lurking in the background are just as interesting: What will Thor think about the Civil War that occurred in his absence, and the role his closest human friend – Iron Man – played in it? How will Donald Blake pick up the pieces of his life after years of absence?

But the book noodles all over the place, starting with someone (Blake?) picking up Thor’s hammer in the middle of the desert (a scene set up in Straczynski’s Fantastic Four run), followed by a lengthy encounter between Blake and Thor in the limbo they’ve been lingering in for the last few years, followed by their return to Earth. But it’s all set-up: There’s hardly any actual story here. Straczynski’s Supreme Power played out excruciatingly slowly (I gave up after two depressing years), and I worry that that’s what’s going to happen here.

Still, it’s a first issue, and it’s got some promise. And Coipel’s art gets prettier with each new project: Remember how quirky and grim his style seemed back in Legion Lost, with those severe, undifferentiated faces? Oh yeah, he’s come a long way, that never would have worked on Thor. But as with most comics these days, I just hope that Straczynski’s got a plan, and that Thor is going to go somewhere. Because this sort of meandering will get boring by about issue #3. I also hope he lightens up on the gravitas a little (and boy is it unusual for me to be wishing a book were a little lighter), because it often feels like his books should have a funeral dirge as their soundtrack.

Greg Burgas seems to agree, but says so in fewer words than I do. So, there you go.

This Week’s Haul

  • Aquaman: Sword of Atlantis #47 (DC)
  • Fables #56 (DC/Vertigo)
  • 52 #33 of 52 (DC)
  • Red Menace #2 of 6 (DC/Wildstorm)
  • Supergirl and the Legion of Super-Heroes TPB vol 3: Strange Visitor From Another Century (DC)
  • Fantastic Four #541 (Marvel)
  • Ms. Marvel #10 (Marvel)
  • Athena Voltaire: The Collected WebComics (Ape Entertainment)

Writer Kurt Busiek and artist Butch Guice will be leaving Aquaman after #49, replaced by fantasy writer Tad Williams and artist Shawn McManus. This probably means that Busiek’s ongoing mysteries will either not be revealed, or will be revealed abruptly and rather lamely, which is a pity, since this storyline has really been all about the payoff. That said, I’ve been a fan of McManus’ art since his terrific work on Todd Klein’s Omega Men about 20 years ago, so his presence here may keep me reading the title after Busiek leaves.

Fables is a nifty little Christmas story. Willingham always seems to have a surprise up his sleeve. How does he do it?

Supergirl and the Legion of Super-Heroes is the third collection in Mark Waid and Barry Kitson’s reboot of the Legion title (you can also buy volumes one and two). The conceit in this volume is that Supergirl has somehow ended up in the 31st century, but has no memory of how she got there, and also believes that she’s dreaming it all. This makes her a little reckless, but she’s also powerful enough that it doesn’t really matter, although it does really annoy Light Lass. This is an enjoyable series with pretty good characterization, although the roster is so big that some characters get lost in the shuffle. Plus I really hate Supergirl’s bare-midriff costume, but that’s not Waid and Kitson’s fault, as it was foisted on them when the character was most recently relaunched.

I’m an old-old school Legion fan, and feel it went steadily downhill following the long-ago Ultra Boy/Reflecto story from the late 70s. And especially since Crisis on Infinite Earths it hasn’t had that special feeling that the original Legion had. But – much like Aquaman – DC keeps trying and many of their tries are worth reading, for a while, anyway. This is one of them. My biggest criticism is that I still find Kitson’s characters’ poses and expressions to be rather stiff.

Fantastic Four #541 is J. Michael Straczynski’s last as writer. It hasn’t been a distinguished run, but then he did have the handicap of having to write around the Civil War debacle. Straczynski’s basic problem in his Marvel work has been that he focuses so much on character that there’s not a whole lot of story, and it gets pretty boring. (His Squadron Supreme series is about two years old now and very little has happened.) Anyway, he finishes his run with a standalone story about the Thing leaving the US to avoid taking sides in the Civil War, and he ends up joining a French superhero team. It’s funny, which is a suitable departure for JMS, who seemed happiest on this title when he was writing about Ben Grimm.

I haven’t yet read the Athena Voltaire collection, but will probably get to it before Christmas.