This Week’s Haul

  • Justice Society of America Annual #1, by Geoff Johns, Jerry Ordway & Bob Wiacek (DC)
  • newuniversal: 1959 #1, by Kieron Gillen, Greg Scott & Kody Chamberlain (Marvel)
  • Thor #10, by J. Michael Straczynski, Oliver Coipel & Mark Morales (Marvel)
  • Girl Genius: Voice of the Castle vol 7 HC, by Phil Foglio & Kaja Foglio (Airship)
  • Project Superpowers #5 of 7, by Alex Ross, Jim Krueger & Carlos Paul (Dynamite)
  • Locke & Key #6 of 6, by Joe Hill & Gabriel Rodriguez (IDW)
Justice Society of America Annual #1 Justice Society of America Annual #1 is just a big tease.

In the currently convoluted DC continuity, Power Girl comes from an alternate Earth, the “Earth-2” from before Crisis on Infinite Earths. In this issue, wonderfully illustrated by Jerry Ordway (one of my favorite artists), she’s been returned there by the powers of Gog (the main plot element in the ongoing series), and she catches up with the Huntress and the rest of the Earth-2 Justice Society, who have continued to live their lives since the first Crisis. The Huntress is dealing with the last few villains of her father – the deceased Earth-2 Batman – and the JSA has undergone some significant changes, with most of the original members having retired. It’s good stuff, with convincing characterizations, and some effective revelations about these old friends. It doesn’t really deal with the fact that the characters here would be pretty old by now – the members of Infinity Inc. would be in their mid-to-late 40s, and Robin would be pushing 70 – but I’m willing to chalk that up to artistic license.

The books real problem is that it’s just a lead-in to another plot thread in the ongoing series, in which Power Girl finds herself on the run in a world that might be what it seems – but might not. So it’s not a complete story, which is especially frustrating given the tradition of annuals to be complete or to be the climactic wrap-up of a longer story. It’s just another cog, and it left me feeling cheated.

The art sure is lovely, though. Ordway’s best stuff in years.

newuniversal: 1959 one-shot newuniversal: 1959 is a prequel to Warren Ellis’ newuniversal series, highlighting a few extraordinary individuals in the late 50s and the arm of the government which investigates them. It’s a pretty good story, although it basically just fills in the details of what’s been described in the regular series. So it’s not essential reading, but I enjoyed it anyway.
Girl Genius vol 7: Voice of the Castle HC Girl Genius is still one of the most entertaining comics going, and I’m happy that it’s had so much success as a webcomic, since it looks like it’ll be sticking around for a long time. Meanwhile the family Foglio are still collecting the series more-or-less annually in both paperback and hardcover, and I sure hope that that continues, as I’ve been happily snapping up almost everything Phil Foglio’s done as they print it in hardcover.

I was somewhat disappointed in volume 6 since it turned away from Agatha, the main character, and had a convoluted story which didn’t make a lot of sense to me. Volume 7 is a return to form, as Agatha and her allies arrive in Mechanicsburg so Agatha can claim her position as the heir to the Heterodynes. Of course, the badly-injured Baron Klaus Wulfenbach and his son Gil have gotten there ahead of her. Moreover, claiming her heritage is harder than it seems, since she needs to be recognized by the sentient Castle Heterodyne, but the castle isn’t intact and people who enter it tend not to come out again. Plus, another claimant to the position has turned up and entered the castle with her own schemes. Finally, word of Klaus’ injuries have gotten out, which means people who want to overthrow or supplant him are showing up heavily armed.

The book is full of action, adventure, and rampant silliness, all of which you expect from a Foglio story. There are also some nifty glimpses of the Heterodyne past – I love poring over the pages in the vaults below the castle to see what jokes and suggestions the Foglios have thrown in there, whether or not it directly impacts the story. Plus Agatha’s chat with one fragment of the castle is not to be missed, and Gil has his own test in trying to protect his father.

Perhaps Girl Genius‘ pace has slowed down a bit too much with the shift to webcomic form, as it often seems like things move along a bit slowly, with this volume ending on a cliffhanger. A paradigm shift in the series is going to occur sooner or later since Agatha is going to have to grow up completely and become a major player on the continental stage in the fictional world in which she lives, and I wonder whether the Foglios are finding it difficult to get past Agatha as the still-somewhat-innocent foil for her more experienced companions. Maybe that’s what’s holding the story back a bit. Or, maybe they just want more scenes like Agatha building an industrial-strength coffee maker (which are cute, but just intermissions between “the good stuff”). Nonetheless, this is great stuff. I read it on-line every week, and you should too.

Locke & Key #6 Locke & Key finishes its first mini-series this month. It’s been pretty good, but also disappointing: It ended up being little more than a straightforward “being stalked by a lunatic with a gun” story. To be fair, it does set up the premise of the series, but I’d hoped for a lot of sense of wonder and a lot less routine suspense and horror schtick. The ending suggests that future series will be a little more fantastic, and I hope they will be. I’ll come back for the next mini-series (starting later this year), but if it’s more of the same then that might be enough for me.

This Week’s Haul

Comic books I bought the week of 9 January 2008.

  • Countdown to Final Crisis #16 of 52 (backwards), by Paul Dini, Tony Bedard, Keith Giffen, Pete Woods, Tom Derenick & Wayne Faucher (DC)
  • Salvation Run #3 of 7, by Matthew Sturges, Sean Chen & Walden Wong (DC)
  • Suicide Squad: Raise the Flag #5 of 8, by John Ostrander, Javier Pina & Robin Riggs (DC)
  • Hulk #1, by Jeph Loeb, Ed McGuinness & Dexter Vines (Marvel)
  • Nova #10, by Dan Abnett, Andy Lanning, Wellington Alves, Wellington Diaz & Nelson Pereira (Marvel)
  • The Twelve #1 of 12, by J. Michael Straczynski, Chris Weston & Garry Leach (Marvel)
  • MythAdventures! HC, by Robert Asprin, Phil Foglio & Tim Sale (Airship)
  • B.P.R.D.: 1946, by Mike Mignola, Joshua Dysart & Paul Azaceta (Dark Horse)
  • The Boys #14, by Garth Ennis, Darick Robertson & Peter Snejbjerg (Dynamite)
Hulk #1 In the wake of World War Hulk, Marvel launched the fourth Hulk series with a new #1 issue. This time the series’ hook is that there’s a red Hulk, and the mystery is: Who is it? I thumbed through the book and liked Ed McGuinness’s artwork, and also the kicker that this Hulk apparently is using firearms, which is a little unusual for him. So I decided to pick it up.

But closer reading makes it a lot less impressive. First of all, Jeph Loeb’s characterization of Doc Samson and the She-Hulk feels fundamentally off, with both of them seeming to possess hair-trigger personalities and a general air of grumpiness, which doesn’t track with their earlier behavior. Second, it looks like the new Hulk is probably going to be the usual suspect (Rick Jones), which would not only be lame, but would be essentially a rehash of Peter David’s earliest Hulk stories, 20 years ago (!). Lastly, the heroes go to consult with someone who knows something about the Hulk – Bruce Banner, currently under tight lockup. This seems directly at odds with the end of World War Hulk when Banner seemed to be presumed dead or at least in a coma. Not that I expected him to be dead, but how did he get from there to here?

Overall the writing seems extremely sloppy, and the set-up doesn’t seem promising. The art is still nice – McGuinness has developed pretty nicely since his days on Superman/Batman – but this book will have to shape up in a hurry or I’ll likely be done with it by issue #4.

The Twelve #1 I’ve written before about my frustrations with J. Michael Straczynski’s comic books, but I keep buying them anyway, since they always sound interesting. It’s the execution where they fall flat.

The Twelve features 12 obscure heroes from the 1940s who were published by Timely Comics (which later evolved into modern-day Marvel Comics) but who have basically been forgotten (I’d never heard of any of them before now). The premise is that at the end of World War II, superheroes descended on Berlin to help finish off the Nazis, but a random group of 12 heroes were tricked and captured by the Nazis and put into suspended animation so they could be studied. However, the Nazis in question were themselves captured by the Russians and the heroes were forgotten – until a construction project in 2008 unearths them. Shipped back to the US, the government decides to reawaken them, and enlist them as government heroes, a proposal the heroes all accept at the end of the first issue (with the exception of Elektro, who was a nonsentient robot controlled remotely by his now-deceased creator and who therefore couldn’t vote). The first issue ends with a glimpse of the future in which it appears that one of the Twelve will kill another of the Twelve.

The premise is promising, and hopefully having a 12-issue limited series will help Straczynski avoid his achilles heel as a comics writer: He writes long, drawn-out story arcs in which nothing happens for a lengthy period of time (his current work on Thor has this problem in spades, as I’ve said in previous entries). Of course, having a 24-issue limited series didn’t stop his Rising Stars series from being terrible and mostly boring. And the end of this first issue is reminiscent of the first issue of that series, so that’s not very encouraging. But I have hope that this will be a solid and entertaining series, so unless it really goes into the tank early, I’m basically signing up for the whole thing, good or bad.

The series takes place in the Marvel universe, so the heroes have woken up in the wake of the Civil War, which may put an unfortunate spin on the story (since I hate almost everything associated with the Civil War). Few of the heroes have any substantial powers, either, and reportedly the point-of-view character will be the Phantom Detective, who is one of those unpowered heroes (he seems to be in the mold of DC’s Crimson Avenger or Sandman characters from the 40s). So I wonder how this series will tie into the rest of the Marvel universe. Captain America is currently dead, so he can’t come meet the heroes to give them the benefit of his experience, and Bucky (a.k.a. the Winter Soldier) has an unusual position among Marvel heroes and I would guess is also not likely to show up. So the heroes apparently will mainly be dealing with the government and the military, groups which Straczynski tends to view with deep cynicism (and a lot less subtlety than, for instance, Robert Kirkman does in Invincible. If Straczynski really wants to make this a good comic, he’ll portray the government less cynically than he usually does.

The story does have one apparent hole in it: The controller of Elektro lost contact with his robot just as the Nazis trapped the heroes, yet he should have known almost exactly where they were, and have been able to have told someone at the time. Did he? If he did, why weren’t they rescued? Did he not? If not, then why not? Explaining this will have to be one of the steps of the series or the whole thing will have a big hole in it.

Anyway, the story shows promise, but it’s the art by Chris Weston and Garry Leach (man, how long as it been since I first saw Leach’s art on Miracleman?) that really makes it worthwhile. I’ve been impressed with Weston’s art the few times I’ve seen it before (for example, in Ministry of Space), and it’s just as good here: Detailed, stylistic, and he has a real facility for drawing faces with distinctive appearances and diverse expressions, as well as making great use of blacks and of whitespace. His weakness is that his poses tend to be a bit stiff (one page of Captain Wonder in action late in this issue unfortunately really exposes this), but superhero comics have a lengthy history of stiff poses (not everyone can be John Buscema, after all), so I think the series can overcome this. (And heck, for all I know that’s the one page that Weston had to pencil under deadline pressure, so maybe it’s an anomaly.)

Despite my reservations, obviously I find The Twelve to have enough depth to be worthy of a lengthy review, so I’m actually looking forward to the rest of the series. If I carp a lot about Straczynski’s comics, it really is because I feel like he ought to be able to do so much better, and that his ideas are too good to be shortchanged by the plodding pace he often employs. So here’s hoping The Twelve is a big exception to the pattern.

MythAdventures HC It’s no secret that Phil Foglio is one of my favoritest comics artists, and his studio just reprinted one of his earliest works in a slick, high-quality hardcover edition. MythAdventures! adapts the first volume of Robert Asprin’s series of humorous novels of the same name. Skeeve is an apprentice to the wizard Garkin, but he’s not very good: He can levitate things and almost light a candle. But when Garkin tries to show Skeeve what wizardry is all about by summoning a demon, an assassin shows up and offs the wizard. The ‘demon’ turns out to be a dimensional traveller named Aahz, who apprentices Skeeve as they set out to avenge Garkin’s death.

That synopsis doesn’t come anywhere close to doing the book justice: This is Foglio at his riotous best, with slapstick humor, rampant wordplay, off-the-wall drawings, and action and adventure. When I read the first series in the 1980s, I don’t think I’d ever read a comic book that made me laugh so hard, and I still giggle when I read it today. That the book has so many silly, off-the-wall elements and yet still tells a coherent story is just amazing.

(The story in the comic book deviates significantly from the original novel, Another Fine Myth. I enjoyed Asprin’s original series quite a bit, but it took a few books for it to really hit its stride; I think the best volume is the fifth, Little Myth Marker. Foglio’s adaptation works within the original book’s basic framework, but he makes it more fully his own work with a very loose adaptation. Overall I think it’s a win, but don’t read one and expect the other to be much like it. They’re quite different.)

The hardcover book is a little pricy (retails for $54.95), but it’s worth it (though you could instead opt for the paperback edition). Either way, I think you’ll find this book to just be a bushel of fun.

(Oh, this collection also features some of Tim Sale’s earliest work, as an inker, long before he made his name drawing Batman stories written by Jeph Loeb, or even Grendel stories written by Matt Wagner. I mostly like him better as an inker than a penciller, but that’s just my personal taste.)

This Week’s Haul

Comic books I bought the week of 26 September 2007.

  • Countdown #31 of 52 (backwards), by Paul Dini, Sean McKeever, Keith Giffen, Manuel Garcia & Rodney Ramos (DC)
  • Countdown to Adventure #2 of 8, by Adam Beechen, Eddy Barrow & Julio Ferreira, and Justin Gray, Travis Moore & Saleem Crawford (DC)
  • Supergirl and the Legion of Super-Heroes #34, by Tony Bedard & Dennis Calero (DC)
  • Astro City: The Dark Age vol 2 #4, by Kurt Busiek, Brent Anderson, & Alex Ross (DC/Wildstorm)
  • Annihilation Conquest: Starlord #3 of 4, by Keith Giffen, Timothy Green II, & Victor Olazaba (Marvel)
  • Girl Genius: Agatha Heterodyne and the Golden Trilobite HC vol 6, by Phil & Kaja Foglio (Airship)
  • The Boys: The Name of the Game vol 1 TPB, by Garth Ennis & Darick Robertson (Dynamite)
  • Boneyard #26, by Richard Moore (NBM)

Astro City: The Dark Age vol 2 #4Wow, the last issue of Astro City came out back in April. I know there are many good reasons why it comes out so slowly, but it’s still frustrating considering this is one of the best comic book series ever published. This is a pretty good issue where the stuff hits the fan for our protagonists, the Williams brothers, as well as suggesting what the scoop with the Silver Agent is. One more special is up next, and then the third and final mini-series to conclude The Dark Age Can’t wait! I hope they can get it all out in the next year.

Girl Genius vol 6Speaking of excellent comics, I finally got my hardcover copy of volume 6 of Girl Genius. This is a hefty volume concluding Agatha Heterodyne’s adventures in Sturmhalten, including the truth about her mother, Lucretia Mongfish, the plans her mother left behind after she disappeared: Specifically, the plan to return her consciousness to life in the body of her daughter.

Unfortunately, though there’s a lot to like here, the story is both padded and confusing. Most of the padding is in the form of Agatha’s allies who spend much of the book wandering around in the sewers of Sturmhalten, an expedition which is sometimes amusing, but which does absolutely nothing to move the story forward. Most of the confusion comes in trying to figure out when we’re watching Agatha and when we’re watching Lucretia, and in trying to figure out exactly who did what, and why. The motivations here are slippery things, and I think the Foglios overextended themselves in trying to be too clever with what amounted to the mechanical aspects of the plot. I think I finally got it all figured out, but it shouldn’t have been this hard.

Those frustrations aside, the book is still tremendously entertaining, very funny, and full of action, adventure, and things blowing up real good. And the secrets of Agatha’s family history are slowly emerging, although – again – the issue of motivation is central to the goings-on, and it’s not at all clear to me what exactly happened in the war against The Other all those years ago. Are the revelations herein supposed to be taken at face value, or is it all a blind for something deeper? That’s the problem with a story that has games-within-games, you can never tell when you’ve reached the center, and that can be really annoying. Eventually the Foglios are going to have to make it absolutely clear in the story that “this is what happened, and there are no more secrets to be revealed”. I hope that’s where this is all going.

(I had a similar problem with Babylon 5: When it was revealed what the Shadows and the Vorlons were really up to, my reaction was, “Nah, that’s silly! It’s gotta be a blind for their real motivations. But in fact, silly or not, that was it. But directions had reversed so many times that it was hard to believe.)

The Boys vol 1The Boys didn’t really register on my consciousness until the controversial decision by DC to cancel it from its Wildstorm line, resulting in the book moving to Dynamite. While I’ve enjoyed Darick Robertson’s artwork in various places, I’ve not read much by Garth Ennis, who is probably best known for his series Preacher, which, well, I haven’t read. However, the brouhaha and a flip-through in the store made me decide to pick up the trade paperback, which collects the first 6 issues.

The first three words that come to mind about this book are not for children. This is a grim, edgy, extremely violent, and often gratuitous story about a world in which superheroes are real, and their fights and whims take a huge toll on normal humans. Ennis doesn’t shy away from just about anything he can imagine super-powered people would do with their powers, and Robertson illustrates it in graphic detail. So if any of that is the sort of thing you wouldn’t be able to appreciate, then The Boys is not for you.

“The Boys” themselves are five people who work as a covert team to put the fear of god into superbeings, through threats, blackmail, and sheer force. Needless to say, some of them are powered themselves. Their leader, Billy Butcher, is assembling the team anew after it having disbanded some time previously, and he recruits three of his old mates as well as a new recruit, Wee Hughie, to start executing his plans. His first target is an out-of-control teen group of superheroes. Even as Hughie is getting his first taste of working with the Boys, a charming midwestern superheroine named Starlight is recruited to join the Seven, the country’s premier super-team (with the usual analogues to members of the Justice League), who learns that playing with the big boys isn’t at all what she’d expected.

The Boys reminds me strongly of Grant Morrison’s The Invisibles, not just in its approach of an undercover team fighting the forces which dominate the world, but in giving the story an “everyman” point of view: The story (almost) opens with Hughie seeing the woman he lives brutally killed during a fight between two superbeings, much as Jack Frost is the young ne’er-do-well who joins the Invisibles. Ennis is more deft at characterization than Morrison is, but then, Morrison had bigger fish to fry than following Jack through the series, while The Boys is fundamentally very much about the perceptions and reactions of the characters.

It’s probably inevitable that The Boys also be compared to Warren Ellis’ Transmetropolitan, as both books take place in which certain trands have resulted in a seriously damaged world in which our heroes (who are anti-heroes in both instances) operate, plus of course they’re both drawn by Robertson. Robertson’s artwork has advanced considerably since Transmet; it no longer feels like that of a darker Shawn McManus, it feels more realistic and more expressive, especially in his faces. I don’t think this book would have worked with anything less.

Does it work? Well yes, it does. As I said, there are many gratuitous elements: Nudity, sex, drug use, violence, which often don’t contribute directly to the story but serve merely as a backdrop. But every so often Ennis drops in that one “whoa, holy shit” moment which demonstrates that the book isn’t all about sex-and-violence, but that there are really things worth fighting for in this comic. The panoramic view of New York City part-way through was the moment that I realized the book is being serious. As I said, if you can’t get past the less-important moments, or if seeing horrible things done to good people with little immediate hope of justice being done is something you can’t stand, then this book is not for you.

Contrasting The Boys with Warren Ellis’ major works is I think most worthwhile: Ellis’ stories are, fundamentally, about people pursuing the right ends for the right reasons. His stories really are about heroes, although those heroes sometimes use questionable means to achieve their goals, but they are usually reluctant to do so, or feel that they’ve been backed into a corner and have no other choice. The Boys are about people pursuing the right ends, but maybe not for the right reasons, and certainly not choosing very clean ways of going about it. Both Butcher and Hughie have a revenge motive, and also a motive to keep what happened to their loved ones from happening to anyone else. (The motives of the other Boys are so far unknown.) And their frank vigilanteism (even if tacitly supported by shady arms of the government) is not exactly admirable. But I think the point of the story is to see how far these characters can be pushed in a decidedly hostile environment, and the story in this volume is the set-up for what comes next.

Am I thrilled to be reading this book? Well, it was pretty interesting, and a little nauseating at the same time. But also compelling. I definitely think there’s a lot of promise here, and I’m going to pick up the issues that Dynamite has published since.

If you’ve been waiting for the superhero equivalent of Transmetropolitan, then The Boys may be the book for you.