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Star Trek: Discovery

Sunday saw the premiere of Star Trek: Discovery, the latest installment in the Star Trek franchise. The first story was a 2-parter, only the first part of which aired on CBS; the rest of the season will air on the new “CBS All Access” subscription streaming network, which I have no interest in subscribing to, so I only saw the first episode, which ended on a cliffhanger.

As my readers may know, I’m working on over 30 years of disappointment in Star Trek. Despite the occasional good story here and there, Star Trek has been a dramatic, storytelling and characterization wasteland since Star Trek: The Next Generation premiered in 1987. I guess it’s a testament to how wonderful the original series (and Star Treks II and III) were that I keep trying the new series. (Well, okay, I passed almost entirely on Voyager, since Star Trek was entirely superfluous from 1994-1999 due to the presence of Babylon 5.)

Despite hoping that the decade-plus since Enterprise went off the air would lead to some philosophical changes in the Star Trek TV franchise, the first episode of Discovery, “The Vulcan Hello”, was about as mundane as ever. The series takes place in the original timeline (i.e., not the J.J. Abrams reboot timeline), approximately 10 years before the original Star Trek series (i.e., about 2 years after the events of “The Cage”, the one Christopher Pike episode), and it focuses on the (apparently last) adventure of the USS Shenzhou, which encounters an alien object while investigating damage to a remote yet apparently important satellite.

There isn’t really a way to discuss the episode without spoilers – frankly, there isn’t enough story here to discuss otherwise – so I’ll continue after the cut:

Read on, Macduff! »

Leonard Nimoy

When I was a kid – this was probably the summer of 1974 – my dad sat me down in front of the television (or so I remember it) and said, “You might like this.” This was Star Trek: The Animated Series. I don’t remember much about watching it back then, except being compelled by the episode “Albatross”.

A few years later, a friend and I would play Star Trek on the jungle-gym in our yard. He was Captain Kirk, and I was Mister Spock.

After seeing Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, I eventually realized (although it would take some years) that Star Trek was fundamentally about Captain Kirk. (One reason among many why none of the later Star Trek series worked for me.) But like, I imagine, many engineering types, I still identify more strongly with Spock than with Kirk as a personality.

Yet more years later, in my days of arguing Star Trek: The Next Generation on USENET, my main sparring partner made an observation that Leonard Nimoy was the only actor on the original series with much of an acting range. While I think this sells many of his co-stars short, it’s clear that Nimoy’s acting was a big factor in bringing Spock to life. With any other actor the character would, at least, have been quite different. Heck, even with Zachary Quinto doing his level best to imitate Nimoy’s performance, his version of Spock in the recent films feels considerably different from Nimoy’s.

Today Leonard Nimoy has died at age 83. And, as is usually the case when someone passes – in this case, a man I never met, whom I only really know through a fictional character he played – I don’t know what to say.

How about this: I always thought it was great that back when the original Star Trek was bring produced, Nimoy and William Shatner became good friends, and stayed friends for the rest of their lives. Considering that Shatner was cast to be the series’ star, but that Spock was the breakout character of the show, it’s easy to see that they could have instead been rivals and not gotten along at all. I think each of them came away with a lot of baggage from the show, but in a way I think their lasting friendship is as powerful a lesson as any of the morality plays that Trek threw up on the screen.

Star Trek Into Darkness

Before I saw Star Trek Into Darkness I saw someone sum up the film as “A fun film. Not a good film, but fun.” While I tried to avoid learning too much about it before seeing it, I learned things here and there, and was not encouraged by what I’d learned. Finally I saw it last weekend, and I’d say it’s certainly not a good film, but it has its fun moments. It also drags in places, and the screenplay is a complete disaster of plot, pacing and characterization. It’s certainly a big step down from 2009’s Star Trek (which has grown on me since I originally saw it).

Spoilers ahead, Captain.

Read on, Macduff! »

This Week's Haul

  • Batman #700, by Grant Morrison, Tony Daniel, Frank Quitely, Scott Kolins, Andy Kubert & David Finch (DC)
  • Tom Strong and the Robots of Doom #1 of 6, by Peter Hogan, Chris Sprouse & Karl Story (DC/Wildstorm/America’s Best Comics)
  • Secret Six #22, by Gail Simone & Jim Calafiore (DC)
  • The Unwritten #14, by Mike Carey & Peter Gross (DC/Vertigo)
  • Captain America #606, by Ed Brubaker & Butch Guice (Marvel)
  • S.H.I.E.L.D. #2, by Jonathan Hickman & Dustin Weaver (Marvel)
  • Astonishing X-Men: Xenogenesis #2 of 5, by Warren Ellis & Kaare Andrews (Marvel)
  • Echo #22, by Terry Moore (Abstract)
  • Chip #2 of 2, by Richard Moore (Antarctic)
  • Star Trek: Leonard McCoy, Frontier Doctor #3 of 5, by John Byrne (IDW)
  • Chew #11, by John Layman & Rob Guillory (Image)
Batman #700 already? Seems like only yesterday that I was buying Batman #400 (okay, it was really 1986). Conveniently, Superman #700 and Wonder Woman #600 are right around the corner (both to be written by J. Michael Straczynski), almost like DC planned this. Hmm.

This particular issue is a slice of Batman’s current status quo, being a time travel locked-room murder mystery taking place in the past (when Bruce Wayne was Batman and Dick Grayson was Robin), the present (when Dick is Batman and Damian Wayne is Robin) and the future (when Damian is Batman). It brings back the quaint 50s plot point of using hypnosis to effect time travel (I know, it makes no sense, but it was still rather fun), and plays up the differences among the three Batmen, especially how Dick is a much more lighthearted figure than either of the Waynes. The story is basically absurd, with the motivation behind the murder not holding water (this is Morrison in his “too-clever-by-half” mode), and there’s a series of epilogues with other future Batmen which is completely irrelevant to the issue, but it’s still a charming issue. Rather in the mode of Earth-1/Earth-2 stories of decades past, contrasting the retired Batman of Earth-2 with the in-his-prime Batman of Earth-1 (one of the best of which being The Brave and the Bold #200).

The art, by several big-name artists, unfortunately is mostly mediocre and uninspired. What flair Frank Quitely showed early in his DC career (such as in JLA: Earth 2), I think he’s pretty much lost it, in favor of over-rendered figures in drab layouts and poses. (Gary Frank’s development as an artist has gone down a similar blind alley.)

Others have observed that this didn’t feel like a very satisfactory anniversary issue. Its flaws as a comic aside, I think it worked about as well as most; not many anniversary issues really live up to their promise (Justice League of America #200 is the exception rather than the rule), we just wish they would.

I mainly wanted to run that Astonishing X-Men cover because it’s so awful.

The story isn’t much: Arriving in Africa, the X-Men show the army that shows up to stop them who’s who, then learn that the mutant babies being born in this poor and oppressed nation are, in fact, not actually mutants (which they already knew) but being created by Ghost Box radiation (which they didn’t). Ghost Boxes being devices they learned about earlier in Ellis’ run which are used to move between parallel worlds, suggesting another attempt at an invasion, an ongoing plot point which is taking seemingly forever to go anywhere (and not just because the series has been running well behind anything resembling a monthly schedule). Finally the army shows up again threatening to kill all the doctors if the X-Men don’t clear out and stop interfering in their business.

On top of that, Emma Frost is becoming so insufferable that I’d rather like someone to rip her lungs out. What exactly does Cyclops see in her?

Kaare Andrews’ art, well, go read what I wrote about it last month, because it’s not really any better this month.

Next issue’s cover is even worse, so I’ll be back then to run it, too.

This was pretty much inevitable: I’ve added Ed Brubaker’s Captain America to my pull list. I’m nearly caught up on the series through the trades, I just haven’t read Reborn or the story before this one yet. But it’s truly an excellent superhero comic, maybe the best being published today.

This issue starts a new arc in which Bucky Barnes – who is the current Captain America since Steve Rogers died a few years ago (he’s back now, but Bucky is still Cap) – is continuing to struggle with depression. Aside from having lived a hellish life since World War II (the details of which were explained earlier in the series), he’s also having a hard time filling Rogers’ shoes, living up to the symbol he represents, and he recently had a nasty run-in with another former Cap. So he’s gotten a little reckless and might have a death wish, which Rogers and the Falcon try to help him with. Meanwhile, Baron Zemo, whose father was the one who nearly killed Cap and Bucky at the end of World War II, has learned that Bucky is still alive, and decides to start gunning for him.

This is actually a pretty good place to jump on to the series, since aside from Bucky’s complicated backstory it’s a good starting point, laying down several threads that Brubaker will follow in the coming months. And it’s a good example of the tone of the series, with strong character bits and intricate plotting, with moments of action that don’t dominate the comic (which makes it rather un-Marvel-like).

Brubaker’s art teams have also been outstanding on the run, Steve Epting having done most of the earlier issues, with Butch Guice and a few others contributing as well (Guice is the artist here). The common thread in the art is that despite the series frequently involving people standing around talking, they make even that interesting through solid compositions, good use of body language, and complex shadows.

If, like me, you haven’t been following Brubaker’s run on Captain America, I urge you to check it out. You won’t be disappointed.

With the latest issue of Leonard McCoy, Frontier Doctor, we see that John Byrne is pulling together plot threads from several of his Star Trek series, and I think every one is represented here: Gary Seven (from Assignment: Earth) appears to help clean up a problem he accidentally created in his series, the Klingons are involved (as they were in the Romulans series), and Number One (from Crew, and now an admiral) arrives to take a hand in matters. I’m not entirely sure whether all of these bits are going anywhere, but it seems like they might be. I can’t quite see the shape of it, though.

This particular issue is more-than-usually improbable, though, as I didn’t buy the reason that McCoy and his team ended up on the planet the way they did, and the developments at the end of the issue that shake up the status quo constitute a rather strange page to turn in the middle of the 5-issue series. Still, Byrne’s Star Trek run has had a number of odd twists and turns, story developments that don’t feel very satisfying; I can’t tell whether he’s just playing around, or whether there’s a method to his madness. But it’s still a great run for an old-time Star Trek geek like me. Warts and all (heck, maybe sometimes because of the warts), it’s one of the most-fun comics out there.

This Week's Haul

A big week this week, and it turns out this month, not last month, is Dan Jurgens’ last hurrah on Booster Gold.

  • Booster Gold #32, by Dan Jurgens & Norm Rapmund (DC)
  • Brightest Day #0, by Geoff Johns, Peter J. Tomasi, Fernando Pasarin & many inkers (DC)
  • Fables #94, by Bill Willingham, Mark Buckingham & Steve Leialoha (DC/Vertigo)
  • Flash #1, by Geoff Johns & Francis Manapul (DC)
  • The Unwritten #12, by Mike Carey & Peter Gross (DC/Vertigo)
  • Secret Six #20, by Gail Simone & Jim Calafiore (DC)
  • Powers #4, by Brian Michael Bendis & Michael Avon Oeming (Marvel/Icon)
  • Irredeemable Special #1, by Mark Waid, Paul Azaceta, Emma Rios & Howard Chaykin (Boom)
  • B.P.R.D.: King of Fear #4 of 5, by ike Mignola, John Arcudi & Guy Davis (Dark Horse)
  • Star Trek: Leonard McCoy, Frontier Doctor #1 of 5, by John Byrne (IDW)
  • Chew #10, by John Layman & Rob Guillory (Image)
  • Atomic Robo and the Revenge of the Vampire Dimension #2 of 5, by Brian Clevinger & Scott Wegener (Red 5)
Chris Sims rips Brightest Day #0 a new one in his review column this week. I think he’s a little harsh, but only a little; this is not a good comic book.

The conclusion of Blackest Night showcased the return from death of a dozen DC heroes and villains, including Deadman who, well, is supposed to be dead. Brightest Day is supposedly going to explore why they came back to life. I think the hope is that they’ll capture some of the fun of 52, the weekly series from a few years ago, which was hands-down DC’s best weekly series so far. This issue is the lead-in to that, and it’s basically just Deadman – thanks to the white ring on his finger – checking in on each of the other characters who came back to life. Which means it’s one little character piece after another – bits which might work well enough as an aside in a character’s regular series, but which strung together like this make for one pretty tedious issue.

Worse, this is a continuity-laden comic featuring characters with convoluted backstories. Okay, Hawkman at this point is firmly grounded in his convoluted backstory, it’s basically a key part of the character, and honestly that’s not such a bad thing, since the core premise is easy to explain (Hawkman and his beloved Hawkgirl have been getting reincarnated for thousands of years) and the details are unimportant. Sims points out the problem with all this continuity without really trying to do so:

Take Firestorm. Johns and Tomasi make it clear that Ronnie Raymond is meant to be back from the dead from the moment he died in Identity Crisis. So why does he act like he did thirty years ago? Why did he ask where Professor Stein is, when Stein hadn’t been part of Firestorm for years at that point? Why does Ronnie, a recovering alcoholic, blow off Gehenna’s funeral to go to a kegger? And why, if the union between Jason and Ronnie is meant to be the new version of Firestorm, as seen on Batman: The Brave and the Bold, does Ronnie get control of the body? Well, I know the answer to that one: Because if Firestorm still had the body of a black man, he wouldn’t look like he did in 1978.

Firestorm died in Identity Crisis? I read that piece of trash, but I’d forgotten that. Ronnie’s a recovering alcoholic? Firestorm’s tying in somehow to the Brave and the Bold cartoon? Yeesh, this is all the sort of BS that needs to get sliced away and discarded (or else I’ll be trying to figure out why Firestorm isn’t still a fire elemental, like John Ostrander revealed him to be), the sort of thing Geoff Johns did well in Green Lantern, picking the pieces he wanted to play with and ignoring the rest. You can repeat this for most of the other characters herein, and then there are some new bits that make no sense at all (Aquaman being reluctant to go into the water, for example).

There’s some potential here, but the cast is too large, and this is really a horrible lead-in to the series. My guess it that it will be better than Countdown to Final Crisis (it could hardly be worse), but not anywhere near as good as 52 was.

On the art side, Fernando Pasarin’s art is pretty solid, though unspectacular. This seems to be DC’s house style these days: Clean, solidly-rendered, judicious use of shadows, lots of details, somewhat generic faces and expressions. More than a little evocative of George Pérez and Dan Jurgens, without being as distinctive as either. (Nicola Scott and Ivan Reis are similar.)

I might try the first couple of issues, but Brightest Day will have to come out of the gate strong (assuming that this issue is it just getting into the gate) for me to keep reading.

On the other hand, I think Sims is far too kind to the new Flash series. He is right about this: Bringing back Barry Allen was completely unnecessary, especially as Wally West has been such a great Flash for the last quarter of a century (wow, has it really been that long?). Then again, bringing back Hal Jordan as Green Lantern was not exactly essential either, and that’s worked out well. The difference is that Barry’s death occurred at the lowest point in the character’s creative history, and he died heroically in a much-beloved series (Crisis on Infinite Earths), whereas Hal was killed off awkwardly after becoming a villain for no good reason, so bringing Barry back actually cheapens his death (and his return hasn’t been handled with anywhere near the style of the other resurrected hero whose return has previously been verboten – Ed Brubaker bringing back Bucky in Captain America was orders of magnitude better than this, as I said last week).

But, Barry’s back, and he’s been given a new series, and that’s how it goes.

In any event, this issue is no better than Brightest Day above. To start with, this story is just bogged down in continuity, explicit or implied: The Flash has been dead, and presumably everyone knows that, but now he’s back. And so is Barry Allen, but it’s unclear whether everyone knows that the two are the same guy, and you’d pretty much have to be an idiot not to have figured it out, if you knew Barry personally. Johns blurred the line in Green Lantern about whether everyone knew who Hal was – you could almost believe that everyone did know, and just didn’t care – but here it seems like all of Barry’s friends are idiots. (Never mind that his wife Iris had disappeared for years, too, and came back, and then apparently got 20 years younger. Good trick, that.) Johns wants to push past all the getting-back-to-his-life stuff and get to the story, but I just don’t buy it, especially since Barry and Iris were the stereotypical midwest, middle-American couple, living in a cute little ranch home and working their day jobs, and that life is so far from where the characters are starting now, it’s impossible to credit.

The plot involves one of Flash’s villains (of his so-called Rogues Gallery) showing up dead – only it doesn’t seem to be him. It’s just the barest hint of the story, so there’s not much to review there (though there’s atwist on the last two pages), but most of the issue is given over to Barry getting back to his life. And that’s a yawn-fest.

The big knock against the issue is the art: Francis Manapul was just good enough on Jim Shooter’s recently Legion of Super-Heroes run with his uninspiring “Image-esque” style helped by some clean linework, but his style here is a lot more cartoony and sketchy, and I think it just looks awful. The characters all look kind of childlike, with indistinguishable faces (which look deformed whenever the panel is composed looking up at the face), the inks look more like pencils, there are unnecessary speed lines everywhere (yes, even for The Flash they’re unnecessary), and on top of that the colors look washed out. I almost passed on this series because of Manapul’s presence alone, and this first issue makes me think I should’ve gone with my first instinct. (I’m not really sure who I think they should have gotten to draw the series. Ethan Van Scyver was not a great choice in The Flash: Rebirth, even though I like his art a lot better. Dan Jurgens doesn’t have the right dynamism. But the series needs to look more grown-up and solid than the look Manapul gives it here. Norm Breyfogle might have brought the series a similar look but more weight – he did a good job on the criminally-overlooked miniseries Flashpoint ten years ago.)

Flash after one issue has all the indications of being a train wreck. To be sure, Green Lantern got off to a very slow start, but at least it had lovely artwork to fall back on. Flash needs to get much better on all fronts very quickly for me to care enough to stick around.

Is John Byrne doing the best Star Trek comics of the last 20 years, or the best Star Trek comics ever? It sure is hard to tell. Other than the quirky and unsatisfying Assignment: Earth series, every Byrne Trek comic at IDW has been pitch-perfect, wonderfully illustrated stuff exploring the fringes of the original cast milieu. Leonard McCoy, Frontier Doctor follows the irascible surgeon as he embarks on a voyage to the Federation frontier to help people with his skills, in the period between classic Trek and the first feature film, so it’s a medium for Byrne to spin a few clever science fiction yarns. Less ambitious than his Romulans series, but that’s hardly a problem as Crew had a similar approach, and I think that’s the best of his series yet.

If I have a criticism it’s that his rendering of the good doctor seem slightly off to me. Granted, McCoy’s got a full beard here (as he did when he first appeared in The Motion Picture), but something about his eyes and his mouth make him appear a little older and grumpier than even he ought to. Still, the issue as a whole is fun stuff, and I’m looking forward to the rest.

(I wonder if Byrne has aspirations of doing a truly epic Trek series at IDW at some point, something on a grander scale than even the Romulans story? That’s be something to see.)

This month’s issue of Atomic Robo and the Revenge of the Vampire Dimension doesn’t feature any vampires, nor any dimensions (well, other than the usual three). It does feature Atomic Robo and also revenge, although the revenge isn’t by vampires. False advertising?

Anyway, this one takes place in Japan and is yet another homage to Japanese monster movies, which means (this being Atomic Robo) it involves a lot of smashing, interspersed with snarky remarks by Robo. It’s a pretty good issue, actually, but sameness is starting to set in to Atomic Robo I’ve been hoping that writer Brian Clevinger would start pulling together Robo’s long backstory (he was created by Nikola Tesla) into a larger drama, but it’s basically one slugfest after another. The previous volume, Shadow From Beyond Time, was the best one yet precisely because it was a carefully-laid-out story arc, but Revenge of the Vampire Dimension reverts to the one-offs of the previous two volumes.

This could be such a great series, and it’s really frustrating that it can’t rise above the level of lightweight adventure stuff.

This Week's Haul

A huge week this week, the most expensive I can recall in recent memory. (Okay, I bought some Magic cards, too, since my Worldwake booster boxes haven’t arrived yet.) Two hardcovers, two paperbacks, and a goodly set of books.

  • Green Lantern #51, by Geoff Johns & Doug Mahnke (DC)
  • Green Lantern Corps #45, by Peter J. Tomasi, Patrick Gleason, Rebecca Buchman, Keith Champagne & Tom Nguyen (DC)
  • Power Girl #9, by Justin Gray, Jimmy Palmiotti & Amanda Conner (DC)
  • The Starman Omnibus vol 4 HC, by James Robinson, Jerry Ordway, Tony Harris,Peter Krause, Mike Mignola, Gary Erskine, Matt Smith, Mike Mayhew, Gene Ha, Wade Von Grawbadger, Dick Giordano & others (DC)
  • Fantastic Four: In Search of Galactus HC, by Marv Wolfman, Keith Pollard, John Buyne, Sal Buscema & Joe Sinnott (Marvel)
  • Guardians of the Galaxy #23, by Dan Abnett, Andy Lanning, Wed Craig & Serge LaPointe (Marvel)
  • The Incredible Hercules #141, by Greg Pak, Fred Van Lente & Rodney Buchemi (Marvel)
  • Marvels: Eye of the Camera #6 of 6, by Kurt Busiek, Roger Stern & Jay Anacleto (Marvel)
  • Incorruptible #3, by Mark Waid, Jean Diaz & Belardino Brabo (Boom)
  • Star Trek: Romulans: Pawns of War TPB, by John Byrne (IDW)
  • Invincible #70, by Robert Kirkman & Ryan Ottley (Image)
  • Jack Staff: Rocky Realities vol 4 TPB, by Paul Grist (Image)
  • Atomic Robo: Revenge of the Vampire Dimension #1 of 4, by Brian Clevinger & Scott Wegener (Red 5)
After a long delay, the final issue of Marvels: Eye of the Camera is out this week. My adoration of Kurt Busiek‘s writing knows few bounds, but this is not one of his best series. It follows the protagonist of the first series, Daily Bugle photographer Phil Sheldon, after he learns that he has cancer, and his life in the 1970s and 80s as he watches the Marvel universe develop around him. But rather than being an everyman’s chronicle of key points in the development of Marvel’s world, it’s a rather glum, somewhat sentimental portrayal of Phil coming to grips with the end of his life. And where the first Marvels spotlighted some of the truly great moments of early Marvel comics, few of the scenes depicted in Eye of the Camera measure up. This final issue shows a fight between the X-Men and… someone, a story I dimly remember as it was published around the time I decided X-Men had become unreadable and I dropped it, but compared to the Human Torch vs. the Sub-Mariner, or the Fantastic Four vs. Galactus, it’s an almost comically trivial encounter.

The best stuff in the series really does feature Sheldon, particular in this issue when the mutant Maggie, who as a girl hid out in the Sheldons’ baseman, returns to visit Phil on his deathbed, and they reminisce about that, and Phil puts a big chunk of his life into perspective.

But on the other hand, in a world in which characters survive and barely age for decades, it’s especially sad to see a likable, practically heroic, man like Phil die quietly like he does, and be buried in the ground like anyone else while superheroes fly overhead. As a writer himself (Phil is a writer as well as a photographer), and given his medical history over the last decade, I’m sure Busiek is putting some of his own thoughts and feelings down in this story. It’s not that it doesn’t work at all, but despite Phil’s attempts to put a brave face on his last moments and his legacy, it ends up feeling like too little, not rewarding enough for Phil or for us reading about him.

Jay Anacleto is no Alex Ross, and his figures and expressions often feel a little stiff, and too understated. And where Ross brought a surprising degree of verisimilitude to the superhero sequences he painted, Anacleto can’t duplicate the feat here.

Overall I was disappointed in Eye of the Camera, feeling that the sense of wonder that drove the first Marvels series to be mostly missing, and not really being compelled by the personal drama that was driving the story. I imagine people who read character drama-driven independent comics would get more out of the book than I did, but then people who read those comics are not very likely to pick up a Marvel title.

It’s time for another plug of the lovely Starman omnibus hardcovers that DC is publishing. The series was not entirely collected in paperback, and it’s neat to be able to read the whole thing, including a lot of ancillary material, in this oversized package.

The run is reaching the end of its heyday, as Tony Harris didn’t last a lot beyond this point (we’re up to issue #46 with this volume), and Peter Snejbjerg is a decent artist but he doesn’t have anywhere near the range or rendering awesomeness of Harris. This volume collects the crossover with The Power of SHAZAM, which was a lot of fun as an example of how a non-mainstream series can interact with a completely mainstream one, as well as the excellent Starman 80-Page Giant which featured a story with each Starman character up to that point, including the mysterious Starman of 1951. Plus they collect the Batman/Starman/Hellboy mini-series, which I’d completely forgotten about. Finally, they set things up for the next major story arc, in which Jack Knight goes into outer space to find his girlfriend’s missing brother.

I’d thought the omnibus series was intended to be 6 volumes, but with another 34 issues to go, I bet it’ll be 7 or 8 instead, especially if they include – for instance, the first arc of JSA, in which Jack Knight appeared in a supporting role (as James Robinson helped launch that series). Regardless, I’ll be very happy to have this whole set on my shelf.

Another excellent hardcover collection of a great Marvel Comics story from my childhood. Back in the early 1970s, after first Jack Kirby and then Stan Lee had left the Fantastic Four, the book really suffered creatively. In the late 70s, Marv Wolfman took over writing and editing the book and produced a memorable run full of action, adventure, and character drama – really, bringing it back to the roots that Lee and Kirby had brought up. This era is largely forgotten for two reasons: First, because John Byrne’s later run – actually only about a year and a half later – has been so acclaimed that it’s utterly eclipsed Wolfman’s run. Second, because Wolfman’s run was awkwardly aborted; I’m not sure why, but I suspect it had to do with personality clashes when Jim Shooter became editor-in-chief of Marvel (both Wolfman and longtime Marvel veteran Roy Thomas jumped to DC around that time). Wolfman had spent his two years on the title setting up some long-term plot threads, the most major of which was somewhat abruptly wrapped up after Wolfman left, and another of which – really just a moment of foreshadowing – was dealt with two years later by Byrne. It’s too bad, because I’d have liked to see Wolfman have the chance to build a legacy on the FF similar to that of Lee and Kirby. On the other hand, his departure not only opened the door for Byrne’s run (which is quite good), but also meant Wolfman could write The New Teen Titans, which is, frankly, even better.

This collection is a terrific outer-space odyssey in which Xandar – home of the Nova Corps – recruits the FF to help defend them against a Skrull armada. The FF are captured and sentenced to death – via a ray which will cause them to age to that point in just 3 days. Meanwhile, one of Xandar’s allies, the Sphinx, unlocks the power of his mystical gemstone and goes insane, displaying a cosmic level of power, and returning to Earth planning to reshape his homeworld. The FF are forced into a faustian bargain with Galactus to have the world-eater stop the Sphinx, after which all they have to do is find a way to stop Galactus and save themselves from the ravages of accelerated time.

Wolfman tells as good an adventure story as you’d have found in comics of the day, certainly the equal of what Chris Claremont and Byrne were doing on X-Men, and with art by Byrne, Keith Pollard, and longtime FF inker Joe Sinnott. If you’re a fan of any era of the FF, check this one out, because it’s really good. The current series by Jonathan Hickman and Dale Eaglesham doesn’t really compare, even though it’s not bad by any means.

John Byrne’s Romulans comics get collected this month. His Star Trek comics for IDW (other than Assignment: Earth) are in my mind the best Trek comics I’ve seen since Mike W. Barr and Tom Sutton’s run for DC: He’s got the classic Trek look down, and he’s playing around in the backwaters of the universe while still telling recognizably Trek stories.

This collection is an arc which comes out of the classic episode Balance of Terror (one chapter of the book tells that story from the point of view of the Romulan commander, memorably played by Mark Lenard), and involves the Klingon/Romulan alliance, heavily based around the Klingons trying to manipulate the Romulans to get around the Organian peace treaty. It’s a pretty good story overall, although it has a disappointing ending (the Organians show up and, well, that’s it for the conflict), and when most of the major characters are anti-heroes or villains, well, it’s hard to root for anyone. Still, good stuff. I hope Byrne has more Star Trek stories in the pipeline, because I’d read ’em.

This Week's Haul

Powered by the love and affection of the Wizard convention circuit, it’s time for another round of reviews:

  • Doom Patrol #4, by Keith Giffen, Justiniano & Livesay, and J.M. DeMatteis & Kevin Maguire (DC)
  • Secret Six #15, by John Ostrander & Jim Calafiore (DC)
  • Astonishing X-Men #32, by Warren Ellis, Phil Jimenez & Andy Lanning (Marvel)
  • Immortal Weapons #4 of 5, by Duane Swierczynski, Khari Evans, Victor Olazaba & Allen Martinez, and Hatuey Diaz (Marvel)
  • Nova #1, by Dan Abnett, Andy Lanning & Andrea DiVito (Marvel)
  • The Secret History book six, by Jean-Pierre Pécau & Igor Kordey (Archaia)
  • Absolution #3 of 6, by Christos Gage & Roberto Viacava (Avatar)
  • The Unknown: The Devil Made Flesh #2 of 4, by Mark Waid & Minck Oosterveer (Boom)
  • Age of Reptiles #1 of 4, by Ricardo Delgado (Dark Horse)
  • Witchfinder: In The Service of Angels #5 of 5, by Mike Mignola & Ben Stenbeck (Dark Horse)
  • The Boys #36, by Garth Ennis & Darick Robertson (Dynamite)
  • Star Trek: Romulans: Schism #3 of 3, by John Byrne (IDW)
Doom Patrol #4 I admit it: I’m a sucker. I signed up with my comics shop for DC’s Blackest Night promotional ring giveaway. It’s not like I don’t have enough random crap around my house that I need a bunch of plastic rings, but something about the idea appealed to me just enough to sign up. The catch is that I’ll buy single issues of a bunch of comic books I don’t usually buy, so we’ll see if any of them are good enough to me to keep buying them. And you get to go along for the ride with me!

And I’m far from the only one jumping on this bandwagon: Lots of other people have, too, which means a big sales spike for some DC titles. Which probably means more of this promotional gimmick in the future. But that’s okay, I don’t have to buy into any more of them if I don’t want to.

Doom Patrol is the latest incarnation of the venerable Silver Age comic featuring normal people who acquired super powers which made them outcasts from the rest of society. At its best, the series plumbed the depths of this premise better than its Marvel counterpart, The X-Men; at its worst, it was routine superhero fare. Not a bad legacy for a book that was – aside the bizarre Grant Morrison run in the 80s – a B-list title. But as with many such titles from DC, the book has a history so convoluted I really can’t figure out its continuity, including a re-launch by John Byrne (which I skipped) which seemed to throw all previous continuity out the door (which, honestly, is fine with me) and return to the original cast of Robotman, Negative Man, Elasti-Woman and the Chief. Apparently Infinite Crisis restored the team’s previous continuity, which makes absolutely no sense to me, and it appears from the Wikipedia article that DC went to greater-than-usual lengths to explain away the inconsistencies. Sigh.

So this issue – which features the deceased members of the “new” Doom Patrol of the late 70s coming back to fight the “new original” team of this decade – makes my head hurt, since I understand just enough of the continuity to know who these people are, but not enough to be able to make any sense of how these two teams could coexist in their current state. Would it be easier for a new reader to make heads or tails of this book, or harder? I really have no idea.

Is the story any good? Well, it’s not awful, but it’s little more than a collection of disparate fights, and I don’t have enough attachment to any of the characters to feel the emotions that I’m presumably supposed to feel about the dead characters coming back, and honestly the main Blackest Night title has pretty much gone the distance with that premise anyway. The issue ends on a cliffhanger which is interesting enough that I just might buy the next issue, but it’s a close thing. As an introduction to the series, this issue isn’t a very good one. The art by Justiniano and Livesay (what is it with single-name artists these days, anyway?) is pretty good, solid, dynamic, stylistic enough to grab my attention, especially in the last two pages. If you like Doug Mahnke’s or Ariel Olivetti’s art, you’ll find the art here to your taste.

The issue features a back-up story by the creative team of Justice League International introducing a set of fembot villains for the Metal Men, another B-list team of Silver Age heroes, and who barely appear in the story. I wasn’t a fan of the jokey nature of the JLI era, so this story didn’t do much for me. (As back-ups go, the Blue Beetle story in the back of Booster Gold has been much better.)

So I can’t recommend Doom Patrol #4 for anything more than the promotional ring.

Age of Reptiles: The Journey #1 Ricardo Delgado published two Age of Reptiles mini-series a decade or so ago, and as an unreformed childhood dinosaur lover, I loved them. They’re serious “this is what it could have been like” stories of the giant lizards hunting, eating, fighting, protecting their young, only a little anthropomorphized to give the story a plot. Delgado’s artwork brings the creatures to life like nothing else I can recall seeing. They’re well worth seeking out.

Now the reptiles are back in The Journey, the first issue of which has left me slightly baffled. As you can see from the cover to the left, all the animals seem to be heading somewhere, and there are hints inside that they might be looking for warmer climate as the earth cools, and the mix of beasts could be from the late Cretaceous period. But the story seems a little buried in the set-up. Still, as I recall from the first two series, it’s the whole that matters, not just the individual issues.

Delgado’s art is still great, although it seems a little less detailed than in the past. Maybe my expectations for this series were so high that I was bound to be disappointed by the first issue. But I’ll still be picking up the whole thing, so check back in a few months to see if the whole outweighs the sum of the parts.

Witchfinder: In the Service of Angels #5 I’ve been on the Hellboy bandwagon for so long that I guess I’m just jaded. Some of the stories are very good, most are okay, few are bad. When push comes to shove, Witchfinder is closer to the “bad” end of the spectrum. Sir Edward Grey was a (fictional) occult investigator in the Victorian era, much like Hellboy in the 20th century. His adventure in this 5-issue series just didn’t make a lot of sense to me, trying to stop a demon killing people in London by reuniting it with its bones, and with various occult stops along the way. The story was too convoluted for me to sink my teeth into, and there wasn’t a single character worth caring about. Overall I think the series was just too clever for its own good, and it lost sight of telling a good story.
Star Trek: Romulans: Schism #3 John Byrne’s Star Trek Romulans series apparently comes to an end this month, a bit to my surprise as I’d thought this was going to be another 5-issue series.

As I’ve said before, Byrne’s telling easily the most entertaining Star Trek stories I’ve read in years, maybe decades, and he has the visual look of the classic Trek series down pat. His Romulan story has been a shadow history of the Klingon/Romulan alliance implied by the third season of classic Trek. The Hollow Crown described how the Klingons engineered the death of the Romulan Emperor to put their own puppet on the throne to get around the Organian Treaty forced on them with the Federation. Schism is the other end of that story, as hostilities among the Klingons, Federation and Romulans come to a head in a fairly nifty (and wonderfully well-illustrated) space battle.

The only real downside to the story is that it ends rather abruptly, with a literal deus-ex-machina with no believable explanation for why it didn’t arise previously. The story ends seemingly setting up yet another arc in the same storyline, but I understand this is the last chapter, so I’m not quite sure what’s going on.

That’s really the achilles heel in Byrne’s Trek stories: They’re entertaining, but the endings are abrupt, ambiguous, and/or perplexing so it’s hard to see what the point of the story is. It’s frustrating, even as light adventure fare (which after all is what Star Trek is). All the pieces are intriguing enough that if Byrne keeps writing ’em and IDW keeps printing ’em then I’ll keep publishing ’em, hoping that eventually all the pieces fall into place and he produces a truly great one.

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.

Star Trek: The Reboot

J.J. Abrams’ new Star Trek film is sort of the anti-Battlestar Galactica. BSG took a fairly goofy old TV series and turned it into a serious adventure drama. Star Trek takes what was a serious adventure drama (well, for its time) and turns it into a goofy movie.

Myself, I’m an unreconstructed original series fan, and I happily enjoy those old episodes and the early movies while ignoring almost everything that followed. So I was just hoping for a good movie. Well, it’s got lots of action and plenty of humor, but it also self-consciously compares itself to the original series at every turn, and the story makes basically no sense, while blazing no new ground. So it was a rollicking ride, but ultimately it’s just another action film.

Spoilers ahoy!

Read on, Macduff! »

This Week’s Haul

Some really good stuff this week:

Powers vol 12: The 25 Coolest Dead Superheroes of All Time The latest volume of Powers has one downside: The title. “The 25 Coolest Dead Superheroes of All Time” may be a cute little joke – which is how it’s used in the story – but it’s a terrible title for this volume.

The reason it’s a terrible title is that this is one of the best volumes in the Powers series, which is the culmination of 30 issues of storytelling.

There’s a virus on the streets giving people powers, but leaving many of them ending up dead, too. Detective Deena Pilgrim was infected a while ago – a bad thing since having powers is illegal unless you register them – and ha run away from the force to try to stop the people responsible for and profiting off the virus. Her former partner, Christian Walker, used to be a superhero before he lost his powers, but he recently gained now powers, but only for fighting cosmic threats to Earth. And having powers is illegal, right? He’s also trying to find who’s responsible for the disease.

Pilgrim is in her own private purgatory and has been pushed about as far down as she can go, while Walker’s new partner is charged by internal affairs with finding out things about the both of them. It’s an ugly situation, and it all comes down to a big roll-of-the-dice which puts everyone at risk. And as a story it works out wonderfully. How it works out for the characters… you’ll want to read for yourself.

This volume is some of Bendis’ best writing ever, with some particularly poignant statements to make about what it means to have powers. Other than the title, if the book has a downside, it’s the sad fact that the series comes out so rarely while Bendis is writing mainstream books for Marvel. Not that I begrudge him the success he’s had in that vein (even if those titles aren’t my cup of tea), but Powers will be the book people remember 30 years from now, and much like Kurt Busiek’s series Astro City, it’s too bad we don’t get more of it.

Still, we should be grateful for what we do get.

Star Trek: Crew #1 John Byrne’s last Star Trek-related series, Assignment: Earth, was rather a bust, as it was five standalone stories which didn’t really give us any insight into the characters or ultimately go anywhere. Nonetheless I decided to give his new series, Crew a try, and from the first issue it’s 100% better.

Apparently it’s going to focus on Number One, the first office of Captain Christopher Pike in the original Trek pilot, “The Cage”, and who was portrayed by Majel Barrett. This first issue takes place on the shakedown cruise of the USS Enterprise before it was commissioned; Number One – who was never named in the pilot and isn’t named here – is a cadet assigned to help with the cruise, and who engineers the saving of the ship from an enemy plot. The plot isn’t especially sophisticated, but Byrne nails the look of Starfleet and makes the characters and situation compelling enough to make it one of the better one-issue stories I’ve read recently.

If the rest of the series is this good, it ought to be a lot of fun indeed.

Invincible #60 A whirlwind year of Invincible wraps up with “The Invincible War”, a double-sized issue in which reality-hopping villain Angstrom Levy sends 20 evil counterparts of Invincible from parallel Earths to our hero’s own world to conquer it and humiliate him. It doesn’t work, of course, but 20 Invincibles manage to beat down the whole roster of heroes from the Image universe before they’re stopped.

This issue is like the series in microcosm: Inventive writing and artwork, hard-hitting situations and visuals (yes, there’s blood and gore), and life-altering events happening to series regulars – not to mention the rest of the world. – and despite being a single-issue story, it both picks up threads from earlier issues and sets up elements for future issues. Invincible is like a television drama which alters the status quo regularly. While its sensibilities are too modern to truly compare it to monthly comics of decades past, that’s what I often think of when I read it: Kirkman and Ottley are having fun pulling out all the stops and moving pieces around every month, and while it’s not ‘good clean fun’, it is a great ride. I’m not sure why it took me so long to discover this comic, but I sure am glad I have.

This issue has a double-foldout-wraparound cover – when was the last time you saw one of those? – by series artist Ryan Ottley, and you can see it in its entirety here.