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This Week's Haul

It’s the last comics haul of 2010! And… it’s the last entry in this series I’m going to do. I’ve been writing this column almost-weekly for over four years, and my enthusiasm for it has flagged over the past year. I’ve decided it’s time to turn my attention to other things and not worry about getting in a column each week. I hope those of you who have followed my ramblings have enjoyed them. I do plan to write about comics from time to time, but probably in a different format.

  • Action Comics #896, by Paul Cornell & Pete Woods (DC)
  • Green Lantern #61, by Geoff Johns, Doug Mahnke & Christian Alamy (DC)
  • Justice Society of America #46, by Marc Guggenheim & Scott Kolins (DC)
  • Astonishing X-Men: Xenogenesis #4 of 5, by Warren Ellis & Kaare Andrews (Marvel)
  • Captain America #613, by Ed Brubaker, Butch Guice, Stefano Gaudiano & Rick Magyar (Marvel)
  • S.H.I.E.L.D. #5, by Jonathan Hickman & Dustin Weaver (Marvel)
  • Echo #27, by Terry Moore (Abstract)
  • Hellboy: The Sleeping and the Dead #1 of 2, by Mike Mignola & Scott Hampton (Dark Horse)
  • The Royal Historian of Oz #3, by Tommy Kovac & Andy Hirsch (SLG)
I’ve been reviewing each issue of Astonishing X-Men: Xenogenesis mainly because Kaare Andrews’ covers have been so awful – comically so, really. But this cover is not bad, even if it is another take on the old “warrior with babe hanging onto his leg” image.

Warren Ellis’ story is gelling into a new reworking of Alan Moore’s great Captain Britain storyline involving Jim Jaspers, a mutant who can bend reality, the Furies, unbeatable killing machines, and Warpies, mutant-like babies with destructive powers. Other than tying into his invention of universe-hopping Ghost Boxes, Ellis hasn’t really done much very new with the pieces; an army of Furies is even more unbeatable than the original one was, and it’s kind of amazing that none of the X-Men have been outright killed as yet. And it’s hard to see exactly how the story’s going to wrap up in just one more issues.

Ellis’ Astonishing X-Men run has been fairly interesting, and it feels like it’s gradually building towards something, but it’s been very frustrating that it’s been so plagued by delays. I don’t know if it’s Ellis’ scripts running behind, or the musical chairs among the artists, or that all of the artists have fallen behind, or if editorial is just asleep at the switch (or doesn’t care), but this run really needed to stay on a decent schedule to work. Long delays are a good recipe for fan apathy, and it’s hard for me to work up much enthusiasm for what Ellis is doing here anymore.

Strangely, this month’s Captain America is “The Trial of Captain America” part three, and yet the cover (at left) says “It begins!” Huh? The cover is accurate, since the actual trial starts in this issue.

Those details aside, it’s another good issue. The Red Skull’s daughter throws a big wrench into the works of the defense, in a typically Brubakeran clever way – she planned ahead. (If you think about it, in comics villains are proactive and heroes are reactive.) I’m not quite sure how Cap’s going to get out of this one, especially since the usual comic book cliché of doing a good deed so that all is forgiven is just not Brubaker’s style. Brubaker’s probably got more tricks up his sleeve, though. (Of course, the most straightforward solution to the problem – that Cap, currently Bucky Barnes, was a foreign agent during the Cold War – is to find a former-Soviet official who can actually testify that Cap was brainwashed into acting as the Winter Soldier. In some ways that seems too simple, yet in others it seems a perfectly reasonable thing to do, in keeping with Brubaker’s writing style.)

All things considered, I think Steve Rogers is more interesting as Cap than Bucky is, but I’m not sure where Bucky really fits in in the modern Marvel universe otherwise. No doubt Steve will take up the mantle again eventually, though.

Jonathan Hickman’s S.H.I.E.L.D. has been getting good word-of-mouth, but I’ve found it pretty tedious. It’s a combination shadow history/conspiracy book: S.H.I.E.L.D. has been around for thousands of years protecting the world against amazing threats (like Galactus). In the 1950s, a young man named Leonid is being inducted, but his father, the Night Machine, tries to stop it. He in turn is stopped by Howard Stark and Nathaniel Richards, and the three disappear. Leonid then learns that he’s in the middle of a power struggle between S.H.I.E.L.D. leaders Sir Isaac Newton and Leonardo Da Vinci, both of whom (along with Nostradamus) seem to be immortal.

Aside from feeling that another “everything you know is wrong” story set in the Marvel Universe seems like overkill, the presence of all these real-life figures, still living centuries after their supposed deaths, seems basically ridiculous. Basically the series hasn’t sold me on any of its core elements, and the story itself has been pretty ponderous.

That said, this issue is better than the ones that have gone before, as we find that Stark, Richards and the Night Machine have been thrown hundreds of thousands of years into the future, where Earth seems to be devoid of humanity. But they come across the remnants of a city (beautifully depicted in a 2-page spread by Dustin Weaver) strongly reminiscent of the age of Rama-Tut (one of the Fantastic Four’s old foes). Of course, it’s not entirely clear how this diversion fits into the main story, but it is the most gosh-wow moment in the series so far. (It has an appearance at the end by someone whom I infer is Snowbird of Alpha Flight. And the revelation that the Night Machine is in fact Nikola Tesla, which is rather less cool a fact.)

The rest of the issue furthers Leonid’s introduction to the Newton/Da Vinci backstory, as well as filling in some of Stark and Richards’ backstory. Decent enough stuff, but still a lot more telling than doing, which is standard for this series. Overall S.H.I.E.L.D. could be really good, but it would have to be really different for that to happen. Unless all of this is the barest introduction to a long arc – which picks up fairly soon – I expect I’ll get bored and drop the series. (And it’s even slower than I’d thought, because it’s being published bimonthly!)

I picked up the first two issues of The Royal Historian of Oz at the SLG booth at APE in the fall. Although I’m hardly an Oz fanatic, I enjoyed the Baum books when I was a kid, and I’ve enjoyed some of the spin-off titles that have been published in the last 20 years. (Indeed, I think they’re a strong argument for letting creations fall into the public domain once their creators die.) I think my favorite was Oz Squad, which started as a dark take on the series (Tik Tok comes to Earth and his morality spring runs down, causing him to become a psychopath, and the “original four” Oz characters have to take him down and bring him back), but toned down the darkness in later issues in an entertaining time travel story.

Royal Historian takes place in a dystopian future in which Jasper Fizzle writes new Oz stories (despite having no talent), and is branded an outlaw by the keepers of Oz lore. But then Jasper finds a way to get to Oz itself, and brings back some of its wonders to put on display. His son, Frank, is the book’s hero, having been embarrassed by his father’s obsession, but then amazed at what Frank brings back from Oz. However Frank is then captured by Ozma and her citizens to be held hostage until Jasper returns the items he’s stolen.

This issue focuses on Frank’s reactions to actually being in Oz, and takes the interesting approach of overwhelming him with characters in very short order – also overwhelming me, the reader, as I don’t remember half the characters who show up here. Jellia Jamb I kind of remember, but Button-Bright? The Glass Cat? At first I found it too much to take in, but then I figured that was kind of the point: Given Oz’s substantial backstory and large cast, a real person being thrown into it might be similarly overwhelmed. Kind of clever, if that’s what writer Tommy Kovac intended. After a mishap in the castle, Frank is sent with the Tin Woodsman to live in the countryside, where he gets a more measured exposure to some of the wonders of Oz.

The story has been a little slow so far, but it’s getting more entertaining now that we’re in Oz and not on the dreary Earth that Kovacs and artist Andy Hirsch have come up with. Hirsch has a cartoony style (somewhat similar to that of Rob Guillory on Chew), but his panels are pretty complex. It’s always interesting to see how different artists take on the Oz characters, and Hirsch makes the Scarecrow look kind of creepy, while the Woodsman is downright inhuman, albeit likable in his way.

I think the biggest drawback to the book is that few characters in it are likable: Jasper is a talentless obsessive, and now a thief. Frank is a bit of a blank slate, largely defined by his frustrating with his father. Most of the Oz characters shown in this issue seem mentally unbalanced at best, and as creepy as the Scarecrow in many ways. The book really needs Frank to become better-defined and his own man. Otherwise it’s hard to find someone to root for, or a cause I can believe they’d get behind. If the creators keep publishing (always a risky proposition for small-press comics) and can work out some of these issues, then this could be a lot of fun. But it’s not there yet.

That’s all for this year! Thanks for reading!

This Week's Haul

The last two weeks, spanning my recent vacation:

Two Weeks Ago:

  • Batman Beyond #4 of 6, by Adam Beechen, Ryan Benjamin & John Stanisci (DC)
  • Green Lantern: Emerald Warriors #2, by Peter J. Tomasi, Fernando Pasarin & Cam Smith (DC)
  • The Unwritten #17, by Mike Carey & Peter Gross (DC/Vertigo)
  • Zatanna #5, by Paul Dini, Chad Hardin & Wayne Faucher (DC)
  • Steve Rogers: Super-Soldier #3 of 4, by Ed Brubaker & Dale Eaglesham (Marvel)
  • The Mystery Society #3 of 5, by Steve Niles & Fiona Staples (IDW)
  • Morning Glories #1 & 2, by Nick Spencer & Joe Eisma (Image)

Last Week:

  • DC Universe: Legacies #5 of 10, by Len Wein, Scott Kolins, George Pérez, Walt Simonson & Scott Koblish (DC)
  • Fables #98, by Bill Willingham, Mark Buckingham & Steve Leialoha (DC/Vertigo)
  • The Flash #4, by Geoff Johns & Francis Manapul (DC)
  • Green Lantern Corps #52, by Tony Bedard, Ardian Syaf & Vicente Cifuentes (DC)
  • Legion of Super-Heroes #5, by Paul Levitz, Yildiray Cinar, Francis Portela & Wayne Faucher (DC)
  • Power Girl #16, by Judd Winick & Sami Basri (DC)
  • Astonishing X-Men: Xenogenesis #3 of 5, by Warren Ellis & Kaare Andrews (Marvel)
  • Captain America: Reborn TPB, by Ed Brubaker, Bryan Hitch, Butch Guice, Luke Ross & Rick Magyar (Marvel)
  • Fantastic Four #583, by Jonathan Hickman & Steve Epting (Marvel)
  • Dynamo 5: Sins of the Father #4 of 5, by Jay Faerber & Júlio Brilha (Image)

The new series Morning Glories has gotten some good word-of-mouth, so I picked up the first two issues to check it out. At a glance, it looks like it’s going to be a thriller story with a dash of horror: The Morning Glory Academy is a private high school recruiting the best and the brightest – but it has some horrific secrets within its walls. The opening sequence shows a pair of students trying to plumb its depths, and one of them comes to a terrible – well, not end, but close. Then we’re introduced to six new students joining the academy this year, who learn a couple of things: First, that when they contact their parents or anyone outside the school, no one remembers them, and second, that they all share the same birthday.

I’m not familiar with writer Nick Spencer, but his writing doles out just enough surprises and shocks to keep this being a page-turner (although the first issue bogs down a bit showing us perhaps more of the six protagonists’ home lives than was really needed – it’s a classic first issue problem, easing into the story a bit too gradually), and certainly there’s a strong sense of “what the hell is going on here?” Who benefits from terrorizing and molding these students, and what are their goals? There’s some sort of supernatural force at work, but I hope there will be much more behind the academy than simple horror film schtick. There’s too much good stuff here for the story to devolve into being just a horror comic (that, ultimately, was the problem with Joe Hill’s Locke and Key – ultimately, it was just a horror comic).

The gorgeous covers to the series are by Rodin Esquejo, but the interior art is by Joe Eisma, whose angular drawings and awkward layouts don’t really do justice to Spencer’s stories. In particular his faces are generic and it’s difficult to tell the characters apart – a fact which left me confused about the surprise at the end of the second issue until I realized the text was meant to be taken literally. I hope he’ll tighten up his pencils and add some more detail and variety to his art as the series progresses, because right now the art sometimes makes it difficult to follow.

So I can see what the buzz about Morning Glories is about, but it’s still very much a work-in-progress. Nonetheless, it’s pretty different from most of what’s out there, and overall it’s professionally executed, so I’m glad I picked it up. I’m just curious to see how high the ambitions rise for this series.

Yeah, I really just wanted to include this issue of Astonishing X-Men: Xenogenesis because the cover is so terrible. Worst cover ever? That’s probably pushing it, but it’s really awful, and of course has absolutely nothing to do with the story. A waste.

Warren Ellis’ story is both a little more interesting and a little less interesting this issue: Much of it is spent with Cyclops and an African dictator posturing and lecturing each other – the sort of moralizing Ellis always enjoys writing, but it’s terribly tediously done here. Otherwise the story is turning into a sequel the Captain Britain stories by Alan Moore and Alan Davis from 30 years ago. (If you want to plunk down the money for it – and it’s very good stuff, but perhaps not this good – you can read it all in the omnibus edition.) Ellis has already brought back the Warpies – grotesquely empowered children formed by a nearby dimensional breach – and brings back a couple of other surprising figures from the Moore/Davis stuff too. I’m mildly curious as to what he’s going to do with them, although I can’t shake the feeling that he’s just plumbing the depths of yet more ancient Marvel history. What’s the point? Why not create something new? Ellis has done some great stuff reworking old comics themes before, but Astonishing X-Men has been far from his best work, stuttering around the edges of the X-Men universe and not really getting to the point – there’s never any payoff. I understand the book has been plagued by delays, but still.

Kaare Andrews’ art: Okay at best. He has all of the weaknesses of Frank Quitely (somewhat-inhuman-looking people, poor backgrounds) with few of his strengths (his characters look ethereal where Quitely’s look solid, Quitely’s layouts are usually strong if stiff, while Andrews’ seem awkward). Visually, the book is a mess, and particular a disappointment given the artists Ellis has been working with in earlier issues of Astonishing.

If you want to see some great art, look no farther than Captain America: Reborn, the paperback collection of the series from a couple of years ago, which gets me nearly caught up on Ed Brubaker’s run on the character. Well okay, I think Bryan Hitch is a tad overrated as an artist, his figures being a little too perfect, and he never quite sells me on his characters’ emotions, but boy, you can’t fault him for his layouts or renderings, which are truly gorgeous.

Reborn features Brubaker once again attempting the impossible: Having convincingly brought Bucky Barnes back from the dead, he now bring back Steve Rogers, who was shot twice – once at very close range, by his mind-controlled lover – setting off months or mourning in the Marvel Universe. The kicker, of course, is that Steve wasn’t actually killed, something else happened, something that the mastermind behind events wanted to use to bring Cap around to his side, and Cap’s friends have to prevent the bad guys from finishing the job.

Brubaker doesn’t pull it off as well as he did Bucky’s revival, in large part because Bucky’s story was steeped in cold war black ops and shadowy figures, the sort of stuff Brubaker does best. This is an over-the-top fantasy, which doesn’t play to Brubaker’s strengths, and which features a chain of events which borders close enough to the absurd to make it hard to swallow. It is, in short, a Lee-and-Kirby plot written by a noir detective story guy. Brubaker gives it all he’s got, but I don’t think he quite pulls it off. It’s a fun ride, with many good moments, but it feels a bit awkward next to Brubaker’s other Cap stuff.

But really, if you just want some escapist fiction to entertain you for a couple of hours, you could do a lot worse. As a sort of “event” comic unto itself, and carefully integrated into the larger goings-on in the Marvel Universe, Brubaker naturally has some strict confines to work within. So I think this can be chalked up as a good try, which kept the overall story moving forward. Not bad stuff, really.

And man, the art sure is gorgeous.

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

While there were a few good books this week – John Byrne’s Star Trek comics are still maybe the best Trek stories since The Wrath of Khan – this week seemed dominated by disappointing and downright bad comics. So much so that it makes me wonder, “Do I really still love this medium?” Well sure I do, but they can’t all be winners. And sometimes you end up – somewhat to your surprise – with a big bucket of losers.

  • Batman: The Return of Bruce Wayne #1 of 6, by Grant Morrison, Chris Sprouse & Karl Story (DC)
  • Booster Gold #32, by Keith Giffen, J.M. DeMatteis, Chris Batista & Rich Perrotta (DC)
  • Fables #95, by Bill Willingham, Mark Buckingham & Steve Leialoha (DC/Vertigo)
  • First Wave #2 of 6, by Brian Azzarello & Rags Morales (DC)
  • The Flash #2, by Geoff Johns & Francis Manapul (DC)
  • The Unwritten #13, by Mike Carey & Peter Gross (DC/Vertigo)
  • Astonishing X-Men: Xenogenesis #1 of 5, by Warren Ellis & Kaare Andrews (Marvel)
  • The Marvels Project #8 of 8, by Ed Brubaker & Steve Epting (Marvel)
  • B.P.R.D.: King of Fear #5 of 5, by Mike Mignola, John Arcudi & Guy Davis (Dark Horse)
  • Star Trek: Leonard McCoy, Frontier Doctor #2 of 5, by John Byrne (IDW)
I’ve been pretty harsh on Grant Morrison’s comics over the last couple of years – Final Crisis in particular was nearly-pure drek – but The Return of Bruce Wayne, despite its bizarre conceit, is actually pretty good. The idea is that rather than being killed by Darkseid in Final Crisis, Batman was instead thrown into the past and – as we recently learned in Batman and Robin – has been somehow fighting his way back to the present. Now we see what he’s been up to, as in this issue he lands in the era of the cavemen where he falls in with a friendly tribe, and then avenges them after Vandal Savage’s evil tribe all-but-eliminates them. Then he mysteriously disappears into a body of water, just before Superman and others show up to try to save him (as I guess we’ll see in an upcoming Dan Jurgens mini-series), saying that if Batman makes it back to the 21st century on his own then “everyone dies”. And the issue ends with Wayne arriving in what appears to be Puritan England or America (though it’s hard to be sure).

Although vaguely evocative of some 1950s Batman time travel story, this is otherwise about as un-Batman-like a story as you can imagine, other than the fight with Savage, which is the highlight of the issue. It doesn’t really make a whole lot more sense than those old stories (in which Batman and Robin would travel through time or – if I recall correctly – to other worlds through hypnosis), as Wayne and the cavemen vaguely communicating through language makes no sense at all, nor (of course) does Batman disappearing through time, or various other details of the story. (It actually would have been pretty cool has Wayne become immortal by being exposed to the same meteor which made Savage immortal, and just living his way to the present, but that would have presented different problems.) But as a light adventure story it’s enjoyable enough. I think Morrison is once again being too clever by half to make it more deeply satisfying, though.

Much of the credit for the story’s success has to go to the always-outstanding Chris Sprouse on pencils. Sprouse has taken many a flawed story and made it enjoyable through the sheer strength of his artwork (Alan Moore’s Tom Strong, Warren Ellis’ WildC.A.T.s vs. Aliens), and I’d love to see him do more regular work or at least get paired with a first-rate story so he can shine even brighter. Someday, perhaps.

The Return of Bruce Wayne certainly isn’t a home run, but it’s got me intrigued, to see if Morrison can end up overcoming the weaknesses in the premise.

When I heard Keith Giffen was taking over writing Booster Gold, I’d had visions of him writing serious, weighty, dramatic material like he did for the excellent Marvel series Annihilation. I didn’t realize he was bringing J.M. DeMatteis and the execrable attitude of the awful Justice League International along with him. Yes, it’s just one stupid gag after another, wrapped up in a story of death and destruction as Booster goes to the 30th century to rescue an artifact from the planet Daxam just after Darkseid has turned all Daxamites into Superman-level killers near the end of the Great Darkness War.

At least they’re honest in the opening credits:

Have pity on poor Dan Jurgens, because Keith Giffen & J.M. DeMatteis are back — ready to soul his cherished creation, just like they did back in the 80s! […] Dan Didio & Jim Lee should really know better.

Yes, they really should. This is an awful, tasteless story of bathroom humor (literally) while people are being massacred, and there’s nothing remotely funny about it. There’s a particularly macabre moment when Booster realizes that in flying off to deal with one threat, he’s left the people under his protection fatally vulnerable to another one – a moment of pathos which might have been effective if the rest of the issue hadn’t been such a piece of trash.

31 issues of pretty good stories, and these clowns destroyed everything it built up in a single issue. I’m so out of here after reading this.

I wasn’t a fan of the first issue of The Flash and I’m even less impressed with issue #2. While the notion of cops from the future coming back to arrest Flash before he commits a murder, the rest of the issue is not good. Starting with the scene in which Flash builds an entire apartment building in a couple of minutes after reading everything about construction from the library, which, okay, I suppose he could do, but it begs the question of why he doesn’t do this sort of thing all the time, indeed, if he’s that fast, why anyone poses much of a challenge for him in the first place.

Francis Manapul’s artwork seems even more sketchy and cartoony than in the first issue, especially the random civilian characters. I don’t find it attractive in the least.

I think I can only take another month or two of this unless it gets markedly better. I hope the current story wraps up by then.

(And wow, I often disagree with Chris Sims when it comes to comics, but I don’t think I could’ve been further from his opinion on this one.)

Did I mention there were plenty of awful comics this month? Astonishing X-Men: Xenogenesis is the third of Warren Ellis’ X-Men stories. Story-wise, it’s off to a weak start: Babies being born in a section of Africa are showing signs of being mutants right after birth, so the X-Men head off to check it out. That’s pretty much all that happens: The issue is otherwise just an excuse for mildly amusing banter among the heroes. This team of X-Men (Cyclops, Emma Frost the White Wueen, the Beast, Wolverine, Storm, and the young Armor) are interesting because almost all of them are adult, experienced, and have known each other for a long time, so they know each other’s foibles and quirks. Emma’s schtick mostly seems to be that she’s a bitch, but everyone else basically respects one another. Yet despite this, the banter is pretty superficial, and mostly seems to revolve around Emma (whom Cyclops has been sleeping with since Jean Grey died). Ellis’ snark can be pretty funny, but it doesn’t work here.

I’ve seen little of Kaare Andrews’ art before, and what I see here isn’t my cup of tea: Exaggerated figures, ugly faces, minimal backgrounds, and facial expressions that run from scowling to grimacing. His covers for the next two issues have taken some hits in the comics blogging community, but the cover to this one is no great shakes either: Not only is Emma’s pose utterly ridiculous (and grotesque – and there are plenty more shots of her exaggerated breasts inside the book), but none of the figures are interacting in any way, even to get out of each other’s ways; it looks like they were drawn separately and then pasted into a single frame.

If this is indicative of the whole series, I’m not sure I’ll be able to make it through to the end.

I’ve become a big-time convert to Ed Brubaker’s comics lately (I’ve just read a big chunk of his Captain America run this past week, and it’s terrific), but The Marvels Project, which wraps up this month, isn’t one of his best works. The title suggests it’s related to Kurt Busiek & Alex Ross’ seminal series Marvels, but it’s only tangentially related, covering the rise of Marvel superheroes in the early 1940s, up to the formation of the Invaders. There’s a framing sequence in the present day, the memories of one of the minor heroes of the era, which at first suggested there would be some sort of event the character’s memories would uncover, a greater purpose to the story, but it’s really just another secret history of those times.

The story’s well-told, and Steve Epting’s art is excellent, as it always is, but there’s nothing new here. It felt like a basically unnecessary series.

B.P.R.D. has been a long-running independent series, spinning out of Hellboy, where the Bureau for Paranormal Research and Defense tries to defend the world against, well, paranormal threats, particularly the ongoing plague of giant frog-men around the world, dating back to the first Hellboy story. Sameness set in on this series several years ago, and I’d just about given up caring, but there were indications that the series was heading to a definitive conclusion, and eventually a statement that King of Fear would wrap up the frog-men storyline.

So here we are, and it’s certainly not been worth the wait.

Honestly I have a hard time summing up what exactly has happened in the last few series, or even in this one. A couple of races of monsters have teamed up to try to conquer the world, a 19th-century occultist claimed that pyromancer Liz Sherman was crucial to saving the world, and the team ran into the accumulated forces facing them in this series… and then it all came to an end, in some way I can’t quite figure out.

King of Fear opens with Abe Sapien, Liz Sherman and the crew preparing to assault the frogs, while Kate Corrigan heads to Austria to save the spirit of their teammate Johann Kraus, and free the spirit of the adventurer Lobster Johnson. In the second issue, Abe, Liz & company descend into the Earth, while Johann comes back to his ectoplasmic suit. Liz disappears, and in the third issue we see that she’s being given a vision of the future where the demonic forces have won and destroyed humanity, including her friends. Abe and company are captured by the allied forces of monsters, apparently being led by the dark entity from The Black Flame, who claims that in fact Abe is the spearhead of the forces which will take over the world. In the fourth issue, the entity suggests Abe is related to the frog-men, while Liz in her vision unleashes her flame, apparently destroying everything in the underground network where the rest of her team is.

Somehow, though, the heroes survive and are convalescing in the final issue, while the director of the Bureau, and Kate and Johann are being grilled by the United Nations. Its not clear how everyone else survived while all the bad guys were destroyed by Liz. Ultimately the UN re-ups the Bureau’s funding, and the issue ends with hints of future threats they’ll face.

Honestly, when I read the final issue I felt like I’d missed an issue, but I went and pulled out the first four, and I didn’t. Liz apparently just killed all the monsters, left her friends still alive, and disappeared from them. It’s about as far from as satisfying ending to 8 years worth of comics as I can imagine. Frankly, I feel kind of ripped off. But I guess it’s my own fault for ignoring my suspicions these last couple of years that the story really wasn’t going to go anywhere.

B.P.R.D.‘s basic problem has been that the storylines haven’t really carried any weight or really had any resolution or catharsis to them, so they just keep going on and on, and the characters don’t really change or develop (they just come and go). There’s just not much point to it, and it lacks the strong character, never mind the wit and excitement, of Hellboy himself. Neither any single character, nor the characters all together, can really carry B.P.R.D.. There are occasionally some nice moments, but as a whole it’s just kind of pointless and unsatisfying.

I’ve also been reading Sandman Mystery Theatre as it comes out in paperback collections, and like B.P.R.D. it is (mostly) drawn by Guy Davis. While Davis’ art took a while to grow on me (mainly because his characters mostly look a little dumpy and all tend to have large noses), it eventually won me over in SMT, largely because of the detail in his period work, and the fact that most of the Sandman characters are supposed to look like ordinary schmoes. Unfortunately his work hasn’t won me over on B.P.R.D., where his layouts and finishes all seem much more simplistic, his characters more cartoony, with faces that look squashed. It just didn’t work for me, and didn’t help elevate the story above its level.

So this is it for me with B.P.R.D., though I’ll probably stick with Hellboy for a bit longer (though it’s been no great shakes, either). B.P.R.D. always felt like it had potential for something cool to be right around the corner, but it never really delivered (save for the two side-stories 1946 and 1947, which really aren’t part of the regular series). Quite a shame, really.

This Week's Haul

Hey, would you look at this, it’s an entry finally posted in a timely manner!

  • The Brave and the Bold #31, by J. Michael Straczynski, Chad Hardin, Justiniano, Wayne Faucher & Walden Wong (DC)
  • Fables #92, by Bill Willingham & David Lapham (DC/Vertigo)
  • Green Lantern Corps #44, by Peter J. Tomasi, Patrick Gleason, Rebecca Buchman, Tom Nguyen & Keith Champagne (DC)
  • Power Girl #8, by Justin Gray, Jimmy Palmiotti & Amanda Conner (DC)
  • Starman #81, by James Robinson, Fernando Dagnino & Bill Sienkiewicz (DC)
  • The Incredible Hercules #140, by Greg Pak, Fred Van Lante & Rodney Buchemi (Marvel)
  • Nova #33, by Dan Abnett, Andy Lanning & Andrea DiVito (Marvel)
  • The Thing: Project Pegasus deluxe HC, by Ralph Macchio, Mark Gruenwald, Sal Buscema, John Byrne, George Pérez, Sam Grainger, Alfredo Alcala, Joe Sinnott & Gene Day (Marvel)
  • X-Men: The Asgardian Wars HC, by Chris Claremont, Paul Smith, Arthur Adams, Bob Wiacek, Terry Austin, Al Gordon & Mike Mignola (Marvel)
  • Incorruptible #2, by Mark Waid, Jean Diaz & Belardino Brabo (Boom)
  • RASL #6, by Jeff Smith (Cartoon)
The Brave and the Bold #31 I picked up a couple of DC books this week which are largely humorous, but they couldn’t be much more different if they’d tried. The Brave and the Bold features the uncomfortable pairing of the Atom and the Joker, where the Joker is suffering from a brain illness, and only the Atom can save him, by shrinking down far enough to deliver a capsule to a point in his brain that might cure him – or kill him. The story opens with Atom being unable to get to Arkham at first because he can only travel through land telephone lines, not cell phones, and then features several pages of Atom refusing to help save the Joker until he’s told that the cure might not even work, so Atom could do his best and still fail. The phone idea is cute, as long as you don’t think about it too hard (throwing an arbitrary limit on an ability that doesn’t make much sense in the first place is always silly; wouldn’t Atom also have trouble with fiber optic cables in the phone system?), but wrestling with his conscience doesn’t work at all. The Atom if an old-style hero who’s largely stuck to those roots, and while he might lament the need to save the life of an enemy, his over-the-top heart-wringing here feels completely out of character.

The rest of the story is okay, and played more seriously: While in the Joker’s brain, Atom gets flashes of Joker’s childhood memories – the making of a psychopath, as it were. It’s not terribly insightful, and has flashes of gallows humor, which still isn’t terribly funny. There’s isn’t much covered here that hasn’t been covered in many Joker stories previously, and the story wasn’t as satisfying overall as, say, John Byrne’s tale in his Generations series where one Batman has to save the Joker from being haunted to death by the ghost of an earlier Batman.

But mostly it’s that the humorous bits go so horribly wrong that makes this story rather painful to read. Quite a letdown after last month’s decent Green Lantern/Doctor Fate yarn. The format of The Brave and the Bold seems to be exposing many of Straczynski’s flaws as a writer, and it’s not pretty.

Power Girl #8 On the other hand, while the set-up of this 2-part Power Girl story disappointed me, the payoff in this issue is considerably funnier. Okay, the cliffhanger from last month gets handled in 4 pages (despite “hours of fighting” having elapsed between issues), but after that, rather than PG being (theoretically) at the mercy of Vartox, she manages to tame him down to civilized levels, and laughs out loud at some of the ridiculousness of his plans. There are several giggle-worthy moments in the issue, and everything works out for the best for both characters.

I still think Power Girl would be better served with some more serious stories – since very little about the series has been serious so far – but at least they got the lightheartedness of this issue right. And certainly more right than Straczynski did in The Brave and the Bold.

Starman #81 The most-heralded Blackest Night series revival has to be this one issue of James Robinson’s Starman. Naturally Robinson – who writes the issue – sticks to his guns by having Jack Knight stay retired despite his brother being raised by the black lantern rings to wreak havoc on Opal City; instead we catch up with some of his supporting cast to see where they’ve ended up since Jack left and his father died. Naturally the Shade figures as the prominent hero. It’s a clever way to do another Starman issue without really doing another Starman issue. Even the art evokes some of the low-key feel of the original series, although I’ve never been a big fan of Bill Sienkiewicz’s endless squiggles as an inker.

It works as an add-on to the original series, rather than just a cynical Blackest Night tie-in. (Don McPherson notes that readers of the series are likely to enjoy the issue more than people surfing by due to the tie-in, which is exactly right.)

I’ve heard a rumor (which may be baseless) that Robinson is interested in doing a Shade series. I’d totally sign up for that.

The Thing: Project Pegasus If you want to see how they did good superhero comics when I was a teenager (in the 1980s), Marvel has two fine hardcover collections out this week. First (and best), is the Thing in Project Pegasus, from his old Marvel Two-in-One series. If you can believe it, there was once a series (it ran for 100 issues!) which mostly featured this member of the Fantastic Four teaming up with a different hero every month, often with good stories and better artwork. Project Pegasus was the apex of the series, a 6-issue story featuring some third- and fourth-string supporting characters, but what made it work was the setting: Ol’ blue-eyes signs on for a tour as a security guard at Project Pegasus, a high-security prison and research institute for super-powered criminals, as well as heroes and innocents who need some sort of high-tech treatment. During his stint, an outside organization infiltrates the project for their own nefarious aims, leading to a major disaster (when their main agent goes rogue) which Ben and company have to fight.

Admittedly, the motivations of the infiltrating organization are a little vague, but it’s still cracking good superhero adventure stuff. Great art by Byrne, Pérez and company, too. The series has also been collected in paperback in the past, but the hardcover has a 2-part story which introduced Pegasus 2 years earlier. Check it out.

X-Men: The Asgardian Wars Then there’s X-Men: The Asgardian Wars, which was arguably Chris Claremont’s last hurrah as a great comics writer. The Uncanny X-Men and New Mutants titles (the main X-books in the late 80s) had been spluttering along in gradual artistic decline (in my opinion) when Claremont put together this pair of 2-part stories featuring Marvel’s mutants facing off against the Norse god Loki. First Loki tries to gain favors from even more powerful gods by forcing a boon on humanity, and the X-Men and the Canadian team Alpha Flight have to deal with the consequences. Then, perturbed by the X-Men’s interference, Loki abducts Storm (who was powerless at the time) and accidentally knocks a collection of New Mutants across the realm of Asgard, where they find themselves rather out of their league. The X-Men join in the fun to foil Loki, who’s really just entertaining himself while waiting for the right moment to make a play for the throne of Asgard.

The first story is one of Claremont’s better moral dilemmas for his characters, putting the heroes on opposite sides of a complex issue, and it’s lushly illustrated by the great Paul Smith. The second story more of a straightforward adventure story, and it’s drawn by Arthur Adams just as he was getting good, although it still has a little too much of the “boobs, boobs and more boobs” style he sometimes lapses into, and the finishes are not as clean nor the work as detailed as his later stuff.

But honestly I think this was the last great X-Men story. Yeah yeah, Grant Morrison, Josh Whedon, Warren Ellis, blah blah blah. None of them turned out X-Men stories as good as this. And this was just the last gasp of the “All-New, All-Different X-Men”; it used to be even better.

This Week’s Haul

  • Fables #79, by Bill Willingham, Mark Buckingham, Peter Gross & Andrew Pepoy (DC)
  • Ex Machina #40, by Brian K. Vaughan, Tony Harris & Jim Clark (DC/Wildstorm)
  • Tangent: Superman’s Reign #10 of 12, by Dan Jurgens, Carlos Magno & Julio Ferreira, and Ron Marz, Andie Tong & Mark McKenna (DC)
  • Terra #4 of 4, by Jimmy Palmiotti, Justin Gray & Amanda Conner (DC)
  • Marvel Masterworks: The Avengers vol 109 HC, collecting The Avengers vol 1 #69-79, by Roy Thomas, John Buscema, Sal Buscema, Frank Giacoia, Sam Grainger & Tom Palmer (Marvel)
  • Astonishing X-Men: Ghost Boxes #2 of 2, by Warren Ellis, Clayton Crain & Kaare Andrews (Marvel)
  • Beanworld Holiday Special, by Larry Marder (Dark Horse)
Ex Machina #40 It’s been a while since I’ve written about Ex Machina – about a year, in fact. The comic’s tone is very low-key, consisting mostly of talking heads with the occasional action scene or fantastical occurrence. But for the most part it involves New York Mayor Mitchell Hundred blazing his own unique trail across the post-9/11 political scene, as the only person in the world (well, almost) with superpowers (he can talk to and command machines).

This issue is both a whole issue of talking heads, and yet something of a departure from the main arc: It involves the comic’s writer and artist going in to meet with Mayor Hundred to interview for the job of telling his life story in comic book form. Self-referential, with an amusing twist at the end. It’s interesting to see how writer Vaughan and artist Harris see themselves: Vaughan seems filled with self-doubt and looks to Hundred for guidance (even if he doesn’t come out and say it), while Harris is more flamboyant and self-assured. It’s a cute little aside.

Reportedly Ex Machina will conclude with issue #50, and Comic Book Resources has some info on what the final ten issues will bring. I’m glad to see that the explanation behind Mitchell’s powers will be revealed, but even with 80% of the series completed, I still don’t really know where it’s going. I worry that it’s just not going to have the payoff to justify the journey, and the journey’s been a little too laid-back to justify itself.

Terra #4 Terra wraps up this month, and it’s been a real rarity in comics these days: A fun adventure story that doesn’t have aspirations of being some big must-read event, but rather has the modest goals of setting up the new heroine’s background and plugging her in to the world around her. It also came out fast – the first issue came out in early November. Yowza!

In this concluding issue we learn a little more about Terra and the city she comes from, and she faces down the villain of the series, who turns out to be a less-than-compelling figure. But the series has treated Terra’s opponents as throw-away figures from the beginning, so I probably shouldn’t be surprised that the guy who shows up in all four issues is only slightly more significant.

The issue takes the very unusual tack of spending its final third with what’s mostly a talking heads sequence: Chatting with Power Girl about where she goes from here, and then the two of them going out shopping in their secret identities (a concept Terra doesn’t quite get). It’s funny and quirky, but it feels more like the lead-in to a regular series rather than the end of a mini-series. I guess Terra’s moving over to Terror Titans, a series I have absolutely no interest in reading, so I dunno if she’ll have any more solo adventures. But if Palmiotti, Gray and Conner produce them, I’d read ’em.

Astonishing X-Men: Ghost Boxes #2 Astonishing X-Men: Ghost Boxes concludes with two more stories showing alternate outcomes of the first “Ghost Box” story in Warren Ellis’ AXM run. Both issues have been good stuff, but not apparently essential; mainly they convey the fact that the interloper that the X-Men stopped in the main title was the spearhead of a potential invasion force from a parallel world, and the team is fortunate they were able to stop him, since we see how much worse things could have gone.

The mini-series has taken a lot of flak for its $3.99 cover price, given that about a third of the pages are Ellis’ scripts for the stories in the issue. I can understand that, and no, I don’t think I really got great value for my $3.99, although I don’t really regret buying them anyway, since what there was, was indeed entertaining. Food for thought given Brian Hibbs’ musings on mainstream comics likely jumping from $2.99 to $3.99 per issue across-the-board soon.

Beanworld Holiday Special Larry Marder’s Tales of the Beanworld was one of the weirder independent comics from back in the day: Written in a fable-like style, with stick-figure art, it was still charming in its way. It main focus was to concoct a self-contained world with its own unique ecosystem, following the characters through their lives as various developments upset the status quo. Now, years later, we get the Beanworld Holiday Special, which I’ve heard is leading a new Beanworld series coming out next year.

Happily, it’s more of the same charm and weirdness, as the beans try to figure out why the next generation doesn’t seem to be interested in learning the trades necessary to keep their society running. It’s a good introduction to the concept, and is suitable for all ages. If you’re a comics fan who’s at all interested in stuff beyond superhero fare, you ought to check it out; you might be surprised.

This Week’s Haul

  • Justice Society of America #21, by Geoff Johns, Alex Ross, Dale Eaglesham, Jerry Ordway, Bob Wiacek & Nathan Massengill (DC)
  • Terra #3 of 4, by Justin Gray, Jimmy Palmiotti & Amanda Conner (DC)
  • The Immortal Iron Fist #20, by Duane Swierczynski, Travel Foreman & Russ Heath (Marvel)
  • Astonishing X-Men vol 2 HC, by Joss Whedon & John Cassaday (Marvel)
  • Marvels: Eye of the Camera #1 of 6, by Kurt Busiek & Jay Anacleto (Marvel)
  • Mouse Guard: Winter 1152 by David Petersen (Archaia)
  • Hellboy: The Wild Hunt #1 of 8, by Mike Mignola & Duncan Fegredo (Dark Horse)
  • The Boys #25, by Garth Ennis & Darick Robertson (Dynamite)
Astonishing X-Men vol 2 HC I’m not a fan of Joss Whedon. I never watched Buffy the Vampire Slayer, and I watched about five episodes of Firefly and though it was awful. I am, however, a big fan of John Cassaday, so I was willing to pick up Astonishing X-Men in collected form to see what it was like.

Whedon’s comics writing reminds me of that of Kevin Smith: Smith’s first series, Daredevil: Guardian Devil felt like a rerun of Frank Miller and David Mazzucchelli’s Daredevil: Born Again, and in the same vein, Whedon & Cassaday’s X-Men run feels a lot like Grant Morrison’s New X-Men run. The difference among all these books is that Born Again is one of the all-time great graphic novels, while the rest are fairly derivative works, which means that Whedon’s script feels even more like a “we’ve seen this all before” story than the others, since Morrison’s run was nothing special.

On the other hand, Whedon’s scripts are a hell of a lot funnier than Morrison’s.

This volume starts with Emma Frost being recruited to take down the X-Men by the Hellfire Club, a story which ties back to Morrison’s Cassandra Nova story. This first arc (there are two in this volume) has its tense moments, but when I got to the conclusion I couldn’t figure out what had happened. It felt like Whedon had set things up for a comeback by Cassandra Nova, a vicious powerful telepath, but it doesn’t quite happen, and it’s not clear that the X-Men actually won, either.

The second arc ties together the stories from the first volume: An alien planet named the Breakworld has a prophecy that Colossus will destroy their world, and the X-Men, along with a half-alien special agent named Brand, travel there to hopefully stop it from happening, but in any event stop the Breakworld from sending assassins after them. This story involves the characters breaking up into teams and then running back and forth an awful lot until they have to stop a giant missile aimed at the Earth from destroying it.

While there are many amusing and entertaining scenes in the story, honestly I couldn’t figure out what the heck was going on. Why was the Breakworld significant? Why should the prophecy have existed in the first place? Why was there a giant missile aimed at the Earth? It felt highly contrived; my only guess is that the Breakworld and its situation have appeared in X-Men stories before, but geez, I could really care less about all that. The core of the story felt contrived and nonsensical, which undercut its reason for being. It had a big, loud conclusion, as you’d expect, but a deeply bittersweet ending, which unfortunately felt basically out of place, with no lessons learned as a result of it and not enough attention paid to its impact on the characters.

Whedon does do some interesting stuff with the relationship between Cyclops and Emma, and Colossus and Shadowcat, and the Beast and Agent Brand. (Wolverine seems to be present mainly to boost sales and make smart remarks.) And as I said the script is often quite funny. But it feels like too slight a story, a little too pretentious, not to mention portentious.

On the other hand, Cassaday’s artwork is superb, full of shadows and bright colors and dramatic poses and expressions. His backgrounds are sometimes on the thin side (a problem he’s always had, even at his best), but he is still a very good artist, and his work is shown off to good effect in the oversized pages of this hardcover collection.

Nonetheless, this volume and its predecessor are really for serious X-Men fans only.

And Whedon fans too, I guess.

Marvels: Eye of the Camera #1 Marvels was essentially the book that launched Alex Ross’ career, and made Kurt Busiek a big name in the industry. It’s certainly one of the finest comics series of the last 20 years, and since then Busiek has demonstrated that the core genius of the book – depicting a world of superheroes through the eyes of the people living in the world – was his genius, as he’s expanded greatly on that premise in his outstanding Astro City series. While Ross’ illustration skills haven’t dimmed – he still brings the best mix of visual storytelling and painting skills to the table of anyone – his authorial projects have been considerably less interesting.

So seeing Busiek bring us a sequel to Marvels is cause for celebration. Apparently his first proposal for a sequel was eventually turned into the current Astro City: The Dark Age maxi-series, but after much research we now have Eye of the Camera, which opens with the protagonist of the first series – freelance photographer Phil Sheldon – recapping the dawn of the Marvel Age in the 1960s, and then moving into the 1970s where the remainder of the series will take place. As before, Phil both stands in awe and wonder of the heroes, but has a strong melancholy streak, as if ordinary folks like him don’t – can’t – measure up. And this issue ends on a note guaranteed to bring even more melancholy into his life. While mostly rehashing the themes of the first series, this first issue does so quite well and promises new and different material going forward. Busiek has always been keenly aware of the ‘feel’ of comics from different eras, and I have no doubt that he’ll put a spin on 1970s Marvel comics which distinguishes them from the 1960s era.

Ross doesn’t come along for the ride; instead a newcomer (well, new to me anyway), Jay Anacleto, illustrates the book. It has the look of being drawn and shaded, with nuanced color laid over it; not quite painted like Ross, but still more intricate than typical line drawings, even with modern computer coloring. He has Ross’ flair for layouts and playing with color palettes – for example the scenes in Sheldon’s developing studio – but not quite his skills at body or facial expressions. Still, he’s pretty good, and gives the book a distinctive look.

If not quite the revelation that Marvels or Astro City were from their very first issues, Eye of the Camera still has a lot of promise, and perhaps its biggest flaw is that it is, well, a sequel, but one which has to explain its premise for new readers who haven’t read its predecessor. Nonetheless, I have high hopes that the whole package will be a lot of fun.

This Week’s Haul

  • Final Crisis: Rage of the Red Lanterns, by Geoff Johns, Shane Davis & Sandra Hope (DC)
  • Legion of Super-Heroes #47, by Jim Shooter, Rick Leonardi & Dan Green (DC)
  • Madame Xanadu #5, by Matt Wagner, Amy Reeder Hadley & Richard Friend (DC/Vertigo)
  • Astonishing X-Men: Ghost Boxes #1 of 2, by Warren Ellis, Alan Davis, Adi Granov & Mark Farmer (Marvel)
  • The Immortal Iron Fist #19, by Duane Swierczynski, Travel Foreman & Russ Heath (Marvel)
  • Nova #18, by Dan Abnett, Andy Lanning, Wellington Alves & Scott Hanna (Marvel)
  • Thor #11, by J. Michael Straczynski, Oliver Coipel & Mark Morales (Marvel)
  • Hellboy: In The Chapel of Moloch, by Mike Mignola (Dark Horse)
  • The Boys #24, by Garth Ennis & Darick Robertson (Dynamite)
  • Project Superpowers #7 of 7, by Alex Ross, Jim Krueger & Carlos Paul (Dynamite)

Aside from this week’s spotlight reviews, I can recommend Nova as I always do – it’s a pretty satisfying Secret Invasion crossover – and Madame Xanadu, which is getting a little more interesting with each issue. I don’t think it’s selling very well, though, so I don’t know how long it will last.

Final Crisis: Rage of the Red Lanterns Final Crisis: Rage of the Red Lanterns really has nothing to do with Final Crisis – which seems to be the case for many comics labelled as tie-ins – although it does state that it takes place between Final Crisis #1 and #2. It’s really an issue of Green Lantern, and is a prologue to the next storyline in that series. Having recently picked up the first three trade paperbacks of the current Green Lantern series, I’ve decided to start buying it regularly. Unfortunately, I’ve missed at least the last two major story arcs, which included “The Sinestro Corps War” and “Secret Origin”. The latter is yet another retelling of Hal Jordan’s origin, which seems pretty unnecessary at this point, but the Sinestro Corps stuff was pretty important. As far as I can tell, there are now both Green Lanterns and “yellow lanterns” who have been at war, and the Green Lantern Corps won, but at some cost. Apparently there are also red lanterns which we see here, and other colors of the spectrum who were implied by a two-page spread in DC Universe #0 a few months ago. While it’s a rather obvious idea, what matter is what writer Geoff Johns does with it.

The main Red Lantern is the ugly dude on the cover, who has the improbable name of Atrocitus (you’re kidding, right?), but he has a whole bunch of help, including a former Green Lantern, and they’ve all gone through some nasty ritual to become wearers of the red power rings, seeking to avenge themselves on both the Green Lantern Corps and the Sinestro Corps. Motivations are thin here, so I presume either they’ll be explained in the coming months, or were explained in a storyline I missed. So I’m taking that on faith. (This is an object lesson of why it can be hard to get into ongoing series well into their run; I’m a pretty smart guy, and I’ve been reading DC Comics for over 30 years, so I’m very familiar with the universe, but there’s a lot here that I can’t figure out. A recap would have been nice.)

The different corps each have a different insignia on their uniforms; the Red Lanterns have their lanterns turned on their sides, like a stylized “H” (for “hate”, presumably). I’m not sure what the Sinestro Corps’ insignia is supposed to symbolize.

Anyway, I enjoyed it enough that I’m sticking with my decision to read the regular series. I’m not sure what I think of Shane Davis & Sandra Hope’s artwork. The characters’ poses are pretty strong, but backgrounds are few. Something about the linework evokes the sketchy Image Comics/Rob Liefeld look, which isn’t a good thing, but overall the art is much better than that. I think it’s a step down from the series’ earlier artists (Carlos Pacheco, Ivan Reis), but I don’t know if Davis is going to be the new series penciller. Guess I’ll find out when the next issue of Green Lantern comes out.

Legion of Super-Heroes #47 The big news in Legion space this week is this widely reported interview with writer Jim Shooter about the end of his run on the Legion – the series is cancelled as of #50, but he’d intended the story to run through #54. While I’m a little suspicious of the dirt about his relationship with DC – whether it comes from Shooter or anyone else – because of Shooter’s somewhat strained reputation (deserved or not) within the industry, Shooter’s frank statements about his work on the series are interesting:

“But let’s focus on the real culprit – me. I guess what it really all comes down to is that my work wasn’t good enough to overcome all the small problems further down the line. If you’re out at first base, it doesn’t matter if you slide in at second.”

Shooter enjoyed writing scripts once again for a team he has become synonymous with over the years. “I’ve trained myself to think of [my scripts] as the end product, and I am content that I did the best I could.”

In some ways I’m sorry that he wasn’t able to execute his arc the way he’d intended, but honestly his tenure has been quite frustrating due to his approach to characterization. In past era characterizations of the Legionnaires have been his strength, but in this go-round we’ve seen some re-hashes (Lightning Lad’s shaky self-confidence as leader, Saturn Girl cheating on him with an edgier Legionnair), and a several characters who just seem embarrassing. Projectra has been at both extremes, with some interesting bits where she adjusts to life without her destroyed homeworld, but also her rather pathetic requests for Phantom Girl to read an old comic book to her. It seems like Shooter’s been trying too hard, especially to make the characters seem hipper and more futuristic, which seems at odds with Mark Waid & Barry Kitson’s strong run on the title.

This particular issue is a fill-in focusing on the long-dormant Brainiac 5/Dream Girl storyline from Mark Waid and Barry Kitson’s run: Dream Girl had died, but Brainy has been set on reviving her, and she visits him in her dreams. Here they consummate their relationship before it all goes wrong, mixed with a perplexing turn of events involving another member. I guess it was intended to be a 2-parter, but the second part got axed due to the cancellation. Nonetheless, Brainy’s characterization just doesn’t ring true to me, and I’m still trying to figure out what exactly Dream Girl’s status is, as she’s not alive, but then, where is she?

The issue also features the fill-in art team of Rick Leonardi and Dan Green, two artists who made their names at Marvel Comics in the mid-1980s. I’ve never been a big fan of either one, though. Green’s inks always seem to stiffen the pencils, and here over Leonardi the characters seem to resemble Frank Miller’s more recent work, with broad lips and flat noses, and occasionally some expressions that seem either flat or out-of-place. It doesn’t really work for the book.

I was pretty excited about Shooter’s run when it was first announced, but very little of it has worked for me, which has been quite disappointing. Well, only three more issues for him to fit in what he’d planned to do with the story. Maybe he’ll pull it out.

Astonishing X-Men: Ghost Boxes #1 Warren Ellis’ Astonishing X-Men run has been merely okay so far, and now there’s a two-issue series spinning out of the current story. A “ghost box” allows people to move between dimensions, and this series explores what some other dimensions’ encounters between the X-Men and the mysterious Subject X have involved. The first story herein provides insight into what Subject X is up to, while the second shows a steampunk X-Men (“The X Society”) confronting the character.

It’s obviously mainly an opportunity for Ellis to play with multiple dimensions, but it looks like it could provide some insight into what the X-Men will be dealing with in the main title. And I’m always a sucker for parallel worlds stories. So this one gets a thumbs up, and makes me a little more enthusiastic about where Ellis is going with this.

Project Superpowers #7 Project Superpowers has been Alex Ross’ latest project, but boy, it’s sound and fury signifying nothing. A bunch of old-time heroes are brought out of limbo into the present day, where they confront the one who imprisoned them (who thought he was doing the right thing), and also encounter a shadowy society who wanted them removed so they couldn’t interfere with it. The bad guys use reanimated corpses as soldiers to attack the heroes, but the whole fight – which spans three issues – really makes no sense at all. The ongoing redemption of the hero who imprisoned the others is trite, and overall the characterizations are extremely thin. The characters are many of those who appeared in Alan Moore’s Terra Obscura stories (they’re in the public domain), but Moore did so much more with them in those stories.

Moreover, this issue marks the end of chapter one, rather than being the conclusion to a complete series as I’d expected when I started buying it. I definitely am not coming back for chapter two.

I’ve enjoyed Alex Ross’ work when he’s been paired with a strong writer – Kurt Busiek or Mark Waid on Marvels and Kingdom Come – but I haven;t enjoyed any of the projects he’s done with Jim Krueger. Avengers/Invaders has been pretty good, but all of the pair’s series are paced very slowly and are so dark that they’re downright bleak. I think it’s time for me to accept that the pair write comics that just aren’t interesting to me.

J. Michael Straczynski has been working similar territory in The Twelve, and it’s much better than Project Superpowers. As maddening as I sometimes find Straczynski’s comics writing, The Twelve has been intriguing and character-driven, really the polar opposite of PS.

This Week’s Haul

  • Booster Gold #13, by Rick Remender, Pat Olliffe & Jerry Ordway (DC)
  • The Brave and the Bold #18, by Marv Wolfman & Phil Winslade (DC)
  • Fables #77, by Bill Willingham, Mark Buckingham & Andrew Pepoy (DC/Vertigo)
  • Final Crisis: Legion of 3 Worlds #2 of 5, by Geoff Johns, George Pérez & Scott Koblish (DC)
  • Justice Society of America #19, by Geoff Johns, Alex Ross, Dale Eaglesham & Nathan Massengill (DC)
  • Annihilation Conquest: Book One TPB, by Dan Abnett, Andy Lanning & Mike Perkins, Keith Giffen, Timothy Green II & Victor Olazaba, and Christos Gage, Mike Lilly & Scott Hanna (Marvel)
  • Guardians of the Galaxy #6, by Dan Abnett, Andy Lanning, Paul Pelletier & Rick Magyar (Marvel)
  • Astonishing X-Men #27, by Warren Ellis & Simone Bianchi (Marvel)
  • RASL #3, by Jeff Smith (Cartoon)
  • Atomic Robo: Dogs of War #3 of 5, by Brian Clevinger, Scott Wegener & Lauren Pettapiece (Red 5)
Final Crisis: Legion of 3 Worlds #2 For sure, Legion of 3 Worlds is one of the most fanboy-geek-wankery type books ever published. Still, if you’re a Legion fan, then issue #2 is almost as much fun as issue #1. If you’re not a Legion fan, then you probably won’t care and you’ve already moved on.

The opening sequence catches up with some of the characters from the later days of the Legion: Blok, the White Witch, and Rond Vidar, who’s now the last Green Lantern in the universe. (The fate of the Green Lanterns was one of the more interesting threads from the Levitz/Giffen Legion, which I mostly found to be greatly overrated.) After that, the story is partly watching the new Legion of Super-Villains organize itself around Superboy-Prime, and partly Brainiac 5 executing his plan to bring the Legions of two other worlds in to help them, using – get this – the crystal ball that the Justice League used to contact the Justice Society from Earth-2 in Justice League of America #21 back in 1963.

(Aside: Okay, the multiverse continuity at DC is completely screwed up at this point, but this does seem to suggest that the classic Legion shown here is not from New Earth, but it from some other Earth-1, since the JLA from New Earth would have had no need to contact the JSA from Earth-2, since New Earth already has a JLA! No doubt Geoff Johns thought using the crystal ball was just a neat in-joke, though, rather than an actual clue as to the current state of things.)

Other than the obligatory in-fighting among the teams (used to comedic effect among the Brainiacs here), it’s hard to imagine a single Legion of Super-Villains putting up much of a fight against them. Only Prime, Validus, Earth-Man and Mordru have any hope of standing up to the heavy hitters. So presumably there’s going to be something else going on to complicate matters.

Pérez’s artwork is terrific, as always. I’m especially impressed with how he makes the classic Legion look like adults, while the other Legions are still kids; they’re all recognizably the same characters, yet all distinctive. You’d think most artists would be able to do this, but no one equals Pérez when it comes to this sort of stuff. Legion of 3 Worlds doesn’t quite measure up to his JLA/Avengers work, but it’s still outstanding.

Guardians of the Galaxy #5 Despite being a Secret Invasion (yawn) tie-in, Guardians of the Galaxy is still really cool: Drax kills everyone on the space station the Guardians are based on (which is the severed head of a Celestial floating beyond the edge of the universe), because that’s the easiest way to find out who the shape-shifting Skrulls on the station are, because when they die, they change back to their natural form, right? Fortunately, in this case death wears off after a little while, and it turns out the Skrulls aren’t what everyone assumes they are, and Cosmo, the station’s telepathic Russian canine security chief, persuades everyone of who they are. (Touch little pooch!)

And then everything hits the fan when the other Guardians find out what Star-Lord has been up to in founding the team, and Mantis reveals that the future she’d divined has gone off the rails – probably because of the arrival of Vance Astro and Starhawk from the 31st century Guardians.

More fanboy wanking? Unlike Legion of 3 Worlds, this series is basically self-contained, and I think it can be understood and enjoyed by people who aren’t familiar with the backstories of the characters – it might even be more fun for those readers. With this series, Abnett and Lanning are proving to be first-rate ideasmiths; I just hope they can be given enough latitude away from the cockamamie event tie-ins to really put on a show in this series.

Astonishing X-Men #27 Astonishing X-Men hasn’t been especially astonishing, but Warren Ellis does his best to make it entertaining by writing some of the funniest dialogue I’ve read in superhero comics in recent memory. For example:

Cyclops: What’ve you got?

Wolverine: Something from the bad old days, maybe.

Cyclops: Logan, this is us. The “bad old days” could be as recent as three weeks ago.

Or, when the Beast – a half-human, half-cat mutant – is talking to Cyclops with his girlfriend, Agent Brand, who I guess is an alien:

Beast: …Actually, what are you? “Girlfriend” doesn’t sound quite…

Brand: “Xenophiliac experimentation partner”?

Beast: […] Girlfriend.

Anyway, the story is shaping up to involve mutants from parallel worlds, and mutants impacted by the climax of House of M, when the Scarlet Witch turned most mutants back into normal humans. Ellis gets high marks for being an ideasmith himself, and I am enjoying the dialogue. He always seems to keep corporate-owned characters like the X-Men at arm’s length, though, so it’s hard to feel like we really know these characters. But at least this promises to be an interesting mystery and adventure.

This Week’s Haul

  • Action Comics #867, by Geoff Johns, Gary Frank & Jon Sibal (DC)
  • Booster Gold #1,000,000, by Geoff Johns, Jeff Katz, Dan Jurgens & Norm Rapmund (DC)
  • Justice Society of America #17, by Geoff Johns, Alex Ross, Fernando Pasarin & Prentis Rollins (DC)
  • Guardians of the Galaxy #3, by Dan Abnett, Andy Lanning, Paul Pelletier & Rick Magyar (Marvel)
  • Nova #15, by Dan Abnett, Andy Lanning, Wallington Alves & Scott Hanna (Marvel)
  • Astonishing X-Men #25, by Warren Ellis & Simone Bianchi (Marvel)
  • B.P.R.D.: The Warning #1 of 5, by Mike Mignola, John Arcudi & Guy Davis (Dark Horse)
Booster Gold #1000000 Geoff Johns & Jeff Katz’ run on Booster Gold ends with issue #1,000,000 – an homage of sorts to the DC One Million company event of last decade, much like there was an issue #0 retroactively tying in to the Zero Hour event. Cute, but this sort of in-joke amidst the more serious story has been the series’ stock-in-trade all along. Anyway, the pair put out an even dozen issues of the series, and it’s been consistently smart and enjoyable.

The series’ premise involves Booster Gold being recruited by Rip Hunter (Time Master) to help stop people who are changing history. Rip’s true identity is a mystery, and he’s something of a hard-ass. At first Booster is willing to go along, but then he gets it into his head that he could use his time-travelling devices to save his best friend, Blue Beetle, from having been killed in Countdown to Infinite Crisis. Rip does his level best to prove to Booster that he can’t truly change history, but Booster does anyway, saving Beetle but at the price of Maxwell Lord and his legion of OMACs wiping out most of the heroes on Earth. To stop this, Beetle volunteers to go back to sacrifice himself to put things back the way they should be.

All that being behind us, this issue is the denouement, which nicely wraps up most of the major plot elements, gives Booster a happy ending (hearkening back to his first series, back in the 1980s), and throws in some other neat stuff before spending a page foreshadowing what’s coming up in the next year. Which will be written by someone other than Johns and Katz, but that’s okay.

You don’t need to have read all the backstory to fully enjoy Booster Gold, although it does help. But the central tension between Booster and Rip, and Booster’s friendship with Blue Beetle, works even if you’re largely ignorant of what’s gone before, and this issue is a fine wrap-up to the arc of the past year. (Even if it didn’t address Johanna Carlson’s concerns, I think it’s still a nicely optimistic wrap-up.)

And penciller Dan Jurgens – who co-created Booster Gold when he broke into comics in the 80s – deserves a lot of credit for the run, too. I’ve never been Jurgens’ biggest fan – his art is a little too posed and polished for my tastes – but he’s always been a decent creator, and I think he’s done some of his best work ever on this run, and frankly the story really demanded a clean line and straightforward layouts because there was always so much going on. It really played to Jurgens’ strengths.

So, good show, guys. Maybe Geoff Johns’ best run since The Flash. Here’s hoping the next year is as good.

Astonishing X-Men #25 I decided to give Astonishing X-Men a try after learning that Warren Ellis is writing it. Ellis is one of those writers who’s full of ideas, but his execution is very hit-or-miss. He’s similar to Grant Morrison in this way, except that Ellis generally has more depth and character to his stories. So he’s written the outstanding Planetary, but also some pretty unreadable stuff from Avatar.

Astonishing X-Men is looking like it’s below the median in his range. It’s got yet another sequence in which the writer sets up the book with his group of X-Men (if this wasn’t a tired gimmick when Morrison did it in New X-Men, it certainly was when Joss Whedon did it at the beginning of this series), the obligatory clever dialogue to set up minor character conflicts (with the obligatory Wolverine snark amidst it all), and then we’re off on our first mission. All rather routine stuff.

Simone Bianchi’s art is pretty good, although it’s not very dynamic and it feels pretty muddy – it looks like it was shot straight from pencils, and that’s a hard look to pull off. (Not everyone can be – or should try to be – Mike Grell or Michael Zulli.)

I’ll check out a few more issues to see if it finds its wings, but the early returns aren’t promising.