The Dark Knight Rises

Critics gushed over The Dark Knight, I think not entirely justifiably. While Heath Ledger’s performance was a revelation, the script was a little weak, full of gimmicks and with a disappointing climax. On reflection, I think it fundamentally suffers because its theme – the one imparted by its antagonist, the Joker – is one of nihilism. While nihilism can be used effectively as a contrast to the protagonist, The Dark Knight left me feeling a bit like the Joker had won. Contrast this with Batman Begins, which is all about the protagonist finding the meaning in his life, and which has an entirely satisfying conclusion.

The Dark Knight Rises concludes the trilogy, but its opening sequences seem to push The Dark Knight even more to the side: Rather than Batman (Christian Bale) continuing to work against crime from outside the system, he’s retired, and Bruce Wayne has become a recluse. Harvey Dent’s death and Batman’s sacrifice (taking the rap for Dent’s death) lead to a golden age in Gotham City, as the Dent Act puts criminals away for years, at only the cost of Commissioner Gordon’s soul (Gary Oldman), maintaining the lie. Truly, it seems the Joker beat Batman (because why would the Joker care of a bunch of criminals get put away?).

Eight years after the events of the previous film, cat burglar Selina Kyle (Anne Hathaway) breaks into the private wing of Wayne Manor, setting in motion events which turn Gotham upside-down. The mysterious criminal Bane (Tom Hardy) has his sights set on the city, bringing Batman out of retirement for a showdown.

While also a long film, I felt that Rises moves right along with few slow periods (few times that I was willing to go to the bathroom, for instance). It’s got secrets (who is Bane? Why is he gunning for Gotham?), humor (especially in Batman getting back in the saddle), some tense fights, and characters set low and then fighting to their catharsis. It’s properly a sequel to the first film, with the second just being set-up, and the story is, ultimately, better than either of its predecessors. It ought to hold up on re-watching, too.

More after the cut, but here there being spoilers:

Continue reading “The Dark Knight Rises”

This Week’s Haul

Despite having Thanksgiving week off, I never did an entry for that week, so here’s the catch-up:

Last Week:

  • Action Comics #895, by Paul Cornell & Pete Woods (DC)
  • Batman Beyond #6 of 6, by Adam Beechen, Ryan Benjamin & John Stanisci (DC)
  • Justice Society of America #45, by Marc Guggenheim & Scott Kolins (DC)
  • Madame Xanadu #29, by Matt Wagner, Amy Reeder & Richard Friend (DC/Vertigo)
  • Captain America #612, by Ed Brubaker & Butch Guice (Marvel)
  • Fantastic Four #585, by Jonathan Hickman & Steve Epting (Marvel)
  • Chip: Second Crack #2 of 3, by Richard Moore (Antarctic)
  • Incorruptible #12, by Mark Waid & Marcio Takara (Boom)

This Week:

  • Action Comics Annual #12, by Paul Cornell, Marco Rudy & Ed Benes (DC)
  • American Vampire #9, by Scott Snyder, Rafael Albuquerque & Mateus Santolouco (DC/Vertigo)
  • Fables: Witches TPB, by Bill Willingham, Mark Buckingham, Steve Leialoha, David Lapham, Andrew Pepoy, Jim Fern & Craig Hamilton (DC/Vertigo)
  • Secret Six #28, by Gail Simone & Jim Calafiore (DC)
  • Irredeemable #20, by Mark Waid & Peter Krause (Boom)
  • RASL #9, by Jeff Smith (Cartoon Books)
  • The Boys #49, by Garth Ennis & Russ Braun (Dynamite)
The Batman Beyond mini-series has been fairly clever and entertaining, sitting sort of in-between the kids books that DC publishes based on its animated properties, and the more serious mainstream fare. This one attempts to bridge the two continuities – comic book Batman and animated Batman Beyond – and does a pretty good job. I’m not really a fan of Ryan Benjamin’s artwork, which also tries to bridge the styles between the two continuities and I thought just looks kind of weird, the characters not having much emotional range beyond a grimace or a scowl. But it’s okay.

The series has apparently been successful enough to warrant a new ongoing series, but while this was a cute little series I didn’t enjoy it enough to want to jump on-board for a longer-term commitment. One of the problems with Batman Beyond was that it never managed to establish itself as a series with a purpose; the best episodes tended to be ones revolving around Bruce Wayne’s past, and while Terry McGinnis – the Batman of the future – is an enjoyable character, he’s not strong enough to carry the series himself. I just don’t see that an ongoing series will provide a satisfying payoff, especially given that the mini-series was fairly light and by-the-numbers.

In the “light entertainment” department, this is a pretty good series and the ongoing series may be just as good. But for me, I think I get the idea and that’s enough.

Madame Xanadu comes to a close with this issue, with Amy Reeder (formerly Amy Reeder Hadley) coming back for the denouement.

The series has been erratic, starting with Madame Xanadu’s origins in the days of King Arthur (who is revealed as being Nimue, who in DC continuity is the woman responsible – tragically, in this instance – for imprisoning Merlin prior to the fall of Camelot, and also Morgan Le Fey’s sister), and progressing up through the 1960s. So it’s basically been a big retrospective, since the character is well-established (albeit as a mysterious individual without any personality) in present-day continuity.

The series has been an extended story of Xanadu’s maturity, starting as a credulous girl who encounters the Phantom Stranger, meeting him again through the centuries to her frequent regret (it’s also implied that the Stranger is living his life backwards through time, and interesting nugget which isn’t really explored), and also manipulated by her sister, but who gradually gains maturity, wisdom and knowledge to become a powerful sorceress. She’s certainly a more interesting character here than she’s ever been before.

Yet the series never really gelled for me, as it frequently wandered away from its main story arc, and seemed to lack focus. I think Wagner was enjoying playing around in the corners of the DC Universe, in much the way Neil Gaiman did in Sandman, but I don’t think he was nearly as effective in doing so; he doesn’t have the same touch for the fabulous that Gaiman does. I often find Wagner’s writing to be rather distant, more interesting for the complex and subtle mechanics of his plots and less for his characters, who tend to be rather flat (I love both Grendel and Mage, but neither is really memorable for its characters). Madame Xanadu is one of his stronger characters, but he seems to struggle with how to develop her in a satisfying manner, especially since the stories have been so low-key in nature. Seen in hindsight it’s clearer how he was building the character, but the emotional impact was often muted. The most effective issue on that score was a 1950s housewife who finds her body being creepily transformed, but I didn’t think the follow-up (after our heroine dealt with the problem) provided a satisfying resolution for the character; Wagner follows up on her here, but her story, although it has a happy outcome, is seen from a distance and doesn’t feel very rewarding for the reader.

Amy Reeder’s artwork has been the real strength of the series, channeling a bit of Charles Vess in her designs and layouts, and delivering most of the emotional impact the series did have. I sometimes wished she had an inker who would soften her lines, someone like Joe Rubenstein or even Tom Palmer, but certainly she’s quite a find and I hope she gets more work in the future.

Overall, though, Madame Xanadu has been a bit disappointing; I suspect DC hoped it would build a following more in line with Sandman or Starman, but it was never really that kind of book. Really it was just the sort of book that would slip under the radar in today’s market, and it didn’t have any developments or twists that made me want to tell people that they must read this book. 28 issues is a good run for a low-profile book like this, but it feels like Wagner should somehow have gone for the splashier storyline so it could be more high profile. In that way, the series feels like a missed opportunity.

Richard Moore’s plan seems to be to corner the “cute, sexy, and a little scary” comic book market. He did a great job on this in his regular comic Boneyard, which he wrapped up a while back since I guess it wasn’t making much money. Now he’s been doing a number of little side projects for Antarctic Press, one of which is Chip. This comic features a 4-inch gargoyle who is determined to show he can be just as scary as his brethren, with the help of his pixie friend Ash. He’s not very successful, though. Second Crack is his second series, in which Chip and Ash are trying to capture the Jersey Devil.

The thing is, Moore’s gone way too far into the “cute” realm for my tastes, and Chip is a pretty slight book in both plot and characters. His writing style works better when he can develop things over a period of time as in Boneyard, or his more serious wild west fantasy Far West. Moore has a pretty wry sense of humor, but the jokes here seem cheap.

Heck, I somehow missed the first issue of this series, and I don’t feel like I missed very much. Hopefully he’ll have the time to do something more ambitious sometime soon.

I think I’m running out of gas on Gail Simone’s Secret Six. Part of it is that Jim Calafiore has replaced Nicola Scott as the regular artist, and he seems like the go-to guy for second-tier series who need a reliable artist: But while he’s reliable, his figures are too stiff and generic for my tastes. I had the same problem when he was drawing Marvel’s Exiles series.

But part of it is that the series has been floundering around, losing its focus, that being a group of mercenaries with extreme personalities who have trouble getting along. The team broke up and splintered into two factions, both of whom ended up in the underground primeval world of Skartaris, fighting each other and the locals, a story which wraps up in this issue. I wasn’t quite clear what they were supposed to be doing there – I think one group was being manipulated by a rogue element inside the US government, while the other was sent by Amanda Waller, but no one seemed to be keeping their eyes on the prize, whatever it was. It seemed like an excuse to have the protagonists beat up on one another.

The series has been at its best when it puts its characters – who have questionable morals – in situations which challenge both their well-being and what sense of right and wrong they have. But such stories usually require a pretty strong focus, especially with a large-and-growing cast of characters as exists here, particularly when the characters are a group of anti-heroes at best, and the reader won’t always relate to them. Throwing in an exotic land and a confusing mission as this story featured throws off the balance of the story and makes it difficult to figure out what the story is trying to accomplish.

Series about villains are difficult to keep going, especially characters who aren’t ones who naturally tend to work together, and Secret Six is probably the most successful such comic in history (Suicide Squad, remember, was anchored by several clear-cut heroes; Secret Six is more like trying to write a series about The Joker or Lex Luthor). But it feels like it’s spiraling out of control.

This Week’s Haul

This week marks I think the third collection of Matt Wagner’s Mage: The Hero Discovered I’ve bought. It’s not quite as nice as the 2005 collection, except that that edition contained a printing error (missing text in one of the chapters), which was certainly annoying. So I decided to pick up this one. Now… which one do I keep?

Meanwhile, I’m finally all caught up on both Green Lantern Corps and Captain America with the collections out this week.

  • American Vampire #8, by Scott Snyder & Rafael Albuquerque (DC/Vertigo)
  • Batman: The Return of Bruce Wayne #6 of 6, by Grant Morrison, Lee Garbett, Pere Pérez, Alejandro Sicat & Walden Wong (DC)
  • Green Lantern Corps: Emerald Eclipse TPB, by Peter J. Tomasi, Patrick Gleason, Rebecca Buchman, Christian Alamy, Prentis Rollins & Tom Nguyen (DC)
  • Green Lantern: Emerald Warriors #4, by Peter J. Tomasi, Fernando Pasarin & Cam Smith (DC)
  • Knight and Squire #2 of 6, by Paul Cornell & Jimmy Broxton (DC)
  • T.H.U.N.D.E.R. Agents #1, by Nick Spencer, Cafu & Bit (DC)
  • The Unwritten #19, by Mike Carey & Peter Gross (DC/Vertigo)
  • Victorian Undead: Sherlock Holmes vs. Dracula #1 of 6, by Ian Edginton, Davide Fabbri & Tom Mandrake (DC/Wildstorm)
  • Captain America: Two Americas TPB, by Ed Brubaker, Luke Ross, Butch Guice & Rick Magyar (Marvel)
  • Captain America: Forever Allies #4 of 4, by Roger Stern, Nick Dragotta, Marco Santucci, Patrick Piazzalunga, Brad Simpson, Chris Sotomayor & Andrew Crossley (Marvel)
  • Chew #15, by John Layman & Rob Guillory (Image)
  • Halcyon #1, by Marc Guggenheim, Tara Butters & Ryan Bodenheim (Image)
  • Mage: The Hero Discovered HC, by Matt Wagner (Image)
  • Atomic Robo and the Deadly Art of Science #1 of 5, by Brian Clevinger & Scott Wegener (Red 5)
Batman: The Return of Bruce Wayne wraps up a week after Batman actually returned in Batman and Robin. As with most of Grant Morrison’s Batman stuff, it’s so-so. It’s not helped by the uninspired Image-style artwork of Lee Garrett.

This whole story has been hamstrung by the overly-convoluted plot, in which Darkseid sent Batman into the distant past, slowly working his way to the present, and pursued by a “hyper-adapter infestation”. First, why would Darkseid pursue such a plan, and why would he use Batman, who he’s got to think is one of the people most likely to defeat his plan? Why not just unleash the creature immediately, and by surprise? Well, one reason is the second problem, which is that the creature doesn’t seem so tough, since Superman, Wonder Woman and Green Lantern wrap the thing up, stuff it into a time sphere, and send it off to oblivion. Weak stuff, especially since it’s not clear the thing could have gone toe-to-toe with any of that trio anyway.

Morrison was once a writer who – despite his flaws – produced some ground-breaking stuff for DC. While I wasn’t a fan of every bit of it, Animal Man, Doom Patrol, The Invisibles and JLA were all key comics for fans of their day who wanted more than routine superhero fare. But JLA seemed to have made more of a mark on Morrison’s writing style than the other way around, as Morrison’s work over the last few years has been only a little more than routine superhero fare – slightly unorthodox in its style, but when he went farther than that it produced the basically-unreadable Final Crisis.

So all of this raises the question: What is Grant Morrison really accomplishing at DC comics, for the readers? Honestly Geoff Johns’ Green Lantern work has felt more inspired and coherent than Morrison’s Batman and related titles. Maybe Morrison is a huge Batman fan and is having the time of his life writing the character, but I don’t think it really shows in the final product, which has been uneven at best.

At this point I think I’ve long since gotten the idea of what Morrison is doing here, and it’s not doing much for me, so as I said last week I think this is it for me with Morrison’s mainstream DC titles. Maybe I’ll check in again when he seems to be doing something different again.

The second issue of Knight and Squire is so much better than the first that I wonder why Paul Cornell decided to lead with the first issue at all. This one is a much better introduction to the characters: We already know they’re a Batman and Robin type of duo, but we see them operating in their hometown and how they relate to the locals (it’s cute and clever, really), and then they face off against a group of evil Morris dancers (no, really). It’s not a profound story, but it’s fun and funny and the right amount of ridiculous. I hope the rest of the series is more like this issue.
I’ve always been unaccountably fascinated by the T.H.U.N.D.E.R. Agents, a team of superhero-secret agents from a small publisher in the 1960s. The original series was not much to read compared to the typical Marvel Comic of the era, but they did have first-class artists (Wally Wood, Gil Kane, Steve Ditko, etc.). What hooked me was the short-lived series from Deluxe Comics in the mid-80s, which not only had true top-notch art talent (George Pérez, Dave Cockrum, Jerry Ordway, and unfortunately Keith Giffen at his artistic nadir), but also outstanding writing, highlighted by the characterization of Lightning, whose speed suit causes him to age rapidly, and after just a few years of use he’s now an old man. Unfortunately that series came to a premature end because Deluxe though the Agents were in the public domain, when in fact they were not. The owner (the late John Carbonaro) licensed the character to a couple other companies, but none of them really took off. Now, after the success of DC’s Archives collections of the series, DC is publishing a new series, which apparently has no continuity relationship to the earlier series.

This series is taking the Lightning angle and running with it: Using any of the Agents gear causes its wearer to rapidly burn out, much like the premise of Marvel’s 1980s series Strikeforce: Morituri. (I wonder if writer Nick Spencer realizes the resemblance?) The first issue is pretty good, and suggests that it’s going to be more of an espionage play-and-counterplay story with overtones of superheroics than the other way around, which could be interesting. The art by the single-named artists Cafu and Bit is quite good, strongly resembling that of Paul Gulacy, albeit with less use of shadow.

I doubt it will ever replace the 80s series in my heart, but it’s got promise.

It’s pretty hard to write a “end of the age of superheroes” story, especially one deploying the usual Justice League/Avengers paradigm as the team of protagonists. Bill Willingham’s Pantheon (which I liked) took a “if the heroes win” approach, while Rick Remender’s The End League (which I didn’t) took an “if the villains win” approach. Now Image is publishing Halcyon, in which Marc Guggenheim and Tara Butters seem to be taking an “all the villains stop being villains” angle (with the possibility that it’s actually a devious villainous plot). The series are immediately nervous that they’ll be rendered redundant (because, after all, what fun is it to be a superhero without supervillains to beat on?), but maybe I’m reading too much into it: This first issue is really just the set-up, with some foreshadowing, and it’s pretty well done. Certainly good enough for me to stick around for a while to see where it’s going.

The art by Ryan Bodenheim is pretty erratic. His style seems inspired by that of early Doug Mahnke, maybe with a little Frank Quitely. His layouts are pretty good, but not very dynamic. The darker characters are rendered better than the purer hero types. And his anatomy, especially of the women, seems a little off to me. On the other hand, he seems to have talent and everyone has to start somewhere (he’s drawn a few other things over the last decade, but this is my first exposure to him), so maybe he’ll develop.

This Week’s Haul

  • Batman and Robin #16, by Grant Morrison, Cameron Stewart, Chris Burnham & Frazer Irving (DC)
  • Secret Six #27, by Gail Simone & Jim Calafiore (DC)
  • Tom Strong and the Robots of Doom #6 of 6, by Peter Hogan, Chris Sprouse & Karl Story (DC/America’s Best Comics)
  • Captain America: Man Out of Time #1 of 5, by Mark Waid, Jorge Molina & Karl Kesel (Marvel)
  • Scarlet #3, by Brian Michael Bendis & Alex Maleev (Marvel/Icon)
  • Squadron Supreme Omnibus HC, by Mark Gruenwald, Bob Hall, Paul Ryan, John Buscema, Paul Neary, John Beatty, Sam De La Rosa, and others (Marvel)
  • Irredeemable #19, by Mark Waid & Peter Krause (Boom)
  • The Boys #48, by Garth Ennis & Russ Braun (Dynamite)
  • The Mystery Society #4 of 5, by Steve Niles & Fiona Staples (IDW)
  • Invincible #75, by Robert Kirkman, Ryan Ottley & Cliff Rathburn (Image)
Even though The Return of Bruce Wayne hasn’t finished yet (and despite it being written by the same author), Bruce Wayne is back in this month’s Batman and Robin, to help clean up the disaster in Gotham City that Dick Grayson (the new Batman) and Damian Wayne (the current Robin) couldn’t stop. Seems like someone at DC had trouble with scheduling.

The issue is pretty good. Naturally I much prefer Cameron Stewart’s art to Frazer Irving’s – my exposure to Irving so far is such that I’ll be wary of buying any comics he illustrates in the future, because I really don’t care for his style. The story involves Bruce facing off against the man claiming to be his father, Thomas Wayne. In the minimalist style he’s employing these days, Grant Morrison makes it more-or-less clear what’s really going on (the man is an impostor with a supernatural background), but he isn’t really a very scary villain, just another blustering idiot who’s stumbled into Gotham not realizing how dangerous it is. His final encounter with the Joker demonstrates that. But as I’ve said, Morrison has never been very strong at characterization, so stories which might otherwise be character-based tend to fall a bit (or a bit more) flat.

That’s been the downfall of Batman and Robin as a series: Dick was never portrayed as a very strong Batman (despite having been a very strong character when Marv Wolfman wrote him as one of the Teen Titans, and one quite different from Batman), and while there were hints of an unusual tension between him and Damian-as-Robin, it never came to any fruition, it all felt mechanical and not very important. A writer with a better notion of how to handle characters would have been able to make their relationship the foundation of the series, but instead it ended up being another wacky Morrison plot-fest, which seemed to work against what the series wanted to be.

I think this is Morrison’s last issue of the series, and after Return wraps up we’ll be getting a new Batman status quo, “Batman Incorporated”, with multiple Batmen keeping the peace (and/or busting heads) around the world. It’s certainly a Morrisonesque idea, but again it’s quite far removed from any promise of strong characterization, and frankly I think this exhausts my interest in Morrison’s take on Batman, so I think this will be it for me. It’s been a decidedly mediocre run.

Mark Waid takes on the first few days of Captain America in the modern era, after having been in suspended animation for decades following World War II, in Captain America: Man Out of Time. This issue takes place mainly in those dying days of the Second World War, explaining who Cap and Bucky were as people (Cap the strong silent type, Bucky a bit of a clown – the latter a little at odds with Ed Brubaker’s portrayal in his ongoing Cap series, but there’s enough room for both portrayals, really), before their ill-fated final mission. Waid shifts to a first-person perspective of Cap being knocked unconscious by the blast that kills his partner, and then waking up in the Avengers’ submarine decades later, with a first-person narrative (as a letter to an army general) of his reactions to the Avengers themselves, and their arrival in New York. It’s quite well done, worth the price of admission all by itself.

Waid has an interesting challenge from here on out, though. First of all, given that “today” is now 2010, Cap clearly didn’t wake up in 1963 as he did in the silver age, since he’d be 70 years old now. Therefore he probably woke up around 2000 or so (Brubaker’s run basically says as much), yet we have the Avengers in their goofy 1960s costumes, and I’m sure there are more bits of societal contrasts to come. Also, the story in which Cap was originally found had a pretty awkward strong of coincidences – such as the Avengers being turned to stone, as is alluded to here – which is tricky to write around. Waid heads off the reservation in pretty short order by having Cap have a new encounter at the end of this issue, with a cliffhanger ending. Waid is clearly going to be focusing on Cap all the way, but Cap’s identity after his return quickly became closely tied to that of the Avengers, so I’m wondering what Waid will do there. I could see this series going in any of several different directions, so the question is: What is Waid ultimately trying to accomplish with this story? We’ll see.

The art is quite good, Jorge Molina’s style feeling a bit like Oliver Coipel’s, while Karl Kesel’s inks give it a little more depth and form. The excellent art on Brubaker’s Cap run is a tough act to follow, but these guys do a pretty good job of evoking that feel while having a slightly more superheroic style.

With a new Squadron Supreme hardcover collection out this month, a new generation could discover the late Mark Gruenwald’s magnum opus. On the other hand, it costs $75, so that new generation might not be able to afford it, but us old fogeys enjoy getting a nice repackaging of this story.

It is important to put the book in perspective, though: When this series originally came out, it was contemporary with DC’s 50th anniversary series Crisis on Infinite Earths as well as (at its end) The Dark Knight Returns, and came near the end of the Jim Shooter era at Marvel. It predated Alan Moore’s Watchmen by a few years, and covered similar ground: Superheroes who come to dominate their world. But Mark Gruenwald was working with characters – and within a framework – that still saw them as Justice League-type heroes, flawed in the Marvel sense but essentially heroic. The theme of the series was one of characters doing what they believe is right, in the selfless way that comic book heroes do, but disagreeing with what needs to be done in the wake of a national disaster. While there’s plenty of carnage, betrayal, and death in the series, but it feels tame compared to series that followed it.

Still, it’s quite a good series, dealing with its characters and their differences honestly, especially as various wrenches get through into their plans to save America by instituting a utopian program, even as one former member assembles a team to bring them down. While I’d say it’s not quite as good as Gruenwald’s earlier series, Hawkeye, it’s clearly the one he’s going to be remembered for. The art is also some of the best at Marvel for its era, with the quirky pencils by Bob Hall in the early issues, and the much slicker, more mainstream-Marvel Paul Ryan in the later ones.

Reading it again today, I’d say it’s biggest flaw is that it lacks a denouement: Some individual issues end abruptly (like an issue which ends with the Whizzer thinking, “How can any of them ever trust me again?”, a thought which is ignored for the rest of the series), and the finale of the 12-issue limited series involves a big battle royale between the two sides, but very little examination of why the characters choose the course they do once the battle is over. It feels shallow. The sequel graphic novel, “Death of a Universe”, involves yet more devastation, some of it without meaning (such as one hero who dies just as the mission to save the world is literally taking off), and with a transformative ending which also ends too abruptly. There’s been so much change throughout this series, and no real effort to show how the world assimilates it.

Ultimately the biggest disappointment in the series is that this is all there is, and it feels like there should have been a little bit more. (Later Squadron stories have very little resemblance to those in this volume, although Kurt Busiek tried to evoke Gruenwald’s Squadron when they appeared in his early 2000s Avengers run.) But it laid the groundwork for stories like Watchmen even as it became resoundingly eclipsed by them, and it’s worth reading for that historical context as well as being an interesting take on mainstream superheroes which has not been often attempted in quite the same way.

This Week’s Haul

  • Astro City: The Dark Age vol 2 HC, by Kurt Busiek, Brent Anderson & Alex Ross (DC/Wildstorm)
  • Batman Beyond #5 of 6, by Adam Beechen, Ryan Benjamin & John Stanisci (DC)
  • Batman and Robin #15, by Grant Morrison & Frazer Irving (DC)
  • DC Universe: Legacies #6 of 10, by Len Wein, Scott Kolins, Jerry Ordway, George Pérez, Scott Koblish, Keith Giffen & Al Milgrom (DC)
  • Fables #99, by Bill Willingham & Inaki Miranda (DC/Vertigo)
  • Green Lantern Corps #53, by Tony Bedard, Tyler Kirkham & Batt (DC)
  • Legion of Super-Heroes #6, by Paul Levitz, Francis Portela, Phil Jimenez, Scott Koblish, Yildiray Cinar & Wayne Faucher (DC)
  • Power Girl #17, by Judd Winick & Sami Basri (DC)
  • Steve Rogers: Super-Soldier #4 of 4, by Ed Brubaker & Dale Eaglesham (Marvel)
  • Morning Glories #3, by Nick Spencer & Joe Eisma (Image)
  • The Sixth Gun #5, by Cullen Bunn & Brian Hurtt (Oni)
I was rather perplexed at the end of the previous issue of Batman Beyond, but this issue does a fine job in clearing up my confusion, and making sense of the identity of the new Hush – he’s a clone of Dick Grayson, the same way Terry McGinnis is a clone of Bruce Wayne. Part of the problem is that Ryan Benjamin and John Stanisci’s art is often not very clear, trying to look a little like the cartoon series but with a heavy dose of latter-day Frank Miller in their style (which in my opinion is not a good thing). In this issue they draw Hush in a strong Miller-esque style, which makes his emotions and identity very difficult to read. It just seems sloppy, really.

(Although, I wonder if the Miller-like art is an homage to The Dark Knight Strikes Again, in which an older Bruce Wayne deals with a psychotic Dick Grayson. The parallel is passingly interesting, but since TDKSA was basically self-indulgent drek, it’s not really a selling point for this series.)

The series has been something of a mixed bag, but ultimately it’s been fun despite its flaws. I look forward to the wrap-up next month.

That cover has almost nothing to do with the latest issue of Legion of Super-Heroes, just a couple of pages where people talk about the fact that Shadow Lass slept with Earth-Man (is she not still with Mon-El? How confusing). But otherwise it features two stories, one mostly involving moving characters around (Levitz loves writing these little in-between bits which don’t really advance the plot), and the other featuring members of the Legion Academy. It’s a filler issue.

But then there’s the last page:

So whom should I vote for in the Legion leader election? Element Lad’s always been my favorite – except I can’t stand his pink costume, especially since it replaced the excellent Dave Cockrum-designed blue-and-green one. Among the candidates, I think I’d go with either Mon-El or Dawnstar.

Steve Rogers: Super-Soldier wraps up with a nifty confrontation between Steve and Machinesmith, and a neat coda which puts a rather different spin on the rest of the series, leaving our hero confused as to what exactly was going on. As with Brubaker’s Captain America run, this has been quite good. But it kind of underscores that Steve Rogers really needs to be Cap; Bucky has been a decent fill-in, but it’s becoming clear that he doesn’t have the temperament or skills to really be Cap, that his road leads elsewhere.

With “The Trial of Captain America” right around the corner, I hope these points get handled over the next year.

This Week’s Haul

On Wednesday, comics writer Ed Brubaker tweeted:

Seriously, anyone not picking up Casanova and Scarlet this week doesn’t want good comics.

Neither of these books had really been on my radar, but since I’ve developed a great deal of respect for Brubaker’s writing over the past year, his recommendation was enough to make me give them a try. So what did I think? Read on…

  • Batman and Robin #13, by Grant Morrison & Frazer Irving (DC)
  • Brightest Day #5, by Geoff Johns, Peter J. Tomasi, Ivan Reis, Ardian J. Syaf, Joe Prada & Vicente Cifuentes (DC)
  • Secret Six #23, by John Ostrander, R.B. Silva & Alexandre Palamaro (DC)
  • Tom Strong and the Robots of Doom #2 of 6, by Peter Hogan, Chris Sprouse & Karl Story (DC/Wildstorm)
  • Casanova #1, by Matt Fraction, Gabriel Bá & Fábio Moon (Marvel/Icon)
  • Fantastic Four Annual #32, by Joe Ahearne, Bryan Hitch & Andrew Currie (Marvel)
  • Hercules: Twilight of a God #2 of 4, by Bob Layton & Ron Lim (Marvel)
  • Scarlet #1, by Brian Michael Bendis & Alex Maleev (Marvel/Icon)
  • Steve Rogers: Super-Soldier #1, by Ed Brubaker & Dale Eaglesham (Marvel)
  • Irredeemable #15, by Mark Waid & Diego Barreto (Boom)
  • The Boys #44, by Garth Ennis & Russ Braun (Dynamite)
  • Hellboy: The Storm #1 of 3, by Mike Mignola & Duncan Fegredo (Dark Horse)
The main thing I have to say about this week’s Batman and Robin is: Yaaaggggh! I can’t stand Frazer Irving’s artwork here! I like it even less here than in his issue of The Return of Bruce Wayne. The fake-looking expressions, the stiff coloring job (apparently also by Irving), the images of Dick Grayson and The Joker that barely look like them (how can you draw a Joker that barely looks like The Joker? Irving somehow manages it), the barely-rendered background. Greg Burgas loves his art, but then, this is far from the first time that I’ve been at the opposite end from him.

Like Francis Manapul’s art on The Flash, Irving’s art may soon be a signal to me not to buy a comic.

The story’s okay; Morrison brings back Professor Pyg from the first story, which suggests that he’s going to wrap up Dick’s tenure as Batman very soon. He also throws in a teaser about Bruce’s father coming back, having not really been killed, which is nearly impossible to credit, as the guy would have to be around 80 by now (not to mention that it would substantially undercut Batman’s backstory), so obviously there’s something else going on.

Casanova ran as a comic from Image a few years ago, and it seems this series is a reprint of the earlier issues. The premise – as best I can figure it out – is that Casanova Quinn is the son of Cornelius Quinn, the Nick Fury-esque leader of the global spy agency E.M.P.I.R.E. Casanova’s sister, Zephyr, is E.M.P.I.R.E.’s top agent. Casanova, meanwhile, is a thief. The story opens with him on a mission, when Cornelius’ right-hand man, Buck McShane (who resembles Fury’s right-hand man Dum Dum Dugan), shows up to take Casanova down. The reason is that Zephyr has died. This leas to a confrontation between Casanova and his father, followed by an adventure in which Casanova takes down a crime lord in a mental duel, then gets recruited by Newman Zeno, the leader of the global crime organization W.A.S.T.E., ends up in a parallel timeline, and tries to pull off his original heist again.

The story reads a lot like another series Gabriel Bá drew, The Umbrella Academy. It’s the sort of story I file under “madcap nonsensical adventure”. More precisely, the story seems to revel in its being just too darned clever, but doesn’t pay a whole lot of attention to actually making sense. Like Academy, Casanova starts off being intriguing and amusing, but Academy rather quickly devolved into a muddled mess, its storylines pointless and its characters uninteresting (and certainly not sympathetic). So the question is: Will Casanova manage to pull together, gain some focus, and work through some themes and characterizations in depth? Or will it, too, become a muddled mess? That it ostensibly emphasizes a single protagonist gives me hope that it will be the former. But the execution of the first issue makes me worry it will be the latter, and that I’ll stop caring pretty soon.

Brian Michael Bendis’ mainstream comics writing drives me almost as crazy as does J. Michael Straczynski’s. Bendis’ Marvel work, especially his Avengers titles, are little more than a massive dose of navel-gazing continuity clutter, and his affectations in writing dialogue – emphasizing uncertainty and starts and stops while speaking – feel especially out-of-place in Marvel comics, especially titles like The Avengers. On the other hand, Bendis does have one genuine great series to his name, Powers, which is creator-owned, like his new title, Scarlet.

The premise appears to be that the the main character sees the problems and corruption in society and decides to do something about it, sparking a revolution. This issue begins with her and her friends – as young adults – having an unfortunate encounter with a corrupt cop, and the cop kills her boyfriend and injures her. So that’s the spark that sets her off, and from the text page it sounds like the story will get bigger and bigger as it progresses. Scarlet isn’t some superpowered maniac, she’s just a normel person (albeit with some ridiculously big firearms).

The first issue is a little annoying in that Scarlet spends most of it talking directly to the reader, and saying we’re going to help her change everything, an affectation that just seems cheesy – a simple first-person testimonial-style narrative would have worked better. But Bendis’ narratives are often full of affectations, so that just comes with the territory I guess. Otherwise the set-up isn’t bad. I’m not particularly blown away, and Scarlet isn’t a very interesting character, yet, but there’s some potential here. Unlike Casanova, which is all over the place, Scarlet stays in one place but doesn’t get very far. But hopefully that will change after another 2 or 3 issues.

Alex Maleev’s art reminds me a lot of Tony Harris’, with its ultra-realistic poses and breakdowns, but stylized linework and finishes. The murky coloring job (also by Maleev?) doesn’t bring out the best in the lines, though, rather burying them under fairly bland tones. His figures and expressions are actually less peculiar than Harris’ tend to be (Harris’ faces sometimes feature some rather silly grimaces, while Maleev’s faces look much more genuine), it’s just disappointing that the whole doesn’t live up to the promise of its component parts.

So there’s certainly some potential here. I’m hoping Bendis isn’t going to drag out the build-up of the storyline across a year or two, and rather goes for the jugular sooner rather than later. I’m not sure the book will hold my attention if it stays at this level for more than a few issues, unless the characters develop suddenly and dramatically (and, uh, unless we end up with more than one major character). I’ll give it a few issues and see how it shapes up.

Ironically, Ed Brubaker’s comic out this week is better than either of the ones he touted in his tweet. It’s starting to amaze me how much Brubaker is able to plumb the depths of Captain America’s past, yet not seem like he’s going to the well too often. Steve Rogers: Super-Soldier has a stupid title, but the story itself is quite good. Steve Rogers, of course, was the original Captain America, but when he returned from death (or wherever it was he was, I haven’t read Captain America Reborn yet) he let Bucky Barnes keep the title (and the shield). Now Steve’s the leader of the Avengers and “America’s top law-enforcement agent”, which I guess means he’s on a par with the leader of S.H.I.E.L.D. without all the paperwork. Of course, we can’t blame Brubaker for the convoluted backstory (well, mostly not), but you can boil it down to “superhuman government agent who’s just not Captain America anymore”.

But the source of this story is that the grandson of the man who gave Steve his powers has apparently replicated the formula and is putting it on the market to the highest bidder, and Steve breaks into the hotel where the auction is supposed to take place to stop it. But not only have things already started to get out of control, but it turns out something rather different is going on – something Steve will have to figure out in the coming issues. It’s a pretty good set-up, and fits in perfectly with Brubaker’s other Cap stories.

I keep thinking Dale Eaglesham’s art ought to be better than it is. His linework varies from nuanced (especially in his use of shadows) to strangely simplistic. His compositions are fine, but occasionally his figures seem stiff and overly posed. This was my impression when I first saw his work in Justice Society of America 3 years ago, but oddly I don’t think he’s advanced a lot on that time. His work here seems influenced by Jim Steranko, which is a good thing (and probably not a coincidence), but it’s still not entirely successful.

The worst part of the comic, though, is that awful costume Steve’s been saddled with. It’s like Nick Fury’s S.H.I.E.L.D. outfit fought Captain America’s costume, and both lost. But I can get past that.

Being the fill-in artist for Darick Robertson is going to be a tough job for almost anyone, but the guys who have filled those shoes on The Boys haven’t really come close to reaching Robertson’s skills. To my surprise, though, not only for Russ Braun do a creditable job this week, but his style is so close to Robertson’s own that it’s hard to tell the difference, at least at first glance. Braun’s style is a little “shinier” than Robertson’s, and his characters are a bit more idealized, not having that Shawn McManus-esque quirkiness to their figures, but otherwise it’s really close. Quite a pleasant surprise.

The story is kicking into a higher gear, as Butcher is having trouble trusting Wee Hughie, Hughie is still reeling from his encounter with Malchemical last issue, and Hughie’s girlfriend is about to drop the bomb on him. It’s been a long time coming, but it looks like all of Ennis’ set-up is going to start paying off.

This Week’s Haul

In addition to the usual roundup, note that the second of Fantagraphics’ hardcover collections of Prince Valiant came out this week. These are really lovely collections, a big upgrade on their softcover collections of the 90s, and well worth it for anyone who’s a fan of Hal Foster’s lovely artwork.

  • Action Comics #890, by Paul Cornell & Pete Woods (DC)
  • Batman Beyond #1 of 6, by Adam Beechen, Ryan Benjamin & John Stanisci (DC)
  • The Flash #3, by Geoff Johns & Francis Manapul (DC)
  • Green Lantern #55, by Geoff Johns, Doug Mahnke & Christian Alamy (DC)
  • Justice League of America #46, by James Robinson, Mark Bagley, Rob Hunter & Norm Rapmund (DC)
  • Justice Society of America #40, by Bill Willingham, Jesus Merino & Jesse Delperdang (DC)
  • Madame Xanadu #24, by Matt Wagner & Marley Zarcone (DC/Vertigo)
  • Wonder Woman #600, by Gail Simone, George Pérez & Scott Koblish, Amanda Conner, Louise Simonson, Eduardo Pansica & Bob Wiacek, Geoff Johns & Scott Kolins, and J. Michael Straczynski, Don Kramer & Michael Babinski (DC)
  • Astonishing X-Men #34, by Warren Ellis, Phil Jimenez & Andy Lanning (Marvel)
  • Captain America #607, by Ed Brubaker, Mitch Breitweiser & Jackson Guice (Marvel)
  • Prince Valiant vol 2 1939-1940 HC, by Hal Foster (Fantagraphics)
  • Invincible #73, by Robert Kirkman, Ryan Ottley & Cliff Rathburn (Image)
  • Ghost Projekt #3 of 5, by Joe Harris & Steve Rolston (Oni)
  • Atomic Robo and the Curse of the Vampire Dimension #4 of 4, by Brian Clevinger & Scott Wegener (Red 5)
Paul Cornell’s had an interesting career: Doctor Who episodes, science fiction novels, and now comic books, following up on his Captain Britain and MI-13 series for Marvel (which I haven’t read) with the beginning of a run on Action Comics. With J. Michael Straczynski monopolizing Superman in his own title, though, Cornell is focusing on Lex Luthor here in Action.

Writing a story starring a bad guy can be hard, and Lex is about as bad as they come: He’s evolved from a brilliant, hateful, and emotional villain to a brilliant, hateful, code-and-calculating villain, who keeps his emotions bottled up, making his crimes (and moral lapses) all the more creepy. Cornell pulls off all this creepiness quite well, and even has a tricky little subplot involving Lois Lane witnessing Lex’s crimes. Lex’s motivation here is that he tasted the power of a power ring (the orange ring in Blackest Night) and he’s trying to figure out a way to get it back by researching the power of the vanished black rings. Lex always has ambitions a little higher and darker than anyone else in the DC universe.

If there’s a downside to this issue it’s the reveal on the last page, which feels like an awkward shift into a different storyline than where the issue started. But Cornell might just be taking the story in a different direction than it first appeared. But overall his first issue is pretty nifty, so I’m looking forward to see where Cornell’s going with it.

Oh, and Pete Woods’ art is terrific. Similar to that of Gary Frank back before Frank went ulta-realistic (and mostly stopped drawing backgrounds) with a hint of Tony Harris, he has a strong design and composition sense and clean linework. I’m not sure if I’ve seen his stuff before, but I like it a lot.

For some reason DC has decided to revive the Batman Beyond franchise, which was primarily an animated series, and one which ended nearly ten years ago. Is the trademark about to expire or something? Well, after a Superman/Batman annual featuring the character a few weeks ago (written by Paul Levitz, it was pretty routine stuff), now there’s a 6-issue mini-series written by Adam Beechen (whose work I really only know from his – pretty good – Countdown to Adventure series a few years ago) and drawn by Ryan Benjamin and John Stanisci (neither of whom I’m familiar with).

The story is a straight follow-up to the cartoon series, with characters such as Amanda Waller filling roles different from those in comic books. The story involves someone escaping from a high-tech laboratory and apparently killing the original Batman’s enemies. His successor, Terry McGinnis, tries to head him off, when he and Bruce Wayne find out what’s happening, and the issue ends with the revelation of the villain’s identity, indicating that a comic book villain is moving into the animated world. It works pretty well as a first issue, and is certainly enough that I’ll pick up the rest of the series.

Seeing the animated characters drawn in a more realistic, comic book-like style is kind of weird; sometimes Benjamin manages to pull off the expressions that really make the characters who they are on the small screen, but other times they seem like someone else, actors playing the characters. It’s not entirely successful; look at the cover, for example, where McGinnis’ Batman has more muscle and definition than he ever had in the cartoon. I’m not sure what aesthetic they’re really going for here. It’s a good-looking book, but there’s a certain cognitive dissonance to it that makes it difficult for me to fully buy into it being a sequel to the cartoon.

Wonder Woman #600 is another anthology issue with pin-ups, like Superman #700 was last week, which makes it feel rather less special as an anniversary issue. Unsurprisingly the best story in it is the one written by Gail Simone and drawn by the always-amazing George Pérez, even though the premise is yet another “let’s come up with a silly excuse for having every female superhero embark on an adventure together, without any of the men”. What really sells it, though, is that afterwards Diana heads out for the graduation of one of the supporting characters of her series when she was re-imagined by Pérez 20 years ago. Given that this issue is also re-imagining the character in a later story, this is a fine and touching coda to Wonder Woman’s current incarnation. (Pérez also draws a fantastic two-page poster with characters from throughout this run, almost worth the price of admission all by itself.)

Amanda Conner writers and draws a short piece with Wonder Woman and Power Girl, which feels a little under-rendered for her usual work, and which is a cute little personal piece about PG’s home life. Louise Simonson writes a third story guest-starring Superman which is a straight adventure story (the art is by Eduardo Pansica whom I’m not familiar with, but it looks pretty nice; inker Bob Wiacek looks like he had a strong influence on it, though). Then Geoff Johns and Scott Kolins write the lead-in to J. Michael Straczynski’s re-imagining, in which the character is apparently broken down and reappears in her new guise, with a new backstory.

The story is a fairly light lead-in to Straczynski’s run on the character, but is much better than his rather awful debut on Superman last week: Wonder Woman is now apparently a refugee from Paradise Island, along with the surviving Amazons, and it’s not clear who killed most of the Amazons or why, but apparently he’s still hunting her.

The problem with the story is not that it’s bad, but that it doesn’t feel like Wonder Woman. It made sense when Tangent Comics turned characters completely on their head, but this Wonder Woman has so little connection to her past incarnations that I wonder why they even bothered. I like the theory at The Beat that “a lot of this seems to be a reboot aimed at getting a Wonder Woman movie closer to being made – actresses didn’t seem so thrilled about running around in a glorified swimsuit”. Which brings us to the new costume, which has engendered plenty of controversy. I don’t think it’s awful, although going from one largely-nonfunctional costume to another one seems rather silly (those tiny little jackets look pretty silly whenever I see anyone wearing one, and I’ve got to think that that V-shaped belt is going to hurt whenever she bends over).

The costume is really just a visual indication of what I said about Straczynski’s comics writing last week: He goes so far out trying to do something new with the character that he loses (or shows that he never understood) what defined that character in the first place. To be sure, where Wonder Woman is concerned the definition has always been a little sketchy (considering her the third leg of DC’s top “trinity” of characters has always seemed rather silly, since she’s nowhere near as iconic as Superman or Batman; her powers are essentially that of a female Superman, and her character has been pulled in so many directions that it’s difficult to define who she is or what she stands for), but whatever she is, I don’t think this is it.

Still, the story seems decent enough, which could make it a good read where Straczynski’s Superman looks like a disaster out of the gate. And while Don Kramer is no George Pérez in the art department, well, who is? So color my guardedly optimistic.

This month’s Invincible is an interesting one for readers like me who appreciate unorthodox story structures: The main characters are entirely off-stage while the primary storyline (the war against the Viltrumites, the conquering race of supermen that Invincible’s father hails from) goes on. But the story itself – told in a series of vignettes – focuses mainly on Invincible’s father Omni-Man and his brother Oliver, who get to know each other while Invincible recovers from near-fatal injuries. Meanwhile, their allies think they’ve been killed, and the war begins without them. We see glimpses of how the war is going (sometimes well, sometimes poorly), but the focus is on the two men. It’s effective without being cloying, has Robert Kirkman’s trademark (and slightly twisted and grotesque) sense of humor, and feels like a calm before the storm without feeling like a wasted issue.

All-in-all it shows what a versatile writer Kirkman is. It seems like every issue of Invincible is a little journey off the beaten path of standard superhero comics. That’s probably what makes it such a good series.

(By the way, here’s something neat: Ryan Ottley’s cover for the issue in pencils, pencils and inks, and in final colored form.)

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 couple of good hardcover collections this week: The new Marvel Masterworks: The Avengers volume collects the Kree-Skrull War story from the early 1970s, with terrific art by Neal Adams, and surrounding stories with fine work by Barry Windsor-Smith and the Buscema brothers. The sprawling, deep-space story is a tad disappointing by today’s standards, but it was state-of-the-art at the time.

And then, West Coast Avengers Assemble is still a rollicking good time, chronicling the formation of the splinter team in the early 1980s, it’s some of Roger Stern’s finest writing, and a fine follow-up to Mark Gruenwald’s Hawkeye story, collected a year or so ago. The team of relative lightweights putting together a plan to take out one of Marvel’s most powerful villains is one of the best examples of brains-over-brawn in superhero comics history. This was probably the last high point of the Avengers until Kurt Busiek’s run 15 years later.

And with that, on to the regular stuff:

  • Batman: The Return of Bruce Wayne #2 of 6, by Grant Morrison & Frazer Irving (DC)
  • Green Lantern #54, by Geoff Johns, Doug Mahnke & Christian Alamy (DC)
  • Green Lantern Corps #48, by Tony Bedard, Ardian Syaf & Vicente Cifuentes (DC)
  • Madame Xanadu #23, by Matt Wagner, Amy Reeder Hadley & Richard Friend (DC/Vertigo)
  • Power Girl #12, by Justin Gray, Jimmy Palmiotti & Amanda Conner (DC)
  • Marvel Masterworks: The Avengers HC vol 137, collecting The Avengers vol 1 #89-100, by Roy Thomas, Neal Adams, Sal Buscema, Barry Windsor-Smith, John Buscema, Tom Palmer & others (Marvel)
  • Avengers: West Coast Avengers Assemble HC, by Roger Stern, Bob Harras, Bob Hall, Al Milgrom, Luke McDonnell, Don Hudson, Brett Breeding, Joe Sinnott & others (Marvel)
  • Fantastic Four #579, by Jonathan Hickman, Neil Edwards & Andrew Currie (Marvel)
  • Incorruptible #6, by Mark Waid, Horacio Domingues & Juan Castro (Boom)
  • The Mystery Society #1, by Steve Niles & Fiona Staples (IDW)
The guys over at Comics Should Be Good (Brian Curran: “Irving’s artwork is stunning on the comic.”; Greg Burgas: “Irving’s art is the best part of the book, as it’s always a treat to see it”.) are praising Frazer Irving’s art on The Return of Bruce Wayne #2 about as highly as anything they’ve reviewed, but I don’t see it. It’s not awful, mind you, and the splash page is pretty nifty:

(click for larger image)

But the layouts and compositions are pretty bland, and Irving’s style is decidedly over-rendered. Plus his faces range from vaguely-human to comically-grimacing. A few panels that made me raise my eyebrows for these reasons:

(again, click for larger images)

If Irving were drawing the whole series it might not look so strange, but following the very different – and far superior – Chris Sprouse work on the first issue, it’s a big come-down. But, diff’rent strokes and all that.

The story’s pretty good, although it felt very similar to some other stories: The basic structure of a witch-hunter not exactly beloved by even his friends much less the local townsfolk (the role the amnesiac Bruce Wayne plays here) feels virtually lifted from Tim Burton’s film Sleepy Hollow. The character of Annie, the nonconformist who lives in the woods and rescues and falls in love with Bruce, feels much like Madame Xanadu in the story in her own series a year or so ago, in which she was living a similar life during the Inquisition in Spain. The stuff involving Superman and the others is the most interesting part of the issue, especially as Morrison’s telling that end of the story in a non-linear fashion. His depiction of Batman as smarter than, well, anyone, gets a little tiresome, though, and taking that to its logical conclusion as is suggested here is kind of ridiculous.

Power Girl has been a series of lighthearted fun, terrific artwork by Amanda Conner, but the stories by Justin Gray and Jimmy Palmiotti have been total fluff. (You know when you bring out Vartox half a year into your run that you’re not really set on accomplishing anything substantial.) And now, issue #12 is the last of the run by these three. Am I sad to see them go? Well, sorta – mainly Conner, who’s as distinctive an artist as is working at DC these days – but the series never felt like it was living up to its potential, or really even trying.

The last issue is rife with cheesecake (is this awkward, or is it “okay” because it’s drawn by a woman?), but otherwise enjoyable: It brings back most of the supporting cast (yes, even Vartox) for their own scenes, but mostly focusing on Terra, who’s basically PG’s BFF, where we meet Terra’s parents (who are about as peculiar as you’d expect people from an underground city with future-science to be). It wraps up back at PG’s company, which we haven’t seen nearly enough of during the run. It’s a feel-good issue, and enjoyable for what it is.

Comparing Power Girl to Geoff Johns & Dan Jurgens’ run on Booster Gold seems apt: Both are second-string characters given a new title with a solid artist (Jurgens can be a little stiff, but he’s by no means bad). But Booster’s series both felt weightier and meaningful without being depressing, and it felt like it progressed over time. Power Girl’s series just felt like a set of random encounters, and that she basically ended up in the same place where she started. Sure, Booster could have been a little more fun, but it still had some wit and charm to it, while Power Girl just didn’t have any depth. I was sad to see Jurgens leave Booster (especially when I saw what Giffen & DeMatteis were going to do with it), but I’m not really sad to see this team leave Power Girl, other than losing Conner’s artwork, because I’m hopeful the new writer will give the series some more substance.

All-in-all, there were far worse ways to be spending your three bucks a month for the past year than on Power Girl, but that’s not really a strong epitaph.

Hahaha! I was a little doubtful of The Mystery Society going in – I’d heard of Steve Niles, but I don’t think I’d read anything by him – thinking it sounded like a knock-off of Hellboy, but I guess it’s all in the execution: This first issue is stylish and funny and in a completely different way from Hellboy.

The premise is that a husband-and-wife team, Nick and Anastasia, form a group to investigate supernatural mysteries. The issue opens with Nick going to jail for something, and volunteering to tell the beginnings of the society. Cut to one of Nick’s first missions, breaking into a high-security government facility to rescue a pair of twins, exchanging banter over the phone with his wife along the way, as she welcomes (a little awkwardly) an applicant to join their team. Nick and Ana have a playful back-and-forth that I think deliberately evokes the old Thin Man movies, barely taking things seriously, yet Nick at least seems to be taking things very seriously indeed under his enthusastic exterior.

Fiona Staples’ artwork is rough around the edges – the backgrounds are a little skimpy, the inking a little sketchy – but her art has an exuberance that matches the story and the characters. It sounds like Niles has some interesting plans for this series, so I hope she sticks around and we see her develop as an artist.

As origin stories go, the first issue of The Mystery Society is a cut above. I’m looking forward to the second issue.

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.