Captain America: The First Avenger might be the perfect superhero movie (so far, anyway): It’s exciting, fun, has a hero who’s heroic but not perfect, and makes you feel for the characters. And it honors its source material rather than belittling it as many superhero films these days seem to (taking the source material seriously is a big reason why Christopher Nolan’s Batman films are the best superhero films of the new century so far).
I get tired of movies always showing the character’s origin (previews in the theater showed the trailer for the upcoming The Amazing Spider-Man, which looks like it will show Spidey’s origin again; really?), but Cap’s story is very well done here, and showing Steve Rogers (Chris Evans) – the prototypical 90-pound comic book weakling – and his determination to join the army to fight in World War II, his friendship with the much more physically-able James “Bucky” Barnes Sebastian Stan), and his recruitment by Dr. Erskine (Stanley Tucci) to be the test subject for the super-soldier program are an essential part of humanizing Cap. Despite his frail physique, Steve never backs down from a fight, but when Erskine asks him whether he wants to go kill some Nazis, Steve’s character is summed up when he responds, “I don’t want to kill anyone. I just hate bullies.”
One could do all sorts of between-the-lines reading about the jingoistic heroism of the film, but that would miss the point that it’s a World War II film named Captain America, and bringing 21st-century cynicism into it would miss the point of the film (I’m sure we’ll get plenty of that in next year’s Avengers movie). Instead, this is about a good, flawed man fighting the good fight for his friends and his country. Even the somewhat-painful scene of Cap being used as a showman to sell war bonds ultimately pays off when he has the opportunity to show his stuff and becomes the army’s secret weapon against Hitler’s mysticism-loving scientist, Johann Schmidt, the Red Skull (Hugo Weaving).
While it won’t win any awards, the acting is surprisingly good for a superhero film. Chris Evans played the fun-loving Human Torch in the two unremarkable Fantastic Four films, but he’s a completely different character here. (If anything, I wish they’d processed his voice early in the film since its deepness and richness seems incongruous coming from his body when it’s been CGI’ed into Steve’s pre-treatment physique.) Weaving chews the necessary scenery as the Skull (though Toby Jones as his lead scientist, Arnim Zola, overshadows him at times with his Peter Lorre-esque performance), as does Tommy Lee Jones as the general overseeing Cap’s special forces unit. Hayley Atwell as Steve’s love interest Peggy Carter isn’t exactly the weak link, but she’s not given a lot to do – Dominic Cooper’s role as Howard Stark (father of the future Iron Man, I presume) is smaller, but he frequently upstages her.
The film looks good, too, a little grimy in the European war scenes, with flat colors in many of the New York street scenes, and bright colors at the World’s Fair and during Cap’s tour selling war bonds. The CGI in the action scenes looks fluid, although it still underscores how unnatural superhero fighting is, and what an accomplishment it was for Jack Kirby, et. al., to make it look natural in those old comic books. And the film neatly sidesteps one of my big gripes about superhero films, that they’re always contriving ways for the heroes to lose their masks so the stars can show off their real faces; the extensive focus on Steve makes it feel natural for Evans to appear as himself, but there are plenty of scenes with Cap as Cap.
The weakest part of the film is the Red Skull’s plot. He finds the Cosmic Cube (which in the comics allows a person’s wishes to become reality, but here is simply an über-energy source) and plans to use it to rule the world. He harnesses the power to create energy weapons, and plans to destroy yhe capitals of the major world powers, but since his men are unable to take on the U.S. Army even with their weapons, it’s not really clear how he plans to actually take control of the world, much less maintain control. The story would have made more sense if he were simply causing mayhem to further the conquests of Nazi Germany (in the comics, the Skull is an ardent Nazi and had the utmost respect for Hitler), but oh well. At least it’s a pretext for some lively action scenes.
Cap’s story is, ultimately, a tragedy, but the film ends without really exploring the depths of that tragedy. Presumably the plan is for the Avengers film to work through some of that, but I doubt they’ll really do it justice given the larger cast and the (presumed) need to fit some adventure story in there. (I think Avengers could be a fun film, too, but I think it’ll be easy for the story to get away from the writers and director if they’re not careful.) However, what we do see here is pretty effective.
Overall, Captain America is a really fun ride, only dragging in a few places, but otherwise engaging, action-packed, and even touching. Why can’t they all be like this?
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!
- 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)
- 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.
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)
- 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.
- Brightest Day #7, by Geoff Johns, Peter J. Tomasi, Ivan Reis, Patrick Gleason, Ardian Syaf, Scott Clark, Joe Prado, Vicente Cifuentes, David Beaty & Mark Irwin (DC)
- Secret Six #24, by Gail Simone & Jim Califore (DC)
- Tom Strong and the Robots of Doom #3 of 6, by Peter Hogan, Chris Sprouse & Karl Story (DC/Wildstorm)
- Captain America #608, by Ed Brubaker, Butch Guice, Rick Magyar & Mark Pennington (Marvel)
- Captain America: Forever Allies #1 of 4, by Roger Stern, Nick Oragotta, Marco Santucci & Patrick Piazzalunga (Marvel)
- Casanova #2, by Matt Fraction & Gabriel Bá (Marvel/Icon)
- Hercules: Twilight of a God #3 of 4, by Bob Layton & Ron Lim (Marvel)
- S.H.I.E.L.D. #3, by Jonathan Hickman & Dustin Weaver (Marvel)
- Irredeemable #16, by Mark Waid & Peter Krause (Boom)
- Hellboy: The Storm #2 of 3, by Mike Mignola & Duncan Fegredo (Dark Horse)
- The Boys #45, by Garth Ennis & Russ Braun (Dynamite)
Roger Stern was a workhorse author at Marvel Comics back in the 1980s, and he wrote a lot of excellent stuff (I especially remember his West Coast Avengers mini-series with fondness – it was recently collected in hardcover), but by the end of the 1990s he’d largely disappeared. He teamed up with John Byrne on the nifty mini-series Marvel: The Lost Generation a decade ago (worth seeking out), and now he’s back writing a new Captain America mini-series, Forever Allies, which I picked up partly because I’m enjoying Ed Brubaker’s Cap series so much and this spins out of it, but mainly because Stern’s one of those comics writers whose stuff I’ll always check out because he’s a good solid writer.
The premise here involves Cap – who is currently Bucky Barnes, having skipped over most of the last 65 years thanks to suspended animation – attending the funeral of one of his friends in the Young Allies team during World War II, and reminiscing about their days together. But at the funeral he spots a woman who resembles a mind-controlling antagonist from that era, Lady Lotus, herself having aged not a day. Investigating, he learns that she’s listed as being in prison – only she’s actually escaped. And so the hunt is on – as is Lotus’ master plan, hinted at on the final page.
As I said, Stern’s a fine storyteller, and he handles the shifts between the 1940s and 2010 quite well, aided by some nice classic-style artwork by Nick Dragotta (in a style that feels like Jack Kirby crossed with Darwyn Cooke) and modern-style art by Marco Santucci (sort-of resembling the main Cap series art by Butch Guice and others, but not quite up to their level). I’m not familiar with either of these guys, but they’re both quite good in this context.
It looks like this one should be fun, and I hope it opens the doors to more Stern stories in the future.
In the category of “comics I don’t really get”, there’s Casanova, which is clearly trying to be particularly bizarre and offbeat and which might gel with time, but there’s also Jonathan Hickman’s S.H.I.E.L.D., which I was skeptical of from the first issue. The nominal main story involves a man named Leonid in the 1950s being inducted into the order of S.H.I.E.L.D., the secret organization which protects mankind from extraterrestrial (in all senses of the word) threats. This story is moving at a glacial pace, as it’s been consistently preempted by flashbacks to the organization’s history, which includes Isaac Newton, Leonardo da Vinci, Galileo, and various other historic figures (one of whom is still alive in the 20th century and has taken Leonid under his wing).
Honestly these flashbacks seem like just sequence after sequence of historical wankery, touting the merits of science and discovery, showing some of the group’s accomolishments (like the defeat of Galactus in the 16th century), and not-quite-clever integrations of Marvel figures into the story (the use of the Deviants here is rather gratuitous). It’s all rather dreary, never focuses on any of its scenes long enough to truly evoke a sense of wonder, and doesn’t seem to be going anywhere. So I don’t really get what the appeal is.
A good contrast is the series Annihilation from a few years back; while also rather downbeat, it explored its themes and situations at length and is one of the most sense-of-wonder evoking stories that Marvel’s published in recent years. It was also strongly character-driven, something that S.H.I.E.L.D. decidedly is not.
The bright spot in this series is Dustin Weaver’s artwork, reminiscent of that of Barry Windsor-Smith, but the finishes a bit more polished (Smith’s inks always looked uncomfortably rough to me). He gets both the period looks and the effects down, although his characters’ faces are sometimes hard to recognize when the people are different ages.
Overall, though, S.H.I.E.L.D. seems at best disappointing and at worst unnecessary. Maybe it will all come together in the next couple of months, but I’m not sure I have patience to wait longer than that.
Peter Krause is back on Irredeemable, and boy has he been missed! The interim artists have been okay, but Krause really set the look for the series and it’s not the same without him. It feels like Mark Waid took the opportunity to kick the story into a new gear with this issue, too, with revelations about several characters and a surprising proposal on the final page.
Carrying the “Superman-gone-bad” premise for an ongoing series is tough to do, and the story feels like it’s gotten sidetracked over the last few months, but hopefully this is a sign that the next arc will be more satisfying.
(I wonder if Waid has an ending in mind, and how long he expects it will take to get there?)
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.
- 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.
Despite all the books below, the two best reads I picked up this week were from the back catalog: Ed Brubaker’s Captain America: Road to Reborn TPB, which is something of an intermission in the series but is the latest collection available. Have I gushed about Brubaker’s Captain America already? Really excellent stuff, being more adventure in the pulp/suspense tradition using mainstream Marvel characters than straight-super superheroics. Basically unlike anything else Marvel is publishing today.
And then there’s Bryan Talbot’s Grandville HC, which on the one hand is an anthropomorphic graphic novel in that the lead character is a badger who walks and acts like a man and nearly every other character is also an animal, but on the other hand it’s a spy/intrigue story in an alternate world where France conquered the western world in the era of Napoleon, and in which Great Britain only recently won its independence. Talbot (correctly) ignores the peculiar inconsistencies that this could lead to in favor of telling a solid story with fine artwork (albeit slightly less detailed than his usual work). Unless anthropomorphic comics drive you up the wall and you just can’t get past that fact, I highly recommend it. The sequel is due out in a few months.
- Adventure Comics #12, by Paul Levitz, Kevin Sharpe, Marlo Alquiza & Marc Deering (DC)
- Brightest Day #3, by Geoff Johns, Peter J. Tomasi, Ivan Reis, Patrick Gleason, Ardian Syaf, Scott Clark, Joe Prado, Vicente Cifuentes, David Bealy & Mark Irwin (DC)
- Justice Society of America #39, by Bill Willingham Jesus Merino & Jesse Delperdang (DC)
- Superman/Batman Annual 34, by Paul Levitz, Renato Guedes & Jose Wilson (DC)
- Hercules: Twilight of a God #1 of 4, by Bob Layton & Ron Lim (Marvel)
- Mouse Guard: Legends of the Guard #1 of 4, by David Petersen, Jeremy Bastian, Ted Naifeh & Scott Keating (Archaia)
- Freakangels vol 4 TPB, by Warren Ellis & Paul Duffield (Avatar)
- Irredeemable #14, by Mark Waid & Diego Barreto (Boom)
- Invincible #72, by Robert Kirkman, Ryan Ottley & Cliff Rathburn (Image)
Heh, I knew the current JSA storyline would involve time travel to set things straight. The time travel in question involves “only” sending a message back in time, and the suspense is that it’s not clear whether the message will be understood or received at the right time, but surely everything will work out for the best.
The core setting of the story draws from many different elements: The superheroes being imprisoned and having to escape is very similar to the “Super-Stalag of Space” story featuring the Legion of Super-Heroes from Adventure Comics #343-344. The grim future where the heroes have been all but eliminated unless they can find a way to change one event in the past was the premise of Grant Morrison’s best JLA arc, “Rock of Ages”. And of course both of those elements form the seminal X-Men dystopian tale, “Days of Future Past”.
So while this is a decent enough JSA yarn, it’s a far cry from being groundbreaking or original. I suspect there are a couple of issues left, so Willingham may yet surprise us, but it’s been pretty much what I expected otherwise.
I guess the hardcover collections of Bob Layton’s great Hercules mini-series of the 1980s must have been well received, since this week we got the first chapter of a new installment in the run, Hercules: Death of a God. Taking place centuries in the future, as the first two did, Herc has a son who’s become a emperor of a galactic empire, a benevolent monarch educated by his father. Arimathes has several children of his own now, and is not immortal, unlike his father. However, at the beginning of the issue Hercules suffers a traumatic brain injury, one so severe that the empire’s doctors fear that another serious blow could kill him. He takes medication for his condition, but it interacts badly with his drinking. And Herc’s longtime companions are nearing their own ends, as Skyppi the Skrull is quite old, while the Recorder appears to be wearing down. All of this is set against the backdrop of people scheming to their own ends within the empire.
The series has (in my mind) a huge legacy to live up to, Layton’s originals being well-drawn and often-hilarious comics with plenty of heart. This first issue is a little disappointing, as it seems like Herc is limping off into the darkness rather than going out like a lion. Of course, it would be in keeping with the tone of the series for him to face one last big threat rather than going quietly. It would be even more in keeping for him to beat his condition entirely.
Ron Lim does the pencilling under Layton’s inks, whereas Layton drew the whole thing himself in the earlier series. Lim seems to be Marvel’s go-to guy when a top tier artist can’t make their deadlines; he’s reliable, but not very flashy, having a rather generic style. So overall the series doesn’t quite look as good, but it’s okay.
So the first issue is something of a mixed bag, whereas I’d been hoping it would knock my socks off. But, it still might.