This Week’s Haul

  • Action Comics #894, by Paul Cornell & Pete Woods (DC)
  • Justice Society of America #44, by Marc Guggenheim & Scott Kolins (DC)
  • Madame Xanadu #28, by Matt Wagner & Marian Churchland (DC/Vertigo)
  • Time Masters: Vanishing Point #4 of 6, by Dan Jurgens & Norm Rapmund (DC)
  • Wonder Woman #604, by J. Michael Straczynski, Don Kramer, Eduardo Pansica & Jay Leisten (DC)
  • Zatanna #6, by Paul Dini & Jesus Saiz (DC)
  • Captain America #611, by Ed Brubaker & Daniel Acuña (Marvel)
  • Fantastic Four #584, by Jonathan Hickman & Steve Epting (Marvel)
  • Incognito: Bad Influences #1 of 6, by Ed Brubaker & Sean Phillips (Marvel/Icon)
  • Incorruptible #11, by Mark Waid & Marcio Takara (Boom)
  • Hellboy/Beasts of Burden: Sacrifice #1, by Evan Dorkin, Mike Mignola & Jill Thompson (Dark Horse)
  • Dynamo 5: Sins of the Father #5 of 5, by Jat Faerber & Júlio Brilha (Image Comics)
This month’s Action Comics has gotten a lot of press because it features a rare appearance by a Neil Gaiman character – in this case, Death – in a mainstream DC Universe title. Word is that Gaiman helped script her appearance, although oddly the character doesn’t really “feel” like the Death from Gaiman’s Sandman: She feels a little too much like a teenager, and a little too vague and mysterious than the character we’ve seen before. Yes yes, the whole joke about Death is that she’s a cheerful teenage girl doing this somewhat melancholy job, but the point is that it feels like her portrayal here misses the mark. Whether or not Gaiman wrote her, it feels like someone else. Not that what we have here is unlikeable, it just feels off.

Though Pete Woods does do a boffo job of drawing her.

What of the story itself? Lex Luthor has become so hard-headed these days that it’s basically a case of his irresistible force meeting Death’s immovable object – and she prevails, of course. It’s entertaining, but unfortunately the illumination it shines on Luthor’s character is that he’s pretty one-dimensional these days: Rather than the monomania about Superman that the silver age Luthor had, now he’s got a monomania about acquiring power. It’s unfortunate because it makes me a little more pessimistic that Luthor can really carry the title for much longer, unless Paul Cornell makes him a more nuanced figure.

Speaking of books I’m pessimistic about, the new JSA creative team arrives this month, and the results are not pretty.

I must admit I’m not really a fan of Scott Kolins’ art style these days: The overuse of gray tones, mixed with the painterly coloring job that accompanies it just feels overly rendered for the fairly straightforward books he’s illustrated. Honestly I liked the work he did on his run on The Flash with Geoff Johns a decade a ago better: Stylized, but with more interesting linework.

Marc Guggenheim’s story, for me, got a reaction of, “What, this again?” Jay Garrick – the original Flash – is considering retirement, to become mayor of a small city. An immensely powerful individual shows up to threaten that city, kicks the JSA’s ass until they get it together to put him down, but the victory is pyrrhic. The downer tone continues the feeling that Bill Willingham brought to the book, and I didn’t think it worked then, either. And it seems like we’re constantly seeing the golden age JSAers consider retiring, or coming out of retirement, or whatever. The whole issue felt tremendously manipulative and it was difficult to care about any of it, because it felt like the writer didn’t really understand or care about the characters.

Honestly I’m not sure why I’m even buying the book these days, as the team has really not been worth much since most of the golden age members were killed off in the 90s. It’s a sad thing when Geoff Johns’ run on the book looks like the good old days, because they really weren’t much good. With half a year left until issue #50, I’ll likely stick around that long to see if Guggenheim has something interesting planned for the landmark, but I think that’ll be it for me.

Ed Brubaker and Sean Phillips bring us the first issue of the sequel to Incognito, a series I struggled enjoying at first, but which won me over completely in the final issue. This issue takes a step back from that last issue, being perhaps a little too cynical. It also feels like it’s treading on ground Brubaker previously covered in his outstanding series Sleeper (also with Phillips).

So that’s all a little disappointing, but Brubaker is too good a writer to let that keep him down: Zack Overkill is still trying to figure out his purpose in life now that he knows where he came from, and now that he’s working for a superspy-type organization. He has a tragic encounter from a figure from his past (well, not quite his past, but, well, you’ll see), and then gets assigned to infiltrate a villainous organization.

Incognito has struggled to make Zack someone the viewer can really feel for, but it mostly makes up for it in action, suspense, and clever plots. It’s probably the weakest of the Brubaker/Phillips books because of this character deficit, but it’s still quite good and decidedly different from most other superhero comics. If you enjoy a little pulp and noir in your action stories, check it out.

This Week’s Haul

Hot on the heels of Disney buying Marvel Comics, it’s time for another round of reviews.

  • Wednesday Comics #9 of 12, by many hands (DC)
  • Immortal Weapons #2 of 5, by Cullen Bunn, Dan Brereton, Tom Palmer, Stefano Gaudiano & Mark Pennington, and Duane Swierczynski & Travel Foreman (Marvel)
  • Incognito #6 of 6, by Ed Brubaker & Sean Phillips (Marvel/Icon)
  • Irredeemable #6, by Mark Waid & Peter Krause (Boom)
  • Sir Edward Grey: Witchfinder: In The Service of Angels #3 of 5, by Mike Mignola & Ben Stenbeck (Dark Horse)
  • The Boys #34, by Garth Ennis & Carlos Ezquerra (Dynamite)
Wednesday Comics #9 Another week, another Wednesday Comics. Green Lantern, Metamorpho and Strange Adventures all have significant developments, although the Green Lantern one seems too sudden, and I’m having a hard time keeping track of the parties in Strange Adventures (and why do the aliens all look like Baboons?).

I’m still a little baffled by where Flash is going, although this issue has a nifty stylistic gimmick involving comic strips, which I enjoyed.

Three more issues…

Immortal Weapons #2 Immortal Weapons is a 5-issue mini-series bridging the gap while Iron Fist is on hiatus (though whether it actually comes back is still uncertain), each issue spotlighting one of Fist’s fellow superhuman warriors from the mystical cities in the sky. Fist’s own series flagged a little toward the end, but it was generally quite good; Immortal Weapons is just as good, and maybe a little better. The first issue provided the biography of Fat Cobra, whose history didn’t quite match his recollection of it. This second issue focuses on Bride of Nine Spiders, a considerably creepier figure than the gregarious Cobra, and it’s told as a horror story involving one of the Bride’s eight-legged companions, and the fate of several people interested in it. Dan Brereton nails the spooky feel of the story, which would feel perfectly at home in some of the horror stories of the 1970s. Good stuff.

There’s an Iron Fist backup story running through the series, which is a pretty routine piece about the family of one of Fist’s students getting embroiled in a drug-related conflict. I guess it’s marking time for the main character before wherever his series goes next, but the series would be better-served with longer main stories, I think. Nonetheless, if you’ve any interest in Iron Fist at all, I’d suggest giving this series a try.

Incognito #6 Brubaker & Phillips’ Incognito wraps up this week. It started as a pulpy adventure yarn in which Zack Overkill, a former supervillain, was in witness protection after testifying against his boss. The story progressed as Zack learned he could get his powers back, and was conflicted about whether to use his powers for good or for bad. Predictably, eventually everyone interested finds out about him, and he ends up between a rock and a hard place.

But the series seemed a little pedestrian and manipulative – until this issue, when everything is revealed: Who Zack is and what his background is, and it’s, well, not what I was expecting, and made his story much more compelling, enough so that I hope this isn’t the end of Zack’s story, since I’d be happy to read more of it. Oddly, although the text piece Brubaker writes for each issue is titled “The Secret Ingredient is Pulp”, I’d say the secret ingredient is really… secrets. The hard-boiled suspense approach felt slightly out-of-place in Zack’s world, but once the stakes got raised and the surprising and fantastic facts behind Zack’s life were revealed, everything gelled into a much weightier story.

Brubaker and Phillips are going back to their crime series Criminal next, and I’ve caught up on what they’ve done before while Incognito was coming out. (You can do so yourself by reading the trade paperbacks: one, two, three and four.) Overall Criminal is a bit better than Incognito, although I’d say the latter series has a higher ceiling (and arguably they’ve both been lapped by Sleeper). If part of the goal of Incognito was to recruit new readers for Criminal, well their devious plan succeeded, because I’ll be picking up the new series when it shows up.

(Oh yeah, and naturally you’ll be able to read the collection of Incognito when it comes out.)

This Week’s Haul

  • Booster Gold #17, by Dan Jurgens & Norm Rapmund (DC)
  • Fables #81, by Bill Willingham, Mark Buckingham & Andrew Pepoy (DC/Vertigo)
  • Saga of the Swamp Thing Book 1 HC, by Alan Moore, Stephen Bissette, John Totleben, Dan Day & Rick Veitch (DC)
  • Avengers/Invaders #8 of 12, by Alex Ross, Jim Krueger, Steve Sadowski & Patrick Berkenkotter (Marvel)
  • Incognito #2, by Ed Brubaker & Sean Phillips (Marvel/Icon)
  • Thor #600, by J. Michael Straczynski, Oliver Coipel, Marko Djurdjevic & Mark Morales (Marvel)
  • Fire and Brimstone #4 of 5, by Richard Moore (Antarctic)
  • Hellboy: The Wild Hunt #3 of 8, by Mike Mignola & Duncan Fegredo (Dark Horse)
  • B.P.R.D.: The Black Goddess #2 of 5, by Mike Mignola, John Arcudi & Guy Davis (Dark Horse)
  • The Sword: Water vol 2 TPB, by Joshua Luna & Jonathan Luna (Image)
  • Castle Waiting #14, by Linda Medley (Fantagraphics)
Saga of the Swamp Thing vol 1 Alan Moore’s work doesn’t need any recommendations from me, but it might be of interest that DC is collecting his Swamp Thing run in hardcover volumes. This first volume contains his first issue on the title, which I believe has never been collected before. It’s not essential, but it provides a little extra background to the next issue, which was the one in which Moore started to make his mark on the US comics market, completely upending the premise of the series and turning it into something even more interesting. The “everything you know is wrong” story has become a cliche in comics these days, but Moore was one of the ones who made it a cliché, and he can do it better than almost anyone else in the business.

Anyway, in this volume you can expect horror, adventure, carnage, philosophy, romance, and some outstanding artwork by Steve Bissette and John Totleben. It’s great stuff, and this is a nice package to read it if you haven’t previously.

Incognito #2 Incognito #1 was good, and issue #2 is even better: Our hero (or anti-hero) Zack Overkill takes to the rooftops at night to use his returning powers, covertly since it’s illegal for him to do so. He learns something about a couple of his co-workers, which end up getting him into trouble (or so it seems). Meanwhile, some nasty looking characters from his old life are trying to hunt him down.

The noir feel to the story complements the super-powered elements quite nicely, not least because there’s not a true superhero in sight. Sean Phillips’ style captures the seedy feel of the story quite well, but it’s still very readable and elegant in its way, unlike, say, Michael Gaydos’ art, which I always find too sketchy and not very pretty to look at. Incognito reminds me a bit of Bendis and Oeming’s Powers, but without the pretentious dialogue which Bendis hangs on his characters. Although I suspect its ambitions are not so lofty, it could end up being better than Powers once it gets going.

Thor #600 Thor returns to its “classic” numbering this month, a shtick Marvel’s been using with several of its long-running-but-relaunched titles. This extra-sized issue reprints several Silver Age stories, contains a cute “Mini Thor” story by Chris Giarrusso (the “secret weapon” in the otherwise-humorless Marvel Universe these days), and a multi-page collage of every cover from every issue in the series, dating back to Journey Into Mystery #1.

These extras aside, Thor #600 is the last issue I’ll be buying of J. Michael Straczynski’s run on the title.

If there’s one word to describe this run, that word is dull. Although glacial and pointless also come to mind. I’ve written before that Straczynski’s comics-writing career hasn’t impressed me, but Thor may be his nadir: After an interesting beginning, the series got bogged down in the machinations of the Asgardians whom Thor returned to life, with yet another tiresome scheme by Loki. There was some early hope that Donald Blake would be fleshed out into a rounded character, but in fact everyone in this series is one-dimensional.

And, oh, the series has been going on for so long while barely making any progress at reaching a climax or resolution of any sort. Lots of talking, lots of portentiousness and worry, and none of it ever spills over. Finally in this issue we get a big fight, but it’s far too little, far too late, and it’s still just the set-up for the “real” plot, which sees Thor exiled from Asgard (what, again?).

I’ve talked about DC’s Final Crisis being a train wreck of a series from a writing standpoint, but Thor has been just as bad. I’d hung on this long hoping that #600 would see the conclusion of Straczynski’s story, but it feels like it’s really just beginning. And I just can’t stand it anymore: I’m outta here.

This Week’s Haul

  • Green Lantern #29-35, by Geoff Johns, Ivan Reis & Oclair Albert (DC)
  • Green Lantern #36, by Geoff Johns, Ivan Reis & Oclair Albert (DC)
  • Justice Society of America #22, by Geoff Johns, Alex Ross, Dale Eaglesham & Nathan Massengill (DC)
  • Legion of Super-Heroes #49, by Jim Shooter, Francis Manapul & Livesay (DC)
  • Madame Xanadu #7, by Matt Wagner, Amy Reeder Hadley & Richard Friend (DC/Vertigo)
  • The Winter Men Winter Special, by Brett Lewis & John Paul Leon (DC/Wildstorm)
  • Avengers/Invaders #7 of 12, by Alex Ross, Jim Krueger, Steve Sadowski & Patrick Berkenkotter (Marvel)
  • Guardians of the Galaxy #8, by Dan Abnett, Andy Lanning, Brad Walker & Victor Olazaba (Marvel)
  • Incognito #1, by Ed Brubaker & Sean Phillips (Marvel/Icon)
  • Marvels: Eye of the Camera #2 of 6, by Kurt Busiek & Jay Anacleto (Marvel)
Green Lantern #29

Green Lantern #36

I can’t really figure out writer Geoff Johns. He’s clearly got a deep and abiding love for Silver Age and Bronze Age DC comics, and he’s basically been given carte blanche to do whatever he wants at DC these days, driving events like Infinite Crisis, writing anchor series like Action Comics, and bringing back Hal Jordan as Green Lantern. But as a writer he’s extremely erratic. Throw out the event books – which are always going to have a lot of editorial edict in them – and my exposure to his work is as follows:

  • A pretty good run on Flash, in the unenviable position of following Mark Waid, who defined the title for a decade.
  • A pretty weak run on Justice Society of America, marked by a lack of focus and nearly-nonexistence characterization.
  • An erratic run on Hawkman which thrashed around but never went anywhere in either plot or character development.
  • A fun run on Booster Gold.
  • A very strange run on Action Comics, with uncompressed story arcs (i.e., not much story per issue) which lacked cohesion or much continuity sense.
  • Reviving the Green Lantern series.

His overall approach feels a lot like that of Kurt Busiek and Mark Waid, both of whom also have a great love for comics of their youth, as well as a deep and broad knowledge of those comics and an ability to apply that knowledge to their writing. The difference, I think, is that Busiek and Waid both have a much more sophisticated ability to plot stories and tie them into ongoing character development, and especially to provide a payoff in the form of a dramatic action sequence or moving character scene. Johns’ plots seem haphazard, and they mostly lack character and payoff. They just amble along, relying on a density of references to the source and background material to give them texture. There’s often a lot to think about when reading his books, but they tend to end up feeling empty, because crucial elements of the stories are just absent.

This brings me to Green Lantern. I bought the series back when it started, and a friend of mine called it “the least necessary character revival in recent memory” (or words to that effect). About eight issues in, I decided I agreed with him: Characterization was minimal, and the book didn’t seem to be going anywhere, so I dropped it.

But as I read about where the book has gone since, with the Sinestro Corps War and an expansion of the backdrop of the Guardians of the Universe and their Green Lantern Corps, I decided I was interested in picking up the book again. So this week I picked up issues 29-35, comprising the “Secret Origin” story, and 36, which is chapter two of “Rage of the Red Lanterns” (chapter one appeared in a Final Crisis tie-in book last month). I also picked up the paperback collections of the first 15 or so issues.

Well, I have to say that Green Lantern overall might be Johns’ best work. While one could argue that a 50-year-old character hardly needs his origin story retold, Johns throws out some of the more depressing elements of the last telling, Emerald Dawn, such as Hal’s conviction for drunk driving, and tells the story starting with Hal’s childhood: Seeing his father’s plane explode before his eyes, his rebellion against his mother and desire to fly, and his early training with the Green Lantern Corps, including winning the (somewhat grudging) approval of Sinestro, who was the greatest Green Lantern in the Corps at the time. Johns puts his all into crafting Jordan’s character, as a rebel who didn’t fit into his family and who shirked his responsibilities, but who learned to accept responsibility as the stakes got higher. He’s both a thinker who challenges the status quo, and a man of action who sometimes doesn’t think enough. It might be the best GL origin ever done.

“Secret Origin” also lays the groundwork for “Rage of the Red Lanterns”, by introducing Atrocitus (still a ridiculous name, but arguably no more ridiculous than Sinestro), the leader of the Red Lanterns, who is searching for the individual who will bring about the Blackest Night (which will be the next big GL event, it seems). That individual is apparently Black Hand, an old GL villain who appeared early in the series, making it apparent that Johns has been working through some long-term plans for the series. In the latest issue, the Red Lanterns start to execute their plan, while Green Lantern himself is contacted by a new force, the Blue Lanterns.

The notion of different colored lantern forces is an interesting one, although it’s hard to see how it will all fit into existence continuity, since we’ve never heard of them before. The Blue Lanterns are new, so they get a pass, but I don’t quite understand how the Sinestro Corps came about (since I haven’t yet read the Sinestro Corps War), nor why we haven’t heard of the Red Lanterns before now. The colors also seem to embody different emotions: red is rage, yellow is fear, blue is hope. I’m not sure what green is… bravery? There are also the Star Sapphires and their magenta-colored powers.

So I still have some worries that a lot of these details will go unexplained, which will make the texture of the setting much less satisfying. Nonetheless, Green Lantern is looking like Geoff Johns’ magnum opus. His other work has been so erratic that this feels like damning it with faint praise, but I am enjoying it quite a bit.

Justice Society of America #22 On the other hand, there’s Geoff John’s run on Justice Society. The story “Thy Kingdom Come” concludes this month, as Gog is summarily dispatched (way too easily, really), and the Kingdom Come Superman’s story comes to a close, circling back to the events of that earlier series.

Although the issue feels decidedly rushed – I think Johns and Ross threw too many balls up in the air and never gave any of them the time they really needed – there’s still some good stuff here. Gog was always just a foil for Superman, as he represented the hero’s greatest fears, so closely resembling the man from his own world whom Superman saw as having supplanted him. In dealing with Gog, Superman owns up to his responsibilities to his own world, and with Starman’s help returns there. This leads to a touching epilogue in which the years following Kingdom Come are hinted at, with a very satisfying final page.

Gog had some lasting impact on a few members of the JSA, but it’s hard to tell whether they’ll be fully explored in future issues, especially since the next storyline is going to deal with Black Adam and Mary Marvel (what, again?). I suspect any real payoff will be left to the writers who will follow Johns later this year, Bill Willingham and Matthew Sturges.

After over a year of “Thy Kingdom Come”, JSA feels like it just doesn’t have any focus on its core characters – indeed, that its cast is so large it doesn’t really know who its core characters are. Flash? Green Lantern? Power Girl? Cyclone? The KC Superman has been the heart of this series for more than half its run, and he wasn’t even a member of the team, really. Both this and the previous JSA series have been all about fairly superficial plots and very little characterization. It seems a poor legacy for what in the 70s and 80s was a team featured in some truly excellent stories. As much as Johns gets right in Green Lantern, he gets wrong here.

The Winter Men Winter Special Once upon a time there was a mini-series called The Winter Men. The premise of this series was that there had been a Soviet project to create superhumans. It succeeded, more or less: A few genuine superhumans were produced, and some soldiers in super-powered armor were also created. The the Soviet Union collapsed. The soldiers dispersed, and the superhumans – went away. Not that they ever had that high a profile. Nearly 20 years later, one of the soldiers is reactivated to investigate a possible descendant of the superhuman program, which threatens his marriage and his life.

Unfortunately, said mini-series was published literally years ago: Issue #1 came out in 2005, and issue #5 in 2006. Now we get The Winter Men Winter Special, which concludes the story.

I always had problems with the series. I’m not a fan of John Paul Leon’s art, which seems muddy and laid-out so it’s difficult to follow. But the difficulty of following the art is nothing like trying to follow Brett Lewis’ story: The characters are bland and hard to distinguish, the motivations and repercussions are fuzzy, and things seem to happen for no reason. The series was lauded in some quarters as a solid thriller which explored life in contemporary Russia. But I felt that the good story was struggling to get out from under the obfuscation and muddy storytelling, but never quite made it: A story about the fantastic things from the previous regime coming back to haunt the survivors in the present day, but in a society in which survival means keeping your head down and trying to avoid being part of the fantastic.

Maybe that’s the story that Lewis wanted to tell, but I don’t think it’s the one that made it onto the page. Which is too bad, but ultimately I think The Winter Men ended up being stylish but not very satisfying.

Update 1/11/09: Two other reviews of this issue, with summaries of the series as a whole: Greg Burgas at Comics Should Be Good, and Jog at Savage Critics. Both of them liked the series more than I did. I think Jog’s point about the story being “supercompressed” is a good one, but it sure does make it awfully hard to read and follow, and I don’t think the rewards are worth the effort.

Incognito #1 I haven’t read much of Ed Brubaker’s comics work other than his X-Men work, but I know he’s pretty well regardd for Captain America and Criminal, the latter of which is illustrated by Sean Phillips, who also draws Brubaker’s new series, Incognito.

The premise is clever: Zack Overkill is a super-villain who testified some time ago against another criminal, and was put into the witness protection program, and given drugs to suppress his powers. Much like Mr. Incredible in The Incredibles, Zack doesn’t take to living a normal life as an office worker very well, but being an amoral sort he find the occasional way to get his kicks. He also finds – quite by accident – a way to counteract the drugs blocking his powers. Which puts him in a practical dilemma: He’s in witness protection for a reason which benefits him, but he also wants to use his powers. Zack’s background is interesting, with a deceased brother and a scientist who gave him his powers, which surely will play into future issues. This first issue is all set-up, but Brubaker does a great job in crafting it and promising plenty of mayhem down the road.

Phillips’ art has that shadowy noir-ish look to it, but his drawings have more detail and nuance than, say, John Paul Leon or Michael Gaydos, two artists with their own noir-ish styles which don’t really work for me. So overall Incognito #1 is a winner, and I’m looking forward to more of it.

(Brian Cronin liked it, too. And, you can read the first nine pages of the first issue here, although the second half is better than the first! Also, you can see the covers of the first three issues.)