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

Wow, nearly every Marvel comic I buy came out this week:

  • Green Lantern #41, by Geoff Johns, Philip Tan, Eddy Barrows, Jonathan Glapion, Ruy José & Julio Ferreira (DC)
  • Justice Society of America #27, by Jerry Ordway & Bob Wiacek (DC)
  • The Literals #2, by Bill Willingham, Matthew Sturges, Mark Buckingham & Andrew Pepoy (DC/Vertigo)
  • Madame Xanadu #11, by Matt Wagner & Michael Wm. Kaluta (DC/Vertigo)
  • Avengers/Invaders #11 of 12, by Alex Ross, Jim Krueger, Steve Sadowski & Patrick Berkenkotter (Marvel)
  • Guardians of the Galaxy #14, by Dan Abnett, Andy Lanning, Brad Walker & Victor Olazaba (Marvel)
  • The Incredible Hercules #129, by Greg Pak, Fred Van Lente, Ryan Stegman & Terry Pallot (Marvel)
  • The Immortal Iron Fist #26, by Duane Swierczynski, Travel Foreman & Tom Palmer (Marvel)
  • Nova #25, by Dan Abnett, Andy Lanning, Kevin Sharpe, Jeffrey Huet & Nelson Pereira (Marvel)
  • Mouse Guard: Winter 1152 #6 of 6, by David Petersen (Archaia)
  • Ignition City #3 of 5, by Warren Ellis & Giancula Pagliarani (Avatar)
Madame Xanadu #11 Madame Xanadu wrapped up its first storyline last month, chronicling how a woodland sorceress in the time of King Arthur gradually turned into the reserved, somewhat dour seeress of the modern day, bedeviled all along by the cryptic guidance of the Phantom Stranger (a long-standing DC character who must frustrate the heck out of everyone he tries to help although they rarely show it, so Xanadu’s honesty in that regard has been rather refreshing). That taken care of, regular artist Amy Reeder Hadley is taking a break while much-lauded cover artist Michael Wm. Kaluta fills in for a 5-issue story.

The series has been kind of so-so to date: A fairly consistent pattern of the Stranger trying to help, Xanadu getting frustrated, and things turning out badly, until the last two issues when she strikes back, and things still turn out badly. Now she’s hung up her shingle as a fortune-teller, and one of her first clients is a woman whose father was found immolated in his home, and she suspects foul play. Xanadu determines that it was likely a supernatural murder, and as she starts to look for the killer, she also reminisces about the days she lived in Spain, during the Inquisition, and had taken on a young woman as a lover.

The modern story (which I think takes place in the 1920s) is fairly interesting, but the flashback sequence is ho-hum, the sort of thing I’d hoped would have been put behind us after the first ten issues, which have really been one large flashback. Let’s stick to moving things forward! I guess Wagner is going for a Sandman-esque feeling of filling in the backstory as things go along, but without a strong set of stories in the present day, it just isn’t working; it feels like the series is still in its prologue, and nearly a year in it really should have gotten started moving wherever it’s going.

Kaluta is a fine artist, although he could use a stronger inker who works in heavier lines, as his light touch with the blacks tends to get washed out once the pages are colored. Oddly, the inking on the cover works better, but the composition is downright odd, with the character’s outsized head and hands compared to her body; not one of his better ones.

While I’d say this is a series that’s had trouble finding its groove, I suspect it’s actually working out exactly as writer Matt Wagner has planned. I’ve just found it slow and not very exciting.

Guardians of the Galaxy #14

Nova #25

The odd thing about Guardians of the Galaxy and Nova coming out the same week is that it’s so clear how much better Nova is than Guardians, even though they’re both set in Marvel’s space milieu and they’re both written by Dan Abnett and Andy Lanning. Both books have had rotating artists throughout their run, and Guardians has the clearly-better penciller this month in Brad Walker (whose sense of form and rendering appeals to my preferences), but it’s the writing that sets Nova apart.

Both series have had a problem in that they keep getting interrupted by silly crossover events that sometimes don’t make any sense for them to be involved with (Secret Invasion), and otherwise detract from the ongoing story in the title itself (War of Kings, the current event). Nova has done a very good job of weaving its ongoing story into these disruptions, while Guardians has gotten completely sidetracked by them each time. Since Guardians also has a large (and growing) cast of characters to manage, that means little about the book really gets the attention it deserves.

Not that there aren’t good bits about Guardians: Star-Lord’s sardonic outlook is consistently amusing, and seeing Warlock take on Emperor Vulcan and the Imperial Guard here is quite a treat, leading in to what looks like a huge slug-fest next month. But overall the book is flailing around a lot and not really going anywhere, which is disappointing. Editorial really needs to just leave it alone for a year or two to find its own path without all these interruptions.

Nova, on the other hand, has remained fairly focused in Richard Ryder’s relationship with the Nova-force and its sentient overseer, the Worldmind, who have been embedded in his head and body since before the series began. It all came to a head recently when the Worldmind went around the bend, formed a new Nova Corps, and ejected Richard from it. Richard acquired Quasar’s quantum bands and has his showndown with the Worldmind here, which is quite effective and comes to a satisfying resolution (although not a conclusion to the overall plot thread). Despite the new Corps dealing with the War of Kings event, Richard’s main story has remained largely divorced from it, which has made the series much more enjoyable than Guardians.

I look forward to the day that crossover events are no longer big sellers and we can just have good, ongoing stories which drives sales. Sadly, I doubt that day with come anytime soon, and consequently that means a lot of otherwise-promising comics are going to be less than they could be.

Mouse Guard: Winter 1152 #6 With Archaia’s financial problems apparently behind them, Mouse Guard has finished up its second series in the last couple of months. Although it’s been a more textured tale than the first one was, I don’t think it’s been a better one. But admittedly the long delays and the fact that it no longer feels novel may have to do with that. Petersen’s artwork is still nifty – the coloring especially is fabulous – and this month we get to see the Guard’s mounts: rabbits! There’s a sense that there is an over-arching story connecting things, involving the Black Axe, the fabled champion of the mice, which has played a central role in the first two series, so I’m curious to see where that’s going to go, if it’s going to be an epic tale or just a series of loosely-connected ones.

I think the biggest flaw in the series is that Petersen the writer keeps too much emotional distance between the reader and the characters, though since the characters are mice with not-very-expressive faces, that’s a hard divide to bridge anyway. But there are some moments in this issue which could be quite poignant, but fall short because the mice seem so reserved and unexpressive.

But overall this is still quite a good series, and I’m looking forward to the next one.

This Week’s Haul

  • The Brave and the Bold #15, by Mark Waid & Scott Kolins (DC)
  • Legion of Super-Heroes #44, by Jim Shooter, Sanford Greene & Nathan Massengill (DC)
  • Madame Xanadu #2, by Matt Wagner & Amy Reeder Hadley (DC/Vertigo)
  • Sparks #2 of 6, by Christopher Folino & J.M. Ringuet (Catastrophic)
  • Invincible #51, by Robert Kirkman & Ryan Ottley (Image)
Legion of Super-Heroes #44 I haven’t been much of a fan of Francis Manapul’s artwork on Legion of Super-Heroes: The faces all look the same, the stylings are too Image-like for my tastes. It’s readable, but pretty blah.

This month’s issue features art by Sanford Greene & Nathan Massengill, and they’re a step down from Manapul’s art: Hardly any detail, sketchy renderings, generic faces which somehow also manage to be inconsistent from panel to panel – it’s not good, and not appropriate for the Legion, which ought to have a high-tech look, not a sketchy, rough look. What was the editor (Mike Marts) thinking? I hope they’re just a one-issue fill-in (maybe because the Dreaded Deadline Doom was creeping up and Marts just needed someone to get the job done) and not the new regular art team.

Meanwhile, Jim Shooter’s story continues to teeter between moments of embarrassing dialogue and sitcom-like scenarios, and decent action with decent characterization. It feels like if he just tried to be less hip and instead focused on making likable characters then it would be a fun adventure book. You know, like the Legion he wrote 30 and 40 years ago. Sure, the book’s moved on since then, but writing heroes doing heroic things isn’t really a dated idea.

Madame Xanadu #2 I was unimpressed by the first issue of Madame Xanadu, and the second issue is – surprise! – 100% better! The first issue was pure set-up, instilling in me a fear that we’d be in for several more issues of languid set-up with an uncertain payoff. Fortunately, writer Matt Wagner sets things moving in the second issue, with the fall of Camelot, Neume’s betrayal of Merlin, and her own downfall as a result, which makes me considerably more interested in seeing what happens next issue.

Why the heck can’t comics writers these days just jump right into the good stuff and fill in the set-up later? Isn’t that part of Storytelling 101? Wagner could have basically left out issue #1, or compressed the first two issues down to one. We’re still just covering the backstory of the character here, so the loss of dramatic impact would have been minimal, since the key point is to keep things moving.

Anyway, despite the misfire of a beginning, I’m not curious to see how it will play out. I hope it won’t turn out to be a “Madame Xanadu through the ages” sort of story, but that it will fairly quickly get us up to the present day and move the character forward rather than playing around in the past. But we’ll see.

This Week’s Haul

  • Final Crisis #2 of 7, by Grant Morrison & J.G. Jones (DC)
  • Madame Xanadu #1, by Matt Wagner & Amy Reeder Hadley (DC/Vertigo)
  • Hulk #4, by Jeph Loeb Ed McGuinness & Dexter Vines (Marvel)
  • Fire and Brimstone #1 of 3 (?), by Richard Moore (Antarctic)
  • The Clockwork Girl #4 of 4, by Sean O’Reilly, Kevin Hanna & Grant Bond (Arcana)
  • B.P.R.D.: The Ectoplasmic Man, by Mike Mignola, John Arcudi & Ben Stenbeck (Dark Horse)
  • Project Superpowers #4 of 6, by Alex Ross, Jim Krueger & Carlos Paul (Dynamite)
Final Crisis #2 Final Crisis #2 is getting some great reviews in the blogosphere. Which just goes to show how much tastes differ, since two issues in I’m pretty well bored with the series. Certainly the book being grounded in Jack Kirby’s Fourth World characters doesn’t help, since as I’ve said before I’ve never found them interesting, and this story has all the hallmarks of yet another scheme by Darkseid.

This issue opens with a tedious sequence in Japan, which nearly put me to sleep during the montage on pages 2 and 3. The rest of the scene felt like a warmed-over scene from one of Warren Ellis’ Stormwatch issues, truly a scene where it felt like Morrison was phoning it in, yet other bloggers enjoyed the scene immensely. This is followed by a series of 1- or 2-page scenes: Terrible Turpin on the trail of some missing kids, a completely pointless triptich page with the JLA at the funeral of the comrade who was killed in issue #1, the villain Libra trying to persuade other villains to join him, and concocting his next scheme.

Then we get to the other extended sequence, in which the JLA, Green Lanterns and an Alpha Lantern investigate the death of the New God Orion, in which the murderer is suggested (using the clichéd “You think you know who it is but their face is obscured you you can’t be sure” mechanism), followed by an encounter between Batman and the apparent link to Darkseid which goes badly for Bats. This sequence would be the high point of the issue if the Darkseid element hadn’t intruded on it, making me lose interest all over again. This leads into another Turpin scene in which he ends up at the villains’ base, which ties the Darkseid threads together, and then a scene with the execution of Libra’s new scheme.

The final scene involves the Flashes (Jay Garrick and Wally West) investigating a clue in Orion’s murder, which leads into the issue’s big reveal and cliffhanger, although one that’s been well-known on the Web for weeks. Unfortunately the natural reaction to this for anyone who’s read many DC comics over the last 15 years is, “What, this again???” A big shrug is in order at this point, along with the thought that there are only 5 issues left, which might be 3 too many.

Final Crisis so far could be summed up as “big ideas writ small”; it’s Morrison taking his “big threats for big heroes” approach to writing JLA and shrinking them down, sucking the drama and excitement and fun out of them, and sprinkling them in small scenes to rob them of any remaining sense of wonder they might have. Artist J.G. Jones is quite good, but his strength are his character renderings, which are far more suitable for a character-and-dialogue-driven book, not a superhero “event” series, which makes the book have a subdued look to go along with its low-impact story.

I can’t figure out what DC Editorial or Grant Morrison were thinking in putting this together. It seems like the best-case scenario for Final Crisis is that the first two issues turn out to be largely superfluous and that the series heads off in some different, more exciting direction for the last 5 issues. But so far this series is making its predecessor Infinite Crisis look like a well-written, well-considered landmark event. It’s bad stuff.

Madame Xanadu #1 Madame Xanadu is the new Vertigo title, whose heroine is an obscure DC character. I picked it up mainly because Matt Wagner is writing it, and because the art by Amy Reeder Hadley looks pretty nifty. I’d expected it would cover some of her backstory but otherwise work with the character in the present day and move her story (whatever it is) forward. However, the whole issue concerns the character’s earliest origins, in which she’s a figure in the King Arthur stories. It’s not a bad story, and the art is quite nice, but these days stories focusing on looking backwards at a character’s past don’t really interest me (I skip Wagner’s Grendel stories featuring the Hunter Rose character for much the same reason). So if that’s all this series is going to be, I’m not going to stick with it for long.
Fire and Brimstone #1 Fire and Brimstone is the new series by Richard Moore, who I guess is taking a break from Boneyard. The premise is that there’s an angel-and-devil due who have been tasked with bringing back to hell a host of demons they inadvertently released into the world millennia ago. Basically, a supernatural odd couple. Moore’s art is spot-on as always, and he’s always a charming writer, but this first issue feels like fluff. Amusing, but lacking the weight of Boneyard or his earlier series, Far West. But maybe Moore will surprise me with the rest of the series.
The Clockwork Girl #4 I was pretty enthusiastic about The Clockwork Girl when it started, but it ended up being much lighter than I’d expected. It focused far more on Huxley the “animal boy” than it did on Tesla the clockwork girl. The concluding issue of the mini-series features a clichéd life-threatening situation, a noble sacrifice, and an improbable reconciliation between the two main characters’ creators. It felt like a mid-grade Disney film, actually. I guess the book is really aimed at kids, and I can see that they might enjoy it, but it didn’t deliver much nuance for adult readers.

Really nice artwork by Grand Bond and Kevin Hanna, though.