Saturday, March 31, 2012

Comic Review -- Uncanny X-Men #9 / Kieron Gillen, Carlos Pacheco, Cam Smith, and Guru eFX

I like the cover for this issue.  It's dynamic, not too crowded or busy, and it's always nice to see team-ups between groups of superheroes.  The composition is particularly satisfying for me, as you've got eight bodies on one page, which could be potentially taxing visually, but they're spaced very logically.  Iron Man and Magneto are back to back, knocking each of their opponents off-screen, while Cap in the front and Magik in the back do similarly with their opponents.

I know I've been on a warpath lately about banners (DC, I'm looking at you), but this one's not as much of an issue for me.  Sure, I'm not crazy about it, but I'm willing to give it a pass because it's advertising an upcoming in-comics event.  An event that's already been ridiculously promoted and which you can't go anywhere without hearing about, but hey, what are you gonna do?

Incidentally, I don't know what creatures the heroes are fighting on this cover.  Someone with more knowledge, please feel free to fill me on in whose butts they're kicking.  I would appreciate it.

The story begins with some observations from Danger, who is essentially Magik's jailer when she's not out on missions with the X-Men.  Her reservations about continuing Illyana's imprisonment are shared by Colossus, who starts to voice this to the X-Men leaders when a distress call from S.W.O.R.D. gives them an urgent mission to perform.  The Peak, S.W.O.R.D.'s prison for intergalactic fugitives, has been sabotaged in cataclysmic fashion, and several dangerous groups of criminals fall to various points in the Earth's surface.  The X-Men quickly take out a group of aliens in Nevada, and then agree to team up with the Avengers to take on multiple threats across the western hemisphere.

Meanwhile, a creature by the name of Unit, who is presumably the one who engineered the Peak's explosion, has landed in Canada, where he murders two human beings after cutting one of them open to see how they work.  After Hope Summers joins up with her team and teleports to his location, he sends the rest of them away and talks about how excited he is to meet her.  The issue ends with him advancing on her in a manner menacingly reminiscent of how he approached the man he dissected.

This was an enjoyable issue for several reasons.  First off, it was fun to see the Avengers and the X-Men teaming up and coordinating, even if the actual team-up was confined to just four panels spread out over two pages.  It's always interesting to see how such a diverse assemblage of skills and power sets can be blended to solve the more powerful problems.  And given that these two groups are scheduled to throw down on one another soon in AvX, you can bet this will be the last time they cooperate for a while.

Unit, the antagonist of this issue.
Unit is also an interesting character.  At times he seems virtually android-like in his detachment from emotional concerns, but he gets excited when meeting humans, and then mutants for the first time.  He seems to be able to make people do exactly what he says, and can spontaneously kick out a powerful mutant signature whenever he wants.  He looks, as one character put it, like an iPhone redesign, but he's clearly shown himself to be powerful and dangerous.  There's a lot of potential use for a character like this, and while I don't expect him to last very long in this story, he could be of interest down the road.

Finally, there's plenty of internal drama on the X-Men team, and while it doesn't take center stage, it's given various glimpses enough to show that some issues, like Illyana's imprisonment and Emma's recent trauma enduring the near-loss of her arm, won't likely stay on the back burner for long.  Given the amount of action that occurs in this issue, and the unspoken anxiety Scott is undoubtedly feeling at the impending return of the Phoenix Force, it's a testament to Gillen's deft plotting that these issues are able to receive their due coverage.

I do enjoy Pacheco's pencil work in this issue, though there are some places where I was distracted.  At times, the eyes on some of his characters seem a little too long for their faces, while at others, they're dead-on and perfect. His art style reminds me a little bit of John Romita, Jr.'s, though it's less distinctive, and I feel, more fitting to the narrative.  Pacheco clearly does action very well, and his linework on Unit, which could have been overwrought or underdone, was clean, efficient, and effective.  Smith's inks and line work frame everything up nicely and shade appropriately, while the colors provided by Guru eFX look vibrant and pleasing to the eye.  I'm overall very impressed by how everything turned out.

Overall, this was an enjoyable issue, with a lot of action, a subdued allusion to the standing drama on the team, and good artwork.  There's an inter-team team-up, and an interesting new creature who could be a formidable foe in the future.  All-in-all, an X-Men issue that was a worthwhile read.  Highly recommended.

Friday, March 30, 2012

GN Review -- Dark Reign: Deadpool/Thunderbolts / Andy Diggle, Daniel Way, Bong Dazo and Paco Medina

So, imagine you're on this insane suicide mission to infiltrate an alien ship and obtain data on how to kill their leader.  You waltz on to the ship, cause mayhem and destruction, and acquire the data.  But never mind that it's world-saving information--no, you're doing this because you're being paid an ungodly amount of money to do so.  You transmit the data to your contact, no problem...

... and your contact doesn't receive it.  And therefore refuses to pay you.

Then some jerk uses the data you stole to kill the alien leader and take all the credit.  You know the information you stole was utilized by said jerk.  But said jerk is now arguably the most powerful man in the world, and doesn't care that you lost out on a king's ransom when he stole your data.  What do you do?

Well, if you're Deadpool, you basically throw sanity to the winds, walk in the front door, politely demand your king's ransom, and then shoot up said jerk's hired help.  That's basically the plot for Dark Reign: Deadpool/Thunderbolts, in which Deadpool, who's dead-set on receiving the exorbitant payment he so bitterly feels he's due, goes after the now mega-powerful Norman Osborn, who intercepted Deadpool's hard-fought data.  In a hilariously quixotic quest for his money, he encounters one of his hired gun super-goons, the Thunderbolts.

Basics of the plot: Deadpool stole data on how to kill the Skrull queen, which he transmitted to Nick Fury for a big payday.  Nick Fury never received the data, and didn't pay Deadpool, who soon afterwards watched Norman Osborn kill the Skrulls' queen, Veranke.  Osborn, a madman once infamous as the Spider-villain Green Goblin, is now hailed as a hero and handed the keys to the superhero kingdom, with which he dissolves the spy agency security department known as S.H.I.E.L.D., forms his own spy agency called H.A.M.M.E.R., and creates several hit squads to serve as bodyguards and tools for his own insane agenda.

Deadpool, of course, is a little upset at missing out on his pay for his part in the queen's downfall, and he's not going to let a little thing like Norman Osborn, sanity, or doors come between him and the payday he so richly deserves.  Osborn, of course, feels a little differently--namely, he doesn't give a crap about shorting Deadpool, and puts the Thunderbolts on alert as Deadpool attempts to find him in Avengers Tower.  The battle that ensues involves an explosion of one-liners, a team-up with the Taskmaster, and a none-too-smooth attempt to hit on Yelena Belova, all of which leads up to a conclusion that is both corny and childishly satisfying.

I'm not too familiar with the Thunderbolts--and at this juncture don't care to correct this--but I'll at least skim through anything that features Deadpool.  I knew he would be going after Osborn for his money, but didn't realize he'd be squaring off against the Thunderbolts.  I was a little disappointed it wasn't the Dark Avengers, but you get a before-and-after pair of stories involving him fighting Bullseye, which is also pretty satisfying.

The Thunderbolts, by comparison, are a squad full of chumps.  Deadpool basically takes down the entire team in one issue, and the rest of the story involves them trying desperately to take Deadpool down or Osborn will separate them from their heads.  Still, the action's not bad, and the dialog, while it won't be winning any awards, still affords you the occasional chuckle.

The humor, however, is what you go into this story for.  Here are a few of my favorite such moments:

  • Norman Osborn listening to Deadpool talk to his own internal monologue while both crack jokes about Osborn's hair.  All Osborn can say is a confused, "Who the hell is he talking to...?"
  • Deadpool taking down Ant-Man with a can of bugspray nearly split my sides with all the laughing I did.  Not very original, but no less funny for it.
  • Basically any attempt at flirting with Yelena that Deadpool made was hilariously awkward.
  • Deadpool getting at least a partial payday by stealing Osborn's credit cards and hitting who-knows how many ATMs to draw money against them.
The art between the two titles is good, even if they are noticeably different.  Medina's art is more cartoony and flows smoothly, while Dazo's is more realistic and expressive.  They're both good, but for different reasons.  I'll also say that Francesco "Matt" Mattina's Thunderbolts covers for this story were unbelievably cool.  Realistic, vicious and starkly beautiful.

Overall, this is a fun, fairly light read.  The premise is simple and straight-up, the action is decent, and the humor makes it quite entertaining.  The artwork is pretty good, even as the styles switch between issues.  Deadpool fans will enjoy this story, though I suspect the Bullseye stories are even more satisfying all-around.  Recommended.

Thursday, March 29, 2012

Comic Review -- Batman #7: The Talons Strike! / Scott Snyder, Greg Capullo, and Jonathan Glapion

Again, the stupid banner at the top.  Get rid of it, DC.  It's really unnecessary and insulting.  Save your ads for somewhere inside the comic, like a proper marketing monster, so we can either read or ignore them.  Stop blorting up the covers with non-comic related banners.

I do like the concept behind the cover design.  Deal with one Talon, and you've still got a legion more of them on the horizon, preparing to swoop down and finish what the first began.  It sets up a good foreboding tone for the story, and helps keep things tense.

Batman has escaped from the Court of Owls' underground labyrinth, though he is far from unscathed.  He's resurrected by the attentions of a girl named Harper Row, who he's apparently met before, and who he warns to leave him alone before storming off.  He's found by Alfred near one of the underground entrances to the Batcave, and waves off any medical care to go right into an autopsy of the Talon corpse Alfred found.  Meanwhile, the Court prepares what appears to be another Talon for a looming confrontation with Batman.

Nightwing shows up while Batman's examining the body, and gives him the basics about the Talon's abilities and how they work.  Bruce also reveals to Dick that the man on the exam station is his great grandfather, and that Dick was going to be chosen to be a Talon, had his parents not died and Bruce not taken him in.  He tells Dick that he now sees that Gotham is a stranger and an enemy, and Dick responds that neither Batman nor the Court is Gotham City.  Finally, we see the Court release a number of Talons at the same time.  Their goal: to retake Gotham City for them, and destroy Batman once and for all.

I'm continuing to enjoy the revelations Snyder brings forth in this story, first portraying the Court as this mysterious, ages-old thing, and then having them kidnap Batman and drive him to the brink of insanity, with Batman finally escaping and using his formidable mind to figure out the method behind their madness.  I'm not familiar with Harper, but her brief appearance raises enough questions that it's likely we'll see her later, hopefully in a more substantial capacity.  I'm definitely keen to see how Batman handles a squadron of Talons.  I have a feeling that he's suffered enough that some serious payback is in order.

I was a little miffed with one particular moment in the story.  Batman punching Nightwing.  From where I'm standing, it was at the very least, clumsily portrayed.  At worst, it was grossly out of character.  I can understand wanting to punch the little bastard in the mouth when he gets up on his high horse, but that doesn't mean you go ahead and do it, particularly when he's supposed to be one of your closest allies and adopted son.  Presumably, he did it to get the little owl deposit from his tooth--that is what happened, right?--but even that's not made explicit.  And really, was it necessary to hit Dick in order to get it?  I wasn't too thrilled with that scene, overall.

Artistically, I'm becoming a big fan of Greg Capullo's work.  The stark, gritty detail of his line work really helps the story pop, and really establishes the dark mood as well as the idea that the setting really is a dark entity all its own.  Again, the eyes he draws on his characters can really make an entire picture.  Keep the hits coming!

Overall, I'm very pleased with this storyline, and can't wait to see what's next.  I'm really hoping we get to see Batman make the Court pay for what they did to him, for coming to Gotham at all, and for just breathing the same air as him.  All that remains to be seen, but in the meantime, I'm pretty well sold on this storyline and eager to see where it goes.  Highly recommended.

Wednesday, March 28, 2012

GN Review -- Y the Last Man, v. 3: One Small Step / Brian K. Vaughan, Pia Guerra, Jose Marzan Jr., and Paul Chadwick

The continuing journey of Yorick Brown, Agent 355, and Dr. Allison Mann gets somewhat altered, but for a good cause, in volume 3 of Y the Last Man, entitled One Small Step.

After their ordeals in Marrisville, Yorick, 355, and Dr. Mann continue on their westward journey to find her lab, only to be diverted to Oldenbrook, Kansas, when they discover a shuttle containing three astronauts--two of them living men--will be landing there from the International Space Station.  Meanwhile, Yorick's mother has dispatched a brigade of the Israeli Defense Force's women to kidnap Yorick from 355's custody--apparently she no longer trusts 355, or the Culper Ring, for whom she works.  Alter, the leader of this brigade, has her own designs for Yorick, and plans to take him back to Israel to give her nation leverage on the world stage, theorizing that only Israel would be able to repopulate the world if they had custody of the world's last man.

One of the male astronauts is from Russia, and it is an agent of the Russian government, Natalya Zamyatin, who tips 355 off about the shuttle landing.  Zamyatin proves to be an effective fighter, almost as good as 355, and accompanies them to Oldenbrook, where a secret government installation known as a hot suite--for decontaminating biological agents--will make the most sensible spot for the astronauts to land.  Once they arrive, 355 and Zamyatin are lured away, and the Israelis storm the hot suite, take Yorick, and escape before they can return.

Using the impending arrival of the two male astronauts as bait, 355 convinces the Israelis not to flee.  Alter, however, does not intend to trade Yorick for them; she plans to destroy the astronauts as they land.  Her second in command, Sadie, stands up against Alter for attempting to murder them, and with Yorick's help, manages to thwart Alter's plans and overthrow her.  The astronauts' craft is found, but only one--the female, Dr. Ciba Weber--can be pulled to safety before it explodes.  Sadie delivers Yorick back to his friends, and Zamyatin agrees to stay behind and watch over the installation and Dr. Weber, who is pregnant.  In the final scene, Hero appears to her mother, apparently upset that she's desperate to find Yorick, but isn't worried about her at all.

What continues to strike me about the writing of this series is the realism with which this alternate world is imagined.  I'm not sure how much or what manner of research Vaughan did to create this scenario, but it's obvious that a lot of serious thought went into its inception.  From cobbling women together to keep fragments of the U.S. government and Israeli military running smoothly to the virtual nonexistence of reliable sources of electrical energy and the rise of Amazonian-centric cults, this narrative brings a lot of food for thought to readers by confronting them with many of the logical, practical consequences of a disaster that immediately kills all men in the world, save one.

There are also some good character moments in this volume as well.  Yorick tries his hand at smoking in front of 355, with comical results as he shows he's never done it before.  355's first encounter with Zamyatin, while tense at first, ends amusingly when she speaks Russian to Zamyatin, who's relieved because she thinks she sounds "like a fucking retard" whenever she tries to speak English.  And at several points, Yorick keeps getting referred to as a boy, much to his annoyance.  And there's a somewhat awkward, somewhat tender moment between Yorick and 355 as they play off the premise 355 used to lure the Israelis back, that she was in love with Yorick.

I continue to enjoy Pia Guerra's artwork in this volume, and can imagine she enjoyed changing things up slightly be being able to draw men other than Yorick for a change.  I also liked that she drew Yorick with facial hair for a couple of issues.  The farmhouse-and-government-lab settings were decent as well, as were the prominent emergence of several new characters.  Very solid overall.

Y the Man is known as a well-written, thoughtfully constructed story, with good characterization and good artwork.  One Small Step continues to demonstrate why, and makes for an entertaining and exciting segment of the story of Yorick and the women who protect him.  Highly recommended.

Tuesday, March 27, 2012

GN Review -- Amelia Rules! The Meaning of Life... and Other Stuff / Jimmy Gownley

It's very easy for me to remember how scary life could be when I was a kid.  Just when you think you've started to figure things out, something would happen to cause you to question what you've learned.  One of the most daunting realizations was the idea that nothing lasts forever: not life, not friends, not buildings, not even the planet Earth.  This is the main throughline in the latest entry in the Amelia Rules! series of books by Jimmy Gownley, The Meaning of Life... and Other Stuff, which continues to delight readers of all ages with the escapades, wry observations, and witty humor of Amelia McBride and her friends.

Amelia seems to be overwhelmed with the idea that nothing in life seems to last.  Her relationships with her friends are changing in ways she doesn't always realize, her Aunt Tanner has been unavailable due to her touring, and she always seems to be in the crosshairs of various authority figures, singling her out for one reason or another.  Everyone seems to be growing up, as Reggie comments about Rhonda looking cute, Amelia makes amends with a friend she'd hurt some time in the past, and Joan endures an upsetting episode involving her father, an Army captain who's been deployed to fight elsewhere in the world.  Amelia uses her experiences, her aunt's old diaries, and her adventures with her friends to try to figure out the elusive meaning of life, but as with so many such quests, she may have to settle for just part of the answer.

While I'll continue to say that Gownley's Amelia seems at times a little too witty and intelligent for her age, there is no denying her charm and likability.  She's not without her flaws and occasional hardheadedness, but she does try to be a better person, something to which most people can readily relate.  This is a young girl, on the cusp of adolescence, who's trying to make sense of a life that sometimes seems anything but, and it's effortless for readers to get behind her and her friends and root for them.  Whether they're dealing with snarky cheerleaders, disapproving adults, or just putting up with each other, it's easy to see them for who they are and experience their joys, struggles, and dramas alongside them.

Artistically, Gownley continues to shine.  His cartoony, colorful style is easy on the eyes, allowing him to employ a variety of visual tricks and expressions to show off his characters' range.  His renderings of his characters when they're mad or defiant are particularly striking in this volume, especially when paired with what they're thinking or saying at the time.

Overall, I continue to have an overwhelmingly positive view of this series.  It's cute, amusing, and full of heart.  Jimmy Gownley does an excellent job of making his young heroine both likable, imperfect, and overall, easy to relate to.  The artwork is wonderful and expressive, and easily appeals to its intended audience, while also remaining charming and pleasing to adult readers.  Highly recommended.

Monday, March 26, 2012

Comic Review -- Justice League #7: The Villain's Journey, prologue / Geoff Johns, Gene Ha, and Gary Frank

Okay, my first issue is with the banner across the top of the cover.  I've never liked ads like this, and this one's no exception.  I say this being completely supportive of DC's We Can Be Heroes initiative, but they could have put the ad prominently inside the comic.  This move was just needlessly disruptive, and I don't appreciate it.

Otherwise, I rather like the cover.  It's a Jim Lee, and I'll admit, it's a bit crowded, but it's still dynamic, action-packed, and iconic.  It even supports the story inside somewhat, which is always a plus in my book.  It's clearly an illustration designed for a cover or poster--clearly it makes little sense to engage in combat in this kind of close quarters--but overall, I like the look presented for what it is: a dynamic, en media res representation of the team in action together.

With the new origin story finished and done, we come to what is denoted as the present day.  The League's membership has apparently remained the same for five years, and we have a couple of interesting dynamics going on that are a sharp contrast from the all-out action of the first story arc.  First, we see that the writer from last issue, David Graves, has apparently changed his initially sterling opinion of the Justice League, and is embarking on some kind of clandestine quest to destroy them.  Second, the Justice League is still working on their teamwork even as they take down an emerging threat with little effort.  Colonel Steven Trevor is then shown dealing with the media on behalf of A.R.G.U.S. and Congress on behalf of the League, as their liaison.  Finally, we get a treatise from David Graves, who reveals himself as the person who stole an artifact called the Orb of Ra, and who has discovered the key to destroying the Justice League: Steven Trevor.

I've already seen quite a few negative reviews for this issue, and I'm actually forced to wonder why people seem to dislike it so.  I understand that there's not as much high-octane action as before, but frankly, I could use a break from it by this point.  I'm much more interested in the interpersonal dynamics between the members of the League, and as shown, those who interact with the JL on various levels.  Watching Steven Trevor, with whom I'll admit not being very familiar, deal with his role as human liaison to the modern-day gods and frustrated man whose love for Wonder Woman remains unrequited, lends a sense of anchoring to the narrative that could otherwise easily remove its scope from more human concerns.

I'm also fascinated by the premise promised by the title, "The Villain's Journey," a reversal of the mythological narrative pattern Joseph Campbell described as the hero's journey.  There's a lot of potential for some imaginative storytelling here, especially if Geoff Johns takes this seriously and explores and maybe subverts some of the stages of the hero's journey Campbell sets up in The Hero with a Thousand Faces.  Time will of course tell, but I for one am willing to give him the benefit of the doubt to see how this unfolds.

After all, this issue is more or less bookended by David Graves' observations and foreshadowing. I think he's the one who's intended to be the star of this arc, and I would urge readers and reviewers to keep that in mind for this one before sinking Johns on other areas of the story.  Despite how little he appears in this issue, he's made some key moves in it, and I think we've got a potential setup for a good nemesis for the Justice League.

That's not to say that I have no issues with this segment of the story, but they're fairly minor compared to what I think may be on the horizon.  My biggest issue is that the JL's membership seems not to have changed in the five years since it was formed.  Really?  No one died, left, switched sides, went on to a higher plane of existence, or retired?  They've accepted no other new members since then?  I suppose all of this could have happened, and that they just happen to have their original configuration at this point in time for the story, but that seems awfully convenient as well.

I'm not familiar with Shazam except in the vaguest sense, but I thought the opening of that story was pretty interesting.  I'll be interested to see where it goes, and will continue to read it, though I was a little miffed that it just had to be introduced (and apparently continued) in the pages of Justice League.  Still, I'm willing to give it a shot.  Hopefully Billy Batson's not as huge a jerk as he was portrayed in this first story, but maybe his own hero's journey involves him changing his attitude.  We'll see.

Artistically, I was a little jolted by Jim Lee's absence from this issue (with the exception of the cover), but I do think Gene Ha does a good job in his guest role this month.  It seemed slightly gritty for a story about a high-powered superhero team, but it did a fine job of supporting the narrative.  Batman's angry face in response to Green Lantern's patronizing remarks was pretty amusing, as were the renderings of Spore and his minions at the beginning of the story.  I did enjoy Gary Frank's artwork in the Shazam story quite a bit.  It was very clean, and the linework made for some very realistic illustrations.

Overall, I like the setup and direction for this issue.  I think the story has a lot of potential, and that its focus may not be where a lot of readers think it is.  The Shazam story also promises an epic tale, and starts off well enough.  The artwork in both stories is nice.  Definitely a worthy start for anyone interested in superhero stories, and possibly those interested in studies modern mythologies.  Highly recommended.

Sunday, March 25, 2012

Comic Review -- Avengers X-Sanction #4: Sundown / Jeph Loeb, Ed McGuinness, Dexter Vines and Morry Hollowell

Oh, jeez.  Let's get into the laundry list of issues that I have with this issue, and the mini-series.

What was the point of this cover?  It lies, even as it tells the truth.  Sure, Wolverine and Spider-Man "fight" Cable in this issue, but why are they wearing completely different costumes from the cover?  I'm also none too impressed with the artwork, particularly how Wolverine's claws are sticking out of Cable's knuckles with no blood, no torn or strewn metal, and no reaction from Cable to that.  Underwhelming.

We start with an arguably unnecessary flashback to how Spider-Man and Wolverine realize their comrades are missing, and go off to find them.  Then, back in the present, Wolverine tears into Cable, disarming him of his gun, which Hope takes and fires at Spider-Man.  He dodges, pulls the weapon away from her, and then gets blasted by an annoyed Cyclops, not to be seen for the rest of the conflict.

While Cable struggles with Wolverine, Blaquesmith directs Hope to disarm the bomb Cable has planted on the captured Avengers.  With little time left, she yanks the bomb wiring out, with no harm.  The Avengers come to, and Red Hulk burns out the techno-virus Cable porcupined him with in the previous issue.  Against his own techno-virus and them, Cable stands no chance, and is handily defeated as the virus kills him.  Cap agrees to let Cyclops take Cable to Utopia as long as Cable's technology and weapons remain with the Avengers.

Hope visits Cable in the infirmary, where the techno-virus starts to infect her, but she engulfs both herself and Cable in a vortex of phoenix-shaped flaming energy.  It burns out the virus completely, apparently resurrecting Cable, who is now appears to be free of the techno-virus.  Cyclops and Cable have a conversation on the astral plane sometime soon after, and Cyclops promises Cable he'll protect Hope from the Avengers, if and when they try to attack her.

While I will admit this is the best segment of the story, I'll also qualify it with the realization that it's not saying much for the whole story.  As a setup for the upcoming Avengers vs. X-Men storyline (AvX), it is a success: it sets up the coming conflict between the two groups and teases the fact that this all-out fight will be caused by the return of the Phoenix Force as it seeks out Hope.  But it really doesn't do much more than that, the rest of the story feeling all too much like filler material that gives Cable an excuse to fight the Avengers.  Because, you know... that'll sell comics.

It's not due to any failing of the story plot, which is actually very simple.  It's basically due to poor execution, a sense of glossing over some very important details (Cable's continued ability to keep on going and capture prime superheroes, even as he gets progressively worse; Red Hulk's ability to simply "burn out" the techno-virus), and the feeling that many of these characters, who have such history together, simply ignore or miss out some prime opportunities for characterization and development... even as they bash each other's brains out.  And don't even get me started on Spider-Man's brush-off in this issue.  There's no way he would have stayed out of the fight that long.

Art-wise, things look passable, even good in places.  The 2-page splash featuring Wolverine and Cable joining the battle looked really good, and I think Hope's moment of Phoenix scariness looked appropriately powerful and unsettling.  Scott's reaction to her was right on the money.  I did, however, think the floating heads shot of the Avengers as Hope huddled over Cable's body could have been done differently.

Overall, I'll damn this issue with faint praise, since it's the only one of the whole mini-series that deserves it.  It does try to flesh out Cable's reasons for doing what he does, but the flimsiness of his present actions ruin the narrative too thoroughly for it to be truly saved.  If you can be happy with pure superhero slugfest action, then you might like this series.  If you need a little substance, this issue is really the only one that I feel has any of it.  Recommended.

Saturday, March 24, 2012

GN Review -- The Sandman, v. 1: Preludes and Nocturnes / Neil Gaiman, Sam Kieth, Mike Dringenberg, and Malcolm Jones III

I'd been reading comics for years before finally making time to browse through the collected trades of Neil Gaiman's The Sandman, and in many ways, I'm glad I did.  Simply put, the frustration of having to wait every month for the next issue probably would have driven me crazy.  The fertile imagination of writer Neil Gaiman takes various elements of the DC universe and weaves them together into a mythology that transcends the conventional superhero comic book tropes while at the same time creating its own rich environment.

It's not the kind of thing you want to wait for.

The first volume, Preludes and Nocturnes, introduces the character of Dream, a very old, very powerful god, who is the living embodiment of dreams.  In the year 1916, he is bound and captured by an occult magician who was actually seeking Dream's sister, Death.  Held in captivity for seven decades, Dream finally escapes and must embark on a quest to find and  retrieve his objects of power, which were taken from him and sold by his earthly captors.

His search leads him back to the dreamworld, where the three weird sisters, the witches Hecatae tell him who last possessed his three objects of power.  He goes to England and enlists the help of John Constantine, who accompanies him to an ex-lover's house to retrieve the pouch of sand, which had wreaked horrific tragedy on her life with her addiction to it.  His next, considerably harder quest, takes him to Hell itself, where he must challenge one of its many demons for the return of his helmet.  Finally, he must return to earth, where he must confront the demented and psychopathic Doctor Destiny for the ruby that contains the largest share of his power, who has taken possession of it and uses it to torment and mutilate innocent people and to attempt to destroy Dream.

Neil Gaiman's gift for imaginative storytelling and mythological expansion is well known, and this initial set of stories shows why he's been so successful in just about any medium.  To say the scope of this story is epic, while fitting, doesn't seem to capture the depth of imagination I experienced while reading it.  Gaiman does an excellent job of creating his own mythology, and then connecting it to the existing mythos established by the DC Universe.  I'm not even that well-versed in DC's mythos--there are probably plenty of connections I've missed--but it's abundantly clear to me that there are many relationships he's established between the realm of his narrative and the larger one, however tenuous.

Artistically, there are a number of pencilers and corresponding styles, all of which evoke an otherworldly feel and support the ever-changing tone of the narrative.  Some of the stories are dramatic, some are horrific, and some are wonderfully cheerful.  All of the artwork goes to those places along with the writing, making for looks and setups that establish a diverse array of emotions, settings, and circumstances.

Overall, this is one of my favorite comic series of all time, written by one of my writing gods.  Gaiman isn't perfect, but he's a damn fine storyteller, and Preludes and Nocturnes demonstrates this amply.  The story is epic and otherworldly, the artwork is evocative and intriguing, and the feeling you get after reading this story is that this is one of the classics in modern storytelling.  Highly recommended.

Friday, March 23, 2012

Film Review -- Iron Man 2 / Jon Favreau, Robert Downey, Jr. and Mickey Rourke

Disclaimer: This is a review I'd written a year or so ago, on another blog, slightly edited.  I figure with The Avengers film coming up soon, it'd be good to review the Marvel films that have led up to it, and it made sense to re-post this review rather than write a completely new-yet-similar one for Iron Man 2.  My basic feelings about this film remain unchanged from a year ago, anyway.  Enjoy!  

I'll admit, the teasers for this film made
 me drool!
When I saw Iron Man in theaters a couple years ago, I did not expect it to grab me the way it did. I knew a fair bit about the hero, I’d read some of the comics he appeared in, and I knew the basics of his origin story, but overall I wasn’t terribly impressed by the Tony Stark character. In fact, as my latest context for Iron Man in the comics had been the Civil War crossover, he was far and away one of my least favorite comic book characters at the time.

But, it was a comic book superhero movie, and I am a sucker for those kinds of movies. Plus, they’d used Black Sabbath’s “Iron Man” song for the commercials and trailers, and I had to admit the fusion of two was pretty cool. Overall, though, I wasn’t expecting that much.

Then Robert Downey, Jr. goes and makes me like the character of Tony Stark. He’s an asshole, but darn it, if he isn’t one of the most likeable assholes you’ve ever seen in a movie. That totally effortless mixture of wit, ego, intellect and compassion came through beautifully on the screen, and coupled with the top-notch visuals and well-paced story, made Iron Man one of the most fun, high-flying and thoroughly enjoyable movie experiences of the genre.

I went and saw it in the theater six times. I’ve never done that for any other movie.

Then, two years later, Iron Man 2 came out, and of course, expectations were very high. Would it top the first one? Would it be as good? Personally, I didn’t think it would, if only because the first film had been such a surprise delight to me. But still, I had hopes, and maybe even a few expectations as to how good the sequel could be.

I think my reaction could best be described as lukewarm. Iron Man 2 certainly wasn’t a bad movie–I mean, it’ll never win any Academy Awards, but neither did the first one (which was, however, nominated in two categories). It was fun, and action-packed, and funny, but of course, it wasn’t going to touch its predecessor, truth be told. But it did have some unfortunate baggage, which I feel the need to point out and talk about.

1. Tony Stark’s blood poisoning–Almost from the get-go, the movie had me wrinkling my brow, starting with this little plot element. It’s not a particularly unbelievable development; ARC reactor technology, fictitious as it is, is relatively new in the movies, and a side effect like this could honestly develop over time for someone like Tony Stark. But unfortunately, it had an unshakable feel of storyteller’s remorse, as if he’d ended too happily in the first film and the producers decided, “Tony needs pathos, we’ll use this to suddenly give it to him!” This entire development occurs offscreen, and for a franchise that prides itself on building upon the universe it creates in its movies, this comes off as slipshod and annoying.

2. The “Magic Element” Cure for said blood poisoning–If anything were more annoying than the contrived development of Tony’s pity-inducing condition, the producers must have dug really deep to find it, because they found an even more contrived resolution! “SURPRISE, TONY STARK! Nick Fury and SHIELD knew your dad! And your dad just knew you’d invent/discover the new element that would be exactly the thing you needed to counteract your blood condition! Isn’t that sweet? And by the way…. deep down, your gruff, hard-working, jet-setting dad really loved you, and just couldn’t express it while he was alive. He was actually Howard Hughes by day, and Walt Disney by night.” (I hope that was as much fun for you to read as it was for me to write.)

3. The Villain–Okay, I’ll admit Whiplash was pretty cool to watch. He was creepy, and darkly intelligent, and was well-played by Mickey Rourke. My big problems with him tended to lie with the overall backstory of that character. Essentially, we are to believe that Vanko’s father worked with Tony’s dad at Stark Industries, helped invent the ARC reactor, was muscled out of the deal at the last minute and sent back to Mother Russia, where he and his son grew up in disgrace and poverty. When his father dies, Vanko discovers the plans for the ARC reactor his father had somehow saved, and uses them to create a suit similar to Tony’s for the purpose of taking him down. He is, essentially, the dark Stark: intelligent and capable, but using his gifts for evil.

Where did Vanko get the resources, the components, or even the raw materials to build his weapon? He and his dad were dirt poor, by all appearances. Where did he get the training and technical expertise to do this? You can be smart, brilliant, and so on, but that’s only going to get you so far in a specialized field of weapons development without a whole lot of training and experience. These were the questions going through my head during the film. It simply felt like his development (or lack thereof) was a vital part of the character that simply wasn’t given enough narrative heft to convincingly stand as the dark mirror image of the film’s hero.

4. The overall feel of “Let’s rest on the laurels of the first film!”–I’m sorry, but that’s what it felt like. Let’s let Tony’s suit and the special effects tell the story, rather than developing the characters in more or less believable ways! Let’s bring back Nick Fury and make him so much less cool than he is in the comics, even if Samuel L. Jackson is playing him! Let’s put Scarlet Johanssen in as the Black Widow, just because we can! Honestly, I was carried away by the first film because the story was plausible (for a superhero movie, of course) and fun. This was less of both, and it’s hard to shake the feeling that the success of the first film made them a little lazier this time around.

Again, this wasn’t a bad film. It had some genuinely memorable scenes, such as Tony telling Congress, flippantly as you please, that he will not turn over the Iron Man suit to the U.S. government. His teamup with War Machine at the end to take on Whiplash and his army of Hammerbots (as I call them) was a lot of fun to watch. It just had some elements to it that made me cringe in places, and unfortunately they detracted from the overall experience. Hopefully that won’t carry through to the next film, but as with so many propositions, only time will tell.  Recommended.

Thursday, March 22, 2012

Comic Review -- Ultimate Spider-Man #160 / Brian Michael Bendis, Mark Bagley, Andy Lanning, and Justin Ponsor

Spider-Man is one of those characters in comics who, whether you like him or not, is undeniably a touchstone of modern popular culture.  You've heard of him, and you probably know a lot more about him than almost any other iconic comic book character, Superman and Batman notwithstanding.  And in the 50 years of history and storytelling during which he's existed, he's endured tragedies and triumphs of titanic proportions.

So when you hear he's going to be killed off, it tends to get your attention.

Now, I know there are some caveats to that statement, the most obvious being that this isn't the "real" Spider-Man, the one from 1962, who was bitten by a radioactive spider.  This is Ultimate Spider-Man, from Marvel's alternate, Ultimate universe, who was created in 2000 by Brian Michael Bendis for a more modern age.  He's younger, less experienced, and as some might argue, less worthy of the mantle than the original, prime Spider-Man.

Another detraction could come in the vague supposition that death in comic books--no matter which universe it takes place in--isn't real and lasting, and that he'll probably be back in a few years, when it's convenient.  Therefore, this really isn't any big deal.

To that statement, I would ask this: how many times--in any universe--has Spider-Man actually died?

He's been beaten, bruised, broken, and bloodied to within an inch of his life.  He's had his loved ones stalked, attacked, kidnapped, and in some cases, killed.  He's suffered self-doubt innumerable times, been tortured and tormented by himself as well as external foes.  He's been cloned, replaced, buried, mutated, manipulated, and stretched far beyond his limits... on countless occasions.  And through it all, he's come out more or less on top, a little battered, but wiser and stronger for all his ordeals.  Spider-Man, for all his gifts, is a writer's punching bag or whipping boy, tormented and brought back to show that we all have the ability to come back from the worst of circumstances.

And he's never, in any incarnation, been killed.  Well, not to my knowledge, anyway.

I'd also add a sidenote that death in the Ultimate Universe has thus far proven permanent.  I do hope and expect it will stay that way.

By the time this issue begins, things have gotten down to the breaking point with Norman Osborn's vendetta against Peter.  The boy had already been injured by a gunshot before Osborn and four of his other super-powered cronies showed up in his neighborhood, intent on killing him.  Iceman and the Human Torch, his roommates, helped out briefly and are now knocked out, lying in front of his house.  Kraven, Vulture, and Electro have been taken out of the fight, but Peter, who's now lost his mask and whose identity will now be known to the world, is desperate to get his Aunt May out of their neighborhood and out of harm's way after she shows up.

Osborn, as the Green Goblin, is relentless, continuing his assault even as crowds gather and watch the high-powered slugfest.  Gwen keeps trying to get May to safety, but she won't leave, concerned for her nephew's life.  Despite another brief surge of help from the Human Torch, the Goblin continues to get stronger as Peter's injuries threaten to drain the life out of him before the fight is over.  His anger at Osborn keeps him going though, and he uses any means at his disposal to beat him further.

Still the Goblin comes, and Peter's execution is stayed briefly as Mary Jane hits Osborn with a truck.  Peter kisses her in gratitude, then throws her to a safe distance and uses the truck to batter Osborn into submission.  It explodes from the fight, throwing Peter onto his front lawn, where his entire neighborhood seems to have gathered and is watching.  911 is called, and everyone tries to help the injured young man, but his injuries are too severe.  With a final gasp to Aunt May that it was all worth it because he was able to save her, Peter dies in front of his loved ones.  A few moments later, an apparently dead Norman Osborn smiles, content that he was able to kill Spider-Man.

What I like most about this story is that this isn't some grand, epic battle to the finish, with the world at stake, as you tend to get with so many superhero deaths.  No, this was a neighborhood brawl, a kid defending his home turf, his neighbors, and his family from a crazy guy and his buddies who have it in for him.  Peter's biggest motivation, at the end of everything, is keeping his loved ones safe and out of harm's way.  It's a fitting setup and sendoff for a hero who in so many ways exemplifies the everyman in all of us.

I also think it was a realistic death in the sense that it was caused, essentially, from the simple fact that Peter was just overwhelmed.  The gunshot from the Punisher, however unintended, had already put him at a disadvantage, and Norman's sudden escape and teamup with Electro, Kraven, and Vulture just made things way too overwhelming for Peter, who was already injured and exhausted, pushed to his limits, and not given any chance to get his bearings.  He made some bad tactical decisions, like waking up Torch instead of Iceman to fight the Goblin briefly, and that in concert with everything else (including Osborn's singleminded determination to kill him) was just too much.

Peter's final words to his aunt are particularly heartbreaking, because they exemplify how selfless he is in his devotion to her.  She was essentially his mother, having raised him from a young age, and his inability to protect Uncle Ben is only, in his eyes, justified by his ability to protect her from harm, even at the cost of his own life.  When you consider all that he had to live for and the future he could have had if he'd lived, his willingness to sacrifice it all without even a moment's hesitation makes his death all the more tragic.

Artistically, there's little I have to say that isn't generally known about Mark Bagley.  The man's been drawing Spider-Man since I was collecting comics as a teen, and I've always loved his renditions of Spider-Man and his supporting characters.  His style may be a little cartoony, with rather big eyes and expressions on his characters, but I think it really works for Spidey's world, and can't think of anyone else I'd want to draw for Peter's last hurrah.  The action scenes are pulse-pounding, the emotions are clearly and dramatically conveyed, and the story visually takes on the intimate yet high-stakes fight with aplomb through his efforts.

Overall, I was genuinely moved by this issue.  Ultimate Spider-Man hasn't always been my favorite character--he's simply not my Spider-Man--but his charm is undeniable, especially for modern readers picking up comics for the first time.  It is a worthwhile passing, deserving of praise and respect, but at the same time, I'm glad I can go back to the prime Spidey's adventures more or less unscathed.  Highly recommended.

Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Manga Review -- Liberty Vocational, v. 1: Will Super-Villains Be on the Final? / Naomi Novik and Yishan Li

As most of my readers have probably surmised by this point, I don't read a lot of manga.  I basically only read stuff I already know of and really like--Berserk and Hellsing being good examples--or things that are recommended to me by either teenage otakus or by reading lists that I simply can't ignore.  Naomi Novik's first Liberty Vocational piece about a girl at a super-hero school trying to fit in are an example of the very latter, but which has turned out to be an enjoyable read, nonetheless.

Will Super Villains Be on the Final? is an attempt at working the shojo genre into the super-hero mix, a kind of manga version of the movie Sky High with a female protagonist.  Leah is a slightly-too-young, new enrollee at Liberty Vocational, a super-hero school.  She has vaguely defined atom-manipulation abilities, giving her the potential to be one of the most powerful heroes of her age.  Of course, all this is marred by her awkwardness and ability to make the simplest of tasks into unmitigated disasters, which leads to conflicts with some of the other students and at least one highly placed dean of the school.

Of course, Leah won't give up on trying to fit in at Liberty Vocational, and we see a number of factors making things more difficult than usual.  From inflexible educational staff and know-it-all older students to unrequited (?) crushes to a possible traitor in her midst, Leah finds herself constantly tested and wondering if she really belongs at a school for up and coming superheroes.  When a natural disaster causes her to finally sink or swim under her own power, Leah finds out whether or not she truly has the mettle--and more importantly, the presence of mind--to earn her place at Liberty Vocational.

I found the writing here to be none too inspired, and a little too reliant on existing tropes and stock characters.  Here we have a common, if pleasant enough, plot: the fish out of water scenario, in that highest of stakes teenager scenario, the superhero academy.  I won't go into how many times this setup has been done, but if you're going to utilize it, I think a little more originality is called for in some aspect of the writing.  Novik seems content to simply blend the shojo genre into this setup, which I wouldn't have a problem with--some shojo is actually quite entertaining--but the execution just falls flat.  There has to be something else, something more here: an interesting twist on the character, a bending of the typical plot elements... something.  At present, I just don't see anything that will hold the interest of readers aside from those who simply wish to roll their eyes and think "seen this before."

The artwork is pleasant to behold, if nothing particularly original.  I think Li does a stronger job of building personalities into the various characters than the writing seems to do.  There's plenty of the typical features you expect to find in manga, from the big eyes to the overdone emotional expressions, but the charm with which she carries off these illustrations is undeniable.

Overall, this is a fairly solid entry into the shojo-superhero hybrid field, if nothing spectacular.  The writing isn't particularly strong or imaginative, but the artwork is pretty decent.  It's worth taking a look at, particularly if you enjoy one of the two genres of which this story is a child.  Recommended.

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

GN Review -- The Plain Janes / Cecil Castellucci and Jim Rugg

I remember The Plain Janes being the first graphic novel I'd picked up by Minx, an imprint of DC Comics that advertised itself as a publisher for comics that would feature teenage girls as their protagonists.  Ironically, it wouldn't be the first I ended up reading--that honor went to Kimmie66.  But after finishing both, I thought the publisher was really onto something successful.

I found out shortly after that Minx had just recently folded.

The Plain Janes, like Good As Lily and many of its other publications, showed that it was possible to write good stories for as presumably niche an audience as teenage girls, and makes the demise of the publisher all the more tragic when you consider how popular that audience seems to be at present.  It begins with the story of Jane, a teenager who survives a bombing attack in Metro City, only to be hustled to Suburbia by her relieved but overprotective parents.  Jane struggles to fit in initially, but soon finds a group of girls--also named Jane--who she eventually befriends.

They stage a series of "art attacks" in their neighborhood, which gets the attention of the authorities, who view them as subversive defacement.  Despite several attempts at intimidation, the authorities are unable to identify Jane's group of vigilante artists, known as P.L.A.I.N. (People Loving Art In Neighborhoods), and Jane continues to experience a sense of fulfillment in challenging the town's perceptions of art.  Eventually she and her friends must decide whether it is more important to let the authorities have their way and stop the art attacks, or to continue them and be true to their artistic integrity and passion.

The message I ended up taking away from The Plain Janes underscores the idea that art and artistic expression is important in reminding communities about the passions and hopes of the individuals who make them up.  Jane plans and stages them with her friends as a way of challenging societal perceptions about the things that go on in their town, with the intention of getting them to think about what is truly important.  Not everyone sees it that way, of course, but that's not enough to deter P.L.A.I.N. from its mission, which I found to be heartening reminder of sticking up for what's important to you.

While the plot was enjoyable, I think one problem with the writing involved how the ending came about without any real resolution.  I mean, sure, the art gang will continue, but no attention is given to Damon's fate, or what P.L.A.I.N. will do about it.  The main and supporting characters were also pleasant and fun, but a couple of them ran the risk of being two-dimensional, like the overzealous police officer who's also a jerk.

Artistically, I think the style is simple, but overall very pleasant.  It reminded me slightly of Daniel Clowes's style in Ghost World, though it's a bit less detailed than that.  There are a couple of places where it seems a little flat, but they're pretty rare and often lost among the expressiveness of the characters or the larger action of the story.  It's not anything particularly special, but it's not bad either, and Jim Rugg does a fine job of visually supporting the narrative.

Overall, I enjoyed the story in The Plain Janes, as well as how it was told.  The main and supporting characters are interesting, the artwork is pleasant, and the overall message of the story regarding the importance of art to a community is well communicated.  Art lovers, rebels, and those seeking strong girl characters will want to give this a read.  Recommended.

Monday, March 19, 2012

Comic Review -- Friendly Neighborhood Spider-Man #23: Fighting Words / Peter David, Todd Nauck, Robert Campanella, and John Kalisz

A few years ago, when I was following the events and fallout of Marvel's Civil War feverishly--and not collecting single-issue comics anymore--there was a single issue that made me break that rule.  It revolved around a moment I'd wondered about for years, regarding what would occur between Peter Parker and J. Jonah Jameson once the latter found out that Peter was Spider-Man.  What would Jonah say to Peter, directly, about his years-long deception, about having bought pictures Peter had essentially taken of himself, and about one of his closest associates also being one of his most hated rivals.

We finally get an answer to that question in Friendly Neighborhood Spider-Man #23, which is very aptly titled, "Fighting Words."

The issue begins with a bruised and battered looking Jonah showing up at Joe "Robbie" Robertson's house, asking to speak with him privately.  Jonah, who has bruises on his face and the knuckles of his right hand, had fired Robertson from The Daily Bugle, causing an uproar from his staff and finally catching Spider-Man's ire.  Getting into an argument with another long-time employee, Betty Brant, over the firing, Jonah is stopped in his tracks by a web-strewn ultimatum left in his office by the webslinger, telling him to meet with him privately that evening at abandoned gym so they can talk.

When they finally meet face-to-face, a verbal duel ensues, where each tries to get the other to come clean about why they've come to this point.  Peter tries to get Jonah to re-hire Robbie; Jonah refuses, then makes a counter-offer to either drop his fraud lawsuit against Peter or re-hire Robbie; Peter, knowing Jonah won't keep Robbie unemployed, tells Jonah to drop the lawsuit, prompting a look of surprise from Jonah, who then calls Peter selfish.  Peter then makes the point that Jonah fired Robbie specifically to provoke this confrontation, and then offers to let Jonah hit him, as many times as he wants.

Shocked, Jonah at first won't rise to the bait, but after some goading by Peter, who threatens to tell everyone what a coward he is, Jonah lets loose furiously on Peter, who has unmasked by this point and set his camera up to take pictures of the whole thing.  After Jonah's hand is bloodied and he's exhausted from the effort, Peter gives him one final gift: the film for the whole incident.  He says his goodbyes and leaves an uncertain Jonah at the gym with the film, calling in vain to Peter to talk about this.

The next day at The Bugle, Jonah destroys the film, then walks into a door as Betty Brant comes out of the women's restroom.  We then flash back to the present, where Jonah, injuries and all, has explained all this to Robbie, and lets him know that he did use Robbie to provoke a face-to-face meeting with Peter, and that he will be hiring Robbie back to work for him.  In a final bit of humor, Jonah reaches for more wine and finds it gone, lifted and replaced with a note by Spider-Man, a final slap in the face from the webslinger.

This story occurs during the Back In Black saga, where Spidey has donned the black suit to advertise to the bad guys of the world that he's in a dark place right now.  His wife MJ is in hiding, and his Aunt May has been felled by an assassin's bullet that was meant for him due to his publicly unmasking during the Civil War.  He's a fugitive from the law, and he's got nothing left to lose, he feels.  It's an amazing way to end this series of stories, and if I'm not mistaken, it's a nice resolution to this particular relationship before the tragedy that is One More Day begins.

Amusingly enough, I was looking for the term "bop 'em
bag" for a recent post. I should have checked this issue.
J. Jonah Jameson has long been one of my favorite Spider-Man nemeses, possibly my all-time favorite, simply because of the dual nature of his relationship to Peter Parker.  This issue brought the realization of that duality front and center, and the payoff is nothing short of spectacular.  Jonah's resentment and rage, Peter's insistence on being thanked and steadfast intent to get Robbie re-hired, even as he tries to punish himself for all the bad things that have happened to his loved ones due to the fallout of his decision to unmask --all of these things are touched upon, and Peter David uses the close nature of their relationship to really push Jonah's buttons near the end of the confrontation.  When he finally slugs Peter, you really can feel the years of frustration and anger pouring out from him as he lays into the man he's both loved and hated for so long.  It really does seem to drive home the idea that, in the end, it's only the people close to you who can truly hurt you.

Artistically, I have plenty of good things to say about Nauck's pencils.  There's more focus on Spidey's supporting cast in this issue, and they all look good: both Jonah's comical gruffness and his righteous anger are well-rendered and in character.  Robbie and his family look good as they quietly seethe over Jonah's presence, and Betty Brant looks like Betty Brant: strong, sexy, and brave in the face of Jonah's warpath.  The little we actually see of Peter (as opposed to Spider-Man) is also spot-on.  There are occasional issues I have with some facial expressions not fitting the moment in which they're drawn, but these things are few and far between.

Overall, I have nothing but good things to say about this issue.  It's a wonderful story that serves as an example of what could have been if they hadn't rebooted Peter Parker's life with One More Day / Brand New Day.  The art is good, the pacing and character development is wonderful, and this is simply one of those big moments that any true Spider-Man fan has to have in his collection.  Highly recommended.

Sunday, March 18, 2012

GN Review -- Any Empire / Nate Powell

I've read other reviews of Nate Powell's Any Empire, where the reviewers are more familiar with his work, and likely a lot more adept than I am at teasing out thematic significance from his stories.  It was a necessary undertaking for this review, as I was left confused by several parts of the story, and found myself wondering how much of this realistically told story was based in actual fact.  As it turns out, there's more realism to this story, particularly towards the end, than a casual comics reader might suspect.

At the beginning of Any Empire, we see several plot threads revolving around three characters, starting with young Lee being uprooted from yet another community due to his father's military career.  He escapes by reading G.I. Joe comics and imagining the trappings of war as part of his life.  Purdy, one of the first boys he encounters in the story, is a little unbalanced, his own father also a military man, and leads a gang of boys around town.  It is later discovered in the story that these boys are mutilating turtles, which the final character, Sarah, finds and, with a little assistance from Lee, figures out who's doing it and promises to punish the boys for their cruelty.  As they grow into young adults, their lives drifting apart and then reconnecting, they come face to face with the violence that has influenced and shaped their lives, as a military exercise in their hometown has unforeseen consequences for the former neighbors.

With all that said, there's a ton going on in this story that I'm not touching on.  Powell tells a riveting tale, at times with a vague, almost detached quiet, that emphasizes the loneliness and isolation that these characters experience.  We have a boy whose escape into comics is so pronounced that he gets upset when his latest moving experience promises to put him near a comic shop that is more DC-friendly than Marvel-friendly.  Sarah is mostly alone in her hunt for the turtle assailants, pressed on by a sense of compassion and justice that simply won't let her rest until she figures out who's doing it.

The story also places a strong emphasis on violence, and how it can affect people over a long time.  Lee isn't particularly violent, but his occasional military daydream and his obvious resentment at having to change communities so often sow potential seeds for it.  Purdy, on the other hand, leads a gang of boys in the mutilation of turtles, and acts out much more aggressively with his violent, military-inspired fantasies than the comparatively low-key Lee.  He acts violently toward Lee for reasons unspoken, and he steals from others and makes aggressive attempts to control all situations.  Even Sarah, in her pursuit of justice, lets a violent tendency overtake her when she balefully questions her brother's involvement in Purdy's turtle activities.

The ending, involving Purdy turning on his miltary unit when they roll into their hometown on some kind of military exercise, redeems Purdy somewhat, but reconnects him with his past, which has undoubtedly influenced where he ends up at the end of the narrative.  Lee and Sarah are astounded that the military would take part in such an activity on civilian land, giving her a perverse glee at the end of the story when the soldiers find her evidence of the turtle killers.

I came away with a sense of having missed a lot of the point of the story.  I think the non-chronological telling contributed to this, but I'm also pretty sure there's just a lot about the author's experiences that inform this comic that I'm just not familiar with.  All in all, the writing is not bad, but I'll probably need to re-read this to get a fuller sense of fulfillment from it.

Artistically, Powell does an excellent job of conveying emotion and tone through facial expression, scene composition, and action.  I did find myself getting a little confused by some of the characters--for instance, I thought for a while that Purdy was Sarah's brother before finally realizing that he was a different character--and would have appreciated a little more distinction there.  Still, there's no denying that the artwork is striking and beautiful in places, and it will help keep the reader moving through the narrative.

Overall, this is an interesting story with good artwork.  I feel like I may need to re-read it at some point to get more meaning from it, but what I did manage to glean was intriguing.  Those who like realistic fiction and stories about the influence of military and violence on people's lives should give this a read.  Recommended.

Saturday, March 17, 2012

GN Review -- Wolverine & Black Cat: Claws / Joe Linsner, Jimmy Palmiotti and Justin Gray

Beware, weekend redneck game hunters with more money than brains: if Kraven the Hunter offers to set you up with the opportunity to hunt Wolverine and Black Cat on a deserted island, chances are that something is not on the level.  You're very likely caught in a snare by the insane villain Arcade in some permutation of his Murderworld assassination parks.  If by some miracle you manage to survive that encounter, please don't expect a refund of your money, a ride back to civilization, or even the means to call for help.  You've clearly given up your rights to those thing by buying into this endeavor in the first place.

At least, that's the level of contempt I feel for the creation that has been given the title Wolverine & The Black Cat: Claws.

I won't say this was a difficult read, and I won't say it wasn't fun in a very few places, but this installment of lore between these two Marvel characters left an overall bad taste in my mouth.  So many poorly handled plot elements and visual decisions combined to give me an overall distasteful impression of a story that featured two heroes I actually really like.  I'd say it takes a lot to do that, but really, if you're willing to take any weakly plotted story, slap the poorly rendered skins and labels of a property on it, and call it riveting, creative, must-read material, then Linsner, Palmiotti and Gray really passed with flying colors and made it look effortless.

After a brief establishment of who these two are by interactions with their teammates or occasional allies, they are quickly captured and spirited away to an island, where they are hunted by the aforementioned mouth breathers from earlier.  Despite the many various booby traps and enhanced weapons of their assassins, the due of course prove too much for the amateurs hunting them, and once the fake Kraven is taken out of the picture, Wolverine quickly deduces who the real culprit is: Arcade, an amusement park-themed madman who's menaced the X-Men and other heroes on multiple occasions.

Before Wolverine and Black Cat mount a serious counterattack against him, they spend a good deal of time bickering and insulting one another as they try to escape, giving Arcade plenty of time to take his paramour, the White Rabbit, and flee with little risk.  They eventually catch up to them, capture them, and after regaling them with the story of how they got off Arcade's island, leave them in the Savage Land as payback for what he did to them.  Wolverine and Black Cat then go out on a date at a fancy restaurant, while Arcade pays for the fact that he called White Rabbit stupid as he slowly roasts over a spit, courtesy of the natives.

I think my biggest problem with this story--and there are many of those--is how Felicia and Logan are portrayed.  Simply put, Felicia's nowhere near as friendly as she normally is.  Don't get me wrong, she'll never win any awards for welcoming committee, but her witty banter has always had a limit on the cutting remarks.  She's always been fun, flirty, and a bit of a tease.  Here, the fun is basically taken out of her, she uses far too many mean-spirited insults, and her flirting comes off as far too superior.

Logan, on the other hand, is written like a teenage boy who hasn't yet learned how to properly communicate with others.  He's much worse at handling Black Cat's jibes than his age and experience would normally suggest (as well as how he normally handles similar situations), and instead of riposte any of her subtle gotcha flirtations, he simply grumps and stomps off like a petulant boy.  It's hard for me to escape the fact that Wolverine, much like Spider-Man--the two men who mainly interact with her--are simply juvenile, drooling morons who are clumsily and hopelessly obsessed with hitting on Felicia, and she's all too aware and high-handed about it.

I suppose all the zingers and insults between Logan and Felicia were the writers' attempt at romantically witty banter.  The truth is, it got really old, really fast.

Don't get me started on Kraven.  Or how easily Wolverine and Black Cat got taken.  Or what point White Rabbit served in the narrative.  Or why there had to be a flashback so Logan and Felicia could tell them how they escaped.  Just suffice it to say that there's plenty more about this story that I could have picked apart.

I'm not too impressed by the artwork, either.  Wolverine is drawn too thick, he has no nose, and basically looks like a hunchback.  Felicia's costume--where the hell did that come from?  The mask and cat ears in particular offend me, as she's never been particularly obsessed with looking like a cat to this extent.  I can understand wanting to take a more practical approach to her costume, but to simply slip it all in with no buildup or explanation really toys with the classic look of the heroine, which I found a bit insulting.

Overall, I can't really claim to have enjoyed this piece.  It had all the characters I liked--even Arcade and White Rabbit could have been intriguing--but it all felt to trite, too contrived, and simply lacking in interesting story elements.  While there's an occasional chuckle to be gleaned from the dialog, neither the overall story nor the art satisfy me.  Not recommended.

Friday, March 16, 2012

Comic Review -- Avengers X-Sanction #3: Noon / Jeph Loeb, Ed McGuinness, Dexter Vines, and Morry Hollowell

Alright, so I've got the all-red variant cover for this one, which doesn't look too bad, given the content of the issue, but I do have some issues here.  First of all, the all red feels like a lazy cop-out.  I can understand altering some of the tones to give the cover a different look, but really?  One-tone red, for 99% of the shot?  Give me a break.

I'll save my commentary for how he's fighting Red Hulk for my analysis below.

Cable has taken down Falcon, Captain America, and Iron Man, all because he's convinced the Avengers are directly responsible for the inability of his adopted daughter Hope Summers to save the world at the dramatically appropriate time it needs saving.  This has had a serious effect on his timeline and future, so he travels back in time, with tech from his time, to take on Earth's greatest heroes.  He's dying as the techno-virus overtakes and destroys his body, and he's fought alongside the Avengers innumerable times, but neither of these things will stop him from destroying them so that his daughter may live.

But things have hit a serious snag.  Red Hulk has shown up, and he's no pushover.  With the help of Blaquesmith, whose version of the future is what brought him back to assassinate the Avengers, a final psi-blast, and one seriously weird power stunt to take him down.  Cyclops and Hope show up, brought by Blaquesmith, but before they can contain the situation, two more Avengers show up, who will presumably feature in next month's final fight: Spider-Man and Wolverine.

To say I'm feeling let down by this story at this point is something of an understatement.  First of all, there's very little action going on in this chapter--which actually makes sense, as any kind of sustained fight with Red Hulk would surely end in Cable's destruction or death.  Instead, we see more flashbacks of what led us here, and how Cable got some of the tech that's allowed him to beat and capture some of the most premier heroes of the day.  When Red Hulk finally gets Cable in position to grapple and crush him into submission, readers get the most surprising and ridiculous display of power yet...!

Cable PORCUPINES a bunch of metallic spines out of himself and THROUGH Red Hulk's steel-like hide and body, apparently infecting him with the techno-virus!

Now, I'll admit, I've not read many of Cable's recent exploits.  It's perfectly possible that he's developed this power over time, even if it doesn't seem like something that would match his power set by anything I have read.  But the idea that this situation--you know, the one in which he's on his last legs, and being consumed by his own illness--and his love for Hope alone is what triggers this "unthinkable" turnabout in the tussle, just comes off as contrived and downright ridiculous.  I also think the paucity of action scenes between Cable and Red Hulk was a major cop-out.  At this point I really would have preferred to watch Red Hulk just pound on Cable until he shattered, bent, or broke.

I can't find much more to comment about with the art that I haven't already said.  Cable and Red Hulk look big and impressive enough in the few action scenes where they're actually fighting each other, but I was underwhelmed by the appearances of Scott and Hope, visually.  I don't know why exactly, but Hope in particular looked a little too wide-eyed and cartoony in her appearances.  Maybe that's simply emphasizing her youth, but it just didn't work for me.  And Scott just looked wooden and flat.  Oh, wait, never mind, McGuinness nailed him perfectly!  Even Spidey and Wolverine seemed a bit off in their one appearance.  Not a great setup for your final smackdown.

Overall, I'm really starting to get pissed at this story.  Unless something fan-frickin'-tastic turns things around in the last issue, I'm going to see this as simply a puerile, pointless piece of fluff fiction that's not even passable as a setup for the next story arc.  I don't want to have to say that about Jeph Loeb's story, and I'm willing to acknowledge again that this might not all be his fault, but this entire experience has been nothing short of disappointing, thus far.  NOT recommended.

Thursday, March 15, 2012

GN Review -- Amelia Rules! The Tweenage Guide to Not Being Unpopular / Jimmy Gownley

I remember uncertainty being a huge part of my life when I was approaching the years leading into middle school.  Life tends to be that way, often juxtaposing what we'd like to have or be with the reality that we're almost always a far cry from attaining it.  When you factor in the additional realization that you're far from adulthood, and therefore even less in control of things than they are, that uncertainty can be a daunting thing indeed.  It translates into a quest for the ever-elusive thing called popularity in this chapter of Jimmy Gownley's Amelia Rules! series, The Tweenage Guide to Not Being Unpopular.

Beginning with a scene in which Amelia and her friend Rhonda are on the run, wearing space suits and caught up in a tree by an angry mob of their classmates, the story tells of Amelia and her group of friends' various and frequent attempts to navigate the uncertainties and fleeting nature of image and popularity at their elementary school.  In trying to simply stay off the radar and not become unpopular, however, a series of makeovers, tryouts, and various social triumphs and faux pas raise many questions about the importance of popularity.  Some of these exploits are referred to in The Tweenage Guide to Not Being Unpopular, a fictitious book Rhonda reads and distributes to Amelia in the hopes of keeping their heads above water, socially.  Readers will encounter snooty cheerleaders, judgmental principals, and some all too memorable social outcasts of all stripes, whether they knew them or were them.

In typically amusing and poignant fashion, Jimmy Gownley has crafted an enjoyable about a girl who is, at the end of the day, simply trying to figure out life since her parents' divorce and her subsequent relocation to small-town Pennsylvania from city life in Manhattan.  She's a charming, tomboyish, almost unbelievably witty character, with hopes, dreams, flaws and fears that make her very relatable to younger readers.  Her directness and smart-aleck nature make her an alternately enduring and hard-to-take girl whose appeal will be undeniable to her readers.

Her friends and supporting cast are an amusing and likable collection of pals, each with their own quirks and memorable personalities, who enhance and complicate Amelia's life in various ways.  Her Aunt Tanner is a former rock and roll star, whose youth and rebelliousness belie her wisdom and make her a close confidante for Amelia.  Reggie is your typical boy at that age, likable and well-meaning, but a little oblivious and often given to flights of fancy (particularly if they involve superhero costumes).  These and other well written characters will amuse and delight readers as they wend their way through a plot that will cause laugh out loud moments as well as points of genuine emotion, even if it doesn't exactly flow chronologically.

Gownley's art style is simple and cartoonish, but thoroughly pleasant to behold.  His line work is clean, and he uses the expressive possibilities of his style to their full extent, which, combined with his witty scripting and plotting, makes for some memorable visuals.  He can jump from playful to serious in a single panel, with just a few simple alterations of his line work, and make it look easy.  This kind of versatility is just one of several factors that makes these stories so enjoyable, and undoubtedly helps make this series so successful.

Overall, I think this series is thoroughly enjoyable.  The characters, anchored by a charming lead, are memorable and likeable, the plots are realistic and easy to relate too even as they amuse, and the artwork is simple and pleasing, particularly to younger readers.  Highly recommended.

Wednesday, March 14, 2012

GN Review -- Good As Lily / Derek Kirk Kim and Jesse Hamm

Many adults remember questioning their place in the world as teenagers, and many teenagers have more than a few questions about identity and where they'll end up as adults.  What are the important things in life?  Who am I, and who will I become?  What am I supposed to do with my life?  Often, the answer may present itself by thinking about the kind of person we are and have been, as well as imagining--or in the case of Good As Lily, seeing--what the future might hold for you.

Grace Kwon is a bright, charismatic young woman who's just turned 18. She's been accepted into Stanford, and has a group of friends that adore her and whom she adores.  She seems to have it all, but being on the precipice of college life and adulthood poses a lot of uncertainties for her.  She has a crush on her young drama teacher, which the students all seem to know about, is apprehensive about what direction to take with all her talent and determination, and has a number of issues with the various people in her life.

Things take a turn for the fantastic when she, upon retrieving a t-shirt her friend Jeremy's had gifted to her back at the park where they celebrated, encounters three strange versions of herself at different ages: age 6, 29, and 70.  Freaked out by what they represent on several levels, Grace hides her various selves in her room and tries hard to wish them away.  They interact with her at several points, affecting her life and relationships with others in various ways for the better, worse, and at times just plain chaotic.  As she gradually resolves various issues with her family and her own perceptions of her self-worth, they gradually disappear, their insights and help having taught her a few things about life and giving her a better sense of direction as she realizes what's important to her.

This is an uplifting and well written story about making choices in life and living with the consequences, whatever they might be.  Grace, a charming and likeable young Korean woman who seems to have everything going for her, is not without her own issues, insecurities, and personal nemeses, be they an inferiority complex about being made fun of as a child, the feeling of being forever second to a dead sister in the eyes of her parents, an unrequited and idealized crush on a man she can never have, or the inability to see her friend Jeremy's long-standing attraction for her.  Her various selves represent choices made about those issues, as well as the baggage she has as she considers her own future.

Her youngest self represents her at her most awkward.  She is a greedy little eater, and fat, and was made fun of by her classmates, some of whom still choose to bully her in high school.  Her adult self is self-absorbed and shallow, and tries to use her good looks and charm to seduce the man she couldn't have as a teenage student.  Her elderly self is a bitter woman who lived a life of solitude, and now has nothing but cigarettes and liquor to look forward to as a result.  Realizing how blind she had been in her younger years to the attentions of others helps the main character to overcome that obstacle, perhaps changing her own future.

The characters are memorable, and play majorly into how these issues are resolved, making for amusing, dramatic, and often poignant situations.  Little Grace's resolution causes a bake sale to go awry in the worst possible way, but Teen Grace's talk with her family about Lily sets both of their issues at ease in a heartwarming way.  Elder Grace at one point attempts to commit suicide, but is saved by a frantic and eloquent Jeremy, who helps her to realize both how blind she'd been to him and that life's little miracles make it worth continuing.

I enjoyed Hamm's artwork, which didn't really focus on presenting detail as much as conveying expression and mood.  It makes for a style that is simple, well rendered, and which serves the story extremely well.  Hamm fills the conveyance of a gesture or a simple facial expression or twitch with meaning, and keeps you reading for the visuals every bit as much as for the enjoyable and well-told story.

My one fair-sized issue with this tale is the title, which revolves around a sister of Grace's who died at age 8, suddenly from meningitis.  The issues with Lily, while perhaps large, are given little direct attention, which is some cause for confusion.  There's just enough given so that you know that it's an issue, but a more in-depth exploration of that plot thread might have enhanced the work.

Overall, I find this to be a very good story, and a definite must-read for anyone who's ever had questions about identity, what's important in life, and who they want to become.  Grace and her various selves make the journey both highly entertaining and more than a little educational.  The artwork is expressive and well-done, and the supporting cast help make the story memorable.  Highly recommended.

Tuesday, March 13, 2012

Comic Review -- Manhattan Projects #1: Infinite Oppenheimers / Jonathan Hickman and Nick Pitarra

In many ways, the Manhattan Project represented a very surreal time, where America worked to maintain its dominance by making sure it was able to build the weapon of the day's nightmares, the atomic bomb.  The results and fallout of that undertaking (pun partially intended) make it easy to suppose that WMDs weren't the only sinister thing the U.S. could have been working on, and that a whole gamut of mind-bending and potentially horrifying endeavors were underway.  No evidence has ever truly suggested this, but it's easy to imagine the Manhattan Project creating this image for others to speculate on.

It is this scenario upon which writer Jonathan Hickman and illustrator Nick Pitarra base their story, Manhattan Projects.  Set in a parallel world in which reality bending and artificial intelligence are scientific possibilities with potentially immediate real-world applications, Manhattan Projects tells the story of Robert Oppenheimer's initiation into the Manhattan Projects under General Leslie Groves.  Between his joining the project and his observations of some of the fantastic projects it has underway, we see snippets of his life, told parallel to the development of his supposed twin brother, Joseph, who turns out to be a psychotic, Jeffrey Dahmer-like killer.

No sooner than he agrees to join do things almost immediately go haywire, with an assault upon the project headquarters by the Japanese--through use of an energy gate and a platoon of robotic Kamikaze Killing Machines, intent on decimating their scientists and taking out their intellectual capital.  After helping Groves and the other soldiers defend the base, we find that Oppenheimer has tricked the world into believing he is someone he's not, and the horrifying ramifications of that reveal set the tone for what is to come afterwards.

The concept behind the plot is very creative, and leaves a lot of room for layers upon layers of stories.  I'll give Hickman credit for taking a time and place that making it just different enough from our own world and history that we know it's a kind of science fiction, but infusing it with enough realism that we're not simply taking it for granted.  The outlandish technologies and scenarios encountered in this issue call for an almost Doctor Who-like suspension of disbelief, while other fictitious elements are easier to swallow.  Oppenheimer, for example, never had a twin brother, even though his younger brother Frank was a real part of his life.

The artwork is a good thematic fit for the series.  Nick Pitarra draws in a gritty, thin style that excels in the depiction of up-close moments: big, wide eyes, open mouths, and so forth.  His characters are expressive, and while I find some of the facial gestures to be odd, he does a good job with body types and postures--Oppenheimer, for example, is wire-thin and at times downright gawky while Groves is broad-shouldered, muscular, and a typical cigar-smoking alpha male specimen you'd expect to see in a general's uniform.  There are also plenty of excellent action shots, replete with flying bullets, robotic killer samurai, and falling bodies on both sides.  All in all, it's a bit strange, but again, does wonders for the storytelling at hand.

My biggest issue with this issue is the production, namely, the cover.  I have a pretty light hand when reading comics, and I've gotten a whole lot of smudging on the front and back of this thing, including the title and insignia without even realizing it.  What gives?  I like keeping my comics in good shape, but this issue doesn't even give you a fair shot at doing so!  You'd need to put the thing directly into a bag and board, without reading it, and hope you get a digital version soon so you know what's going on.  Not cool, Image!

Overall, this is an interesting and more than slightly disturbing start to a potentially very interesting series.  I'll be interested to see where it goes.  Fans of alternate histories, science fiction, and possibly the horror genre will want to give this series a look.  Beware the aforementioned cover issues, though, if you're a stickler for collectibility.  With an imaginative and potentially terrifying take on this period of history, and riveting artwork, Manhattan Projects is definitely worth a read.  Highly recommended.