Monday, January 31, 2011

The Week of January 26 in Review

Fear Itself, Flashpoint, Age of X, War of the Green Lanterns, all the big events have been announced and are still being rolled out or whatever. So far from what I have read and heard Age of X should be a solid event. It is very focused and basically contained with eight books over three months. It has the advantage of being the only one that actually has an issue out and that I have read and enjoyed. Otherwise I will be sucked into reading the main book of these events, but I will avoid most of the ancillary stuff as it just becomes too much and is usually boring. I avoided almost every side book with Shadowland and read Incredible Hulks without bothering with Chaos War and it worked out fine. I just wish the companies would focus on quality series Amazing Spider-Man and Detective are two really entertaining books right now just on their own merits. We don’t need events, we need solid stories.

Fantastic Four #587 – Writer Jonathan Hickman, Pencils Steve Epting, Inks Magyar, Perkins and Epting

What I Liked – Matthew did a full blown review already, so I will just add that the “death” felt totally like a comic book death where the hero will eventually come back, but the emotional impact and heroic moment came through loud and clear. The Torch went out in a blaze of glory, leaving empty hearts behind. The bottom line is the FF is back on my list and Hickman is starting to hit a groove with this book.

What I Didn’t Like – The book has way too many moving parts and some plotlines I don’t care about. I worry that Hickman too often writes for the last page of a story and that makes the rest of the story all buildup.

Age of X- Alpha – Writer Mike Carey – Artist – Various

What I Liked – We are dropped right into the deep end of this story with limited explanation of how we got here and the back stories of Basilisk (Cyclops), Cannonball & Husk, Wolverine and Magneto set the stage for what is too come. It should be a fun alternative reality story and it is only six chapters and done in three months, an event I can get behind.

What I Didn’t Like – Some weak art in certain segments.

Spawn #201 – Writers Will Carlton and Todd McFarlane, Art – Szymon Kudranski

First off, why am I reading Spawn? Rusty from my comic store told me to read it.

What I Liked – The story and the art work. I have never cared about this series, but the main character is now Jim Downing and he is the new Spawn. The premise is he has no clue about his background and apparently has some healing powers. We are dropped in to him doing some sort of Oprah type of show and learning some of his recent background at the same time. The book has a great dark vibe to it with some great stylistic art setting the mood and tone of the book.

What I Didn’t Like – It is Spawn, but hey I’m back next issue. The writer was very text heavy, but was portraying a talk show for half the book, but still needs to lighten up on dialogue, some panels could barely get any art in them.

Detective Comics #873 – Writer - Scott Snyder, Art – Jock

What I Liked – The pace of the story was great. I love how the book moves with the grace of a trapeze artist. In fact the touches of Dick remembering what his parents taught him as he was escaping the Black Mirror were perfect. The part where he woke up to find his legs missing was another great touch and his realizing it was a nightmare was also well done. I loved Batman flying after the bad guy in a jet pack it balances the keeping of Batman as a real character with the fantastic in perfect harmony.

What I Didn’t Like – The bad guy turning into Venon / Manbat. It was too over the top of an ending for me. I was fine with the old guy being just the malevolent human he was, his being super powered was almost against type. Also this book is the only one I miss the backup feature on. I know we get to see the rest of the story, but this book was working great with the backup.

Side Note: I have heard some people complain that Dick is being portrayed as too much of a novice, forgetting all the years he was a successful crime fighter on his own. I think Daniels has gone too far, but I think Scott is doing a good job showing Dick is settling into the role of Detective and in that area he is still learning, but ultimately he still beats the bad guy. Detective is easily my favorite bat book and one of my favorite series, period.

Scalped #45 – Writer Jason Aaron, Art RM Guera

What I Liked – The beginning of a new arc and there are always a new twist or turn. This issue we see Red Crow’s position of tribal chieftain is an elected office and he is being challenged by his old mentor. At the same time Dash is being brought in as Red Crow is grooming him to take over his business. The tensions are mounting all over the place and you know that violence and bloodshed are going to erupt. This series is back on track again as one of the best series on the stands.

What I Didn’t Like – Nada

JSA #47 – Writer Marc Guggenheim, Art Scott Kolins

What I Liked – This is a really good story and I constantly want to know what happens next. We have a fair number of moving parts but Marc is keeping the story straight and all the plates are spinning. Dr. Chaos is the main bad guy is at once hokey and menacing at the same time. A fine line to walk, but Marc is doing it. Mr. Terrific appears to have betrayed his teammates to try and find some cure for his loss of intelligence and how that plays out looks to be a good plotline.

What I Didn’t Like – The “Fraction captions” as we get a caption box introducing everybody with snappy phrases, it comes across as stupid. I’m also still having issues with the art, I get the feeling it is all generated with computer tools and it is still not working for me yet.

Uncanny X-Force #4 – Writer Rick Remender, Art Jerome Opena

What I Liked – The art, the story, the action, the ending. It was a terrific opening story arc and the ending was the icing on the cake. All the heroes are debating whether to kill the child who will probably become Apocalypse. As the heroes are arguing or being too heroic, Fantomex shoots him in the head and bang the kid is dead. It just worked so well on this book. Opena’s art continues to astound as his realistic but gritty style just suits this book to a “T” and a round of applause for color artist Dean White in making a great art job even better.

What I Didn’t Like – It got a little wonky with Fantomex’s illusions power, but not a big deal at all.

New Avengers #8 – Writer – Brian Bendis, Art Daniel Acuna

What I Liked – Luke Cage and Jessica Jones are the heart and soul of this group. This issue was almost a super hero sit-com as Luke and Jessica debated her coming onto the team and back to being a super hero.

What I Didn’t Like – Acuna’s art is uneven and feels over processed (if that makes any sense). The $4 price tag, especially when the extra is some crap oral history of the Avengers. Squirrel Girl was not in the book.

American Vampire #11 – Writer Scott Snyder, Art Mateus Santolouco

What I Liked – In a two issue arc that felt like it was done to gave the regular artist extra time, it read like it was always meant to be the next story arc. Plus I love Pearl so much that I’m glad to see she got some solo spotlight intention. It was also a nice set up that Hattie was months behind Pearl. Heck this storyline is so good I could just follow a book about Pearl and Hattie. The art work was also well done. Mateus is maintaining the look and feel of the book while making each page his own.

What I Didn’t Like – Zilch

That is a wrap for this week. This week I didn’t type up anything until after I had read everything. Inevitably that causes me to write less then I would want to, as I usually have an opinion about every book. This week was terrific as we got issues of Detective, Scalped and American Vampire. All three are already setting the bar for top series of 2011.

Sunday, January 30, 2011

Madame Xanadu, alas

The parade of the late lamented continues this week with a viewing of Madame Xanadu, Vertigo’s wonderful series penned by Matt Wagner and predominantly drawn by Amy Reeder Hadley. Like Image’s Astounding Wolf-Man, this one met its end in an untimely fashion. Unlike Wolf-Man, I have low hopes of future appearances that I’ll want to read. Madame Xanadu not being creator owned, who knows who will end up writing the character next.

Not surprisingly, my foray with this book was not based on any love of the character. In fact, I don’t think I read a single story with Madame Xanadu until this series. Beautiful as her work is, Reeder wasn’t the draw, either. Matt Wagner was the sole reason I took a flier on this, and it was well worth the coin.

Obviously, not enough people felt the same way. Here’s what you missed.

In the first ten issues Wagner established the character, taking her from Camelot days when she was involved in a calculated, intimate affair with Merlin, and was known at that time by her given name of Nimue, through 1930s NYC when she was engaged in a more affectionate affair with Zatara. There were five stops in this journey, each getting two issues. In truth, the entire series could have ended at the 10th and been one of the most satisfying reads I’ve had. Wagner succinctly told the five stories and brought out the character’s development over the centuries brilliantly.

Nimue, despite the calculated nature of her relationship with Merlin, was something of a naïf during the Camelot days. She didn’t see the inevitable conflict coming between her sister, Morganna aka Morgaine le Fay, and Merlin. The third sister, Vivienne aka the Lady of the Lake, remains a mostly neutral figure in the conflict. Nimue also didn’t forsee Merlin’s betrayal that ended in her losing her longevity that was natural to her species, homo magi, causing her to use tinctures to prolong her life and her youthful appearance.

Her next stop is in the court of Kublai Khan, where she’s a seer to the Khan. Here she plays a part in preventing a plot by courtiers to discredit the Polo family expedition to the court. The plot is defeated but not without cost. The Khan’s favorite consort is raped by the thugs, resulting in her banishment due to no longer being fit for the Khan’s attentions.

The waning days of Louis XVI are when she’s next seen. Although she befriends Marie Antoinette, the doomed queen causes significant difficulties for Nimue when she denounces her presence in the queen’s jail cell. Nimue is unable to obtain her draught she needs to preserve her life and vitality. Death shows up to take her, but instead reaches a deal that, like Hob Gadling in The Sandman, Death won’t take her until she is ready to go. As expected, there’s nary a finer depiction of Death than Reeder’s work here.

Our next highlight of history is Victorian London, where Jack the Ripper is slicing his way through the slums of White Chapel. The Jack in this tale ends up being some unknown who falls down a manhole and is attacked by rats, presumably to his end. Nimue has to come to terms with how her own actions may have lead to the deaths of more prostitutes.

Finally, in 1930s NYC, she reaches the momentary end of what’s gone through the four previous stories – her dispute with the Phantom Stranger. Nimue cannot abide the Stranger’s foreknowledge of events comingled with his inactivity in preventing outcomes she deems ill. She has some affection for him initially because he warned her of Camelot’s impending doom, but his presence in the courts of the Khan and Louis XVI did not prevent ill outcomes for people she didn’t think were deserving of such outcomes. This was only exacerbated with Jack the Ripper, and made worse by her own feelings of guilt when the Stranger tells her that her attempts to save prostitutes only prolonged Jack’s spree, which had to result in the death of one particular prostitute for history to progress in the preferred direction.

By the 1930s Nimue has devised a plan to capture the Stranger, which she does. They then have a long discussion in another dimension, leading to her realization that the issue is her, not the Stranger. She can also foresee the future, but without the clarity of the Stranger. The Stranger, largely removed from human emotion as he is, is actually allowing himself to be captured by her so that he can seek to recruit her to join in the age of heroes, as Zatara will do. She does not, and her relationship with Zatara comes to an end.

The next arc is five issues and penciled by Michael Wm. Kaluta to beautiful effect. In this line Wagner tells a very Sandman Mystery Theatre story, fittingly enough because Dian Belmont and Wesley Dodds play roles. This is also set in 1930s NYC and involves the spontaneous combustion of two men who emmigrated many years previously, attained some status in their chosen professions and each had a daughter. Each had a wife who either died young or ran away while the daughter was young, so each of these women is much like Dian Belmont, a young woman living with her single father.

Wagner also flashes back to Inquisition era Spain and the terror of Torquemada. During that time Nimue was trying to live under the radar, but made the mistake of not attending church and having a lesbian relationship with a beautiful young red head. The lust of Torquemada for the read head helped lead to the eventual condemnation of the pair as witches. Nimue was away when the troops came for them, so only the red head was captured and tortured. She’s to be burned at the stake and Nimue is present, having returned home and realized what happened (with the help of a condemning neighbor who’s not into the sapphic), but is too late to save her love. The executioner breaks the woman’s neck, as an empathetic gesture to ease her pain, before setting her on fire.

This ties into the main tale with the Sandman in that the two men who die and a third who is in danger are the heirs of three men who were conversos, Jews who ostensibly converted during the Inquisition but continued to practice their faith in secret. These three were caught with their families performing Sabbath services. Upon threat of tortured death to their loved ones, the three became informers on other conversos, both Jewish and Muslim. One of the Muslim’s turned in had an uncle who was a wizard. He summons a demon to pursue the betrayers through all time until they and all their descendants are eliminated. The original three flee through Europe, continually moving on when the demon arrives behind them, as do their descendants, until the three men emigrate to NYC. Nimue, Dian and the Sandman defeat the demon, saving the one remaining émigré and the two daughters of the deceased émigrés.

As with Reeder, Kaluta’s work is beautiful, especially the interior art. In fact, my one complaint is the cover art. Nimue looks downright anorexic, especially on the cover of issue 14. On the other hand, I really like the use of the Tarot cards on the covers of these five issues. Kaluta provides much detail on each cover, fully using the space to its best effect (except for the emaciation).

Issues 16-23 take on a long arc and feature the return of Reeder to penciling duties, except for issues 19 and 20 wherein Joelle Jones is the penciller. I think that interruption was calculated and not a break for Reeder to catch up. Here’s why. The story, in 16-18, is about a stereotypical woman of 1957 NYC. She’s married, has one teen daughter, and spends her days idly shopping or hanging out with friends when she’s not doing the expected domestic duties of the era, including appointment sex with her husband 3 days a week. It’s as dull as dull can get. Over the course of a week or so she starts undergoing unfathomable changes. At first her skirt blows upward of its own accord. Then her hair does the same. Then she starts floating. She’s trying to hide all this from her family while trying to find a doctor to figure out what’s going on. The symptoms aren’t consistent, though. Eventually her nails lengthen and become hard like diamonds, she becomes a brunette instead of a blonde, she becomes taller and thinner, and her boobs get larger, overwhelming her bra. She finds her way to Nimue, who’s been known as Madame Xanadu since her time in the Khan’s court, for help.

Nimue begins tracking down the origin of the woman’s problems, which leads to a group of similarly middle class blasé Satanists who are seeking 3 mystical items, with payments to mobsters to acquire them. This leads her to a partnership with a detective, John Jones. In issue 18 we learn that the client is being taken over by Nimue’s sister, Morgana, which becomes obvious when Morgana does take over. After Morgana collapses the interior of Nimue’s brownstone on her, we flash back for 2 issues into the origin of Nimue, Morgana and Vivienne’s relationship and their history from the first arrival of homo magi in Britain until Camelot (including why Nimue appeared to have cloven feet in the initial two issues). This is when Jones is the artist. I think she does an excellent job, too. The mystical, fairy elements are predominant in this back story tale. I do question its placement in the midst of the story of the return of Morgana, though. It takes the reader right out of what was going on in 1957. It works well when the issues are all read at once, but in single issues, it meant a three month gap between the stories in 1957. That’s hard to maintain.

When we do return to 1957, Jones and Nimue manage to defeat Morgana, who wants nothing more than to destroy the entire world, enraged and insane as she still is over the death of her son, Mordred, at the hands of Arthur a thousand years previously. I particularly like the use of Jones in this story. Martian Manhunter never appears in his hero guise. He’s entirely in his human detective mode, fedora and all. His ability to withstand things a human should not and his strength are befuddling to Nimue, who senses no mystic ability about him and believes he’s a human. Only when he saves her from drowning in the East River is there a hint of his otherworldly aspect, when an alien hand reaches for her to save her, but that hand is unseen by her and only felt as something not human.

In fact, throughout the book to this point I enjoyed the use of greater DCU characters. Unlike most current Vertigo books, Madame Xanadu was clearly in the DCU. I suppose that might have been an element in its demise, but I enjoyed seeing that sort of interaction, which hadn’t been used since Swamp Thing, Sandman and Sandman Mystery Theatre era Vertigo. I don’t subscribe to the idea that a Vertigo book has to be entirely within its own universe, no matter how well that works for Scalped, DMZ, or Unwritten. Both sorts of stories should be equally viable, but that requires both a readership and a publisher willing to cross those boundaries.

The final issues of the series involved a 5 issue arc of stand alone stories and a final issue that tied into the last of those 5 issues and the Morgana arc of 1957. Each of the five issues dealt with one of the five senses, thus the arc’s title, Extra-sensory.

I like the first the best. It was one dealing with sight and is narrated by a black woman who’s become an educator but is telling her own story about her life in 1963 when she was a high school graduate working as a sales clerk. She lived with her mother and younger sister and was content with helping her family get by, though her mother had greater ambition for her. She starts seeing everyday people in horribly mutilated conditions that no one else sees, including the mutilated. She eventually follows one and sees him step out in front of a bus, where he’s hit and mutilated into the form she was seeing before it happened. Even that knowledge doesn’t prevent her from having horrified reactions that cause her to lose her job. She eventually tells her mother, who takes her to a voodoo priestess. That is ineffectual, so her mother then takes her to Madame Xanadu, who tells her that she’s seeing possible futures. When the girl returns home she sees her mother and sister horribly burned. She convinces them to go stay with a relative and takes them to the bus stop. When she returns home, the apartment has caught on fire due to a smoker falling asleep with a lit cigarette. Several people have died. After this, she has no more such visions. She decides to go to college and becomes an educator.

It’s nice self contained story and features a black woman with freckles, which isn’t something you see very often in comics. To some degree I like that because my wife is a black woman with freckles, though not so pronounced. The artist for the issue was Marley Zarcone. Another aspect of authenticity I liked was the dialogue of the black characters in the story. There was dialect that reflected individual manners of speaking. The young girl spoke more proper English than her poorly educated mother, but spoke more vernacular at home and in her neighborhood than she did at her department store job where she was a token. Guys hanging out in the neighborhood employed slightly different vernacular based on the age of the speaker. None of it came across as someone trying too hard to be hip, like the old Luke Cage dialog back in the ‘70s.

In fact, that’s an important point throughout Wagner’s writing. He takes the story through many time periods and many cultures. People are always speaking English, of course, but Wagner chooses phrasing that reflects the culture of the speakers, as well as the era. The formality of the speech of the courts of Khan and Louis XVI have a different cadence than the cockney of the Jack the Ripper story. They have a different cadence from one another, actually, even though they’re both courts. Different classes and times in NYC have different speech patterns, too. It showcases a writer with a good ear for language.

The next issue addressed hearing and featured art by Laurenn McCubbin. A demon spoke in the ear of an ad exec who’s as shallow as any Mad Man. McCubbin’s art does a fine job of bringing out the plastic nature of the man’s life. I’m not as wild about her depiction of Madame Xanadu in this one, and the character is almost entirely ignored in the issue, both by its protagonist and the story itself. Not one of the stronger efforts, and a bit predictable in the end.

Smell comes along in issue 26. Chrissie Zullo does the art in a very cute manner. The story is of an early elementary age boy who wanders the city. He has limited memory and is constantly under threat of being attacked by packs of dogs. He smells terribly and sleeps in a coal cellar with no parent. He has dreams of being a space hero whose constant enemy is a space witch who tries to capture him in her black hole. (Really, I didn’t write that. The center of the space witch is a black hole. I think it supposed to be an imagery reference to the swirling that Nimue does when she disapparates, but the sexual and return to the womb allusions are hard to escape, too.) Nimue saves the boy from being torn apart by dogs and helps him to the expected ending that leads him to peace. It was a nice little tale. The smell aspect is the boy himself, who exudes a distasteful odor.

Touch was a very interesting issue. The central character is called Neon Blue and the milieu is a riff on Andy Warhol’s work shop and the shallow celebrity culture that it epitomized. Neon Blue is a model and band lead singer. She’s also an ancient succubus who is bored with her existence. She seldom feeds but in the course of this does wind up being the death of Jim Morrison, a reporter, and several other people, as well as the reason that Andy Warhol gets shot. Of course, the names are Randy Warsau, The Portals and the like instead of the actual, and the whole thing is set in 1964, which seems a bit off, chronologically. Nimue ends up killing the succubus, for which the latter is grateful. The whole Andy Warhol bit was kind of distracting, but it was also amusing, so I’m on the fence on this issue.

Finally, in this arc, we have taste. Med student Carly drops acid for the first time in 1966. An unforeseen result is that she sees the history of anything she tastes, be it food or even another person she’s kissing. This causes her to stop eating, getting so weak as to needing to take a cab to go 4 blocks to see Madame Xanadu. Turns out the acid unlocked a talent for being a seer, but she’s only seeing the history of things tasted. She ends up dropping out of school and becoming the student of Madame Xanadu. Marian Churchland’s art for this issue reminded me of a more European style. It sort of fits in for the acid trip nature of the story, as far as the surreal elements of it, but I didn’t get the feeling of despair it created in Carly.

Thus we end up in the final issue, number 29, where Carly helps Madame Xanadu see the future for Betty, the woman who was possessed by Morgana. Nimue has a block when it comes to seeing the future of members of her family so Morgana’s possession of the woman has created a block for her. Betty’s husband and daughter abandoned her after the incident with Morgana. Betty’s hair was turned white, too. She’s been working in a church to scrape by in a pitiful apartment, as she had job skills. She cleans the church, mostly because the pastor felt sorry for her. Carly is able to see that Betty will meet a man from California. The two will marry and live on his vineyard. Betty’s not terribly receptive when Nimue tries to tell her to keep an open mind and heart for this man, but the implication is that it will occur and things will turn out well for Betty.

We end with the Phantom Stranger returning to again invite Madame Xanadu to join a new age of heroes. We’re in the late ‘60s at this point, so we’re looking at the arrival of Batman, Superman and Wonder Woman in this particular telling of the DCU history. She again rejects the offer, still being somewhat peeved at the Stranger, and continues to operate her business as a seer for anyone who wishes to come to her place in Greenwich Village. Carly is her student and assistant. Reeder was the artist for this last issue, which was a fitting conclusion at least.

In all this history told, I only noticed one thing that seemed wrong, aside from the 1964 setting of the Andy Warhol story. At one point a character talks about the Yankees playing in Shea. This was in the era prior to interleague play, and I’m not even sure the Mets existed at the point the statement was made, but Shea is the stadium for the Mets, not the Yankees.

In the end it feels like a stepping off point for more stories. I wish there were more, but I don’t see it being too likely, and probably wouldn’t bother to read any if they weren’t written by Wagner. A collection of all 29 issues would be well worth the while of anyone who wants a high quality read with equally high quality art.

Saturday, January 29, 2011

Fantastic Four: Three -- A Review

Believe it or not, but I didn't peak and I read the whole arc in one sitting Wednesday night.

Even though I had nothing in my box this week, I was lured in by the black polybag first printing of FF#587, dropping by the comic store before a moderate snow (thunder) storm. As I was leaving I asked about the four composite covers spelling THREE: CASUALTY and wouldn't you know it, I ended up heading back to the register, getting the four previous issues in all their multiple-variant printing glory. It was a pretty cool idea to make them all go together like that, successfully overcoming my loathing for anything that isn't a first print.

I had glanced at a few of the issues earlier in the arc and I remember Greg's positive review about #584. However, it wasn't enough to get me back on the book, since I had dropped it several months prior, because of changing artists (before Steve Epting came on board) and the annoying Valeria. Of course, I knew someone was going to "die" this issue and personally, I was guessing it would be Sue. Still, I was intrigued and to be honest, I didn't want to be left out of "the buzz". I also really wanted to experience the story in it's purist form for the most emotional impact without the clutter of internet chatter or reviews. (Kinda like the one I'm composing right now!)


I'm going to forgo my usual detailed play-by-play of each particular issue and mainly focus on my overall impressions of the story. Boy, were there a lot of subplots going on -- maybe too many! We've got demented Doom and Valeria, dead Galactus/Reed and Nu-World, Sue and Namor with ancient Atlanteans, the human Ben Grimm, and KIDS in the Baxter Building! I think it might have been difficult to follow, if I had been reading the monthlies. There are also a ton of wordless panels, so you've really got to pay attention or it's going to read a lot quicker than it should.

Each of the first four issues ended with a very effective "Oh, WOW" moment. I especially liked it when the living Galactus showed up. And despite having seen Namor's attack on the ancient Atlantis king months ago, I was surprised when it actually came about in the context of the story. I thought Sue's invisible arm armor was really cool, especially the way she back-handed Namor.

Val was not nearly as annoying as she was in the last issues I had read. Although, I'm still having a hard time with everyone just accepting what a genius she is now. Like Ben foreshadowed, "Just 'cause you're super-smart, it don't mean you've thought of everythin'". Her deal with Doom is going to go VERY badly. She's just too confident in her intelligence (just like Peter is in ASM these days -- hasn't any one heard of humility?). Why does she seem like she's the same age as Franklin anyway?

By far the best part of the series is the Ben/Johnny relationship. It was a beautiful moment when Johnny dropped Ben off at Alicia's apartment. All this was good foundation to the Star Trek: TWOK moment at the negative zone portal. Not having read any of the Annihilation books and being unfamiliar with an annihilation wave, I suppose that didn't really resonate as much of a threat to me and needing someone "to stay behind" was cliche. Still, it was executed well, especially Ben's reaction to Johnny's sacrifice. Seeing him turn into the Thing right when it was too late was moving and Epting's art in that sequence was superb. The shot of him holding Val and Franklin in front of the closed portal made it seem like this was the real deal.

Unfortunately, that's the problem -- it's NOT the "real" deal. I mean, you know Johnny's going to be back -- issue #600 is around the corner and it's the FF's 50th anniversary this year. Yes, he was being overrun by millions of insect creatures, but he was still in one piece when we last saw him. "Billion to one shot" in a comic book is a sure thing that he'll survive (he might be a pawn of Annihilus, but he'll be back). I found the Death of Captain America to be more shocking (again I had no knowledge of what was going to happen until I read the issue).

While it may not have lived up to all the hype (an impossible task), it was a good, entertaining story and I actually want to see what's going to happen next. Putting people through the emotional wringer is a good way to bring about deeper characterization and THEY think it's the real deal. Hickman has a slew of ideas running around and he really knows where he wants to go with all this. It should be a interesting ride.

GRADE B+: Johnny Storm's sacrificial "death" was effective, if not a little cliched. Epting's art is splendid as usual and Hickman keeps the momentum of the story going with lots of "WOW" moments. However, it's the more normal scenes that really shine -- It's worth it for the Ben Grimm portions alone.

Friday, January 28, 2011

Marvel Previews Review for March 2011 Part 2 of 2

Continuing the ongoing disaster known as Marvel Previews...

Written by Dan Abnett & Andy Lanning
Penciled by Tan Eng Huat & Timothy Green II
Covers by Alex Garner & Mike Mignola
Because you -- yes,you! -- demanded it: Marvel’s all-star cosmic team – and cult faves Rocket Raccoon & Groot – in one massive mini! The Silver Surfer! Beta-Ray Bill! Gladiator! Quasar! Ronan! When the Dire Wraiths strike, Cosmic Masters DnA and Tan Eng Huat assemble the heaviest hitters in all the universe to save the day! And there’s more! Plus: the demented duo of Rocket Raccoon and Groot return for their own, new-reader-friendly adventure! What do you do after you’ve saved the galaxy? DnA and the fabulous Timothy Green II answer that with madcap SF combat and swashbuckling, space-faring mayhem! 48 PGS./ $4.99
Lee: In case you missed it, Greg wrote a nice post praising D&A here. I am not sure how they do it but they always seem to write interesting stories that are highly entertaining. I'm betting this will be good too.
Greg: I think the world is a richer place that we're getting a Rocket Raccoon and Groot storyline. I'm hoping the Annhilators lead towards bringing Nova back or something though. I miss that book. Anyway, the wild card here is going to be Tan Eng Huat. He has a really unorthodox style that sometimes looks fantastic (Ghost Rider) and sometimes not (that Thor mini he's working on). This feels like something that's up his alley, so I guess we'll find out.

Written by Frank MarrafFinoPencils by Fernando Blanco
Cover by Michael KomarckIssue One Variant Cover by Arthur Suydam
A Hunger Supreme! They were the Squadron Supreme, heroes exiled from another dimension to our own…but the twisted science of the Project Pegasus facility infected these defenders with a virulent zombie strain. Now it’s up to Jill Harper’s desperate special ops team to keep the plague contained within the facility—whatever the cost. But Harper discovers that the Squadron wasn’t the only unconscionable experiment being kept off the Pegasus records…and her shocking find may be the key to saving the human race. 32 PGS./ $3.99
Lee: Isn’t this series/concept dead yet? Is there a hero that hasn’t been zombiefied yet? Does anyone even buy these anymore?
Greg: Its appropriate that this is a series that can't be killed. I didn't think they could find a way to keep this book afloat creatively, but here we are.

Written by Roger Stern Penciled by Paul Smith, Bret Blevins & Mark Badger
Covers by Bret Blevins & Paul Smith
Collecting Dr. Strange (1974) #68-74. 168 PGS./ $24.99
Written by Roy Thomas Penciled by John Buscema, Sal Buscema, Rich Buckler, Dick Ayers, Frank Robbins & Don Heck
Covers by Jack Kirby
Collecting Invaders (1975) #5-6, Marvel Premiere #29-30, Fantastic Four Annual #11, And Marvel Two-In-One #20 And Annual #1 168 PGS./ $24.99
Lee: This is a double pick to once again point out the incomprehensible Marvel publishing pattern. First up is Dr Strange with art by Paul Smith at the absolute PEAK of his abilities. This is a great run with some amazing art. It will look great and be fun to re-read. Then we have the Liberty Legion collection which is a mish-mash of stories and art. It typifies Bronze age filler material and is a waste of the paper it is printed on. Who makes these decisions? The Dr. Strange stuff has always been well regarded because of the art, the Thing only by the completist.
Greg: Don't forget, everything has someone who loves it. Particularly in comics. That said, its nice to be getting some good Paul Smith work. He was my absolute favorite X-Men artist and I think its a crime that his career sort of fizzled after the Golden Age.

Written by Daniel Way
Penciled by Francisco Herrera, Paco Medina, Sean Galloway & Skottie Young
Cover by Sam Kieth
Collecting Venom #1-18. 424 PGS./ $34.99
Lee: Let's start with I am gettin this. I love this group of artists so it's an easy sell. But the art is not for everyone. It is highly stylized and wildly exaggerated. Excellent stuff if you can appreciate something that isn't George Perez. As for the story, I believe this was written during the height of the decompression wave. It was slow in single issues but should read fine as a trade.
Greg: I don't really have a problem with the Humberto Ramos-esque art on these books, but this is the book that basically put me off Daniel Way forever.

Written by John Byrne
Penciled, Cover by Ron Wilson
Collecting Thing(1983) #1-10., 232 PGS./$24.99
Written by Mark Gruenwald
Penciled by Tom Morgan & Kieron Dwyer
Cover by Kieron Dwyer
Collecting Captain America #332-350 and Iron Man #228, 520 PGS./ $39.99
Lee: I love this new trend towards huge color tpb's collecting older material. As a collector, I don't think this will hold re-sale value worth a crap. But, as a reader, I am psyched. Some of this material is pretty good. I am not sure the Thing stuff is great, but the Cap stuff was really good.
Greg: Lee, can you explain the appeal of Gruenwald Cap? Cap's my favorite superhero AND I'm a huge liberal, so this stuff should be completely in my wheelhouse, but every time I read it, I'm just kinda underwhelmed. That said, I certainly seem to be in the minority on that front.
Lee: Someday we shall discuss why you despise Way's Venom and why I love Gruenwald's cap. But that is for another day.

Greg: I think this was a strong month for Marvel. Good reprints, solid ongoings. Not alot of Daniel Way. Good stuff. And now, for the opposition party response...
Lee: For all my complaining it really isn't a bad month from Marvel. I get more of the reprint material and there's plenty for me to choose from. But, I feel it unfair to my fans to end on a positive note so... it sucks that Marvel is started to reprint material that I want to read because it's gonna crush my budget. Darn you Marvel.

Thursday, January 27, 2011

Back that thing up

Not that long ago, as prices on comics started to rise to $3.99, companies were looking for ways to justify the price increase. Before DC decided to reduce their page count to 20 pages and the price to $2.99 and Marvel decided to, uh, randomly reduce certain titles to $2.99 but ignore the rest of their line, the main solution seemed to be back ups.

DC bombarded the market with back ups, including Blue Beetle, Metal Men, Black Canary, the Question, and Legion of Super Heroes. All of the back ups were for characters with devoted followings, but not followings large enough to support an ongoing. The hope was that not only would fans find that they were getting their money’s worth, but that featuring these cult favorites would drive sales on these titles. Despite using some top notch creative talent, like Greg Rucka, Geoff Johns and Cully Hamner, the back ups were largely met with indifference.

The only one of these back ups to generate any real buzz was Metal Men, by the JLI team of J.M. Demattis, Keith Giffen, and Kevin Maguire. Many, myself included, thought it was better than the Doom Patrol stories it shared a book with. DC was certainly more public with their efforts, but Marvel quietly got in on the act as well. Captain America began running a back up starring Nomad, an obscure alternate universe Bucky. And in Bendis’ Avengers titles, we got a text piece about the history of the Avengers through a faux book about their history. DC recently released two new back ups, a Jimmy Olsen story by Nick Spencer and R.B. Silva and a Commissioner Gordon back up by Scott Snyder and Francesco Francavilla. On top of this Marvel is putting additional material in the Amazing Spider-Man every month by top tier talent like Dan Slott and Fred Van Lente.

However, it seems that the days of back ups are coming to an end. DC’s switch to $2.99 have cut their page count by 2 and killed their remaining back ups. The remaining chapters of their current back ups are being burned off in one shots. Comics fans on the internet seem to be disappointed, but as Thor the Mighty Avenger fans can attest, that doesn’t really seem to matter that much. While I understand the logic of this publishing decision to cut back on content to keep prices static, it’s a bit aggravating for me, as it seems they finally nailed how to run a back up feature. The Jimmy Olsen and Commissioner Gordon back ups really seemed to find a way to make the format work. They were really enjoyable and complimented the tone, if not the content of the main story. The loss of Jimmy Olsen, in particular, is tragic. It was my favorite thing that Nick Spencer has written thus far, had amazing art, and a ton of goofy fun, something that is dreadfully missing from mainstream super hero comics.

Even better, both of these back ups seemed to find a way to integrate themselves into the main story without being obtrusive. The presence of vultures on Dick Grayson’s balcony in Detective Comics is ominous and creepy if you read just that story, but if you read the back up you find out that all the birds got released from the zoo. Wondering who the sniveling LexCorp lackey is in Action Comics? Why he’s Jimmy’s arch nemesis in the back ups. It was a nice, subtle way to integrate the backups beyond simple tone that wasn’t in the least obtrusive, but rewarded anyone who read both. Marvel’s getting rid of Nomad in the near future, but replacing it with some stories about Steve Rogers. Back ups seem to be a part of the Big Time relaunch for Amazing Spider-Man, but we’ll see once the title progressed beyond that. And Bendis certainly has enough material to do his Oral History of the Avengers for years.

However, I just can’t help but feel there’s a lack of enthusiasm for these things. With only 10 (or so) pages to work with, back ups are extremely difficult to do. In addition, I think between the mediocrity of DC’s first round of back ups, comic fans impatience with anything that doesn’t “matter,” and consternation over the $3.99 price point, the major companies are going to eventually conclude its just not worth the trouble. Which is a shame, because if we’re going to have $3.99 comics, and I’d bet that sooner or later it’s inevitable, these are the kind of stories I’d pay a bit extra to get.

Of course comic prices are ridiculous today, and at the end of the day, I’ll be happier if we get cheaper comics. But the whole point of these back ups was to add extra value to these comics and make it worth your dollar. I know we’re never going to get a Jimmy Olsen ongoing by the Spencer and Silva, but hell, I’d pay an extra buck for 10 pages of their stuff every month.

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Marvel Previews Review for March 2011 Part 1 of 2

Lee: So, how to start the dialogue this month. Should I use the old faithful Jim, "I hate it all!" or try to develop my own voice. How about "I just hate most of it." Yeah, that sounds like me.
Greg: Such a positive, open minded atmosphere here on the blog.

Written by Ed Brubaker Pencils by Scot Eaton
Cover by Marko Djurdjevic
Variant Cover by Joe Quesada
All the Red Skull's terrible secrets and plans are in the hands of his evil daughter, Sin, who's intent on outdoing her father... Now find out about the Skull's most-dangerous World War II mission, that he risked everything for...and how it's going to tear the Marvel Universe apart today. Fear Itself starts the darkest secrets of the past! 32 PGS./ $3.99
Lee: Let's start the bile off right with the latest Marvel cross-over disaster! The best I can do is hurray for Scott Eaton. He's a great guy and an under rated talent in the business. Other than that... I will leave it to Greg to say something nice.
Greg: I still can't get over the fact that Marvel publishes crossovers that aren't X-Men centric. A Cap-Thor based crossover? My inner 13 year old is doing backflips. My outer 27 year old is nervous. Still, its got Scot Eaton and some guy called Ed Brubaker writing it, so its probably worth a look.

Written by Rick Remender Penciled by Tony Moore
Cover, Sketch Variant Cover by Joe Quesada
Variant Cover by Paulo Siqueira your newest Hero! The lethal alien symbiote known as Venom is in the custody of the U.S. military…and with a familiar face from Spider-Man’s world inside the suit, the government’s own personal Spidey is going into action as one of the nation’s top covert agents in hostile territory! 40 PGS./ $3.99
Lee: It seems the king of overexposure, Deadpool, is being challenged by the former king of overexposure, Venom, for the title of most over exposed character. For now, Deadpool remains in the lead with far too many books. But Venom seems to be making a comeback! I am just giddy with excitement at the prospect of over two dozen titles dedicated to just these characters.
Greg: I am always up for a Rick Remender and Tony Moore comic, but even more so when its about a character that can become a monster that eats people.

5 RONIN #1 - # 5
Written by Peter MilliganPenciled by Tomm Coker, Dalibor TalajiC, Laurence Campbell, Goran Parlov & Leandro FernandezCovers by John Cassaday, Mark Brooks, Giuseppe Camuncoli, David Mack, Ed McGuiness & David Aja5 Books, 5 Heroes—1 unforgettable story of heroes pushed to their limits. It is 17th century Japan, a time and place of violent upheaval, wandering Ronin, and mysterious Geisha. Into this strange and dangerous world come Wolverine, Pyslocke, Punisher, Hulk and Deadpool. Five of Marvel’s greatest heroes…as you’ve never seen them before. Each has been wronged by a powerful tyrant. Each has taken a solemn vow…of vengeance! 5 Books, 5 Heroes, 5 Weeks…1 spell-binding story. 32 PGS./ $2.99
Lee: I’m to the point where I enjoy these 5 week events more than anything else. A great writer. A pack of great artists. What’s not to like about this?
Greg: I honestly can't make up my mind if I find this interesting or a dreadfully bad idea. If nothing else, it'll look pretty.

RUSE #1 (of 4)
Written by Mark Waid
Art by Mirco Pierfederici
Cover by Butch Guice & Mike Perkins
Renowned as the Victorian world's greatest detective, Simon Archard is the most intelligent of men. But when he crosses paths with the mysterious and enchanting Emma Bishop, has the smartest man in the world met his equal? 32 PGS./ $2.99
SIGIL #1 (of 4)
Written by Mike Carey
Penciled by Leonard Kirk
Cover by Jelena Kevic-Djurjevic
Lee: It’s good to see these books back even if it is only a miniseries. They were both good books when they were released and I bet they will be good again. I am far more interested in the Ruse book because that was excellent.
Greg: I like what Marvel's doing by bringing back these two Crossgen books. They're not only two of the best things that company was putting out, but they also expand the content of their line. And by divesting them of all that interconnected universe nonsense, it may not fall off the raisl this time around.

EMMA # 1 (of 5)
Written by Nancy Butler
Art & Cover by Janet Lee
Award-winning author Nancy Butler, adapter of Marvel’s best-selling Adaptations, Sense And Sensibility and Pride And Prejudice brings you another Jane Austen classic! Joined with the beautiful illustrations of Janet Lee, Butler brings to life Austen's most precocious heroine, Emma Woodhouse. Discover what has made this story so enduring, as its re-told in the Mighty Marvel manner! 32 PGS./ $3.99
Lee: I picked this so I could point out how messed up Marvel is. Girl is getting to the point where she is reading this type of material. We have worked our way through the Little House on the Prairie Books, we currently working on Anne of the Green Gables. What are the chances she would like a book like this? EXCELLENT. But, $4 for a book that I know is going to be destroyed in less than 10 minutes is just too much. I can buy a Sonic comic for $1 less and she will enjoy it just as much. I wish Marvel could see past the next 10 minutes and actually give me the tools to help them cultivate an audience for the future.
Greg: Well, I think Marvel is really publishing this for a collected edition and putting it out as individual issues to recoup costs. Apparently this makes more money than just a straight up graphic novel, even if it doesn't make as much sense.

Written by Dan Slott Art & Cover by Marcos Martin
Captain America 70th AnniversaryVariant Cover by Joe QuesadaThe debut of the New Spider-Armor! If Spider-Man hopes to find a way to defeat his new nemesis Massacre, he’ll need the help of his all new, all-power costume! But will protecting the people of New York mean that Spider-Man finally takes the last measure-- killing a bloodthirsty madman when there are no other options? (by the way, your first answer is wrong!) 40 PGS./ $3.99
Lee: Spider armor??? Go ahead Greg. Explain to me how this is a good idea because I got nothing.
Greg: A NEW COSTUME FOR A WHOLE STORY ARC! ITS THE END OF COMICS AS WE KNOW IT! SOMEONE BUY ME A PS3 SO I HAVE SOMETHING TO DO WITH ALL THIS SPARE TIME!!!!! Actually, this book has been strong enough lately that I'll cut it some slack. Also, that armor looks like something that only Marcos Martin is capable of drawing well, so I doubt we'll be seeing too much of it after this story.

The conclusion to this mess tomorrow...

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Comic Book Price Increases - 20% Jump in Price!

I think my favorite part of the entire announcement is how they try to rationally explain the price increase. Notice it was to boys and girls because they used to do romance comics back in the early sixties also.

Heck it was more communication then we ever get today when corporations try to do a bunch of double speak about any changes.

Love reading the actual old books, so much fun reading the stuff that isn't the actual comic.

The Week of January 19 in Review

This week Marvel is allowing the sale of Fantastic Four #587 on Tuesday by retailers. As an ex-retailer I find this news to be horrible. The reason is that I was a retailer when the Death of Superman hit and while this will not be the same type of phenomenon with killing off one of the Fantastic Four what this does is put the retailer in a bad spot. As a retailer I have ordered double the amount or triple of what I normally order of the Fantastic Four. I’m hoping for a little boost from whatever publicity Marvel can drum up on this stunt, but considering Captain America is already back how big a deal can it be. Plus no matter how important the FF is to the start of the Marvel Universe to the outside world the FF is part of a moderately successful movie and not in the same class as Batman, Superman, Spider-Man, X-Men or now Iron Man. Heck Captain America was a story because of what he represented and the FF is more important to comic fans and older fans at that.

Therefore as a retailer I’m trying to keep my regular customers happy and of course want to welcome any new traffic even if for one day. By saying I can sell the book Tuesday if I get a rush of people who normally don’t show to my store on Tuesday what do I do? If I tell them to show up tomorrow I miss my sale chance. It I sell to them and disappoint a regular customer who is not showing up until Wednesday I can risk alienating a regular customer. At this point I might allocate a percentage of books to sell Tuesday and of course sell to any regular who wanted to see it Tuesday, but Marvel is making an awkward situation for many retailers.

Good luck to Marvel in getting the real world to care about this stunt because they brought into the Captain America stunt, but I’m betting this generates interest only in the comic community. As comic fans we know the person is only dead as long as the current creative team is on the book or until a new anniversary issue demands some event, such as the return of the recently departed.

Morning Glories #6 – Writer Nick Spencer, Art Joe Eisma

What I Liked – Not a lot when you get down to it. It was a well written issue from the standpoint of following the story and art was designed and laid out well.

What I Didn’t Like – After six issues I still have no idea where the story is going and none of the characters are sticking with me. I think Nick has loads of potential but this series is not a break out type series or a revelation to me. The thing that sealed the deal to drop the book is when there was a big reveal at the end of the book as a mysterious character turned around we saw it was Jade. It had no impact on me as I had no idea who she was. Plus the art work does the job, but it is not doing anything to wow me. Someone let me know if the book gets great later on.

Amazing Spider-Man #652 – Writer Dan Slott, Art Stefano Caselli

What I Liked – The art was fantastic. Caselli has a great fluid style that work on Spider-Man better then Ramos’ slightly cartoon type of style. Caselli also is one of the few artists that have ever depicted the mask as being over someone’s face. It was a very nice piece of work that conveyed the mask is something stretched over a face. The story is well done also as we get parts of characterization and a great action sequence. Dan Slott has the right tone for this series and even though I’m still adjusting the new status quo I’m enjoying Spider-Man again.

What I Didn’t Like – The $4 price tag and while we are getting an extra eight pages, the backup is something I could care less about.

Invincible Iron Man #500 - Writer Matt Fraction, Art Salvador Larroca, Kano, Nathan Fox and Carmine Di Giadomencia

What I Liked – As a lapsed fan this read like a solid stand alone story. Not sure it brought me back into the series, but as a one and done it was entertaining.

What I Didn’t Like – The regular artist’s (Larroca) work is super slick next to the other artist and I realized I prefer the sketchier style over the slicker approach. The story is an alternative future story and it has it interesting moments, but when this type of story is done you know that future is not coming true so it kills some of the impact of the story. Also after doing the anniversary issue doing this 500.1 issue seems to be odd timing. I know Marvel is trying to give us a jumping on point, but issue #500 could have been that issue.

Hellblazer #275 – Writer Peter Milligan, Pencils Giuseppe Camuncoli, Finishes Stefano Landini & Shawn Martinbrough

What I Liked – A great story this issue that had a sort of happy ending as John Constantine married Epiphany. At the same time we had demons, slick maneuvers by John, ghosts and everything that makes Hellblazer great. At the same time we had Gemma get turned into an enemy of her Uncle and done in what is a “comic book” logical manner. Peter Milligan is doing terrific work on this series and is consistently doing entertaining stories. The pencils by Giuseppe are also well done.

What I Didn’t Like – Nada, this is a solid series.

Batman #706 & Batman Streets of Gotham #19 – Writer Tony Daniel and Paul Dini, pencil Art Tony Daniel and Dustin Nguyen, Inks Derek Fridolfs, Sandu Florea & Ryan Winn.

Remember my only rule about the way I approach my reviews and that is there are no rules. I know Streets is soon to be ended and that is a blessing as there are officially too many bat books at this time and so many story lines I can’t keep them straight. Add to that two of the bat books are being written in an indecipherable manner by Tony Daniel and Neal Adams and you have a sense of my confusion. Tony Daniel writes Dick Grayson as an inept Batman, forgetting he was an accomplished crime fighter in his own right for many years, needing Robin to save him. Plus we have Catgirl and Enigma (Riddler’s daughter) running around looking to form a girl band with Batgirl. I-Ching, Sensei, Reaper and a cast of thousands keep Tony’s work indecipherable even as I admire his line work that this issue approaches something akin to Alfredo Alcala. Paul Dini in streets is dragging out the Hush storyline with more flashbacks then an acid dropping Viet Nam vet would experience in a lifetime. Each character gets to have a flashback and we mix up stories about Thomas Wayne and Zatara with stories of Tommy Elliott and Bruce, throwing in a random guy’s old encounter with the Joker. Given how much Grant has explored the Wayne family, the entire back story of Batman’s family is now a convoluted mess in my mind. The only thing that feels consistent is Batman sleeping with Selina Kyle which is good news for Christian Bale as Anne Hathaway is reported to be Catwoman in the next movie.

At this point I believe Detective and Batman Inc. are the main two books I care about. Batman and Robin may make the grade with Tomasi and Gleason coming onboard and Batgirl is a fun read, but Batman, Streets, Red Robin, Azrael (soon to be cancelled), Batman Odyssey (thankfully a 13 part limited series) all need to up their game to stay on my list.

Brightest Day #18 – Writers Geoff Johns & Peter Tomasi, Art Diverse Hands

What I Liked – Despite multiple artists the book look good from beginning to end. The overall story itself was interesting to see the Hawks story finally get an ending of sorts.

What I Didn’t Like – This book is hit or miss and the overall plan of finding a guardian of life has been hit or miss to say the least. The gimmick to bring these 12 specific people back and then the inane ground rules for their lives to be returned is not making any sense at all. Also the white light saying the Hawks need to be apart is taking the happy ending away, five seconds after we got it. The art saves this book in many ways, but I’ll be happy when this series is over and these characters can either have their own series or something because this book is going nowhere in 18 issues.

That is a wrap for this week and all in all it was a rather blasé week. I’m not complaining that much because the last couple of years the first couple of months were blah and this year it has only been this one week so far. Plus when I’m uninspired it makes this column shorter and therefore less time to prepare, so there is that.

Monday, January 24, 2011

Magic at the Gate: A Review

Magic at the Gate
by Devon Monk

This is the fifth book in Devon Monk's Allie Beckstrom series. Monk's created a rich fantasy/sci-fi environment that only gets better as each new book comes out. I'll be honest, I wasn't a huge fan of the first book in this series but it was enough to get me to try the next one - and this writer just gets better with time.

Allie Beckstrom is a magic user in Monk's version of Portland. In monk's world magic is available to people - but only for a price. Everytime someone uses magic it takes some sort of toll on the caster - headaches, colds, etc. The more someone casts the worse the consequent side effects become. The catch is that you can use someone else as a proxy for the side effects. This was a big theme in the early books but in this book it was almost an afterthought as the story has progressed into more complex storylines. The last book left off with Allie following her boyfriend, Zayvion, into death - as in the realm of death, through a gateway. While this was a key part of the story Allie's journey into the realm of death was only the very begining of the book. More of the story focuses on the was between different factions of magic users. The thing I liked about this book was howmuch it showed Allie coming into her own as a member of one of these groups. With Zayvion in a coma for most of the story Allie had to function a lot more on her own with her new allies where previously Zayvion had acted as a kind of buffer.

While the plot is interesting the character developement is really Monk's strong point. She writes characters with a lot of depth - although they are rather surface when you first encounter them. This makes it more believeable as the longer a character is the the story the more you find them to be well thought out characters. The character reveals are natural rather than forced and the relationships between them are never easy but take a lot of work. It'd be easy for Monk to cop out of tension and strife between characters like Allie and Zayvion since she wrote them as magical soul mates but they constantly have to struggle to let their relationship grow.

The major downside of these books is it's hard to pick up the newest novel and get into the story - it was hard enough for me as I hadn't read the previous book in quite a while so didn't remember all the details. Monk puts out these books pretty fast so if you're on top of them when they come out it's like reading one really long story - she is a fan of cliffhanger endings but I can deal with that considering how quickly the books come out. If I was to recommend these to anyone though I'd have to lend them to people in order as they'd be really confused otherwise.

Overall these are enjoyable books. My only complaint is they aren't all that accesible to new readers. Devon Monk writes really fun books (and has a cool name too!) and I'd encourage people to pick up the first Allie Beckstrom book and give the series a try! The next book in the series comes out in just a few months. Check out Monk's website here for book excerpts (also the knitting gallerly is pretty cool).


Sunday, January 23, 2011

Astounding Wolf-man

Despite my constant enjoyment of The Walking Dead and Invincible, I've been wary at times of picking up new things Robert Kirkman is writing. This wariness was well founded for Image United. I'm still on the fence on Haunt, though it is getting better. So, I waited around a bit when the Astounding Wolf-Man started in 2007. If memory serves I didn't even check it out until the third issue, then missed the fourth. Eventually I picked up the first, second and fourth issues, and got issues 5-25 as they came out. For as we all know, Astounding Wolf-Man has come to a conclusion, as of the 25th issue. Today starts a run of reviews of books that have recently completed, some more by design than others.

From what I've read this book's conclusion was in part due to Kirkman's decision to put in time on an all ages book about a superhero dinosaur, but sales had to be a factor, too. Kirkman even did the kinda desperation cross over with Invincible in issue 11. Invincible did help introduce Cecil Stedman to the Astounding Wolf-Man universe, but Invincible himself wasn't at all necessary for the progression of the book. Invincible's presence doesn't appear to have done much for sales, either, given the book's end.

That's a shame, too, because this was a very good book. Not great like Kirkman's flagship books, but very good. Co-created with artist Jason Howard, Astounding Wolf-Man was set in the same Image universe as Invincible, Dynamo 5 and Savage Dragon, among others. When the world was attacked by Invincibles from alternate universes there were repercussions in this book, though nothing that required anyone to hunt down those Invincible stories, if so disinclined.

So, what was it about? Gary Hampton is a late thirties, early forties founder of a company that has wide holdings. He's quite wealthy. He has a sort of Richard Branson beginning, getting his start very young by opening a record store, hitting it big with the signing of a local duo who hit the big time, and expanding into a lot of other areas. He does acquisition of other companies very nicely, buying them out generously and taking on one retired former executive as his man Friday. He's married and has a teenage daughter. I think they live in New York.

The three of them are camping in Montana when Gary is mauled, badly. He's in a coma for a month, maybe more. During that time a deal between his company and a foreign company hits shaky ground because of his medical condition. Oddly, when he recovers the deal still falls through. I never did figure out the logic in that plot element, but it was really a deus ex machina, so who cares? In the end that's just used as an excuse for the board of directors of his publicly traded company to oust him. He has a nice severance package, so he's still wealthy. For a little while there's an investigation into whether he embezzled from the company, which results in the family being evicted from its mansion.

They end up living below a mall that Gary's company built, in a secret headquarters. At this point I'll be you're wondering where the Wolf-Man part comes in. Fortunately, Kirkman doesn't wait as long as I have to get there. Gary wasn't mauled by a bear. He was bitten by a werewolf. In fact, this particular werewolf was an elder, one of the original werewolves from back when they ruled the world.

Gary doesn't transition to werewolf until the first night of a full moon, when he rampages across the city. The first time is just after he's awoken from his coma and is still in the hospital. The second time he's at home. He would have just kept on going like that, changing once a month with only vague memories of what occurred, but for the arrival of Zechariah. Zechariah is a vampire who teaches Gary that he can turn into a werewolf anytime he wants, as long as it's not daylight. Gary only has the episodes of lost control once a month, at which point he restrains himself in a sort of crucifiction device. The other times he changes he's the same personality as always, just a werewolf in form. Kind of like Teen Wolf, without the basketball.

Gary starts to go out on the town as a super hero on patrol and runs into another group called the Actioneers. Unfortunately, after that meeting one of them, Sergeant Superior, meets Gary when he's out on a first night of the full moon, prior to learning he needs to restrain himself on that night. Gary disembowels the Sergeant. This is the start of where things go wrong for Gary.

Turns out his wife had had an affair with a business competitor and leaked some of Gary's business info to that competitor. The camping trip in Montana was a part of the reconcilliation between them, but Gary becoming Wolf-Man added strain, as did being evicted from the mansion. Their daughter, Chloe, wasn't at all comfortable with his change, either. When the embezzlement investigation ends, Rebecca (Gary's wife) and Chloe are going to move back but Rebecca wants Gary to stay in the hideout while they work things out. That doesn't happen because Gary has become suspicious of Zechariah and doesn't want to work with him any longer. Zecharaih goes to the hideout to convince Rebecca to help convince Gary to keep working with him, but when she scratches Zechariah's face, he loses control and breaks her neck. Then he starts to drain her of her blood. Gary walks in at that point and Zechariah flees.

Of course Chloe then walks in and thinks Gary killed Rebecca, so now Gary's on the lam for most of the comic. He has the authorities after him for his wife's murder, the Actioneers after him for killing Sergeant Superior (which they find out by obtaining a surveillance recording), and the elder who turned him into a werewolf ends up after him, too. Not at first, though. Gary goes back to Montana for help from the elder, who eventually agrees to train him more. First, though, a guy who was once called Agent Invincible until the other one showed up, tracks him down. This guy has some moves but his main thing is he can be ripped to pieces and reconstitute himself. Indestructible would probably have been a better name for him.

Oh, and Zechariah had taken Sergeant Superior and turned him into a vampire, which eventually leads to the rest of the Actioneers, except for the robot, Mecha Maid, being turned into vampires, too.

Mecha Maid is actually a very interesting character in her own right. She ends up becoming an ally to Gary toward the end of the book's run, but the most interesting thing is that she generated a computer program separate from her own program that functions as her daughter. This daughter doesn't have her own mechanical body. She only appears as a hologram whenever Mecha Maid wants her around. Whenever there's a fight looming Mecha Maid shuts down the program. Kirkman gets into issue of sentience and independent rights of individuals with this relationship, eventually leading to Mecha Maid creating a body for her daughter and downloading the program into that body. The fear and suffering the daughter suffered when shut down was a very interesting approach. Kirkman blends that issue with a child coming of age and when it's appropriate for a parent to allow greater independence, adding a further layer to this story element.

Mecha Maid also has a hand (pun intended) in one of my few problems with the book. One of the things Gary learns from the elder is how to fight a vampire, which can be tricky with their ability to turn into mist and bats. In a later fight with Zechariah Gary inhales some of the mist. When Zechariah, in a panic, returns to human form, that portion of the mist is Zechariah's right hand, which Gary bites off. Zechariah is momentarily captured at this point, but is later set free by Mecha Maid as part of a scheme she and Gary are guiding so that she can have her teammates turned back from being vampires (they're in custody by then) and Gary can kill Zechariah for killing Rebecca. Here's where the problem arises. After Mecha Maid frees Zechariah she creates a mechanical hand for him.

How does he turn into a bat or mist and then return to human form, still having the mechanical hand? I know, I'm looking for too much logic here. After all, he makes those transformations while clothed and he still has the clothes on when he returns to human form. On the other hand, everytime Gary transforms he rips up his clothes, unless he's in a specially designed uniform. All the other werewolves we see during the course of the book don't even wear clothes in werewolf form. Anyway, the real illogic is why a vampire keeps his wardrobe, but somehow the mechanical hand was what drew my attention to it. If the mechanical hand had never occurred, I probably wouldn't have noticed the problem with the clothing.

In the end, Zechariah ends up dead, his heart ripped out of him and eaten, and Gary ends up the king of the werewolves. There are plenty of teasers for potential future stories, including an appearance of Dracula. Gary forms a super team of werewolves who fight menaces. One of those menaces is an amusing one called Gorgg. Seems he was underneath Stonehenge all these centuries and the monoliths are a part of his noggin'. By the end he's been broken up into a bunch of smaller monsters, each one with a monolith on his head, which is a pretty funny looking foe. In fact, that may be the only humorous element in the entire run of the book.

Oh, Chloe's a sidekick for him, too. She's not a werewolf, though. She's got some vampire abilities without being one because she'd gone to Zechariah when she though Gary killed Rebecca. She drank his blood to take on some of his abilities. Actaully, I don't know why Gary doesn't just turn her into a werewolf. From what the elder said they're pretty well immortal unless killed by major trauma and the transition issues for them are nothing like the problems vampires have. Her powers are not going to last, anyway, because she needs to refresh them with vampire blood and only has a limited supply, what with Zechariah being dead.

I expect that at some point Gary will show up again. I hope Kirkman eventually decides to revive a book for the character and his supporting cast, but at the least he'll probably show up in Invincible, Guarding the Globe, or maybe even Dynamo 5.

Kirkman has shown throughout Invincible that few writers are more proflific in creating new and interesting villains for the hero to fight. Among his creations in this book are Eruptor, Impact, Construct and Thrill-Kill. They make good fodder, but the most interesting was The Face, who's a diminutive guy with force beams shooting from his eyes. The thing is, he has three eyes because he has two identical faces that overlap. The face to the right shares a left eye with the face to the right's right eye. It's kind of Escher-looking in those few scenes where he removes his mask.

Which brings me to Jason Howard's art. His style is in line with the Invincible art of Ryan Ottley, as opposed to the more realism oriented art of The Walking Dead. There's exaggeration of form and a heavy line. In some regards it reminds me of cartoons I saw many years ago, but I can't recall the name of the cartoon. It fits very nicely for the book, as well as the broader superhero universe of Image books like Dynamo 5. It's very bright, not moody. Even the scenes set at night have a brightness to them.

Like Invincible, there's more than a little viscera involved, but it makes sense in its use. No issues of whether people should be naked who weren't, but that's just because the story never traveled in the direction of anyone having sex, except maybe once with Gary and Rebecca. That was an impromptu escapade that was interrupted by an unintended transformation to Wolf-Man and the presence of clothes made sense because it was still early in where the couple intended to go.

If you didn't follow it in the singles, I recommend getting the trades.