Wednesday, April 25, 2007

The Babs and Dick Retro-Annual

Nightwing Annual 2: "Hero's Journey" (Marc Andreyko & Joe Bennett).

I've been meaning to review Nightwing for a while because Marv Wolfman is doing a stellar job on the regular series, but Nightwing Annual 2 is such a strong book that praising Wolfman will have to wait.

Do yourself a favor and pick up Nightwing Annual 2 if you haven't already. The issue focuses on making sense of the past year of Dick Grayson's life - from the "pre-Infinite Crisis Ravager/destruction of Bludhaven/marriage proposal to Barbara Gordon" through his recovery. What Andreyko manages to do quite effectively is tie-up both dangling continuity threads and weave a compelling history of Babs and Dick's on-again, off-again romance.

Andreyko's depiction is an honest, often uncomfortable, tale that shows the highs and lows of their long-term relationship. It's funny and sad and all-too-human to watch how two people who love each other struggle with exactly what that love means to them and to the other. It's emotional but it's not melodramatic - when Dick returns from space to find Barbara in a wheel-chair they end up making love, only to have Dick tell her the next morning that he's engaged to Starfire it could play like something from a soap opera, but it keeps its integrity. You understand why he did it and you still hate him for doing it.

It's a great comic - Andreyko's writing hits all the right notes and Joe Bennett's pencils have never looked better.

Saturday, April 21, 2007

Planet Hulk Gets Smashed

Incredible Hulk 105 (Pak & Pagulayan).

The year-long Planet Hulk storyline is over and the Hulk is headed back to Earth for next month's World War Hulk event. Was Planet Hulk worth the year-long detour off of Earth? Yeah, it was. I'm not sure who came up with the idea to jettison Hulk for Civil War, but it's a pretty solid move - instead of making Hulk choose a side (which might result in him having a set of allies), or having him refuse to choose a side and then potentially be the problem that unites all of the pro- and anti-reg characters, Marvel wisely chose to have the Illuminati send him to space where he could finally be left alone.

At least, that was the plan.

The Hulk is one of those anomalies that you just have to accept as a comic fan; if you don't you're just asking for headaches. There's no real reason, of course, that Bruce Banner couldn't be cured by the combined brain power of Reed Richards, Hank Pym, Tony Stark, Doc Samson, Dr. Strange ... or himself. Whether the Hulk exists more because of gamma radiation or Bruce's fragile psyche, this skinny dude who turns into a monster isn't going to find a permanent cure, and the monster is going to exist.

Sucks for Bruce, works for us.

It's best not to think too hard over it; like Ben Grimm's transformation problem or Superman justifying doing as little as he does or Batman justifying having a teenager for a sidekick there are just some threads of the larger tapestry that are going to be a little frayed if you look too close.

So Reed, Tony, Stephen, and Blackagar sent him off-Earth to live on a green world with no inhabitants where he could live in peace. Of course, something goes wrong and the Hulk ends up starring in Gladiator - except he doesn't die in the arena, but rather ends up uniting the planet against the evil ruler, winning, and becoming King.

Greg Pak wrote the Hulk really effectively over the course of this storyline, but most of the other characters were one-note types. Korg and Hiroim were somewhat interesting, but the rest were pretty forgettable. Most of the story, too, is predictable, but there was a nice twist at the end - after the Hulk gets married and sends envoys to make peace with the opposition forces still not part of the new treaty, the ship he came from Earth in blows up, killing pretty much everyone (including his wife) and blowing up the planet.

Hulk decides he's going to head back to Earth and kick the hell out of, well, pretty much everyone apparently, but especially those responsible for sending him away. It should be fun - a rampaging Hulk is always good to watch, but now that he's completely justified in his anger there should be a lot of physical SMASH and emotional and intellectual SMASH. It'll be interesting to see if Hulk has any reaction to Civil War or Captain America's death - and what Bruce's reactions are, as well.

I enjoyed Planet Hulk, too, because I did something similar with Dr. Doom waaaaay back when I was writing Fantastic Four for the MV1 fanfic site. Coming out of the Heroes Reborn universe, I sent Doom to the other side of the galaxy where he crash-landed on the planet Ak'yen'ja and gave him his whole set of adventures. It was fun to write, just as Planet Hulk was fun to read.

Still, the idea lasted abut as long as it could. Ultimately, it was good not great, solid not legendary. It'll be fun seeing a torqued-off Hulk back on Earth next month looking for some revenge.

Saturday, April 14, 2007

Thunderbolts 113: Feels Like Old Times to Me

Thunderbolts 113: "Faith in Monster, Part 4" (Ellis & Deodato).

Drastic change in writer, artist, line-up, concept, tone ... so why does the new Thunderbolts feel an awful lot like the old Thunderbolts to me?

There are some obvious, significant differences, of course: Busiek and Nicieza are much denser writers than Ellis, and the overall tone of redemption has been replaced by a kind of desperate compromise, but Thunderbolts has not undegone the kind of dramatic re-envisioning that I had feared. Just like the Busiek/Nicieza era (which I loved), Ellis has crafted a set of characters that are battling their own demons as they struggle to buy into the team concept. Just like the Busiek/Nicieza run, there are factions within the team as loyalties are constantly cast and re-cast. Ellis has kept the internal tensions that marked some of the best moments of the Busiek/Nicieza glory days.

And just like the B/N Era, Ellis manages to take third- and fourth-tier characters and give them some of the best page-time they've ever experienced. A difference is that B/N typiclly did this by bringing the castaways into the team dynamic and concentrating on them, while Ellis is keeping these characters outside the team. Their struggles are just as fascinating, however. Characters like Jack Flag, Steel Spider, American Eagle, and Sepulchre are human under Ellis' pen. Ellis might only be setting the individuals up to knock them down, but the combined experience is effective in playing off the Thunderbolts.

Lots of interesting developments this issue. Ellis slows the pace down and gives us pockets of character development, favoring one-to-one conversations. Osborn continues his tour of checking in with all of the team members, stopping by Robbie Baldwin's quarters. Osborn is worried about Baldwin - not for Baldwin's sake, but for his own. The sequence, which ends with Osborn ordering a psych evaluation for Robbie that Osborn has pre-determined the outcome, is Osborn at his best - the controlling corporate CEO who wants underlings not partners. Osborn is aware that he's not the top-dog here, that the C.S.A. is ultimately in charge: Robbie, in Norman's opinion, is "too crazy for field service and is trying to get himself killed. I don't need a hero on this team. And I don't need the CSA descending upon me when the boy does finally get himself killed."

Osborn's admission is the single-most important revelation we've experienced through the first four issues - Osborn, like everyone else on this team, is caught between freedom and control, between what they want and what they are being forced to do. Moonstone wants to lead, Songbird wants the old team back, Venom, Radiocative Man, and Bullseye want autonomy, Swordsman wants his sister back (in the form of a clone which Osborn dangles both as carrot and whip), and Penance wants the release that only death can bring.

The issue opens with a great, mostly silent sequence of Steel Spider returning to his unkepmt apartment and peeling out of his costume. The sequence starts off with Oliver sneaking into his apartment and it's a scene we've seen a thousand times - a hero, done with his nightly patrol, sneaks back home. Once the costume starts coming off, however, we see the price Oliver pays for doing what he does - he's in a good deal of pain, out of breath and bloodied. His thanks? A series of telephone messages that reveal the personal and economic burden of being a hero - he's in trouble with his bank, with his parents for buying equipment on their credit, and with his apparent love-interest who can't take being involved with a super hero anymore. It's a scene highly reminiscent of pre-marriage Peter Parker, which has got to be intentional given Osborn's continued obsession with Spider-Man.

One of the more interesting operation developments in the issue is when Songbird wonders why Bullseye isn't present for the debriefing: "He's either a member of the team or he's not." Osborn's reponse? "He's not. He's your safety net." It's a chilling admission by Osborn that as much power as the Thunderbolts possess, they're not a team that can be trusted to successfully compete missions against individuals that each member of the team could probably take on their own. There was already something chillingly brilliant in Bullseye sitting out of the public's sight, but to hear Osborn inform the team that Bullseye isn't one of them ups the ante. The message is pretty clear - Bullseye isn't one of you, but he's shadowing you on every mission. He's not under your control, he's under my control.

There's also a good throwback scene of Moonstone working her machinations on Swordsman to gain control of the team, and two interesting scenes with American Eagle and Sepulchre showing how tough it is for the super powered set to remain away from the super-powered set.

Ellis' Thunderbolts is certainly darker than the B/N Era, but all the machinations are still in evidence - they're just jumbled and recast for a post-Civil War Marvel Universe. When I pick up each new issue now I get that same feeling of "what's going to happen" that I used to get; I know the outcome is likely to be dark instead of hopeful but I can live with that. I understand why some people can't, but Thunderbolts has remained a must read for me. And I honestly wasn't sure it would four months ago.

Monday, April 2, 2007

Robin, Boy Well-Adjusted

Robin 156-160 (Beechen & Williams II/Irving).

After being disappointed and disturbed by DC's representation of the teenaged Supergirl, I've decided to check in with their most prominent teenaged adventurer, Robin.

Glad I did.

I read the five most recent issues and what I found was a solid, if light, comic that has just the right mix of character development and action to keep me interested. I've never read a book by Adam Beechen before but what's here is impressive in its simplicity. That Beechen knows Robin's character is never in question - Robin feels like a real person.

One aspect I enjoy about the title is the difference between Robin and Tim. Robin has the hero thing largely figured out (he's not always perfect, but he is highly competent and confident) while Tim is still trying to figure out how to navigate getting a romantic relationship off the ground. The self-assured hero and insecure person isn't remotely new, but Beechen is by no means doing a Lee/Ditko Spider-Man/Peter Parker rehash. The difference between Tim and Robin is much more subtle and shifting (Robin is undergoing a small crisis in 155 while Tim is far from incompetent on his date in 159) but there is a general sense that the character is more comfortable being Robin, yet being Tim is more enjoyable.

Tim comes across as a normal, well-adjusted kid. He'll reach out to Dick Grayson for advice and guidance and he's not afraid to stand up to Bruce when he thinks Batman crashed his date on purpose, but it's not done just to rebel. There's a real sense here that Tim knows he can become trapped by the costume and by his relationship with Batman and while he's appreciative of everything Bruce has done for him he still wants to be his own person. It's not an overt theme, but it's there.

Beechen's plots aren't overly complex, but they're not insultingly simple, either. You can see certain developments a mile down the pike - Tim's would-be girlfriend Zoanne hates supers (or metas, whatever DC is calling the costume set these days) and her dad works for a big pharmaceutical company involved in some shady dealings. We can all see where those threads are likely headed, and yet, to Beechen's credit, he's not forcing them down anyone's throats; the book is so well-paced and Beechen chooses exactly the right moments to drop in these comments and reveals that I never think "I know where this is going and I wish we were on the other side." Instead, I'm interested to see where it goes.

A quick note about the art. The Frazier Irving issues are nicely done and almost dreamlike, and Freddie E. Williams II clicks strongly with Beechen's writing. Williams is stronger on the Robin sequences than the Tim sequences, but it's strong work overall. I dig the red-and-black costume, too - a definite upgrade on prior versions.

Robin reads like a book written for teenagers and not a book written about teenagers, and the handful of issues I've read will definitely get me to not only keep reading, but to check out past issues. There's a new Robin TPB out entitled Wanted (covering issues 148-153) that I'm looking forward to reading.

Robin is a much stronger book than Supergirl, but I want to make clear that it's not because he's a more moral or responsible character. There are two issues here - the aesthetic quality of the book and the moral character of the book (with DC ultimately responsible for both). Robin is better on both accounts, but being better at one does not guarantee being better at the other. Yes, Robin is more kid-friendly and kid-responsible, but what makes this a better book is that it's better written.

Sunday, April 1, 2007

Ms. Marvel: She's a Woman, You Know What I Mean

Ms. Marvel 13 (Reed & Lopresti).

Brian Reed writes one hell of a good old-fashioned, kick-ass comic book.

Yes, Reed's Ms. Marvel has sometimes suffered from some elongated storytelling through its first year. (Not decompressed storytelling, which is something else.) Issues 2 & 3 (the Brood/Cru story) could have been one issue. Same with issues 4 & 5 (the Dr. Strange/Traveller story) and 8 & 10 (the Rogue/Warbird story). There's a big difference between turning a one-issue story into a two-issue story and turning a one-issue story into a TPB, and Reed doesn't take the TPB route. In fact, while his stories may take an extra issue to tell (as opposed to the bulk of Dan Slott's She-Hulk run, where stories always seem to take exactly as much space as they need), Reed seems less guilty of slowing down his plot to artificially elongate the story as much as he is giving room for his artists to deliver terrific fight sequences.

Which makes Ms. Marvel feel like a throwback instead of a rip-off.

Ms. Marvel 13 is the most jam-packed issue, so far. Some of Reed's sub-plots have gotten away from him over the first 12 issues (such as Carol's decision to be the best superhero she can be and the publicist angles) but Reed, to his credit, uses issue 13 to address these concerns. Just in this issue, Reed has Carol:

1. Fly to Indianapolis to help Iron Man out on a DNA-bomb attack,

2. Question the SHRA and deck Iron Man,

3. Discuss with her publicist about how things have gotten away from her, as well as Stark's decision to offer her leadership in the Mighty Avengers,

4. Checks in with William Wagner, the guy she went on a date with the night Doomsday Man attacked in order to set up their next date,

5. Discuss with Anya the ramifications of the Doomsday Man incident for the young heroine,

6. A second discussion with Stark, in which she accepts Avengers leadership, gets Stark to agree to give her access to SHIELD files and personnel, and create her own SHIELD-filled strike team, called Operation: Lightning Storm,

7. Leads the O:LS strike team to success in their first mission, taking out the AIM cell that was responsible for the DNA-bomb attack back at the start of the issue,

8. Moves into Minicarrier 13, has a brief chat with Wonder Man, introduces the O:LS team, learns that Julia Carpenter is back on radar, full of hate, and decides to go after her to "set things right," while at that moment Anya is quitting her job at the fast food joint, only to go outside to find Arachne is waiting for her to find out where they're holding her kid.

I'd be willing to be there's more words in this issue than any two issues of the entire run, and there's probably 4 times as much going on, though not nearly as much action. I don't know if this is a one-time switch in style, a change in strategy, or
playing to the strengths of new artist Aaron Lopresti. It was nice to get more meat in the issue, but I'd hate to see the series abandon the action-packed format just to become another "talking" book. (I like "talking" books just fine, but I like variety, too.)

Reed has done a great job in this series of creating a nice set of supporting characters for Carol - Anya, Anya's dad, Wonder Man, the publicist - while also drawing from past continuity (Rogue, Civil War, her military training, her novels) to give a real sense of Carol as a character, dealing with things that pop-up and things that come back. Carol is very much a character in flux - fallible without being a total screw-up, uncertain but not weak, certain yet not without some doubt.
It's nice to see a character I've always liked coming into her own after being relegated to the sidelines for such a long time.

Ms. Marvel isn't a world-changer of a book, but it is top-notch action-adventure storytelling.