Tuesday, May 29, 2007

Keep Your Distance: Marvel's Dark Tower

Dark Tower: The Gunslinger Born 1-4 (of 7) (PAD/Furth & Jae Lee/Richard Isanove).

Being a writer and not an artist, I'm usually primarily concerned with the writing part of comics here at the Anxiety, but there are times when the art overpowers (in my mind) the writing. Dark Tower: The Gunslinger Born is one of those times.

It is no surprise that the art of Jae Lee and Richard Isanove is gorgeous, but it makes Gunslinger Born feel less like a comic book and more like a theatre experience. Instead of drawing us into King's world, Lee's art keeps us at arm's length, like watching players act on a sparse stage instead of in a fully-realized world.

Peter David's narration enhances this effect, and between writing and art I feel very much like one does when one is told a fairy tale by a storyteller - the actual story is layered behind the act of telling the story. As performed by PAD and Lee, Gunslinger Born has characters that always feel cold and controlled. I get the sense that this is what it's like to watch chess being played if you're standing down amongst the pieces and can't see the large hands moving them around above you.

An example. In Gunslinger Born 4 Susan Delgado rides her horse (a rosillio named Pylon), galloping north and the narrator admits he is far from omniscient: "Whether she's riding hell-bent for leather toward something or away from something, no one could say, and I won't venture it, neither ... save to let events ... and the young woman ... speak for themselves." Her dialogue gives no indication, simply imploring Pylon to "move faster" though her downturned head gives us some indication of sadness, of running away instead of running towards.

Her flight is interrupted by Roland (the Gunslinger Born of the title) and the young would-be lovers meet in a rock-strewn field. Roland apologizes for his insulting words towards her from the previous night's function (where he learns that Susan "belongs" to the town's Mayor in order to procreate) and after she accepts, the narrator tells us: "I cannot tell you for sure if Roland hears the tremble in her voice ... or notices the slight shaking of her hand as he helps her dismount." Lee's art adds nothing to the context here, giving us a close-up of the bottom-left-quarter of Roland's emotionless face, followed by a close-up of their hands about to touch as Roland offers Susan a hand down.

It makes me wonder if the answers to the narrator's unknown are even important to this story; perhaps action must always take precedence over thought in this world.

In other hands, or with a different combination of hands, the level of staged presentation could fall apart or spin out of control, but it hasn't. Writer and artist work together to create a comic that looks, sounds, and feels unique. There isn't anything else on the shelves (that I've read) reminiscent of Gunslinger Born and that's a good thing - both for this series and for the comic shelf as a whole.

I haven't read Stephen King's Dark Tower series. I own the first four books, mostly because Stephen King always seems to connect with people who buy me Christmas presents, but when I tried reading the first book as a teenager it just didn't connect with me. This isn't a rip on King, who I generally enjoy very much, but rather to make clear that I have no emotional connection or great knowledge of the novels. King's novels are simply four books that sit there on my shelves, waiting to be read like so many other texts accumulated over the years. I don't know how the comic compares in any way to the novel - my only in is the comic itself, which I recommend. Gunslinger Born is not an all-time classic, but it is an enjoyable change of pace from the norm of the pile.

Staged, controlled, restrained, cold ... but well worth a look.

Monday, May 28, 2007

Once More Around the Onslaught

Onslaught Reborn 1-3 (of 5) (Loeb & Liefeld).

For the tenth anniversary of the Heroes Reborn event (and to benefit the Sam Loeb Scholarship Fund), Marvel has teamed up Jeph Loeb and Rob Liefeld to celebrate the occasion with a new five-issue mini-series that may well end up taking a year to complete as the release of issue 4 was pushed back, apparently so that it wouldn't have to compete with a ton of Civil War product.

Onslaught Reborn is a likely leading candidate to be the most hated book of the year, or the "sequel no one wanted to see," but it's not half-bad. That is to say it meets, and yeah, even succeeds, its sub-basement-level expectations. Reading it is like seeing a movie you know you're going to hate and then not hating it; or like when you expected to get a "D" on an exam and then you find out you actually receive a "C+" - you can't help but feel good about it ... even though you still got a C+.

Part of me is convinced Heroes Reborn was the main reason Wizard Magazine became as successful as it did; Heroes Reborn hit at the sore spot between new skool fans and old school fans, between the "Image way" and the "Marvel way" as it took some of Marvel's most classic characters and farmed them over to two Image guys: Rob Liefeld (who controlled Captain America, the Avengers) and Jim Lee (Fantastic Four, Iron Man). The success or failure of the year-long event, which sprung from the Marvel-controlled Onslaught event, is up for debate.

Artistically, I only remeber the Jim Lee-drawn Fantastic Four really working for me, though the second half of Avengers (written by Walt Simonson after a failed contract renegotiation with Liefeld resulted in his books being given over to Lee). Financially, the Heroes Reborn boosted sales of all four titles and probably helped pave the way to some degree for Marvel's hugely successful Ultimate line of comics.

Heroes Reborn doesn't exactly bring up fond memories for a large number of fans, however, though no one should be surprised when a comic company tries to ring a few more dollars out of a once-successful event. At least Marvel is donating some of the proceeds to charity.

Is Onslaught Reborn any good? It's not horrible, which may be damning with faint praise, but it is what it is - a summertime B-movie action extravaganza. Given Liefeld's participation it almost works as a nostalgia piece for the worst of early Image Comics.

The story revolves around the return of Onslaught. Loeb ties it into modern Marvel continuity by placing the origin moment of the return with the Scarlet Witch's House of M "No more mutants" declaration. Onslaught comes back and wants to kill Franklin Richards, heading immediately over to FF's headquarters, where he proceeds to take control of both the Human Torch and Reed Richards.

Franklin jumps inside his little black ball, escaping over to the Heroes Reborn universe, and Onslaught joins him.

Much destruction follows.

And that's really what Onslaught Reborn is all about - heroes punching other heroes. Over the first three issues Onslaught takes control of Johnny, Reed, Thor, Hulk, and Iron Man and they all attempt to kill one another. It's a lame concept given that we just lived through Civil War - but maybe Loeb/Liefeld figure that 5 issues of various heroes punching Onslaught would get old. Still, I'd rather see more of the Cap v. Onslaught battle than yet another Thor/Hulk battle.
Part of the problem stems from just how lame Onslaught is as a villain. At one point, Onslaught was the merged consciousness of Charles Xavier and Magneto - or rather, the repressed part of Xavier's mind mixed with, um, something something from Magneto. (My head is starting to hurt ...) Onslaught them became his own entity where he could do pretty much everything, and now I guess he prefers jumping into other people's heads and taking over their bodies to do all his dirty work.

Onslaught has potential - the idea that he's trying to create a "hive-mind" that he can control gives him something as a character for writers to build on. I can see Onslaught exploring all kinds of characters and beings in an attempt to create a more perfect hive, hijacking, say, a couple Spider-Man villains to commit a small-level crime, or hijacking the Brood for a massive assault on Earth, but here it's just kick-punch stuff.

If you never try making a character be more than a lame-ass, he's not going to do it on his own.

Liefeld's art is what it is, though I have to say he has gotten a little better. There are several sequences through the first three issues that work rather effectively. In issue one the Torch/Thing fight has good energy to it and Liefeld uses a splash page as he should, for high dramatic impact and not just so he has to draw less. When Torch pushes Thing out the window there's a really nice splash of the two of them exploding out of the building with the whole city beneath them. Liefeld or not, the sequence works. Issue 2 has a nice sequence involving Franklin and Ricki Barnes being attacked by Onslaught atop a bridge, but then saved by Captain America dropping in from above. Again, Liefeld or not, the sequence works - it has life, it has energy, and it has impact. If you don't like Liefeld's depiction of characters (and I'm not a fan, but far from his biggest critic), that's another matter, but in terms of layout and pacing, he's gotten better.

Loeb uses Rikki Barnes to narrate the story and it provides a simple, clear (if overwritten) thread through the mini-series. (Loeb would have done wise to replicate this technique in Fallen Son.) There's a semblance of a plot in that the characters in the Heroes Reborn universe (or a new Heroes Reborn universe, it's hard to tell if these are suppsoed to be the old characters or a new invention given that I haven't read those original stories since they came out a decade ago) attempt to figure out who Franklin is and what that means to them, and there's a end-of-issue-3 inclusion of Loki, the Enchantress, Skurge, Scarlet Witch, and Ultron into the mix, but really it's all about punch-kick.

None of which really makes it worth buying, except that a "significant portion" (whatever that means) of the proceeds go to the Sam Loeb College Scholarship Fund, and that's no small thing.

Friday, May 25, 2007

Uncanny Mediocrity

It's not the best time to be an X-Fan. The two best X-Books are more outside than inside the X-Franchise: X-Factor and Cable & Deadpool. Astonishing X-Men has been more mediocre than good. Wolverine was solid under Marc Guggenheim, but the current Jeph Loeb arc is horrid. New X-Men is entertaining but unfocused, with a cast too large for much character development to take place.

And the two flagships, Uncanny X-Men and X-Men?

They're both a mess, struggling to find an identity and some direction.

X-Men 199: "Condition Critical, Part 3 (of 3)" (Carey & Bachalo). If you were only going to buy one "main" x-title, go buy Astonishing. It has the best roster of characters and Joss Whedon's dialogue, which is usually good even when his plots are not. But between the two older main X-titles, Adjectiveless X-Men gets the slight nod because of Chris Bachalo's art. If you don't like Chris Bachalo's art, there's not a whole lot here to recommend.

A few months back this book looked promising. Mike Carey set the book up as a strike team, gave them a fifth-rate Helicarrier, and ... well ... they've wrecked Cable & Deadpool by shoehorning Cable into this book. Carey put Rogue in charge (good move) but then rounded out the cast with Cable, Cannonball, Mystique, Iceman, Mastermind, and Sentinel. And Sabretooth.

There's all kinds of problems with that line-up, starting with having homicidal nut-job Sabretooth (who no one trusts - because he might, you know, kill them) and the untrustworthy Mystique hanging around. Sabretooth doesn't want to be there, but Rogue does want him around, and Mystique wants to be there, but Rogue just sort of tolerates her. Such conflict can be good for a book, of course, but Carey hasn't done anything interesting with either Creed or Mystique since they jumped on board. Mystique, at least, seems willing to repent, but the budding romance between her and Iceman seems born out of a need for their to be some romance on the team and not because these two would be drawn towards one another.

Then there's Cable. Who in their right mind is going to follow Rogue when Cable is standing in the room? Again, this could be an interesting internal conflict for the team to deal with, but during the current "Condition Critical" arc that takes place in Cable's attempt-at-utopia Providence, Rogue is waylaid by a virus that keeps her largely out of action. It would have been the perfect time for a difference of opinion between the two but Carey just takes this opportunity out of play for some reason.

Mastermind and Sentinel are the youngsters on the team but in the handful of issues I've read all I get from them is that Mastermind is a bitch and Sentinel is well-meaning.

On the whole, it's just not a very good book. The art is typical Bachalo goodness, but the writing is very paint-by-numbers. The characters are pretty interchangeable and the plots are formulaic and stale.

Uncanny X-Men 486: "Rise and Fall of the Shi'Ar Empire, Part 12 (of 12)" (Brubaker & Tan). Ed Brubaker's attempt at an X-Epic falls flat. For one thing, there's far too many characters involved - the Shi'ar, the X-Men, the Starjammers, Vulcan and Deathbird ... and Bru doesn't give us even one character to really connect with. Sort of like the way the Bush Administration keeps changing the story about why the United States went to war with Iraq, Brubaker's story goes from being about Lilandra to being about Vulcan to being about ... well, I'm not sure. It's about a lot of things but none of them are very satisfactory.

The one idea with the most traction moving forward is Havok taking control of the Starjammers. Now, that's not as good as it could have been because for Havok to take the team over his father, Corsair, apparently had to die. As great a job as Bru did with Captain America's death, his handling of Corsair's passing is equally lame. It just sort of happens and while Corsair gets a heroic death it falls flat. If Bru had built in a sub-plot of Corsair and Havok and doing the father/son thing with Corsair talking about Havok or Cyclops taking over the 'Jammers one day then that series of events that ends with Corsair dying and Havok taking over would have a real emortional impact. Instead, it just feels like the only reason Havok agreed to take command was that he (along with Lorna and Rachel) are stranded out there in Shi'Ar space with no real chance to get back to Earth. Havok wants to go after his brother, Vulcan, of course, but it comes off as more Alex not wanting to go back to Earth.

In exchange for the Starjammers gaining Alex, Lorna, and Rachel, they lose Hepzibah, who ends up back on Earth with the X-Men. It'll be neat to see Hepzibah running around with the Uncanny for a but without her (and Corsair) on the Starjammers there's little doubt the 'Jammers will feel more like an x-team instead of what they were, which is a shame. The force of Hepzibah's personality at least would have kept a more significant classic Starjammers feel to the team, but that's gone.

Unfortunately, the "Rise and Fall" arc comes off as an empty blockbuster - there's a lot of bang and bluster but it's not as filling as the bucket of corn in your lap.

In all, both of these books need some work to be worth your time and money. They X-office appears to be dragging out the Morlocks (Uncanny) and Marauders (Adjectiveless), so let's hope they do something new with them. The X-Books need direction and hopefully we won't have to wait until this fall's "Endangered Species" event for that direction to get here.

Thursday, May 24, 2007

Captain America 26: The Non-Gimmick Version of Fallen Son

Captain America 26: "The Death of the Dream, Part Two" (Brubaker & Epting).

With Civil War: Confession and the Fallen Son mini-series grabbing most of the post-death publicity (and sales), it was both strange and refreshing to see Captain America 26 arrive this week.

Strange because it seems forever ago that Cap 25 was generating mainstream media buzz, and refreshing because the writer who wrote Cap's death finally gets his crack at following up on the death.

Captain America 26 covers the same thematic ground as Fallen Son. The difference between the two books is that, as shallow as Fallen Son has been, Captain America 26 strikes the right tone and level of depth. In part this is due to the characters chosen by the respective authors, Jeph Loeb and Ed Brubaker. In Fallen Son, Loeb is using characters like Wolverine, Daredevil, Dr. Strange, Spider-Man, and the New Avengers to fill most of his story and these characters largely know Captain America more than they know Steve Rogers, and even at that they know Cap mostly tangentially. Loeb does somewhat balance this out with the inclusion of characters who do know him better (such as Iron Man and Clint Barton), but Brubaker chooses to focus on Sharon Carter, Falcon, and the Winter Soldier, who know both Captain America and Steve Rogers intimately.

It's not just a difference in characters, however. Where Loeb sticks on the surface, resulting in emotions that ring largely hollow, Brubaker digs a little deeper into the emotional reaction of the characters.

Wisely, too, Bru creates a triptych over the backbone of Captain America's wake. The issue opens with Sharon Carter going to see Steve's body aboard the Helicarrier. It gives her a chance to vent at Tony Stark for removing the body, but when Tony shows her Steve's corpse she sees that it has undergone a shocking transformation. Stark theorizes that once dead, the effects of the Super Soldier Serum have reversed themselves, leaving Steve's corpse as the scrawny, sickly man he would have been sans serum. Sharon quits SHIELD so that she can get out from under Tony's command, but also, I believe, because she knows that she is the one who delieverd the final killshot into Cap's stomach and doesn't want Stark to find out. (Of course, as I argued when Captain America 25 was released, I think the artistic layout of those final moments exonerates Sharon as the actual killer.) Sharon goes to the wake, where the focus of the issue blends from Sharon to Sam Wilson. Sharon touches base with Sam and Rick Jones, but she ends up crying in the bathroom, overcome with guilt at her role in Cap's death.

Sam Wilson bugs out of the wake after seeing Sharon, taking to the air above the city to clear his head, then heading to the "secret wake," where the New Avengers have gathered to pay their respects. We learn that Sam has signed the Registration Act, a compromise that allowed him to attend and speak at the funeral, so that Cap "wouldn't get buried alone." Bru does an excellent job working in the simmering anger of Sam and Luke Cage at the Registration Act, which feeds into the Soldier's section of the book where the simmering anger erupts.

Bucky is at a bar, watching the replay of the funeral on TV and hearing all sides of the public's reaction to Cap's death - the bartender thinks it's a tragedy, the person next to him thinks there's a conspiracy to cover up the fact that Cap is still alive, and a big dude playing pool calls Cap a traitor. Bru does a great job balancing the internal monologue with the external action. Soldier knows he should debate the guy because that's what Cap would do, but he realzies he's not Cap and ends up beating the hell out of everyone in the bar before Sam comes in to extract him.

In the come-down from the fight, Bucky's attention is turned back to the television where Tony Stark is breaking down at the funeral: "And then, just like that, it all clicks into place. I see Tony Stark trying to speak at Steve's funeral. It's the third time they've shown it and I still can't believe it. He breaks. Starts crying and walks away." Stark says "it wasn't supposed to be like this" and Bucky makes up his mind what he's going to do. Since he can't be the person Steve woul want him to be, he decides he can do something else: "I can kill Tony Stark."

It's a chilling moment robbed of impact only by the fact that we know he's not likely to be successful. What's nice, especially in contrast to his appearance in Fallen Son 1, is that Bucky has decided to take a pro-active approach to dealing with his issues over Cap's death. Not that deciding to kill Stark is necessarily a healty means of dealing with grief but it gives the character a purpose and a goal and that gives the book direction.

A word on Stark - it seems every character in comics is lining up to take a shot at him these days (and rightly so) but it gets lost that Stark, for the most part, takes the verbal lashings as part of his penance.

Brubaker and Epting's Captain America is simply one of the best comics on the market right now, and Captain America 26 is another outstanding issue. If you've been let down by Fallen Son, this is the issue you should check out.

Wednesday, May 23, 2007

Call it a Comeback: LOST Buries the Past

LOST Season 3 Finale. Written by Damon Lindelof & Carlton Cuse.

Television shows are a lot like milk - once they start to go bad they keep on getting more and more rank. It is rare that once a show stumbles it ever regains the footing that caught the public's imagination. It's not a matter of the audience coming back, but of the show's original force coming back.

Yet that's what LOST has done.

The first half of LOST's Season Three (not the artifical breaking up of the season that ABC engineered, but roughly half of this season's episodes) was, well, the obvious word is lost. The show was dragging out Kate/Sawyer/Jack and seemed to be giving us more "Others" than "Survivors." Yet somewhere along the line the show got back to doing what it does best - exploring the characters and the island. (I think the break came between the amazingly bad Jack/Bai Ling episode and the thoroughly enjoyable Meteor-Destroys-Chicken-Shack ep that focused on Hurley.)

For all the obvious splitting of this series between the past and present (ofen to the detriment of the present), there's also the dual focus of exploring the characters and exploring the island itself. And yeah, the characters would too-often go into the jungle, experience something crazy (like a polar bear) and then come back and not talk about it, but the weirdness of the island has always been one of the show's biggest appeals.

The Season 3 finale delivered better than either of the earlier season-enders because it answered more than it obfuscated - or at least moved us dramtically forward instead of stalling us in place.

And the nicest twist was that the show's flashback was, in fact, a flashforward, showing us a despondent Jack post-island on the verge of suicide. The flashforward sequence opens with Jack on a place, there's turbulence, he wants to get drunk but the stewardess hands him a newspaper instead and Jack spies something in the paper that shakes him badly. We see him next in his Jeep squinting at the paper, then crumbling it, then moving to stand atop a bridge railing, contemplating jumping.

I'll admit I didn't pick up that this was a flashforward when they were on the plane. It wasn't until Jack was in his car, on the bridge, and the show refused to show us the newsclipping that I figured out what we were seeing was the future rather than the past. Jack ends up saving a woman's life (who crashed because she saw him on the bridge) but his downward spiral continues.

The only time I wavered during the show that this was the future and not the past was when Jack threatened a new doctor at his hospital (James Lesure from LAS VEGAS, meaning the show has added two LAS VEGAS cast members in the past few weeks) to "Get my father down here. If I'm more drunk than him you can fire me." (Paraphrashing.) Unless I heard that wrong, I'm not sure what it means since Jack's dad is supposedly dead. I chalked it up to Jack being that far gone on drugs and booze, but I'd love to hear other ideas. Or be told that I imagined what I thought I heard. (The curse of not having TiVo, I suppose.)

The island sequences were strong with plenty of resolutions and step-forwards. Here's a quick rundown:

Jack made the painful decision to sacrifice Sayid, Jin, and Bernard in his fateful stand against Ben, then beat the crap out of Ben when the sounds of three gun shots came ringing across the walkie-talkie. (Jack doesn't have TV so he didn't know that we didn't see the bodies - no bodies, no death, after all.) He also finally told Kate he loved her, but only after kissing Juliet good-bye in front of her.

Kate & Sawyer mostly hung in the background; there was a bit with Sawyer's hostility towards Kate and his inability to tell her what happened at the Black Rock when he killed the guy who was both Locke's dad and the conman who stole his mother's money. Kate wants to go back to the beach to check on Sayid, Jin, and Bernard but Sawyer says No, then tells Jack he's going back, and Kate that it wasn't that he didn't want to go back and check, he just didn't want to go with her to do it. Neither really had a lot to do this ep, but they received so much of the focus this season that it was a wide decision to spread the wealth.

Locke's not dead, which surprises no one, but Walt returned for a brief second to tell John to get up and that he could, in fact, still move his legs, which was a minor surprise. (Not that Walt came back, but that he appeared just then.) Locke also made a dramatic return to the group by killing Naomi before she could contact her ship that's just off-coast somewhere. Ben also told Jack not to let her make contact and given Jack's end-of-ep appeal to Kate that they made a mistake leaving the island it appears perhaps Ben was telling the truth. Or not. Ben's at his best as a character when we don't know if he's telling the truth or not.

Hurley saves the day back at the beach when he storms in with the vehicle he found earlier in the season, saving Sayid, Jin, and Bernard. Fun sequence though it's a shame Sawyer killed Tom, if only because he was the most interesting non-Ben Other.

And it appears we saw the last of Charlie, who did in fact die as Desmond told him he would. The whole "Looking Glass" underwater station is the best evidence that the show is back on track - instead of dragging this out for a half-season or more, this was a nice, quick, two-ep sequence. It was a blast to watch Charlie and his two kidnappers go back-and-forth with one another, and even better to watch the Others fall apart when Mikhail joined them. One of the complaints I and many others had about LOST earlier this season was that it was dragging everything out - for the first time you could make the case that they sped things up way too quickly. The sequence was well done and after Charlie punched in the code he made contact with Penelope (Desmond's ex-love) who revealed that she wasn't on the ship that Namoi is planning on calling. Charlie then noted Mikhail (who appeared to escape death for the second time) outside the window with a grenade. Charlie locked the door to save Desmond and sacrificed himself.

I'm not really sure why he did it - there should've been time to get out - especially since Des was putting the diving equipment together. But even without that it would take less time to swim up to the surface than it did to come down into the station. Maybe he was worried that he had to fill Des' vision down to the letter, or that Des would have ended up killing himself trying to re-establish contact with Penelope.

Regardless, it was a strong way to go out in the season finale. Two new mysteries - whose wake was Jack attending (and no one else) and who was the "he" Kate needed to get back to at the end of the episode. There's no way of knowing, of course - my immediate thought was that it was Locke's wake and Sawyer that Kate had to get back to, but it may very well have been Sawyer's wake and someone new that Kate is involved with post-island.

Whoever the mystery people are, the twist of having the flashforward worked well enough to make those mysteries interesting as opposed to frustrating. Jack's assertions that they "need to go back" and that they made a mistake leaving the island might be a one-off or it might be the writers' new storytelling technique. Either way, I give them credit for adding a fresh twist in the season finale, a satisfying end to a disjointed season.

Countdown 49: More Ebb Than Flow

Countdown 49: "Stretching the Truth" (Dini, Bedard & Magno).

The fist real misstep in Countdown comes with the third issue, as Dini & Bedard attempt to jam too many sub-plots into one issue. Where last issue wisely focused on one main plot and worked others in around it, Countdown 49 has no main plot, just a series of separate, unconnected scenes. Ideally, of course, these individual plots will intertwine and/or pay-off in future weeks, but as a stand-alone issue Countdown 49 isn't very satisfying.

The issue opens with 5 pages of Jimmy Olsen at Arkham, surviving a Killer Croc attack by doing an apparent Plastic Man impersonation. Unfortunately, it's a padded sequence that reverts to 52's basic square/rectangular-panelled layout with a two-page splash tossed in. Either condense the dialogue to get more bang per panel or vary up the layout to avoid a monotonous progression. Other than Jimmy's apparent stretch-action, there's nothing of consequence in the five pages.

Up next is one of the two most-compelling set-pieces in the issue as we witness the Monitors having a discussion with the Vigilante Monitor who offed the Joker's daughter, Duela, back in Countdown 51. The sequence offers both a recap of Duela's death, a debate between the Monitors as to the actions of Vigilante Monitor, and a glimpse of his next intended targets: Jason Todd, Kyle Rayner, and Donna Troy. Vigilante Monitor's argument is that even the small anomalies in the multiverse can lead to Crisis events and he charges his fellow Monitors are bothered less by what he does than that he breaks protocol in doing it: "You real complaint," he accuses, "is that I didn't ask permission." I'm still not 100% where the Monitor angle is going (is this guy being set up to be the new Anti-Monitor?) but I'm enjoying it because it gives a top-down look at the events of the series.

The strong Monitor sequence is followed by a 2-page bit between Red Arrow and Karate Kid that adds nothing substantive, but does provide some of the best dialogue of the issue as the two try to get under the other's skin.

A five-page check-in with the Rogues is next, as Piper and Trickster attempt to prove their loyalty to Mirror Master by having a multi-millionaire transfer 100 million dollars to Mirror Master's account and then jumping into the water and kill himself. The key to the Rogues plot throughout Countdown so far is whether Piper and Trickster are fully back on the bad-guy side of the morality-line. It's a clumsy sequence that continues to give evidence on both sides and along with the Jimmy Olsen portion of the book is the weakest part of the issue.

The issue finishes with it's second strongest sub-plot as Mary Marvel runs into a building in Gotham to escape some thugs only to find Black Adam hiding out inside. The appearance of Black Adam at least ends the issue on an up-note, as the character was the one breakout star from 52.

On the whole, however, this was a down issue because it's just five separate sub-plot s placed one after another. If the writers had taken one of the plots and used it as the backbone of the issue (like last week) then at least there would have been a sense of real progression instead of five mini-steps forward.

Monday, May 21, 2007

Countdown 50: Joker's Pal Jimmy Olsen

Countdown 50: "Last Laugh" (Dini, Palmiotti/Grey & Calafiore).

I'm tempted to write, "Here we go again," after reading the second issue of DC's new weekly series, Countdown. Like last year's 52, I'm already hooked into the story, intrigued by how this might all play out, but after being burned by the lackluster second-half of 52 I wonder if I should hedge my bets and keep my enthusiasm in check this time around.

I don't want to suggest that Countdown is off to a blistering pace, but rather that two issues in I'm definitely hooked into the story. Wisely, Head Writer Paul Dini and issue writers Jimmy Palmiotti and Justin Gray keep things relatively simply and straight-forward. Part of having a huge cast that spans the DCU is giving the audience an anchor that we can latch onto; otherwise there's no real difference between Countdown and an anthology.

So far, so good. There's four basic plots moving right now: Jason Todd, the Rogues, Mary Marvel's loss of powers, and this issue's inclusion of Jimmy Olsen, Daily Planet Reporter. There's already a good sense of momentum in Countdown, something that 52 struggled to maintain.

But again, we're only two issues in.

What I like about this issue and the reason why I have high hopes for this series, however, is that Dini & Co. don't have a group of separate, unconnected plots moving along at their own pace. Last issue's Jason Todd/Duela/Monitor plot morphs nicely into this issue's Jimmy Olsen attempt to report on Duela's murder. He starts by visiting Jason Todd (with a nice assist from Supes), then move on to visit the Joker at Arkham Asylum. Olsen is a competent reporter but he doesn't have all the pieces figured out and while Jimmy isn't a moron, he's not Batman, either, which makes him a compelling character in that we're likely going to be able to figure this out with Jimmy step-by-step. It's a strong sequence and the focus of the issue, with brief asides to check in on Mary Marvel, a repeat of the Val Armorr v. Batman throwdown from the ongoing JLA/JSA crossover (we didn't really need 4 pages of this), and the Rogues.

As long as Dini & Co. continually work these plots around one another the overall story will keep moving forward and it will be easier to keep momentum rolling and reader interest high.

I think it's interesting that the primary focus of Countdown, so far, have largely been characters without superpowers: Jimmy, Jason, Mary, Trickster. That can't be unintentional, can it? I wonder if this will become an issue or if it's just a coincidence.

Sunday, May 20, 2007

Fallen Son, Chapter 3: Pretty Pictures, Stupid Words

Fallen Son: The Death of Captain America 3 (of 5): "Bargaining" (Loeb & Romita, Jr.)

I'm not going to beat this into the ground, but Fallen Son 3 continues the trend of the opening two issues - weak writing, great art. Unlike previous issues, however, this is the first one to actually get me kinda upset.

The whole idea of this series is allegedly to show how people react to the death of Captain America, but the actual series seems less interested in examining Cap's death as it does simply touching base with a bunch of different characters. I hate to say it, but the whole series is really starting to feel like a market grab, more gimmick than high concept, and it's a shame that such beautiful art is being wasted on Loeb's half-assed attempt to actually tell a story that moves beyond surface-oriented melodrama.

"Bargaining" revolves around Clint Barton's attempt to get answers from Tony Stark about Cap's death, and Loeb and Bill Roseman (the book's editor) come off as not having read New Avengers 30. Now, given how close the two books are to one another that's not surprising, of course, but it doesn't appear they got the memo that the Bendis-controlled Clint Barton of today is not the Hawkeye of 20 years ago. That's bad in-house editing by Roseman to either not be aware of how Bendis was going to handle Clint or not understand it.

Clint wants answers ... fine. Clint goes after Stark ... fine. Clint gets convinced by Stark to run around in Cap's costume ... stupid. Clearly there's a time gap between what happened in New Avengers 30 last week and whenever this issue slides into continuity because Stark is aware that Clint is hanging with the New Avengers, but where did all of Clint's detached anger go? They're like two different characters.

And if it's revealed that this book fits into a continuity spot where Bendis' Clint has become this declawed, well-adjusted, willing-to-be-seduced-by-Stark version of New Avengers 30, I'll take all that back. But even if that becomes the correct version of the character, the story itself never rises to the occasion.

Loeb compounds the error in judgment over the costume by having him get a talking-to from Patriot and the Katie Bishop Hawkeye from the Young Avengers. Clint doesn't need a lesson in what it means to be Captain America or why it's wrong for anyone else to put the costume on - Bendis' Clint was all about "No way will I ever work for Stark's corporate muppet puppets" and then this week we see him flirting with doing just that.

I'm not the kind of guy who's a slave to continuity - I spend no time trying to figure out how Spider-Man can be everywhere he is - but I do like character consistency, especially when it's week-to-week.

I can't say Fallen Son 3 is a bad issue because John Romita, Jr.'s art is typical JRJR Goodness, but Loeb's writing here is incredibly weak. The only part of the issue that works is the last few pages when Clint rejects the idea of being the new Captain America. Even then it's based on the faulty set-up that Clint could be seduced by Stark's appeal, but at least by the end Clint is on the aggressive. The problem, however, is that Bendis' Clint wanted to "shove the Registration Act up Tony Stark's ass" and Loeb's Clint is content to do a little amateur psychoanalysis. Bendis' Clint is a man who has been seriously affected by having been killed by a long-time friend and teammate and Loeb's Clint has been snatched out of some distant past.

When you screw up a character this bad - not isn't this Bendis' Clint, it's not Thunderbolts Clint or West Coast Avengers Clint, either - it means you've really got to nail the story and Loeb doesn't do that, either. Loeb's Clint Barton feels like it's based on a memory and not from any first-hand experience with what the character has been doing for the last decade.

Or two.

Mighty Avengers 3: Old School Throwdown

Mighty Avengers 3 (Bendis & Cho).

It's turning out to be a good month for Avengers.

After Bendis delivered his best single issue of Avengers to date with New Avengers 30 last week, he follows up with this week's strong Mighty Avengers 3.

While it might be too simple to say Bendis writes New Avengers to indulge himself and Mighty Avengers to placate old school fans, there's no doubting the clear differences between the two books that go beyond New being anti-SHRA outlaws and Mighty being a more traditionally set-up and executed superhero comic.

Mighty Avengers 3 continues the series' opening arc, centered around the appearance of a new Female Ultron emerging from the disappearance of Iron Man. Not a lot happens on the Femtron front in terms of figuring out who she is, where she's from, or what exactly happened to Tony, but there is plenty of smart action and solid character bits.

On the action front there's a killer bout between Sentry and Femtron that works both on a visceral level but also on a character level. It's good fun to see the two smashing each other across the city, but it also serves to show Sentry getting angrier and angrier as Femtron works him over both physically and mentally.It's fun to see Sentry finally cut loose, but there's never a feeling Femtron is in any danger. In fact, the fight comes across as Femtron probing and studying Sentry. Before they throw down, Femtron asks, "Robert Reynolds. With 'the power of a thousand exploding suns.' What will it take to kill someone like you?"

The hovering SHIELD Helicarrier gets in on the fun, too. There's a cool sequence of the energy getting lost and the Helicarrier plunging towards the ground where Sentry stops in, then with the help of other Avengers rights it and places it safely on the ground. In the process, however, Agent Hill (now in charge with Stark's disappearance) gets knocked cold. There's a bit of back and forth with the SHIELD troops on who exactly is in charge which plays a bit false (it doesn't seem like a tight chain-of-command wouldn't be in place aboard the Helicarrier) but ends with Black Widow taking charge when she reveals she's a "Level 10" SHIELD agent, making her the highest ranking agent aboard.

It's great to see Natasha back in charge; in terms of who's most qualified and most ideal for an Avengers leader, Natasha doesn't rank far behind Captain America. Trained by both KGB and SHIELD, she's got more field experience leading operations than probably anyone in the Marvel Universe, which is only enhanced by having worked both sides of the Cold War political fence.

The juxtaposition of Black Widow's confident leadership skills and Ms. Marvel's self-doubt works effectively. Ms. Marvel's opening day as team leader ("Worst first day as Avengers leader ... EVER," she muses late in the issue) continues to spiral downhill, as she's outshined by both the Widow and the Wasp, another former team leader. Jan falls somewhere between the other two women - like Carol she inwardly struggles with what to do, but like Natasha she's primarily outwardly cool. Word balloons help get this across to the reader.

Much has been made of Bendis' decision to bring back the thought balloon and up to now it's been more flash than sizzle, as Bendis has used the thought balloon basically for funny asides. In issue 3, however, he picks up his game, using the thought balloon to raise the tension the team is feeling standing face-to-face with Femtron. It's a credit to Bendis and Ultron's history that this team of heavyweights is as concerned as they are with a new Ultron - long-standing Avengers Ms. Marvel, Wasp, Wonder Man, and Black Widow move through the issue with grim determination and frayed nerves. The word balloons help get the point across - when everyone appears to be telling Jan what to say or do, Jan keeps her cool but her internal monologue snaps and snips at them. Jan's a pro so she doesn't waste mission time by reminding everyone she's not a moron, but because of the thought balloons we see that she's not letting those comments go by unnoticed. Hopefully when the team gets some downtime those comments by her teammates won't remain unchallenged.

Bendis also works Hank Pym - Jan's ex-husband and Ultron's creator - into the mix. Jan calls Hank for help/information but Hank is busy almost-getting-busy with Tigra in his Camp Hammond quarters. While the scene primarily seems included so that Frank Cho can draw Tigra, Bendis also uses it to reinforce Hank and Jan's separation. It's also a nice nod to Hank and Tigra's time together in the West Coast Avengers, though that connection isn't made explicit.

One note on Femtron that I found particularly interesting here. While we don't learn a whole lot about her and she primarily spends her page time in the issue fighting Sentry, when she shuts the energy down aboard the Helicarrier she "signs" her act by having her face appear on all the Helicarrier's monitors. Except, it's not her face, but a classic Ultron face, probably from the Busiek/Perez Era Avengers given the proliferation of Kirby Energy Dots at play in Ultron's mouth.

The issue ends with what looks like an original version Iron Man armor arriving, telling the team, "If you are receiving this message, Tony Stark is dead," which is sorta lame given that we all know he's not really dead. But hey, any excuse to see the old steel grey suit (or at least a modified version of it) works for me, though if Bendis was interested in building some Avengers street-cred he'd have used the Layton Armor.

A really fun, solid comic - plenty of fighting action and character interaction. The team dynamic is working so well I hope that when Stark comes back his time spent with the Mighty Avengers is less rather than more.

Thunderbolts 114: What Happened to All the Words?

Thunderbolts 114: "Faith in Monsters, Part 5" (Ellis & Deodato).

This week's comic that took 42 seconds to read is Thunderbolts 114. It's a classic bridge comic, needed to get all the pieces from the interesting set-up in 113 to the big fight in 115 without adding much of anything, really.

Here's what happens: the Thunderbolts go after the Steel Spider in downtown Phoenix to arrest him, while at the same time American Eagle goes after the Steel Spider in downtown Phoenix to have a chat with him, while at the same time Sepulchre just so happens to be walking down the street of downtown Phoenix.

Yaaaaaaaaaaawn.

There are 12 pages in the issue with no significant words - some are splash pages, some employ silent panels, and some have words that don't add anything to the story: identifying tags on the characters, or dialogue like, "AUFFF," "NNAAAAA!," and one three-panelled page that includes one word balloon in each in which Moonstone says, "AAOW!," "AAAAAA," and "AAAAIIIII."

There's nothing that says a writer has to use words, of course, but the way the TBolts interact with one another has been one of the positives of Ellis' run, so to have an issue where he gives us nothing makes this issue feel like a way to pad the TPB. I know creators must get sick of that complaint from fans, but that's what Thunderbolts 114 feels like - other than a brief conversation between American Eagle and Steel Spider where the former is trying to reason with the latter, who's too concerned with the approaching TBolts to really get into it, and an even shorter exchange later between Songbird and Radiocative Man about how they'll handle this "like we used to" there's really no words in the entire text that add anything to Mike Deodato's pretty pictures.

Thunderbolts 114 would've been a perfect place to hear from Swordsman or Norman Osborn about their thoughts on the team or the mission that would work over the top of the action. With a book jammed with this many characters, it's a shame Ellis let this opportunity to explore one of them pass on by in favor of putting pieces in place is a shame.

A down issue after four solid episodes in the "Faith in Monsters" arc.

Um, Wow, Nova Got Good Real Quick Like

Nova 2: "Alienation" (Abnett/Lanning & Chen).

The first issue of the latest Nova series was pretty lame.

The second issue is pretty great.

I've been racking my brain since I finished reading the issue ten minutes ago trying to remember the last time I was so disappointed in issue one of a series and so hopeful after reading the second issue and I'm having a hard time thinking of anything that comes close to the dramatic upswing Nova just took.

The first issue was all wham! bang! action with too much self-doubt and the Richard Rider there didn't resemble the Richard Rider from Annihilation we'd just read. The second issue, however, gives us a confident Rich that has his act together, and Rich feels like the guy who just led the United Front during Annihilation.

Here, Rich comes to Earth for some R&R and immediately heads to his parents' home in Long Island; other than a ridiculously melodramatic father, Abnett & Lanning don't force everything down our throats - that alone makes this issue significantly better than last issue. The Riders start to fill in Rich on what has happened during Civil War when Iron Man and SHIELD stop by to investigate the energy readings he gave off when entering Earth's atmosphere. Both Tony and Rich are surprised to see each other and they head back to a SHIELD Helicarrier to chat.

Nova 2, then, serves as the crossing point of the Civil War and Annihilation Wave events. Rich and Tony's conversation entails a bit of "my war was bigger than your war" posturing, but it doesn't spin out of control. Both men feel comfortable in their respective suits of armor and Abnett & Lanning do a good job of getting both sides across here; it's not that Tony and Rich are on opposite sides of an argument, but rather that they are both (rightly) absorbed in their own recent histories. In shared universes there's often little acknowledgment of the activities of other characters and here that lack of knowledge is dealt with instead of washed over. I always take it as a sign of good writing when a writer can create story moments from situations others would likely skate right past, and A&L do that here.

A&L also hit the right notes elsewhere; they take the opportunity to have Stark make a pitch for Rich to join the Initiative, and Stark recognizes that the training methodology Rich has experienced in the Nova Corps is exactly what he wants to employ with the Initiative.

Rich has a conversation with Justice about the New Warriors, and Justice tries to sell Rich on joining up with the Initiative, too. I was thrilled to see the two of them have a conversation (because it seems natural they would), though I thought Justice tried to sell Rich on the Initiative a little too hard given that Rich was just learning of the deaths of two of his ex-teammates, Namorita and Night Thrasher, in the Stamford Incident that started the Civil War. That small complaint aside, however, it was a well-conceived and executed scene by both A&L and artist Sean Chen, taking place on the deck of the Helicarrier which helped to set the tone for just how much things have changed.

By issue's end Diamondhead shows up to throw down and Rich takes him out, then brings him to a police precinct for booking, only to have the cops as less than grateful for his assistance, ending the interview by asking for his registration papers. Rich bugs out but finds the Thunderbolts waiting for him outside. The ending rings false for a couple reasons - one, A&L used the "step outside" bit earlier with Stark arriving at his parent's house, and two, I'm not really sure why the Thunderbolts are being deployed for a disturbance in NYC when they're based in Colorado, though maybe continuity-wise it takes place pre-move to Colorado.

Weakness of the TBolts arrival aside, it does set up a meeting between Rich and another of his ex-teammates, the once happy-go-annoying Speedball who has become the self-mutilating Penance.

Nova 1 had me thinking of Nova 2 as an afterthought, but Nova 2 has me looking forward to Nova 3 with much anticipation. After last issue I thought the only thing worth checking into Nova for was Sean Chen's gorgeous art, but now I'm interested in the story, as well.

I'm pleasantly stunned Nova got this good, this quick.

New Avengers 30: Bendis Recenters the Marvel Universe

New Avengers 30: "Revolution: Part Four" (Bendis & Yu).

New Avengers 30 is the single-best issue of Avengers that Brian Bendis has written and the issue stakes a claim to the New Avengers being the unquestioned center of the story that is the Marvel Universe.

Part of this is due to all sorts of rumors and hype floating around that the Summer 2008 Mega Event really starts here, but it's more than simple hype. In New Avengers 30 Bendis writes with energy, with a purpose, with anger and frustration boiling through the characters as the impact of the New Avengers' decision to not sign the Superhuman Registration Act finally sinks in on them. They're cut off from everyone else, on their own, without outside support and Bendis makes it clear here that it's not just an empty protest by the team or an empty idea by him.

Tony Stark and Spider-Man finally ask the question fans have been asking: What do the New Avengers hope to accomplish? Stark pleads with the team that he can't see but knows is there to tell him what ending they envision: "What do you think the end of this story is? Because if you know an ending better than the one I can think of ... please tell me. Please let me in on it." And Bendis, through Luke Cage, has an answer that gives the book real direction; Cage lays out all that's happened since the New Avengers formed: that someone let the villains out of the Raft, that there's something severely rotten inside SHIELD, that there's something rotten in HYDRA, that Nick Fury has gone underground, and that the government turned the heroes against one another with the Civil War that led to Captain America's death: "And all of a sudden it all went backwards on us real fast. [...] I'm steaming because I think there's a lot more going on here. I feel manipulated. I feel someone pulling my strings. SHIELD, HYDRA, our Secret War, the Civil War ... I think they're connected. Do you? And does that idea scare the holy crap out of you?"

In two panels and one monologue Bendis basically says to fans, "You want to know the story of the Marvel Universe? Here's where it's going to happen."

To Bendis' credit, too, Cage's passionate plea isn't immediately embraced by the rest of the team. Iron Fist and Spidey both question what they're doing and what they will do and it's Wolverine who breaks it up by reminding them the Maya Lopez situation is still lingering in Japan. It finally feels like Bendis has the team dynamic down; he can write snappy dialogue coming out of anyone's mouth but here there is finally the feeling that he gets each character as individuals and how those individuals relate to one another. This is an incredibly tense situation and that effects everyone differently and the characters here come across as real individuals.

And then, in the middle of all this, a stranger walks out of the darkness and up to the door of Strange's residence and just like that Clint Barton returns to the Avengers.

Clint was handled perfectly in a quick but dense sequence. There was a sense of calm and weariness to him that just flat-out worked for me. Clint's been dead and he's back and he is still a little freaked by it, but it doesn't manifest itself through anger but rather through the calmness of a man who's gotten answers that he didn't want but is living with. And yet, while he's changed he still felt like Clint to me, and he had the best lines in the book. His arrival causes a disruption in the team - Cage wants no part of him, thinking he's a Stark spy, and Wolverine clearly wants a fight when Clint arrives, asking him if he found the Scarlet Witch. Clint says no, Wolvie does his "I can smell a lie bit" and Clint tells them, "What I found isn't going to do anyone any good" and then adds, "Do I really have to hash through all that House of M crap now? [...] I'd rather look forward, you know?"

Despite how world-weary he's feeling, Clint's humor comes through, saying to Spider-Man, "Saw you on TV $%#@ing up your whole life, Peter," and asking the team, "So what are you guys? The New Defenders?" Cage gets in his face, calling him out as an "old school Avenger" and asking why he isn't with the rest of them on Stark's side of the conflict. Clint's answer is calm but forceful, the voice of someone who watched his friends tearing each other apart from the outside: "With Tony Stark and his corporate puppet muppet babies? Yeah? No." Cage get more in his face and his anger starts to boil over; he thinks Clint is lying and Clint, instead of getting back in Cage's face as he would've in his younger days, simply steps aside, telling them he'll leave and they can get back to doing whatever they were doing.

Strange wants him to stay, but Clint has his own agenda: "I'm going to do whatever the hell I can to honor Captain America's worldview. The guy meant everything to me, and if I was here to stop the war, I would have. With a bullet if I had to." When Peter tells him they were Cap's team, Clint's answer is subdued but as righteous as Cage's earlier monologue: "Yeah?" Clint asks the team. "And what are you doing about it? Why aren't you storming that Avengers "Tower" and shoving the Superhuman Registration Act up Tony Stark's @#$?"

Peter tells him, "We're doing that on Saturday," and Wolverine adds, "Tonight we're going to Japan." The beauty of this sequence isn't just Bendis' quick-hitting dialogue, but the way Yu lays this all out with his pencils. When Peter and Logan do the Saturday/Japan bit Yu's got the back of Clint's head silhouetted in the foreground and the entire New Avengers lined up looking at him in the background, so it carries the weight of the entire team. For the first time post-Civil War this really feels like a team and not just a collection of individuals. Cage still wants no part of letting Clint in, but now he's got Strange, Peter, and Logan against him and Clint's interest is piqued. Cage still wants him gone and Clint is cool with leaving, not wanting to cause waves, but then Jessica Drew joins the chorus and Strange casts the Spell of Tartashi on everyone to prove that they are all in this together.

Cage finally relents and tells Clint to "Get your Hawkeye on and come with," but Clint tells him simply, "I'm not Hawkeye anymore." And with that the mystery of the new Ronin is solved.

I really like how Bendis handled Clint and I think he really could be the missing piece to make this team click. Having one "old school Avenger," as Cage put it, gives the team a link to the past that they need for balance if not credibility. Part of what separates the New and Mighty Avengers is the question of what makes an Avenger, and Clint, being old school but hanging with the new crowd should provide an important insight into that question. And yes, I'd rather see him back in the purple than in the black, slinging arrows instead of wielding a sword, but his whole "I'm not Hawkeye anymore" makes sense to me given everything that's happened to him, and I'm less concerned with the exterior costume than I am with the interior person and I like what little I've seen here.

The stuff that follows in Japan is almost anti-climatic but there is finally the sense that Bendis has this cannon loaded, aimed, and ready to fire. New Avengers now feels like the center of the Marvel Universe. The happy face that gets put on the Initiative is going to get called out here. I no longer question why Spider-Man or Wolverine are on this team; their anti-SHRA stance makes them perfect teammates to take on the status-quo. I can't wait to see where Bendis takes this gathering storm of momentum. I hope he can deliver bcause this is a team ready to get some answers.

New Avengers 30 is a dense book jammed with a range of issues and it is a great, great issue.

Countdown: Continuing DC's Fascination with the Multiverse

Countdown Week 51: "Look to the Skies" (Dini & Saiz).

Countdown begins DC's second year-long weekly series in a row, following up the once-promising but ultimately disappointing 52. It remains to be seen if Countdown will benefit from lessons learned from 52, of course, but initial indications are promising.

For starters, where 52 had a host of writers and one main artist (Keith Giffen doing breakdowns and a new penciller each will doing the finishes), Countdown has one clearly defined head writer (Paul Dini) and a rotation of artists. I think is the better move - better to have writing consistency than artistic consistency.

Dini sets a different tone for Countdown right at the start of the issue; where the tagline for 52 was "a year without Batman, Superman, and Wonder Woman," it was also a year without major villainous threats. Luthor provided some early villainy and there was the Island of Mad Scientists but there was never a real sense of a major active threat. Dini lets everyone know that's not the case here, opening with Desaad and Darkseid, but the remainder of the issue touches base with a new batch of second-and-lower tier characters: Duela (Joker's daughter from an alternate universe), Jason Todd (Robin from an alternate universe), Mary Batson, Trickster, and Pied Piper.

I don't have a problem with non-A-listers, at all; in fact, I think using them often opens up stories in ways the superstars don't. The main cast of the series will supposedly include the above (minus Duela, who's killed in issue 51) plus Donna Troy, Jimmy Olsen, Kyle Rayner, and Karate Kid. Note that while Supes, Bats, and WW are still not main players in the weekly series, Dini has included one character from each of the Big Three's extended family: Jimmy Olsen (Superman), Jason Todd (Batman), and Donna Troy (Wonder Woman). Plus, there's the tie to Green Lantern (Rayner), Flash (Trickster and Piper) and the Marvels (Mary), so DC appears to be hedging their bets in terms of which lower tier characters they choose to use. If the characters employed here really take off then they'll get a shot at their own series, I'm sure, but if they only bump up a little (if there are no breakout stars) then the core titles of the DCU will benefit from their higher profiles.

I wonder, too, if this is the last ride of Kyle Rayner. Or at least the last chance. After serving as the one and only Green Lantern for a few years, Kyle was dumped in favor of the return of Hal Jordan and now while Hal's got the Green Lantern book and the returned Corps has the GL Corps book, Kyle calls himself Ion and, well, I have no idea what he's been up to lately. When a character has had a few years in the spotlight and then is demoted like this, they enter that weird state of Creative Purgatory where maybe they get used here or there but they cease to become a player in their universe. It's not really Kyle's fault that Ron Marz can't write but if Kyle fails to spark the imagination of DC readers during the next year ... you know that editorial are always looking for deaths for events like this and it wouldn't surprise me if Kyle is sacrificed for sales towards the end of this series (or shortly thereafter) if he doesn't step up and resonate during Countdown.

The plot of Countdown appears more focused, as well; instead of the "52 ... 52 ... 52" weirdness where there were all these separate plots rolling along at their own speed and no real cohesion between them, Countdown offers a more cohesive threat. At the Source Wall, Monitors (sort of Multiverse Policemen) are receiving messages like a "Great Disaster" is coming and "Ray Palmer" is the solution. One of the Monitors (perhaps a rogue) kills Duela because she's in a reality that was not her original home. So he's got it in for the alts, which puts all other alternate-universe characters at risk.

All of which brings up a question for me, though - Why is DC so damn obsessed with the Multiverse? They shrink it, they expand it, they make it vague, they clarify it ... I said last week that the idea that there's only 52 realities is the height of silliness. At this point ... I guess I'd be happy to read a story without any multiverse implications. But maybe they can pull me in.

I haven't said yet if I liked the issue or not and to be honest it's too soon to tell. The issue, as a stand-alone piece of literature, is more good than bad. Some of the sub-plots work (Mary Batson, Jason Todd), some don't (Trickster, Pied Piper), and some it's too soon to tell (Darkseid, the Monitors). We haven't even sniffed half of the main actors in this drama, yet. I'm happy to say that all the production values here are first-rate and while this is a weekly series, DC has dumped the too-gimmicky-for-52-issues "real time" style of storytelling in favor of traditional concurrent storytelling.

One last note - I don't know Dan Didio much at all, but his "DC Nation" columns are an embarrassment. It's okay to be constantly upbeat and it's okay to sell your comics, but he comes across as a QVC salesman trying to convince you that Wolfgang Puck's kitchen equipment is the most amazing invention in the history of the world.

At some point all of that hype just sounds empty. "Now that you've picked your jaw off the floor after reading COUNTDOWN 51," he screeches through black-on-gold print, "don't hesitate to tell your friends and enemies to go buy the comic." He's one exclamation point short of being Tom DeFalco, and there's no need for that high-level sell job - even if you were super-thrilled by the issue, there's nothing "jaw dropping" about it. It looks like you've got a winner here, Dan, so do the soft sell and let the book sell itself. You'll sell more comics and turn less fans against you.

Saturday, May 19, 2007

The Initiative 2: Guilt & Motivation

Avengers: The Initiative 2: "Hero Moment." (Slott & Caselli).

Avengers: The Initiative is quickly becoming a favorite. While the idea of creating a mass superhuman army still creeps me out, Dan Slott is doing an excellent job showing the good and bad of having a superhuman boot camp. With everyone still reeling from last issue's death of MVP, Hydra attacks the President's ranch in Crawford, Texas.

There are four individual groups at play in The Initiative: recruits, trainers, scientists, and administrators, and Slott manages to give them all a bit of page time. The focus of this issue, however, is Henry Pym.

Pym is the one character in The Initiative who bounces between roles - as a scientist he's creating clones, but he's also part of the Camp Hammond administration, and he's out in the field training the new recruits. In Initiative 2, Pym gets too close to Trauma, whose powers work on other people's fear. Trauma has trouble controlling his powers, which leads to him first siphoning off Cloud 9's fear of being the cause of MVP's death, and then morphing into a beaten version of Hank's ex-wife Janet. It's interesting that Janet's roughed-up appearance is closer to the truth of Ultimate Janet than Marvel Janet, but Trauma's powers don't necessarily depict the truth of a person's history but rather the truth of a person's fear. Not to excuse Hank from slapping Janet, of course, but there is a physical difference in the result of being slapped once or repeatedly punched. We see that Hank's fear of losing control and slapping Janet manifests itself as physically much worse than what happened.

Initiative 2 serves as the 894th attempt to redeem Hank and, honestly, if the previous work of Englehart and Busiek aren't going to stop people from thinking of the slap when they think of Hank then there's no reason that Pym's redemptive act here - saving the President by crashing the Hydra Carrier - is going to be any different. And it probably shouldn't since Hank seems to be motivated here less out of altruism than by changing people's minds about himself. He wants people to think him a hero and not the guy who slapped Jan or created Ultron, but what damns Hank is that his motivation here is similar to the motivation to create Ultron in the first place - the recovery of his own reputation. The only difference, really, is that this time it worked.

Hank's demons, his inferiority complex, his mood swings, his neediness, his desire to have a golden reputation all help make him such a powerful, interesting character and Slott takes advantage of the full range of Pym's character.

There are several other issues moving through issue 2:

Justice just might end up being the star of this series, caught as he is between the adults and the kids. While technically in administration (he's the recruits counselor), Vance isn't in the inner circle of Stark, Gauntlet, Pym, and Gyrich. He's not told about MVP's death and only learns about it when Trauma morphs into MVP's accusatory corpse. His continued anger at Gauntlet's use of "New Warriors" as a put-down has got to pay-off at some point and it may eventually be a breaking point between the adults and the recruits. Instead of rushing a new New Warriors series out to press, Marvel would probably have been better off if they'd let Slott develop the new New Warriors from the recruits here, eventually breaking away from the Initiative and Camp Hammond to be led by Vance. Such a path would've given the Warriors a good launching point and would have made a good deal of sense.

Trauma believes he's the next washout from the program, but instead of dumping him, Gyrich has hired a secret new tutor to help mentor him. Slott doesn't reveal who it is (saving that surprise for next issue) but it is a female mutant who lost her powers during M-Day. The shadow makes me think it's Dani Moonstar, which would rock, but it could be a whole host of characters. Nice guest appearance by the Beast, too, serving as bodyguard to Trauma's tutor, that's a throwback to McCoy's time on the Avengers when Gyrich was theit government liaison.

Slott also does a good job with making this book feel even more important in the Marvel Universe through all of the extra characters that pop in. We get the Texas Rangers here with speaking parts, but we also see characters like Gargoyle, Ms. Marvel, Wonder Man, and Ultragirl moving through the background of the story. Slott doesn't feel a need to give everyone who appears a speaking role and that's smart.

Strong issue in what it quickly becoming an excellent series.

Friday, May 18, 2007

Atomic Alert: Jeff Smith's Shazam!

Shazam! The Monster Society of Evil (Jeff Smith).

Atomic Alert (formerly Fret Spreads the Word) is my chance to offer a quick-hit recommendation about a book that I'm really enjoying instead of writing a full-length review.

I come to the new out-of-continuity Shazam! LS as a huge Jeff Smith fan and an indifferent Captain Marvel fan. I've nothing against the character, except that I've never been able to stick with any of his series for very long. I tend not to like dual-persona heroes (as much as I like Marvel's Captain Mar-Vell, for instance, I never liked the Rick Jones switching-places gimmick) because it seems to rob both the character and the series of a certain level of responsibility - the "normal" is mostly useless to a given situation but is needed as a plot device, and the hero is mostly incapable of having an adventure and instead shows up on call to beat someone up and then disappear.

There are ways to make it work, however, and Jeff Smith is doing it in The Monster Society of Evil LS.

By making it out-of-continuity Smith is able to go back to ground zero and re-imagine the Shazam legend. He starts before Captain Marvel and Billy Batson have been merged, making Billy a young boy, living alone and homeless in an abandoned apartment building. A man-in-black leaads Billy into an abandoned subway tunnel, onto a magic train, and finally to the Wizard, who merges our normal kid and magical hero. Through the first two issues Smith gives us a Billy that's an inquisitive, street smart, wide-eyed kid who's rebellious enough to do what he's been explictly told not to do by his elders (climb to the top of the Rock of Eternity) but concerned enough to recognize that while it's okay for him to live on the streets, it's not okay for the new-to-his-life sister, Mary, to do the same.

Like Bone, Smith creates a world that is both magical and real. His writing is perfectly paced and his art is beautifully rendered.

Shazam! The Monster Society of Evil is my favorite book being published right now because it's smart, fun, and filld with Jeff Smith goodness. And yeah, it'll read better as a TPB than as four single issues, but each issue is 48 prestige-formatted pages and Smith knows how to give you a satisfying episode inside a larger story. Buy the mini as it comes out and then buy the TPB and gift the individual issues to someone who loves a good story. Shazam! is worth it.

Issue 3 (of 4) is out next week.

Atomic Alert: Darwyn Cooke's Spirt

Will Eisner's The Spirit 1-4 (Darwyn Cooke).

I don't have time to write full reviews or detailed accounts of everything I read but ocassionally there are books that I want to plug simply because I'm enjoying them and think others might, as well. First up, DC's new take on Will Eisner's The Spirit.

Darwyn Cooke's update of Eisner's 1940's newspaper insert puts the Spirit in a modern setting, complete with cable newscasts and cell phones, but the look and feel is pure 1940s crime story. Unlike Bendis or Brubaker, who write great crime comics that are seeped in the modern style, Cooke has a wonderful retro-infused style. I love the art, the pacing, the dialogue ... Cooke writes single-issue stories that tie back to earlier issues but doesn't depend on them. He populates the book with a great cast and interesting accomplices. The various mysteries aren't complex or deep, they're really there because the Spirit needs to have something to solve for there to be a comic.

The Spirit is that one comic in your pile that you save to the end of your reading. Whatever highs or lows your pile brings you in a given week, The Spirit is a consistent, solid, fun book. There's nothing revolutionary here but it'll remind you why you read comics. Check it out.

New Avengers 29, Where the Most Kick-Ass Moment Comes From ... Danny Rand's Lawyer?

New Avengers 29 (Bendis & Yu).

The same disjointed plot construction that plagued New Avengers 27 & 28 plagues New Avengers 29. There are two plots going on: a present storyline featuring the New Avengers in Tokyo, searching for Echo/Ronin and fighting the Elektra-led Hand, and the immediately pre-Japan story where Stark and the Mighty Avengers are trying to capture them. New Avengers 29 might end up being the best single chapter of this story-arc in TPB form but as a stand-alone issue it's kind of a glorious mess. This issue is all about fights that don't happen and that makes it frustrating. There's a stand-off against the Hand which frames the issue, and in the in-between there's several stand-offs with the Mighty Avengers. Not a whole lot of punching, which isn't a bad thing, really, except when you've built up an anticipation of the brawl and then keep pushing it off.

There are several really strong and interesting moments in the issue, however. The growing feud between Stark and the New Avengers is developing nicely along several fronts. While there's no advancement of the Stark/Wolverine feud from Wolverine and Fallen Son, Bendis does further the Stark/Dr. Strange conflict that we've seen develop in the New Avengers: Illuminati one-shot, Civil War, and Fallen Son. It helps that Stark is being frustrated on several fronts - with Wolverine and Luke Cage it's about politics, with Spider-Man it's a personal betrayal, and with Strange it's both of those mixed with the addition of the classic science vs. magic showdown.

Strange and Stark engage in that classical magic vs. science showdown throughout the issue and it helps to keep everyone on edge and off-balance. And we get a Brother Voodoo appearance out of it as Stark has to call in for some magical assistance. That Stark has to rely on such a low-level guy like Brother Voodoo is funny, but hopefully will lead into Stark going on a search for Wanda Maximoff.

The most kick-ass moment of the issue doesn't come from any of the costumes, but from Danny Rand's attorney, Jeryn Hogarth. The Mighty Avengers drop in to Rand Corporation and confront Danny in his office about his now illegal (thanks to the Super Human Registration Act) activities as Iron Fist. Rand denies everything, of course, leading to a throwdown between Stark and Hogarth over the intricacies of the SHRA - Stark charges that Danny isn't registered with SHIELD, Danny counters that he is registered, and Hogarth interupts for his client, stating that Danny is already registered with the United States government as a "lethal weapon." That's not enough for Stark, who insists to Danny that he "also has to register yourself as a-"

He's cut off by Hogarth, who argues, "That has yet to be laid out in a court of law. We have an appeal with the federal court system t define exactly what is a power-"

Then he's cut off by Ms. Marvel, who knows it's all lawyering bullshit and wonders what the point is that Danny and the New Avengers are doing: "What do you think you're going to gain from all this? Someone is going to get hurt."

"You mean," Danny replies, "someone other than Captain America?"

The best exchange, however, comes next, when Stark informs the room that his armor records everything the armor comes in contact with and Hogarth rebuts that by asking if Stark is willing to have all of those recorded files subpoened in the highest court of law: "If you admit one file, we'll subpeona all the files. Which do you think will last longer, the trial or your tenure as Director of SHIELD?"

What makes it all work is that, in the middle of all the build-up to people punching each other, Bendis works in questions of legality, morality, ethics, and personal responsibility. He's building on Civil War, exploring the cracks other writers are just happy to let wash by without comment.

The incident at Rand Corporation is the centerpoint of the plots; after ushering everyone out of the room, Dakota North (yes, Dakota North) drops in with the note and costume from Maya/Echo/Ronin that sends them to Japan. Still no real clue as to who is in the Ronin costume, however.

All in all, while this story arc seems to rumbling all over the place with the switches in time doing more harm than good, Bendis wrenches it back on track by the end of New Avengers 29. Looking forward to some resolution and the implications of Luke's issue-ending offer of a truce/alliance with Elektra.

Fallen Son, Chapter 2: Punch, Shoot, Shout, Scream, Cry, Namor

Fallen Son: The Death of Captain America 2 (of 5): "Anger" (Loeb & McGuinness).

Fallen Son is not a bad comic, nor is it the pointless continuity exercise / market grab that is World War III, but it's hardly the comic it promised to be in the immediate aftermath of Captain America's death.

My problem with Chapter One of this five-part LS was that it was all just kinda ... blah. In a time that should reek of emotion, Chapter One: Denial was mostly dull and lifeless.

Minus a few references to Cap, Chapter Two could almost come anywhere, anytime in Marvel history. Maybe that's the point, that time keeps moving forward and the basic concept of super hero universes (bad guys do bad things, good people stop them) remains in perpetual motion no matter who dies. Even if it's Superman or Captain America it's only a blink of the relative eye before Tiger Shark shows up with the Horn of Gabriel calling sea monsters to attack the coast of Maine. If that's the point, however, then the continued publication and adventures of the entire company line makes that point better than anything else. We certainly don't need to see an entire LS devoted to that premise; it might free up the regular titles to get on with their getting on, but it doesn't make for a very satisfying premise for a stand-alone LS.

I had hoped that Fallen Son would be an actual examination of the five stages of grief, but we're getting examples instead of examination and the result is that the series just floats across the surface. All width, no depth.

The Mighty Avengers are off after Tiger Shark and the sea monsters and it provides an excuse to punch someone. Loeb has Namor arrive on the scene at the end to shut it all down and deliver a psychological stomach punch: "What did you hope to accomplish, Carol Danvers? That if you beat this wretched man to death, your heart would ease the pain of losing Captain America? And the rest of you ... by taking your anger out on these misguided beasts, you'd somehow feel better?"

It's a nice speech and it's nice to see Namor (always a favorite) be the guy in control instead of the dude raging, but it has zero impact.

First, Loeb doesn't build us up to that conclusion - no one, with the possible exception of Carol (and even then, only tangentially through the outlaw status of Dr. Strange and Wolverine) seems to have anything Cap or Civil War related on their mind.

Second, and just as importantly, the plot doesn't support Namor's pronouncement because the Avengers were in Maine to stop an actual villain doing bad things. For Namor's words to have any effect the violence being enacted must have its origin rooted in a failure to deal with Captain America's passing. They need to be using violence to get over something else, but again, other than Carol's major beatdown of Tiger Shark, there's no evidence that anyone is being violent because of anything except shutting down Tiger Shark and the sea monsters. Namor's words would have weight if the sea monsters were hanging out having a beach party and the Avengers showed up and just started beating them up for no reason, but this was the Avengers doing what they do - shutting down a threat.

The other-half of the issue deals with the New Avengers. Ben Grimm has come over to play poker as a way of getting their collective minds off things, but it feels hollow. For a scene like this to have impact, Ben, Luke, and Wolverine might have been sitting at that table, but Spider-Man, Iron Fist, and Spider-Woman would need to be replaced by Nick Fury, Hank McCoy, and Hawkeye. Or Loeb could've given us something about this being Luke or Ben's way of trying to move past it but realizing they were trying to fit the right solution with the wrong group. If these Avengers have never played poker together before then sitting down to play cards isn't going to bring them any comfort because the comfort of a game like this is with the camaraderie of those at the table and not the actual act of playing. Sitting down to play with strangers brings the problems Loeb touches on here, but it's not followed up on so the effect is lost.

What's really unfortunate is that Loeb is a good writer and his work on other projects (mostly at DC, for some reason) proves he can write the kind of thoughtful, intelligent story that I thought we were going to get in Fallen Son. Instead, we get a bunch of characters jammed into stories with a lot of action but little impact. Getting examples intead of examinations is, in my opinion, a mistake; I don't know if the fault lies with Loeb or with Marvel Editorial, but Fallen Son has yet to live up to its potential.