Monday, January 5, 2009

The Weekly Chain Reaction: January 2, 2009

If you’re wondering about the grades I’m using (which you’re probably not, since, well, they’re grades, right?), I dusted off and revised my grading system a few days ago.

I don’t really think you need to read it in order to catch my drift in the capsule reviews below, but given my recent interest in critical standards and in trying to define what terms like “art” or “literary” mean when it comes to comics, I thought it would be a nice exercise.

So, if you’re interested in that sort of thing, feel welcome to give it a read and let me know what you think.

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Batman: Cacophony #2 of 3, by Kevin Smith, Walter Flanagan, et al. I haven’t read that many Batman stories, admittedly, but I think this is the first one that shows Batman as more of a blabbermouth than the Joker. Can’t he ever shut up, that impossible Batman? As usual for more recent Kevin Smith stories (all two of ‘em), this is an attempt to break from the formula which has some neat bits (such as the refreshingly goofy take on Batman and the Joker) and some awkward bits (such as the fact that the only women appearing in the story are hookers) and doesn’t really succeed overall. In theory, the idea of Batman being hunted by a “superhero killer” sounds appealing, and it’s not something I think they’ve done a lot. On the other hand, that killer is Onomatopoeia. The character, an invention of Mr. Smith, is still a complete blank, and if his shtick of “talking” in sound effects adds up to anything at all in the context of the story, I don’t know what it is. Right now, Onomatopoeia seems like a cut-rate version of Grant Morrison’s Prometheus with a lame gimmick instead of a personality. The whole thing just doesn’t come together in any way that makes sense in story terms. The look and movements of Mr. Flanagan’s Batman evoke Michael Keaton, meanwhile, which doesn’t really agree with Mr. Smith’s script (too chatty), but is still a nice touch. Favorite meta moment: When Alfred jokingly suggests that Bruce Wayne needs a hobby, the panel is followed by a four-page advertisement for some tournament videogame, including a big splash of Batman, his teeth gritted, facing off against some ninja dude. I hope they’ll include that in the paperback collection.

(DC Comics, 30 pages, $ 3.99)

Grade: C+

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Captain America #45, by Ed Brubaker, Luke Ross, Jackson Guice, et al. Captain America and his Russian girlfriend versus a Chinese villain and his French henchman who want to steal a top-secret dirty project from the United Nations: Fight! It doesn’t get much more international than that. Also, nice to see a Captain America who gets his clock cleaned every now and then – and by Batroc the Leaper, no less (well, among others). And Mr. Brubaker keeps making use of Marvel Universe back story very efficiently: When it’s revealed what the United Nations’ dirty secret is, it’s presented in a way which throws the hardcore fans an extra bone but also appeals to more casual readers. Which shouldn’t be worth mentioning, really, but look at some of the things DC Comics are still publishing. One question, though: If “a Soviet agent couldn’t be found hunting scientists in China,” as Bucky observes referring to a flashback sequence, then why is he wearing a bloody red star on his shoulder in the same sequence? That said: well-executed textbook superhero stuff, if a little bland.

(Marvel Comics, 22 pages, $ 2.99)

Grade: C+

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Fantastic Four #562, by Mark Millar, Bryan Hitch, et al. I imagine that Mark Millar’s brain must be working something like this: “Utt! The Invisible Woman! She speaks at her own funeral! Wow! Sooo awesome! I’ll go call Hitchy right away!” And then he often goes and calls Bryan Hitch, and they go on to create a story in which the Invisible Woman speaks at her own funeral and all the characters go on basking in the incredible awesomeness of the moment bestowed on them by that awesome creative team, all barely able to mask their total amazement with cool detachment and cynical remarks in exactly the same fashion, thereby making absolutely sure that none of the legitimate awesomeness of Mr. Millar’s initial idea ever makes it into the finished product. Surprisingly enough, this is not one of those stories at all, however. Rather, Mr. Millar and Mr. Hitch turn in a nuanced work with emotionally true characters, insightful dialogues, subtle moments and intriguing mysteries. Whoever this writer is that hijacks Mr. Millar’s comics every now and then, in between all those hollow stories where everything’s cranked up to eleven and nothing escapes the noise, I’d like him to come out and play more often. He’s pretty awesome.

(Marvel Comics, 22 pages, $ 2.99)

Grade: B+

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Kick-Ass #5, by Mark Millar, John Romita, Jr., et al. Um, speaking of cranked up Mark Millar. Welcome to our workshop “Obscene Pandering.” Today’s lesson: name-dropping! MySpace. Newsarama. Heroes. Batman. Superman. Jason Bourne. James Bond. She-Hulk. Nova. Um, Rudolph Giuliani? America’s Next Top Model. Danny Elfman. Star Wars. The Brave and the Bold. Marvel Team-Up. CNN. NBC. David Letterman. Jay Leno. Craig Ferguson. Google. Before you chastise Kick-Ass for pandering to its target audience, of course, you might as well chastise the Pope for being Catholic. How do you judge a comic that prides itself on turning pandering into its own art form? I’m sure Mark Millar conceived Kick-Ass as the ultimate fanboy wish-fulfillment fantasy, and on those terms I can’t call it anything but a roaring success. Yes, the ways in which Kick-Ass seeks to manipulate the reader are frequently desperate, blunt and obvious. But is that because Mr. Millar doesn’t know it any better, or is it because he’s keenly aware that while a more subtle approach might make a better comic, it would also sacrifice attitude and attention – and, ultimately, sales - for quality? I honestly can’t tell, so I might as well give up and go home. Because, clearly, I’m the fool at the table.

(Marvel Comics/Icon, 22 pages, $ 2.99)

Grade: B+

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War Machine #1, by Greg Pak, Leonardo Manco, Jay David Ramos, et al. Well, they’re taking the name literally this time around. Apparently, Iron Man’s buddy James Rhodes was blown to smithereens and brought back as a cyborg by … uh, by someone who may or may not be connected to Tony Stark. At the end, it becomes more or less clear what the book’s overall connection to the “Dark Reign” storyline is. It’s not really explained, though. If you haven’t been following half a dozen other Marvel books, you’ll probably be confused what on earth is going on here, which is one of the reasons why they’re dropping the ball with this debut issue. Another one are the hideous colors. “The brighter and the more colorful, the better,” Mr. Ramos’ approach to coloring War Machine seems to be. Suffice it to say, I strongly disagree, now that my eyes have recovered sufficiently to type it up. More importantly, though, James Rhodes strikes me as a deeply phony character here. The guy loses his arms, his legs, half his face and Lord knows what else, but apparently it never bothers him. On the contrary, when he comes to later on, he seems in high enough spirits to quip away. And then he says things like “… the world needs a War Machine,” and he wants to “… kill the %$#& out of ‘em right back.” (“’Em” being, of course, “’em” bad guys.) And other people in the book agree with him, in fact, “… as long as he murders the %$#& out of those animals …” Evidently, if Mr. Pak has any say in it, killing the %$#& out of someone is the first big comics trend of 2009. Don’t get me wrong: It would be great if it was actually meant to be funny. On the positive side, War Machine #1 has 27 expertly saddle-stitched pages, drawn by Leonardo Manco, which look kinda kewl if you can imagine them in black and white and without the text. But no. Bloody awful, really.

(Marvel Comics, 27 pages, $ 2.99)

Grade: D-

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Ed Brubaker and Sean Phillips’ Incognito #1 also came out this week. Since I had a little more to say on that one, though, it gets its own review, right here.

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