Monday, January 26, 2009

The Weekly Chain Reaction: January 21, 2009

I wonder how all these mediocre Marvel books ended up in my box. I’ll have to make a note: Cut down on mediocre Marvel books.

But I’m getting ahead of myself.

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The Amazing Spider-Man #584, by Marc Guggenheim, John Romita, Jr., et al. Spider-Man shot by the police: interesting! What happens next? Well, he loses buckets of blood, escapes from two police officers in an elevator shaft and evidently passes out for several hours in an upper floor of the same building, undisturbed by the police – or by any people at all, for that matter. After which he gets up, goes home and takes a shower. Or, in fewer words: Pffft. There are ways to drain the drama out of a good set-up, and then there are Marc Guggenheim stories.

(Marvel Comics, 23 pages, $ 2.99)

Grade: D

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Astonishing X-Men #28, by Warren Ellis, Simone Bianchi, et al. Regular readers will be delighted to hear that the X-Men have their personalities back. Mr. Ellis even manages to fool me here: Just when I’m wondering what all the sudden references to older stories are meant to accomplish, it turns out that the characters are play-acting to distract a hidden attacker. Overall, though, the story seems awfully formulaic. Also, I’m of two minds about Mr. Bianchi’s art; his drawings are gorgeous, certainly, but the panel-to-panel storytelling lacks, and everything is veiled by the mists of Avalon. Given that neither the Lady of the Lake nor King Arthur are likely to pop up anytime soon, that’s a bit of a snag.

(Marvel Comics, 22 pages, $ 2.99)

Grade: C

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Dark Avengers #1, by Brian Michael Bendis, Mike Deodato, et al. Aha, so this is the book Brian Bendis was excited about while he was writing Secret Invasion. It’s not half bad, actually, if you’re into the shared-universe stuff. The plot consists of new Über-villain Norman Osborn assembling his own Avengers team. The group’s roster doesn’t come as a big surprise to anyone who’s been keeping up with the Marvel Universe, but there’s certainly some good potential for conflict there. For once, Mr. Bendis even manages to give the characters convincingly distinguished voices. The one annoying thing about the comic is that Mr. Deodato keeps drawing the two Ms. Marvel characters like they’re dancing around a pole all the time, but maybe he just doesn’t know better. Apart from that, it’s a perfectly good, if rather predictable Marvel Universe comic - not good enough to make me follow the series at $ 3.99 a pop, certainly, but much better than I thought it was going to be.

(Marvel Comics, 32 pages, $ 3.99)

Grade: C+

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Final Crisis: Superman Beyond #2 (of 2), by Grant Morrison, Doug Mahnke, et al. An evil god building a bridge into the Multiverse, corrupted Monitors, thought robots, the denizens of Limbo fighting not to be purged from memory – Superman Beyond has lots of meta-commentary, to nobody’s surprise. If you like that sort of thing, the inscription on Superman’s tombstone is a neat little twist. Mr. Morrison doesn’t break any new ground here, but the book does offer one of the more focused and story-oriented takes on his pet themes. There sure is a lot of defiance, explosions, rage, love and pain going on here. Mr. Mahnke’s art is plainly fantastic, even if, like me, you boycott the 3D effect that’s presumably responsible for the extra 50 cents. (No deep ideological reasons; the glasses just make me dizzy.) It’s a good comic, but you can certainly tell it was initially meant to be published as a one-shot special. It’s the sort of thing you can read ten times in a row and still discover new stuff. (Or just read once without going back to the first issue and be utterly confused.)

(DC Comics, 32 pages, 3D gimmick, $ 4.50)

Grade: B+

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Ghost Rider #31, by Jason Aaron, Tan Eng Huat, Roland Boschi, et al. Um, I quite like Tan Eng Huat’s art, but this issue looks odd. Partially, that’s because colorist José Villarrubia is making some very bizarre choices here: bright orange skies? Bright green and yellow walls and floors for characters dressed in bright blue and purple?! Bright grey ground in the jungle?!? But mainly, it’s because Mr. Huat plainly doesn’t bother to draw proper backgrounds - or, more to the point, textures. I’m sorry, but with the best will in the world, a perfectly flat ground just isn’t something you find a lot in a jungle, no matter what tricks the poor colorist ends up pulling out of his hat to make it more palatable; and those are just the most egregious examples. Plotwise, we’re evidently at the point where lots of stuff needs to be set up for the story’s big finale, so that’s all we get here. It’s rather formulaic, and let’s be frank: People standing around talking isn’t why anybody reads Ghost Rider. It’s a rather weak episode, all told. The writing is too dull, and the art too bright, for a comic about a biker with a burning head.

(Marvel Comics, 22 pages, $ 2.99)

Grade: C

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The Mighty Avengers #21, by Dan Slott, Khoi Pham, et al. I quite like the idea at the core of the book: Hank Pym, always a bit deficient in the self-worth and identity department, comes up with yet another costumed alias; he calls himself the Wasp now, after his recently deceased ex-wife. Hey, why shouldn’t gender be among the things he’s insecure about? But that story – the real story – only starts when we’re already halfway through the book, unfortunately. Instead of using Pym as a lens for his narrative, Mr. Slott decides to go with the most boring set-up scenario of them all. His main concern seems to be to make the plot bulletproof against such fascinating questions as, “Why didn’t they just call the Fantastic Four?” or, “Why didn’t they just call the X-Men?” or, “Why didn’t they just call Omega Flight?” No, sorry, that was sarcasm. (The “fascinating” part, not the “Omega Flight” part. The book does have Omega Flight in it.) I’ll try to make up for it with some honest advice: As a general rule of thumb, if you’re spending eighteen pages on a conflict that’s pretty clearly going to be resolved by some permutation of the infamous “cosmic reset button,” then that’s probably seventeen pages too much, unless it’s a reeeally interesting conflict. In this case, it’s seventeen-and-a-half pages too much. I like what Mr. Pham does with some of the facial expressions, though. It’s a shame he doesn’t have much to work with.

(Marvel Comics, 36 pages, $ 3.99)

Grade: D+

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Uncanny X-Men Annual #2, by Matt Fraction, Mitch Breitweiser, Daniel Acuña, et al. Didn’t Mr. Breitweiser’s art have a more photorealistic look to it a few years ago? In this book, it looks a lot more like John Paul Leon’s stuff, to the point where I first assumed the credits were wrong. Anyway, the book provides some backstory for Namor and Emma Frost’s membership in Norman Osborn’s new inner circle of darkly reigning bad guys. As such, it’s competent enough. There are some fun character moments, but also a few question marks. Shouldn’t Sebastian Shaw have some kind of defense mechanism against telepathic attacks by now? Why does Emma look like she’s on crack on the cover? (Yanick Paquette is the artist, I believe.) And, um, this little gem: “The power on the land that the Hellfire Club would allow you would be matched only by the prestige your presence would grant us.” I understand things can get hasty now and then in the monthly business, but surely, this is the stuff editors should straighten out a bit, before somebody loses an eye. 

(Marvel Comics, 38 pages, $ 3.99)

Grade: C

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X-Factor #39, by Peter David, Valentine de Landro, et al. Mr. David had something going here, but he ends up botching it. Without spoiling the plot, a traumatic event occurs for two of the characters, and it’s not a bad idea at all, in story terms. In fact, it’s even a pretty good one, as these things go: a very simple, very effective development - one which absolutely makes sense, but which you probably didn’t see coming. (Well, I did, but only just before I turned the page.) When it comes to dealing with the fallout, however, all we get is meaningless chatter and some other reactions that, I’m sorry, just seem phony. I can acknowledge that the story at least tries to do something different here, but it ends up back on the well-trodden path, and it doesn’t even look like much of the cast’s dynamic will be changed as a result. While the artwork is an improvement over previous issues, the fact that Valerie Cooper suddenly looks like Cameron Diaz is one of those gratuitous little distractions that take you right out of the story.

(Marvel Comics, 22 pages, $ 2.99)

Grade: C+

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X-Men: Legacy #220, by Mike Carey, Scot Eaton, et al. Ah, back when they used to print credits in the comics – those were the days. On the one hand, I want to like this book, because Mr. Carey has clearly done his homework on the characters’ backstory and mostly succeeds at using it productively here, in terms of moving the story forward. But then again, while it’s all very neat and tidy, it’s also very plot-oriented, with little else in the way of thrills. Unless you’re already a hardcore X-Men fan, I can’t imagine X-Men: Legacy doing anything to win you over. It’s well-executed but ultimately formulaic genre comics, and it’s scarcely inspiring. I expect a little more from Mr. Carey, to be honest. And, please, can we cut the “ah”s and the “mah”s from Rogue’s dialogue?

(Marvel Comics, 22 pages, $ 2.99)

Grade: C

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I also bought the first issue of Jeff Parker and Tom Fowler’s Mysterius, but – fingers crossed – that one will get its own review in a couple of days, because I have a feeling that it might be good.

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