Monday, February 16, 2009

The Weekly Chain Reaction: February 11, 2009

In retrospect, I think I was a little hard on Incognito #1, so I give it another go with the second issue—also out this week (by which I mean last week, of course)—right here.

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The Amazing Spider-Man #586, by Marc Guggenheim, Barry Kitson, et al. For my sins, the dullness of the “Character Assassination” storyline is prolonged by an “interlude,” the purpose of which is to dump unto the reader all the essential information required to care about last issue’s reveal of the secret identity of Menace. Of course, it doesn’t quite work this way. I’m supposed to care about the character by the time the big reveal happens, if it’s meant to carry any force. This material should have been dispersed over the 40 issues leading up to this storyline, not tacked onto the middle of it with a staple gun. The execution of the piece is painting-by-numbers, anyway. The story treads from plot point A to plot point Z in predictable fashion, while the characters’ emotional reactions cover the entire stretch between “phony” and “phoned-in.” Can we please get Mark Waid and Joe Kelly back? They did stuff.

(Marvel Comics, 22 pages, $ 2.99)

Grade: C-

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Batman #686, by Neil Gaiman, Andy Kubert et al. The first chapter of the two-part “Whatever Happened to the Caped Crusader?” gives us The Death of Batman—not as a coda to Grant Morrison’s storyline, but as a “myth” in its own right. The approach here is to have key supporting characters tell their stories of how they killed Batman. They’re “fake” stories, of course, but the truth is in the subtext: It seems the characters Mr. Gaiman picks to relate their tales are all people who could have somehow prevented Batman from dying but didn’t, each in their own way. As you can tell, it’s a bit meta. The creators have a lot of fun with the concept—there are quite a few nice moments in the script, while Andy Kubert easily turns in the best work of his career. On the downside, this is another one of those stories that are banking heavily on nostalgia and on the character’s status as an “icon.” As a result, everything seems a bit stiff and reserved, and you’re losing a lot of the fun that comes from watching a rich guy dressed in a funny suit trying to fight crime. The comic is smart and good-looking and well-told, certainly; but to be honest, it doesn’t really give me the sense that there’s a great Batman story Neil Gaiman desperately needed to tell—more tension or a few more character moments would not have been amiss.

(DC Comics, 32 pages, $ 3.99)

Grade: B-

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Captain Britain and MI13 #10, by Paul Cornell, Leonard Kirk, et al. Like Warren Ellis famously did with Excalibur, Gen13 and StormWatch back in the 1990s, Paul Cornell sends Captain Britain and company to the pub. Now imagine this scene: While his teammates are having a good time, Blade the Vampire Hunter is “standing in the corner, arms folded, sunglasses on, not saying a word.” Some local guys walk up to him and tell him that they “don’t appreciate the #@$%&$ pose.” If you handed this as a prompt to ten random pop-comics writers, chances are you’d end up with ten bar-fight scenes—maybe nine, if you’re lucky. But not here. In Mr. Cornell’s hands, Blade stares at them for a moment, then removes his glasses and goes, “You’re right. I guess I’ve been around super heroes [sic] too long.” Which, besides being an immeasurably cool moment and a neat bit of meta-commentary, is Why I Like Paul Cornell in a Nutshell: He doesn’t just put his characters through the motions, but refines them to a point where what they say and do is surprising and insightful. Or, put in a different way, he’s an actual writer. In other news: Dracula! Doctor Doom! On the Moon! This is great stuff.

(Marvel Comics, 22 pages, $ 2.99)

Grade: B+

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The Phantom: Ghost Who Walks #0, by Mike Bullock, Silvestre Szilagyi, et al. The book’s cover shows a grainy image of the Phantom’s skull ring—a giveaway of the quality that lurks inside, as it turns out. The story as such tells the Phantom’s origin, in bog-standard flashback mode and with all the verve of a random 1940s superhero comic. I guess it “does the job,” in a purely functional way, because it tells you what the origin is, but I can’t imagine anyone coming away from this with anything but a deep sense of dread. The ordeal takes 10 pages of completely nondescript artwork accompanied by the kind of faux-archaic first-person narration that drives people off cliffs, steeped in shoddy grammar and punctuation. Seriously: This is terribly amateurish stuff. At least get a bloody proofreader before you start the presses, for heaven’s sake.

(Moonstone, 10 pages, extra material, $ 1.99)

Grade: D-

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Thor #600, by J. Michael Straczynski, Stan Lee, Chris Giarrusso, Olivier Coipel, Marko Djurdjevic, David Aja, Jack Kirby, et al. A.k.a. the 13th issue of J. Michael Straczynski’s Thor, pretending that the original numbering was never interrupted during the character’s 45-year publication history. Mr. Straczynski essentially turns in a big fight scene, pleasantly but not always convincingly realized by Frenchman Olivier Coipel. (German upstart Marko Djurdjevic, who’s trying out yet another new style, is helping out, in a division of labor that makes sense and is justified by the story.) There’s at least one very cool moment, as well as a payoff that earns back all the fisticuffs and takes the plot in an interesting, reasonably original direction. And the book is value for money, too—five bucks will buy you 42 pages by the regular creative team, plus 18 pages worth of new backup stories (solid but inessential, as expected; though artist David Aja draws some fun stuff in his 11-pager), plus 25 pages of older material that provides context on the lead story and hasn’t been reprinted ad nauseam already (… plus a six-page gallery displaying each and every one of the 600 covers—great fun to stare at for a few hours, obviously). It’s like the mother of all anniversary specials, really. Perhaps this is Marvel’s way of apologizing for the price increase with issue #601; either way, it’s a nice gesture, but it doesn’t change my mind about dropping out. I like the book, but it’s too fluffy to justify spending $ 3.99 for 22 pages. I’m switching to paperbacks on this one.

(Marvel Comics, 85 pages, $ 4.99)

Grade: B

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Speaking of paperbacks, I’ve been planning to review the first volumes each of Northlanders and Kane for a while, so look for those pieces sometime over the next week or so.

Until then, reviews of last week’s The Mighty #1 and Soul Kiss #1 are still up and ready to be perused.


Michael Rawdon said...

I've found Straczynski's Thor to be relentlessly boring - even more so than his other comics efforts. I kept waiting for something to happen, yet the series keeps limping along with a promise that something will happen, but only at a glacial pace. I'd hoped everything would come to a head in #600, but instead it's just set-up for the next phase in the arc. So I'm giving up on the book completely.

Marc-Oliver Frisch said...


Yeah, that's what I mean with "fluffy." I don't mind the pacing, personally, but at $ 3.99, it's too little bang even for me. The book probably reads better in larger chunks, anyway.