Friday, December 23, 2011

Closed for the Holidays

It pleases me to say that there is the kind of activity here again that enables me to take a bona fide break. So thank you for reading, merry Christmas, and see you in 2012!

Spidey Sunday Spectacular

Marvel, 36 pages, $ 3.99

Writer: Stan Lee
Artist: Marcos Martin
Colorist: Muntsa Vicente, Javier Rodriguez
Letterer: Joe Caramagna

This book reprints 12 two-page “Spidey Sunday” strips originally published in Amazing Spider-Man #634 through 645, as well as the “Identity Crisis” short from issue #600, all of which were written by Spider-Man co-creator Stan Lee and drawn by Marcos Martin, who is probably one of the Top 5 artists working in commercial U.S. comics right now.

And, boy, does Martin go to town here. One of the first times the Spanish artist made my Jaw drop was when he drew a beautiful panorama of 1930s New York City in a double-page splash in the Captain America 70th Anniversary Special a couple of years back.

This time around, he’s doing it times 12, basically: The city doesn’t feature prominently in all of the panorama spreads collected here, but they still all somehow manage to have the depth of a cityscape. It’s incredible what Mr. Martin brings to the table in terms of depth and perspective and page layout. The lines and figure work look equal parts Steve Ditko and HergĂ© here. Most of all, though, Martin’s art suggests a sense not just of movement between the individual panels, but of rhythm—something that virtually none of his peers manage of pull off on a consistent basis. The earlier 12-page story included here as a back-up is less spectacular visually, but still hints at Martin’s gigantic potential as a storyteller.

I know I don’t give colorists nearly enough credit in my reviews, and that said, the bright, perfectly nuanced color work Muntsa Vicente applies to Martin’s art on these two-pagers plays a huge part in their appeal. It’s lovely stuff.

Stan Lee is being Stan Lee, which is to say expect to be won over by the charm rather than by the complex plots or suspense. Mostly, Mr. Lee’s aim seems to be to give his collaborator a frame in which to work his magic and then step out of the way. The result is a harmless and inoffensive romp, but every now and then Lee takes you by surprise, goes meta and casually reminds you that he knows his stuff and still has a trick or two up his sleeve. For instance, I love the part when the bad guys go “No time to explain. It slows down the story!” I wish Mr. Lee had told this to all those goofy “New 52” writers. He’s still very much on top of this.

So, all told, there are worth ways of cleansing the palate for 2011 than this book, in terms of reviews. If you don’t already have the Amazing Spider-Man issues this originally appeared in, track down a copy—the art alone is more than worth the price of admission, and Stan Lee still knows how it’s done.

Grade: B+

Thursday, December 22, 2011

The Rinse #1

Boom! Studios, 22 pages, $ 1.00

Writer: Gary Phillips
Artist: Marc Laming
Colorist: Darrin Moore
Letterer: Steve Wands
Cover artist: Paul Azaceta

The Rinse is a baffling comic, for a number of reasons.

This type of material—no fantastic elements, no big-name creators or characters, no superheroes—is a tough sell in the U.S. market, and so it’s laudable for publishers to try and broaden the market, particularly with the sort of commitment that results in the $ 1.00 price tag. So far, so good.

But that said, particularly if you’re willing and able to promote this kind of book with this kind of incentive, it helps to make sure that the material merits the push. And so it’s puzzling when you read the thing, and it turns out to be a run-of-the-mill story about a run-of-the-mill grifter.

I mean, this isn’t horrible so much as horribly mediocre. When the prose comes with clunkers like “I’ll get you… get you good,” or “I’m your worst nightmare,” that’s as good a sign as any that, maybe, it’s time to go back to the drawing board and wonder what exactly it is that you want to be bringing to the table. The overall storytelling is exactly as imaginative and light-footed as the aforementioned samples would suggest.

More to the point, though, even with the best execution in the world, this would still be a pretty standard grifter story starring a good-looking, slick money-launderer. There’s not a lot of meat beyond the well-worn genre tropes, and the tropes themselves have been done better.

What’s the idea?

Grade: D

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

The Big Lie #1 (of 1)

Image Comics, 27 pages, $ 3.99

Writer/penciler: Rick Veitch
Inker: Gary Erskine
Colorist: Dominic Regan
Letterer: Annie Parkhouse
Cover artist: Thomas Yeates

Arguably, it’s moot to judge something on its merits as a story when it turns out that telling a story was never the point. But given that The Big Lie, released in time for the 10th anniversary of the September 11 attacks, comes with a price tag and is published by Image Comics, a joint that usually tends to publish stories, I think it’s fair game, so here we go.

If you do purely judge this as a story, at any rate, and if you accept the premise that the September 11 attacks are fair game for stories, then the premise here isn’t half bad. The question writer/artist Rick Veitch starts out with is, What if you could travel back in time and were given a shot at saving the people who died on September 11, 2001?

The time-travelling protagonist of the story is Sandra Stratton, a physicist whose husband worked in one of the upper floors of the World Trade Center, and who went on to invent a time machine that enabled her to travel back to the date of the attacks 10 years later.

Unfortunately, that’s when the book throws any pretense at being a story overboard and turns into an all-out advertisement for 9/11 conspiracy theories.

Question: You’ve had 10 years to plan, you invented a time machine that works, and suddenly you’re standing in front of the World Trade Center on the morning of September 11, 2001, about one hour before the first plane hits.

What do you do?

Option A: You call in a bomb threat to get people evacuated. Option B: You run in the middle of a busy cross section and almost get yourself killed by four cars simultaneously.

For our protagonist, Option B is the answer.

When this cunning plan fails and she survives against all odds, Sandra decides to go up to her husband’s office, act hysterically, tell everyone she’s from the future and use her Ipad (wink, wink) to show her husband and his colleagues what’s about to transpire.

This happens on page 6. For the rest of the “story,” Sandra, her husband and the other characters present are hijacked by the book’s overriding political agenda and reduced to exchanging the pertinent Truther talking points.

It’s the comics version of that guy who yells at you in the street, and it’s every bit as engaging.

Now, there’s nothing inherently wrong about creators having an agenda, of course. If they get a good comic out of it, more power to them. The Big Lie is not that comic, however.

The creators throw the story’s internal logic overboard almost immediately, and it’s clear that there was never any interest in exploring the premise to begin with. The page-to-page storytelling and the characters are one-dimensional in a way that suggests the material was intentionally geared towards meeting its audience at the lowest common denominator of what someone who read their last comic book 40 years ago might expect a current comic book to be like.

For something that pays so much lip service to the notion of “truth,” it’s amazing how little of it made it into the storytelling. The characters in the book are the phoniest and sorriest bunch of exposition delivery machines I’ve seen in a while. No character with a speaking part behaves in a way that’s broadly recognizable as “human” in this story.

Ultimately, it’s baffling that Image published this nonsense—not because of any offensive subject matter, but because it’s such an offensively crummy and ham-fisted effort as a comic. It’s hard to view this as anything but a cynical and fairly transparent attempt to make a few bucks on the media attention on the September 11 attacks.

Grade: F

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Snarked #0

Boom!/Kaboom!, 8 pages plus extra material, $ 1.00

Writer/artist: Roger Langridge
Colorist: Rachelle Rosenberg

Roger Langridge’s new kids’ comic is based on the Lewis Carroll poem “The Walrus and the Carpenter”: The story is about Wilburforce J. Walrus (an anthropomorphic walrus) and Clyde McDunk (a carpenter), who live together in a little fairy house near the beach, in a little fairy town ruled by a fairy king who’s lost at sea. In the meantime, the kingdom rests in the hands of his two little kids, the princess and her little brother, the prince. There are oysters, too.

If you’re familiar with Langridge’s work at all, it won’t come as a great surprise to you that he nails it in the “charm” and “craft” departments. The material is neat, harmless fun, and there’s a good chance that it’ll make you smile a couple times even if you’re not, you know, a kid. Delightfully, in the spirit of Carroll, Langridge opted to forgo the need for easy and heavy-handed moral lessons. If anything, his story says that it’s okay to be a little bit of a scamp, as long as you don’t overdo it—and even if you are overdoing it, you may still get lucky.

Rather than to hammer home the author’s idea of ethical behavior, the material appeals to the reader’s own ethics: Hey, why is Mister Walrus blaming Mr. McDunk for his own mistakes? Why is he lying? That’s not right… right?

Which isn’t just a more effective way of making a point, but also more fun to read.

On the other hand, I think it wouldn’t have hurt for Walrus to have some redeeming features. At the end of the day, he’s the one who gets the most screen time, after all. It’s faithful to Carroll’s version, certainly, but while making the protagonist a lazy, stealing, lying, at times even outright cruel meany with no empathy for anyone may work for the duration of a poem, an ongoing comic is a different matter.

Also, and I realize I’m the biggest dork on the planet for bringing this up, I wanted to know what kind of a living arrangement it is that Walrus and McDunk share here—not necessarily in a werthammy kind of way, but in terms of story logic. Why is a Walrus living with a carpenter? And why is the carpenter carrying a hammer that he evidently never uses?

Hey, the kids want to know!

But this is only an eight-page teaser, of course (plus 14 pages of sketches, games and prose that tie in with the story, including a reprint of the Carroll poem), and as such it’s a perfectly fine story. We’ll be finding out more about this little town as the series progresses, surely, and we already know it’s in good hands with Roger Langridge.

There’s every chance the kinks and reservations will be hammered out before long.

Grade: C+

Monday, December 19, 2011

Kirby: Genesis #0

Dynamite Entertainment, 12 pages plus extra material, $ 1.00

Writers: Kurt Busiek, Alex Ross
Artists: Jack Herbert, Alex Ross
Colorist: Vinicius Andrade
Letterer: Simon Bowland

Besides half the Marvel Universe and Darkseid and the New Gods over at DC, Jack Kirby also created hundreds of lesser-known characters that didn’t end up being owned by his publishers. That’s where Kirby: Genesis comes in, a whole publishing line at Dynamite spearheaded by Alex Ross and Kurt Busiek, all based on Kirby concepts like Captain Victory, Silver Star and others, some of which haven’t even appeared in stories before.

In this 12-page teaser (stuffed out with concept art, information and previews), the story briefly introduces the protagonist, a boy named Kirby, and presents the starting point for the plot: After more than 25 years, a space probe launched from Earth in 1972—this actually happened—reaches far-flung worlds populated with all kinds of Kirby-created characters and creatures. Actually, it first reaches what looks like a big cluster of bright, shiny Kirby Crackles, which is a neat touch.

And that’s it, pretty much.

Judging from the information given in the story, it’s meant to take place around 1997, so presumably issue #1 will kick off in the present, with a grown-up Kirby facing the arrival of those aliens attracted by the space probe—which, handily, has been out of reach since 2003, at which point it was “12 billion-kilometers” away from Earth. Presumably, that’s a lot.

It’s a good story hook, because it’s the type of science fact that inspires the imagination. And imagination seems to be the core theme of the story. The set-up is kind of meta, in part—Jack Kirby himself puts in an appearance on the cover and on the first page—, but not in an intrusive way. The tone is very much that of an adventure story, although it does emphasize the notion that it’s our imagination that’s the adventure.

The trade dress recalls Marvels, of course, Busiek and Ross’s big previous collaboration, and the work of Brazilian artist Jack Herbert, who’s finishing and inking Alex Ross’s rough pencils here, is very reminiscent in style of Brent Anderson, who draws Busiek’s own Astro City series. While those reference points are as good as any to give you an idea of the general tone of the story, though, Genesis is still very much its own thing.

I tend to like Busiek’s work, but I was skeptical about this project. I’m left utterly cold by most of Kirby’s non-Marvel creations, to be honest—I enjoy looking at the stuff he did at DC and elsewhere, but I don’t see much of an appeal to it once you take Kirby himself out of the equation.

So my first thought here was that I’d probably rather see Busiek do his own comics, with his own characters, than to try and breathe life into some lesser Kirby creations.

That said, however, Kirby and his imagination are part of the concept here, and—if this teaser is any indication—that’s the reason why this is clicking for me. Kirby thought of superheroes as a manifestation of humanity’s self-image: “The comic strip superheroes and heroines,” he’s quoted as having said in the back of the book, “personify humanity’s innate idealism and drive.”

And that’s an aspect of the genre that’s endlessly fascinating to me: The superhero as an expression of humanity’s imagination and potential that’s able to bridge fiction and reality—it’s an aspect that’s informed the superhero stories of writers like Steve Gerber or Grant Morrison, for instance, and that Watchmen, for all its achievements, seems to have spoiled for an entire generation of comics creators.

Not much of this is on the page here yet, mind you, but the story suggests enough of it for me to keep an eye on this and make a note to get the collection, once the main eight-part miniseries has wrapped up. It’s rock-solid stuff, from a page-to-page standpoint, and I’m curious where the creators are going with it.

Grade: B

Friday, December 16, 2011

Wolverine: Debt of Death

Marvel, 34 pages, $ 3.99

Writer: David Lapham
Artist: David Aja
Colorist: Bettie Breitweiser
Letterer: Dave Lanphear

There’s an entire subgenre of Wolverine stories in which “an old friend” requires Logan’s help, and Wolverine: Debt of Death is one of those. As in many stories of this particular ilk, the old friend here, too, happens to be from Japan.

The call for help, handily, involves the Yakuza and big evil robots from World War II, as well as Nick Fury—as good a mix as any for a fun Wolverine story.

Mr. Lapham turns in a crisp action thriller here, no more, no less. There are a couple of plot holes: How do the robots know whether Kanaye is alive or dead? And how can a regular guy survive a fall from the S.H.I.E.L.D. helicarrier without a parachute? Then again, maybe being a bit harebrained comes with the territory: It’s all about the action.

That’s important, because the selling point here is artist David Aja, of course. And Debt of Blood delivers. Mr. Aja’s artwork doesn’t just look awesome, but draws you into the story in a way that few of his peers manage. His robots look as gorgeous and awe-inspiring as his regular people wearing regular things; his panel-to-panel storytelling skills and the way he stages the action are just a beauty to behold.

The story itself may not be much to write home about, but Lapham deserves credit for giving Aja cool stuff to draw, and that’s the main thing here.

Grade: C+

Thursday, December 15, 2011

Avengers 1959 #1 (of 5)

Marvel, 19 pages, $ 2.99

Writer/artist: Howard Chaykin
Colorist: Jesus Aburtov
Letterer: Jared K. Fletcher

Well, this is a comic written and drawn by Howard Chaykin, so you know what you’re in for.

Oh, you don’t?

Okay, in a nutshell: The characters are a dashing, wise-cracking, more than a little bit snotty bunch, and there’s a lot of sex and violence.

Also: textures. Many, many, many textures. Dense, computer-generated textures, mainly pertaining to clothing and floors, but also to other surfaces in the story. In this instance, there’s more textures than sex, even, given that the book is rated for “teens and up.”

Still, Avengers 1959 is very much your vintage Howard Chaykin comic. And it’s a brilliant choice of a vehicle for him, too, since the concept fits his sensibilities to a tee.

The story features yet another heretofore unseen group of Avengers that was active in the late 1950s—I understand they were first introduced in a recent issue of New Avengers that also had art by Mr. Chaykin—specializing in Nazi hunting.

The group includes Chaykin’s signature Marvel character Dominic Fortune, as well as Kraven the Hunter, Sabretooth, Namora, Bloodstone and a guy named Silver Sable—the father of the eponymous sometimes-Spider-Man ally, I presume. The leader of the group is (who else) Nick Fury.

So that’s quite an eclectic cast there.

On the downside, the plot is awfully formulaic, and the characters don’t seem particularly distinctive or well-rounded yet. I mean, 11 of the book’s 19 pages are devoted to four scenes in which individual Avengers members are attacked by the bad guys, and the other eight pages make up the introduction, two interludes and a cliffhanger ending. It’s not the most ingenious way ever of building a genre story.

That said, all the Chaykin trademarks—which, lest we forget, also include rock-solid storytelling, stylish art and snappy dialogue—are there, and the book is shaping up to be a fun, fast-paced romp through the period Marvel Universe, including visits in Latveria and Wakanda. There’s a lot to like here, if you think that might be your cup of tea.

Grade: C+

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Secret Avengers #16

Marvel, 22 pages, $ 3.99

Writer: Warren Ellis
Artist: Jamie McKelvie
Colorist: Matthew Wilson
Letterer: Dave Lanphear
Cover artists: John Cassaday and Paul Mounts

I don’t usually read Secret Avengers, but #16 is the first of six issues written by Warren Ellis, each of which containing a full story illustrated by a different artist.

So, in essence, these six issues of Secret Avengers are going to be a superhero version of Mr. Ellis’ Global Frequency series from 2002 through 2004. After Jamie McKelvie (Phonogram and Suburban Glamour), the remaining five are drawn by Kev Walker, David Aja, Michael Lark/Stefano Gaudiano, Alex Maleev and Stuart Immonen—a pretty good line-up of solid, very distinctive storytellers.

Generally, four dollars is too much for a 22-page comic book, where I’m concerned, but for this type of project, with a full story and a complete creative concept for each individual issue, I’ll gladly pay the cover price.

In Mr. Ellis and Mr. McKelvie’s story, the stealth Avengers team consists of Steve Rogers (the once and future Captain America), Moon Knight, the Black Widow and the X-Men’s Beast. As often in Ellis’ stories, the dialogue is a little too curt and stylized for its own good at times. But overall, the characters are recognizable and well-developed. It’s fun to watch how they interact—not least thanks to McKelvie’s art, which places more emphasis on facial expressions and body language than you usually find in superhero comics.

The story itself is the type of thing superhero comics used to be very good at, but which has somehow become the exception: a complete, fast-paced 22-page high-concept adventure with epic stakes. In a secret, improbably large city beneath the city of Cincinnati, the Secret Empire—one of those awesome super-terrorist organizations of the Marvel Universe—has created a doomsday machine that’s about to destroy Cincinnati. Avengers Assemble!

Well, not quite.

Whereas the Avengers’ usual shtick involves bravado, battle cries and lots of splendor, the operating word here is “secret,” obviously—secret city, Secret Empire, Secret Avengers. And despite the intentionally impossible set-up and archetypal megalomaniacal super-villain plot, the creators sell the notion that this is a serious, no-nonsense stealth mission.

The creators aren’t reinventing the wheel here, but I imagine this approach requires a lot more planning and storytelling skill than you’d think. I’m sure Ellis could just as easily have spread the same story over all six issues with minimal extra effort, and be done with it. This is a fun superhero book.

Grade: B

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Uncanny X-Men #1

Marvel, 29 pages, $ 3.99

Writer: Kieron Gillen
Penciler: Carlos Pacheco
Inker: Cam Smith
Colorist: Frank D’Armata

I rather like what Jason Aaron and Chris Bachalo are doing over in the other half of the “Regenesis” relaunch. Can Kieron Gillen and Carlos Pacheco keep up?

Well, first up, Uncanny X-Men is quite a different book from Wolverine & the X-Men—as it should be, certainly, particularly since Marvel’s promotion pretty much hinged on the fact that these were going to be two very different approaches to the X-Men concept. The lead-in to the relaunch was called X-Men: Schism, after all, and two completely different approaches is what the story is about.

So the X-Men relaunch delivers on that end, if nothing else. Whereas Wolverine’s group returns to the roots of the concept by re-establishing the mutant school in Westchester, Cyclops’ plan is to stay on Utopia, the X-Men’s island in the San Francisco Bay, and, um… well, it’s a little complicated.

Cyclops claims he wants to fight prejudice against mutants by proving that his X-Men can and will save the world where other heroes—and clearly, he’s thinking of the Avengers—would fail. Now, since this tack obviously hasn’t worked out very well for the X-Men so far, he’s suggesting that, as long as prejudices can’t be overcome, the X-Men might as well make sure that humans fear mutants more than they hate them.

So, essentially, Cyclops’ plan is to help humans, while at the same time pursuing a strategy of determent to quell any potential attack plans on Utopia at the root—after all, it’s working for North Korea, right? With a team including the White Queen, Namor and Magneto, among other heavy hitters, the determent part shouldn’t be hard to pull of, certainly.

At first, this sounds good, but the more I think about it, the less I’m convinced it works. What’s supposed to be different from the way the general Marvel Universe public has always regarded the X-Men? They’ve been scared of mutants since day one, and it hasn’t prevented the X-Men from being attacked in the past. So why would that change now?

Then again, it’s always possible that this is just an excuse on Cyclops’ part, of course. Whether or not he’s crossing the line is part of the conflict here, anyway, so it would fit with the overall tone of the story for him to have an agenda that nobody knows about yet. Be that as it may, I don’t really buy the premise here, and I’m not convinced that’s part of the plan.

The character work is sound, at least. It’s Cyclops and Storm with a bunch of former villains, basically, and Mr. Gillen is exploring this dynamic effectively. Much of the issue consists of a big fight that doesn’t knock my socks off, but it’s competent stuff, at least.

My biggest problem with Uncanny X-Men is the art, actually.

Whatever happened to Carlos Pacheco? He used to have a perfectly recognizable and distinctive style, but this is some of the blandest-looking stuff I’ve seen from him. The storytelling and the poses and such are still undeniably his, but the linework looks completely nondescript here.

I don’t think it’s the inker’s fault, since Mr. Pacheco and Mr. Smith have worked together before, and it looked fine. So my best guess would be that it’s Frank D’Armata’s colors—especially since the faces or figures at times look more like Steve Epting’s stuff from Captain America, also colored by Mr. D’Armata, than anything Carlos Pacheco drew in the past. Either way, something’s horribly wrong here.

So, on balance, this is a mixed bag. There’s a lot going on, and it’s a soundly executed comic with some promising ideas. But it looks like the colorist is choking the life life out of Carlos Pacheco’s art, unfortunately, and the writing could use more zest and excitement.

Grade: C+

Monday, December 12, 2011

Wolverine & the X-Men #1

Marvel, 28 pages, $ 3.99

Writer: Jason Aaron
Penciler/colorist: Chris Bachalo
Inkers: Tim Townsend, Jaime Mendoza, Al Vey
Letterer: Rob Steen

In which Jason Aaron and Chris Bachalo turn in the best X-Men story I’ve read in years.

About half a year back, when I saw the X-Men: First Class film, I was wondering why there wasn’t an X-Men comic that’s like it: a busy, self-contained, character-driven comic-book series about a team of young mutants in a world that hates and fears them, with an air of excitement and a sense of humor about itself. In other words: an X-Men comic that goes back to the core of the concept, rather than getting lost in trivia or in the big overall Marvel Universe narrative.

Wolverine & the X-Men is that comic, it seems.

Mr. Aaron and Mr. Bachalo’s debut issue is not as boldly and fearlessly inventive as Grant Morrison and Frank Quitely’s New X-Men #114. And it doesn’t have the nostalgic, almost pastoral charm that Joss Whedon and John Cassaday brought to the characters in Astonishing X-Men #1. But it sits comfortably enough in-between those two to merit the comparison, and you could do a lot worse than that.

The book isn’t perfect. I don’t entirely buy Wolverine or Xavier’s awfully chummy voices in the first few pages, some of the scenes and dialogue could have used a little more oomph, and the set-up—education inspectors getting a tour of the new Jean Grey School for Higher Learning—is familiar.

Still, thanks to the execution, the set-up works, and the overall story is more than just one step in the right direction. The X-Men have always worked best in a school setting, and everything here seems geared towards toning down down the angst and tension level for a bit—which, lord knows, is a good change of pace for the X-Men.

There’s a good mix of characters, as well. Kitty Pryde, Beast and Iceman provide a good, upbeat emotional core for this type of book, and making Wolverine—who is, in many ways, the poster child for grim and gritty, after all—their headmaster provides a nice foil for them.

Curveballs like Doop (the receptionist of the new school), Toad (the janitor!) or intriguing new characters Broo, Kid Gladiator and those little Nightcrawlers provide a welcome injection of new blood. I’m even forgiving the story the presence of Quentin Quire. It was emphatically idiotic to bring him back, in the context of his original appearances in the Grant Morrison run, but having him in the mix here works, if you take the story on its own terms.

Most importantly, though, the creators succeed at selling the characters and the exciting, relaxed, delightfully busy atmosphere of the whole thing. It really does feel like a school full of young people—a real place where things don’t stop happening whenever they’re not on panel.

Of course, Marvel just announced a big crossover storyline that’s about to take over the X-Men books for six months. So this is a miniseries, basically.

That’s a shame, because this is actually a pretty good start. The concept and execution here would have been strong enough to carry an ongoing title.

Maybe next time.

Grade: B

Friday, December 9, 2011

X-Men: Regenesis #1 (of 1)

Marvel, 34 pages, $ 3.99

Writer: Kieron Gillen
Artist: Billy Tan
Colorist: Andres Mossa
Letterer: Rob Steen
Cover artists: Chris Bachalo and Tim Townsend

To their credit, Marvel hasn’t been shy about the fact that someone from the marketing department tends to be present during their plotting retreats. When it was determined to launch Wolverine & the X-Men and relaunch Uncanny X-Men, I imagine that’s where X-Men: Regenesis originated.

It’s not a poorly executed book.

There’s a sense that Mr. Gillen gets the characters right, and his dialogue is fun to read. And while I’ve never seen the appeal of Billy Tan’s art, he does a serviceable job here—apart from Iceman’s hand on page 4, that is, which looks at least one size to small next to his head.

But, lord, this is a pointless story if there ever was one. The book consists of one scene after the other in which Wolverine and Cyclops each try to win over the inhabitants of the X-Men’s Utopia island off San Francisco for their respective teams, one at a time. Cyclops’ group will be staying, Wolverine’s will be leaving, and now it’s time for the X-Men to pick their side.

Except, and this is blindingly obvious as you’re reading this thing, sides were already picked for them well before anyone ever thought of making this book.

I’m sure this sounded better on paper, and Gillen at least tries to do something more with the material by giving it a framing sequence—a symbolic fight between Cyclops and Wolverine in caveman wardrobe, staged around a campfire—that’s meant to serve as a kind of glue for the story. It doesn’t really work, though. If you’re charitable, there’s a thematic connection between the recruitment scenes and the framing backdrop, but it’s a rather tenuous connection.

Overall, I wouldn’t complain if I never saw this type of book again, no matter how well it’s executed. It’s the sort of comic that exists purely because Marvel can make a few more bucks on it. It’s painting by numbers, and not even a lot of numbers: a bit of cosmetics for the fourth-quarter report. There’s no narrative point whatsoever being made here that won’t be covered by the two ongoing titles in due time, and if you skip this, you won’t miss a thing.

Gillen makes the best of it, certainly, but ultimately, X-Men: Regenesis is very far and very obviously removed from any genuine creative impetus.

It’s the worst kind of superhero comic.

Grade: D+

Thursday, December 8, 2011

Butcher Baker, the Righteous Maker #7

Image Comics, 18 pages plus extra material, $ 2.99

Writer: Joe Casey
Artist/colorist: Mike Huddleston
Letterer: Rus Wooton
Logo and graphic designer: Sonia Harris

One of the things I like so much about Butcher Baker is that it doesn’t hide its penises.

For all the grisly violence, the puerile or outright jaw-droppingly awkward notions of sex and the overall testosterone-drenched sensibilities you’re likely to find in virtually half the DC and Marvel superhero comics on sale in a given month, there may be nothing in the whole wide world that their publishers, editors, makers or readers are more afraid of, ironically, than penises.

Have you ever seen the penis of a Marvel or DC superhero other than Dr. Manhattan? I don’t mean the sexual innuendo or the porn parodies. I mean the real deal. Batman is supposed to be a real badass. But, for all we know, he is a badass without a penis. For all we know, Franklin Richards was adopted, Wolverine has a big, hairy set of nothing between his legs, and the Avengers are a bunch of eunuchs.

With Butcher Baker, the hero of Joe Casey and Mike Huddleston’s eponymous superhero series, that’s emphatically different. We’re only seven issues in here, but we’ve seen this guy’s wang repeatedly—and also the wang of his arch-villain, Jihad Jones. Think of Doctor Doom, the Juggernaut or Galactus. Now try to imagine them with whangdoodles befitting their much-invoked villainous presence. See what I mean?

It’s this lack of restraint and creative timidity, this celebration of freedom and naked truth, that makes Butcher Baker such a jolly good comic. The spirit of invention and exploration that Mr. Casey and Mr. Huddleston are bringing to this book is practically oozing from every page. If there’s any any reason at all why anybody in this world might be interested in superheroes as a genre at all, then why shouldn’t they be as unafraid and, literally, as balls-out, as this one?

There isn’t a single aspect of the contents of this book that isn’t, for lack of a better term, cocky as hell. The dialogue is poetically in your face. The layouts and page-to-page storytelling are so sharp and kinetic that you’ll frequently check if the edges of the paper are still there. And Mike Huddleston accomplishes more with his lines, shadows and colors on a single page than most of his peers manage in a year’s worth of Captain Wangless or High-Octave Avengers.

Most superhero comics tend to be concerned with the reason, but completely lack the rhyme. Joe Casey’s superhero books don’t just have the rhyme—they are comics you can dance to.

This has rarely been truer than it is for Butcher Baker, the Righteous Maker. And that’s what makes it indispensable.

That, and the silhouettes with the penises.

Grade: B+

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Haunt #19

Image Comics, 20 pages, $ 2.99

Writer: Joe Casey
Artist: Nathan Fox
Colorist: Fco Plascencia
Letterer: Comicraft

This is the first issue by the new creative team of Joe Casey and Nathan Fox, who worked together before on the highly enjoyable Dark Reign: Zodiac miniseries at Marvel, a couple of years ago. And when was the last time you saw a “New Creative Team!” tagline one a comic? I have no idea what Haunt looked like in its previous 18 issues, but I imagine the tag is merited, given the names.

Well, it’s a Joe Casey superhero comic, all right. It’s all there: the intense Let’s Do Stuff attitude that’s dripping from every page, the sex, the mad over-the-top action action and bloodshed and, perhaps most importantly, a collaborator who makes this one of the best-looking, best-told and visually most unique genre titles in publication.

Mr. Casey seems to have an amazing knack for making comics with some of the most exciting artists around: Nathan Fox, Chris Burnham, Nick Dragotta, Tom Scioli, Andy Suriano, Mike Huddleston, Eric Canete, Charlie Adlard, Chris Weston, etc., and so on. That’s a damn impressive list.

As far as the plot or the concept are concerned, I’m not sure what’s meant to be going on. What I gather is that there’s a guy named Daniel, who lives in New York City, is kind of a top-secret agent (or something) and is frequently visited by the ghost of his brother Kurt.

Kurt talks to Daniel and, if need be, can bond with him, resulting in a visual and superhuman abilities more than a little bit reminiscent of Venom, a Marvel character co-created by Todd McFarlane in the late 1980s—McFarlane being, of course, also the co-creator and owner of Haunt.

Apart from that, there’s not much yet to sink your teeth into. There are two prologues that I’m sure will mean more to me a couple of issues down the road; a missing roommate named Steph; a bizarre-looking nightmare; and a former prostitute (?) friend Daniel has casual sex with—and then there’s the bloodshed, of course.

It’s a lot of bloodshed, in fact, and comparing this with the grim violence that are so popular among the creators of DC’s “New 52” books, the reason why it works here is that Casey and Fox leave absolutely no doubt that this is some over-the-top, fucked-up shit going on here.

Those DC guys, on the other hand, all the time use violence and bloodshed as a means to show that Blue Beetle is a very serious character in very serious situations. Which is not how it works, of course. The sex in Haunt looks more real and intense than the sex in Catwoman, too, for that matter.

On balance, I don’t quite have a clue yet what’s meant to be going on here, but I think I like it. It looks interesting, certainly, and there’s a kind of creative zest and ambition here that I enjoy tremendously. It’s the rare kind of superhero comic that can afford to go totally off the brink—and knows it.

Grade: B

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Jurassic Park: The Devils in the Desert #1 (of 4)

IDW Publishing, 21 pages, $ 3.99

Writer/artist: John Byrne
Colorist: Ronda Pattison
Letterer: Shawn Lee

Cowboys vs. dinosaurs? By John Byrne? Yay!

Well, kind of. As it turns out, there are no real cowboys in the book, contrary to what the cover suggests. It’s set in some U.S. desert small town where folks have cattle, all right, but it’s the present day, unfortunately.

The second big disappointment is that there are no dinosaurs, either. Well, that’s not true: Technically, they’re in there a couple of times. But it’s like in those bad horror flicks where you don’t see the creatures themselves, but look at people reacting to them from within their sharp-toothed mouths.

The actual, whole-hog dinosaurs aren’t seen until the cliffhanger ending, however.

Which is terribly anti-climactic, of course. The comic says “Jurassic Park” on the cover, so it’s kind of annoying of Mr. Byrne to turn the fact that the creatures in the comic are bloody dinosaurs into a cliffhanger.

Then again, the cliffhanger is still a surprise, of course, because, as it turns out, it’s not the fact that it’s dinosaurs that Byrne was being coy about, but the type of dinosaur. It’s a nice sleight of hand that I didn’t see coming. Then again again, it’s also still an anti-climax, because Pteranodons (Pterodactyls? Pteroramalamadingdongs? Flappy dinosaurs!) are about the most unexciting of all the dinosaur creatures.

Be that as it may, The Devils in the Desert is pretty painting-by-numbers creature-feature fare. It’s not terrible, exactly, but the characters and the dialogue have got all the creative charm of an old S.T.D. education pamphlet.

To Byrne’s credit, though, it’s a perfectly up-to-date effort as far as the panel-to-panel storytelling is concerned. The story is told exclusively in horizontal, “widescreen” panels, and—apart from a single very odd panel where a vertical image is just tilted to fit the grid—unlike many of his peers, Byrne actually makes them work. Also, all the text that appears in the book is dialogue—no inner monologues or other narration.

The problematic part, in terms of the page-to-page stuff, is what you don’t get to see. At one point, the characters find the remains of a horse that’s been attacked and half eaten by the dinosaurs, but Byrne doesn’t show it, for some reason; at another, a character points at a very odd trail left behind by some kind of creature—and there’s plenty of room in the panel to show the trail, but there’s still nothing there to see. I assume that latter one is a coloring error, but still.

For a cowboys vs. dinosaurs comic without cowboys or dinosaurs, I guess this is still okay—it did surprise me with the ending, for that matter, even if I thought the reveal was lame.

Grade: D+

Monday, December 5, 2011

New 52 Redux: The Good, the Bad and the Kinky

Taking Stock of the DC Universe Relaunch

Now that I‘ve gone through the whole bunch of individual debut issues (here’s the index for the reviews), let’s take a step back and look at some of the creative concerns and problems of the “New 52” relaunch.

Friday, December 2, 2011

Cold War #1

IDW Publishing, 22 pages, $ 3.99

Writer/artist: John Byrne
Colorist: Ronda Pattison
Letterer: Neil Uyetake

It’s been a while since I last read a John Byrne comic—must have been an issue of X-Men: The Hidden Years, circa 1999 or so. While that series was, shall we say, not the most focused of all superhero adventures, I’ve always had a soft spot for Mr. Byrne’s stuff. German reprints of his work on X-Men, Fantastic Four, Alpha Flight, Namor and She-Hulk were some of the first superhero comics I read, and they’re among the ones I remember more fondly from that period. So, when it was announced that he was going to do a straightforward espionage series starring an MI6 agent, I was game.

Now, on the plus side, Cold War is precisely what it says on the tin: a spy comic set in the 1960s, with all that entails. Its protagonist, British secret agent Michael Swann, is Pierce Brosnan’s James Bond, basically. He’s breezy, but also highly skilled and, if need be, a stone-cold killer; and he’s got a way with the ladies, of course.

The story is very much in the vein of classic genre films like Topaz or Thunderball, peppered with some of the grit found in the more recent Bond movies.

The latter applies to the opening sequence, in particular, which is easily the best and most exciting part of the book. In the wordless, fast-paced 11-page romp, a battered and bruised (and, as we learn later on, tortured) Michael Swann escapes from East Berlin after a mission gone awry. It’s not perfect—at one oddly staged point, I had to look twice, because it looks like the hero just hops through a closed window at first glance; if you look closely, though, there’s at least some broken glass. Still, overall, it’s a well-told sequence.

It’s also one you know from practically every James Bond film ever made, however, and that’s the prevailing impression when it comes to Cold War as a whole, too. Once the actual plot gets underway after the aforementioned opening sequence, there’s no real suspense or drama, because, if you’ve ever seen any Cold War espionage film, nothing that happens in the book is going to be a surprise to you.

It doesn’t help that Byrne practically blows the cliffhanger on the cover, if you pay attention.

And, more importantly, the characters are all stereotypes—and, worse, not even current stereotypes, but the kind you know from 40-year-old films set in the period.

From page to page, Byrne’s instincts as a storyteller are still intact—in this respect, the book is rock-solid. Also, more power to John Byrne for doing his own thing again, and more power to him for picking a genre and subject matter that counts as eccentric by the narrow standards of the direct market, at least. If nothing else, I found Cold War pleasant to read, in a nostalgic, comfort-food kind of way, and because it’s a type of comic that you don’t see very often in the U.S.

Ultimately, though, this is John Byrne doing his own “James Bond in the 1960s” fan-fiction thing, essentially, and there’s not much more to it than that.

Grade: C

Thursday, December 1, 2011

Shadrach Stone:
A Tale of the 21st Century: A Graphic Novel

Penny-Farthing Press, 2010, paperback, 104 pages, $ 19.95

Writer: Stuart Moore
Penciler and colorist: Jon Proctor
Inkers: Jeff Dabu, Jon Proctor
Letterer: Jason Levine

As it turns out, the “graphic novel” part of the subtitle is a bit of a misnomer. Rather than a standalone narrative, this is the first (and, to date, only) book in a projected series. Not that there’s anything wrong with that, mind you—flimsier works have been called graphic novels.

Shadrach Stone is a science-fiction story built around a simple truth: People lie. Its eponymous hero, a literary agent in New York City, may be one of the bigger liars on the planet—right until he undergoes a transformative experience that forces him to change his ways in a rather dramatic fashion, that is.

That’s where the sci-fi stuff comes in, but those are actually the least interesting aspects of the book. It goes like this: Every lie creates a parallel world where the lie is reality. Because those parallel worlds threaten the mainstream, truth-based reality, there’s an international secret organization, called the Force Majeure, whose job is to track down and collapse the rogue realities created by lies. Shadrach is an expert on the subject matter, so they recruit him.

A former editor at Marvel Knights and Vertigo, Mr. Moore knows his stuff when it comes to the page-to-page storytelling, and he’s built this story well. Jon Proctor, likewise, does a solid job with the art. Mr. Proctor’s style has a slick, glossy quality that is strongly reminiscent of Tony Harris’s stuff.

Now, obviously, since this is only the first part of the story, Moore throws quite a few balls in the air. I don’t think I quite understand why the lies create parallel worlds or why those parallel worlds are meant to be a threat. But, of course, all that may be part of the plan, for all we know. There’s a little too much technobabble for my taste when the Force Majeure explain their shtick, but overall, I get the impression that the creators have thought this through.

The problem here, rather, is that the book doesn’t deliver hard enough in its key moments.

First up, in the introduction showing Shadrach as a kid, I don’t quite get to know why he thinks he has to lie, or why it’s so satisfying to him. There’s a lot of glee involved, and without some proper context, I don’t know how to calibrate that. There’s some vague insinuation that his dad doesn’t have much time for him, but that’s not enough. Father issues feature prominently in Moore’s writing for DC’s Firestorm, as well as in his own creations Para and Earthlight, so maybe this will come up at a later point in the story. It should be in here, though. The story should give me more to work with when, on page 7, it turns out that little Shadrach is a big liar.

The second key moment is during the epiphany sequence. I won’t spoil what’s happening in pages 22 through 41, so let’s just say it’s a visually striking sequence, and Proctor’s art sells the time and place of the events. As far as Shadrach himself is concerned, though, the scene loses me. For one thing, the story doesn’t give me any reason to buy why he’s acting the way he does. Who in their right mind would do what he’s doing here? His behavior just doesn’t make sense. It seems unmotivated and dishonest, and that shouldn’t happen—let alone at such a crucial juncture in the story.

Finally, towards the end of the book, Shadrach’s first mission with the Force Majeure ends up being a letdown. The character beats are right, in principle. However, the lead-up to the last scene with Vida should be a big deal, and it isn’t. It’s one of those generic scenarios where the protagonist has to decide between the reality and the fiction. I get that it has to come down to that decision, to a degree, but there’s a very thin line between being too specific and too arbitrary. In this case, it all seems a little too vague and random and non-specific to be convincing as a turning point.

So I’m not really sold on how the protagonist’s character arc is developing here, ultimately; there’s not enough emotional punch behind it. I’m still intrigued by the basic idea, though, and the overall storytelling is rock-solid.

There’s a lot of potential here.

Grade: C+