Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Spaceman #1 (of 9)

DC Comics/Vertigo, 25 pages, $ 1.00

Writer: Brian Azzarello
Artist: Eduardo Risso
Colorists: Patricia Mulvihill, Giulia Brusco
Letterer: Clem Robins
Cover artist: Dave Johnson

If you ever watched a dystopian sci-fi movie in the 1990s—you know, one of those unlikely ones with Arnold Schwarzenegger or Kevin Costner—Spaceman seems quite familiar.

It’s about Orson, a guy built like a gibbon who lives in a post-apocalyptic water-world, uses the kind of technology for phone sex that looks like something straight out of Total Recall or Existenz and earns his keep by trawling for scrap metal. Orson claims to have been part of a government program that genetically modified children for missions to Mars, and if you’ve read the prologue that appeared in the Strange Adventures anthology one-shot a couple months back, there may be something to that. He has flashbacks—or daydreams, as it were—of what looks like a Mars mission.

At some point, while taking his boat out to sea, Orson becomes involved in an abduction case.

And that’s it, pretty much.

There’s the typical, stylized slang Mr. Azzarello tends to pepper his stories with (“Okee,” “That’s LOL LOL LOL,” etc.). There’s Mr. Risso’s attractive, at once expressive and very detailed art. And, once again, they combine to just about sell the characters and their world at any given moment.

But then, it’s all very familiar, and so far there’s not much in terms of urgency or originality here. In some places, the storytelling isn’t altogether clear, either. Towards the end of the book, when the second boat shows up, I had to read that sequence three or four times to comprehend what’s meant to be going on, to whom it’s meant to be happening and on which boat they’re meant to be. It’s not a very well-told scene.

I have enough confidence in this particular creative team to stick around and see how the story plays out, despite the familiarity and the somewhat flawed execution.

Still, so far, there’s not much to see here.

Grade: C

Monday, November 28, 2011

Flash #1

DC Comics, 20 pages, $ 2.99

Co-writer and artist: Francis Manapul
Co-writer and colorist: Brian Buccellato
Letterer: Sal Cipriano

The first 10 pages of Flash #1 are the best introduction to a superhero comic I’ve seen in a long time. It’s just good, stylish, irresistible straightforward storytelling.

To (a) introduce the hero’s civilian identity, including Love Interest A and another supporting cast member, (b) provide, and zoom in on, an establishing shot that gives you a solid sense of place, and (c) kick off the first crisis, with the villains (literally) smashing through the roof, Francis Manapul and Brian Buccellato need only two pages.

A mere 11 panels, to be precise—with dialogue that actually sounds like people talking, rather than some lazy writer unloading information. And the absence of those dreadful, indiscriminate caption boxes that clutter up much of the rest of the “New 52” debuts is both notable and delightful.

What next? Page 3, of course: the Flash, to the rescue. In five horizontal panels separated by the credits, protagonist Barry Allen suits up as the Flash racing towards the reader.

At the center of the masterfully designed double-page spread that follows, we get a good look at the title character. The 12 panels arranged around him in orbital shape continue the story while also providing a lead-in to the series: In the upper right corner, there’s a brief stylized summary of the character’s origin story, while the five panels forming the lower semicircle in the splash are shaped like the letters “F-L-A-S-H.”

We’re only at page 5, and we’ve already got a hero, a secret identity, a supporting cast, a bunch of villains, a conflict, a first act—and a title sequence with a theme song.

Pages 6 and 7, then, show the Flash chasing the attackers, who are attempting escape into the Central City night with one of those helicopter/airplane hybrid things. The layouts here are clear and—apologies for the pun—flashy, but they’re mainly set-up for another eye-catcher.

Consisting of a nine-panel grid (street and buildings) sitting on top of two horizontal panels (the sewers below), page 8 shows the Flash and one of the attackers falling from the sky. In the center panel of the upper grid, the Flash uses his high-speed vibration powers to hurl his opponent through the window of a building to the left (“KRASH”), before he proceeds to vibrate himself through the asphalt (“VVVZZZZ”) and into the sewers (“SPLASH,” of course). The colors in the page accentuate the action and give the scene further focus and depth.

Manapul and Buccellato put in another explosion, and then, as we take a deep breath after all the fast-paced action, slow things down and take a page to have Love Interest B show up at the scene, as we discover that the Flash is fine.

To wrap things up, the sequence gets a full-page epilogue in which the Flash returns an object stolen by the villains to the supporting cast member introduced on page 2 and, as Barry Allen, reconnects with Love Interest A, making an excuse for his absence during the crisis.

And then, after this well-rounded and inventively staged introduction to the series and concept, the actual story begins. It’s good to remember that superhero comics can be fun.

The rest of the issue isn’t entirely as breathtaking as those first 10 pages—it’s only a rock-solid, incredibly well-told, beautifully drawn and colored superhero story. But that’s okay, and there are still some highlights; a birds-eye view of Barry’s office, for instance, or a kinetic and smartly choreographed chase sequence that has Barry jump off a quay wall to pick up speed underwater and re-emerge as the Flash.

And while there’s ample reason to like Flash for what it is, I also like it for what it’s not: There’s no pointless violence or cruelty here and no cheap pandering to the hardcore audience. It’s just two confident storytellers telling their story and trusting the audience to follow.

There are even some caption boxes with an internal monologue in the latter half of the book, but they’re brief bursts that are actually thought-like and fit the pacing at any time and enhance the action, rather than to disrupt it or bore the reader with irrelevant information or other unlikely “thoughts.”

In short, Manapul and Buccellato’s Flash is a celebration of storytelling. Its visuals, its pacing and its layouts radiate rhythm and creative zest. The creators make it look easy, but it isn’t, of course. In an ideal world, every superhero comic would be created with the kind of craft and ambition, thought and deliberation and just plain fun that are on display here.

This creative team is one to watch.

Grade: B+

Sunday, November 27, 2011

Not the Millionth Guy to Draw Spider-Man

An Interview with Chew Artist Rob Guillory

When Chew debuted in 2009, artist Rob Guillory was a blank slate for most comics fans, although his résumé already included work for publishers like Random House or Dark Horse Comics. Guillory’s early publications include a charity project that also counts Stan Lee among its contributors, as well as a short comic published in the first volume of Image’s Popgun series.

For Chew, Guillory has received the Harvey Award for “Best New Talent” in 2010.

Note: The interview was conducted in late 2010. A translated and edited version will appear in the German Chew – Bulle mit Biss! 3: Eiskalt serviert, out in December 2011—in a translation by yours truly, as always.

Saturday, November 26, 2011

Gross, Funny Fun

An Interview with Chew Writer John Layman

John Layman has been around the block in U.S. mainstream comics. As an editor at Jim Lee’s WildStorm Studios, he oversaw influential comics such as Warren Ellis and John Cassaday’s Planetary, Ellis and Cully Hamner’s Red, Joe Casey’s Wildcats Version 3.0 and Mark Millar’s controversial run on The Authority, among others.

While at WildStorm, Layman also created and wrote the fantasy blaxploitation miniseries Bay City Jive. Shortly after, he left the company to write comics for publishers including Marvel, Image, IDW, Dynamite and Oni Press.

In addition to work-for-hire projects like Gambit, Xena and Stephen Colbert’s Tek Jansen, Layman is known for his quirky creator-owned stories. In Puffed!, an Image Comics miniseries with artist Dave Crosland, a boy trapped in a dragon costume is beaten up and left in an after-hours downtown.

In Chew, an ongoing Image series with artist Rob Guillory, a police officer who gets empathic impressions from things he eats is enlisted by the Food and Drug Administration to enforce a poultry prohibition. One of the most critically and commercially successful independent comic books in recent memory, Chew has repeatedly made the New York Times Best Sellers list and won both the Eisner Award and the Harvey Award for “Best New Series” in 2010.

Note: The interview was conducted in late 2010. A translated and edited version was published in the German Chew – Bulle mit Biss! 1: Leichenschmaus. The English-language version was first published at The Beat in February 2011.

Friday, November 25, 2011

Batman: The Dark Knight #1

DC Comics, 20 pages, $ 2.99

Writer and co-plotter: Paul Jenkins
Penciler and co-plotter: David Finch
Inker: Richard Friend
Colorist: Alex Sinclair
Letterer: Sal Cipriano

This is a very odd book to release one week after Scott Snyder and Greg Capullo’s Batman #1. For one thing, David Finch’s style, like Mr. Capullo’s as well, has a lot of the sensibilities popularized by artists like Jim Lee and Todd McFarlane in the early 1990s. For another, if you’ve read Batman, there’s a pervading sense of déjà-vu about the whole thing: Once again, Bruce Wayne talks about what a great place Gotham is to the city’s high society. Once again, there’s a mass breakout at Arkham Asylum.

Mainly, though, The Dark Knight #1 emphasizes what a well-made comic Batman #1 was. Mr. Finch and Mr. Jenkins aren’t turning in a bad comic here, certainly, but in comparison with that other Batman book from the week before, this one couldn’t seem more heavy-handed if it were glued to an anvil. Finch’s repertoire of facial expressions and gestures is as limited as Jenkins’ prose here.

It’s all inoffensive, mostly competent stuff, certainly, but it’s also another generic Batman book in a world that has no lack of generic Batman books. If there’s a distinguishing feature about it, it would be its monstrous physicality, I guess—David Finch’s Batman (like many of his other characters, so it may be incidental more than anything) is built like a brick shit-house.

In its best moments, this comic reminds me of every middling Hollywood action movie I’ve ever seen. In its less successful moments, such as the very first line on the very first page, it tells me, “fear is a cannibal that feeds upon itself,” which is wrong on so many levels that I don’t know where to start.

But, you know. Whatever. The Dark Knight is not a good comic, certainly. And it’s not a bad one, either. It’s a little bit like Batman, only not quite as good. So if generic Batman stories are your cup of tea and early-1990s style storytelling doesn’t put you off, there’s every chance you might like this.

Grade: C-

Thursday, November 24, 2011

Justice League Dark #1

DC Comics, 20 pages, $ 2.99

Writer: Peter Milligan
Artist: Mikel Janin
Colorist: Ulises Arreola
Letterer: Rob Leigh
Cover artist: Ryan Sook

In theory, this type of book should be right up Peter Milligan’s alley: not quite your average mainstream superhero thing, but still well within shouting distance of the mainstream. When Mr. Milligan was writing Marvel’s X-Force (later X-Statix), this proved to be quite a winning formula.

In Justice League Dark, though, not so much. As the title suggests, this is meant to be Vertigo version of the Justice League, basically, set on the dark fringes of the DC Universe—although the book doesn’t yet get to the point where there’s actually a group, and that’s part of the problem here.

The first bunch of pages do a good job setting up the story and establishing an eerie, X-Files-type mood: A woman, evidently disoriented, walks down the street, enters a diner and discovers that there are dozens of her, for some reason. The subsequent double-page spread, showing a busy interchange with multiple accidents occurring at high speed, is certainly something. I don’t recall having seen anything like this in a comic, and that’s always a plus. It’s good, haunting stuff.

But from there, things go downhill. Rather than to pick a focus character and show me what’s interesting about them, Milligan starts to switch from one disjointed scene to the next, introducing one character after another. And there’s not much to sink your teeth into in those pages upon pages of dreary set-up. Yes, I was expecting Shade and Zatanna and John Constantine to show up, sooner or later. Here, it feels like they’re just thrown into the story at random. And what’s that sequence with the Justice League meant to achieve?

Mikel Janin’s art tells the story competently for the most part, and there are a one or two points—such as the aforementioned interchange spread—where he really goes to town. That said, though, it’s very apparent that Mr. Janin uses the computer a lot. His characters rarely look alive, and the poses and facial expressions have a rather static and synthetic quality.

There’s a lot going on in this book, but so far, it doesn’t add up to much. A pretty underwhelming start.

Grade: C-

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

The Fury of Firestorm: The Nuclear Men #1

DC Comics, 20 pages, $ 2.99

Co-plotters: Ethan Van Sciver, Gail Simone
Writer: Gail Simone
Artist: Yildiray Cinar
Colorist: Steve Buccellato
Letterer: Travis Lanham
Cover artist: Ethan Van Sciver

In principle, I don’t mind graphic violence and cruelty in superhero comics. They’re just one more tool from the box that can be applied as required. And, for that matter, the two graphic torture scenes in the debut issue of DC’s latest Firestorm revamp are—in contrast to many others in the “New 52” titles—actually pretty well-executed.

They seem rather out of place in a book about a high-school superhero in a brightly colored costume with puffy sleeves, however. There’s a bit of a tonal clash there, at least, and the rest of the story doesn’t suggest that there was a desperate need for a group of sadistic mercenaries who enjoy torturing and slaughtering children, either. If anything, it makes me wonder if the creators are overcompensating for the perceived goofiness of their title character—which, I think, doesn’t have to be a concern, as long as the story is strong enough to assert its own take on the concept.

As it stands, Firestorm is a mixed bag. Van Sciver and Simone build their series around both Ronnie Raymond (the original, 1978 version of Firestorm, created by Gerry Conway and Al Milgrom) and Jason Rusch (introduced by Dan Jolley and ChrisCross in 2004).

That’s a good approach in theory, if you make the characters distinct enough to get some mileage out of the friction. In practice, though, the story presents Ronnie as a spoiled white football jock and Jason as the poor and socially aware black kid. Sure, they’re meant to be foils, and the script tries to give them some depth. Still, it never quite manages to overcome the sense that it’s all terribly clichéd.

To complicate matters, Firestorm is another book that’s drowning in funky exposition. Take page 4, for instance, where Ronnie is introduced. We see him in the middle of a football game, where he’s at the center of the action—and yet the whole sequence is cluttered with caption boxes, while Ronnie ponders his future. “But I’m never going to be a lawyer or a doctor,” he goes, and on and on, even as he’s grabbing the ball and making split decisions on the field.

The problem here is that the inner monologue and the action don’t match. Would Ronnie have those kinds of thoughts while in the middle of a football match? Not unless he’s meant to be distracted, which isn’t the case here.

It might have been less of an issue if at least the tense made it clear that the inner monologue was Ronnie looking back at this scene from some point in the future, but that’s not what’s happening, either. The first panel on page 5 makes clear that the monologue is meant to take place simultaneously with what’s going on in the images, and that just doesn’t work. It seems phony, and it’s not the only point in the story where the caption boxes stick out like a sore thumb. It works better if you skip them altogether, in fact.

There are some promising ideas in the story. The creators manage to imbue it with a degree of mystery and suspense surrounding the “God Particle” that evidently causes the Firestorm transformation, for instance. Ultimately, though, the ideas and characters never seem to gel—there’s the excessive violence that seems out of place, two protagonists bordering on stereotypes and caption boxes that are just plain annoying. And before you know it, everything blows up, because somebody thought it was a good idea to have a big fire monster show up. Mr. Cinar’s art, meanwhile, tells the story well, but also looks like generic superhero work.

Firestorm isn’t a bad comic, but it’s bogged down by a bunch of competing, disjointed elements that make the whole thing seem ill-conceived and half-baked.

Grade: C-

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Aquaman #1

DC Comics, 22 pages, $ 2.99

Writer: Geoff Johns
Penciler: Ivan Reis
Inker: Joe Prado
Colorist: Rod Reis
Letterer: Nick J. Napolitano

Geoff Johns has a message for you: Aquaman is a serious and important character. Very serious and very important, in fact. Terribly serious and important. A tremendously serious and important character, that’s Aquaman.

Which, you know, is a perfectly valid concern for a superhero comic. Unfortunately, this is one of those typical Johns things where the writer sits down with his target audience, addresses them directly and doesn’t bother with time-consuming things like drama, storytelling, character or plot.

Or, to be more precise, what Johns does is to sit Aquaman down at a table and let him address a string of disparaging remarks from a bunch of straw-man characters.

The book looks good, certainly—if most of the story takes place at a fish restaurant, it helps to have an artist who isn’t out of his depth drawing real people, and Ivan Reis fits the bill. Mr. Reis is a rock-solid storyteller, and while his drawing style owes a little bit to pretty much every major popular and influential superhero artist of the last 50 years, it’s also immediately recognizable as “Ivan Reis.” As far as bright, attractive superhero art is concerned, this is very good stuff.

The story itself is off to a neat start, too, for that matter. The introductory action sequence is nicely choreographed and suggests that Johns has it in him to tell some worthwhile Aquaman stories.

Once we get to the restaurant, though, Johns loses me completely. Plainly, this isn’t a story, but a lazy exercise in navel-gazing. It’s the comics equivalent of Johns getting on his message board and telling his fans what a way-cool dude Aquaman is, like, seriously. Rather than, you know, putting in the time to actually dramatize this concern and put it into a shape that broadly deserves to be called a “story.”

Aquaman is the kind of book that makes me wish I’d never see another superhero story, to be perfectly frank—pandering, self-important drivel with a frame of reference as broad as a can of sardines. Every time someone calls this a good comic, somewhere in the world a proper writer dies.

Grade: D

Monday, November 21, 2011

Teen Titans #1

DC Comics, 20 pages, $ 2.99

Writer: Scott Lobdell
Penciler: Brett Booth
Inker: Norm Rapmund
Colorist: Andrew Dalhouse
Letterer: Carlos M. Mangual

Welcome to the 1990s! DC Comics editor-in-chief Bob Harras, writer Scott Lobdell and penciler Brett Booth turn in a Teen Titans revamp that reads and looks like something created 20 years ago. The fact that the story is titled “Teen Spirit” doesn’t do much to dispel the notion.

No, seriously: In terms of layouts, costume designs, dialogue and the overall approach to storytelling, this book wouldn’t have seemed out of place in 1991. It’s got that same mad chip-on-its-shoulder variety of brainless superhero action that made all those comics by Rob Liefeld, Jim Lee or Todd McFarlane so fresh and exciting, back in the glory days when issues of X-Force, X-Men or Spider-Man sold seven-digit figures and Image Comics began to emerge as a new major player in the comics industry.

While Teen Titans probably won’t end up selling seven-digit figures, it’s actually not a bad comic, as these things go. Mr. Lobdell has turned in scripts that are a lot worse than this one, for starters. The three scenes introducing his protagonists Red Robin, Wonder Girl and Kid Flash aren’t terribly original, but they get the job done in a suitably entertaining and competent fashion. Where most of the “New 52” launches are drowning in bad exposition that just throws up irrelevant information on the reader’s feet, Lobdell takes his time here to do a properly dramatized introduction—not a bad start, if you want to win me over.

Brett Booth has clearly improved as an artist since I last saw his work in the late 1990s. He’s still a Jim Lee clone and turns in some wonky storytelling here and there (e.g., those crummy neither-here-nor-there panel shapes on pages 4 and 15), but he still manages to bring a style of his own to the proceedings. And his costume designs, while anachronistic, actually fit the bratty personalities of the characters quite well.

As far as light, fast-paced, 1990s-style superhero action goes, Teen Titans delivers. It is, pretty much, the comics equivalent of a Jerry Bruckheimer movie—not terribly smart, but entertaining enough, and it goes well with popcorn. If the last page didn’t announce a crossover with Superboy, I might have been tempted to stick around for a few more issues.

Grade: C

Friday, November 18, 2011

All Star Western #1

DC Comics, 28 pages, $ 3.99

Writers: Jimmy Palmiotti, Justin Gray
Artist: Moritat
Colorist: Gabriel Bautista
Letterer: Rob Leigh

All Star Western is, pretty much, a straightforward relaunch of the Jonah Hex title that ran for 70 issues from 2006 through 2011. The routine goes like this: Jonah Hex, the horribly scarred mercenary and grim avenger of the innocent created by writer John Albano and artist Tony DeZuniga for a 1971 story, rides into town, and then more Western stuff happens.

This time around, the town is the Gotham City of the 1880s, where Hex is enlisted to track down a serial killer who murders prostitutes. The hero gets a sidekick in the shape of psychiatrist Amadeus Arkham—a character introduced in Grant Morrison and Dave McKean’s Batman: Arkham Asylum who, in DC Universe lore, went on to create the eponymous institution for the criminally insane.

While those bits do their part of subtly rooting Jonah Hex a little more in the overall DC Universe, the book otherwise maintains its standalone nature and general tone. New artist Moritat is a rock-solid storyteller and brings a rough, appropriately gritty style to the proceedings that makes you feel right at home if you liked the book before. Gabriel Bautista’s coloring gets a little monotonous, maybe. The rust-and-dust shadow that seems to be hanging over Gotham and its inhabitants fits the mood, in principle, but Bautista lays it on a little thick.

Palmiotti and Gray stick to their guns, meanwhile. This opening arc is basically a trashier, Western version of From Hell, and as such, the script does the routine well.

The creators turn in a solid, competently made comic here. There’s not much in the way of depth or originality, but All Star Western connects the genre dots, if that floats your boat.

Grade: C

Thursday, November 17, 2011

Blackhawks #1

DC Comics, 20 pages, $ 2.99

Writer: Mike Costa
Layout artist: Graham Nolan
Artist: Ken Lashley
Colorist: Guy Major
Letterer: Rob Leigh

With Blackhawks, DC revives a series of war comics created by—among others—Will Eisner in the 1940s and revamped by Howard Chaykin in the late 1980s. This time around, it’s not a straightforward war book, but more like the Thunderbirds with a black-ops tinge.

Now, I’m not sure what kinds of mishaps were involved in the making of this coming, but there must have been some. Layout artist Graham Nolan, for instance, wasn’t listed in the solicitation information for the first issue, but as of #2, he’s the sole penciler of the series. Ken Lashley has been around for 20 years in the U.S. comics industry, and when he can be bothered to deliver a comic, it usually looks okay—see the cover of the first issue.

His interiors for Blackhawks #1 look rather less accomplished, unfortunately, which suggests he was in a bit of a rush. Graham Nolan, likewise, is an artist who’s been working in comics since mid-1980s, so you’d expect him to be able to turn in layouts that are, if nothing else, solid. However, the action sequence that takes up the first eight pages of this issue is one of the most confusing and worst-choreographed ones I remember seeing. Half of the time, I can’t work out what’s meant to be happening here.

The thing is, we can’t be sure whether that’s strictly the artists’ fault, either, because Mike Costa’s script happens to be one of the dumbest ones among the “New 52” titles.

Here you’ve got the Blackhawks, a top-secret, elite type organization using big yellow logos on its uniforms and vehicles—which promptly becomes an issue when one of those logos shows up in a Youtube video. It’s somewhat remarkable that Mr. Costa—or his editors, for that matter—didn’t stop to consider how this plot point could maybe be problematic, upon reflection.

But good help is hard to find, obviously.

When one of the Blackhawks agents is bitten (!) by an opponent, she refuses to receive treatment for the wound, everybody else in her pro organization doesn’t care, either, and she’s promptly infected with some type of bug. So, yeah: This is one of those stories that hinge on the utter and total stupidity of its characters—and one of those stories where the Blackhawks commander wears sunglasses in his secret underground bunker.

There’s more, such as a complete lack of timing (the Irishman who’s actually Ukrainian may be an old joke, but it is funny—until Mr. Costa spends the rest of the page explaining it to death) or the general absence of any type of behavior among the cast that’s recognizable as being human.

If Blackhawks at least embraced its own the over-the-top stupidity, there might have been some Rambo III-type entertainment value here. Alas, the book never even gets close to that. It’s a dumb and ugly comic that’s just boring most of the time, and not very well-made overall.

Grade: D-

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Voodoo #1

DC Comics, 20 pages, $ 2.99

Writer: Ron Marz
Artist: Sami Basri
Colorist: Jessica Kholinne
Letterer: Jared K. Fletcher

Voodoo certainly looks nice, thanks to Sami Basri’s art. There’s cheesecake, but Mr. Basri is not your average cheesecake artist—he can do regular-looking people (and women) in regular clothing, too. And for a superhero book, at least, a strip-club setting is reasonably original.

That said, the art also looks a little stiff here and there, unfortunately. Mainly, that’s because there are too many characters with glass-eyed porn stares, but also because Basri tends to omit backgrounds.

In a rather more significant drawback to the story, the plot only works thanks to the phenomenal stupidity of its characters. If you’re a super-secret agent trailing who you believe to be a dangerous space alien in disguise, it doesn’t seem like such a great idea to confront her alone, in a dark back room, and allow her to tie your hands to the seat.

You know, there’s a sort of minimum effort I expect from my entertainment, and if you think this cuts it, then please go back to the 1990s and stay there.

There’s a nice, trashy, titillating horror story in there somewhere, maybe, but the book is far too tame—and lame—to come even close to that sort of thrill. And in any case, the line and color art are both far too neat-looking to convince anyone of anything nasty, and far too sterile and anti-septic to look genuinely erotic.

The creators guide you safely from page to page, to be fair, but ultimately, this book ends up being neither fish nor fowl.

Grade: D

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

I, Vampire #1

DC Comics, 20 pages, $ 2.99

Writer: Joshua Hale Fialkov
Artist: Andrea Sorrentino
Colorist: Marcelo Maiolo
Letterer: Pat Brosseau

Emo vampires, then.

Usually, when people complain that “nothing happens” in a U.S. comic, they probably mean there’s too much dialogue. In this comic, nothing “happens” in the dialogue, by which I mean to say you couldn’t come up with a triter and less exciting piece of writing if you tried. It’s two lines of exposition, basically, spread out over 20 pages of generic dialogue that reveals nil about the characters.

There’s a parallel plotline (involving a vampire who kills other vampires) running alongside the conversation, but I honestly don’t understand what’s meant to be happening in it, or how it’s meant to relate to the dialogue scenes. Are those the same characters? Is it a flashback? I’m at a complete loss. Something about an army of vampires led by someone planning something, for some reason or other—or something.

That’s as specific as it gets. If you look up the Wikipedia entry for “I… Vampire,” the serial by J. M. DeMatteis and Tom Sutton appearing in House of Mystery in the early 1980s that Fialkov is recycling here, you get a somewhat better sense of what’s meant to be going on, actually.

Artist Andrea Sorrentino does a reasonably solid job. His style is strongly reminiscent of Jae Lee’s, but he gets the action across—well, most of the time, at least.

This looks and reads like generic, empty fluff, styled to appeal to the Twilight crowd. If there’s anything more behind it than that—a fascinating concept, an intriguing character, any trace of originality whatsoever—the creators fail to communicate it.

Grade: D-

Monday, November 14, 2011

The Savage Hawkman #1

DC Comics, 20 pages, $ 2.99

Writer: Tony S. Daniel
Artist: Philip Tan
Colorist: Sunny Gho
Letterer: Travis Lanham

Hawkman is one of the DC characters that arguably have much to gain from any given overhaul of their histories, and very little to lose.

Since the character was created by Gardner Fox and Dennis Neville in 1940, he went through so many revisions and retroactive changes to his history that much of his fictional past had become an irreconcilable mess by the mid-1990s. Is he the reincarnation of ancient Egyptian royalty, as the original version has it? An alien policeman from the planet Thanagar, as established in the 1960s? Or rather a god-like hawk creature, as in the 1990s version?

In this new revamp, Tony Daniel doesn’t hit you over the head with who or what the character is meant to be, sensibly. He’s a scientist named Carter Hall, he’s been Hawkman for some time, and he would like to get rid of the Hawkman identity—that’s about the extent of what we learn about him here.

It’s a good approach, in principle, but the execution is middling at best. Not frontloading the book with the protagonist’s history is one thing, but this story also omits anything that tells you anything about the character at all. Hawkman remains a generic cypher who’s going through the motions.

What kind of person is Carter Hall? Why does he want to get rid of his Hawkman duds? All Mr. Daniel provides here is a lot of mind-numbingly generic and often cringe-inducing exposition, delivered as inner monologues that read like parodies of 1990s issues of Wolverine.

To properly summarize the story, it’s fair to say that Carter Hall does a load of random stuff, and then there’s a fight about something. And that’s about it. The hero himself, the supporting cast, the plot, the villain (a guy named, I kid you not, “Morphicius,” who seems to have escaped from an episode of The X-Files)—it all seems desultory, random, uninspired. You could replace the title character with any random superhero, and it wouldn’t affect the story.

The aspect of the book I was most skeptical about beforehand was Philip Tan’s art, though. I mostly recall Mr. Tan’s work from his tenure drawing Uncanny X-Men about 10 years back, and it was very obvious back then that he wasn’t ready to draw superhero comics professionally.

The good news, now, is that Tan’s art has improved since then. He’s developed a much more homogeneous style that makes the story look like it’s of one piece, visually, and his storytelling capabilities are now such that he can communicate the plot without difficulty. Believe me, that’s not supposed to be sarcasm: It really is a leaps-and-bounds improvement for Tan.

The bad news, though, is that Tan still isn’t particularly good. His drawings rarely hit the kind of Liefeld-esque awfulness that’s evident in the cover image (look at Hawkman’s right arm with the weapon; the perspective is all over the place), but overall, his art still isn’t what I’d call distinctive or esthetically pleasant. It tells the story—no more, no less.

Ultimately, there’s nothing here that makes the book stand out in the market. In its best moments, The Savage Hawkman is a serviceable but completely generic superhero comic. Mostly, though, it’s a blandly written and sometimes ugly-looking affair.

Grade: D

Friday, November 11, 2011

Superman #1

DC Comics, 25 pages, $ 2.99

Writer and layout artist: George Pérez
Artist: Jesús Merino
Colorist: Brian Buccellato
Letterer: Carlos M. Mangual

If there’s a particular theme to Superman, then it’s a certain unease with the 21st century—it’s practically oozing from every page of the comic. In some ways, the reality we’re living in—and have been for some time—is presented as threatening, in other ways it comes across like a shiny new thing that the creators have just discovered and can’t put aside. But overall, I think it’s fair to say that Superman—as well as Superman, in its pages—seem to be struggling with the notion of existing in the present. Which is a very odd starting point for a debut issue expressly designed to introduce the character and his world to potential new readers.

I have much time and respect for George Pérez as an artist and storyteller. His Avengers with Kurt Busiek still stands out as one of my favorite traditional superhero comics, and his craft and storytelling instincts are undeniable. That said, his Superman isn’t quite there. It’s a serviceable enough superhero plot, granted. Despite the issues mentioned above, Pérez’s layouts tell the story in rock-solid fashion, and Merino’s art is perfectly competent, as well.

The prose, however, is dreadful, and it’s plastered all over the book. Most of it describes and comments upon the story—the decommission and demolition of the old Daily Planet building, Superman’s fight with a generic “fire monster from outer space” (really)—in a supposedly journalistic style, but it misses the mark completely.

“Spotting a Daily Planet news copter and police copter converging toward the midtown area, the Man of Steel decided to check it out for himself. His super-hearing had already picked up the distinct sounds of screeching tires, police sirens and gunfire—his super-vision picked up the rest. […]

“Superman assumed that the thieves were not from Metropolis. No local criminals would dare do this. […]

“As Superman rocketed the alien creature up past Earth’s stratosphere, the monster’s frantic thrashing started to ebb—even as its flaming form began to dwindle.”

Erm, really?

Either Clark Kent—who’s meant to have written the article—is meant to be the worst reporter and news writer in history, or Pérez picked the totally wrong storytelling device here. Even if we’re charitable and assume that the completely over-the-top purple-prose style was intentional, that wouldn’t justify having the audience wade through it for 25 pages.

And that’s not the only problem with the script, at any rate. The characters keep droning on about Twitter and the death of print journalism, but it seems phony from start to finish. It’s all pretty ham-fisted, and it’s never quite clear what it’s meant to add up to, other than a general sense of wariness against a world that’s long become an everyday reality to anyone under the age of 50, let alone people working in the news industry.

Superman is a solidly competent comic, in many ways, but it’s something less than competent as far as the prose is concerned, at least. The story it tells is utterly generic, and the way it’s told wouldn’t have seemed out of place in 1984.

Grade: C-

Thursday, November 10, 2011

Red Hood
and the Outlaws #1

DC Comics, 20 pages, $ 2.99

Writer: Scott Lobdell
Artist: Kenneth Rocafort
Colorist: Blond
Letterer: Carlos M. Mangual

I’m still not sure what’s more startling to me—that Scott Lobdell is writing three monthly superhero books in the year 2011—all selling, as of October, above the 50,000-unit mark, no less—or that he actually managed to kick off a wave of indignation with one of them.

Because, if there’s one thing I’m absolutely clear on here, it’s that the contents of the books are of no surprise whatsoever. Mr. Lobdell is mostly known for wild, sloppy, often brainless make-it-up-as-you-go action comics with kinetic, often stylish artwork. And this, pretty much, is what Lobdell and artist Kenneth Rocafort deliver in Red Hood and the Outlaws.

The scenes that caused an uproar here are the ones involving Starfire, a fan-favorite female character created by writer Marv Wolfman and artist George Pérez in 1980 for their Teen Titans revamp. In Lobdell’s story, Starfire appears to be amnesiac and, much to the joy of her two male buddies Jason Todd and Roy Harper, likes to stick her breasts and buttocks in the camera and have casual sex with with men. In short, Lobdell and Rocafort revamp her as every socially awkward 12-year-old superhero fanboy’s wettest fever dream.

It’s dumb as a post, of course, and its chances of appealing to your below-the-belt pleasure centers gravitate towards nil if you like your fantasies to look and behave remotely like real people. But that said, it’s pretty tame stuff, and if something like this is enough to quicken your pulse, then please steer well clear of, say, the first six issues of J. Scott Campbell’s Gen13 series from 1994 or so—they will surely kill you.

Apart from the Starfire business, the book consists of some foreshadowing and subplots and, thankfully, a lot of dumb action told in big, flashy pictures courtesy of Mr. Rocafort’s crisp and attractive-looking style.

As a “buddy book,” Red Hood fails, because there isn’t much to distinguish the two male protagonists—and because the female protagonist is an amnesiac cypher whose primary function in the book is to get her “buddies” laid. But, ultimately, it’s just a dumb, sloppily-written superhero comic with a lot of dumb, fun-looking action sequences and some dumb clichés. It’s no more offensive than Top Gun.

Grade: D+

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Wonder Woman #1

DC Comics, 24 pages, $ 2.99

Writer: Brian Azzarello
Artist: Cliff Chiang
Colorist: Matthew Wilson
Letterer: Jared K. Fletcher

It’s safe to say Wonder Woman hasn’t been the easiest character to handle. DC, via its stories and promotional efforts, keeps insisting she’s one of its “top three” characters, but in reality, that’s hardly the case. If you ask people on the street about the character, they’ll probably remember a cheesy 1970s TV show. If you ask people from outside the U.S., then probably not even that. Even in the comic-book direct market, Wonder Woman has rarely been a big seller.

The latest relaunch is emblematic: Even with the gigantic success of the “New 52” relaunch and the critically acclaimed creative team of Brian Azzarello and Cliff Chiang, the book didn’t quite make the Top 10 in September. If you’re working your way down from the top of the totem pole, you first have to go past four Batman titles, two Superman titles, two Green Lantern titles and Flash—and then there’ll be Batgirl. Only after that, at No. 13, with estimated first-month sales well below the 100K mark, there’s Wonder Woman #1.

It’s not the first time in the recent past that DC has attempted to imbue Wonder Woman with some much-desired relevance. Popular and critically acclaimed writers like Greg Rucka, Allan Heinberg, Jodi Picoult, Gail Simone and, most recently, J. Michael Straczynski have all tried and failed to raise the character’s profile. Some of them were well-reviewed, and Heinberg, along with artist Terry Dodson, even managed to get sales up above the 120,000-unit mark for a couple of issues with his 2006 revamp. But the book always returned to being a modest mid-level seller before long.

So, ultimately, it was clear from the start that Azzarello and Chiang were going to be facing an uphill struggle here. And, judging from this debut issue, I’m not convinced they’ll fare any better than their predecessors.

In principle, it’s a very sensible approach to kick off the story right away and not bore the audience to death with boatloads of bad exposition, as many of the other relaunch writers have. Here, something is happening, and Wonder Woman—along with the reader—is thrown right into it.

The creators are borrowing freely from Greek mythology for their interpretation, and those myths have rarely looked more alive and threatening in superhero comics. Those centaurs aren’t fooling around, and you can almost feel the force of the monstrous arrows they’re shooting, just from looking at Mr. Chiang’s art. In terms of page-to-page storytelling, this is top-notch stuff.

The story itself, on the other hand, doesn’t have much to offer yet. That subplot building up the villain feels generic more than anything, and the characters—which, other than Wonder Woman, mainly means a woman named Zola—remain bland. It doesn’t help that Wonder Woman herself gets to make stupid decisions for no other reason than because they’re required for the plot to work—especially since that’s more or less all she does in this issue.

The book is fun to flip through, and the creators bring a lot of craft to its pages. Overall, though, there’s nothing here to convince me that Wonder Woman is a particularly interesting character. I’ll give it a few more issues, though.

Grade: C+

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Green Lantern:
New Guardians #1

DC Comics, 20 pages, $ 2.99

Writer: Tony Bedard
Penciler: Tyler Kirkham
Inker: Batt
Colorist: Nei Ruffino
Letterer: Dave Sharpe

There are superhero comics that are fresh and inventive and strive to deviate from the formula at every turn, and then there’s Green Lantern: New Guardians. First, a generic yellow ring bearer is abandoned by his ring in action and dies as a result. Then a generic red ring bearer is abandoned by his ring in action and dies as a result. Then a generic purple ring bearer is abandoned by her ring in action and almost dies as a result—which is as imaginative as the story gets.

And, before you know it, that’s four pages down for the dazzlingly inventive creative team.

That’s not the only thing that’s sub-par here. For maximum confusion, the book starts with a scene in which all the little blue alien guys from Green Lantern except one are dead, but it’s not marked as a flashback sequence for some reason. Also, with the fourth new Green Lantern book—after Green Lantern, Red Lanterns and Green Lantern Corps—now out of the gate, the defining requirements for the franchise are starting to emerge: genocide, liberal amounts of blood and gore and a general approach to storytelling that’s about as imaginative as throwing bricks at a wall.

And, of course, there are protagonists Hal Jordan (over in Green Lantern) and Kyle Rayner (over here) who seem to be in a fierce competition for the biggest socially retarded troglodyte. “Sorry, Mike,” Rayner, out of the blue, tells his buddy at the pub. “Two more minutes, and then I’ll explain why you won’t get past first base with this nice girl you brought.” He says this while the young woman in question is sitting right next to them at the table.

Kyle Rayner is not actually meant to be a sociopath, though, I’m afraid. Rather, somewhat terrifyingly, this seems to be Mr. Bedard’s idea of witty banter. Tyler Kirkham’s art tells the story, in the most basic sense, but it’s appropriately bland for the cookie-cutter story at hand.

New Guardians isn’t as startlingly terrible as Green Lantern or Red Lanterns, granted, but it’s certainly the dullest of the four franchise books.

Grade: D

Monday, November 7, 2011

Catwoman #1

DC Comics, 20 pages, $ 2.99

Writer: Judd Winick
Artist: Guillem March
Colorist: Tomeu Morey
Letterer: Sal Cipriano

Catwoman gets a lot of things right. There’s a fast-paced opening sequence that—literally—hits the ground running and pulls you in with great-looking art and solid storytelling from everyone involved. And it’s followed up by an equally convincing scene that makes both the protagonist and her friend seem like authentic characters. As far as action comics go, those first seven pages are good, entertaining stuff.

After that, though, the book loses the plot. There’s a fairly generic and uninspired sequence in which Catwoman infiltrates the Russian mob and stumbles across an old, unpleasant acquaintance in the process. It’s meant to be an intense moment, and I’m sure it’s just set-up for a story that’s going to make more sense in future issues, but right here, there’s nothing to latch on to—it’s just not all that interesting.

And then there’s that kinky five-page sex scene you’ve probably heard about, of course. Now, I’ve got no problem with sex scenes in superhero comics, in principle. And if Mr. Winick believes Catwoman and Batman humping each other without taking their costumes off is a story that he has to tell, that’s fine with me, too.

But, all that said, surely there are better, more interesting—and more exciting—ways to stage this type of sequence, particularly if you’re taking five pages to do it. What Winick and March have produced here is an unintentionally comical non-starter of a sex scene. It doesn’t look attractive. It doesn’t look interesting. It doesn’t look like the characters are having a lot of fun, either. Instead, it’s got all the grace and eroticism of a cheap 1980s soft-porn flick, with a final page that’s just plain laughable—and perhaps a little desperate. All that’s missing here are the fake moustaches, really.

Was that the idea? I kind of doubt it.

The allegations of sexism that some have been mounting against the comic, I don’t get, though. I mean, yes: casual intimacy as compensation for emotionally draining experiences is a well-worn cliché. It’s in High Fidelity. It’s in Monster’s Ball. It’s in dozens of other high-profile films. It’s poor and lazy storytelling, at worst, but hardly a moral offense.

Catwoman starts as an attractive action comic, but it loses steam halfway through and ends as a catastrophic turn-off.

Grade: C-

Friday, November 4, 2011

DC Universe Presents #1

DC Comics, 20 pages, $ 2.99

Writer: Paul Jenkins
Artist: Bernard Chang
Colorist: Blond
Letterer: Dave Sharpe
Cover artist: Ryan Sook

In theory, Paul Jenkins’ take on the Deadman concept is one I have a lot of time for: In order to redeem himself, Deadman has to “possess” other people’s bodies, identify the problems in their lives and fix them, with each “solved case” taking him a step closer to salvation. It’s Quantum Leap, in other words—or Peter Milligan’s Human Target, for that matter: a fantasy concept turned into a vehicle for exploring and understanding why people in very specific situations act the way they do. What’s making them tick? What does it take to resolve their issues? What does it tell us about ourselves?

It’s precisely the kind of blend between trashy genre thrills and literary characterization that floats my boat.

The execution leaves something to be desired, however, as the first issue is all set-up—and it’s dreadfully tedious. I’m not really interested in the supernatural mechanics of Deadman’s constitution, but Jenkins spends a lot of time on that. He also stuffs his pages with prose that dumps all kinds of gratuitous information on the reader, rather than to contribute anything worthwhile to the story. Indeed, we don’t even get to “the story” here—instead, there’s a convoluted subplot that only muddies the book’s appeal.

Whatever happened to drawing the reader into the story from page 1 and filling them in on what’s relevant as you go along? Here, it’s all infodump and, worse, infodump that’s concerned with the least interesting aspects of the story. I like the idea, and artist Bernard Chang does a good, attractive-looking job with the material. But the way Jenkins dramatizes this story doesn’t speak to me at all.

Grade: C-

Thursday, November 3, 2011

Supergirl #1

DC Comics, 20 pages, $ 2.99

Writers: Michael Green and Mike Johnson
Penciler: Mahmud Asrar
Inkers: Dan Green with Mahmud Asrar
Colorist: Dave McCaig
Letterer: John J. Hill

All you need of this comic are the first four pages: dramatic, well-drawn, beautifully colored—even the credits look well-designed, which is a rare sight in superhero comics. Okay, the pants thing on page four looks rather creepy in context, given the target audience of these books (= not teenage girls). Overall, though, the creators get a lot of things right in this introductory sequence. It works. It looks good. It builds tension. It really makes me want to read the comic.

Unfortunately, the rest of the comic looks as if the creative team called it a day after page four, went to the pub to celebrate until six in the morning and then discovered that the comic was due by lunchtime.

Seriously, guys—what happened? I mean, I’m not opposed to having the hero fight robots (or armored dudes, whatever) for 15 pages with not much else happening. I even like the way the captions convey Supergirl’s sensations in short, frantic bursts, which is a lot more authentic (and fun to read) than the indiscriminate piles of verbal clutter that lets the fighting sequences in, say, Static Shock die on their arse.

But if you’ve got a fighting sequence that lasts for 15 pages in a debut issue, it needs to be a lot more spectacular than this one. I actually went back to check if it was still the same creative team. The robots look dull. The colors are flat. The page-to-page storytelling is no more than serviceable.

There would have been ways to stage this in a more exciting and inventive fashion, but this isn’t one of them. Which is a shame. Because I really, really like those first four pages.

Grade: C

Wednesday, November 2, 2011

Nightwing #1

DC Comics, 20 pages, $ 2.99

Writer: Kyle Higgins
Penciler: Eddy Barrows
Inker: J.P. Mayer
Colorist: Rod Reis
Letterer: Carlos M. Mangual

Some comics strive to offer something unexpected and imaginative with every scene, others are more like Nightwing. Writer Kyle Higgins and penciler Eddy Barrows know how to communicate the plot of their story competently, but that’s about the nicest thing I can say about the book.

Nightwing jumps around, beats up a bunch of generic bad guys with a lot of blood splattering and meets his new/old supporting cast. It looks solid enough, to be fair, but then again, some of the layouts seem like they’re taken straight from Todd McFarlane’s Spider-Man, of all things (look at that double spread with the credits). Meanwhile, rather than to dramatize his hero’s thoughts and emotions, Mr. Higgins prefers to spill them out relentlessly in 1990s-style inner monologue boxes that drone on and on, and on.

The villain of the story is wheeled in on the bus (!) and gets to show how badass he is when two potentially dope-smoking (judging from the art) brothers try to rob him. Alas, our Greyhound-ridin’ brother-buster may be smart enough to track and attack Dick Grayson, but he ain’t so smart as to make the connection when Grayson slips into an alley, puts on a tiny domino mask and then rejoins the fight.

Superhero comics require a certain “suspension of disbelief” at the best of times, so it behooves their creators not to put a spotlight on the genre limitations. Higgins hasn’t given the subject a lot of thought, it appears.

If there’s a contest for the most obvious and worn-out clichés in history, send in this comic.

Grade: C-

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

Legion of Super-Heroes #1

DC Comics, 20 pages, $ 2.99

Writer: Paul Levitz
Artist: Francis Portela
Colorist: Javier Mena
Letterer: Pat Brosseau
Cover artist: Karl Kerschl

I think I’ve mentioned before that the “New 52” launches rather surprised me by being reasonably accessible comics, for the most part. Their other sins aside, it’s evident that the majority of the creators working on these books at least tried not to hit potential readers over the head with impenetrable comics that require a diploma in DC Universe backstory.

Paul Levitz, however, is not one of those creators. I’d say that Legion of Super-Heroes reads like an extended middle finger to the notion of inviting new readers, but that would make the comic sound far more exciting than it is.

As you may be aware, the Legion is a paramilitary, space-faring police organization in the 31st century that consists of superheroes. It’s not the most original premise in the world, and it’s tended to be one of the concepts that the publisher insists on keeping around out of nostalgia more than because anybody is particularly screaming for it. This is the fourth time the book is relaunched in the last 10 years, not counting a bunch of name changes in-between.

So, you’d think, if a new Legion title was to be part of an outreach as massively promoted as DC’s “New 52” initiative, the least you could expect was a sincere effort to introduce people to the concept.

Well, think again. At best, this is a bog-standard affair—run-of-the-mill space opera stuff with superheroes. Francis Portela gets some nice visuals out of the settings and makes them look sturdy. Stylistically and in terms of storytelling, his work looks like a blend of Cockrum, Byrne and Pérez, circa 1979. It’s serviceable, no more, no less.

The same can’t be said about the script, however. Levitz keeps switching scenes and throwing—literally—truckloads of new characters at you every couple of pages. Rather than to stick with a core group and try to, you know, introduce them and their mission to the audience, we move on to the next group, and so on and so forth.

As far as “introductions” are concerned, Levitz relies on little yellow boxes that list the characters’ names, aliases and “homeworlds,” among other bits of useless trivia that are completely irrelevant to the story at hand. All told, 15 of those things are scattered across the book’s 20 pages, and they don’t even cover all of the characters. As a result, nothing in Legion ever gets any traction, and the book ends up not just a mind-numbingly dull and generic experience, but also one that’s emphatically unwelcoming. What, you don’t know what a Daxamite is? Get off my lawn, you mook.

I’m sure there’s a niche audience in the direct market who craves this type of material, so you can’t blame DC for publishing it. You have to wonder what they were thinking by including this in the relaunch, though.

Grade: D