Monday, November 10, 2008


Unfortunately, since the school year started, I have found it increasingly difficult to find the time for these reviews. Once I am able to create a more rational schedule, I do intend to return to them.

Sunday, September 28, 2008

Superman #680 Review

Writer: James Robinson
Penciller: Renato Guedes

It's unfortunate that DC Comics doesn't supply pictures of their actual covers with captions intact, because the cover of Superman #680 is a great one. In that empty space of sky to the left of Krypto is written "DOG OF STEEL" in big type, which pretty much sums up this issue. James Robinson has given us, of all things, a Krypto story. On the one hand, this is a very good idea. It's about time someone gave Superman's other best friend (Jimmy has dibs on that title) a story of his own, and it's really a lot of fun. On the other hand, Robinson has ceded that "important" stories to Johns in the Action Comics title, and I hope that at some point, Robinson tackles some of the more central portions of Superman's mythos. However, on the whole, this issue is still fairly strong, and we get a simple story about a man's relationship with his dog and vice versa.

The issue is really one long fight scene, which we've really had for three straight issues now. If it was just a continuation of the fight with Superman, it would have long ago become very dull. However, this issue is a new battle, one between Krypto and the titan Atlas. We finally come to realise why it was Superman was vulnerable to Atlas's strength. Superman has a longstanding weakness to magic, and Atlas's power is magic-based. This issue, we see Krypto and Superman working together to fight an enemy who would otherwise be quite a threat to Superman. In my review of last issue, I compared the Atlas fight to the fight with Doomsday, in which a fight with a previously unknown enemy was able to (apparently) kill Superman, and curiously, Robinson seems to have noticed the parallel as well, as Lois makes the same comparison. One of the nice things about this story is that it shows that Superman isn't simply invulnerable, and the right enemy at the right time taking advantages of the right weaknesses can always be a threat.

However, when Doomsday killed Superman, Krypto had been written out of continuity, and reading this comic, one comes to realise that, had the editors not made the decision to dispose of Krypto, Doomsday might not have been quite so successful. Superman makes a decision that, on the face of it, is not especially good loyal-master behaviour. He leaves Krypto to fight Atlas while he seeks a solution to Atlas's magical superiority. This clever tag-team approach buys Superman the time to find the bratty Zatara, who provides him with the magical equivalent of solar power, enabling him to return and rescue Krypto just as Krypto rescued him. Superman isn't just incredibly strong: comic books are full of extremely strong characters. Rather, when faced directly with one of his weaknesses, Superman also proves that he is an excellent tactician. He quickly discovers why he is losing the battle, and makes the appropriate changes to his strategy in order to defeat him.

One weak element I thought this issue had was the reaction of Lois to Krypto. She seems to not really like Krypto, though why isn't very plausibly established. Apparently, she is worried about the idea of a super-powered dog, since a normal, non-super-powered dog can be dangerous in its own right. However, one would think that years of living with Superman would have inured her to worry about aliens just because they are powerful. In a way, she is reacting how one might expect Luthor to react to the presence of an alien dog, as he is well-known for his xenophobia when it comes to other species. Part of the drama of this issue is intended to come from Lois finally coming to appreciate Krypto, but since we had never really seen her dislike of Krypto before, this part of the story isn't especially convincing.

On the whole though, this is a strong issue. We finally get to see Krypto in action. We get to see Superman and Krypto working together. This issue is a lot of fun. However, the underly premise of establishing Krypto to Lois is weak and, let's face it, this story isn't nearly as powerful as Johns' work over in Action. I definitely appreciate this story, though, and I really feel like Krypto is being established as more than just a holdover from the Silver Age.


Thunderbolts #124 Review

Writer: Christos Gage
Penciller: Fernando Blanco

I have to admit, when Norman Osborn was made the head of the Thunderbolts, I was dubious. For one thing, Norman Osborn should be dead, as he was from Amazing Spider-Man #121 until issue #418, which is a long time to be dead, especially by comic book standards. Moreover, he was brought back during the dreadful clone saga, and, let's face it, that is a story best forgotten. For another thing, he doesn't really fit in the Thunderbolts milieu. For the most part, they are Avengers characters, and a Spider-Man villain doesn't really fit, especially as the head of the group. So, when I saw he'd taken over, it struck me as a terrible idea, bringing back an outdated villain into a context in which he didn't belong.

This issue proves that I was wrong in my judgement. As the Thunderbolts have spiralled deeper and deeper into madness, having Norman Osborn at the head of the group has proved almost prescient. This issue has given us a great sense of how someone like Osborn is the perfect head of a group of supervillains composed of psychopaths and madmen. For one thing, he fits right in. The scene at the beginning in which he slaughters a group of Skrulls posing as Spider-Man is one of the funniest moments I can remember in the Thunderbolts. After the massacre, with green-blood splattering and Osborn cackling in massive type, he regains his composure and clears his throat: "--Hurm. Well. That was surprisingly therapeutic". He seems perfectly happy to be a little insane. If he were too sane, the book would become very mean, very quickly, as a sane character manipulated and used less stable characters. Because he himself is a little mad, his manipulations seem almost...fair.

The rest of the issue is spent with Osborn masterfully handling a series of personel crises as he must reign in the insecurities and murderous tendencies of one Thunderbolt after another. Penance has to face a group of Skrulls posing as victims of the Stamford explosion, and Osborn helps him realise what is going on because Penance is so obsessed with the disaster. Since Penance has memorised the faces of every single Stamford victim and the Skrulls apparently haven't, he is able to figure it out. Venom prepares to eat civilians, and after being appropriately threatened, and Venom puts them down, pretending it was all an act in an especially unconvincing lie. Bullseye kills Andrea Struker, who it turns out wasn't a Skrull as everyone assumed, and Osborn manages to use her death to turn her brother, Swordsman, into an even more dangerous weapon. One of the funny aspects of Osborn's management skills is that he says almost everything with the same level of calm. When it looks like Radioactive Man is going to explode, he evenly says, "Dr. Chen, can you keep from exploding for a few more minutes?", and when Songbird is getting completely pummeled, he says, "...Songbird looks like she could use assistance". Wactching Osborn calmly handle his out-of-control team in the middle of pure chaos is fantastic farce.

My only real criticism of this issue is that it lacks a lot of the sense of fun of the last issue. No one seems quite as gleeful as they did in the previous issue, which had the same sense of manic freedom as the escape scene from "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest". In this issue, by contrast, the insanity of the characters has reached a fever pitch that prevents the reader from really identifying with them. They've reached the point at which they don't really seem human anymore, and aside from how Osborn is handled, none of the characters are really sympathetic in any way. Most of all, the character of Bullseye is beginning to both me, though he did before during Ellis's run. While the other characters simply largely imbalanced, a genuinely psychopathic killer doesn't really fit in and isn't very funny. Everyone else seems like they are contantly battling their inner monsters, whereas Bullseye just is a monster. In a farce, one doesn't want a character that is simply so unpleasant to read.

On the whole, then, this is a very strong book. It doesn't quite reach the heights of the last issue, but develops Osborn's leadership skills in a way that is very entertaining. At the end of this issue, it sounds like Osborn plans to take over America. That makes sense, and fits with the very first premise of the book. I really think it will be fun to see him try.


Thursday, September 18, 2008

Action Comics #869 Review

Writer: Geoff Johns
Penciller: Gary Frank

So, it's official. Braniac destroyed Krypton. That is an interesting decision. They hinted at it last issue, and at the time, I wasn't sure they would actually go through with it. At the time, I thought it might not be such a bad idea, but now that they've finally decided to make Braniac's destruction of Krypton canon, I'm not sure that I like it. It is always extremely dangerous to tinker with the origins of a major DC character. When DC decided in the late 80s to make Batman not know that Joe Chill killed his parents, it created the sense that he might be somehow out for revenge rather than simply trying to prevent it from ever happening again, so they had to change it back. Even small details like that can fundamentally alter what makes a character's story meaningful. After all, DC's central characters have been successful for a reason. They are iconic, and perhaps even DC doesn't understand why exactly. Even small tinkering can change the motivation of a character.

This book actually fiddles with Superman's origins in several ways. In the late 1980s, DC made the decision to make Superman the last survivor of Krypton, killing off Supergirl and consigning Zod to oblivion. Both of these removals were mistakes, and DC has recently righted them by bringing both Supergirl and Zod (along with Krypto) back into continuity. However, their heart was in the right place. The introduction of things like the City of Kandor made Superman not especially unique. If there is an entire city of Kryptonians, why is Superman special? However, I think uniqueness isn't the entire issue. When there are more Kryptonians around, especially the thousands now revealed to be living in the City of Kandor, Superman's story becomes less about Earth and more about Krypton itself. It has the effect of shifting the focus of Superman's story away from Earth and back to his original planet. When Grant Morrison gave Superman a one-page, four-line origin in All Star Superman #1, he knew exactly what he was doing. At the end of the day, Superman's origin is the past; his story is really a story about Kal-El on Earth. Too many Kryptonians makes Superman too alien.

The introduction of the actual villain who destroyed Krypton in the first place changes this shift even more radically than the recently reintroduced Kandor. If Braniac destroyed Krypton, then he becomes an even more powerful nemesis for Superman. After all, they now have a very strong history. However, that history is now a Kryptonian history, not a human history. Superman is put in the position of righting or avenging wrongs that happened on a planet long ago, and his story becomes about his Kryptonian heritage, not his unique role on Earth. The reintroduction of Superman's aunt and uncle, Zor-El and Alura, compounds this problem; they are the parents of Supergirl and they apparently survived the destruction of Argo City, where Supergirl had assumed they had died. Superman's story increasingly has the focus of protecting Kryptonian family from Kryptonian threats, and this risks overshadowing his story on Earth, in which he is a boy from small town Kansas with a secret.

Despite these concerns with the overall direction of Action Comics, this is overall a very strong issue. Superman continues his battle with Braniac on Braniac's ship. I love Braniac's creepy assimilation cables. Superman really is outmatched, at least for now, and I look forward to his figuring out how to beat Braniac. My one complaint is that I'm amazed that he didn't know that he can't just turn his back on a wounded Braniac and strike up a conversation with his uncle. One would think he'd have a little more tactical wisdom than that. The battle on Earth, however, is far more interesting. There is a great moment when Supergirl and Lois are on the roof of the Daily Planet, and Kara simply says, "Go", letting go of Lois's hand in an especially well drawn frame. Of course, Lois doesn't listen, and she and the other reporters of the Daily Planet fight off Braniac's drones. Having them have any success somewhat lowers the threat level of Brianiac's robots (how exactly do they survive Supergirl's heat vision and yet are able to be knocked out of a window by a desk wielded by two reporters?), but it does have the nice effect of seeing the Planet staff stand up for Earth.

And of course, the ending is fantastic. Metropolis is bottled and spirited away to Braniac's ship. I've kind of always wanted him to do that. If you're going to have bottled cities, you might as well bottle Metropolis, and I really relish finding out what it will be like living in that bottled city so long as Braniac is able to hold onto it (which I'm assuming won't be very long). In the last four issues, Johns has made Braniac a very credible threat, and now that he's gotten hold of Metropolis, things promise to be very interesting indeed.

This is a very good issue, but also a very dangerous one. I hope the editorial staff know what they're doing in increasingly introducing Kryptonian elements to Superman's story. They risk distracting from Superman's successful premise, and may find themselves written into the same sort of corner they did when they eliminated Joe Chill.


Spike: After the Fall #3 Review

Writer: Brian Lynch
Penciller: Franco Urru

Something is missing in Spike: After the Fall #3. It has a lot of great elements to it. Spike seduces a captor. Gunn has an altercation with Non. Spike and Illyria kiss. There is fighting and chaos. Somehow, however, Spike seems to be missing from this comic. It is true that he is on most of the pages, but his usual wit and humour are missing. In the last issue of this series, Spike sizes up a dragon in the hopes of potentially killing it. Every possible strategem is attended by some sort of witty observation or sardonic remark. Lynch has shown in the first two issues that he is capable of capturing the speech patterns and personality of Spike, something which he hasn't had the space to do much of in the Angel: After the Fall series.

However, in this issue, all of that falls away. Take this piece of narration: "Also, she doesn't react well if someone, let's say a vampire, repeatedly yells to her to conure admittedly suggestive mirages to make the day go faster". That doesn't really sound like Spike. There's a little bit of humour in it, but it lacks any of the punch of Spike's usual observational humour. Spike's sense of humour is largely based on two things: he is very intelligent and he is very old. There is very little that he hasn't seen in his six or seven lifetimes, and he doesn't really know when to shut up (or at least doesn't bother). So, he makes comments constantly on what is going on around him, and has a tendency to see right through any of the pretenses around him. Part of what stops him from being simply mean and sarcastic is that he is wise enough not to actually hold people's pretences against them. These characteristics are what led him to fill in some of the role of Giles when Giles left Buffy in season six.

Most of that combination of pretense-popping humour and wisdom are absent in this issue, and it is weaker as a result. True, one might not expect Spike to be in quite such a good mood after being tortured for a month, but I can't think of any torture that would reduce Spike to pure exposition. There are a couple nice moments where we see some of Lynch's great ability to capture Spike's character: the fantasy at the beginning in which he is with Fred and Angel appears with a nametag saying, "Hello, my name is the reason we're stuck here" is great as is his making fun of Non as she goes off to her meeting with Gunn as though it will be some sort of date. However, that's really all we see. The last scene especially lacks Spike's usual sense of keen observation; it really could have been anyone.

Gunn, however, is written very well in this issue. He doesn't come across as quite as crazed as he did in the exceptional Angel: After the Fall #11, but we see what a monster he's become and more of the fate of the slayers from Angel is revealed here. It seems that he has turned them into vampires and is using them for fighting practice, or at least, that's the sense that I can make of why Non seems to kill them but they are alive again a few pages later. Moreover, we see his confused feelings for Fred come to the surface. Is he really just concerned about his prophecy? Or is he concerned about Fred? Remember, this is the same Gunn who murdered a man for Fred, and that was before he became a vampire. We see some of the same confusion in his character we've seen in other issues, and the fate of his slayers is truly creepy.

Overall, this isn't the strongest issue of Spike: After the Fall, and is on about par with the first issue. It has a few good moments, but somehow, Spike himself seemed to be missing. I assume this is just something of a misstep, and we'll see more of Lynch's style next month.


The Incredible Hercules #121 Review

Writers: Greg Pak and Fred van Lente
Penciller: Clayton Henry

Greg Pak is having a lot of fun. I'm not sure how he managed it, but he took one of Marvel's lamest heroes, Hercules, and somehow managed to turn him into one of the most interesting, entertaining, goofiest, yet strangely plausible heroes that Marvel has ever written. Greg Pak is clearly fascinated with Greek myth and stories, but what is so fantastic about his take on them is that Pak realises that the stories themselves are often simply funny. There is a tendency to solemnise anything old. My wife's former choir director conducts Palestrina at about double the normal pace. His reasoning is that other conductors simply get the pace wrong; centuries of thinking of Palestrina as classic and religious have caused conductors to gradually slow down the pacing, because they think that's how anything classic or religious is supposed to sound. Greek myths and stories often suffer the same fate. Because they're about gods and are written in an old language, they are told with great solemnity as classic stories with deep insights.

Greg Pak does to Hercules what my wife's choir director does to Palestrina. He scrapes of the barnicles of solemnity and returns the story to its former, brisk pace. Hercules represents everything the archaic Greeks loved about themselves: he's a hard drinking, womanizing warrior. This story has no real plot, as many of the stories of Hercules has no plot. Instead, we see a number of Hercules', erm, feats. We hear the story of how he tricked Atlas into taking back his curse of holding up the heavens by pretending he needed to fix his cloak. The image of Atlas, holding up the stars, with the disappointed speech bubble, "Tch", is hilarious. We find out that he tricked Namora, the queen of Atlantis, into kissing him in issue #111, by pretending he was drowning. Rather than get angry, Namora of course propositions him.

All of Hercules' latest adventures are cast against the backdrop of Cho's kidnapping by the Amazons. They want him to sire the next generation of Amazons, you see, which Cho thinks is great. Of course, Hercules also thinks this is great, since he wants his companion to share in the fun. The one catch, though, is that they plan to kill him afterwards, which is somewhat less great. The amazons are dressed somewhere between Greek goddesses and go-go dancers and have rocket launchers, which all Amazons certainly would have had, if the ancient Greeks had known about rocket launchers. Hercules is unconcerned, because he's pretty sure Cho can take care of himself, but decides to rescue him anyway, more because it would probably be fun than because he is worried. And then Namor shows up, and he's mad, which makes sense, since Namor's always mad.

There's also some clever use of Greek in the book that I'm wondering if Pak didn't use it to slip some of his jokes past his editors. Apparently the Amazons stole Cho because they believe that he is Hercules' eromenos. Cho denies this vehemently, while the Amazon explains that it's "perfectly normal" and "none of her business". This is actually a rather complex joke about Greek sex. Homosexual relationships in Greece at the time were usually asymmetrical, in which one older man, the erastes, had a passive younger partner (often an adolescent), the eromenos. The eromenos, however, wasn't supposed to discuss his affair, as he isn't supposed to enjoy being passive, so Cho's denial of the affair is perfectly expected behaviour for an eromenos. Since an eromenos is supposed to deny the affair, Cho has no way of persuading the Amazon that he isn't actually Hercules' eromenos, which he finds incredibly frustrating. Pak is mixing scholarly debate about the relationship of Achilles and Patroclus with "not that there's anything wrong with that" jokes from shows like Seinfeld. It's a very clever bit of humour, and I have no idea how Pak would have gotten this past his editors unless they had no idea what an eromenos was.

The scene with Ares and the beginning is also laugh-out-loud funny. He's sitting in a diner, listening to women talk about how sexy Hercules is and how revolting Ares is. Ares, of course, hates his half-brother, and simply sits there and stews. The sight of the god of war, sitting in a diner, fuming about how sexy his brother is, is brilliant and wickedly funny. Oeming and Pak have done a great job of recreating the character of Ares in his proper glory, the god of war, and I am excited to see him back in this book. He comes across both as brilliant and ruthless, which in some contexts makes him incredibly scary and in others makes him simply hilarious. One of the best things about this scene is that it reminds us that often the gods were jealous of heroes like Hercules partly because they were so frickin' annoying. Hubris or arrogance, the tragic flaw of all heroes according to Aristotle, can sometimes simply be the result of being more attractive than one of the gods. Sometimes hubris can consist of shaking one's fist at the gods like Oilean Ajax. Other times, it can just be the result of out-sexying Ares in a winking photograph signed "Love thee, silly". Here we see an example of the latter.

Incredible Hercules #121 is a fantastic book. It has explosions and jets and a submarine and scuba gear and wrestling and multi-variable calculus and lava and a jealous king and a medusa with her snakes in a pony-tail and just about everything else that Pak can think to throw into the adventure. Somehow he manages to include all of this without ever losing control of the story or losing control of his characters. Instead the book has the same sense of amoral fun that permeated Greek myth. Gods fight. Gods get laid. Were you expecting insights?


Robin #178 Review

Writer: Fabian Nicieza
Penciller: Freddie Williams II

The publication of Robin comics continues at breakneck speed. This is the fourth Robin comic I've reviewed since I started this site. To compare, I have only reviewed one comic of either Fantastic Four or Final Crisis. I'm not entirely sure what is driving the bi-weekly publication of this comic, but the rush is beginning to show somewhat. The last four issues have become progressively weaker and weaker, beginning with the excellent Robin #175, in which Robin realises he may need to take down Batman and leading into the slower, less focussed story concerning whether or not Robin will become Batman's replacement.

What is curious about this issue is that it is starting to show the cracks in the Batman premise, cracks which the franchise generally (and wisely) covers up. Batman is, at the end of the day, a vigilante, who strives to create fear in the criminals of Gotham City, a city so corrupt that no legitimate means can be found to fight the crime. Even the police commissioner and the former (and now insane) district attorney are willing to condone his methods because of the depth of the corruption. Now that Batman has retired at the end of the R.I.P. story, a war is beginning to brew among the gangs, this time started by corrupt police hoping to use the war to advance their own agenda. In the middle of this gang war, one of the gangs tries to recruit a young boy into their gang, and Robin defends the boy by beating them up.

Of course, they come back to recruit the boy again, leading to a rather interesting conversation with Ragman who, quite rightly it seems, believes that Robin can't actually protect the boy from the gangs, since they'll just come back the second Robin leaves. This is quite a reasonable objection to Robin's methods. How exactly does he think he can prevent gang violence in the city by dressing up as a bird and beating up criminals? Even when he uses Tim Drake's detective skills, it would seem that the desperate people in a city need, well, help. For some strange reason, things like poverty fail to get even a single mention in this issue. One would think that it would at least occur to Robin that maybe his methods can't actually stop youth violence in the city, and perhaps something other than a costumed vigilante or brilliant detective might be the solution to this boy's problems. I realise the city is corrupt, but did it even occur to him to call a social worker? Or one of the police that isn't corrupt?

This lack of any reflection on Robin's part on the social or economic factors in causing crime or any consideration of non-violent solutions is especially strange given that the vast majority of this issue includes Robin trying to figure out his purpose and how he can stop gang violence. The only alternative to his "putting out brushfires" through isolated bullying that he considers seriously is Jason Todd's alternative of violently uniting all of the gangs. Even Ragman just talks about "choosing between evils", as though the only other option is something like Jason's. It is a little jarring to have Robin spend an entire issue in self-doubt without ever doubting the efficacy of private violence per se. By the end of the issue, it appears that Robin has decided that it is time for him to become Batman or at least to replace his role. However, as a reader, I just wanted him to call Children's Aid.

There are some questions that a comic book like Batman or any book in that franchise simply can't ask, and one of them is whether or not Batman's vigilantism could really improve a city like Gotham. It simply has to assume that it can or provide some quick explanation of why the city really needs is a costumed crime fighter, or else there is no story. By bringing in a street kid being pushed around by various gangs, Robin #178 takes material from serious real world problems and provides a comic book solution. By having Robin spend an entire issue in self-doubt, it asks a question it can't afford to ask. By having Robin not even consider non-violent solutions, it accidently reveals that Robin doesn't have an answer.