Monday, November 10, 2008

Hiatus

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.

B-

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.

B+

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.

B+

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.

B-

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?

A-

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.

C+

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Secret Invasion #6 Review

Writer: Brian Michael Bendis
Penciller: Leinil Francis Yu

Why am I still reading this comic? I've been reading comics for so long that I've always tried to get myself involved in their "major events" every summer. I was so excited about Secret Invasion that I even told my non-comic friends about how exciting it was going to be, leading to the puzzled looks people get when they try to explain any comic book story to a non-fan (though, admittedly, they looked less puzzled than when I tried to explain Infinite Crisis a few years ago). However, Secret Invasion continues to be one of the most disappointing comic books I have ever read. It is boring, repetitive, clichéd, and mean-spirited. It had one good issue, and then has completely petered out in a way that I genuinely didn't believe was possible.

Brian Michael Bendis has convinced me that he has absolutely no idea how to pace a story. At the end of Issue #3, Nick Fury and his new Howling Commandos showed up. At the end of Issue #4, Thor showed up. In this issue, issue #6, they all show up again. The reason they all show up again is that no time has elapsed in New York in three issues. That's right. The reason we have a repeat of the introduction of these characters, this time narrated by the Hood and his villains, is that Bendis's New York story has been looping for three straight issues now. He is literally repeating scenes so as to ensure that the story is not moved forward. I joked in my review of the last issue that the entire invasion would be over in less than twenty-four hours. I was wrong. This comic is actually developing so slowly that it is going backwards in time. It is as though this comic accidentally got crossed with the script of Memento. I have never seen a comic story so badly developed or paced before.

Since the introduction of softcover collections, decompression has become a problem in comics. Rather than writing to the issue, the author writes to the collection. As a result, one finds stories that feel quite slow when read on a month-to-month basis, but that read rather well in a six-part story. For Bendis's Ultimate Spider-man book, he has actually used this decompression quite successfully. Rather than simply develop the story, he has taken time out to develop characters in a way that has made that story quite successful. However, this book is the flipside of decompression. There really aren't any great character moments and the ones that exist tend to be dreadful, turning everyone into the same angry killer. Instead, all of that extra time is spent recapping what happened in previous issues. It has become apparent that Bendis simply cannot tell a fast-paced story, and simply can't stop himself from packing every issue with filler.

At least it looks like something will happen next issue. Maybe. Everyone stands around in Central Park at the end of the issues and threatens each other for six pages. That sounds like something will happen. We get two splashes at the end, one of which includes a big fight, so that's good. Wasp is some kind of traitor who somehow bypassed Reed Richard's new detection device. Maybe it's really her? Either way, I'm sure we'll find out at some point in issue #8. The big final page seems to have two Spider-Men on it, which could be an interesting clue, especially since the cover of next issue seems to have Spider-Man and Wolverine fighting. There are hints of some progression, and that is something positive, but the story is now 75% finished, so it is too late at this point. They have two issues for a fight that has been accumulating since Issue #3, and they have yet to rescue any of the kidnapped heroes except Mr. Fantastic.

One other thing that needs to be mentioned is that somehow this issue fails to incorporate the death of Kly'bn in Incredible Hercules #120. In that issue, Hercules and the rest of his God Squad killed Kly'bn, the god whom the Skrulls in Secret Invasion worship. The book that they are always referring to is destroyed and all of the Skrulls are disheartened. This is an interesting omission, since it would seem directly relevant. It seems that in spinning its wheels, Secret Invasion has even fallen behind its crossovers in the storyline. There seems to have been some sort of editorial gaffe here in keeping the stories straight. When Incredible Hercules actually progressed the Secret Invasion story, I was very happy, and I was disappointed here to see it ignored.

I'm going to finish this story, if only because I've already read three-quarters of it and want to see it end. It is a real shame to see such a great premise go to waste.

C-

Detective Comics #848 Review

Writer: Paul Dini
Penciller: Dustin Nguyen

Eww! Ewwww! Wait, I'm not sure that's quite sufficient. Ewwwwwwww! There really aren't enough "w"'s available to describe the disgusting ending to Detective Comics #848. When I read the first issue of the story, "Heart of Hush", I kind of expected that it was, well, a metaphor. I didn't actually expect him to go around cutting out people's hearts. And, okay, cutting out people's hearts is pretty gross, but cutting out people's hearts and leaving them alive strapped to rusty machines and tubes is just demented. It's even more demented than the standard "Batman's rogue gallery is demented" demented. Instead, it's more the "What is wrong with Paul Dini and why does he think we want to read this demented story?" demented. Dini manages in this story to cross the line from telling a story about crazy people to adding shock value to his book by brutally mutilating major characters. I realise people get mutilated in comics all the time, but it is usually, at worst, an arm or something. There are also a lot of gory deaths (Johns writes a lot of these), but this is a gory non-death, and it's revolting.

This issue almost makes me want to go back and rewrite my Captain America #41 review. In that review, I criticized Brubaker for leaving Sharon Carter as a tormented prisoner for seventeen straight issues before finally being stabbed so as to lose her baby. I criticised that book for falling into the "Women in Refrigerators" cliché of inflicting violence on the female love interest of the hero for the sake of creating drama. However much I thought (and think) that Brubaker crossed the line in that issue, I want to add the following line: "True, but at least he didn't have her heart cut out and leave her strapped to a gurney with tubes coming out of her chest". Brubaker at least had the good sense not to invent new ways of tormenting and mutilating his major female characters. I underestimated just how far authors were willing to go in brutalizing female characters in order to shock their readers. For that, Mr. Brubaker, I am sorry.

I realise that Detective Comics #848 is a part of a genre, epitomised by such horror fims as Hellraiser and Nightmare on Elm Street, in which part of the, erm, fun is to see the new ways in which the villain is able to mutliate his victim. However, while I'm not a fan of this genre of film, at least half of what is impressive about these films is the use of special effects surrounding the violence. There's a kind of craftsmanship to creating the most disgusting-looking zombie or mutiliating someone in a way that no one has ever tried before and making it look like you're not simply blowing up a shopping mall dummy. Magazines like Fangoria are good examples of the way that these special effects themselves can be impressive, albeit in a not-especially-edifying way. However, since this is a comic book, none of this craftsmanship applies. There is no special-effects challenge involved here. New forms of mutilation are supposed to be interesting, just because they are "freaky".

I'm not really sure what else to say about this issue. I had intended to say something clever and funny about the use of asterisks in speech bubbles when characters are killed, but the ending of the issue kind of made me forget about that. In the last issue, I was impressed that Hush was being turned from a lame and confusing villain into a real threat and given real psychological depth. This issue continues that trend, though Dini seems to be intending to turn Hush into Batman's version of Jack the Ripper. I think I liked the lame version better. Although Batman's villains are insane, the Batman stories usually manage to stay on the level of the surreal. The stories are just kooky enough that one has enough metaphor to counterbalance the violence. However, a physician villain using medical scalpels will always be too literal. The violence of abused medicine will always be too close to reality to ever be anything more than simply grisly violence.

I know I'm supposed to be desensitized to this stuff by now. I grew up on horror films. One might say, "Reviewers are supposed to be neutral to revulsion and just praise the author for how well they produce it". Pfft. Whatever. Kudos to me for not being desensitized. Shame on Dini for expecting me to be.

D

Nightwing #148 Review

Writer: Peter J. Tomasi
Penciller: Rags Morales

After last issue's extremely dubious advertisement as a crossover to the R.I.P. storyline, Nightwing #148 finally delivers on its promise of being a tie-in. However, it is not a tie-in in the way one might expect. Like Robin #177, this issue takes place after the events of R.I.P., in which the climactic events of R.I.P. have already taken place and Bruce Wayne has since retired as Batman. This has a curious result, and one that I'm not sure is such a good thing: it in effect spoils the ending of R.I.P. True, we do not know what exactly happened at Arkham Asylum, but now we know that just about every major character comes out of R.I.P. alive, although perhaps not unscathed. Robin survived, as we know from his book, and now we discover that both Nightwing and Alfred also survived the encounter. While one can never really expect a major character will get killed, Dick Grayson's fate has always been up in the air ever since we learned there was originally a plan to kill him off in Infinite Crisis #7. If anyone was going to be killed or seriously hurt, it was him (well, maybe Alfred). Now we know that they are both perfectly fine. No matter what happens in the rest of R.I.P., some of the tension of the story has been irrevocably lost, and that is not a positive thing.

This book does, though, reveal that something indeed may be up with Alfred in R.I.P. At one point in this book, Dick Grayson asks Alfred, "Nnn--when did you learn arthroscopic surgery?". That's a really good question, and Alfred's answer of "osmosis" doesn't really sound plausible. If Alfred is a doctor, who is he really? I doubt he is Thomas Wayne, but there is some implication here that he is a lot more than simply the former actor turned butler that we all believed he is. One positive element of this book is that, while it spoils some of the ending of R.I.P., it actually has the effect of adding to some of its mystery. Aside from Alfred's strange and sudden medical skills, there is also a very interesting scene where he washes the blood from his hands and for some reason splashes a little on the case holding Jason Todd's old uniform. Clearly, something happened involving Alfred in R.I.P., and this book is quite clever in giving us some hints but really no answers.

In terms of the story itself, this book has several promising elements. It is an interesting story in which Nightwing has to protect Carol, Two-Face's old flame, from people trying to kill her because she is a witness in a crime. Moreover, somehow the crime itself is becoming more interesting. The potential assassins have somehow gotten a hold on Scarecrow's fear serum, using it to cause Nightwing to start hallucinating. If they have access to that, who are they involved with really? The story has been suitably vague and in leaving it a mystery. If the story somehow involves Scarecrow, could Hush also be involved? They are working together over in Detective Comics. At this point, we don't know, but the conspiracy behind the attempted assassination has moved from being a plot device to a real mystery, and the book is stronger for it.

Unfortunately, Don Kramer is no longer the penciller on Nightwing. His visuals were one of the best things about the last issue, as he draws some of the best action sequences I have ever seen. Instead, Morales' strength seems to be his character elements, writing suitably ambiguous expressions on people's face, so that we aren't sure, for example, what Alfred is thinking or what Carol thinks of Nightwing. There is a nice moment in the book when Nightwing leaves Carol, yet again, in the safehouse (located at the Cloisters in Manhattan, which I found rather a clever idea). She asks him if he promises to come back, almost like a little kid might ask a parent when feeling a little insecure. It is a nice moment, because it reminds us that normal people don't actually encounter superheroes on a regular basis, and she is so impressed with him, she's starting to regress a little. I wonder if perhaps she won't become a love interest for Nightwing in the long run, which would be interesting since Two-Face is still in love with her. There's a lot of potential to this character, and I hope we see her again. However, because Rags isn't quite as strong in drawing action as Kramer, there is more dialogue than action in this book, and I miss the pacing of the last issue.

Overall, then, this is a solid issue of Nightwing. There are a lot of nice character moments and, despite spoiling some of the outcome of R.I.P, it also finds a way to add to the mystery.

B

Thursday, September 4, 2008

Buffy: Season Eight #18 Review

Writer: Joss Whedon
Penciller: Karl Moline

Spoiler Alert

With its third part, the episode "The Time of your Life" is finally starting to come together. What is most interesting about this comic is that Joss Whedon has quite successfully merged his comic book, Fray, with the Buffy universe at large. Several elements are coming together here. At the end of Season Seven, Buffy turned all potential slayers into true slayers, thus changing the world. Moreover, by doing so, she changed her own fate, or rather, removed it. Buffy had been the "one girl, in all the world, a chosen One. One born with the strength and skill to hunt the vampires, to stop the spread of evil". By imbuing the other potential slayers with her power, she removed her own destiny. The final line of the television show was Dawn asking Buffy, "Yeah, Buffy, what are we going to do now?". Buffy lets out a small smile, indicating that, for the first time since she was called to be the Slayer, she was able to ask herself that question.

The importance of the current story line is that it appears, somehow, that Buffy failed. In Fray's future, there is only one slayer again. Most fans had assumed that Fray was simply out of continuity, and because it was published before the final episode was aired, it had just not taken the finale of the series into account. Either Joss Whedon knew what he was planning all along, or he made it seem like he did. Instead, the existence of Fray indicates that somehow Buffy failed, and quickly. All the history books that Buffy reads at the beginning of Issue #18 include no mention of her army of slayers, indicating that her army was either wiped out or depowered before anyone could even notice.

How did all of this happen? Curiously, this issue indicates that somehow Buffy is probably responsible. The Willow of the future claims to have very little magic power left, which may or may not be true. Moreover, whatever she told Fray about Buffy convinced Fray that Buffy needed to be killed or at least captured. The Willow of the future is also apparently conspiring to bring someone back into the past, possibly to change whatever would happen, so that magic will not be eliminated from the world. Either Buffy will lose to this group, Twilight, or somehow she imbalanced magic enough that it will somehow be destroyed.

We are beginning to see some of the complexities of the themes of this season. Buffy has created an entire army of slayers, and humanity has simply had enough. We have seen humanity try to fight magic before, with the disastrous Initiative from season four. Twilight is humanity's response to the continuing threat from magic and from the fairly tale world that continues to press against its borders. One curious thing about the themes of this season is that it's not entirely clear who is in the right. Sure, Twilight is creepy, but when presented with the possibility that humanity might be out to stop magic, Buffy's response is to simply say, "Bring them on".

There is an interesting character moment in which we realise Buffy may have lost her compass. When she and Fray are watching vampires attack a group of citizens, Buffy doesn't leap into battle, but instead plans to watch them kill the humans so they can follow them back to their base. At first, I tried to rationalise this scene, thinking that perhaps Buffy was about to discuss a plan in which Fray stops the vampires while she follows the driver back to their base, but I'm not so sure. This is a new Buffy, not the one who foolishly ran off to save innocent civilians while Drusilla killed Kendra and put Willow in the hospital, falling for the same ruse "every single time!" as Angelus mocked. Looking carefully over the season, there have been a few moments where Buffy's utilitarian reasoning has arisen. She has been robbing banks in order to finance her army. She has put some of her soldiers into jeopardy by turning them into her decoys, one of whom was killed. This issue, she is content to simply watch people die for the greater good. Her reasoning has started to resemble some of the darker reasoning of the Watchers during the television show, which makes sense given that this has basically become her role relative to the newer slayers. Future Willow may not have needed to invent very much in order to turn Fray against Buffy.

As a whole, then, the arc of this story is very impressive. It is good to see this comic turn from a series of interesting events to a genuine story with important themes that Whedon wants to tell. In its particular moments, some of the scenes are very funny. Dawn's comment to Lorelahn is laugh-out-loud funny when she asks him whether or not he was caught in a "legend blender". The face-off between Harth and Gunther is suitably creepy, as the two of them realise that they are in a stalemate, and Gunther shows Harth that maybe he isn't the biggest creep in town. The future Willow is starting to be developed well, and she is not the dark Willow of season six nor the vampire Willow of season three. Instead, she is simply a sad figure, almost like a repository of dark and mostly forgotten memories. She looks like an old, broken doll, with cracks on her porcelain forehead and in a tattered, dirty dress. Her comment that she "earned" her title as "madwoman" indicates that somehow she may be responsible for her own misery.

This is the best issue yet of the series, even though nothing much happens in it. Instead, Whedon is carefully drawing out his themes and subtly tying together his narrative, leaving the reader to realise that something very, very bad is about to happen, and that it might be the fault of our favourite characters.

A-

Wednesday, September 3, 2008

Angel: After the Fall #12 Review

Writer: Brian Lynch
Pencillers: Stephen Mooney and Nick Runge

Spoiler Alert

In every episode of Buffy and Angel, there is a scene where either Giles or Wesley explained, at length, what was happening in the current episode. These exposition scenes tended to occur in the library, the magic shop, or the lobby of the Hyperion Hotel. After the Fall #12 is the exposition scene for the After the Fall story. There is nothing remotely wrong with that. Every story requires an exposition scene, and this one is very strong. Taken out of context, however, an exposition issue is a very odd thing. Normally, exposition is immediately framed on either side by drama or action. Here, with a month break on either side, the exposition feels like I'm taking a break from the story to read a very long summary. It's an interesting experience, and I suppose a necessary one, but this doesn't really read like a comic book so much as a university lecture. There is literally more text on every page here than there is in the average Bendis comic.

However, this book shows that Lynch really does know what he is doing with the Angel franchise. While Season Five of the television show was in a lot of ways the strongest of the show, it did seem to veer away from the original premise of Angel. The Shanshu prophecy said that Angel was to play an important role in the apocalypse, and Wolfram & Hart spent much of its time trying to corrupt Angel so that he would be on their side when the apocalypse came. However, in the penultimate episode of the series, Angel signed away his place in the prophecy, making it feel like the Shanshu prophecy was somehow a loose thread that the writers couldn't figure out how to work into the chosen ending for the show.

Lynch takes the prophecy and makes it center stage again. Not only that, but his exposition makes the prophecy retroactively at the heart of everything Wolfram & Hart has been doing, not only in After the Fall, but in Season Five as well. We find that everything from sending Angel to hell to turning Gunn into a vampire has all been a part of a continuing plan to corrupt Angel, one which, if the prophecy given to Angel at the end is to be believed, will be successful. The two-page splash in which the prophecy is revealed to Angel is a phenomenal moment, one in which Angel realises that the Shanshu prophecy is not simply a source of hope but a potential source of horror. Angel sees himself with a sword having brutally killed what looks like everyone, and decides that maybe he would be better off succumbing to the wounds he suffered last issue.

Prophecy has often been a point of focus for the Angel television show, and one of the things it captured nicely is that prophecies can be often manipulated or deceptive. We learned this lesson best in season three, where Wesley learned not to listen to talking hamburgers. Lynch wisely recalls this moment, and is aware of all those ambiguities concerning prophecies. There literally isn't a single prophecy here that might not be something else. Gunn's putative prophecies were apparently actually from Wolfram & Hart. Cordelia may or may not be an illusion, a manifestation of good or a manifestation of evil. Even the last splash page has an untrustworthy source, as it comes from Wolfram & Hart through Wesley. It is genuinely unclear here whether or not Angel should succumb to his wounds or not, and this ambiguity is deliberate on Lynch's part. While everything is revealed in this issue, in another way, nothing is revealed. We have a series of explanations that may or may not be true and a new set of prophecies that may or may not be lies. This has the effect of refocussing the book on these new prophecies until we find out what is really going on: it gives us all the questions.

This isn't the strongest issue of After the Fall. In a sense, there's no way it could be. The exposition scene is never the strongest scene in any story. However, this is an exceptionally well done exposition scene, and shows that Brian Lynch has complete control over the themes and ideas of the television show. We've taken a minute out of the action to find out what is going on, and that is a very worthwhile thing. Next issue, with all of the questions and ideas in mind, the story will be even more meaningful.

B+

Secret Six #1 Review

Writer: Gail Simone
Penciller: Nicola Scott

Three years ago, DC Comics made the wise decision of having four mini-series that led into its summer crossover, Infinite Crisis. While two of them were pretty forgettable (The Rann-Thanagar War and Day of Vengeance), two of them were a couple of the most interesting mini-series DC has ever produced, The OMAC Project and Villains United. The latter story was about six otherwise C-list villains recruited by Lex Luthor to stop Alexander Luthor, Jr.'s plan to impersonate him and unite the villains of the DC universe in an assault against the heroes. This story was very well received, and has since spawned two mini-series, both entitled "Secret Six", following the adventures of his group of third-rate villains.

It can be very hard to write a story based on the lesser-known characters of the DC Universe. After all, they are probably lesser-known for a reason. Well-known characters tend to tap into some sort of psychology of archetypes that enables multiple writers to tell meaningful stories about them for decades. A few years ago, Grant Morrison did something similar with Seven Soldiers of Victory in which he used or created seven lesser known heroes of the DC universe. Gail Simone has done the same thing very successfully with the villains. The characters come across as well-drawn, quirky and ultimately very believable despite their obviously disordered personalities. In a way, Secret Six is the villainous answer to Seven Soldiers, showing that a stong author can write stories using any material, and even find ways to make their stories stronger using the absurdity of the material.

The Secret Six, who are now reduced to four after the deaths of Parademon and Knockout, are hired in this story to kill Tarantula, a prominent character from the Nightwing comics who dated Nightwing until she murdered Blockbuster and was sent to prison. She stole something the size of a card, and a creepy villain who lives in a box named Junior wants it back. Huntress, who apparently dated Catman in the Birds of Prey comic, tries to warn him off of the "job" under the orders of Batman.

However, the plot is not what makes this comic book so interesting. Simone's strength is not really with her plots but with her characterization. Her characterization of Catman is especially strong, and he has always been her most well-written character. If anyone is a C-lister, it is him. He is a knockoff of a knockoff, somehow blending the names of "Batman" and "Catwoman" just because at some point someone at DC thought that there should be a male version of the latter. Part of what makes him so interesting is precisely that he is so third rate. He wants to go "straight", but has no idea how to do it. His retirement to live with the lions failed miserably after he murdered several hunters. Now, he is still working as an assassin, musing that he would like to reform, but with no real plan of how to do so. He and Deadshot are witnesses to a liquor store robbery, where they oscillate back-and-forth on how to handle it. At first, they simply ignore the robbers, then they decide to rob the liquor store themselves. On realising that the robbers are likely to kill the witnesses after they leave, Catman goes in and "saves the day" by beating the original robbers brutally and scarring them like Zorro. His confusion about how a hero is supposed to behave is so well written that one can hardly help but laugh when Deadshot says, "Yep, guess the Justice League oughtta be callin' any day now, General Glory".

The other characters are superbly drawn as well. Deadshot is a dangerous killer with no conscience. He's not really a psychopath, but more of a man with no moral compass of any kind. Ragdoll is truly creepy, and Simone does a great job of blending his insecurity and goofiness with his brutality. Scandal, the daughter of Vandal Savage, spends most of the issue drunk after the death of Knockout (which happened in the Death of the New Gods story), but when the rest of the Secret Four snap her out of it by hiring a stripper dressed as her former lover, she doesn't get angry as one might expect, but appreciates the gesture and turns back into the cold and effective leader she was in the former books. There is also a nice moment with Knockout and Scandal, where we are reminded that Knockout is a goddess and may not really be dead, keeping the book in continuity with what is happening over in Final Crisis without overwhelming the story or turning it into a crossover.

The villain, too, is suitably scary. In a story about villains, the antagonist villain has to be even more...villainous. When killing an insubordinate lackey, Junior is not content so simply kill the lackey, but horrify him and his family. He even kills his dog. When your main characters are villains, having a dark, barely human creature living in a box as the villain is suitably terrifying and I look forward to seeing what Simone plans to do with the rest of the story.

This book doesn't have the same sense of fun with evil that Thunderbolt's current issue has, nor does it have the same sense of malice as Final Crisis. Instead, Simone very carefully and very successfully tells a story about villains without necessarily having any overwhelming theme about evil. She takes these characters very seriously, and has a lot to say about them, their characters and their relationships. We see Catman's futile attempt to reform and the confusion of the other members as to what it is they really want or what will really satisfy them. I'm not sure if this is intended to be an ongoing series (there's no "1 of 6" anywhere on the title), and I am very interested to see what Simone will do with these characters in the long run.

B+

Saturday, August 30, 2008

Justice Society of America #18 Review

Writer: Geoff Johns
Penciller: Dale Eaglesham

This issue continues the "One World, Under Gog" story line, but unfortunately lacks the charm or wonder of the previous issue. One major reason is that the story is told through the eyes of Hawkman, who I think was trying to come across as a tough soldier, but really came across as a dangerous psychopath. As in previous issues, the JSA are in Africa, and Gog, who last issue wiped out most of the disease in Africa, in this issue he intends to wipe out war. He focuses on fighting the Union of Congolese Patriots, an actual group well known for their use of child soldiers and killing of peacekeepers. The JSA and Gog fight them, one JSA member is killed and then Gog turns the UCP members into trees.

This is actually a very strange issue. I think the Johns is trying to say something about war, but I'm not sure what he's trying to get at, and don't like what I think I understood. First, we have a very long debate between Hawkman and Jay Garrick, in which Garrick has to stop Hawkman from killing an unconscious UCP soldier. Sorry? I find it a bit unbelievable that the JSA would include even a single member that would be capable of killing an unconscious prisoner of war. What is even more puzzling is that Garrick doesn't persuade him using the argument that prisoners of war shouldn't be executed. Instead, Garrick argues that the JSA is in Africa representing the United States, and can't be seen to be killing people. One would think that any member of an orgainisation such as the JSA would be immediately expelled if they were ever to seriously consider killing an unconscious prisoner.

The story goes on in this strange way. Eventually Gog turns the UCP soldiers into trees, which, as Superman points out, is tantamount to killing them. Rather than ask Gog to turn them back, however, Hawkman actually implicitly threatens Garrick and Scott who want to turn them back. This is bizarre. Not only is Hawkman a potential war criminal, but he is an insubordinate one. What is going on here? Then, suddenly, David Reid, the newest JSA member, yells out that the UCP soldiers are like monsters and can't be treated like everyone else, but is killed before he can kill more than a few UCP members. At that point, Gog, who seems to have the ability to resurrect people, if only as his stewards, turns him into Magog from the Kingdom Come story, only with no pants.

The debate among the JSA is so bizarre because it would seem these issues were settled years ago with the Geneva Convention. The JSA, which is supposed to be a superhero society, is seen to want to behave in ways that would have any American soldier courtmartialed. Finally, when Gog starts ending violence by turning people into trees, barely gets any sort of negative reaction from the JSA. The issue is narrated by Hawkman, who wants to kill the prisoners and cut down even the trees, who sounds only slightly less insane than Moore's Rorschach. Moreover, very little context is given as to what is a real world conflict, giving the reader no sense of why the JSA might suddenly have turned into costumed vigilantes out to kill African soldiers except that they are "the bad guys".

One serious problem here is that the sense that somehow their battle might be so desperate it warrants killing is completely undermined by the fact that they are a group of superheroes fighting a group of normal human beings. No matter how bad they might be, the JSA has already won the battle, just by showing up. They have Superman, for goodness sake, and he could just inhale and blow them all away if they wanted to. There is a complete implausibility in even calling it a war when it is superheroes against normal people. Moreover, they have a god with them who is nearly omnipotent. This isn't a war in any meaningful sense, and the JSA just comes across as killers.

Some of the ramifications of Gog's previous gifts are starting to come to light. There is a nice scene in which Damage uses a Japanese-English dictionary to ask Judomaster on a date, which he now feels he can do because his face is no longer mutilated. Doctor Midnite is realising that he has lost many of his powers when he regained his sight, and Citizen Steel is so desperate for a miracle, he has become almost oblivious to what is going on around him. These are some good character moments that recall the power of the previous issue, but ultimately, they cannot redeem it from the bizarre mess concerning the UCP.

I'm honestly not sure what happened here. When a giant million-year-old god starts rampaging about, turning people into trees, one would think the response of Earth would be to seriously worry about what he was planning to do with his power. Instead, the JSA decides to join in the killing. This is just a weird issue, and I hope it can be forgotten very quickly now that Magog has appeared on the scene.

C+

Final Crisis: Superman Beyond 3D #1 Review

Writer: Grant Morrison
Penciller Doug Mahnke

With Superman Beyond, we see the flipside of Grant Morrison's writing. Two weeks ago, he produced one of the best comic books in recent years, Final Crisis #3. Superman Beyond, however, is a book of loopy and impenetrable madness. Sometimes Morrison gets so engrossed in his own love of language that he simply stops making any sense, and that tendency is epitomised in this book that has a lot of interesting ideas, but gets lost in its own opacity. This book doesn't make sense in the way that Heidigger doesn't make any sense. The words mean nothing, while the author clearly thinks they do, and the reader is left having simply no idea what the author is talking about. I love Morisson's writing, partly because he is so ambitious, but one of the problems with ambition is that, when it fails, it fails spectacularly.

This book introduces what should be termed Morrison's metaphysics of the Monitors. The Monitors, it seems, are in fact extremely large. When we saw the Monitors looking at the orerary in Final Crisis #1, it appeared that they were looking at some sort of image of the Multiverse. Not so. Apparently, in fact, the Monitors somehow exist outside of the multiverse, to whom the entire multiverse is about the size of a building. The Monitors started as completely indistinct, but the introduction of narrative in the Multiverse, which formed itself, has changed them substantially. Instead of being an abstract "Monitor", they instead formed an entire civilization of distinct Monitors including a very evil one named Mandrakk who was trapped inside of a sepulchre. Now, Mandrakk has escaped, and is hunting the Monitor Zillo Valla, using nano-technology, which for Monitors, are immensely powerful ships. They chase Valla and the four Supermen she has recruited (including Superman, Ultra-Man, the Overman and Dr. Manhattan) through several alternate Eaths before they reach Limbo, a land ruled by a jester with glasses named Merryman.

In Limbo, nothing happens, except there is a library with a single book that is infinitely heavy because it was written by a monkey and contains every possible book (presumably it was written by one of the infinite monkeys on infinite typewriters). Superman reads the book and finds out the history of the Monitors, but before they can escape from Limbo. They learn that the universe was formed in the following way:

"Monitor makes a concept to contain the plan! Monitor examination reveals within terrifiying, unforeseen complexities and contradictions! Magnification reveals a structure of infinitesimal rippling manifolds upon whose surface intricate germlike processes thrive and multiply!"

Does that make sense to anyone? I don't think so. It's just nonsense. What I think Morrison may be trying to get at here is the postmodern idea of order imposed on chaos through narrative, however, when placed inside of a narrative, it just becomes gibberish. The stuff about stories an infinitely heavy book containing an infinite number of stories (which is just one story) is just all over the place in terms of what he is trying to say (all happening, of course, in Limbo, in which nothing ever happens. i.e. there is no narrative). In Superman Beyond, Morrison has lost complete control of his medium.

There is a real danger here in what Morrison is doing, as well, for the entire DC universe. When the New Gods were introduced, they were intended to be immensely powerful gods, who were to the DC universe what gods are in a polytheistic culture. Monitors appear to be taking on something of this role as well, being so large that the entire multiverse fits in a large jar. Such immensely powerful characters have never really fit well in DC, and there has been a lot of difficulty figuring out what to do with them. Now there appear to be a whole new class of gods, who are somehow connected to the universe (and to Superman), and now they will have the problem of trying to fit these incredibly powerful beings in. The problem with characters of this level of power is that they have a tendency to overwhelm the story, or, if they don't, render the stories implausible because they should overwhelm the story.

Something needs to be said about the 3D images as well. In general, I find 3D a lot of fun. However, in this book it doesn't work at all. One problem is that, given how difficult or rather impossible to follow this book is, it needs several readthroughs to make any sense. However, the 3D here would given anyone trying to do that a headache. Also, 3D using red and blue glasses works well if one's images include little actual red or blue. However, Superman's costume is red and blue, and just flashes back and forth when looking at it through the glasses. Also, for some reason the 3D work on this book is incomplete. It is sometimes 3D and sometimes not, which makes me think that somehow the book was never really finished. On some message boards, people were asking where they can get a 2D version, and I understand why.

Morrison has another issue to sort all of this out, and I hope he will, but right now, Superman Beyond is a huge mess. Morrison always has good ideas, and he clearly has put a lot of them into Superman beyond, but there is no sense of control here.

C+

Superman #679 Review

Writer: James Robinson
Penciller: Renato Guedes

James Robinson has the unfortunate task of entering the Superman franchise right as Geoff Johns is writing some of the best Superman stories the book has ever seen over in Action Comics. He also has been tasked with writing about a lame villain, Atlas, when Johns is fleshing out the arch-nemesis Braniac over in the other book. However, not all comic books need to be monumental events. Sometimes, it is worthwhile just to write fun stories about Superman, and here Robinson is succeeding. In the last issue, Atlas was introduced, and he wasn't very interesting. However, in that issue, Superman wasn't very interesting either, and had almost no dialogue.

A lot of the problems with the last issue have been cleared up here, and Robinson is clearly having a lot of fun with the characters in the Superman family. The strange reference to Zatanna has been cleared up, and while the payoff is simply that Lois is jealous of the all-powerful super-magician in fishnets, the scene with her and Clark at breakfast is a nice moment. Superman is living is such a world of walking metaphors that it is actually a little refreshing to see Lois get a little jealous of one of them (of course, the one she should really be jealous of is Wonder Woman, seeing that Clark ends up married to her in about half of DC's possible futures). Robinson made a bit of a mistake in not giving us any of Superman's characterization until this issue, but here, he nails it.

The other characters are very interesting as well. Jimmy comes across, as usual, as somewhere between an insecure kid and a sharp investigative journalist. He spends his time between worrying about Superman losing the fight to Atlas and trying to figure out who the strange shadow (in a baseball cap?) is on the roof of a building. The relationship between Supergirl and Superman is developed, and we can really see their devotion to each other, both because they are family and because they are the last survivors of their planet. She rushes off to save him, and the two of them are so busy protecting each other, they almost get in each other's way. There is a really awesome moment in which we see Supergirl hanging out with her pet pride of...lions? Yes, lions. I guess when you are invulnerable you can have pet lions, and this is a really great idea. We know she loves cats, so having a pride of pet lions makes perfect sense. The funny thing is that from the looks on the lions face, it's not entirely clear what they think of her, but that's okay. Having a pet with contempt for you half of the time is part of the fun of having a cat.

There is also an interesting scene between Lana Lang and one of her minions at Lex Corp. DC has been trying to figure out to do with the third wheel of the Superman-Lois-Lana tricycle ever since Superman and Lois got married back in 1996, especially given the popularity of the character in the Smallville television show. Having her be the tough, corporate lady is an interesting choice, which makes some sense as she is the former first lady. Here we see that toughness as she stands up to her contemptuous minion and tries to protect Superman using her resources. Unfortunately, she is fired from Lex Corp in this issue in a not-especially-plausible contract dispute, so I hope they don't abandon what is an interesting direction for the character. However, the characterization here is very believable given her recent direction in the franchise.

Finally, of course, we have the introduction of Krypto to save the day at the end of the book. With this moment, Robinson abandons any pretense that this will be an epic Superman story, but that is all right. It is nice to see a master protected by his dog, and Krypto is a character who has always been potentially silly, but clearly represents something important to fans. When he was wiped out in order to make Superman the last Kryptonian in Crisis on Infinite Earths, so many fans rejected his annihilation that they simply refused to accept his removal as canon. This refusal to accept the canonicity of stories actually has come to be known as "Krypto-revisionism", named after the fan rebellion at the removal of this dog, and has been widely used in other instances of fan-rebellion, such as the rejection of Highlander 2. Krypto is, for whatever reason, an important part of the Superman mythos, and I am glad for it. One of the best things about this story is the way we see that Superman isn't alone, but is constantly surrounded by a family and even pets who care for him. I look forward to a Krypto story next issue. It's been a while.

The fight with Atlas is becoming interesting, despite having gone on for two issues now. Somehow, Atlas is super-strong and able to defeat Superman. This reminds me somewhat of the fight with Doomsday, in which a character that comes out of nowhere is the one who finally (apparently) kills Superman. I admit, despite really not liking the character last issue, this one left me intrigued as to who this character is, and I hope there is some explanation beyond the silly one from last issue.

Overall, then, this is a good book. It is not as strong or epic as Action Comics, but this book has finally found its stride. It is a nice, even occasionaly cute, adventure story about Superman. There's nothing wrong with that.

B

Thunderbolts #123 Review

Writers: Christos N. Gage
Penciller: Fernando Blanco

Marvel's most disfunctional superhero team finally gets involved in the Secret Invasion by attacking the Skrulls in Washington. In doing so, they provide us with one of the most fun superhero comics to be written in recent years, and Gage shows us that he has complete understanding of the Thunderbolts franchise after only two issues. At the end of Secret Invasion #1, Captain Marvel attacked Thunderbolts Mountain, but instead of killing the Thunderbolts, Norman Osborn uses a little pop psychology to undermine his confidence. From the Captain Marvel comic, we know that te Skrull Captain Marvel's encoding didn't quite work, and he really believed he is Captain Marvel. Delivering a great line, "I know something about not being sure if you're really pink...or green", Osborn persuades him to instead attack his own Skrull allies.

One of the nice thing about Gage's run, as opposed to Ellis's run, is that Gage seems to be having a lot of fun with the idea of supervillains in charge, whereas Ellis's run sometimes came across as cynical and even a little mean spirited. Here, the characters are gleefully sociopathic, working together partly because they have to and partly because it's fun. Almost every character is completely off their rocker, but Gage has the remarkable ability to make is seem as though the team and even the effectiveness of the team make perfect sense. Osborn comes across as an incredibly effective leader, even (or especially) of madmen, whose broken psychology makes them easier to manipulate than ordinary people with complex desires. Pulling out an automatic rife, he declares "We're at war", and they head into battle.

The battle is, quite simply, hilarious. Penance of course inflicts pain on himself in order to destroy a Skrull ship. Osborne decides to ram one of the Skrull ships, which may not be the tactically most sound decision, but is certainly the most fun. Venom is dropped into a sea of Skrulls, and of course enjoys eating as many of them as he possibly can, but may end up eating some civilians as well. Bullseye acts like he's a little kid in an arcade game, and is happy for the chance to have an "unsupervised field trip" in which he can murder as many Skrulls (and even some of Osborn's troops) as possible. Everyone is utterly convinced that Swordsman's sister is a Skrull, but they let it pass because they are useful in the fight. Radioactive Man nearly explodes. Moonstone decides to betray humanity in exchange for power. Finally, Osborne sees a bunch of Spider Clones, and the maniacal Green Goblin laugh returns as he prepares to lose his mind again, which seems to happen on a regular basis.

While Grant Morisson is exploring the depths of evil and its meaning in Final Crisis, Gage here is examining the other side. He is making evil fun. Somehow, though, he manages to avoid the mean-spirited satire of books like Preacher or even Ellis's run, and instead manages to turn the chaotic nature of sociopaths into the premise for a truly manic glee. The madness of the Thunderbolts has been fully unleashed, and seeing each character rampaging about, doing more damage to the Skrulls than anyone else gives the same sense of fun that one has when destroying sandcastles or knocking over blocks. Somehow, this book isn't mean-spirited. Gage loves writing this book, and it comes across on every page.

I also want to compliment Blanco's art. He has a lot of fun drawing alien technology and high-tech backgrounds, and there is plenty of opportunity to do that here. He provides a real sense of the layout inside Osborne's ship, for example, and it comes across as a real place. The characters are well drawn, and the cackly look on Bullseye's face is classic. I have two little quibbles, though. Is Moonstone supposed to look completely naked from behind? I know her suit is white, but there is more than one scene where I had to do a bit of a double-take because the lighting makes it look like she's wearing no clothing. Also, Blanco seems a little uncomfortable with architecture, and even though they are fighting in a city, there are few buildings. In the large spreadpage, you'll notice that he carefully puts any buildings behind alien ships, while the most visible part of the ground is a field.

This is one of the best Thunderbolts comics in years. I can't remember enjoying one as much since the origin story of Radioactive Man a few years ago. Gage is having an absolute blast writing the characters and I am having just as much fun reading about them.

A-

Final Crisis: Rogues' Revenge #2 Review

Writer: Geoff Johns
Penciller: Scott Kolins

While I wasn't very impressed with the first issue of Rogues' Revenge, this issue is much more interesting. Part of why it is so strong is that the apparent original premise, of the rogues seeking revenge for Inertia having "forced" them to kill Bart Allen plays no real role in this issue. That is fortunate, as that premise is really absurd and makes the characters seem like buffoons. Instead, this issue focuses on Libra's attempts to compel the Rogues to join his new Society of Supervillains, in this case by kidnapping the father of the apparent leader of the Rogues, Captain Cold.

However, Captain Cold doesn't want to kill his father. You see, his father was an abusive monster, and Captain Cold has been looking for him for years to kill him. This is not one of Libra's shining moments. Libra had him kidnapped by a group of "replacement" Rogues, given the Rogues' powers but none of their experience. However, rather than simply thumb their noses at the new Rogues, the original Rogues decide to kill their replacements. They show up where they are holding Captain Cold's father, and murder all of them. The murders of the replacements are brutal, though nowhere near as brutal as the murder of Martian Manhunter in Final Crisis: Requiem. It is good to see that Johns takes murder seriously enough to make it a grisly business.

One of the best elements of this book is the Johns does not shy away from the way in which evil characters think, while at the same time making them seem human rather than as pure caricature. The Rogues are very angry about being "replaced", something which Libra had probably banked on when he recreated them. Their violent response is consistent with that offense, and they don't have a moment of pity for their victims. Moreoever, Libra, who at the end has kidnapped Weather Wizard's son, sees the threatening of family members of those he wants to recruit as par for the course. There is no sense that he feels anything like remorse for these kidnappings, and that such kidnappings are for him just standard fare. His ultimate plan is not to destroy the Rogues, but to recruit them. However, because everyone in this book is evil, recruitment does not need to be voluntary. Duress will do.

A secondary story in this book is that Zoom is training Inertia to be his own, new "Kid Flash". His mentorship is nothing what like what one would normally consider mentorship. He clearly despises Inertia, as he presumably despises anyone, and is only training him because Libra wants him to be so trained. Why has yet to be revealed, but somehow speedsters are important to Libra's plan because they have the power to undo the victory of evil that is somehow at the heart of Final Crisis. Despite this, he doesn't consider himself a disciple of Libra as, for example, the Human Flame does. He is constantly scheming, and somehow working for Libra is just another step in his own aggrandisement. This story shows the way in which evil warps even otherwise healty relationships, like mentor and pupil.

This story, then, fits very well into the overall Final Crisis theme in which evil has somehow been victorious in the war among the gods, and Johns, like Morrison, is doing a good job of developing stories in which evil is the main theme. It isn't as brutal as the evil presented in Final Crisis #3, but everything these characters do says more about villainy and how it affects people. A particularly interesting moment is when Captain Cold decides not to kill his father but have Heat Wave do it instead. Does he not do it because he still has some sort of residual concern for his father, or because he has so much contempt for him he will have someone else kill him? The answer is somewhere in the middle, and that confusion of goals is very much a part of what happens to people when they have lost their moral compass.

I am really enjoying the art in this book. The characters are not very well defined, and that realy works as often the sceenes seem almost surreal. However, what is going on with the raindrops? Kolins has to be the worst drawer of raindrops of any artist in comic history. When his characters are dripping, it makes them look like melting wax statues. On the other hand, he draws fire exceptionally well, and the scene in which Heat Wave murders Pyro is so well done, one can almost feel the heat. He is definitely the right choice for this book.

So, this is a very strong book, and I feel sorry that we will only have one more issue. The characterization of the Rogues is very good, and the way in which villains can clash with each other is an interesting theme. Next month, it will all be over, and I am genuinely interested in seeing whether or not Libra will be successful in his "recruiting" of the Rogues.

B+

Skaar: Son of Hulk #3 Review

Writer: Greg Pak
Pencillers: Ron Garney, Butch Guice (backup)

I've been doing my best to give Skaar: Son of Hulk the benefit of the doubt. I really have. Pak's run on the Hulk was my favourite run ever, and I especially loved his world of Sakaar, where Son of Hulk takes place. However, Pak is missing one of the most important rules of writing a new story: you need to tell your readers what it is about. With an established name like Captain America, you can start a story with intrigue so as to confuse the reader. With Skaar: Son of Hulk, you need a hook and a premise, and you need to establish it fast. After three issues of Skaar: Son of Hulk, I still have no idea what this story will about, or even who its main characters will be. This is the same mistake that Joss Whedon's show Firefly made, taking so long to reveal its central premise that the show was cancelled before it could be revealed.

Make no mistake: I believe that Pak will eventually create a good story here, but he needs to get on with it. There is promise that this will happen next issue, when they reach Prophet Rock and find out who Skaar "really is", whatever that might mean. However, because Pak is writing half of his issues as back story, his main story is only half an issue long each month, and this week, we basically have a fight with Princess Omaka, the woman with no arms from last issue. In it, she tries to kill Skaar, who tears off one of her artificial "arms" (she's replaced them with swords). She plans to kill him, so history doesn't repeat itself and this version of the Hulk doesn't do any more damage to the world. However, they are attacked by Wildebots, and Skaar kills most of them single-handedly. Impressed, she heads off to Prophet Rock with him.

Despite being just as confused as to what is going on this issue as I was in the first issue, there are some very nice elements to Pak's story. I'm reminded that Incredible Hercules is currently also being written by Pak. In both of these books, he is able to write according to a different kind of logic: in Incredible Hercules, it is the logic of mythology, and in Son of Hulk, it is the logic of barbarism. The characters in this book all think very differently than how we normally think, but their logic makes sense given the violent world in which they live. The secondary story about Axeman Bone includes three seperate attempts to assassinate him, which he simply repels with violence. In the world in which he lives, cruelty is utterly ubiquitous, and he considers himself virtuous largely because he has been successful. It is the morality of Agamemnon, and Pak again shows his interest in classical civilization here. Omaka has something of an opposite reaction. She wants to kill Skaar because she wants to stop the endless cycle of bloodshed that destroyed Sakaar City. However, she is also a product of it, and when Skaar destroys the Wildebots, she cannot help but think that his strength might be a sign that he actually is some sort of promised saviour. This logic of barbarism, in which strength and virtue are synonymous, permeates the whole story, and Pak is extremely good at creating stories with their own sense of logic.

I realise there has been a lot of criticism of the art in Son of Hulk, largely due to the lack of an inker. I believe, however, that it really fits the story that Pak is trying to tell. The backgrounds and characters look like they are out of an old adventure storybook, like one of those nineteenth-century novels for boys, with a pencilled drawing above each chapter. Although this may be just my own sense of nostalgia, the sketched out images carry with them a real sense of adventure and tension, like the artist is drawing the image, but leaving the reader to fill in the details. Given how horrible the inking was on Mighty Avengers #17 this week, I have to say that I don't really miss it.

This is the least successful issue of Skaar so far, largely because Pak really needs to get on with his story. However, Pak continutes to do what he do best, which is lay out a world with its own barbaric logic, one in which a character like the Hulk could not help but play a pivotal role.

C+

Thursday, August 28, 2008

The New Avengers #44 Review

Writer: Brian Michael Bendis
Penciller: Billy Tan

This is an interesting comic book, because it promises to be about one thing but then ends up being about something else. This isn't necessarily a bad thing; Hitchcock did the same thing in Psycho. While this book is overall not successful, the transition here is also effective. The story begins putatively to be another story of the Illuminati, a collection of especially clever or powerful superheroes who caused the Skrull invasion in the first place by detonating a bomb in the Skrull capital. However, half way through, we realise that it is all a ruse, and after they are all slaughtered, we learn that they were only clones. At that point, the story becomes about how the Skrulls tricked a Reed Richards clone into providing them with the means of becoming human while remaining completely undetectable.

The transition is actually quite a shocking and interesting moment. The Illuminati are sitting around, talking about the possible ramifications of their attack on the Skrull homeworld. Bendis uses this conversation for exposition for anyone who may not have read the Illuminati series. However, as they discuss ways of detecting Skrulls, they realise they have no powers. Realising that they have no memory of ever escaping from the Skrulls, they come to the conclusion that they never escaped, and they stare at each other in silence until a sweating Doctor Strange says, "I -- I think we're still -- I think we're still here". Having the characters and the readers come to the realisation that all is not as it seems at exactly the same moment is very powerful, and this section of the book is very well written. At that point, Xavier reveals himself to be a Skrull and the rest of the Illuminati are massacred, when we realise that they were all clones.

At this point, the book turns to its less successful second half. The Skrulls realise that their clones of Reed Richards will understand how they can appear undetectable, so they stage ruses to fool his clones into revealing how. In one first ruse, the Skrulls murder a clone of Reed's wife, Susan, and then threaten to murder either a clone of or a Skrull disguised as his son, Franklin. Why, exactly, does Bendis think we want to see this story? It is a pointlessly nasty and violent ruse, and not remotely entertaining. In order to tell stories of people watching their families get murdered, one needs to have some sort of dramatic justification or message. So far, Secret Invasion has been all hype and back story with virtually no payoff, and this reads like Bendis trying to hammer home what meanies the Skrulls are when we already know that their invasion is a flop. If you're going to pull out the big guns of having a character (or even the clone of a character) watch his family die, you'd better have a good reason.

There is some oddness to how the Skrulls are portrayed here. For one thing, are their two races of Skrulls, one really short race and one really tall race? I don't remember ever reading about that. However, there are a number of Skrulls here that are literally half of the height of the other Skrulls, making them look like deformed midgets or maybe green Harry Potter elves. One has the sense that Tan is trying here to capture the feeling of Frankenstein and Igor, in which creepy experiments are performed by their creepy henchmen, whom we know to be creepy because they are so misshapen. It would be an interesting idea if Skrull culture required Skrulls to take on the height of their station, which they could do as shapeshifters, but as it stands, having characters of such completely different heights leaves me scratching my head.

Another unfortunate aspect of this story is that it is trying to flesh out what we meant by "using Reed's brain" in Secret Invasion #5. I had hoped that somehow they were literally using his body in some creepy way in order to make their plans work or maybe one of his inventions. It seemed to imply that Reed was somehow responsible for the Skrull technology. Instead, all it meant was that they got the idea from one of Reed's clones. That's unfortunate, because it takes away from some of the dramatic promise that Reed was somehow responsible for the invasion above and beyond his role in the Illuminati. Reed Richards has a tendency to incredible arrogance, as we've seen before in the Authoritative Action or Civil War story lines, and the possibility that one of his grand schemes or inventions was used in the Skrull invasion was very interesting. Instead, all that was meant was that they got the idea from a clone - hardly something that might follow from one of the character's weaknesses.

As such, this is an interesting comic, with a great moment of transition. However, the comic is ultimately bleak and includes a pointless scene in which a man watches his family die. Moreover, the plot point of the Secret Invasion story the book is supposed to develop is suprisingly uninteresting. This book doesn't work, though it does deserve some credit for what it was trying to do.

C+