Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Justice Society of America Annual #1 Review

Writer: Geoff Johns
Penciller: Jerry Ordway

Finally, after twenty-two years, we get to revisit Earth-Two. I know a lot of people don't remember Earth-Two anymore. I barely do. In fact, I got my first ever superhero comic in a loot bag at another boy's eleventh birthday party. It was Crisis on Infinite Earths #12. The experience was absolutely mindblowing. Shadow demons attacked the one remaining Earth. Heroes I'd never heard of (and a couple I had) were dropping like flies. A huge battle occurred in space against the evil Anti-Monitor. As my comic book journey began, one ended in that book. The last of the doppelgangers apparently died off, including Superman, Robin, Green Arrow and Huntress of Earth-Two and Superboy of Earth Prime, and, despite their deaths, I read everything about them I could (no small chore before the internet). I have a special fondness for the Multiverse, and when I saw that Earth-Two was reformed at the end of the series 52, I was thrilled.

This book is the first story set on Earth-Two, and it was by-and-large a very strong one. It centres on the Huntress, the daughter of Earth-Two's Batman and Catwoman, and her experiences following the Crisis. After the death of her father and the departure of Robin, the Joker has apparently taken to systematically destroying her life. In this book he has seriously disfigured her boyfriend, Harry Sim, just as she was about to reject his marriage proposal, and she decides it is time to kill the Joker. She is seriously conflicted since she is in love with Robin, but cannot declare her love now that her boyfriend is in the hospital. Power Girl, who apparently forgot to use her superspeed, fails to stop her attacking Joker, but he commits suicide right before Huntress can land the killing blow, thus "getting the last laugh" so to speak, knowing that he turned her into a killer while not actually letting her have the honour.

Unfortunately, aside from Robin and Huntress, we don't get to meet many of the other characters that made Earth-Two unique. Jade, Doctor Fate and the Specter are there, but the original Flash and Green Lantern are apparently retired and don't appear. In fact, one of the things that this book makes clear is that the merger of Earths-One and Two actually did a very good job of continuing many of the best elements of Earth-Two in the mainstream books. What we're left with is a collection of dated superheroes that have been successfully developed in JSA and other books. In a weird way, Earth-Two, which had mostly its own heroes with a few doppelgangers has now turned into a world consisting almost entirely of doppelgangers, and is less interesting for it.

I was disappointed, too, with Power Girl's reaction to Earth-Two. Power Girl, who is the cousin of Earth-Two's Superman, has always felt somewhat out of place since Earth-Two was largely destroyed after Crisis on Infinite Earths. However, despite that being a part of her personality, there is only one brief moment where she seems happy that she might have found her own Earth. After being hissed at by an angry cat, she quickly tells the Huntress, who was her best friend, "I don't feel like we're friends anymore", which was pretty heartless on any scale. Do they not have tact on Earth-One? After literally decades of Power Girl's feelings of displacement, she doesn't really make much of an effort to fit in when she discovers her putative long-lost friends. Her response really didn't seem consistent with the character.

Of course, all is not as it seems, and Skrull Power Girl (wearing a more modest costume) shows up, reminding the Huntress of a personal conversation, and the Justice Society attacks Power Girl. Okay, she's probably not a Skrull, given that there are no Skrulls in DC comics, but she sure acts like one and her timing is a little too convenient. I do hope it turns out the Skrull Power Girl is the imposter, so that the real Power Girl's feelings about Earth-Two can develop some more before Earth-Two is blown up in the next crossover.

Despite these problems, it really is wonderful to see Earth-Two again, and I hope they can tell as many JSA stories as possible on this Earth. It is, after all, the home of most of the cast of the book, and provides a wonderful context in which to tell stories about what the JSA is all about. Moreover, the character of the Huntress is very interesting, and I want to see more of her and find out more of her story.


Skaar: Son of Hulk #2 Review

Writer: Greg Pak
Pencillers: Ron Garney/Butch Guice

This book has a cool cover. Lightning is cool. Dragons are very cool. The Hulk (or his son, who looks a lot like him) is extremely cool. The Hulk with a battle axe is especially cool. The Hulk with a battle axe attacking a dragon with lightning in the background? That may be the coolest thing since the invention of the double-bladed lightsaber. It is impossible to underestimate the coolness of this cover, which would have made me buy the book regardless of its contents.

Except I need to review the contents, too, don't I? Sigh. I have to say, I'm still not one hundred percent sold on this book. I think the main problem is that I'm not one hundred percent certain of the premise. What, exactly, is the point of this story? We've been introduced to a number of characters, but aside from the main character of Skaar, I'm not at all sure who will be the main characters or what this story will be about. We've had two big fight issues, including dragons, and... that's really it. There's some sort of power struggle going on between two of the pink people (as opposed to the grey people - one must keep such things straight), one of whom is a woman with no arms, so is that the point? I don't know. There's really nothing here to latch onto.

One serious problem with this story is Skaar himself. Skaar is incredibly boring. Basically, he's like the savage Hulk from the early Eighties, who just says "rawr" and smashes things. Skaar doesn't even say "Skaar smash!", which would at least be articulate. Instead, he says (and I quote), "Grrraaaaaa!", "Gggrnnn", "Rrrrrrrrrr...", "Grrraaaaaaa!", "Rrrraaaannnnrrrggg", and "Graaaaaaa!". Even Robinson's Superman has better dialogue. This is just Klingon baby talk. There's really nothing else to say about him, except that he seems like a tough fighter, and doesn't like to wear a loin cloth.

I'm going to give this book some time, since Pak's "Planet Hulk" story line was the best Hulk story I've ever read. Unless he's completely lost his mind, Pak is planning to go somewhere with this story, and I'm going to give it a chance. I'm happy to see that Sakarr wasn't completely destroyed at the end of Planet Hulk, and it's nice to see Pak return to a world for which he clearly has great fondness. A cast does seem to be developing and I do hope that Skaar is healed from his apparent lobotomy at some point in the near future, so that he can be a character rather than a plot device.

Pak also has a lot to say about violence, fear and retribution, and the Planet Hulk storyline really captured the way that anger and strength can sometimes be exactly the right approach to great evil. The Planet Hulk story line reminded me of the Rage of Achilles book of the Iliad. In that story, Achilles, following the death of Patroclus, cuts a swath of death through the Trojans, all of which is described in great detail, and ultimately ends up fighting the river itself, who is enraged by all the corpses piling up in its water. The Hulk has the same sort of virtues: he is strong, he is angry and he is right. In the face of a violent and barbarous world like Sakarr, he was exactly what they needed, and had the same sort of heroic virtues that the Greeks prized before they started founding cities and needed to get along with each other. Pak's work on the Incredible Hercules shows that he has a great fondness for Greek stories and myth, and they are clearly influencing his stories and themes.

The second story in this book gives some hints as to where Pak may be going with this story. As one grey man says to another, "When so much power lies in the hands of one man...people like you die by the millions". The cost of the kind of virtues that the Hulk possesses are destruction and death. When Achilles storms across the battle field he kills dozens; the sack of Troy kills thousands. When a world is founded on strength, the violence spills over, as it did when Miek destroyed the capital sity of Sakarr. If Pak doesn't give some language to Skarr, what we may find this book to be is the reactions to the Hulk's fruits on Sakarr. What is the cost of anger and strength, even righteous anger? Pak explored this in World War Hulk, and the second story is beginning to address them.

However, as it is, this book is only beginning to touch these themes. Right now, it is promise but no punch, and I can only hope it improves:


Secret Invasion: Fantastic Four #3 Review

Writer: Roberto Aguirre Sacasa
Penciller: Barry Kitson

The limited series chronicling the adventures of Ben, Johnny, Franklin and Valeria in the Negative Zone has finally concluded, and overall it has been a very mixed series. The story is almost completely uninspired: The Human Torch, the Thing and the two Richards children are trapped in the Negative Zone and must escape. They find their way to a prison and are rescued by the Tinkerer. In the meantime, Lyja betrays them, then betrays the Skrulls and we find out a bit about what happened to her in the meantime.

The overall plot arc is actually very boring. For three issues, the four of them basically fight off large animals. First it was bugs and then it was bats. The Negative Zone itself is presented as incredibly boring, with simply floating rocks on a generic starscape. They don't even encounter Annihilus, who is usually a staple in Negative Zone stories. Even if he is currently dead (it's hard to keep track), shouldn't there at least be someone in the Negative Zone worth fighting who can utter a sentence? As a plot arc, the story is terribly uninspired. If this is the Secret Invasion: Fantastic Four story, why not put the rescue of Susan Storm or Reed Richards in it? Presumably those things will happen at some point, and this would seem to be the suitable book for it. Instead we get some fights with oversized vermin.

On the other hand, there are a lot of nice human touches in this story. One of the best things about the Fantastic Four is that it really feels like a family. There really aren't any other popular books that even come close to that feeling. Part of the reason the Thing has always been the emotional centre of the book is that he's the one member who isn't either a spouse, sibling or parent of another member, and he is always a little insecure about where he stands. A lot of those human touches come across very well in this story. The bickering between the Thing and the Human Torch comes across as genuinely light-hearted. Kids are usually written terribly in comics, but Franklin and Valeria come across as very realistic children, who manage to be cute without being sappy. The way that they don't panic when attacked by bats is quite amusing, as presumably bats aren't scary if you fought Doctor Doom last week. They turn everything into a game, and the Thing has the good sense to play along as panicking the children could be terribly dangerous.

The part with the Tinkerer is quite interesting. At the end of the day, he's a family man like everyone else. I love that he wants to get revenge, and can stand up to the Thing and the Human Torch, but completely breaks down in the face of a crying little girl. It really did accentuate the "family" feel of the book to make the primary motivations of everyone in the book be caring about their family members.

The Tinkerer section added a new element of sinisterness to the Civil War as well. He was rounded up without due process because he used to be a meta human. This little tidbit makes me think the Regristration Act's days are numbered, as Marvel has presumably given up all pretension that there could be any legitimate debate about the Act, whose exact contents shifts wildly from author to author depending on who is writing the book. Now it just seems to be an overarching metaphor for fascism or Guantanamo Bay or whatever else it is that authors dislike about the Bush administration. I guess the debate ended with the surrender of Captain America, but it is interesting to see the issue shift from debate to heavy-handed political metaphor.

Of course, the big story of this limited series is the return of Lyja. She always comes up in "Top Ten Dangling Threads" lists along with Spider Man's baby. She was Johnny's wife and later girlfriend (since he didn't actually intend to marry her when she was disguised as Alicia Masters), but completely vanished without a trace after the Onslaught story. No matter how mediocre this book, her return would redeem it. Erm, except, she isn't returning, as she decides to stay in the Negative Zone, presumably for another eleven years. But at least we got to see some resolution here.

Unfortunately, the resolution isn't very interesting. She decided to live as a human being, and the Human Torch never bothered to call her after he got back from Counter-Earth. I guess a lot of breakups happen that way, when people just don't bother to call each other after some awkward event, but it came across here as very immature behaviour on the part of both characters. Her actions seem very odd as well. To protect the Fantastic Four, she kidnapped the Invisible Woman and sucked the Baxter Building into the Negative Zone. That seems like an odd approach given that she could presumably have prevented the destruction of the Baxter Building by, I don't know, warning them? Moral dilemma stories only work when a third option isn't glaringly obvious.

Overall, this book really captures the tone of the Fantastic Four, but revolves around a very boring story. The big return was nice to see, but mismanaged. Overall, this story was a real disappointment.


Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Robin #175 Review

Writer: Fabian Nicieza
Penciler: Joe Bennett

Robin #175 is a great issue, really expanding on and developing the story of R.I.P., while simultaneously telling the story from the point of view of Robin, who, honestly, is more interesting than Bruce Wayne right now. Moreover, it is nice to see a part of a crossover that, unlike Detective Comics #847, is actually a part of the story by more than pure editorial fiat.

The story is about Robin and his growing fears that Batman, his mentor and now father, has in fact gone insane, and that is why he cannot find him. By and large, this is true, though the insanity was brought on largely by drugs injected by Doctor Hurt. Robin doesn't know this, though, and despite my often arguing that Batman is sane but driven, this comic made me realise that the last two years of Batman's life are really consistent with someone who is losing his mind.

Some of the dialogue is very witty. My favourite was from Robin's voiceover: "Purging his 'inner demons,' then off to a hidden temple in Nepal where Bruce said he needed to die and become reborn. Leave it to him to make that sound like a plan." Spoiler simply cracking up to the point of tears when Robin says he thinks Batman has lost his mind really sums up how most sane people would approach people dressing up as bats and birds and swinging around the city: "Of course he's crazy! We all are. I mean, look at us!"

One thing I really appreciate about the Robin comic is the way it draws Tim Drake as a complete human being, worthy of carrying a comic book himself and every bit a hero in his own right. As this book reaches its conclusion, we understand exactly what Robin plans to do and why he plans to do it. He plans to go up against Batman and defeat him, and I, as a reader, even want him to. Moreover, it looks very much like he might be the one to replace him. I know Batman #666 hints that Dick Grayson will be the likely next Batman, but Tim Drake would be the better Batman. He's more mature than Dick Grayson, and Dick Grayson moved on with his life a long time ago. Tim Drake is his son, and I imagine Batbrat (Damian) will probably become the next Robin.

One of course can't comment on this book without commenting on the cover. It is a representation of the final issue of the "Death in the Family" story in which Jason Todd dies (which was in turn an homage to the Pietà). At first, I thought that it was only a cheap marketing gimmick, especially with the header "Death of a Family", and I suppose it is a gimmick, but it is actually more than that. The point of this book is Robin realising that he may be losing Batman, which would be his greatest loss since his father died, and that he will need to carry on his mission without him. It really is a book about loss, and having the cover from Batman's greatest loss since his parents died is actually a very insightful and a important parallel.

This is an excellent book. It isn't quite as groundbreaking as the R.I.P. story, but it makes up for that with keen psychological insight and clear storytelling. I look forward to reading the rest of this story and this is a great start.


The New Avengers #43 Review

Writer: Brian Michael Bendis
Penciler: Billy Tan

The never-ending premise known as Secret Invasion reveals to us that yet another of the "heroes" that left the Skrull ship three months ago (or twenty minutes ago in Marvel time) was in fact a Skrull. In this case, it is Captain America, who was the one whom Mockingbird assured us could not possibly be a Skrull back in Secret Invasion #2. So far, if I'm counting right, that's six of them that have been shown to be Skrulls and zero that have not been, which has largely removed any interest most of us have in the plot point.

However, despite being yet another page in the book "Previously in Marvel Comics", New Avengers #43 is actually quite a successful comic. In fact, what makes this piece of backstory so interesting and what makes this book so successful is precisely that it is completely irrelevant. The death of the Skrull Captain America is a truly pathetic event, and actually horrifying, as you realise that he doesn't even realise that he is a Skrull when he is murdered.

Basically, the story is the one we've seen several times now: a Skrull promises to join the mission by impersonating a superhero. He has fake memories implanted so he believes he was captured at some point in the '80s (we can tell because She-Hulk is on the Fantastic Four). He then is sent to Eath genuinely believing that he is Captain America, leads the group, and then is revealed to be a Skrull by a paralytic poison used by Sheena and then murdered by her, as she explains that the Geneva convention is only relevant in Manhattan coffee shops.

The whole book builds up to the last few pages, as we realise that this Skrull, in fact, has no idea that he is a Skrull. He is, in a lot of ways, an analogue of the new Captain Marvel, who is also a Skrull that had come to believe in his own false memories. In a way, when he dies, it is like seeing Captain America die again. Even though we knew Steve Rogers was dead, most of us still held out the slightest bit of hope that the Skrull Cap was really him. And, in some ways, he was. He had the personality and memories of Captain America, and maybe could have gone on to be a hero.

As it was, he was murdered. I say murdered, because Bendis doesn't seem to believe in war crimes, but the rest of us should. His death is truly pathetic. His mission was always basically hopeless, as Cap was dead and clearly did not revert to a Skrull. He lasted about fifteen minutes as Captain America before he was shot down and he didn't even realise what was going on. It was a truly sad moment, even if not exactly an original one (Buffy Season Eight did something similar with one of Buffy's imposters in Issue #7 or so).

So, overall, this is a good comic book. It is self-contained, as all Secret Invasion crossovers need to be lest they accidently advance the non-existent story. And as that, a short book whose primary purpose was to move the audience with the sense of waste in war, was a successful one.


Thunderbolts #122 Review

Writer: Cristos N. Gage
Penciler: Frank Martin

Warren Ellis is off the Thunderbolts. I'm honestly not sure whether that is good news or bad news. Warren Ellis is a great writer, capable of interesting ideas, and his run on the Thunderbolts was very engaging. The Green Goblin's monologue as he dons his costume in issue #120 was one of the funniest speeches in a comic book ever.

However, at the end of the day, the book has veered so far from its original premise that it has lost a lot of its charm. The original premise (well, since issue #13) of the Thunderbolts has been largely lost. A group of supervillains pretend to be heroes so as to take over the world, but end up enjoying it so much they decide to become heroes for real. It was a premise that created a lot of clever moments and very interesting stories as some of them live up to their potential, and others do not.

Now, the group is largely composed of unlikable criminals and psychopaths. That can be occasionally funny, but by-and-large it's very hard to be engaged with a book with unlikeable characters. Songbird and Radioactive Man are really the only old-school Thunderbolts left. The others are either so evil or so insane as to be virtually unreadable in the long run.

The question then is: who will most inspire Gage, the new writer, Nicieza or Ellis? So far, it looks like mainly Ellis, as Gage tries to pick up on the sense of humour that drove Ellis's book, which is unfortunate. Moreover, he doesn't do it as well. When Moonstone calls Samson a "sanctimonious ivy league surrender monkey", the writing even sounds a little desperate. Moreover, do we need any more creepy implied twin incest? I thought that Loeb had proven definitively that it is a horrible idea in Ultimates 3.

A couple points are funny, but more because they are having fun at the expense of Ellis's concept: when Osborne and Moonstone simultaneously ask each other whether or not the other killed Songbird's mother, Gage seems to actually be having fun at Ellis's expense, and it is the funniest moment in the book. At times, Gage finds his voice, which seems to be in having fun at the expense of the idea of evil characters.

Hopefully, Gage will use the Secret Invasion as a chance to break away from Ellis's style, partly because it is a tone that can only be carried on so long, and partly because he isn't especially good at it. He does seem to be putting into the mouths of the characters justifications for turning away from the Osborne and Co. Psycho Brigade premise, and now we have the Secret Invasion to distract everyone for a while. Andrea Strucker has a great big "I'm a Skrull" sign on her forehead, and it will be interesting to see how everyone reacts to the news.

Overall, this is a weaker version of Ellis's Thunderbolts, but shows some promise. Gage will hopefully be with the book for a while, and I do hope this book can recapture some of its original charm.


Superman #678 Review

Writer: James Robinson
Penciler: Renato Guedes

The second part of the "Coming of Atlas" story is not a bad comic, but it has so many clichés that it occasionally become accidently comedic. The story is fairly straightforward. Atlas, a man from the past with superpowers takes over the world from the evil head of the Lizard Kingdom (who is, disappointingly, not actually a lizard). He puts the Lizard king's head on a pike, and everyone is happy to get rid of him, until they realise that Atlas is an angry bastard with a taste for orgies (yes, this book includes what is probably the first ever orgy in a Superman comic). So, his adviser tricks him into being sent into the future, where he decides to take over the world again.

There's more going on of course. We see more of the techno-cops that we met in the last issue, who will presumably become supporting characters. There are also two mysterious people behind the scenes, who are clearly both evil because they are obviously Republicans. The first is a woman in a suit, who may or not be Lana Lang, who is directing the techno-cops. The second is, as far as I can tell, General Thunderbolt Ross, who seems to have accidentally gotten lost in the DC universe. He plans to study Superman fight Atlas, presumably through the cameras that are floating around, in hopes of killing the Man of Steel later.

The book is occasionally quite funny. I enjoy that the general sends in Atlas to fight Superman and has so little expectation that Atlas can possibly win that, when Atlas says he plans to rule the world, he answers, "I wish you well in your endeavors". Occasionally, though, the book becomes unintentionally silly., the cop...gets upset when she is called "ma'am". The past history of the Lizard Kingdom is so silly, it feels like a Hagar the Horrible comic.

One cliché that is getting a little annoying is how the past in comic books is being represented in old style printing with visible dots. It was very clever in the Sentry and worked well in the recent Might Avengers arc, largely because it included the Sentry. However, now the trick is popping up all over the place. Here, Atlas the Horrible's past looks like a comic book from the '40s, largely I suppose because it's the past (though, shouldn't it be in cave drawings?). The difference is that the Sentry comics were largely surreal, and the old-style drawings captured the strange sense that perhaps the Sentry was just insane. In this story, it's just a way to shout, "Look a flashback!". I almost expect to see Wayne and Garth waving their hands up and down saying "ditditditdoo ditditditdoo", since that's only slightly more hokey and obvious.

Overall, though, it's a solid effort if a little quaint. The fight is fun. There are unseemly happenings about. We get to see Jimmy on a motorcycle. However, with Action Comics consistently putting out engaging stories right now, a story like this just can't measure up.


Wednesday, July 16, 2008

Final Crisis: Rogues' Revenge #1 Review

Writer: Geoff Johns
Penciler: Scott Kolins

I admit, I don't really follow the Flash, so I'm piecing together a lot of what is going on here. I think I did a pretty good job, but I'm not convinced, after piecing it together, that we have a very good story here. As a premise, it seems not very interesting, and actually silly to the point of unbelievability. It putatively ties into the Final Crisis story, but does such a good job of establishing that these villains are not going to be a part of Libra's new Society, that it cuts its own umbilical cord right away.

The story starts off with a group called the "rogues", most of whom I recognise. There is Mirror Master, Weather Wizard, Captain Cold and Heat Wave (he's the one I don't remember). They killed Bart Allen, the Flash, formerly known as Kid Flash, and now are on the run.

Except...and here's the part that I found silly...they killed the Kid Flash by accident. Wait, what? It seems they didn't really think that their powers would kill the Flash, as he runs so fast. By the dastardly Inertia stole Kid Flash's speed (that fink!), and they killed him by accident when he slowed down. Now, they plan to track down Inertia and kill him in revenge for causing them to accidently kill Kid Flash. Zoom, however, shows up and kidnaps Intertia, intending to turn him into the new Kid Flash.

Okay, now that's just silly. I get that the rogues in the Flash comics aren't the deranged psychos from Batman, but they certainly are murderers. At one point, Cold says that he only kills in self-defense, despite clearly murdering someone in cold blood a few pages earlier. Perhaps the theme of this book is going to be the confusion that evil people feel when they try to integrate their compassion and sense of honour into their lives and that this is all just a commentary on that, but right now, it looks like this book is shaping up to be a weak story.

There are a few positive elements to this book. Aside from the strange looking raindrops from early in the book, the art is quite strong, especially for locations like the Flash Museum. I like seeing Pied Piper again, especially now that he's decided to be creepy. Libra is scary, as usual, although I admit I cringe when he reads from the "Crime Bible", since I think that may actually be D.C.'s stupidest idea ever.

As a non-Flash fan, I'm not sure how interesting a group of villains ganging up on another villain for "revenge" for "making" them kill a rival is going to be. I think all the stuff about how they killed Bart by accident was supposed to make us feel like they are less evil than Inertia so that we will root for them, but really it just made them look stupid. Stupid characters tend not to make interesting protagonists, and I worry this story will end up falling flat.


Captain America #40 Review

Writer: Ed Brubaker
Penciler: Steve Epting

Ed Brubaker's Captain America continues to be one of Marvel's strongest books, and Brubaker has definitely shown himself to be one of the best and most consistent comic book writers today. While writers like Morrison, Bendis, Loeb and Claremont are hit-and-miss, sometimes brilliant and sometimes dreadful, Brubaker seems incapable of writing an issue that isn't engaging and enjoyable.

In this book, we basically get two fight scenes, which normally I find quite annoying. However, Brubaker details the fights so cleverly that it makes for a highly engrossing issue. Bucky (whom I still can't bring myself to call Captain America) and the Grand Director (also dressed as Captain America) fight on a rooftop. It is a very interesting battle because the Grand Director is so strong. Here one really gets the feeling of what it might be like to fight someone with superpowers. At the end of the day, Bucky is just a very strong human. The Grand Director tips into superhero territory, knocking Bucky through bricks. One doesn't usually feel the strategic decisions being made in comic book battle, but Brubaker, as usual, lets the reader in on every thought and makes the fights seem tactical.

On the other hand, we have the fight between Sin and Sharon Carter. For the first half of the book, Brubaker builds tension by having Sin, who comes across as quite insane, threaten Sharon. When the fight finally begins, we really feel that threat. Even though we know it is unlikely Sharon will be killed, the threats create suspense in the battle later. Finally, the battle begins when Sin figures out Sharon would not actually kill her hostage, and ends up as a wrestling match over the knife that Sharon cannot hope to win. The actual stabbing of Sharon happens offpanel, but makes perfect sense in light of the fight.

I do have one complaint: I do not want Sharon Carter to lose her baby, and that stab wound looks very dangerous. It is bad enough that they killed Captain America, but then to dangle his son or daughter in front of the reader only to kill him or her crosses the line from tragic to just manipulative and mean. The number of miscarriages as a result of violence in comics is too high, and I'd like to see Brubaker not place his female characters in that particular refrigerator.

However, this is a great book. It is well written, taut, and highly engaging. I look forward to reading this book week after week, and I am always excited when I see it has arrived.


The Mighty Avengers #16 Review

Writer: Brian Michael Bendis
Penciler: Khoi Pham

The Avengers books have done a good job of setting the background for the Secret Invasion crossover. By and large, in fact, they have been better than the main series itself, which has been crippled by Bendis's inability to tell the difference between a premise and a story. The Avengers books, on the other hand, have explained to us how things as we believed them were not how they appeared for the last three years, and brought us up to speed on the excellent premise of the Secret Invasion story.

This book, however, fails even as an interesting contribution to the premise. For one thing, this book is about Elektra's abduction or possible murder. Elektra is not an Avenger. She's the usually-dead former girlfriend of a former Avenger, an Avenger, who I might add, who was on the New Avengers team, not this one. Perhaps one might justify this as being an explanation of what led to the Skrully Elektra, but that also was a story in the New Avengers. There's really no justification for this story being in the Mighty Avengers book. Last issue, we were finding out about what happened to Sentry, and that story is not remotely mentioned here, perhaps because Bendis doesn't want to accidently push forward his Secret Invasion story, since he is already have trouble stretching his weak story over eight issues.

However, even a random, unrelated character would be worth reading about if it were a worthwhile story. This story, however, is terribly told. For one thing, the Skrulls don't use actually use any trickery. This is what makes them scary. They could be anyone. However, they are very unlikely to be Elektra's clone dressed in a purple outfit, since Elektra is already pretty sure that she is herself. When Pym was kidnapped, it was after being seduced by a "graduate student" at a conference. This was both a suitable Skrull ploy and played well on Pym's weaknesses. On the other hand, Mighty Avengers #16 was just a fight against a bunch of Skrulls. The end.

Well, not quite the end. Elektra has to kill a Hydra member and then a Hand member to take over the Hand. The end. What we lack in this story, though, is any reinterpretation of events to which we were familiar. Elektra took over the Hand, but that happened offpanel, and her two fights to the death are uninspired. Compare this to Skrull Pym's giving of a new growth formula to Janet, and you can see how an old scene can be truly creepy when scene from a different perspective. The scenes with Elektra all fall flat.

To date this has been the weakest of the Avengers Secret Invasion tie-ins. It represents a real danger of thinking that somehow a book, just because it is has a Secret Invasion header, need have no connection with the characters it is supposed to be about. I hope this doesn't represent a trend.


Spike: After the Fall #1 Review

Writer: Brian Lynch
Penciler: Franco Urru

After ten months of reading about his sidekick, Angel, we finally have a story about the main man himself, Spike. This book is about the experience of Spike right after he and the rest of L.A. are sent to hell at the end of the television series, Angel.

The book is a mixture of good and bad elements. On the positive side, Spike finally finds his voice. While Spike has been a character in Angel: After the Fall since the first issue, he's never really sounded like Spike and has never really been a focus of attention. In this book, Lynch shows that he really understands how to write Spike. His sardonic humour and wit come across perfectly, and he has the ability to make jokes even in the face of horror. He is like one of those very intelligent people who make clever and witty comments at the most inappropriate times, because they can't think of anything stupid to say.

The story is a lot of fun, and catches up with Spike right after the trip to hell. He and Illyria lead a group of refugees in a former amusment park, which is the source of a great deal of humour in itself. Illyria is busy smashing the park, since she is apparently wounded in her Fred form, and the rides make her angry enough to change back. The backdrop of an amusement park is a perfect location for Spike and Lynch to let their absurd sides out, as they are unlikely to upstage their surroundings.

On the other hand, Spike: After the Fall makes the same mistake as the main series. The main draw of both Buffy: Season Eight and Angel: After the Fall is that we want to catch up with the main characters and see what happens to them. Telling stories about what happened in high school or before Wolfram and Hart never sold very well. However, the After the Fall stories have now spent almost half their time telling us stories that are now in the past, not progressing the stories any further.

Unfortunately, it looks like this might be the case for the entirety of the Spike series. I don't understand why Lynch believes that he cannot simply tell a story about Spike that runs concurrently with the main story, and turns the entire series into a flashback. There's little here we didn't already know: Spike and Illyria are working together and she is turning periodically into Fred. Lynch is dangerously close to having less development in his stories than Bendis.

The art is also a bit jarring. We met these characters as live-action characters, and they look especially cartoon-like in this story. The edges of the characters are drawn very thickly and sometimes they seem more like shapes than people. However, the art is good and I'm sure with time it will grow on me, but it is worth noting that this book is not attempting, like Buffy: Season Eight, to mimic the faces of the actors.

Nonetheless, it is nice to see some focus on Spike and it refreshing to catch up with someone who feels like an old friend. The subplot of the possibly evil Jerry/Jeremy is interesting. It's nice to see Fred back, even if she is a bit confused, and the ending, in which the people at the amusement park are happy to be conquered because they are so bored is hilarious. This is an entertaining book and a worthwhile read.


The Incredible Hercules #119 Review

Writers: Greg Pak and Fred van Lente
Penciler: Rafa Sandoval

In a lot of ways, Greg Pak is picking up where Oeming left off. After years of treating mythical gods as simply superheroes that speak in badly conjugated old English, Oeming's Ares and Thor changed the way that Marvel does gods, and for the better. Instead, they are prisoners of their own personalities, endlessly fighting each other and compulsively unable to grow beyond the archetypes they represent.

Pak has given us something we haven't seen in a while: a mythical adventure. He has the good sense to have fun while doing so. The "God squad", as he calls them on the opening page, have banded together in order to hunt the Skrull gods and end the invasion of Earth. They believe, reasonably enough, that if humanity is wiped out, they will lose their worshippers and be forgotten.

It turns out that the consequences would be worse than that. On arriving at the citadel of Kly'Bn, they discover that he has enslaved the gods of all the worlds conquered by the Skrull. And, so Hercules unleashes his master plan: smash things. The other gods are a little surprised that his plan lacks any more than this, but what did they expect? He's Hercules. Pak's Hercules is fantastically written, because he's basically a drunken warrior who breaks stuff and has a ton of fun doing so. Oh yes, and he beds women, like the Inuit goddess Snowbird. Their post-coital chatter is quite amusing, as Hercules can't quite break out of his swaggering frat boy mode long enough to not get a boot thrown at him.

The issue is in general quite well written, and the big revelation, that Cho's coyote pup is really a Skrull is well handled. The death of Snowbird, if indeed that's what it is, is a little confusing. She turns into a giant green monster that grown hundreds of large white tentacles with multiple mouths that eat the other gods before collapsing into a point and going pop. I think. One problem with this book in general, as has been a problem since this story began, is that I have a feeling the Sandoval is a little unsure how to render many of the bizarre visuals Pak's mythological scripts ask for. A few points of the story are a little unclear, as the script is far away from its usual superhero roots and isn't able to depend on many of the visual hints that usually convey what is happening.

All in all, though, The Incredible Hercules is a great book and Pak hasn't missed a beat since moving from writing Hulk to Hercules. His gods come across as quite interesting, and I am enyoing the merry adventure.


Tuesday, July 15, 2008

Justice Society of America #17 Review

Writers: Geoff Johns and Alex Ross
Penciler: Fernando Pasarin

The current arc in Justice Society of America is a lot of fun. For those of us who were a fan of the Kingdom Come series, it promises to introduce the character of Magog, who was such an important part of those stories. In addition, this new god (or, I guess, old god, since he's from the Third World) adds some opportunities for the book to talk about faith and salvation, and what it might mean in a world that already has superheroes.

For one thing, the current heroes in comic books are basically walking tanks. Sure some of them have pew pew lasers, but at the end of the day, what makes you a hero is your ability to be a weapon. Most of their abilities are about hitting stuff and being resilient when being hit. Sure, they help rebuild cities once and a while, and the Flash especially is very good at rescuing people, but their powers are more about strength than anything.

On the other hand, they are really rather useless when it comes to solving any problems that can't be smashed or lifted. What if someone with real superpowers showed up? Gog spends most of this issue walking across Africa, healing diseases. Moreover, he is able to look deeply into the characters in the JSA and give them what they think they want. Damage's face is healed, Starman's mind is cured and Power Girl, who always feels like an outsider, is sent home, presumably to the new multiverse's equivalent of Earth-2.

This opens up a host of dramatic possibilities, and the book takes advantage of some of them. What if someone showed up who could give you whatever it was your heart desired? Stories like this tend to assume that people would want selfish power, but what if that person were just able to cure a disfiguring ailment or be rid of loneliness? How would people react? That strange feeling of hope, so much a part of religious faith, that in fact we might be healed in so far as we are most damaged, is presented here as the characters fly after Gog, wondering what their lives might be like if they were actually happy, and confronted with the reality that they have been unhappy for so long, they can't really imagine it.

Unfortunately, it looks increasingly like Gog is going to turn into the CAP from the recent Fantastic Four arc, destroying war probably in quite brutal ways. I say it is unfortunate, because it would be nice to see an author take a direction in which hope need not be immediately crushed, and real superpowers, those that heal rather than smash, exist. But for now, it is interesting to see the kind of disorientation that the characters feel in the face of real hope.

This book is very clever and occasionally funny, especially as the heroes fly over Gog, reporting with surprise that he isn't actually smashing anything. It gives Johns the opportunity to tell stories about those who suddenly find hope, and are unsure of how to deal with it. Next month, this will all come crashing down, of course, but this issue is an interesting reflection on how disorienting the possibility of hope can be.


Monday, July 14, 2008

Final Crisis: Requiem #1 Review

Writer: Peter Tomasi
Penciler: Doug Mahnke

Poor Martian Manhunter. While being a contant presence in nearly every incarnation of the Justice League of America, he has never been able to carry his own book, a television show or a movie. No editor has ever figured out what the problem is, but I believe it was his insecurity. As a shapeshifter, he was never quite "in his own skin", so to speak, and was often in the position of continually trying to fit in with humanity, never really noticing that he already did so.

Whatever it was that plagued the poor fellow's commercial success, he's now dead. He's probably permanently dead, given that resurrection seems to be saved for tier-one characters or at least their angry sidekicks. The quality of this story, moreover, is likely to make this a classic, and having something bad happen to you in such a classic story kept Supergirl and Barry Allen dead and Barbara Gordon in a wheelchair for twenty years.

This comic is a wonderful tribute to one of DC's most unappreciated characters. It does a very good job of tracing what it was about J'onn that made us love him. A lot of his past history is retold, including the betrayal of his brother and the death of his family, followed by many of his adventures on Earth. I knew many of these stories and some I didn't, but it had the effect of a wake in which we got to hear many of the stories about the deceased.

There were two truly masterful parts of this story. First, it gave the sense perfectly of how loved he was by his friends. As J'onn was a psychic, his friends were able to feel him die. Moreover, he gave them a part of himself, the history of Mars, and they were able to know a part of him only in his death. This brought out the real feelings people often have at the death of those close to them: they gain insights into the person who died just as they realise they will never see them again. It was very saddening, and a much more insightful approach to death than Morrison's jokey "praying for a resurrection" in Final Crisis #2.

The second aspect of this story that was done brilliantly was the actual murder of J'onn J'onzz. Murdering someone is a messy, bloody business, and this story captures it perfectly. Often characters die in either ways that are either poetic or absurd in their violence, like Supergirl's or Jason Todd's ambiguous scratches, or the dissolving of Barry Allen or the eye-poking of Psycho-Pirate. Instead, J'onn takes a while to kill. His mind thrashes out at his killers, confronting them with their worst fears. Finally, Libra takes out a knife and finishes off the writhing Martian as even Luthor looks on in horror. This is a messy, ugly death, with no charm.

This is really one of the best comics published in recent years. It was a wonderful tribute to one of DC's longest-running characters, and deeply insightful into brutality and into what it feels like to lose a friend whom one may not have appreciated as much as one ought.

We should have appreciated you more, J'onn. We'll miss you.


Batman #678 Review

Writer: Grant Morrison
Penciler: Tony Daniel

I have mixed feelings about Grant Morrison's writing. By and large, I really enjoy his work. He is always having a lot of fun with his material, and usually has a lot to say. His stories are often very insightful, mysterious and rewarding. They take a lot of effort to read, something that I really appreciate in the age of extremely accessible books that can be explained in a single premise.

On the other hand, Morrison sometimes seems incapable of even the most basic narrative focus. He fails to establish at times even who is present in a given scene, or when one scene shifts into another. Moreover, while I appreciate that his work requires more work than other authors, his work often requires surfing message boards in order to even follow the plot and characters. His failure to identify Anthro and Kamandi in Final Crisis #1 is a good example of this, and this book suffers from some of the same problems.

Tony Daniel's art doesn't help matters any. It is difficult in this book to even tell which white, dark haired man is who in many of his scenes. There are hints: Tim Drake has a red motorcycle, and Bruce Wayne has stubble, but when a reader is trouble figuring out even who is who in a scene, that's not an interesting mystery, but just poor storytelling.

Despite these problems, Batman R.I.P. is one of the most interesting Batman stories in years. Morrison is delving deep into Batman lore, referencing Batman's experiences on the planet Zur En Arrh in Batman #123, Bat-Mite and "The First Batman" in which Thomas Wayne was the first Batman in the late '50s. Many people find this frustrating, but it can be a lot of fun to research these references. Strangely, I actually knew who Bat-Mite was and had read "The First Batman", so I felt somewhat rewarded by those parts.

The story hints extremely strongly that Doctor Hurt, the head of the Black Glove, is in fact Thomas Wayne. This is almost certainly a red herring, as it would be as disastrous to Batman lore as having Ben Parker being revealed as the Green Goblin would be to Spider-Man lore. However, it is a fun ruse, and trying to figure out what is really going on is a part of the game. Something is definitely iffy about Alfred, but this fits nicely with Batman lore. Alfred was temporarily a villain known as the Outsider in the early '60s, and Morrison seems to be enjoying these elements.

The story asks some interesting questions about human nature: could Batman be insane? He does, after all, dress up like a giant bat and scare people. If one takes seriously his Silver Age adventures, he has had some quite absurd experiences that sound like hallucinations. Since Morrison takes all of those stories as a part of Batman's continuity (though strictly-speaking, all of them before 1964 were supposed to have happened to the Batman of Earth-2), he is having fun with the possibility that Batman may be just a little batty.

In the end, Batman has to be sane, or his stories lose their strength, as a great deal of them are about a sane man trying to deal with a literally insane and Gothic world. However, to toy with the concept is a worthwhile endeavour, and Morrison is certainly the best person for the task.

I've always considered Morrison's comic books to be meta-comics. That is not simply because Animal Man talked to his creator, but because his comics are almost always about the themes in the comics, and not necessarily about the characters themselves. This may seem like a subtle distinction, but Morrison often doesn't seem interested in telling a Batman story, but rather a story about Batman stories.

Putting someone with a meta-interest in comics on a title is dangerous, and Morrison has promised that R.I.P. represents the end of Bruce Wayne as Batman. I seriously doubt that such a thing can stick. However, in the meantime, assuming he doesn't do too much damage, his stories are interesting simply by virtue of saying something very interesting about Batman and giving us the chance to really think about the character and what he means.


Secret Invasion #4 Review

Writer: Brian Michael Bendis
Penciler: Leinil Francis Yu

Secret Invasion #4 is the last issue for which I will be a crossover zombie for either Marvel or DC Comics. In the last few years, I've happily bought the crossovers for many different stories, starting with Infinite Crisis and ending (finally) with Secret Invasion.

It has become apparent that Secret Invasion, which started with almost infinite promise in its fantastic first issue, has no story line to speak of, and this issue, which reads like an issue-long "previously in Secret Invasion" fails to advance the story any further.

For example, Jarvis is still on the S.H.I.E.L.D. helicarrier demanding surrender. He has been doing this for three issue now. The heroes that headed to the Savage Land are still there. Each issue of the fight in New York has simply ended with someone new showing up, this time with Thor and the new Captain America.

The problem with the Marvel crossovers is that no one seems to have put any thought into telling a story. They are more like premises repeated endlessly. Nothing ever happens, and the same scenes just continue month after month.

A lot of the Secret Invasion crossovers have been very good, especially the Avengers titles, which I intend to continue to read. However, the main title is almost completely flat. I can probably pick up issue #8 and find the end of the four scenes, with only slight variations on who has arrived.

Secret Invasion is especially disappointing, as its initial premise is incredible. The Skrulls have been on Earth for years, and they have already won the war. There is an opportunity for a rich, guerilla-style battle on the part of the few heroes who have somehow been able to continute trusting each other.

Instead, we have none of that. The entire war will likely be over in less than forty-eight hours of comic time. This entire issue takes place over about twenty minutes. Somebody should explain to Marvel the a World War or a truly dangerous invasion should take more than a few days.

The main story has become a hook on which other books can tell stories about Skrulls. That is a lot of fun in books that are doing it well (Like Captain Britain). However, the main book has become completely glacial and uninteresting.