Sunday, September 28, 2008

Superman #680 Review

Writer: James Robinson
Penciller: Renato Guedes

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

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

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

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

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


Thunderbolts #124 Review

Writer: Christos Gage
Penciller: Fernando Blanco

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

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

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

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

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


Thursday, September 18, 2008

Action Comics #869 Review

Writer: Geoff Johns
Penciller: Gary Frank

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

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

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

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

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

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


Spike: After the Fall #3 Review

Writer: Brian Lynch
Penciller: Franco Urru

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

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

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

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

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


The Incredible Hercules #121 Review

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Robin #178 Review

Writer: Fabian Nicieza
Penciller: Freddie Williams II

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

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

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

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

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


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.