Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Solomon Kane #1

Since junior high school I've been a big fan of Robert E. Howard, the writer who created Solomon Kane, Conan, Kull and a number of other characters.

While I haven't read every word Howard wrote, I do have a nearly complete collection of his work, thanks to the paperbacks printed in the 1970s. But even though I've read all the stories of Conan, Kull and even Breckenridge Elkins (among others), it wasn't until I started to write this review that I realized I've never read Howard's stories about the Puritan swordsman, Solomon Kane.

I've read most of the character's comic book appearances and enjoyed them - especially the stories that ran in Marvel's Savage Sword of Conan. Obviously, I'll have to correct my oversight in the near future.

In the meantime, our friends at Dark Horse continue their efforts to keep Howard's work alive, and turn in a respectable effort with this first issue. Writer Scott Allie shows a nice touch with the dialogue and the mood of the story. The comic gets off to a fast start, as thieves make the mistake of thinking Kane will make an easy target. But after that six-page action sequence, the story slows to a crawl, and devotes the rest of the pages to introductions and little else.

I do like the work by artist Mario Guevara and color artist Dave Stewart. They give the book a grim, storybook look, with strong (but not overly flashy) layouts and clear storytelling. If I had to complain about something, it would be that Kane is depicted as being too pale - he's as white as a sheet of paper. Remember, he's not Elric.

I wish I could give this a stronger recommendation - but this story may work better as a collection. This opening chapter is just a bit too glacial, but there's plenty to indicate it's all moving in the right direction.

But I'm grateful - even an average Howard story is better than most.

Grade: C+

Monday, September 29, 2008

Fantastic Four #560

I was slightly late to the Marvel party, joining in about two years after the first issue of the Fantastic Four. (Of course, to most of today's readers, this makes me a geezer.)

I liked all the superheroes, including Spider-Man, Iron Man, Thor, Daredevil, Giant-Man and The Avengers - but my favorite was definitely the Fantastic Four, which I started collecting around the time of the two-issue battle between the Hulk and the Thing (which, without looking it up, I believe was in issues #24 and 25).

The comic lived up the the tagline: "The World's Greatest Comic Magazine!" That's because it featured Stan Lee and Jack Kirby operating at the peak of their creative powers. Each issue was bigger, more dramatic, more exciting than the one before it, but included very human elements, including lots of humor and romance.

Lee and Kirby created the greatest villain in comics (Doctor Doom), threw in a super-powered race (The Inhumans), the first black superhero (Black Panther), the first God-like villain (Galactus), and a vast array of supporting characters both small (Alicia Masters) and big (The Watcher).

After 102 issues Lee and Kirby went their separate ways, and the FF continued under an assortment of talented writers and artists - but few truly new concepts were created. It sometimes seemed that the book was continuing strictly on inertia.

The latest team to tackle the FF's adventures has built their reputation on creating big stories. Writer Mark Millar and artist Bryan Hitch, along with inkers Andrew Currie and Matt Banning and colorist Paul Mounts, are doing their best to bring the cosmic back to the magazine.

And so far they've been successful. The present issue has the team facing a mysterious and powerful team calling themselves the New Defenders. How powerful is this team? Well, as we saw at the end of the last issue, they've managed to capture the Human Torch, Doctor Doom and Galactus.

The reasons the three have been captured are spelled out in this issue, and it's again a big, end-of-the-world story. Perhaps my only problem with it is that the story hinges on a plot point that's directly lifted from an old episode of Star Trek (the Original Series), but that's a minor quibble.

The artwork is fantastic - I really think Hitch is this generation's Neal Adams or Jim Steranko, in that he is turning out work that is inventive, amazingly (if not insanely) detailed and compelling. You could kill lots of time just admiring some of the panels in this comic.

Where Millar is involved, I always have to proceed cautiously. He has some tremendous ideas, but he's awfully quick to sacrifice character in service of the story he wants to tell. The best example is Civil War, wherein Reed Richards and Tony Stark become the worst villains in Marvel history in order to justify the story. Writers have spent all their energy since then redeeming those characters. But, as someone once said, I digress.

So far, this comic has been very impressive. In fact, the only thing that doesn't work for me is the covers, which seem to be exercises in artistic expression, rather than capturing the reader's attention on the stands. It doesn't help that the new FF logo is so small and easily overlooked. The art on this cover is amazing, but it takes close examination to figure out what's going on - and that's not the job of a cover.

This issue's cover is a good example - it's a thing of beauty, but it's also murky, a maelstrom of rain, lightning, flames - you really have to look close to make out the three figures.

But even if it had a blank cover, this book would be well worth buying. Millar and Hitch are testing the limits of the comic book, and there's no better proving ground than the Fantastic Four.

I'm not sure it's again the Greatest Comic Mag, but it's one of the best out there - and at this rate, it'll soon be wearing the crown again.

Grade: A-

Sunday, September 28, 2008

Superman #680

I should admit up front that I really like dogs. In fact, I've owned three dogs in my life - one was great, one was sweet and one's kind of a pest.

The great one was my childhood dog, Rebel - he was a beagle who was kind, loyal and dedicated to the family. The sweet one was a dog my family rescued from the local animal shelter - a mutt named Itchy (that was her name at the shelter, which she earned because she had mange). She was the pet for my sons, and she was smart, attentive, eternally patient and protective. The pest is our ongoing dog, Domino - another mutt, she's white with black spots, and she's rebellious, insistent, and unaware that she's too big to be jumping into my lap. But she's also loving and protective, so she's earned her spot in the family.

So what does that have to do with comic books? Well, this issue of Superman really stars a character you might have thought was long gone from continuity - Krypto, the Dog of Steel.

As a kid, I always liked Krypto's appearances as he assisted Superboy and Superman in their adventures, and even enjoyed his own with the improbable Legion of Super-Pets. The stories were goofy but fun.

The Superman comic is now in the hands of James Robinson, an outstanding writer who has been slowly revealing his take on the Man of Steel. He began two issues ago by reintroducing the character Atlas, who was created by Jack Kirby for one issue of the comic called First Issue Special, and (as far as I know) was never seen again.

In this comic Atlas has been brought to the present to fight Superman - and surprisingly, he's winning. Superman, brought down by a mysterious weakness, is at the edge of defeat, but Krypto turns up to defend his master. (And if you missed the last page of last issue, you missed a classic surprise ending/next issue tease, as Krypto prepared to join the fight.)

This issue picks as Krypto takes the fight to Atlas - and Robinson allows the Dog of Steel thought balloons. Oh, he doesn't give the super-dog any deep thoughts - they're fragmented, stream-of-consciousness moments (and probably darn close to what real dogs "think," if anything) - but it certainly makes the battle more fun to follow.

I have to admit that I'm not crazy about the artwork by penciler Renato Guedes and inker Wilson Magalhaes. The layouts are strong, and the storytelling relatively clear, but the figures - especially the facial features, just seem too distorted, and there's too much reliance on the repetition of panels, with slight alterations to show the passage of moments in time.

Still, I can forgive a lot, if just because of the last page of the story, which put a big smile on my face. It's great to see some classic bits of continuity back for modern audiences to enjoy - including Krypto.

For the first time in many years, I'm buying Superman's comics - and this issue shows why the Man of Steel is getting attention. This comic and Action Comics are both very entertaining and lots of fun to read.

Heck, this one's worth buying just for the Alex Ross cover. Just look at that noble dog. Who's a good boy? Yes, he is!

Grade: B+

Saturday, September 27, 2008

Captain America #42

I am in complete awe of writer Ed Brubaker.

Oh, not because he's done such a great job of writing Captain America. Not because he managed to keep my interest after killing Steve Rogers. Not because he manages to balance a large cast of characters and never leaves you feeling lost. No, he's impressed me because he created a storyline that I was convinced I'd hate - and I don't hate it.

See, I thought it was a terrible idea to bring back Cap's World War II sidekick, Bucky. This was a character whose death was revealed when Cap returned in issue #4 of The Avengers (the original run) in the mid-'60s, although his "death" occurred in 1945.

So this is a character who's been dead for 60 years, and one of only two early Marvel characters who got killed and actually stayed dead (the other one being Spider-Man's Uncle Ben, of course). When the story of his return started to unfold under Brubaker's run, I resisted. I didn't want to like it. Bringing a character back from the grave is tricky business, and few writers have the touch.

But then the story started to unfold, and despite myself, I was enjoying it. The story had enough comic book logic to work, and the story kept me guessing. Then, after Cap's "death" (wink, wink), it became obvious that the best candidate to take up the legacy was Cap's original partner, newly reborn as the Winter Soldier.

Brubaker has woven a complex story, following the machinations of the Red Skull and his agents, including Dr. Faustus, Arnim Zola and the Skull's daughter, Sin. On the hero side, we have the new Captain America, the Falcon, the Black Widow and Agent 13. This issue brings all the storylines together as the "final battle" (wink, wink) unfolds.

I don't mean to overlook the contibutions of artists Steve Epting and Luke Ross. Their depiction of this complex story has been outstanding, with a look that seems surprisingly dark for a book like Captain America - but it perfectly matches the serious tone of the story. The art captures the feel of watching an exciting film, with excellent camera angles, great action sequences and some tender moments.

This continues to be one of Marvel's best books, and if you haven't been following along, the next issue begins a new storyline, so it's a good jumping-on spot.

Of course, there's still the question of when the original Cap will return, or if he'll return - but you have to figure, if Bucky can survive, it should take more than a few bullets to kill the real Living Legend.

And Ed, I promise not to be angry when you resurrect him.

Grade: A-

Friday, September 26, 2008

All-Star Batman & Robin #10

Now here's a comic book that defies conventional thinking.

Turning Frank Miller and Jim Lee loose on the story of how Batman and Robin first became a team sounds like a license to print money. They're both incredibly talented creators, and they've done some amazing work in the past.

And certainly the art delivers. Jim Lee is at the peak of his game, and he's doing some stunning work here, along with inker Scott Williams. (Granted, it would be nice if they could do it faster...) This issue gives Lee two double-splash pages to work with, and he fills them with energy and loads of detail. The same is true of the rest of the comic - it's strong, striking work.

It's the writing by Frank Miller that seems off - until you remember that Miller has, throughout his long career in comics, never taken the safe path, never followed the normal route, never done the expected.

With this book, he's pushing the boundaries of "grim and gritty" and making jokes about it at the same time. His Batman is exactly the kind of creation Bruce Wayne would have to craft in order to strike fear into the hearts of criminals. He's brutal, nasty, vulgar, violent and completely unpredictable.

He's also smart, ruthless and in control virtually every step of the way. He's a womanizer, and between Catwoman and Black Canary, he keeps busy, if you get my drift. But he does seem to be hiding a heart under all that attitude.

When it comes to training Robin, he's the most vicious drill sergeant imaginable. This is where Miller really goes over the top, as Batman could easily be charged with child abuse (and probably should be).

Another thing Miller is known for is terse writing - he was one of the first to eliminate thought balloons and captions, and allow the story to unfold with sparse but sharp dialogue. Not this time - again, he turns the medium on its head. This issue is written like a crime novel, with lots of descriptive passages, and we really hear what's going on inside the minds of the cast. In fact, Miller gets so carried away with the text that we often lose the artwork behind it. Page 21 is a sea of words, and we can barely spot Barbara and Jim Gordon peeking out in panel 4.

This comic is famous because the first printing had to be pulped because the numerous instances of profanity were not properly blacked out. And hoo boy, does Batgirl have a potty mouth in this one. It's actually comical to read a word balloon that says, "(Blank) you twice, (blank) you let a (blank)ing little piece of jailbait (blank) steal your wheels..." You could kill lots of time just figuring out different curse words to insert in this comic.

This issue is mostly putting the story pieces in their place, setting up the next chapter, so there's lots of motion but not a lot accomplished. Still, the story keeps moving forward, and it's loaded with colorful (if barely recognizable) characters. Can a book be fascinating and infuriating at the same time? Apparently so.

So what we have here is a completely different take on the Batman (and Robin), and one that some readers may really enjoy - but others will hate. Me, I don't hate it - it's just... different, that's all. Your (blank)ing mileage may (blank)ing vary.

Grade: B-

Thursday, September 25, 2008

In This Political Season - An Endorsement

Hey, I need to send my thanks to the only Real Man in comics, Beau Smith, for his kind words about our humble efforts here.

In today's Busted Knuckles column (which you can read right here), he gives this blog a recommendation. He says:
It's kinda got a neighborhood diner sound to it and that's okay with me. In my opinion, Chuck writes really good, well thought out reviews. He has already interested me into checking out some titles that I usually don't. He has also kept me from paying hard earned money for books that would've ended up wasting my time. I appreciate that. His reviews are fair, balanced and throw in just enough wit without going over the border into Snarky Town where the intolerant and ignorant dwell in their mother's basement. I hope that you give Chuck's Comic of the Day a try. Please tell him that Beau sent you. I don't know if I'll really benefit from it, but it's a nice thing to do.
Thanks, Beau! In the face of such praise, I can only say, "Aw, shucks!" We'll try to live up to that high praise.

In addition to writing his blog, Beau also writes the column "Dottin’ The Eyes" for The Comics Buyer’s Guide, and "Far From Fragile" for Impact: The Global Action Entertainment Magazine. He also has some cool comics projects coming up, and was nice enough to send me a preview copy of his upcoming book Lost & Found, which I'll review in the near future.

I don't care what anyone else says, Beau - you're OK in my book!

The New Avengers #45

The "Big Event" has a death-grip on the throat of the world of comics. There's nothing you can do about it except ignore it or buy it. Sorry.

Depending on the event, it can be a good thing or a bad thing. The Secret Invasion has (so far) been very entertaining - though admittedly there's still time to wreck this train. The backstory behind the event has been the focus of the two Avengers books, and this issue shows us how the last two "Big Events" affected the plans of the Skulls.

This issue picks up where the last one left off, with the Scarlet Witch checking the Marvel Universe into the House of M. We begin with the trademarks big whiteout page. (I wonder - does the artist get full pay for that?) The next page is a great example of really poor planning, as an ad for the "Next Avengers" DVD fills page 3 and completely takes the reader out of the moment. Kudos to the sales department.

In the original House of M, the Scarlet Witch altered reality, but a handful of heroes figured out the deception and set out to fix the problem. In this story we see what effect that had on the Skrull duplicates. We also see how the Annihilation Wave also affected the plans - but since I didn't read that series, I'm a little vague on the specifics - although I'm not sure it's necessary to enjoy the story.

Whether you like his writing style or not, you really have to admire the audacity of Brian Bendis. Here he squeezes three major, galaxy-spanning events into a single comic and somehow makes it work. In the hands of a less skillful writer, it would have been a mess - but he keeps the focus on one or two characters and gives us a fascinating look at a side story that we weren't even aware of.

I really like the art by Jim Cheung, with inks by John Dell and Jay Leisten. The art is detailed without being cramped, and they manage to shift between huge panoramas (such as the incredible double splash of the SHIELD Helicarrier flying over New York City) to tight, emotional shots (see the Queen's breakdown on page 6). A strong effort, and I look forward to seeing more work from them.

Like this month's Mighty Avengers, I'm not sure this issue was crucial to the Secret Invasion story, but it does give us a few more pieces of the puzzle. Here's hoping that this "Big Event" continues to stay on the tracks.

Grade: B-

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Hey Kids, Comics!

As per today's suggestion by Evan, here's a list of the comics I picked up at the shop today:

- Ambush Bug: Year None #3 of 6 - This has been ok so far, but not quite up to past efforts.

- New Avengers #45 - The Skrull Invasion meets the House of M? Big Event-a-palooza!

- All Star Batman & Robin #10 - Don't worry, parents, those cuss words have been blacked out!

- Black Panther #41 - This book has been quite good for a while now.

- Captain America #42 - The big wrap-up to months of stories from Brubaker.

- Daredevil #111 - And here Brubaker starts up a new story.

- Fantastic Four #560 - Millar and Hitch's run has been out of the ordinary and has taken the team in unexpected directions (and yes, that's a good thing. I think).

- Fantastic Four: True Story #3 of 4 - The team's adventures in the world of fiction continues.

- Hulk #6 - The wrap-up to the Red Hulk story - or is it?

- Powers #30 - Another strong series from Bendis and Oeming.

- Solomon Kane #1 of 5 - Another terrific Robert E. Howard character, and more on the way. What a great country!

- Superman #680 - The Dog of Steel! Amazing to realize I'm buying both main Superman titles again for the first time in years.

- Trinity #17 - This has really picked up in the last couple of issues.

- The Ultimates #5 - It's been a while, and I remember almost nothing about the original story at this point.

- Ultimate Spider-Man #126 - Spidey vs. the Ultimates. They're all over the place this month, aren't they?

The Incredible Hercules #121

He's been knocking around the Marvel Universe for almost 40 years, but The Incredible Hercules has, with only rare exceptions, always been a second-banana character - sort of "Thor Lite."

He's a fun character, because he's basically a big, dumb kid who lives to have fun - which means drinking, chasing women and getting into huge, city-block-flattening brawls.

All well and good, but it's difficult to hang an ongoing series around the neck of a character with no real drive to do anything but party. Difficult, but as writers Greg Pak and Fred Van Lente show, it's not impossible.

It's nothing short of amazing to realize that they took The Hulk's regular comic book, turned it on its head with the Planet Hulk and World War Hulk stories, and then took the title character away, turned it over to Hercules (who's never been able to support a series of his own) and made it into a darn good comic book.

They've kept the story moving by providing Hercules with motivation and a conscience in the form of young Amadeus Cho, an incredibly intelligent young man who keeps pushing Hercules into action.

Of course, in this issue Herc sees all kinds of action, as he beds yet another heroine (which makes her at least the third in about as many months) and finds himself fighting an army of warrior women. Amadeus finds himself in similar straits, as he faces... well, that would be telling.

I'm not familiar with artist Clayton Henry's work, but he turns in some strong artwork here, balancing lots of gun-blazing action with more intimate moments. The comic also features an excellent cover by Arthur Suydam.

The story is building nicely, as this comic continues to surprise - because it's always so much better than I expect. Who knew ol' Herc had it in him?

(So to speak.)

Grade: B+

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Action Comics #869

It's a great time to be a fan of Superman!

This week alone, we have two outstanding comics both starring the Man of Steel - All Star Superman (which was reviewed here) and now Action Comics. (And next we get the latest chapter in James Robinson's Superman - but that's another review).

Hiding behind the deceptively serene cover, we find the Earth being attacked by Brainiac, one of Superman's most underrated villains - until now.

It brings me full circle, because one of the first Superman stories I read when I was young was a reprint in an Annual of his first battle with Brainiac. Here was an alien protected by a force field that even Superman couldn't break (he even tried throwing a few giant asteroids at it). It was rare for Superman to face a villain who could stand up to his physical powers, and I was fascinated.

After the Crisis on Infinite Earths led to a reboot of Superman's opponents, Brainiac appeared in numerous guises - everything from a carnival worker to a deadly robot, and no doubt several others I missed along the way.

Geoff Johns recently took over the helm at Action Comics, and his first order of business seems to be cleaning up loose ends and reinventing Superman's world so it makes more sense. He reintroduced the Legion of Super-heroes to modern continuity, and now he's cleaning up the mess that is Brainiac's backstory.

The new Brainiac is more menacing and deadly than ever before, and is finally - again - a worthy adversary. He can stand up to Superman physically and is (perhaps) his superior mentally.

This story expands Superman's world even further, and reintroduces some long-missing and much missed story elements, which I won't spell out for you, since that would ruin the fun. Best of all, it's one of those stories where you wonder, how can Superman win this fight?

I also want to give high marks to artist Gary Frank, who's turning in some excellent work here. His art has a great edge of realism to it, and he manages to capture perfectly both the small things, such as the emotions of the characters (see Supergirl's fear on page 3, her anger on page 13, and Superman's anger on page 9, and his delight on page 10). He also excels at the big events, such as the shot of Brainiac towering over a shrunken city.

An outstanding story is unfolding here, and it's one that will apparently affect Superman's stories for years to come. If you haven't been reading this title, you're missing out on a big new beginning for the biggest name in comics. Highly recommended!

Grade: A-

Monday, September 22, 2008

Uncanny X-Men #502

For a generation or more, the Uncanny X-Men have stood at the top of the comic book heap (in terms of sales), which is pretty amazing for fans who've been around since the beginning.

The super-team, as formulated by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby, started with a simple but phenomenal idea - placing young people with super-powers in a school to learn how to use their abilities. Even better, they bypassed the ever-present origin problem with the smoothest explanation possible. No need for radioactive spiders, exploding gamma bombs or exposure to cosmic rays - these young people have powers because they're mutants, and they were born that way.

Despite the strong beginnings under Lee and Kirby, the X-Men comic was never a huge sales success. Other creators tackled the comic, including Roy Thomas, Jim Steranko and Neal Adams (to name a few), and while sales were fair, the book never seemed to click, and it was cancelled in the early '70s.

But the team never quite went away completely. The title returned as reprints, and eventually was brought back to life with new stories in Giant-Size X-Men #1, with Len Wein and Dave Cockrum at the helm.

With a great cast, excellent stories and fantastic art, the book's popularity soared, finally becoming Marvel's top-selling book under Chris Claremont and John Byrne. It stayed at the top of the heap for years afterward, and only recently has it slipped from the top spot.

The main reason for the slip is probably the fact that there are so many X-books out there to choose from. When a comics company has a best-seller, it can choose to keep that comic at the top, or spin off related titles and settle for massive total sales, instead of one title in the top spot. (For examples, see: Spider-Man, Superman and Batman.)

So the comic racks are jammed with Uncanny X-Men, New X-Men, X-Force, X-Factor, Young X-Men, Astonishing X-Men, and so on. The result is that the stories get watered down, the cast spread thin, and the focus lost (one wonders how Wolverine keeps his schedule balanced with all his appearances in his own comic, the X-books and Avengers titles, too).

It looked like the Uncanny X-Man book was in for a renaissance with the addition of writer Ed Brubaker, who is turning in excellent work on books like Captain America and Daredevil - but it hasn't worked out that way. His X-Men stories are solid and professional, but the book has still seemed aimless.

Now they've brought in co-writer Matt Fraction and artist Greg Land and made some changes to the status quo (most of them initiated in issue #500). The team now makes its home in San Francisco, and the focus is on the original "New X-Men" team, so those are positive steps.

Land's art is very good, though it remains to be seen if his "good girl" art style is the right fit for this comic - but so far, I give him very high marks.

It's the story end that still needs work. The ongoing storyline involves the Hellfire Club stirring up anti-mutant violence, but so far the story doesn't seem to be building to a larger canvas.

The foundation is in place for bigger and better things - but the question remains, can "Uncanny" make a return to past glories and carve out its own place at the top?

Grade: B-

Sunday, September 21, 2008

The Spirit #21

The Spirit is a comic book that started before my time. It was created by the legendary Will Eisner for a comic book that was inserted in newspapers along with the Sunday funnies.

This was apparently a time when newspapers were interested in providing service to their readers, as opposed to the continual shrinkage of the comics page (or pages) - you know, the feature that newspapers could use to attract more readers. But that's a different rant.

The comic was, quite simply, a masterpiece of clever writing and outstanding art, and stands today as some of the best work ever done in the history of the industry (especially Eisner's post-War efforts). It has lost nothing with the passing of time, although we must admit that, sadly, like so many comics created at that time, it included an offensive racial visualization of characters such as Ebony.

The series finally ended in the '50s when comic books fell out of favor and Eisner moved on to other business interests. I first learned about the character in the pages of Jim Steranko's History of Comics Vol. 2, wherein he devoted a chapter to the character and reprinted a classic story.

Sometime later, Kitchen Sink started publishing magazine-sized reprints of The Spirit, and I tracked them down faithfully. The Spirit has continued to be published since, though mostly as reprints of earlier runs.

That changed a couple of years ago when DC struck a deal with Eisner to reprint the classic stories in a series of Archive Editions (which are highly recommended), and to create new stories based on the character. They wisely handed the creative duties over to Darwyn Cooke and J. Bone, who turned in a terrific run, worthy of the master himself (or at least in the right ballpark).

After Cooke left, the series ended up in the hands of two talented pro writers - Sergio Aragones and Mark Evanier. And I have to say, it's surprising to see these two pros struggle so mightily - and mostly fail - to get a handle on The Spirit. I mean, what gives? These two have done some amazing work, both together and separately - so why is their work on this comic so flat? Perhaps they're constrained by the "done-in-one-issue" format. Perhaps it's editorial interference. Who knows?

It's not entirely their fault - the book has suffered under an ever-changing roster of artists - some excellent (it's always nice to see work by Mike Ploog and Paul Smith, for example) and some just average. This issue's team of Chad Hardin and Wayne Faucher, for example, make no effort to provide anything more than the most basic layouts - almost every panel is a medium-range, eye-level "shot," with no variety, no closeups, no establishing shots - in other words, none of the visual flair that was Eisner's trademark.

Of course, not every story can emulate O. Henry (or Eisner) in twists or cleverness, but most of Evanier and Aragones' stories have just been straightforward mysteries or, with this issue, an uninspired adventure story that's designed to show us how much punishment The Spirit can take - which begs the question, how much can the reader bear?

DC, please - pick an art team and stick with it, and give your writers some more leeway - or I'm afraid The Spirit will once again fade away (if just for a while).

Grade: D+

Saturday, September 20, 2008

Conan the Cimmerian #3

Back when I was a young pup, my Aunt Rudy gave me a copy of the Robert E. Howard paperback Conan the Warrior, and was I ever hooked. (By the way, she wasn't a fan - the book belonged to her son who was in the Navy.)

Not long after that, I was shocked to see that Marvel was coming out with a comic book version of the character, and I anxiously picked up each copy. It took a little while before Barry Smith's art grew on me, but he quickly became "the" Conan artist (at least in the comics - it was tough to beat Frazetta's amazing paperback covers).

The Conan comic also featured good writing - some of the best in Roy Thomas' career (which is saying something). The series enjoyed a long run under a number of artists (most notably the incredible John Buscema) and a few other writers, but eventually it faded away.

When the line was revived at Dark Horse a few years ago, they had the good sense to tap Kurt Busiek to write the thing, and he also turned in some of his best work, teaming up with a variety of (mostly) excellent artists. Eventually, Busiek was lured away exclusively to DC, and a new writer signed on - and again, the editors made an excellent choice.

Tim Truman is probably best known for his outstanding artwork on books such as Scout and Hawkworld, but he's also a heck of a writer, especially when it comes to this kind of rough-edged, hard-bitten, pulp-inspired (but with a touch of poetry) kind of prose.

Looking at the art on the book, the reader may suffer a bit of artistic whiplash, as the styles change rather suddenly. The covers are in the skilled hands of Frank Cho, and he's turning in some amazing work - but his Conan looks squeaky clean. Even his horse looks like he ran it through the car wash before hitting the battlefield - but even with that minor complaint, it's a powerful piece of work.

The interior art features two different styles. Tomas Giorello handles the "modern day" storyline that brings Conan back from his adventures to his home in Cimmeria for the first time. Giorello's art is excellent, and perfectly suited to the barbaric tale that's unfolding. The other interior artist is living legend Richard Corben, who illustrates the story of Conan's grandfather, Connacht, and his adventures in the civilized world. Corben's work is outstanding (as always), and no one has a better handle on the world of the barbarian. Brutal and expressive, his art is perfectly suited for a story like this.

To celebrate the new creative team, Dark Horse re-launched the comic under the title Conan the Cimmerian, and so far, so good.

Creating a Conan that has the same feel as Howard's Conan is not an easy task. Too many writers just try to throw a monster and a scantily-clad girl into the story and leave it at that. But this team has an excellent feel for the attitude and character one of fantasy's greatest creations. It's good to see our barbaric friend - just as he was when he first appeared in a comic book - in the best of hands.

Grade: B+

Friday, September 19, 2008

The Mighty Avengers #18

For those who haven't been following the Secret Invasion miniseries, it focuses on The Avengers, who are up to their membership cards in Skrulls.

While that story unfolds, the team's two regular titles - The Mighty Avengers and The New Avengers - are devoted to revealing the hidden-until-now backstory behind the Skrull invasion. Ironically, that means that some issues actually include no "Avengers" ingredients - like this one, for instance.

The issue features a fantastic homage cover - which, if I remember correctly, is based on Strange Tales #135, the first appearance of Nick Fury as an Agent of S.H.I.E.L.D. (Supreme Headquarters International Espionage and Law Enforcement Division).

This comic tells the story of how Nick Fury trained his new team of Secret Warriors (and let me say "thank you" to Marvel for not calling them the "new" Howling Commandos - that would have been sacrilege).

I have been a big fan of the Secret Invasion, I'm a huge fan of Nick Fury, and I'm willing to give the Secret Warriors team a chance - but I have to say, I didn't care for this issue at all.

The main reason is that the story didn't advance the Skrull story at all - it's more of a pilot for the forthcoming Nick Fury and the Secret Warriors comic. Even worse, it tells us almost nothing about the team at all. Even with the obligatory splash-panel-with-the-characters-labeled page, I know almost nothing about them. Only Phobos stands out, and that's because he looks like a child. We see glimpses of Fury as the tough as nails drill sergeant, but he's mostly portrayed as sadistic and brutal.

Brian Bendis has handled this storyline with great skill so far, so we can certainly forgive a slight misstep here. The art by Stefano Caselli is not bad, but it's very muddy - I'm not sure if it was a printing problem or a deliberate choice to reflect the dark nature of the story, but it didn't work for me.

It's frustrating, because I'm really happy to see Nick Fury return to the spotlight - he's one of my all-time favorite Marvel characters, and he was handled perfectly in the last issue of Secret Invasion. More of that, please, and less of this.

Grade: C

Thursday, September 18, 2008

All Star Superman #12

When you're really enjoying any work of entertainment, be it a book, a movie, a comic book or what have you, there's always a tinge of sadness when you reach the end.

That's certainly my reaction on picking up the last issue of Grant Morrison and Frank Quitely's run on All Star Superman. Readers who've been following this title have enjoyed one of the best treatments of Superman since Alan Moore took a whack at the Man of Steel.

Morrison's stories can run the range from straightforward adventure to the truly impenetrable, but on this series he's focused on the fantastic qualities that make Superman such an enduring character. He's captured the fanciful attitude of the Silver Age, where the only limit on the character was his own imagination (and this Superman can imagine an awful lot), and infused it with a modern sensibility. Most of all, Morrison has captured the abundant sense of fun that Superman's adventures should have, even when the situation is dire.

Perfectly complimenting the outstanding story is the unique art of Frank Quitely. His style almost defies description - it's really not like any other artist I can name. He's very good at capturing the little things - expressions, gestures, the folds of clothing - his characters seem to live in a place that's like the real world, only bigger and bolder. Terrific stuff.

So what's the story about? Oh, the usual - Superman is powerless and at death's door, Luthor has given himself Superman's powers and is about to kill everyone at the Daily Planet, the Earth is facing destruction, the Sun is being destroyed - that sort of thing.

If you think Superman is an old, tired character, with no stories left to tell, then this series will show you there's still plenty of life left in the old boy - he is, after all, the first great comic book superhero, and he's apparently just getting warmed up.

Grade: A+

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Green Lantern Corps #28

Here's proof that any comic book can be rescued by an infusion of good ideas and strong writing.

The Green Lantern comic book is now one of DC's brightest stars, thanks to Geoff Johns rescuing Hal Jordan from comics purgatory. Hal had been stricken by a series of ill-considered character modifications, which began with Hal being turned into a mass murderer, then into the creature known as Paralax, then into the Spectre.

With the "Rebirth" miniseries, Johns brought Hal back to life, put him back in the green and black and white uniform, and restored the Green Lantern Corps to its original concept - an interplanetary police force.

The supporting cast was restored, including Guy Gardner, John Stewart, Kilowog, Salaak and many, many others. But rather than repeat the mistake of trying to crowd all those characters into GL's comic, they were farmed out into their own title - and a darned good one it's been, especially during the Sinestro War (which, if you missed it, was the best "epic" storyline in recent years for any comics company).

The latest issue of GLC tells the grim story of a serial killer (or group of killers) who is (are) targeting the families of rookie Green Lantern recruits. To get to the bottom of the mystery, Lantern Saarek is called in to use his unique gift - and it's an ability that obviously has ramifications on the upcoming storyline, "In Darkest Night." (Yep, he sees dead people.)

With a solid story by Peter Tomasi (including some nice moments with Guy Gardner) and strong art from Luke Ross and Fabio Laguna, this is a good effort and a prelude to bigger things.

If you can only buy one Green Lantern comic, stick with the original - but if you enjoy it, Green Lantern Corps is a good companion title, and gives you a little more green for your bucks.

Grade: B-

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Patsy Walker: Hellcat #3 (of 5)

Surely there is no more eccentric comic being published by Marvel than Patsy Walker: Hellcat. Before I tackle that, let's run down some basic background for a character with a somewhat complicated history.

Patsy started her comic book career as the title character in a teen comic, styled in the vein of of Archie Comics. She and her pal Hedy even made a cameo appearance in Fantastic Four Annual #3, wherein Reed and Sue were married. She reappeared in, of all places, the short-lived series that starred the newly-furry former X-Man, The Beast. She followed him into The Avengers, where she took ownership of The Cat's costume and renamed herself Hellcat (which seems odd, since she's such a good girl that you wouldn't expect her to say the word "hell." This is the hero who says "Jeepers," after all).

From there she eventually made her way into The Defenders, and after that it all gets kind of fuzzy, but I believe she married the Son of Satan (never a good career move) and was eventually killed. Silly, I know. Thankfully, Kurt Busiek cashed in some reincarnation chips and Patsy was reborn as her flighty, fun-loving old self. She's made some guest appearances and was featured in a mini-series a few years back, which brings us (more or less) up to date.

There's every reason to dislike this miniseries. It removes Patsy from the mainstream Marvel Universe (which is to say, New York) and ships her off to Alaska, though so far she hasn't met the governor. She immediately becomes involved in some kind of mystical quest that involves a number of odd creatures, including a rock with a face, a gigantic wolf, and a water lemming (among others). They're looking for someone who's been kidnapped - but I have to admit I'm not sure about the specifics.

And yet, despite all this, I don't hate this series. In fact, I actually kind of enjoy it. Let me quickly add that it's certainly not for everyone. If you're looking for mainstream, Skrull-bashing, rock 'em sock 'em action, keep looking.

But Patsy is just so irrepressibly fun, just bubbling over with energy and confidence and breezing through the whole experience like it's one big party. Kathryn Immonen captures Patsy's voice perfectly, and the vivid art by David Lafuente is an excellent match for the mystical story that's unfolding.

So mark this one down as a guilty pleasure. You have to like a comic that has its heroine snuggling next to a giant wolf, smiling and saying, "You're a little bit stinky."

Grade: B-

Monday, September 15, 2008

Booster Gold #12

Booster Gold is one of those "no respect," Rodney Dangerfield-type characters. But maybe it's time to change that.

In his original incarnation, as created by dependable Dan Jurgens, Booster wasn't particularly likeable - in fact, he was an egotistical twerp who spent that original run learning about what it means to be a real hero and not a corporate symbol. Unfortunately, the clock ran out on Booster and his first series was cancelled.

He then slogged through a series of guest spots, finally landing as a member of the not-exactly-serious Justice League International, where he paired with Blue Beetle as comedy relief. And don't get me wrong, those issues were funny and entertaining - but they didn't exactly bolster Booster's image as a "real" hero. (Just for fun, try to say "bolster Booster" four times real fast.)

He was rescued from obscurity by a starring role in the weekly series 52, and spun out of that into his own ongoing series, courtesy of one of DC's best writers, Geoff Johns.

Now Booster finds himself in a position that runs directly against his instincts for the spotlight. He's working with one of my favorite Silver Age characters, Rip Hunter, to handle heroic efforts that help preserve the time stream and reality as we know it - but he has to do his job without anyone knowing about it. In other words, he's forced to allow everyone to think he's a foul-up.

This creative idea allows Booster to interact with the DC Universe almost anywhere and anytime, and has resulted in several entertaining stories.

The latest adventure drops Booster and his sister in Gotham City early in Batman's career, and he must find a way to prevent the mistake that led to Batman, Robin and Batgirl's apparent deaths.

The comic is skillfully written by Chuck Dixon, who manages to mold a funny and unpredictable story, but keeps it clear of the usual time-travel fuzziness. He also has a lot of fun with Batman's supporting cast. Oh, and since this is one of Dixon's last books for DC, let me just ask: how can DC allow him to get away? (And no, I don't just like him because he has a great first name.) Dixon has been one of DC's strongest writers, handling a multitude of characters, crafting exciting stories and outstanding runs on a variety of comics. Heck, he even had me buying Robin - an amazing feat! Ok, end of rant.

The comic is illustrated by Dan Jurgens, who I consider to be terribly underrated. He always turns in solid, entertaining work, his layouts are clear, fun and easy to follow - I always enjoy his work.

I'm not sure which creative team will be handling this book in the future, but a strong foundation for stories has been set in place - hopefully the next team will do as good a job of using it as we've seen so far.

Grade: B

Sunday, September 14, 2008

The Amazing Spider-Man #571

Bloggers are required by law to weigh in immediately on the whole "Brand New Day" storyline that struck Spider-Man many months back, so here's my opinion: it stinks.

Not so much because it ended the marriage of Peter Parker and Mary Jane (I was a fan before the marriage, after all), but moreso because it was handled in such a ham-handed (and completely unnecessary) fashion.

Look, Marvel has been forced to correct mistakes in the past. Tony Stark's identity was revealed and then hidden again, Steve Rogers' identity was revealed and then hidden again, Alicia Masters cheated on Ben Grimm with Johnny Storm - and then she didn't (sorta). The list goes on and on.

But what links all those corrections is that, however shaky the explanation, it was one based in Marvel reality, and it was one the longtime reader could buy (even if he or she had to hold their nose in the process).

When the powers that be decided to have Spider-Man reveal his identity, it was obvious that it was a terrible idea from an editorial stance, because it meant Peter Parker would be cut off from every existing supporting character, except for Mary Jane and Aunt May. He couldn't continue working at the Daily Bugle. He couldn't continue his teaching career. His loved ones would be targeted by every one of the dozens of villains who hate him. It was a dead-end story, which generated publicity, but left Spider-Man in a bad corner. To get back to some form of status quo, something outrageous would have to take place.

But the solution - to have Mephisto make a vast assortment of oh-so-convenient changes to Peter's life - just smacked of desperation, something just this side of making it all an imaginary story. Couldn't Peter have stumbled across a Cosmic Cube or bumped into The Beyonder?

Well, I'm wandering here. The "Brand New Day" stories have been ok so far, thanks to strong artwork from a variety of artists and decent (though hardly outstanding) stories from different writers - but none of the stories really require an unmarried Peter Parker, except for the one where Mary Jane was sleeping with some actor - that was kinda creepy.

And Spidey has been acting out of character. He's portrayed as a big loser, which is a mistaken impression most writers seem to have of the character. Peter is actually a winner - he's the hero, he defeats the villains while cracking jokes, he rescues his friends, he dates beautiful women (and was, ahem, once married to a supermodel) - we all want to be that guy. But his life isn't always easy - he does face challenges and difficulties. Yet recent storylines show him living at his Aunt's like a slacker, shooting sleazy photos of celebrities, and running away while a vicious animal attacks Kraven's daughter. (Granted, she had tried to kill Spidey - but wouldn't a real hero try to defend anyone in danger?)

But after months of unmemorable stories and villains, The Amazing Spider-Man has finally delivered a good story with "New Ways to Die." Featuring outstanding art by John Romita, Jr. and Klaus Janson, and a compelling story by Dan Slott, we see Spider-Man facing challenging foes, dealing with cliffhangers, interacting with strong characters, and in danger of losing his powers!

Having said that, the latest issue isn't perfect - for one thing, the cover is a total cheat. Nowhere in the comic does the Green Goblin fight Spider-Man, except in a one-panel flashback. But it is fun to see Spidey being targeted by Norman Osborn, even though I still think Osborn should have stayed dead after killing Gwen. But that's just me.

Part of being a fan is being patient, and I suspect that eventually, the "One Day More" storyline will be "corrected," and we'll see Spider-Man get back to his amazing self. In the meantime, longtime fans will have to console themselves with the excellent Ultimate Spider-Man comic, and the occasional worthy storyline (like this one) in the original series.

Grade: B

Saturday, September 13, 2008

Star Trek: Romulans: The Hollow Crown #1

I have to admit up front that I'm old enough to have watched the original Star Trek television series when it first aired on NBC (although I had to talk my Dad into letting me stay up that late).

On the other hand, I've never been too crazy about the comic book adaptations based on any of the TV shows. I didn't care for the Gold Key comics much (though I wish I'd held onto them), and the Marvel series only had Dave Cockrum's art to recommend it (at least for a while). DC got it right for a while with Mike Barr and Tom Sutton handling the book, and they turned in some excellent stories. After that, it all gets hazy in my memory, and I stopped picking up the title.

The series calls IDW home now, and so far, the results have been very solid. D.C Fontana (who worked on the TV show) has done good work writing the Star Trek: Year Four series, and now they have writer / artist John Byrne handling titles like Star Trek: Assignment Earth and this entry, Star Trek: Romulans: The Hollow Crown.

Could someone please explain to me why a top talent like Byrne has time for this? Shouldn't he be inundated with offers from Marvel and DC? Shouldn't he be working on Next Men? I'm just asking is all.

OK, so obviously I'm a fan of his work (both writing and art). And if he isn't going to work for one of the bigger companies, it's good to see him turning in strong work for the up-and-coming IDW.

In "Romulans" Byrne spins a story set during the time of The Original Series (TOS). The series opens immediately after the episode where the Enterprise first encounters a Romulan Bird of Prey - one of my favorite episodes, as Kirk and the Romulan Captain match wits.

If you haven't seen the original shows, it doesn't matter - he gives you enough information to make the story clear, and throws in plenty of references to please the most devoted fans. The story offers a glimpse into the Romulan government and the machinations of allies and enemies.

Byrne manages the difficult task of introducing a number of new characters (along with a few familiar ones) and makes each one unique and immediately identifiable. Not many artists could manage it as well.

This is a book that may not appeal to the casual fan of the series - and it certainly isn't likely to appeal to a non-fan - but it's a strong entry in the comic books based on TOS, and it's always good to see Byrne working at the top of his game.

Grade: B+

Friday, September 12, 2008

Trinity #15

After the shocking disappointment of Countdown, it would have been easy to discount the next weekly comic from DC. But with Kurt Busiek and Mark Bagley at the helm, it seemed like a sure bet.

Busiek is one of the most talented comic book writers around, and Bagley is an outstanding artist - and one of the few pencillers fast enough to be able to produce 12 pages of artwork every week.

The series started out strong, with some excellent characterization of the "Big Three" (Superman, Batman and Wonder Woman, of course), and lots of guest stars sprinkled throughout.

The book was (and is) sort of a flashback to the "split" comics Marvel put out in the '60s, like Tales of Suspense and Tales to Astonish, with two heroes in separate stories splitting the page counts.

With Trinity, the big three get the opening 12 pages, and the other eight pages are dedicated to supporting characters. All well and good, but after the strong start, the comic seemed to lose its way. More characters were piled on, more subplots added, and soon you needed a scorecard just to get through an issue.

To be honest, I was about to give up on the series - until this issue. With this issue, the book kicks into high gear, as the story of the Trinity - and the trio of villains who've been plotting against them - comes into sharp focus.

A sure sign of an entertaining story is when the heroes and the villains both show their intelligence, and we see that in spades in this issue. The art, as always, is outstanding, and Bagley manages to breath new life into characters who have been around a long, long time.

There are lots of other characters hanging around the edges, but the series has its focus back - and my attention, as well. Grade: B+

Thursday, September 11, 2008

Secret Invasion #6 (of 8)

So let's start our reviews with what is, presumably, the hottest miniseries running right now. The Secret Invasion has been a lot of fun so far - sort of an amped-up version of the classic "Kree-Skrull War."

It's also suffered a bit from being scattered, with a huge cast, battles in the streets of New York, heroes duking it out in the Savage Land, Skrull plots unfolding, combat in space and a half-dozen (or so) spinoff miniseries floating around (not including the backstories spilling out in the New and Mighty Avengers titles) - but I suppose some fragmentation is to be expected when you're dealing with a story that involves virtually every hero in the Marvel Universe.

This issue starts to bring together some of those scattered elements, including some teased several issues back - the most interesting being the meeting between Thor and the new Captain America.

The climax features a classic line of dialogue from Nick Fury (who's still carrying that Honda-sized gun) and the setup for an epic, knock-down, drag-out fight.

I still haven't warmed to artist Leinil Yu, though I'm getting there. Some of his work has a stiffness about it (although it reminds me in places of the great Ernie Colon), and some panels are a bit confused. (What is Medusa doing in her cameo in the third panel on page 3? I think she's screaming, but then again...) Still, Yu seems to get better with each issue.

Writer Brian Bendis has taken a tremendous amount of heat for his work on The Avengers - some of it justified, maybe - but he has an interesting and intricate story running here, and this book sits at the top of my monthly "read" stack.

The success of the miniseries will depend on whether or not he can stick the landing (sorry, still getting out of Olympics mode here). But so far, it's been very good.

Grade: A-

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Welcome to Day 1

I’ve been reading comics for a long time now - in fact, literally as long as I can remember.

Comics were always around, thanks to my two older brothers, Mike and Bill, though none of us (including younger brother Eric) gave any thought to collecting them - we just read them and left them laying around, and at some point Mom would no doubt throw them away (throwing away comics is the reason why Moms were put on the Earth).

I couldn’t even tell you what kinds of comics they were - I’m guessing they featured cartoon characters like Donald Duck and Bugs Bunny, but I really don’t remember. They’re all kind of mixed in with the books I’d get during regular visits to the library - Dr. Seuss being a big favorite, of course.

But my brothers weren’t particularly fascinated by comics, and neither was I - until the summer my cousins gathered at my Grandmother’s house. My cousin Jonathan, who lived in Washington, DC, brought several of the comic books he collected, including some DC Comics - I was particularly interested in the Showcase comics. Those books struck my imagination, and it impressed me that an “older” kid was interested in comics - it was the beginning of my fascination that continues to this day. (And yes, I wish I still had every comic I had ever bought or read - I’d be a zillionaire, right?)

I’ve spent a couple of years writing for a blog about community theater, and I spent years before that reviewing video games and movies for local newspapers and TV stations. I also worked several years on several comic book-related videos that gave me the chance to interview some of the talented creators in comics. I figure it’s time again to focus on the hobby I’ve enjoyed for about 46 years now.

My plan for this blog is to review, at a minimum, a comic book a day, with the focus on new comics. I may stray occasionally for a flashback, or a graphic novel, a comic strip or a web comic, but the focus will be on offering honest reviews of new books, with no spoilers. How I hate the reviews that give away key plot points!

So thanks for reading! Comments are welcome, as long as they’re civil. I’ll try to keep it interesting and fun. Tomorrow: review #1. Wish me luck!