Sunday, November 30, 2008

Hulk #8

The new Hulk comic book is doing very well in sales, and as near as I can tell, there's one reason for it: it has fantastic art.

This issue features two outstanding talents - Art Adams and Frank Cho. Each takes half the comic, with Adams handling the adventures of the original Hulk (who appears in his original Gray color for part of the comic), and Cho handling the reprehensible Red Hulk.

The story each artist tackles plays to each one's strong points. Adams gets to draw an army of monsters - the Wendigos - and lots of beautiful women, as the battle rages in Las Vegas. Cho is asked to draw some beautiful females who decide to attack the Red Hulk (sorry, I refuse to use the silly "Rulk" name for that character), including the She-Hulk, the Valkyrie and Thundra.

Both Adams and Cho are at the top of their game here, and the book is well worth buying for the art alone.

Which is good, because the story by Jeph Loeb continues to be as silly as ever.

Over on the green side of the aisle, we have the usual "superheros fight each other" bit, which would be fine if not for the army of Wendigos who are killing people like crazy. Would it really take until the end of that half of the issue for this to be noticed? I'm also anxiously awaiting the explanation for how the monsters made the trek from Canada to Las Vegas without being noticed.

On the red side... well, I hardly know where to start. The Red Hulk is a mass murderer who has beaten up several heroes - yet after his utter defeat at the end of issue #6, apparently no one felt like trying to cage him - they just left him to walk around the country, killing more people. And the She-Hulk's team - none of whom are in Red Hulk's league, by the way - are asked to discover his civilian identity, as though that were more important than stopping his murderous ways. Oh, and we still have no clue as to who he really it - and frankly, I don't much care.

Perhaps it's old-fashioned to want to see the bad guys brought to justice - but I do like my comics to focus on heroic (or at least sympathetic) characters - and we're only getting half that here.

Grade: C-

Saturday, November 29, 2008

JSA Kingdom Come Special: The Kingdom #1 (One Shot)

This is the third and final chapter in the series of special issues spinning out of the regular Justice Society of America comic, and it sets up the final two issues of the ongoing Kingdom Come series.

And it seems to me that this has been a difficult series for fans to get behind, for a variety of reasons. For one, the JSA has grown its membership to Legion-like proportions, adding quite a few new heroes, bringing in the children of JSA members and other new faces. Also, the storyline has been split between the Superman of Earth-22 (the Superman from the original Kingdom Come mini-series) and the appearance of the fearsome old god known as Gog.

It's the story of Gog that seems to have thrown readers, because it has taken an unexpected path. When Gog was first discovered, he towered over the landscape like a skyscraper, with a fearsome visage that's somehow even scarier because he's constantly smiling. But readers expecting a huge battle between the JSA and Gog have been surprised to see the story move in an unexpected direction. Despite Gog's appearance, he seems to be a benevolent deity, as he grants wishes, speaks of peace and opposes war.

His actions have led to the JSA being split into two factions - the ones who believe Gog is what he claims to be, and those who suspect a more sinister motive.

It's been obvious that there is more to the character than meets the eye, but for months now we've been given no reason to doubt his good intentions - but finally, with this issue, we finally see what Gog wants in return for his efforts - and it's chilling.

The story by Geoff Johns and Alex Ross has taken perhaps a bit too long in playing out, but there's no denying the power behind it, and now we anxiously await the final issues in the series.

The art by Fernando Pasarin and numerous inkers is quite good - strong and solid, though not overly flashy.

Johns seems to be the master of the sprawling saga, and after a few stutters and starts, this one looks like it's heading for a strong finish. I can't recommend this comic to a reader who hasn't been following the storyline, because there are too many character references they won't understand - but it's an excellent addition to the ongoing story, and readers who have been following along will be rewarded for their patience.

Grade: B+

Friday, November 28, 2008

Ultimate Spider-Man #128

Writer Brian Bendis has done amazing work in the Ultimate Spider-Man comic, as he takes stories that were set in stone long ago in the original Amazing Spider-Man comic and gives them a fresh, unexpected twist.

And this issue is all about twists. Take Gwen Stacy, for example. (No pun intended.) He introduced her to the comic years ago as a troubled teen who was given a home by Aunt May, and she became a friend to Peter Parker with no hint of a love interest.

In the "real" Marvel Universe, of course, Gwen was Peter's first true love, a romance cut short by her tragic death. That death occurred years after her introduction, and was one of the biggest shocks in Marvel's long history. Years later, Mary Jane became the love of Peter's life, and they were eventually married. (And didn't that work out great?)

In the Ultimate Universe, Gwen arrived on the scene well after Peter and MJ declared their love. The reader might have expected that Gwen would cause a love triangle - but before that happened, she was killed by the alien symbiote known as Carnage. It was quite a shock, and many readers (including yours truly) thought Bendis had thrown away a good character.

But Bendis doesn't waste any characters, and as we see in this issue, Gwen is back, somehow cloned or reconstituted by Carnage. She runs to Peter for help, and he quickly finds himself in a battle between Carnage and Venom.

The art for this issue is provided by Stuart Immonen and Wade von Grawbadger, and it's excellent. The story is filled with huge plot twists, horror, surprises and lots of super-hero battles, and it's managed with great skill and clear storytelling.

This comic is the best of the Ultimate books, and continues its run at the top. One might suspect the story was accelerated to clear the decks for the Ultimatum crossover - and that may be true - but whatever the reason, the comic is fast-paced and a heck of a lot of fun.

Grade: A-

Thursday, November 27, 2008

Batman #681

So after a slight delay we finally get the final chapter of the Batman "R.I.P." story by Grant Morrison with art by Tony Daniel and Sandu Florea.

The good news is, the story finally explains some of the more confusing aspects of this very confusing story.

As I've said before - at a time when millions are flocking to see a film based on "The Dark Knight," why would you produce a nightmarish, multi-part story that's written in such a way as to confuse the most die-hard reader?

It tells the story of Batman's journey through madness, and his survival is only possible because he has prepared backup plans for every eventuality. He also trusts his "Batman family" to have his back - and that includes some particularly bloodthirsty members.

The story is riveting because the good guys are up against impossible odds - an army of thugs, a hidden coven of the super-rich, entertaining themselves with a life-or-death game - and then mix in the ultimate wild card, The Joker, and you have a surreal final confrontation between the forces trying to control Gotham and destroy The Batman.

Don't expect too many answers, though - the murky ending leaves the status of Batman in doubt.

I suspect this story will read much more easily in a collection, especially if it includes notations to explain some of the more obscure references - but taken in one-issue increments, the R.I.P. story is a difficult one to follow.

Hardcore fans of the Bat will enjoy it, but the casual reader will be lost. I recommend holding out for the upcoming "Whatever Happened to the Caped Crusader?" story.

Grade: B-

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Today's Funny Books

Here's what I picked up today:

- Batman #681 - The anxiously-awaited wrap-up to R.I.P. But will it make sense?

- Captain America #44
- I almost didn't pick it up, because the cover is almost identical to last issue's - I thought it was the same comic.

- Daredevil #113
- Month after month, this continues to be a darn good comic.

- Incredible Hercules #123 - Still a surprisingly fun comic.

- Hulk #8 - Awesome art by Art Adams and Frank Cho. The story, on the other hand...

- JSA: The Kingdom #1 (One Shot) - The pieces are moving into place, and the tension continues to rise. Just what does Gog want? You might be surprised...

- Secret Invasion: Inhumans #4 (of 4) - This series lost its way a bit last issue - let's see if it gets back on track this time.

- Superman #682 - The "New Krypton" story continues, as the Kandorians make a move.

- Thor: Man Of War (One Shot) - Odin vs. Thor - just like old times!

- Trinity #26 - Halfway!

- Ultimate Spider-Man #128 - This one has more twists than any other comic I've read in a while.

- The Umbrella Academy: Dallas #1
- It's actually issue #7, but it's the first one I've read, if that matters.

The Flash #246

The Flash seems to be a book at the crossroads/ We've seen the Silver Age Flash, Barry Allen, make his long-overdue return in Final Crisis, and reports have been circulating for a while that Geoff Johns is crafting a new series starring that character.

So where does that leave the Bronze Age (and current) Flash, Wally West? Will he continue in the title, or will he step aside to make room for Barry? Those questions will be answered in the months ahead, but in the meantime we have a four-part story written by Alan Burnett that may (or may not) be setting up some major changes for Wally.

In this issue (which is part three), we see Wally's wife, Linda, lying near death after a supervillain's attack.

The comic provides a nice flashback into how Wally and Linda met and fell in love.

The issue focuses on the family Wally has built, and his struggles to save the woman he loves - which are complicated by the fact that he seems to be losing control over his super-speed.

It's a touching story, and one hopes they won't do anything crass like kill off Linda - but of course, they killed off Barry a couple of decades ago, so I suppose anything's possible.

The artwork in this issue by Carlo Barberi, Drew Geraci and Jacob Eguren is OK, but not much more than that. It tells the story clearly, but there's not much variety to the panels - just lots of mid-range shots.

The story's interesting and worth following, but I can't shake the feeling that they're just marking time until Final Crisis wraps up. Which is bound to happen eventually. We hope.

Grade: C+

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Avengers / Invaders #6 (of 12)

So here we are at the halfway point in this maxi-series, and I continue to be stunned by: 1) How good the cover art is; and 2) How bad the rest of the comic is.

And I'm a big fan of The Invaders! I should be loving the idea of seeing the real Captain America again, along with the criminally-underused original Human Torch, the also underused Namor, Bucky and Toro. Instead, I look at this comic and wonder where those characters are and who the imposters are in their place.

This issue focuses on the Human Torch, who has decided that SHIELD's army of LMDs (Life Model Decoys) equates to slavery, so he's decided to set them free. Somehow this desire on his part causes all the LMDs to immediately turn on SHIELD and the Mighty Avengers, and a big fight scene breaks out. The Torch seems awfully certain that no one's going to get hurt, especially considering the LMDs are all armed with big scary guns. Which they're firing. At humans.

Meanwhile, back at the ranch, Toro makes a shocking discovery - in the present, he's dead! Of course, he does the natural thing - he blames the Torch!

Maybe my expectations were too high for this series, or maybe it's just that the story can't live up to the great cover by Alex Ross.

Whatever the reason, writer Jim Kreuger's story continues to leave me cold, and even the interior art by Steve Sadowski and Patrick Berkenkotter seems rushed and uneven.

Maybe the story will be redeemed in the last half of the series by a shocking twist that'll bring it all together. But so far, it's just been very disappointing.

Grade: D+

Monday, November 24, 2008

Supergirl #35

So what kind of character should Supergirl be? Almost any answer to that question has been tried at some point during her 40-year-long-run in DC Comics.

She's been an innocent teen, a bad girl, a career woman, a sidekick, a Legionnaire, a cipher, an adventurer, an obedient daughter, a disobedient daughter and a confused teen who didn't know what she was. And those are just the ones off the top of my head.

The basic motto has been, "If you don't like this Supergirl, hang around and we'll change her soon." (Now that I think about it, Wonder Woman has the same problem - but that's a topic for a different entry - back to Supergirl.)

The latest attempt may actually stick for a while, because they're making an effort to define Kara. The springboard for that is the "New Krypton" storyline, which brings about 100,000 Kryptonians to Earth, including Supergirl's parents.

This issue is chapter five in the series, and it centers on her father discovering the reason behind Kara's changing moods and attitudes. (And I thought it was just poor writing.)

Kudos to writer Sterling Gates for a strong effort here, as questions are answered and continuity is cleaned up, giving Supergirl the possibility of a fresh start - just what she needed!

The art is also very good, with penciller Jamal Igle and inker Keith Champagne providing solid, clear storytelling, including some tender moments and some dramatic revelations.

It's another good effort and definitely a step in the right direction. The star of the comic already seems more like... well, Supergirl!

Grade: B+

Sunday, November 23, 2008

Uncanny X-Men #504

The Uncanny X-Men spent decades ruling the top of the sales charts.

From the team's re-invention in the mid-'70s by Len Wein and Dave Cockrun, to the heights achieved by Chris Claremont, John Byrne and Cockrum (along with many other artists), the X-Men has been the sales champ.

In recent years the title has slipped a bit, despite inspiring three hit movies (two of which were actually good). There are many reasons for that slippage. The comic grew into a series of "X" books, including X-Factor, X-Force, Excalibur, New Mutants, Generation X and on and on. That diluted the brand and left the original title lost in a sea of mutants.

Another reason is the overwhelming number of characters a reader must sort through, the confusing array of continuity and myriad plots that only the most devoted fan can keep straight.

But the most important reason the book declined is a simple one: for years, the stories just weren't very good (though there were exceptions). Marvel finally made an effort to correct the problem by offering the title to one of its best writers, Ed Brubaker. Surprisingly, he wasn't quite able to turn it around, and after co-writing several issues of the comic with Matt Fraction, the title (beginning with the latest issue) is entirely in Fraction's care.

The other smart move the editors have made is to turn the art over to two excellent teams: Greg Land and Jay Leisten and, in this issue, Terry and Rachel Dodson. Both specialize in drawing sexy women, and they also are terrific at handling action scenes.

The story that's been unfolding since issue #500 has been encouraging, as the comic set up a new, more streamlined status quo for the team. Now they make their home in San Francisco, which has become a haven for mutants - although their high profile has also, quite predictably, made them a target for those forces who hate them.

The X-Men are pitted against the Hellfire Club, and in this issue we see the mysterious new leader of that team recruiting powerful allies. We also see other plots being set up that seem to indicate the return of some old foes.

So does this mean the X-Men are enjoying a new renaissance? It's still a bit early to tell, but so far, the book is looking (and reading) better than it has in a long time. At this point, I'm willing to settle for that.

Grade: B+

Saturday, November 22, 2008

Gears of War #2

According to a recent story, the top-selling comic book last month wasn't Secret Invasion or Final Crisis - it was the first issue of Gears of War, which sold about 450,000 comics (although most were not sold in comics shops).

It's a good indication of the kind of market that's lurking out there, if only comics companies could figure out a way to tap into it.

It's the double-edged blessing and curse of the direct market - selling comics in specialty shops probably saved comics from going under altogether, but it also cut the industry off from most of the public.

When I was a kid in the '60s, comics were everywhere - in grocery stores, drug stores, bus stops, news stands, variety stores, convenience stores, book shops - almost anywhere you could buy candy, you could find comic books.

Don't worry, this isn't one of those "things were better when I was a kid" kind of columns - it's just an observation that the business has changed - but perhaps there are opportunities to be explored.

If Gears of War can sell those kinds of numbers to videogame fans, why not sell Spider-Man and Batman comics to movie fans, or Harry Potter or Twilight comics to book readers? It seems like it should just be a matter of finding the right outlets and marketing opportunities.

OK, end of sermon - back to the comic itself.

I have to admit that I'm not too familiar with the Gears of War game, but the premise seems to adapt itself well to the comics.

As near as I can tell, the Earth has been overrun by invading monsters from inside the planet. The human race depends on groups of soldiers known as Gears to provide defense against these creatures, and apparently the fight isn't going well. The story focuses on the legendary fighter Marcus, who's a hard-nosed tough guy styled along the lines of Wolverine.

Jayson, a new fighter, is learning the ropes and provides a sympathetic character for the reader. Writer Joshua Ortega doesn't give us a lot of plot to go on here - it's just an excuse for lots of action. But that's what the reader would expect from a videogame-based comic.

By the way, parents should be warned that this isn't a comic for young kids - there's lots of foul language and buckets of blood spilled. The cover carries a "Suggested for Mature Readers" warning that you'd need a magnifying glass to spot.

The art by Liam Sharp is good in its grim and gritty style, and he captures the dystopian future with great skill. His characters are distinctive, the bad guys monstrous, and the action intense. Game fans will love it.

This comic isn't really made for the usual superhero fan, but it's tailor-made for the gamer who anxiously awaits the next chapter in the Gears of War saga.

It's not my kind of comic, but your mileage may vary. And there's no arguing with sales success.

Grade: B-

Friday, November 21, 2008

JSA Kingdom Come Special: Magog #1 (One Shot)

The Justice Society of America storyline that combines Gog (a mysterious creature with godlike powers) and Kingdom Come (Alex Ross' sidebar to the original graphic novel) continues this week with the release of Justice Society of America Kingdom Come Special: Magog #1 (One Shot).

It's a story that's been building for a year. Following on the heels of last week's focus on the Superman of Earth-22, we have an issue that puts the spotlight on the man who may or may not be another version of the anti-hero named Magog.

For a (relatively) brand-new character, Magog has a busy little backstory, and this issue helps sort it all out. A decendant of President Franklin Roosevelt, Marine Lance Corporal David Reid was killed in a recent issue of JSA, only to be resurrected as Magog, an incredibly powerful hero.

The story flashes back to show how he joined the military, only to gain unusual powers, which led to Reid joining the JSA.

This issue finds him in the Congo, following Gog (along with other JSA members), when he receives a message from his old unit, and he races off to their rescue. What follows is a surprisingly gruesome and bloody confrontation with some malicious soldiers.

The real point of the story by Peter Tomasi is to give us some insight on Magog and the difficult battles he's faced. It's an interesting back story, but the main character is still very much a mystery - we know he's a soldier and he's had to tackle some grim tasks - but that's about it.

I like the art supplied by Fernando Pasarin and Mick Gray - it's not terribly flashy, but it tells the story in a strong, clear fashion. I look forward to seeing more work from them. The cover by Alex Ross is, of course, outstanding.

This books is essentially another piece of the puzzle in a story that continues to pick up speed. I don't know if it's vital to read this issue (it depends on where the story goes from here) - and the action scenes are probably a little rough for young readers - but it's a solid chapter in the ongoing story, and it leaves me looking forward to the next chapter.

Grade: B

Thursday, November 20, 2008

Fantastic Four #561

It's odd that Mark Millar and Bryan Hitch, who turned in blockbuster work on The Ultimates and The Authority, seem to be struggling to achieve the same success with their run on the Fantastic Four.

Their work is as good as ever - but so far, it doesn't seem to be translating into the same kind of sales that the other books enjoyed. (Of course, a voice inside my head says, "Sales, Shmales." Smart voice I have there.)

Perhaps the difference is the nature of the comic. Where the other two series were dark, depressing, violent and vulgar, the FF is by its nature fun, positive and uplifting. Maybe we're all suffering whiplash at the change in direction.

There's certainly no slippage in the efforts of artist Bryan Hitch, who creates some amazing panoramas in this issue, including Galactus imprisoned, the FF soaring across the New York skyline at night, and an awesome throw-down between the FF and the group known as the New Defenders. I'm still not sold on his choices for covers - once again, it's a busy and oddly framed composition.

And Mark Millar provides the kind of cosmic-sized story that fits the FF so well, as the team tries to prevent the destruction of the world and save billions of lives while rescuing both Johnny Storm and Dr. Doom.

But I don't mean to make it sound like this isn't an entertaining comic. If you've been following the story from the beginning of Millar and Hitch's run, you'll see several stories pay off here as Reed, Sue and Ben face overwhelming odds and a certain surprise guest star.

If you haven't been picking this one up (perhaps the covers have put you off buying it), you're missing an excellent series.

Grade: A-

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Today's Comics

Wednesday being Comics day (the best day of the week), here's what I picked up:

- Ambush Bug: Year None #4 (of 6) - Not bad, but not up to previous efforts.

- Avengers / Invaders #6 (of 12) - The jury's still out on this one, but this issue looks promising.

- Brave and the Bold #19 - Green Lantern and the Phantom Stranger - a true Odd Couple!

- Conan the Cimmerian #5 - More Corben goodness!

- Fantastic Four #561 - Well, I saw that one coming a mile away. Terrific art, though.

- Flash #246 - Looks like they're geting ready to wrap this one up for the switch-over to stories about Barry Allen's return.

- Gears of War #1 and 2 - Apparently #1 was the top-selling title last month, although most of the issues weren't sold in comics shops.

- JSA: Kingdom Come Special: Magog #1 (One Shot) - The Gog storyline continues to heat up.

- Amazing Spider-Man #578
- Spidey being crushed under a big, heavy structure? Deja Vu!

- Spirit #23 - Hope springs eternal!

- Supergirl #35 - "New Krypton" continues and mysteries are solved!

- Terra #2 (of 4) - More terrific art from Amanda Conner.

- Trinity #25
- More clues are revealed.

- Uncanny X-Men #504 - I'm behind on the story, but the art is terrific!

I also picked up Back Issue #31, which is a tribute to the late Steve Gerber.

Bonus Review: Storming Paradise #4

Whenever possible, we try to take requests here at the Comic of the Day blog, and our first one comes from the reader who identifies himself as Krod. He strongly recommended the comic Storming Paradise, so I tracked it down.

And let me just say - good call, Krod! This comic is a war comic that (as I understand it) tells the story of what might have happened if the Allies had been forced to invade Japan during World War II (in other words, if we hadn't developed and used the Atomic Bomb).

The story is by Chuck Dixon, who's one of the best at this kind of real-world, action-packed battle adventure. We see the war on several fronts, including on the ground, at sea and in the air. It's a realistic and exciting look at the kind of warfare that would have continued across the face of Japan.

The art is provided by Butch Guice, who pencilled the first 14 pages of the comic with Eduardo Barreto providing the inks, and Fernando Blanco wraps up the final eight pages. The art is outstanding, and delivers the goods.

It's an outstanding comic, and if you're a fan of war comics - or any other kind of adventure comics - you owe it to yourself to track this one down.

Now I need to track down the first three issues!

Grade: A-

Trinity #24

As this weekly series nears the halfway mark, we pause to reflect on how it's going so far.

Trinity has been something of a rollercoaster ride in terms of story - sometimes it's been strong, and sometimes it has meandered around.

More than once I've thought about dropping it, but I'm hanging in there for two basic reasons: I have faith that Kurt Busiek is a good enough writer to bring this monster home; and Mark Bagley's art has been terrific. The backup story by Busiek and Fabian Nicieza with art by Tom Derenick and Wayne Faucher is also very good.

The latest issue is actually one of the better in recent months, because we start to see signs that the story is actually heading in a specific direction, and not just a collection of random events.

In this issue, we see the evil Trinity (or is it a duo?) consolidating its power in Europe, but they're not in agreement about everything. Meanwhile, Hawkman receives a message from ancient Egypt, the League starts to make a comeback, Krona is trying to talk to planets, and Kanjar Ro and Despero have a meeting of the minds.

Busiek has a lot of plotlines floating around out there - no doubt that's necessary, since he's filling 52 comics - but it makes the cast a huge one, and difficult to keep straight sometimes, especially when the story veers off into an alternate reality.

I really think the biggest problem is with the basic premise - the idea (as I understood it, anyway) was that this series would focus on the Trinity of Superman, Batman and Wonder Woman - yet those three characters have been absent from the book for more than a month! (Remember, we're talking about a weekly here.)

It may be asking a bit much for fans to stay patient while the story spools out, but if this issue is any indication, the payoff should be worth the wait.

I hope!

Grade: B+

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Ghostbusters: The Other Side #2

As this review points out, I'm a big fan of the original film, but the first issue of the comic book titled Ghostbusters: The Other Side was a real disappointment.

But hope springs eternal, so I'm back for the second issue in the series, which just proves that I should learn to take my own advice.

Not only is the second comic not any better than the first, it's actually, in some ways, worse.

The story so far: The Ghostbusters have been attacked by the ghosts of some gangsters who apparently escaped from an old movie. Venkman's spirit has been displaced by one of the gangsters, and the other three heroes (Ray, Winston and Egon) are gunned down - and now they're all ghosts, too!

This issue picks up with the latter three Ghostbusters exploring the afterlife. It's a boring place, with mountains and plains and some lost souls wandering around. That's about the size of it.

Once again, the art by Tom Nguyen and the writing by Keith Champagne is respectable and professional, but that's about the best I can say about it.

The original Ghostbusters movie was a success because it managed the rare combination of scares and laughs. That's an even bigger challenge for a comic book, and so far, this one isn't managing either one.

The other aspect of the original story I always enjoyed was the idea of using science to fight the supernatural. Hasn't been much of that on display, either.

If we were playing baseball, this would be "Strike Two."

Grade: C-

Monday, November 17, 2008

Fantastic Four: True Story #4 (of 4)

The Fantastic Four has always been a comic that stood out from the pack, and there are many reasons for that. It has a sense of family, the four balance each other perfectly in terms of personality, the team has a great rogue's gallery, their powers are visual and fun - well, the list goes on and on.

But one of my favorites is the fact that their adventures were (almost) always based in science fiction rather than fantasy. Their stories are certainly incredible, as they tackle alien monsters, armies of super-powered villains and heroes, god-like beings, powerful kings, undersea races and even their own children - but it all has some basis (however tenuous) in the real world.

Where Superman had Mr. Myxptlyx (or however he spells it), Batman had Bat-Mite, and the Justice League often fought demons and other mystic menaces, at Marvel the stories about magic were generally confined to the adventures of Dr. Strange and (occasionally) Thor. Even the FF's wildest opponent, The Impossible Man, had a scientific explanation.

So the mini-series Fantastic Four: True Story takes the team to a realm they've rarely visited - a world of magic. The series centers around a problem in the world of fiction - something is affecting the content of books.

The FF launches into that world and finds it's being affected by Nightmare, one of Doctor Strange's oldest foes, and they must find a way to defeat that powerful menace.

This series isn't as bad as I'd feared it was going to be - it started out reading like a strange version of Classic Illustrated - but writer Paul Cornell has taken it in interesting and unexpected directions - but it still ends up being a Cliff's Notes version of literature that's in the public domain.

The artwork by Horacio Domingues and Rick Burchett is well-suited to storybook illustrations, but doesn't capture the FF well.

So it's not a bad effort, but it's not a compelling read, either. The story is a good argument for keeping the science in the Fantastic Four's fiction.

Grade: C

Sunday, November 16, 2008

Action Comics #871

This issue of Action Comics seems like a bit of a fake-out at first, because even though the story is linked to the last issue of Superman, it doesn't pick up immediately where that one left off - with Superman and several Kryptonians facing a major menace.

Instead, it goes for a (relatively) quiet start, as we check in on a couple of Krytonians exploring life on Earth, and then learn more about Lex Luthor and his newest (unexpected) ally.

Eight pages in, we finally get the showdown we were expecting - and a good one it is, with lots of action and a surprising ending.

Artist Pete Woods really runs the gamut here - some of his larger panels are really excellent, brimming with power and menace. but some of the smaller panels - especially from the fight sequences - are jumbled and difficult to follow. Panels are piled on top of each other, and in several places I have no idea what exactly is happening.

Writer Geoff Johns continues building on an interesting story, as we learn a little more about the citizens of Kandor who are now living on Earth. I'm still very interested to see where this one goes.

In other words: so far, so good.

Grade: B+

Saturday, November 15, 2008

The Black Terror #1

Dynamite Entertainment has apparently decided to build its line of superhero comics around the characters resurrected in the Project: Superpowers comic.

The characters are all heroes from long ago, who share the distinction of having passed into public domain - which means pretty much anyone can create comics using them. Thus we see character such as The Green Lama, The Death-Defying 'Devil (the original Daredevil), Masquerade, The Fighting Yank and many, many more. (They spend most of this issue posing next to caption boxes with their names on display.)

I picked up the first two issues of the Superpowers series, but lost interest. I have no nostalgia for these characters, and the story just wasn't compelling, so I dropped it. Now Dynamite is spinning the individual heroes off into their own titles.

One of the first is The Black Terror, which stars a character who is a complete enigma. We have no idea how he got his powers, who he is or what he's trying to accomplish - apparently he and his fellow heroes managed to escape some kind of trap that's been holding them for decades, and they now find themselves fighting an army of... I don't know, super-powered zombies or something.

The Black Terror apparently has powers on a par with Superman - he flies into the sky, crashes to Earth and somehow lands in a Pirate museum, where he fights an army of bad guys, never gets a scratch and vows revenge.

It seems the President of the United States (his name is West) is the bad guy, and has imprisoned friends of The Black Terror.

So you have a first issue that's all set-up, virtually no explanation and, to someone who just walked in on the story, it makes no sense. Writer Jim Krueger doesn't give us much to go on here, and little reason to want to come back for more.

The art by Mike Lilly isn't bad at all, but it's very murky - does everyone (except for the Green Lama) have to dress all in black?

Maybe Dynamite makes its money by selling multiple covers to the same comic. But a nice cover doesn't cover up the smell of a poor comic - and that's this one all over.

Grade: D

Friday, November 14, 2008

The Amazing Spider-Man #577

I'm all for editors trying a different look or a unique direction with a comic, especially when the story is "done in one" (it just takes up one issue).

Sometimes the experiment works - and sometimes, as with this issue of The Amazing Spider-Man... it doesn't.

This is apparently Spider-Man team-up month at Marvel (as discussed in this post), and this issue finds the wall-crawler working with The Punisher to capture a super-villain who's pushing a new, strange empowering drug.

It's difficult to accept the idea of the two working together, after all - The Punisher is a cold-blooded killer, even if his targets are the bad guys. Spider-Man just seems very causal about dealing with this guy, especially considering the dead criminal's body in the corner of the Punisher's warehouse. The story by Zeb Wells doesn't do much with either character - Frank kills a bunch of criminals but is easily captured, and Peter acts goofy and only avoids getting killed by dumb luck.

But while the story is mighty thin, it's the art that really lets this one down. Don't get me wrong, Paolo Rivera is a good artist - his style is just wrong for Spider-Man. His art has a nice, realistic feel to it, and his work would be great with a realistic comic. This isn't that comic. He gives the story a "real world" look - but the final product reminds me of the old Spider-Man TV show, where Peter's costume never seems to fit properly.

Luckily The Punisher wears his costume in the comic, because otherwise you'd never know it was him - the face looks entirely different, as Frank's angular features are replaced by a pudgy, rubber-faced guy with thinning hair and a heavy five o'clock shadow. At least his hair is black.

The story isn't helped by inserting an unrelated episode in the middle of the comic that ties in to the interminable "Spider Tracer Killer" story. Wouldn't that have fit better at the end of the comic?

So this issue is basically a mess and worth avoiding. Again, I'm all for an occasional experiment - but sometimes it's back to the ol' drawing board.

Grade: C-

Thursday, November 13, 2008

JSA Kingdom Come Special: Superman #1 (One Shot)

Alex Ross has long been recognized as one of the premiere painters in comics, having established his credentials more than a decade ago on books like Marvels and Kingdom Come.

He's been revisiting his version of Superman from the latter series in the latest storyline in the Justice Society of America comic, and has provided covers as well as a plot assist and some other art for the series, too.

That storyline is finally nearing its end, and this "One Shot" gives us some more insight into the Kingdom Come version of Superman and how he arrived on the JSA's Earth. It also explains why he maintains that his own world was destroyed.

Bearing one of the longest titles of any comic this year, Justice Society of America Kingdom Come Special: Superman shows that Ross is also an excellent pencil and ink artist, and a solid storyteller - though like many artists, he seems to do his best writing when he's covering his own art.

Here he gives us a look inside the tragic story of the KC Superman and how the dark events he's witnessed threaten to overwhelm him.

It's some nice work by Ross, although it doesn't really stand alone - it leads into other Special issues that will (presumably) wrap up both this and the Gog storyline.

Still, it's a rare treat to see Alex Ross handling all the interiors of a comic, and this is apparently the first comic he's pencilled and written on his own. The comic also includes a lot of Bonus Material, as Ross describes his process in creating the comic.

This is more of a sidebar to the original Kingdom Come story, rather than a sequel, but any fan of the original story will find this a touching addition.

Grade: A

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Hey Kids, Comics!

Today's I picked up:

- Action Comics #871 - The "New Krypton" story continues, with some interesting twists along the way.

- Black Terror #1 - While I gave up on the Project: Superpowers comic, I've always liked the Black Terror, so I figured, what the heck.

- Booster Gold #14 - Still giving the new team a chance - so far, it's been ok.

- Fantastic Four: True Story #4 (of 4) - The wrap-up to this odd little mini-series.

- Ghostbusters: The Other Side #2 - The first issue was just "eh." Let's hope this one kicks it up a notch.

- Green Lantern Corps #30 - An excellent sidekick to the main title.

- Kingdom Come Special: Superman #1 (One Shot) - Alex Ross writes and draws this story, which ties directly into the original "Kingdom Come" story.

- Lost & Found #1 (One Shot) - I posted an early review of this comic here.

- Amazing Spider-Man #577 - Apparently this comic features the Punisher, but you'd never know it to look at him - the character as drawn looks nothing like Frank Castle.

- Trinity #24
- Almost halfway there.

I also picked up, on the recommendation of a reader, last week's:

- Storming Paradise #4 - Can't go wrong with Chuck Dixon and Butch Guice. I picked this up on the recommendation of the reader who goes by the name Krod. How have I missed this comic? As they say, I'm efforting the back issues.

Also, a preview of Marvel's upcoming adaptation of The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, which looks like a lot of fun.

Terra #1 (of 4)

I should probably admit (if I haven't already) that when it comes to comic books, I'm a story man.

Which is to say, in most cases I am more a fan of the writer than the artist. For example, I'll follow Alan Moore on any comic. If he was writing Millie the Model, I'd buy it. Geoff Johns is in the same category, and so is Brian Bendis. And Stan Lee, of course. There are others, but you get the idea.

There are certain artists I will follow with the same devotion (I'll save that list for another time), but one of the newest members of the list is Amanda Conner.

I'm hard-pressed to explain why I like her work so much - it's not terribly flashy or unique, and her page layouts aren't unusual - but her work has that special spark, a sense of fun and energy that shows up only with certain artists. She's great at capturing expressive faces, and her characters are attractive and engaging.

I always enjoy her work, so I try to pick up everything she draws - including this mini-series about the character named Terra. (No offense intended to the writers of the comic - Justin Gray and Jimmy Palmiotti - who do solid work here.)

I have to admit that I don't know much about this character. The original Terra was a character in the Marv Wolfman / George Perez New Teen Titans series - a classic story that did not end well for that young woman (but it was an excellent story - I'm trying not to spoil it for anyone out there who hasn't read it).

In a story I'm not familiar with, another Terra took the name for a while - and now a third Terra is on the scene, and this one I only know from an appearance in a recent issue of Supergirl, also drawn by Conner.

Now Terra is back in her own mini-series, and by the end of the issue we still don't know much about her, except that she's sort of a protector of the creatures that live underground - and apparently there are lots of different creatures down there.

It's too early to tell where this is going, but it's off to an interesting start. And I love the art!

Grade: B

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

The Invincible Iron Man #7

The super-hero team-up has been around so long that it's something of a cliche.

DC had the first team-ups, probably beginning with the first appearance of the Justice Society of America (there may have been earlier team-ups - but they're all before my time anyway).

It was at Marvel during the Silver Age that the team-up reached its peak. The running joke at Marvel was: two heroes meet, fight because of a misunderstanding, agree to team up and then take out the bad guy.

It was such a successful formula, the company eventually created titles such as Marvel Team-Up and Marvel Two-In-One to get the maximum mileage out of the idea. (Again, DC was way ahead of Marvel with titles like The Brave and the Bold and World's Finest - but we're talking Marvel in this entry.)

It's a tradition that continues (to varying degrees of success) to this very day. The latest example is the new issue of The Invincible Iron Man, wherein Tony Stark teams up with Spider-Man (thus bringing together the stars of Marvel's most successful movies).

It's an interesting mix of serious fare, as Tony tries to deal with the widespread damage inflicted on Stark Industries, and light-hearted romp, as Spider-Man teams up with Iron Man despite Tony's repeated efforts to run off the web-spinner.

Writer Matt Fraction puts together a solid story here, mixing just enough of each character and giving the book a humorous slant to counter some of the more serious undertones. It's a nice break from the serious stories that have been running in Iron Man's comic up to now.

The art by Salvador Larroca is very good, with strong figures and excellent color work by Frank D'Armata. A couple of panels are a little hard to follow, but that's a minor quibble - most of the book is outstanding.

The story doesn't really address Peter Parker's "lost years" - they were altered / retconned by the hated "One Day More" storyline - but apparently Peter did work for Tony for a while, although we don't know why they went their separate ways.

Still, the story is fun, with a poignant twist along the way. As team-ups go, it's a good one, even if they forgot to include a big fight between Iron Man and Spider-Man.

Grade: B+

Monday, November 10, 2008

Justice Society of America #20

DC Comics created the Crisis on Infinite Earths maxi-series in the 1980s to try to simplify its continuity, and it largely succeeded - but a handful of characters were problematic. Their histories conflicted with the new DC Universe, and no matter what contortions the writers used, the problems couldn't be eliminated completely.

Wonder Girl and the Huntress are good examples, but the character with the biggest continuity hangover had to be Power Girl. She was originally created to be the Supergirl of Earth-2, but a somewhat more hard-edged version. She was bigger, brassier, bolder and, let's face it, bustier than the original Supergirl, in large part thanks to the artist who drew her first adventures - Wally Wood, who specialized in (shall we say) healthy and robust females.

But when Earth-2 was eliminated, the writers couldn't bear to give up Power Girl (though one should note that they had no trouble killing Supergirl in Crisis). They tried cooking up alternate origins for her, attributing her powers to the magician Arion, along with another explanation or two that I've frankly (and perhaps mercifully) forgotten.

Writer Geoff Johns finally cleared up the mystery by explaining that Power Girl really was the Supergirl from Earth-2, and is the only survivor of that former reality.

Or is it a former reality? Now a member of the Justice Society of America, Power Girl found herself transported to an apparently-still-in-existence Earth-2 by the incredibly powerful Gog. As the story unfolded in the recent JSA Annual, she tried to go back to her old life there, but soon found that there was already a Power Girl on that planet, and her old friends turned on her.

If that story had been wrapped up in that annual, all would be well. But instead, it spilled over into this issue, disrupting the ongoing story of Gog. It's one of those rare issues where Johns stumbles a bit, as Power Girl returns to our world, with the Earth-2 heroes in pursuit. They meet our JSA, they all fight, they talk, they fight some more... well, you get the picture.

Unfortunately, the story doesn't really do much to clear up the confusion, although it does help set up the next confrontation with Gog. Even the art is kind of schizophrenic, with the chores being split between Dale Eaglesham, who handles the "real" JSA, and Jerry Ordway, who handles the Earth-2 characters. It's kind of an uneven mix, though it's always nice to see the criminally-underused Ordway back in action.

The JSA is one of my favorite titles from DC right now, and I'm really looking forward to the resolution of the Gog / Kingdom Come Superman story - but this just seemed like an unnecessary side trip along the way.

Grade: C+

Sunday, November 9, 2008

Kull #1

Kull has never been as popular as his literary brother Conan, but that's not because his stories are lacking. (Both characters were created by Robert E. Howard, of course.)

Because Conan is better known, Kull just seems to trail along behind him, picking up the scraps. When Marvel's Conan the Barbarian became a hit in the mid-'70s, Kull's own title wasn't far behind. When Conan hit gold with the black-and-white magazine The Savage Sword of Conan, Kull's magazine wasn't far behind (though the title didn't last long). Now Conan is a hit for Dark Horse Comics, so in his wake we have Solomon Kane, and now Kull.

Where most of Conan's stories center on his days as a barbarian, wandering through the kingdoms of the Hyborian Age, Kull lived long before Conan, and his stories focus on his career as the King of Valusia.

Kull's best stories are those that combine raw battle scenes with political intrigue and drama in the king's court - and this first issue balances the two very well.

It kicks things off with a great battle scene in which Kull gives a terrific quote (which I won't spoil for you here), framed by the struggle to bring the nobles into line supporting him as king.

Writer Arvid Nelson impresses with this story, aided by some strong artwork by Will Conrad. The Joe Kubert cover is awesome, as well.

Kull may not be as popular as Conan, but when it comes to barbarians, he's definitely running a strong second - and it's a comic that's well worth following.

Grade: B+

Saturday, November 8, 2008

The Sandman: The Dream Hunters #1

Though I've been collecting comics for quite some time, I have to admit that I was a little late picking up on Neil Gaiman's Sandman series from DC Comics.

It is a sad truth that most of us can't buy everything, and that was even true some 20 years ago, when everything was so much cheaper.

I had heard in passing about Sandman, but visions of the (then) recent Simon and Kirby creation leapt to mind, and I decided to pass.

At the time, I was getting all my comics by mail from Westfield Comics, a service I recommend highly. In one shipment, about 19 years ago, I received something shocking - a free comic! As I recall, DC was trying to promote the Sandman book and gave away copies of issue #8 to Westfield customers.

It featured the first appearance of Sandman's sister, Death, and I was hooked. I avidly followed the book for the next 10 years (or however long it ran), and was very sad when the final issue arrived.

About 10 years ago Gaiman wrote a prose story about Sandman (whose proper name is Dream), with illustrations by Yoshitaka Amano - and now that same story has been re-imagined as a mini-series, with art provided by the incredibly talented P. Craig Russell.

It's great to see this character return, and a delight to see Russell's delicate, beautiful art bringing the story to life.

The story centers around a fable. A fox and a badger decide to try to drive a young monk away from his temple, so they make a wager about which one of them can accomplish the task. But even as they try to oust the holy man, the tale takes an unexpected and heartfelt turn.

This is just a pure delight to read, and the comic lives up to the warm memory of the original title. Gaiman and Russell haven't lost a step (of course, Gaiman wrote this 10 years ago, so perhaps he's cheating a bit). We can only wish the Sandman could show up more often than once a decade.

At any rate, don't make the same mistake I did when the title first began. Pick up The Sandman: The Dream Hunters while you can.

Grade: A-

Friday, November 7, 2008

Ultimatum #1 (of 5)

In the past, a comic book was important because of the events included - they might be big (the destruction of the Earth), they might be small (a story that focuses on emotion or a key event), or anywhere in between.

But a new definition for a big story has arrived - it has to include death. Preferably lots and lots of dead people.

If that's the yardstick, then Ultimatum is indeed a big story. Set in the Ultimate universe, it starts out as a nice "day in the life" of the Fantastic Four, the Ultimates, Spider-Man, the Hulk and the X-Men.

But things quickly go south, as a natural disaster of unnatural proportions hits New York City, and it's one that leaves most of the city's heroes helpless. It also leaves behind - according to the script - millions of people dead.

Yes, it's all for dramatic effect, and yes, it's all setup for the final battle between the good guys and the ultimate evildoer.

It's tough to write about the book without giving anything away, but it's good to see the focus on the main characters. They are shaken by the disaster, too, and that makes them much more human.

I don't care for the widespread death and destruction - those are the kinds of things that heroes are supposed to prevent. Of course, this comic is all setup - future issues will pit the heroes again the super-villain behind the death and destruction. But death has become such a cheap commodity in comics today - it's just an easy way to generate interest.

There's nothing wrong with the art - penciller David Finch and inker Danny Miki do a great job bringing these assorted heroes to life, and they give an interesting look to the Ultimate universe - it's dark and moody, but filled with action and heroism. The drawing of Spider-Man on page 11 should be a poster somewhere.

It's difficult to judge this comic, given that it's cut short just as the story gets rolling, but it promises to be an unpredictable series, and the final shot certainly prompts several questions. But the answers will have to wait for future issues.

Grade: B+

Thursday, November 6, 2008

Comic Book Day Finally Arrives!

A day late, comic book day finally arrived for ol' Chuck - so here's what I picked up:

- Adventure Comics Special #1 - Which continues the excellent "New Krypton" story.

- Anita Blake: The Laughing Corpse #2 (of 5) - I picked up the first one, so I figured I should see it to the end.

- Grant Morrison's Doctor Who #2 - Enjoyed the first issue, and this looks like more of the same.

- The Invincible Iron Man #7 - This has also been good, and this issue guest stars Spider-Man. Which should be interesting, since they're not exactly pals over in The Avengers.

- Iron Man: The End #1 (One Shot) - Michelinie and Layton back on task - should be good!

- Justice Society of America #20 - Earth-1 and Earth-2 heroes duke it out! Say what?

- Kull #1 - More Robert E. Howard goodness!

- Sandman: The Dream Hunters #1 - Neil Gaiman and Craig Russell together again!

- Amazing Spider-Man #576 - Since when is Hammerhead a serious threat?

- Terra #1 (of 4) - Worth it just for Amanda Conner's art.

- Top 10: Season Two #2 - Loved the first issue, hoping for more of the same here.

- Trinity #23 - Almost to the halfway point.

- Ultimatum #1 (of 5) - The end is near! And whose hammer is that on the last page?

That's it for today!

Lost and Found #1 (One Shot)

(Lost and Found will be available later this month at a comic shop near you. This is an Early Review.)

So what happens when you smush together helicopters, dinosaurs, psychotic Germans, swordplay, machine guns, cavemen, vikings, Civil War-era soldiers, submarines, samurai, and a pirate ship and drop it all on the same time-crossed island?

You get Lost and Found, a wild story that combines the best of DC's Island That Time Forgot stories, some of Arthur Conan Doyle's Lost World, a touch of Jurassic Park, a sprinkle of Predator and a whole lot of action and adventure.

The story explains away all the mysterious disappearances around the world over the centuries - apparently an ancient experiment opened a doorway to a mysterious island, and people are drawn into it randomly. Those who survived the trip have banded into two factions, and they fight over the scraps of every new arrival.

The story begins at top speed, as pilot Molly Travis lands her AH-Apache helicopter on the island and finds herself in the middle of a huge battle. Things get more complicated when the bad guys manage to steal the chopper's cargo - a scientist and an atomic bomb.

Writer Beau Smith is the master of these kind of bare-knuckled, hard-nosed, guns-blazing, non-stop action tales, and he serves one up that captures the mood and breakneck pace of an Edgar Rice Burroughs story.

And it's great to see Gary Kwapisz handling the art chores here. He's a vastly underrated artist who did excellent work on The Savage Sword of Conan years back, and he's one of those rare artist who can draw darn near everything and do it extremely well. And this is a story that would tax any artist, since it includes such a wide variety of characters, creatures, violence, romance - you name it! He draws sexy women, manly men, and menacing dinosaurs. Hopefully we'll see lots more work from him in the future.

The operative word for this book is "Fun." It's not deep, it's not confusing - it's just straightforward, action-packed and a heck of a blast to read.

The real mystery is: why aren't there more comics like this? It's a badly-needed shot of testosterone for the anemic world of comics.

Grade: A-

Wednesday, November 5, 2008

Why Thursday Is Comic Book Day (This Week Only)

I walked into my comic book shop today to receive the horrifying news that the Wednesday shipment was delayed for a day, so this week, Thursday is comic book day!

At that point, I think I blacked out for a minute. How can I write this column with no new comics to draw on?

Then I remembered I had received an advance copy of a new comic coming out this month - so I'll post an "early review" of Lost & Found! The things I do for you, loyal readers!

And hopefully I'll have better news tomorrow when I walk in my comics shop.

The Incredible Hercules #122

Good grief, there's an election going on! Do I have to write a review now? (The deadline is here - get typing already! - Ed.)

(Sigh) OK, OK... let's make it quick!

So, The Incredible Hercules has been handed the keys to Hulk's original comic while the green-skinned guy drives around in a shiny new Hulk comic.

A terrible idea, I thought, because Hercules has never really been interesting enough to warrant having his own comic. Oh, he's been in a couple of fun mini-series by Bob Layton, and he's done some good guest star work in Thor and The Avengers, but could the character really manage a solo comic?

Amazingly, the answer is "Yes."

That's largely because of some high-spirited, funny and smart writing by Greg Pak and Fred Von Lente, who are clever enough to build an interesting cast of supporting characters around the not-always-bright Hercules. The cast includes Amadeus Cho, an amazingly smart young man, Namor the Sub-Mariner, and Namora, on vacation from the Agents of Atlas.

Throw in some murderous Amazons and you get a surprisingly fun, fast-moving story, with a little sexual tension on the side. (Will Amadeus get lucky? Don't count on it.)

The art by Clayton Henry and Salva Espin is very good, with strong action sequences and some really expressive faces - I love Hercules' approving grin on page 12, for example.

If someone had told me that I'd look forward to a comic starring Hercules each month, I'd never have believed it - until now.

Grade: B

Tuesday, November 4, 2008

Justice League of America #26

I've never been a big fan of Alternate Reality stories, for the simple reason that they're really not much more the Imaginary Stories.

In other words, they don't really change anything, because when reality is restored, everything is back to normal. The only Alternate Reality story I can remember that had lasting consequences is Marvel's House of M, which took away the powers of most of the mutants - but even that is slowly being overturned, as more mutants pop up every month.

And it's such a well-worn story idea that there's precious little in the way of new ideas to be found in there.

So it is with some trepidation that I approach the new issue of the Justice League of America. The cover isn't encouraging, with doubles of every JLA member except for Vixen, and that's because it's her story. Laughably, an editor has placed the phrase "Not an Elseworlds!" above the title. Hey, if it looks like an Elseworlds, smells like an Elseworlds and walks like an Elseworlds, odds are, it's an Elseworlds.

But whatever you call it, the story focuses on Vixen's attempts to undo the changes caused by the wicked god Anansi. She teams up with the alternate JLA, who are happy to help, which is rather surprising since they know going in that their realities will change. Not many people would buy into that.

The art by Ed Benes, as always, is quite good, though he lets his cheesecake instincts get the best of him sometimes. I'm not really complaining - just making an observation. The double-page splash on pages 19 and 20 is a good example - he gets maximum mileage out of Wonder Woman there.

At any rate, the story's a bit thin, and the resolution teeters on the brink of being silly - but it's good to see the resolution of the long-running storyline with Vixen's mixed-up powers.

But I can't help but hope that future stories will stick to the "real" world. Oh, you know what I mean.

Grade: B-

Monday, November 3, 2008

Ultimate Captain America Annual #1

We're awash in a sea of Ultimate Annuals, presumably in an effort to clear the decks for the upcoming Ultimatum Mega-Event that will change everything. (Sure it will!)

The Ultimate universe has become such a mixed bag that you definitely get the impression that it's hanging by a thread. In fact, I really think the Ultimate Spider-Man series is the only thing that keeps it going.

Familiar characters take a different form in the Ultimate line of comics, of course. Spider-Man is still a teenager in high school, the Fantastic Four are young adults and work for the government, the Ultimates are a brutal and unlikeable bunch.

Captain America, like his counterpart in the Marvel Universe, was awakened from suspended animation into the modern world. But there's a difference in their personalities - the original Steve Rogers is a patriot, super-hero and a heck of a nice guy. The Ultimate Captain America is a solider first, tough and unforgiving. He's also cold, callous and, basically, a jerk.

This annual doesn't do much to expand on his character - it's mostly about the Black Panther and his origins, and the story is a real step down from the much more interesting original version of that African hero.

The basic difference is that the original T'Challa is intelligent, resourceful, regal, and in control of his destiny, guiding his kingdom, Wakanda, into the forefront of civilization. This new version of T'Challa is a victim who's injured and forced to endure experiments to save his life. He's also apparently being used as a pawn by Fury, though we're not sure why.

This issue, written by Jeph Loeb, is thin stuff indeed, and you don't even get a full story for your $3.99 - it's all setup for a future story.

You do get some nice art, included 11 painted pages by Marko Djurdjevic and some nice pencilling by Rafa Sandoval and inks by Roger Bonet that fill out the issue. There's also an excellent cover by (I think) Brandon Peterson.

But I can't recommend this comic - it just rambles around, shows a few fight sequences and otherwise, it doesn't really say or do much of anything. It's an Ultimate comic, all right.

Grade: C

Sunday, November 2, 2008

Superman #681

The "New Krypton" story is one that's loaded with significance for fans of nostalgia.

It brings Kandor, the bottled city, back into Superman's continuity (although it wasn't bottled for long).

In its original appearance in the 1950s, '60s and '70s, Superman wasn't able to restore Kandor to its normal size, so he kept the city in his Fortress of Solitude while he tried to discover a cure.

Finally, in 1979, he actually solved the problem and restored Kandor to normal size - but he did it on another world, so the Kryptonians could start a new life. All this was done away with after the first Crisis on Infinite Earths.

In the storyline unfolding now, Superman rescued Kandor from Brainiac's ship and placed it next to his Fortress, and now he has about 100,000 Kryptonians for neighbors. The story of their experiences on our world is unspooling in upcoming issues of Superman, Action Comics and a number of special issues, including next week's Adventure Comics Special.

Another nice touch is the return of the numbering system in the small Superman diamond on the cover - a throwback to the time some years back when each month's story wound through each Superman title, rather than each title having its own separate stories.

Writer James Robinson is doing an excellent job of building the tension here. In the wake of a devastating attack by the Phantom Zone criminals, how will the people of Earth react to a city full of super-powered aliens? And if the tension isn't enough, wait 'til you see the last page of this issue!

I haven't been a huge fan of Renato Guedes' pencilling so far, but it's starting to grow on me. There's a nice variety to the layouts, and my only quibble is the repeat of panels two and three on page 12 for no apparent reason.

The story continues to show lots of promise, and though it's been light on action so far, the next chapter promises to correct that oversight.

It's such a treat to have a Superman story I actually look forward to. Now there's a tingle of nostalgia I didn't expect!

Grade: B+

Saturday, November 1, 2008

Hellboy: In The Chapel of Moloch (One Shot)

For a relatively "new" comic character, Hellboy has achieved amazing success.

In the 15 years (more or less) since his creation by writer / artist Mike Mignola, Hellboy has appeared in a number of one-shots and mini-series. He's been the subject of two major live-action films. He's appeared in two animated films.

Now, at last, he's back with Mignola writing and drawing again in a story titled Hellboy: In the Chapel of Moloch.

Once again, Mignola somehow combines several disparate sources and cooks up a cracking good yarn. He brings the mood and supernatural edge of an H.P. Lovecraft story, mixes in some art influences (Goya is at the heart of the matter), and throws in a Jack Kirby riff with the characterization of Hellboy, the demon who's always ready with a wisecrack and never fazed by the horrific shapes of evil he must face.

With great skill, he brings that all together and creates a terrific story. Of course, his outstanding art is part of the equation - capturing the mood, the setting, the tension and the pure energy of the inevitable confrontation - this is Mignola at his best.

Any Hellboy comic is worth buying, but when Mignola is in charge, then you have a comic that is not to be missed.

Grade: A-