Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Today's Comic Score

Today at the comics shop I got:

- Astro City: The Dark Age: Book Four #3 (of 4) - As much as I like this comic, I have to admit that I'm anxious to get this story wrapped up so we can move on to something else.

- Blackest Night #8 (of 8) - The end at last! Who will live and who will stay dead?

- Cloak and Dagger #1 (One-shot) - An impulse buy.

- Fantastic Four #577 - This has been exploring some big issues, which has been fun.

- God of War #1 - I'm a big fan of the game, so let's see how the comic does.

- Justice League of America #43 - Are those the New Gods? Nah.

- Justice Society of America #37 - Not the Nazis!

- The Amazing Spider-Man #627 - The first issue of this comic I've picked up in a while - but I couldn't pass up a Roger Stern story.

And that's it!

The Classics - Marvel Two-In-One #50

John Byrne first came to the attention of comics fans through fanzine illustrations, and then his work started appearing in Charlton Comics, including Space: 1999 and backup stories in E-Man.

He soon made the leap to Marvel, where he did excellent work drawing Iron Fist - and eventually he gained a reputation as one of the industry's top artists through his imaginative work on the New X-Men.

Then he did something really shocking. In 1981 he left the X-Men and started writing and drawing the Fantastic Four, becoming one of the (then) rare breed of writer/artists.

You never know what to expect when someone not known for their writing suddenly takes over the writing duties. I suspect many fans were shocked at how good Byrne's writing was. He led the FF into a resurgence of popularity the book hadn't seen since the days of Lee and Kirby.

But he had to prove to the editors that he could handle the assignment, so he tackled the 50th issue of Marvel Two-In-One, which was devoted to team-up stories featuring the Thing and other Marvel characters. This issue, cover dated April 1979, was (if I recall correctly) sort of a try-out for Byrne taking over both writing and drawing assignments (he had drawn the FF before, working with other writers).

He was more than ably assisted here by the legendary Joe Sinnott on inks. The art captured that classic Kirby feel without being a copy of Kirby's style.

The story is an entertaining done-in-one issue that features Reed Richards trying to find a cure for The Thing's rocky condition. The search leads the modern-day Thing to travel into the past for a fateful encounter with the original Thing - the craggy character as he appeared in the first issue of the FF.

It's a fun story that runs with the classic Marvel twist - two heroes meet, have a misunderstanding, and fight. But there's much more going on here, and Byrne lays out some surprising rules for time travel in the Marvel Universe.

It's a short tale, told with intelligence, lots of action and humor.

It was a good omen for the great stories ahead for the team of Byrne and Byrne.

Grade: A

Tuesday, March 30, 2010

The Guild #1

In case you've missed it, The Guild is based on a web show (video? movie?) created by Felicia Day. It's about a young woman who gets hooked on an M.M.O.R.P.G. (think World of Warcraft), and how her experiences there relate to her (sometimes strange) friends in the real world.

It's a funny show and worth tracking down. Felicia is probably best known for her role in Dr. Horrible's Sing-Along Blog, and now she's expanded her range into writing a comic book.

The comic is actually a prequel, taking place before the first episode of the web show. Here we see how Cyd (who looks remarkably like Felicia) first gets involved in the world of online gaming, and we see the beginning of her new alliance.

At the same time, we see her less-than-stellar existence in the real world, as she struggles with her career as a musician, a jerk for a boyfriend and assorted other insecurities.

The story rolls out with lots of humor and heart, and while it may not be for everyone, I enjoyed it. The writing is clever and it conveys a realistic sense about it, with sympathetic characters, jerks and everything in between.

The artwork by Jim Rugg offers an interesting style, with the real-world events being a bit plain and flat, while the on-line adventures are more lush and vibrant. The art is attractive and the likeness of Felicia pretty good without being too glamorous.

I should also mention that this isn't a comic for kids. There's some computer game-type violence, and it also makes reference to some real-world nastiness (such as Cyd's possible reaction to medication) that might be a bit rough for young readers.

But anyone who's been hooked on video games - or in a bad relationship - will be able to relate.

Grade: B+

Monday, March 29, 2010

Robert Jordan's The Wheel of Time: The Eye of the World #1

Right up front let me admit that I haven't read any of Robert Jordan's Wheel of Time books.

I have friends who are big fans, and perhaps I'll get around to reading the books one of these days - but first, I thought I'd give this comic adaptation a try.

I definitely had the feel of jumping into the deep end of the pool, as I struggled to sort out all the characters and the mythology behind the series.

The story introduces us to several young people growing up in a rural community, giving us some clues about the structure of their society along the way. On the other end of the scale, it recaps some of the World-shaking confrontations between good and evil that have shaped this reality.

As you'd expect from a first issue, most of the story goes to introductions and setting the stage. Luckily, scripter Chuck Dixon is a master at this kind of clear, professional storytelling, and he keeps it all moving along and making sense.

The art is by Chase Conley, and he faces the challenging task of creating the look for a large number of characters who must be easily identified without the usual garish superhero costumes. He does good work here, and gives a clean, dramatic look to the story.

This is definitely a must for fans of Robert Jordan's work. Those who aren't familiar with his work (like your truly) will struggle to keep up - but it's worth the fight.

Grade: B+

Sunday, March 28, 2010

Mighty Avengers #35

As Siege nears its conclusion so does the line of Avengers comics, including the Mighty Avengers.

Apparently the team is ahead of the curve, as it has already (apparently) disbanded in the wake of the fate of Hercules at the end of the "Assault on New Olympus" storyline.

This issue finds Hank Pym (I still refuse to call him The Wasp) working in his lab when an old familiar foe attacks - Ultron, who has enslaved a staggering number of Jocasta replicas and has taken control of the Infinite Avengers mansion, Pym's other-dimensional, Tardis-like headquarters for his former team.

It gives Pym an impossible foe to overcome, and sets up the reveal of a secret that promises to make the next issue a must-buy (for reasons that can't be revealed here, of course).

Dan Slott continues to provide a solid story with lots of interesting twists along the way. Khoi Pham and Craig Yeung provide the art, and it's quite good with some outstanding splash panels on display.

There's only one more issue to go in this series, which has run hot and cold over the three-plus years it has been around.

It looks like it's ending on a strong note.

Grade: B+

Saturday, March 27, 2010

Thor #608

The title of this comic may be Thor, but like the last issue, it has precious little actual Thor included.

There's a two-page spread that recaps part of the Thunder God's fight with the Sentry from Siege #3, but he never says a word and you don't see anything you didn't see in the mini-series.

Instead, this issue is given over to the battle for Asgard, which the Norse Gods seem to be losing - and I continue to maintain that the idea that the gods could be so easily beaten is absolute crap.

Asgard is an other-dimensional nation, filled with thousands (or millions) of powerful characters (even the children are incredibly strong) and incredible weapons, as more than one Lee and Kirby issue of The Mighty Thor demonstrated.

But here they're portrayed as though they were just a bunch of guys wielding swords - no match for the super-powered army of villains attacking them.

I know, we're just seeing a small part of the battle - and maybe that's the problem. Other than a splash page or two, there's no sense of the epic nature of the conflict in this issue.

The other focus in this issue is Volstagg's battle with the Thor clone (he calls himself Ragnarok, presumably because he doesn't like "Clor"). It's good to see Volstagg treated with some respect (given his usual role as a buffoon), but it's also hard to believe that he can stand up to a creature with the power of Thor.

So what I'm saying is that this issue is kind of a mess. Writer Kieron Gillen seems to be stalling for time until he can spell out the final fate of the Asgardians, and the art is split between the styles of Billy Tann & Batt and Rich Elson. They're all good artists, but their styles don't really mesh well up against each other.

I'm enjoying the main Siege book, but I can't say much for the splinter books like this. It's not bad - it's just not particularly good, either. Maybe if we saw more of the title character...

Grade: C+

Friday, March 26, 2010

Uncanny X-Men #522

As much as I enjoyed Joss Whedon and John Cassaday's run on The Astonishing X-Men, I have to admit that the ending to that series was sad, and felt like one of those things that they would eventually get around to "fixing."

With this issue of Uncanny X-Men, let the repair begin!

Written by Matt Fraction with art by Whilce Portacio, this issue should be a celebration of the return of a beloved character - but instead it all feels very staid and quiet.

That's because, like to cover of this issue, everyone spends their time just standing around watching events unfold. It's all very calm and anti-climatic - the opposite of the story it wraps up, which was loaded with energy and emotional impact.

I think the creative team (with its ever-changing art team) still doesn't have a handle on the X-Men - or perhaps it's still in the process of readjusting the team into the lineup it wants.

Whatever the case, I'm just not generating any real interest in what goes on here - and that's surprising, considering the events in this issue should have been a real delight for me. I'm just not getting the sense in this comic of purpose, of family, of a team.

I've been a fan of the X-Men since the team's third issue - but these adventures are leaving me cold. I'd like to see some stories with the team working together, being proactive, visiting exotic locales. Anything!

Just no more issues with everyone standing around. Please.

Grade: C+

Thursday, March 25, 2010

Green Lantern #52

Since the Blackest Night mini-series began, Green Lantern is the one comic that has been tightly tied in with the story - and here you have a comic that should have been titled Blackest Night #7.5.

It focuses on the battle raging on two fronts - one with the White Lantern, Sinestro, who gets a quick history lesson about the true origins of the colorful emotion powerhouses that form the foundation of the Lantern Corps.

The other front is happening in orbit, as the biggest Black Lantern of them all - a planet - is threatening destruction, and a team of Lanterns must stop it.

The story is provided by the architect of the Blackest Night series, Geoff Johns, and even though there's a lot going on here, only the origin story is of real interest. Everything else is just marking time to the end of the story, which leads us into the final issue of Blackest Night with nothing really different from the end of Blackest Night #7.

The art by Doug Mahnke (and numerous inkers) is outstanding as always, with some powerful depictions of Earth-shaking events. He does herculean work here, depicting a pile of characters and big events on virtually every page.

To be fair, there are a few panels where it's difficult to follow what's going on. For example, I'm not sure what the Lanterns are doing in that final double-page spread. But it does look impressive.

Still, this moves us toward the final resolution of this storyline, and it's one I'm looking forward to. Gonna be a heckuva clean-up party after this is all over.

Grade: A-

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Today's Comic Haul

Here's what I picked up today:

- New Avengers #63 - The heart of the Siege, and Luke Cage tackles fatherhood.

- Mighty Avengers #35 - Picked up for Ultron and the twist ending.

- Captain America #604 - Still fighting fake Cap and some home-grown terrorists.

- Green Lantern #52 - The secret origin of the Lanterns.

- The Guild #1 - Sue me, I think Felicia Day is cute.

- The Marvels Project #7 (of 8) - This has been very good so far.

- Power Girl #10 - Sue me, I think Power Girl is sexy.

- Secret Warriors #14
- Sue me, I think the Contessa is hot.

- Thor #608
- As for Thor... he has great hair.

- Robert Jordan's Wheel of Time #1 - A friend raves about these books, which I haven't read. Picked this up on a whim.

- Uncanny X-Men #522 - Something's going to happen. Something wonderful. (Please don't sue me.)

The Classics - The Mighty Thor #188

We live in a Golden Age of comic reprints - but there's actually a drawback to that situation.

When you read comics in a collection, you're missing out on a key element in the equation - namely, the month-long wait between issues! (These days, the wait is often more than a month.)

It's the delight of the cliffhanger. When I was growing up, my Dad told me stories about going to the movies when he was a boy and seeing the adventure reels, which would end with the hero facing certain death. The next Saturday, the next installment would arrive, in which the hero would somehow escape destruction.

Comic books - especially Marvel's Silver Age output - made use of the same technique, using continued stories to keep the fans hanging on, anxious to see that next chapter.

I could probably find a hundred comics from the '60s and '70s that had me in agony, waiting for that final chapter - but this is the comic that came to mind.

With a cover date of May 1971, this is the final chapter in the saga of Infinity, a mysterious being that threatened the universe. Manifesting as a pair of mystic, galaxy-sized hands, the entity was making its way toward Earth and Asgard, destroying everything in its path.

The Mighty Thor is unable to stop the advance of the being, and Odin is the galaxy's last hope. But even the All-Father falls before the power of Infinity, and the universe seems doomed.


And that's where the previous issues left us, and we had to wait an agonizing 30 days for the final chapter.

I well remember the delight of seeing this issue in the spinner rack at my local newsstand! I bought it, ran out to the car and read it immediately.

Now, I'm not going to tell you that it was the most amazing wrap-up in the history of comics. In fact, the story ends up being kind of flimsy, and the resolution is way too pat.

But... I still loved it. The scripting by Stan Lee makes every page crackle with excitement, and the artwork by John Buscema and Jim Mooney is simply amazing. Buscema is one of the best pure artists in the history of comics, and his work is loaded with energy, great character designs and dynamic layouts.

Now, if you're reading this in a collection, there's no wait involved - you just crash from one story to the next instantly, and I think that actually takes away from the joy of the story. It was meant to be read from month to month, not moment to moment.

When I read a collection, I don't have the willpower to read a single issue and set it down for a month, but I do try to read several collections at once, reading one story at a time and alternating between books.

It's not the same as the classic torment - but it helps bring back a sense of the original intent.

Grade: A-

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Jughead #200

I can relate to Jughead. (That's kind of sad when you say it out loud like that, isn't it?)

Thinking back to the long-ago days when I was in high school, I must admit that I was more like him than either Archie or Reggie (the other two male members of The Archies).

I certainly wasn't popular with the girls (in fact, I was terribly shy around 'em), so I couldn't be Archie - though my hair was red at the time. I wasn't a jerk (at least I don't think I was), so no to Reggie.

But I was skinny and I could eat all day thanks to my highly-charged metabolism - so that puts me in Jughead territory. (Sadly, both attributes abandoned me long ago - but I did manage to land the right girl, so it was a good trade).

In this anniversary issue, Jughead makes a devilish deal and must face what happens when he gives up his most precious attribute. It's a lighthearted and fun story (if a bit silly), with quite a few laughs along the way - and the solution to the problem is quite clever.

Writer Tom Root and artists Rex Lindsey and Jim Amash turn in a solid story here, celebrating the best of Jughead and his friends.

It's been a long time since I was a skinny teenager, but luckily the Archie gang has no such worries - they're just as youthful as ever!

What can I say? The jealousy... it burns!

Grade: B+

Monday, March 22, 2010

Irredeemable #12

It's very difficult to sustain a comic book centered around a villain.

Writer Mark Waid has managed to keep interest up in Irredeemable with strong writing, and by basing the villain, The Plutonian (and many of the other characters involved) on familiar characters - most obviously Superman and his "family" of characters.

Waid has also managed to keep the reader guessing, wondering what triggered "Tony's" transformation into a mass murderer - and what he'll do next.

Even the good guys have their own mysteries to be revealed, and one about the delightfully-named Bette Noir is brought to light in this issue.

The art has also been quite good, and in this issue Peter Krause shares art duties with Diego Barreto. Both artists turn in strong work here, with some intense battle scenes alongside equally-tense emotional confrontations.

But I have to admit, despite the continued quality and craftmanship on display here, I can feel my interest starting to wane. I can only read so many stories about "Tony" being brutal and vicious before I start to lose interest - and frankly, most of the "heroes" are turning out to be not particularly admirable, either.

There are still mysteries to uncover, and characters to define - but it's hard to find a sympathetic character in here to hang with. Villains are fun because they do all the terrible things we'd never do in the real world (sort of the equivalent of playing "Grand Theft Auto") - but you can't exactly take their side, either.

As a friend once said, I prefer stories about heroes who actually act like heroes. Not much of that in evidence here.

Grade: B-

Sunday, March 21, 2010

The Incredible Hulk #608

I have to admit that it's a bit of a challenge to follow the story here since I'm not buying the rest of the Fall of the Hulks storyline.

Part of the reason it's a challenge is because there are so many characters to keep track of. There's an army of bad guys working with the Leader. There's an army of good guys working with Bruce Banner. There are additional characters who seem to be on no side at all (or they keep switching sides), like the Red Hulk, the She-Hulks and Doc Sampson. There are supporting characters, including an apparently-resurrected Betty Ross and Glenn Talbot.

As I understand it, the Leader is trying to capture the world's greatest minds, including Reed Richards and Dr. Doom - and he hopes to add Banner to the list. At the same time, the Leader is about to unleash a menace that will threaten the entire world.

So Banner decides to fight back, using his technological mastery and some powerful allies to bring the battle to the Leader. But the plot has many twists and turns, and the ending seems to show up out of nowhere.

Still, it's a fun issue, with loads of hoo-hah action sequences, some fun dialogue and lots of great art by Paul Pelletier. There's a lot going on here in Greg Pak's story, as he deals with all the assorted plot points that are flying around. But as always, he provides a script that is equal parts action and humor, and somehow makes sense of the hash that is this story.

This is definitely not a great place to jump on board - a new reader would be lost - but for longtime fans, there's a lot here to enjoy.

Grade: B+

Saturday, March 20, 2010

Green Lantern Corps #46

So last week I ran this review of the '90s version of Guy Gardner - a working class, "regular Joe" kind of hero.

Today, we see the modern version of Guy being highlighted in this issue of Green Lantern Corps, and today's version seems like a different character.

The modern Guy comes up with a reasonable plan to fight the invading army of undead Black Lanterns - he suggests the multi-colored Lanterns team up to form a "Tholian Web." (For you whippersnappers, it's a reference to an episode of the original Star Trek TV series wherein aliens trap the starship Enterprise in an energy web.)

I can buy that Guy would base a plan on an old TV show - but I don't believe for a minute that he can cite the season and episode number, as he does here. I'm a big Star Trek fan, too, but I can't cite episode numbers, and I don't believe for a minute that Guy can - it just feels out of character.

Then he's faced with the Black Lantern version of Ice, his girlfriend / lover / whatever she is now, and they do the usual dance there. (Wasn't she alive the last time we saw her?) By this point, it has become old hat - no one seems a bit surprised when long-dead Aunt Matilda shows up as a Black Lantern.

More offensive is the encounter with Kyle Rayner and his stuffed-into-a-refrigerator girlfriend Alex, in which we see several graphic depictions of how she met her death.

That's been the hallmark of Peter Tomasi's run on this book - extreme violence, lots of screaming and yelling - it's all pretty tiresome.

The art is quite good, though you suspect penciller Patrick Gleason will need a long vacation after the Blackest Night wraps, considering how many pages he's had to fill with assorted Lanterns, villains and energy blasts galore.

This comic is basically doing the grunt work for the Blackest Night and Green Lantern comics, and battle fatigue is definitely setting in. I'm looking forward to the wrapup on this storyline.

Grade: C+

Friday, March 19, 2010

Dark Avengers #15

I have to say, I'm glad this comic is about to end.

Like the previous 14 issues, this one features amazing artwork by Mike Deodato - detailed, powerful designs, incredible characters - and the action just explodes off the page.

Also like the previous issues, it focuses on vile characters and events, reaching new lows.

This story by Brian Bendis starts out by clearly showing the identity of the powerful entity Norman Osborn was using to keep the other members of the Cabal in line.

The rest of the issue is given over to a different view of recent events, as the Avengers Tower is evacuated because of an attack by Dr. Doom - and one of the Dark Avengers uses the distraction to commit a heinous act, which is depicted graphically and in gruesome detail.

Everything about this issue is truly repellent - except the art. This comic can't go away fast enough for me. But keep Deodato around - he's amazing.

Grade: D

Thursday, March 18, 2010

Siege #3 (of 4)

This is the point in this mini-series where we move beyond mere story and launch into that most beloved of Marvel traditions, the knock-down, drag-out, no-holds-barred, bare-knuckles brawl to end all brawls.

All the players have been assembled and moved into place - all that's left is a fight on a huge scale.

Writer Brian Bendis gets in a few good shots of sharp dialogue, but this issue hinges on the art, and Olivier Coipel (with inker Mark Morales and colorist Laura Martin) delivers a haymaker here.

He gets to run wild with splash pages of heroes and villains lunging into action, and great scenes of absolute carnage.

Need I mention what a delight it is to see (the real) Captain America and Thor doing what they do best?

This issue almost flies by too fast, and we're left with a cliffhanger that unleashes the ultimate menace - a fight that I have no idea how the heroes are going to survive.

Isn't that great?

This issue is lots of fun - a cool splash of water after the long dreary trudge of the Dark Reign. I'm looking forward to the grand finale!

Grade: A

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

New Comics Day

Here's what I picked up today:

- Dark Avengers #15 - The next-to-the-last issue.

- Avengers vs. Atlas #3 (of 4) - Always fun to see the original Avengers.

- Green Lantern Corps #46 - Leading into the finale of the Blackest Night.

- Groo: The Hogs of Horder #4 (of 4) - At the end it teases the next Groo comic - a crossover with Conan? Now that's going to be a trick...

- Hercules: Fall of an Avenger #1 (of 2) - A grim occasion, but a fun comic.

- Incredible Hulk #608 - The interminable "Fall of the Hulks" continues (don't they know it's Springtime?)...

- Irredeemable #12 - This has been an interesting comic, but I get the feeling it's starting to groan under its own weight.

- Jughead #200
- Had to pick up the Anniversary issue, featuring some special guest stars.

- Siege #3 (of 4) - Showdown at the steps of Asgard.

- Spider-Woman #7 - The last issue for this series.

Interesting to note that all these issues cost $3.99 except Jughead, which was $2.50.

Also, of the 10 comics, two are "last" issues, four are "next-to-the-last" issues, one was an impulse buy, and only three are ongoing titles (one is a year old, one is four years old, and the other has been around for almost 50 years, in one form or another). Not sure what that all means, but there it is.

The Classics - The Saga of the Swamp Thing #21

The fact of the matter is, I've never been much of a fan of horror. At least not as it has been traditionally represented in comics or movies.

That's because, with rare exceptions, there hasn't been anything really horrific about them. Instead of trying to induce fear or terror, movies and comics instead settle for simply grossing the audience out.

There's a big difference, with the main thing being that grossing someone out is pretty easy. Chop off a limb, have someone die in a horrible fashion and you get a reaction from the audience. But there's no real art involved - it's the equivalent of jumping out unexpectedly and yelling "Boo!"

And that's why this comic series stands head and shoulders above the imitators. Swamp Thing was already a good horror concept, courtesy of original creators Len Wein and Bernie Wrightson.

The comic tells the story of a man who is transformed into a hideous monster in a scientific accident, and struggles to regain his humanity. Lots of potential there, and Wein and Wrightson had a great run on the comic.

But it wasn't until this issue by writer Alan Moore and artists Steven Bissette and John Totleben that readers got a real taste of horror.

In the often-overlooked previous issue (Moore's first), something shocking happens - the Swamp Thing is killed. For real.

This issue is given over to the examination of the title character's corpse, and the discovery that everything we knew about the character was wrong. But where those kinds of plot twists are usually handled badly, here we have an intelligent and science-based explanation that makes perfect sense and in no way cheats the reader. It also does nothing to invalidate those earlier issues, and in no sense is it a "reboot."

It's one of those wonderful stories where you read along and it's the equivalent of the sun rising in the morning and dispersing the gloom. The world seems much bigger and full of possibilities. An absolutely amazing reading experience.

Moore's script is perfectly matched by the detailed, dramatic and often horrific art by Bissette and Totleben. The work is astounding, with incredible layouts, breaking all the rules, yet telling the story with a clean, intense voice.

It was just the beginning of a powerful run on this series by the creative team, and just a hint of the groundbreaking work yet to come.

There are numerous points in the history of comics where everything changed. This is one of them. I can't recommend this series highly enough.

Even if you don't like horror.

Grade: A+

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

The Twelve: Spearhead #1 (One-shot)

Hey, it's The Twelve!

Sadly, this isn't the next issue in the long-delayed 12-issue maxi-series. Happily, it's a prequel that takes us back to the days before the team was captured by the Nazis and put into suspended animation.

Written and drawn by Chris Weston (who provided the art on the regular series), it's a warts-and-all look at the efforts by the Allied super-heroes to bring an end to World War II.

Rather than glamorizing the war, here we see a more ground-level approach and the grisly effort that was required of real men as well as the ones who wore masks.

The issue is packed with guest stars, but Weston manages to give us a brief look at the members of the Twelve, with a focus on The Phantom Reporter.

The story rolls along at top speed, and manages to capture the horrors - and horrific acts - that are an inescapable part of war.

The art is outstanding as always. Weston has a great real-world approach to his art, with creative layouts and lots of energy and personality on display. He turns in outstanding work here.

So this issue does a great job of shedding some light on the team's history, and setting the stage for the upcoming publication of that long-awaited issue #9.

About which I can only say: it's about time!

Grade: A-

Monday, March 15, 2010

The Mystic Hands of Doctor Strange #1 (One-shot)

In this review of the recent mini-series Strange, I wrote:
I don't understand why each new creative team feels like it has to re-invent Dr. Strange - there's a perfectly good version sitting on the shelf, waiting for the right team to put him back in the game.
As if by design, here we see that Dr. Strange return - including his correct costume, mystic amulet, cloak of levitation and the proper supporting cast.

But as this black-and-white issue also shows, that doesn't automatically mean it's a great comic - it's just a good start.

So here we have four stories starring the good Doc - a full-length comic, two short comics and one short text story. How I wish I could report that they're all outstanding.

Well, they actually are in terms of art. I'm especially delighted to see one of my all-time favorite Dr. Strange artists, Frank Brunner, returning to tackle one of the short stories. I would have picked this up for that alone. Brunner is an incredible artist, adept at surreal landscapes, alien creatures and real live humans. How I wish he were doing more work these days!

The main story is drawn by Frazer Irving, as artist I'm not familiar with, but I like his work here. It's an original take on the classic version of the character, with dark and moody artwork and some strong visuals of mystic events.

The other comics story is written and drawn by Ted McKeever, and it's a quirky yet enjoyable venture into Strange's darker days. The art is terrific and the story's pretty good, too.

The text piece includes some excellent illustrations by Marcos Martin, and the story therein is the best in the issue, as Strange fights to survive a mystic encounter early in his studies of the mystic arts.

The Brunner-illustrated story is written by Peter Milligan, and it has some good moments, but ultimately it's a bit on the thin side (and actually hearkens back to Strange's first-ever comics adventure, helping a man haunted by dark dreams).

But the full-length story by Kieron Gillen is the most disappointing. It sets up a world-changing threat, which Strange approaches with an attitude of indifference, and his solution is one that the real Dr. Strange would never countenance. In my opinion, anyway.

So a real mixed bag here - to me, worth it for Brunner and McKeever, but as always, your mileage may vary.

This issue is something of a disappointment, but I'm still hopeful that this could lead to more stories focusing on the "real" Dr. Strange.

Grade: B-

Sunday, March 14, 2010

Solomon Kane: Death's Black Riders #3 (of 4)

I was a big fan of the first Dark Horse Solomon Kane mini-series, but where that series soared, this one seems to be struggling.

Part of the fault is in the script by Scott Allie (based on the character created by Robert E. Howard), which doesn't seem to lend itself to being broken into four chapters - perhaps it will read better in a collection.

Here we have Solomon Kane squaring off against some demonic creatures that seem to be part horse. Most of the issue is spent inside a tavern waiting for the creatures to attack, with Solomon debating a priest.

But I think most of the fault lies with the art by Mario Guevara. It's dark and moody as you might expect, but it's so murky that we never get a clear look at the characters within. This is Solomon Kane as portrayed by The Shadow - he's always awash in darkness.

The other problem is that virtually every shot is the same medium-range, eye-level angle. Mixing up with some closeups and wide shots might have helped.

Even the ending, which wants to be a cliffhanger, falls short. The last three pages are confusing - I'm not really sure what's happening there (but I won't spoil it by venturing any guesses).

Kane is a terrific character, and there are great stories in the future - but this issue is a bit of a stumble. Here's hoping things are back on course next time around.

Grade: C+

Saturday, March 13, 2010

Powers #3

This is a comic I didn't fall across until about 20 issues into the original run (this issue is #3, Volume 3), and while the stories tend to be on the crude side (as in vulgar and violent), I enjoyed them enough to pick up the collections of the stories I'd missed.

The concept is clever - it's a detective/police story set in a world where superpowers exist. Detective Walker is a former "power" who now works to solve murders that involve super-powered beings. It's the gritty underbelly of the superhero world, and the concept has resulted in some terrific stories.

Writer Brian Bendis creates this comic with artist Mike Oeming, who brings a vibrant, gritty style to the comic. He manages to combine the power of Jack Kirby with the sensibilities of Will Eisner in a unique and arresting style.

The Powers series isn't perfect - there have been some missteps along the way (including the apparent loss of a key character and an odd cosmic turn for another). The current series seems to be an attempt to correct the course, as Walker finds himself in the middle of a murder investigation that has connections to a super-team with origins in World War II.

It would be difficult for a new reader to pick up the story with this issue, since it's devoted to a violent action sequence as Walker and his new partner try to protect a teenager from her vicious mother - who happens to have super-powers.

It's a hair-raising dance of violence and profanity that'll keep you on edge (although the ending falls a bit short).

And kudos to the creative team for making sure you get your money's worth - there are no ads, and the final page of the story is printed on the inside back cover!

(Now if they'd just hire a proofreader - this comic almost always has a cringe-worthy error, like this one: "Wow, Christian, you're interrogation skills need a little work." It's "your," people! But all the dirty words are spelled correctly.)

The best description I have for this comic is that it's what comics would be like if film director Quentin Tarantino made 'em. Depending on your tastes, that can be a great compliment or a heck of a slam.

Grade: B+

Friday, March 12, 2010

Ultimate Spider-Man #8

OK, I've often talked about how this comic is one of my favorites, a throwback to the fun comics of yesteryear, and a real tribute to the good side of being a teenager.

This issue is more of the same, which is a good trick, since most of the comic is given over to the struggles of the Ultimate Universe's newest hero (a familiar name to longtime fans) to adjust to the fact that he now has superpowers.

Luckily for him, he's getting advice from three young heroes - Spider-Man, the Human Torch and Iceman.

What holds it all together is a great sense of fun and discovery, with a good knock-down, drag-out fight tossed in for good measure.

Of course, there's also lots of the usual funny Brian Bendis dialogue. The Spider-Friends are shaping up to be an entertaining group (and don't worry, they don't actually go by that name).

The art is provided by Takeshi Miyazawa, and it's very good - it gives a fresh, fun look to the comic.

At the risk of repeating myself, this is a terrific comic - my favorite Spider-Man book for years now. If you're not reading it, you're missing a good one.

Grade: A-

Thursday, March 11, 2010

Batman and Robin #10

Grant Morrison continues to be an interesting fit for Batman and Robin.

He's not a traditional writer at all, and his version of Batman's adventures (both before and after Final Crisis) have been unusual, offbeat and often unexpected. But even at their most impenetrable (I'm looking at you, R.I.P.), his stories have been entertaining and a treat to dig into.

With this issue, the title characters finally start looking into the true fate of Bruce Wayne, which involves them embarking on an Indiana Jones-style search into the history of Wayne Manor - which goes back a lot further than you might think.

Along the way, we see some odd developments for the new Robin, as Damien finds himself torn between his Mother's wishes and his own.

The issue boasts a new art team, and I like Andy Clarke and Scott Hanna's style. It's a clean, traditional look with lots of nice artistic flourishes. I especially like the moody shot in the hallway of the Wayne family portraits.

Morrison has set several events in motion here, but I'll bet they don't end up leading where you might expect. That's the beauty of it.

Grade: A-

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Comics March On

Here's what I picked up today:

- Batman & Robin #10 - anxious to check out the new art team.

- The Mystic Hands of Dr. Strange #1 (B&W One-Shot) - Especially happy to see Frank Brunner drawing a story.

- Powers #3 - This one is also working to get back to its former heights.

- Solomon Kane: Death's Black Riders #3 (of 4) - R.E.H.'s hero is in a jam.

- SWORD #5
- The last issue of a series that has been pretty good.

- The Twelve: Spearhead #1 (One shot) - Hey, I remember this series! If only they'd finish it.

- Ultimate Comics Spider-Man #8 - The best Spidey on the stands.

- Alter Ego #92 - The third Sword-and-Sorcery issue.

The Classics - Guy Gardner: Warrior #40

So I decided to review an issue of one my of my favorite comics from the 1990s, Guy Gardner: Warrior - but I wasn't sure which one to choose.

So I took the easy way out and emailed writer Beau Smith (who has fired a comment or two in our direction) to ask which issue he'd recommend. He pointed at this one with a cover date of March 1996 as one of his favorites.

Beau took over as writer of the Guy Gardner comic at a tough time in the character's checkered history.

Of course, Gardner is a character who's really been put through the mill. He started out as an understudy - the answer to the question, "What if Hal Jordan had not been able to be Green Lantern?"

In the years since, he's been critically injured, restored and made a Green Lantern, became a running gag in Justice League International, and finally became a hero again - just in time for Hal Jordan to go crazy, become Parallax and destroy the Green Lantern Corps.

So when Beau took over this comic, he had a hero who was de-powered and, by editorial decree, could not be connected to the Green Lantern Corps (things are quite different today, of course).

Beau solved the problem by granting Guy alien powers that made him a powerhouse and visually unique. It was a clever solution to being painted into a difficult corner.

Which brings us to this issue, wherein Guy faces the one opponent he's helpless against - his own mother!

No, she's not here as a villain - she's just paying a visit to the son who managed to destroy her home. Of course, she manages to wreak as much havoc as most bad guys as she takes over Guy's hangout. It would be impossible to describe her without using the word "battleaxe."

She was another colorful addition to a comic packed with fun characters. And that's the key to this issue - it's loaded with humor (something that's hard to find in comics these days), loads of adventure and apes - who could ask for more?

The issue also features strong art by Aaron Lopresti, including a fun double-page spread of the good guys fighting a pile o' apes, and a terrific cover by Tony Daniel in one of his earlier efforts.

Beau was the first writer to really flesh out Gardner, and what's really amazing is, he managed to do it in a single panel in issue #22, where Guy says, "The super-hero biz is a strange one. Ya got a lot of Boy Scout types, some jerks, and some that border on just plain psycho. I always saw myself as the blue collar hero. The one that would block for ya on third and long."

What a revelation! Here was a hero who was willing to do the dirty work to get a job done, and had fun doing it. He was a normal person doing extraordinary things.

In other words, a regular joe. I miss that Guy.

Grade: A-

Tuesday, March 9, 2010

Astro City: The Dark Age: Book Four #2 (of 4)

It's always great to see another issue of Astro City out, and happily, they've been arriving fast and furious in recent months.

That's good news because this is one of the best comics around. The whole Dark Age series of stories is proof of that (in a perverse way) - the storyline has been spread over such a long period of time that I would have lost interest in it, had it been in the hands of a lesser creative team.

But thanks to writer Kurt Busiek, each issue is filled with interesting characters and pivotal moments. This story continues to explore life in Astro City during a "grim and gritty" period in the 1980s - not my favorite topic - but it does so with a clever story that holds your attention throughout.

The creative team is playing with some big concepts here, mostly as seen through the eyes of two men bent on revenge. We see how their quest has changed them and how it has affected the world around them.

As always, the interior art is provided by Brent Anderson, and it's simply outstanding. He seems to combine the best of artists like Neal Adams and Gene Colan, but he gives it all a fresh, original spin. He's one of the best in the business right now.

The cover is by Alex Ross, and this one jumps out at you - as a good cover should.

The ending to this story is drawing near, and I can't wait to see what happens next!

If you're not familiar with the Astro City stories, it might be difficult to jump in at this late date in this particular story - but do yourself a favor and pick up some of the early collections - they're some of the best comics around.

Grade: B+

Monday, March 8, 2010

Girl Comics #1 (of 3)

OK, I'm trying to blog and watch the Oscars at the same time, so forgive me if this review's a bit on the short side.

In this day of feminism and equal rights, is it correct to call a comic written and illustrated by women "Girl Comics?"

Unlike the '60s and '70s, when having women writing and/or drawing comics seemed like a novelty, is there anyone out there who doesn't realize that women are just as capable as men (if not moreso)?

Sadly, this comic doesn't help the cause. What we have here is a terrific cover by Amanda Conner and a series of short stories that are either lightweight or extremely lightweight.

The art is fine, with some interesting takes on established characters, and there are some clever ideas here - I especially liked Venus trying to return to her fashion magazine beginnings - but there's nothing here that's really amazing.

And what's up with the tie-me-up sex kitten pin-up with the She-Hulk? Not that I'm complaining, but it seems out of place here.

Women do great work in comics, and some of the women represented here have proven it in the past - but sadly, this isn't their best work.

Grade: C-

Sunday, March 7, 2010

First Wave #1 (of 6)

I should admit right up front that I'm a big Doc Savage fan.

He's had something of a checkered career in comics. I wasn't around for his '40s adventures, but in the early '70s Marvel gave him his own title, which was decent though not exceptional. The stories were mostly adaptations of the original novels.

The most successful Doc Savage comic (in my opinion, natch), could be found in the black-and-white magazines Marvel published after canceling the color comic. These were original stories written by Doug Moench, and they were very good indeed.

Then Doc reappeared years later in a solid run at DC Comics. Aside from a few appearances at some independent publishers, Doc's been pretty quiet - until now.

DC is relaunching that character as part of a First Wave series that will apparently fold a number of non-superpowered characters into its own, separate reality - which is, I must say, a terrific idea.

Especially since Doc Savage is the real inspiration for many of today's superheros - especially Superman.

I first saw the Man of Bronze on the cover of paperbacks in newsstands and book stores. I was attracted by the amazing James Bama art on the covers, and I liked the distinctive logo.

Finally, sometime around 1970 I gave in and picked up this paperback - "The Man Who Shook The Earth," the 43rd in the series of Bantam Book reprints.

At the time, I had no idea it was a reprint (though it's clearly labeled in the indicia as being originally published in 1934). It became obvious when I hit references I didn't understand, like cars with running boards and touring cars. My Dad had to explain about how cars had changed in 40 years.

By the time I reached the end of the book, I was sold - it was packed with adventure, danger, beautiful women, super-science, a group of colorful characters who worked with Doc, and the title character himself, an incredibly capable man who dedicated his life to helping others.

I spent years tracking down the rest of the Doc Savage books (quite a trick in those pre-Internet days), and my bookshelf is lined with that collection today (though I am still missing the last of the double volumes).

Which brings us back to the First Wave, which I have to mark down as a promising start. The art by Rags Morales is quite good - dynamic and heroic, and he evokes a period without being specific.

The story by Brian Azzarello is good, and he seems to be drawing on Doc's first adventure while incorporating other characters, most notably Will Eisner's Spirit, who has an odd supporting role here.

The only real complaint is that the issue is almost all setup, with little in the way of real action sequences. For pulp characters, it's all about moving the story forward at top speed, and this story's still stuck in first gear.

Hopefully it'll pick up speed in the issues ahead. It's a decent start, and I love the characters involved (especially the surprise appearance at the end), so I'll be anxiously following along.

Grade: B+

Saturday, March 6, 2010

The Warlord #12

I've always been a big fan of Mike Grell's Warlord.

At times, the book has been handled by other creators, and the results were usually disappointing. But with Grell writing and drawing, the comic has almost always been excellent.

This revived version of that character's adventures has been entertaining, but seemed to struggle under the weight of a lot of backstory.

It's been surprising to see Grell working so hard to squeeze in so many characters, trying to bring readers back up to speed on the mythology of the character.

In this issue, we see the reasons behind Grell's haste, as the title takes a genuinely shocking turn. It was almost three decades ago that Grell set up the story that reaches its climax in this issue, and it's amazing to see it unfold.

More than that I will not say, except to add that the art is exceptional. I could quibble with a few page layouts, but the fact is, Grell is still the master of this kind of swashbuckling action/adventure story.

Any reader who fondly remembers those original Warlord stories owes it to himself (or herself) to buy this issue. Don't say I didn't warn you.

Grade: A

Friday, March 5, 2010

New Ultimates #1

It was baseball manager Casey Stengel who famously opined, "Can't anybody play this here game?"

That's how I feel about comics these days - at least in terms of publishing. Both Marvel and DC have been guilty of publishing comics "out of order" in recent months.

At Marvel, we see the conclusion of Captain America: Reborn after the resurrected Cap has already appeared in a half-dozen comics. At DC, the Justice League talks about the finale to Cry for Justice months before the final issue arrives.

Here's another one to add to the list. Ultimate Avengers is still chugging along with at least one more issue to go, and here's the next comic in line - New Ultimates (apparently the team is having trouble settling on a name).

Here we have the old Jeph Loeb dilemma - his writing has been shaky of late, but the story is drawn by Frank Cho, an outstanding artist I'm happy to follow. I decided (obviously) to give it a shot.

As first issues go, it's actually pretty good (I know, I was shocked, too). The best thing about it is Cho's art, starting with the impressive cover fold-out, which is six pages wide. He's playing on a big scale here, and his art is powerful, dynamic and sexy as all get out.

The story's not bad, especially considering it's by the guy who wrote Ultimatum (ptooey). Here we see the team picking up the pieces after that holocaust and dealing with a surprising and powerful enemy.

Parents should be warned that the content is on the mature side, as more than one adult situation is depicted (or implied).

But there's actually a story going on here, with character development in evidence and a big battle looming.

So, pretty good so far. But it would all be a lot less confusing if these companies could get their publishing schedule figured out.

Grade: B+

Thursday, March 4, 2010

Justice League: Cry for Justice #7 (of 7)

Throughout the run of this seven-issue mini-series I've been less than enthusiastic, but reserving judgment to see if the James Robinson I remembered would resurface and rescue the story.

Sadly, that didn't happen.

Instead, we're stuck with someone who carries Robinson's name, but doesn't write like the guy who created Starman or got the Justice Society off to a great start.

This writer gives us a story that hearkens back to the dregs of the "grim 'n gritty" comics of the 1990s. Lots of death, destruction and angst, but no heart or sense that any of it matters.

In this final issue of Justice League: Cry for Justice, we see the heroes faced with a dilemma. They've captured the arch-villain Prometheus, who has planted devices capable of mass destruction - well, everywhere.

The JLA rushes around willy-nilly, trying to save lives and fighting an impossible battle. Everything about the issue is chaotic - the story, the characters, and even the art, which is supplied by three pencillers, three inkers and two colorists.

Yes, there's a shock ending that comes out of left field, but it's too little, too late.

There's a place for tragic stories and heartbreaking events, but there's no style or substance here - just failed attempts to pluck at your heartstrings.

Here's hoping that the real James Robinson shows up on the monthly Justice League of America comic, because he sure dropped the ball on this one. Avoid at all costs.

Grade: D

Wednesday, March 3, 2010

Comics on a Cold Day

Picked up quite a few comics today, including:

- Astro City: The Dark Age: Book Four #2 (of 4) - Always glad to see this title.

- Conan the Cimmerian #19 - More barbaric fun!

- First Wave #1 (of 6) - Being a longtime fan of Doc Savage, I have high hopes for this comic.

- Girl Comics #1 (of 3) - Girls doing comics? Has the world gone mad? (Kidding!)

- The Invincible Iron Man #24 - The end of the line for the "Stark Disassembled" story.

- Jonah Hex #53 - Hard-hitting western action and some great art.

- JSA All-Stars #4 - This one's hanging by a thread.

- Justice League: Cry for Justice #7 (of 7) - At first glance, this looks completely reprehensible.

- Milestone Forever #2 (of 2) - Always glad to see these (sadly underused) characters return.

- Ultimate Avengers #5 - The Red Skull vs. everyone.

- New Ultimates #1 - Great art, amazing fold-out cover - but will the story stink?

- The Warlord #12 - A shocker. Long-time fans should pick this one up!

The Classics - Tales of Suspense #71

Of all the artists who did work for Marvel during the Silver Age, few were slammed as hard or as often as Don Heck, the artist on Iron Man in this issue of Tales of Suspense (cover dated November 1965).

But this issue shows why the people who did the slamming were wrong. Heck was a solid, creative penciler who could draw just about anything well, and this issue shows him at the peak of his powers.

Granted, here he's inked by the master, Wally Wood. But while Wood often overpowered the pencils of the artist, here he seems almost restrained, adding little more than the sheen on Iron Man's armor.

That's because Heck put it all on the page. Creative layouts, powerful actions sequences, raw emotion, beautiful women - he did it all well.

Granted, in the hands of a lesser inker (no names, please), Heck's work could be a little flat - but the same could be said of more high-profile artists whose work occasionally suffered under inkers who were not as top-notch.

It's a shame we didn't see more work by Heck and Woods - but they did manage to turn out the three-issue matchup between Iron Man and the Titanium Man, and it's a great story.

The Titanium Man is a Russian (in the good ol' Communist / Cold War days) who is already a powerhouse of a man. He's outfitted with armor as powerful as Iron Man's, and challenges the Golden Avenger to an Olympics-style duel.

TM has IM on the ropes (the bad guy cheats, natch) - but then Tony Stark's friend Happy Hogan risks his life to bring a high-tech weapon to a beleagured Iron Man. Tragically, Hogan is struck down by by a cowardly attack by the bad guy.

Hogan's sacrifice inspires Iron Man to seek revenge, and that's the story that plays out here. Written by Stan Lee, it's a stirring story that had me (at the age of nine) standing and cheering.

It stands to this day as one of my all-time favorite Iron Man stories.

As if that wasn't enough, the second half of the comic was given over to a wartime adventure with Captain America and Bucky, as they fight to stop a Nazi menace.

Like the other story in the comic, it's a tale of tragedy and triumph, with powerful art by George Tuska over Jack Kirby's layouts, with Joe Sinnott inks!

All that story and talent on display, and the comic cost a mere 12 cents! Those were the days!

Grade: A

Tuesday, March 2, 2010

Fantastic Four #576

This title has been getting rave reviews since Jonathan Hickman took over as writer, and they're well deserved.

That's because he has placed the Fantastic Four right where they belong - at the cutting edge of science and science fiction.

The team has always worked well when portrayed as adventurers - it's almost a better fit than the superhero label - and here the team takes a journey into the unknown.

Below a scientific base in Antarctica a great discovery has been made, but evil forces are moving against it so the FF rush to the scene to face some of the strangest creatures they've ever encountered, and uncover a surprising mystery.

Situations like this allow us to see the team in its most pure form: Reed, always looking to learn and solve; Sue, the heart of the team; Ben, taking the direct approach to every problem; and Johnny, the most unpredictable and often the most entertaining of the group.

Complementing the intelligent, clever story is some outstanding art by Dale Eaglesham, who carries much of the issue (sans dialogue) through some amazing visuals of an alien world.

It's a real challenge to invent a story like this out of whole cloth, but Hickman makes it look easy. There is action in this comic, but it takes a back seat to the thoughtful and complex story.

This is what comics should be about.

Grade: A-

Monday, March 1, 2010

Thor #607

Enjoy that shot of Thor on the cover, because that's the extent of his appearance in this issue. Wait, that's not true - he's in two ads and in a single panel recapping what happens to him at the end of Siege #1.

The rest of this issue is given over to recapping the events in Asgard as the gods celebrate their return from Latveria. They learn of the events in Chicago where Volstagg is blamed for the deaths of "hundreds," which means attendance at that Chicago Bears game must have been poor indeed.

Volstagg is the only character who seems to be behaving normally. We see Loki behaving like a common murderer, which is sad since he's so much better as an evil manipulator, pulling the strings and influencing events.

There are some nice scenes with Volstagg in the custody of the local police - although we don't how he was able to get halfway across the country from Chicago so quickly.

At any rate, this issue sets up the events of the Siege from Asgard's viewpoint, and it paints those gods as dim and unprepared.

The story by Kieron Gillen seems rushed and the art is a mix of styles from three different artists - Billy Tan, Batt and Rick Elson. The art's not bad, it's just that the whole issue is stalling for time as events in the mini-series play out.

Hopefully Thor will be here next issue to straighten things out.

Grade: C+