Saturday, December 31, 2011

The Top Ten Comics of 2011

It’s Dec. 31, so it’s time for the “Best of 2011” review, with the usual caveat that: 1) I don’t read everything, so this is the “Best of what Chuck read in 2011” list; and 2) Your top 10 list is probably very different. This is just my opinion at work.

Before we get to the best, let’s get the worst out of the way. This year I gave no “F” grades at all (always a good sign), and only two “D’s” – so it’s between Doc Savage #14 and Elric: The Balance Lost #1. Both weak efforts about characters I really like. The edge, sadly, goes to Doc, with an issue that included an incomprehensible story and really poor artwork.

Now, back to the good stuff (these are comics that either earned an “A” or were memorable enough to be included – no new comics earned an “A+” this year).

Among the “Honorable Mention” comics that could easily have been in the Top 10 are:

- Action Comics
- Captain Action Winter Special
- Captain America
- Daredevil
- Dark Horse Presents
- FF
- Fear Itself
- Hawken
- Jonah Hex
- League of Extraordinary Gentlemen: Century: 1969
- Mystery Men
- Rocketeer Adventures
- Ruse
- S.H.I.E.L.D.
- Secret Warriors

And now, our Top 10 for 2011:

10. Thor The Mighty Avenger #8

This is the last issue for the comic that earned a spot on my Top 10 list for 2010.

This has been a Thor comic that's part action / adventure, part exploration of a different version of the Marvel Universe, and part romance story as Thor and Jane Foster fall in love.

This issue covers all the bases. We have Thor captured by a team of scientists who control an army of robots, and we get some hints about the true nature of Thor's memory loss. We meet Tony Stark as he pilots an early, cruder version of his Iron Man armor (and Giant-Man and the Wasp put in a cameo as well). And Jane's love for Thor is what makes the rescue possible.

Congrats to writer Roger Langridge and artist Chris Samnee for an outstanding run on this title!

------------------

9. Ultimate Spider-Man #160

As a matter of policy we try not to spoil the ending of stories, but it's tough to avoid with this issue of Ultimate Spider-Man.

After all, the last six (or so) issues were labeled "The Death of Spider-Man," and Marvel went to the national media before this issue was published talking about how Spider-Man gets killed.

So there's that.

It's been a slow build to this final issue, as Spidey was seriously wounded and then had to confront the Sinister Six, including the Green Goblin, Sandman, Kraven, Electro, the Vulture and Doctor Octopus.

Spread over several issues, it's been the fight of Peter Parker's life - and it's the fight that (apparently) ends his life. (Nah, I don't really believe it, either.)

Still, it's a brutal, emotional roller-coaster ride that keeps you on edge right up to the end. Any reader who's been following the story will definitely find those final pages heart-rending.

It's great work by writer Brian Bendis, who is thankfully reunited on this story with artist Mark Bagley, who manages to balance the raw emotional scenes with the hoo-hah, over-the-top action sequences.

It's tricky to kill a hero - his end must be honest, it must require a heroic effort (and a sacrifice) and allow him some meaningful final words. Check, check, check and check.

Simply an outstanding end to a terrific series.

Let's bow our heads and pay honor to the Ultimate Spider-Man - practically since it started a decade ago, it's consistently been the best Spider-Man comic. Let's hope that run doesn't end here with an untimely death.

That would be too cruel.

------------------

8. Ozma of Oz #8

This issue wraps up Marvels' adaptations of the first three Oz books by L. Frank Baum, and what a delight they've been!

In Ozma of Oz, the title character works with Dorothy, Billina, Tik-Tok, the Tin Man, the Scarecrow, the Cowardly Lion, the Hungry Tiger and the (laughable) Army of Oz to try to rescue a queen and her 10 children from the Nome King.

It's no simple task - they're trapped in his underground fortress and the King commands an army of Nomes - and he has a magic belt that allows him to do just about anything, including turn his opponents into ornaments.

But the King has a weakness - one that makes it very handy indeed to have a chicken on hand.

Once again, Eric Shanower writes a perfect adaptation, giving each character just the right amount of stage time - and the proper voice - to play their part. It's amazing that something written so long ago (the original story, that is) can still feel so fresh and new.

I've about run out of superlatives for Skottie Young's art - it's just pure delight and invention from start to finish - funny without being silly or childish, inventive without poking you in the eye for effect, and always in service to the story. Just a great talent, and one to watch closely in the years ahead.

There's a reason why the Oz books have stood the test of time and still have a devoted following today - they're clever, loaded with great characters and imaginative situations. And there's something wonderful about seeing a scrappy girl from the Midwest standing up to powerful enemies and winning the day!

If you haven't been following this series, shame on you - you're missing some of the best comics around. Thankfully, there are collections out there to enjoy - and more stories on the way!

What a great time to be reading comics!

------------------

7. Aquaman #1

If one of the goals of this series is to make Aquaman a more respected hero, it's off to a pretty good start.

The story by Geoff Johns gives the hero more character than we've seen in far too long.

Here he helps the police stop some bank robbers with some impressive feats of strength, demonstrating his speed, skill and near-invulnerability (think Namor).

He stops in a restaurant for a meal where he gets to clear up some questions about his powers - and he gets to show that he's a good person, too (a very nice touch).

The artwork by Ivan Reis is outstanding, of course, with some amazing action sequences and some delightful real-world characters, too.

The comic sets up the first major menace for Aquaman to face - an invasion from deep below the ocean - and in keeping with the "New 52," there's a bit of gore thrown in at the end of the story.

Despite that, I enjoyed this comic and am glad to see Aquaman back in rare form. He's had a sporadic run in comics, with strong creators taking a turn (Nick Cardy and Jim Aparo being two of the best artists) and then the book falling into lesser hands.

Hopefully, this team will hang around for a good long run. It's off to a great start!

------------------

6. Captain America & Bucky #620

The newly-retooled Captain America & Bucky takes over the numbering of the ongoing Cap comic (which took over the numbering of the old Tales of Suspense comic).

This comic is firmly set (so far) in World War II, as we begin to learn the real secret origin for Bucky. The original story of how he became Cap's sidekick doesn't work by modern standards - no hero is going into battle with an untrained child fighting at his side.

In the original version, Bucky accidentally discovered Cap's secret identity, so he was recruited to be Cap's partner. In the modern version, he's given a more believable age, more realistic abilities and a solid backstory.

This is a strong story from writers Ed Brubaker and Marc Andreyko as they fill in some major gaps in our knowledge about these two heroes.

I'm delighted to see Chris Samnee tackling the art is this series. He was terrific on the sadly short-lived Thor The Mighty Avenger, and his work is even better here. His layouts are fresh and full of energy, his art and characters are expressive (lots of emotions to depict in this story), and his style is unique - original and different, he's carving his own path here, and it's a real delight.

The story is just starting to unfold, but so far, I'm very impressed. This comic is a more-than-worthy companion to the film, and a great jumping-on point for any new reader.

------------------

5. Hellboy: The Fury #3

This is the kind of comic that makes my job a real challenge.

That's because of my "No Spoilers" policy - I do my best not to give away anything that happens in a comic that might spoil your reading experience. (You know, like Marvel does when they give the news media a copy of the panel where Ultimate Spider-Man dies two days before the comic is released. Not that I'm bitter.)

This series, and several connected mini-series before it, all written by Mike Mignola, have been building to a big confrontation, and in this issue it happens. In spades.

Hellboy takes part in the most brutal fight of his career - and the events that spill out of it are frankly shocking and unexpected.

But I can't tell you about them, because that would ruin the story. So all I can say is, you really should be buying this comic. It tells a powerful story of horror and adventure with serious consequences.

The art is outstanding as well. Duncan Fegredo isn't Mignola, but he works in the same neighborhood, with a similar style and a great affinity for horror and brutal action scenes.

I can't talk any more about it - I'll give something away! Go read it now!

------------------

4. John Byrne’s Next Men #9

The final issue of this nine-issue story arc for the John Byrne's Next Men manages the difficult task of wrapping up a time travel story that, in lesser hands, would have been a confused mess.

Instead, it's a smart, clearly-told adventure that plays fair with the reader while offering up lots of surprises, interesting characters and clever twists.

Having suffered through a number of traumatic events - including developing super-powers, being tortured, assaulted and controlled (to name a few) - the surviving members of the Next Men may have found a way to alter their destiny, thanks to the time-traveling technology at their disposal.

But... (there’s always a big "but," as the old joke says) the solution may mean the destruction of the team.

As always Byrne crafts a sharply detailed story (although Jazz gets to be a bit annoying here, her reactions are true to the character), and the art is fantastic, running the range from intimate moments to world-changing events.

I wouldn't recommend this issue to a new reader (wait for the collection), but this is a rewarding wrap-up for longtime readers, and paves the way for the next (and possibly final) Next Men story.

------------------

3. King Conan #4

The issue wraps up a terrific run on the Conan title by writer Tim Truman and artist Tomas Giorello, and I am truly sad to see it end.

As a fan of Conan dating back to the original Lancer paperbacks, I've seen lots of terrific work on the Cimmerian's adventures - and lots of less-than-stellar work, too - and this ranks right up there among the best.

That's because it combines excellent writing with outstanding artwork. Truman knows when to stick with Howard's prose and when to give it a different spin for the comics medium. I mean no disrespect to Roy Thomas or Kurt Busiek, both of whom have done great work on Conan, but Truman may be the best yet.

And Giorello's art is fantastic, especially as teamed with Jose Villarrubia's colors. Each panel is lush, powerful and raw. Conan seems a force of nature, and the battle sequences are amazing.

Here they wrap up their four-issue adaptation of Robert E. Howard's story The Scarlet Citadel, and it's one of his best, with sinister plots, dungeons filled with monsters that would give H. P. Lovecraft nightmares, and lots of action on the battlefield.

Truly impressive work - highly recommended!

------------------

2. Secret Avengers #18

Do remember the work Warren Ellis did on Planetary, as a small group of operatives tackled some amazing "Fringe Science" threats to the universe?

Well, he's doing it again in the pages of Secret Avengers.

The last three issues have each been "done-in-one" adventures wherein a small group of heroes, led by Steve Rogers (in his Super Soldier guise), have tackled some amazing threats to our world.

Each one has been intelligent, cutting-edge and extremely entertaining.

This time around he uses one of my favorite characters, Shang-Chi, to great effect, as the team invades a space station (of sorts) where guns can't be used. Sharon Carter also gets a chance to shine here.

The art is outstanding, as David Aja and Raul Allen create an environment that almost hurts to look at, as the laws of physics bend. The action is well-staged and brutal in its execution, and it's great to see Shang-Chi going all "Bruce Lee" on the bad guys (though it's a bit graphic in places).

Oh, and speaking of Planetary, the cover by the artist of that series, John Cassaday, is amazing.

The comic is smart, fast and sharp as can be.

Highly recommended!

------------------

1. Fantastic Four #600

Give Marvel credit for not holding back on this momentous issue, as the Fantastic Four celebrate their 50th anniversary with a 100-page blowout.

I'm delighted that I managed to read this before any of the surprises were spoiled (the advantage of being away from my computer for a day or so), and I'll do my best not to spoil anything for you.

Writer Jonathan Hickman has been building an epic storyline here, including: several evil alternate Reed Richards; the young members of the Future Foundation; the death of the Human Torch; the threat of Annihilus in the Negative Zone; The Inhumans from five galaxies; the attacking alien Kree Empire; and a gathering of almost all Earth's heroes. Whew!

It's a big canvas, and this issue covers a lot of ground, with massive battles, shocking revelations and hints of more to come.

Even with 100 pages, the story doesn't wrap up in this issue - it's going to take several more to get all this ground covered. But if you're looking for an intelligent, entertaining, plays-fair-with-the-reader story about a great group of characters, this is your title.

It almost feels like a classic Marvel title from the '60s, as it balances action, story, humor and characterization, keeps it all moving at top speed but never loses the reader. But it does all that with a modern, cutting-edge take on the series.

It's impressive that, despite everything that's going on in this issue, I didn't need a recap to remind me of where we were - it's all fresh in my mind from issue to issue. (Not every series out there can make this claim.)

The series is also blessed with great artists. It took a team to get this issue done, including Steve Epting, Carmine Di Giandomenico, Ming Doyle, Lenil Francis Yu and an odd postnote by Farel Dalrymple. Excellent work all around!

Needless to say, big things happen here, and if you've ever been a fan of the FF, you should be reading this comic. It's a series that will challenge and delight you, and I (for one) can't wait to see where it goes from here.

It's an exciting time to be reading the Fantastic Four. They're the First Family of comics, and it's wonderful to see them back in a comic that is, once again, worthy of the title: The World's Greatest Comic Magazine!

------------------

So there you go – onward to 2012!

(And hopefully a few comics worthy of an “A+” grade!)

Happy New Year!

Friday, December 30, 2011

In Memory of Eduardo Barreto

Our man Beau Smith has a touching tribute to artist Eduardo Barreto - you can read it on the Comics Bulletin website.

Barreto did an amazing amount of great work, both for comic books (like the Cobb series, pictured here) and for comic strips.

It's a sad loss of a talented and gracious man, and our prayers are with his family and friends.

Secret Avengers #20

First of all, what a terrific cover by John Cassaday.

The interiors are outstanding, too - though the art style by Alex Maleev is completely different (in a good way). The interior art is much darker, more intense and stylized, including a section that mimics the art style of a certain comic strip heroine.

But Warren Ellis' story is the real star here. He keeps crafting these single-issue Secret Avenger gems, and this is another one to add to the list.

It features the most mysterious Avenger of them all - the Black Widow - as she tackles an assignment that includes time travel (this reads like a good Doctor Who episode), spycraft, playing fair with the story premise and some surprising deaths.

It's smart, well-crafted fun that will ask you to think a bit more than any other comic in recent memory - but trust me, it won't hurt a bit.

You know, I almost dropped this series just before Ellis took the reins. Am I glad I stayed!

Grade: A

-------------

Thursday, December 29, 2011

Uncanny X-Men #3

So the point of this series is to make the "Uncanny" version of the X-Men into the most powerful - and most feared - super-team on the planet.

Sounds a lot like they're becoming super-villains, doesn't it?

Oh, they still perform the work of heroes - sorta. Saving the world, that sort of thing.

They face down Mr. Sinister, who has somehow taken control of the head of a Celestial (one of those godlike, incredibly powerful creatures that are on a level with Galactus). How did he do it? No idea.

Sinister has created an army of clones, giving the X-Men an endless supply of bad guys to kill. Yep, kill. They shoot clones, blast them, smash them - just as though this were a videogame. It's terribly out of character for heroes (at least in my book). Killing should be a last resort, not the first step.

Once they get that menace under control, they're faced with a bigger, more galactic problem - and their solution for that challenge is even more absurd.

Like the story, the artwork is a mixed bag, with three artists, thre inkers and three colorists working together. The final product isn't bad, it just feels fragmented.

This comic, written by Kieron Gillen, is trying to paint on a big canvas, but it forgets that, in order for the reader to root for the main characters, they have to have some personality, some likeability, some humor - all we see here are an army of powerhouses running over the opposition.

It's not that the X-Men can't play on the big cosmic stage - usually the tromping ground of the Fantastic Four or the Avengers - it's just that there has to be a balance between characterization and epic struggles.

So far, this "new" series is too one-sided. It's all pomp and no personality.

Grade: C+

Wednesday, December 28, 2011

One Last Comics Day for 2011!

Here's what I picked up at the comics shop today:

- Alpha Flight #7 (of 8) - If this is Canada, that must be Wolverine.

- Aquaman #4 - Here he opens a can of whoop-ass...

- Secret Avengers #20 - Just how old is the Black Widow, anyway?

- Captain America and Bucky #625 - Which Bucky is that?

- Captain America #5 - Wrapping up one story with seconds to spare...

- Captain America #6 - ...because they printed two issues this week!

- FF #13 - You should stay away from some neighborhoods.

- The Flash #4 - Faster than death?

- Dorothy and the Wizard in Oz #4 (of 8) - Dorothy visits the craziest places.

- The Mighty Thor #9 - Fighting a monster that eats gods.

- The Ultimates #5 - Lots of behind-the-scenes plotting.

- Uncharted #2 (of 6) - Treasure hunting.

- Uncanny X-Men #3 - Silly stuff.

And that's it for another year!

The Classics - X-Factor #1

It's hard to believe that there was a time when the X-Men weren't all that popular.

Hey, don't look at me - I've been a fan since the early days of yellow-and-blue school uniforms, when you could count the members of the team on one hand.

But the original series never seemed to win the kind of audience that the Avengers, the Fantastic Four and Spider-Man enjoyed. After about seven years, the X-Men comic was cancelled.

It would return a few years later as the "New" X-Men, and not long after that, it became Marvel's top title. It was a position the comic would hold for decades, only losing it in recent years (thanks in large part to the influx of a dozen or so X-titles watering down the brand).

But at first, the expansion of the line was gradual, including titles like The New Mutants - and in 1986, someone realized that the original X-Men team - Cyclops, Marvel Girl, the Beast, Iceman and the Angel - was going (largely) unused.

So they decided to put the original band back together under a new name: X-Factor. (Insert Simon Cowell joke here.)

The problem was, the characters were all in messy places. Jean Grey was dead (shocking, I know). Cyclops had remarried and had a child with a woman who looked exactly like Jean. The Beast was a former Avenger and Defender. Angel and Iceman were also former Defenders - and that team's comic had just been cancelled.

The solution was just as messy: Jean was still alive because the Phoenix had placed her in stasis and duplicated her body - so it was the Phoenix who died in the classic X-Men story, not Jean. (It wasn't ideal, but it was a workable solution.)

Her rebirth, and the growing antagonism toward mutants, led the team to regroup. But in an attempt to give the team a twist, writer Bob Layton stumbled. The group presented itself as a Ghostbusters-type team, pretending to capture mutants while actually rescuing them.

It was an awkward plan, and it would eventually be straightened out when the team was "outed" as mutants.

But despite those problems, I enjoyed the issue. It was a strong early effort by artist Jackson Guice and it was great fun to see the original team back together again.

It was a rough start, but there were better days ahead.

Grade: B-

Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Lady Mechanika #3

I have to admit that I don't know much about steampunk, except that I like the designs and the costumes that go with it.

That's been the main reason for picking up Lady Mechanika. It features stunning art by artist (and writer) Joe Benitez, with amazingly ornate costumes, designs and mechanical creations.

This issue splits its time between the title character's visit to a mysterious circus and more revelations about the "big bad" guy, and the visuals are arresting - Benitez has crafted an amazing and original world here.

But the writing doesn't hold up its end. The characters spend most of the issue standing around and talking - for a visual comic, it's very heavy on dialogue. Which would be fine if there was a compelling story unfolding here - but we don't really cover much ground in this issue.

And that's a problem because it's such a long wait between issues. The first issue in this series was printed a year ago, and the second issue five months ago. That's a lot to ask of a readership - with such a long gap, each issue needs to pack a lot in to hold attention - and so far, that just isn't happening.

Buy this comic for the art, certainly - but the story will try your patience.

Grade: B

Monday, December 26, 2011

Wonder Woman #4

It's interesting to see how the mythological gods are portrayed in fiction. Sometimes they're heroic, sometimes omniscient or evil or virtually mortal.

For the "New 52" version of Wonder Woman, the answer is: they're a petty, venal bunch of powerful children.

Their motivations are somewhat mysterious, but they apparently are willing to kill any number of humans to find - or extract revenge on - their missing ruler, Zeus.

The issue mostly focuses on the gods and their surprising moves. Having received some shocking news last issue, Diana spends most of the issue in contemplation...

... and there's not much else to be said about this issue without giving away key parts of the story.

I'm enjoying this series so far - writer Brian Azzarello has created a fresh, horror-based take on these mythical characters, and he's charted a new course and a new character for Wonder Woman.

I really like Cliff Chaing's art - it's striking, intense, emotional and original - perfectly suited to this dark tale.

This is a comic the gods might not be crazy about - they aren't exactly shown in the best light - but the mortals out there should enjoy it.

Grade: A-

Sunday, December 25, 2011

Fantastic Four #601

As the Thing is obviously about to say on this cover, Merry Christmas, everyone!

It's the holiday (and post #1400), so I'm going to make this quick: Fantastic Four is a terrific comic wherein writer Jonathan Hickman is weaving a heck of a powerful tale.

Something happens in this book. Something wonderful.

Lots of great art by Steve Epting.

Big events on a galactic scale, as one would expect from this title.

Highly, highly recommended!

Grade: A

Saturday, December 24, 2011

Batman #4

(Sorry to be running late - I blame all the crazy holiday family fun!)

This comic continues to be a solid read, as Batman finds himself up against a Gotham City myth that is apparently based in truth.

This issue starts with a blazing escape from a death-trap, moves into a crime thriller as Bruce Wayne tries to unravel a mystery, touches on the relationship between Bruce and Dick Grayson, and launches Batman against the Court of Owls - an organization that may have been running Gotham for centuries.

In other words, this story touches on some of my favorite elements - Batman as escape artist, detective, crime-fighter and, yes, family man.

It's a great balancing act being managed by writer Scott Snyder, and so far it's been compelling.

I also like the art by Greg Capullo, whjo captures the dark look of Gotham, the action sequences, the personal connections with equal skill.

Just a terrific comic, and a good, fresh look at a classic character. Recommended!

Grade: A-

Friday, December 23, 2011

Wolverine and the X-Men #3

I'm still torn on this series.

On the one hand, I enjoy the sense of fun and good humor that permeates Wolverine and the X-Men. The characters are fresh and fun and each one has his or her own voice.

I also like the idea of bringing back the Xavier School for Gifted Children (here renamed in honor of Jean Grey).

But it seems that every villain knows the group's new address, which means the students are in constant danger of attack. As this issue begins, the Hellfire Club is doing just that, using the living island Krakoa (which has somehow been placed under the school) to attack.

And that brings us to the part I don't like. The story by Jason Aaron is so over the top, so extreme that the school is (for all intents and purposes) destroyed utterly - yet everyone acts as though nothing has happened.

There just seems a complete disconnect from reality here (I know, it's a silly accusation to make about a comic book) - everything that happens is so zany that it's difficult to buy into.

I feel the same way about the art. I usually enjoy Chris Bachalo's work, and much of it here is excellent - creative, fresh and exciting. But there are some panels in there where I have no idea what's going on, and that disrupts the storytelling flow.

So I'm divided - I appreciate the effort and talent that went into this comic, but it doesn't feel like it's quite come together yet - but it's almost there.

Your mileage may vary.

Grade: B-

Thursday, December 22, 2011

Justice League #4

This issue of Justice League accomplishes a couple of important things: it finally brings the entire team together (or at least the original core of the group), and it marks another successful step in establishing Aquaman as a serious, intelligent, capable, don't-mess-with-this-guy kinda hero.

The first accomplishment we can be grateful for, since it's been more than four months since the title launched - but it's great to see the group together.

The second one I have mixed feelings about. I've been a fan of Aquaman since my earliest days reading comics, and have not enjoyed the fact that he's been made into the butt of jokes by lame comedians. But the solution employed here and in his own title is to make him brutal, angry and aggressive. Some of that is fine, but it goes over the line a bit here. He's awfully quick to employ what should be the final option.

But he does get to show his leadership skills, which are effective while the other heroes are still getting their bearings.

The story by Geoff Johns really kicks into gear here, as he has fun with some of the characterizations, and we finally meet the opposition - and it is quite formidable.

The art by Jim Lee is terrific, as always, with lots of big, hoo-hah events, great character designs and over-the-top action scenes.

After a slow start, this thing is picking up speed nicely.

Grade: A-

---------------

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Comics for Christmas!

Here's what the elves brought to the local comics shop today (at least these are the ones that I bought):

- Avengers #20 - The war with Osborn escalates.

- Batman #4 - Taking on the Owls.

- Conan: Road of Kings #11 - Near the end of the road.

- Daredevil #7 - Fun in the snow.

- Fantastic Four #601
- Total war with the Kree.

- Fear Itself: The Fearless #5 (of 12) - What time is it?

- Invincible Iron Man #511 - Return of the rogue's gallery.

- John Carter: A Princess of Mars #4 (of 5) - Not wild about the art, but always a fan of the story.

- Justice League #4
- The team is assembled, so bring on the bad guy!

- Lady Mechanika #3 - A trip to the circus.

- Wolverine and the X-Men #3 - Tackling a living island.

- Wonder Woman #4 - Hell hath no fury...

- Uncanny X-Force #19
- The aftermath.

And that's it!

The Classics - Spider-Man Comics Weekly #80

Don't be alarmed if you don't recognize the title of this series or the cover.

This is a comic book I picked up during travels abroad. Back in the summer of 1974 I visited relatives in Great Britain with my family (my grandmother was born there).

I was hoping I could track down some comics, but had no luck finding issues of Judge Dredd or any other British comics - but I did find some Marvel imports, including this issue of Spider-Man Comics Weekly.

It included black-and-white reprints of Marvel comics starring Spider-Man, Iron Man and Thor. Since it was a weekly title, they cut each issue reprinted in half - so you got 11 pages of a classic Stan Lee - John Romita Spidey adventure, 6 pages of an early Stan Lee - Don Heck Iron Man story from Tales of Suspense, and 12 pages from the second Thor Annual.

They're solid examples of '60s Marvel, but they suffer from poor printing quality and some heavy-handed use of gray tone to try to "liven up" the artwork (and make up for the lack of color, I suppose).

Not a bad package, considering it was only 7p - though I have no idea, at this late date, how much that was in U.S. funds. About 20 cents, maybe?

Despite finding so few comics (this was before the days of comic shops, of course), it was a wonderful trip to a beautiful country. But Marvel's comics reprint effort at the time seemed half-hearted at best.

Grade: C+

----------------

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Hawken #2

Someone more clever than I will have to explain why horror and westerns fit together so well.

Perhaps it's because it was a raw period in the nation's history (at least as it's portrayed in popular fiction), where human life was cheap and atrocities were commonplace.

That's certainly the kind of story being spun here by writer Benjamin Truman, as the grizzled man named Hawken seeks revenge on a mysterious group that has vast, terrifying resources at its disposal.

I should mention that this isn't a comic for young readers - it's brutal, vulgar and grim as can be. It's also very entertaining, in the same way the best spaghetti westerns manage - by telling a no-holds-barred tale of a brutal time.

You'll have a tough time finding any heroes in this series - no angels here - but it is compelling. We also learn a bit more about the title character and the burden he carries (though there's still plenty of mystery there, too).

Once again, the art by Timothy Truman is fantastic. He has a unique style that's perfectly suited to this kind of tale.

Again, it's a story that's just for grownups - but if you enjoy a good revenge flick, this is your kind of comic.

Grade: A-

---------------

Monday, December 19, 2011

Journey Into Mystery #632

I would never have expected this title to stick around as long as it has.

It's not that Journey Into Mystery isn't a good comic - in fact, it's quite good. But a comic starring Thor's brother Loki? Go figure.

It succeeds because of excellent work by the creative team. Writer Kieron Gillen constantly takes the book in clever, unexpected directions.

During the Fear Itself event, we saw Loki working around the edges of the event, scheming to draw together some incredibly powerful forces and allies to play a crucial role in the event.

Now, in the aftermath of that series, we get the most unexpected story yet: a Christmas tale.

Yep, apparently the Norce Gods have decided to observe the holiday as part of an outreach to their mortal neighbors - and Loki finds himself receiving and giving some unusual (and often funny) presents.

It's the kind of series that you can pick up and read cold, but if you've been following along, you get even more out of the series. It's clever, well written and deals with some smart characters.

The art by Mitch Breitweiser (with colors by Bettie Breitweiser) is quite good - often comical, sometimes deadly serious - it has a painted look and it's reminiscent of the excellent Chris Samnee.

The question is, of course - is this newer, younger version of Loki still evil - or can he find redemption? What mischief can he conjure up to make life in Asgard interesting? And is the "old" Loki really gone?

It's entertaining to watch these scenarios play out, especially in a comic loaded with smart, conniving characters. Lots of fun and highly recommended!

Grade: A-

---------------

Sunday, December 18, 2011

The New Avengers #19

I like that cover, but that scene doesn't happen anywhere in this comic book.

That's because it's an issue that spends its time setting up... next issue.

As the issue begins, the New Avengers have somehow survived the massive explosion that ended last issue. I say "somehow" because no effort is made to explain it - they just dig themselves out of the rubble of Tony Stark's lab as though that sort of thing happens all the time.

We get some side stories with Daredevil, the newest member of the team. We get some insight into the new Dark Avengers lineup. We learn about a possible spy, although I trust there are some twists ahead for that plotline - because if not, it's all way too obvious.

We also get some of the patented fun patter between the members of the New Avengers - a virtual trademark for a Brian Bendis-written story. We get the usual terrific art by Mike Deodato.

And that's about it. No real action, just pouring the foundation for future stories.

Bendis recently announced he's planning to retire from the Avengers after he wraps up the ongoing stories - and as much as I've enjoyed his run on the various Avengers titles, you almost get the sense that he's running out of gas here.

He's gone back to the well again to bring back the Dark Avengers, a group I wasn't that crazy about the first time around. Maybe it's time for a fresh approach.

Grade: B-

------------------

Saturday, December 17, 2011

Batgirl #4

Four months in and 12 bucks later, we're finally seeing Batgirl move forward - at least a bit.

She's been struggling with a villain called The Mirror, who has decided to punish the people in Gotham City who have enjoyed a miracle of some kind. The Mirror's family died in a car accident, and he miraculously survived - so he's out to "correct God's mistakes."

It's a pretty thin premise for a bad guy, and writer Gail Simone obviously uses him to examine Barbara Gordon's own guilt over her amazing recovery from the shooting that left her in a wheelchair.

We still don't know the whole story behind her recovery, but we get a few more clues here.

We get a reasonably satisfying conclusion to the opening storyline in this issue, but it feels like this could have easily been wrapped up in two issues max - the rest feels like filler.

The art is quite good, from the outstanding Adam Hughes cover to the solid interior art by Ardian Syaf and Vicente Cifuentes.

But we still don't know much about Batgirl or her alter ego - why she's driven to fight crime, why she risks another crippling injury, and why she's forced to live in humble surroundings when she's an ally of billionaire Bruce Wayne.

There's a cute plot development at the end, but I don't think it's enough to keep me coming back for more.

This comic has a lot of potential, but it's apparently going to take more patience than I have to see it through.

Grade: B+


--------------

Friday, December 16, 2011

Uncanny X-Force #18

If it's polybagged, you know it has to be great, right?

Well, that's probably pushing it a bit - but this issue of Uncanny X-Force does wrap up the long-running "Dark Angel Saga," and sets up some future tales in the bargain.

Summing up writer Rick Remender's story would take a while, so here's the thumbnail version. Apocalypse is (apparently) dead, so he's been replaced by the Angel, who has become the murderous (and heavily armored) Archangel. Using alternate realities, the bad guys have secured a Life Seed, which will allow them to scour the Earth of all life - unless X-Force can stop them.

Whew! It's a gnarly story, loaded with lots of violence, brutal battles, apparent deaths and last-minute heroics. There's a love story mixed in there, too, as Psylocke struggles to save the man she loves - if he still exists.

I suspect the whole story will read better in a collection - it definitely wanders all over the place (or at least covers a lot of ground), and it's tough to keep the characters straight sometimes - but it's a hard-hitting, action-packed comic that keeps the reader guessing most of the way.

The artwork by Jerome Opena and Esad Ribic is quite good, with lots of crazy, over-the-top sequences and a sweet sequence illustrating a long-lasting love story.

If you don't mind the grim and gritty stories, the adventures of the X-Force are actually some of the best X-Men-based comics out there. Recommended!

Grade: A-

---------------

Thursday, December 15, 2011

Avengers: X-Sanction #1 (of 4)

Gah.

Look, I like the occasional mindless action comic, but the creative team has to meet me somewhere in the middle there. Make it fun, make it ominous - something, anything!

This mini-series is presumably something of a run-up to the upcoming Avengers vs. X-Men event that Marvel is prepping. But Avengers: X-Sanction checked its brain at the door.

The story by Jeph Loeb starts with the Avengers tackling some escaped criminals. Ah, but unknown to them, they're being stalked by Cable, who is attacking the Avengers for mysterious reasons.

Cable's one of those characters that some readers love and others despise. I've never cared much one way or the other - he's always struck me as a one-note, grim and gritty character. The soldier who's always at war.

He's looking surprisingly healthy, since he was apparently killed in a recent X-Men story - but no good comic book character will let death keep them out of the spotlight.

The art is by Ed McGuinness, who specializes in big events and big characters - and he provides both quite nicely here.

But the story is just... well, let's say it's very shallow. It uses the thinnest of excuses to have everybody fight - and it ends on a terribly overused cliffhanger trick.

The art is quite good, but that's the only reason to pick this one up. There's not an original thought to be found here.

Grade: C

---------------

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

It's Comic Book Day!

Here's what I picked up today:

- New Avengers #19 - Those pesky Dark Avengers are back.

- Avengers: X-Sanction #1 (of 4) - Giving it a chance.

- Batgirl #4 - Final fight with the Mirror.

- Green Lantern #4
- Is Hal really dead?

- Hawken #2 - Great art and one mean western hero.

- Journey into Mystery #632 - Christmas in Asgard?

- Kull: The Cat and the Skull #3 (of 4) - Secrets revealed!

- Resurrection Man #4 - Royal rumble!

- SHIELD #4 - To the end of time - which may not be as far away as you think.

- The Shade #3 (of 12) - Battle in Australia!

- Uncanny X-Force #18 - Must be important - it's bagged!

And that's it!

The Classics - The Spirit #1 (1974)

Who the heck is The Spirit?

That's what young Chuck would have been asking when seeing this magazine in 1974 - if he hadn't read Jim Steranko's two-volume History of Comics. A significant chapter in that fine work sings the praises of The Spirit - a comic book character I had never seen or heard of before.

The Spirit is actually police detective Denny Colt. He is (apparently) killed while foiling the plot of an evil scientist, but somehow he returns to life, dons a small mask and dedicates his energies to fighting crime as The Spirit.

Perhaps my ignorance was because The Spirit's last adventure was printed in 1952, almost a decade before I started reading comics. Perhaps it's because no local newspaper (as near as I can tell) ever carried The Spirit section, the comic that was included in Sunday newspapers around the country.

Thankfully, Steranko had tipped me off, so I eagerly grabbed this magazine published by Warren - an odd addition to its line of horror comic magazines.

Am I glad I did! The magazine includes a lushly-colored section in the center, and a total of eight stories starring the Spirit.

The star of the story isn't actually The Spirit - it's the ingenious stories by creator / writer / artist Will Eisner, who applied cinematic principles, created new styles and art forms for the comics page, wrote incredibly clever stories, loaded them with terrific characters, set it all up so the format could handle any kind of tale - action, tragedy, comedy, romance - and mixed it all together to create an amazing body of work.

These magazines are probably a bit tough to track down these days (though certainly not impossible), but thankfully these stories are all available through DC's Archive reprint series.

Even the earliest stories are a lot of fun, but it's the post-World War II tales that really pushed the envelope and demonstrated the potential of comics.

I don't think it's humanly possible for me to give this work a high enough recommendation. It changed comics forever, and (assuming you can forgive the depiction of The Spirit's sidekick Ebony, a clever black kid regrettably drawn in the minstrel style that was popular when the strip started) it's a must-read for all comics fans.

Grade: A+

------------

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Static Shock #4

Look, I'm tired of saying it (since I've said it several times before) - Static Shock is a great idea for a comic, and I'm glad to see it back, since I was a big fan of the original run of the series.

Sadly, I'm not a fan of this "new 52" version of the series at all.

That's because I don't like any of the changes they've made to the character and his backstory. Virgil Hawkins now lives in New York instead of Dakota. Instead of focusing on his life as a student, and his relations with his friends and his family, we find he's been set up as a superhero with a secret hideout and special gadgets, courtesy of the Tony Stark-like Hardware.

In each issue, he's gone up against a different bizarre villain who fights Static as part of some kind of gang war. Static never wins these fights - the bad guy always manages to escape.

We see some flashes of the old Virgil in there - he's an intelligent young man who cracks wise and thinks fast - but four issues in and we don't know any more about the gang war than we did at the beginning of the first issue.

The art is fresh and original, but the layouts are sometimes confusing.

I want to support this comic - the lead character has tremendous, Spider-Man-sized potential. But I can't keep supporting a comic I don't enjoy.

So this one is getting dropped from my pull list - at least for this version of the character. Sorry.

Grade: C

--------------

Monday, December 12, 2011

Fear Itself: The Fearless #4 (of 12)

This comic has apparently been assembled by committee, with three plotters, a scripter (Cullen Bunn), two pencilers (Paul Pelletier and Mark Bagley), two inkers and a pile of editors.

Given that, you'd expect Fear Itself: The Fearless to be a mess - but it's actually OK. Not outstanding, but OK.

The story has the Valkyrie traveling the world to gather up the mystic hammers left behind by the Serpent after the Fear Itself mini-series.

But evil forces are also on the hunt - most especially the Red Skull's daughter Sin and her second-in-command, Crossbones.

The Earth's heroes are also trying to stop Valkyrie, and for mysterious reasons she refuses to reveal why she's tracking down the hammers. That way, of course, we can have more sequences of Valkyrie fighting her former friends. It's the Marvel way.

It's nice to see the Valkyrie getting some time in the spotlight, but the story seems a bit too predictable. Should I be shocked when Sin manages to gather the hammers together for whatever evil purpose she has in mind, only to be defeated at the last moment by Earth's heroes? Or am I being too cynical?

I enjoy the art, the covers by Art Adams are terrific, and the dialogue is fine, but the series just seems to be taking the long way around to get to the point.

Hopefully I'm wrong - but I fear the story is going to fail because there have been too few surprises.

Grade: B-

---------------

Sunday, December 11, 2011

Irredeemable #32

Coming up on three years into Irredeemable and the story of the Plutonian (a superman who suddenly becomes evil), we finally get an origin story.

The mystery is revealed as he faces "punishment" from two gigantic aliens who claim to be the parents of the Plutonian.

It's an interesting story with quite a few twists and turns - but of course, I don't want to give anything away.

The issue is advertised on the inside cover as the first part of a battle between the star of this comic and Max Damage, the star of Incorruptible - but the only place you'll see Max is on the cover.

The art is provided by Diego Barreto, and it's solid work - professional and clear.

I'm impressed that writer Mark Waid has been able to keep the "good guys goes bad" story moving so well, and it shows no sign of slowing down at this point.

Even though it's tough to talk about when spoilers are a no-no!

Grade: B+

-----------------

Saturday, December 10, 2011

OMAC #4

I was going to start this review by wondering if I was the only comics reader who liked OMAC - but after this issue I'm not even sure about me.

It's a series that has been getting middling reviews, little notice from the fans and (reportedly) low sales.

I enjoyed the first three issues for their general action-packed, leave-your-brain-at-the-door attitude - but with the fourth issue, that's wearing a bit thin.

The idea is that the satellite computer / sentient creature known as Brother Eye can somehow transform humble Kevin Kho into the hulking, blue-skinned fighting machine known as OMAC (which now stands for One-Machine Attack Construct). (I prefer the original One Man Army Corps, but that's just me.)

As we see in this issue, Kho is a virtual slave to Brother Eye, and even when he finds a way to fight back against the machine's control, he winds up in even deeper trouble.

But Dan Didio's story just keeps hitting the same notes, as Kho encounters a powerful menace, is transformed and, well, OMAC smashes! After four issues of the same plot, my interest is fading fast.

I'm a fan of Keith Giffen's art, but even it looks a bit "off" with this issue. Could he be adjusting his style to make it more mainstream? That would be a real shame - I loved his work on the first three issues.

So hopefully we'll see some expansion of the characters and the plot in the near future. If not, don't expect OMAC to hang around much longer.

Grade: B-

---------------

Friday, December 9, 2011

Action Comics #4

Long-time fans (like yours truly) will enjoy the bits of business writer Grant Morrison has loaded into these "untold early" adventures of Superman in Action Comics.

This issue owes quite a bit to the old Fleisher cartoon "The Mechanical Monsters," wherein the Man of Steel struggled to fight an army of robots (if you've never seen it, it's well worth tracking down - some amazing animation there).

The situation is similar in this issue, which features several familiar faces, including Lex Luthor, who's early in his evil mastermind stage of life, a certain alien opponent appears (sort of), and Steel makes his "first" appearance.

It's all well drawn by Rags Morales - there's a lot going on here, and Morales keeps the action flowing (or exploding, as the case may be) while keeping the characters clear.

I was enjoying this issue - and then we got to the final page, and I got irritated.

That's because of the blurb at the end of the story - it reads, "To Be Continued in Action Comics #7."

So we apparently have two fill-in issues before this cliffhanger is resolved? What the heck, DC?

Perhaps they have a good reason, perhaps the fill-in issues are necessary - but it smells like the creative team is struggling with deadlines.

If so, it's a shaky start to what has been up to now my favorite of the "New 52" books.

Grade: A-

----------------

Thursday, December 8, 2011

The Defenders #1

I've always had a warm spot in my fannish heart for The Defenders, although the book has rarely been as popular with the buying public.

The team is back again for another run at success, with a bit of a twist.

An original team member - the Hulk - shows up at Dr. Strange's home, asks for help dealing with the the dark, world-destroying side of his personality that has somehow broken free (no idea how), and then leaves.

Strange starts putting the band back together, tracking down Namor the Sub-Mariner (who seems to be everywhere these days), the Silver Surfer (ditto), the Red She-Hulk and Iron Fist (who seems the odd man out here).

Aside from a cliffhanger ending that brings back a character only geezers like me will remember, there's not a lot in the way of action here - but it's so good to see these characters in the spotlight, I can forgive the mechanics required by the first issue.

The art is provided by the Dodsons - Terry and Rachel - and as always, it's quite good, with powerful heroic figures, beautiful renditions of the characters, detailed backgrounds and lots of expressive emotions on display.

It's writer Matt Fraction who has a big job on his hands, as he must find a way to bring together this mismatched (though powerful) group of heroes and make them work together. So far, he's off to a bit of a rough start.

The story is an odd mix of horror and superheroics, but it's compelling enugh to bring me back for the next issue to see how it all works together.

Oh, and if you want to get a special fanboy jolt, pay close attention to the comic Iron Fist is reading on page 16. Now that's how you get some attention. Heh!

Grade: B+

-------------

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Comic Book Day!

Here's what I picked up today:

- Action Comics #4 - An alien attack, and Steel's first appearance!

- Breed III #6 - The final battle (again).

- The Defenders #1 - Getting the band back together.

- Fear Itself: The Fearless #4 (of 12) - Namor gets involved in the hammer hunt.

- Irredeemable #32 - Meeting mom and dad.

- OMAC #4 - OMAC Smash!

- Static Shock #4 - Who is Gulillotina?

- Swamp Thing #4 - Death comes calling.

And that's it!

The Classics - Warrior #1

There are comic books in my collection that stick out in my mind - I could tell you exactly where I bought them: which newsstand I bought Thor #188; the drugstore where I found New Gods #2; the convention where I picked up Aztek #10.

But there are other comics I own that I don't remember buying - or at least I can't remember where they came from.

This issue of the British magazine Warrior is a good example. Published in 1982, it's a black-and-white anthology comic that made history - but where did I get it? I have several issues of Warrior in my collection. Did I buy them from the (excellent) mail order service Westfield Comics? Did I pick it up at a convention, or my local comics shop? Is this a reprint of the original series, or from the original run? No idea.

But I'm glad to have them! The issue includes the historic first (re)appearance of Marvelman by Alan Moore and Garry Leach. (When Eclipse brought the comic over to America, they changed the title to Miracleman to avoid clashes with Marvel.) It's an outstanding short story, and brings the comical hero over to the "real" world.

The other landmark is the first chapter in the V for Vendetta series by Alan Moore and David Lloyd. The story was adapted into a film and the mask designed by Lloyd has shown up recently as a symbol in the "Occupy Wall Street" movement.

Those are the standouts, but the book is loaded with great stories and art. Pedro Henry and Steve Dillon create another old favorite, Laser Eraser & Pressbutton, about a murderous duo - a beautiful woman and a strange cyborg.

There are additional stories by Steve Moore and Steve Parkhouse, and art by Parkhouse, Dave Gibbons and John Bolton - a killer lineup!

Simply an outstanding magazine, and it's sad that (as far as I know), only the V for Vendetta story is easily available. You might be able to track down the Laser Eraser stories that were reprinted by Eclipse (and others).

The Marvelman stories may not be long in coming - Marvel Comics finally secured the rights from Mick Anglo, the creator of the character. The stories are dark, intense and well worth tracking down (although the eBay prices are extreme).

Or you could check your collection - maybe Warrior will show up by surprise in your collection, too.

Grade: A

-------------

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Dorothy and the Wizard in Oz #3 (of 8)

As much as I enjoy L. Frank Baum's Oz books, I have to admit that the one being adapted here, Dorothy and the Wizard in Oz, is not one of my favorites.

But even Baum's lesser efforts are still a heck of a lot of fun!

Continuing the tradition of Dorothy Gale traveling to Oz by means of a disaster, she's visiting relatives in California when an earthquake strikes, and she falls deep underground, along with her cousin Zeb, his horse Jim and Dorothy's cat Eureka.

They find themselves in a mysterious underground world where cities are made of glass and the people are actually plants. They're joined by the Wizard, whose hot air balloon was also swallowed up during the quake.

It's all a bit silly, but what can you expect? It's also quite charming, even as the group fights to escape from the surprisingly inhospitable plant people.

Eric Shanower adapts the story, and his script captures the characters perfectly.

I could rave on and on about Skottie Young's wonderful art (which has almost Seussian overtones here), but I adore his depiction of Eureka the kitten, which is all eyes and mouth and attitude.

As the characters go from one adventure to another, what a delight to follow along through new eyes. Shanower and Young are simply doing tremendous work on this series - I can only hope that they'll manage to do all the Baum adaptations!

Grade: A

-------------

Monday, December 5, 2011

Spaceman #2 (of 9)

This Vertigo comic is one of the oddest science fiction comics around.

Set in a dark, twisted future, Spaceman focuses on Orson, a man whose body was altered to allow him to function on a mission to Mars.

But when the mission ends, he returns to a world that has no place for him - so he spends his time fishing for materials in the ocean.

His latest excursion unexpectedly lands him in the middle of a kidnapping scheme. It's an odd tale that jumps back and forth from his memories of his dangerous mission to Mars to his "present day" life on Earth.

Written by Brian Azzarello, the story offers some interesting commentary on today's world - and I really like the unique style of language he's invented for this series.

I like Eduardo Risso's art - it has a Kubert feel to it, but it's very naturalistic and engaging.

This is a comic for adults - some rough language and violence here - but so far, I'm enjoying it. It's a challenge to sort out the story, but all the more rewarding for it.

Grade: B+

---------------

Sunday, December 4, 2011

The Ultimates #4

One of the advantages to working in Marvel's Ultimate universe is that almost anything can happen.

The Ultimates are a case in point, as a mysterious, super-scientific city has appeared in Europe and has grown to cover a large part of the continent.

The city is populated by a race of humans that are far advanced technologically, and ravenous in their appetite for information - they devastate Asgard and Europe's heroes almost effortlessly.

The issues leading up to this one have detailed the discovery of the city and the attempts by The Ultimates and SHIELD to defeat the threat - attempts that have failed completely.

It's a well-crafted story by Jonathan Hickman, and it's going to be interesting to see how it's resolved. Certainly I can think of few times when the good guys were so badly outmatched.

The last page reveals the mastermind behind the plot, but if it was supposed to be a surprise, it's news to me. The identity was pretty obvious to anyone who's been paying attention to the Ultimate universe.

The artwork is by Esad Ribic, and it's quite good - from the futuristic cityscapes to an amazing tableau of heroes. It's a unique style, very expressive and focused on telling the story.

I've found my interest in the Ultimate line waning lately. The series was intended (I thought) to be a fresh approach to the Marvel characters, but instead it became more like fan fiction - "Hey, wouldn't it be cool to kill all these characters?"

But this series, with its firm setting in science fiction, has me hooked. Here's hoping for more of the same!

Grade: A-

---------------