Saturday, June 30, 2012

Before Watchmen: Nite Owl #1 (of 4)

For this issue of Before Watchmen, let's avoid the controversy and focus on the most important thing about it - the phenomenal artwork!

It starts with the excellent Andy Kubert - one of the most talented craftsmen working in the industry - and then adds a true living legend, one of the last of the Golden Age artists still making his mark on the industry.

I'm talking about Andy's dad, Joe Kubert - and he elevates already-excellent art up to the next level.

I can't remember a comic in recent memory where I couldn't wait to turn the next page to see what the Kuberts would create. The art is always in service of the (quite excellent) story by J. Michael Straczynski, but it goes beyond that. The emotions are intense, the action brutal and real, and the characters and settings seem real (without being photographic).

There are three full page (or nearly full page) splash panels, and they're a wonder. One depicts young Danny's shrine to his favorite hero, one covers the sanctum of the hero Nite Owl, and one shows the second Nite Owl's first dramatic appearance. Each one is a delight - they'll bring you to a stop as you soak in each detail.

None of this is to slight the story, which relates how Danny met and became the successor to the original Nite Owl. It's a smart, sharp story with some Easter eggs for avid fans.

All credit to the creative teams behind this series of Watchmen-based comics - so far, they've all been strong entries. But nothing beats a pair of Kuberts.

More of this, please.

Grade: A


Friday, June 29, 2012

Justice League #10

So one of the problems with a team like Justice League is that it's difficult to come up with an opponent who can stand up to seven of the world's mightiest heroes.

In the opening storyline for the "New 52" version of the team, they turned to the mightiest villain in the DC Universe.

For this story, writer Geoff Johns and artist Jim Lee take the opposite approach - they create a brand-new villain.

And Graves appears to be powerful and crafty enough to hold his (its?) own.

Since this is just the opening chapter, we don't really know much about the new heavy in town, but he's apparently been plotting against the JL to avenge a tragedy - and he has the muscle to back up his plan. It remains to be seen if DC has just added another "A"-list villain to its ranks, but this is a promising start.

The art seems a little off from Lee's usual high level - perhaps it's because three different inkers worked on this issue.

One of the interesting things about the Justice League is that - at least for now - there's a strong feeling that the League doesn't want any new or additional members (we've had a brief glimpse to explain the reason why) - and perhaps that's also Johns and Lee throwing down the gauntlet, saying they're going to make this team of top heroes work.

More power to them!

Grade: B+


Thursday, June 28, 2012

Spider-Men #2 (of 5)

So what happens when Amazing meets Ultimate?

Take a wild guess.

Yep, when Peter Parker meets Miles Morales, they stick to the Marvel formula... and get into a fight.

Parker has been transported to the Ultimate Universe after a strange encounter with Mysterio (apparently the version from the Ultimate Universe, who has somehow crossed over into the Marvel Universe).

Most disturbing for Parker is that everyone seems to know his secret identity - but he doesn't know that his Ultimate double was killed, publicly mourned, and idolized for his sacrifice.

It's fun, of course, to see these two heroes meet - there are lots of similarities (both in powers and personalities), but lots of differences to sort out, too.

It's the usual sharp, entertaining script from Brian Bendis (with an especially funny explanation of events from Parker), and terrific art by Sara Pichelli, with original layouts and strong characters.

So far this has been building nicely - almost leisurely - as the characters are moved into place.

It's been fun - and it's still the only Spider-Man comic I buy.

Grade: A-


Wednesday, June 27, 2012

A Load of New Comics

Whew! A big haul at the comics shop today, including:

- Aquaman #10 - Why Black Manta hates Aquaman.

- Batman, Inc. #2 - Talia's side of the story.

- Before Watchmen: Nite Owl #1 (of 4) - Origin story.

- Captain America & Iron Man #633 - Technogeeks.

- FF #19 - The kids in Wakanda.

- Fatale #6 - Starting the next storyline.

- Flash #10 - The Weather Wizard's fine.

- John Carter: The Gods of Mars #4 (of 5) - Taking on the gods.

- Justice League #10 - A new villain who can't be stopped.

- League of Extraordinary Gentlemen: Century 2009 - Wrapping up this strange, trippy story.

- Manhattan Projects #4 - Solving impossible mysteries with Albert Einstein.

- Dorothy and the Wizard in Oz #8 (of 8) - Trial of a kitty cat.

- Spaceman #7 (of 9) - Kidnapped!

- Spider-Men #2 (of 5) - Spider vs. Spider.

- Mighty Thor #16 - Strange dreams.

- Ultimates #12 - The final battle.

- Wolverine and the X-Men #12 - More Team A vs. Team X.

Whew! And that's it!

The Classics - Superboy #165

From the viewpoint of modern storytelling, I understand why DC had to eliminate the original concept of Superboy.

In his first version the hero was Clark Kent as a teen, fighting crime, intergalactic menaces and the occasional natural disaster while being raised by Ma and Pa Kent on a farm in Smallville.

These were stories I loved as a kid. They were loaded with imagination and affection.

There was nothing realistic about Clark's childhood - he had a secret hideout, robot duplicates, and was continually challenged to protect his secret identity from the detective work by his sorta-girlfriend Lana Lang.

The art was clean and professional, well seated in the classic DC style (which aspired to be Curt Swan, basically).

I always enjoyed these collections - occasional "Giant" issues featuring reprints of old stories. As was typical for DC, no writer or artist credits are provided - heck, they don't even tell us where these stories were originally published. But that doesn't make them any less enjoyable.

This issue (published in 1970) focuses on some of Superboy's "Red Letter" days - adventures that were happy or surprisingly tragic, including Krypto's first appearance on Earth (with a surprising ending), the day Superboy was accidentally trapped in the Phantom Zone, the beginning of the Lana Lang - Lois Lane feud, Superboy's first encounter with kryptonite, and the day Ma and Pa Kent died. (Really!)

There are moments of real joy as Superboy realizes Krypto was his childhood pet on Krypton, and real tragedy as his parents face their final moments. We think of these early tales as being cruder than today's efforts, but they were certainly effective and touching.

DC did away with this version of Superman for the simple reason that there was no way Clark Kent could have a secret identity if he'd been a public hero in the tiny town of Smallville.

Nothing against the new version of the character - a never-aging clone of Superman - because he's had some great adventures during his long career, and the "New 52" version seems to be doing just fine.

But I'll always have a warm spot in my heart for the original "Adventures of Superman as a Boy."

And no, the TV show Smallville doesn't count.

Grade: B+


Tuesday, June 26, 2012

The Invincible Iron Man #519

This is a hero who's been through the grind.

That's because Iron Man - or to be more precise, Tony Stark - has been under attack from every front.

On the superhero side, he's being attacked by virtually every villain in his Rogue's Gallery, as assembled by the Mandarin, who's also involved in a corporate assault on Tony's latest company, Stark Resilient.

Tony's also under attack from his greatest weakness - alcoholism. After being forced to drink during the attack by the Serpent, Tony has been struggling to regain his footing - and since his drinking was made public, his image has also taken a hit.

His friends, his co-workers, his fellow heroes - everyone has suffered during the attack - and worst of all, Tony has been forced to give up being Iron Man. Or has he?

The story by Matt Fraction has been building slowly, with lots of twists and turns - and it's near the breaking point. It'll be interesting to see which way it breaks.

The art by Salvador Larroca, with color art by Frank D'Armata, and it's excellent. It has an organic, almost Moebius-like feel to it, with lots of life and energy.

I like almost everything about this story, except for the fact that it's taking such a long time to roll out.

Still, that's a minor complaint - it's a strong series with great characters - including the movie version of Stark. Always a good thing.

Grade: B+


Monday, June 25, 2012

Wonder Woman #10

Humorist Will Rogers famously said, "I never met a man I didn't like."

(He obviously didn't meet a couple of jerks I've met over the years. Most people are fine, likable folks - but there are exceptions.)

This issue focuses on a similar statement by Wonder Woman - one that sheds some interesting light on her personality - something we haven't seen much of in the last, oh, 50 years or so.

Kudos to writer Brian Azzarello for making this character interesting and fun to read (if you don't mind some serious dollops of horror along the way).

She's in quite a predicament as she's being forced to marry the ruler of Hades (here he's called "Hell"), and she seems to be trapped without any hope of rescue.

Luckily, she has some high-powered help - and a plan.

The art chores are divided between Kato (the first nine pages) and Tony Akins and Dan Green (the last 11 pages). They're actually a good match, and it would take a discerning eye to note the change. The art is excellent (if a bit gruesome in places).

The creative teams have done a great job, building a unique mythology and odd cast of characters around the venerable Amazon - and have breathed new, fresh life into this series. Great work all around!

Grade: A-


Sunday, June 24, 2012

New Avengers #27

While the Avengers vs. X-Men maxi-series rolls on, the regular horde of Avengers and X-Men titles has been running alongside with varying degrees of success.

Some fit into the continuity of the series badly (Secret Avengers is all over the place, for example), but one of the most successful is New Avengers, which has managed to avoid conflicts with the main story by being set entirely in the distant past.

It's focused on the relationship between the Phoenix Force and the Iron Fist of long ago - who just happened to be a beautiful red-haired woman.

This issue wraps up that flashback (which also manages to incorporate elements from the SHIELD series by Jonathan Hickman) and brings us up to the present, where we see the modern-day events that tie into that story of the past.

The issue is mostly a feast for the eyes, with amazing artwork by Mike Deodato and color art by Rain Beredo. His characters exude life and energy, and his landscapes (set in the mystic city of K'un-Lun) are stunning.

We're also treated to some terrific dialogue by Brian Bendis - especially during the modern segments, as he shares a side of some characters that we might not expect.

I don't know that this is vital to the enjoyment of the AvX series, but on its own it's a beautiful comic - a genuine work of art.

Grade: A-


Saturday, June 23, 2012

Next Men: Aftermath #44

This is (apparently, presumably) the final issue of John Byrne's Next Men - and it makes an odd ending for an excellent series.

This is a title that has played fast and loose with reality from the start, sending the characters on adventures through time, into alternate histories, virtual realities and world-changing events. But this final story tops them all.

It finds the Next Men in a strange, dream-like reality where monsters roam freely, where World War II-era soldiers run into '50s teenagers, where aliens team with space explorers, superheroes fly across the sky, and characters who are dead come back to life.

Unfortunately, it seems like a step too far, as things just seem too crazed to be properly sorted out. The reason for it becomes clear by the ending (which I won't spoil here), but it was a bit of a struggle getting to that point.

As always, Byrne's art is exceptional, with creative layouts, emotional portraits, fantastic landscapes, always perfectly married to the imaginative story.

It's sad to see this series end - it's been unpredictable, creative and entertaining from the start, and it didn't lose a step during its long hiatus. Wonderful that Byrne was finally able to bring it to a conclusion that's satisfying, but in keeping with the fast-and-loose grip the series has had on reality.

Grade: A-


Friday, June 22, 2012

Before Watchmen: Comedian #1 (of 4)

The third of the Before Watchmen books may have the toughest challenge, because it focuses on the Comedian, who's not exactly a sympathetic character.

The story by Brian Azzarello is firmly set in the 1960s, as it explores the relationship between the title character, President John Kennedy and his family.

I can't help but feel a bit uneasy about the depictions of the former first family as seedy, conniving and coldblooded (one member in particular gets painted darkly) - after all, these are real people who have families and loved ones still walking around. They're public figures, so there's nothing legally wrong with this kind of story - but it seems morally questionable.

The same is true for the Comedian, who kills with great abandon, and handles dirty work without a twinge of guilt.

The art is by J.G. Jones, and it's impressive work. Unlike previous stories in this series, he doesn't try to mimic the original style by Dave Gibbons - instead he serves up work that is alternately easy-going and frenetic, with imaginative layouts and impressive depictions of famous faces. He captures the time perfectly.

Of the three issues so far, this is the darkest - but like the others, it's very well done. But not recommended if you're a Kennedy fan.

Grade: A-


Thursday, June 21, 2012

Avengers vs. X-Men #6 (of 12)

Considering that this series started out in the most predictable fashion possible (the teams meet - they fight - lots of destruction, but no clear-cut victory), give credit to the creative team for taking Avengers vs. X-Men in an unexpected direction.

Rather than possessing the form of a single human (Hope was the most likely candidate), the Phoenix is instead divided among five characters - but instead of destroying the world, they seem set on remaking it into a place of peace and harmony, using the power at their disposal to right wrongs and manage some planetary engineering.

Of course, none of that sets well with certain characters, who attempt to find a way to defend against the overwhelming power of the Phoenix. That leads them to an impossible fight - and some unexpected aid.

I was really about to give up on this series, but it's definitely taken a fresh turn, and indications are that things will become even more intense next issue - so I'm definitely hanging around.

The art for this arc is being handled by Olivier Coipel and Mark Morales, and with Laura Martin's colors, they turn in amazing work. They create powerful characters, unique designs, striking layouts and some intense action scenes. It's a tough act to follow John Romita, Jr., but Coipel proves he's up to the task.

Mega events like this either work well or fall apart before they're over. So far, this is all the former, and none of the latter.

So far.

Grade: A-


Wednesday, June 20, 2012

Comics Day!

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

- New Avengers #28 - Iron Fist vs. the Phoenix?.

- Avengers vs. X-Men #6 - Didn't see that coming.

- Before Watchmen: Comedian #1 (of 4) - No laughing matter.

- Daredevil #14 - Taking on Dr. Doom. Or does he?

- Invincible Iron Man #519 - Gearing up for a showdown with the Mandarin.

- Journey Into Mystery #640 - A great series.

- Memorial #6 - Wrapping up the first storyline.

- Next Men: Aftermath #44 - Is this the end?

- Saga #4 - Good and unpredictable.

- Secret Avengers #27 - Fun with the Phoenix!

- Shadow #3 - It will all end in tears.

- Wonder Woman #10 - Getting hitched in hell.

And that's it!

The Classics - Fantasy Masterpieces #7

Time can be scary.

Take this issue of Fantasy Masterpieces, printed in 1967. When I read it, I was amazed to be able to read stories from the earliest days of Marvel, with stories dating back to 1940 - 27 years in the past (to an 11-year-old, that's an eternity).

Here I sit today, looking at that comic printed 45 years ago, and I think 27 years doesn't seem like such a long time anymore.

But in the '60s, it was almost impossible to read an adventure from the Golden Age of Comics. Reprints were very rare, and most of them focused on more "recent" stories from the late '50s and early '60s.

I believe Fantasy Masterpieces was the first comic to consistently reprint those old stories (though it mixed in some '60s monster magazine stories to fill out the issue).

And while I was interested to see those stories, I have to admit - I wasn't impressed. The art was very crude (though the printing didn't help much), and the stories were pretty thin, too.

This issue included a story from Marvel Mystery #8 (1940) with the Human Torch fighting the Sub-Mariner (if just on the last page), there's an early adventure of Namor from Marvel Mystery #3 (1940) as he learns to fight the Nazis, and a Captain America adventure from issue #7 of his series (1941) involving a deadly baseball game.

But even if the stories were a far cry from the far more polished fare Marvel served up in the '60s, it was still a treat to see these comics from the long-ago days of my parents.

That new cover by Gil Kane didn't hurt, either.

So, not a great comic (though Golden Age fans would probably disagree), but still a great treat for a young fan.

Grade: B


Tuesday, June 19, 2012

Fathom #6

It's interesting that we're seeing something of a resurgence in underwater heroes.

Fathom is the top title for Aspen Comics, Namor is an active part of the Avengers vs. X-Men series, and even the long-abused Aquaman is one of DC's top-selling titles.

Given the size and mystery of the ocean, it makes sense that those characters would have lots of storytelling potential - and it's great to see it being realized.

This issue of Fathom, written by David Wohl and Scott Lobdell, places the title character in the role of leading a rescue. A friend has transformed her physiology to allow her to survive under the ocean, but she's being held prisoner.

It's certainly not a good idea to get on the bad side of a character as powerful - and determined - as Aspen Matthews. But not everything goes as planned...

The art is by Alex Konat, and it's very good, with a rich, textured look to the environment, expressive characters and (of course) lovely, powerful women.

It's a series that makes good use of its exotic setting and its diverse characters and conflicts. There's nothing soggy about this series (sorry, couldn't resist).

Grade: B+


Monday, June 18, 2012

The Shade #9 (of 12)

This series seems to be flying under the radar. There were speculations early on that it might not sell well enough to make it to the end of its 12-issue run.

Thankfully, it's hanging on - which is great, because it's actually a darned good series.

I should hastily add that it's not for kids - it's a bit too sophisticated for young minds, and the violence is a bit extreme. Lots of characters come to bad ends here.

But the selling point is the concept - of a character, The Shade, who has a long and unknown past (which tends to happen when you're immortal). His motivations are as mysterious as his power, which is complete control of a mysterious dark force.

This series has explored his largely-hidden family, the lengths he will go to in order to protect them, and what happens when relatives go astray.

But there's one problem with The Shade: he's just too powerful. He's able to face off against demons and monsters and scarcely break a sweat. Even death seems to offer no threat to him.

This issue may solve that problem, though, as he finds himself up against a truly formidable opponent.

It's great to see writer James Robinson back at the top of his game - this series evokes his earlier success with Starman, which makes sense since he's focused on one of the most interesting characters from that series.

The art has been a mixed bag over the course of the series, with different artists sitting in on different story arcs, but I do like the work here by Frazer Irving. It's a style that gives the story a painted look, with cinematic layouts and beautiful coloring.

So, a great story that's more horror than superhero, excellent art and inspired characters. That's what we call a great combination!

Grade: A-


Sunday, June 17, 2012

Avengers Assemble #4

It's been funny to hear the reaction of fans of The Avengers movie to the brief reference to Thanos - they have no idea who he is.

Which is understandable, since he's been little used in recent years, and most of his appearances (outside of Jim Starlin written or drawn comics) have been in mini-series and his own short-lived series.

For those who came in late, Thanos is simply one of Marvel's greatest villains - and certainly one of the most intimidating.

He's a cosmic-level threat (both physically and in terms of sheer power) and he's extremely intelligent, crafty and merciless. He has rarely been out-and-out defeated, and he's been at the heart of several of the best Marvel stories since his creation in the '70s.

To prove the point, he shows up in this issue of Avengers Assemble, takes on the combined might of the team, and... well, you'll have to see it for yourself.

It's a wild issue that shows how high the stakes are, and why Thanos makes a great opponent for the team.

When you get right down to it, this series by writer Brian Bendis and artists Mark Bagley and Daanny Miki could easily be the next Avengers movie - it's big, loaded with twists, all the characters get some good bits of business, and there's a good sense of humor despite the destruction.

Considering that this series is not laboring under a crushing weight of back story or continuity, it's a clean sequel to the film (there's still some question as to whether or not this is taking place in the regular Marvel Universe or in the Marvel Movie Universe - assuming there is such a thing). The last page somewhat confuses things.

Still, terrific art, lots of action and mysteries to be solved - this is the best Avengers comic on the market today!

Grade: A-


Saturday, June 16, 2012

Batman #10

Of all the "New 52" comics, Batman has been the biggest surprise - and the best book.

At first the book seemed largely unchanged from its previous version, but writer Scott Snyder has been making some subtle (and some not-so-subtle) changes - and this issue promises the most ground-breaking change of all, as Batman gets to the heart of the secret of the Owls.

It introduces one of those shocking story elements that you didn't expect - and as improbable as it seems, it actually works.

Obviously we can't speak of the twist without giving too much away - and a story this good you should enjoy for yourself.

About the only criticism I can make of this story of Batman vs. the Court of Owls is that it's been going on a bit long - coming up on a year now - but it's been sharp, surprising and loaded with great character moments, twists and turns, and actual shocks.

It features some tremendous artwork by Greg Capullo and Jonathan Glapion, crafting a living, breathing world of gloom and danger.

The Owls are the best new villain Batman has faced in some time. What a welcome thought!

Grade: A


Friday, June 15, 2012

Before Watchmen: Silk Spectre #1 (of 4)

This is the second comic in the Before Watchmen series, and so far the score is 2-and-0.

Silk Spectre excels thanks to the "A-list" creators working on it, including co-writers Darwyn Cooke and Amanda Conner (who's also the artist) and colorist Paul Mounts.

It's a story that's both tender and tough, as we meet Laurie Jupiter, the daughter of Sally Jupiter and the inheritor of the Silk Spectre role.

It's not an easy life, given that her mom has such a... forceful personality, and a less-than-wholesome reputation.

The story's all about rebellion, revelation and romance. It's a strong start.

The art is a pure delight. Amanda Conner is one of the best in the business, creating expressive characters who are believable and sympathetic. The design of the book follows the "feel" of Dave Gibbons' cinematic work on the original series (just as the script evokes original writer Alan Moore's work), while giving it an original spin.

By the way, there are some adult themes in here, so this series isn't recommended for young kids.

Once again, I'm still torn over whether or not it's proper for DC to bring these characters back under different creators - but there's no denying that this is an outstanding comic.

Grade: A


Thursday, June 14, 2012

Spider-Men #1 (of 5)

It seems strange to realize that I don't collect any Spider-Man comic books.

After reading Amazing Spider-Man virtually since it began, I finally stopped buying it (with a couple of exceptions) after issue #600. I didn't care for the way his marriage to Mary Jane was dissolved, and the quality of the weekly stories was poor - so I gave it up.

I was comforted that I could still enjoy the web-head in Ultimate Spider-Man - so, of course, the creative team killed off Peter Parker in that title and created a new Spider-Man. I hung around for a couple of issues, but it wasn't "my" Spider-Man, so I dropped that title, too.

So it's been a year or more since I bought a Spider-Man-based comic. Until now.

I've finally been lured back by this series, which brings together the Marvel and Ultimate Universes for the first time.

Thankfully, the series is being written by Brian Bendis, who crafts the best Spidey dialogue since Stan Lee. The focus on this issue is on "our" Peter Parker, who's going about his usual business - foiling criminals, investigating strange events - when he mysteriously finds himself in a different version of New York City.

It's all pretty light-hearted, but there's a solid mystery at the heart of it all. It remains to be seen how Peter Parker feels about being... dead.

The art is by Sara Pichelli, and it's impressive. I like her limber but realistic Spider-Man, and the cityscapes are lush.

It's a solid start to this mini-series, and I have to admit, it's nice having a Spider-based comic I can buy and enjoy. If only I could say that about the rest of the line.

Grade: A-


Wednesday, June 13, 2012

Nice Day for New Comics

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

- Avengers #27 - Those dirty Kree!

- Avengers Assemble #4 - Featuring the return of one of the biggest bad guys around.

- Batman #10 - Showdown with the Owls.

- Before Watchmen: Silk Spectre #1 (of 4) - Love the artwork!

- Captain America #13 - The secret of Scourge.

- Captain America & Hawkeye #632 - This has been weak tea.

- Conan #5 - Quite the opposite.

- Fantastic Four #607 - Paying a visit to the Black Panther.

- Green Lantern #10 - Showdown with the Indigo Tribe.

- The Shade #9 (of 12) - This has been quite good.

- The Spider #2 - More pulpy goodness.

- Spider-men #1 (of 5) - Finally, a crossover between the Marvel and Ultimate Universes.

- Mighty Thor #15 - Fighting the old man!

And that's it!

The Classics - Adventure Comics #438

It's request time for our weekly "Classic" review, and Dwayne asked for a review of an issue of The Spectre in Adventure Comics as drawn by the great Jim Aparo - so here goes:

To say this series was controversial would be an understatement.

The Spectre was a series that never really took off, even with greats like Murphy Anderson and Neal Adams drawing his adventures.

The Golden Age "hero" was, for all intents and purposes, a ghost. When police detective Jim Corrigan is brutally killed by a criminal, God sends him back to Earth (you read that right) and instructs him to bring criminals to justice.

The character had a great design, with a green cape and cowl, white eyes always in shadow, a muscular pale white body and green shorts, boots and gloves. But his adventures tended to be cosmic struggles with demons and monsters, and it never really captured the readers.

So when they brought the character back in the mid-'70s they turned him over to writer Michael Fleisher and artist Jim Aparo, and they took him in a completely different direction - they made him into a classic, EC-style horror character.

At a time when the heroes never killed (even the villains rarely killed anyone), The Spectre murdered the bad guys without remorse - and in spectacular fashion.

In fact, that was pretty much the point of the series - how would he kill the bad guys in this issue?

For example, in this issue's "Museum of Fear," a crazed scientist is working on a museum display based on modern, everyday life - and to make it authentic, he captures regular people, kills them, stuffs them and puts them on display.

Jim Corrigan tracks them down, and The Spectre delivers his usual "ironic" justice.

Jim Aparo was a master at these kinds of dark tales, and seemed to enjoy the opportunity to work outside the usual DC Comics boundaries, providing some surprisingly dark characters and events.

Actually, on this issue Aparo was working over the pencils of Ernie Chua, who must have provided basic layouts - the art shows a lot of Aparo, and just glimpses of Chua.

The series caused quite an outcry, with some fans outraged and some loving it. I was never much of a horror fan, so I wasn't an avid follower - though I loved Aparo's art.

The comic has something of a split personality, as the back half is devoted to a new version of an old script. They uncovered a 1940s script by Joe Samachson for The Seven Soldiers of Victory, so they assigned new artists to draw the chapters, and printed the story over numerous issues. This issue includes an opening chapter drawn by Dick Dillin and a Shining Knight story by Howard Chaykin.

It's all very light and fluffy - the opposite of the opening story.

Of course, times have changed, and death and destruction is now everyday story material - heroes today don't hesitate to kill when necessary.

I'm not convinced the world is a better place because of it.

Grade: B


Tuesday, June 12, 2012

Creator-Owned Heroes #1

This comic is a clever experiment that's part comic book, part magazine.

It does that by breaking the publication into three parts.

The first two parts are two separate comic series, each 11 pages long. The last half of Creator-Owned Heroes is a magazine, with commentaries from the writers / creators, a short interview with Neil Gaiman and photo spreads.

It's all printed on slick paper and looks very professional.

Of course, our concern here is with comics, so let's focus on parts one and two, which are designed to emulate the old Marvel "split comic" format used in mags like Tales to Astonish and Tales of Suspense.

The two features have very little in common, other than the fact that the stories are hard-hitting and pull no punches.

The first story is American Muscle, written by Steve Niles and drawn by Kevin Mellon. It takes us to a post-apocalyptic world where six friends are crossing what's left of the country in three cars.

It's a short and mercilessly fast read, as we get glimpses of the characters, the reason for the world's problems, and run up against a cliffhanger - and that's about it.

The art is a bit uneven, with some terrific pages, including a Cinemascope landscape shot that's impressive - but there are a few panels that are simply confusing (one references something one character is about to touch - but we never see what they're looking at).

The second story is Trigger Girl 6, written by Jimmy Palmiotti and Justin Gray and drawn by Phil Noto.

Where the first story is grimly real, this one is much more science fiction - in fact, it could have popped out of the pages of the old Heavy Metal magazine.

With minimal dialogue, we "meet" the title character, who suits up and - somehow - attacks a military plane in flight. What follows is a truly unique dogfight. Noto's artwork is quite good - beautiful and stylized, with a sleek SF look to everything.

Both stories feel a little slim. With only 11 pages to work with, there's not much room for a decompressed story, and both of these features seem to be taking their time.

Despite that, I enjoyed this package quite a bit. It's a unique series, and with a monthly publication schedule it should move along quickly.

Nice to tackle something creative and new. I'm looking forward to the next issue.

Grade: A-


Monday, June 11, 2012

The Mighty Thor Annual #1

For a Thor Annual, it sure doesn't feel much like... well, an annual.

That's because Marvel's Annuals were once special summer events, brimming with big stories that made an event out of their once-yearly appearance.

The "real" first Thor Annual in the 1960s featured the first appearance by (and fight with) Hercules, for example.

This one tries very hard to be a big event by squeezing in a number of cosmic characters, including the Silver Surfer, Galactus, Scrier (whoever that is), the Other and a few other mysterious characters.

But even with all the galactic sturm and drang, the fact is, the story could have been told without Thor appearing at all (Hercules would have worked fine). There's nothing wrong with the story by J.M. DeMatteis - it's loaded with deep thoughts and plot twists - but it never really goes anywhere.

The art by Richard Elson is strong, with some impressive splash pages, but never really rises to the cosmic level the script aspires to.

What this issue feels like is a fill-in story, designed to cover for a missed deadline anywhere it was needed.

A proper annual should be so much more. Especially at these prices.

Grade: B-


Sunday, June 10, 2012

The Defenders #7

For reasons old-timers will understand, reading The Defenders is like watching an old episode of the Ed Sullivan Show.

See, Ed regularly had an act on where a guy would start plates spinning on the end of tall poles. He'd have to run back and forth, spinning those plates frantically to keep them from falling. It was tense to watch, because you kept expecting one of those plates to fall.

That's what we're seeing in this comic, as writer Matt Fraction tries to keep all the story elements spinning, madly keeping it all together lest the whole thing crash.

So we have the team investigating some mysterious engines that somehow affect the fate of the world, and it involves the character Prester John (who first appeared in the Fantastic Four in a single issue in the 1960s), and it also involves Iron Fist and his predecessors, and the murder of several of the Immortal Weapons (of which Iron Fist is one), and it also ties in to the nation of Wakanda and a certain Kirby-created device of great power. Oh, and the Black Cat shows up in there, too.

Whew! But somehow it all works, as the story crackles along with action and great humor and interesting characters.

The art is by Terry and Rachel Dodson, and I really like it. Dark and menacing, fresh and sexy as can be, the feel of the art mirrors the story perfectly.

This series really recaptures the fun early days of the team, with a fresh spin. Highly recommended, as long as Fraction doesn't drop any plates!

Grade: A-


Saturday, June 9, 2012

Avengers vs. X-Men #5

I'll give this issue credit - it at least managed to surprise me a bit.

As we saw in the Avengers movie (and in five decades of Marvel Comics), it's a tradition for Marvel's heroes to meet and fight. I love that tradition.

But the Avengers vs. X-Men series seems determined to beat it to a pulp.

The plot of the story is simple enough - the two teams meet on the Moon (conveniently in the Blue Zone, where there's atmosphere). They fight. The Phoenix finally arrives (it obviously took the scenic route). Then something surprising happens, which should propel us nicely into the next issue.

While it's not as blatant about it as some comics, this series is really dragging its feet, trying to allow the maximum time for all the spin-off features that are advertised within. See Namor fight the Thing (again)! Black Widow vs. Magik! Red Hulk vs. Colossus / Juggernaut (again)! Hawkeye vs. Emma Frost (my guess is they end up making out).

You get the idea.

The best thing about the series is the excellent art by John Romita, Jr. and Scott Hanna, running the gamut from intense emotional expressions to full-blown cosmic collisions.

Hopefully future issues will manage some more surprises and lean a bit less on the formula. I'd hate to suffer a burnout on such a treasured tradition.

Grade: B+


Friday, June 8, 2012

Earth 2 #2

Ah, here's the issue that reveals the identity of the major star at DC who is now gay.

Yep, they went the "hero on Earth 2" route, meaning it's an alternate version of the hero in the mainstream DC Universe - though the character is the original hero from the 1940s, in a sense (and no, I won't say who it is - no spoilers here).

For those who came in late, Earth 2 is set on a parallel version of Earth. Set in the modern day, it's a world with only five heroes - Superman, Wonder Woman, Batman, Supergirl and Robin (Batman's daughter) - the first three were killed during a battle with the forces of Apokolips, and the last two have been shifted over to Earth 1 and the pages of World's Finest.

So now it's time to assemble the new Justice Society, and first in line is Jay Garrick, who encounters the dying god named Mercury, who offers him the gift of speed (and a redesigned costume).

I'm torn on the costume - love all of it except the helmet. The new one is more practical (it's essentially a motorcycle helmet), but I loved the old Mercury cap he wore - I'll miss it.

Writer James Robinson is really kicking the story in gear, as he introduces two different versions of Mr. Terrific (sort of), and sets up another origin for next issue. He also teases a menace that's coming that only a team of heroes can stop.

I really like the artwork by Nicola Scott and Trevor Scott - it has a nice organic feel to it, similar to the work Rags Morales is doing in Action Comics.

And yes, the issue features the shocking "guess who's gay" scene, which feels somewhat forced, but works fine for what it is.

I suppose it may draw more readers to this fine title, and that's certainly a good thing. I should probably be outraged that they've made such a significant change to a Golden Age character, but it only superficially changes the character anyway, so what the hey.

Still, a solid comic that keeps getting better. Highly recommended!

Grade: A-


Thursday, June 7, 2012

Before Watchmen: Minutemen #1 (of 6)

I have to admit that I'm torn by the whole Before Watchmen idea.

On one hand, it seems rather crass to go creating new stories using characters so intrinsically linked to their creators - Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons. Also, the original Watchmen is such a gem in the comics firmament - does it really need to be expanded on?

On the other hand, DC Comics owns the characters and has been sitting on a potential cash cow for decades. Also, comics is by tradition a medium that allows many interpretations of characters. Would we have the Avengers or the Justice League or Wonder Woman (etc.) if the "no one but the original creators can use 'em" concept was still in effect? And maybe it should be.

Well, whether right or wrong, Beyond Watchmen is a reality - and kudos to DC for at least turning the characters over to some of the top creative talents in comics.

Leading the way is Minutemen, written and drawn by Darwyn Cooke. And let me just say, so far I've never seen any work by him that wasn't well worth the investment.

This comic continues that string.

The story is told by the original Nite Owl, who recounts the origin of the team - and an unusual tale it is. Sometimes grim, sometimes funny, always clever, it shows us the unique heroism - and sometimes raw commercialism - that brought together the team that preceded the Watchmen.

Even more than the story, the art recalls the style Dave Gibbons perfected on the series (without being a slavish imitation), with panels that evoke similar geometry and classic film technique, all to tell a fantastic story set in the real world. It's wonderful work.

Some people will hate this series (does Casablanca need a prequel?) - and some will love it.

My gut feeling is that it's wrong to be cashing in on this classic - but I have to admit that I love this comic just the same.

Grade: A


Wednesday, June 6, 2012

A Pile o' Comics

Picked up quite a few comics at the shop today - mostly because I missed going last week - your pal Chuck took off for vacation!

In addition to last week's batch, here's what I bought:

- Action Comics #10 - Shhh. We're hunting Supermen!

- Avengers vs. X-Men #5 - A surprising twist.

- Before Watchmen: Minuteman #1 (of 6) - Darwyn Cooke is a "must buy" for me.

- Creator-Owned Heroes #1 - Giving it a shot.

- The Defenders #7 - The Black Cat is everywhere these days.

- Earth 2 #2 - Guess who comes out in this issue? (Has anyone avoided the spoilers? Not I.)

- Fairest #4 - The origin of Ali Baba.

- Invincible Iron Man #518 - Up against some serious odds.

- Journey Into Mystery #639
- Some kind of crossover thing.

- Popeye #2 - What a fun comic!

- Swamp Thing #10 - Familiar faces.

- The Mighty Thor Annual #1 - Cosmic challenge!

- Trio #2 - The team fights Namor - uh, some undersea powerhouse!

- Winter Soldier #6 - A killer on the loose.

- World's Finest #2
- Battling a radioactive monster.

And that's it!

Farewell to Ray Bradbury

Sad to note the passing of legendary author Ray Bradbury, as reported by iO9.

I've been a longtime fan of his work, including The Illustrated Man, The Martian Chronicles and Fahrenheit 451, among many others, and I'm sorry to hear of his passing, though he certainly had a great run at 91 years old.

His passing marks, in many ways, the end of the Golden Age of Science Fiction and Fantasy authors. He was considered one of the "ABCs" of SF - Asimov, Bradbury and Clarke - all gone now.

Bradbury was the most poetic of the bunch, not as inclined to "hard SF" as to lyrical SF - but his writing was (and is) wonderful stuff - a craftsman to the end.

A sad day for readers all over the world.

The Classics - The Demon #1

It's 1972, and Kirby is struggling.

(I don't know that to be true, this is just my gut feeling.)

After his triumphant move to DC Comics, writer / artist / creator Jack Kirby exploded with new ideas and concepts - ones that are still echoing at DC today (just as his work at Marvel does). The New Gods, Mister Miracle, the Forever People, Darkseid - the list goes on and on.

But just as suddenly as the wave hit, it went away. The New Gods and the Forever People were - shockingly, unexpectedly - canceled, and Mister Miracle only avoided the ax for a short time longer.

In their place, Kirby had to dream up new concepts - perhaps something a bit easier for new readers to grasp. He would soon add his longest-running title in the form of Kamandi, but first he created the strangest title in his run at DC - The Demon.

I'm still not sure what to make of the character, especially considering the look is entirely swiped from the comic strip Prince Valiant, as the title character disguised himself to look like a demon.

No disguises here, though - the story kicks off during the fall of Camelot, as the Demon Etrigan serves the magician Merlin. Just before the evil Morgaine Le Fey succeeds in stealing the Eternity Book, Merlin changes Etrigan into the form of a man and sends him into the world to protect a vital part of the book.

The story then flashes forward to the present, where we meet Jason Blood, a demonologist whose life is full of mystery and strange companions. He is, of course, actually Etrigan - who doesn't appear again until the final page.

Kirby was trying his hand at horror in a mainstream comic, but it was a strange and rambling tale that never really came together. It's the age-old problem with magic-based stories: since magic operates by its own rules, anything is possible - and it takes away a lot of the suspense behind the action.

None of this is to say that The Demon is a bad comic - far from it. It's loaded with amazing, gripping visuals, incredible battle sequences and lots of twists and turns.

But of the work Kirby did at DC - excepting some odd stories like Sandman - this is probably the least of his creations.

When you consider that the Demon is still an active part of the DC Universe, that says a lot for the creative genius of Kirby (as if there were any doubts).

Grade: B+


Tuesday, June 5, 2012

The Classics - Brave and the Bold #200

This wasn't quite the final issue of The Brave and the Bold.

The title has been revived a few times, though usually as a mini-series. For many longtime fans, issue #200 was the end of an era, as the series that started in 1955 came to a halt in 1983.

But they certainly sent it out in style. In a team-up that wasn't really a team-up, the Batman (Batmen?) of Earth-1 and Earth-2 ended up fighting the same foe across decades and the gulf of dimensions.

The clever story is written by Mike W. Barr, and he provides a solid wrap-up to the series. The art is by Dave Gibbons (with an inking assist by Gary Martin), and he turns in his usual fantastic work.

The story is split between a case involving the original Batman (set during that character's prime), as he faces the criminal mastermind known as Brimstone. He's one of those villains who can't resist giving Batman and Robin clues about his next heist - and, as you'd expect, that ends up being his downfall.

For this story, Gibbons draws in a style that channels Dick Sprang and some of the other great Batman artists of the '50s and '60s - it's beautiful work.

The second story features "our" Batman facing a villain he'd never met before - a man named Brimstone! The art is in Gibbons' modern style, and it's great work from a comics innovator.

It's a well-crafted story that links the old and the new and brings closure to one of DC's long-running titles.

It was a shame to see it end, but it didn't take long to have a new Batman book ready - the issue includes a preview of the (then) upcoming comic Batman and the Outsiders by the excellent team of Barr and Jim Aparo!

Can't keep a good bat down!

Grade: A-


Monday, June 4, 2012

The Classics - Brave and the Bold #197

It's a rare treat to see a scene in a comic that genuinely surprises - but more than any other issue of The Brave and the Bold, this one had just such a moment.

Even more surprising, the moment had very little to do with the story.

The issue is another tale of the Batman of Earth-2, a flashback tale set before his (then) recent demise in a Justice Society story. This story tells about a fight with the Scarecrow when Batman was unable to work with his usual allies - Robin, Batwoman, Alfred - so he turned to an old enemy, Catwoman, for help.

It's a surprisingly touching tale, expertly crafted by writer Alan Brennert, as Bruce and Selina find themselves drawn together.

The scene that's so shocking comes about when Batman suffers an injury to his back. Catwoman administers First Aid, but is shocked when she sees his back - not because of the injury, but because his back is covered with scar tissue (it's not pictured, which is a clever way to let our imaginations fill in the horror). Batman replies, "Oh. That. Occupational hazard. Fifteen years of fighting will do that to a person."

I was surprised. No matter how many injuries they receive fighting the bad guys, we don't think of superheroes as showing the marks from those battles. It made Batman more real, more sympathetic and more heroic.

The art is by Joe Staton and George Freeman, and it's excellent work. The layouts are energetic, the art brings back the Golden Age without being a slavish imitation of the art styles, and Freeman's inks complement Staton's pencils, removing some of the more cartoonish aspects and giving it a good dramatic heft.

The end was near for this title, so perhaps the creative teams were inspired to create great comics before the clock ran out. This certainly qualifies as one of the best in the run of The Brave and the Bold.

We'll talk about the final issue - tomorrow.

Grade: A


Sunday, June 3, 2012

Classic Comics - Brave and the Bold #167

The Blackhawks suffer from the same problem as Sgt. Rock, the Justice Society, the Howling Commandos and any number of other World War II-era comic characters - they're so firmly set in the wartime that it's difficult to bring them to the modern day.

But the beauty of the pre-Crisis DC Universe was that there was a logical way to manage a team-up in The Brave and the Bold between those war heroes and Batman - namely, set it on Earth-2 in 1944 with the original version of the Dark Knight and the original Blackhawks!

It features the Golden Age versions of those heroes, right down to Batman's long ears, the early Batmobile, and Blackhawk's planes. My favorite panel is one of Batman swinging through the night with his cape billowing out behind him - it's easily 24 feet across. How does Batman walk, dragging that thing around?

But I love the comic, artistic license and all. It's an action-packed adventure with lots of little in-jokes for fans (including a mention of the Shadow and the Hidalgo Trading Company, for you Doc Savage followers).

The art is a treat as Dave Cockrum and Dan Adkins cut loose on a story that must have been a labor of love. Depicting so many characters, a aerial war and a period story had to be a challenge, but Cockrum was a big fan of the Blackhawks, and it shows.

The story by Marv Wolfman has a new weapon in the hands of the Nazis that threatens to destroy the east coast of the United States - nothing a little teamwork can't handle.

Lots of fun, though the whole thing seems a bit cramped, with only 17 pages to work with (the comic was published in 1980). Still, it's a prime example of the vast possibilities the DC Universe held before the Crisis - and thankfully, the company seems to be getting back to that model these days.

Well, almost.

Grade: B+


Saturday, June 2, 2012

Classic Comics - Brave and the Bold #100

In 1972 The Brave and the Bold reached its milestone 100th issue.

By this point the comic was locked into its format as a team-up vehicle for Batman, but by this time DC had figured out the value of going the extra mile for "milestone" issues, and for this one they made it a showcase for some top artists.

So we have a cover by the great Nick Cardy, a Deadman reprint in the back drawn by Neal Adams, and the main feature drawn by Jim Aparo.

Aparo always seemed underappreciated to me, yet for many years he was "the" Batman artist. Perhaps he was somewhat overlooked because he had the misfortune to follow Neal Adams, who certainly left an indelible mark on the look of that character, but Aparo's unique style was a perfect match for the Dark Knight.

Dark, moody, but very detailed, Aparo's characters were emotional, animated and unique - no cookie cutter heroes here. Each panel is loaded with energy, original layouts and loads of detail.

The story is written by Bob Haney, and it's a good one. It begins with Batman being mortally wounded by a sniper - he's immobilized while waiting for the only surgeon who can perform the operation to save his life.

He was about to shut down a major drug smuggler, so he calls on several friends to do the legwork, including Robin, Green Lantern, Green Arrow and Black Canary. It's a solid cat-and-mouse game as they track down the routes used by the smugglers.

The story has a few silly moments - Black Canary goes missing at one point because she stopped to dry her hair during the rain - but then they give her a "women's lib" moment after that to (one supposes) balance the scales.

It's a tense story with a clever bit of business at the end - a worthy effort for the milestone issue (which ended up marking the halfway point for this series).

Grade: A-


Friday, June 1, 2012

Classic Comics - Brave and the Bold #61

In Wednesday's review I talked about Carmine Infantino being one of my all-time favorite DC artists in the 1960s. I should add that he had lots of serious competition, including Gil Kane, Curt Swan, Nick Cardy, Joe Kubert, Russ Heath and Neal Adams - among others.

But if you had a gun on me and forced me to name the single DC artist from the '60s whose work I enjoyed the most, I'd have to admit that my favorite was... Murphy Anderson.

His solo artwork is actually somewhat rare, since he was most often used as an inker (and an excellent one, at that) - but he also did loads of covers, especially for the Justice League of America (almost always uncredited), he did outstanding work on the new adventures of Hawkman and many other titles, but I suspect some of his favorite jobs were working on the Justice Society of America heroes.

In the mid-1960s he revived the Spectre and tackled four (I think) one-shot team-up appearances by heroes such as Dr. Fate and Hourman, and he did the art for two issues of The Brave and the Bold featuring Starman and Black Canary.

What a labor of love these issues are! Anderson's work is lush, showing the strong influences of the great Hal Foster and Alex Raymond and doing both masters proud. His characters are lively and animated, his Starman is the heroic ideal, and his Black Canary beautiful and capable, whether in a bare knuckles brawl with invisible henchmen or racing to rescue her teammate.

The story is by the great Gardner Fox, and it's a fun bit of business, as a wave of mysterious crimes is tracked to a most surprising source - the Black Canary!

Throw in a classic villain with The Mist, and it's a great "done-in-one" issue by Fox and Anderson.

It's mostly memorable for the art and the characters, but it was a rare chance for Starman to shine (no pun intended).

Sadly, the JSA-based issues must not have been a big success, because they quickly went back to only appearing in their summer crossover with the JLA and occasional guest spots in Green Lantern and the Flash - but what gems these issues are!

Grade: A