Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Alpha Flight #8 (of 8)

I'm not sure where this Alpha Flight mini-series went wrong.

It has a great writing team - Greg Pak and Fred Van Lente - and a terrific artist in Dale Eaglesham - but the series never quite jelled.

If I was placing a bet, I'd lay odds on editorial interference. The series was originally planned as a mini-series, then it became a regular series, then it was back to being a mini-series again. So perhaps the story unraveled a bit during that tug-of-war.

Or perhaps it was just straightening out the mess the team found itself in - with characters dead, de-powered, driven mad, newly resurrected - that sort of thing.

By the end of the series that's all been resolved (mostly), but it took focus away from the story at hand.

Which is the latest scheme by the Master of the World, who planned to genetically alter the human race to make them soldiers for his intergalactic crusade - or something like that.

There's a lot of punching and screaming and teammates turned against each other - the usual schtick.

It's something of a bummer, because I really like the Alpha Flight team. It has a great mix of powers and characters, and as Canadians they're geographically close enough to have crossovers with any of the usual Marvel crowd.

Now that it's all sorted out, perhaps the next series (and hopefully there will be one) can focus more on stories and less on housekeeping.

This series was a valiant effort, but it fell short of success.

Grade: C+

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Monday, January 30, 2012

Fathom: Blue Descent #4

One of the nice perks of writing over a thousand comic book reviews is that you occasionally receive previews of new comics.

It's fun to see comics I don't ordinarily get to read, although sometimes it can be difficult to sort out the story when you're jumping in late in the game.

That's the challenge with Michael Turner's Fathom: Blue Descent. I read the first few issues of the original Fathom series some years back, but I haven't followed the series since.

So did this issue bring me up to speed? Give me enough info to follow along? Create a compelling adventure?

The answer to the first two is "yes." For the third, it's a "mostly yes."

The story by David Schwartz is an origin story for the undersea superhero Fathom. It tells about the two lost races that live under the sea: the Blue and the Black.

Both are at war with each other, and the members of the Blue are even fighting each other. The parents of Fathom must make the ultimate sacrifice to protect her from the forces in both camps which hope to exploit her secret abilities.

The only weak point for the story is the weight of all the exposition it must labor under, but that's because it has a lot of information to convey.

The art is by Alex Sanchez and Peter Steigerwald, and it's quite good, with some nice emotional moments and some over-the-top action sequences. There are a few small problems with layouts that are a bit confusing, but some of that may be my own lack of familiarity with the locations.

I can't really recommend starting with this issue, as I did - you're showing up for the final reel here. But in a collection it should provide a clear origin for the title character and some background info on her greatest opponents.

Grade: B

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Sunday, January 29, 2012

King Conan #1 (of 4)

I was both surprised and delighted to see this latest adaptation of Robert E. Howard's stories about King Conan.

Delighted because it marks the return of writer Tim Truman and artist Tomas Giorello, both of whom turned in outstanding work on the recent "Scarlet Citadel" series (among others).

They're a perfect match, with Truman delivering hard-hitting action and Giorello providing amazing, lush artwork.

I was somewhat surprised, though, to see the Howard story "The Phoenix on the Sword" is the basis for this mini-series, because the original story is very short one.

But to their credit, the creative team has expanded on the story (so far) without it feeling bloated or padded. We meet the older Conan, now King of Aquilonia, as he relates the story of an early attempt to take away his throne. It also features Conan's oldest and most dangerous enemy.

It's always been a favorite of mine, and surprisingly enough, it's actually the first Conan story published (in 1932). Howard retooled a King Kull story, added a supernatural element and cast his newest creation, Conan, in the lead role. The result is a classic!

The series is off to a rousing start, and if you're any kind of Conan fan, don't miss this series!

Grade: A

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Saturday, January 28, 2012

Aquaman #5

One of the time-honored traditions of comic book heroes was that they had to have a specific weakness - an Achilles' heel.

So Green Lantern's ring couldn't affect anything yellow, Superman could be hurt by magic and kryptonite, J'onn J'onzz was vulnerable to fire (which has to be the lamest one of them all), and Aquaman could not survive over an hour without exposure to water.

The idea, of course, was to add suspense to the obstacles the hero had to overcome, and to make it possible for normal villains to pose a threat to the hero.

Aquaman's silly limitation was addressed in a story by Peter David some years ago (it demonstrated that Aquaman would not die if 60 minutes elapsed while he was on dry land), but this issue goes the extra step in proving that the old way of doing things is over.

In this issue written by Geoff Johns we see what happens when Aquaman finds himself stranded in the middle of a desert. It's a desperate fight for survival, and the story also offers some tantalizing clues about Atlantis and why it sank long ago.

The art by Ivan Reis is, as always, outstanding, with stunning pages and lots of great action sequences.

I've really been enjoying this series. The issues up to now have established the hero, his supporting cast and his reasons for living along the coast. Each issue gives us more insight into the character and what drives him.

It's going to be interesting to see where it goes from here!

Grade: A-

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Friday, January 27, 2012

Fantastic Four #602

This is a magazine that can handle almost any kind of story, but the Fantastic Four are at their best when they're dealing with a big cosmic concept.

And boy howdy is this story big. And cosmic.

You have the alien Kree armada attacking the Earth, there's the Annihilation wave now under the control of the resurrected Human Torch, Black Bolt and the Inhumans are in the fight, there's the Supreme Intelligence (leader of the Kree) working on a plot to destroy the Inhumans, and just when the pages seem too crowded, the big gun in the Marvel universe shows up (the cover kind of gives that one away).

A lesser writer wouldn't be able to keep all these elements in balance, but Jonathan Hickman has been putting the pieces in place for this story for over a year, and it's all pushing toward the mind-boggling climax.

The big question, of course, is: can Earth survive? The answer seems dubious at this point.

Artist Barry Kitson has lots of fun bringing assorted spectacles to life. His work is clean, dynamic and of great service to the story - not a task for the faint-hearted.

I've raved about this story before, and I feel the same way about this issue - it's the kind of intelligent, cosmic tale that this series deserves. Keep 'em flying!

Grade: A-

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Thursday, January 26, 2012

Justice League #5

If I didn't know better, I'd swear this was a Marvel Comic.

That's because this issue of Justice League is give over to a slugfest between the (finally assembled) team and Darkseid.

The trick to reading this series is that you have to keep reminding yourself that these heroes have just started their careers, so they're not always as... well, competent as we might expect.

For example, there's an incredibly silly moment as the team "tries out" a rallying slogan. Let's just say the Avengers have nothing to worry about there.

The issue is loaded with interesting moments (some work, some don't). For example, Batman tries a stunt that seems completely out of character, Green Lantern goes over the top, and Flash and Superman head off to the races. The rest of the characters only manage cameos.

The rest of the issue is given over to all kinds of intense, over-the-top battles that you'd usually expect from Marvel.

The art by Jim Lee is excellent, as always, though I get the sense that some of his work here was a bit rushed. Maybe it's just me.

Geoff Johns' story has certainly kicked things into high gear, and it's difficult to see how the League can stand up to a powerhouse like Darkseid - but that's all part of the fun!

Grade: A-

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Wednesday, January 25, 2012

New Comics Day!

Today I picked up:

- Alpha Flight #8 (of 8)
- The finale.

- Aquaman #5
- He gets some sand in his shoe.

- Secret Avengers #21.1 - Cap and Hawkeye on the town.

- Captain America & Bucky #626 - Which Bucky is this?

- King Conan #1 (of 4)
- Beginning "The Phoenix on the Sword."

- FF #14 - Fighting the Celestials.

- Fantastic Four #602 - And now, Galactus!

- The Flash #5 - Wrapping up the Mob Rule story.

- Justice League #5 - Throwing down with Darkseid.

- Mighty Thor #10
- Beginning the comeback.

- The Ultimates #6
- An impossible fight.

And I received a review pdf of:

- Fathom: Blue Descent #4 - Battles under the sea.

And that's it!

The Classics - The Black Terror #1

Here's a golden age character who was a complete mystery to me.

His origins are long before I started reading comics, and practically every time he pops up in the modern era, he's a completely different character.

The reason The Black Terror shows up every now and then is thanks largely to the fact that the character is in public domain. He last resurfaced about four years ago in a not-so-great new series from Dynamite Entertainment, and he appreared in some of Alan Moore's ABC comics (with Tom Strong) - but his first reappearance (after his original Golden Age run) was in a Prestige mini-series from Eclipse Comics in 1989.

Written by Beau Smith and Chuck Dixon (in what must be the manliest writing team-up of the century) and painted by Dan Brereton (in what I believe was his first work in comics), the series brought the Black Terror back as a (more or less) normal man working undercover to bring down the mob.

The story begins with a nightmarish dream sequence that doesn't seem to have much in common with the rest of the story, but from there we get into the grim and grisly world of crime.

As Ryan Delvecchio, The Black Terror is working as a gunman for the mob. One mission gives him possession on a computer disc that links to a mysterious plot known as Romulus.

Using his insider information, the Terror is able to wreak havoc on the gang, but he has a tall order in front of him. Not only does he face a powerful and ruthless gang of criminals, he's also being pursued by the FBI, who don't appreciate his "freelance" crimefighting - and did I mention that the gang is being run by the state's governor?

So lots of wheels turning in this one, and lots a grim violence to go around.

Brereton's painted art for this issue is brilliant in places and very shaky in others - but you can definitely see the promise of the excellent artist that he would become.

As far as I know, this series hasn't been collected and reprinted, while at least three volumes of the most recent (and far less entertaining) stories are available.

Now that's a crime!

Grade: A-

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Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Memorial #2

Comics are somewhat imitative by nature, so it's never a surprise when a comic shows up that tries to tap into a past success.

This new series Memorial, for example, seems to be trying very hard to be the new Sandman (or perhaps the new Fables).

And that's ok, because it's always good to aim high.

I should add that the book is not a direct swipe at all, although it hits some similar notes.

The story by Chris Roberson follows an amnesia victim named Em. She works in a bookstore, and while on her lunch break she discovers a magical store loaded with books, toys and knick-knacks.

But she also finds herself in great danger as living statues come after her. She steps through the door of the shop and finds herself at the ocean. Oh, and she discovers a cat who talks.

Em is likeable enough (though we don't know much about her, she's obviously plucky) and the mystery unfolding is entertaining. The story moves things along briskly (being chased by strange, vicious creatures helps keep things crackling).

The art is by Rich Ellis, and I like it - it suits the story well. Sometimes dark and moody, sometimes rumpled and real-worldish (if that's a word). He does seem to struggle with the look of the cat in a couple of places, but that's a minor dig.

There's plenty of room in the world of comics for another thoughtful and intelligent fantasy comic, and that's the niche for Memorial.

It should do well as long as it resists the urge to get too cute with its own premise (as it almost does with the names of the queens of the three mystic realms - a little too much Gaiman lifting going on there).

But if you like that sort of thing (as everyone should), then this is well worth checking out.

Grade: B+

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Monday, January 23, 2012

Lord of the Jungle #1

Here we have a comic that dares not speak its name.

The cover says Lord of the Jungle, but that's only because of the legal restrictions over using the name Tarzan prominently.

As I understand it, the first Tarzan book (Tarzan of the Apes) is now in public domain, so the story is fair game for adaptation - thus only a cursory mention on the inside cover that this series is "based on stories by Edgar Rice Burroughs."

As written by Arvid Nelson, it's a fair adaptation (though one added story element seems quite odd), but like the Warlord of Mars adaptation, he's spooling this story out very slowly. By the end of the first issue, we've only seen the title character as a baby (not counting a panel showing his back and another showing his hand).

The art by Robert Castro is well done, though there are a few minor gaps in the story progression. The characters and the creatures are expressive, and the art benefits from strong coloring by Alex Guimares.

I can't help but feel that this story is going to suffer from the same dragged-out fate that led me to drop Dynamite's version of John Carter, too.

I know, decompressed stories are all the rage - and sometimes they work - but Burrough's stories were famous for hurtling along at breakneck speed, pushing you on to reading that next chapter.

I don't get that here at all.

Grade: B-

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Sunday, January 22, 2012

Conan: Road of Kings #12 (of 12)

With this issue we reach the end of Roy Thomas' welcome return as writer on Conan.

Thomas, of course, was responsible for the original Conan the Barbarian comic book series that Marvel began in the 1970s, and he wrote it for a decade before leaving the company.

Dark Horse wisely brought him back to the fold for this maxi-series, which has followed the barbarian's adventures (and misadventures) along the Road of Kings, which winds across several countries. He wraps up his adventure in Messantia - in a jail cell, to be exact, as he faces "justice" at the hands of a less-than-honorable judge.

The writing on the series has been solid - very much in the style of the original series, with a bit more graphic violence thrown in. But this issue seems to feel the burden of having to set up the next series in line, which brings Conan and Belit together (which is to say, that seems the only point of this issue).

The art has been something of a sticking point for fans (and for me as well). This issue is drawn by Mike Hawthorne, and while he's a good artist, I don't think his style is a good match for Conan. The character is more grim and gritty, while this style is more mainstream and clean-cut. I think he'd be a great fit for most superhero stories.

So the series has been a nice bit of nostalgia for long-time fans, but it doesn't quite measure up to past efforts.

Grade: B-

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Saturday, January 21, 2012

Dead Man's Run #1

So what happens after you die?

It's a great question - the ultimate question - and one we (probably) won't know the answer to until it's our turn.

It's a favorite playground for books, television, movies and (especially) comic books. Virtually every hero has been "dead" at least once in his or her career. (Oh, if you're looking for a good movie, try Albert Brooks' Defending Your Life. Great flick.)

It's the topic of this post is the new comic from Aspen, Dead Man's Run.

Written by Greg Pak (whose work I loved on the Incredible Hulk), this comic focuses on a man named Sam Tinker, a prison guard who cares deeply for his sister Juniper.

A surprising series of events (not to be spoiled here) results in death, and Sam finds himself in the worst prison imaginable - hell itself.

Can he escape? Was he drawn there for a reason? What happened to his sister? And most importantly, can he survive?

Those of some of the questions raised, and to tell more would be wrong. The story has a definite Lost feel to it (high praise indeed), as we care about this brother and sister and wonder what will happen next.

The art is by Tony Parker, and it's very, very good. He has a nice style of his own, with clear storytelling, some great flourishes and a dark, compelling design for the afterlife.

The mystery is set, the characters are interesting and in place, there's danger and action aplenty (though no superhero costumes to be seen) - I can't wait to see what happens next.

That's what I call a great start!

Grade: A-

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Friday, January 20, 2012

The Avengers #21

One of the things that makes Marvel's comics interesting is the fact that, sometimes, the good guys lose. (It's usually just temporary, of course.)

That's exactly what's going on in The Avengers. The latest version of the team has been outflanked by Norman Osborn and his allies (which include Hydra, AIM and H.A.M.M.E.R. (still no definition for the abbreviation - it's been, what, three years? My guess: Hydra, AIM Master Many Exotic Resources. I didn't say it was a good guess).

The Avengers have done the tried and true "split up into teams and try to solve the mystery," but Osborn is taking advantage by throwing everything he has - including some surprisingly powerful agents wielding familiar abilities - against the heroes.

From all appearances, it doesn't go well for the good guys.

Brian Bendis is pulling out all the stops to put the Avengers in a bad corner - and it's going to be interesting to see how they get out of it. As always, great dialogue and some good character moments.

The art is by Renato Guedes (I thought Daniel Acuna was the regular artist on this story?), and it feels rushed somehow. There's some strong work here, but there are also panels with weak anatomy and others where I'm not sure what happened.

Much as I'm tired of Osborn, the story has me hooked so far, and I'm looking forward to seeing the big comeback by our team... or a really surprising ending.

Grade: B

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Thursday, January 19, 2012

Batman #5

It's rare for a creative team to manage a new way to play with the comics medium - and to their credit, that's just what they've done with this issue of Batman.

Writer Scott Snyder and artists Greg Capullo and Jonathan Glapion continue to build a new mythology in Gotham City around a organization known as the Council of Owls. The implication is that the group has been operating secretly in Gotham practically since it became a town, and they have many secrets.

One of them is a vast underground maze where Batman has been wandering for days. Is it real, is he dreaming or drugged? We don't know, but it's shocking to see the World's Most Dangerous Man struggling to survive.

This is more like a horror story than a superhero comic, and isn't recommended for young readers.

The art is terrific, with Capullo doing some amazing, clever things to tell this nightmarish story.

I don't want to say too much or give anything away, because it's a terrific comic - one of the best since the "New 52" started.

We're a long way from the "Best of 2012" list being compiled, but I confidently predict this comic will be on it.

Highly recommended!

Grade: A

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Wednesday, January 18, 2012

At the Comics Shop

Today I picked up:

- Avengers #21 - Bring on the Bad Guys!

- Batman #5 - One of the most unique comics I can remember in a while.

- Conan: Road of Kings #12 (of 12)
- End of the road.

- Daredevil #8 - Locking lips with the Black Cat!

- Fear Itself: The Fearless #7 (of 12) - Wolverine brings the pain.

- Invincible Iron Man #512 - Heart trouble.

- John Carter: A Princess of Mars #5 (of 5) - The title just doesn't work like that.

- Lord of the Jungle #1
- Kreegah!

- Memorial #2 - On a recommendation.

- Wonder Woman #5 - Fish story.

Also (in the interest of full disclosure), from Aspen I received pdf's of:

- Dead Man's Run #1 - What happens after a Live Man's Run?

- Charismagic #4 - Magic and sexy women - what's not to like?

And that's it!

The Classics - The Futurians

In looking at Marvel's Graphic Novels of the 1980s, I came across a nearly-forgotten favorite - The Futurians.

Dave Cockrum rose to fame handling comics that featured large casts, including the Legion of Super-Heroes for DC and the "New" X-Men for Marvel.

He helped create new characters for each group, and most of those characters are still active today. Cockrum was a master of design and took a lot of inspiration from Wally Wood and Gil Kane (among others), but he brought his own sensibilities to every project.

This graphic novel gave Cockrum lots of room to run with. He created his own "reality" and populated it with numerous original heroes and villains, and based it on a complex science fiction idea.

The story started on the Earth millions of years in the future, when two warring super-science races tried to take control of the planet. The evil Inheritors realized they couldn't defeat the noble race known as Terminus, so they escaped into the past and destroyed the sun in the process.

Unable to follow, the scientists of Terminus instead sent "seeds" into the past, which connected with various humans and ultimately gave them super-powers which would allow them to fight back when the Inheritors launched their city-destroying attacks.

Whew! It was a complex concept, but it served its purpose - giving a solid explanation for the new heroes and villains, and allowing Cockrum to design and create seven original heroes, supporting casts and armies of bad guys and monsters for them to fight.

Best of all, it was all written with strong characters and a great sense of humor. I love the costume and character designs on display here. They may be a bit garish and somewhat dated (which is to be expected in a story created 30 years ago), but Cockrum had a great sense of what worked and his creations seemed to roll out with Kirby-like proficiency.

The story also gave him lots of room for some incredible, over-the-top action sequences - sort of the equivalent of today's blockbuster action films.

Sadly, the series never quite caught on. Perhaps the concept was too bulky, perhaps there were just too many characters and too much dialogue. Whatever the reason, this graphic novel led to a series of five (or six) regular-sized comics, but that was the end of it - a sad finish for a strong idea.

His string of successful works far outweigh the ones that flopped - but as The Futurians shows, even his lesser-known work was outstanding.

Dave Cockrum was a true giant of the industry, and he is sadly missed.

Grade: A


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Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Lobster Johnson #1 (of 5)

Writer and artist Mike Mignola has created some delightful and twisted characters of the years - and here's one now.

Lobster Johnson has his roots firmly set in the pulp magazines of the '30s and '40s, and that's evident in this comic that perfectly imitates the rough-and-tumble style of those stories.

What's surprising about this first issue is how little we see of the title character - in fact, if you tore out one page (not recommended), you'd almost completely excise him from the tale.

But that's not a criticism - what you have is a strange tale (written by Mignola and John Arcudi) about ghostly Indians, desperate gangsters, a determined (and yes, plucky) female reporter and what happens when all of the above encounter the merciless Lobster Johnson.

I wish the creative teams behind the recent Doc Savage revival had emulated this story - this is pulp fiction done properly.

The art is by Tonci Zonjic, whose work I'm not familiar with - but I like it a lot. It's a fresh style that moves easily between strong character moments and vicious action sequences. The layouts are strong and the characters animated and lively.

What really makes this book work is the sense of humor that flows through it. Like his Hellboy work, Migola knows how to balance drama and humor to maximum effect, and it makes for a comic that's a heck of a lot of fun to read.

Recommended!

Grade: A-

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Monday, January 16, 2012

Wolverine and the X-Men #4

This comic continues to defy expectations (sort of) - in that I find that I've really enjoyed half the issues so far, and really disliked the other half.

This issue of Wolverine and the X-Men finds the book back in the positive again as it focuses on the students in Wolvie's new version of the Xavier Academy.

The comic leans very close to the "way too much going on" side of things, but this time around the balance is maintained.

Writer Jason Aaron provides some good dialogue with the students, a clever (if improbable) glimpse into a possible future, and a focus on the instructors (though I don't care at all for the Kitty Pryde story element introduced at the end of the issue, which lunges into fan fiction territory).

I really like the artwork, but it seems strange that Art Adams spells his name "Nick Bradshaw" in the credits. To be fair, it's not an exact copy, but Bradshaw obviously counts Art as one of his chief influences. Since I like Adams' art (no pun intended), I like this too.

So, a good issue, but I'm still on the fence here. If this series can string together a few more solid issues like this one, I'll hang around. If not, it'll take its place on the bench next to Spider-Man and Uncanny X-Men.

Grade: B+

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Sunday, January 15, 2012

The Shade #4 (of 12)

It's distressing to hear that sales have been low for The Shade because it includes some of James Robinson's best work as he returns to the character made famous by his inclusion in Robinson's now-classic Starman series.

As I wrote in this review, The Shade is a dark, conflicted character who is now fighting (more or less) on the side of the angels.

One of the neat features in the Starman series was the occasional venture into the past, courtesy of the stories labeled "Times Past." That same method is used in this issue to illustrate a hidden part of The Shade's life, and it's a real delight.

The story, set in 1944, includes a look at the amoral Shade from years past, how he comes in conflict with some Nazis, some dark secrets he has hidden, and the Golden Age heroes he recruits to help in the fight (longtime fans will anticipate one, but the other is a complete surprise).

What's even better is that the issue is drawn by Darwyn Cooke and J. Bone, which would make this issue an instant sale for me whether or not I'd been reading it all along.

The book is great fun, with lots of twists and turns, wonderfully-realized characters and, of course, terrific artwork.

If you missed it in the "New 52" rush, you should look harder. You should be reading this comic.

Grade: A

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Saturday, January 14, 2012

Wolverine #300

I rarely read his comic book, but I've been a Wolverine fan since his first appearance in The Incredible Hulk.

He was a short, fierce fighter with an attitude - and he was willing to take on the Hulk singlehanded (though writer Len Wein threw in the Wendigo just for fun). Not long after that, Wein used the Canadian again in the "New" X-Men - and that's where Wolverine built his reputation.

Eventually, Marvel gave him his own comic series, and this issue presumably celebrates the total of all the various series that Wolvie has starred in to arrive at #300 - an impressive run for any character.

But there's a reason why I don't read the comic from month to month - the character's backstory has become so messy and his present continuity so muddled (and the character is being used to death - the fate of popular comics characters) that I finally gave up and walked away.

But, just as I'm a sucker for an issue #1, I'm also drawn to "anniversary" issues, so I thought I'd give this a try.

Thankfully, there's not a lot of missed continuity to sort out. The story has Wolverine being summoned to Japan (where he spent quite some time in the past, pre-X-Men).

There he finds himself in the middle of a three-way battle between criminal gangs: the Yakuza, the Hand and the Clan Yashida.

The sprawling tale by writer Jason Aaron keeps things moving briskly, with some clever bits of business along the way. He brings in Sabretooth, an old foe of Wolverine's - and it feels tiresome. How many times are these two going to fight?

But that's a minor quibble - the story rips right along with only a few goofy bits of business.

The art is provided by a trio of artists - Adam Kubert, Ron Garney and Steve Sanders, each tackling different chapters, and it's outstanding. Lots of over-the-top action, some raw violence - and that's about it. Still, great work here.

My only real complaint is that the story is continued at the end - all these pages and they couldn't give us a complete story? (Although maybe it's a trend - the Fantastic Four did the same thing.)

So my final point it that, after 300 issues, Wolverine hasn't changed a bit - he's still a fierce fighter with an attitude. If you like that kind of thing, here it is.

Grade: B+

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Friday, January 13, 2012

Scarlet Spider #1

My name's Chuck, and I have a weakness for First Issues.

For a long time, I would buy the first issue of almost any title - partly to try it out, and partly (I suppose) because I didn't want to take the chance on missing another Action Comics #1 (the one from the '30s, that is).

It's an impulse that has largely been whupped out of me through years of companies renumbering their titles, releasing multiple first issues, or rebooting their entire line (look at me when I'm talking to you, DC).

But this week I gave in to the impulse again and picked up the first issue of Scarlet Spider.

I should have known better - I was around to buy (and suffer through) the original Spider-Man Clone Saga. That story failed because it got too complicated and played a little too fast and loose with the Spider-Man mythos. (For a much better version of the story, read Bendis and Bagley's version in Ultimate Spider-Man.)

So here we have a new story featuring Kaine, one of the Peter Parker clones. He's on the run for reasons that escape me - they devote four pages in the back of the comic to recounting his history, but it doesn't really make it any less confusing.

Apparently he's going to become the Scarlet Spider at some point - but it hasn't happened yet as this issue draws to a close. He spends most of the issue whining about his life, vowing that he doesn't care what happens to others, and scratching things with his incredibly abrasive hands (yeah, I don't get it, either).

I can understand conflicted heroes, but our pal Kaine here is just a jerk, running away from his responsibilities (to be fair he doesn't always run away) and refusing to be the hero we all know he'll eventually have to become (or this series will have a very short run).

Ryan Stegman provides the art, and its very good, but writer Chris Yost needs to make us care about the main character. Right now Kaine is a cypher, and not a particularly interesting one.

The trick to a successful issue #1 is getting the reader to come back for issue #2, and then #3, etc.

The Scarlet Spider did not succeed in that.

Grade: B-

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Thursday, January 12, 2012

The Ray #2

As I've mentioned before, guest reviews are most welcome here. They give your pal Chuck some much-needed breathing room, and I always enjoy reading what other people think! If you're interested in writing one, send me a note at the email address on the right-hand side of this blog. Here's a guest commentary by a gifted and prolific writer I've known for quite some time.

By Evan Minsker

My relationship with comic books has been fickle for the past few years, because honestly, I'm never in a position to afford the habit. Through college, I couldn't afford to buy week to week, or really, month to month.

Thus, the comics I've read since have been in the form of trade paperback collections and full-arc miniseries. (Although I've been burned by the latter, Mike Mignola, with your "to be continued" on issue 3 of 3.)

That's probably why I bought the first issue of The Ray. It's a self-contained six issue miniseries by Jimmy Palmiotti and Justin Gray (the writing team behind Power Girl), and best of all for a non-committer like me, it's unburdened by decades of backstory. But what I got in addition is a funny series with fantastic art by Jamal Igle.

Here's the abridged origin story: The Ray is a Korean-American guy named Lucien, a lifeguard at a beach in San Diego, who is hit by an energy conductor in a botched experiment.

Now he harnesses the energy of raw light, which means he can move at light speed, his brain moves at light speed (he's much, much smarter than he was before), and he can alter his physical appearance by manipulating light.

Mysteriously, along the line of the energy blast, monsters have been popping up. In this issue, it's flying stingrays with angry looking fangs.

Obviously, the "flying superhero vs. giant monster" routine has been done approximately three bajillion times in comics, but it's done well here. The Ray has the smart aleck wit of Spider-Man and the deduction skills of Sherlock Holmes, which makes the big action sequences really fun. But of course, Lucien also has another battle on his mind - meeting his girlfriend's parents for the first time at dinner.

This one is more of a transition issue - half character study and half fight scenes - so it's hard to tell where this series will ultimately go.

But The Ray is a funny, self-aware, fresh book, so it's easy to see the character sticking around for more than four more issues.

Grade: B+

Evan Minsker writes about music for Pitchfork, eMusic, and other nice people. You can read his thoughts on music, nerdy stuff, and various Internet memes at EvanMinsker.com.

Wednesday, January 11, 2012

So Many Comics

A big day at the comics shop this week for some reason.

Here's what I picked up:

- New Avengers #20
- Battle with the Dark Avengers!

- Secret Avengers #21
- Sadly, Ellis' last issue.

- Captain America #7 - Bringing back some classic Kirby concepts!

- Green Lantern #5 - Seems to me this series is struggling.

- Journey Into Mystery #633 - While this one is a delight.

- Kull: The Cat and the Skull #4 (of 4) - The finale, and the skull revealed.

- Lobster Johnson #1 (of 5) - It's Mignola, so I'm there.

- The Ray #2 - Recommended by a friend, so I'm giving it a shot (also picked up #1).

- Resurrection Man #5 - Dead again!

- Scarlet Spider #1 - I gave in to my old weakness for First Issues.

- The Shade #4 - With art by Darwyn Cooke!

- Wolverine #300 - Suckered in by the milestone.

- Wolverine and the X-Men #4 - This one is on shaky ground. Literally!

Whew! And that's it!

The Classics - The Death of Captain Marvel

In 1982 Marvel Comics decided to get into the Graphic Novel business, which promised to be the next big thing.

In the years that followed they published some great stories and some not-so-great ones, but none was better than the first one - The Death of Captain Marvel.

It was a shocking move to kill off a mainstream hero, and they wisely turned the job over to the man who had put Captain Marvel on the map: writer/artist Jim Starlin.

I suspect they decided to "kill" CM because his history was so convoluted. He started as a Kree warrior trying to infiltrate the Earth's military to spy on our planet - but he kept finding himself forced to defend our world, and his name - Mar-Vell - was "Americanized" into Marvel.

It was a good start, but then it got weird. Marvel was given super-human powers by an odd alien creature, then he got a new red-and-blue costume and was exiled to the Negative Zone, and he could only leave when eternal sidekick Rick Jones struck the Nega-Bands on his wrist together, and then Marvel gained Cosmic Awareness and battled Thanos (this part during Starlin's excellent run on the title), then he got caught up in various alien battles, and then his comic was canceled.

So rather than sort all this out, I suspect the powers that be decided it would be easier to kill off the good Captain and bring in another hero later with the same name but a simpler origin. (Wonder how that worked out?)

Taking advantage of the greater page count and the more "adult" format, Starlin crafted an amazing, touching story where the hero faces the end not because of a villain's schemes - but rather because he has contracted cancer.

The story takes us through Marvel's slow descent as he tries to fight against the disease while making his peace with the world.

It's moving, entertaining and very well-crafted. Starlin even inked the art himself - though I have to admit that, surprisingly, the art isn't quite up to his usual work. Some of the figures are a bit stiff or the proportions seem slightly off in a few panels (perhaps he had to rush to meet the deadline?) - but those are minor quibbles when you're talking about such a powerful effort.

It was a great sign of the promise Graphic Novels held, and while later efforts couldn't quite reach the same heights, that's only because this story set the bar so high.

Grade: A

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Tuesday, January 10, 2012

Fatale #1

What a dark delight this comic is, completely defying expectations.

From the "film noir" cover to Fatale, I assumed this would be a tale of crime set in the past, with a mysterious woman at the center of deadly dealings.

Which turned out to be true, sorta.

This series is actually set in modern times and in the past, and owes as much to horror as to crime fiction.

It starts with a man whose godfather has died, leaving him in charge of the estate. Josephine walks into his life and turns it upside down, as he suffers a murderous attack and finds himself facing a dark mystery.

The story then flashes back to the past for some horrific scenes that connect to the modern tale, but in strange and unnatural ways. The story is part Mickey Spillane and part H. P. Lovecraft, and it's compelling (though certainly too mature for kids).

It's written by Ed Brubaker, who has this kind of hard-edged tale down pat. The art is provided by Sean Phillips, and it's a perfect match for this tale. It's compelling, carrying you from scene to scene and bringing each character vividly to life. There's not a super-hero suit in sight, but Phillips makes each character distinct and memorable.

So, a pleasant surprise wrapped in a dark and sinister comic. Best of all, I have no idea where the story is going, but I can't wait to find out.

Highly recommended!

Grade: A

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Monday, January 9, 2012

Avengers: X-Sanction #2 (of 4)

The second issue of this series is identical to the first, except this time around Cable fights Iron Man for reasons that escape me.

If they're going to keep giving us the same comic, there's no sense in me writing a new review. Here's what I said last time - it's just as valid for this issue:
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.
OK, one difference - it ends on a cliffhanger that hasn't been beaten to death - but it's still pretty obvious what will happen next.

But I don't expect to find out, 'cause I'm dropping this one right here.

Grade: C

Sunday, January 8, 2012

The Defenders #2

See, this is what being a Marvel Comic is all about.

You gather a team of heroes, set them up against a formidable opponent, throw in some interesting additional characters, add some humor, a bit of drama, some outstanding artwork, great action sequences - who could ask for more?

You'll find all that in this second issue of The Defenders, as the team (consisting of Dr. Strange, Namor, Silver Surfer, Red She-Hulk and Iron Fist) travel to Wundagore Mountain to try to stop Nul, the Breaker of Worlds (and the last remaining member of the Serpent's hammer-wielding demons from Fear Itself).

Of course, if you travel to Wundagore you're going to run into at least one of its inhabitants - in this case, the Knights of Wundagore (animals evolved into human form).

Naturally, mayhem ensues - and while you might think the Defenders would make short work of the Knights, the home team has the assistance of Prester John, a little-seen character who first appeared long ago in the Fantastic Four, carrying the powerful Evil Eye.

The story is great fun, the art by the Dodsons - Terry and Rachel - is terrific, with great layouts, strong designs, beautiful women, handsome men, and a good humorous touch when needed.

I also want to mention one of my favorite bits - the use of random sentences at the bottom of the page, something Marvel did for a short time in the '70s (or was it the '80s?). Here they form kind of a split-personality rambling commentary on the story, on Marvel Comics in general, or offer teasers for upcoming events. Clever and funny!

If you're not reading this comic, you're missing a good one!

Grade: A

Saturday, January 7, 2012

Uncanny X-Men #4

With great regret, I was about to drop the Uncanny X-Men series - the whole "X-Men as world killers" thing isn't working for me - but then I saw the name of the artist who drew this issue.

Brandon Peterson is an artist whose work seems like a rare treat, but he's one of those worth tracking down.

His work is dynamic, detailed and with a great grasp of the heroic ideal. I assume he doesn't tackle a monthly comic because his art is too time-consuming. He puts more into each panel than most artists spend on a page.

His work here is impressive as always, with great support from colorist Justin Ponsor.

The story is by Keiron Gillen, and it's an interesting "done-in-one" issue that gives us the story from the "bad guy's" point of view. It's a familiar menace to long-time fans, and it's a tragic and grim tale with the X-Men almost reduced to minor players.

Still, it's intelligent and well-written and raises some interesting questions.

So it might be a good finale for my interest in the series. The "next issue" ad looks like the story involves vampires, and that's enough to send me running any day.

Grade: A-

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Friday, January 6, 2012

Avengers Annual #1

See, this is one of those issues that brings out the angry old fogey hiding in my mind.

Marvel's Annuals were once things of wonder. They'd show up in the summer and feature a historic event (Reed and Sue's Wedding), a big story (all the Avengers gather together to fight a big menace), or just a fun tale (Spider-Man and Dr. Strange team up).

These days - not so much.

I can't remember the last annual that felt "special." They now seem to be slightly bigger versions of regular issues with a much bigger price tag.

This issue of Avengers Annual is a great example. It follows up on the events in the New Avengers Annual by giving us... the same exact story. Wonder Man has apparently lost his mind, he's gathered up some powerful misfits and uses them to attack the two Avengers teams.

Much destruction follows.

And that's about it. Oh, in this issue we see Wonder Man using some PR strategies, and the Avengers are apparently too stupid to realize it. You'd think they'd be used to it - Norman Osborn did the same thing during the Dark Reign, and he's doing it again in the ongoing issues of the Avengers comics - none of which, by the way, show any signs of the story in this annual happening.

Look, I'm a fan of writer Brian Bendis - this just isn't his best work at all. Artist Gabriele Dell'otto provides some strong art, but it's also dark and confusing in places.

So the issue basically features lots of destruction and some nonsense dialogue between the two sides - and in the end, no one has learned anything and nothing is different.

Except that you, the reader, are out 5 bucks.

Grade: D+

Thursday, January 5, 2012

Action Comics #5

After four issues of excellent storytelling, we arrive at issue #5 of Action Comics and find... a filler story.

Which is not to say it's a bad story at all - actually, it's excellent.

But it seems odd to have the Earth on the brink of destruction only to take a couple of months to provide some backstory.

This issue covers the oh-so-familiar ground of Superman's origin, beginning with the destruction of his home planet, how he survived and what happened when he reached Earth.

If you think you know all that, you might be surprised at what writer Grant Morrison has crafted. He uses the original concepts but then builds on it to craft a fresh, modern version of the classic tale.

The art is by Andy Kubert, and it's outstanding - a master at work.

The comic includes a backup story by writer Sholly Fisch and artist Chriscross that provides some history for Clark Kent's adopted parents - and it's a sweet story.

So, did we really need another origin story for the Man of Steel? There have been at least two other versions in recent years, but this one does offer some changes and, as the odd epilogue to the opening story indicates, it will have far-reaching effects.

I was prepared to be put off by this issue, but it won me over. Outstanding craftsmanship will do it every time.

Grade: A

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Wednesday, January 4, 2012

Comic Book Day!

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

- Action Comics #5 - Superman's origin story - again.

- Avengers Annual #1 - Wonder Man has a hissy fit.

- Avengers: X-Sanction #2 (of 4) - Iron Man vs. Cable.

- The Defenders #2 - Hey, it's Prester John!

- Fatale #1 - Accent on the femme.

- Fear Itself: The Fearless #6 (of 12) - Finally, some answers.

- Irredeemable #33 - Another origin story.

- OMAC #5
- Guest starring Frankenstein!

- Swamp Thing #5
- Getting pretty gross.

- Uncanny X-Men #4 - Brandon Peterson's doing the art? I'm there.

And that's it!

The Classics - Classics Illustrated #9

When I was a kid, my friends and I decided that whoever dreamed up the Classics Illustrated line of comics was a genius.

That's because more than one kid tried to sneak by on tests by reading the C.I. version, as opposed to actually reading the homework assignment. (Of course, since the stories were heavily edited, it often didn't end well for the kid trying this method.)

I don't remember going this route myself - I enjoyed reading too much to pass up reading the book, and the challenge was to find a copy of the Classics Illustrated comic you needed - tough to do in those days.

At some point the original series went away, but it's been revived more than once, as comics companies do their own take on those classic tales (which are all in public domain and require no rights fees, of course).

In the late '80s / early '90s First Comics took a run at it, teaming up with Berkeley Publishing to create new versions of classic tales.

This issue, printed in 1990, is one of my favorites. It adapts Mark Twain's The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, one of my favorite books - and the adaptation is handled by Mike Ploog, one of my all-time favorite artists.

The book looks like a labor of love for Ploog, too - his art has rarely been more lush, more joyful and more expressive.

Ploog shows his Will Eisner influences throughout, with wonderful, lively characters, and the Prestige format allows for great printing that highlights the colors beautifully.

So was the series a blessing or a curse? I'm not sure if the C.I. series every succeeded in pointing kids in the direction of true literature, or if it actually helped students in school more than it doomed them to poor grades.

But I do know this: there are some real treasures in the series, whichever comics age it's rooted in. Highly recommended!

Grade: A+

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Tuesday, January 3, 2012

The Mighty Thor #9

Yesterday I talked about how Captain America, in the wake of the new film, has been treated like royalty.

It's somewhat the same for fellow movie star The Mighty Thor - but not quite.

The God of Thunder also got a brand-new title with a new "#1" - but his old title was converted to Journey Into Mystery and handed over to Loki. And then there was Thor's fate at the end of Fear Itself (let's just say it wasn't pretty).

Now through means not yet explained he's been replaced in his own comic by Tanarus , who has somehow taken Thor's place throughout Marvel's continuity, so he's always been a member of the Avengers, and no one remembers Thor. Well, almost no one.

It's a twist that feels like a Silver Age plot point - especially since they've already revealed his true identity (which shall go unrevealed here). So he's been pretending to be a hero for all these years?

We get some clues about Thor's fate (though not many), and a connection is made in quite a clever way.

So while I'm obviously struggling with Matt Fraction's story, I should add that I'm more than willing to ride this one out and give him the benefit of the doubt.

The art here is something of a mixed bag, with two artists credited - Pasqual Ferry and Pepe Larraz. Some pages are lush, while others are crude and look rushed.

Is it just me, or does the art for most comics these days seem to be done by committee? Is it that difficult to maintain a monthly schedule? But I digress.

I think some of the story frustration comes from the fact that Asgard still lies in ruins almost two years after it was demolished. Should it take that long to repair? Does it seem prudent to write Odin out of the series so soon after his long-awaited return?

It's still too early to tell how this story is going to go, but so far, I'm struggling. Here's hoping for some clarification soon.

Grade: B

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Monday, January 2, 2012

Captain America #6

It's nice to see Captain America getting the red carpet treatment.

His adventures have been elevated by the excellent writing efforts of Ed Brubaker for years now, and of course Cap was the star of an entertaining feature film last year.

That led to the relaunch of his original title as Captain America & Bucky (retaining the original numbering of Cap's comic) - also an excellent comic - and the creation of a "new" Captain America comic.

The first story arc was drawn (mostly) by Steve McNiven, another terrific artist, and beginning with this issue, Alan Davis and Mark Farmer are supplying the art.

I've raved before about their work, and it's just as powerful as ever here. Clean, dynamic art, with heroic figures, great action sequences, sexy women, strong layouts - just a joy to see.

Brubaker is also more than holding up his end of the creative chores, as Cap is suffering from nightmares as a result of his recent adventure in another dimension - and more than one old menace returns to threaten Cap and his allies.

And one device that's at the heart of the threat, I must admit, made me smile. A lot.

This is very much a modern version of a classic Marvel comic, with strong writing and great artwork. It's great fun and highly recommended!

Grade: A

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