Sunday, January 31, 2010

Batman and Robin #7

Now this is what a Batman and Robin comic should be.

This issue is very much a classic Grant Morrison-written issue, as we pick up the story right in the middle and hurtle along at top speed, sorting it out as we go, until we get the the shocking finish.

Along the way we see The (New) Batman charging around London, solving a riddle and trying to save the day. We get an update on the seriously injured Robin, and have some humorous encounters with British bad guys and the Queen's Jailer, who keeps watch over that country's meta-criminals.

It all leads up to a big mystery, a surprising guest appearance and a somewhat surprising turn of events. It's clever, fast-paced and lots of fun - much more entertaining than the recent bloodbaths this title has been hosting.

The art is by Cameron Stewart, and I like the style a lot. It's a classic, clean look for Batman, with lots of attention to detail and locale - it's like a mini-tour of London. Lots of action, and the storytelling is always clear and easy to follow - good stuff!

I'm not sure how directly this all ties into the upcoming "Return of Bruce Wayne" story, but this is probably a good place to jump on (if you're not already on the bus).

I'm just sayin'.

Grade: A-

Saturday, January 30, 2010

New Avengers #61

This issue of New Avengers gives us a view of some of the action happening on the edges of the Siege mini-series.

In this case, it's yet another showdown between The Hood's henchmen and members of the (real) Avengers.

The Hood's powers have been amped up by a gift from Loki - the Norn Stones, which figured prominently in several early Thor stories. The Hood is returning the favor and increasing the power of his evil allies and setting them loose to track down the Avengers.

The focus in this issue is on two sets of heroes who happen to be hanging out - the New Captain America (Bucky) and Steve Rogers (the original model), and Spider-Man and Spider-Woman.

The scenes with the Spider duo is especially entertaining, as writer Brian Bendis provides some crackling dialogue for a very funny scene (well, most of it is funny). The two Caps provide a more action-packed sequence as they fight for their lives - and isn't it nice to see the original Cap back, if not back in costume yet.

It's not a great issue - it's just setting things up for now - but it's mostly action-packed and a lot of fun.

The art chores are divided between Stuart Immonen and Daniel Acuna, and they both turn in some strong work here.

There's not much more to say without giving too much away - but all in all, it's a decent issue - a good, dependable and entertaining comic here.

Grade: B

Friday, January 29, 2010

Green Lantern #50

It's weeks like this when I wonder if I'm wearing down.

I've been a big fan of Geoff Johns' run on Green Lantern, and I've really enjoyed Blackest Night, so I expected I would really enjoy this 50th issue of GL's adventures.

But surprisingly - not unlike yesterday's review of Captain America: Reborn - I find this to be a surprisingly average issue.

The problem is not in the art. Doug Mahnke is turning in some fine work here, with an incredible amount of detail, zillions of characters and huge, over-the-top battles.

Where the issue fails is in the story department. You really get the feeling that Johns thinks he can tackle any story and make it work.

Here he takes Hal Jordan back to two of the lowest points in that character's published history. (Most writers would avoid those, since they're downright radioactive.)

Those of you who have been reading for a while will remember when Hal went crazy, killed a bunch of people and became a villain named Parallax. (That event was so distasteful, it led me to stop collecting Green Lantern for about 10 years.)

Johns revisits the character in this issue (as the cover shows).

The other "worst" moment was when Hal became the Spectre, the spirit of vengeance. Johns finally corrected that horror in the "Rebirth" mini-series.

Johns revisits that character here, too, as we finally get the follow-up to the story following the Spectre becoming a Black Lantern in Blackest Night.

If any writer could make that story work, I would have thought Johns would be the guy - and perhaps it's too soon to make the call, since there's more to the story next issue - but on the basis of this issue, I have to say: this is the first GL issue in a long time that left me cold.

The events here don't advance the story, we don't gain any new insights - we just see Hal exercising some really poor judgment.

What a week, when both Cap and GL show up in average-at-best comics. Shocking, really.

Grade: B-

Thursday, January 28, 2010

Captain America: Reborn #6 (of 6)

There was a lot riding on this issue as it wrapped up the two-year saga of the death and rebirth of Captain America.

So there's good news and bad news. The good news is, the art really sings, and Bryan Hitch and Butch Guice provide some amazing visuals, starting with a killer cover spread (of which you only see a third here). One of the splash panels will make a dandy poster, and the issue is loaded with some great action sequences.

The bad news is, the story kind of falls flat here. After a great build-up, a clever explanation for Cap's "death" and a heck of a cliffhanger last time around, this issue's story doesn't really deliver.

Instead of a big surge to victory, Cap returns through dubious means and almost immediately gets lost in the huge crowd of heroes and villains duking it out on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial.

There are some good moments near the end setting up future storylines, but I was hoping for a more definitive and dynamic return for Marvel's greatest fighting machine.

It's all a bit anticlimactic - sort of the equivalent of having your football team win a game because the other team missed a last-second field goal attempt - you're glad for the win, but you feel like you almost didn't earn it.

I'm not arguing with the results, and I'm thrilled to have Steve Rogers back, but with Ed Brubaker writing, I expected better.

Grade: B

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

A Big Haul For Comic Book Day!

Nearly broke the bank today! I got:

- Archie #605 - The wrap-up to the wedding story.

- Astro City: Dark Ages: Book 4 #1 (of 4) - Always glad to see this comic.

- New Avengers #61 - Hey, Cap's back!

- Batman & Robin #7 - Is Batman back?

- Blackest Night: Atom & Hawkman #46 - I like the idea of these "revived" books, but the execution's been hit-and-miss.

- Captain America Reborn #6 - Hey, Cap's back!

- Fantastic Four #575 - Into the Underworld.

- Green Lantern #50 - Is Parallax back?

- Irredeemable #10 - Still darned interesting.

- Justice League of America #41 - Putting the team back together.

- Justice League: Cry for Justice #6 (of 7) - Lotsa heroes getting the crap beat out of 'em.

- Justice Society of America #35 - Hey, Mordru's back!

- The Marvelous Land of Oz #3 (of 8) - a terrific series!

- Secret Warriors #12 - Bad people at work here.

- Superman: Secret Origin #4 (of 6) - Facing Lex Luthor.

- Thor #606 - That Dr. Doom - he's everywhere!

- Ultimate Enemy #1 - There goes New York, getting blown up again.


The Classics - Daredevil #7

Here we have one of my all-time favorite comic books, ever.

I got this issue of Daredevil in trade from my friend Bruce when I was very young, and I've held onto it tightly ever since - the poor comic is terribly threadbare and barely holding together, but it's just a good a "read" as ever.

Cover dated April 1965, this issue features the first appearance of Daredevil's red-and-black costume, courtesy of Hall of Fame artist Wally Wood. He's at the top of his game here (and boy, is that saying something), as he takes us from the undersea splendor of Atlantis to the middle of Manhattan, throwing in one of the greatest fight sequences ever just for fun. When it came to detailed art, dramatic poses, powerful characters and amazing battles, Wood couldn't be beat.

Written by Stan Lee, the story begins with Namor the Sub-Mariner being coaxed into finding a way to allow Atlantis to find its rightful place in the surface world. Rather than declare war, Namor decides to try to find a peaceful solution - so he goes to New York to hire a lawyer so he can sue the human race!

By an amazing coincidence, he arrives at the law firm of Nelson and Murdock, but doesn't appreciate their advice (you can imagine what it is). Namor decides to force the surface men to take him to court by going on a rampage in the town (obviously Namor hasn't thought this thing through), which brings him into conflict with Daredevil.

The contrast between the characters is entertaining all by itself - Daredevil is light-hearted, joking, but intent on protecting the city, while Namor is a noble but destructive force of nature - and Lee and Wood get the maximum out of the humorous potential of Namor being a "fish out of water," as he struggles to cope with revolving doors and elevators, ultimately dealing with them in a straightforward (if destructive) manner.

When DD and Namor first fight, it's a relatively short battle, and as expected, Namor has little trouble dealing with the Man Without Fear. Namor surrenders to the authorities and awaits his day in court, when urgent news forces him to leave (as he proves the adage, "Iron bars do not a prison make").

Fearing Namor will hurt innocent bystanders, Daredevil again tries to stop him, and stages a battle that's amazing for its ingenuity and for the incredible courage and determination exhibited by DD.

It's easy to be a hero when you have the advantage, but as Daredevil shows here, it takes something extra to stand up against an opponent who much more powerful.

I won't spoil the ending, but up to this issue Daredevil had always been just another comic book character. After reading this adventure, I thought of him as a hero.

Grade: A+

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Blackest Night: Phantom Stranger #42

Count me as a fan of the idea behind these Blackest Night spinoffs that - for a single issue - pick up where several canceled series left off.

I was glad to see The Phantom Stranger included on that list, since I was a big fan of the Len Wein-written and Jim Aparo-drawn version of that character.

Of course, the problem is, there are really two Phantom Strangers wandering in the DC Universe.

There's the mysterious figure who works in shadow and mystery, appearing suddenly to oppose evil and disappearing just as quickly. Those are the stories I remember fondly.

Then there's the superhero Phantom Stranger, who flies, fires mystic bolts from his hands and takes a more active role in events. I'm not so crazy about that one.

Unfortunately, for this issue, we get version #2. The story picks up from the scene in Blackest Night (or was it Green Lantern?) where the Spectre becomes a Black Lantern and vows to track down Hal Jordan.

What follows is a brutal fight between the Stranger, the Blue Devil and the possessed Spectre. About halfway through, the story takes a sudden turn and the two heroes tackle a different mission involving yet another supernatural figure.

The art by Adrian Syaf (penciller) and Vincente Cifuentes (inker) is very good, with some strong layouts and powerful sequences, but the story by Peter Tomasi just doesn't hold together, and it doesn't present that title character as anything more than just another superhero.

Still, even in an average comic, it's great to see an old favorite again. Hopefully we'll see more of the old boy in the future.

Grade: C+

Monday, January 25, 2010

Power Girl #8

Back when the videogame Tomb Raider first appeared, I thought it was just a lame attempt to sell games by starring a buxom babe as the title character.

Imagine my surprise when I played it and found it to be an excellent action / adventure game! I've been a fan ever since.

I suspect the same is true of this comic. Some may be staying away thinking it's just an exploitation comic - but they're missing out on a great comic.

In past reviews I've raved about the art by Amanda Conners on Power Girl, and this cover should serve as the closing argument for any doubters out there.

Her work inside the comic is just as spectacular, as she manages great action scenes and comedic bits with great skill. But it's the body language and facial expressions that really make her work stand out above the crowd.

This issue in particular is a great combination of funny and sexy, as Power Girl finds herself in an intense battle alongside Vartox the Hyper-Man. They're faced with the Ix Negaspike, a nearly indestructible planet-killing creature.

And even if she survives that battle, can she withstand the amorous overtones of Vartox, who needs her help to repopulate his planet?

The story by Jimmy Palmiotti and Justin Gray manages to be both funny while walking the fine line between what's acceptable in a mainstream comic and what's not (although Vartox's dinner outfit may cross that line).

It's especially fun to see a super-heroine who is confident, clever and in control - but also has a strong sense of fun. The story takes some unexpected turns and provides lots of laughs along the way.

This really is an underrated comic. I suspect some readers may be staying away from it thinking it's just another title running on sex appeal alone - but the art is great, the stories are enjoyable - don't avoid it just because the title character is incredibly sexy!

Grade: A-

Sunday, January 24, 2010

Captain America #602

Here we have another issue with Captain America's name on it appearing before the final issue of the Captain America: Reborn mini-series.

Ordinarily I'd set this aside and wait to read this in order, but I figure I should take a look so I can warn everyone about any possible spoilers. The good news is, other than the fact that Steve Rogers is back (something that's already been spoiled by at least five other issues within the past few weeks), you're safe to read this issue - Steve doesn't appear in it at all, and is only mentioned in passing.

Instead the issue focuses on a storyline that's been hanging for a while - the Cap from the 1950s is active again. He's gone crazy and has joined up with a home-grown terrorist group in Idaho called The Watchdogs.

Bucky is still wearing the Cap uniform, so he sets out to capture the '50s Cap with the Falcon. They arrive in Idaho in time to observe an event that seems to have nothing to do with the story - it's an anti-tax protest, with hundreds of people marching in the streets.

The Falcon says, "I guess the whole 'hate the government' vibe around here isn't limited to the Watchdogs."

You know, I certainly don't want to bring politics into this blog (we'll leave that stuff to the MSNBC and Fox channels - neither one of which I watch), but does taking part in a tax protest equal hating the government? The comment (and some of the protest signs) would lead one to think that writer Ed Brubaker is taking a few ill-disguised shots against the Tea Party crowd. That's his right, of course, but it seems like he's laying it on thick. Is he really saying that everyone in rural America is a right-wing nut? Maybe I'm just reading too much into it.

The art by Luke Ross and Butch Guice is excellent as always (though the panel where the "bad" Cap throws his shield at a police car and it explodes seems a bit much).

This issue also features a backup story with Nomad teaming up with Arana, and it's pretty forgettable. Better to lose the backup and keep the comic at $2.99.

Grade: B

Saturday, January 23, 2010

The Incredible Hulk #606

So it's obvious that the mega-events in comics are here to stay.

In fact, the companies love them so much that they run more than one in any given month. At Marvel, they're running the Fall of the Hulks at the same time as Siege.

But where Siege is mostly self-contained, this Hulk storyline is running over a dozen issues, including one-shots, The Incredible Hulk, Hulk and Red Hulk.

So here's how I look at that sort of thing: I'm immune. If it's a story that I find interesting or compelling, I might pick up some of the ancillary titles that are riding the coattails of the main event. (I did that with Blackest Night and Secret Invasion, to name two.)

But if it's a story that doesn't really strike up my interest, I'll just continue to buy the comics I usually collect and assume I'll be able to figure it out as I go. I've been doing this for years, and it's worked fine so far.

So with the Fall of the Hulks, I'm only reading The Incredible Hulk (and I almost missed it this week, because the special branding left the title very small indeed).

So as near as I can tell, the battle lines are being drawn between a group called The Intelligencia (which includes The Leader, MODOK, The Mad Thinker and others) and the ever-growing Hulk Family.

Bruce Banner has been training his son, Skaar, to prepare him for the challenges ahead. And in this issue, he faces a big one, as Banner and son take on Dr. Doom, who is apparently showing up in every single Marvel Comic this month (how crowded his daily planner must be)!

The reason I've been buying this series is because it's written with wit and intelligence, and just when you think you know where the story is going, writer Greg Pak throws in a delightful curve. He's made Banner into a figure almost as fearsome as the Hulk - and that's saying something.

The art for this issue is provided by Paul Pelletier, and he turns in some powerful, high-energy work, with a great battle sequence between the Hulk and Dr. Doom.

This issue's a lot of fun. In fact, it's almost good enough to lure me into checking out the rest of the event's titles.


Grade: B+

Friday, January 22, 2010

Blackest Night: The Flash #2 (of 3)

Most of the Blackest Night spin-offs and tie-ins have followed the same formula, but Blackest Night: The Flash is the exception.

That's because it fits snugly in continuity between the last issue of Blackest Night and (presumably) the next issue. Here we find Barry (The Flash) Allen fighting for his life against friends and foes who have been resurrected as Black Lanterns.

But Barry has also changed (in a way I won't spoil) and wields a surprising power that's effective against his zombified opponents.

And there's another story running alongside that one, as we see what happens when the living members of the Flash's Rogues Gallery track down the dead Rogues - and there are several of them.

What follows is a heck of a fight with lots of emotional impact and a big twist at the end (at least it feels like a twist).

It's great to see writer Geoff Johns and artist Scott Kolins working together again - they're both on their game in this fast-paced, high-impact story.

Almost every Blackest Night tie-in has been forgettable - but this series, thankfully, is the exception.

Grade: A-

Thursday, January 21, 2010

Dark Avengers #13

Count me among the innumerable fans who really don't care for The Sentry.

That's not so much because of the original version, which appeared in a mini-series, but more because of what's been done with him since then. He's become a whiner, a nut job, completely undependable and, for reasons unknown until this issue, willing to work with Norman Osborn and his Dark Avengers.

Perhaps we don't like him because he's too powerful (he was apparently designed to be "Marvel's Superman"), or because he's not all there, or perhaps it's because his origin is so convoluted - he got his power from a freakish experiment, he's in constant fear of his dark side, The Void, taking over and destroying the world, he keeps getting destroyed and coming back to life.

So after all that we come to this issue, which focuses entirely on The Sentry. "Oh great," I thought to myself. But then I read the issue, and I have to say, I'm impressed.

Because here we finally get some answers. Not only does writer Brian Bendis explain the character's backstory and true origin, but he clears up some of the big questions, like: How did The Sentry survive being shot in the face by his wife? And why is he working with Osborn?

On top of all that, he sets some story events in motion that will absolutely shock some readers, as he walks a very fine line between storytelling and... well, sacrilege. It's a brave move, and it's going to be interesting to see where it goes from here.

The art by Mike Deodato is tremendous as always, and he uses a stunning black-and-white style for the flashback scenes (it looks like it's reproduced from the pencils, but I may be wrong there). Outstanding work.

It looks like Bendis is using the "parallel stories" method in the titles that run alongside Siege - or at least in Dark Avengers - and so far, it's very good indeed. Recommended!

Grade: A

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Comic Book Day!

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

- Dark Avengers #13 - Give them credit for making The Sentry an interesting character - and a sacrilegious one!

- Avengers vs. Agents of Atlas #1 (of 4)
- This looks like fun.

- Blackest Night: The Flash #2 (of 3) - Some interesting twists (and lost of Rogues) here.

- Blackest Night: The Phantom Stranger #42 - Always liked this character. Must be the hat and the medallion.

- Blackest Night: Starman #81 - Another comic I really liked, though this one apparently focuses on The Shade. That's OK.

- Captain America #602
- One more week to the final issue of "Reborn," right?

- Green Lantern Corps #44 - More fighting, I'll betcha.

- The Incredible Hercules #140 - The most underrated comic around.

- The Incredible Hulk #606 - Another good one, though I could care less about the whole Fall of the Hulks story.

- Power Girl #8 - OK, maybe this one is the most underrated comic.

- Solomon Kane: Death's Black Riders #1 (of 4) - Glad to see this one back again.

- Spider-Woman #5 - This one is building nicely.

- Uncanny X-Men #520 - Lots going on here, which is nice.

And that's it!

The Classics - The Legion of Super-Heroes #290

It's always fun to be on board with a comic when a creative team turns a corner and creates a story that's destined to become a classic.

That wasn't the case with me on The Legion of Super-Heroes when writer Paul Levitz and artists Keith Giffen and Larry Mahlstedt first started working together. I had drifted away from the Legion at the time, and it took me a while to track down those first issues.

Luckily, I had quickly been tipped off and was reading it when The Great Darkness Saga began with this issue, cover dated August 1982.

Like many team books, the Legion was usually an entertaining read - but this series catapulted the comic into the rarified air of "comics you must not miss."

The story has the Legion investigating a break-in, as a strange and powerful shadow creature steals a mystic artifact (don't miss "Dr. Strange's" cameo). That leads the team on a chase around the world, and further encounters with other shadow creatures that are stealing powerful artifacts for a mysterious master - and the Legion seems helpless to stop them.

One reason for the success of this story was the outstanding writing by Levitz (which is one reason why fans are happy to hear he's returning to the team). Under his guidance the Legion faced worthy foes, mysterious opponents (such as the incredibly powerful menace behind the Darkness), developed relationships, experienced personal drama, and lived in an exotic and well-developed future reality.

Another reason for its success was the fantastic art by Giffen and Mahlstedt. They had done great work before this series, but their style was a perfect match for this title, thanks to their arcane style and vivid imaginations. This future was filled with amazing architecture, strange alien races and stunning panoramas.

You can tell when a creative team has a strong effect on a series, because their style resonates in the comic for years after the team has moved on. That was certainly the case here, as the Legion stepped up to the next level of storytelling, beginning right here - and the future was never the same again.

Grade: A

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Blackest Night - The Power of SHAZAM #48

When I buy a comic book that's not on my "ongoing" list, I usually thumb through it quickly to make sure it's one I want to buy.

Not this issue. I was a big fan of the original comic, The Power of SHAZAM!, so I naturally assumed I'd want to read this one. Silly me.

Not only is Jerry Ordway (the writer and artist on the original title) nowhere to be seen, but the issue contains only a tiny amount of actual SHAZAM content.

Instead of focusing on the Marvel Family (as in the original Captain Marvel, natch), this issue is all about the Black Lantern named Osiris, who was a member of the Black Adam Family before his death in the weekly 52 series.

Unfortunately, that was a series I didn't buy (yes, I know, it was a good one). Instead I bought the Countdown series - yet another mistake.

The good news is, we do get a glimpse of the de-powered Billy and Mary Batson - for all of about seven panels.

The rest of it is given over to the afterlife of Osiris, who seems to be able to withstand the control of the Black Power Ring.

My opinion of the issue is no doubt colored (sorry) by my disappointment in the content, but the story by Eric Wallace ends up going nowhere. I do like Don Kramer's art, but he's expending effort in a lost cause.

Unless you're a 52 or Blackest Night completist, I'd pass on this one.

Grade: C-

Monday, January 18, 2010

Marvel Adventures Super Heroes #19

This was an impulse purchase, based on a few things:

1) The fact that the Marvel Adventures Super Heroes comics are almost always a fun, "alternate universe" version of the Marvel characters;

2) A quick scan of the issue revealed several favorite characters, including Thor, Silver Surfer, Captain America and Iron Man;

3) According to the cover, this issue focuses on the Invisible Woman (another fave);

4) And I love the cover artwork by Niko Henrichon.

So then I read it, and found it to be something of a "hit and miss" kinda issue. For one, the cover lies. Nowhere in this story does Susan Storm whup up on an army of super-villains. I've always liked her character because she has the potential to be one of the most dangerous heroes around, and I thought this issue might demonstrate that.

Nope! She's just another character in this odd grouping of Avengers, and only gets a few panels of attention. Pity.

The same is true of all those heroes I mentioned - Thor gets a nice moment, but otherwise it's mostly quick cameos for all involved.

The story by Paul Tobin isn't bad, as the Silver Surfer seems to have lost his mind - he's trying to kill the villainous Plant Man - and the Avengers have to find a way to stop one of the galaxy's most powerful creatures. But the solution is a bit over-convenient.

The art is OK, with some flashes of greatness here and there - but the team of artists at work here seem to be mostly interested in squeezing as many heroes into each panel as possible.

The Marvel Adventures line is winding down, as Marvel prepares to reboot the series - and while this issue wasn't outstanding, it wasn't bad, either - and it should provide a good starting point for young readers.

Grade: C+

Sunday, January 17, 2010

Sending Help To Haiti

Not a usual topic for this blog, but this is a matter that needs your attention.

If you're looking for a way to offer some help to those suffering in Haiti, let me offer a recommendation: I've volunteered with my local branch of The Salvation Army for more than a decade, and it's an outstanding organization - one of the best in terms of getting help where it's needed, and quickly.

They're on the scene in Haiti right now, and they could use your help. You can make a donation at this website:, or you can make a donation to your local chapter and they'll forward it to the International effort. Clothing and other material donations should be processed through your local unit.


Aliens vs. Predator: Three World War #1

Should I admit that the original Alien movie was the most frightening movies I'd ever seen (up to that point)? I saw it at the theater when it was first released.

At one point my date actually screamed and ran into the theater lobby - I finally calmed her down and we returned to see the rest of the film, although she kept her eyes closed through most of it (I looked away a couple of times, too - just to check on her, of course).

The Predator movie was a bit more straightforward, and was way over the top, but it was good fun just the same.

If I'm remembering correctly, the idea of crossing the two franchises came from Dark Horse comics, and the studio executive approved it after realizing it was "just like" Godzilla vs. King Kong.

So it was years ago that the two alien races first clashed in the comics (the movie followed several years later).

The basis of the original comic story was that the Predators hunted the bug-like Aliens as a rite of passage, with some unfortunate humans caught in the middle.

Now that concept is back - with a twist - in Aliens vs. Predator: Three World War.

Guiding the story is original series writer Randy Stradley and original artist Rick Leonardi, both in top form here. It's a fast-paced, action-packed issue which sets the stage for the mini-series, as a human outpost is attacked by both Aliens and Predators - neither one acting in a normal fashion.

The series brings back Machiko Noguchi, a confident leader who happens to be the only human to have spent time living and hunting with the Predators.

Personally, I enjoy these mash-ups (or team-ups or crossovers or whatever you want to call them), and by bringing in some fresh twists and lots of action, this one is off to a very promising start.

Grade: A-

Saturday, January 16, 2010

S.W.O.R.D. #3

I find that I'm still not quite sure how I feel about S.W.O.R.D.

The comic revolves around the Sentient World Observation and Response Department, a government organization designed to protect the Earth from alien threats. It's run by Commander Abigail Brand (who first appeared in the Astonishing X-Men comic), and she's a fun character - tough, decisive and a natural leader.

Her partner is Hank McCoy, the Beast (from the X-Men, natch), and he's also a good addition to the book if you can get past the odd, long-snouted, cartoonish look artist Steven Sanders has given him.

The first storyline in the book has long-time lout Henry Gyrich taking command of the satellite headquarters of S.W.O.R.D. and setting out to capture and deport all the aliens on Earth.

Thanks to the help of an extremely intelligent alien, he may just succeed - but Brand and the Beast are doing their best to gum up the works.

Helping them is Kitty Pryde's "pet" dragon, Lockheed, and this is one of the story elements I'm struggling with. When the creature first appeared in a long-ago issue of X-Men, Lockheed was depicted as an alien pet that "adopted" Kitty. It demonstrated some basic intelligence, but no more than the average dog. It was the perfect pet for a team of mutants.

But in this comic, Lockheed is presented as a full-blown alien, talking an (untranslated) language that only two can understand. In this issue he helps sabotage Gyrich's efforts and outwits an army of hapless guards. It strikes me as a radical reinvention of a beloved character just for shock value (but maybe I missed an earlier reinvention somewhere along the line).

It reminds me of the attempt to make the Inhuman's pet Lockjaw into an intelligent creature - it was just silly.

At any rate, writer Kieron Gillen has assembled a decent story here with a few good twists and a large cast of characters, but it remains to be seen if the whole thing will come together or keel over under its own weight. It has the potential to go either way.

Here's hoping for the former.

Grade: B

Friday, January 15, 2010

Adventure Comics #6

With this comic, you get the feeling that the creative team has just been making up the story as it went along.

Which is not to say it's been bad - it just seems to be a bit on the thin side.

For four of the first six issues we've been following the progress of the newly-revived Superboy as he gets his bearings, examines his own life and makes friends in Smallville.

Two issues were handed over to Superboy-Prime (ptooey), and some of the issues featured a back-up with the Legion of Super-heroes.

This issue wraps up the run by writer Geoff Johns and artist Francis Manapul, and while I've really enjoyed the art, the story doesn't stand out at all.

This issue is all about Superboy's encounter with Lex Luthor, who contributed some genetic material to our hero's creation, making him something like a half-father to Superboy, which has caused no small amount of concern. (Can evil be inherited?)

Luthor's out to prove a point, so Superboy ends up on a scavenger hunt of sorts, which takes him through time and across the planet.

It's a decent enough story, but aside from the inclusion of Krypto, there's not much here to recommend it. It's a one-note story with a few twists but no great revelations.

Not bad, but not up to the usual Johns standards. I had hoped for more.

Grade: B-

Thursday, January 14, 2010

The Invincible Iron Man #22

While The Invincible Iron Man has been outstanding under writer Matt Fraction, artist Salvador Larroca and colorist Frank D'Armata, the Stark: Disassembled storyline isn't quite working for me.

That's because Iron Man's adventures are traditionally anchored in the real world of science and technology, and this storyline is stepping outside those bounds.

Here's the deal: last issue, several Avengers gathered to try to "resurrect" Tony Stark. Tony had deliberately wiped his mind clean to prevent Norman Osborn from getting his hands on vital information that would put Stark's fellow superheroes in danger.

But Tony left behind instructions to allow his friends to "reboot" his mind - but the procedure was kinda silly. It involved wiring Tony to Captain America's shield and having Thor funnel a lightning bolt into it.

It was a great visual, but does it really make sense? I'm dubious.

In this issue, the team takes an even further step away from science - but I don't want to spoil the details here.

Despite these quibbles, I enjoyed this issue. The art is terrific, and the story continues to move toward Tony's return, which I'm certainly looking forward to.

I just wish we could get there with a little more tech and a lot less mumbo jumbo.

Grade: B

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

New Comics Day!

Here's my reading material for the week:

- Adventure Comics #6 - Superboy, Krypto and Lex Luthor - sounds like fun!

- Alien vs. Predator: Three World War #1 (of 6) - I advise staying out of the middle of that fight.

- Black Panther #12 - Trying to decide when to jump off here. Not bad, but not great anymore either.

- Blackest Night: The Power of SHAZAM! #48 - The old bait and switch. I thought it was going to be about the Marvel Family, but instead it focuses on characters from 52 (which I must admit, I didn't read). Bleh.

- The Invincible Iron Man #22 - Stark's on the road back.

- Marvel Adventures #19 - bought on a whim - it just looks like fun.

- The Marvels Project #5 (of 8) - Very good so far.

- Strange #3 (of 4) - A bit uneven, but I'll stick to the end here.

- SWORD #3 - Not bad so far.

and Alter Ego #91 - an interesting mix o' stuff as always.

And that's it!

The Classics - Spawn #1

I admit that here I'm using the word "Classics" in a somewhat different sense than usual.

Spawn made quite a splash when it first appeared, cover dated May 1992. It was one of the "first wave" of new titles from the just-born Image Comics, and of all those titles it probably had the most impact.

Its creator was Todd McFarlane, probably the most popular of the handful of artists who split from Marvel Comics and formed their own company. He had enjoyed huge success with Spider-Man, but he left it behind to create his own comic and his own company, and it worked - he became quite wealthy and even famous.

Spawn was a success for a number of reasons - but mostly because McFarlane was the hottest creator in comics. His art was unique, with strong layouts, piles of imagination in evidence, tons of detail and style to spare.

The character had a striking look, a mysterious background and a cape that went on forever. It became the torchbearer of the grim and gritty style (which was all the rage at the time).

What it didn't have was strong writing. The mystery carried it for a while, but the story was too thin to hold up for long. Spawn was actually Al Simmons, a soldier who died and was brought back to life by supernatural means, and given virtually limitless powers - for some reason or another. Basically, he used them to kill lots of bad guys.

The biggest problem with the comic was that Spawn was just too powerful - he could literally do anything and survive any punishment. In a later issue, he's actually chopped into pieces - and he survives.

I lasted about a dozen issues into this series before giving up (although I did read a few issues here and there after that). But there's no denying its success - spawning (sorry) a toy factory, an HBO cartoon, a live-action film (which was pretty bad, but had its moments) and tons of merchandise - oh yeah, and the comic is still being published today.

I know, I'm shocked, too.

McFarlane hoped Spawn would be his Superman, Batman or Spider-Man - and in some ways, he succeeded. There's still a question of how long the character will continue to hang around, but McFarlane has defied expectations before, so it wouldn't surprise me to see Spawn making a return to the public eye at some point.

It's not my cup of tea, but as the old saying goes, your mileage may vary.

Grade: C+

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Mass Effect: Redemption #1

It's amazing to realize that video games are a relatively new creation - or at least, one that came along in my lifetime.

The gaming industry has grown from being a crude competitor for board games to being one of the biggest money-making industries in the world, surpassing even films and television.

One of the reasons for that success has been the increasing sophistication of those games. Playing a game today drops you into another world, one where you're in control (to a certain extent).

In the early days of games, the companies often turned to comics for their inspiration, cranking out adaptations of super-hero adventures - most were terrible, but a few were quite good.

These days the formula has turned around and comic books are creating spin-off titles based on popular games. This Dark Horse comic is based on the hugely popular science fiction epic Mass Effect.

The comic ties into the recently-released Mass Effect 2, as writers Mac Walters (the lead writer on the game) and John Jackson Miller tell the story of the search for Commander Shepard.

The commander's companion, the blue-skinned Dr. Liara T'Soni, is searching for him, but she's not the only one looking, as other galactic heavy-hitters are involved.

The art is by Omar Francia with colors by Michael Atiyeh, and they're a terrific team. The action really pops off the page, and the design is strong and inventive. And even though you're hit with dozens of aliens right from the start, the storytelling is clear and easy to follow.

As a long-time fan of space adventure stories, I really enjoyed this - even though (much as I hate to admit it) I've never played Mass Effect (1 or 2). Still, if this issue is any indication, I need to break down and give it a try.

If you're a fan of the game, this is a must read. If you're just a fan of great art and space adventure, you'll want to check it out, too.

Grade: A-

Monday, January 11, 2010

Jon Sable, Freelance: Ashes of Eden #4 (of 5)

Mike Grell is one of those comic creators who seems to wander randomly in and out of the world of comics.

Luckily, at the moment he's going through an "in" phase, as witness his return to DC's Warlord comic and the return of his classic character, Jon Sable, Freelance.

About the only character Sable can be compared to is James Bond - they're both "normal" men who happen to be extraordinarily good at getting into trouble, taking a lot of punishment, dishing out punishment, and finding a way to survive and solve mysteries along the way. They also attract more than their share of beautiful women.

This series is particularly hard-hitting, since it sits outside the old Comics Code restrictions. The violence is more brutal and bloody than before, and partial nudity is on display here.

It's a rougher fare than the original comic demonstrated when the character first appeared in 1983, but the stories are just as strong, the art is excellent and the characters just as compelling.

Like in The Warlord, Grell seems to be working hard to include every single supporting character from the comic's earlier run, but they're such an interesting bunch, it's hard to complain.

Here we find Sable in a tough spot - he's been captured by a mysterious group of thugs who are torturing him for information. The problem is, he doesn't have the information they're looking for. Or does he?

The mini-series has included some flashbacks to the origin of the character, so this series is recommended as a good jumping-on point (but only if you pick up the whole series).

The good news is, your local comic shop should be able to order all the issues of this mini-series if you've missed them - at least mine did. So far, this series is living up to the past run of the comic - and that's high praise, indeed.

Grade: A-

Sunday, January 10, 2010

JSA All-Stars #2

It's always discouraging when a comic book you like doesn't live up to its potential.

The Justice Society comic has been one of DC's best for years, but it had a problem - it had become top-heavy, with too many characters on the roster.

Instead of thinning out the ranks, DC's solution was to split the team and start a second title, but so far my feelings are mixed on JSA All-Stars.

It's not a bad comic, but so far it's not living up to the original. This comic centers around a strike force - the team that hits first and asks questions later.

The problem is, so far hitting is all the team has done. The first two issues have been all about big battles with teams of super-villains, so you need a scorecard to keep up with the characters.

Team books are fun for the characters interaction, but here we just get lots of scenes of people yelling at each other. Is this a team you'd want to join? Hopefully writer Matthew Sturges can give us some more character time in future issues.

My feelings are mixed about the art by Freddie Williams II. Some pages have powerful shots and some have awkward layouts and anatomy. And there are way too many splash scenes of heroes or villains posing in mid-air, about to attack. It's all very Image-y, I suppose.

For our extra buck (the issue costs $3.99) we get a back-up story with Liberty Belle and Hourman, two characters I like a lot - but the story is the worst kind of mystery, because it makes no sense (or at least doesn't make you care). The two heroes find two super-villains at a murder scene, and then take their word that they didn't do it.

I was looking forward to having two different comics starring the JSA, but if this one doesn't get its act together, I'll soon be back to buying just one issue a month.

Grade: C-

Saturday, January 9, 2010

Ultimate Spider-Man #6

Keep in mind that I'm a huge fan of this comic - but for once, this one suffers in comparison to the original.

By an amazing coincidence, I reviewed The Amazing Spider-Man #25 just four days ago, and it's the basis for this issue of Ultimate Spider-Man. At least that's where the "bad guy" first appeared.

Of course, writer Brian Bendis takes the story in a completely different direction, just as he is doing with the whole comic. Instead of being about a solitary hero, this comic has become a team comic.

In the wake of the devastation of Ultimatum (ptooey), Aunt May finds herself running a boarding house for wayward super-heroes, including the Human Torch and Iceman. It's a very different take on the adventures of Spidey, and so far it's a lot of fun.

But where the original Spider-Slayer story was loaded with fun and adventure, as Spider-Man faced an unbeatable foe, this issue treats the Slayer as a throwaway opponent - no real laughs, no twist ending, just some violence and destruction.

There are lots of good things about the comic - the interactions between the new crowd of heroes suddenly living in Aunt May's house is a lot of fun, we see the answer to a mystery that's been around since the first issue, and the art by David Lafuente is excellent as always.

It stays at the top of my list - but this issue suffers in comparison to the original Stan Lee / Steve Ditko comic.

But don't feel bad - 99 percent of the comics in existence also fail to live up to that classic.

Grade: B-

Friday, January 8, 2010

The Siege #1 (of 4)

I really, really want this mini-series to be good.

That's mostly because I'm really, really tired of the never-ending series of mega-events in the Marvel Universe (nor are you without sin, DC), and I'm even more tired of the interminable Dark Reign storyline.

The Siege has a lot going for it. It's supposedly the big wrap-up to seven years of big events. We will presumably see Norman Osborn and the Dark Avengers get what they have coming to them.

And the comic has a terrific creative team. Writing it is Brian Bendis, who has shown a lot of skill when it comes to these big events. Drawing it is Olivier Coipel (with Mark Morales inking and Laura Martin on colors), and his work has carried Thor to new heights. His work here is also excellent.

So how is the story so far? Well, it's... OK.

Of course, the first issue is all set-up. Urged on by Loki, Norman decides it's time to attack Asgard, and Loki provides the reason, as Volstagg is attacked by the U-Foes.

The story immediately goes way over the top, as the attack ends with a massive explosion in Soldier Field (the home field of my beloved Chicago Bears) - apparently during a game, which means we may have witnessed the death (or mutilation at least) of about 60,000 people - 20 times the number killed (in the real world) on Sept. 11, 2001!

The comic almost jumps the tracks there for me - it's just a heinous act and too horrible to be a throw-away scene. For me, I guess, it's still too soon for that sort of thing.

The rest of the story details the attack by Osborn and his evil cohorts on Asgard, which seems virtually defenseless against them. The Asgard of Lee and Kirby wouldn't put up with this out of any number of super-villains. I'm just sayin' is all.

Anyway, the story succeeds in amping up the scale of the good guy / bad guy conflict at the heart of the Dark Reign, and I'm certainly anxious to see the next issue - especially after the (somewhat odd) cliffhanger here.

And Bendis - don't screw this up. Please.

Grade: B+

Thursday, January 7, 2010

Blackest Night #6 (of 8)

Running a bit late with this one, but my comics shop owner took a rare vacation last week, so this issue of Blackest Night wasn't available (to me) until today.

Somewhat surprisingly, not a whole lot happens in this issue, though there are some impressive scenes and the stage is set for the final run toward the finish.

The issue begins with the heroes of Earth in a bad spot - Nekron has "reclaimed" all the heroes who have returned from the dead (and there's a mess of 'em), with only two holdouts - Green Lantern and The Flash - and two Black Lantern rings are closing in on them.

I have to admit, as a longtime Silver Age fan I'm really enjoying that the focus of this series has been on Hal Jordan, Barry Allen, Ray (The Atom) Palmer and Aquaman's wife, Mera (a sadly underused character).

The series is showing a new audience why those characters are beloved, and I'm really enjoying it.

Kudos to writer Geoff Johns for keeping this series moving along briskly (even though this issue features quite a bit of moving the pieces into place).

Artist Ivan Reis is doing phenomenal work here, with amazing detail and power on display - all delivered on schedule! And that two-page spread with John Stewart in space, trying to outrun a few million Black Lanterns, is breathtaking.

So another strong issue, and I even love the ads in the back of the comic for the one-shot spinoff issues like The Atom and Hawkman, The Phantom Stranger and Starman (among others) - lots of fun, and once again giving a boost to some Silver Age favorites.

What's not to like?

Grade: A-

Wednesday, January 6, 2010

The First New Comics for 2010!

Ah, finally, we have some new comics to look at (and one that's a week old for some of you). Here's what I picked up today:

- Blackest Night #6 (of 8) - A colorful issue.

- Blackest Night: Suicide Squad #67 - It's about time that issue showed up!

- Conan the Cimmerian #17 - More goodness with Truman and Giorello.

- Doom Patrol #6 - Flashback time!

- GrimJack: The Manx Cat #6 (of 6) - Friends shouldn't let friends get possessed by demons.

- JSA All-Stars #2 - So far, so good.

- Jon Sable, Freelance #4 (of 5) - Great to see Mike Grell being active in comics again.

- Jonah Hex #51
- Also glad to see Dick Giordano's art.

- Siege #1 (of 4) - Looks like all heck is breaking loose.

- Ultimate Spider-Man #6 - The Spider-Seeker just doesn't seem right without J. Jonah Jameson's face.

- The Warlord #10 - Hey, it's Mike Grell again (writing and drawing the cover, at least).

And that's it!

Classics #1 - The Amazing Spider-Man #33

The number one issue on my list of "The Top 10 Spider-Man comics by Stan Lee and Steve Ditko" should come as no surprise to anyone who's familiar with their work. It's not only the best issue by that team - it's also one of the all-time greatest comic books.

"The Final Chapter" is one of those amazing issues where ever element works perfectly. It's the wrap-up to a multi-issue story that revolved around the villain known as The Master Planner, who had stolen a vital serum needed to save Aunt May, who is in the hospital, her life hanging by a thread.

Last issue Spidey had his big fight with the bad guy, whose identity was revealed (I won't spoil it for you here, because that character doesn't appear in this issue). Their fight was in the bad guy's underwater lair, and the main support was smashed in the fight, sending tons of machinery crashing down and trapping our hero.

As water leaks into the room, he can see the serum just out of reach, and he faces not only death, but the possibility that he'll fail to save Aunt May, just as he failed to save his Uncle Ben.

The five-page sequence that starts this issue depicts the heroic resolve of the hero in a pure, inspiring sequence that could only be depicted in an illustrated format. Only in a comic could there be room for the slow build, the dialogue, the pacing required to make this scene so effective.

Ditko's plot and art are at their zenith, with detail and emotion spilling off the page. You can feel Spider-Man's resolve, the strain he's under, and the monumental effort of lifting the machinery.

But the sequence wouldn't work without Lee's script. His dialogue and captions amplify Spider-Man's struggle to lift that impossible weight, to find a way to succeed when there seems no way out.

Without a doubt, it's one of the most memorable sequences in comic book history, and it cemented Spider-Man as a hero with the character to tackle any challenge.

And that isn't even the end of the story - Spidey still has to escape the flood, fight a small army of bad guys, help devise a cure for Aunt May and deliver it in time, all in addition to helping the police, getting some photos of the arrest for the Daily Bugle, and talking Jameson into a fair price for his photos.

Together, Stan Lee and Steve Ditko produced many amazing stories - lots of fantasy and science fiction shorts, and a couple of years of Dr. Strange adventures (among others) - but their mark on history was made in The Amazing Spider-Man, and this issue was the best of the bunch.

And brother, that's saying something.

Grade: A+

Tuesday, January 5, 2010

Classics #2 - The Amazing Spider-Man #25

Taking second place in my list of "Top 10 Spider-Man comics by Stan and Steve" is the issue titled "Captured by J. Jonah Jameson!"

It's a comic that reminds me of one of my Dad's favorite sayings: "Nothing will get you in trouble faster than your big, fat mouth."

It's advice that Peter Parker has to learn the hard way. While at the offices of the Daily Bugle, Peter sees a scientist trying to show Jameson an invention that's guaranteed to stop Spider-Man.

Jameson thinks he's a kook, but Peter sees a chance to get J.J.J.'s goat, so he hounds his boss into letting the inventor demonstrate his creation, and Peter rapidly realizes that Smythe is no crackpot - his robot is a genuine threat!

The robot projects an image of the person at the controls onto a facescreen, so we soon see this robot chasing Spider-Man across town, with Jameson's gleeful, horrific face gloating every step of the way.

As Smythe predicted, Spider-Man can't fight the robot (it's too strong), he can't outrun it (it never tires), and he can't hide from it, because it tracks him by his spider impulses (whatever those are).

The cross-town battle is amazing to watch, and the ending is a pure delight.

And let me say what an ingenious creation Jameson is. With most villains, the hero beats them and throws them in jail. But Jameson is not really evil, he's just petty and annoying and a constant thorn in Spider-Man's side. He's the perfect straw man.

Since he's just an annoying blowhard, he can show up in every issue, making problems for Spider-Man (or Peter Parker), creating dramatic problems to be overcome, without the writer having to worry about making sure he's punished. He's the Vince McMahon of comics (a reference for all you wrestling fans out there).

At this point in the series, Lee and Ditko are really hitting their stride. Ditko's art is masterful, moving from soap opera antics to high-flying acrobatics without missing a beat.

Lee also manages to combine comedy, drama and human interest into a perfect blend.

This issue is also notable because it's the first time we "see" Mary Jane Watson, although her face is hidden. For the first time we realize she's a beauty - something Peter won't find out for about a year!

So how do you beat a nearly-perfect issue of Spider-Man? Be here tomorrow and we'll look at the perfect issue.

Grade: A+

Classics #3 - The Amazing Spider-Man #15

Third place on my list of "Top 10 Spider-Man comics by Stan Lee and Steve Ditko" goes to a sentimental favorite (which also happens to be a great comic), titled "Kraven the Hunter!"

It's a sentimental favorite for a simple reason - this is the first issue of The Amazing Spider-Man I bought.

In Elementary School my friends and I often talked about comics, and one of them - no idea who (John? Ben? Don? Doug, maybe?) - mentioned that he had tried Spider-Man's comic and really liked it.

I had seen it in newsstands before - I distinctly remember seeing issue #9, for instance - but while I had been picking up Marvel comics like the Fantastic Four and the Avengers, I had resisted Spider-Man - the character just seemed strange, with an odd costume - and the art was out of the ordinary.

Then I saw this issue and decided to give it a try. (Thank goodness!) In no time, I was hooked.

The issue starts with a quick introduction to The Chameleon, who narrowly avoids being captured by Spider-Man. To deal with Spidey, that villain contacts his old friend Kraven, a big game hunter who is wily, loaded with weapons and tricks and eager to tackle the ultimate challenge - to track and capture Spider-Man.

It sounds like a standard storyline, but Kraven proves to be far more resourceful than you might expect. He fights Spidey to a standstill in their first meeting, and manages to use a potion that leaves our hero shaken and woozy.

When they meet again, Kraven has a series of clever traps, including a pair of metal cuffs he clamps on Spider-Man's wrist and ankle - the cuffs are magnetized, and it takes all of Spidey's strength to keep them apart.

But the issue isn't just about action - it includes Peter Parker dealing with problems at school, at the Daily Bugle (where his girlfriend Betty is jealous of Liz Allen), and at home (where Aunt May is pushing him to go on a blind date).

I was just amazed, reading that issue. The story was like no super-hero comic I'd ever read, loaded with lots of plot twists, action, drama and humor, as Spidey reeled off a series of genuinely funny comments while fighting for his life.

The art took some getting used to, because Ditko's style was so different from anyone working in comics in the early '60s. His figures were rubbery, every character had a unique look (instead of having different hair and clothes on the same faces). I wasn't sure when I first started reading that issue, but by the time I got to the last page, I was sold on Ditko.

Reading that comic was like having someone turn the lights on - I could see that comics could be so much more, and I was an instant fan of Spider-Man.

So to whichever one of my friends who made the suggestion to try Spider-Man in 1964, a long-overdue thanks!

Grade: A+

Monday, January 4, 2010

Classics #4 - Amazing Fantasy #15

It wouldn't be right to do a list like this without including the first issue to feature the ol' web-head, so taking the fourth spot on my personal list of the "Top 10 Spider-Man stories by Stan and Steve" is Amazing Fantasy #15, with the story simply titled "Spider-Man."

This issue is a miracle of creativity and economy. Covering a slim 11 pages, Stan Lee and Steve Ditko manage to create a character that's unlike any other hero.

The story centers around Peter Parker, a skinny bookworm of a teen who's not popular with anyone except his beloved Aunt May and Uncle Ben. When he attends a science experiment he's bitten by a spider that had been exposed to radioactivity.

In the grand Marvel fashion, radiation translates into super-powers. Peter finds he has great strength, speed and agility, and he can cling to walls. This is the point where most heroes would vow to use their powers to aid mankind, as the Fantastic Four did in their first issue.

Not Peter. He decides to go into show business, and enjoys great success on TV. But when a crook runs past him in the hall one day, Spider-Man does nothing to stop him, and when a guard chastises him, Spidey says, "I'm thru being pushed around -- by anyone!"

He arrives home later to a grim scene - his Uncle Ben has been killed by a burglar! He puts on his Spider-Man costume and tracks down the killer, who is revealed to be the same criminal Spidey had made no effort to stop.

Haunted by guilt, Peter realizes an important lesson, and Stan writes the phrase that has become a quote so famous that non-comics fans know it: "With great power there must also come -- great responsibility!"

Elements of that same origin had been used before - revenge is always a great dramatic device - but no comic book story had ever used it more effectively.

Unlike Batman, who fights crime to avenge his parents death, Spider-Man fights crime to atone for his terrible mistake.

The story is rough in every way - Ditko's art shows many of the creative elements that he'll continue to refine over the years ahead, and Lee tells a powerful tale that balances the narrative without overpowering the artwork - but the story is still a bit cramped for space.

You have to wonder, did they have any idea that they were starting something special? That they were creating a character that would be known around the world almost 50 years later, starring in films, books and merchandising of every kind?

Presumably they were just having fun, telling a story that was out of the ordinary and allowed them to stretch their creative muscles. According to the legend, Stan decided to toss this story into the last issue of Amazing Fantasy because the comic was being cancelled anyway.

Lucky for us, it didn't end there, and the sales warranted giving the character his own title seven months later. It was a near miss for the ol' web-slinger - and for fans as well!

Imagine a world without the Amazing Spider-Man. Scary, isn't it?

Grade: A+

Sunday, January 3, 2010

Classics #5 - The Amazing Spider-Man #24

Here we are at number five on my personal list of "Top 10 Spider-Man issues by Stan and Steve," and this time around, "Spider-Man Goes Mad!"

The idea of a super-hero needing psychiatric care was certainly a strange one, but leave it to Stan Lee and Steve Ditko to find a way to make it entertaining.

The issue starts out by piling woes on Peter Parker. He's worried because Aunt May is barely getting by on limited funds. He tries and fails to get photos to sell to the Daily Bugle. He finds out his girlfriend, Betty Brant, is writing letters to Ned Leeds, who's working in Europe. Then J. Jonah Jameson starts a newspaper campaign against Spider-Man, and gets the attention of a noted psychiatrist who announces that Spider-Man is "a very sick man."

Peter begins to wonder - can it be true? When he starts experiencing hallucinations and reality seems to distort around him, he seeks help from the psychiatrist and winds up on the couch.

I won't say what happens next since it would spoil the surprise, but Lee and Ditko manage a delightful twist on the storyline.

I wanted to draw particular attention to the cover of the issue - it's one of Ditko's best, with an unusual design and lush inking, all centered around the anguished pose of our hero. It's made even better by the moody colors - note the dark colors on Spider-Man's costume.

The one thing that tied together the Lee and Ditko run on this comic was that you never knew what to expect next. It's a lesson every comics creator could benefit from - and it's one of the keys behind the success of Spidey!

Grade: A

Classics #6 - The Amazing Spider-Man #3

Taking sixth place on my list of the "Top 10 Spider-Man comics by Stan Lee and Steve Ditko" is the third issue in the series, "Spider-Man vs. Doctor Octopus!"

It marks the first appearance by Doc Ock, and he manages something that, up until that time, I had never seen happen in a super-hero comic - he defeats the hero!

Oh, it wasn't unusual for the bad guys to have success or escape the hero, but here Dr. Octopus actually beats Spider-Man and breaks his spirit, leaving the hero to wonder if he should stop being Spider-Man!

The first part of the story details the Doc's origin. A scientist at an Atomic Research Center, Otto Octavious invents mechanical arms to allow him to handle radioactive materials. An explosion injures him and leaves his mind twisted - and he finds he can animate his powerful mechanical arms.

He takes over the hospital and Spider-Man investigates, secure in the knowledge that he can handle anything. When he confronts Doc Ock, he is easily beaten and thrown out of the building, and crawls away in disgrace.

The next day at school, he attends a talk by his sometimes-rival Johnny Storm (the Human Torch), who urges the students to learn to accept setbacks, but to never give up (it's the kind of pep talk every student should get every now and then).

With new resolve, Spider-Man takes on one of his greatest foes again - but this time, he uses his scientific know-how to even the odds.

From the first issue, Stan and Steve were crafting super-hero stories that were out of the ordinary, but this one really broke the mold, allowing the hero to be thoroughly beaten and learning how to overcome adversity.

For too many super-heroes, winning was just a matter of showing up for the fight. It would never be that easy for Spider-Man, and that made him easy to relate to - and is just another reason why this comic helped lead Marvel into the Silver Age of Comics.

Grade: A

Saturday, January 2, 2010

Classics #7 - The Amazing Spider-Man #21

Finishing seventh on my list of "Top 10 Spider-Man comics by Stan Lee and Steve Ditko" is "Where Flies the Beetle...!"

Which probably seems like an odd choice, since the Beetle was never a particularly impressive or menacing villain - but this issue is so funny and so perfectly crafted that I read it over and over. Heck, some scenes still make me laugh.

This is a story that starts small and builds on a basic idea. Peter Parker bumps into Doris Evans, the girlfriend of the Human Torch. Johnny Storm, ever the hot-head, is jealous of Peter (after Doris brags about him), and he confronts the surprised teen.

Determined to get the Torch's goat, Spider-Man decides to make a play for Doris, but when he arrives he's attacked by the Beetle, who's been waiting for the Torch to return.

A terrific battle ensues, and the Beetle carries off Doris, with Spidey following. The Torch arrives to find evidence of a struggle - and Spidey's webbing - and immediately leaps to the wrong conclusion.

He chases down Spidey and - you guessed it - the two fight (there's that "misunderstanding between heroes" thing again), then join forces against the Beetle.

And if it all sounds cut-and-dried, don't believe it - it a fantastic, inventive combination of power, gymnastics and humor every step of the way.

The last page shows the real genius of Lee and Ditko's creation, as a fun-filled romp gives way at the last to a reflective, heartfelt and almost painful reflection by Spider-Man that no matter his heroics or his daring efforts, he may never be like the Torch - the idol of millions, beloved by all.

It was the kind of thing you never saw in comics at the time - the idea that things don't always go your way, and sometimes you have to take your lumps.

It was a mature outlook for a comic, and it really made this title a cut above everything else on the market. That, along with the amazing art and outstanding writing, is why this issue is a classic.

Grade: A