Saturday, July 31, 2010

Wonder Woman #601

I don't care about the new costume, the new story, the new origin, or any of the other attention-grabbing changes in Wonder Woman.

Here's what I care about: is the story any good; and how's the art?

So I have good news and bad news. The good news is, the art by Don Kramer and Michael Babinski is well done, with good character designs, detailed backgrounds and solid layouts.

But J. Michael Straczynski's story, so far, is coming up short. A lot of that is because there are so many blanks to fill in.

In this issue we get a quick recap of the "All New" reality, as we see the destruction of Paradise Island and the scattering of the Amazons, and Wonder Woman being set up as the protector of the lost Amazons.

She seems to have no powers other than (apparent) super strength, but we get indications that her other abilities will be showing up eventually.

But mostly what we get here are a pile of mysteries. Who's behind the evil army that destroyed Paradise Island? Why has Diana's reality changed so drastically? Why is she (more or less) powerless?

Presumably these answers will be turning up in the weeks ahead, but this kick-off issue doesn't inspire me to continue to follow along.

Perhaps that's because I suspect this will all go away eventually, and we'll be back to the "Not So New" Wonder Woman.

But many more issues like this and that might be a merciful thing.

Grade: B-

Friday, July 30, 2010

Secret Avengers #3

A month ago I wrote some harsh words about the Secret Avengers.

Now that the third issue is here, and I realize I should have had more faith in writer Ed Brubaker.

With just a few revelations in this issue, he eliminates my concerns about the Roxxon construction site on the planet Mars and manages a sly homage to Edgar Rice Burroughs' John Carter of Mars at the same time. Impressive!

This issue is all about shedding some light, as we get a look at the secret organization looking for an incredibly ancient artifact on Mars, and the reason why our heroes must stop the efforts of this ancient evil.

The problem is, they seem to be completely outmatched by Nova, who's been possessed by the Serpent Crown and whose powers have been amped up considerably.

Mike Deodato's art is back to its usual heights, perhaps because it's an action-intensive issue. I especially enjoyed the western flashback at the beginning of the book, and he also gets to depict some cosmic-level events.

For the first two issues I had my doubts about this comic, but after reading this comic, those concerns are (mostly) gone.

Sorry for doubting you, Ed.

Grade: A-

Thursday, July 29, 2010

Batman: The Return of Bruce Wayne #4 (of 6)

I've been enjoying this series so far, despite the fact that much of it seems to barely make sense - but I'm trusting that writer Grant Morrison will bring the whole thing together in the end.

But with this issue of Batman: The Return of Bruce Wayne, he walks right up to the line where he loses me completely.

We know that Bruce is traveling through time for mysterious reasons, we know that he's leaving clues about his whereabouts for his allies in the future, and we know that he's connecting with his own distant ancestors along the way.

But here we see Batman in the wild west (or wild east, depending on where Gotham City is located in the DC Universe), tracking down some murderous outlaws who have kidnapped a woman guarding a mysterious box and if it's opened it may mean the end of the world.

To which I can only say, "Wha--?"

Confusion aside, it's a pretty standard western yarn, with the good guy tracking the bad guys, looking for revenge. Oh, and there's a special guest star, too.

The art by George Jeanty and Walden Wong is solid though not spectacular - it only suffers in comparison to the other artists who've worked on this series, or the outstanding covers by Andy Kubert.

For the series so far this issue is the weakest effort, but it's still entertaining, and there are two more issues for the creative team to make sense of it all.

Here's hoping.

Grade: B+

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Another Big Comics Day!

Another big day for comics (supposedly next week will be a bit slower).

Here's what I picked up today:

- Batman: The Return of Bruce Wayne #4 (of 6) - Wild west time!

- Fantastic Four #581 - Back to college!

- First Wave #3 (of 6) - Anything with the Blackhawks gets my money.

- Flash #4 - Barry Allen arrested again? Hope this trial doesn't take two years.

- Green Lantern #56 - Hector Hammond has a big mouth.

- Justice League of America #47 - The JSA crossover continues.

- Secret Avengers #3 - This one is on shaky ground, but hopefully will improve.

- Thor #612 - On a highway to Hell!

- Warlord #16 - Is this the end for this comic? A shame, as it's been quite good.

- Wonder Woman #601 - The new version of Diana, but sadly no go-go outfits.

- Ultimate Comics Mystery #1 (of 4) - I love a mystery.

- Uncanny X-Men #526 - Another title on shaky ground.

New Avengers #2

(We're mixing things up a bit at the blog today - our "Classic" review ran on Monday, so here's a new review.)

Magic has always been a bit of a dodgey story device, and one that most writers seem to struggle with.

I think that's mostly because the rules are so fuzzy. With science fiction, you have to stay in certain boundaries, but with magic, anything goes.

But I get the sense that writer Brian Bendis is trying to get that problem under control with his first story arc in the New Avengers.

The story centers around the Eye of Agamotto, a powerful artifact that a demonic force is after. The demon has the power to possess (as in "take control of") the world's most powerful sorcerers, including Dr. Strange and Daimon Hellstrom, the Son of Satan.

This issue is (mostly) an all-out action romp, as Luke Cage is possessed and transformed into a giant. The team must fight Cage, Strange and Hellstrom for the Eye, and they're up against a powerful and mysterious opponent.

And I have to admit that I like the new "form" magic takes here - instead of the flowery rhyming phrases Dr. Strange used in the past, we now see an text explanation for the origins of the spell being cast. It sounds weird, but it's actually effective. It gives each spell some gravitas, as though it has an actual origin in reality. If that makes sense.

The art in this issue is fantastic - Stuart Immonen and Wade Von Grawbadger turn in some of their best work yet, with lots of big action scenes and intense emotional moments. And I love their powerful depiction of the Thing!

I'm still not convinced magic-based stories are a good "fit" for the Avengers, but so far, I'm enjoying the heck out of this story.

Grade: A-

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

DC Universe Legacies #3 (of 10)

I defy any long-time fan to read DC Universe Legacies without smiling often.

The first two issues of this series gave us a look at the Golden Age of super-heroes, as seen through the eyes of a regular guy named Paul Lincoln, who finds himself a witness to some of the most pivotal moments in DC history.

This issue begins with the aftermath of the "retirement" of the Justice Society of America, and manages to tie in some familiar western heroes and the science fiction "invasion" from comics such as Strange Adventures and Mystery in Space.

It also links to some of the non-super teams of the '50s and '60s, including Blackhawk, Challengers of the Unknown, Cave Carson and the Sea Devils (all old favorites of mine).

But the real focus is on the first appearance of Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman and the other members of the Justice League of America.

The story by Len Wein ties it all together in a clever way and manages to be both a great nostalgic trip for long-time fans and a great primer for new fans. Everyone wins!

The art is by the incredibly talented Jose Luis Garcia-Lopez with inks by Dave Gibbons, and the end result is outstanding. They're two of the best in the business, and if anyone can follow an act like the Kuberts, this is the team to do it. Great stuff!

The issue also includes a back-up feature teaming up those non-super teams from the '60s, also drawn by Dave Gibbons and written by Wein. Heck, I would have picked this issue up for this story alone!

I can't imagine any DC fan not loving this comic. Highly recommended!

Grade: A

Monday, July 26, 2010

The Classics - The Mighty Thor #157

(Chuck's on the road today, so here's a "Classic" review to tide you over.)

I grew up in a rural area, so the chances to fill in those gaps in my collection were few and far between.

And since distribution was often tricky - and I couldn't always get to a local newsstand or drug store (the usual places I bought comics), sometimes I'd miss vital issues.

This is the one that hurt the most. In The Mighty Thor, writer Stan Lee and artist Jack Kirby spent several issues building up the threat of the Mangog, a creature that contained the power of a billion people.

Even Thor couldn't stand up to his power, and as the previous issue ended, the good guys were about to make their final stand against Mangog.

How anxiously I waited for the next issue! When I finally saw a new issue of Thor on the stands, I anxiously opened it - but instead of a showdown with Mangog, it featured a splash page of Thor flying back to Earth, having survived his final battle with Mangog!

Stunned, I looked again at the issue number, and I realized that I had missed issue #157!

Years later, I saw an ad in a comic from a company selling back issues. I sent off for a catalog, and was stunned to see that I could order issues I'd missed at reasonable prices.

I don't remember how reasonable, but it couldn't have been more than a dollar an issue. I sent in a big order (I was flush with cash because I had started a newspaper delivery route), and a couple of weeks later a large box arrived, containing about 25 comics - all of which I was thrilled to see, but none more so than this issue!

Finally, I'd see how Thor and Asgard managed to survive the final assault!

I wish I could say it was the greatest comic I'd ever read, but it wasn't. There were some great moments, terrific dialogue and amazing artwork, but the final solution (which I won't reveal here) was a bit of a cheat.

Still, I was delighted to finally get the rest of the story!

Sadly, I wasn't savvy enough to realize the potential of that early catalog - I remember being disgusted by the prices they were charging for the first issues of Spider-Man, The Avengers and the Fantastic Four - they wanted 20 dollars each! No way was I going to spend that much money for a single comic book!

If only I had spent every cent buying up those issues and squirreling them away...

Who knew?

Grade: B

Sunday, July 25, 2010

Ultimate New Ultimates #3

See, the thing with all the Ultimates stories is, there are no heroes in there.

You've got quite a cast here - Iron Man, who's a drunk and a jerk; Captain America, a fighting machine who demonstrates no compassion; Hawkeye, a killing machine without remorse; Zarda, an insane Wonder Woman knock-off; Carol Danvers, who's Nick Fury in drag; Ka-Zar, Shanna and the Black Panther, just here in supporting roles; and Valkyrie, a would-be hero whose story is the focus of this issue.

The story is all crash and thunder as Loki leads an army of trolls and assorted monsters in an invasion of New York while Thor is stuck in Valhalla, working with Hela to, uh, increase the population (so to speak).

Once again, the real selling point of this issue is the art by Frank Cho, who provides some amazing splash pages here, loaded with detail, great action scenes, powerful characters and lots of beautiful women.

Unfortunately, Cho's great work comes with a price - so this comic just appears bi-monthly (at best), and that makes for a long wait between chapters. I have to admit, when I pick up each issue, my first thought is, "Now what was happening in this comic?"

It's worth it for that art, but I wish they'd just wait until the story was done, and then publish it on a tighter schedule. But the art makes the comic worth waiting for.

Now if they only had more actual heroes in there.

Grade: B+

Saturday, July 24, 2010

Brightest Day #6

You know, for a series that seems to promise happier, brighter stories, there seems to be a large number of gruesome deaths on display here.

In fact, I'd go so far as to say that this comic really isn't appropriate for young readers. In the fourth panel in the issue, two people are killed in horrible fashion - and I believe that sort of thing has happened in every issue of this series so far.

Perhaps it's the creative team's way of saying, "Don't worry about that title, we'll keep writing those grim and gritty stories."

Whatever the reason, it seems an odd fit for a series of stories based around classic Silver and Bronze Age characters.

Here we have writers Geoff Johns and Peter Tomasi focusing on four different storylines. We follow J'onn J'onzz, the Martian Manhunter, as he follows a series of horrific murders and discovers a mysterious effect that surrounds him.

We get a few more hints about the truth behind the White Lantern courtesy of Deadman, Hawk and Dove.

Firestorm is called into action again - but he isn't exactly in top heroic form.

And Aquaman and Mera have a conversation they should have had a few decades ago, as Mera reveals her secret origin.

As with past issues, the art is by a team - four pencillers and four inkers - and the quality is consistently high, although some styles don't exactly mesh with others.

I don't mind being strung along by the ongoing mysteries, but it's tough to sustain the stories in this bi-weekly when you're just getting a few pages per shot with each heroic team.

Still, I'm certainly curious to see where this all goes, and why we keep getting hints of a return by the Black Lanterns, so I'll keep hanging around.

Grade: B+

Friday, July 23, 2010

The Avengers #3

I should say right up front that I'm enjoying this new (yet classic) version of The Avengers.

The stories are big, the opponents are bigger, the stakes are high, the characters are compelling, the humorous bits make me laugh out loud, the art is fantastic and the action scenes are a lot of fun.

I only have two problems with the series (and this issue in particular).

First of all, the storyline is the standard decompressed affair where it takes issues and issues to get anywhere. The first issue introduced the menace from the future, and here we are three issues later and the team hasn't yet gone to the future to tackle the problem. The old line is that Stan and Jack had more story in 20 pages than most comics today have in 6 months. We can debate whether or not that's a good thing (different strokes, different folks), and in a series that's jammed with action scenes, it may seem ungrateful to say "Let's speed it up" - but I'm saying it anyway.

My other problem is one that keeps cropping up lately - the cover of this issue has nothing to do with the interiors. None of the three characters on the cover appear in this issue, although two of them seem to be manipulating events behind the scenes. And I have no idea who that spikey-haired Spidey guy might be.

But the problems are far outweighed by the goodness piled on this issue, from Bendis' script, which includes great comic lines, crazy rants from Apocalypse and a really nice moment between Tony Stark and Spider-Man; to the fantastic art by John Romita, Jr. and Klaus Janson (that final page splash is a joy forever).

Despite the decompression, this series really is a return to the best of classic comic book storytelling, as we get a big, big story that pushes our heroes to the limit and beyond.

Good stuff! You really should be reading it.

Grade: A-

Thursday, July 22, 2010

Scott Pilgrim's Finest Hour Vol. 6

Just a couple of weeks before the feature film hits theaters, we finally get our mitts on the sixth (and final) chapter in the Scott Pilgrim saga.

For those who haven't read it, the series revolves around a young man in love. Scott is mostly without direction - he plays in a band, mooches off an assortment of interesting friends, and seems to lead a normal existence - until he falls in love with Ramona Flowers.

But there's an epic struggle standing in the way of true romance. To win her heart, he must defeat Ramona's evil ex-lovers. As this volume begins, Scott has one last opponent to defeat - but events have conspired to leave him lost and aimless, without any hope of defeating his final opponent.

Of course, as this volume's title indicates, that's hardly the end of the story.

The saga of Scott has been a lot of fun to follow, as the stories are a great blend of humor, romance, rock and roll, high-powered action and cultural references all framed by terrific characters and real-world (ish) backdrops.

As a writer, Brian O'Malley has the chops to mix together all these elements (plus a few I've left out) into a compelling and entertaining story with lots of surprises along the way.

As an artist, he has an original, energetic, cartoonish style that somehow mixes videogame elements with manga influences. The end product is, well, epic in scope.

It will be interesting to see how well the movie (which arrives in theaters on August 13) holds up to the graphic novels. The trailers certainly look promising.

But whether the film succeeds or not, the six volumes of work by O'Malley are instant classics and well worth tracking down.

Highly recommended!

Grade: A

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

New Comics Today

Here's what I picked up at the Comics Shop today:

- Atlas #3 - The 3-D Man story continues (in 2-D).

- The Avengers #3 - The time line freaks out!

- New Avengers #2 - There's never an exorcist around when you need one.

- Brightest Day #6 - Why are there so many gruesome murders in a book with such a cheery title?

- DC Universe Legacies #3 (of 10) - The Silver Age starts, courtesy of artist Jose Luis Garcia-Lopez.

- Justice Society of America #41 - The crossover with the JLA continues.

- Legion of Super-Heroes #3 - Lots of stories squeezed into one little comic.

- The Marvelous Land of Oz #8 (of 8) - The most shocking transformation of all!

- Prince of Power #3 (of 4) - The team-up no one expected - Amadeus and Thor!

- Scott Pilgrim's Finest Hour Vol. 6 - Finally, the last chapter! Now, for the movie...

- Ultimate New Ultimates #3 - Lots o' death and destruction here.

The Classics - The Hobbit

Back in the late '60s J.R.R. Tolkein's trilogy The Lord of the Rings was almost required reading.

As a teen I picked up copies at a bookstore, but I realized that I should read the book that led into the trilogy first, so I tackled The Hobbit - but I didn't get far. By the time I was about 50 pages in, I put it down - it was just too difficult to wade through, learning about the language, the characters, the customs of Middle Earth.

I ran into my English teacher one day (Mrs. Goodwin lived in my neighborhood), and she asked me what I was reading (I was always reading something). I told her about trying to read The Hobbit, and she smiled and said, "You should keep trying - it's a great book. It's tough to read for about 100 pages - and then the rest of it flies by."

Inspired, I dusted the book off and tried again, slogging through those early pages again - and just like she said, at some point the weight lifted and the book was over before I knew it - and what a terrific book it was! The trilogy soon followed, and I was a fan of Tolkien for life!

So it was with a small amount of trepidation that I approached Eclipse's adaptation of The Hobbit (in 1989) - it's always a little scary when one of your favorite books gets adapted into another medium, because it never lives up to your imagination.

Well, almost never. Here's the exception.

Adapted by Chuck Dixon, who's best known for wild and wooly action tales, this comic shows what a fine writer he is, as he stays incredibly faithful to the original. He knows when to let the pictures do their part, and when to weave the story through elegant wordsmithing.

He is perfectly teamed with artist David Wetzel, who turns in some amazing illustrations here. Many artists have taken a stab at depicting the residents of Middle Earth, and I have to say that I think Wetzel is the best of the bunch.

His Gandalf is equal parts power, mystery and majesty. The story is loaded with amazing detail, action, adventure, near misses, humor and affection - just like the original!

This adaptation has been printed and re-printed many times over, and is available on the Internet (Amazon has numerous copies). It's just a shame that this team didn't follow this up with an adaptation of the trilogy. Ah, we can dream.

So, to recap: highly recommended, great adaptation, and thanks again, Mrs. Goodwin, for talking me into not giving up on what became one of my all-time favorite books!

Grade: A+

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

The Man With the Getaway Face

It was just over a month ago that I finally got around to reading The Hunter, the first graphic adaptation featuring Richard Stark's Parker, and it was a surprise.

I hadn't read the original books, so after a quick skim it looked like a hard-boiled detective story. It has that feel to it, but Parker is not a heroic figure at all - he's a hardened criminal who lives by his own code, and uses his brains and his incredible toughness to overcome any obstacle.

Here we get the story of an attempt to rob an armored car, and the struggle to put together a team that can work together. It's not my favorite kind of story, but one thing guaranteed I'd be reading the story: it was adapted by Darwyn Cooke, one of the top writer/artists working in comics today.

And since Frank Miller seems to be taking an extended break from Sin City, it's good to finally have another testosterone-loaded story floating around.

If you were put off by the high price on The Hunter ($24.99), then here's a real bargain for you - The Man With the Getaway Face can be yours for a mere two bucks! It's 24 pages long, printed on oversized paper with a two-color process.

It's raw, hard-edged and impossible to put down. Cooke shows his storytelling chops by crafting a story with relatively little action, but loads of tension and drama, great characters and a story that will keep you guessing.

Cooke is that rare breed - few writers are good artists, and few artists are good writers - but Cooke does either craft with equal skill, and my rule of thumb is simple - if he's working on it as artist, writer or both, I'm buying it.

He hasn't disappointed me yet.

Grade: A

Monday, July 19, 2010

Doctor Solar, Man of the Atom #1

This is (I believe) the third go-round for Doctor Solar, who returns to active duty with this new series from Dark Horse Comics.

The radioactive hero first appeared in 1962 in a title from Gold Key Comics - his first appearance is reprinted in this issue - although it was several issues before he started wearing his famous red, visored costume.

His second stab at a regular title happened in the 1990s as part of Valiant Comics. His origin was updated to reflect modern physics (his first origin was the old favorite, "Exposed to radiation"), and his adventures were much bigger and more thoughtful.

The writer of that series was Jim Shooter, and he's back now with the newest version incarnation of the Man of the Atom. The storyline here is very similar to the '90s version, but it seems to be toned down a bit, perhaps to make the character more accessible to audiences.

Certainly that was the flaw in the last version - he was a god on Earth, far above ordinary mortals - a different form of life.

This version is much more down-to-Earth, despite his incredible powers (flight, energy blasts, matter transmutation and other energy powers) he tells jokes, he has friends and he cares about what people think.

The art is by Dennis Calero, whose work I'm not familiar with, but he turns in a solid, professional job here. His anatomy is strong, his characters are easily identifiable and the storytelling clear - but the layouts aren't dynamic (mostly because of the "origin issue" problem of too many scenes with people standing around talking), and the panels could use more variety - there are too many "medium range" camera shots.

So the final diagnosis is that the first issue is solid but not spectacular. Now that the background explanations are out of the way, here's hoping the creative team can kick this story into a higher gear.

Hopefully Solar's third try at his own title will be the charm.

Grade: B-

Sunday, July 18, 2010

Avengers Academy #2

While I would hesitate to call Avengers Academy "the best Avengers comic out there," in many ways it is the most interesting of the bunch.

That's because writer Christos Gage has created a really interesting mix of characters here, including the six young superheroes-in-training and their five instructors.

The really interesting twist to the story is the discovery by the students that they were chosen not because of their potential to become heroes, but out of fear of their potential as villains.

This issue focuses on the student with the most potential to make that turn - Finesse, a young woman with great intellect and amazing physical skills who struggles with her own morality.

We also get a good examination of Quicksilver, one of the instructors at the Academy and someone whose life has more than a few parallels with Finesse.

The art in this issue by Mike McKone is outstanding, with some great action scenes, strong character designs and lots of raw emotions.

The book takes full advantage of the school setting and manages to mix in that original X-Men / Harry Potter feel without coming off as a copy.

It's fresh, it's original and lots of fun. So far, so good!

Grade: A-

Saturday, July 17, 2010

Batman #701

I started to write that this issue is something of an oddity, but then I remembered that the comic was written by Grant Morrison, so who would be shocked?

This issue takes us back almost two years to that confusing time between the Batman (Bruce Wayne) "RIP" story and his "death" at the end of Final Crisis.

At the time those issues were published, fans were confused, because we saw Batman apparently die at the end of "RIP," and then in Final Crisis we saw him being kidnapped by minions of Darkseid (an event that happened after "RIP"), and we saw him escaping and apparently being killed as he, in turn, killed Darkseid. Maybe.

Confusing, I know - trust me, I was there. Now, finally, as we're going through The Return of Bruce Wayne, we're going back to fill in the gaps in the chronology.

So this issue begins with Bruce surviving the fiery explosion that ended "RIP," and we follow him on the rather mundane events that followed (though of course his actions are fraught with purpose and foreshadowing - it says here).

The art by Tony Daniels is quite good, with loads of detail and strong layouts. At this writing they've just announced he's taking over this comic later this year (writing and art). The art he has covered. The writing end has me a bit concerned.

So this issue is recommended for those who didn't really understand what happened to Batman pre-Crisis. Everyone else can give it a miss.

It's not bad - it just seems unnecessary, since Morrison already explained this, if not in so much detail.

Grade: B

Friday, July 16, 2010

Astonishing Spider-Man and Wolverine #2 (of 6)

Two issues in and my original assessment of this mini-series hasn't changed: great artwork, but the jury's still out on the story.

For a team-up book, Astonishing Spider-Man & Wolverine doesn't feature much interaction between the two lead characters. Logan spends most of the book sulking (or fighting robots for practice), and Peter spends most of his time worrying.

They're both caught up in some kind of strange time-travel story, where their adventure last issue (set in the stone age) somehow changed history, and the (modern day) human race has been replaced by apish creatures.

We don't get an explanation for why the usual heroes and villains still existed, and why they left behind assorted artifacts - but hey, it's time travel, things are supposed to be wacky and unpredictable, right?

The art by Adam Kubert (with inks by Mark Morales) continues to impress, but there's really not much for him to do action-wise, although there is a wild splash panel revealing this issue's villain.

But the story is still murky, and plot elements just seem to fly into the picture randomly. But there's still time for writer Jason Aaron to make sense of it all.

Hopefully, that'll start happening next issue.

Grade: B+

Thursday, July 15, 2010

Superman #701

So writer J. Michael Straczynski takes over the writing chores on Superman with this issue, and he obviously decided to do something... different.

So the result is this ongoing story of the Man of Tomorrow walking across the country (no flying except in emergencies or when he wants to teach annoying reporters a lesson).

It's an opportunity to bring the character out of the clouds (and the big, intergalactic, multi-issue event stories) and tell lots of real world stories as Superman interacts with regular citizens.

It's a bit early to tell if this is going to work for the long haul, but this first issue is pretty good. It's not perfect - Superman seems to spend more of the comic discussing philosophy instead of doing superheroic things - but that's the point, and it's fun to see him hanging around with normal people.

I like the art by Eddy Barrows and J. P. Mayer - it has a solid, real-world feel about it. Their interpretation of the iconic Superman costume is interesting - the cape design seems to evoke the original George Reeves costume, as in droops down below his neck in the back, and sweeps across his shoulders in the front. A nice, traditional look.

(Interesting to note the ad in this issue for Straczynski taking over the writing of Wonder Woman, who's depicted wearing her traditional costume.)

Anyway, a solid start here, but not a game-changer yet. We'll see where Superman's "Walkabout" goes from here.

Grade: B+

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

New Comics Today

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

- Adventure Comics #516 - Mostly for the Atom backup.

- Astonishing Spider-Man/Wolverine #2 - Liked the first one's story, crazy about the art.

- Astro City: Silver Agent #1 (of 2) - Love this character and this series.

- Avengers Academy #2 - Liked the first one, so I'm back for seconds.

- Batman #701 - The story (two years later) about what happened between RIP and Final Crisis.

- Brave and the Bold #35 - What fan could resist a team-up between the Inferior Five and the Legion of Substitute Heroes? Not I!

- Conan the Cimmerian #22 - Beginning the adaptation of Howard's "Iron Shadows in the Moon."

- Doc Savage #4 - Wraps up the first storyline. Enjoying the Avenger backup strip more than the lead, sadly.

- Doctor Solar #1 - Good to see him back in action.

- The Invincible Iron Man #28 - This has been darned good.

- Richard Stark's Parker: The Man With Getaway the Face (prelude)
- Just read The Hunter recently - looking forward to the sequel.

- Superman #701 - The beginning of the "Grounded" series.

- Thanos Imperative #2 (of 6) - Breaking out the big "G."

- Ultimate Spider-Man #12 - The Chameleon does bad things to Spidey's life.

The Classics - X-Men #1

Since this month featured another X-Men #1, it only seems right to look back at the last comic to carry that label (this one had a cover date of October 1991).

That issue also managed the feat of reportedly selling 8 million copies - although the fact that they printed it with four different covers probably didn't hurt those sales totals. (And yes, you'll note that I bought all four covers. What can I say?)

The sales weren't hurt by the fact that the comic featured two of Marvel's biggest creators - writer Chris Claremont and artist Jim Lee (with Scott Williams inking).

So how does the issue hold up today? Frankly... not well.

By the time this issue appeared, Chris Claremont's style was wearing thin with me, anyway. Don't get me wrong, his early work on the title was fantastic, loaded with great stories, fascinating characters and loads of twists and turns.

But by this time, his stories - while professional and well-crafted - all seemed to be the same. (He left this comic after just three issues, so this was the end of his long run - at least until he returned to the X-Men family in recent years.)

This issue starts out with the surprising return of Magneto, and then we check in on an army of X-Men taking part in a Danger Room exercise, which rolls on and on.

That's followed by a big fight with Magneto, then a big fight with his mutant followers, and then a cliffhanger to bring you back for the next issue. Did I mention the tons of dialogue that fill the issue?

But while Claremont's star was fading (for me), Jim Lee's was really taking off. With powerful layouts, excellent character work, hard-hitting action and tons of beautiful women, Lee's art really made this issue sing.

Of course, by today's standards it also features some of the worst excesses of what would soon be known as the "Image style" - lots of scratchy lines, characters standing in impossible poses (especially the pneumatic women) and more focus on "poster" pages, rather than storytelling.

Still, there's no arguing with success, and Lee's work here led directly to his becoming one of the industry's top artists, and he was able to take that position and co-create a hugely successful comics company.

It's actually somewhat sad to realize that the X-Men haven't changed much in the 19 years since this comic was published.

Their adventures are more about bombast, action and angst, instead of focusing on the features that made the comic popular - great characters, big adventures and a manageable cast.

In some ways, this comic was the latest in the trend toward excess - it followed in the footsteps of X-Factor and X-Force. The more X-Men titles there are, frankly, the less interesting the team becomes.

In the interest of making a buck, too many comics companies make the same mistake. They forget that less... is more.

Grade: B

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Steve Rogers: Super-Soldier #1

I have to admit that I'm not too crazy about Marvel's decision to keep Bucky in the role of Captain America, while recasting the "real" Cap as Steve Rogers: Super-Soldier (or, to be more precise, Steve Rogers: Nick Fury).

Thankfully, the writing is in good hands, as Ed Brubaker spins a story that hearkens back to Steve's origin during World War II, and manages to find a believable modern-day link to his beginnings.

It's a good mix of action and story as Steve tries to unravel the mystery behind a new generation of Super-Soldiers and shows why he's one of Marvel's most formidable fighters.

I was sorry to see Dale Eaglesham leave the Fantastic Four, but he's doing excellent work here. His art includes lots of detail, strong action scenes and some good character bits.

With that said, I have to admit that it's disconcerting to see Steve using a gun (even if it just shoots tranquilizer darts), and I'm still fighting to get used to his new uniform, which looks like a cross between his original togs, Fury's classic SHIELD gear, and the Fighting American's outfit.

But I enjoyed this issue, and I'll keep following Steve for the foreseeable future.

And hopefully, in future reviews, I'll learn to type the word "Steve" instead of "Cap" (which happened at least three times while writing this review)...

Grade: A-

Monday, July 12, 2010

Scarlet #1

On this creator-owned title, they're making it difficult to like the title character.

That's because the very first panel of Scarlet shows her choking a man to death, and smiling as she does so. We then find out he's a cop, and she takes the cash he has in his pocket.

If there's a good justification for her actions (other than her belief that he's a crooked cop), we don't see it in this issue.

What we do get is an interesting character study by writer Brian Bendis. The issue provides her backstory courtesy of the character herself, who "breaks the fourth wall" and talks directly to the reader.

It's a bit disconcerting, to be honest, since it's not played for laughs (as John Byrne did with the She-Hulk). But it's an interesting choice.

The art is by Alex Maleev, and he turns in some amazing work here (which shouldn't be a surprise to anyone who's seen his work before). The art builds a world that seems intensely real, and characters who are very much alive. Sometimes vicious, sometimes sweet and touching, this may be the best work Maleev's done yet - and that's impressive.

I have to admit that I'm still on the fence with this comic. Part of me fears it's just going to be about a crazed vigilante out for revenge, and part of me is dying to see where it goes from here.

I'm going to hang around for a few more issues and see which way this thing is leaning. Whatever happens, it promises to be an interesting ride.

Grade: A-

Sunday, July 11, 2010

Fantastic Four Annual #32

I somehow avoided any of the publicity about this Fantastic Four Annual, and that's fine - it reminded me of the good old days, before the Internet told us the endings to stories before they began.

I have occasionally bemoaned the fact that annuals these days are not the "big deal" they were when they first started appearing in the '60s - but thankfully, this issue is an exception.

It's not that it's a big story as much as the fact that it's a darned good story with amazing artwork.

The story is provided by Joe Ahearne, and it surrounds an event that we might have expected to happen a long time ago - a young woman shows up at the Baxter Building claiming to be pregnant - and that Johnny Storm is the father.

What follows is an intelligent examination of how that happened (pause here for "birds and the bees" joke), and whether the woman is telling the truth. That calls for an investigation into a possible plot by an old foe, a couple of "Fantastic Voyages" and quite a few interesting twists along the way. Best of all, the character voices are all "spot on," something not every writer can manage.

The issue also features amazing art by Bryan Hitch. As good as his work on the regular title was, this is even better, with delightful splashes (I love the first page, even though it has no members of the FF on it), incredible layouts and great character bits. Oh, and a powerful "Clobbering Time" page, too.

All is all, an annual that's a cut above the rest, and one of the best I've read in years. Which isn't as good a compliment as it should be, but what can you do?

This one is highly recommended!

Grade: A

Saturday, July 10, 2010

Batman: Odyssey #1 (of 12)

The first time I saw Neal Adams' artwork credited was in 1969 on his first issue of X-Men (it was issue #56, I think).

He was following a short run on the title by Jim Steranko, and I remember thinking, "Why is Steranko pencilling under a different name?" (I eventually figured out that they were two different talented artists.)

Adams quickly became one of my favorite artists, as he turned in amazing work on titles such as the Avengers, Thor, Deadman, Green Lantern and (of course) Batman.

So when I heard he was returning to drawn a new maxi-series starring the Dark Knight, it was a foregone conclusion that I'd be buying it.

The art, of course, is fantastic. As always, it's incredibly detailed, lush and evokes a realism few others artists can approach. His layouts are unorthodox but powerful, as they guide your eyes across the page. The emotions of the characters are raw, and each page is just crackling with energy.

But while Adams may be a living legend for his artistic abilities, his writing resume isn't as robust, and this issue suffers a bit from having too many elements crammed into it.

We have a flashback to one of Batman's earliest outings, and like in the character's earliest adventures in Detective Comics, he goes into battle against crime carrying guns (which may seem at odds with his modern "gun hating" attitude, but it makes sense here).

We have an adventure unfolding with Batman and Robin (Dick Grayson) taking on the Riddler. We have a mystery surrounding the Man-Bat. And frankly, the last page in the issue makes almost no sense at all.

Perhaps it's better to have too much going on in a story as opposed to not much at all - but this issue feels overstuffed. I enjoyed the dialogue between the two heroes, but even it seemed too much.

Still, this issue would be worth picking up for the amazing art alone - and there's plenty of time for the story to catch up to the visuals. And I do enjoy the feeling of fun that runs throughout the comic - it's a rare treat in comics these days, especially for Batman.

I'll be back for the rest of this run. I've followed Adams this far, so there's no sense in stopping now.

Grade: A-

Friday, July 9, 2010

X-Men #1

I realize that vampires are the "in" monster right now, thanks to the Twilight series of books and movies, and the popularity of TV shows such as True Blood and even Buffy the Vampire Slayer.

But I never really cared for them as villains in the comics, because - well, they're just too easy. Their powers and vulnerabilities are well known, but in the world of superpowers, they're easy to kill and just as easy to resurrect - so any battle has almost no meaning.

And they're all interchangeable - they all have fangs, they want to drink your blood, and so on. They're like Nazis - an endless stream of evil characters to be knocked around by the good guys.

I realize this is not the popular opinion, considering the ongoing vampire craze - but I've never been on that bandwagon (although I do enjoy the Buffy series).

I was really hoping for something special from this comic, the first issue of a "new" X-Men series - but instead I just found it boring.

This story, written by Victor Gischler, is part one in a (no doubt) long-running series that will wind through several titles as it pits the mutants against the vampires. It features a group of vampires conspiring against the mutants (though we have no idea why).

The art by Paco Medina and Juan Vlasco is pretty good, but it suffers from a lack of variety in the "camera angles" - there are lots of medium shots, a couple of splash pages and just a minimal amount of action - it's tough to have dynamic art when most of the issue has people standing around and talking.

The X-Men should be about big adventures and great characters - of late, the team has just become a punching bag for whichever villain is attacking this month.

Sorry, but it's just not my cup of tea (of course, your mileage may vary). I won't be picking up issue #2.

Grade: C

Thursday, July 8, 2010

Loads of Comics for a Thursday

Lots to choose from this week! Here's what I picked up:

- The Atom Special #1 (One shot) - Always liked Ray Palmer.

- Batman and Robin #13 - The Joker pays a visit.

- Batman: Odyssey #1 (of 12) - It's Neal Adams! I think I'm legally required to buy this.

- Brightest Day #5 - Raising the dead?

- Fantastic Four Annual #32 - Who's the Daddy?

- Hellboy: The Storm #1 (of 3) - Can't pass up Hellboy.

- Irredeemable #15 - A knock-down, drag-out fight with some surprising twists.

- Marvelman: Family's Finest #1 (of 6) - I've seen very few of these early adventures, so I figured, what the heck.

- Scarlet #1 - A new Icon title from Bendis and Maleev - had to give it a try.

- Steve Rogers: Super-Soldier #1
- Call him what you want, but he's still Captain America to me.

- Tom Strong and the Robots of Doom #2 (of 6) - A rough start last issue, but I'm still a fan.

- X-Men #1 - I hear this group has lots of potential.

Whew! And there were several I passed on that were really tempting. A big week!

The Classics - Marvel Premiere #10

(New comics day doesn't hit until Thursday this week - thanks a lot, Independence Day - so we have an extra "Classic" review for today.)

It's rare, but there are times when you read a comic book and think, "That was something special."

That was exactly my reaction to this issue of Marvel Premiere. That "try-out" comic had spent several issues featuring Dr. Strange in the latest attempt to revive his career as a solo character (this issue is cover dated September 1973).

For this venture, they tried to re-cast Strange as a lone hero standing against cosmic monsters of the kind made famous by H.P. Lovecraft. It seemed a half-hearted effort and not really a good fit for the character, who was more suited to intelligent adventures.

Luckily, the team working on this issue (and the one before it) quickly set about fixing that problem. Writer Steve Englehart and artist Frank Brunner were just beginning what would become one of the all-time best runs on Dr. Strange.

This issue was the wrap-up to the menace of Shuma-Gorath, a monstrous, one-eyed, tentacled entity who had merged with Strange's teacher, the Ancient One. His aged mentor was the key to the problem - the monster was using his power to enter our world, and the only way to stop that from happening was for Dr. Strange to kill the Ancient One.

The story took some impressive metaphysical turns and unexpected twists, and at the end, I distinctly remember thinking, "Wow."

And what made the story was the mix of a terrific story and amazing artwork. Brunner was relatively new to comics, and this issue - with the inking of the Crusty Bunkers - was a revelation.

The Neal Adams influences were strong (which makes sense - Adams may have done some of the inking, since the Bunkers were working out of his shop), but Brunner also brought his own, powerful style to bear, providing the story with a unique, ever-changing reality and a genuine sense of gravitas. The characters seemed three-dimensional, the emotions raw and the layouts powerful.

Brunner is probably the best pure artist to work on the character, and this was the issue that put him - and for the second time, Dr. Strange - on the map.

And there were even better stories ahead for this creative team. Their run was relatively short - about 10 issues - but it's some of the best comics work ever.

It's all available in reprints, and highly recommended!

Grade: A+

Wednesday, July 7, 2010

The Classics - Marvel Tales #1

These days we live in a Golden Age of reprints, so it's no challenge to track down the Silver Age origins of your favorite hero.

But in the early '60s, it wasn't easy. While comics would occasionally recap origins, it was rare to find a reprint of the actual comic.

As kids, we would play the part of different heroes, but because their origins were lost to the mists of time (having taken place as long ago as a year or two), we had to make up our own ideas to fill in the gaps. For example, when we "fought" Electro, we had no idea how he got his powers, so we dreamed up a device that allowed him to throw electric bolts (like Spider-Man's web-shooters). We were kids, what did we know?

But we were all thrilled when comics like this issue of Marvel Tales started appearing.

This issue was published in the summer of 1964, and it contained the origins of Spider-Man, the Hulk, Giant-Man (and Ant-Man), Thor, Iron Man (both his original armor and the sleeker red-and-gold version) and Sgt. Fury and his Howling Commandos.

What a treat, to be able to read all those origins in one issue! Some of the stories were complete reprints, while a few were edited-down, but this comic became one of my most treasured issues. You can see from the scan above how well-worn my copy is - I read it countless times.

The issue also featured a two-page photo spread with shots of the actual members of the Marvel Bullpen. Despite the terrible reproduction, it was something of a revelation to my young self that there were actually people who made comics for a living. Who knew?

It's difficult to realize how isolated fans were in those days. No Internet, no fanzine publications (that I was aware of), no email - these issues just appeared like magic at the newsstand, to be devoured by fans who were starved for any clues about the early days of comics.

How things have changed!

Grade: A

Tuesday, July 6, 2010

Green Lantern #55

Just for a change of pace, this issue of Green Lantern more or less tosses aside any concerns about story or characterization and just settles in as an old-fashioned, action-packed battle from start to finish.

Not that there's anything wrong with that.

I've never been a big fan of Lobo, but if you're going to use the character, this is the way to do it. He shows up in New York City hunting for Atrocitus, the leader of the Red Lanterns, and GL, Star Sapphire and Sinestro have to pool their resources in an attempt to stop Lobo... and that's really all you need to know.

The rest is fighting, punching, kicking - the usual. But all in good fun.

The art by Doug Mahnke (with three inkers) is outstanding as always - he just seems to get better with each issue. Each page contains lots of detail, great characters, frantic layouts and loads of energy.

There's also a back-up feature explaining the origin of Dex-starr, the world's angriest cat. Yeah, you read that correctly.

So all in all, a fun issue, and one that (despite my "no story" comment) sets up the next chapter in the Brightest Day story.

Green Lantern continues to be one of the best comics DC publishes, and this issue maintains those high standards.

Grade: A-

Monday, July 5, 2010

The Invincible Iron Man Annual #1

This is an interesting, twisted version of an annual. It's also quite good.

But you won't find much Iron Man in here - in fact, there's only a one-panel flashback scene featuring the title character. What we have instead is the story of Tony Stark's greatest foe, The Mandarin.

The problem with that character is that in his early appearances, he was a "yellow peril" type menace - the typical evil communist Chinese character from the early '60s.

That's made him a difficult character for modern audiences, since he could easily be looked at as a stereotype, a figure of racist derision.

Through a clever plot twist, this issue offers up the origin of the Mandarin, and ties him in with the changes China has gone through.

The villain decides he wants his life story told by a gifted Chinese filmmaker, so he blackmails the artist into creating a biopic.

Of course, the truth is an elusive thing and the Mandarin hardly plays fair. But he's a powerful foe thanks to the 10 alien energy rings he wears (with their abilities delightfully redefined here).

The real goal of this annual, written by Matt Fraction and drawn by Carmine Di Giandomenico, is to bring the character back to the forefront, and set him up as a foe worthy and able to oppose - and possibly defeat - Iron Man.

This dark tale does that very well indeed. I wouldn't recommend this issue to young readers, but adult fans will be riveted.

Grade: A-

Sunday, July 4, 2010

The Flash #3

Happy 4th of July, everyone!

I probably should be reviewing Captain America today - but instead, let's focus on a comic that's been a favorite of mine almost since I first stared reading comic books (and before I even knew who Cap was) - The Flash.

I've mentioned before that I'm happy to have Barry (The Flash) Allen back in the title role, and this issue shows why - he's a sympathetic character (shown in his dedication to his work and his efforts to solve "cold cases"), his relationship with Iris is sweet, his real-world job is interesting (it's neat that the real world interest in C.S.I. has caught up with the Police Scientist), and he's very good at being a superhero. Best of all, he's a smart character who solves problems with his brain, not his fists - a welcome relief in comics today!

This time around he clashes again for the future version of the Rogues. This group is called the Renegades - they work for the law in the future and are determined to use their futuristic weapons to bring in the Flash, who's been charged with murder.

Also in the mix is the original Captain Boomerang, who's showing off some deadly new abilities and a determination to make his mark.

I like the artwork a lot. Artist Francis Manapul and colorist Brian Buccellato make a good team, and their style is unique. With strong, creative layouts, fluid figures and a lot of energy in their work, they make this comic a lot of fun and are a team to watch.

I also enjoyed the "Flash Facts" included in this issue - a good "in-joke" for longtime fans.

The creative team has managed to capture the feel of the original Silver Age version of this character (a serious compliment), while keeping the story modern and fresh - no simple task.

And I must say, it's great to see this comic back at the top of my reading list where it belongs!

Grade: A-

Saturday, July 3, 2010

Justice League of America #46

The annual Justice League of America / Justice Society of America crossovers were always a favorite of mine during the early days of the JLA, and it's nice to see the tradition revived in the modern day (though it's not a once-a-year thing anymore).

This story's been building for a few issues now, and writer James Robinson brings it into focus with this issue.

The Starheart, an evil force that's the basis for the original Green Lantern's power, has attacked the Earth and is possessing assorted powerful heroes and villains, forcing the JLA and the JSA to split up into teams and try to keep the possessed from wreaking havoc.

The problem is, what we have here is just a series of brief battles, and at the end nothing much has been accomplished. The story just crashes along from one bombastic battle to another until we wrap up with the final shocking page. Hopefully it'll all start making sense soon.

Certainly artist Mark Bagley seems to be having a lot of fun, drawing an incredibly diverse number of heroes and villains, a task he seems to tackle with George Perez-like enthusiasm. His work here, as always, is outstanding.

Of course, we can't judge the series properly until we see more of it, and so far we've just seen a lot of action scenes. Hopefully we'll get some more story in the chapters ahead.

Grade: B

Friday, July 2, 2010

Secret Avengers #2

While I certainly like comics that tackle cosmic stories, I have to admit that I prefer them to have at least some kind of basis in the real world.

And yes, Marvel Earth is different from our Earth - but in this issue of Secret Avengers, the team flies a spacecraft to Mars (that part's ok) where they discover a mystery that's linked to the ancient Serpent Crown (still ok) and some other strange crown-like artifacts that are linked to it and having a strange effect on others (still ok). But all this takes place in a massive dig that an Earth corporation is managing on Mars! (That beeping noise is the alarm on my "baloney" meter.)

I suppose, given the scientific advances evident on Marvel Earth, one could make the argument that such a thing is believable - but for me, it takes us way outside the real world, where we're lucky to land a working probe on Mars that can motor around the general vicinity.

I could have bought into an alien race digging there - the Kree, the Skrull, whatever - but I don't buy this. So, long story short, this comic already has a strike against it in my book.

Getting back to the issue - we have the Secret Avengers splitting up into teams and investigating the mystery on Mars, which involves lots of fighting, tracking, energy blasts, enslaved minions and a big mystery man.

The art by Mike Deodato and Will Conrad is mostly good, though there seem to be an awful lot of dark shadows and silhouettes going on here. Perhaps they're going for mood, but the end result is: it's sometimes difficult to figure out which character is which.

We're still early in the story, and writer Ed Brubaker has plenty of time to bring this one home - but so far, for me, this series is on shaky ground.

Grade: B

Thursday, July 1, 2010

Wonder Woman #600

It's interesting that DC celebrated three big anniversary issues within a month of each other, with Batman #700, Superman #700 and now Wonder Woman #600.

Of the three, the Superman issue was just average, the Batman issue had a good story and some great art - but only this issue really feels like a special event.

Part of that may be because it's nice to see Wonder Woman getting some long-overdue attention - there was a story about this issue on the ABC Evening News tonight (and probably the other networks as well).

The focus is on her new costume, of course. Some hate it, some love it, and some are indifferent. I guess I fall into the last category - it just seems like one of those things that all major heroes go through at one time or another - Superman, Batman, Spider-Man - name a hero who's been around for a while, and you'll find they tried on different togs at one time or another.

And you have to agree that WW's iconic uniform is a bit impractical (though few superhero costumes are practical, after all) - her star-spangled swimsuit has become skimpier over the years, and under the pencil of some artists, it's become just a step above Red Sonja's iron bikini.

So I don't mind the change, especially since I don't believe for a minute that it's permanent. I always liked George Perez's concept during his run on the title, that Diana had different outfits for different occasions.

And it's great to see Perez back on the cover and opening story of this issue, featuring a who's who of DC superheroines fighting together - and you have to love the sweetly sentimental ending of that short story.

The issue also includes a funny team-up with WW and Power Girl, written and drawn by the amazingly talented Amanda Conner. (To be fair, it's more a PG story than a WW story, but why quibble over such riches?)

The issue also includes nine outstanding splash panels / posters by some top artists, including Adam Hughes, Ivan Reis, Greg Horn and Phil Jimenez (though it's criminal that Jimenez's poster wasn't the center spread in the comic - the editor dropped the ball there).

The national focus is on the short story at the end of the issue, where writer J. Michael Straczynski and penciller Don Kramer preview their upcoming "New Look" version of Wonder Woman, wherein everything about WW's past is changed.

I guess you could call their work a success, because I haven't picked up this comic for years and years, but I'm willing to give it a try for a few issues to see where it all goes from here.

Oh, and I almost forgot - the comic includes an introduction by the real-life Wonder Woman, actress Lynda Carter. Hatchi Matchi!

Grade: A-