Monday, December 31, 2012

Top 10 Comics for 2012

Happy (almost) New Year!

It’s Dec. 31, so it’s time for my “Best of 2012” review, with the usual note that: 1) I don’t read everything, so this is actually the “Best of what Chuck read in 2012” list; and 2) Your top 10 list is probably very different. This is just my opinion at work.

Before we get to the best, let’s get the “Worst of 2012” out of the way. This year I gave no “F” grades at all (always a good sign), a “D+” and three “D’s” – so it’s between Amazing Spider-Man #692 and #700 and Phantom Stranger #0 - a tough choice, as they’re all truly bad. I really thought “PS” was going to win this in a walk - but last week’s Spidey #700 snatched away the trophy at the last second.

Now, back to the good stuff! These are comics that either earned an “A” or should have - or were memorable enough to be included. Only one comic earned an “A+” this year.

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

- Avengers Assemble
- Before Watchmen: Nite Owl
- Captain America
- Defenders
- Fatale
- Hellboy in Hell
- Indestructible Hulk
- League of Extraordinary Gentlemen Century 2009
- Rocketeer: Cargo of Doom
- Shade

And now, our Top 10 for 2012:

10. King Conan #1

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

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

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

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

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

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


9. Before Watchmen: Silk Spectre #1

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


8. Avengers #1

Of all the "Marvel NOW" titles, this is the one I've probably been looking forward to the most.

That's because writer Jonathan Hickman has been doing such impressive work on books like Fantastic Four, SHIELD and the sadly-underrated Secret Warriors.

Now he's tackling The Avengers, following a long and successful run by Brian Bendis on the title, and he wastes no time in carving out his own spot.

This issue starts with an Avengers line-up that's taken right from the film, as Captain America, Thor, Iron Man, the Hulk, Hawkeye and the Black Widow investigate a strange attack - and an ever stranger menace - that has set up shop on Mars.

You'd expect this powerhouse team to have no problem dealing with any menace - but that's just part of the surprise waiting in this story (which we won't spoil here, of course).

The story sets the stage for a sea change with the team - and as that final page indicates, it's going to be very interesting to see what happens next!

The art for this issue is by Jerome Opena, and I have to admit it took me a while to get used to it. His style is very organic and unique, with some echoes of the great Mobius. By about halfway through the issue, I was sold.

Hickman specializes in big, sprawling stories, and that's exactly what we're getting here. I love it!


7. Before Watchmen: Minutemen #1

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

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

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

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

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

This comic continues that string.

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

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

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

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


6. Daredevil #15

For over a year now, the creative team on Daredevil has been doing consistently excellent work.

For proof, look no further than the recent Eisner Awards, where the Man Without Fear walked away with three awards: Best Continuing Series, Best Single Issue for Daredevil #7, and Best Writer to Mark Waid.

And there's a reason for all this: it's one of the best comics being published today.

It's a simple combination. Great characters, original stories, excellent artwork, clever solutions to difficult challenges, and a healthy dose of humor.

Daredevil has faced overpowering opponents, five crime cartels at once, solved grisly crimes and seduced beautiful women (though not all in the same issue).

But in this issue he may finally face defeat. Last issue he was spirited away to Latveria, where an underling of Doctor Doom's performed an experiment that slowly destroyed his senses - including his radar sense.

Cut off from the world, how can Daredevil hope to survive, much less escape?

The answer lies in yet another clever tale from writer Mark Waid, loaded with surprising twists and turns.

The art is by Chris Samnee, and it's wonderful - he's quickly become one of my favorites, and this issue is loaded with clever visual styles, some dramatic confrontations and powerful layouts.

If you have any interest at all in superhero comics, you should be buying this one. The creative team puts on a clinic in each issue in how to do comics "right."


5. Avengers #32

OK, this is one of my favorite comics of the year because it features the return of one of my favorite characters, one who's been "missing" for far too long.

It's also a story that revives a favorite setting that dates back a few decades ago, unnamed here (as well as the hero) to avoid spoiling a delightful story.

Writer Brian Bendis is wrapping up his long run on this title, and it looks like he's making an effort to wrap up some loose ends before he goes.

There are a few gaps in the logic of this issue, but those are picky points - this is a fun romp as the story gets back to basics.

Throw in some great art by Mike Mahew and the criminally-underused Brandon Peterson, and you have an issue that's not to be missed.


4. Saga #1

Well, this one definitely isn't for kids - but it's mighty entertaining.

Saga follows the time-honored tradition of telling a big story from the very beginning - namely, the birth of the main character.

The humble birth is the result of a forbidden love between a couple from different races - and as a result, many powerful forces are aligning against them and trying to hunt them down.

To tell more would spoil the fun that awaits. The story written by Brian K. Vaughan is a delight, with great dialogue, loads of surprises and wonderful characters.

The art is by Fiona Staples, and it's wonderful - expressive, personal and panoramic all at once, with great character designs and powerful layouts.

My only complaint is that it's very difficult to review this comic without giving away too much. It's a heck of a deal, with 44 pages for a mere $2.99!

All that and a cliffhanger ending - I can't wait to see where this goes from here!


3. Action Comics #13

This is actually the only comic that received a grade of “A+” this year, but I couldn’t quite bring myself to give it the “best of” award this year - but it was an excellent comic.

What I love about it is the backup story (more on that in a moment), and that the main story is a solid Halloween tale that brings one of my favorite bits of Superman lore to the modern day - the Phantom Zone - and returns one of my (sentimental) favorite characters to the title (here unnamed to avoid spoiling the surprise).

The story is a clever bit of business by Grant Morrison (though I seem to have missed the part where Superman builds his Fortress of Solitude), introducing some Kryptonians to Clark's world.

The art by Travel Foreman is quite good - moody and dark, as even a science fiction horror story requires.

But my favorite part, by far, is the touching love story at the heart of the issue. That is brought to the fore in the backup feature by writer Sholly Fisch and penciler Brad Walker.

I don't want to give anything away, but it's a surprisingly sweet and touching tale that brought genuine tears to my eyes. How often does a comic book do that?

A special issue, and highly recommended!


2. Fantastic Four #604

When it was printed in March, I wrote: Fantastic Four #604 is the best comic of the year.

So far.

Being a manly kinda guy, there are some things I hate to admit - but full disclosure requires me to tell you that the ending of this issue made me shed an actual tear. Maybe two.

Pretty amazing (and rare) when a comic book manages that.

What we have here is nothing less that the wrap-up of one long storyline that Jonathan Hickman has been weaving since he took over the title. We see how a decision Reed Richards made at the beginning of the story has played out into the possible destruction of Earth and the extended FF family.

All the pieces are in place - the four cities, the Negative Zone, the Council of Reeds, the Inhumans, Johnny Storm's death (and return), the Future Foundation, Dr. Doom, Galactus, the Mad Celestials and some guest stars.

The art is by Steve Epting with Rick Bryant, and it's outstanding work, covering everything from massive cosmic battles to small personal moments and everything in between.

I can't talk any more about the comic without giving the events away, but let me just say: it's wonderful to see such a complex story pay off in such a satisfying way. Loved it!


1. Batman #5

With seven issues of this series earning an “A” this year, there’s little doubt that this is the best series for 2012 - and this issue was the best of the bunch.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Highly recommended!


So that's my list - feel free to send yours in to us, either by email to or in the comment link below.

As always, thanks for reading - and here's hoping for a great 2013!

Sunday, December 30, 2012

Mara #1

I have to admit I knew nothing about this comic (one of the few published this holiday week), but when I saw it was written by Brian Wood, I figured it would be well worth picking up.

And I was right!

Mara is an interesting story set in a future world that is obsessed by two things: sports and war.

The sports star known as Mara is the Michael Jordan of the wildly popular sport of volleyball, and (like him) her fame has translated into stardom in other venues. But then a strange event occurs during a game - and her life may never be the same.

I can't say much more without giving too much away. It's a story that's very different, and we're just getting the start of the story here - but if you're looking for a story that's more science fiction than superhero, this is a good place to be.

The art by Ming Doyle is original - stark and sketchy, but a great match for the story spooling out here. A bit rough around the edges, but very compelling.

So this is a comic that's not for everyone - but as always, Wood creates a story that mystifies (in a good way) and commands your attention.

Grade: B+


Saturday, December 29, 2012

Aquaman #15

Most comics crossovers tend to be a bit of a mess in terms of continuity, which is mostly the result of the attempt to coordinate different writers and artists over the course of several months.

So far that isn't a problem with the "Throne of Atlantis" story that's weaving back and forth between Aquaman and Justice League - and that's because the same writer is telling the story.

Geoff Johns set it up in JL as Atlantis is attacked by an American aircraft carrier (though there is some deviltry afoot) and retaliates with a devastating attack on the East Coast.

That places Aquaman in the middle - will he fight against Atlantis or side with the undersea kingdom against the surface dwellers?

It's a fast-moving story, loaded with revelations about Aquaman's past and some surprising choices by the King of the Sea.

The art is by Paul Pelletier, who's a very good superhero artist - his work only suffers slightly in comparison to Ivan Reis, who provided the art on the first 14 issues of this comic. But that's being picky.

So far, this is building nicely - and there's an interesting twist on the final page.

I don't always follow crossovers. I buy certain issues, but I won't pick up others just because a story branches out into other titles. Luckily I follow both this comic and JL, so I'll be able to keep up with this one.

And so far, this series is definitely worth hanging with.

Grade: A-


Friday, December 28, 2012

Justice League #15

There are moments when I think I've been reading comics too long.

(I know. Crazy thought, right?)

What brings these thoughts on is when I read a comic and I think, "Haven't I read this story before?"

So I read this issue of Justice League, and enjoyed it - it's loaded with lots of big, hoo-hah-type action, nice character moments, some solid revelations and a good setup for the "Throne of Atlantis" crossover event that will play through this title and Aquaman (more on that tomorrow).

This issue begins a war between Atlantis and the East Coast (stretching from Boston to Metropolis), with the Justice League facing an overwhelming menace.

In other words, the usual strong work by Geoff Johns. But my first reaction after reading it was to think, "Fantastic Four Annual #1."

That classic Lee & Kirby issue in the '60s featured Prince Namor leading the warriors of Atlantis into a devastating attack against New York City.

Of course, only the basic idea is the same - so it's really not fair to saddle this issue with the stigma of swiping (and there have been plenty of "Atlantis Attacks" stories) - but I can't help but make the connection.

I should add that the art is by new regular penciler Ivan Reis, and it's terrific - powerful layouts, great character designs, dynamic storytelling - I hate to see him leave Aquaman, but I'm happy to see him taking on this title.

So, great comic, outstanding art, highly recommended - even if it feels a little familiar.

Grade: A-


Thursday, December 27, 2012

Amazing Spider-Man #700

So here's the thing about too many comics today.

They're now being written as fanfic (fan fiction). There's a long tradition for that sort of thing, where fans write stories that really shouldn't be incorporated into comics mainstream, for the simple reason that the story takes the character too far away from what makes the character special.

These stories eventually have to be walked back or somehow corrected - a good recent example would be when Spider-Man revealed his secret identity to the world.

This issue presents another such story, and eventually Marvel will have to "fix" it - but they're apparently so desperate to generate sales or buzz around the company's most famous character that they take things to the ridiculous extreme we see here.

(And no, I'm not going to tell you what happens - just that I really, really don't like the direction the story takes.)

This seems to be par for the course with the modern Spider-Man - certainly it was my reaction to the "magical" ending to Peter Parker's marriage to Mary Jane Watson.

I'm convinced Marvel is hoping for a big pile of controversy, hoping it will drive readers to flock back to Spider-Man - and then they'll "correct" the effects of this story. I'm not convinced that this plan will work.

My advice would be to focus more on telling good stories and less on controversy - oh, and to make the title a monthly, and focus on quality, not quantity - but if they were going to listen to me, they'd have been doing that all along.

It's good that this is the last issue of "Amazing Spider-Man" - there's not much left about the character that's amazing any more. It's just sad, really.

Grade: D


Wednesday, December 26, 2012

Slim Pickings at the Comics Shop

I always say you can't buy everything - but today, it was possible, because there were very few titles released today, including:

- Aquaman #15 - Atlantis goes to war.

- Justice League #15 - The Throne of Atlantis begins here.

- Mara #1 - Life in the future.

- Amazing Spider-Man #700 - End of the line.

And, surprisingly enough, that's it!

The Classics: Last Days of the Justice Society Special #1

Boy, did I hate this comic when it was published in 1986.

As a big fan of the Justice Society, I picked up almost any comics featuring the team. And writer Roy Thomas had done great work with the team and associated titles (including All-Star Squadron and Infinity, Inc.).

But in the wake of Crisis on Infinite Earths, the JSA was a problem. DC didn't want a bunch of "old" heroes hanging around, and the Crisis had eliminated all the alternate Earths - so what to do with these geezers?

It seems that DC asked Thomas to find a way to write the team out of continuity - and he did so, but he had to bend the team and the plot into all kinds of contortions to make it work.

The upshot - as near as I can tell - is that, at the end of World War II, with defeat imminent, Adolf Hitler used the mystic artifact, the Spear of Destiny, to cause Ragnarok (the Twilight of the Gods).

In attempting to stop the destruction of the Earth, most of the JSA is brutally killed, only to be brought back and merged with the Norse Gods to stop Ragnarok from destroying the world. This way they can keep dying over and over again.

Through a variety of contortions, a handful of the JSA team members escape back to the modern world - Power Girl, Dr. Fate, the Spectre and the Star-Spangled Kid are spared, but the rest of the team is trapped in another dimension, fighting (and dying) and repeating the process on a loop forever.

It solved the problem by removing the bulk of the team from continuity, but it doomed them to a terrible fate - hardly the best way to wrap up such legendary careers.

Even the art seems rushed and shaky - not David Ross' best work at all.

Thankfully, it wasn't the last word on the team. Several years later, the JSA was rescued from its terrible fate - but for a long time, they were written out of continuity - and DC (and comics in general) was the poorer for it.

Some things never change, and today those "senior Citizen" heroes have again been written out of continuity. This time around they've been replaced by younger, updated versions living and working on a revived Earth-2.

So I suppose that's a bit of an improvement over Last Days of the Justice Society - but not by much.

Grade: D+


Tuesday, December 25, 2012

A + X #3

Merry Christmas, everyone!

Hope you're having a great holiday! It'll be a quick review today, as you pal Chuck is (mostly) taking the day off to spend time with family.

Our review today os of A + X, a comic I can't really recommend. (One must be honest, even on a day more given to charity.)

The stories are paper-this and the characters are likewise.

The first story almost works since it takes a lighthearted view of the marital difficulties between the Black Panther and Storm. One of the worst things to happen during the Avengers vs. X-Men series was the abrupt divorce between the two.

Why did they split up? Apparently because Namor (a mutant and ally of the X-Men and by extension, of Storm's) attacked Wakanda. That's it.

After Marvel spent years setting up the marriage and more years establishing the two as destined lovers, it all feels like a corporate decision to split them up. This story mends a few fences but doesn't correct the mistake - so as far as I'm concerned, it fails.

The second story teams up Hawkeye and Gambit - two funny, charismatic characters - and then doesn't do much with them. They fight over who's going to save a woman from a monster that appears out of nowhere - but the story doesn't do anything new or unusual - it's just a cookie-cutter team-up.

It's not a bad issue for a comic series - but it's not compelling or sharp enough to demand our attention.


Grade: C+


Monday, December 24, 2012

Idolized #4

This series started out as a clever idea - a superhero version of a reality TV show - but as Idolized draws close to the finale next issue, it's starting to strain a bit.

Each issue has ended on a cliffhanger, and this story picks up with the hero Joule plummeting to her doom while taking part in the final challenge.

The contestants are being forced to fight each other to determine the winner (the insurance costs on this show must be tremendous) - but the show has somehow neutralized their powers. Joule somehow survives the fall (which manages to shred her costume - in strategic spots, natch).

The fight is happening in the middle of a forest - I have no idea how the cameras are supposed to be able to keep up with all the action.

The winner must overcome the other players, and then they'll get fame, adulation and membership in The Protectors, a real superhero team. The team is not thrilled with being forced to make an inexperienced hero a member and insists she must be trained - and then turns around and sends her into battle with the team against a group of super-powered terrorists.

So there are some problems with the story by David Schwartz.

The art by Pasquale Qualano is quite good, emulating an Art Adams style. Some of the panel layouts are a bit tricky to follow, but overall it's solid work.

The issue also ends on a cliffhanger, but it's one that arrives out of nowhere and doesn't really work - it just feels tacked on.

Despite these gripes (and they're mostly picky ones), I'm enjoying the series and curious to see how it all wraps up next issue.

Grade: B-


Sunday, December 23, 2012

Masks #2

After enjoying the first issue of Masks, I was looking forward to the next chapter - but a shocking surprise awaited within.

I should explain that I try not to dig too much into the contents of future comics - I like to be surprised, and most previews tend to give away too much info. So I really don't know much about this series, other than the fact that it features a number of pulp heroes working together and artist Alex Ross is involved.

So I was surprised when I opened this issue and realized that, unlike the first issue, Alex Ross did not do the interior art.

Instead Dennis Calero provides the illustrations. Nothing against him, he's a solid artist - but he doesn't measure up to Ross' work (but then, few artists could).

It seems a bit unfair to kick the series off with Ross, continue to have covers by him (among the artists who provide multiple covers for Dynamite's comics), but not have him doing the art for the whole series.

I know, "let the buyer beware" (or at least do his homework) and all that.

The story by Chris Roberson is ever-so-slowly pulling together the members of this "League of Pulp Heroes," adding two more this time around, joining The Shadow, The Spider, The Green Hornet and Kato. But after a dynamic beginning last issue, this time around... well, not much happens.

So this issue is a bit of a let-down. Here's hoping next issue gets things back on track.

Wonder who the artist will be?

Grade: B


Saturday, December 22, 2012

Guest Review: Sherlock Holmes: The Liverpool Demon #2

Just in time for the holiday, my pal Glen Davis is here with a guest review about a new comic featuring the world's greatest detective:

Sherlock Holmes is a classic character who never goes out of style. Created during the Victorian era, the character is still featured in at least two television shows, and a very successful movie franchise.

This comic book take on the character is set in 1888. After stopping a Victorian-era identity thief and murderer, Holmes and Watson are approached by a former schoolmate of Watson's. It seems that a syndicate with the goal of introducing the elevated railway to England is meeting with some difficulties Meanwhile, some thugs are roaming the streets, and Spring Heeled Jack is making his presence known.

The writing is pretty good, complete with the displays of rationication all Holmesians hold dear, the foggy, gaslit streets, and all the portrayal of 19th Century London that make Holmes, well, Holmes, are present.

Unfortunately, the art is inconsistent, and that serves to handicap the whole project. Several characters, including Holmes himself, change features from panel to panel.

Hopefully the writing continues to be topnotch, and the art improves.

Grade: B-

Friday, December 21, 2012

Avengers #2

What comics do really well (when they're done well) is set up what seems to be an impossible situation for heroes to overcome.

The fun, then, is seeing how they prevail.

And that's exactly where we find The Avengers. In their first issue under writer Jonathan Hickman, they gathered their "A" team and traveled to Mars to face a cosmic threat - and promptly lost.

Only Captain America escaped back to the Earth, where he implements the emergency plan he had worked out with Tony Stark to "grow" the team (which is a bit of a trick, since the Avengers already has a big roster).

In this issue we learn a bit more about the menace and the terrifying effects of its attack on our planet.

It's an intelligent, measured tale that continues to build on Hickman's complex story - and uses a clever graphic at the heart of the expansion.

The art by Jerome Opena is compelling, while unlike most traditional comic book art.

This one is building nicely, and the opponent seems impossible to defeat. Who could ask for more?

The next issue can't arrive soon enough.

Grade: A-


Thursday, December 20, 2012

Wonder Woman #15

It's interesting that the New Gods have had such an impact on the DC Universe, yet most writers struggle with the heroic gods.

Darkseid and the other villains created by Jack Kirby have been folded into various DC Comics, but no one seems to know what to do with Orion and the other heroic New Gods.

But perhaps that's about to change, as this issue of Wonder Woman features the first appearance of Orion in the "New 52" (not including his cameo in the last page of issue #14).

The problem is that the characters aren't (you should excuse the phrase) from around here. Villains can be odd and monstrous, but we have to be able to identify with our heroes, and in the past the New Gods haven't given us much of that - they just show up and start hammering the bad guys.

This issue is a good step in the right direction, although it's a long way from explaining Orion's sudden appearance.

The story brings him directly into the mythology of the "New 52," as he seeks help from one of the gods who have taken up residence in the modern world - and that brings him into conflict with a certain Amazonian princess.

As always, a strong effort by writer Brian Azzarello and artist Cliff Chiang. If they can figure out a way to make Orion work in the DC Universe, they'll have managed something no writer has managed.


Grade: A-


Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Last Comics Day Before Christmas

Gad, a big haul today (apparently there won't be much next week). I got:

- A + X #3 - Storm and the Black Panther, together again?

- America's Got Powers #3 (of 6) - Secrets revealed!

- Avengers #2 - Building a bigger team.

- Before Watchmen: Nite Owl #4 (of 4) - Love and war.

- Captain America #2 - Stranger in a strange land.

- Daredevil #21 - Speaking of strange...

- FF #2 - That was a long four minutes.

- Green Lantern #15 - Rise of the Third Army.

- Indestructible Hulk #2 - Team-up.

- Journey Into Mystery #647 - Sif talks things over with her brother.

- Masks #2 - An army of heroes.

- Saga #8 - More unexpected stuff.

- The Spider #7 - Tracking a monster.

- Sword of Sorcery #3 - In training.

- Thor: God of Thunder #3 - Fighting for his life.

- Wonder Woman #15 - The return of the New Gods!

- All-New X-Men #4 - Cyclops past and present.

Whew! And that's it.

The Classics: Lawdog #1

There are things about the comics companies I just don't understand.

For example: how can it be that Marvel and DC don't have writer Chuck Dixon or artist Flint Henry working for them?

Dixon is a terrific writer who does great work in every genre. Henry is an amazing artist, a true offspring of the great EC horror artists - he packs an amazing amount of detail in each panel!

A great example is their series Lawdog, which was published by Marvel's Epic line in 1993.

It was a story ahead of its time, a Quentin Tarantino film captured in the pages of a comic.

The story followed the mysterious man known as Lawdog, who drives a modified "monster" car along a mysterious highway that seems to veer through alternate dimensions - each one loaded with all kinds of extreme violence, monsters and assorted dangers.

It's basically a mix of Road Warrior, Doctor Who and Judge Dredd with a healthy dollop of horror tossed in.

There's even a "companion" thrown into the mix, but 'Lina isn't a delicate flower - she tough as nails and adventurous - and she has a knack for being in the wrong place at the wrong time.

Dixon brings all those elements together and creates a fresh, outrageous and compelling story, giving the reader mysteries to unravel, action to enjoy and entertaining characters to follow.

Henry's art is the perfect match for this story - he loads the issue with grisly zombies, intense violence, creative layouts, sexy women and crazed, kinetic action sequences.

The issue is a non-stop blast from start to finish, and well worth tracking down. (In fact, I'm surprised an enterprising film producer hasn't scooped this one up.)

Now, would someone at the big two get their act together and put these guys to work?

Grade: A-


Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Conan the Barbarian #11

As a general rule, I have so much affection for Robert E. Howard's Conan the Barbarian that I'm happy to follow his adventures, even when the quality of the stories isn't quite up to snuff.

There's no danger of that with the latest incarnation - writer Brian Wood has been crafting some terrific stories set in the time when Conan became a pirate, teaming up (in every sense of the word) with the "goddess" Belit.

The stories have focused on real-world adventures - and the story "The Death" may be the most grimly real yet.

It finds the pirates facing an enemy that can't be overcome by a sword or cunning, as a mysterious disease threatens the life of the crew.

Conan must find a way to fight the invisible enemy - and finds himself facing a crisis of conscience, too.

The art is by Declan Shalvey, and it continues the style of the series - dark, understated and stark. It's a different but effective interpretation of Conan.

To those who haven't been following this series - you're missing out. With a unique style, strong art and terrific writing, this is a comic you should be buying.

If you're already picking it up - carry on.

Grade: A-


Monday, December 17, 2012

Fantastic Four #2

I'm enjoying the "new" Fantastic Four, mostly because it feels like a strong continuation of Jonathan Hickman's run on the title.

But... it's certainly taking its sweet time getting into gear.

Since the continuity in this series bounces back and forth between this title and FF, this is, for all intents and purposes, the third issue in the series, and we're just now getting to the heart of the story that will cover the next year.

What it all comes down to is a family vacation. Reed Richards is suffering from a mysterious ailment, so he's decided to combine his search for a cure (in alternate universes, of course) with spending some quality time with his family.

So for three issues the team has been making plans, arranging for "babysitters" to protect the members of the FF being left behind, and saying their goodbyes.

None of which is to say this isn't an entertaining issue. I love the characterization of the team - they're all spot on, from the Thing's humor to the Human Torch's... let's say "brashness."

I've been on record for a long time as being a fan of Mark Bagley - he manages team dynamics as well as almost anyone in the business, and his characters are dynamic and lively.

The good news is, by the end of this issue, the preliminaries are out of the way - now we can get to the adventure part of our program.

Grade: A-


Sunday, December 16, 2012

Before Watchmen: Dr. Manhattan #3 (of 4)

While the other Before Watchmen titles have dealt with real-world situations, the Dr. Manhattan series has been more of a flight of fancy.

The science fiction tale takes a serious look at the old "path not taken" nugget, as the blue hero examines his past life in extreme detail and realizes that he faces a decision that will not only change his life, but also that of every living creature.

It's a thoughtful, intelligent and well-crafted story by J. Michael Straczynski.

The art by Adam Hughes is, of course, wonderful (although it's still odd to read the story of a blue guy who spends the issue walking around buck naked). His characters are stunning and lifelike, his layouts are creative and the storytelling always clear and easy to follow.

As always, the high quality of the Before Watchmen series is impressive - each has its own take on the original tale, and it doesn't hurt that the starting point is one of the top stories in the history of comics - but kudos to DC for living up to the premise. So far.

Grade: A-


Saturday, December 15, 2012

Cable and X-Force #1

It’s hard to believe that there are now two X-Force comic books - I guess I never thought the group was that popular. But Marvel apparently thinks there’s no such thing as too many X-Men comics, so there you go.

Judging by the first issue of Cable and X-Force, I’m not so sure one series is warranted, much less two.

The series drops us in the middle of the action, as the X-Force team (which includes Cable, Colossus, Domino, Forge and Dr. Nemesis) has just committed what seems to be an act of terrorism.

They’re confronted by the Uncanny Avengers - and quickly we jump back in time to see how the latest X-Force team was gathered.

Frankly, it’s not all that interesting.

Cable’s struggling with some kind of debilitating illness while keeping a distant eye on his daughter Hope. He’s also recruiting new soldiers for his team, but his plans, their reasons for joining and what they hope to accomplish are largely unknown or unexplained.

The art by Salvador Larroca is excellent, but the color pallet is muted, giving the comic a grim tone - which is obviously intentional, but it doesn’t show off the art to its best effect.

Hopefully future issues will clear things up - but since Cable’s stock in trade is to be a mysterious figure, I’m not expecting much. I’m going to pass on this one.

Grade: B-


Friday, December 14, 2012

Avengers Assemble #10

I had high hopes for this series after last issue, which was the first by the new creative team - but those hopes have been somewhat diminished this time around.

This issue of Avengers Assemble starts at a research base in Antarctica, where a scientific friend of both Tony Stark and Bruce Banner has run into trouble - bringing the Avengers to investigate.

I enjoyed last issue because it incorporated humor nicely into the story - but there's precious little of that this time around.

An ancient infection (of some kind) has been unearthed at the base, and it threatens all life on Earth - but the heroes spend their time and effort trying to save the life of one team member who did something incredibly stupid, and the rest fighting video game characters. (You know how in some video games, your character fights the same cookie cutter "bad guy" characters over and over? That's what I'm talking about.)

So there's lots of running around but no real progress made - and Thor gets the "big strong knucklehead" treatment, which I don't like at all.

The art is certainly nice, as Stefano Caselli crafts some great character designs and strong layouts.

But the story stumbles a bit here. Hopefully it'll be back on track with the next issue.

Grade: B


Thursday, December 13, 2012

Batman #15

If the Joker is Batman's greatest villain, the question must be asked: why?

What makes that character the best opponent? Others are bigger, stronger, more powerful, and even smarter.

But as this issue points out, the Joker is the scariest. He's unpredictable, cunning, completely without remorse, able to assemble an army of both willing and unwilling underlings, and with seemingly limitless resources.

In other words, he's the one opponent Batman can't outwit or outthink.

The Joker's latest plan is, suitably, a big one, and it just gets bigger with every issue in the "Death of the Family" series. His goal is apparently to force that family to break up - and he plans to somehow force Batman into causing the rift.

It's a challenging, impressive series so far - and it shows no sign of letting up.

It's impressive that they've taken a character as established as the Joker and made him feel fresh and menacing - something only a few have managed.

Kudos to writer Scott Snyder and artist Greg Capullo for continuing to maintain the high standards on this title - one of (if not the) best of the "New 52."

Grade: A


Wednesday, December 12, 2012

The Day in Comics

Here's what I picked up today:

- Avengers Assemble #10 - Treating a sick Hulk.

- Batman #15 - A family meeting.

- Before Watchmen: Dr. Manhattam #3 (of 4) - Looking at the possibilities.

- Before Watchmen: Rorschach #3 (of 4) - Date night.

- Conan the Barbarian #11 - Facing death from an unbeatable foe.

- Fantastic Four #2 - Starting a family vacation.

- Iron Man #4 - Breaking out the big guns.

- Popeye #8 - In love with the Sea Hag?

- Winter Soldier #13 - Lots of guest stars.

- Uncanny X-Force #1 - Black ops.

And that's it!

The Classics: Action Comics #285

How I love these early Silver Age issues starring the Superman family!

They're just loaded with imagination and kindness - with a healthy dose of silliness, I'll admit - but they're just plain fun.

Take this issue of Action Comics, for example, printed in 1962. Superman's cousin, Supergirl, first arrived on Earth three years before, but her ever-protective cousin decided she should remain a secret. (I always enjoyed the idea that on Earth-2, her existence wasn't revealed for decades - she finally appeared as Power Girl.)

So after three years of keeping her hidden, the Man of Steel decides it's time to introduce her to the world - well, actually, to the universe. She is - immediately - incredibly popular, and the first 12 pages are devoted to her receiving tribute from the President, the United Nations, assorted planets, alien races and undersea allies.

The second half has her facing her first public menace - a gigantic, Godzilla-like monster - and when she struggles, everyone quickly decides she's no Superman. Not to worry. Through ingenuity and some time-traveling assistance, she succeeds and regains the faith of the world (it was the '60s - happy endings were the rule).

Perhaps the strangest part of the story is when she reveals her secret identity to her adopted parents! Yep, she had kept her powers a secret from them, too!

It's all silly, over the top and as endearing as can be.

I know, this kind of whimsy doesn't play well today - at least according to most comics companies - but I treasure these comics, both for the warm nostalgic buzz and the general goodhearted, imaginative approach to storytelling.

Grade: B+


Tuesday, December 11, 2012

Earth 2 #7

Earth 2 continues to be a disappointment.

For those who came in late, this title is a reboot of the Justice Society of America, returning the team (or the concept) to the alternate reality known as Earth 2.

But there are problems.

The characters have their original names, but their personalities have been changed. Green Lantern has no interest in being part of a team. Hawkgirl is a "Tomb Raider." The Flash is a bit of a flake. The Atom is a jerk. There are two Mr. Terrifics - one is evil and the other is brainwashed. Only Sandman seems to be a hero, and he's a cypher.

So all these familiar-yet-different heroes are running around, and there's no sign of a likeable of heroic character yet - and we're seven months into the run.

Look, I admit I'm prejudiced. I'v been a fan of the JSA since they first re-appeared in the Silver Age. I've been following the team's sporadic appearances since then, and have largely enjoyed them. Geoff Johns had a particularly excellent run on the title.

I was actually happy to hear the team was being moved "back" to Earth 2, because that's where it belongs.

The problem is, this isn't the team I've been a fan of for so long. And it seems likely that it'll never become that team.

Instead, it's yet another dysfunctional group of powerhouses, all angst and grief and sorrow.

I prefer the close-knit group of friends and family members made up of people I like. I'm old-fashioned, but I'd hate to think comics like that are somehow out of style.

Grade: C


Monday, December 10, 2012

Hellboy in Hell #1

For those of us in the real world, death is the end of the story.

Thankfully, comic book characters are under no such restrictions.

Which brings us to what happens to Hellboy after his recent death. That story begins in Hellboy in Hell, written and drawn by the character's creator, Mike Mignola.

I admit, I love those "what happens after you die" stories, and Mignola doesn't disappoint here, with amazing visuals of Hellboy's descent, the nightmarish conditions he encounters, and a return match with an old foe - plus an encounter with a mysterious ally.

It's told with Mignola's trademark dark wit, with lots of twists and turns in the plot.

This is the setup for what may be the strangest Hellboy story yet, as it ventures into literary ground (that happens to be quite appropriate to the season).

I can't wait for the next issue!

Grade: A


Sunday, December 9, 2012

All-New X-Men #3

I suppose I shouldn't be surprised that Cyclops is now a villain (of sorts), since he's been treated as one for years now.

He's been portrayed as heartless, a cold-blooded leader who's calculating and without emotion. So it's no wonder that modern readers consider him a heel, and now, after his possession by the Phoenix Force, he's become a murderer and the leader of the Brotherhood of Evil Mutants.

This is particularly annoying to a certain longtime fan I could name (that would be me) who's been reading the X-Men since virtually the first issue, and who always liked Cyclops as a hero who grew up "on camera" and became a dynamic leader.

That was all before he became the jerk we see now in the All-New X-Men.

So that part I don't care for. I also don't like the odd storyline that has several of the mutants unable to control their powers - it just seems random, like something the writer pulled out of a hat to stir things up (rather than an event that was foreshadowed in any way).

The comic does have wonderful art by Stuart Immonen and Wade Von Grawbadger, of course.

I'm here more for the art than anything else - which is surprising for a book written by Brian Bendis. But there's still plenty of time for him to make this work - but so far, I'm struggling to get on board.

Grade: B


Saturday, December 8, 2012

Action Comics #15

I have to give Grant Morrison credit - he's managed to take this "new" version of Superman into completely unexpected directions during his all-too-brief run on Action Comics.

This issue pits Superman against an impossible opponent - one who is attacking him in the most terrible ways across several periods of his life, all at the same time. And I know, that sounds like it makes non sense - and yet it does.

That's because Morrison has incorporated one of Superman's most comic-bookish foes, Mr. Mxyzptlk - and he makes him "work" in the real world, without taking away his fantastic nature.

As you'd expect, it's a wild story. It includes a magical enemy attacking Superman in his past, present and future, teaming up with numerous deadly foes - and along the way we learn about Mxy's wife!

It's a story that crackles with imagination, fun and adventure, beautifully drawn by Brad Walker (who handles the Mxy side of things) and Rags Morales (covering the modern-day action with great skill).

I believe next issue is the last one in Morrison's run on this title - and that's a shame, because Superman's adventures haven't been this good in a long time.

Grade: A-


Friday, December 7, 2012

Amazing Spider-Man #699

OK, so one thing that I like about Spider-Man is that he's an intelligent hero who often has to think of a clever solution to his problems.

That's exactly what happens in this issue. (Watch as Chuck struggles mightily to talk about this issue without giving away last month's shocking twist ending!)

Peter Parker finds himself caught in the ultimate deathtrap, and his only weapon is his mind.

The issue features some outstanding art by Humberto Ramos and Victor Olazaba - loaded with energy and enthusiasm.

And that's it for "things I liked in this issue."

The list of what I didn't like would be mush longer. The solution isn't the worst, but the results are horrific - and a proper hero wouldn't have caused it.

A smart one would have figured out a better way.

(There's also a quick joke that serves only to debase a longtime character and disgust the reader.)

Good thing there's only one issue left - this is one comic that desperately needs a reboot. Wonder what Miles Morales is up to?

Grade: C+


Thursday, December 6, 2012

Avengers #1

Of all the "Marvel NOW" titles, this is the one I've probably been looking forward to the most.

That's because writer Jonathan Hickman has been doing such impressive work on books like Fantastic Four, SHIELD and the sadly-underrated Secret Warriors.

Now he's tackling The Avengers, following a long and successful run by Brian Bendis on the title, and he wastes no time in carving out his own spot.

This issue starts with an Avengers line-up that's taken right from the film, as Captain America, Thor, Iron Man, the Hulk, Hawkeye and the Black Widow investigate a strange attack - and an ever stranger menace - that has set up shop on Mars.

You'd expect this powerhouse team to have no problem dealing with any menace - but that's just part of the surprise waiting in this story (which we won't spoil here, of course).

The story sets the stage for a sea change with the team - and as that final page indicates, it's going to be very interesting to see what happens next!

The art for this issue is by Jerome Opena, and I have to admit it took me a while to get used to it. His style is very organic and unique, with some echoes of the great Mobius. By about halfway through the issue, I was sold.

Hickman specializes in big, sprawling stories, and that's exactly what we're getting here. I love it!

Grade: A


Wednesday, December 5, 2012

Comic Book Day

Here's what I picked up today:

- Action Comics #15 - The inexplicable return of a famous foe!

- Avengers #1 - This is the "Marvel NOW" issue I've most anxiously been waiting for.

- Before Watchmen: The Comedian #4 (of 6) - Fun in Vietnam.

- Before Watchmen: Minutemen #5 (of 6) - Bad to worse.

- Earth 2 #7 - What's up with Mr. Terrific?

- Fairest #10 - Breaking up in Tokyo.

- Hellboy in Hell #1 - Finally! What happens after death?

- Iron Man #3 - Up against the rogue's gallery.

- Amazing Spider-Man #699 - Explaining the twist from the other direction.

- World's Finest #7 - Brothers and sisters fighting for their lives.

- All-New X-Men #3 - Losing control.

And that's it!

The Classics - Batman #404

Wrapping up our look at classic issues of Batman (at least for now), here's one of the best.

After writer / artist Frank Miller scored a huge success with "old Batman" in The Dark Knight Returns, he tackled the same character at the other end of his career.

In four issues published in 1986 he crafted a modern, iconic version of Batman's origin - in many ways, it was the first "real world" version of Batman.

The artist on the series was David Mazzucchelli, an artist whose style is one-of-a-kind - it does a fantastic job of capturing the real, gritty world or Gotham City. Like Alex Toth, he manages to convey incredible depth and feeling with minimal lines and amazing use of shadows. It's stunning work.

The story begins with Bruce Wayne returning from his studies around the world, as he continues to make himself into the ultimate enemy of crime - but he still has a lot to learn before he's ready to become Batman. At the same time, Jim Gordon joins the Police Force - one good cop in a sea of corruption.

How they both deal with the amazing obstacles they face is a riveting tale - and one that brings them together in their fight against crime.

This was the first of the "Year One" stories, and there have been many others since - but none have been better. This one's easy to track down - it's been reprinted many times - and there's a good reason why.

Highly, highly recommended!

Grade: A+


Tuesday, December 4, 2012

FF #1

This one, I suspect, is going to be a lot of fun.

Jonathan Hickman just wrapped up his excellent run on FF, which was tightly linked with the regular Fantastic Four title. Now the comic is in the hands of Matt Fraction, but the title (for now) will stand alone - so he sets up an interesting premise, spinning off the events in the "new" Fantastic Four comic.

The original FF is planning a trip through time and space, which Reed Richards estimates will take all of four minutes. But just in case, he wants to make sure the kids who make up the FF (Future Foundation) will be protected, so he sets out to assemble a "stand-in" Fantastic Four.

And an odd group they are, including the She-Hulk, Medusa, Ant-Man and what appears to be a woman wearing a Thing-like body. Your guess is as good as mine.

This issue serves as an intro to both the new team and the existing members of the FF, and it looks to be an odd mix.

But what really sold me on the series was the art by Mike Allred, which just bubbles with energy and a sense of fun. Allred is something of a throwback to the Silver Age (in the best possible sense) - his art is out of the ordinary, but captures the sense of Jack Kirby's style without ever being a direct copy.

This is a title that's walking a different path, and it's not going to be for everyone.

But from where I sit, FF is a title to watch.

Grade: A-


Monday, December 3, 2012

A + X #2

This is one of those weeks where we could almost devote every daily review to a different Avengers-related comic.

Today's entry is the split team-up comic, A + X, wherein a member of the Avengers teams up with one of the X-Men (though those lines are already getting blurred a lot).

It's mostly just an excuse for a bit of fun, some action and a few laughs. The book is split between two different crossovers by different creative teams.

The first half teams the Black Widow with Rogue in a light-hearted battle that involves a rampaging Sentinel (robot), a couple of science nerds, and a surprising lip-lock between the two heroes (which should jumpstart a few teens into puberty).

The story and pencils are by Chris Bachalo with Tim Townsend on inks, and it's quite good. It's high-spirited, has some funny comments along the way, and strong, kinetic art.

The second story features Iron Man and Kitty Pryde, and the story by Peter David is good (if incredibly improbable), and the dialogue is fast and funny. The art by Mike Del Mundo is a bit "hit and miss" with me - the characters are just a bit too cartoonish and distorted in some panels.

So, don't pick this up expecting anything deep and meaningful - but it is fun.

Grade: B-


Sunday, December 2, 2012

Masks #1

This one should be subtitled, "Made especially for Chuck."

As a fan of pulp stars like The Shadow and The Spider, the idea of teaming up those two heroes (have they ever "met" before?) along with the Green Hornet, Kato and Zorro translates into a "must-buy" comic for me.

But Masks goes one step further by having Alex Ross provide the artwork. His realistic, painted art has been exceptional throughout his career, and this issue is among his best work yet.

Since the pulp heroes are "real" people who happen to wear masks (as opposed to superheroes dressed in unrealistic, skin-tight costumes), Ross' real-world depictions capture the story perfectly.

The story by Chris Roberson starts the process of bringing the heroes together and sets up an overpowering menace for them to face. Each character "speaks" with the proper voice and they avoid the old "heroes meet and fight each other" bit. Well, mostly.

I admit that I approached this issue with some trepidation. These team-ups don't alway work well, and that can be disappointing - but this one delivers on every level.

Can't wait for the next chapter!

Grade: A


Saturday, December 1, 2012

New Avengers #34

Some writers have a good grip on stories based on magic, and others struggle with it.

Stan Lee, Steve Ditko, Roy Thomas, Steve Englehart and Roger Stern are among those who have the knack. Brian Bendis always seems to struggle a bit, although he invented a clever new format to allow Dr. Strange to work his art (citing the spell at the bottom of the page, rather than having Strange recite poetry).

When the latest version of the New Avengers started, Bendis included a Dr. Strange who was no longer Earth's Sorcerer Supreme.

This issue brings that story full circle as Dr. Strange is forced to fight the entire lineup of New Avengers and original Avengers - because they've all been possessed by an evil spirit.

It's a great opportunity for Strange to show why he should be one of Marvel's premiere heroes, and it's a great wrap-up to Bendis' run - and perhaps his way of apologizing to the character for all the crap he's been subjected to.

The art is something of a grab-bag, with Mike Deodato providing some amazing images, and assorted artists covering much of the battle, with varying degrees of success.

It would be nice to see Dr. Strange back in the spotlight, starring in his own comic - if they could just find the right writer.

Grade: B+