Thursday, January 29, 2009

A Little Less Norman, Please

This week, DC arrived with their "resolution" to Final Crisis and this series definitely wasn't what I hoped it would be. And despite all of the Big Three having a book released, only one was featured prominently. Over in Marvel, Dark Reign further established the new status quo, with Norman Osborn making his ninth appearance of the month. And I have to ask, Haven't we all been Disassembled enough?

Please note -- Events taking place in comics previous to this week can be spoiled in the reviews.

Comic Reviews for the Week of 1/28/09


Written by Christos Gage, Art by Humberto Ramos

Ah yes, Humberto... can't really hear that name without thinking of Wolverine and his 20" circular neck. His style has calmed down slightly since then, but you still know what you're getting every time out. And I have to ask, Aren't comic book characters out of proportion enough? This exaggerated style still grinds on the nerves, but considering this book has been approaching the dead zone ever since Secret Invasion, at least we won't be seeing it too much longer.

But between Secret Invasion revealing the entire Initiative was a Skrull-plot to take over the world and Marvel throwing the Disassembled label on the cover, we know it's about the end of the road for Marvel's school for superheroes. And can't really say that I'm sad to see it go. Despite the consistently high quality of the work on this title, it drastically over-populated the Marvel universe with super-powered do-gooders.

Last month, they took the case of the reveal of Mutant X's true identity as... not Jean Grey. For most of the last two years, we caught glimpses of this red-haired mutant that sprouts flames in Phoenix-like shapes. Now, we know she is a rehabilitation-attempting Typhoid Mary. Here's a clue... when Jean Grey returns it won't be on a secondary Avengers title as a covert operative for a team assembled by Henry Gyrich. Call me crazy ("CRAZY"), but it'll probably be in an X-Men title and some combination of Cyclops, Professor X and Wolverine will be present. This stuff isn't that difficult people. Lesson #2, if a comic is BLATANTLY hinting a mysterious character could be someone huge... it's always someone mediocre, always.

Anyway, the main decision left here is how this book is ending and hey, Norman Osborn driving most of the instructors away and the Thor clone turning back to bash the place up is as good an excuse as any. Admit it, you missed Clor. But credit Gage for not just giving us a big brawl here. Sending the covert branch of the team after a founding member who betrayed them does a fine job of lending a sense of history to this ultimately short-lived enjoyable series.

Final score : 2.5 stars out of 5


Written by Paul Dini, Art by Dustin Nguyen

As far as we could expect in the issue (filler between the end of Morrison's R.I.P. and Last Rites issues and Neil Gaiman's eagerly awaited "Whatever Happened to the Caped Crusader" story that will wrap up the title for the immediate future), we probably got more than we could have hoped for: a solid story and art. Since the series that featured her as a hero every month, Catwoman has regressed to the status of a rather altruistic villain that lies very much in the mold of the character on Dini's cartoon. Nguyen's art is not his very best, but is clear enough and together the pair deliver a fitting epilogue to their work on Detective Comics.

All-in-all this is probably one of the best issues featuring Hush since the character was introduced. Dini's biggest hurdle is probably not making most people cast the book aside between the missing title character and the casting of the villain. From the very beginning, it was painfully obvious who Hush was and he lacked any understandable motivation or modus operandi to draw the audience in. Newsflash, Bat-fans, if the hero is attacked by a mysterious new foe and in the same issue a childhood friend that meant a great deal to the hero, but has never appeared or was mentioned before in continuity... yeah...

My one regret is that DC didn't quickly hit the reset button on Hush now having Bruce Wayne's face, as recently established over in Detective. At least they have effectively shelved this plot point to the back burner until Wayne's return... whenever the heck that might be.

Final score: 3 stars out of 5


Written by Ed Brubaker, Art by Steve Epting

This is a great move. Already having been established as a credible lead, a compelling and true character, worthy in his own right, Captain America, this latest arc is really a look back into the past of Buck Barnes. This arc's main plot allows us to see him simultaneously embrace his past as an Invader by teaming up with Namor to rescue the body of the original Human Torch, while still making him confront his less heroic past as the Winter Soldier.

As the events were happening, I was firmly in the camp that bringing back Bucky and killing Steve Rogers were mistakes that reeked of editorial mandates; the kind that usually get us dreek along the lines of One More Day. But Brubaker has never made it appear that they do anything more than serve his story. We're more than three dozen issues past the point where Brubaker and Epting made it clear they were telling the definitive story of Captain America. Now nearly half a century of issues in, you have to wonder if they will ever trip up.

Epting's art is his usual top tier effort. After four years as the regular artist on the title, you know what you're getting here. The crowning achievement of redesigning the title character's costume in a way that honors the legacy, separates Bucky as his own person, and looks cool as heck, still rates as my personal favorite contribution from Epting. One further compliment for the pair making the best use of the Black Widow in possibly the entire history of the character. From the day they revealed her as the once-upon-a-time and new love interest for our new Cap, she's been reveling in her butt-kicking super-spy status.

Final score: 4.5 stars out of 5


Written by Ed Brubaker, Art by Michael Lark

If there is any book in Marvel's shop more consistently excellent than Captain America, it's this one. Brubaker and Lark took the baton from Bendis and Maleev more than two-and-a-half years ago and the story overall hasn't missed much of a beat. Which in Daredevil, pretty much means putting Matt Murdock through the wringer as often as possible. After the arc where he was in prison, his temporary hideout in Europe and his wife being driven insane, they changed the pace recently to take a bit of time to build him back up in the last dozen issues or so by saving a falsely-convicted murderer and finding perhaps a future love interest.

All that said, in this lastest Lady Bullseye arc, the team stumbled for a moment. It might be the lack of a fully developed backstory, but the new version comes off as a trick they turned to with the original Bullseye tied up in bigger things with Norman Osborn's Dark Avengers for the time being. And the ultimate plan for the recent attacks by her and the disposable members of the Hand seems unrealistic given their original stated targets and despite some shining moments of dialog and the mandatory cool-looking ninja battle, the reasoning never fully comes together.

In truth the biggest moment of the book might be the tease for the next arc, Return of the King... and I have to say it feels that after not even a couple years, it's far too quick to pull Wilson Fisk back into the mix.

Final score: 3 out of 5

FINAL CRISIS #7 (of 7)

Written by Grant Morrison, Art by Doug Mahnke

This one... nope can't fully go into it yet. I'm going to reread the entire series this weekend and talk about it in fully shortly thereafter. Some brief notes I can off is that the series hurt by the loss of JG Jones, the artist who handled the first 5.75 issues of the series and despite a decent effort by Mahnke, this one falls short. The much mentioned seven or eight inkers used prevents any unified feel from forming. And that is a quality that would be much appreciated given how rapidly and often erratically Morrison jumps around in his storytelling. Fair warning, the full Crisis story will contain spoilers up to the last page of this issue. So check back in a few days to see if I jump ship or sip the Morrison Kool-Aid one more time.


Written by Brian Michael Bendis, Art by Billy Tan

Taken with the last issue, the latest new Avengers feels like I just got Punked. The interesting plot threads and potential divisions of long-time friends and the destruction of an innocent family gets tied up incredibly quickly and just in time to set the book up for a big brawl next month. Even Tan's art, which was generally unfairly maligned during a run on Uncanny X-Men a couple years back, seemed a step above his usual work in #48. But here we are 30 days later and it looks like the second half of the book was rushed together in half the time spent on the first half, particularily the facial expressions of several Avengers in a large group gathering. Too often it seems flat and lifeless work for Marvel's premier action title. Whether or not this was because Tan was pressed for time to move on to the big Number Five-O or if this will be a recurring flaw remains to be seen.

Bendis' main point in these issues seems to be setting up a big fight between Captain America's NEW Avengers and Norman Osborn's DARK Avengers. But all the potential set-up for the first issue: a Skrull disguised as Jarvis stealing Luke Cage and Jessica Jones' baby, Cap's Avengers tearing up the island trying to find him, and finally a desperate father turning to the newly-christened most powerful force in the world (who miraculously gained the ability to appear more often than Wolverine): the Green Goblin. But all that is tied up in a nice bow rather too quickly and we're back to the status quo in short order.

A couple of questions... Skrulls are shape-changers and one is famous for impersonating the Avenger's butler and stealing the baby... so why exactly does his escape plan include carrying the baby around and continuing to look like Jarvis?! Also, is the way to launch the first Captain America-led Avengers team in a few years with big names like Spider-Man, Wolverine and Iron Fist in the line-up really to leave the coolest moments for Venom and Bullseye?

Final score: 2 stars out of 5


Written by Geoff Johns, Art by Jerry Ordway

Justice League holds the A-list banner, but for years now those in the know have found that the JSA has been the top notch team in the DCU. The most recently concluded storyline involving the Superman from Kingdom Come and a giant purple-headed pseudo-diety named Gog (um... yeah), dragged out too long and lacked the normal emotional punches of the series with far too much seeming hollow. But while this issue doesn't exactly hit the ground running, everything moves along at least quickly enough to set-up an interesting new arc. Coming out of the brief fracturing of the team in the Gog storyline, this issue cuts between the team taking a breather while the leaders debate cutting back the line-up with Black Adam firmly rooting himself in the bad guy column with a somewhat improbable assault on the Rock of Eternity. Adam might claim that he isn't some evil villain, but in the often simple terms of superheros, it's the best way to describe characters that put their own desires for vengence above all else.

The veteran Ordway continues the fine work he showed off on the trip to Earth-2 during the JSA Annual with an arc all his own here. The highlight is the hopeful return to the fold of one of the great characters from Johns' long run on the title, Atom Smasher. And of course, seeing Stargirl sitting at the table with the founders and big guns deciding how things should be run shows how far this terrific character has come over the years.

Final score: 3.5 stars out of 5


Written by James Robinson, Art by Jesus Merino

The return to comics for Robinson, whose Starman series is one of the very finest comics ever created, has been less than ideal. So much of his work on Detective Comics back in the good old One Year Later days was ignored in the years that followed. His reign in Superman started with the misguided crossover event of New Krypton running throughout Action Comics, Supergirl and here. The concept never delivered on its potential and despite massively changing the Man of Steel's status in the world, never came close to the quality of previous character-driven events like Sinestro Corp War. Now his first issue since then prevents him from telling much of a Superman story since the DC line-wide Faces of Evil gimmick is pushing the villians perspective to the forefront.

So between the somewhat forced Parasite narration, some brief background on the Kryptonians, Nightwing and Flamebirds, who will be the focus of Action Comics in the coming months, and teasing YET ANOTHER brief crossover return trip to the Phantom Zone... it just seems like the editors are strangling the talents of one of the best available writers. The one section that feels like Robinson's own and something he will use in the future is the Guardian taking command of the Science Police following the numerous deaths in New Krypton (deaths that wasted yet more potentially interesting characters). A non-powered supporting cast with three-dimensional characters involved in the fate of the city was a staple of Starman. The idea of a juxtaposition between the indestructible Superman and a tough guy with a shield and helmet fighting the battles to protect the single city is something that I'd look forward to reading.

All the potential of the book is limited however, by the idea of Superman heading off planet and out of his titles for a time. Didn't Batman, Superman and Wonder Woman just take a year off the comics-equivalent of... um five months ago? Do we really need to do without two of them AGAIN?

Final score: 2 stars out of 5


Written by Gail Simone, Art by Aaron Lopresti

Don't let this one cover fool you. Despite many other DC books letting the bad guys run the show, this is still Wonder Woman's story, told from her perspective, just featuring Cheetah towards the later half. The bulk of this issue is WW's preparation to face the new monster, Genocide, who stomped her thoroughly two issues past and is currently trouncing the less powerful members of the Justice League. The battle delivers a good bit of action and carnage, pushing home the point that this superhero cuts into a problem in a more efficient manner than most others out there.

Since taking over the title, Simone has at the least given the character a consistent voice and tried to move past the debacle that was Amazons Attack. The bad taste over that mess is a cloud hanging over Simone's consistent movements toward the showdown with the Amazons male replacements, led by Jason and his Argonauts. But at least here, Simone seems to stay true to the Greek mythology background of the book. Lopresti's artwork has been a highlight recently. He plots the battle scenes well and doesn't hide the brutality off-panel. While the character still often comes off as stilted in her conversations, it's at least consistent with her unique and isolated history.

Final score: 3 stars out of 5

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