Wednesday, February 4, 2009

Everybody was Kung Fu Fighting

Nick Fury starts a new series in what could be an excellent international espionage title. Buffy still gets dragged down by the "big mistake," but I can't be too mad about a book that involves Slayers vs. plush toys. Tony Stark tears himself down to build himself back. Final Crisis wasn't as over as we thought... well it is, but a fun story that's right in my wheelhouse finally picks up again. And one book I gave up on a long time ago finds it's way back into my pull list. And we're both glad to be back in the ultimate kung fu comic epic. The books in the first part of this week's reviews don't miss too many opportunities to rock.

Comic Reviews for the Week of 2/4/09

Written by Steven S. DeKnight, Art by George Jeanty

Buffy takes a good break from full story arcs following the all-around disappointing Fray crossover with the second of five thinly connected one-shots each with a unique writer. DeKnight (a writer for the Buffy, Angel and Smallville television series) improves things from the recent terrible Jeph Loeb cartoon issue and the utterly misguided Jane Espenson Harmony-centric story. A longtime fan of the series, I can't help but feel this storyline jumped the shark in issue #21.

One of the best things the television show had going for it was the running idea that despite all these demons and vampires and apocalypses, this all was hidden from the majority of the world. Having a vampire get a reality show, reveal their nature to the world and make everyone think the Slayers are evil... the worst idea in the history of the franchise. It's the type of giant consequences, reality of the show shattering (like sending LA to hell) move that illustrates why maybe the budget-less freedom of comics might not be the best thing for this universe.

In this issue, the Japanese contingent of Slayers led by the recent Buffy paramour Satsu get to take on one of the best villains of the comic so far, the eponymous Swell, an army of plush kitty vampire toys. Hearing the little fluffy demon trying to possess a Slayer by jumping down their throat and yelling, "EAT THEIR #%&@ING OVARIES!" Hilarity of a higher order. And the final takedown actually rates as cool, and ties nicely back to an idea from DeKnight's excellent Angel episode "Why We Fight."

One drawback of the issue (besides confirming the awful Harmony plot wasn't a misprinted issue) was continuing to waste the character of Kennedy. So far relegated to a background idea in the comics, here she shows up for little more than to give Satsu someone the audience knows to exchange the standard issue witty barbs with and hammer home the "Buffy isn't Gay" message. And for the future, a big plea... no more Larry King interviews with Harmony!

Jeanty has come a long way from the early issues on the series with their frequently odd facial expressions. Things have taken a step forward in that direction thankfully. There's still a general lack of background detail, but in a dialogue-heavy book like this, as long as he keeps improving on the faces and nailing the action scenes in a reasonably convincing manner, everything will be fine.

Final score: 3 stars out of 5

IMMORTAL IRON FIST #22 - "Escape from the Eighth City"
Written by Duane Swierczynski, Art by Travel Foreman

Some six month ago, when original writer Matt Fraction and artist David Aja left this series, I let it drop off of my pull list, figuring I loved Aja's work and had never loved an Iron Fist story before Brubaker and Fraction started this series and the quality would fade. But recently, I caught up on Swierczynski and Foreman's first arc, found the art to be different, but still well-fit to the character.

An incredibly bright move was not straying away from the excellent mythology that was established before they came on the book. The supporting cast of the other five Immortal Weapons from throughout the Seven Capital Cities of Heaven is just as valuable to the plot and ever-further explored history as Danny Rand's old Heroes For Hire friends. Few issues go by without the Prince of Orphans, Dog Brother #1,Tiger's Beautiful Daughter, Bride of Nine Spiders, or (especially) Fat Cobra stealing a good part of the show.

And this new arc has the Weapons caught in the Eighth City... the inescapable prison city of Hell in a long shot attempt to rescue a small number of unfairly imprisoned political prisoners. The fact that they are forced into a never-ending cycle of gladiatorial battles always left alive one breath short of death does a fine job setting up the idea of a larger plot against the heroes. But it does seem a bit repetitive to the arc where they all met in a kung fu tournament battling one another.

But the fact that this character's story is getting deeper and better every month is a testament to both the groundwork the previous creators developed and the professional execution of the current ones. While the book might not be equal to the first few legendary arcs, it didn't drop off that much and I'm glad to be back on board.

Final score: 3.5 stars out of 5

Written by Matt Fraction, Art by Salvador Larroca

Hey, remember back before Marvel decided to turn Tony Stark into the biggest jerk on the planet earth that forced them into Civil War, tearing the Marvel superheros into opposing factions and forcing himself into every book with his damned cockiness on display 24-7-365? Remember him being a flawed human? The slight awkwardness of cheering him along throughout his feature film while hating him in the comics? By far the best thing to come out Secret Invasion is the tearing down of Stark as far as he's ever gone.

Now broke, unemployed, his company being torn apart and employees beaten and imprisoned by Norman Osborn's H.A.M.M.E.R. facists with his allies now limited to a cooler than ever Maria Hill and Pepper Potts. While I strongly disagree with where Fraction leaves Pepper in the end of this issue, it's not as bad as the forced pushing of her and Tony towards romance. One of the best developments in the history of the character was her not ending up with Stark and recent efforts to bring them together come off as forced to line the characters up with their film roles. Now Stark and Hill, those are two characters that play well off one another.

As Tony loses everything, it looks like he'll come out the other end repaired as the good guy we liked in the first place. And if he has to go through a torturous period to get there... looks to be a hell of a ride. Enough can't be said about Larocca's artwork. His realistic style is well short of someone like J.G. Jones or John Cassaday, but has a smooth and stylish approach that seems a good match for a book where the main character wears a shiny armored suit. Of course, some of his faces look a bit too much alike one another, it seems that hustling might be the price we pay to have the book on time ever month.

Final score: 3 stars out of 5

Written by Geoff Johns, Art by George Perez

Normally, this is the type of delay in shipping that would result in outrage, groans, jokes and cursing towards the heavens. But since we learned more than a month ago in the sixth issue of the main series that (title to the contrary) this storyline has nothing to do with Final Crisis besides explaining where Superman was for a little while. And there's enough that I geek out over in this book to stay mad at it for too long. First of all, ever since the first Crisis in 1985, anytime Perez draws a large cast of characters, the eyebrows of DC fanboys the world over raise towards the sky. And there isn't a writer in the business today that can tell a sweeping, epic yarn, nail emotion highlights and make it accessible to a reasonably intelligent lay person like Geoff Johns.

The combined villains of the 31st century are united behind Superboy-Prime's attempt to destroy everything Superman stood for and after the last couple of years its been proven this is the only writer that should take this character on. Johns and Perez wasted no time getting the three different continuities of Legion (now established as alternate Earths) together to take the fight back to the bad guys. And honestly, I'm utterly thrilled to have multiple superhero teams show up and NOT spend the first half the storyline fighting amongst one another. It's wonderfully refreshing.

Perez' artwork is a cut above his own high standard and from the splash pages of dozens of Legionaries taking flight to the easily followed 14 or 16 panel single page spreads, the book shows off this man's range and reminds us he can hold his own with anyone else in the business.

Johns knows every one of the members of Legion well enough for each alternate version of the same character to stand apart from the others to be easily identifiable to Legion fans. And the final resolution of the utterly disappointing Johns-Meltzer "The Lightning Saga" storyline is revealed as the beginning of the return of a recently deceased superhero and while this is one of the most frequent comic complaints, I don't mind as this character was killed far before his time in a storyline that carried little emotional weight and led to one of the worst ongoing plots in the last several years in the DCU.

Every competing subplot is juggled to stay in the reader's mind and I can't wait for this story to continue in a more timely manner. So we'll knock the score down a little for the delay, but only a little given the superb quality of the work.

Final score: 4.5 stars out of 5

SECRET WARRIORS #1 - "Nick Fury: Agent of Nothing"
Written by Brian Michael Bendis and Jonathan Hickman, Art by Stefano Caselli

In the years since the conclusion of Secret Wars (and quite awhile before that when the five issue, oft-delayed series began), Marvel's ultimate spy has been largely relegated to a recurring back-up role in Captain America, never playing a direct part in the events and absent from most of the Marvel mainstream. In the events surrounding the Secret Invasion, they revealed that upon going into hiding after declaring an illegal war on Latveria, he learned of the Skrull infiltration before anyone else and while in hiding began planning to fight back.

The introduction of the Caterpillar Database was exactly the type of thing Fury would have ready to go... a list of super-powered individuals that nobody else knew about (so they would never have been targeted for replacement or hold conflicting loyalties). A strong line-up of previously unseen characters, we've seen little of them besides the gathering of the group, brief training and actions taking the first strike back against the Skrull invasion.

While the idea of a team of rogue super-spies covertly fighting the dark secrets of world is a promising concept, it could work out for the long-term if the quality of this first issue is matched. Co-credited on the story with Bendis, Hickman's script hums along nicely with a quick reintroduction to the characters and focusing mainly on Daisy "Quake" Johnson, the field leader of Fury's team, whose narration drives the early action.

Of course, Nick isn't left to the background, pulling off a pair of break-ins and standing toe to toe with the recent guest star of multiple Marvel titles, Barack Obama in a scene that significantly eclipses all of the mostly shallow and pointless appearances of our new commander-in-chief thus far. Another wonderful scene with the team's youngest member, Phobos, God of Fear (until recently was just the normal mortal son of the Avengers' Ares) comes off as the best in the book, complete with video game shout out, all while underlying how powerful/dangerous this little boy should be considered. And not just because he's probably the kind of guy to teabag after killing you online.

Besides Daisy looking too much like Maria Hill (though it's consistent with how she looks, it's a pain since they both wear your standard issue S.H.I.E.L.D. gear), Caselli does good work. He can handle fight scenes well enough and draws with enough detail for closer shots. The main complaint I have is the tendency to exaggerate facial expressions a few degrees too far. Given his overall clean and tidy style, it would be nice to see them toned down somewhat.

As always, Bendis and company promised a jaw-dropping reveal and this episode's conclusion certainly fits the bill. If handled properly, this could deeply effect Fury's history and immediate future actions with a large-scale opponent for the Warriors. While it's a bit early to get too excited, the Secret Invasion storyline began exploring what should be an interesting cast if they are all given a chance to shine down the road. It certainly already looks like there's much more to tell here than in the other major title to spin out of Secret Invasion, Bendis' Dark Avengers.

Final score: 3.5 stars out of 5

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