Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Whatever Happened to a Publishing Schedule?

This week's DC titles and their cute Origins and Omens backup stories can't hold the candle next to the passing of the Dark Knight, even if cursed by yet another Kubert brother delay. Those two spent months (and that estimation is very generous) dragging out Action Comics and Batman after signing exclusive contracts a while back. Over in Marvel, some creative numbering jumps Thor from #12 to #600 and the big question is if the story matters or if I just lost $5. Outside the mainstream, Fables wraps up yet ANOTHER underwhelming arc and can I get a "Yo Joe!"?

And don't forget to check out the first That's A Wrap Podcast

But for now in the world of comics, as always there's spoilers below the cut.

Comic Reviews for Week of 2/11/09

ACTION COMICS #874 - "Suspicion!"
Written by James Robinson, Art by Pablo Raimondi

Remember when Superman was special? And I don't just mean unique. The decision to introduce 100,000 Kryptonians to our solar system was a huge mistake, but that's not what I'm referring to. There are just so many things going on in the Superman books right now and too many distractions in his life that I find it hard to believe how they'd willingly let him leave off planet, or wherever.

I looked forward to seeing a long period of Geoff Johns continuing to refresh various aspects of the character's history like his fabulous Legion of Superheroes and Brainiac arcs. And over in Superman, I wanted to see Robinson build a strong and convincing supporting cast interacting with Superman in meaningful ways.

Instead this issue comes off as filler, attempting to set-up Nightwing and Flamebird, who will begin starring in this title next month (an editor's bubble told me so!... ugh), Lex Luthor, General Lane, hanging at the planet with Jimmy and Lombard, the illogical trappings of Alura, Zod, Ursa and the gang on New Krypton, an Origins and Omens (the teasing of Blackest Night) backup involving the Guardian (one of the two new stars of Superman title starting in March) and a teaser involving Mon-El and the Phantom Zone that will most likely be resolved in the first couple pages of Superman in a couple weeks.

The pencils by Raimondi are perfectly adequate, though his use of shadows is too excessive and for some reason he stuck a giraffe neck on Superman. The real damage to the art is the paint-by-numbers coloring approach of Hi-Fi and the exaggerated lettering of Rob Leigh. Leigh likes to bold two or three words in every bubble thinking it shows inflection in the voice, but instead just looks awkward.

And that's as good a word as any to describe the issue that feels like killing time to set-up the new directions in both Superman books. I dread seeing the character leave, it's bad enough that the real identity of the character, CLARK KENT, hasn't been there for months now. But it seems like things are going from bad to worse. As much as I am a fan of Robinson, there's too much stuffed in to each issue and too many directions the plots are heading for him to develop a flow to set his own story in. That at least might start next month and even if we don't get a good Superman story, we can have any fulfilling story, because this just isn't.

Final score: 2 stars out of 5

BATMAN #686 - "The Beginning of the End"
Written by Neil Gaiman, Art by Andy Kubert

Let's start with Kubert. Since the biggest problem seems to be yet another delay pushing the second half of the "Whatever Happened to the Caped Crusader?" arc, set in Detective Comics #853, back nearly a month to March 18th... so far. That of course drags back all the rotten memories that came with him and Grant Morrison taking over this title a couple of years ago and the utter disappointment that Andy (and his brother Adam over in Action Comics) could not hit a deadline to save their lives, extending six issue arcs for I believe over a year each. It was like waiting for a Jim Lee book, it got so bad... well almost.

That's frustrating, but the fact is when his work does come out, it rarely fails to blow me away. And I suppose we can save any more criticism about scheduling on Part 2. Here in this issue, every panel contains a consistent feel of Kubert's hand but at various time reminds me of watching Batman's adventures via numerous past styles, especially Bob Kane and Neil Adams, even a bit of "Batman: The Animated Series" mixed in for good measure.

There couldn't be a more ambitious way to wrap up the two Batman titles than this. The title of the two-issue arc immediately calls to mind Alan Moore's historic "Whatever Happened to the Man of Tomorrow?" storyline that wrapped up the Superman books for a time in the wake of the first Crisis. The artist, while a significant name, is rather pedantic news compared to the announced writer. Gaiman is in that same rarefied air with Moore since so many consider his Sandman title to be the greatest comic ever (I would certainly put it in the top 5).

Rather than telling a story of where the hero could end up decades in the future as Moore did (with Batman that would have felt like walking through the same roads from Miller's Dark Knight Returns books), this story quickly jumps out of continuity altogether with alternate takes on the history and reality of Batman from the perspective of Catwoman and Alfred, or at least versions of those characters. Both the premise of Batman and another unseen force (if it isn't Gaiman's Death then I
don't have a good theory) watching his wake attended by friends and enemies and the execution of the two stories are easily on par with the quality of this stellar title over the last few years. Gaiman has a story that's both unique and interesting, but stays away from much of the confusion that the mainstream audience felt regarding much of Morrison's recent work.

But so much of whether or not this story makes the leap to the incredibly high expectations will be determined by how things wrap up next month. The first half had some fun spending time getting the characters in place and setting up the two stories, but the overall themes of the need for this hero and his symbolic and literal value were just get going. Right now it's a very strong story, maybe even great. As far as classic... ask me in a month (once again, I hope I can have the finale in hand by then).

Final score: 4 stars out of 5

Fables #81 - "The Blue Horizon"
Written by Bill Willingham, Art by Mark Buckingham

Huh. For all the huge moments in this 5-part storyline showing the cost of defeating the Empire (the release of the Dark One, the destruction of the Fabletown community, the deaths of one secondary and another major character), and yet the biggest reaction I had was the grim disappointment that this was James Jean's final cover after over six and a half years. Yeah... that isn't a good sign for how average this title is now. The fact that it's only still on my pull list based on my brother's argument that, "Well you have the entire series."

I won't actually name the major death, but if you're caught up to nearly this point it isn't hard to figure out. Plus, you know, that Jean cover is pretty damn telling.

Maybe I never enjoyed the character that died as much as Bigby, Snow or Flycatcher, or the fact that he has been wasting away for the last several months to the point that he doesn't look sick anymore. He looks inhuman. We're about an issue or two past the point where I would have pulled the plug, so the reaction was more... "Finally." That's a big problem for the most significant part of the story, the manner in which Buckingham turned character into a breathing corpse. It just went three steps too far.

The writing didn't thrill me like it once did with the Dark One coming off as a powerful, but uninteresting villain. At the start of this title, we didn't need to see the characters voicing the fear of the Adversary to recognize what a powerful opponent he was. His actions settled that fairly definitively. But not using this as only a building block and not letting the Dark One interact with virtually anyone except himself and the dead (who unfortunately do not speak aloud) is just too limiting and having a powerful character like Totenkinder talk about how frightened she is just comes off as forcing the issue. As does his big reality-crossing mission devolving into hanging out and waiting to face the Fables in a future storyline whenever they happen to wonder past.

The last 30 issues have really lacked any sense of purpose, glossing over the war to focus on far less exciting storylines (the massively drawn out Flycatcher arc). And the dialogue in the final bedroom scene just makes me hate each character more for being pathetic and an asshole, respectively.

Final score: 1.5 stars out of 5

G.I. Joe #2
Written by Chuck Dixon, Art by Robert Atkins

One of the great joys of my youth, I'm a big Joe fan... toys and cartoons were fine, but the comics were always my favorite because it focused more on my favorite character, Snake Eyes, and of course in recent years they have grown more mature with me while the cartoons were what they were. I've followed these stories from Marvel through multiple incarnations at Devil's Due and now to IDW Publishing. The latest line switch involved deciding to restart the entire story with G.I. Joe being a fairly new organization and still a military secret and Cobra an unknown entity.

While it should be interesting to see how the new status-quo evolves, this approach means the plot is going to suffer as the reader catches up with things. Examples include discovering why has Snake Eyes gone rogue or what the Baroness' current relationship to Destro or Cobra is.

The art in this new title actually reminds me more of some of the cartoons than comics, but handles the two biggest problems with most Joe books (ensuring action sequences make sense and making the members of the huge cast look unique) in an adequate manner. I'm not a huge fan of Atkins, but he hasn't hurt the book yet. And having Adam Hughes draw one of your covers is always a good move.

Final score: 2.5 stars out of 5

Nightwing #153 - "Black Dawn"
Written by Peter J. Tomasi, Art by Don Kramer

A book that I dropped some time ago, I picked this one up for a handful of reason. Most likely this book was expected to deal with Dick's reaction to the loss of Bruce Wayne in Final Crisis, an angle I was anxious to check out. The fact that they are promoting this as the last issue and is not among the list of Batman related titles that DC will be restarting in about six months, could be a clue we are looking at our eventual victor in Battle for the Cowl. The addition of Kramer, whose work on Detective Comics in some of my favorite Batman-related monthly art in recent years.

The issue hits all the expected moments I had coming in (closing up his life in New York, reacting to the death of Bruce with Alfred and showing him recommitted to the mission of protecting Gotham). The trip to Gotham certainly parallels the arrivals of Gordon and Wayne and their dialogue from Batman: Year One. Unfortunately, both this scene and the final both revolve around gimmicks that Tomasi falls short of pulling off believably.

My main complaint is Tomasi's tendency to make characters sound so generic and though it's more obvious in Green Lantern Corp, it's still frustrating. I mean, how freaking hard is it to make Alfred sound unique. I never bought the idea of him referring to Nightwing as "Richard" and honestly drawing attention to the giant penny and dinosaur in the Batcave almost never works well and doesn't here, nor does drawing attention to the comic reality of death's revolving door.

Final score: 2 stars out of 5

Thor #600 - "Victory"
Written by J. Michael Straczynski, Art by Olivier Coipel and Marko Djurdjevic

It's impossible to see the story outside of the book evolve around the issue and not be concerned despite the overall above average to great quality of this title so far. First the decision to "revert" to the original numbering including all the Journey into Mystery issues before Thor debuted (82 in total) and packing the issue with your standard older stories and new short stories (including one by Stan Lee) looked like they were playing to up the pricetag. The two standard wrap-around covers by main story artists Coipel and Djurdjevic and alternate covers by David Zircher and Gabriele Dell'otto simply seemed the confirmation. But I never really thought Mr. Babylon 5 would let me down, I was just a bit annoyed at the cost of $4.99. Isn't four bucks still enough for issues in multiples of 50's or 100's? No? Dang.

The main story is obviously the main heart of the story and while the consequences at the end threaten to rob the storyline of the hilarious interactions with the townspeople of . I certainly love that JMS has obviously planned to get to this point since the first issue and the return of the Asgardians and everything in Loki's plot seems so fated. That the issue is essentially a single character's deception and one really long fight (that looks better than virtually every big fight I've ever scene) leaves the plot somewhat lacking. But whenever the villain wins, both main heroes of the book knowing to at least some degree that Loki was behind everything, but are trapped in their actions by who they are, the writer is pulling off something special as long as it's believable. At least the big fight succeeds in letting some major developments advance the storyline.

My most significant complaint with the story is the appearance of the Dark Avengers. One of the best points about this book is how isolated it has remained from the rest of the main Marvel universe and this and Loki's next revealed step just seem to be pushing things back together. I disparately don't want the rather unique approach of this plot to be sacrificed. I want to keep the local small town characters in Oklahoma living alongside the Norse Gods. I don't want other Avengers or the Fantastic Four or Harry Osborn butting in to things every other month.

After the rather disappointing hodgepodge approach of mixing Terry Dodson and Greg Land in Uncanny X-Men #500, I loved the approach of mixing Coipel's standard pages (which are always spectacular) with guest artist Djurdjevic only handling the pages of Bor's enraged perspective. Both have established themselves as the definitive artists for this character and there was virtually no doubt about what the quality of art would be going in.

As far as the additional materials, the first was a JiM-style story by Stan Lee and David Aja. I was not very impressed with the effort. Lee just doesn't have a handle on credible, modern dialogue and Aja's art looks so utterly bland and lifeless with faces often utterly devoid of ANY expression, it makes me think he drew a couple pages a day during his lunch break. The highlight is the seven-page MiniMarvels story recaping JMS's last 13 issues by the hilarious Chris Giarrusso entitled "Welcome Back Thor". The rest of the book is stuffed with reprinted materials by Lee and Jack Kirby from numerous old JiM issues and a near-microscopic gallery of the 600 covers which I glossed over quickly, but are usually the part of the books I skip over, sparing little attention.

But Giarrusso's section and the strength of the main story are both incredible. I just wish I could chop out Lee's new story and the reprinted material and saved a buck.

Final score: 4.5 stars out of 5... yep, ripping me off for that fifth dollar just cost the book half a star on That's a Wrap. Deal with that, Joe Quesada.

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