Reviews of trade paperbacks of comic books (mostly Marvel), along with a few other semi-relevant comments / reviews.

24 June 2016

Silk, v. 1: Sinister

Collects: Silk #1-6, story from Amazing Spider-Man v. 4 #1 (2015-6)

Released: April 2016 (Marvel)

Format: 144 pages / color / $19.99 / ISBN: 9780785199571

What is this?: Silk goes undercover for SHIELD inside Black Cat’s organization as the Black Cat accumulates technology and battles against Goblin Nation while she also works for the Fact Channel and looks for her parents.

The culprits: Writer Robbie Thompson and artists Stacey Lee, Tana Ford, and Veronica Fish

I’ve been trying to write this review for a few weeks now, and I just haven’t been able to put my thoughts down. But now that I’ve published my review for Spider-Gwen, v. 1: Greater Power, I feel I have to review the latest title from the other female-led new-character series that came out of Spider-verse: Silk, v. 1: Sinister.

The review hasn’t been hard for me to write because I don’t know what I thought of the book. I enjoyed Sinster, just as I enjoyed the first volume of Silk (confusingly numbered v. 0). Silk is a solid series; it’s a series I’ll continue to read, although I’m not sure I’ll be excited about it.

Silk, v. 1: Sinister coverSilk … I don’t know. Silk has lost its new car smell, but it’s reliable and can still surprise me at times . I expect to have Silk for a long time, and I expect to remain satisfied by it. But it’s a little disconcerting how quickly how quickly it’s gone from invigorating to a solid performer.

Sinister picks up eight months after v. 0. I was concerned Silk would abandon some of the changes made at the end of The Life and Times of Cindy Moon because of Secret Wars, but I needn’t have worried. Cindy Moon has been promoted at the Fact Channel, where she works for the gruff-but-caring J. Jonah Jameson. Cindy is still looking for her parents, but she has found her brother, who’s seeking treatment after his memory loss. Cindy’s heroic identity, Silk, appears to be working for crime boss Black Cat, but that is revealed (in the first issue, so no real spoilers) to be an undercover gig for SHIELD. Since Cindy’s brother was previously affiliated with Goblin Nation, Silk has a vendetta against the green-faced tribe of kids and young punks.

Writer Robbie Thompson has established a status quo that is nearly ideal — a classic Spider-Man status quo without being obvious about it. The balance between Cindy’s personal life and work life and between Silk’s heroism and her selfish desires are fascinating. Cindy is obviously trying to fit too much into her life, but that’s what heroes do, right? And Thompson does as good job of showing that Cindy’s suffering from her attempts to run in four different ways at once; her behavior, her friends’ reactions, and her sessions with her psychiatrist all show someone who is beginning to fray.

The supporting cast is excellent, with Cindy’s work friends serving as a nice counterweight to Silk’s allies and rivals. Jameson’s faith in Silk is as touching as it is surprising. Peter Parker returns to offer his ten cents of advice; a wise choice, as Peter’s appearance serves to link the book’s continuity to the pre-Secret Wars stories and shows why Peter probably won’t be showing up very often going forward. Thompson even uses Killer Shrike, who works for Black Cat. Killer Shrike! Silk also has a mystery ally, Spectro (named only in the sketches at the back of the book), who seems primed to be the Angel to Cindy’s Buffy.

I’m not sure about Spectro; he’s mysterious without having a character. I’m really not sure about using Spider-Woman (Jessica Drew), though. Jessica presents herself as a mentor figure to Silk — they have regular brunches — but Cindy already has more effective adults she can work out her issues with: Mockingbird, who is her SHIELD partner / handler, and her psychiatrist. My resistance to Jessica’s presence may be because the two characters met in the Spider-Verse crossover, and I’m opposed to anything that reminds me of that crossover. It may also be because Jessica serves as mentor to Spider-Gwen, and I think Silk and Spider-Gwen should be differentiated as much as possible. Mostly, though, it’s the redundancy that bothers me.

I like Silk being a superhero who visits a psychiatrist, and every panel with Jessica is one that can’t be used on one of Cindy’s sessions with Dr. Sinclair. In an era in which thought bubbles and narrative text boxes have gone out of style, it’s nice that Thompson has given Cindy someone to whom she can admit her darker thoughts, her true thoughts, without fear of repercussions. (Well, there could be repercussions, but Cindy doesn’t think there will be.) That doesn’t mean she blurts out what she thinks to Dr. Sinclair; she’s still concerned about what her feelings say about her true character, as anyone would be.

I’m not convinced by Black Cat’s full transformation to ultra crime boss. Thompson has set her up as a major crime lord, one who has the resources to create an antidote to the Goblin serum. Even given that Cat has been back to being a criminal for maybe a year, Marvel time, that’s not really believable. The Goblin serum is a hard nut to crack; Spider-Man had a great deal of difficulty doing that. But Black Cat’s scientists — seen only on one page — manage to not only come up with a cure with no side effects but to aerosolize it. I’m not sure how Black Cat, a character who was a lone operator for so long, gets to build an organization like that. I can see her intimidating a small crew, but a large operation … ? Well, I suppose this is a small quibble, and my skepticism might be unfounded. After all, a year seems like a short time to build what Black Cat has, but it’s a long time in the Marvel Universe.

I love Stacey Lee’s art, and I’m sad she doesn’t do more than the first issue (plus the story from ASM). Lee’s art is fluid and clear; she has no trouble making Cindy stereotypically cute while making the Goblin Nation thugs creepy. She even (almost) makes Mockingbird’s mask look normal, which is something that Giuseppe Camuncoli completely failed to do in Spider-Man: Worldwide, v. 1. What causes a goblin glider to fail during Silk’s battle with Goblin Nation could be clearer, though.

Tana Ford’s art doesn’t match the tone Lee established in #1 and in Life and Times. Everyone Ford draws looks disheveled; everything feels unpolished and rough. Her wobbly faces look like their features are all going to start rolling away in opposite directions. (Also, Ford’s Mockingbird at the beginning of #6 looks incredibly like Songbird from Thunderbolts, which caused me to do a double-take.) Ford’s style could work for a different title, but Lee has established Silk’s look as the complete opposite. If I knew Ford was taking the title over full-time, I could get used to that — I’d have to, I suppose — but Ford draws only three issues (#2-3 and #6). Issues #4 and 5 are drawn by Veronica Fish, whose style fits wonderfully with Lee’s.

Silk is a title with a lot to like, although I admit I have to sit down and make myself write my thoughts out for me to really see it all. I have a feeling my enthusiasm for each future volumes will have a lot to do with who the artist is and how much the stories involve other Spider-women.

Rating: Spider-Man symbol Spider-Man symbol Spider-Man symbol Half Spider-Man symbol (3.5 of 5)

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18 June 2016

Spider-Gwen, v. 1: Greater Responsibility

Collects: Spider-Gwen v. 2 #1-6 (2015-6)

Released: May 2016 (Marvel)

Format: 136 pages / color / $17.99 / ISBN: 9780785199595

What is this?: Gwen fights Lizards and learns what has happened to Peter’s Lizard serum; ol’ pal Harry Osborn returns, seeking revenge for Peter’s death.

The culprits: Writer Jason Latour and artists Robbi Rodriguez and Chris Visions

I didn’t like the first Spider-Gwen book, Spider-Gwen, v. 0: Most Wanted?, but I wanted to give the next book a chance to see if the series improved. Unfortunately, Spider-Gwen, v. 1: Greater Power isn’t an improvement.

Given how well received the series is, though, I had to figure out: what is it that made me dislike the series so much?

Spider-Gwen, v. 1: Greater Power coverThe easy answer is still the color palette. I find Spider-Gwen a series that’s physically hard to look at: the pinks, purples, and greens that dominate the book are unpleasant on the eyes. I’m not sure what colorist Rico Renzi is going for in the book. Is he using the colors usually associated with villains to show us this is a world gone wrong? Is he trying to undermine Gwen’s heroism with villain colors? Or is this a battered world, and the shades of bruised flesh are the only hues that can properly portray it?

The story itself doesn’t give an indication of which of those is correct. Instead, writer Jason Latour gives us a world and a hero who are enigmas.

And that’s my main problem. The hook for Spider-Gwen is a classic What If? hook: What if the radioactive spider had bitten Gwen Stacy instead of Peter Parker? What would be different then? Apparently, the answer is, “The world would have a Spider-Woman instead of a Spider-Man.” Not much else changes, and I understand how for some people this is enough. The reasons may vary from un-refrigerating Gwen Stacy to increasing the presence of women heroes in comics to merely wanting a beginning-of-career Spider-Man-type book or something else I haven’t thought of and could never think of, because liking is a much more complicated and yet simple (private) emotion that we generally believe.

And that’s fine. It’s more than fine, in fact. I hope Spider-Gwen lasts as long as its fans want it to. But what I’ve seen in two trade paperbacks (covering about twelve issues) is not enough to retain my interest.

Everything feels like a mere reshuffling of continuity; the elements of Spider-Man are just redealt, with Peter and Gwen switching spots. Spider-Woman is a vigilante hero whose secret identity jeopardizes her only guardian, whom she leans on for moral guidance and emotional support. She runs into the same villains Spider-Man did: the Vulture, Kingpin, and Frank Castle in the previous book, the Lizard and Green Goblin in this one. Harry Osborn’s grief leads him to become the Green Goblin. Jean DeWolff and George Stacy are still cops. (Ben Grimm is one as well, which … sure, OK, that’s a little different.) Even the trade’s title is there to remind readers of Spider-Man.

Sure, Gwen has her drumming, although she doesn’t do that in this book; that sets her apart from Peter, who was too busy for hobbies. But that raises questions about what she’s doing with her time. She’s not in school, and her job lasts a negative amount of time.

What has changed in Spider-Woman’s world? Not much. Tony Stark never gave up his warmongering, and he has a coffee franchise called Starkbucks, which is not a good name at all. (It just emphasizes the company is a rich man getting richer, whereas the coffee company was at least named for the chief mate who tried to avert the Pequod’s disastrous end in Moby Dick.) Frank Castle is a cop instead of the Punisher. Captain America is a black woman, but she still gained her powers during World War II, missed most of the intervening time, and reports to a one-eyed spymaster she served with during World War II. The Kingpin is Matt Murdock instead of Wilson Fisk, although that might be because Fisk is in prison. (In #5, Latour and artist Chris Vision even refer to the recent Mark Waid / Chris Samnee run by giving Murdock a “I’m not the Kingpin” shirt, which recalls Murdock’s “I’m not Daredevil” shirt in Waid / Samnee’s run. I’m not against references to other stories; hell, I love them, and celebrate them. But the story making the allusions has to differentiate itself from those stories somehow.)

The only new character is Bodega Bandit, a hold-up man who looks like the Hamburglar. Well, I suppose Gwen traversing universes to talk to her mentor, the main Marvel Universe’s Spider-Woman, is different as well, but I try to block out anything that refers to Spider-Verse, a crossover I hated. Also, “dimensional travel” doesn’t really fit in with the rest of Spider-Gwen, which is a book about a street-level crimefighter who plays in a band and hangs out with friends when she’s not web-slinging.

The new Captain America has the most worrying implications. I admit: a black, female Captain America is a nice twist, and it can work. But we never see the world around this character change. Would America have accepted a black, female supersoldier during World War II? I have my doubts. I also doubt an African-American woman would have been allowed to be a candidate for the role of Captain America, given that neither women nor African-Americans were allowed to serve with white men. I have even more doubts that a newsreel narrator would use the phrase “ready to fight for freedom at home, abroad” while describing her; the line is too close to the Double V campaign (“Double Victory — at Home, Abroad”) used by African-Americans during World War II. (The campaign wasn’t exactly popular among white folks, as you might imagine.) So this world must be different than ours — different, and at least in one facet, better. But we never see any evidence that it’s different in the book; most of the characters are still white. This is the same ol’ world.

The best parts of book are the mere glimpses of Gwen, Peter, and Harry before Peter dies. The dynamic is something we haven’t seen before, and Peter’s bitterness, his desire to be more than he is, is heartbreaking. Harry’s acceptance of who he is is encouraging, even if it’s undermined by his future actions. But those interactions take up less than four of the book’s 136 pages.

What is the timeline for this book, anyway? The Spider-Woman task force is geared up to search for Spider-Woman because of Peter’s death, which seems to be a recent event. But Harry Osborn, who was there the night of Peter’s death, has been gone for two years. I’m beginning to think George Stacy was replaced as head of the task force because he’s not very good at his job. And whether it’s been weeks or years, Gwen has been completely unable to protect her secret identity, which means someone should be ending up dead or arrested soon.

I haven’t talked about the plot of Greater Power, which mostly involves further use of the serum that turned Peter into the Lizard, or the art, which is by Robbi Rodriguez (#1-4 and 6) and Chris Visions (#5). I didn't like either of them, but that’s hardly the point. The point is that after two trades, it’s clear Spider-Gwen has the legs of the average What If? story: entertaining (at least for a while) if you buy into the continuity tweak, but quickly becoming dull if you don’t have an attachment to that change. Like Mutant X, for those of you who remember it, but with more coherence.

Rating: Spider-Man symbol Half Spider-Man symbol (1.5 of 5)

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10 June 2016

Midnighter, v. 1: Out

Collects: Midnighter #1-7 and Convergence: Nightwing / Oracle #2 (2015-6)

Released: February 2016 (DC)

Format: 160 pages / color / $14.99 / ISBN: 9781401259785

What is this?: Midnighter, the gay Batman, has split up from his lover and is trying to find himself. Unfortunately, someone has stolen a bunch of superweapons, and Midnighter has to find them and the culprit.

The culprits: Writer Steve Orlando and artists Aco, Stephen Mooney, and Alec Morgan

I really wanted to be able to recommend Midnighter, v. 1: Out, but I just can’t do it.

Before I read Out, all I knew about Midnighter is that he was, essentially, a gay Batman, originally from the Wildstorm Universe, whose lover was Apollo, a gay Superman. In Out, I quickly learned that second part is out-of-date, as Midnighter dates a string of men. In the second story, I found out Midnighter has a computer in his brain that allows him to see all possible outcomes of a fight, which allows him to choose the path that will lead to victory.

Midnighter, v. 1: Out coverBy the end, other than the reason Midnighter and Apollo broke up, that’s still all I know about Midnighter.

Out’s plot kicks off (in the book’s second story) with the theft of a super-arsenal from the Gardener, who also created Midnighter. Between dates, Midnighter follows the trail of the weapons, trying to find the thief. Writer Steve Orlando and penciler Aco (#1, #3, #6-7, and the story from Convergence) are trying to tell a complex, nuanced story, but their attempts come across as needlessly complex rather than interesting.

The text is littered with plenty of Warren Ellis sci-fi items, which I’m guessing is a relic of Ellis’s role in co-creating the Authority and Midnighter. Some of these terms and descriptions don’t have any logic behind them; for instance, a terrorist group from Modora (which I’m assuming is a country and not an insurance conglomerate or medical NGO) has blasters that kill people with their own anger. The rest could mean anything; the Gardener threatens her attacker with “doubt darts” and “manticore drones,” and items taken from her include the “six killing sounds,” which are rendered in Chinese, and “Holt-Griffin skin,” which is “invisible to technology.” Such vague, sci-fi items are meant to intrigue, but they annoy me instead. If a writer is going to use them, though, he needs to double down and make the text thick with them. Instead, they pop up as the next item to check off on Midnighter’s quest, and that’s not enough to justify their use.

Aco’s style makes it easy to figure out which stories are his and which are fill-ins: all of Aco’s issues have fiddly little blow-up boxes littering the page. The boxes don’t help the reader understand what’s going on, and their tiny size doesn’t actually magnify anything, but they are all over the place, so readers will have to get used to them. Aco’s art is tight and almost admirably miniaturized, but his ability to get a lot of art on a page doesn’t increase the amount of information that is conveyed, as Midnighter’s super-brain allows him to do things the art has trouble showing.

Admittedly, Aco isn’t aided by Orlando’s occasional forays into non-linear storytelling — the transition from #2 to #3, which goes from “now” to “hours earlier” to “later” to “back to now” ten pages later, is needlessly confusing and would be regardless of who was drawing #3. The switch from Alec Morgan (#2) to Aco doesn’t help things, either.

(Also: Would it kill DC to label each issue? I mean, even leaving a small number in one corner of the cover art would help me immensely; it also would have let me understand why what looked like Midnighter #1 was so short. It turns out the story was actually Convergence: Nightwing / Oracle #2, which is listed as part of the contents in the indicia’s tiny print but not on the cover.)

Confusing storytelling and high-sounding but disappointing Macguffins can be forgiven if the character at the center of the story is interesting. Unfortunately, we barely know him. What is it that drives Midnighter? He tells Apollo he’s leaving their relationship to find out who he is, but the reader never discovers what that is, other than a Batman copy with a computer in his brain. What other abilities does he have? He can teleport. Maybe he has superstrength? Maybe not. Maybe he’s just Batman with a fight computer in a brain but fewer detective skills.

Midnighter says he enjoys employing violence against bad people, and he specifically chooses the villains in this book because they robbed his … mentor? of a cache of superweapons. He seems to be irritated by criminals more than outraged. He has a small coterie of friends and a hangout; is this different than his status quo when he was dating Apollo? Midnighter seems to lack complexity; he’s a blank slate that likes to punch people.

What a lot of heterosexual men mean when they leave a relationship to “find themselves” is that they want to sleep with a lot of different women. Midnighter certainly succeeds in the homosexual version of that, sleeping with numerous men in Out. Morally, I don’t have any problem with that, but I am unconvinced that Midnighter’s dating pattern is a wise idea, from a security standpoint — and as it turns out, I’m right. It’s hard to respect Midnighter’s intelligence by the end … or maybe this is just another example of a man thinking too much with his little brain rather than the one in his skull.

The choice of the villain in Out is perfect: Prometheus, a villain who can download (and use) the knowledge and fighting skills of the world’s greatest martial artists. The battle between someone with these skills and someone who can calculate the future, like Midnighter, should be epic, as much a chess match as a physical encounter. Instead, Aco and Orlando give readers a straight slugfest, with two fighters trading bloody punches. The most innovative move shown is Midnighter smacking Prometheus with a poker. What a waste.

Dick Grayson, the original Robin and Nightwing who is now a secret agent, guest stars in #4 and 5. Contrasting Midnighter and Batman would be interesting, but other than Midnighter’s crack that Grayson must be “used to taking orders from a man in black,” the comparisons are all in the reader’s mind. Grayson seems almost to be humoring the ersatz Dark Knight by accompanying Midnighter on his mission; Midnighter handcuffs himself to Grayson because he claims a fight is boring him, but I find it hard to believe the protégée of Batman would remain handcuffed to Midnighter during a fight for any reason other than pity.

I enjoyed a few elements of Out. Midnighter’s glee at discovering he would be fighting Multiplex, a criminal who makes copies of himself, because it would give him so many bodies to beat up was a great character moment, and it’s amusing as well. The same goes for his approval of a fake vampire using insects and rats to fight him (“The vermin thing. Old school. Your respect for obscene tradition does not go unnoticed”). Midnighter’s final words to Apollo in their last argument — “I already know how this fight ends” — echoes his boasting from his physical fights. Those touches show up too seldom to save the book, though.

I have some sympathy with the assertion that a sex-positive comic book has value in and of itself; I also understand the idea that it’s good to show a gay hero who actually dates multiple men. And I admire that the creators of Out had ambitions; aiming high and missing is often better than aiming low and connecting. But the book itself isn’t interesting, and its misses aren’t that entertaining.

Rating: Batman symbol Batman symbol (2 of 5)

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03 June 2016

Batgirl, v. 1: Silent Knight

Collects: Batgirl #1-12, Annual #1 (2000-1)

Released: January 2016 (DC)

Format: 328 pages / color / $19.99 / ISBN: 9780785199571

What is this?: Coming out of No Man’s Land, a new Batgirl, able to predict the movement of others, joins Batman’s fight against crime.

The culprits: Writers Kelley Puckett and Scott Peterson and artist Damion Scott (and others)

My interest in the Batman titles waxes and wanes, but I rarely read the second-tier Bat books. For some reason, I made an exception with Batgirl, v. 1: Silent Night, and I’m glad I did.

The Batgirl in this book is Cassandra Cain, a character who debuted in 1999’s No Man’s Land event. Cassandra is the daughter of assassin David Cain, who trained her to fight from nearly birth but neglected language of any kind; as a consequence, the language centers of Cassandra’s brain were entirely dedicated to interpreting body language, which allows her to foresee her opponents’ moves but leaves her with little language ability.

Batgirl coverIn Silent Knight, Batgirl doesn’t have a ready-made archenemy, nor does she acquire one. She beats up on Gotham’s mooks and killers, usually experiencing little trouble. She’s not perfect, however; sometimes, she is injured while fighting crime, and sometimes people she wants to save die.

The lack of an overarching story is for the best, really, as it allows the story to concentrate on Cassandra herself, who is more interesting than a recurring supervillains. The book’s plot is driven by Cassandra’s personal evolution, with Cassandra having to fit into the Bat-family while she changes as a person. Her identity is wrapped up in her fighting ability, and anything that threatens her greatness at that has to be overcome at any cost. She has lived a life insulated from so many things that normal people take for granted; her only real human contact has been the father who expressed his feelings for her through violence. Because of this, she responds to male authority figures, obeying Batman’s commands and even showing concern for him.

The Batman / Batgirl relationship is touching in its way, but it’s also disturbing, given Cassandra’s relationship with her father. Cassandra rejected Cain long before the series, just after he sent her on her first assassination, but she still has feelings for the man who forced her to become a fighting machine. Batman is absurdly concerned that Cassandra might have killed a man when she was a little girl — she wasn’t legally or morally culpable, and she’s certainly repented — and as her surrogate father, he beats the tar out of her biological father because Cain “made her like us.”

(I have to admit: I like Cain, even though he’s despicable. He taunts Batman over his inability to accept Cassandra’s origins, and even hobbled by injuries, he’s resourceful and hard to defeat. His lingering affection over Cassandra — or what he created — is a nice Achilles heel for him as well.)

Cassandra lives with Oracle (Barbara Gordon), the first Batgirl, but despite sharing living space and a codename, Cassandra doesn’t show Barbara the sort of tenderness she does Batman. I’m not sure why this is. The generation gap isn't to blame, since Cassandra doesn’t interact with anyone her age. Is Cassandra rejecting the emotions Barbara exudes when she offers Cassandra help? Or does Barbara’s paralysis distance and reliance on communication her from someone who defines herself by motion? I think it has more to do with the latter than the former, but it’s hard to say.

Silent Knight is a great value: thirteen issues, one of them an annual, for $20. DC has always been better at getting older series like Batgirl reprinted for a reasonable price, but that has sometimes come at the cost of the quality of the physical book. Silent Knight has a higher quality paper and better binding than previous DC offerings, like the reprint of Chase from four years ago. A Marvel trade of this size … well, because I like picking on it, Cage: Second Chances, v. 1 is eight pages shorter and costs $15 more. Also: It’s filled with reprints of issues of Cage, so Silent Knight could have been 300 blank pages and still come out ahead.

On the other hand, the book does have some dead space. The issue that’s part of the Officer Down crossover (#11) feels like it’s acknowledging the event while giving Cassandra something to do with no real consequences; because it doesn’t engage with Barbara’s connection to Commissioner Gordon other than to mention it, the issue seems like a waste. The annual at the end of Silent Knight is filler — Batman and Batgirl in India — although it does show Cassandra watching a movie for the first time.

I’m not overly thrilled about the appearance of Lady Shiva either, but that’s mostly because she and Cassandra are hinted to have a connection because their skin colors are near each other on the color wheel and they have a similar ability. I’m not sure what my feelings will be as their connection is explored, though.

Damion Scott’s art is very, very ‘90s, even though these issues were coming out at the beginning of the 2000s. Scott’s work is sometimes described as being influenced by hip-hop and graffiti, which is fair, but comics readers who remember the ‘90s will see similarities to Joe Madureira’s work, full of thick lines and jutting angles. Scott is from the school of thought that a character’s mask should represent their emotions, so Batgirl’s (and Batman’s) mask have widened eyes, and the sewed-shut mouth of Batgirl’s costume widens and twists as necessary. (That sewed-shut mouth is delightfully creepy, I have to say.) I can’t say I am fond of Scott’s style, but it took no time before I became accustomed to it as the style of Batgirl, just as a quirky authorial voice often becomes part of the background — or even beloved — after you’ve been exposed to it long enough.

What never becomes part of the background is the way Batgirl is sexualized. When drawn in street clothes, Cassandra is a teenage girl of normal proportions, or as close as a comic-book female generally gets. As Batgirl … Batgirl is absurdly busty, and I can’t think of a reason why. Nothing about Cassandra in either persona justifies such objectification, and Scott’s depiction of Cassandra shows he understands normal female proportions. Is it a problem with the prominence of the costume’s logo? I dunno. Whatever the reason, it’s distracting.

Silent Knight is a solid superhero book that doesn’t rely on stunts or cheap traumas to shock readers. It develops a character with an interesting hook by putting her into situations readers are familiar with and seeing what happens. I liked this book so much, in fact, that I’m disappointed now that I didn’t preorder the second volume, To the Death. Guess I’ll have to pick it up after it comes out.

Rating: Batgirl symbol Batgirl symbol Batgirl symbol Batgirl symbol (4 of 5)

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27 May 2016

Ant-Man, v. 1: Second-Chance Man

Collects: Ant-Man #1-5 (2015)

Released: June 2015 (Marvel)

Format: 120 pages / color / $15.99 / ISBN: 9780785193876

What is this?: Ant-Man moves to Miami, following his ex-wife and daughter, and tries to set up his own security company.

The culprits: Writer Nick Spencer and artist Ramon Rosanas

I enjoyed writer Nick Spencer’s Superior Foes of Spider-Man, which followed the adventures of the new Sinister Six, led by Boomerang. (To get an idea of the group’s competence level, the Sinister SIx had only five members for the entire book.) When Spencer started writing Ant-Man with what promised to be a similar tone, I was eager to try it.

Then I lost track of the book and didn’t pick up a trade until the title morphed into Astonishing Ant-Man. I totally missed that Ant-Man gained an adjective after the latest Secret Wars. Comics!

Ant-Man, v. 1: Second-Chance Man coverAnyway, after I realized my mistake, I went out and bought Ant-Man, v. 1: Second-Chance Man. The reviews were correct: Spencer gives Ant-Man the same sort of cheerfully oblivious voice that he gave Boomerang; each protagonist knows he’s seen as a joke, but he keeps smiling, sure that things will work out. The main difference is that Ant-Man has people who he could disappoint, such as his daughter Cassie, which raises the stakes and makes the trade paperback feel like it has been soaked in Ant-Man’s flop sweat.

I mean, I want to like Ant-Man and this book. It’s funny. It doesn’t take itself too seriously. Despite Ant-Man’s powers and accomplishments, he’s a more down-to-earth character than most Marvel heroes, with his teenage daughter helping to keep him grounded. But it’s hard to like someone with such low self-esteem; he agrees with others’ assessment so often that he doesn’t matter much that the reader begins to believe it.

Ant-Man buys into everyone’s narrative that he has been a failure, which seems like it’s taking modesty much too far. I understand the mockery — I mean, he’s Ant-Man, and not even the original (but he is the best) — but no one, including Scott, seems to remember his successes. He was a real, bona fide Avenger. Before that, he helped install Avengers Mansion’s security system. He was a member of the Fantastic Four a couple of times, and the Fantastic Four is still the most exclusive superteam in the Marvel Universe. He devised and executed a plan that defeated Dr. Doom by delving more deeply into the nature of Pym Particles than anyone else. Before that, he returned from the dead. (OK, he only appeared to be dead. Still!)

And Scott uses his powers well in Second-Chance — he beats Tony Stark’s security, he uses his powers to save rent by living in a toy house, he prevents his daughter from rejecting a transplant, and he defeats a Nazi robot. A Nazi robot, for Byrne’s sake! But whenever anyone heaps abuse onto Scott, he takes it, even implicitly agrees with their assessments. (He doesn’t call Stark on Stark’s accusation that Scott can’t stick with one team for very long; Scott thinks about how much team-hopping Tony’s been doing, but you get the feeling Scott’s inferiority complex would stop him from actually saying it.) It’s infuriating, and at times it’s difficult to read about this sad sack.

Everyone but Cassie takes the opportunity to dump on Ant-Man. That’s understandable for most characters, who have little interest in the man, but it’s difficult when his ex-wife, Peggy, does it. Peggy’s not cartoonishly bad in her interactions with Scott, but she’s still inconsiderate at best and often much worse. She decides to move to Miami with Cassie, and from the narration, it seems that if Scott hadn’t decided to visit the day she packed up, she wouldn’t have told him his daughter was moving more than a thousand miles away. She denigrates Scott for being a loser and a super-hero, which feels contradictory; she thinks Scott’s superheroics will cause Cassie to get wrapped up in the machinations of supervillains, but if he’s a loser, who’s going to pay attention to him? Peggy wants Scott to be “normal,” and no one gets to demand that of another human being, even if they share a child’s visitation rights.

Spencer brings some interesting villains into the book. Grizzly, a strong guy in a bear suit, attacks Scott, but Scott ends up hiring Grizzly for his new security firm. Scott also hires Machinesmith, a robot with the consciousness of a former Mr. Fear, to help his security firm. As you probably guessed from the book’s vibe, these two are pathetic; Grizzly attacked Scott, not knowing Scott wasn’t the Ant-Man who defeated him, and Machinesmith was working as an entertainer at children’s birthday parties after his parole from prison. Fortunately, Spencer brings in the new Beetle from Superior Foes of Spider-Man, and she doesn’t lack for self-confidence.

Scott having no confidence in his accomplishments doesn’t mean that Spencer’s not aware of what Scott’s career. Spencer brings two of Ant-Man’s old rivals into the book: Taskmaster, whom Scott has fought alongside other heroes, and Darren Cross, whose kidnapping of a cardiac surgeon inspired Scott to become Ant-Man in the first place. Taskmaster is a great villain, and his sneering at Scott feels earned: he is out of Scott’s league when Scott hasn’t had a chance to prepare, and Taskmaster’s noseless face is great for conveying contempt. I’m less sure about resurrecting Cross, who died in his first appearance, but I suppose Scott needs an adversary, and Cross’s son’s exuberant pride in his own supervillainy is hilarious.

Ramon Rosanas’s art is nice. It’s simple, but it remains evocative. Rosanas manages to convey a lot of emotion from a guy who spends most of book in an ant helmet, which is impressive. Rosanas is able to keep conversation scenes from getting boring, which is vital, given how many conversation scenes Spencer writes. Rosanas knows how to draw battle scenes — mostly, as I’m not sure how Ant-Man foils the assassination attempt — and his pages are filled with nice character touches.

Unfortunately, Rosanas art is marred by the lettering — specifically the lettering of the book’s dialogue. The font is … well, I want to say “ugly,” but “distracting” is probably fairer. It bears a resemblance to Comic Sans, and no one wants that in a font. Pick a new style next time, letterer Travis Lanham.

In the end, what the book needs is more scenes with actual superheroics, the stranger the better. The book’s high point was when Ant-Man defeated the Nazi robot that spewed molten gold, and Scott’s sangfroid during the battle suggests he could handle weirder villains. Actually, the book improved greatly when Scott was actually in action; the rest of the time, when people made fun of this character I was supposed to care about, was uncomfortable.

Rating: Ant-Man symbol Ant-Man symbol Ant-Man symbol (3 of 5)

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20 May 2016

I Hate Fairyland,v. 1: Madly Ever After

Collects: I Hate Fairyland #1-5 (2015-6)

Released: April 2016 (Image)

Format: 128 pages / color / $9.99 / ISBN: 9781632156853

What is this?: A young girl kidnapped by Fairyland tries to find her home for 27 years, trapped physically at the same age and growing increasingly violent.

The culprit: Skottie Young

I don’t know that I’m the right audience for I Hate Fairyland, v. 1: Madly Ever After.

I mean, I thought I was. I Hate Fairyland features Gertrude, a woman in her mid-30s who has been trapped in Fairyland in a child’s unaging body for almost three decades. Unable to find the way out of Fairyland and into her own world again, Gertrude gleefully takes out her frustrations on the pastel-and-spun-sugar world around her. Unremitting violence against all those fairy-tale clichés seemed like something I would enjoy.

I Hate Fairyland coverAs it turns out, the violence gets boring. Writer / artist Skottie Young doesn’t skimp on the blood, bone, or gore as Gertrude destroys anthropomorphic heavenly bodies, anthropomorphic animals, and anthropomorphic plants. (I think she has it in for things that look or act human-like but aren’t.) For variety, she also kills some giants. Gertrude’s violence on the page is mostly perpetrated against those who can’t fight back. Perhaps that’s why the mayhem’s appeal begins to pall after an issue or two. Most of the big fights — the ones against opponents who can fight back — happen between books or off-panel. Some bits of violence don’t grow old, though; I enjoyed Gertrude’s deadly attacks against the book’s narrators, especially once the narrators started to understand the peril they were in.

For many people, Young’s art is going to be the appeal. Young’s work is hyper-cartoony, with expressions and violence amped up to 11. Nothing is too small for him to exaggerate. (Young’s work in I Hate Fairyland is an amusing counterpoint to all his variant covers for Marvel, in which he draws cute versions of characters.) There’s no doubt Young is an outstanding visual storyteller; his art is clear, and he draws admirably clear battle scenes.

So I can’t fault Young as an artist at all. On the other hand, I’m more interested in the story and jokes.

Much like with Rocket Raccoon, v. 2: Storytailer, though, I have my doubts about Young as a writer. Given that I Hate Fairyland is labeled a mature book, I wish Young had done more with Gertrude’s emotional traumas. As written, Gertrude is a shallow character mostly concerned with vengeance against a world she feels wronged her. Shallow characters are fine, if the book is entertaining other ways, but I think developing Gertrude’s character would have served the book much better.

Other than her heartbreaking introduction in #1 and a moment in #2, when it’s revealed Gertrude has the sexual urges of a woman her actual age rather than her body’s apparent age, not much is done with her longings to be normal. (Later in the issue, Gertrude gives her sidekick, Larry, a long list of things she misses from her world, but that list reads as an indictment of Fairyland.) Gertrude’s story is tragic, and I think I Hate Fairyland would be much funnier if that were exploited more than the straight mayhem.

Another concern the book does not address is whether Gertrude can’t find her way home because she is incompetent or because of her attitude. There’s a great deal of difference about how we feel toward Gertrude depending on that answer. If it’s the latter, Gertrude is somewhat justified in her hatred of Fairyland. If she’s stuck in Fairyland because she can’t follow directions or figure out riddles — and that’s the way the text leans ever-so-slightly — then she’s just a violent boob, and her suffering is something she’s earned.

Certainly some of the page space could be repurposed to develop Gertrude more. A running subplot involves Queen Cloudia trying to get rid of Gertrude, who’s making a mess of her Fairyland; since Cloudia is a ho-hum villain, trimming some of those pages would improve the book. Also, Young spends eight pages on a gag where Larry lives an entire life — building a house, getting married, having kids, then getting divorced — while Gertrude is unconscious. It’s not a bad joke, but the amount of time that actually passes is unclear, and certain parts of the gag don’t land (why does Gertrude grow a beard while unconscious? why does Larry’s wife go from happy to angrily leaving him between panels?). I think those pages could have better been used elsewhere.

One joke that does not disappoint is the appearance of Happy, a girl Queen Cloudia brings to Fairyland in issue #4 to find the way out of Fairyland before Gertrude can. (Under the laws of Fairyland, this will allow Cloudia to attack Gertrude openly.) Happy is unremittingly cheerful, and her adventures show both the sickeningly sweet and childishly kind quests Gertrude is homicidally reacting against and also the way the quests should have been approached in the first place: with patience, compassion, and with childlike wonder.

After encountering Happy’s rainbows and cheerfulness, Gertrude decides she has to up her game, which is an argument that Happy (or another competent antagonist) should have appeared earlier in the book. This prompts Gertrude to approach one of the Seven Dooms and ask for his power to confront Happy. The tests he puts Gertrude through aren’t great, but what comes out of it is very satisfying.

Other than Happy and smashing the narrators, the book’s humor is hit and miss. Frequently, the characters substitute “cute” words for obscenities, but the results are more annoying than funny: “muffin-fluffer,” “hug off,” and “plush” are clunky rather than clever curse words. The violence stops amusing after the first issue or so. On the other hand, a few jokes, like Happy’s entire existence and a series of dialogue written as “blah blah blah” (she’s actually saying “blah blah blah,” not just running her mouth), are genuinely funny.

If you’re a fan of Young, you know you want this. If you are undecided about him, I’m torn over whether to recommend the book. On one hand, the plotting and pacing is mediocre, and the humor isn’t strong enough to make up for that. On the other, the book really picks up at the end, which makes for a satisfying conclusion. It’s possible Young is finding his groove, which means the next volume might be an improvement, and the experience of reading v. 1 could be improved by what comes after.

For the moment, though, I’m sticking with a dead-center, neither-approve-or-disapprove rating.

Rating: I Hate Fairyland symbol I Hate Fairyland symbol I Hate Fairyland symbol (3 of 5)

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14 May 2016

Giant Days, v. 1

Collects: Giant Days #1-4 (2015)

Released: November 2015 (Boom! Box)

Format: 128 pages / color / $9.99 / ISBN: 9781608867899

What is this?: Esther, Susan, and Daisy deal with their first semester of college, and all its attendant problems: boys, the flu, boys, idiot university administrators, idiot boys, and girls.

The culprits: Written by John Allison and drawn by Lissa Treiman

I’ve followed John Allison’s web comics since the beginning of the century: through most of Bobbins, all of Scary Go Round, and everything to date of Bad Machinery. (Allison admits the weight of the comics he’s put out over 18 years is a bit daunting, so he wrote out a chronology / background of his universe of strips.) I’m a big fan of his strips, which have evolved away from strict joke-a-day comics and into more structured, long-term storylines that manage to combine humor, drama, and well-drawn characters. I can’t think of a webcomic writer I’ve followed as long as Allison.

I’m not trying to present myself as an uber-fan of Allison’s, although I admit to buying t-shirts and dish towels from Allison’s Topatco store, if that tells you something. I’m admitting all this to state my biases before I say Giant Days, v. 1, by Allison and Lissa Treiman is one of the best trade paperbacks I’ve read in ages. It is consistently funny, occasionally touching, and always entertaining.

Giant Days, v. 1 coverIt’s not necessary to have read any of Allison’s work to understand what’s going on in Giant Days. Allison introduces the reader quickly and efficiently to Esther de Groot, Susan Ptolemy, and Daisy Wooten, who have met as freshmen at a British university and have become fast friends. (Their earlier adventures, mentioned on page 2 of issue #1, were released as webcomics on Allison’s site, but they seem to have disappeared online. You can buy them at Allison’s Topatco store, though.) Daisy is home-schooled and naïve, quite fond of her grandmother; Susan is pre-med and determinedly practical. Esther, a featured character in Scary Go Round, is a pale Goth surrounded by a drama field.

I love all the characters in Giant Days. Do I like them so much because I’ve read them before? I dunno. Other than Esther, though, I haven’t read many stories featuring htem. I identify with the mousy Daisy and logical Susan; I can’t help being entranced by the spectacle that is Dark Esther, even if I’m still miffed she cheated on The Boy between Scary Go Round and Giant Days. I sympathize with McGraw, a former friend of Susan’s who rejected her romantic advances. I kinda sympathize with Ed Gemmell, who pines for Esther, but Esther is so out of Ed’s league his head would probably explode if she ever paid him the kind of attention he desires. (That’s not a slight on Ed; remember, Esther has that drama field around her.)

For those who have read Scary Go Round, Giant Days is much more grounded. SGR had plotlines that included bringing a cast member back from the dead, first as a zombie, then fully resurrected as a normal human; that cast member’s sister was transformed into a six-foot Amazon by spoiled off-brand Pepto-Bismol, then ensnared with a magic spell by a villainous headmaster and sent to hell by a different spell that wiped them both from everyone’s memory. Giant Days is a straightforward story of college life, although the stories are exaggerated in the way that all comedies are.

The biggest difference from Allison’s online work is that he isn’t providing the art. Instead, Treiman draws Allison’s creations, and the result is weird — an outstanding weird, but weird nonetheless. Treiman is a great artist, with a beautiful, fluid style and a great comic touch. Her art is vastly different than Allison’s, taking Allison’s character designs, then making the cast her own. She also has a great sense of when to exaggerate features and reactions, always going far enough but never so far that the characters seem to belong in a cartoon.

Allison’s work as a daily comic strip writer shows here. His later two webcomics have had long arcs while maintaining a steady stream of humor, and he adapts that approach to individual comic issues. Each issue is a complete story, with enough loose ends and character work to lead into the next issue, but Allison always remembers to be funny. The jokes are earned, never cheap jokes put into the mouth of a character who wouldn’t say it.

My only complaint is the ending of #3. Even by Giant Days’ / Allison-verse’s logic, I don’t think maternal displeasure has much effect on the kind of bros who objectify women. I admit, the bros’ comeuppance is welcome, but any sort of retribution they receive would be pleasing. Vengeance the protagonists participated in would have been even more satisfying.

My recommendation is to read / buy / steal / demand Giant Days. I feel remiss that I haven’t recommended it earlier, but, well — I blame my retailer, and he probably blames Diamond. I ordered it in January, and after four months of not getting the book, I took matters into my own hands and bought it from Amazon. Don’t make the same mistake I did. Go get Giant Days now.

Rating: Giant Days symbol Giant Days symbol Giant Days symbol Giant Days symbol Giant Days symbol (5 of 5)

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06 May 2016

Spider-Man: Worldwide, v. 1

Collects: Amazing Spider-Man v. 4 #1-5 (2015-6)

Released: April 2016 (Marvel)

Format: 144 pages / color / $18.99 / ISBN: 9780785199427

What is this?: Parker Industries has offices around the world, and it looks like Peter’s finally a success. However, when PI is targeted by the Zodiac, the criminals seem to be one step ahead of Spider-Man …

The culprits: Writer Dan Slott and artist Giuseppe Camuncoli

I love the idea of Peter Parker finally succeeding. If he’s so smart — and he is, let’s face it: he invented web fluid and web shooters and electronic ankle bracelet monitors — eventually he has to achieve success in some way or die along the way. Unless you contrive an explanation for his lack of success, like a force of the universe being directed against him or him being a jerk, it makes no sense for a smart, moral person like Peter to be continuously a failure. For periods of time, yes, but not forever.

In Amazing Spider-Man: Worldwide, v. 1, Peter is the CEO of Parker Industries, which has become one of the premier technology companies in the world, with offices on three different continents. He’s working with SHIELD to keep the world safe, and he seems to have managed to keep his soul. This should be exactly what I want.

Amazing Spider-Man: Worldwide, v. 1 coverThe problem is that I don’t know that Peter is such a success.

Parker Industries and SHIELD are under assault from Zodiac. Not only is Zodiac physically raiding Parker Industries and SHIELD facilities but they are also involved in a battle of wits with the heroes. Unfortunately, writer Dan Slott doesn’t give Spider-Man very many victories, as it seems the villains win every time. Spider-Man and SHIELD get only minor victories: foiling the robbery that starts the book, defeating an attack by Goblin Nation thugs in Africa, keeping some henchmen from completing employer-insisted suicide. Zodiac defeats Parker and SHIELD almost every time, making the heroes look, well, not very competent. Maybe Peter isn’t such a success after all …

It doesn’t help that Peter built his company during an eight-month gap after the end of the latest Secret Wars series. We don’t know how Peter built his company, what decisions he chose, what compromises he had to make, or why he’s working so closely with SHIELD. His success, then, feels unearned. And that, combined with his lack of success in Worldwide, v. 1, makes me think this version of Peter Parker will be going away sooner rather than later, which is a shame.

I do like some aspects of Worldwide. Bringing back Hobie Brown, the Prowler, to be Parker Industries’ head of security and a backup Spider-Man is a nice choice; Brown was an inventor as well as someone with a costumed identity. I’m not sure Brown is qualified for either job, but I believe it’s totally a choice Peter would make. (I can also see him hiring Rocket Racer as well. Fingers crossed!) Harry Osborn makes his return under an assumed name, but since he hasn’t changed his appearance — not even his hairstyle — I can’t see that working for long. A fellow student from Peter’s college days, Philip Chang, shows up in Parker Industries’ Shanghai office, and Clayton Cole, a low-level thug Spider-Man sent to Parker Industries in the previous volume of Amazing Spider-Man, is working in PI’s New York offices.

The subplots are intriguing as well. How did Dr. Octopus end up inside the Living Brain, and what’s his long-term plan? What will Norman Osborn — or someone posing as him — do after selling weapons in Africa? Who’s wandering around in a red suit, offering to return the loved ones of Spider-Man villains? I’m looking forward to seeing these subplots play out, and I’m betting it’s going to be a combination of Dr. Octopus and Norman who bring down Parker Industries after Zodiac weakens it. (I’d almost bet PI will be Marconi Industries by the end, headed by Doc Ock’s love interest, Anna Maria Marconi.)

I don’t like the introduction of Regent to the main Marvel Universe, though. Regent was the villain in the main Spider-Man mini in Secret Wars. He made an OK villain for a series in a universe that was going to be thrown away once the miniseries was over. In the main Marvel Universe, a villain that exists to drain minor villains and eventually become a powerful threat is a waste; why kill villains to power a supervillain who will be gone once the writers hit his climactic fight, then never return? (Of course, I thought writers would have the sense to never return to Morlun, but boy, was I wrong.)

But the subplots are mostly respites from the main plot. I don’t think Zodiac works well as a Spider-Man villain; the astrology-themed criminal organization generally take on teams, and Spider-Man is a poor team player. This brings up the question of why he’s working with SHIELD — it seems a poor fit, even if he has SHIELD’s worst impulses under control. The new Scorpio’s identity is supposed to be a big deal, but even though Scorpio has an important role outside his supervillain ID in the storyline, the actual reveal falls as flat as the naming of the female villain in Spider-Island. The Human Torch flips out too easily in #3; all it takes is the news that Parker Industries has moved into the Baxter Building to set him on a fiery rampage.

I’m indifferent to Giuseppe Camuncoli’s art. Something seems off about his faces; I think he has trouble with noses, or maybe it’s the space between the eyes. Mockingbird’s mask is awful; the Human Torch’s costume has been given a bustier outline for reasons I can’t possibly imagine. His Melinda May is hardly recognizable as Ming-Na Wen, and I’m only 30 percent sure that the guy I think is Agent Coulson actually is Coulson. Still, his action is fine, and even if his Spider-Man isn’t lithe or a contorted mess — both Hobie and Peter seem stockier than the usual Spidey — he’s still recognizable. (I really enjoy the old, stubby legged spider logo on Spider-Man’s back.)

I should like Worldwide. The premise is something I’ve wanted for years, and the story itself has many trappings I enjoy. But everything about the story seems slightly off. Do I really not want Peter to be a successful CEO? Or is it the execution itself that bothers me? I’ve made it clear I think it’s the execution, but I can’t shake the feeling I might be at fault.

I’m not going to let that doubt inflate the rating, though.

Rating: Spider-Man symbol Half Spider-Man symbol (1.5 of 5)

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30 April 2016

Showcase Presents Batman, v. 6

Collects: Detective Comics #408-26 and Batman #229-44 (1971-2)

Released: January 2016 (DC)

Format: 584 pages / black and white / $19.99 / ISBN: 9781401251536

What is this?: A chunk of early ‘70s Batman stories, mixing the first appearance of Ra’s al-Ghul and the League of Assassins with forgettable stories.

The culprits: Writers Dennis O’Neil, Frank Robbins, and others and pencilers Neal Adams, Bob Brown, Irv Novick, and others

When I reviewed Showcase Presents Batman, v. 5, I said the Bat-titles of the era were on the brink of something exciting. Batman and Detective Comics had shaken off the lingering funk of the Silver Age and were heading toward something much greater. So I was eager to read DC Showcase Presents Batman, v. 6 — well, as eager as a person can get for a book after four years when you thought the book line was cancelled.

And — good news! — v. 6 is better than v. 5. But it’s only an incremental improvement, and the Bat-titles reprinted in this volume still feel like they are poised to become something different, something greater. They just aren’t quite there yet.

Showcase Presents Batman, v. 6 coverYes, the Ra's al Ghul / Legion of Assassins story is sprinkled throughout the volume, but few other members of Batman’s rogue’s gallery appear in the thirty-plus issues. Man-Bat and Two-Face each appear in one issue — with Two-Face beautifully drawn by Neal Adams — but each gets only as many issues as the embarrassing Ten-Eyed Man. Most of the stories are single-issue mysteries, often with a supernatural tinge, that go nowhere.

Those mysteries, whether they have a supernatural element or not, are v. 6’s biggest problem. Some of them (mostly those with occult touches) are set in exotic locations, like Waynemoor Castle in northern England; some of them are set in the gritty streets of Gotham. Unfortunately, whether Batman is taking on circus freaks, hicks, or Shakespearean actors in Gotham or elsewhere, these stories become monotonous. Despite being solidly constructed mysteries, their flaws become more readily apparent than their virtues after the third or fourth in a row. All the ghosts and haunted castles Batman investigates have as much real supernatural content as the average Scooby-Doo episode, which takes some of the suspense out of the story. Issues that try to be socially relevant, dealing with youth gangs and urban crime, devolve into over-the-top action sequences, like when a group of teenagers threaten to blow up an apartment tower to get their demands listened to.

As a side note, O’Neil’s frequent asides asking readers whether they picked up on whatever clues Batman used to solve the crime annoyed me — not because of the device itself but because the clues are so rarely available to the reader. If your mysteries aren’t fair play, you don’t get to taunt readers that they aren’t as smart as the detective.

That being said, the Ra's al Ghul stories are classics for a reason. Beautifully drawn by Adams and full of menace, Ra's is the one villain who seems to worry Batman, the only adversary who requires the World’s Greatest Detective to have long-term plans. Adding a new dimension to the stories is Talia al-Ghul, Ra's’s daughter, a love interest who presents a puzzle Batman can’t solve; despite his undeniable attraction to her, she is the daughter of the Demon as well as being ruthless and a remorseless killer herself. Additionally, these stories knock the Batman canon of this era out of its unmoving, unchanging placidity. Although the League of Assassins stories don’t affect the continuity of the rest of the book, the storyline’s progression gives the book a sense of passing time the stories don’t have otherwise.

Of course, it would be helpful if the cliffhangers in the League of Assassins storyline were followed immediately by their conclusions, but those issues are usually followed by unrelated issues from the other Batman title. I understand chronological order is important, but in a book like this, story coherence is more vital.

The art in v. 6 is outstanding. Adams provides covers for almost all the issues, and he draws about a quarter of the stories. This is Adams’s work at its finest: perhaps not as explosive as his work on X-Men a few years earlier, but each panel is beautiful, fully adapted to Batman’s world of shadows. The concessions he makes to Batman’s more grounded world makes his artwork tighter, more focused. Most of the remaining issues are drawn by Bob Brown and Irv Novick, both of whom worked with Adams on the previous volume. Neither is Adams’s equal, but both are solid artists with outstanding storytelling and an ability to fit the story into a many panel layout.

 coverScattered among the work by Adams, Brown, and Novick, the three issues drawn by writer Frank Robbins stand out, and not in a good way. Robbins is a good artist for a writer, but that’s as far as I’m willing to go. (Robbins was primarily an artist in his career, but he splits the writing chores in v. 6 with O’Neil.) His style has a thick line and lacks the fluidity of the rest of the artists; even if he were a better artist, his work wouldn’t fit in v. 6.

One warning about this book: although it says it contains sixteen issues of Batman, that’s misleading. Two of the issues, #233 and #238, have only the cover reprinted because their contents are reprints. The covers of other issues of Batman and Detective promise back-up stories featuring Batgirl, Robin, or some other hero, but those aren’t included even though at least some of them are original stories.

On average, v. 6’s quality is only incrementally greater than v. 5. However, it contains so many iconic and important moments that it feels a great deal better at times. Nothing in v. 5 compares to shirtless Batman dueling Ra's al-Ghul, the first appearances of Ra's and his daughter, the first time Ra's is resurrected by the Lazarus Pit. I’ve read these issues before, in color, in Batman: Tales of the Demon, which was superior to v. 6 — and not just because Tales of the Demon was in color. Learning the context in which those Ra's stories initially appeared makes them more impressive, since the League of Assassins stories are nothing like the rest of the era. But actually reading those non-Assassin stories makes reading v. 6 feel like a chore at times, a bit of self-education that is unnecessary.

Still: shirtless Batman vs. Ra's al-Ghul. That fight was pretty awesome.

Rating: Batman symbol Batman symbol Batman symbol Batman symbol (4 of 5)

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22 April 2016

Rocket Raccoon, v. 2: Storytailer

Collects: Rocket Raccoon #7-11 (2015)

Released: March 2016 (Marvel)

Format: 136 pages / color / $17.99 / ISBN: 9780785191674

What is this?: Rocket and Groot survive a frozen planet with poison wolves, then get a glimpse of the future; Rocket searches for the Halfworld Bible.

The culprits: Writer Skottie Young and artists Jake Parker and Filipe Andrade

You can expect a drop-off in quality when a popular artist stops drawing a title. It’s probably worse when that artist remains as writer.

Such is the case with Rocket Raccoon, v. 2: Storytailer. I have no idea how long Skottie Young planned to remain as writer / artist for the title — and I’m too lazy / disinterested to look it up — but after Rocket Raccoon #4, he gave up the artist part of his job to Jake Parker and Filipe Andrade.

Rocket Raccoon, v. 2: Storytailer coverThe result is a book that is significantly less interesting than what readers expected when they read Young’s Rocket Raccoon #1. The book is competently written — everything makes sense — but the story lacks the extra oomph that Young’s art supplies. The star is not playing to his strengths.

Young is not a polished writer. His plots are serviceable but unremarkable. The dialogue is not crisp or memorable, and I think we can all agree Rocket should never say “stupid fresh,” even if that expression is better than the “murdered you” he was using for a catchphrase. His Rocket makes a lot of references to Earth TV (including the season 6 finale of Buffy the Vampire Slayer) and movies for a space raccoon.

Young has three stories in the five issues of Storytailer: Rocket and Groot surviving on an ice planet for two issues, a glimpse of a possible future where Groot goes crazy, and a two-parter where Rocket finally gets to the bottom of his origins. The future story is pointless, and even Rocket remarks on the clichéd ending. The ice planet story is fine but very forgettable; introducing poisonous dire wolves as a threat to Groot’s survival is a nice complication, but Young is the one who decided Groot would be so hard to kill in the first place, so he doesn’t get any points from me on that score.

Storytailer’s ending is problematic, though. In the final two issues, Rocket gets a lead on the Halfworld Bible (called “Gideon’s Bible” in the original Rocket Raccoon limited series). He finds the bible, and with the help of another uplifted raccoon from Halfworld, he deciphers and reads his own backstory. (Again: why has he forgotten it? A footnote would be nice — I’m looking at you, assistant editors Charles Beacham and Devin Lewis.) Rocket then walks away from all of it — the explanation of his history, Halfworld, his fellow raccoon — because he feels it’s stupid. Which it is, but since I’ve read that story, I know it’s stupid in a daffily charming way. Denigrating the original Rocket Raccoon LS is needlessly insulting; that story, written by Bill Mantlo and drawn by Mike Mignola, hangs together as a memorable four-issue story, which is more than I can say for Young’s run. And if Young was going to make a callback to the original limited series, why didn’t he use a character from that story to help Rocket find the Halfworld Bible? Why invent a new character for Rocket to reject?

As I said in my review of A Chasing Tale, Young’s art is a secondary draw for me, but I felt its absence in Storytailer. Part of the problem with Young’s writing is that he’s writing for artists who aren’t named Skottie Young. Andrade is not up for drawing scenes with all the white figures and backgrounds in #7 and 8, which is a problem since those two issues take place on an ice planet. Andrade’s storytelling gets muddled at times, and it is especially difficult to distinguish what’s going on with all that white. (Maybe colorist Jean-Francois Beaulieu is at fault, although Beaulieu did a fine job in the other issues.) Sometimes Young’s dialogue has to help Andrade out — like when Andrade is supposed to show eggs as big as Volkswagens, but nothing in the art hints at the eggs’ size.

I enjoyed Parker’s Rocket in issues #9-11, and his future Rocket in #9 is nice (although the scar over the eye and small bits missing from the ears is not the most original way to show “grizzled warrior”). But other elements of his art are lacking. A couple of times he’s supposed to depict amazing transforming machines, and the results are underwhelming. Perhaps I’m setting the bar too high, but I think this could be traced back to Young — Young the Writer probably thought those transforming scenes would allow Parker to cut loose and draw something astounding, maybe even Kirby-esque. But Parker is a more intimate artist who excels at characters and expressions, and while his machinery is fine, that’s all it is: fine. The same goes for the scene in which Rocket is fighting his way to a teleporter in #10; this is supposed to be a big set piece, Rocket battling through all the obstacles in his way so he can get to the truth of his existence, but it boils down to a few scattered bodies as the actual moments of violence mostly happen off-page.

Storytailer is worse than A Chasing Tale, although not by much. (Your mileage will vary if Young’s artwork is a major draw for you.) Young trades Tale’s dismissal of women for a dismissal of Rocket’s origins; the former is more troubling in a societal sense, but since Young is working in a larger framework of the Marvel Universe, the latter bothers me more. Take that as you will; I suppose I’m inured to casual sexism in comics. The entire series is disappointing and slightly overblown, and I’m kinda glad Secret Wars ended it.

Rating: Rocket Raccoon symbol Half Rocket Raccoon symbol (1.5 of 5)

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15 April 2016

Rat Queens, v. 1: Sass and Sorcery

Collects: Rat Queens #1-5 (2013-4)

Released: March 2014 (Image)

Format: 128 pages / color / $9.99 / ISBN: 9781607069454

What is this?: The mercenaries of Palisade are targeted for death, and four female adventurers — the eponymous Rat Queens — search for answers.

The culprits: Written by Kurtis J. Wiebe and drawn by Roc Upchurch

I like fantasy settings, as everyone who has read my Conan the Barbarian reviews has guessed. (Why else would I keep reviewing them?) I like humor comics, or even comics that think they’re funny. But I am a bit of a Marvel zombie, which explains why I had yet to read Rat Queens, v. 1: Sass and Sorcery two years after it was released.

To be fair, I still wouldn’t have bought the book had I not needed something to get free shipping on an Amazon order with a birthday gift for my mother. But the price point was right, it sounded like fun, and I hate paying for shipping, so here we are.

Rat Queens, v. 1: Sass and Sorcery coverRat Queens is set in a low-fantasy world, and writer Kurtis J. Wiebe and artist Roc Upchurch are not interested in extensive, Tolkien-like worldbuilding. The characters and institutions are given names that wouldn’t be remarkable in our world. The world is restricted to the city of Palisade and its environs, with a few hints of the world beyond: a magical college that Hannah, an Elven wizard, attended, and … well, wherever Dee, the priest, grew up. We see four civilized races — humans, Elves, Dwarves, and Smidgens, the Halflings / Kender / Gnomes of the world — but we don’t see what makes these races different from each other. (Dwarven females can grow beards, which … OK, is not that unusual.) The non-civilized races are generics: goblins, orcs, and trolls.

The entire book feels like an RPG that the players aren’t taking seriously. The protagonists are named Hannah, Dee, Violet, and Betty; other adventuring groups are named “the Four Daves” (the members are all named Dave), “the Peaches” (they all dress in peach-colored clothing), and “the Brother Ponies” (four guys with ponytails). The humor is usually sophomoric — no complex wordplay here — and the characters concentrate on (mostly) sanctioned killings, booze, drugs, cursing, and sex. If someone had told me Rat Queens was based on a real Forgotten Realms campaign set in a city like Baldur’s Gate or Waterdeep, I would have believed it.

The humor is largely successful, even if it is unsophisticated. Being funny will make people forgive a lot of faults — just look at the women who date unattractive comedians — and that’s what happens here. Rat Queens is very self aware, knowing its fantasy RPG tropes and amping them up: gleeful carnage with grisly injuries, showing frustration rather than fear when confronted by unnecessary battles, not looking very hard at the shaky mechanics of divine spells. When the reader is laughing, it doesn’t matter that the setting looks like D&D splashed with whitewash or that adversaries are as deep as an oil slick but without the breadth. The book rarely takes itself seriously, and the jokes proceed at a healthy pace — because Anubis knows if they didn’t, readers would start looking around and wondering about the story.

There’s actually nothing wrong with the plot, but Old Lady Bernadette does point out a large flaw: the Rat Queens (and other mercenaries) get away with too much on their violent sprees. Readers customarily identify with the protagonists, but it’s hard to disagree with Bernadette. We see them inflicting major property damage without much punishment, and we’re left to infer that they don’t pay restitution; one of the Rat Queens tries to impersonate the head of the city guard and gets a few hours in jail, while another of the Queens robs the Merchants’ Guild and gets away with it. No wonder someone’s trying to kill them, since death is the only punishment that will stick, and it will actually make Palisade safer.

Wiebe doesn’t neglect giving the protagonists depth and backstory. We get a sense of each character: Hannah, the Elven mage and Rat Queens’ leader, is vengeful and powerful; Dee is a priest who doesn’t believe in the squid god who gives her spells; Violet, a Dwarven warrior, lacks repartee skills despite her preoccupation with what’s cool; and Betty, the Smidgen thief, is an amoral mushroom addict whose real problem, according to the woman she wants to date, is her awful friends. The characterizations fit well in a world that doesn’t take itself seriously.

Occasionally, however, the story will snap to a halt for a serious character moment — Violet’s conflict with her twin brother, Dee leaving her home and faith behind — before the plot’s gears grind, and the humor slowly ramps up again. (Hannah’s more serious moments with the captain of the guard, her ex, and Betty’s attempts at romance work much better, perhaps because they aren’t taken quite so seriously.) Some characterizations are unexplained (or perhaps unexplainable). Dee, the atheist priest, somehow develops a crippling, unexplained social anxiety between the book’s beginning, when she brawls and drinks in bars, and issue #5, in which the Rat Queens host a party. Betty is extremely perceptive but still wears an awful shirt. Hannah is described as “rockabilly” on the back cover. As she has no connection to music, and she seems neither a rocker nor a hillbilly, I have no idea what this can possibly mean. (Perhaps it’s a reference to her pompadour-like hairdo? I doubt many rockabilly musicians were heavily tattooed and wore corsets, though.)

Upchurch’s battles are a mixed bag. On one hand, he never skips on the violence and blood; these battles are savage and dangerous, and his art always communicates that. However, his battle choreography is frequently confused, as it’s difficult to tell where the characters are in relation to each other or to other landmarks.

Perhaps more contentious is his depictions of the Rat Queens. Blurbs on the back contain praise for the protagonists’ looks from the Mary Sue and CBR column / tag Comics for Girls. Each admires Upchurch’s ability to make the protagonists look like real women. I’m not sure of that; they look more like real people than the women in most superhero comics do, yes, but they are still abnormally attractive females, and they wear impractical, sexualized clothes — Hannah wears thigh-high boots, a miniskirt, and a bustier into battle (and the rest of the time, but it’s not quite as impractical in day-to-day life), while Dee always wears a loincloth that exposes most of her legs. Betty wears a top more suited to clubbing than adventuring. Even Violet, the practical one, has what appears to be boob armor from certain angles. Additionally, the characters are introduced in Sass and Sorcery in a series of pin-up poses. There’s nothing wrong with the way these women look, but it’s strange that Upchurch is being praised drawing characters who always wear the same sexy clothes, regardless of the situation. Agency solves the problems the humor doesn’t, I suppose.

I enjoyed Sass and Sorcery, enjoyed it enough to read the next volume. It’s fun! It’s as deep as a mud puddle and nowhere near as reflective, but even if that doesn’t change in future volumes, the series is still worth reading.

Rating: Rat Queens symbol Rat Queens symbol Rat Queens symbol Rat Queens half symbol (3.5 of 5)

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08 April 2016

Avengers West Coast: The Death of Mockingbird

Collects: Avengers West Coast #92-100, 102, Spider-Woman #1-4, and selections from Marvel Comics Presents #143-4 (1993-4)

Released: January 2016 (Marvel)

Format: 384 pages / color / $34.99 / ISBN: 9780785196891

What is this?: The Avengers West Coast fight Dr. Demonicus, the Lethal Legion, and the Power Platoon before disbanding; Spider-Woman learns the machinations behind her acquisition of powers.

The culprits: Writers Roy and Dann Thomas and artists David Ross, Andrew Currie, John Czop, Steven Ellis, and others

The first thing you need to know about Avengers: The Death of Mockingbird is that the title is a lie, a total lie, and Marvel knows it. Heck, by now, everyone knows it.

I suppose you can pull the Obi Wan route and say it’s true, from a certain point of view. But people who say that are, generally speaking, liars or weasels. It wasn’t Bobbi Morse, whom the Marvel Universe knew as Mockingbird, who died in Avengers West Coast #100; it was a Skrull taking her place. (As revealed years later, Bobbi was replaced during Avengers West Coast #91, which is reprinted in the Avengers: Ultron Unbound collection.)

Avengers: The Death of Mockingbird coverAnyway, that’s for the best, because Mockingbird’s death is unsatisfying. A long-time Marvel character who was getting back together with her husband, Hawkeye, Mockingbird was killed saving him from a stray spitball tossed by Mephisto. The death seems random, something in the “kill someone for shock value” line of superhero deaths — it was an anniversary issue, after all. Mockingbird had just saved Scarlet Witch and Hawkeye, but her death seems more random than heroic; Mephisto didn’t have any specific hatred for her, didn’t even seem to be aiming at her. Anyone could have died. It just turned out to be Mockingbird.

The whole book feels of random — no, “unsettled” is a better way of putting it. Death begins with U.S. Agent and Hawkeye (calling himself Goliath at the time — just another bit of evidence that something is off) squabbling among the ruins of their headquarters; Scarlet Witch and Spider-Woman each go off to find less destroyed housing, and the Living Lightning leaves the team. The AWC doesn’t even have a quinjet, having to beg one from Stark Industries a few issues later. Everything feels like it is falling apart; ten issues later, the West Coast HQ is still rubble, and team has been officially ended.

The stories in Death don’t help; they’re not very good, first off, and the team never seems to regroup. The Demonicus storyline takes a previous story, in which the not-at-all-suspiciously-named Dr. Demonicus created an island nation in the Pacific, and removes any sense of complexity from it. Demonicus and his super-followers are mind controlled by the demon Raksasa, start acting evil, import a population of foreign criminals, and even hijack a passenger plane while waiting for Raksasa to enter the world. If they hadn’t drawn attention to themselves with the hijacking or breaking Klaw out of jail, they might have gotten away with their plans (whatever they are), but instead Demonica is sunk. Literally.

The Spider-Woman issues are standard for a mid-’90s limited series: inconsequential and forgettable. The mini lasts only four issues, and one of those issues is devoted to retconning her origin story. The villains (Deathweb) are forgettable, even if they shouldn’t be, and the story combines ‘50s monster movie science with post-Watergate antigovernment paranoia in predictable ways.

In #98-100, Avengers West Coast reaches a nadir. The team is opposed by the Lethal Legion, four evil souls brought back from the dead to kill them. The AWC lose every time, which is bad enough, but the worst part is that writer Roy Thomas makes the members of the Lethal Legion real people — not based on real people, but actual historical personages. Axe of Violence, a woman with an axe for a hand, is Lizzie Borden; Cyana, who emits poison, is Lucretia Borgia; Coldsteel, a giant powerhouse all in steel, is Josef Stalin; and Zyklon, who flies in a suit of armor and emits poison, is Heinrich Himmler.

Yes, that’s right: the Avengers fight a real Nazi, named after the gas the Nazis used to kill a million people during the Holocaust. Making Stalin, a man who killed millions of his own countrymen, into a comic-book villain is questionable, although I admit comics do this with Hitler all the time. “Zyklon,” a name that evokes the Holocaust, goes over the line. Also, equating Stalin and Himmler with Borgia, who probably played politics a bit hard but probably didn’t engage in mass poisonings, and Borden, who may not have killed anyone and killed two people at most, is a tone-deaf mismatch.

That unsettled feeling that saturates Death was planned, I think. In a narrative sense, it leads to the main Avengers team trying to get rid of the West Coast branch. The East Coast branch’s dissatisfaction with the West Coasters isn’t foreshadowed at all, so the decision to shut down the West Coast branch comes out of nowhere. But the dissolution of the team is a natural consequence of the poor planning and shoddy superheroics that led up to it. In a corporate sense, Marvel used the closure as part of their push to cancel Avengers West Coast and replace it with Force Works. Unfortunately, Force Works was a downgrade, and about a year later, that title was still drawn into The Crossing, Marvel’s worst storyline ever. The title never recovered, sputtering to a halt a couple of issues later.

Death does have a few positive attributes. I enjoyed the Power Platoon, a group of solar-powered aliens who can’t speak any Earth language. They show up during the Infinity Crusade, when most of the team is off dealing with that crossover’s foolishness, and battle Hawkeye, Mockingbird, and War Machine. The eight members of the Power Platoon look similar, but each has a different power; their alien language allows them communication the heroes can’t understand, and their teamwork is excellent. The story ends with a sputter — the Power Platoon achieves its goal and then wanders off, while the Avengers decline to pursue — but it’s an enjoyable issue up until then.

RaksasaI also like the art of David Ross, who drew #93-5, 98-100, and 102. He shows excellent attention to detail, and action scenes are easy to follow. Unlike many of his contemporaries, his females aren’t gratuitous sex objects. Most impressively, he draws excellent demons; his Mephisto is nice, his Satannish is intimidating, and Raksasa — the only one of the three he designed — is truly impressive. In an era when Marvel’s demons tended toward Technicolor goblins of varying sizes, Raksasa is an alien, frightening, insectoid presence. With this facility for monsters, Ross would have been great on Conan, Marvel’s other Roy Thomas title. (He would have been wasted there, but he was wasted on AWC as well.)

The rest of the art — well, the less said, the better. You remember the ‘90s, and while none of this is as bad as the decade got, most of what is in Death looks like artists who weren’t quite ready for a big title. (To be fair, those artists drew a second-tier limited series, Marvel Comics Presents, backups, and fill-ins.) I’m sure they all did better work, in comics or out, and I’ll let it go at that.

Why reprint these issues? For completists. For those who want to see how a title that started so well finally ended, curling up on itself in a corner and dying. For those who like Ross’s art. But the resurrection of Mockingbird put an end to whatever emotional impact this book might have had, and it’s not recommended for non-Avengers fans.

And for Heimdall’s sake, don’t pick up the Force Works book. Death is the nadir of Avengers West Coast, but Force Works is even worse — and then it leads to The Crossing, which is the worst. Stop now. I beg you …

… although I admit if the price for a used copy drops low enough, I’ll eventually pick up Force Works. Completionism is my weakness, and I know it.

Rating: Avengers symbol (1 of 5)

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