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

26 August 2016

Vision, v. 1: Little Worse than a Man

Collects: Vision v. 3 #1-6 (2016)

Released: June 2016 (Marvel)

Format: 136 pages / color / $17.99 / ISBN: 9780785196570

What is this?: Vision creates a synthezoid family in his own image, and while they try to assimilate into suburbia, it all goes wrong immediately.

The culprits: Writer Tom King and artist Gabriel Hernandez Walta

Vision, v. 1: Little Worse than a Man is one of the rare dramatic superhero books that lives up to its hype.

The Vision is a synthezoid, an artificial life form. He tried to have a normal family decades ago with the Scarlet Witch. It did not go well, for various complicated and retconny reasons, but that experience makes the Vision one of the superheroes who is best adapted to domesticity. It’s little wonder, then, that in Little Worse he has decided to create a new family, and rather than wander down the biological road again, he has created a family — wife, teenage daughter and son — in his own synthetic image.

Vision, v. 1: Little Worse than a Man coverWhat follows is a fascinating and complicated look at the Vision and whether it’s possible for someone like him to be normal in any way.

The problems that beset the Visions do not feel contrived. An attack by the Grim Reaper is the inciting event of the breakdown of the Visions’ suburban life; given the Reaper’s hatred of Vision — the Vision’s brains patterns are based on Reaper’s brother, Wonder Man, and Reaper believes Vision to be an impostor — his assault is a logical starting point for any title featuring Vision. The rest of the story follows from there, with the goal of normalcy dropped in favor of being a functional family. Each complication in the story is compelling, leaving the reader waiting for the next calamity to befall the protagonists.

Writer Tom King does an excellent job giving each of the Visions a distinct personality and arc. Well, Vin, the son, doesn’t have much of an arc; he ruminates over equality and his own nature in somewhat awkward but not implausible ways, and I don’t believe the one plot-related decision he makes. But Vision, Virginia, and Viv each have their own separate troubles, despite all their similarities. The Vision thinks the situation he has created is controllable, and despite the difficulties, he can make things right. Virginia, his wife, has made decisions calculated to keep her family safe, but they have all gone wrong. Viv, the daughter, comes closest to fitting in because one person values her differences and isn’t intimidated, not because of anything she does.

Striving for normalcy isn’t unusual, but it’s a self-defeating proposition in this case. The Visions themselves make no attempt to disguise their non-organic nature, nor do they attempt to assimilate; they buy a suburban house, go to suburban schools, and imitate suburban domesticity, but that isn’t enough to gain them acceptance. They stick out like walnuts in banana bread, and they are about as welcome. The house tour Virginia gives the neighbors at the beginning of the first issue shows a house filled with exotic memorabilia from the Vision’s life and career: a stringless Wakandan piano, a flying water vase from the planet Zenn-La, an everbloom plant from Wundagore, a lighter used to read a map before D-Day, a gift from Captain America. Extraordinary furnishings of an extraordinary family.

Gabriel Hernandez Walta makes these fantastic artifacts look quite normal. The piano has no expensive fillips (except perhaps for a lid shaped like a panther); the everbloom is a shaggy evergreen, and the lighter is just a dented lighter. The vase is a floating blob, barely recognizable as a vase. Give that the water vase and everbloom are, in essence, useless, this decision to make them look mundane makes sense. Why would anyone want to own these things?

Everything in Walta’s work is muted, partially because of the restrained color palette used by colorist Jordie Bellaire. The restrained artwork — no superhero excesses for Walta — and the washed-out colors help give the book a feeling of a ‘50s sitcom, which goes along with the nuclear family that the Vision has constructed to live in his oversized suburban house. Walta draws Vision’s perfect suburban world — perfect house, perfect teenage kids, and a perfect Martha Stewart housewife, complete with an apron — with little embellishment. Walta and Bellaire’s work cast a pall over the book; it’s not hard to believe that the people in this ostensibly perfect world are all trapped and depressed, and escape is the only way to be happy again. Despite the synthezoids’ blank eyes and robotic features, their emotions — sadness, isolation, confusion — are plain to see, and that’s to Walta’s credit.

Should the Vision and his family try to fit in more? That’s not a question Little Worse tries to answer, unless that answer is found in the racism that surrounds the Visions. Many of their neighbors are uneasy about them because they are different; some of them couch this in a fear that the Visions are “dangerous.” The temptation to make a parallel between white-bread communities fearing “dangerous,” darker-skinned newcomers is obvious, but the locals have a point: the Visions are dangerous, in their way. Still, the community is primed to be fearful of the Visions, or at least to not accept them. A pair of local kids, for instance, spraypaint robot slurs on the Visions’ garage, even though they have to research which obscure slur to use. The local high school’s previous nickname, “Redskins,” operates in two different ways: the word is an insult toward Native Americans, yes, but it also foreshadows the locals having trouble seeing the Visions (who have red “skin”) as humans. Changing the school’s nickname to Patriots doesn’t change perception immediately.

On the other hand, Vision uses his superhero privilege to escape trouble when dealing with authority figures. He tells the principal at his children’s school and a police detective that he has saved the world “37 times,” and when he’s being interviewed by the detective, the specific events are enumerated between panels. (Several are labeled “Ultron — again,” which made me laugh.) The two events feel different; with the principal, Vision is using his heroism to gain equal treatment for himself and his family, but with the detective, he uses it to assert his superiority — somewhere between “I shouldn’t have to answer your questions” to “My life of service should mean you believe me.”

King uses the final issue to discuss the central theme of the book: Can the Vision, a being ruled by logical, programmed responses to the world, create a family and be happy / normal in a human, illogical world? The narration frames this in terms of a computer programming concept, P vs. NP. P is all the problems a computer can solve in a reasonable amount of time, the problems that can be solved with an algorithm or shortcut or program. NP is all the problems that cannot be solved that way. Is the Vision’s quest P or NP? King asks. (He also answers it.) What happens if the Vision decides it’s NP?

It’s an interesting question, although it would have had more of an impact had it been made earlier in the book and not have been fairly convincingly answered. (This is more of a criticism of the trade paperback form; from King’s view, the question is asked halfway through the series.) On the other hand, King also identifies the narrator, who is explaining and answering the P vs. NP question, and it’s possible that we shouldn’t believe the cat-murdering old woman. Despite the omniscient tone of her narration, she doesn’t know everything, but I’m not sure whether King is trying to add a bit of ambiguity to the story. If not, I think making the narrator a character in the story is a bit of a mistake, but I’ll find out only by reading Vision, v. 2: Little Better than a Beast.

And I’m definitely going to do that. I recommend it — and this volume — to readers. It’s one of the rare lessons that despite the huge canvas that superhero comics gives creators, it’s often the smaller stories, the ones with lower but more personal stakes, that are the most satisfying.

Rating: Avengers symbol Avengers symbol Avengers symbol Avengers symbol Avengers symbol (5 of 5)

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20 August 2016

Patsy Walker, a.k.a. Hellcat!, v. 1: Hooked on a Feline

Collects: Patsy Walker, a.k.a. Hellcat #1-6 (2016)

Released: June 2016 (Marvel)

Format: 136 pages / color / $17.99 / ISBN: 9781302900359

What is this?: After being let go from her private investigating job, Patsy Walker (the superhero Hellcat) comes up with a new business idea but has to deal with particularly feckless villains.

The culprits: Writer Kate Leth and artists Brittney L. Williams (#1-5) and Natasha Allegri (#6)

Last week, I praised Squirrel Girl in general and the latest volume of the series, Squirrel, You Really Got Me Now, specifically. This week, I’ll go from one animal-themed Marvel superhero humor book to another …

Patsy Walker, a.k.a. Hellcat!, v. 1: Hooked on a Feline follows Patsy Walker, last seen as She-Hulk’s private investigator in the recent short-lived She-Hulk series. But at the beginning of Feline, She-Hulk has to let Patsy go, and to support herself, Patsy comes up with a new idea: a super-powered temp agency, matching those with powers with jobs that suit those powers.

Patsy Walker, a.k.a. Hellcat!: Hooked on a Feline coverPatsy triumphantly presents at the beginning and end of #1, at least, but we see very little of the execution in the rest of Feline, save for a recommendation to an adversary and a page of bookkeeping in #6. In other words, it takes five issues before she even begins working on her grand plan, and that’s indicative of the book’s level of focus.

Writer Kate Leth makes the wise decision to not get into Patsy’s history as Hellcat, since Hellcat continuity is a bit involved. After all, any story in which you say, “I spent some time dead” will tend to derail the narrative a bit. Leth leaves nothing relevant out and retains enough plot hooks to give herself a lot of potential storylines.

Unfortuately, Leth can’t seem to focus on any idea. As I mentioned, she avoids Patsy’s business idea — the idea presented in literally the series’ first panel — for most of the book. The book’s largest conflict is the decision by her former teen rival, Hedy Wolfe, to reprint the romance comics Patsy’s mother wrote and based on the lives of Patsy and her friends. This should be a story that develops throughout the book, but five issues after the conflict is introduced, I have no idea whether Hedy had any right to reprint the stories without notifying or gaining permission from Patsy. She-Hulk, Patsy’s lawyer, says Hedy doesn’t have a case, but Hedy clearly has a contract — literally, she possesses a piece of paper with “CONTRACT” written across the top of it — that she puts a lot of faith in. Then again, Hedy hires a private investigator (Jessica Jones) to dig up dirt on Patsy, so maybe she realizes her case isn’t so great. The one face-to-face interaction between Patsy and Hedy is a great moment of tension, with Hedy insulting Patsy and Patsy coming up empty in response. The book could have used more close-quarters conflict between the two.

Leth and artists Brittney Williams (#1-5) and Natasha Allegri (#6) are trying for a breezy, fun tone, which explains why the story might lack focus. But for this concept to work, Feline has to be funny, and it just doesn’t.

Take, for instance, issue #2, in which Patsy gets a job working retail — for “research,” she says, although all I can see that she learns is that she’s awful at working retail. She can’t relate to the customers or the merchandise at the hip-but-cheap clothing store she works at; she’s baffled by the garments’ logos and the customers’ reasonable requests. She’s constantly interrupted by friends and enemies, keeping her from getting any work done. Her cluelessness and poor results are frustrating rather than funny. By the end of the issue, I would have preferred to follow the adventures of the supervisor who gave Patsy the firing she so richly deserved.

The closest thread Feline has to an overall arc is the threat of Casiolena, an exiled Asgardian who entices various low-powered superhumans into committing crimes. Casiolena is an ineffectual villain, and that’s supposed to be funny, but she comes across as more petulant than humorous. She wants inspire superhumans to sow chaos, destabilizing New York, but she’s too lazy to do a good job or research the Midgardian quirks she needs to know to be successful. Hellcat and Valkyrie don’t take her seriously, even when Casiolena has captured them both, and the villainess makes unachievable promises to her aspiring minions. As soon as the heroes reveal that Casiolena’s promises can’t be fulfilled, her movement falls apart, and she’s easily captured.

The superhumans who turn to crime at Casiolena’s call aren’t bad people. They’re just … well, maybe they are bad people, in a banal way. They turn to crime as a shortcut to making their lives better, and that’s a horrible choice. None of them seem to be in desperate straits; they appear to prefer to work legitimately, but if legal work is not simple to find, crime’s fine. Patsy goes easy on them, which I don’t mind; the more quickly they get off the page, the more quickly I can forget about them forever.

Well, maybe not all of them — I do like the design of Bailey, a minor adversary who has a handbag of infinite capacity. She looks like a cute witch wearing bike shorts, and while I’m not sure how that fits thematically with “bag of holding,” I’m not the artist! And it’s good that I’m not the artist because I’m bad at drawing.

On the other hand, I’m not fond of Williams’s art, either. In the one opportunity she has to cut loose, the book’s big fight scene in #5, she fails to make an impression. Her tight, careful line and cartoony exaggeration does seem well suited for broad character work, and if the book were funnier, perhaps the art would mesh well with the story. But her detail-oriented art often makes her panels seem to cramped, and I don’t understand her visual vocabulary, at times; for instance, I can’t figure out what it means when Patsy suddenly shrinks to two-thirds size and shows her pointed teeth. (Is she feisty? Angry? Adorable? All of these? What does it mean?) Her Howard the Duck is misshapen, and her Hedy … When she comes to mock Patsy at her retail job, Hedy does not dress in a way that says, “I have room to mock those who work at the mall.” Instead, she looks like she should be picking up the kids at soccer practice in 20 minutes. That’s not how Hedy would dress on her way to insult Patsy.

I won’t discuss Allegre’s art in #6, as it makes me irrationally angry. Let’s just say that any comic that makes Arcade look like a cute teenager and She-Hulk appear unimpressive has a problem.

I do like Williams’s She-Hulk, though: she’s large without being grotesque, physically impressive without losing her attractiveness. The supporting cast and cameos from the rest of the Marvel Universe are the most appealing part of the book, actually; She-Hulk is a great friend to Patsy while being allowed to get angry at her, and the scenes with Howard the Duck (art aside), Dr. Strange, and Jessica Jones are all effective. The scene in which Patsy texts all her female friends, leading them to believe she’s in danger when all she wants is a consolation burger with them after getting fired, is a good illustration of why I would prefer to read about almost anyone in this book other than Patsy: they all excuse her mistake with a shrug. They realize you just have to put up with that nonsense with Patsy, which I do not want to do. She has a good heart, but she’s not that interesting or fun to be around.

And honestly, what kind of person gets a tattoo of themselves? And not a representative one, but a sort of a manga-version of their alter ego? I mean, Alex Rodriguez, who just retired from his baseball career, was seen as a narcissist, but I bet even he did not have a manga-style tattoo of himself in his Yankees uniform.

Rating: Defenders symbol Half Defenders symbol (1.5 of 5)

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12 August 2016

Unbeatable Squirrel Girl, v. 3: Squirrel, You Really Got Me Now

Collects: Unbeatable Squirrel Girl v. 2 #1-6 and Howard the Duck v. 5 #6 (2015-6)

Released: May 2016 (Marvel)

Format: 168 pages / color / $17.99 / ISBN: 9780785196266

What is this?:

The culprits: Writer Ryan North, with help from Chip Zdarsky on both #6s, and artist Erica Henderson, with help from Joe Quinones on Howard the Duck #6

I’m a little surprised I haven’t reviewed a volume of Unbeatable Squirrel Girl yet. Let’s rectify that with the most recent release, Unbeatable Squirrel Girl, v. 3: Squirrel, You Really Got Me Now.

Squirrel Girl (Doreen Green) was treated as a joke character for a couple of decades after she was created by Will Murray and Steve Ditko — yes, that Steve Ditko — in 1992 for Marvel Super-Heroes #8. In that issue, she defeated Dr. Doom, whose armor was not, it turns out, “squirrel proof.” When she was used after that, whether as a throwaway character or in the Great Lakes Avengers, the joke was that she could defeat anyone, despite her only real power being to communicate with squirrels. In the past few years, however, she’s been taken more seriously and given her own title and a spot on one of the many Avengers teams.

Unbeatable Squirrel Girl coverIn You Really Got Me Now, that first victory vs. Dr. Doom becomes relevant in issue #2 as Doreen wakes up in 1962. No one but her roommate, Nancy, remembers her; in her attempts to get Tony Stark to rescue her, she runs into Dr. Doom — specifically the one who was just defeated by Squirrel Girl (and tangentially by Iron Man). She manages to convince Doom to take her to rescue Squirrel Girl, threatening that Squirrel Girl could be messing with Doom in the past at that moment.

Nancy preventing heroes from attacking Doom by claiming he’s a really good cosplayer rather than the real Victor von Doom gives you an excellent idea of the kind of book this is. Another joke emblematic of the book’s tone and subject matter: Doom has created his own computer programming language, in which all the commands are variations on the word “Doom.”

The time-travel story plays out like you might expect, and that’s not a bad thing. Doreen is appalled and enchanted, in turns, by the ‘60s; she’s always afraid she or one of her classmates — Doreen discovers a lot of Empire State University computer science students have been sent to the ‘60s — will mess up the timeline, but she’s not afraid to encourage the positive aspects. She hides a message for Nancy in a ridiculous fashion, and of course Nancy finds it immediately, since that’s how things happen in time-travel stories. Plus, there’s a dystopic Doom-future, with Doombots eating hotdogs, walking Doomdogs, and trying not to get pooped on by Doompigeons.

Writer Ryan North and artist Erica Henderson are totally not taking things seriously, decorating the plot with plenty of sly jokes. Henderson has fun with the ludicrous action and Squirrel Girl’s attempts to fit in in the ‘60s. North makes the story as ridiculous as possible; the man responsible for sending all ESU students back in time used his time-travel gun to get rid of all the people who were wrecking the curve in his computer science classes, and Doom is defeated by a pack of Squirrel Girls (caused by using the time-travel device over and over) in much the same way Doom was defeated by squirrels in Squirrel Girl’s first appearance.

In the first issue in the collection, Doreen is embarrassed by her mother telling stories to Nancy (who is enthralled) and later reprograms a Nazi robot. The former makes Doreen relatable in a way that’s unusual in superhero comics — Peter Parker’s never embarrassed by May, is he? — and latter is the kind of thing a heroic computer science student should do.

I mentioned the two issue Squirrel Girl / Howard the Duck crossover in my review of Howard the Duck, v. 1: Duck Hunt. It’s a great melding of two comedy books that are somehow even made better by combining them. Plus it features the Kra-Van, Kraven the Hunter’s customized van with airbrushed art on the side.

It’s hard to imagine Unbeatable Squirrel Girl with an artist other than Thompson. Her art fits the tone of the book perfectly: she doesn’t take the stories too seriously, but she allows the characters to retain their dignity. Even when a joke is at the expense of Dr. Doom, he never looks less than his regal self — not even when he’s being mobbed by Squirrels Girl. Doreen and Nancy look like real people, not the idealized people in superhero comics. (Although I admit one of the ways Nancy looks like a college student is that she has chosen a hair color that doesn’t suit her or her wardrobe very well.)

This opinion might be an outlier, but I think it’s time to discontinue reprinting the letters pages in the trade paperbacks. Their inclusion the first time was cute; the second time it came across as repetitive. In You Really Got Me Now, the cuteness has worn paper thin; there’s only so often I can read letters gushing about how much they like Squirrel Girl and informing the creators about their cosplay and cute kids. Neither costuming nor children appeal to me, really. By all means, Squirrel Girl fans, keep writing in to the comic! But I’m asking collections editor Jennifer Grunwald to please stop including them. Yes, I could skip the letters pages, but I would rather not pay for those pages — not even the miniscule amount of money, space on my bookshelves, or even mass those pages take.

The comments on the bottom of the pages, however, are not growing old. North has a humorous sentence or two on most pages that comment on some aspect of the page — a follow-up joke, development of a throwaway gag, a new throwaway gag. They slow my reading speed, but they are almost always worth it.

I’ve been unusually positive about You Really Got Me Now, and the previous two volumes are as good or even better. I can give Unbeatable Squirrel Girl an unqualified recommendation, provided you aren’t the kind of comics reader who is put out by the Tumblr crowd. (See cosplay comments above.)

Rating: Squirrel Girl symbol Squirrel Girl symbol Squirrel Girl symbol Squirrel Girl symbol Half Squirrel Girl symbol (4.5 of 5)

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06 August 2016


Collects: Bizarro #1-6 (2015-6)

Released: February 2016 (DC)

Format: 144 pages / color / $14.99 / ISBN: 9781401259716

What is this?: Jimmy Olsen takes Bizarro on a road trip so he can abandon Bizarro in Bizarro America (Canada) and write a coffee-table book about the experience.

The culprits: Writer Heath Corson and artist Gustavo Duarte

Despite this being a review of Bizarro, I am not going to write any jokes in Bizarro-speak.

You’re welcome.

Bizarro coverIn Bizarro, Clark Kent prevails upon Jimmy Olsen to take Bizarro from Metropolis to Canada, where Jimmy will abandon him. The road trip, Clark says, could be turned into a nice book — a bestseller, even …

So Jimmy and Bizarro visit a variety of places — Smallville, a ghost town, Branson, Area 51, Las Vegas — on an aimless journey across America. The book starts slowly, seemingly spinning its wheels for the first three issues. Part of the inertia can be traced to the difficulty in getting used Bizarro-speak, and it doesn’t help that not everything can be expressed in a negative and that writer Heath Corson occasionally fumbles Bizarro’s dialogue. (He also gets English wrong occasionally; Zatanna talks about a “mystic portico,” meaning a “shortcut between dimensions,” but a portico is a porch, not a portal.) But the plot, such as it is, isn’t as strong as it could be either.

The first two issues are somewhat aimless, despite a digression in which Jimmy and Bizarro confront a mind-controlling used-car dealer. After picking up a classic car in the aftermath, cities and heroes across DC America make cameos. (The order of these appearances suggests neither Corson nor artist Gustavo Duarte is much bothered by geography.) Issue #3, set in a ghost town — with literal ghosts — introduces major supporting character Chastity Hex, and that story, which takes the entire issue to complete, is a step in the right direction.

It isn’t until #4, when Jimmy becomes a Bizarro and Bizarro turns human after a Zatanna show in Branson goes wrong, that Corson does anything interesting with the characters — anything that couldn’t be done with a generic dumb, strong character and a smarter, powerless sidekick. That issue forces the story to supplement the “wacky” things that happen to the characters with actual character development; even though Jimmy, for instance, doesn’t stop making fun of Bizarro’s intelligence and planning to commercially exploit their time together, he does gain some sympathy for what it must be like to be Bizarro.

The humor in Bizarro is hit and miss, unfortunately. Bizarro, once past Bizarro-speak, is usually funny; I admit I’m a sucker for malapropisms. Jimmy’s irritation at Bizarro’s incompetence also made me laugh, although as a fan of Green Acres and NewsRadio, I have long had a fondness for the one sane person in the middle of an insane cast. And Bizarro wearing a “You have failed this city” shirt in Starling City is hilarious. Other jokes fall flat, though, over and over again. I think the “Best by” date for X-Files references is long past, especially when the jokes don’t go beyond making alien-hunting government agents look like Mulder and Scully. And I’m not sure who is supposed to be amused by calling one of the agents “Chicken Stew” (real name: Stuart Paillard) over the agent’s protests.

Unfortunately, Corson puts a lot of stock in that humor. As I mentioned, characterization languishes for the first half of the book, and although Jimmy bats his eyes at a couple of women, one of which seems to reciprocate, he never gets farther than that. The eventual villain, who pops up unexpectedly in #6, became the villain through an inexplicable heel turn. Colin the Chupacabra, Bizarro’s pet / other sidekick, has a single personality characteristic — irritated hissing — and the revelation of his true identity comes out of nowhere. (To be fair, Colin doesn’t make an especially convincing chupacabra, though.)

The ending, which you can probably guess from what little of the plot I’ve mentioned, boils down to “Friendship is magic.” Jimmy learns not to financially exploit or mock Bizarro, whom he has grown fond of, and Superman teaches Bizarro that leaving Jimmy to die in the desert wasn’t a proportional response to Jimmy being a bad friend. Bizarro and everyone he and Jimmy came across in the series team up to save Jimmy from the subpar villain. The end.

(Sorry to spoil the ending, but if you’re reading Bizarro for the plot … well, you don’t deserve the ending spoiled, but perhaps you could take this as a lesson to realign priorities.)

Duarte’s artwork works well for this story. His artwork is well matched to a comedy, with his cartoony style using broad expressions and movements to get more than a few laughs, but his action scenes are surprisingly well done. Humor and action are hard for artists to pull off simultaneously, but Duarte does it. He also plants a few background jokes into the art.

I’m not fond of the title’s use of guest artists, who contribute a large panel or page to each issue. Some of their styles are jarring compared to Duarte’s work; some of them fit in so well that it’s only rereading the book that I noticed they weren’t by Duarte. These guest artists don’t add much to the story; instead, I think I was supposed to laud the editor for his ability to get artists like Paul Dini, Gabriel Ba and Fabio Moon, and Rafael Albuquerque to contribute to this miniseries.

Which brings me to a final note, this one about the reproduction of the book. The Bizarro TPB includes the comic covers, but they aren’t marked as such. You would think, as full-page illustrations, they would be easy to pick out, but some of the guest art pages look exactly like covers, and a few of them fit into the flow of the story as well as a cover illustration does. Would it kill you, DC, to explicitly label the covers as such?

On the other hand, I enjoyed the trade dress on the spine going in the opposite direction than normal DC trades. It’s not as important as the cover thing, but, well, it’s something. (The credits pages also count down the story — issue #1 is labeled as Part 6, #2 as Part 5, etc. This is nice, but again, it’s not so nice as to make me forget it’s hard to tell exactly where those parts begin and end, especially as those title pages come a variable amount of pages after the covers … I think.)

Bizarro is exactly the kind of book you should borrow from the library or a friend … or pick up cheap, if you’re looking for a light read steeped in the DC Universe. Unfortunately, when I read this book, I thought of how it could be better, and I ended up cursing the flaws rather than enjoying its strengths. That’s my fault, but I can’t unsee those flaws now.

Rating: Bizarro symbol Bizarro symbol Half Bizarro symbol (2.5 of 5)

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30 July 2016

Avengers: Scarlet Witch by Dan Abnett and Andy Lanning

Collects: Scarlet Witch #1-4, Avengers Origins: The Scarlet Witch & Quicksilver #1, and stories from Marvel Team-Up #125, Solo Avengers #1, Marvel Comics Presents #60-3 and 143-4, and Mystic Arcana: Scarlet Witch #1 (1994, 2012; 1983, 1988, 1990, 1993-4, 2007)

Released: April 2015 (Marvel)

Format: 232 pages / color / $24.99 / ISBN: 9780785193357

What is this?: Wanda battles a counterpart from an alternate world in the main story, then encounters a bunch of forgettable obstacles in the rest.

The culprits: Writer Andy Lanning, Dan Abnett, and many others; artist John Higgins and others

I’m a little behind on my reading, so I’m going to dig into my reading history and bring up Avengers: Scarlet Witch by Dan Abnett and Andy Lanning. And just to be clear: that’s a metaphorical digging, not a literal one. Scarlet Witch isn’t so bad that I’d literally bury it in the earth to protect myself and others from its contents.

I mean, it’s not Luke Cage: Second Chances.

Avengers: Scarlet Witch coverScarlet Witch is a bit of a mess, though. The Scarlet Witch — Wanda Maximoff to her friends — is a character with a complex history, but this volume addresses little of it. The collection is built around the Scarlet Witch limited series from 1994, but “limited series from 1994” gives you a good idea of that title’s level of quality. The rest of the book is made up of non-feature stories from a couple of ‘80s titles, Marvel Comics Presents serials, a continuity implant focusing on Wanda’s mysticism, and a story that tries to present a coherent origin story for Wanda and her brother.

Let’s start, then, with the Scarlet Witch limited series; the book does, after all. Despite the title, the four issues are writers Dan Abnett and Andy Lanning’s only contribution to the book, and it’s not their best work. The Scarlet Witch has to battle Lore, an alternate version of herself. Like Wanda, Lore is a Nexus Being, someone who serves as the anchor of their reality. Each Nexus Being has a different flavor of power; while Wanda uses her hex powers, Lore is a necromancer. After exhausting her world, she went to other dimensions, using their nexus beings to exhaust that dimension’s resources. When Lore fixes her attention upon the 616 Universe, she frees Master Pandemonium, who has become “romantically” fixated on (read: stalkerishly obsessed with) Wanda, to help her defeat the Scarlet Witch.

What results is standard ‘90s chaff. The plot has no lasting consequences, which is a bit of a shame: of all the interdimensional meddling the Marvel Universe has had over the years, this one would help explain Wanda’s more destructive forays over the past two decades. The issue count is padded, and the story is more confusing that it has to be. The art by John Higgins is occasionally slick but often soulless, with plastic figures standing around. (As this was a ‘90s limited series, it will not surprise you that the women’s poses accentuate their, ah, assets.) Higgins does do a decent job with Wanda’s Avengers West Coast teammates, whom Lore transformed into monsters to battle Wanda.

Are Abnett and Lanning trying to elevate the limited series above the standard Marvel miniseries? The plot is inconsequential, and as a character exploration, it’s thin. But the story hints at something more consequential than an interdimensional madwoman behind this nonsense. The abandoned town of Unity and the catacombs under them in #1 and 2 have definite Lovecraftian touches, but those elements are abandoned in later issues for a Marvel Universe superhero battle with slight horror touches. I can’t decide whether Abnett and Lanning tossed the Lovecraft hints or whether they tried to develop them further, but either they or Higgins failed to make them more obvious.

So the limited series is, at best, a missed opportunity. The rest of the collection is an opportunity to take a nap.

The two stories that follow Scarlet Witch seem randomly chosen. The one from Marvel Team-Up #125 is a six-page back-up in which Dr. Strange could have literally teamed up with anyone, since Strange does all the work. Solo Avengers is a story more about death than Wanda, who briefly battles an incarnation of death until the person for whom she’s fighting decides she loves the current incarnation. (The story references Marvel Fanfare #6, which might have been a better choice to reprint than some of the others.)

The Marvel Comics Presents stories are forgettable. In MCP #60-3, an anti-mutant scholar catches Wanda off-guard and sends her spirit back in time to the body of her 16th-century pirate ancestor, Red Lucy Keough. (Does Lucy look exactly like Wanda? Of course she does!) Although a pirate tale could be interesting, the story doesn’t have enough room to do anything innovative, exciting, or unusual. MCP #143-4 was also reprinted in Avengers: The Death of Mockingbird, which is a curious decision, given that the murkily drawn story of demons and computers didn’t deserve to be reprinted once.

The last two stories are better fits (and better stories) than what came before. Mystic Arcana: Scarlet Witch tells the story of Wanda’s first encounter with magic: she’s introduced to a scantily clad coven of witches that features Margali Szardos, Nightcrawler’s not-yet stepmother; Maria Russoff, Werewolf-by-Night’s wife; and Lilia Calderu, witch-queen of the gypsies. The story is a continuity implant, of course, with Wanda getting a brief glimpse at the mystic life that she would eventually dabble in. The story is full of mystic doodads like the Serpent Crown, Darkhold, and the Book of Cagliostro, and the witches battle sorcerers Damballah and Taboo. Frankly, the story does more to set up Werewolf-by-Night’s origin than the Scarlet Witch’s. It does establish the dark god Chthon’s interest in Wanda, though, if you’re interested in that.

The collection is capped by Avengers Origins: Scarlet Witch & Quicksilver. It retells the story of the Maximoff twins from the day they were almost murdered by an angry mob but rescued by Magneto to the day they joined the Avengers. The issue does a good job of recapping the story for readers don’t know it, but it’s inessential if you are familiar with the bare bones of the story.

Oh! And if you miss the ‘90s, the book includes a bunch of Scarlet Witch pin-ups from the Marvel Swimsuit specials from the early part of that decade. You’re welcome.

I can appreciate that organizing the book is a bit difficult for the reprint editor, Mark D. Beazley. The Scarlet Witch limited series is the most coherent, longest story in the collection, so it’s logical that it leads off the book. On the other hand, readers would probably benefit from putting the limited series last: it’s the last story in continuity, and it’s nearly the last in publication order, with the two stories published later than the limited series (Mystic Arcana and Avengers Origins) being set much earlier in continuity. But if the limited series were at the end, who would read through the filler in the middle to get to it?

I can appreciate why Marvel might have thought to publish this book, but in retrospect, the decision seems like a poor one. Even if they’d renamed it to something to suggest the obscurity of some of these pieces — Scarlet Witch Rarities, or Scarlet Witch Archives — and de-emphasize writers who provide less than half the page content, only the limited series really has any reason to be reprinted. Cutting the price and including only the limited series and one other story — I’d choose Avengers Origins — would have made the book more attractive and would have made the title more accurate. Adding more material and keeping the price commensurate with the page count has made the collection much less appealing.

Rating: Avengers symbol (1 of 5)

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22 July 2016

Captain America: Sam Wilson, v. 1: Not My Captain America

Collects: Captain America: Sam Wilson #1-6 (2015-6)

Released: April 2016 (Marvel)

Format: 136 pages / color / $17.99 / ISBN: 9780785196402

What is this?: Sam Wilson lets it be known he has political feelings, then takes on the Serpent Society — I mean, Serpent Solutions.

The culprits: Writer Nick Spencer, artists Daniel Acuna and Paul Renaud, and penciler Joe Bennett

First things first: if you are offended, as some reviewers on Amazon are, by politics in your Captain America comics, you should not be reading Captain America: Sam Wilson, v. 1: Not My Captain America. Sam Wilson was a social worker while he was Falcon, and he has had a vastly different upbringing from Steve Rogers. To not have Sam be more political than Steve would be a poor reading of the character, and writer Nick Spencer is completely right to have Sam take a stand on issues such as immigration.

The funny thing is that other than supporting the human rights of illegal immigrants, Sam doesn’t make any controversial pronouncements. We’re just told people are mad that he has. Spencer fills the book with anti-Wall Street sentiment, but honestly, I’m not sure many people get mad at the idea that investment bankers and stock traders are out of touch with the rest of society, often make amoral decisions more concerned with gaining money than acting ethically toward lower economic classes, and are often out of reach of the law. I think people don’t like being told that by people who have “agendas,” though, and comic-book writers who are too transparent are probably seen as people with agendas.

Captain America: Sam Wilson, v. 1: Not My Captain America cover And let’s face it: in accordance with Marvel’s “More than One of Everything” policy, you don’t even have to read this book if you want to read a Captain America title. Just read the other one, and you’ll be fine. Now, as for whether you should read Not My Captain America

Sam Wilson is a likeable hero, not quite at ease with his new role, and Spencer mixes Sam’s doubts with his determination. Sam is someone I want to read about, someone whose elevation to perhaps the premiere Marvel hero identity seems earned without the character being conceited about it. Spencer gives Sam a sidekick, who, despite his silly origin, seems to be the kind of sidekick Sam should have: someone with ties to Sam’s legacy and who comes from a disadvantaged and non-privileged background.

A likeable hero and the promise of a good sidekick is an excellent start, but the other choices Spencer makes are less promising. The series begins with Sam sitting between two bros from New Jersey on a commercial airline, recapping and reminiscing about what has happened in the eight-month gap following Secret Wars. OK, fine — being in public gives readers a chance to see how normal people react to Sam. But it still involves Sam spending two issues spending non-flashback time between two bros, and I think Spencer could have chosen a better venue to show the public’s opinion of Sam.

The two issues of flashback prevents the book from gaining any momentum. The first issue has non-talky bits, like Sam and his team wrapping up a Hydra cell, but it isn’t satisfying. It’s a taste of action — inconsequential, not even complete enough to intrigue. Interspersing the story with things I don’t care about, like a detailed account of Sam’s falling out with SHIELD, waters the story down; if you can’t tell an interesting story about the conflict, mention it briefly and add more depth to Sam’s battle vs. Armadillo. (How Sam handles himself against a real heavyweight brawler should be important, given that unlike Steve, Sam’s best physical attribute is agility, not strength.) If I had been buying single issues, I would have abandoned the series after one issue. It’s not until Not My Captain America’s overarching storyline begins, five pages into #2, that the book starts to capture my interest.

Sam is working with Misty Knight, a private detective who used to date Iron Fist. As far as I can tell, Misty has never associated with Captain America or Sam Wilson in the past; she has usually worked with her long-time partner Colleen Wing or some iteration of Heroes for Hire. Why is she working with Sam Wilson now? It isn’t really answered; given that we learn a great deal of stuff that isn’t all that important, why couldn’t Spencer have mentioned Misty’s motivation? Despite how great Misty is, I get the feeling she was chosen as a race-appropriate romantic interest.

Spencer also brings back two characters from Ed Brubaker‘s last run: D-Man and Diamondback. D-Man, who is generally portrayed as a goofy but usually competent hero, was killed by Brubaker in a gritty story that was uniquely unsuited for D-Man. I’m glad he’s been brought back to serve as part of Sam’s support staff, a role he fits admirably. Diamondback, an ex-member of the Serpent Society who became Steve Rogers’s girlfriend and a hero, has fallen on hard times after her fiancé died of cancer, forcing her to become a stripper to make ends meet. But she was a SHIELD agent during Brubaker’s run. Couldn’t she have fallen back on that … ?


Oh …

This is something that got wiped out in the reordering of universes after Secret Wars, right? I … I need a moment. To think about … about the fragile nature of continuity, even in Marvel. Just … just give me a moment.

Technical Difficulties. Please Stand By.

Well, I still think “stripper” is a bit too obvious of a profession for the founder of a mercenary group called “Bad Girls.”

The villains in Not My Captain America are quite a bit better. Spencer’s decision to transform the Serpent Society into Serpent Solutions seems exciting; rather than a brawling collection of snake-themed villains (which I like), he’s turned them into a group that leases evil intellectual property to unscrupulous businessmen. Unfortunately, the idea has several holes in it, the largest of which is that most of the seventeen or so members don’t do anything other than participate in the final battle with Sam and his allies. Instead, Serpent Solutions is reduced to Viper spouting One Percenter catchphrases to executive boards of amoral corporations. Spencer gives no indication that any Serpents have created the IP Viper is peddling.

Instead, some of that IP is being produced by mad scientist Karl Malus, an old Captain America foe who recently was been eaten and crapped out by Carnage; because of that, Malus has his own symbiote. This should make him terrifying, but instead, Spencer decides to defuse the tension by having Malus turn Sam into Cap Wolf. (Steve Rogers was turned into a wolf in one of the silliest storylines of Captain America, v. 1.) It’s a dumb joke, although given that Redwing, Sam’s falcon, has a sonic weapon, I’m not sure how much of a threat Karnage Malus should present.

(I do admire that Serpent Solutions is very professional about how it handles Misty’s attempt to break into their office building: She has to sign in, and a group of thugs are sent to the first floor to meet her.)

The art is uniformly good, although having three different artists on the initial arc is never a positive sign. All three have similar restrained styles that work well together. Daniel Acuña draws #1-3, which means he’s saddled with a lot of boring flashback work; he does his best, but I’m not sure anyone could make it interesting. In #3, I wish he would have played up the visual elements of Malus’s symbiote more, since the writing fails to make Malus the creepy adversary he should be. Paul Renaud manages to make the Serpents impressive, and I enjoyed the incongruity of Viper playing golf (wearing his mask) with other executives. His Diamondback is a bit too cheesecake, but then again, she is supposed to be a stripper. Joe Bennett gets the big fight scene at the end, but even though it’s certainly competent, it doesn’t exactly answer the question of how Joaquin, a nascent superhero, can evade the Serpent Society. (Given his wings, you’d think the answer would be “flying out of reach.” You, like me, would be wrong.) It also doesn’t have the impact a storyline ending brawl between a bunch of snakes and heroes should have. Also: Whoever gave Misty that open-midriff costume — probably Acuña — has a lot to answer for.

Oh, and one last thing: If you are a publisher of superhero comics coming out of an event that frelling reorders reality, consider putting some frakking footnotes into the text so readers have an idea about what comes from previous issues (which readers can probably buy in book form!) and what the writer is creating at this moment. It seems only considerate (and an opportunity to huck your damn product).

Rating: Captain America’s shield Captain America’s shield Half of Captain America’s indestructible shield (2.5 of 5)

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15 July 2016

Chronicles of Conan, v. 31: Empire of the Undead and Other Stories

Collects: Conan the Barbarian #241-9 (1991)

Released: March 2016 (Dark Horse)

Format: 224 pages / color / $19.99 / ISBN: 9781616558659

What is this?: After avoiding a demigod’s son’s revenge plot, Conan and his cohorts join the Khorajan army.

The culprits: Written by Roy Thomas and drawn by Gary Hartle and Mike Docherty

Since the next volume of the Chronicles of ConanChronicles of Conan, v. 32: The Second Coming of Shuma-Gorath and Other Stories — is scheduled to come out next week, I thought I’d review the most recent volume as a warm-up.

Is Chronicles of Conan, v. 31: Empire of the Undead and Other Stories better than the preceding volume? Oh, Crom, yes — it would be almost impossible for Roy Thomas, Conan’s first writer, to conceive of anything as dire as The Death of Conan and Other Stories.

Chronicles of Conan, v. 31: Empire of the Undead and Other Stories coverWith that low bar cleared, it’s time to look at whether Empire of the Undead is good. That question is a bit more complicated …

Those who know Thomas by his superhero work probably realize Rascally Roy never met a bit of continuity he didn’t think he could mine for a story. That’s the case with Empire of the Undead, where Thomas follows Michael Higgins’s continuity-ignoring implant with a storyline that brings back old friends and old rivals. Red Sonja returns, but that’s not so unusual: she pops up every now and then. Thomas also reunites the surly Cimmerian with Zula, one of the pirates who sailed with Conan and Bêlit in Conan the Barbarian #84-94 — a deep cut, to be sure.

Zula is a welcome addition — I’ve said before that Conan works better in the long term when he has allies to work with. But the returning villains … I’m not sure. Thomas introduces El-Ron, the son of Zukala, whom Conan fought in #5 and #115 and allied with in #14, and reintroduces the bat-like Afterlings, which appeared in #43, Stygian wizard Shu-Onoru, Zula’s old master who appeared in #85-6, and Stygian prince Katuman, who appeared in Savage Sword of Conan #2 and 3. (Other characters from the past also pop up, but I’m not going to list them all.) Thomas also uses Varnae the Vampire, who has long been established as the most ancient vampire lord in the Marvel Universe, as a villain for the second storyline in Empire.

These villains fall flat, though. The returning characters don’t serve much narrative purpose, as each of them — save for Shu-Onoru, who has a strong connection to Zula — could have been a new character without sacrificing any effect on the plot. Varnae is particularly out of place, as the story he’s in has none of the traditional vampire trappings, and he’s defeated by the clichéd “one thing that can defeat him” — a magic spell that Zula reads, in this case. Also, the Conan editorial staff was lying down on the job; other than Zula, the book contained few footnotes stating which issues these characters came from. Strictly speaking, they aren’t necessary, but it would have been nice to give readers some context.

Despite Thomas’s determination to link everything in his latest run to something he did more than a decade before, the book largely succeeds. The first story, a three-parter called “The Sorcerer and the She-Devil,” is fine, with Red Sonja’s feisty return mostly managing to hide the plot’s unwillingness to let either her or Conan affect it. (Does Thomas have something against Scientology? Naming the villain El-Ron tends suggest he does, but I can’t find anything online about it.) The following two-parter with Varnae the Vampire is notable only for the return of Zula; otherwise, #244 and 245 is a series of fights, usually with the heroes losing, interrupted by monologues.

The book finally gets into gear with #246, when Conan, Sonja, and Zula arrive in besieged Khoraja. Conan begins to ascend the Khorajan military ladder, as he has done in many other cities and states, and helps the Khorajans defeat the desert nomad wizard who threatens the city. Thomas gives the story a little nuance, showing the Khorajans are not completely innocent: their high command is just as stupid as the generals Conan usually serves under, and the city has an oppressed minority that Sonja is ambivalent toward, even when they try to kill her. I also appreciate that Thomas ignores Conan’s final fight with the uncanny leader of the nomads — we all know Conan’s going to win, right? — and instead concentrates on Zula and Sonja’s battle with demonic underlings. I admit laughing out loud when after the battle Sonja and Zula found Conan in post-coital bliss with the Khorajan princess.

Additionally, Thomas gives more depth to Sonja than I anticipated he would. At first, Sonja displays her customary rivalry with Conan, although she lacks the usual camaraderie she usually has with him. (It turns out Sonja was hired to assassinate El-Ron, and Conan kept getting in the way of her plan.) But as the book goes on and she continues to adventure with Conan, her rivalry continues, although Conan is mystified at why she’s so angry about his successes. When Conan quickly becomes a captain in the Khorajan army, Sonja bristles. It’s easy to see why: in Empire, Sonja is every bit the warrior Conan is, but it’s always Conan who gets credit for being the superior warrior. Her resentment cools a bit at the end when Conan, elevated to general, promotes her to captain. Overall, Sonja is more insecure than usual, but I can live with that, given how difficult it must be to live, even for a while, in Conan’s shadow.

Artists Gary Hartle (#241-7) and Mike Docherty (#248-9) are solid artists, and I have no complaints about them. They aren’t superlative stylists like Barry Windsor-Smith or John Buscema, but both know how to draw Conan and his world, telling comprehensible stories. More importantly, in my eyes, they give Sonja more clothing than a chainmail bikini. Hartle’s one-piece swimsuit with lapels and a fur-trimmed cape is only a moderate improvement, but Docherty gets rid of the lapels (and cleavage) as soon as he can, adding leather armor around the neck and shoulders and a loincloth. It’s not practical, but it’s nice to see someone moving her in a more sartorially useful direction.

More amusing than Sonja’s clothing is the contrast between Conan’s interior and cover artists. Hartle and Docherty, as I mentioned, are good, but they never were considered “hot” artists; on the other hand, the covers are contributed by artists who were the most sought-after pencilers of the day. Todd McFarlane, Jim Lee, and Whilce Portacio, a trio that would help found Image Comics the following year, contributed the covers for #241-3, and Art Adams drew #247-9. Those are impressive artists to line up for a title that was aimlessly wasting readers’ time in the previous collection.

No one’s going to pick up Empire if they haven’t been reading Chronicles of Conan for a long time. But if you made it through Death of Conan without your interest in Conan being extinguished, then you might as well pick up Empire, especially since Thomas seems to be adding a little more depth than he has to to the stories.

Rating: Conan symbol Conan symbol Half Conan symbol (2.5 of 5)

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08 July 2016

Moon Girl and Devil Dinosaur, v. 1: BFF

Collects: Moon Girl and Devil Dinosaur #1-6 (2016)

Released: June 2016 (Marvel)

Format: 136 pages / color / $17.99 / ISBN: 9781302900052

What is this?: A girl with the Inhuman gene finds a Kree device coveted by time-lost cavemen, who are pursued by Devil Dinosaur, a literal dinosaur.

The culprits: Written by Amy M. Reeder and Brandon Montclare and penciled by Natacha Bustos

I can’t say I’ve ever been enchanted by the idea of Devil Dinosaur.

I mean, yes, I get the appeal: giant red T-Rex. But I’m not a big fan of high-concept ideas that go nowhere, and eventually the appeal of what amounts to a giant carnivorous (within the bounds of the Comics Code Authority) horse / dog has to wear thin after a while. It’s not like Devil Dinosaur has a huge range of emotions by himself (herself?).

Moon Girl and Devil Dinosaur, v. 1: BFF coverBut I decided to give Moon Girl and Devil Dinosaur, v. 1: BFF a shot, and I’m glad I did.

Writers Amy Reeder and Brandon Montclare create a sympathetic lead in Lunella Lafayette, a grade-school genius (her age is unclear) who is trying to keep her Inhuman gene from expressing. Unfortunately, she’s surrounded by those not only of lesser intellect but also of much greater obliviousness. Her parents want her to be normal, which she clearly is not; her science teacher (or maybe her only teacher, who knows) teaches the students as if they are half-wits and is not prepared to deal with a gifted child. The token jock, Coach Hrbek, picks up an alien artifact as if it is a basketball.

It’s always easy to make the smart, picked-on kid sympathetic, and Lunella is no different. She has been rejected by the Future Foundation and other gifted schools, showing that while she’s very smart, she’s not considered Marvel Universe elite yet. Those schools would be Lunella’s ticket out of the unfair world she lives in, where she has to endure her underprepared teachers and classmates’ taunts (including the convenient nickname “Moon Girl”) in class. Outside the classroom, she retreats into her own world. It’s all by the book, but damned if I didn’t fall for it.

Lunella’s antagonists, the Killing Folk, are the standouts of the book. The Killing Folk are primitive humans who are the archenemies of Devil Dinosaur’s original sidekick, Moon Boy. In the distant past, Moon Boy manages to send the Killing Folk away, saving his people — the Small Folk — as he himself dies. Moon Boy has only delayed the problem, though, as the Killing Folk appear in the present and continue their dominance displays as soon as they acclimatize to the modern world. They are ridiculous — there’s no way they should dominate the Yancy Street Gang and New York police so quickly — but Reeder and Montclare use that to their benefit. To the people of Lunella’s neighborhood, the Killing Folk are just another gang, and the Killing Folk do their best to fulfill that explanation: after all, they’re terrorizing the Small Folk again, just like they did in their own time, and if that requires wearing hoodies and flashing gang signs, they are up for it.

The Killing Folk are in pursuit of what they call “the Nightstone,” although Lunella, who found it before they arrived, surmises it’s a Kree Omni-Wave Projector. Lunella hopes she’ll be able to use the projector to somehow suppress her Inhuman genes. This quest is a tricky point, literally and figuratively, that the writers don’t engage with. Twenty or more years ago, Lunella would have been afraid her mutant gene would express. That’s an easier metaphor for the reader to parse: as mutant powers come out in adolescence, mutancy goes along with puberty, a general change from child the person was to adult they will become. But the Inhuman gene might not ever express if the bearer doesn’t come in contact with Terrigen mist. Does that make the Inhuman gene more like a gene that triggers cancer, something that should be avoided if possible? Or is it still like the X-gene, a natural part of personal evolution?

How am I supposed to feel about Lunella’s quest? I don’t know. Lunella simply doesn’t want to go through the Inhuman change, which doesn’t clarify matters, and her parents don’t seem that troubled by it. Lunella’s motivations seem reasonable — I don’t know that I would want to be radically changed — but if Inhumans are the 21st-century mutants, then she should make her peace with it. Man, I’m confused, and not in a good way.

Devil Dinosaur makes his appearance pursuing the Killing Folk from the past into the present. Unfortunately, Devil Dinosaur is the book’s weak point. The scenes with Devil are the weakest — except perhaps his fight with the Hulk in #4 — in the book. Nothing is surprising about his meeting with Lunella or their interactions after that; of course Lunella dislikes him at first, and of course they become friends. After the Hulk captures DD, of course she springs him. It’s Buddy Cop 101, and it’s a bit tiresome. DD is at best a friendly dog, but he has little character beyond that.

And despite all the good things in BFF — and they are considerable — the big red doughnut hole in the center of the book holds it back considerably. I want to like the book more, but when Clifford Rex galumphs onto the page, the book’s development grinds to a halt for an action set piece, robbing Lunella’s story of momentum.

It’s not the artist’s fault those action scenes make the book drag, though. Natacha Bustos does a great job: her art is so clear, so precise, so … perfect. Her designs for the Killer Folk are great and make them a treat every time they show up. Occasionally, I find I have questions — how old are Lunella and her classmates, exactly? How did the fire at school start? (After I puzzled out that it was the careless use of matches in the girls’ bathroom, I was left with the question of how a porcelain floor catches fire and burns a classroom some distance away, but that’s a script problem, most likely.) Colorist Tamra Bonvillain gives the book a bright, optimistic color scheme that’s perfect for a young genius.

The brief appearance of the new Hulk in #4 is a separate problem from the rest of the book. Reeder and Montclare do their best to make the Cho Hulk unsympathetic: he’s vain, too cocksure, and learns nothing, which is always a problem for an intelligent protagonist. I realize they were trying to make Cho another adult who won’t listen to or help Lunella, forcing her to rely on her own wits to survive, but I’m also assuming their characterization of the new Hulk is accurate. If so, they considerably dampened my desire to read Totally Awesome Hulk, v. 1: Cho Time. I suppose Cho’s unappealing presence could be seen as a survival strategy for Moon Girl and Devil Dinosaur, driving the audience away from a competing new book.

I want to like Moon Girl and Devil Dinosaur, but I can’t help but think the book would be better off if Lunella was cut loose from the “Moon Girl” nonsense and Devil Dinosaur and left to her own devices. I’ll probably pick up v. 2, but that’s mostly because of the cliffhanger at the end of BFF

Rating: Devil Dinosaur symbol Devil Dinosaur symbol Devil Dinosaur symbol (3 of 5)

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01 July 2016

Howard the Duck, v. 1: Duck Hunt

Collects: Howard the Duck #1-6, Unbeatable Squirrel Girl #6 (2016)

Released: May 2016 (Marvel)

Format: 160 pages / color / $17.99 / ISBN: 9780785199380

What is this?: Howard looks for a way home but becomes a Living Nexus instead, with the entire cosmic pantheon searching for him; Howard and Squirrel Girl team up to defeat an insane cosplayer.

The culprits: Writer Chip Zdarsky, with help from Ryan North on both #6s, and penciler Joe Quinones, with help from Veronica Fish (#2) and Erica Henderson (Squirrel Girl #6)

Whenever I saw Howard the Duck was going to be revived, I had to remind myself that Steve Gerber’s not walking through that writing-room door. (Mostly because the creator of Howard the Duck has been dead since 2008.) Given that Howard has had received mixed reviews when not written by Gerber, I wasn’t sure what to expect with this new series.

It’s a relief to say that Howard the Duck, v. 1: Duck Hunt is very funny and well worth a read. It isn’t Gerber-esque — little is — but it’s still funny.

Howard the Duck, v. 1: Duck Hunt cover(The first Howard the Duck collection from this run, the confusingly numbered Howard the Duck, v. 0: What the Duck, is also funny, but I didn’t get around to reviewing it; in any event, I think Duck Hunt is superior.)

While this Howard lacks the satiric edge of Gerber’s writing, writer Chip Zdarsky’s work is still very funny, mixing Marvel jokes, pop culture references, and outstanding comic timing. Duck Hunt does follow the Gerber template of putting Howard into absurd situations and letting him react to them. In Duck Hunt, for instance, Howard just wants to return to Duckworld but has to deal with female clones of himself and Rocket Raccoon, all the people who try to capture him after he becomes a Living Nexus, a wannabe herald of Galactus, a woman who decides to hunt anthropomorphic animals because she wants to hunt the most dangerous game, and anthropomorphic animals are a legal gray area …

Howard handles all of it with his trademark puzzlement, disdain, and fear. His tattoo artist sidekick, Tara Tam, provides a layman’s view of his adventures, which — when it comes down to it — isn’t all that different from Howard’s point of view, but she is allowed to be confused in situations Howard finds tediously complicated.

Duck Hunt ranges through the Marvel Universe, from its cosmic bourns to the swamps around Citrusville, Fla., and New York. Zdarsky pulls in numerous characters, and I find it interesting which ones mesh with Howard’s comic ethos: the cosmic entities, strangely, as well as Dr. Strange (an old Defenders friend), Squirrel Girl, and the Wizard and Titania. The contrast between the most powerful of Marvel’s pantheon of villains and heroes (Galactus, Silver Surfer, and the Collector) and a tired duck never fails to be absurd, and Howard always works best as a character fighting against villains who aren’t the strongest adversaries, like the Wizard. (Usually, though, Howard villains are the seriously incompetent, like Dr. Bong.)

Not everyone Zdarsky puts into Duck Hunt works, though. I didn’t care for the appearance of the Guardians of the Galaxy, who seem shoehorned into the plot; they aren’t very funny, and I’m not sold on their lineup (Thing, Shadowcat, and Flash Thompson-Venom on the same team?). Aunt May’s continued presence feels like a continuity error, but I’m willing to overlook it.

The two-part Squirrel Girl / Howard story that ends the book is a natural crossover. Squirrel Girl writer Ryan North and Zdarsky work flawlessly together, even to the point of writing dialogues in Squirrel Girl’s trademark page-bottom asides. The two issues are hilarious, with Squirrel Girl’s optimism and hypercompetence complementing Howard’s pessimism and … well, not quite competence. The villain’s concept — a cosplaying villain who has decided hunting sentient anthropomorphic characters, like Rocket Raccoon, Howard, and Beast, is her life’s goal — is terrific, although I question the wisdom of making her a southern belle named Shannon Sugarbaker. (I don’t need implied crossovers between the Marvel Universe and Designing Women.) I also have trouble with Kraven’s characterization in the crossover; Kraven is easily cowed by Shannon in the story, and even though he regains some of his élan in the final issue, it still feels weird.

Kra-Van!On the other hand, the crossover features Kraven’s airbrushed Kra-Van, and its presence forgives a lot of sins.

Artist Joe Quinones didn’t create the Kra-Van — that was Squirrel Girl artist Erica Henderson — but he is a solid complement for Zdarsky’s writing. Drawing Howard the Duck calls for a wide range; the book has both action and humor, and Howard himself needs a lot of subtlety of expression, which isn’t easy on a duck’s face. Quinones succeeds admirably, though. He has a tight line and he doesn’t exaggerate much, which I think is to the title’s advantage: the situations Howard gets into are absurd enough without the need for cartoon-y elements trying to ratchet up the silliness. Howard always has to be able to have a claim to keeping his dignity, and putting him in a story that turns him into a caricature robs him of that. The relatively realistic art makes Quinones sort of the book’s straight man, a role that is often underappreciated. Still, Quinones slips his own in-jokes into the story; for instance, Quinones places Soos from Gravity Falls into the book as an ignorant yokel. (Quinones changes the question mark on Soos’s shirt to an exclamation mark, but it’s definitely him.)

That being said, Duck Hunt is not all wacky adventures and jokes — and I mean that in a good way. I was genuinely moved by issue #2, drawn by guest artist Veronica Fish, which tells the life story of Linda (Howard’s female clone) and Shocket (Rocket’s female clone). It’s a tribute to Fish’s and Zdarsky’s skills that they could make me care about the distaff knockoffs of two second-tier characters within the space of a single issue, but it happens, and it doesn’t feel cheap. I never need to see the two again, but they work in this story.

As a side note, Duck Hunt does not have the three back-up Howard / Gwenpool stories that originally ran in Howard the Duck #1-3. As much as I might have appreciated the entirety of #1-3 being reprinted, I understand the space crunch the book was under: the book is seven issues long, and the Gwenpool stories would have added another issue’s worth of pages. But if they reduced the number of issues included, they would have had to remove the entire Howard / Squirrel Girl crossover. The lead Howard stories were full-length, anyway, so it’s not like readers are getting cheated.

On the other hand, cutting the book short after #5 would have left a heck of a cliffhanger … although one that wouldn’t be picked up again until the fourth story of the next trade. I suppose sometimes perfect choices are impossible.

Anyway, I wholeheartedly recommend Howard the Duck to everyone, even those who don’t like the character. This Howard, although funny, is nothing like Gerber’s acerbic takes on ‘70s culture; this book is just trying to be funny — and succeeding.

Rating: Howard the Duck symbol Howard the Duck symbol Howard the Duck symbol Howard the Duck symbol Half Howard the Duck symbol (4.5 of 5)

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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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