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

29 April 2008

Wonder Woman, v. 2: Love and War

Collects: Wonder Woman v. 3 #6-10 (2007)

Released: September 2007 (DC)

Format: 128 pages / hardback, color / $19.99 / ISBN: 9781401214876

This is the second Wonder Woman book I checked out from the Carrier Library. The big draw for Wonder Woman, v. 2: Love and Murder, judging from the cover, is that it is written by New York Times bestselling author Jodi Picoult. The name means nothing to me; more interesting is that Picoult claims in her introduction to be only the second woman to write Wonder Woman.

That can't be right, can it? But I guess it is. Strange. Well, how does this woman put her feminine mark on Wonder Woman?

 cover That's difficult to say. (Picoult tried to get rid of Wonder Woman's traditional bustier, but DC nixed that.) I'm not scholar enough or in touch with my feminine side to definitely say what's feminine or not. There's romance of a sort. A central conflict is between Wonder Woman and her mother; another is between Wonder Woman, the good girl, and Circe, the wicked wanton.

But it's also a story that has been firmly — and somewhat awkwardly — shoehorned into DC continuity, as a lead-in to the Amazons Attack miniseries. I have heard nothing good about that storyline, and from what I see here, that's not surprising.

Love and Murder starts with Wonder Woman as Diana Prince, agent of the Department of Metahuman Affairs. She's teamed with the shapeshifter Nemesis on an assignment to capture Wonder Woman, but something's fishy with Nemesis and Diana's boss, and Circe brings Wonder Woman's mother, Hippolyta, back from the dead while tormenting Wonder Woman in Washington, D.C., for some reason. And then there's a lot of fighting.

(I have to ask, do all Wonder Woman storylines end with a nuke pointed at Themiscyra? Because this is the second Wonder Woman book I've read, and it's the second time someone's tried to bomb the Amazons' island back into the Stone Age.)

There's a lot to like in this book. The government conspiracy angle is nicely done, although it's slightly abbreviated. The flirting between Nemesis and Wonder Woman / Diana Prince is fun to watch, but I'm not sure I believe it between these two characters; Wonder Woman is a pillar of goodness but slightly reserved, from all the indications I've received; Nemesis is morally gray at best, and shapeshifters are rarely trustworthy. Still, these elements make the first three issues enjoyable enough.

And then the emphasis shifts to the resurrected Hippolyta going nuts and attacking Washington, D.C., and all my interest goes out the window. The attack seems so arbitrary; Hippolyta's reasons for attacking Man's World against the advice of Athena (that tells you something there) are never fully brought out, making her a baffling (and uninteresting) cypher. Circe's plan seems so ... overinvolved, and it goes for naught — or seems to — when she monologues in front of the wrong people. Somehow, Love and Murder was transformed from a simple, enjoyable little story into a mess.

The art is from three different teams; Terry and Rachel Dodson are the featured team, but they only provide the art for issues #3 and 4. The Dodsons deliver what they always deliver: clear art and characters with prominent noselines and breastlines. Drew Johnson and Ray Snider, with the help of Rodney Ramos, do a credible Dodson imitation for #1 and 2 -- or I should say their art, while being distinct from the Dodsons', does mesh very well. Paco Diaz, who does the art chores for #5, is a departure from the rest of the book. On one hand, that doesn't matter, since by that point the story has devolved into a fight scene completely separate from the rest of the story, but Diaz doesn't do the best work with the fighting. Diaz does well with the battle royale scenes, giving a sense of the scale of the conflict away from the main players, but in the individual scenes, his bodies are often awkwardly positioned.

Perhaps it's my lack of knowledge of DC that makes me dislike this story, but the whiplash nature of the mid-book story change means I really can't recommend it to anyone.

Rating: Wonder Woman symbol Half of a Wonder Woman symbol (1.5 of 5)

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17 April 2008

The Loners: The Secret Lives of Superheroes

Collects: Loners #1-6 (2007-8)

Released: February 2008 (Marvel)

Format: 144 pages / color / $14.99 / ISBN: 078512215X

When I bought The Loners: The Secret Lives of Superheroes, I had high hopes. Even halfway through, I thought, This could still work. But in the end, it all fell apart. Or maybe never came together. Either way, I wish there were more positives here.

The Loners: The Secret Lives of Superheroes cover The characters in The Loners (originally named "Excelsior") were brought together in the pages of Runaways, where they were the counterpoint to the Runaways: a group of young people with powers who had given up superheroing and were trying to get other young people to do the same. There are many ways you can go with this idea; trying to actively evangelize to different young heroes would have been my choice. (A "prison ministry" sort of thing might have been hilarious in the right hands.) Writer C.B. Cebulski went with the "superheroing as an addiction," and I can't deny that's a valid option. As shown in Season 6 of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, it's perhaps a difficult one, but it could be done.

Or perhaps not; Cebulski doesn't succeed at all. Since addiction is an internal conflict, most of the group's fights are internal as well. Without an external threat, though, it makes the characters all look weak. Any temptation at all makes them fall off the normalcy wagon, except for Phil Urich (the heroic Green Goblin) and Mickey Musashi (Turbo), who are the leaders. (Neither has any powers without his equipment, and Phil's were destroyed during Onslaught.) Admittedly, there are a few fights with goons connected to a Fujikawa lab, but whenever that's going to get interesting, it's shuffled off stage.

I do like the characters. Most of them were assembled by Brian K. Vaughan, but that's all right. Phil, Mickey, Julie Power (Lightspeed of Power Pack), Chris Powell (Darkhawk), and Johnny Gallo (Ricochet) are B-list teen heroes from the Marvel stable, at least a decade removed from their heydays. Rick Jones, Marvel's ultimate sidekick and the group's putative sponsor and mentor, is nowhere to be seen, but Cebulski adds Mattie Franklin, the third Spider-Woman, which is a nice addition: when last seen, she had been drugged and abused by a bunch of punks, which should have colored her impression of the appropriateness of superheroics for teens. The mutant formerly known at Penance and a new Red Ronin are also dropped in, but they don't make much of an impression.

Despite knowing he had only six issues to work with, Cebulski resolutely refuses to wrap up any of his dangling plotlines, and with the series' relatively low sales, it's unlikely he'll get a chance. There's a couple of deals made with the Fujikawa goons that aren't revealed, and there's no indication what the lab's purpose was in the first place. Julie Powers's unregistered status and hinted at homosexuality are mere titillations, and the new characters are sort of vomited onto the page and are clarified only with great reluctance. Ricochet's motivation — guilt over not helping a friend on the mission that took his life — is brought up and dropped in the same issue. Mattie's mission within the group is resolved, but only if you know enough about the Marvel Universe to remember the last name of a hero in an ensemble book based on a forgotten Spider-Man crossover and canceled after 12 issues (Slingers).

The point the plot twists on — Phil's unresolved romantic feelings — aren't even hinted at, not even in the issue he narrates, until #5, when it springs fully grown from his imaginary goblin mask. Cebulski's mainly at fault here; I think he's aiming at a specific, new manifestation of Phil's Goblin madness, but it's impossible to tell, and Phil doesn't regain enough lucidity to let us know.

Artist Karl Moline can't escape blame completely, but there's only so much one person can do, and I suspect he might have been as surprised as the rest of us at Phil's change (especially after Phil had feelings for Penance — er, Hollow). I do like Moline's work, though, especially working with former Generation X character Penance. He manages to get a sense of Bachalo's cartoony style while grounding the rest of the characters in more realism. He does a good job with both conversation and action scenes, although I do have a complaint about the slight tarting up of Julie Power. (It just doesn't seem right to do that to a member of Power Pack.) Cover artist Jason Pearson gets on my nerves, however; his thick-lipped, mascara'd, and flat nosed (just Ricochet in his mask, on that one) style offends my aesthetic sensibilities, and I have no idea why he based the covers on posters from John Hughes movies (a connection I never would have gotten without Wikipedia).

There won't be a The Loners, v. 2. I might have wished for it to wrap up these plotlines, but I wouldn't have bought it anyway.

Rating: (1 of 5)

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16 April 2008

Wonder Woman: Gods and Mortals

Collects: Wonder Woman #1-7 (1987)

Released: February 2004 (DC)

Format: 192 pages / color / $19.99 / ISBN: 1401201970

When Carrier Library at James Madison University began adding trade paperbacks to their collection, I jumped at the first two collections that hit the shelves, both of which were Wonder Woman trades. I am not a Wonder Woman fan, but my interest in these books high, and driving up circulation statistics is never a bad thing.

Wonder Woman: Gods and Mortals cover Wonder Woman: Gods and Mortals reprints the first Wonder Woman issues after Crisis reset DC's continuity. George Perez was given the opportunity to both write and draw the title, essentially setting Wonder Woman's status quo (with writing help from Len Wein and Greg Potter). He makes long-time love Steve Trevor a dovish captain in the air force, and Etta Candy, her former sidekick, is a lieutenant in the Air Force and Trevor's aide. Diana is sent into Man's World from the Amazon paradise after Ares sends a bomber through a portal to nuke their island and is named Wonder Woman by the press.

The art is excellent; this is Perez at the height of his powers. His Diana is beautiful and powerful, and he tries his best to explain that ridiculous costume that he draws so well. Really, nothing more needs to be said about it.

The plot is simple in a Cold War way: Ares is manipulating the world into a huge war while his children give Wonder Woman some trouble. There's some fighting, some magical talismans ... really, the plot is not as important as establishing who Wonder Woman and her supporting cast are and showing Ares as a nemesis. That it does, although the exact plot isn't exactly remarkable.

There are a couple of choices that mar the book, however. Perhaps not seriously, but ... First, Perez chooses to fill most of the first issue with the story of the Amazons, from their creation by some of the Greek gods to Diana's winning of the Wonder Woman regalia. That's a lot to fit into one issue, and it also shoves Diana into a supporting character for the first issue of her new, relaunched title. That's sort of a weak start to the story, in my opinion, given that Perez tells the story strictly chronologically. Perez could have shown Wonder Woman as already a hero, but he chose to build up her bona fides. An interesting choice, but one that contributes to the forgetability of the plot; diehard fans of superheroes often get impatient with restatement of origin stories (see: any superhero movie).

It was a lot of inertia for me to overcome, reading about a bunch of characters who I knew wouldn't be all that important by the time the book was half over. Besides, none of the travails the Amazons are subjected to are particularly relevant for this book. (Perhaps they set up more down the line, but I don't need to know them.)

More serious is Perez's Greek gods. The gods of the Amazons — Artemis, Demeter, Aphrodite, Hermes, and Hestia — are passive. They see their vulnerabilities, and their only response is to create the Amazons. They don't oppose Ares, the villain of the piece, in any meaningful way; what does it say about the gods when they have mortals fighting their battles for them? It says it's time for new gods, that's what. Ares isn't all that bright of an opponent, given that he doesn't realize a nuclear apocalypse that kills all humans will wipe out all his worshipers; certainly Athena, goddess of wisdom, could have thought of a better plan to outsmart him.

Still, this has to be labeled a success. Gods and Mortals is never going to be compared to the great stories of the DC canon, but Perez crafted a recognizable, superheroic Wonder Woman and launched her supporting cast. Anything more could be accomplished going forward.

Rating: Wonder Woman symbol Wonder Woman symbol Wonder Woman symbol (3 of 5)

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