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

27 June 2008

Essential Punisher, v. 2

Collects: Punisher (v. 2) #1-20, Punisher Annual #1, Daredevil #257 (1987-9)

Released: September 2007 (Marvel)

Format: 536 pages / black and white / $16.99 / ISBN: 9780785127345

When you buy a book with the title Essential Punisher, v. 2, you know what you’re going to get. Criminals stomped out like cockroaches. More guns than an NRA wet dream. Many non-lethal (for the Punisher) gunshot wounds, wearing out the old “creasing the skull” trick. And Frank Castle being a master of disguise, despite being a white guy built like a square-jawed tank.

Essential Punisher delivers on all that. V. 2 covers the first 20 issues of the first Punisher ongoing series, just before the glut of the early ‘90s gave the Punisher three ongoing titles. Writer Mike Baron deserves at least part of the credit for that, following the Punisher template of killing criminals and blowing stuff up. This may not sound like much, but given the attempted revival of the Punisher as an angel of vengeance about a decade ago, not derailing the essential appeal of the character has to count for something.

Essential Punisher, v. 2 coverBaron did more than that, though. The Punisher has always been short on recurring characters because the title has always been long on lethality. But Baron pulls together some loose ends and puts them into a four part story (#15-8) in which the Punisher goes of the Kingpin. It’s effective, it puts some emotional impact behind these characters’ fates, and it’s interesting to see those characters again.

That’s not to say everything Baron does works. The death of Microchip Jr. feels glossed over, barely referenced or affecting Microchip after it happens. The main story in the annual is part of the Evolutionary war crossover, which 1) is a horrible fit for the Punisher, and 2) feels like a missed opportunity. It would have been nice to see the Punisher use his military skills to use the drug king’s goons to mount an effective resistance to the armored Purifiers; instead, it was a less satisfying three-sided fight.

(There’s also Daredevil #257, which duplicates Punisher #10, except from Daredevil’s point of view, with the added advantage of a snippet from the Typhoid Mary storyline that is completely out of place in this book. That’s not Baron’s fault, of course.)

Art comes mostly from Klaus Janson (#1-5) and Whilce Portacio (#8-18). Their styles are completely different, although strangely, neither clashes with the other. Portacio’s style is the future (for the time, at least) — stylized, out-of-proportion figures (usually the Punisher, who looms over the common folk), with clean lines. Janson’s style recalls Frank Miller, whom he worked with for a while on Daredevil: thick lines, sparse details, lots of shading. Both appropriately use a lot of shadow, which doesn’t reproduce well in black and white. Janson’s art is especially victimized by this; his thick lines really need some form of color to provide some contrast.

Also: there are frequent pools of blood. They have no color in this book. That’s creepy after a while.

The enjoyment you get out of Essential Punisher, v. 2 will vary by your fondness for the Punisher. Keeping in mind that Baron is no Garth Ennis, Punisher fans should be happy — there are enough interesting plots and clever twists to keep you entertained. Those with less tolerance for the Punisher will be reminded there are only so many Punisher plots out there.

Oh, and a healthy nostalgia for comics’ last boom days won’t hurt your enjoyment.

Rating: Punisher symbol Punisher symbol Punisher symbol (3 of 5)

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24 June 2008

Nextwave: Agents of HATE, v. 1: This Is What They Want

Collects: Nextwave: Agents of HATE #1-6 (2006)

Released: January 2007 (Marvel)

Format: 144 pages / color / $14.99 / ISBN: 9780785122784

And checking in from what seems like the Quesada / Jemas reign at Marvel is Nextwave: Agents of HATE, v. 1: This Is What They Want.

Well, it feels like something Quesada / Jemas would push to fruition, something made when Grant Morrison made the X-Men new and Peter Milligan and Mike Allred were X-Statix, but it’s not — it’s actually a Warren Ellis / Stuart Immonen collaboration from 2006.

 coverNextwave is gloriously over the top, full of explosions and punching. Nominally, Nextwave is a team of heroes battling HATE, an antiterrorism group similar to SHIELD and funded by the Beyond Corp.,which is essentially a terrorist group. I say “nominally” because the book is more interested in making fun of the heroes and Dirk Anger (leader of HATE and a thinly veiled Nick Fury stand-in) and having fun with the concept of superheroes.

Fortunately, Ellis is hilarious at it. He has to mangle the characters he uses to make them funnier, but that’s all right — everything he does to them will be forgotten whenever someone else wants to use them, and Nextwave doesn’t seem to be in continuity anyway. Monica Rambeau, the former Captain Marvel and Photon, is the leader who won’t stop banging on about how things were better when she was leading the Avengers. Meltdown, formerly of the old X-Force, is made into a Britney Spears type, in that she’s gone from stereotypical trailer trash to a shallow, consumeristic pretty trailer trash. Aaron Stark, Machine Man, is on a robot power kick who calls humans “fleshy ones” while being constantly mocked by his teammates. Elsa Bloodstone is an uber-lethal monster hunter; I have no idea how Ellis’s characterization accords with her previous appearances. She still has her dignity and is, not coincidentally, the resident Brit on the team.

The less said about Captain *!?*, the better.

Even though I find Nextwave hilarious, it’s not perfect. Ellis is adolescently obsessed with Fin Fang Foom, a giant dragon who wears shorts; Meltdown using the phrase “tick tick tick Boom” whenever she uses her timebombs grows tiresome as well. And I admit, other than Monica, I’m not sure why it wouldn’t have been better to use new characters instead of changing the old. But as I said, it’s hilarious, and it does no real harm.

The art from Immonen fits well with the title — cartoony but able to tell the story. The style is reminiscent of Samurai Jack, which is appropriate for a story with a lot of the ultraviolence but without realism. (Immonen’s death bears — superdeadly koalas — and Samuroid Batch 23 are simultaneously funny, creepy, and wonderously weird, and he does a great job with all the Beyond Corporation’s bizarre organic weapons.)

Nextwave ran 12 issues; the next TPB will finish off the series. Get it. Get this.

Rating: Marvel symbol Marvel symbol Marvel symbol Marvel symbol Half Marvel symbol (4.5 of 5)

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20 June 2008

Batman: No Man's Land, v. 2 & 3

Collects: v. 2: Legends of the Dark Knight 117,119; Shadow of the Bat 85-7; Batman 565; Detective Comics 732-3 v. 3: Batman 566-9; Legends of the Dark Knight 120-1; Shadow of the Bat 88; Detective Comics 734-5 (1999)

Released: 2000 (DC)

Format: 200 pages / color / $14.95 / $12.95 / ISBN: ???

I was optimistic about the late ‘90s No Man’s Land crossover after I read Batman: No Man’s Land, v. 1. Volumes 2 and 3 show why that optimism should have been cautious.

All the hallmarks of the megacrossover are there: wildly varying art, inconsistent writing, characterization all over the place, and plot holes here and there. For instance, what is Two Face: devious gang leader or do-gooder who has almost shed his reliance on his coin? (Although it is Two-Face, so “both” is, I suppose, an acceptable answer.) Why does Superman get so easily discouraged from helping Gotham? Why did group editor Dennis O’Neil let Larry Hama write an issue?

Batman: No Man's Land, v. 2 coverIt’s not that bad, of course. The setup done, No Man’s Land becomes a story of wars over resources and turf. In v. 2, Batman steadily claims a large piece of Gotham with the help of the new Batgirl, who chafes under Batman’s strictures. The Blue Boys — remnants of the Gotham City Police Department — are also on the march, with the help of a mysterious and vicious benefactor.

V. 2 does what you would want — it forms a complete leg of the No Man’s Land journey, ending with an effective climax that changes the status quo for the next book. There are revelations, failures, and broken alliances. Overall, it’s satisfying.

There are nitpicks. The art styles vary wildly, and Phil Winslade’s big-eyed, cartoony style is horribly out of place in such a grim book, even if the story he draws is technically set before No Man’s Land. There is also the question of whether the two-part “Bread and Circuses” story that begins the volume is out of place — despite clashing with Batman in v. 1, Penguin acts as if it is the first time he has met Batman in No Man’s Land — or contains a whopping continuity error.

Batman: No Man's Land, v. 2 coverV. 3, on the other hand, starts weakly. Superman tries to restart Gotham but gives up in less than a day in “The Visitor” by Kelley Puckett and Jon Bogdanove. This is followed by “Power Play,” in which Hama writes Batman and Mr. Freeze as horribly overchatty. He also gives Mr. Freeze a working power plant (perhaps hijacked after “The Visitor”) and a giant ice castle.8 It’s not until the third story, “Mark of Cain,” that the story at the end of v. 2 is followed up on.

The Blue Boy’s benefactor hires Cain, an assassin, to kill Commissioner Gordon; Cassandra, the assassin’s daughter, is Oracle’s most trusted courier. Batman finally calls his allies to Gotham, and he boots out the new Batgirl — actually the Huntress — for her failure to protect his territory. Cassandra Cain becomes Batgirl and nearly succeeds in her first mission, making Batman proud. Batman and Robin deal with Clayface and Poison Ivy’s battle for the fruitful Robinson Park, in a story with some very nice art by Bill Sienkiewicz and Dan Jurgens. And the GCPD loses two prominent members.

Because of the slow start, v. 3 seemed weaker than the preceding two volumes. There also seemed less plot movement — despite the change in Batgirls, the volume begins with one Batgirl and ends with the same number — and “Huntress as Batgirl” doesn’t seem to make much sense. (No explanation was given for her temporary double ID.) Batman calls in his allies but doesn’t seem tot use them much. The GCPD has the most changes, and they’re barely in this volume; also, they’ve stopped being prominent dynamic forces and have retreated to being potential hostages.

The slide in quality seems ominous, but that doesn’t mean it can’t be corrected. V. 4 and 5 will tell the tale.

Ratings: v. 2: Batman symbol Batman symbol Batman symbol Half Batman symbol (3.5 of 5)

v. 3: Batman symbol Batman symbol Half Batman symbol (2.5 of 5)

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17 June 2008

Top 10: Beyond the Farthest Precinct

Collects: Top 10: Beyond the Farthest Precinct #1-5 (2006)

Released: July 2006 (Wildstorm / DC)

Format: 128 pages / color / $14.99 / ISBN: 9781401209919

Following Alan Moore as writer on a title is a good way to get people to notice you’re no Alan Moore. Following Alan Moore on a title he created and only he has written … well, that’s never a situation that’s going to make you look good.

Fiction writer Paul di Filippo takes that unenviable task by writing Top 10: Beyond the Farthest Precinct. Now, I’m not saying they had to find someone outside the comics field to write this book because no one inside the comics field would be foolish enough to do so; most likely, di Filippo came to the publisher with ideas instead. But still …

Top 10: Beyond the Farthest Precinct coverPut bluntly, the characters in Beyond the Farthest Precinct don’t sound or feel the same as they did in Moore’s original Top 10 series. In the original twelve-issue series, Moore managed to give depth to each character; the characters didn’t fit together — socially, at least — except in their professional lives. Di Filippo tries to fit a greater number of characters into a five-issue series, and everyone seems safer, more sanitized … the book begins and ends with police picnics, for heaven’s sake.

But on the other hand, these aren’t the same characters. Joe Pi, for instance, isn’t the same witty robot with a sly sense of humor about the laws of robotics. Synaesthesia’s comments about her powers are too blatant — as if they’re meant to establish what her powers are for the reader instead the dialogue serving a more useful purpose. Kemlo Caesar is an apologist for the command structure and delivers a speech on duty that is, frankly, embarrassing. Even Shock-Headed Peter, violently anti-robot under Moore’s hand, has mellowed out; he actually praises his robot (or robot-like partner).

Part of the problem is that di Filippo doesn’t have the space Moore did, and he refuses to cut out any of the original Top 10 characters in addition to his new characters. He has more luck with those — his Major Cindercott is a hoot, and the mayor is pretty good as well — and he probably would have been better served to have focused on a few of Moore’s characters and a couple of new characters.

The plot revolves around a skull-headed apparition that appears over Neopolis a few times, then begins possessing parts of the Neopolis populace. Frankly, the mystery / suspense of this plot didn’t engage me since, other than have a horrific countenance, the apparition doesn’t do anything evil until the final issue. A subplot featuring avant-garde performance artists / terrorists the Derridadaists probably should have been dropped to free up room to either make the main villain menacing or give more space to the characterization. The Derridadaists come across as “odd” and “vicious” rather than the “zany” and “bizarre” I think di Fillipo was aiming for.

Artist Jerry Ordway does his best; certainly no one is going to say he’s no Gene Ha. (Well, they might say it, but they wouldn’t mean Ordway is blatantly inferior.) Ordway has a cleaner line than Ha. He resists the impulse to “reinvent” any of the characters’ looks, and he keeps with Ha’s tradition of Easter eggs and background jokes for hardcore comic fans.

Taken by itself, Beyond the Farthest Precinct is an inoffensive but unimpressive comic, with only the art being of much interest. Weighed against its predecessors, though, this is tough to recommend.

Rating: ABC logo ABC logo (2 of 5)

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13 June 2008

Spider-Girl, v. 7: Betrayed

Collects: Spider-Girl #34-8, 51 (2001, 2002)

Released: November 2006 (Marvel)

Format: 144 pages / color digest / $7.99 / ISBN: 9780785121572

Despite the name, there seems to be a singular lack of betrayal in Spider-Girl, v. 6: Betrayed.

Betrayal of any of the protagonists, anyway. Writer Tom DeFalco spends the book amiably advancing plotlines — the second Spider-Man, Spider-Girl’s new power, Normie Osborn’s career plans, Raptor’s rehabilitation, Phil Urich’s aspirations. It makes for a surprisingly low-key volume, especially given the incipient gang war.

Spider-Girl, v. 6: Betrayed coverAnd DeFalco’s setting up even more plotlines, with Flash and the Black Cat’s daughter Felicity in Midtown High and their difficulties with their son, Gene. A former Spider-Woman and surprise reveal comes to see Peter about the new Spider-Man. The soap operas at May’s high school are a little tiresome; other than May’s relationships (none at the moment) and the amusing Moose / Courtney pairing (dimwit Moose thinks dumpy Courtney is Spider-Girl), I just don’t care.

This volume also includes a fill-in issue, #51, by Sean McKeever and Casey Jones, about a freshman with a crush on May. He writes her a mash note just before his family moves away (to Northern Plains — Wisconsin, one supposes, this being written by McKeever). Mostly forgettable, even the fight between Spider-Girl and a female Electro.

And that’s the problem with this volume, in a nutshell. Nothing’s really at stake, there’s a lot of fighting, and I can’t be bothered to care about the villains. Funny Face and Crazy 8 are a little too “wacky” for me, and Mr. Nobody is a little too knowing of the conventions of the genre. Canis is interesting, though, in a Lobo Brothers rip-off sort of way.

Pat Olliffe provides his usual level of art; having to spends so much time on Crazy 8 and Funny Face doesn’t’ do him any favors, although Felicity and Felicia Hardy are impressive (and not in a cheesecake way, either). There is a color separation problem on several pages late in my copy of the book, although it doesn’t interfere with the comprehension.

Unless you’re thrilled by Funny Face, Crazy 8, and more Phil Urich Golden Goblin, the surprise Spider-Woman revelation is about the only outstanding moment in Betrayed.

Rating: Spider-Man symbol Spider-Man symbol Half spider symbol (2.5 of 5)

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10 June 2008

X-Statix Presents: Dead Girl

Collects: X-Statix Presents: Dead Girl #1-5 ()

Released: August 2006 (Marvel)

Format: 120 pages / color / $13.99 / ISBN: 9780785120315

X-Statix Presents: Dead Girl is, despite the name, neither an X-Statix or Dead Girl story. Instead, it’s more a of a Dr. Strange miniseries.

Now, Dr. Strange miniseries do not tend to go well. I don’t even buy them, and I like Dr. Strange. On the other hand, Dead Girl is written by Peter Milligan, and if there’s anything we’ve learned, it’s that Milligan on lesser titles is never boring.

X-Statix Presents: Dead Girl coverDead Girl concerns the Pitiful One, a dead character who has found a way to return to the world temporarily, and with his band of dead miscreants — including the Anarchist from X-Statix — goes about causing havoc and claiming it will continue until Dr. Strange resurrects them. Dr. Strange calls upon the eponymous heroine to guide him in the land of the dead in his battle with the Pitiful One.

Milligan casts Strange as an ascetic who is too reserved and wrapped in his mystical pursuits to enjoy life. Despite the efforts of his servant, Wong, it takes the Pitiful One’s challenge and meeting Dead Girl — and oh, yeah, going to Hell — to make him feel alive again. Strange’s awakening is fun to watch, as he chides himself for acting like no other human: “Who the heck says ‘suffice’ nowadays?”

The Pitiful One and his crew are played strictly for laughs, as are the dead heroes, including another pair of X-Statix alumni, the Orphan and U-Go Girl, that Strange gathers to take on the Pitiful One. Strange even reveals the mechanism through which characters are resurrected: popularity. Not a surprise, of course, but stated so baldly — and when a particularly dire / homoerotic character named Player Piano is resurrected over the second Ant-Man or any character from X-Statix — it’s amusing.

Art is by Nick Dragotta, with inks by Mike Allred The effect is something very similar to Allred’s work on X-Force and X-Statix, although Dragotta’s work appears less flat and more blurred on the edges (probably a coloring technique). The similarity is frankly startling, but given how well Milligan and Allred work together, it isn’t unwelcome.

This isn’t an essential volume, and the plot is thin and played entirely for laughs. Buying Dead Girl will most likely not result in a decision to bring back X-Statix. But it’s worth the time and money for the pleasure of reading the unrestrained Milligan.

Rating: Dr. Strange symbol Dr. Strange symbol Dr. Strange symbol Half Strange symbol (3.5 of 5)

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09 June 2008


For the foreseeable future, there should be a new review every Tuesday and Friday. Enjoy!

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06 June 2008

She-Hulk, v. 3: Time Trials

Collects: She-Hulk v. 2 #1-5 (2005-6)

Released: June 2006 (Marvel)

Format: 136 pages / color / $14.99 / ISBN: 0785117954

You can bet that any She-Hulk book with Dan Slott’s name on it will be gold.

Slott is the writer of She-Hulk, v. 3: Time Trials, the first TPB in the series’s new lease on life after cancellation. In Time Trials, She-Hulk deals with the changes caused by the big battle at the end of her previous series and repairing the damage Avengers writers Chuck Austen and Brian Michael Bendis inflicted upon the character.

She-Hulk, v. 3: Time Trials coverFor that reason alone, Time Trials should appeal to Marvel traditionalists. But also there’s not a hint of decompression here; each issue is packed with story, characterization, continuity, and gags.

The art for issues #1, 2, 5, and part of #3 is by Paul Pelletier. He’s an acquired taste, sparse on details and certainly short on glamour. But given the other artists on the “jam session” issue (#3) and Skott Collins’s work on #4, that’s not such a bad thing. Pelletier makes her look powerful and large without making her seem casually grotesque or a refugee from the ‘80s. (Or a very bizarre Amazonian pin-up girl, which is cover artist Greg Horn’s take.) Pelletier is adept at comedy, which is the most important aspect of an artist’s job when keeping up with Slott’s scripts.

In Time Trials, She-Hulk works a trial in which the jury pool has been pulled from the past. Among the veniremen is Hawkeye, whom She-Hulk knows was killed in Avengers: Disassembled. Her mucking with time gets her tried by the Time Variance Authority as an excuse for a big retrospective in an anniversary issue (again, #3). After that, she brings home an Avenger from time limbo and deals with her destruction of Bone, Idaho, while under the influence of one of the Scarlet Witch’s spells.

That doesn’t sound impressive, and Slott’s run on She-Hulk could be criticized as being too reactive to other storylines (the same can be said about Slott’s The Thing, v. 1: Idol of Millions). But there’s nothing intrinsically wrong with using past stories, no matter how bad, as springboards for future stories. In fact, it’s laudable in a shared universe, and given the nudge and wink Slott gives readers over the more absurd plots, it’s almost cathartic. Even besides the jokes, even Slott’s throwaway ideas are excellent: the Green Cross, for example, is an organization that cleans up the destruction caused by gamma-spawned creatures, founded by the man who dared Rick Jones onto the bomb range and cause the Hulk to be created in the first place.

As always, enjoyable.

Rating: Marvel logo Marvel logo Marvel logo Marvel logo Half of a Marvel logo(4.5 of 5)

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