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

23 December 2008

Birds of Prey, v. 2: Old Friends, New Enemies

Collects: Birds of Prey: Wolves, Birds of Prey: Batgirl, Birds of Prey #1-6 (1997-9)

Released: 2003 (DC)

Format: 224 pages / color / $17.95 / ISBN: 9781563899393

What is this?: The second volume of the first go-round for Birds of Prey, in which Oracle (the paralyzed former Batgirl) and Black Canary fight crime and get their own ongoing series.

The culprits: Writer Chuck Dixon and pencilers Dick Giordano and Greg Land

I haven’t had much experience with the characters in Birds of Prey. Oh, I know Oracle used to be Batgirl before the Joker left her paralyzed, and Black Canary is perpetually romantically linked with Green Arrow. (Although I’m always hazy about whether she has sonic powers.) So I decided to try Birds of Prey, v. 2: Old Friends, New Enemies from James Madison University’s Carrier Library. What I found was something not earthshattering but something that felt like it deserved its long (for the time) run.

I was mostly curious about whether Old Friends, New Enemies would offer something beyond the high concept: two women, one wheelchair bound and the other an active agent, fighting crime. There are times, like the first story, Birds of Prey: Wolves, when it really doesn’t. Writer Chuck Dixon veers dangerously close to stereotypes of women at times: men are no good, women eat ice cream to cope, etc. Not that there aren’t women with these traits, but they do seem a bit pat.

Birds of Prey: Old Friends, New Enemies coverDixon is determined to make Oracle an interesting and active — as active as he dares, at least — character. He succeeds, mainly, and Birds of Prey: Batgirl is one of the high points of the book. Oracle is captured by Spellbinder, who makes her hallucinate that she (as Batgirl) and Black Canary are fighting the Mad Hatter and the inmates of Arkham. This includes Joker, of course, who naturally triggers more than a little fear. But Oracle pieces together Spellbinder’s plan, outwits her, and then outfights her. I could do with Oracle giving herself fewer pep talks, but that’s a minor quibble.

The main series works well. Oracle and Black Canary function as a team, although an uneasy one at times, since they’re still working out the boundaries of their relationship. Issues #1-3 feature Black Canary busting up a kidnapping ring in southeast Asia after being kidnapped; issues #4-6 introduces the Ravens, the Birds of Prey’s opposite numbers, and includes Kobra, time travel, a Russian satellite, and a real dinosaur in a Minnesota lake. It doesn’t take a genius to figure out which is more interesting.

The Ravens — Cheshire, Pistolera, and Vicious — steal the show, and quite frankly, I would read a Ravens series. (I’m sure I’m going to get an e-mail telling me about some Ravens limited series or one-shot or something. I don’t care. I’m sure my imagination is better than whatever was actually released.) The action is weird, high concept, and fun — it feels like some of the stuff Matt Fraction overreaches for in Punisher War Journal or Casanova. These issues make reading Old Friends, New Enemies worth it, although to be fair, there’s not an awful lot of stuff for the Birds to do while the Ravens do all the cool stuff.

Actually, Black Canary gets a fair amount of action, although little of it against the Ravens. Dixon seems to struggle for something for Oracle to do, and he fills it in with side plots introduced in the first three issues of the ongoing series. Someone has Oracle under surveillance, the Air Force is looking for a hacker, Oracle has an e-pen pal … and I don’t care about any of it. None of it is useful to the plot, and nothing comes of it. It’s annoying, as well, especially the Air Force officers, who are stepping over laws to track down the hacker … and there are no consequences. Blockbuster also hangs around the fringes of the story, and while I assume that pays off later, he mostly looms and looks menacing here.

Pencils are by Greg Land, except for Wolves, which is by Dick Giordano. Now, in 2008, if you have a comic featuring two female protagonists with a team of three female villains against them, the name “Greg Land” is going to come up when you discuss prospective artists. I don’t know if that was true in 1999, but Land does a good job. His cheesecake tendencies are nowhere near what they became later, and his admiration of the female form does not interfere with telling the story. There are more than a few panels with a scantily clad Black Canary, but given her default costume, that’s to be expected.

I wish there were more of this part of the series. There isn’t, though; only two volumes were released before the trades were renumbered to collect the Gail Simone issues. Still, Old Friends, New Enemies is worth picking up and perhaps buying the original stories in single-issue form.

Rating: DC logo DC logo DC logo (3 of 5)

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19 December 2008

New Warriors, v. 1: Reality Check

Collects: New Warriors #1-6 (2005-6)

Released: February 2006 (Marvel)

Format: 144 pages / color / $15.99 / ISBN: 9780785116615

What is this?: The New Warriors team reunites for a reality show.

The culprits: Writer Zeb Wells and artist Skottie Young

In between the time the New Warriors were introduced as an interesting and respected part of the Marvel Universe in 1990 and their ultimate demise as a plot point to start a Bendis-over24 in 2006, the team had two series. One was an eleven-issue relaunch in ’99, which was a failure. The other was a six-issue limited series, collected in New Warriors: Reality Check.

New Warriors: Reality Check coverThe failed second volume of the title has obviously had an effect on the team’s profile. They are now a joke — their old members (save Firestar and Justice) are slackers and underachievers, and when their leader, Night Thrasher, convinces them to reunite for a reality show, they add an even bigger loser to the team: Microbe is fat, smelly, socially awkward, and talks to microorganisms. If you revere the old days of the New Warriors, this is not for you.

On its own merits, though, it’s relatively entertaining, and there’s no false advertising involved: when you see artist Skottie Young’s exaggerated, cartoony style, you know it’s not going to be played straight. I do not enjoy Young’s work — I feel it makes familiar characters like Night Thrasher look hideously deformed — but there’s no doubt he’s the right man for the job. His work fits the tone of the book, and it tells the story.

Writer Zeb Wells does a good job also. I’m always fond of writers who can use the Marvel Universe to tell their stories, and that’s what Wells does here. He pulls in Armadillo, Tiger Shark, the Super Apes, the Corruptor, and the Mad Thinker’s robots to tell his story of a sad little team trying to improve their profile while being heroes. The Super Apes story (issue #2) turns out to be the best of the lot, with the New Warriors dealing with an animal-rights watcher and supervillains at the same time. Most of the stories are at least mildly amusing while treating the villains with respect.

The concept for the miniseries, a reality show around heroes … I don’t know. It was inevitable that someone in comics was going to crossbreed reality shows and superheroes, because it’s such an obvious idea. But it’s such an obvious idea because reality shows have been relentlessly mocked and parodied — rightly so, but the idea has to run out of steam sooner or later. I also think more could have been done with the reality show concept — wasting half an issue explaining the team to network executives in issue #3 seems a mistake (and is filled with easy jokes, although from what I’ve heard, anyone who’s worked with studio executives may have a hard time avoiding those jokes). The reality show concept seems mainly an excuse for them to roam from town to town and to make jokes about how the cameramen didn’t catch something.

I’m also not sure about the choice to make the New Warriors into losers trying to remake themselves into A-list heroes. This doesn’t seem like a good idea to me, tearing the team down before you can build them up. In fact, the only Warrior Wells seems to be able to rehabilitate is the fat, stinky Microbe, which is a bit of a waste, given … well, Civil War. There’s not much growth of the other characters, and the fight with the Corruptor that ends the series seems like a pat way for the team to realize they’re not a very good team.

Reality Check is the opposite of the chocolate-coated pill. It’s the outside, the concept, that makes it hard to swallow, but when you get past that, the inside is actually pretty sweet and fun.

Rating: Marvel symbol Marvel symbol Marvel symbol Half Marvel symbol (3.5 of 5)

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16 December 2008

Ms. Marvel, v. 1: Best of the Best

Collects: Ms. Marvel (v. 2) #1-5, Giant-Size Ms. Marvel #1 (2006)

Released: March 2007 (Marvel)

Format: 136 pages / color / $14.99 / ISBN: 9780785119968

What is this?: The first volume of the new Ms. Marvel series.

The culprits: Writer Brian Reed and penciler Roberto de la Torre

Ms. Marvel is not usually a character that I’m very interested in. I mean, I’ve read the Essential Ms. Marvel, but I read all the superhero Essentials. And I’m about as likely to be drawn in by Marvel’s premiere “feminist”22 superhero as any male, I suppose. But I decided to pick this up on a lark — 2/3 off cover price! — and was pleasantly surprised by what I saw.

Ms. Marvel (Carol Danvers) has been around for a long time, since the ‘60s, and she had her own short-lived (for the time) series in the ‘70s. After that, she became a journalist, an Avenger, an X-Men associate, a victim of very, very bad writing, an amnesiac, an alcoholic, Binary, and Warbird. Ms. Marvel is a name that is deeply ingrained in the Marvel Universe, but over the past 20 years, it’s faded into the woodwork. In Ms. Marvel, v. 1: Best of the Best, Brian Reed takes advantage of that setup and makes the series about Carol, who after being a great hero in the House of M universe, decides to work on becoming one on the regular Marvel Universe.

Ms. Marvel, v. 1: Best of the Best coverIt’s a great starting point. Carol’s first move is to quit her job, become a solo hero, and hire a PR firm, which gives an idea of what she thinks it takes to become a famous hero. She needs more name recognition! And an archenemy! Who conveniently follows her through from the House of M universe, so that’s OK. But overall the strategy works about as well as you’d think.

Best of the Best shows something we don’t see that often in superhero comics. Ms. Marvel makes a large mistake and can’t save the townspeople who normally are saved. Although the fallout of her failures isn’t seen in this volume, it’s nice to see heroes who aren’t invulnerable. Reed makes a big deal out of Carol’s level of confidence; she sees heroes like Captain America and the Fantastic Four as bulletproof, while she makes big mistakes. It works well, and it fits in with Carol’s previous characterizations — if her confidence isn’t shaken a little after everything that’s happened to her, then she hasn’t been paying attention.

So the main character and the idea for the series are solid. The archenemy is ready made from another universe, which works surprisingly well; he’s a mage, someone Carol can’t always run up and punch, which is her strong suit. He even manages enough of a backstory to be interesting. She’s even managed to get a cat in the same transaction as the supervillain. So far, so good; what are the shortcomings?

The art — mainly the covers by Frank Cho — leave me cold. In Cho’s hands, Ms. Marvel comes across a bit too … pneumatic for my tastes, with thighs larger than her head. Regular penciler Roberto de la Torre doesn’t have those problems — at least not beyond the regular superhero comic expansion of chests — but there are others. Carol’s friend Jessica Jones looks nothing like she does in other appearances, and Carol looks inconsistent at times. De la Torre has fun with the Brood and the alien Cru, and he tells the story clearly, so overall, he does a very good job.

Carol Danvers as BinaryThere are times the plot sags a little. The Brood is a good choice for Carol to fight, given her history with them — their attack triggered one of her transformations, into Binary — but the connection isn’t mentioned, which it should have been. Dr. Strange is taken out like a chump at one point, which is a let down. There’s a lot of reality and time hopping, which can be (and is, at times) confusing. As I said, Carol’s failing isn’t dealt with in Best of the Best, and I’m not sure whether it will be; I’m also not sure whether Carol’s somewhat callow exterior is something the reader is supposed to recognize or if it’s an unconscious insertion by the writer.

Still, this is a good collection, and I’m interested in how it progresses. Unfortunately, it progresses through a couple of crossovers I have no interest in, and I have severe doubts I want to read them, even tangentially.

Rating: Marvel symbol Marvel symbol Marvel symbol Half Marvel symbol (3.5 of 5)

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12 December 2008

X-Men vs. Apocalypse, v. 2: Ages of Apocalypse

Collects: X-51 #8, Uncanny X-Men #378, Uncanny X-Men Annual ‘99, Wolverine #148, Cable #77, X-Men #98, X-Men: The Search for Cyclops #1-4 (2000-1)

Released: September 2008 (Marvel)

Format: 288 pages / color / $29.99 / ISBN: 9780785122647

What is this?: Continuation from X-Men vs. Apocalypse, v. 1, picking up almost immediately after the previous volume leaves off.

The culprits: A predictably large crossover cast; writer Joseph Harris and artist Tom Raney get the biggest chunk of the book.

If you would have told me I would prefer X-Men vs. Apocalypse, v. 2: Ages of Apocalypse to X-Men vs. Apocalypse, v. 1, I would have called you a damn dirty liar and punched you in the face.

Well, I probably wouldn’t have punched you in the face, since the court-ordered treatments have taken care of that. (Mostly.) But I probably would have thought you had a few servomotors malfunctioning in your metaphorical power armor.

X-Men vs. Apocalypse, v. 2: Ages of Apocalypse coverI remember reading most of these stories when they came out, back at the turn of the century, and thought they were, for the most part, forgettable. Putting aside the idea I can remember something as forgettable, it certainly felt it was not a worthy follow up to the storyline that ended The Twelve storyline once and for all. Having actually read what was in v. 1, however, I have to reappraise v. 2.

Don’t get me wrong; the quality of the content in Ages of Apocalypse is wildly variable. X-51 #8 and Uncanny X-Men Annual ’99 have nothing to do with Apocalypse and are included because, well, they seem to fit in the chronology, even if the characters’ chronology is a distraction from the plot. Not that the plot itself is much to write home about, but I have to pay lip service to it.

In v. 1, Apocalypse didn’t gain all the power he wanted, and he usurped the wrong body; to rectify this, he makes the X-Men think they are in various alternate realities so they will expend their energies and he can harvest them. Fair enough, although the stories sort of wave their hands in the general direction of how Apocalypse actually harvests it. The alternate realities stretch from the founding of the X-Men to the far future.

The best of the stories have fun with the alternate realities. Erik Larsen and Roger Cruz tell a story of the very brief, how-Bendis-might-have-conceived-them “New” Fantastic Four that briefly formed in Fantastic Four #347-9. Larsen doesn’t worry about making the story coherent; he drops readers into an action sequence, and keeps blowing stuff up and having the Fantastic Four save the day. It is far and away the best part of the book, and parenthetically, it’s the best part of Larsen’s otherwise disappointing run on Wolverine. The rest of the stories aren’t that kinetic, but they have their highlights: Adam Kubert’s Rogue as Mastermind-in-Uncanny-X-Men #1 is very nice, and Alan Davis has fun with the far future X-Men in X-Men #98, which serves as an excellent coda to the stories.

Not all of the stories are as fun, of course; Bernard Chang’s art in Cable #77 is stiff, and the plot is nothing to write home about. The lettering in Cable bothers me, just as it did in v. 1; it’s distracting and adds nothing to the story. X-Men Unlimited #26 is eminently forgettable, as most X-Men Unlimited stories were after the first year.

Whether the book succeeds depends on the miniseries collected at the end of Ages of Apocalypse: The Search for Cyclops. It’s a serviceable return to the status quo by Joseph Harris and Tom Raney, although no one’s going to remember it in a few years. In fact, no one remembers it now. But Harris was given the order to return things to the status quo, and he manages to do it.

It’s disappointing, but it was inevitable. The story doesn’t tread any new ground, except to introduce Anais, another superpowered follower of Apocalypse. I would have rather an old henchman of Apocalypse fulfilled her role; really, to build the idea that this might be the end for Apocalypse, it would have been better to throw in more of his old allies, such as the Dark Riders, his Horsemen, or the Alliance of Evil. Instead, we get Gauntlet, a former member of the Dark Riders, acting as an assassin, and … well, that’s it. There’s three issues of Scott wondering who he really is and Jean and Cable arguing over whether they can kill the merged Cyclops and Apocalypse, followed by one issue of fighting. As I said, disappointing, but inevitable. (Well, inevitable except for the odd alternate covers for issues #2 and 3, which feature Jean and / or Scott semi-clothed despite no hint of sensual content in any part of the series. But that’s just an odd cover choice.)

As I said, I enjoyed this more than v. 1. That does not, of course, make it good. The entirety of this series is best left to the X-Men fans, perhaps as a punishment for being on top of the comic-book heap for so long.

Rating: X-Men symbol X-Men symbol (2 of 5)

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10 December 2008

For Those of You Wondering What Happened ...

The decreased posting in November was because of National Novel Writing Month, which I participated in. (I reached the goal of 50,000 words in 30 days. Yay, me!) The original idea was to go to posting once a week, and for the first two weeks of the month, that worked. Then, food poisoning and Thanksgiving interfered and shot that schedule all to hell. I deserve some of the blame, of course, but if you’re looking for someone to blame, look no further than my archenemies, the Kleptosaurs. (They have an uncontrollable desire to steal lizards. Tragic, really.) Of course, that’s only the food poisoning; Thanksgiving can be traced to the no less nefarious Robot Abraham Lincoln. Curse you, Robot Lincoln!

The lack of posts in December can be linked to —

No, not laziness. Really. Just an inability to establish a regular —

I swear to God, it’s not laziness. If you don’t shut your —

That’s it! While I deal with the hecklers, the rest of you can expect a review on Friday and regular posts after that.

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