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

30 January 2009

Batman: Hush, v. 1

Collects: Batman #608-12 (2002-3)

Released: July 2004 (DC)

Format: 128 pages / color / $12.99 / ISBN: 9781401200602

What is this?: The villains in Gotham City seem strangely organized as Batman investigates a kidnapping that leads to a plot against him.

The culprits: Writer Jeph Loeb and penciler Jim Lee

Before various Crises and Grant Morrison hit Batman, the biggest story in Gotham was Batman: Hush.

Writer Jeph Loeb, penciler Jim Lee, and inker Scott Williams collaborated on a twelve-issue run on Batman, introducing a new, bandaged-swathed villain called Hush. In Batman: Hush, v. 1, however, Hush figures very little in the story. Instead, this volume mostly sets up the villain’s plan while giving Batman some evildoers to fight.

(An aside: When deciding whether to review the entire Hush storyline in one post or write a review on each of the softcover volumes, I opted for two separate reviews. This allows for me to review the first volume, and if someone opts to read Hush on that basis, they won’t be spoiled as much, no matter how much detail I go into.)

Batman: Hush, v. 1 coverHush, v. 1, feels like a detective story. There is little of the actual character Hush here; there are suggestions that someone is pulling the strings of a few Gotham villains, like Poison Ivy, Catwoman, Killer Croc, and perhaps even LexCorp. There isn’t a payoff in v. 1 on the culprit — this is v. 1, after all, of two — so Hush, v. 1, is setup.

On that score, it works, although you have to wonder how you top a Batman / Superman fight. (It’s a credit to Batman’s reputation that Loeb doesn’t have to explain why Batman has a plan to fight Superman, in Metropolis, on the spur of the moment.) Two storylines may be hard to swallow, however: Batman beginning a romance with Catwoman and the introduction of Bruce Wayne’s boyhood best friend, Dr. Thomas Elliot. The former isn’t so hard to understand; she’s Catwoman, he’s lonely, and there’s no Bat accessory that’s going to help with that. The introduction of a childhood friend who meant so much to Bruce is more difficult to swallow, however; in reading v. 1, you have to wonder why Loeb goes to so much trouble to introduce a surgeon with boyhood ties to Bruce.

Lee is … well, he does Jim Lee work. His name sells comic books — or so we’re told — and he’s been a sought-after talent for almost two decades now. Hush, v. 1, is just another line on his resume. His work is impressive, if a looking a bit staged at certain “cool” moments. Still, it’s easy to see why his work is so highly thought of — each character has what looks like an iconic look, but Lee’s designs feel fresh. The fight scenes are well staged, as well. There are the standard, long-legged cheesecake-ish shots — as I said about Joe Benitez’s work on Batman: Detective, there’s nothing remarkable about that in most superhero comics. Well, nothing remarkable except that Lois Lane wears a skirt a bit short for a career woman wanting to be taken seriously as a journalist, and Lee likes the butt shots of Huntress.

Hush, v. 1, is mostly fun, even if it seems Batman absorbs an absurd amount of damage. I have reservations about parts of it, but it looks great and feels like it’s building toward something big, which is exactly what Loeb and Lee are aiming for.

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

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27 January 2009

Batman: Detective

Collects: Detective Comics #821-6 (2006-7)

Released: March 2007 (DC)

Format: 144 pages / color / $14.99 / ISBN: 9781401212391

What is this?: Batman battles the predators and freaks in Gotham.

The culprits: Writer Paul Dini and pencillers Don Kramer, John H. Williams III, Joe Benitez, and Marcos Marz

I don’t keep up with DC continuity very much, despite a fondness for Batman. The impression I have received, hearing stories of Batman: RIP, the Battle for the Cowl, and Crises of various finalities and finiteness, is that if you aren’t into a DC in a major way, reading bits and pieces is not going to be productive. To be fair, those who don’t read Marvel regularly might get the same idea about its annual mega-crossovers.

But it obviously doesn’t have to be that way. The most popular characters — the evergreen ones, the ones that stay at the top of the comics world for years — don’t need events to drive their sales. Batman, Spider-Man, the Avengers, Superman … the concepts are probably strong enough to support an audience, if the audience gets good stories. Even if those stories are a bit repetitive, they still have appeal; Kurt Busiek’s Untold Tales of Spider-Man didn’t break much new ground from a storytelling standpoint, but they’re entertaining because they simply tell a story about a character we already enjoy.

Batman: Detective coverThat’s what writer Paul Dini does in Batman: Detective. There are no surprising revelations. There are no events. There’s Batman (and Robin) beating the snot out of Gotham’s criminals, (mostly) new and old.

For the most part, the criminals are newcomers or smalltimers who haven’t earned a place in Batman’s rogue’s gallery. Dini still keeps some of those classic villains involved — Poison Ivy is stalked by her victims, the Riddler and Penguin seemingly reform — while telling these detective stories. At times, these stories seem to suffer from the time given to the rogues; the first couple of stories seem a little undeveloped as mysteries, while the Poison Ivy and Joker stories seem to need a little extra development. That doesn’t take away from their enjoyment, but it should cause comment in a book titled Batman: Detective.

Dini, a writer, producer and editor for Batman: The Animated Series, does impressive work with the old villains. The reformations of the Riddler and Penguin make sense, and each works with their characters, if not necessarily with their gimmick. (There are surprisingly few legitimate lines of work for a man with the Penguin’s schtick, unless you count his deformations.) The highlight of the book is the final story, in which the Joker captures Robin and torments him by killing innocent bystanders. I could almost hear Mark Hamill’s voice from the animated series laughing throughout the story.

Despite the multiple artists, the art is of high quality. Don Kramer does half the book and does a great job, although perhaps a little smooth for the gritty nighttime underworld Batman inhabits. Still, he tells the story well. John H. Williams, who drew Detective Comics #821, might have a style better suited for the character, but his work is marred by some monochrome coloring; it’s not as bad as what they tried with Detecive Comics a decade ago, but it doesn’t help. Marcos Marz’s pencils (#825) are given the look of a painted style, which works well for a story featuring the perpetually on fire Dr. Phosphorus — the artistic highlight of a book with consistently good art. That story was written by Royal McGraw, although the story doesn’t match the distinctiveness of the art.

Joe Benitez, who drew #823, is a little cheesecake for my taste, enjoying drawing Ivy as a long-limbed, voluptuous lady. This isn’t unusual in comics, true, but it clashes with the tone of the rest of the TPB, especially a full-page Poison Ivy clad in the remains of an Arkham jumpsuit that has been strategically torn to ribbons without revealing anything that would give the Comics Code a coronary. I can’t deny he draws a good Batman, though I don’t care for his juvenile-looking Robin. (Especially given Kramer’s much more mature and appealing Robin in #826.) In another book, Benitez’s work would go unremarked or draw praise, I must admit.

If you just want a straight Batman story — something in short supply, given the last year or two of Batman under Grant Morrison’s control — this will serve the purpose admirably.

Rating: Batman symbol Batman symbol Batman symbol Batman symbol (3.5 of 5)

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20 January 2009

Savage Sword of Conan, v. 1

Collects: Selections from Savage Tales #1-5 and Savage Sword of Conan #1-10 (1971-6)

Released: December 2007 (Dark Horse)

Format: 542 pages / black and white / $17.95 / ISBN: 9781593078386

What is this?: Reprints from 1970s Marvel black-and-white Conan magazines.

The culprits: Writer Roy Thomas and a cast of artists, notably Barry Windsor-Smith and John Buscema.

Dark Horse made its second foray into the Conan reprint market at the end of 2007 with The Savage Sword of Conan, v. 1.

This series is as different as two Marvel series featuring the same title character can be. Savage Sword is a black and white, “Essential” type phonebook, while the Chronicles of Conan are full-color trade paperbacks. The two titles being reprinted differed vastly, as well; Chronicles reproduces Conan the Barbarian, a standard comic book. Savage Sword, unsurprisingly, reprints The Savage Sword of Conan, a black-and-white magazine that ran at the same time. Because of rights issues, Chronicles doesn’t include the original covers. Savage Sword does.

Savage Sword of Conan coverAdmittedly, Conan is the same character in each. This leads to the question, Which is superior?

Both are written by Roy Thomas, so that’s a wash. There are more adaptations of Conan creator Robert E. Howard’s original stories in Savage Sword, it seems, than any two volumes of Chronicles. That makes sense; there was more room for large-scale adaptations in Sword, which was a larger, more expensive format than Conan. Sword’s first volume has adaptations of “The Frost Giant’s Daughter,” “Red Nails,” “Black Colossus,” “Iron Shadows in the Moon,” “A Witch Shall Be Born,” and the last two chapters of the adaptation of the only Conan novel, “The Hour of the Dragon.”

But “The Hour of the Dragon” highlights Savage Sword’s main drawbacks: continuity. In “Dragon’s” case, the first four parts of the adaptation aren’t included because they were originally printed in Giant-Size Conan #1-4 (1974-5), and the Giant-Size line isn’t reprinted consistently in licensed ventures anyway (the GIT Corp. DVD-ROMs omitted them, although probably for different reasons). This is a major flaw, especially since there isn’t an explanatory note about the missing chapters; I spent 15 minutes looking for the rest of the story before discovering the reason online.

A less worrying — but more consistent — part of that drawback is Savage Sword is not a single narrative. Those used to Chronicles or Marvel’s Essentials might expect Savage Sword to have the thread of a story throughout it. It does not. It hops from one story to another, usually with little regard to the narrative of Conan’s life as a whole. There are exceptions, especially in the original sequels to “A Witch Is Born” and “Black Colossus.” It’s another sacrifice to the freedom necessary for the long adaptations, and in theory it allows Thomas to include Conan stories that are simply good. On a practical level, it allows the reader to easily differentiate between Howard’s stories and Thomas’s own contributions to the canon; with the exception of “The Forever Phial,” a neat little story from the point of view of a doomed wizard that includes Barry Windsor-Smith-like art from Tim Conrad, and “The Citadel at the Center of Time,” a jumping off point for a couple of issues of What If?, most of them are easily forgotten, especially without the lattice of an ongoing story to affix them to.

However, it is the art where Savage Sword shines. Conan artists supreme Windsor-Smith and John Buscema are featured in this volume, with Buscema providing most of the art. Smith’s adaptation of “Red Nails” burns itself into the brain. Buscema’s “A Witch Is Born” allows Buscema to play with light and dark in a truly striking way. The truth is these adaptations give the artists a chance to play with some of the greatest Conan imagery, and they take full advantage. Windsor-Smith and Buscema have rarely looked so good, with the lack of color emphasizing their work rather than diminishing it. And there are more than 500 pages of this beautiful work.

The completist might be disappointed by Savage Sword. Some issues of Savage Sword of Conan are completely reprinted. Others have stories featuring other characters dropped, either because of issues of rights (Red Sonja) or interest (King Kull). Other stories are dropped for reasons I can’t determine.

Conan fans would likely choose Savage Sword over the Chronicles, I believe, while comic fans who like Conan might choose Chronicles but get a great deal of enjoyment out of Savage Sword. I can say, without hesitation, that Savage Sword is the better of the two, in my opinion, and it’s well worth your time.

Rating: Conan face Conan face Conan face Conan face (4 of 5)

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16 January 2009

Spider-Man Visionaries: Kurt Busiek, v. 1

Collects: Untold Tales of Spider-Man #1-8 (1995-6)

Released: August 2006 (Marvel)

Format: 176 pages / color / $19.99 / ISBN: 9780785122043

What is this?: A collection of Spider-Man stories told in the ’90s but fitting into his early days.

The culprits: Writer Kurt Busiek and artist Pat Olliffe.

With certain writers, you know what you’re going to get. Alan Moore is going to give you stories with nearly impenetrable depth, many literary allusions, and bits of magic. With Grant Morrison, you’re going to get new versions of Silver Age stories that seem like they were originally read by a 9-year-old on LSD and were written by a 40-year-old on peyote. J. Michael Straczynski writes stories that … well, I don’t know actually, but it might come out a little late. Joss Whedon writes stories with sharp, cutting-edge dialogue that come out much, much later than Straczynski’s stories.

Kurt Busiek writes straight superhero stories. Some of them have disarmingly retro feel — well, all of them do now, because Busiek don’t do decompression. But they are often the kind of stories that would fit in with the ‘80s or even earlier, and critics often say they are excellent — not as nostalgia pieces but in their own right.

Spider-Man Visionaries: Kurt Busiek, v. 1 coverSpider-Man Visionaries: Kurt Busiek, v. 1 comes near the beginning of Busiek’s career. The stories in Visionaries are from Untold Tales of Spider-Man, a title that filled in the gaps between Spider-Man’s early adventures in the ‘60s. Usually, I dislike retcon series and stories, because they can’t tell any stories that change the status quo. But early Spider-Man — and probably all of Marvel’s Silver Age, for that matter — is a better fit. Stan Lee and Steve Ditko told the original stories with relatively broad strokes, allowing Busiek the opportunity to fill in some detail work. And if you can write a good Spider-Man story, it doesn’t have to be of earthshattering import; it just has to be entertaining.

There’s no worries there. Busiek has a firm grasp on both Spider-Man and the era. His Peter Parker is neurotic, simultaneously shunning and desiring acceptance from his classmates, learning to date for the first time with the confidence his new powers have given him, and fretting over money and Aunt May. The stories are fun, although his new villains aren’t all that interesting. (Which isn’t a problem; if they were supposed to appear for the first time at the beginning of Spider-Man’s career and haven’t been since, they have to lack something.) Two stories stick out for me: Spider-Man and the Human Torch teaming up to unravel the Wizard’s riddles and capturing him (#6) and Harry Osborne dealing with Spider-Man, the Enforcers, and his father’s deteriorating mental state (#8).

As I mentioned in the review for Last Hero Standing, I like Pat Olliffe’s work. It’s easy to see why someone could see his work on Untold Tales and think of him for the retro-styled tales of Spider-Girl and other retro-feeling tales. His Spider-Man and Peter Parker aren’t swipes of Ditko, but they do echo the first Spider-Man artist’s work, especially with the underarm webs on Spider-Man’s costume and giant glasses on Peter. The storytelling is simple and at times elegant, with little flash but with plenty of style. Shifting inkers don’t help his cause but aren’t a major source of concern.

If I were a quibbler, I’d note most of Busiek’s contributions to the Spider-Man canon have disappeared without a trace, and I don’t care about Sally Avril and Jason Ionello, his additions to Peter’s high school. But that’s not fair; it would have been extremely difficult for anything in this short-lived, set-in-the-past series to stick. It’s more useful to concentrate on Busiek and Olliffe’s work in bringing out a series of simple, worthwhile stories with a supporting cast at a time when such stories were in short supply.

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

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12 January 2009

Searching for a Way

I look at my Google Analytics page for this blog pretty much every day. This is not usually a heartening task, as I discover most people come to the site via Google Images. Shuma-GorathIt is depressing that it isn’t what I’m saying or how I’m saying it that brings visitors — it’s simply filling in alt tags.

I know no one cares about that information from me, and I also know posts about funny search terms aren’t very interesting. But I have to bring up this one: Someone reached Trade Talks via the term “garfield + x-men + parody + shuma-gorath + giant pencil.” They didn’t visit any other pages or even spend any time on the site. But they got here. However, I cannot imagine what those terms have in common. Was the user looking for a Garfield parody of the X-Men? Or vice-versa? I can see where a giant pencil might fit in, but where does a demon lord created by Conan creator Robert E. Howard and shoehorned into the Marvel Universe manage to squirm into the plot? And do I really want to know?

Anyway, Trade Talks is the number one result for that search. Out of two results! Eat it, comics section of Heritage Auction Galleries!

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10 January 2009

Supreme Power: Hyperion

Collects: Supreme Power: Hyperion #1-5 (2005-6)

Released: June 2006 (Marvel)

Format: 120 pages / color / $14.99 / ISBN: 9780785118954

What is this?: Following the end of the first volume of the Supreme Power reboot, the Army sends four superhuman operatives to confront Hyperion (a Superman analogue) and return him to the fold.

The culprits: Writer J. Michael Straczynski and artist Dan Jurgens.

Marvel has made the mistake of allowing several series to lose their momentum: Young Avengers is the most egregious example, although many readers would point out the examples of Nyx and Supreme Power should not be forgotten.

But looking over the publication history for the Supreme Power universe, there haven’t been as many lulls as I had thought. Writer J. Michael Straczynski revamped some old Marvel characters who started as obvious analogues for major DC characters. V. 1 started in August 2003 and ran until August 2005 — two years for eighteen issues, which doesn’t set the world on fire, but it isn’t embarrassing either. Then came a series of miniseries written by Straczynski and others, mixed in with a abortive, seven-issue v. 2. None of this seems to inspire confidence in the line as a hole — especially not Ultimate Power, the Squadron Supreme’s crossover with the Ultimate line, a line that is itself floundering its way to radical change. The latest try, Squadron Supreme, has just dropped beneath 20,000 in sales, according to Paul O’Brien’s calculations.

Squadron Supreme: Hyperion coverSo let’s consider a book somewhere early — or perhaps even before — the slide began. Supreme Power: Hyperion was released the month after v. 1 of Power ended, at the same time as Supreme Power: Nighthawk. Unlike Nighthawk, Hyperion featured Straczynski as writer and had the series’ central character — Hyperion, a Superman analogue — as its star.

Hyperion reads like it’s another five issues of the regular series. It doesn’t feel like a Hyperion series at all, since it follows a group of governmental agents as they track down the rogue Hyperion to return him to the fold. The book focuses on the seed of Squadron Supreme, then — here might have been the time to go to the Squadron Supreme name. The agents featured — Arcanna, Emil Burbank, Shape, and Nuke — are almost interesting enough to carry the book, but they have to share time with Hyperion, who’s a big black hole of boredom; whenever the book veers near him, excitement slows, then is unable to escape from the page.

The plot deals with alternate timelines / futures; the team just wants to return to our world, while Hyperion is indoctrinated into power by his alternate self. That Hyperion isn’t interesting either, just a low-key controlling evil that just decided, hey, it’s for the best if I’m in charge. Maybe it is. I can’t tell, and I don’t particularly want to debate the point. Certainly not with someone who has heat vision.

Probably it isn’t, though, because Straczynski shows alternate Hyperion using the behavior modification machine from the original Squadron Supreme miniseries back in the ‘80s. The B-mod machine reprograms the brain however the user wants, and presumably it’s used to change the minds of the legion of superheroes who now support Hyperion. (We don’t see that, but it’s a reasonable guess.) I like the nod to previous stories, but the machine’s potential isn’t fully used here. Since I’m not terribly wild about the plot — Hyperion seems more interesting quips and quirks than an interesting story — I feel it could have been explored more. (Of course, it’s a mind-control machine. Perhaps there’s nothing else to explore?)

I’m not fond of Dan Jurgens’s art; it’s a little too reminiscent of John Romita, Jr., and late Sal Buscema for my taste. Still, that doesn’t mean it isn’t good, just that I don’t like it. The storytelling is competent, although not adventurous; his designs of previously unseen Squadron members are conservative at best. I will give him points for resisting fishnets for Skylark and Arcanna Jones, who are analogues of Black Canary and Zatanna, respectively.

The book feels like all middle — like The Empire Strikes Back, except without the rampant coolness. Obviously, Straczynski had plans for the Supreme Power universe. Now he won’t get to realize them. (Why would he want to, after the universe has been sullied by the Ultimate universe?) This is but one step in a journey leading not to a conclusion but a cliff, and the journey itself isn’t that enjoyable.

Rating: Marvel symbol Marvel symbol (2 of 5)

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06 January 2009

Last Hero Standing

Collects: Last Hero Standing #1-5 (2005)

Released: September 2005 (Marvel)

Format: 120 pages / color / $13.99 / ISBN: 9780785118237

What is this?: The heroes of the future Marvel Universe face a dark threat as their cohorts are kidnapped.

The culprits: Writer Tom DeFalco and artist Pat Olliffe

Now in Canceled Alternate Future Theater, we have Last Hero Standing. Do you care whether future versions of Marvel heroes live or die? Do you even know who the featured, younger heroes in this book are? I’m going to guess the answer to both is “No” and proceed from there.

At a couple of points early in the MC2 Universe’s existence, it had three titles, but within a year and a half of the imprint’s founding in 1998, it had been pared down to one title: Spider-Girl. This left several loose ends, with both new characters and familiar Marvel Universe characters still running around. To capitalize on this, Marvel released Last Hero Standing.

Last Hero Standing coverIn Hero, superheroes begin disappearing — Wolverine, Spider-Man, the Thing, one of the Ladyhawks — and the other heroes blindly investigate. As more are abducted and the remaining heroes come closer to finding the truth, the missing heroes return as ‘90s version of themselves, albeit without pouches, spikes, or shoulder pads. No, they’re grittier and grimmer, and they are out for the blood of those they loosely define as villains. Meanwhile, the aged Captain America wrestles with failing abilities in an environment in which small failures could lead to death — his or another’s.

There’s not much to say about Hero, good or ill. It’s most of a universe folded into a single limited series, much in the *ahem* proud tradition of 2099: World of Tomorrow. Cramming umpteen heroes into one story means plot will likely be more important than characterizations. True, the Avengers and Spider-Girl display differentiated personalities, but none of them make an impression.

And the plot is not one of writer Tom DeFalco’s stronger MC2 efforts. The abduction, mind control, and last-second saving the day aren’t anything new. The ending will hinge on whether you get choked up by the fate of alternate future versions of familiar characters. DeFalco leans more on Marvel heroes readers are more familiar with than he did in the A-Next run, but the jarring effect of the normally heroic characters becoming vicious is cushioned by the passage of years between the 616 Universe and MC2 — we don’t know what happened during those years.

Pat Olliffe does his usual good work on an MC2 title. Interestingly, this is one of the few times I’ve gotten to see his work in a full-size reproduction rather than a digest, and I’m surprised how much the smaller size and cheaper paper seems to harm his work. Seeing Olliffe in a normal size makes me realize the digests might not be as big a bargain as I thought. It still won’t stop me from buying future digests, but this does alert me as to what I’m missing.

Still, I have to say this is an underwhelming book. If you want to know more about the history of the MC2 Universe, you read Hero. If not, go elsewhere. It’s as simple as that.

Rating: Marvel symbol Marvel symbol (2 of 5)

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