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

31 July 2009

Usagi Yojimbo, v. 23: Bridge of Tears

Collects: Usagi Yojimbo (v. 3) #94-102 (2006-7)

Released: July 2009 (Dark Horse)

Format: 248 pages / black and white / $17.95 / ISBN: 9781595822987

What is this?: The rabbit ronin fights ninjas and gangsters, but he’s completely out of his depth with a waitress

The culprit: Stan Sakai

Stan Sakai’s Usagi Yojimbo is one of the most consistent series out there. Month in and month out, Sakai delivers issues that are excellent reads. The collections are no exception, and Usagi Yojimbo, v. 23: Bridge of Tears is just the latest example.

In Bridge of Tears, Usagi deals with assassins and gangsters — the usual stuff, really; if Usagi is to be believed, feudal Japan was filled with ninjas, swordsmen, and gangsters. (And anthropomorphic animals; but I digress.) But a waitress who just wants to blow town and hit the road is Usagi’s greatest challenge, one he’s completely unprepared to deal with.

Usagi Yojimbo, v. 23: Bridge of Tears coverThe book begins with Usagi foiling the assassination of a merchant; this is standard stuff for the rabbit ronin, who runs into trouble and people needing armed help wherever he goes. But this makes him a target for the League of Assassins. Sakai draws others into the story: the reluctant assassin Shizukiri and his prostitute lover, the waitress Mayumi who desires only to run away from her gangster-corrupted town. Sakai spends eight of the nine issues in Bridge of Tears moving them toward a climax that is far more moving than it has any right to be, given that two of the characters were created only in this volume.

Sakai also advances the subplots of other characters: Chizu, former leader of the Neko ninja on the run from her clan, and the demon Jei, being chased down by bounty hunters Ren and Stray Dog. The latter involves a dramatic battle in which it seems at any moment that Sakai might kill or maim one of his long-running characters; the former allows Sakai to give a frightening look at one way the Jei storyline might play out as well as weakening Usagi for the climax of Bridge of Tears. (Usagi is such a great swordsman even Sakai realizes it’s hard to believe Usagi will fall in a swordfight if he’s at full strength.) Though these two stories are not part of the main plot, none of the book is wasted — each story, each revelation contributes to building Bridge of Tears or in whetting the appetite for the next volume. Which I want. Now.

The only complaint I have about Bridge of Tears is that the covers are not placed before the story they illustrate, being instead grouped at the end of the volume. As good as the cover for the “Fever Dream” story — a demonically possessed Usagi in front of a long line of corpses, with the speech balloons with their last breaths filling the cover — is, it would have had an even greater impact if it had been placed with the story. Still, I suppose I should be glad they’re included.

The end of the volume is a “roast” of Stan Sakai, celebrating 100 issues of Usagi Yojimbo at Dark Horse. Although there is the occasional chuckle, it isn’t a roast, as it doesn’t make much fun of Sakai or his most famous creation, and for the most part it isn’t that funny. Sakai’s own stories in the feature and the short Sergio Aragones reminiscence of things he’s eaten with Sakai are pretty good, though.

As always, you should be reading Usagi Yojimbo. Buy this book and pre-order the next, whenever it might come out.

Rating: Rabbit symbol Rabbit symbol Rabbit symbol Rabbit symbol half rabbit symbol (4.5 of 5)

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30 July 2009

October 2009 Solicitations

Kill the headlights and put it in neutral, it’s time for October Solicits:

From Marvel:

  • Kabuki: The Alchemy: David Mack is still doing these? Huh. $24.99
  • Hardcover ’80s nostalgia: X-Men: Asgardian Wars, collecting the X-Men / New Mutants crossover from around Uncanny X-Men #200, and Thing: Project Pegasus, which you can get in Essential Marvel Two-in-One, v. 2-3. These feel a little overpriced, but a) so does everything Marvel puts out, and b) I already have all this material. Both are good, although I’m shocked Project Pegasus is getting a hardcover — it’s not quite that good. $34.99 for Asgardian Wars, $24.99 for Project Pegasus
  • Runaways: Rock Zombies: Find out the mystery of shock jock Val Rhymin. I can hardly wait. Side note: would it kill Marvel to put volume numbers on these things so I don’t have to remember the names to figure out if I already have the material in another format? I mean, they release old books in new formats every month, for God’s sake. $14.99
  • Of all the Marvel titles for the month, X-Men Forever, v. 1 interests me the most. Nostalgia! Wallowing in past / alternate continuity! Oh, sweet Claremont, how I’ve missed you! $16.99
  • The Essential for the month is Essential Ghost Rider, v. 3. The page count seems a little long for the number of issues included, but I’m too lazy to actually do a standard page count. At the old price, I would have been all over this; at $19.99, eh, I can be patient.

From DC:

  • Batman: Battle for the Cowl Companion: All the uninteresting parts of Battle for the Cowl, which is a feat, since the entire story was itself uninteresting. $14.99
  • DC Classics Library: Shazam! Monster Society of Evil: I’m not one for DC’s Comics Classics Library — the stories generally don’t interest me — but this one does. The story is legendary, but I don’t know if it’s ever been released in a collected form. Captain Marvel, back when he was really popular, fights a Golden Age fight (with all the logic and restraint that entails) to get to his ultimate enemy: a two-inch talking worm. That’s the Golden Age, baby! $39.99
  • The Flash vs. the Rogues: Does DC do many of these pick-and-choose, best-of collections? I always thought that was more of Marvel’s game. If you want a look at the Flash’s Rogues, this one has nine Rogues stories for a reasonable price. Of course, DC is all about the reasonable price these days. For the same money, you can get four issues of Runaways in this month’s Rock Zombies. $14.99
  • Shade the Changing Man: Chris Bachalo and Peter Milligan’s surreal Vertigo series is back: Shade the Changing Man, v. 1: The American Scream is being reissued, and a new volume, Shade The Changing Man, v. 2: Edge of Vision, will be released the same month. I’ve never been interested, but there was a time, on Usenet, when people wouldn’t stop talking about it. It definitely goes into Milligan’s “weird” work and Bachalo’s “readable” work. $17.99 for American Scream, $19.99 for Edge of Vision
  • The Winter Men: I’ve heard nothing about it and know no reason to be interested, but something about post-Cold War Soviet superheroes catches my attention. I don’t know why. $19.99
  • The Showcase for the month is Superman Team-Ups, v. 1. Pass. $17.99

Oh, Dark Horse:

  • Dark Horse continues to ride the Robert E. Howard / Marvel money train with The Chronicles of Kull, v. 1: A King Comes Riding and Other Stories and The Chronicles of Solomon Kane. $18.95 each
  • You can’t keep a good idea down until all the life has been flogged out of it: The Escapist started as an idea in Michael Chabon’s 2000 novel, The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay. The Escapist got his own series in 2004’s Michael Chabon Presents The Amazing Adventures of the Escapist. (Or maybe that was the Michael Chabon comic; I forget.) The Escapists is a reprint of the Brian K. Vaughan’s 2006 series, which is more of a continuation of the comics-industry parts of Kavalier and Clay. I have no idea if it’s any good, but it’s pedigree is interesting. $14.95
  • Grendel: Behold the Devil: You know if you want this hardcover or not: Matt Wagner writes and draws this one, which from what I gather, has been fairly rare in the last decade or so. If you don’t know how Behold the Devil is different from other Grendel stories, the solicit says it follows Hunter Rose through a “lost period early in his criminal career.” That should be distinctive. If that’s not enough for you, “includes additional pages previously only seen on MySpace!” $19.95


  • Liberty Meadows Sunday Strips, v. 2: I somehow missed v. 1. Hmm. Well, I love Cho’s art, and I think Liberty Meadows was a fun, if often juvenile, strip. (Joke-a-day strips do hide some of his failures as a plotter.) $29.99
  • Not a collection, but #3 of Chris Giarrusso’s G-Man will be out in October.
  • Also not a collection: Cowboy Ninja Viking #1.
  • Question: Which is more gloriously, stupidly high concept: Cowboy Ninja Viking or Batman and Superman vs. Werewolves and Vampires? Show your work.

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28 July 2009


... were given at San Diego Comic Con. The winners can be seen at

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Runaways (v. 9): Dead Wrong

Collects: Runaways v. 3 #1-6 (2008-9)

Released: June 2009 (Marvel)

Format: pages / color / $15.99 / ISBN: 9780785129400

What is this?: The Runaways head back to LA and find a new set of adversaries waiting for them, while Chase has to find a job.

The culprits: Writer Terry Moore and penciler Humberto Ramos

When Joss Whedon took over for Brian K. Vaughn as Runaways writer, the choice was logical, and it worked out — Whedon was different, but he brought his own strengths to the title. When Terry Moore was chosen to succeed the glacially paced Whedon, the choice was also logical. But whatever Moore brought to Runaways, it sure as hell wasn’t his strengths.

Runaways: Dead Wrong coverRunaways: Dead Wrong is easily the weakest volume of the series so far. (Also: For those keeping count, this is the ninth volume. Just because Marvel stops counting doesn’t mean you have to.) In Dead Wrong, one of the Runaways, Karolina, finds the remnants of her race, the Majesdanians, waiting to deal out retribution for her parents’ betrayal of their race. This is not immediately evident because Moore takes a long time to remind the reader that Karolina is a member of the same race as these Majesdanians; the logic is also a bit opaque because despite being a logical, law-abiding race, the Majesdanians believe in the child being punished for the sin of the parent. Except when they don’t, at the end — because bloodthirsty remnants of a decimated race often have 180 degree changes of heart in the middle of fights.

But put that aside for a moment. Moore has the team acting out of character for most of the book. It’s intentional, or so we’re supposed to believe: a spell gone awry. Leaving alone for a moment that the spell that caused the problem for the Runaways had a completely different effect on their opponents, I believe making established characters act out of character is a bad choice for a writer in his first assignment on a new title. It doesn’t instill any confidence, and it certainly doesn’t get the writer into a rhythm with the new characters. But more importantly, the characters don’t feel right, and the characters are what make Runaways important.

There’s a lot that doesn’t feel right. The Runaways find one of their parents’ hidden safehouses, but they don’t think to search for a cache of money and supplies? What kind of criminal masterminds don’t have emergency cash lying around? Why does the house have, instead of normal-but-lethal safeguards that won’t attract much attention, big fuzzy automated demons that destroy all sorts of stuff and practically scream for attention? Given how concerned the neighbors turn out to be, that would be a problem. And why does Moore think I’ll be entertained by radio shock jock Val Rhymin? To get across the characterization, penciler Humberto Ramos draws him as a younger, cut-rate Howard Stern; it’s also painfully obvious he has mind-control powers that Chase is somehow immune to. (And if he’s really so popular, how did Chase get hired so easily by him?) And haven’t I seen the ending to Dead Wrong before? Oh, yes, I did — right here. Didn’t even have the courtesy to change the age range of the characters.

Lesson here, boys and girls, is that heroes will likely be stupid. But aliens will likely be even more dense, so it’s OK.

I enjoyed Ramos’s work with Paul Jenkins when they were teamed up on various Spider-titles; Ramos’s distorted, exaggerated style works with a character as kinetic as Spider-Man, combined with the lack of expressiveness of his mask. However, Ramos feels all wrong for Runaways. In large scenes, the action looks muddled and confused; in the opening fight with the Majesdanians, I had no idea what was going on half the time. Xavin’s frequent transformations meant I had trouble figuring out who he was supposed to be most of the time. When it came down to it, I rarely could tell the difference between Ramos’s Carolina and Chase — and they’re not even the same gender, just the same hair color. It’s just a big mess full of undifferentiated hipsterwear and unkempt hair.

I am a big fan of Runaways, but I’m not such a big fan that I’m going to try to push this fragrant flower on you. Give this a pass. I’d advise doing the same with the next Runaways trade — featuring the shocking secret of Val Rhymin! Gosh! How exciting! — but I’m a big enough of a glutton I might not be able to help myself. I don’t know if I’m going to justify spending some majority fraction of $15 for it, though.

Rating: Marvel symbol (1 of 5)

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24 July 2009

Amazing Spider-Man: Brand New Day, v. 2

Collects: Amazing Spider-Man #552-8 (2008)

Released: December 2008 (Marvel)

Format: 168 pages / color / $19.99 / ISBN: 9780785128465

What is this?: More post-deal with the Devil adventures with Spider-Man and his more appropriately themed villains.

The culprits: Writers Bob Gale and Zeb Wells and pencilers Phil Jimenez, Chris Bachalo, and Barry Kitson

Although I enjoyed the first volume Brand New Day, it didn’t guarantee I would enjoy the second. Given the rotating stable of artists and writers, I knew the quality and tone of Amazing would fluctuate over the arcs. So I shouldn’t be surprised I didn’t particularly care for Amazing Spider-Man: Brand New Day, v. 2.

The first three-issue arc and the final issue of v. 2 are written by Bob Gale, who is best known for co-writing the Back to the Future movies and a Daredevil arc few liked between the ones almost everyone did like (v. 2 #20-5). Gale’s work focuses on a new villain: the Freak, a drug addict who injects a bunch of samples from Curt Connors’s lab looking to get high. Instead, the Freak gets mutated. And every time he’s “killed,” he goes into a chrysalis and mutates again, becoming immune to whatever killed him.

Amazing Spider-Man: Brand New Day, v. 2 coverThe Freak didn’t thrill me. A villain who gets more powerful every time he’s defeated is difficult to make work because eventually he has to win or become a joke, neither of which is good. (The former can work; it just rarely does.) The final issue seems a throwback to monster movies of the ‘50s and ‘60s, where the monster has to be stopped with a common chemical (The Horror of Party Beach, for instance). The Freak, blaming Spider-Man for his predicament, desire revenge on Spider-Man; despite the Freak being the cause of his own misery, he doesn’t have to deny or confront his own shortcomings. He’s repetitive in his screaming and slashing; that’s fine for a villain who appears in only one issue, but when it’s four, that’s a bit too one note.

Gale writes a good Spider-Man. That’s one thing in Brand New Day’s favor so far: all the writers seem to understand Spider-Man needs to be funny. He also advances the plot with J. Jonah Jameson, dealing with his wife’s sale of the Bugle. He seems to overestimate the power of Carlie Cooper, the friend of Harry’s girlfriend who works in the coroner’s office; she seems to have real influence here, whereas in v. 1, she was obviously low on the totem pole. I also enjoyed a return appearance by the Bookie, but I have my doubts about whether some of the villains shown placing bets would really be in a supervillain bar. But perhaps that’s an art problem.

The second storyline, written by Zeb Wells, is a misstep. Spider-Man visits with the New Avengers and teams up with Wolverine, for no other real reason I can think of other than to show he still is part of the New Avengers. Then he fights Mayan snow ninjas (did the Mayans have much snow?), a monster from Beyond, and a crazed priest of a Mayan god. Nothing in those two sentences “feels” like Spider-Man, and nothing Wells does makes it any more like him. Joining the New Avengers was one of the screw ups that caused the “One More Day” / “Brand New Day” nonsense in the first place, and mystic adventures was one of the three major problems people had with the J. Michael Straczynski run (the other two being animal totems and Gwen Stacy’s Goblin babies). The banter with Wolverine is fun — like I said, all of the Brand New Day writers have done well with the Spider-dialogue, and Wells isn’t an exception — but Wolverine is gone after the first issue, and despite some helpful bums, the plot gets less interesting the rest of the way.

Still, there’s something about the art from Chris Bachalo that I enjoy. I can’t quite put my finger on it, though. His pencils tell a comprehensible story — a big challenge for him at one point — and his odd, angular style works with the odd, mystical story, complete with a monster from a place where the geometry might not be the same as ours. (It never says, one way or the other, about the geometry; that’s just my inference.)

I’m less thrilled about Phil Jimenez’s work on the first arc; it’s just as professional, but it’s less distinctive. It comes across as boring but effective; that’s not the worst review, but it’s not an endorsement either. I also don’t care for his design(s) for the Freak. It’s a hard job designing characters who are supposed to disgust the reader visually. The Freak is certainly revolting, but … the picture Jimenez draws is not as effective as my imagination. The story doesn’t give Jimenez the opportunity to obscure the villain’s deformity, but I wish he could have. I enjoy Barry Kitson’s Freak more; Kitson, who penciled the final story in Brand New Day, v. 2, has a Freak who is much more visually streamlined, less deformed, and more menacing.

Overall, because of the strong start on v. 1, v. 2 of Brand New Day is a disappointment despite its competence. Nothing clicks as well as it did in the first volume, and Brand New Day drifts into areas that are distractions rather than strengths for Spider-Man.

Rating: Spider-Man symbol Spider-Man symbol (2 of 5)

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21 July 2009

Spider-Girl Presents Wild Thing: Crash Course

Collects: Wild Thing #0-5 (1999)

Released: November 2007 (Marvel)

Format: 128 pages / color digest / $7.99 / ISBN: 9780785126065

What is this?: The future daughter of Elektra and Wolverine has “adventures.”

The culprits: Writer Larry Hama and penciler Ron Lim

Before you ask or make a joke, there are two things I need to say about Spider-Girl Presents Wild Thing: Crash Course:

  1. It does not make your heart sing.
  2. Nor does it make everything — or anything — “groovy.”

Crash Course was part of Marvel’s now completely defunct M2 universe, which imagines the Marvel Universe one generation into the future. So there were many second-generation heroes, led by Spider-Girl, Spider-Man’s daughter. The eponymous Wild Thing, nee Rina, is the result of the improbable coupling of Wolverine and Elektra. As a setup, I can get past this, although like most of the M2 universe, like a lot of Spider-Girl’s ideas, it reeks of an abandoned ‘90s plot. So writer Larry Hama had his work cut out for him making the setup work. Unfortunately for Hama, he doesn’t quite succeed. Hama was an excellent choice for the job, having just finished a long, defining run on Wolverine, and Wild Thing offered a chance to do similar stories with new twists — the same except different.

Spider-Girl Presents Wild Thing: Crash Course cover But that’s not what we get here; what we get are Rina’s uninteresting high school experiences, complete with a rich alpha female and a boy she has a crush on but barely notices her. Neither is interesting. I’m unsure what to make of Rina’s home life; both her parents are around, but it’s impossible to tell whether they’re with each other or who lives with Rina. Part of me thinks she lives with her upscale mother, while Logan lives in the woods in a fort made out of empty beer cans with Molson bottles forming the windows. But that’s my imagination; on the other hand, I’ll wager that image is more interesting than anything in Crash Course.

The action sequences aren’t anything to write home about either; it’s bog standard dullness, with none of the excitement either of her parents bring to a battle. The less said of her “psychic claws” (huh?), the better; the claws are only supposed to affect the mind, and although they leave no trace on clothes or the landscape, they have no trouble affecting humans, mindless creatures (but I repeat myself), demons, or robots. It smacks of the ‘90s X-Men cartoon, where Wolverine had to wait to fight robots to cut loose because the audience would be too traumatized if he used his claws on living villains. Rina similarly slashes with no consequences.

That isn’t her greatest problem, though: she’s simply not original. Her costume is too entirely close to her father’s to be an homage. Her villains are borrowed from her parents — Wolverine, mainly — and the only original villains she fights are a kidnapper with an armored suit and roller skates and a robot that seems borrowed from the Silver Age Fantastic Four. I half expected Reed Richards to pop out of the ether on Doom’s Time Platform and ask Wild Thing to stop poaching their villains.

The costume is Ron Lim’s problem. The penciler turns in a workmanlike performance that seems to come alive only when Wolverine was on the page. Given that the X-Men were still big in ’99, perhaps he was auditioning for a Wolverine or X-Men gig. Still, the art tells the story, even if it’s not desperately interesting.

Wild Thing #2-5 each carries a J2 (son of Juggernaut) backup written by Tom DeFalco with Lim on pencils. These are forgettable; the J2 series didn’t interest me, and the backups are smaller while retaining the same lack of interest. If you desperately needed to know what happened to J2 — his reunion with his father, the original Juggernaut, for instance — here it is. For the rest of the populace, there’s only one story that particularly works, with Juggie Jr. dwelling on unrequited love without realizing someone’s interest in him.

I can’t even say Crash Course has missed opportunities. It’s just dull. There may be potential in the character, but I don’t care. This is just one of the steps on Hama’s painful descent from an excellent writer toward Howard Mackie-dom, and Ron Lim being merely professional isn’t going to save it.

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

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17 July 2009

Birds of Prey, v. 2: Sensei & Student

Collects: Birds of Prey #62-8 (2004)

Released: January 2005 (DC)

Format: 168 pages / color / $17.99 / ISBN: 9781401204341

What is this?: Black Canary and Lady Shiva meet for the death of their sensei and are entangled in Cheshire’s poisonous plots; Oracle is menaced by a talented hacker.

The culprits: Writer Gail Simone and pencilers Ed Benes, Cliff Richards, Michael Golden, and Joe Bennett

When it comes to Birds of Prey, v. 2: Sensei & Student, there is a strong temptation to say, “Second verse, same as the first, good job,” and call it a day. Very strong temptation — hmm, I wonder when happy hour begins down at that tiki bar down near the public beach …

No! No, I have to do a better job than that. This isn’t a retread of the first volume, Of Like Minds. Writer Gail Simone didn’t slack off, and I shouldn’t either. There are new antagonists, a new interaction for Black Canary, and thrilling new hacking action! OK, that last part isn’t true: the hacking is decidedly not thrilling.

Birds of Prey, v. 2: Sensei & Student coverThe most interesting part of Sensei is Black Canary’s story. She heads to Hong Kong to see her dying sensei; while there, she meets the assassin Lady Shiva, who is also there to pay her respects. When the sensei is murdered before he can die, they team up to find the culprit; the trail leads to assassin / poisoner Cheshire, who insists she’s being set up.

The interaction between the three is great; a grudging respect between Canary and Shiva is turned into a genuine partnership when the truly evil Cheshire is thrown into the mix. The dialogue and characterization of the three is great, even if Cheshire shies away from some of her evil (mutilating Shiva) for no defined reason. Simone does her best work in this part of the story; every time Shiva is on the page, the story seems more lively, more interesting, and more dangerous, and some of that rubs off on Black Canary.

Unfortunately, Oracle’s subplot, in which she is menaced by a hacker whose abilities seem to outstrip hers, seems lacking. Although it’s nice — and it would have been eventually necessary — for Oracle to run into someone better at the keyboards, there’s no effective payoff for that part of the story. Oracle is also abducted by a mysterious government group, forcing her to call on Huntress for rescue; even though those two storylines have a connection, they never feel related, just like Canary’s story doesn’t feel connected with Oracle’s despite common antagonists. That’s worse, in its way, than a swarm of completely unconnected plots.

That has me worried; I’m not quite convinced about Simone’s overall plotting skills. There’s too much coincidence in the story; the plans of Cheshire, the hacker’s employer, and an old serial killer investigated by the original Black Canary come to a head all of once, and the evil is all related by blood. This raises certain nature / nurture questions Simone doesn’t address, despite the presence of a perfect candidate: Huntress, a daughter of the mob. Speaking of Huntress, if a male writer had emphasized her sexual proclivities as Simone does, he would probably be accused of titillating his readers. And while we’re on gender politics, doesn’t Oracle know any male superheroes? All the ones who aid in her escape are female, except Savant; although I appreciate his presence as a tie in to the previous storyline, I’m not sure about his long-term viability as a character.

Black Canary in a crop topEd Benes provides most of the pencils (and some inks) for Sensei, and he shows his usual restraint and taste when drawing the female form. There’s nothing I can say that I didn’t say in the review of Of Like Minds: he’s a good artist who lets the female anatomy dominate his style. I have nothing to say about Joe Bennett (penciler for #68) or Cliff Richards, who pitched in with pencils on the first two issues. For Richards, that’s good, since he’s obviously supposed to blend in with Benes’s work. It’s good for Bennett as well; his style differs from Benes’s more than Richards, but he definitely fits in with the artistic tone of the book: I mean, just look at the crop top he gave Canary in that issue.

I’m torn on Michael Golden’s work on #66; it’s a flashback, in which the bulk of the issue is narrated by Canary’s mother, the original Black Canary. It’s a nice idea to have a different artist for the flashback issue, and Benes’s pencils would have looked odd in the shadowily defined past. But Golden’s work doesn’t say “past” to me either, for the most part; he does better on the more detail-oriented pages — in the hospital, for instance. At one point in the story, though, I had trouble figuring out a murder victim was a woman rather than an Albert Einstein impersonator. Perhaps she was both. I don’t know.

Although the comments in this review are different than the ones for the first Birds of Prey volume, the summary and rating aren’t: I’m looking forward to the next volume, and I’ll be very happy when Benes has moved on. Now, if you will excuse me, I can already hear the steak sizzling, and the beach is calling …

Rating: DC logo DC logo DC logo Half DC symbol (3.5 of 5)

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14 July 2009

Harley Quinn: Preludes and Knock-Knock Jokes

Collects: Harley Quinn #1-7 (2000-1)

Released: January 2008 (DC)

Format: 192 pages (hardcover) / color / $24.99 / ISBN: 9781401216283

What is this?: Harley Quinn, the Joker’s devoted sidekick, gets her own series.

The culprits: Writer Karl Kesel, penciler Terry Dodson, and inker Rachel Dodson

Harley Quinn is an odd choice for a series lead. When DC launched her eponymous comic in 2000, she was a female sidekick who had slightly faded in prominence after the cancellation of Batman: The Animated Series, where she was created. But Karl Kesel was named the writer, and the DodsonsTerry on pencils and Rachel on inks — were dispatched to create, create, create.

The series lasted 38 issues, but it took five years after its cancelation for the first collection, Harley Quinn: Preludes and Knock-Knock Jokes, to be released. I wondered if that delay was because of lack of confidence in the character or in the work itself.

Harley Quinn: Preludes and Knock-Knock Jokes coverThe tone of Preludes is confusing. On one hand, you get the corny Silver-Age alliteration and exclamations that marks it as a silly throwback. On another, there’s Dodson’s eye candy, posing women in uncomfortable positions to accentuate the more salacious aspects of their bodies. And then, if you cover your eyes with both hands and look through the fingers, you occasionally get glimpses of panels that are reminiscent of the B:TAS style, reminding readers why they liked Harley in the first place. It makes it difficult to determine what Preludes is about.

Nominally, it’s about Harley gaining independence from the Joker. The first arc has her falling out with her “puddin’,” then she has her all-female slumber party, and finally she embarks on a solo criminal career with henchmen called “Quinntets.” The first few issues are rough. Kesel’s dialogue is atrocious, hearkening back unironically to the worst of the Silver Age, and the plot itself doesn’t make Harley all that likeable, enduring abuse from men who don’t have any regard for her: she’s more of a doormat than a character. Harley comes across less “mad” or “manic” than “deluded.” Kesel’s characterizations feel slightly off as well, although I have trouble putting my finger on why. All of this taken together caused me to consider putting this book aside a half dozen times within those first three issues.

The slumber party issue is painful to read. I’ve been harder on DC than Marvel for their T&A art — probably because I’ve read more of DC’s female books — but this is the reason I do so. I have no idea who thought it was a good idea; it’s as if someone in DC editorial (I don’t know who) thought an issue of Terry Dodson drawing females in various stages of undress (but almost uniform skin-tightness of their remaining clothes) was a necessity. And Dodson does not stint, not bowing to quaint concerns like “balance” or “weight distribution” to get his characters into poses that will appeal to a certain demographic. Not that the problems end there. There’s little humor and no fun in the issue; the characters grate, especially Harley’s mooning over the Joker and her subsequent declaration of independence. I also can’t fathom why President Luthor’s staffers Hope and Mercy would attend, given that, you know, it would look bad for their employer if they were seen with notorious criminals, and the invitation was something less than secure. The entire issue is a dud.

But after that issue, the book turns a corner. Harely working with her gang is more fun, Kesel’s horrible dialogue gets turned down a notch, and Preludes begins to have a purpose again. Issue #5 is a strangely affecting story of a thug who thinks he has a resemblance to the Joker and is shot in his futile attempt at living the life of a near double to the Joker. The final two issues, with Harley and the Riddler both trying to rob Wayne Manor with their gangs, is actually interesting, although I’m not sure about Big Barda’s characterization. The running gag about the gang continually losing their fifth member is also funny. It’s not an elite comic, by any means, but it is entertaining.

The more I see of the Dodsons’ work, the less I like it. The faces look more and more alike, the women’s figures are uniformly shapely, and I’m tired of hands that look like flippers. I understand why their work is popular, and the Dodsons can tell a story, but I’ve had enough of pencils and inks that seem to be primarily interested in women’s physiques rather than the story.

The penultimate issue also seemed to have a strange miscommunication, emblematic of Preludes’ inconsistent tone: Craig Rousseau does some fill-in work in a more cartoony style and draws an incapacitated character with smudges on the face and planets and punctuation circling her head — injured, but not seriously. On the next page, Dodson draws her with blood coming out her eyes, nose, and mouth and with broken glasses, a considerably more serious (probably fatal) injury.

Preludes is a frustrating book; its inconsistencies are too large to overlook. I want to reward the promise of the final arc, but I can’t ignore the tone-deaf writing in the first half. The Dodsons draw very pretty pictures, but I won’t look the other way when it comes to the cynicism of someone at DC in regards to audience taste. Good, bad, who knows? The faults are large enough that my inclination was to rate it very low, but I have to admit: Preludes and Knock-Knock Jokes is a perfect title for the first Harley Quinn collection, and that moves it closer to mediocrity.

Rating: DC logoDC logo

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10 July 2009

Hulk, v. 1: Red Hulk

Collects: Hulk (v. 2) #1-6, stories from Wolverine #50 and Mini Marvels (2007-8)

Released: February 2009 (Marvel)

Format: 176 pages / color / $19.99 / ISBN: 9780785128823

What is this?: Who is the Red Hulk? And who will he beat up / shoot next?

The culprits: Writer Jeph Loeb and penciler Ed McGuinness

We finish our fortnight of Hulk reviews with Hulk, v. 1: Red Hulk. If you have any hopes of this troika of reviews ending on a high note, please wad those hopes up and drop them in the nearest recycling bins now. 36

After World War Hulk, Bruce Banner is imprisoned, but a new Red Hulk stalks the land, pummeling and shooting the Hulk’s enemies … or anyone else who gets in his way, or meets, for that matter. Writer Jeph Loeb asks the question, “Who is the Red Hulk?” The follow-up question is, “Who the hell cares?” The Red Hulk is a snarling force of nature that only destroys and doesn’t have the magnetism or even simple charm of the “Hulk-Smash!” Hulk. An earthquake would have been more efficient and has more character. He uses guns, for heaven’s sake; Hulk punches harder than guns! Even the best SHIELD tech can’t compete with the Hulk’s punches.

Hulk: Red Hulk coverThe trouble is, I am curious who the Red Hulk is. God help me, I want to know. Loeb is blatant about not revealing who the Hulk is, having people knocked over the head or whisked off stage just as the Red Hulk’s identity is revealed. The Red Hulk’s identity can’t be withheld forever; it isn’t revealed here and hasn’t been revealed yet, and there’s only so long a writer can keep the mystery alive without alienating the audience. This sort of obvious dangler (Who is Stryfe?) is simultaneously what kept the X-Men at the top of the comics heap for so long and caused its popularity to dip in the new millennium.

When it comes down to it, the Red Hulk is stupid. He punches (and shoots) everybody: Iron Man, She-Hulk, Thor, even Uatu the Watcher. (Why? Since when has punching the Watcher been a mark of might?) He rages throughout the story without betraying any emotion other than smug vindictiveness. That’s not a character: that’s a character note, something the writer reminds himself to work in or refer back to while doing more worthwhile things with the character. I’m not about to get into “A-Bomb,” the new gamma-spawned halfwit monster who’s really Rick Jones, but rest assured the idea is even less rewarding than you’re thinking. And who thought, “The madder Red Hulk gets, the hotter he gets” was a bright idea? And why would overheating be a problem for the Red Hulk?

I don’t know. But plotting isn’t an important consideration for Loeb. He wastes most of the first issue with a pointless “investigation” into the Abomination’s death and a fight with the Winter Guard, Russia’s superheroes. Space is wasted on heroes trying to shore up San Francisco and save its residents while the Hulks fight; I can do without that. Loeb could have used that space for … something interesting, if he could find it. Uatu shows up out of nowhere just to get punched. So does Thor, for that matter. And I don’t believe for a second that Red Hulk can pick up Thor’s hammer.

There are a few bits of dialogue that are amusing, and the extra touches on the Gamma Base are interesting — robot guards and robot harpies that look like Betty Banner as the Harpy — but mostly it’s smashing and dumb Hulk (and dumb A-Bomb) talking in broken sentences while the Red Hulk is insufferable. It gets irritating quickly.

Penciler Ed McGuinness is better than the material he’s given. His work is larger than life, gleefully dynamic, and fun to look at. Really, he’s almost the perfect fit for this storyline, and there’s not much negative to say about his pencils. However, I will anyway: either he has a dental fetish or he really enjoys drawing teeth; the Hulks look like supersized PSAs for dental care. I’m not sure what emotion the final panel is supposed to inspire: the incapacitated Red Hulk grits his teeth and glares at the reader in front of a featureless background after he’s been berated by puny humans. Fear? Amusement? It actually managed to confuse me, so that’s an emotion right there. There’s also a small error in that he draws the Red Hulk’s gun in two different ways: humongous revolver and ginormous automatic. Well, I say it’s an error; it could be Loeb doubling his idiotic idea by having the Red Hulk steal two Hulk-sized guns. (Why would SHIELD even make one? What possible advantage could that give them?)

There are also some interesting extras at the end of the book. The three Red / Green / Blue Hulk Mini Marvels strips, by Audrey Loeb and Chris Giarrusso, are reprinted from the second Mini Marvels collection. They’re fun, as is anything Mini Marvel related. Loeb and McGuinness’s backup from Wolverine (v. 3) #50, “Puny Little Man,” is also included; it retells the story of Wolverine’s first confrontation with the Hulk, although Wolverine admits he doesn’t quite know what’s true and what’s story (and for good measure, the Hulk tearing Wolverine in half from Ultimate Hulk vs. Wolverine is included to muddy the waters). Decent backup, although it’s more Wolverine related than Hulk.

Still, neither McGuinness nor the extra features should be enough to induce buyers to pick this up. Stay away, save your money, and keep watching comic-book news sites and Wikipedia for the revelation of who the Red Hulk is.

Rating: Hulk head (1 of 5)

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07 July 2009

Incredible Hulk: Incredible Hercules

Collects: Incredible Hulk #106-11 (2007)

Released: May 2008 (Marvel)

Format: 152 pages / color / $14.99 / ISBN: 9780785129912

What is this?: Amadeus Cho, the seventh-smartest person on the planet, gathers a ragtag bunch to save the Hulk and prove he’s not a killer.

The culprits: Writer Greg Pak and pencilers Gary Frank, Leonard Kirk, and Carlo Pagulayan

The follow-up to Planet Hulk, which ran from Incredible Hulk #92-105, should logically run in Incredible Hulk #106-111. That just makes sense, right? Of course.

But Hulk: The Incredible Hercules, which reprints those issues, is not the logical continuation of the story. No, sir. That story is too big to be continued in Incredible Hulk, instead getting its own miniseries, World War Hulk.

So Incredible Hercules can’t tell the main story. What’s left for it to do? Tell a story in which the Hulk is a secondary character — maybe even tertiary. Bold! Daring! Perhaps incredibly stupid!

Hulk: Incredible Hercules coverThe protagonist is teenager Amadeus Cho, the “seventh smartest person in the world,” who can take out tanks with a pebble. Thanks to a chance meeting with the Hulk before Planet Hulk, Cho is certain the Hulk isn’t a monster; to prove it, he gathers a team including Namora and former Champions Angel and Hercules. They hie themselves to New York to stop Hulk from committing atrocities or maybe verify he isn’t doing so.

Writer Greg Pak has to be certain not to tread on the toes of the main story. He can reference Hulk destroying New York or capturing the heroes who shanghaied him to a gladiator planet or taking out Sentry, but he can’t delve into it as fully as one might want. He has to stay on the periphery of the story. Cho is his vehicle to do this, leading his team to prevent New York from blowing up and convincing the Hulk he’s not a monster. The estimate of Cho’s intelligence seems entirely too low; if he were a supervillain, he would be entirely too effective. Cho’s character is that of an irritant: he’s so smart he thinks he knows better than everyone else, and the most annoying thing is he’s right. It’s fun to watch him run mental rings about Angel; Hercules certainly thinks so too.

The pacing is entirely off. It takes Cho two issues to get to New York and confront Hulk, and the next (#108) is wasted on contrasting the attitudes of Rick Jones and Miek, the Hulk’s first and latest sidekicks. The issue feels like filler, a needless flashback, and it saps the momentum of the story: the conflict has been launched, and then Pak presents readers with two opposing visions of what the Hulk is, a philosophical argument in text boxes. Never mind that neither Rick nor Miek makes an important contribution to Incredible Hercules; their views are put forward as credible and significant. (NOTE: After writing this review, I learned the conflict between these two is important in the main World War Hulk story. Given that I had no idea about the tie-in, I have to feel this element of the story is a failure.)

The second half is divided between saving the collapsing rubble that is New York, Cho arguing with Hulk over the Hulk’s essential nature, and absorbing the spillover from World War Hulk. Either of the first two could have been an effective story, given the space and development afforded by this book. But with three issues to work with, and working with that spillover, there’s not enough room for any of those threads to support significant interest.

So the overall story is weak and disjointed. Does this work to launch the book in its new direction, a Cho / Hercules team up? Yes and no. Cho is definitely developed enough in the book, and although he’s an annoying little know-it-all, I could see him as a sidekick / partner in a book. However, Hercules is just one of his teammates, despite getting cover billing — perhaps the supporting character with the most screen time, but without anything other than a willingness to listen to Cho and an ability to believe the best in Hulk to distinguish him. This book doesn’t make me want to read a Hercules solo book. It doesn’t make me want to read a Cho book, for that matter; he’s just too annoying.

A sign of Incredible Hercules’s second-rate status is in the art: pencils are divvied equally between Gary Frank, Leonard Kirk, and Carlo Pagulayan. Marvel can’t even be bothered to make them in sets of two; Frank has the first two issues, then one by Kirk, two by Pagulayan, then the final issue by Kirk. They’re all good artists with connections to the characters — Pagulayan worked on Planet Hulk, Frank worked on several Incredible Hulk issues during the Peter David run, and Kirk is the definitive modern artist of Namora, given his work on Agents of Atlas. Still, three pencilers in six issues is never a good sign.

Despite the book’s many flaws, I can’t deny there are more than a few fun moments, with Cho’s calm contrasting against the panic of Angel and others. Although I don’t think Hercules is a strong enough character to deserve his name in the title, Pak does seem to have a soft spot for him, giving him the larger-than-life good cheer and brawling nature that has marked his appearances and adding a strong, stubborn streak of loyalty to both Cho and the Hulk.

There are some small gems in here. This story can’t support itself; to be mine those gems, you have to also read World War Hulk.

Rating: Hulk head Hulk head (2 of 5)

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04 July 2009

Freedom Excuse

It’s the Fourth of July; I’m celebrating my freedom. Here is a story about how I choose to do it:

You might think the Evil Robot James Buchanan would choose Independence Day as his special day to terrorize, given that his despicable brain patterns are based on a man who terrorized the country as an ineffectual president for four long years. But his brain-child has never tried to ruin the country’s birthday; the Evil Robot James Buchanan takes off all patriotic holidays as the excessive love of country sickens (and weakens) him. Also, no one has sent him a President’s Day card in a century, except for the director of Wheatland, his presidential home. And that’s just a pity card. He knows that — he’s not fooling himself, even if he does tell everyone President’s Day is just a made-up, Hallmark holiday. What really galls him is that Robot Lincoln gets tons of the cards; if only his progenitor had been able to end / stop the Civil War! Of course, if that had happened, Evil Robot James Buchanan would not be Evil Robot James Buchanan, and James Buchanan wouldn’t have been James Buchanan: he would have been competent.

I used to have a standing battle on July 4th against Red Tape, the Communist bureaucrat supervillain; it was a home-and-home thing, where he’d come over here on our Independence Day, and I’d head to Moscow or Riga or Astana or some damn place on May 1. (It’s still cold in most of country at that time of year, let me tell you; he could never figure out why I kept attacking the Crimea.) But since the breakup of the Soviet Union and the metamorphosis of Communist rulers into capitalist oligarchs, the matchup hasn’t had the same juice. We discontinued it after September 11; it just seemed tacky then. There’s some talk of him rebranding himself “Kleptocrat” or “Sticky Fingers,” a tool of the corrupt, but we both know that’s just talk. It’s sad, really. I have dozens of Yakov Smirnoff jokes I’m never going to get to use.

So the last few years I’ve been squaring off against a British brawler named John Bullsh*t, but frankly, he stinks. His fighting moves are crap, his quips are simply gutter level, and he’s a stain on the British national character. And he’s probably going to curl up in the bathroom and cry himself to sleep when he reads this. Boo-frickin’-hoo, John. Go buy yourself a stiff upper lip.

So I throw this open to my readers: do you know anyone who would make a good sparring partner for the Fourth of July?

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01 July 2009

Incredible Hulk: Planet Hulk

Collects: Incredible Hulk # 92-105, Giant-Size Hulk #1, Amazing Fantasy v. 2 #15 (2006-7)

Released: June 2007 (Marvel)

Format: 416 pages / color / $39.99 / ISBN: 9780785122456

What is this?: Hulk, exiled by not-so-smart guys, smashes a whole new planet.

The culprits: Writer Greg Pak and pencillers Aaron Lopresti and Carlo Pagulayan

I’ve said in other reviews that I am a fan of the Hulk because of his changeability, his not being tied to New York City or the same superhero ethos of his Marvel brethren. The Hulk does stranger things than the other heroes; even Marvel’s scientist-explorers, the Fantastic Four, confront the world through rationality and scientific inquiry. The Hulk has no such schema to help him; he’s just as bewildered wherever he goes, and brother, he sees some bewildering things. It can make even a repetitive Hulk adventure mildly enjoyable.

Then there is Incredible Hulk: Planet Hulk. Hulk has been exiled to another planet by people who should be smarter; unfortunately, he doesn’t end up on the planet he was aimed at, falling instead on Sakaar, a world ruled by a despotic emperor, where gladiatorial combats are a popular entertainment. The Hulk is taken into slavery when he arrives, and of course, after slavery comes the gladiatorial combats.

Incredible Hulk: Planet Hulk coverYou can guess what’s coming next.

Writer Greg Pak guides the Hulk through this alien setting, with the Hulk meeting aliens from all over the Marvel Universe (plus new species). Weird new settings is Hulk’s forte, and certainly, the Hulk is the star of the show. Pak does an excellent job taking him through an emotional range that in earlier incarnations might have been overlooked. But the other aliens in his army — his Warbound — are interesting in their own right, each with their own personality and story. The Hulk swaggers through the story, smashing and creating havoc, but it’s his fellow gladiators who hold the story together.

It’s an amazing story, really: more than a year dedicated to one Hulk story with a large scope, from slavery to revolution to remaking a world. To a certain extent, such a thing couldn’t have been done before. Before Peter David, such extended storylines — more than a year on a single non-Earth planet — would have been a difficult sell (although Bill Mantlo did a long story about a mindless Hulk stranded at the crossworlds of reality, it traveled through several different settings). David’s long run could have had such a story, but David favored humor over the stark, violent world that Planet Hulk embraces. (Not that David couldn’t have done something similar, but it would have been an odd fit.) And the less said of the Bruce Jones run, the better.

Pak has created an entire new world for the Hulk to play in. He uses some of the established parts — the Brood, the Stone Men of Saturn that Thor fought in his origin — but the world of Sakaar is imaginative and detailed, as the appendix describing the history, society, creatures, and technology of Sakaar show. Pak has created a world that is a hodgepodge, and then he and the artists let their imagination go wild.

Both Aaron Lopresti and Carlo Pagulayan are up to the task. They both do excellent work, and their styles mesh well together. I prefer Lopresti’s work by a small margin, but both are imaginative, producing detailed work on one page and sweeping vistas on the next. Marvel scored a coup here, finding not one but two artists who could put into pictures what they and Pak imagined.

It’s hard for me to say how much I like Planet Hulk. Rarely do I read such a large superhero story and find it interesting; even more rarely am I absorbed by it. Planet Hulk is that story. It’s not perfect — the “Mastermind Excello” story at the end is a confusing trailer for the next story, and there are times the plot seems to wallow in misery for the purpose of making the story grittier. But Planet Hulk is among the best of the Hulk stories ever — certainly the best of the last decade, standing alongside the best of David’s run.

Rating: Hulk head Hulk head Hulk head Hulk head Half of a Hulk head (4.5 of 5)

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