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

24 September 2010

Birds of Prey, v. 5: Perfect Pitch

Collects: Birds of Prey #86-90, 92-5 (2005-6)

Released: February 2007 (DC)

Format: 224 pages / color / $17.99 / ISBN: 9781401211912

What is this?: The Birds of Prey set up shop in Superman’s hometown, but the roster of the all-female team keeps shifting.

The culprits: Writer Gail Simone and penciler Paulo Siqueira (with others)

Birds of Prey, v. 5: Perfect Pitch is a big step up over the previous volumes. And not just because it’s the first volume to feature no art by Ed Benes.

No, in this volume, writer Gail Simone has two stories to tell, and she doesn’t let fill-in issues or a line-wide “one year later” mandate get in the way. Perfect Pitch is filled with fun, action-filled stories without skimping on characterization, witty banter, or victories for each character.

Birds of Prey: Perfect Pitch coverThere are two main storylines in Perfect Pitch. In the first, which lasts from #87-90, Oracle and the Birds of Prey follow through with Huntress’s plan to infiltrate and neuter the Gotham mobs while Calculator tries to discover Oracle’s identity. In the second, lasting from #92-5, the Birds of Prey — now counting Lady Shiva as a member — tries to keep Matthew Thorne, the Crime Doctor, and his daughter safe as he tries to defect to the side of angels.

The first arc sets up the Calculator as a nemesis for Oracle. This is fitting; they fulfill the same roles, although Oracle gives information and computer hacking to the heroes (primarily Bat-Family) and Calculator, for a fee, to the villains. I appreciate Simone keeping the heroes occupied with a previous plot involving the Gotham mobs while Calculator is making his move; it gives Calculator some credit, being able to put his pieces in place without the heroes knowing what’s coming. Of course, his pieces aren’t as good as Oracle’s, but that’s to be expected. Oracle’s new, sunnier disposition and Black Canary’s banter with Green Arrow are a pleasure, and Oracle letting her father know about her work is a good decision for the character.

Two big guest stars loom over this arc: Batman and Deathstroke. Batman is used well, glowering disapprovingly at Oracle and Huntress and generally acting like a holier-than-thou jackhole. Which is fine, as Batman, even at his most heroic, can sometimes come off that way. On the other hand, Deathstroke seems weakened by disinterest, delaying and talking when he could have had his opponents at his mercy. He never really seems interested in fighting, as if fighting or the opponents are not worth his time. His entire appearance, after a menacing opening sniper shot he doesn’t ending up taking, consists of him telling his adversaries to give up, with occasional punches used as punctuation.

The second arc makes good use of DC’s post Infinite Crisis “one year later” gimmick to have Black Canary and assassin Lady Shiva switch places — Lady Shiva becomes a member of the Birds of Prey, while Canary undergoes the training that made Sandra Wu-San into the deadliest assassin in the world. Shiva as the “Jade Canary” is amusing and vicious. She refuses to take the mental illness of the Ventriloquist seriously and has an unreasonable antipathy toward dolls; she attacks villains without pity or regard for their long-term well-being — or their competence level, really.

Black Canary’s training is less successful as a sequence; it is necessarily truncated, as it’s shown in occurring in the same time span as the rush to save the Crime Doctor. In the end, there are only three sequences in the training regimen, so it is difficult to show much development or how hard the long-term conditioning would be. The final sequence, with Canary battling a warlord’s entire army, is intellectually an impressive feat, but it’s hard to judge how much her training aided her victory.

The plan to help the Crime Doctor defect in return for his library of villain’s medical files works as a vehicle for Shiva’s tenure with the Birds, although since his information is so important, I’m not sure why the organized villains don’t send more muscle to stop him. Granted, Prometheus is impressive, so it’s easy to argue the villains would consider him more than enough to take care of things. The story has a powerful ending, full of compromise and sacrifice; the exchange of students between Canary and Shiva illustrates evil can’t be averted, just diverted.

(One thing I couldn’t figure out: Why did it take a couple of issues before Simone identified who Gypsy was? She appears, the Birds accept her without identifying her, and then her name is given two issues later. It just seems a basic piece of information to reveal. A simple “You’ll be working with Gypsy” or “Hi, Gypsy!” or “Gypsy?” would have sufficed. It wasn’t a secret reveal, since there was no fanfare over the revelation. Is there something about Gypsy and secrecy I don’t understand?)

Usually, I would complain about a missing issue in the middle of a trade paperback, but the issue in question, #91, was a fill-in issue written by Jim Alexander and penciled by Brad Walker. I have nothing against these two creators — or for them, either — but a fill-in in the middle of Simone’s 50 or so issue run just before a big editorial gimmick is probably going to be as missable as an issue can be. So DC probably made the right choice here to omit #91.

I call shotgunAs I mentioned, this is the first Birds of Prey without Benes, and I couldn’t be happier. Paulo Siquiero provides the bulk of the pencils; his work is good, more than slightly reminiscent of Terry Dodson in line and style. Appropriate, considering Dodson provides the cover for the volume. On the other hand, someone should really get him a picture of what a shotgun is, as the gun he draws as the punchline of the joke on the right is more of a machine gun. Joe Bennett, who has worked on previous volumes, does part of two issues and turns in decent work, and although it’s a little too much like Benes’s work for me, it does avoid most of Benes’s cheesecake tendencies. Among the other artists, Bruce Timm provides the art for one of two stories in #86, an amusing tale well suited for his art.

This is, I think, my favorite volume of Simone’s Birds of Prey. It’s got unexpected twists, snappy dialogue, and plenty of action, and even though it might not appeal to those who aren’t into Birds of Prey (at least until they read the first four volumes of Simone’s run), it’s worth catching up for. (And yes, I know I’m quite a bit behind.)

Rating: DC logo DC logo DC logo DC logo (4 of 5)

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17 September 2010

Jonah Hex: No Way Back

Collects: OGN

Released: June 2010 (DC)

Format: 136 pages / color / $19.99 / ISBN: 9781401225506

What is this?: Bounty hunter Jonah Hex deals with the family he never knew he had while being pursued for his father’s sins.

The culprits: Writers Justin Gray and Jimmy Palmiotti and artist Tony DeZuniga

Released to coincide with the Jonah Hex movie, Jonah Hex: No Way Back is probably better than big-screen version.

I’m just guessing, though. I haven’t seen the movie. I was really excited to see it, but then most of the reviews confirmed the dire news the trailers were showing: it was less Jonah Hex and more Wild Wild West 2,48 and no amount of Megan Fox in a corset was going to get me to see that. Once was twice too many already.

Jonah Hex: No Way Back coverDespite lacking corseted whores with hearts of gold, No Way Back is a solid little Western tale. It has an excellent pedigree; artist Tony DeZuniga is one of Hex’s co-creators, and writers Justin Gray and Jimmy Palmiotti are co-writers on the regular Hex series. Those three know what makes Jonah Hex work — bad men, a clear moral sense from Hex, lots of gunplay, and a high body count — and it’s all present here.

Gray, Palmiotti, and DeZuniga tell an important story about Hex’s wanderings, involving Hex’s rarely seen family, family he didn’t know he had, and one of his most frequent enemies, El Papagayo. Most of the character bits in No Way Back have been told before, but they’re not exactly well-known parts of his story: his mother running away with a traveling salesman, his father giving him to the Apache, the source of his mutilation. The idea of Hex having a previously unknown brother apparently came from idea bruited by DeZuniga and Hex’s original writer, John Albano.

It’s a lot to fit into 136 pages, especially since not only does El Papagayo reveal a connection between himself and Hex’s father but also because the stakes in Hex’s fight with him are larger than comics readers are used to between a hero and one of his recurring villains. It is ambitious; it feels cramped. However, I think what I term as ambition is really an attempt to tell a story a movie audience would be more interested in. (Or maybe it’s just DC loosening the creator’s reins to let them tell a big Hex story.) Let’s face it: despite tons of popular comic book movies over the past decade, the popularity of comic books has not increased measurably. It would make sense DC wanted something different than the normal serialized stories to offer to moviegoers when Hex came out; a big, self-contained story that told a good deal of Jonah Hex’s backstory might be just the trick.

For me, No Way Back doesn’t have to be a big story, but for the purpose it was commissioned for, it did. I can be satisfied with any story from Hex’s life, as long as it fits the character and is exciting, but there would be no reason to do an original graphic novel for that. Gray and Palmiotti get to do that in the Jonah Hex series; they’ve told almost five years of those stories. I can’t blame them for wanting to raise the stakes or DC for allowing them. However, the major revelation of the existence of Hex’s brother combined with the use of Hex’s most recognizable foe not in the movie makes me feel as if the importance of the plot is being shouted at me.

Perhaps I’m being too picky. But that feeling of 200 pages of plot being crammed into 136 pages of OGN isn’t completely in my head. The fight scenes are abbreviated, with only one good twist and one extended fight in the whole book. Unfortunately, there are times in that fight when DeZuniga’s art isn’t at its best, either lacking clarity or fluidity.

DeZuniga’s art is actually my only other niggling complaint. DeZuniga is almost 70 years old, and for a 70 year old, his work is excellent. But his line isn’t as straight or sharp as it once was, with some scenes lacking detail, and as I mentioned, his action scenes were occasionally lacking. I have to admit, however, he can still draw Jonah Hex’s scarred face, Western scenes, and pretty ladies well.

I have, in the past few years, wondered when the Big 2 companies would end their reliance on the monthly comic book and go straight to publishing original graphic novels. Now that the future of comics looks to be electronic, that day will probably never come. But No Way Back shows me why I was probably wasting my time waiting. Comic book readers are programmed to expect every story to further the character’s narrative or fill in his backstory. But No Way Back feels … unconnected. It fits in a place in Hex’s story — 1880, according to Wikipedia, but I didn’t see anything confirming that in the book — but it doesn’t feel like it connects to anything before or after. That might be because I don’t regularly read comics with Jonah Hex, but I don’t think so.

Still, No Way Back is a fun and violent read, despite my niggling concerns.

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

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14 September 2010

A Journey to the Amazon

Comic Book Collections for Libraries coverAfter receiving my publisher’s catalog yesterday, I found out the book my wife and I wrote about comic books in libraries — cleverly titled Comic Book Collections for Libraries — has an ISBN (9781598845112) and a release date (January 2011). And like I so often do when I get an ISBN, I looked the book up on Amazon, and there it was, complete with the cover drawn by our friend, Derek Steed.

It just keeps getting more and more real all the time.

The Quarter Bin: Batman & Robin #1

Trade paperbacks and — God forbid — hardbacks are a big risk; dropping $14.99 to $34.99 on material you’re not sure about can lead to buyer’s remorse and bitter, bitter recriminations. Why didn’t someone warn you that Captain America and the Falcon, v. 1: Two Americas was so bad? A sample would have warned you, but you had to order the whole thing.

Well, I’m not made of money either. So I’m trying out that sampling approach in The Quarter Bin. Recent comics that have lower promotional prices, are Free Comic Book Day giveaways, or I have found in that holy of holies, the Quarter Bin, get a quick review and a recommendation on whether it might be worthwhile to pick up the trade. So, without further ado, we have …

The Issue: Batman & Robin (special edition) #1 (August 2009, DC)

The Culprits: Written by Grant Morrison, art by Frank Quitely

The Hook: Cheerful Dick Grayson takes over as Batman, with Bruce Wayne’s brooding son, Damian, as his Robin.

Collected in: Batman and Robin, v. 1: Batman Reborn

Batman & Robin #1 coverStrengths: You know what you’re going to get with a Grant Morrison story — some interesting story ideas and some sick villains. The latter is here, as the villains go from cartoonishly ugly to terrifying within a single issue. The former … not yet, although that’s not a bad thing when Morrison writes for DC: he has a fascination with Silver Age ideas / stories that should be left alone. This isn’t Silver Age stuff, although there is a whiff of silver in the circus folk adversaries and their mysterious cargo of dominoes. On the other hand, I want to know why those dominoes are important. Dick slips into the Batman costume with some — but not too much — angst while watching Damian slip into his old costume. Morrison revives the Bronze Age Batcave under the Wayne Foundation building (not that it’s named in the story) for the new Batman.

Weaknesses: European carnies? Really? Against Batman? Also, I don’t like Frank Quitely’s art — I find it creepy at the best of times — those wide heads that aren’t quite … smooth, unsettling faces. The Flying Batmobile doesn’t particularly look like a Batmobile.

Mitigation: Many people think I’m stupid for not liking Quitely’s art, that he’s quite innovative and an excellent storyteller. And I do like the slightly retro styling of the vehicles in Quitely’s Gotham. On the other hand, there’s always time for Morrison to run off the rails, as he occasionally did in Batman: R.I.P..

Judgment: I enjoyed this and was intrigued by the story, occasionally in spite of myself. There’s a definite emphasis on the new — from the Batcave to the Batmobile, everything but Alfred has been changed and rearranged for a new Batman — so it actually feels different from what has come before. Even if Bruce Wayne is coming back and Morrison’s spent the last couple of years writing Batman.

Hardcover, TPB, or Nothing?: Unless you disliked Morrison’s previous Bat-work, I would recommend the TPB — I enjoy Batman, and I enjoyed Morrison and Quitely’s collaboration on New X-Men — but that doesn’t come out for another seven months. So if you want Batman & Robin in a collected form, you have to go with the hardcover until next year.

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11 September 2010

Catwoman, v. 1: The Dark End of the Street

Collects: Catwoman (v. 3) #1-4, backups from Detective Comics #759-62 (2001-2)

Released: August 2002 (DC)

Format: 136 pages / color / $14.99 / ISBN: 9781563899089

What is this?: Catwoman returns from the dead to rediscover a purpose to her costumed antics — in this case, that’s investigating the murder of prostitutes.

The culprits: Writer Ed Brubaker and artist Darwyn Cooke

Today, writer Ed Brubaker and artist Darwyn Cooke would be seen as a crime comic dream team. Almost a decade ago, that pairing wouldn’t quite seem so auspicious, but readers got a peak at what the pair could do in one of DC’s most crime-centered books, Catwoman.

Catwoman, v. 1: The Dark End of the Street reprints Brubaker and Cooke’s first arc in the revived Catwoman title along with a series of backups the pair had done in Detective Comics. In Dark End, Selina Kyle / Catwoman has returned from hiding after the world thinks her dead. She has a new, sleeker, better costume, she’s in therapy, and she’s ready to figure out who she is.

Catwoman: The Dark End of the Street coverI frequently assign the artist’s work secondary importance to the writer’s, but that’s not the case here: Darwyn Cooke is the book’s main attraction. His art is sleek, beautiful, and never confusing. Dark End has a slightly retro look, one that fits the image the Gotham City has had ever since Batman: The Animated Series — appropriate, since Cooke as an artist for the show. Selina looks like a woman from another time while still maintaining a modern appearance; her new costume — a nearly unbelievable improvement on the purple Jim Balent model — is a retro futuristic design, with stylish modern goggles, a catsuit that is classic while also managing to seem contemporary, and charmingly clunky buckles and zipper pull. He even manages to pull off dark, noir scenes and bright settings with equal ease.

It almost makes me want to go out and buy a copy of his adaptation of Richard Stark’s Parker: The Hunter. Almost.

The plot is thin, as most of the book focuses on Selina’s character. For the most part, Brubaker writes Selina as a standard soul-searching hero spurred into action, although he does give her a few moments of verve and wit that elevate some of the character moments. But there’s not much room for lightheartedness in Dark End; there’s a murder plot, and of course, since it involves Catwoman and was written after Batman: Year One, the victims are prostitutes. I can understand why Brubaker would choose a serial killer targeting prostitutes as part of his plot — it makes sense for the character, the tone, and a Gotham City protected by Batman and corrupt police — but it feels a bit too predictable. Brubaker and Cooke give the murdered girls a bit of personality before they’re shuffled off the stage, so at least they aren’t faceless victims.

As a casual DC reader, I have to wonder, does it matter the villain is just a throwaway despite using a more established villain’s shtick? The murderer looks like a Clayface and acts like a Clayface, but no one — not even Selina or Batman — mentions the name “Clayface.” Is that an attempt to make the storymore reader friendly for those who aren’t immersed in the DC Universe, or does it kinda look shoddy? I can’t decide; I see both points. The more pressing concern is that the villain isn’t all that impressive or interesting.

But the villain and the investigation isn’t what’s important in the story. The whole point of Dark End is to set up Catwoman’s new status quo: dealing with her past, helping those without hope, etc. I’ve had my problems with Captain Retcon in the past, but Brubaker does do a good job of working through the mess that previous creators left them. He touches lightly on what comes before, mainly to let the reader know the setup he’s presenting is new — and from the hints he lays down, what came before was pretty dire.

Brubaker also works hard to show how Catwoman fits into Gotham and the Bat-Family. She’s confiding in Dr. Leslie Thompkins — who now evidently fits psychoanalysis into her little medical clinic — and trying to fit into the rules the Dark Knight has set for her and Gotham. Not having access to Bat Computers or Oracle, Catwoman has to go through intermediaries to get her information. And since Gotham cops are as honest as Batman is lazy, there’s always room for another crimefighter to help the underclass — if Catwoman wants to fight crime and not commit them.

The backup strips at the beginning of the book are a setup for the new Catwoman; Brubaker and Cooke revive Golden Age character Slam Bradley, who is hired to look for the supposedly dead Catwoman. I remember reading strips in the original issues of Detective Comics and being entertained, but in collected form, they don’t work as well. The art and story are compressed to fit into a smaller page count, with each suffering as a result. Slam Bradley’s investigation involves getting beat up and beating up a lot of people in pointless fights until he’s given a resolution he hasn’t discovered; Cooke’s art is frequently compressed into a 3x3 grid, which gives the art a claustrophobic feel. The murky coloring doesn’t help matters either.

I went back and forth on a final evaluation of Dark End. Although I wasn’t impressed by the plot and I didn’t particularly care about what the character of Catwoman had to be rehabilitated from, I couldn’t give a book with such excellent art and a competent plot a dead middle-of-the-road score. So I have to recommend Dark End, but keep in mind the recommendation is mostly for Darwyn Cooke’s art.

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

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07 September 2010

Random Chatter

For those of you who are interested, I recently made a guest appearance on Random Chatter, the flagship podcast on the network of a long-time friend, Erik Blythe. The Random Chatter network’s Lost Chatter podcast is no more because, you know, Lost is finished, but Erik decided to use a Random Chatter episode for a discussion of the series with some guest hosts, including Jay from, Miranda from The Signal, and me. You can find the podcast at, or you can search iTunes for Random Chatter.

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03 September 2010

Usagi Yojimbo, v. 24: Return of the Black Soul

Collects: Usagi Yojimbo #103-9 (2007-8)

Released: July 2010 (Dark Horse)

Format: 192 pages / black and white / $16.99 / ISBN: 9781595824721

What is this?: When bounty hunters intensify their hunt for Inazuma, Usagi and his friends hunt for her to put an end to the demon Jei.

The culprit: Stan Sakai

I have, in the past, gone on about how good Usagi Yojimbo is. If you’re already on board with that or are tired of hearing me praise a series starring a samurai rabbit in a 17th century Japan that is populated by anthropomorphic animals, then you can skip the rest of this review, because that’s what I’m going to say about Usagi Yojimbo, v. 24: Return of the Black Soul.

In Black Soul, writer / artist Stan Sakai brings the long-running subplot of Inazuma and Jei, the demon who has possessed her and who is the series’ most terrifying adversary, to a climax. Bounty hunters have been pursuing Inazuma since before her possession because she killed the son of a gangster; when the gangster increases the reward, bounty hunters increase their efforts but find more than they bargain for.

Usagi Yojimbo, v. 24: The Return of the Black Soul coverOf course, Usagi and his friends (bounty hunters Gen and Stray Dog and the priest Sanshobo) are in just the right place to find Inazuma, as is a mysterious man named Isamu. They must compete with the bounty hunters to find Inazuma, even though they have different motivations for finding the swordswoman.

Black Soul is the demon Jei’s story, and it shows why the demon is so frightening. He corrupts all he touches, tainting the lives of even those who survive his attacks. He can survive death, returning to possess one of those he has injured in a prior attack. As a swordsman, Jei is almost without peer, destroying all those who he finds “evil” — which tends to be anyone who has reached adulthood. And with him always is his companion: a young, cheerful girl named Keiko. That’s really the creepiest thing about Jei: no matter what a bloodbath he creates around him, Keiko remains unremittingly cheerful about her “uncle” (or “aunt” in Black Circle, since Inazuma is a woman).

This volume is nicely focused. Usually there are other stories simmering in the background of a volume of Usagi Yojimbo, but Jei’s story is one of the most important in the entire series — probably the most important of all of Usagi’s adversaries — so Sakai wisely refrains from inserting any subplots or even setting up the next arc. Black Soul is entirely about Jei, and Sakai includes Jei’s origins in a flashback story originally presented in #103. It is a fittingly tragic story, in which good intentions and the desire to save an innocent’s life leads to horrible, horrible consequences.

The art is Sakai’s usual top-notch stuff, so consistent you could be forgiven for thinking some sort of mechanical replication was present, and so subtle, so full of emotion that such a thought is simultaneously impossible. Sakai has to draw a lot of people in emotional torment in Black Soul, and he does a good job of it — Inazuma, at one point, looks as if she is almost coming apart from her internal battle. The volume is also full of the swordfighting that Sakai is so good at drawing, and Jei does give him a chance to show one or two neat maneuvers that normally wouldn’t be possible.

Although Black Soul has the biggest emotional wallop in Usagi Yojimbo in some time — and given the last few volumes, that’s a pretty big statement — there are a few flaws … I’m tempted to call them nitpicks, but they’re more of plotting concerns. Usagi and Sanshobo separately and coincidentally run into Isamu, Gen, and Stray Dog despite knowing nothing of Inazuma or Jei’s presence in the area — in fact, until this volume, neither knew Jei survived Usagi Yojimbo, v. 12: Grasscutter. It’s also awfully convenient that a powerful demon possessing one of the fastest samurai in Usagi’s world gets injured the way she does, but such things happen, I suppose. Neither is a story breaker, and there are more contrived plot points in other comics all the time, but neither was easy to swallow.

Still: when it comes to v. 24 of most series, I would normally recommend the book to those who have already read at least up to v. 20. In this case, I would say even if you haven’t read Usagi Yojimbo before, you should pick this up (perhaps reading Usagi Yojimbo, v. 6: Circles and Grasscutter to give you a little background first). Black Soul is outstanding work from one of the great comic book series.

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

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