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

30 December 2010

Birds of Prey, v. 7: Dead of Winter

Collects: Birds of Prey #104-8 (2007)

Released: February 2008 (DC)

Format: 128 pages / color / $17.99 / ISBN: 9781401216412

What is this?: Gail Simone wraps up her run on the title with one final mission and a battle for the team’s leadership.

The culprits: Writer Gail Simone and penciler Nicola Scott

For reasons I can’t quite recall, it’s taken me almost two years to get to the end of writer Gail Simone’s four-year run on Birds of Prey. But with Birds of Prey, v. 7: Dead of Winter, Simone reaches the end, and I catch up with her there.

You would think that in modern comics, which both hallows and cannot sustain long runs, that there would be a great deal of attention paid to the ending of a long string of consecutive issues by a writer — throwing everything the book has on the page or trying to make this an “end of an era” sort of book, with a knowing wink (“Here we go again!”) thrown at the reader or at least a heart-felt “Thanks!” from the writer. But there’s none of that, just a simple “The End!” to mark the passing of Simone’s 53 issues. I appreciate that, and either DC does as well or they mandated it; after all, they’re trying to convince readers that the writers who follow, Tony Bedard and Sean McKeever, supply either the same or higher quality stories, and signaling that something big has passed is never the way to do that. On the other hand, the non-comics part of #108 could have been filled with all sorts of weepy goodbyes and eulogies, for all I know.

Birds of Prey: Dead of Winter coverBut I wouldn’t have begrudged Simone the chance to go out with a big bang; it is a comics tradition, after all. It used to be said of Spider-Man in the Bronze Age that you could tell when a writer was leaving the title because he’d wheel out his Green Goblin story. But the only green I see in this story is on the costumes of Spy Smasher and Knockout.

In Dead of Winter, Simone gives the team its biggest shakeup of her tenure, sending a squad out on another mission as team founder Oracle’s authority is being usurped by Spy Smasher, the revival of a Golden Age hero’s identity. Spy Smasher gained control of the Birds by revealing she knew Oracle’s real identity and threatening Oracle’s father’s reputation and career. She’s the only person to crack Oracle’s ID after so many have tried, so this should be a giant showdown, one that unspools in every issue of the book and in the background of every scene — or, if not in every scene, then at least a few of them. This should be epic, a huge stone carved with letters that say, “I made these minor characters into something that actually matters.”

But it’s not.

It’s another mission, albeit one with a little tension. The mission itself isn’t even morally dubious, even though we’re told Spy Smasher is a bad egg: Spy Smasher leads the team on a rescue of a hero who has been missing for years.

The conflict between Spy Smasher and Oracle is resolved by half of a fight between the two, followed by a little intimidation by all the living Birds of Prey. It’s just 12 pages, four of them taken up by two double-page spreads that involve people standing around and looking at Spy Smasher (or the reader, depending on your point of view). It doesn’t even address the power over Oracle’s dad that allowed Spy Smasher to take over the Birds in the first place. It’s a letdown, to say the least.

And that’s a shame, because it diverts attention from a very good Simone story. The plot itself is relatively simple, but Dead of Winter matches Simone’s previous work on Birds for character moments, quick wit, and plot twists. Matching the Birds against the other team Simone has had success with — the Secret Six — gives Simone a chance to write villains who are as witty as the protagonists. She seems to have a lot of fun with Big Barda as well, from her casual disregard of oozing bullet wounds to her joyful decision to start a fight. Zinda, Lady Blackhawk, gets her moment to show that she knows a thing or two about what you do with “tightass tinpots.” Even Spy Smasher is appropriately ambiguous while getting a decent share of the good lines.

Continuing from where she started in #100, Nicola Scott provides the art for this volume. Scott’s work shows how things have improved since the beginning of Simone’s run; Scott’s characters are attractive people, but unlike those in the work of, say, Ed Benes, they don’t look like they’re being posed for a series of cheesecake pinups. She doesn’t overplay the comedy, matching the understated humor in the dialogue. As I mentioned in Birds of Prey, v. 6: Blood and Circuits, I do dig her clean pencils, and she’s excellent at drawing fight scenes. Sometimes her faces are a little too similar; without costumes, for instance, it would be difficult to tell who is who in the fight between Scandal Savage and Hawkgirl. Still, she is probably the best of the artists Simone has worked with.

Dead of Winter delivers the consistently high quality that readers have come to expect from Simone and her Birds of Prey, and I’m glad I’ve read the entire run. However, it doesn’t transcend that level of quality — it isn’t greater than what came before, and it doesn’t seem like it fully capitalizes on the title’s past. Perhaps I shouldn’t expect it; it isn’t an obligation, but I still mark the book down a little for it. Still, instead of giving the book a big sendoff, Simone gives readers just another volume.

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

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25 December 2010

Batwoman: Elegy

Collects: Detective Comics #854-60 (2009-10)

Released: June 2010 (DC)

Format: 192 pages / color / $24.99 / ISBN: 9781401226923

What is this?: The new Batwoman — how does she work this superhero game? How did she get here? What is that beautiful house? Is she right, or is she wrong?

The culprits: Writer Greg Rucka and artist J.H. Williams III

To me, nothing quite says “the birth of Baby Jesus” like pictures of people being punched and kicked in the face drawn by J.H. Williams III. But perhaps your idea of Christmas is a bit different than mine.

In any event, J.H. Williams week ends with Batwoman: Elegy. Unlike the previous entry, Promthea, Books 3 and 4, little the writer does can overshadow Williams’s distinctive art.

Batwoman: Elegy coverWilliams deserves the accolades he has received for his work on Batwoman. His range is simply astonishing. He shifts his style depending on the situation — superhero battles have are in a different style than Batwoman’s interactions with her father, which are different than her childhood days, which differ from war scenes … and it’s all outstanding. I was convinced there had to be guest artists for some of the issues, since the styles were so different. But it’s only Williams.

The most striking art includes his depictions of Batwoman in her battle vs. the Crime Cult. The layouts are simply unlike anything you see elsewhere, with traditional panel grids frequently forsaken for jagged overlapping pictures that manage to combine the violence of the action as well as play with the nature of time. This art is the prettiest, as well — as much as I like the Mike Allred-style art that depicts Batwoman’s childhood, few readers are going to choose it over that of the main story. Part of the appeal is the stark red and black palette used by colorist Dave Stewart; Stewart avoids muddying Williams’s finished art and manages to give the book a distinct look that readers can absorb without even deciphering the art. But even the other scenes in the book can stand out, as Williams is making choices everywhere in Elegy — in backgrounds, in interweaving symbols into the layout and art — choices that other artists don’t even consider.

Don’t get the idea that Williams is perfect; no artist is. (Even my favorite comic artist, Bill Sienkiewicz, has detractors who make valid complaints about his style.) As I noted in the Promethea review, Williams’s inventive layouts can sometimes be needlessly confusing; there were a half dozen times when I turned the page and wondered whether I had accidentally skipped a page. With Promethea, the overly daring placement of panels can be forgiven, as Moore’s often dry yet still intensely original story cries out for art that is different and inventive. Batwoman, not so much. I also have to fault Williams’s design for the main character a little bit. Starting off Elegy, Batwoman came across as a great design for a villain: that morbidly pale skin, those inhumanly red lips spread in a wide smile … that, coupled with the uncomfortable intimacy between Batwoman and the thug she’s beating up, fits better with someone who’s emulating the Joker than the Bat.

Writer Greg Rucka’s story doesn’t rise to the level of Williams’s art — of course, not very much writing in any medium does. (See: Sturgeon’s Law.) It’s not that Rucka’s story is bad; there’s nothing here that makes me cringe or bores me, and that’s an accomplishment of sorts. But the missing family member who returns from the dead to harass the living and the Alice in Wonderland villain are tired comic book tropes, and like most DC books, Elegy does not care to help you catch up with the continuity the book is based on.

There’s a lot here to like, though, although she does come across as a typical Rucka protagonist: a tough female who can deal out punishment as well as take it. There’s nothing wrong with that, as far as it goes; comics need more characters like that, and Batwoman is different from Rucka’s other characters. She’s a former West Point cadet who was kicked out for her homosexuality; although her stepmother disapproves of her occasionally outré appearance, her father embraces who she is, both in and out of costume, and even supplies, monitors, and advises her.

There’s so much to like I can’t figure out how Rucka makes me so ambivalent about the character. It’s always something with Rucka, and it’s usually something different. I’ve read his Atticus Kodiak novels, and I’ve never actually liked the protagonist or the people he surrounds himself with. I read the Queen and Country novel and was unimpressed with the story. I’ve read other comics of his, and other than Whiteout and Gotham Central, I haven’t cared for them either. In this case, I think it’s the tired family tragedy. The death of her mother and sister at the hands of terrorists doesn’t seem to add depth to the character; that’s just plot trappings that complicate without entertaining or improving the character. Nor does the Crime Bible / prophecy plot add anything, although Rucka’s choice to use that plot in Batwoman’s first lead outing is understandable. Her desire to serve while maintaining the iron core of who she is — unable to compromise on either one — and the sweet relationship she has with her dad are what I want to see more of. The rest … the rest is useless.

Based on Williams’s art, I wish I could give this book my unqualified approval. I can’t, though. I think it’s worth reading, mostly for the art but occasionally for the writing. But I don’t think for a minute that the story will be for all readers, especially those not already familiar with Batwoman’s story. And those who see something unique in Williams’s work will not see much that is different in the writing. Still, Elegy is a solid book.

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

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21 December 2010

Promethea, Books 3 and 4

Collects: Promethea #13-8 and 19-25 (2001-2, 2002-3)

Released: May 2003 (Book 3) and May 2005 (Book 4) (DC / ABC)

Format: 160 (Book 3) and 192 (Book 4) pages / color / $14.99 each / ISBN: 9781401200947 (Book 3) and 9781401200312 (Book 4)

What is this?: Sophie Bangs, embodying the legendary and semi-mythical warrior Promethea, explores the nature of reality, which isn’t as exciting as it sounds.

The culprits: Writer Alan Moore and penciler J.H. Williams III

To celebrate the week leading up to Christmas, the commonality of the books I’m reviewing this week is … penciler J.H. Williams III. And lesbians, I suppose. I’m not sure how that relates to secular or religious Christmas, but that’s what we’ve got.

In any event, I was going to write separate reviews for Promethea: Book 3 and Promethea: Book 4, but they are so similar I found it hard to think of a way in which I could write something different about them.

Promethea, Book 3 coverFor those of you who aren’t a big fan of symbolic journeys, please stop reading this review now and use your time more productively. If you read this, it will be a gigantic waste of your time, as the majority of both books is Promethea, controlled by college student Sophie Bangs, exploring the nature of reality and fiction, the divine and the profane, with a previous bearer of the Promethea identity. There’s a great deal of kabbalah, tarot, language of magic, numerology, and deities involved. Come to think of it, those things might be a red flag for some readers as well.

The symbolic, highly subjective landscapes give Williams a great deal of room for creativity, and he comes through with a number of excellent layouts that are both intriguing and eye-catching. They take more thought than most comic book panels to take in, with readers frequently having to stop and admire (or decipher) his double-page spreads. Although I usually don’t mention such things, colorist Jeromy Cox has a lot to do with the success of Williams’s art (as does inker Mick Gray). It would be easy to muddle or bury the pencils under bad inks or a bad color job, given the amount of detail on the page, but both come through admirably. Cox has an additional remit: Moore often uses a single color for an issue, and working with hues of blue or (the more difficult) red seems like a difficult challenge. Cox comes through with flying, er, colors.

As I mentioned, the detail and symbols in the art can stop the reader cold as they take it in. That normally could cause trouble for the story, which should flow without having to take breaks for art appreciation. Unfortunately — or fortunately, depending on how you want to look at it — there’s not much of a story here. There’s a lot of lecturing from Moore, but I’m not sure enough happens in the two books to fill an entire trade paperback. If you are fascinated by magic or cosmology or ancient mythology or philosophy, then this will not bother you. You will be able to sit back and drink in Moore’s explanations on how the universe really works, beyond the coarse world we see from day to day.

Promethea, Book Four coverFor the rest of us, however, it can get quite tedious. Moore is teaching the readers a lesson, divulging to us his personal philosophy, while the story of Promethea and Sophie’s development is dripped out to us without a lot of action to accompany it. For one book, that would be fine; for two — a year of comic book releases (or two, actually, since the book was delayed) — it’s a bit much. The bloom is off the rose of the book’s background details and jokes, such as the Weeping Gorilla and the city’s science heroes and mayoral difficulties (although I enjoyed Williams sneaking himself, his wife, and Moore into the foreground of a panel in Book 3). The replacement Promethea (a combination of a previous Promethea and Sophie’s friend, Stacia) provides the real fun of the book, but she’s on page far too little, even as she tries to wrest the title of “true” Promethea from Sophie. A simmering subplot emerges fully at the end, but still … it’s not enough.

I don’t know … I get the feeling I’m being too shallow. Moore is discussing the big questions of life, and I’m complaining about the lack of explosions and admiring the pretty pickchurs. But I know that no writer or text should be able to guilt me into thinking my interpretation is not worthy simply because I didn’t enjoy the “deep” message that was given unto me, so I’ll have to stick by my complaints. Besides, if you’re going to be didactic in fiction, it’s usually more effective to use the fiction as the candy coating to make the teaching go down more easily; Moore melts all but the thinnest patina of sweet, sweet plot before handing us the philosophy.

The art sure is pretty, though; until I read these books, I had no idea the J.H. Williams everyone was drooling over in Batwoman was the guy who had illustrated Promethea. It should have been obvious, really; innovative layout, occasionally confusing flow, with lovely drawings that lend themselves to expressive and inventive uses of the color palette. It’s the same M.O., even down to the strong female protagonist who likes to hang around with other strong females while being hunted by female antagonists. Looking at Wikipedia, it appears Promethea and Batwoman’s run in Detective Comics are Williams’s two longest runs in his comics career, which began in the early ‘90s.

It’s fortunate, though, that the plot gets going again at the end of Book 4, making it virtually certain that readers (myself included) will have interest in finishing the series’ final volume, Book 5. Since I enjoyed the more plot-heavy Book 1 and Book 2, I’m still looking forward to the finale, in spite of Moore’s philosophies and only partially because of the art.

Rating: America’s Best Comics symbol America’s Best Comics symbol (2 of 5 for both Book 3 and 4)

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17 December 2010

Batman & Robin, v. 2: Batman vs. Robin

Collects: Batman & Robin #7-12 (2010)

Released: November 2010 (DC)

Format: 168 pages / color / $24.99 / ISBN: 9781401228330

What is this?: Batman and Robin investigate the true fate of Bruce Wayne.

The culprits: Writer Grant Morrison and pencilers Cameron M. Stewart and Andy Clarke

As the calendar marches toward Christmas, once again, I have decided that nothing says the holiday season like a child in a red-and-green costume punching and stabbing people. Batman and Robin, v. 2: Batman vs. Robin is even more Christmas-y than Batman: Shadows of Gotham, v. 1: Hush Money because it involves awkward family gatherings. Sure, when my family gets together for the season, we generally don’t attempting to murder a step-brother or learn about a clone-brother that will replace a family member in his mother’s, but there’s still the general aura of awkwardness and disapproval that really says, “Season’s greetings.”

Batman & Robin, v. 2: Batman vs. Robin coverI looked at the first issue of Batman & Robin in one of my Quarter Bin reviews, and it was intriguing. Batman & Robin is writer Grant Morrison’s baby, and with him in charge, there’s little chance of it being boring. (Incomprehensible, maybe, but not boring.) That’s a very good thing, because this collection centers around the resurrection of Bruce Wayne — an event that was inevitable as soon as we learned Bruce Wayne was dying, let alone when it was first hinted at in the book. With something as inevitable as Wayne’s return, there’s little joy in the destination, so we have to enjoy the journey, and Morrison does string us along on quite a journey — puzzles in portraits, secret passages, bat demons, architecture and graveyard patterns — as Damian sniffs disdainfully at Tim Drake’s theory of Batman being sent back in time and the da Vinci Code style shenanigans. Morrison adds in a few red herrings in the form of Lazarus Pits and dead clones (hey! it’s comics!).

Fortunately, that’s just the “A” plot — I doubt even Morrison could make that unstoppable plot train interesting if that were the entirety of Batman vs. Robin. Morrison brings in Batwoman for a three-issue arc, tangentially hauling along the plots of the Crime Coven and the prophecies of the Crime Bible. Then, in the second arc, he goes on to include the return of Dr. Hurt and the Black Glove, introduce Oberon Sexton, and show Damian’s battle for independence from his mother. In that second arc, there’s a good mix of subplot types — one leads to a surprising reveal at the end of the book, one is a teaser for future stories, and the other complicates the main story. The latter, Damian vs. his mother, Talia, is my favorite; it’s a nice idea that Talia would use her wayward son as a weapon against the man who she feels isn’t really worthy to wear her dead lover’s costume. I also like the inclusion of Knight and Squire (essentially the British Batman and Robin) in the first arc; the loony Silver-Age background and adversaries — such as Old King Cole, who has mine and chimney-themed henchmen — are a hoot.

The rest of the “B” and subplots are less enjoyable. It’s fortunate that there’s such an easy main plot to hang on to; I can see being easily frustrated or confused by the Black Glove or 99 Fiends or domino references if you weren’t overly familiar with the “Batman: RIP” storyline or the previous Batman & Robin issues. Neither the editors nor Morrison do much to make you familiar with that information either. And then there’s the Crime Bible prophecies and Batwoman; I have no idea what a new reader would make of that — incoherent babble, I suppose. When a true mystery comes along, like the identity of Oberon Sexton, it’s impossible for readers to know whether that’s something they should already be aware of or something to be revealed.

The art for the two arcs in Batman & Robin are divided between two pencilers, Cameron M. Stewart and Andy Clarke. I like Stewart’s art quite a bit, although I admit that’s because it fits in the general smooth, pretty style that I admire the most. He has a lot of funny with the goofy, faux-Silver Age world that is British crime. His action scenes are fluid and easy to follow, and he does a good job with emotion. On the other hand, his style feels a little light for a Batwoman or a resurrection / madness of Bruce Wayne story, dealing with death and revival as it does. (It isn’t all his fault; Morrison doesn’t exactly get across the monumental nature of using the Lazarus Pit to return from the dead, treating it more like a scenery-moving stage direction.) Also, his characters are astonishingly clean and bright, despite fighting coal-themed villains in a coal mine.

Clarke is less my mug of tea and more of a Frank Quitely type, for those readers who are looking for the style of the title’s regular artist. His heavily hatched style would have been more at home in the first arc, as it gives the characters and scenes a sense of texture that would have fit the grubby underground settings. It’s a welcome change, though. On the other hand, his characters have a tendency to look frozen when not actually in action, especially Talia and Alfred.

Batman vs. Robin is a fun book, but it’s not for those who are just looking to pick up a random Batman book — even though I didn’t think as much of it, Hush Money is the book for readers coming back or new to Batman. But if you have a reasonable familiarity with the past five years of DC continuity, have the ability to ignore bits you don’t quite understand, or are looking to get into Bat-Family continuity, then Batman vs. Robin might be right up your alley.

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

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15 December 2010

Batman: Streets of Gotham, v. 1: Hush Money

Collects: Detective Comics #852, Batman #685, Batman: Streets of Gotham #1-4 (2009)

Released: May 2010 (DC)

Format: 144 pages / color / $19.99 / ISBN: 9781401227210

What is this?: The villain Hush, who has Bruce Wayne’s face, plots his revenge after Catwoman steals his fortune.

The culprits: Writer Paul Dini and penciler Dustin Ngyuen

It’s nearly Christmas, and nothing says “non-denominational holidays” like Batman. Especially if that Batman started out his career wearing the red-and-green Robin togs.

So we’ll start this week of Batman with Batman: Streets of Gotham, v. 1: Hush Money. The new Batman, Dick Grayson, has hands full with Hush (who looks just like the missing Bruce Wayne) and all the crazies that fill Gotham’s avenues and boulevards. And it doesn’t look like it’s getting any easier for him under writer Paul Dini in the newly launched Batman: Streets of Gotham title.

 Batman: Streets of Gotham, v. 1: Hush Money coverI’ve liked Dini’s work with Batman before, but this felt unfocused. The title and collected material makes readers think this will be a story about — or at least featuring — Hush, but instead, it comes across as just another Batman comic. Although the first third of the book (Batman #685 and Detective Comics #852) is dedicated to setting up Hush’s new status quo, there are several different villains in Hush Money — Mr. Szasz, Firefly, Black Mask, Penguin — and all are working independently of Hush. Even though Hush is lurking as a threat in the background, it rarely feels like he’s putting the heroes in danger.

The multitude of villains is part of what makes Hush Money fall a little short. Dini is using a lot of Gotham villains and Bat-Family characters to populate this book, but rarely does anyone get enough time on the pages to make it appear as if it is any one character’s book — certainly not Batman’s. Because of the lack of other suspects, it has to be Hush’s story, but there are so many subplots and tangents that even that is watered down. It feels as if Dini wants to write about the villains of Gotham, and given the name Streets of Gotham, I wouldn’t be surprised if that were the title’s remit. But this feels like a slice of the new Batman’s week; there’s not enough to tie everything together into a coherent story. Given how abruptly the story cuts off, with Mr. Szasz’s plan not yet revealed and Hush still scheming, I expected the next volume to be a direct continuation (titled something like Hush Money, v. 2), but instead it’s v. 2: Leviathan.

It’s this lack of focus, however, that allows readers to enjoy Dini’s character explorations. As I mentioned, he gets into the head of Hush at the beginning of the story; there’s also a nice moment with the Penguin, and the real-estate broker to Gotham’s psychopaths also gets quite a few pages to explain himself. Dini also has fun with Damian, the new Robin — my favorite moment was when he asked Dick Grayson whether Katana, who had just threatened to kill Hush, was seeing anyone — but occasionally the dialogue feels a bit off. (Damian saying, “We’re screwed”? That doesn’t feel right for the violent and slightly socially awkward Damian.)

I’m not sure what to say about Dustin Nguyen’s art. It’s conveys the story well, but his style occasionally skimps on detail … sometimes that decision allows him to get scenes across with admirable concentration on important details, and sometimes I’m left with the idea that Nguyen really hates drawing faces if there’s more than two characters on a single panel. George Perez would be rolling in his grave, if he were dead — which he isn’t — and if he were a stern authoritarian, which I doubt he is.

Maybe I’m being too hard on Dini and Streets of Gotham. If this story had appeared 20 years ago and I were reading it in single-issue comics, then I would probably be enjoying the tension ramping up, the subplots coming to a head. That feels right; it’s probable this title doesn’t read well in the trade (or hardback, since the trade doesn’t come out until May 2011). On the other hand, there have probably been trades just as unfocused that I’ve given a pass. Why? I can’t put my finger on exactly why I don’t believe what was started in Hush Money won’t be wrapped up on Leviathan. What we have in Hush Money just feels like a tangled ball of yarn rather a Christmas sweater in the making.

Rating: Batman symbol Batman symbol (2 of 5)

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10 December 2010

BPRD, v. 1: The Hollow Earth and Other Stories

Collects: BPRD: Hollow Earth #1-3, Abe Sapien: Drums of the Dead #1, stories from Hellboy: Box Full of Evil #1-2 (1998-9, 2002)

Released: January 2003 (Dark Horse)

Format: 120 pages / color / $17.95 / ISBN: 9781593072803

What is this?: A series of short tales about the Bureau of Paranormal Research and Defense after Hellboy leaves.

The culprits: Writers Mike Mignola, Brian McDonald, Christopher Golden, and Tom Sniegoski and artists Ryan Sook, Matt Smith, and Derek Thompson

I wanted to know what Hellboy looked like when there was no Hellboy in it. Turns out, it looks a lot like a fish.

Abe Sapien, the fish-man BPRD agent, takes center stage in three of the four stories in BPRD, v. 1: Hollow Earth & Other Stories. Is he interesting enough a character to take that burden? Well, maybe. Abe begins the book seeking a new direction; it’s beginning to look like the BPRD isn’t where he wants to spend his life. But if he does stay, can he fill the gap in the organization that Hellboy (sorta) filled — that of the leader of the organization’s “special” agents?

BPRD: Hollow Earth and Other Stories coverThese ideas are prominent in the Hollow Earth miniseries, which leads off the collection. While wondering whether to continue with the BPRD, Abe learns pyromancer Liz Sherman is in trouble, so he takes Roger the Homunculus and Johann Kraus, the disembodied German medium, along with him to Asia. There, they find a destroyed monastery, civilizations and monsters inside the Earth, giant war machines, and Nazi wreckage. (The Nazis always seem to play in somehow.)

When I write it out like that, it seems like it has all the winning elements — monsters, action, possibilities for good character interaction. But it doesn’t add up on the page, and I wonder if the involvement of three different writers — series creator Mike Mignola, Hellboy novelist Christopher Golden, and Tom Sniegoski — had something to do with that. The monsters lack the character and distinctiveness that Mignola generally gives the monsters in his Hellboy work, and the Hollow Earth idea isn’t developed enough to engage me. There are some nice character moments between Roger, Johann, and Abe, and Liz’s story gets advanced, but it never feels like enough character moments. “The Hollow Earth” needed something more than pages of operations manager Kate Corrigan looking worried. If the other stories in this collection had moved the characters forward as much as the opening story, perhaps that would have made “The Hollow Earth” a part of a satisfying whole.

The two back-up stories in the middle of The Hollow Earth & Other Stories are very different beasts, despite both being written by Mignola. One is a throwaway story of a 1930s Lobster Johnson investigation, which I would imagine was included for completionists or to add to the page count. The other is a flashback in the life of Abe Sapien, who sees Roger the Homunculus in restraints, about to be dissected by BPRD scientists. Remembering that was almost his fate, he steps in to make one more attempt to revive Roger before the scientists start their dispassionate final work on Roger. It’s an appropriate, if slight, story for the collection and for Abe’s development.

The final story, the one-shot Abe Sapien: Drums of the Dead, has Abe in charge of psychic Garrett Omatta, investigating why madness and sharks follow certain ships as they cross the Atlantic to America. I was impressed with the background writer Brian McDonald chose for the story — the reason for the sharks and the possessions of crew members was an excellent idea, well executed on the page. However, there’s a fight scene in the middle of the book that feels out of left field, an action scene meant to fill pages and the requirement for an action scene. Still, there are worse faults to have.

The art in this collection is, generally, very good. Both Ryan Sook, who drew “The Hollow Earth,” and Matt Smith (no, not the eleventh doctor), who worked on the two backups, have styles that fit with Mignola’s art very well. Sook’s work almost seems like he’s imitating Mignola; in any event, even he lacks the spark that separates Mignola from the crowd, the art fits the story, and Sook’s storytelling is good. Smith is more easily differentiated from Mignola, more splotched with darkness, but his art fits in with Sook’s and Mignola’s quite well. The artist for Drums of the Dead, Derek Thompson, is completely different, and although his loose-limbed, slightly exaggerated characters fit the story, his work looks completely out of place in the Hellboy universe. I did, however, think his underwater scenes were very good.

This doesn’t feel like a BPRD collection, and it doesn’t really feel like Hellboy. It feels like Mignola casting about for something to do with his other characters and not quite finding it yet. He has Abe Sapien as a lead character, but the stories in this collection don’t convince me that he is a lead character — the chief character in an ensemble, yes, but not quite enough to carry a collection. On the other hand, it doesn’t feel enough about the BPRD either. Maybe future BPRD collections will settle what the BPRD stories are to be about, but The Hollow Earth & Other Stories feels like there’s a big hole at the center, needing to be filled.

Rating: BPRD symbol BPRD symbol (2)

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Back on track

Sorry for the lack of a review last week; I was working on galley proofs for Comic Book Collections for Libraries and didn’t get a chance to post. However, for the rest of the month, I should be doing two reviews a week.

Next week: Batman! Batman! Batman!

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