Saturday, April 30, 2005

LEX LUTHOR: MAN OF STEEL #2

If this were Geoff Johns instead of Brian Azzarello, I'd have taken the choice of naming the union shop steward Tony Amonte as intentional and looked for a none-too-veiled comment on the NHL lockout. (Non-hockey fans: here). As I have no idea about Azzarello's puck proclivities, I'll just chalk it up as random funny.

This was a second marvelous issue in this series, rich enough both to stand on its own as a single story within a mini-series as well as overcome the asynchronicity of the aborted SuperStorm project. [An editorial crossover with Wildstorm writers handling Superman themes, this book along with Rick Veitch's The Question remain; fabulist Micah Wright was fired before his Vigilante series got anywhere.] We already know that the Science Spire is not a testament to human achievement and a whetting of human aspiration -- or, at least, it is not just that. It's also a giant weapon aimed directly at Superman and we know what Vic Sage does to it.

But that doesn't matter; Azzarello is so deep into Luthor's mind that we see only the genius and not the madman. Luthor plays dirty, but it's a rather pedestrian sort of dirty. He burns with resentment of Superman, but it doesn't boil over and he doesn't froth at the mouth or look like he'd even contemplate green battle armor or an association with Dr. Psycho and Deathstroke the Terminator.

This Luthor is a business shark and a brilliant one -- you can almost see the gears turning. But we also see him emotionally engaged in ways that have nothing to do with corporate machinations or superheroes -- the scene at the tank is amazing for its subleness in showing every layer of Lex's heart. He's pensive and witty and human and Azzarello has done such a good job of making us forget that this is a guy who has streamlined his entire life to a purpose (killing Superman) as well as Bruce Wayne has (for pursuing justice) that when Luthor and Wayne get together in the next issue, it will necessarily be electric because it won't just be Supervillain Pretending to be Businessman chatting up Superhero Pretending to be Businessman. (Perhaps a poor choice of words; go back and re-read the one-sided phone conversation and realize that it's Bruce he's talking to.)

I was cranky with the end of Azzarello's run on Superman because there were so many good ideas wasted. Here, perhaps, is where he will get it right -- it can be his Supreme Power to his Rising Stars, a second chance to work the same themes but with greater experience and control. Superman had the man-versus-superman dichotomy from Kal-El's perspective, so it's only fitting that Lex Luthor is the same question from Lex's.

If you haven't figured it out, I'm exhorting you all to go pick this up. Even if you're not a big Superman fan. Lee Bermejo's art is stunning and this is such a thoughtful look at Superman's world that I think it will have a broader appeal than just the fans of Big Blue.

SEVEN SOLDIERS: KLARION THE WITCH BOY #1

I held off on starting this because as entertaining as some of the Seven Soldiers stories have been, a series about Klarion the Witch Boy was going to take some doing to be appealing. Whether you know him from his pestering Jason Blood or from Sins of Youth, Klarion tends to be... an acquired taste. And I haven't.

That said, this was a lot more interesting than I thought it would be. Here, Klarion's mischievousness is not inconsideration or maliciousness the way it usually is when he's running amok in the DCU; it's self-preservation in a puritanical (literally) society. On the cusp of adulthood in a society paralyzed by fear ossified into belief, Klarion is both bored and terrified that his entire life will be more of the same -- and it doesn't even end with death. His community digs up the dead for zombie labor ("grundies", har-har), robbing them of the rest they'd hoped that they'd earned. He's got a good reason to be the typical sullen teenager.

All of this, sans the post-mortem employment, is in line with Klarion's 'regular' origin stories -- there's usually a fellow or three dressed like a Puritan with a draaga on his shoulder chasing after our little juvenile delinquent. The question is where we go from here. I've sat through enough Klarion stories that I'm pretty sure I don't need to see another along the same lines -- Klarion breaks his community's rules regarding magic, Klarion runs away with Teekl, Klarion gets to our world and starts going crazy like a superpowered Bart Simpson, et cetera. We've already got the fish-out-of-water story going on in Shining Knight, so hopefully this won't wander too far from where it is and maybe we see Klarion defending what he was trying to leave behind. The Sheeda already know where Klarion's village is -- a harbinger pixie shows up and Klarion's people are versed in the lore of their destructiveness, but they hope to ride out the Sheeda storm well-hidden. That plan doesn't work and the fallout will lead off the next issue.

Frazer Irving's art is quite lovely and very dramatic. The monochromatic palette is broken up by bits of bright color -- Teekl's yellow, the KitKat's red wrapper, the magenta draaga, the purple Horigal -- for emphasis; it's all quite art-house movie-ish and nice.

DAY OF VENGEANCE #1

The problem with Bill Willingham is that for every Fables, there is a Robin. For every Thessaliad, there is a Thessaly: Witch for Hire. Willingham is inventive and clever, but he holds too tightly to the maxim that consistency is the hobgoblin of small minds and the end result is that you never know what you're going to get out of him.

On the face of it, Willingham is the perfect writer for this offshoot of the Infinite Crisis prequels -- it's about the magical and mystical and those have been the domains of his best funnybook work. On the other hand, this is also mainstream DCU and Willingham's run on Robin has been shockingly and unremittingly wretched.

So which Willingham showed up for this book? The one who did good things in Neil Gaiman's Sandman universe (see Sandman Presents: Taller Tales), which seems like the best choice for this first issue, although I am not sure how well it will mesh should this storyline touch too closely to the unmagical DCU. The dissonance could be felt a bit with Detective Chimp -- a character who would have been completely unremarkable either in the Dreaming or in Fabletown, but who is nothing short of ludicrous in a world with Mister E and John Constantine. He's a solid character, but almost needs to be played for yukks considering his co-stars and environment and that takes away from things because this isn't really a giddy sort of story. Negotiating the line between the right place and the wrong place for humor-in-the-face-of-horror has been Willingham's undoing with Robin -- his Tim Drake and Bruce Wayne are perky and chatty and it's distracting. So, to quote Han Solo, I've got a bad feeling about this. And that disappoints me because I shouldn't be waiting for this all to turn to poo in my hands.

Disconnecting Day of Vengeance from the larger universe and Willingham's past work, how did it do? I mostly liked it.

* Five pages in and Willingham had me convinced that Ragman should be the sole modern-age inheritor of the Spectre's role -- I have a long-standing problem (that won't be gotten into here) with the Spectre in a DCU that overlaps with the Vertigoverse and I thought Willingham's treatment was much closer to what should have been done with Hal Jordan following Day of Judgment. My ultimate hope is that the Spectre is done away with after this series and the role of agent of divine vengeance falls to Ragman in the mainstream DCU and Raguel or his minions over in the places where Tim Hunter, Lucifer and Mazikeen, and the Trenchcoat Brigade play.


* Jean Loring's story arc has made no sense ever since she was revealed as the murderer over in Identity Crisis, so how much more nonsensical is it to make her the new Eclipso? Just as NASA is constantly mapping new areas of our solar system, the folks at DC constantly discover new planes of ridiculousness. Or, to put it another way, what do you do with a bad gal you've created purely out of logical loopholes, handwaving, and a heavy dollop of undiluted randomness? You match her up with one of the vaguest and most unnecessary legacy villain roles you have lying around.

Eclipso must have had a function at some point, but it has long since been rendered moot. The black diamonds that create Eclipso are now nothing more than the DC's version of the Ring of Power, turning minor characters from Smeagol to Gollum so that they can die a tragic, regretful death. Geoff Johns wasted plenty of pages in JSA during the Princes of Darkness arc making an Eclipso out of Alex Montez and then killing him, all without a point because nobody cared about Montez, who was created solely for the purpose.

Recycling Jean Loring to be Eclipso doesn't work for the same reason: it doesn't have any impact. It's not Hal Jordan going sproing! and becoming Parallax; there weren't many of us who cared enough about Ray Palmer to react to his ex-wife turning insane during IC and repeating the experiment now that everyone else knows who Jean is doesn't guarantee better results. She's a custom-made villainness and, almost by definition, she's inert because she's unfamiliar and she's doubly inert because who the heck cares about Eclipso?


* I bailed on JLA: Black Baptism before Enchantress was revivified as Soulsinger, so the last I saw of her was in some Green Lantern issues, where she was cheerfully bonkers, and then Day of Judgment, where she was killed in fine fashion. I don't know if she had already gone back to calling herself Enchantress before Willingham got his paws on her, but I'll accept her as a cross between Thessaly's cold-hearted pragmatism and Zatanna's proactiveness. She's got a pleasant sort of recklessness to her and Willingham has done right by those sorts before.


* As for the rest of this B-team of magical types... Willingham is going to have to give me a good reason why all of the big guns who cameo here -- Doctor Occult, Deadman, Jason Blood, etc. -- are not going to be involved. Sure, the Spectre turned the Phantom Stranger into a mouse, but that's not stopped any of that like before. I will give Willingham and artist Justiniano brownie points for the sheer breadth of the cameos. (Did the Janissary ever appear anywhere else but in that JLA annual?)


We shall see what Willingham does with this story. I'd like to be an optimist here, but I've been fooled before by him. All bets are therefore hedged.

CAPTAIN AMERICA #5

Since the get-go, Steve Rogers has been plagued by flashbacks, but what is really unnerving him is that the flashbacks are wrong -- his memories don't match up with what he's seeing and he's not sure if he's being affected by his own guilt or by something external. What is worse is that he's not getting any aid from either end. Captain America's confidence in his memories is being tested by an unknown assailant who seems to remember more than he does. And Nick Fury, as ever, is being helpful with one hand while hiding crucial information with the other. SHIELD needs a functional Cap, which usually means someone who is at ease with himself and his mission and in Fury's case means obfuscating for a higher purpose.

This issue is told mostly as a tale from long ago, Cap recounting an event from World War II that may or may not connect to the murder of Red Skull by Russian mercenaries. (Okay, so we know it does because wasting an entire issue on a red herring is extremely poor planning.) Aleksander Lukin and Vasily Karpov have ties to Cap from 1942 and while Our Hero hasn't quite got enough information to piece things together, he certainly seems to know more than he's telling Fury (and therefore us).

For all of my pecking unto death about Ed Brubaker's not making either Cap awe-inspiring or Steve Rogers human, this issue did a pretty good job of both. Cap's retelling of the story from the Russian front carried off both the hero's pragmatism and the man's lament and where they intersected. He isn't fazed by the fact that Bucky was basically a teenaged Special Forces operator, but he's deeply regretful of the civilian casualties and he understands why this is all coming back to him even as he wishes it wasn't -- and maybe even resents it a little.

As for Bucky... I liked this twist. Not being heavily invested in the character while he was alive, I'm not feeling shattered by this bit of retconning. It is perfectly logical for Bucky to be the dark shadow to Captain America's brilliant light. On the one hand, it never made sense either for Bucky to be less trained than any of the GIs (who were really about his age) he was encountering on his adventures or for the Army to saddle America's super-soldier with a relatively defenseless sidekick. On the other, Cap's explanation is grimly perfect -- there was no way for Cap to be as effective as he was and to have his hands remain spotless. Captain America was as much public relations tool as warrior and that meant someone had to do the dirty work -- and that person was Bucky. Is this an Identity Crisis-styled move? A bit, but not in a bad way and arguably more successful than anything that got futzed with in IC. Brubaker has always excelled at finding the ugliest bits of pragmatism in a story and if you're going to do a 'realistic' take on teenaged sidekicks, you might as well let the kid be able to defend himself.

Next month, we find out who cold-cocked Sharon Carter, what's in that file on Fury's desk, and whether Lukin's got anything more in the way of a motive for going after Cap than revenge for not saving the village of Kronas. What we aren't going to find out is that Bucky's not dead after all. Brubaker was fairly insistent on that point.

Monday, April 25, 2005

SHREW BITES: DC

Getting all the bellyaching out at once, so pull out the ipecac and we'll all feel better when it's over:

BIRDS OF PREY #81.... The first time around, I didn't finish this. I couldn't. After months of Dinah-the-wizened-sage giving advice to little grasshopper Helena, my brain broke at the sudden transformation into Dinah-the-JSA's-favorite-little-girl simpering at Ted Grant. Both are valid interpretations, but they haven't been stitched together well at all and the result is not whole-cloth Dinah, but 'wow, didn't we ditch the split personality chick last issue?' dissonance. If you've never read Mark Waid's JLA: Year One, this might have seemed even more out of left field... if you have, then maybe you're with me wondering where the last decade-plus of Dinah's maturity went.

The issue was a tired plot burdened by clumsy expository dialogue sweetened by Wildcat's-my-favorite-uncle references and what the hoo-hah is Gail Simone doing to Helena? At least we didn't get any more Brainiac!Babs.



HAWKMAN #39... When not even a partially naked Carter strapped down and silenced with a ball gag makes this a fun issue, P&G have work to do. You can't spend the first half of the issue waxing happily about the healing properties of Nth Metal and then expect us to get any sort of worried when you 'kill' off one of the two main characters. As if we really had to worry about any of the main characters right before the Rann/Thanagar war. Or in general. About the only surprise here would be Shiera finally taking over Kendra's body for good -- she got in halfway the last time Kendra died.

As for the continued Flashbacks From the Past fest.... they stand around like so much clutter. I went on last month at a length enough for two issues.



JLA #113... I nearly forgot to read this. And then once I read it, I remembered why. Lots of fighting on lots of planets featuring lots of iterations of the JLA. Flash visits the little shiny people, Batman pretends to be Martian Manhunter and then spends pages among the full JLA-with-reserves without a mask on after sikking the Qward on innocents (and the rest of the JLA), Hawkman sounds like he's being written by Chris Claremont, Green Arrow sounds like he's back in the Kevin Smith run, Diana acts oddly surprised at Batman's actions, and members of the JLE show up and we're supposed to know who they are and what they do. I think rereading my Crisis on Multiple Earths trades would be more entertaining and productive.



SUPERMAN #215... Not even a football team's worth of inkers could save this. I really, really liked the start of Brian Azzarello's Superman run -- it was a far cry better than his attempt at Batman and that was both surprising and refreshing because Azzarello made Clark Kent human in ways that nobody else did. This Supes was so wonderfully human -- he had doubts, moments of pissiness, a sense of humor, and a compassion that could never be mistaken for pity. Azzarello's take on the man and his world is still strong and I still like it a lot -- Lex Luthor: Man of Steel is great stuff.

But this particular story ran off the rails once the pocket universe appeared. The whole 'Vanishing' shtick across the three Superman books (or not; Greg Rucka didn't seem to notice it much over in Adventures of... and I never read Chuck Austen's Action) didn't work. It was confusing and random and every month it was "Well, maybe it'll make sense when it's all over". It's all over and it doesn't make sense. But it was at least ignorable while Azzarello was doing his character work -- until we slipped into the Land of the Lost (and of the Robot Parents). And after that, it got boring.

The summing up in this issue disappointed me. Superman thinks less of the mortal (and dying) Padre for his moment of weakness in letting himself get swept into OMAC -- damning him for what he deems a loss of faith -- and seems to think more of Zod for being willing to 'die' to spite him. Such a conclusion presents an ugly Kal-El more impressed by battle courage than human delicacy: did Superman come to Father Leone because the priest was dying or because he was struggling with his faith (we knew the latter before the former)? Is he upset that Father Leone proved human by giving in to his fears or because he didn't accept that God's plan for him was to die of the cancer? Does Father Leone's remorse count? Apparently not. Zod, however, gets full marks for bravery... If this was supposed to be Kal-El's search for his own humanity and everyone else's... it's still out there, somewhere.



TEEN TITANS #23... This was merely boring -- oh, look, watch the Titans attempt to defeat Dr. Light (now a Weeble; watch him wobble but not fall down) simply by standing around and wondering why he got so hard to defeat -- until it broke off into both the painfully bad and the painfully worse. The bad was the collective stupidity of the Titans for being so inefficient and then for not realizing that Deathstroke and Ravager weren't Batman and Batgirl (Roy's looking a lot better over in Outsiders after this) and the general cluelessness -- yes, they were hobbled by Geoff Johns breaking the laws of physics last issue, but still. Also, the new Hawk and Dove, because they are either the worst batch of stereotypes or Johns is secretly confessing to having watched The Parent Trap too many times. The worse was the Judd Winick Memorial Soapbox moment. Because right after pretty much every living Titan alumni save for Kyle Rayner and Ray Palmer still can't take down Dr. Light in a reasonable timeframe... that is the right moment to announce that you have HIV and why.

Teen Titans has degenerated into nothing but advertising and product placement -- tie-in to Identity Crisis, tie-in to the Prequels to Infinite Crisis, crossover references to Outsiders and Green Arrow and Batman: War Games... what do we have to do to get an actual story featuring the actual Teen Titans?



And this, boys and girls, is why they call me the Shrew....

EX MACHINA #10

This was great fun. It was also Brian K. Vaughan doing what he does best: answering some long (and not-so-long) standing questions all while asking a half-dozen more. For every can of worms closed, two more got opened up here and that's just fine.

As with the first arc, Mayor Hundred is faced with the possibility that someone he likes and trusts has gone bad. Jackson Georges, dedicated family man and good NSA agent has never quite forgiven either himself or Hundred for not saving more lives on 11 September. When all of the signs point to Georges as being behind the alien graffiti and copious gore that has suddenly started cropping up in subway tunnels... Flashes of Kremlin, just a bit.

As with Kremlin, however, Jackson Georges isn't the real problem... or, rather he is, but not in any way that's actually his fault. Driven to desperation by Jackson's breakdown and looking to find the cause, it is his wife Connie who is transformed into the bloody messenger of the aliens who gave Hundred his powers -- and who are unhappy that he has not done with them what he was supposed to do. Considering that the Georges family were basically disposable characters, they were fantastically rendered and you laughed and cried with them. Wonderful stuff.

Also wonderful was the confrontation in the Gracie Mansion master bedroom, both on the character and action level -- faced with someone who is immune to his powers, Hundred has to get creative. And in doing so, he proves himself so very much the engineer who became The Great Machine: his apology to the jetpack is more heartfelt and less hesitant than his later one to Suzanne Padilla. We've seen Hundred curse at and argue with technology before, but his ease with technology as opposed to his awkwardness with people... Vaughan is so subtle and deft with this that it never slides into cartoony caricature. Hundred wants to be good with people --he's just better being intimate with machines.

The gay marriage and school vouchers business, both killer issues (not literally here, at least not yet), are in their proper place -- everpresent, neither overwhelming or getting lost and going away. Tag may have ended, but we haven't seen the last of those hot-buttons. And as for Hundred's apology to Suzanne... we know the answer isn't as simple as "yes" or "no" or "it's all a moot point because the aliens took my gonads".

NYC Fangirl moment: Vaughan went the extra mile for gratuitous geography references, so I'll lay off the improper subway semantics. (The B,D,F, and Q are four lines and require a plural because while in 2002 they are the Sixth Avenue local and expresses, they are never all on the same track and don't go to the same places and it would take a lot more than one body to shut down all four.)

BATMAN: JEKYLL & HYDE #1

I have a complicated relationship with Paul Jenkins's writing -- he's written for titles I follow and is often paired with artists whose style I enjoy, but I don't think I'd ever put him on either my Love or Loathe list. Rather than incite any sort of strong feeling, he's just sort of... there. I'm not alone in that regard -- the forgotten man in Hellblazer's pantheon of writerly heavies (he falls between Ennis and Ellis), none of his stories have been collected in trades yet.

Here Jenkins is teamed with frequent collaborator Jae Lee (Darkness, Inhumans) for a story that is both literally and figuratively a riff on the Jeckyll & Hyde story -- a madness is running amok in Gotham that has mild-mannered types turning savagely murderous and Batman has to stop it. The technical details of the crimes would perhaps lead Batman to other suspects, especially a shady scientist, but when he receives a summons from Two-Face, happily locked up in Arkham, things get more complicated.

Jenkins' take on Harvey Dent will probably have some folks mighty cranky until it becomes more clear whether this story takes place in or out of continuity. His Two-Face is not a man off the leash of society (and off his rocker), giving in to his darker impulses. Harvey has a much more garden-variety split personality here, the remorseful former DA chained unto death with the raving psychopath. They speak with different voices, are aware of each other's presence and inclinations, and are engaged in the usual battle for control that, naturally, Harvey is losing because he's the soft and weak one.

I suppose you could be tempted to figure out the rest of the story on your own -- Dr. Rousse is experimenting on Gothamites to determine the elemental nature of humans, cracking open unsuspecting victims to find their two essential personalities, and Harvey Dent is one such case already revealed. Batman gets a moment's hesitation when he sees that he could possibly cure his old friend Harvey, but Justice Must Prevail and everyone goes down... or not. There's enough wiggle room here among what initially seems like a collection of boilerplates that it may take a surprising turn before coming to the expected conclusion. The Joker can't die and Two-Face can't get cured -- most recently Jeph Loeb tried it and that didn't last beyond Hush.

Because this is a story that's going to end in exactly the place that it started -- all but the best Batman stories ultimately do -- the question of whether to read it comes down to whether you think Jenkins can say anything interesting about any of the principles before the roller coaster comes to a halt. I'm honestly not so sure -- there's a lot of psychobabble and experimentation stories tend to say more about the experimenter than the subjects, so whether the character development will come along in due time... *shrugs*

On the other hand, I think Jae Lee's art is worth the ride even if Jenkins doesn't manage to put a new spin on the wheel -- at least for the first three issues, which is as far as Lee got before he returned to Marvel under an exclusive contract. Lee is at his best in stories where his deft handle on shadows and the darkness within can be on display; his characters always look like there's so much more going on beneath the surface and his people have a haunted, poisonous beauty to them.

Bottom line: Jenkins has three issues to convince me to stay the course and show me he's got something new to do with Harvey Dent and Batman.

OMAC PROJECT #1

Way back in the halcyon days when JLA had a regular writer and some level of consistency as a result of it, there was JLA: Tower of Babel.

Tower of Babel, one of the high points of both Mark Waid's run and the entire series, had a rather dark premise: Batman is paranoid and has elaborate plans to keep himself from getting either blindsided or overwhelmed. But what happens when someone else gets their hands on those plans and uses them for evil?

In ToB, that someone else was Ra's al-Ghul, who stole Batman's secret files on how to contain his fellow JLAers should they go rogue and used them in tandem with some general global depopulating schemes to attempt some real damage. This was years before Identity Crisis, so while there were thousands of civilian deaths, none of the heroes died despite the close calls and the upshot was Batman getting tossed out of the JLA and some follow-up team chemistry problems that were never really carried through on other books because this wasn't a Crossover Event. The final resolution came in JLA #50 with the team revealing their identities to each other (leading into the superb Id arc).

OMAC Project, taken in tandem with Countdown to Infinite Crisis, bears a strong resemblance to ToB -- if ToB had had no safety nets and had been a crossover story. We have another villain who knows Batman's secret identity using resources Batman set up to keep an eye on everyone else, except they are now being used for nefarious purposes. We also have Batman realizing too late that he's gotten everyone in a whole lot of trouble. And while it's still easier to accept Ra's al-Ghul as evil overlord instead of Maxwell Lord, well, you play the cards you're dealt and Greg Rucka presumably helped come up with this scenario.

OMAC Project #1 picks up quite literally where Countdown finished -- with the corpse of Ted Kord. The Checkmate agent who helped bring the late Beetle to that condition is revealed to be none other than erstwhile Rucka creation Sasha Bordeaux, missing since the end of the Bruce Wayne: Murderer/Fugitive epic. This first issue, showcasing Jesus Saiz's stunning art (not news to those of us reading Manhunter), is split between the follow-up to Countdown --most notably a strongly played Booster Gold (really as Michael Jon Carter) and Diana -- and establishing Sasha's place and motives. Sasha is caught in a bind: recruited into government covert ops to save the world, she has seen Checkmate perverted and wishes it were not so. Toward that end she has a tiger by the tail in that she is Max's right hand gal, which means not only that she can see everything he does, but also the reverse. There are very few who can help her and she will have to do many awful things to maintain her position and not let Lord suspect her.

[For those lucky enough to skip the BW:M/F arc, Sasha's backstory in a nutshell: free-spirited ex-Secret Service agent Bordeaux was hired by Waynetech to bodyguard Bruce Wayne. Bruce, dating Vesper Fairchild at the time, fell for Sasha and, in order to deal with that complication, turned her from Bruce's bodyguard to Batman's associate -- because everyone including Bruce knows Batman has no successful social interactions with anyone. Sasha was with Batman while Vesper was being murdered, but rather than blow Batman's identity, she became Bruce Wayne's accomplice to murder and refused all offers to rat him out. "Taking the bullet" for her employer, Sasha was 'killed' in a prison incident before she could be cleared and recruited into Checkmate. After Batman made life difficult for Checkmate with his refusal to believe Sasha was dead, she confronted him one last time where he told her he loved her, she told him it was too late and to forget about her, and they went their separate ways.]

Left unexplained from Countdown was how Max Lord could have taken over Checkmate without anyone in the costume business noticing. Rucka offers up an explanation that is doubly slick for also serving as an explanation for one of the most annoying aspects of post-Crisis Batman: Bruce Wayne's near-omniscience. Most of the reason why that omniscience is so annoying (beyond the obvious) is that it has been used so many times by lazy writers for a quick joke. All those Hamburger Helper plot advancements have snowballed and Batman ends up knowing things that there is no possible way he could have ever known -- why did he know Tempest puked after 'killing' the undead Tula (Tempest #4, referenced in JLA #68)? Here we find out how: Batman has spy cameras everywhere. Everywhere. The Brother MK1 network is on par with the Agents from The Matrix -- anywhere, anytime, anything. And now, instead of Bruce Wayne's passively voyeuristic and paranoid eye watching over the world, Maxwell Lord is using it in tandem with his corrupted Checkmate to take over.

Apart from the idea that NASA never noticed all that space junk flying around in low orbit (the final-page shot, looking like a space invasion, sort of begs the question 'Why not?'), the Brother system is kinda cool and freaky, aided by the technobabbly stream of data running through the panels where we are watching events through its eyes. In theory, it should be nigh on impossible to sneak anything past that system -- Sasha knows of the one dead spot along the balustrade at the Checkmate headquarters (yet seems curiously unconcerned about both that prominent camera by the Paris Metro station and the dead giveaway nature of the contents of the package she sent and the fact that she signed the note), but Batman would have made sure any and all corridors of power were easily visible.

The titular project -- One Man Army Corps -- is not a featured player in this issue beyond the fact that files related to it were the only ones to survive the sudden memory deletion at Checkmate. From Countdown we know that OMAC is Batman's baby and we have seen it in action elsewhere (Superman), but its relevance to bringing down the Black King of Checkmate has yet to be fully revealed.

Bottom line: Was this any good? For a first issue, it wasn't bad. As for the promise of the series? It could be great. Saiz's art is worth the price of admission alone and Rucka has made himself a modest career as a writer of thriller novels and thus knows his way around a fast-paced story. The deciding factor will be what sort of fast pace can he set when he's got to mobilize the entire DCU in tandem with the other Prequels to Infinite Crisis. Everyone knows that a caravan travels far more slowly than a single vehicle and I have concern that Rucka will be forced to travel well under the speed limit.

Tuesday, April 19, 2005

JSA #72

... Well that was a tempest in a teapot.

My reaction to reading the end of the JSA/JSA arc was a resounding "that's it?" You have a killer lineup, some chances to do some really amazing character work with the DCU's longest-surviving characters and to have some knock-down, drag-out fights with the real chance of character death (hey, the timeline's getting re-set after it's over)... and all you get is Per Degaton with a bloody nose. Talk about a let-down.

I've griped for months and months about Geoff Johns and his inability to flesh out characters and disregard for continuity. Here... he could have done so much and did nothing with the sumptuous banquet he laid out except drop some annoyingly unnecessary heavy hints about upcoming books. And that's what's even more frustrating than the fact that the way to defeat the seemingly unstoppable Degaton was to give Atom Smasher the ability to knock the tiny terror around long enough for rescue to show up. This was billed as a Battle Royale and all it turned out to be was an ad for JSA Classified and Infinite Crisis.

For this arc, Johns intentionally chose JSA members with ties to no-longer-living former JSA members -- Sand and Wes Dodds, Stargirl and Ted Knight, Atom Smasher and Al Pratt, Jakeem and Johnny Thunder, and Dr. Mid-Nite and Charles McNider. The relationships ranged from the professional (Pieter Cross interned under McNider) to the intensely personal (Sand Hawkins was raised by Wes Dodds) and Johns went nowhere with any of them. There was some vague recognition that things were emotionally complicated, but... nothing. We didn't see how the older generation felt about seeing their successors (in some case their ersatz children), we didn't get much from the younger side about working with their would-be mentors and namesakes, and, apart from Courtney's "ooh, Jay has brown hair!" moment, nothing about seeing their contemporary teammates -- Alan, Jay, Carter (and Shiera, one could add) -- in their prime. Has Alan Scott ever had less to do in a Golden Age JSA story?

The story itself would have been a lot of fun if it had gone on for a couple more issues and involved a longer and broader focus on keeping Truman safe and bringing down a villain who has already seen their every move. The resolution was laughably abrupt and needlessly chaotic for how easily it was achieved. It also fails miserably in the most obvious comparison point -- The JSA Returns. This could have been a rich and varied fight -- the combined JSA versus the Red Morgue controlled by Degaton and armed with technology beyond what anyone can comprehend -- and it was not even mildly tense, let alone exciting.

Back when Johns left Hawkman, he said it was because he had no more stories to tell. I think it's time he admitted that the same holds true with JSA. Johns has had an admirable run on the book -- nearly the entire series, without so much as a single guest-written issue (as far as I can recall) -- and it's time to hand off the baton. Johns himself has plenty to do -- too much to do, if some of those summer solicits are any indication -- and JSA is suffering for being the old toy in a playpen full of bright, shiny new ones. He was never quite right for this title, but now he's becoming actively wrong.

Monday, April 18, 2005

FABLES #36

This was a lot of fun, moreso than Fables has been for a while -- it's been good throughout, but this was fun, a delight for being clever and intriguing in a way the story hasn't been probably since Goldilocks engineered the kidnapping of Snow and Bigby.

Presumably jumping back in time from the five-years-down-the-road from when Jack's Hollywood story takes place, we catch up with Boy Blue, who has not been the same since his betrayal and torture at the hands of Baba Yaga (in the guise of his lost love, Little Red Riding Hood). We already knew that Boy Blue ran off from Fabletown, armed with a few powerfully enchanted items, in order to find a gate back to the Homeland and face the Adversary with the hopes of finding the real LRRH. Now we get details.

Boy Blue, the executive office's gopher supreme, has always been rather low-key and cheerful observer in the goings on in Fabletown, hanging out with Flycatcher and the various lovable losers. But here we get a real sense of how much Blue is capable of -- and how deeply Baba Yaga's ploy wounded him. Back on a familiar plane, Blue is a brilliant spy and swordsman with a quick wit and a quicker blade and a kind heart and a steely resolve and he's just cool.

The table-setting scenes with the ogre tax collectors (coming out on tax week here in the States, how not ironic) was great -- the soldiers of the Adversary's fourth horde proving that infantry gripes are the same no matter where you are. They were so entertaining, I didn't even mind that they were given so many pages of set-up solely so that we'd react when Blue killed them. (And it's a testament to Willingham's soft touch that those decapitations sound a lot harsher in the above sentence than they did on the page; the bloodletting in the story is serious, but not scary or gory.) Willingham does a generally solid job of introducing the fantastic elements of the Homeland -- back in Fabletown, magicks are hidden away and used practically (tesseract apartments and masking spells), but here there's a rich diversity of what passes as normal and it all works.

A bit of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead with a lot of Princess Bride and all vastly enjoyable.

GOTHAM CENTRAL #30

Unlike last issue, which was a little slow and entirely too dedicated to catching readers up with the world of the Flash, this one had a brisker pace even if it didn't get much more done. The end of the issue had to end where it did, but there was a bit of rough sledding to get there. Police bureaucracy in two separate juristictions had to be outfoxed, however, so we'll be generous with the forgiveness here. And the end was certainly interesting enough, if not exactly a surprise -- after giving us the hint of a cure for Officer Kelly, including his return to consciousness and sanity, Dr. Alchemy took his experiment on a joyride.

If I had a problem this issue, it was with the interrogation scene. I came away thinking that it's Greg Rucka and he should be better at this than he was, but in hindsight I don't know that I have any basis for such an assumption beyond "Well, it's Rucka and he should be good at everything." There hasn't been a real need for classical interrogation techniques from Batfolk or Atticus Kodiak or Carrie Stetko or anyone at Vauxhall Cross. Experience or not, this wasn't a great interrogation scene -- it was a very poor man's version of a Silence of the Lambs moment. From the interrogation through to his arrival at the hospital, Dr. Alchemy didn't seem especially genius or creepy or threatening. He was snarky and mean, but no Hannibal Lecter. More on the level of someone on Law & Order.

For the interrogation, Alchemy picked on the obvious points of 'weakness' to taunt Renee and Cris -- the former's lesbianism and the latter's skin color -- instead of being the master armchair psychiatrist Ashley Zolomon insisted he was. The Trickster could have come up with those taunts.
I kept waiting for some twisted barb or subtle chain-yanking out of the Rogue the Keystone cops and profiler are so obviously intimidated by... but none came. [Also, considering her history, Montoya's pendant seemed more prop for convenient notice by Alchemy than actually something she'd wear -- Renee may live openly now with her girlfriend, but she's very low-key about her personal life in general and a double-venus pendant sort of goes against that.]

Alchemy's 'outwitting' of the cops by pretty much getting them to escort him directly to his experiment loses all luster because how could four cops so used to dealing with powered bad guys so completely underestimate their prisoner? Don't either Keystone or Gotham have protocols for the transport of metahuman prisoners?

It's fairly impossible for Gotham Central to be bad and this isn't, not by any stretch. It's just that when the bar is set so very, very high... sometimes you go under and sometimes you go through.

Sunday, April 17, 2005

ULTIMATE X-MEN #58

Steve Dillon draws the X-Men!

... Sadly, that was the highlight of this issue. That, and maybe the gratuitous Warlock cameo. But what a highlight it was.

If this were back in the Mark Millar days, I would have loved this issue. Because back then, Charles Xavier was not altogether ethical or honorable and all of his actions in this foisted bank robbery would have had an air of creepiness about them. But now, after thirty issues of Brians Bendis and Vaughan, Xavier has been restored to his core-canon pedestal of moral rectitude and that made most of his actions hokey and laugh-at-not-with. We even got a moment where Xavier completely justifies sending children into mortal danger. It felt like one of those early Uncanny issues where Xavier is such a priss as he regales the quintet with a story of his amazing feats before he lost the use of his legs.

This post-Millar makeover has given Xavier such a primness that the resolution has no sinister impact to it, instead it is one of desperate-but-justified reluctant action that justifies so many pathetic movies (John Q, for instance). Xavier just wants his money to run his school, that's all. He just wants to save mutant children. And if he must inspire confidence and lost youth in his fellow hostages to do it, then so be it. *cough*

By contrast, Millar's Xavier really would have had Syndikate's sister out on a ledge and probably would have put all of the bank customers into a trance so that he could 'use' them without having to be bothered with their fears and weaknesses -- and he definitely would have forced the banker into giving him his money. He also would have perhaps skipped over the part where he told the twins not to kill anyone. There would have been an air of revenge in his sending the twins after Sebastian Shaw, not a mildly aggrieved headmaster who has to get back to work.

ULTIMATES v2 #5

One of the more subtle joys of The Ultimates in its second season is how the first one wasn't a fluke -- they really are this bad at working together. Forget about teamwork or coordination; the Ultimates are miserable at cooperation. Considering that they are backed up by the best in military tech support and that a few of them have military training, they are laughably ineffective and don't have the excuse of newbiness to use anymore. Nick Fury and his minions with an AWACS have nothing on poor old Cyclops and his barking out orders without amplification or a bird's eye view in terms of tactical work.

That's not to say that some of them aren't darned effective on their own; Natasha's low blow struck home with full force and they did eventually bring Thor down. But the entertainment value in the fight is in the details of why and how it takes eighteen pages for the entire Ultimates team (with reserves) to stop one man with an impressive hammer.

Sadly, the proportion of time spent on the tussle in the snow made it feel like one of those moments in the rock concert where each and every member has to get their twenty minute solo. Nobody cares about the rhythm guitarist's licks. Loki's taunting of his half-brother (in his guise of Gunnar Golmen) was actually much neater and far more clever than anything in the fight. Loki has no reason to lie to Thor about there being a mole on the team and Thor's fears -- that the Ultimates are getting used for no good in the Middle East -- are realized and, put together, there's a fair bit of intrigue going on at the Triskelion. Between that and whatever happened to Bruce Banner and Hank Pym... maybe the fight could have been knocked back to twelve pages.

Good to see this issue out a month after the previous; after last month's hiccup, it looked like it could have been Season One all over again.

NIGHTWING #107

Well that didn't hurt nearly as much as I thought it would.

After a torturous six issues with Chuck "I write Scooby Doo now" Dixon, we're back to our regularly scheduled angstfest as written by Devin "I had my title character raped without consequence" Grayson.

At least Dick has a brain again.

The problem with Grayson's last year or so on Nightwing is that in her effort to not be Dixon with his dim-bulb, perky Dick, she's gone too much the other way. Her Dick Grayson has pretty much lost his sense of humor, not to mention his purpose and his joie de vivre. He's a miserable man and, after a while, it's not very entertaining to watch someone screw themselves into the ground with such talent.

So with that in mind, I opened up this issue with extreme skepticism -- 'Dick Grayson does Donnie Brasco' works fine in theory, but, well... I was dubious about the practice.

I'm still dubious about the practice. And the purpose.

While nobody in the issue ever uses Dick's name, the odds of it being unknown are slim what with Dick coming to the home of Tommy Tevis straight from the Bludhaven PD. And that's where my suspension of disbelief starts to signal in semaphore that something is not right. Maybe it's just because I've grown up in a huge city, but I've always found the notion that Dick Grayson can go anywhere in Gotham or Bludhaven (and probably New York) without being recognized patently ridiculous. He's Bruce Wayne's heir and son and he's gorgeous and he used to be engaged to a supermodel/crimefighter and no matter how good Bruce was about protecting young Dick from the paparazzi, the kid was in the newspapers regularly. He'd have been Gotham's own Prince William, the way people in New York knew who Ivanka Trump was before she started modeling, but with added drama for his tragic background. When you can have Page Six featuring items like this... That Dick went his entire BPD career without anyone noticing his dad was Bruce Wayne -- especially considering that the Bruce Wayne: Murderer/Fugitive arc happened in that time -- was absolutely laughable. We've seen what sort of circuses celebrity trials are. Bottom line is that I'm not sure I can choke down the heir of Wayne Enterprises going "undercover" without a little bit of costuming. His own version of Matches Malone would have sold this much more easily.

But since there is no Matches, only "Crutches", what about the story?

The vaguely-hinted-at motive for Dick's having entered the service of local crime boss Tommy Tevis is that he's looking to make an act of contrition for his part in the murder of Blockbuster by Tarantula II. I say vaguely because it's not clear that Dick isn't doing this to further wallow in his fall from grace. Dick ruminates on how if he'd not been taken in by Bruce, there were good odds that he'd have ended up a criminal; Miss Devin's penchant for angst leaves the possibility open that Dick is hanging out with the goombas because he's finally sunk to his "true" level, where he would have been if fate (in the guise of Batman) hadn't interfered. Dick has been such a clumsy, passive sulker for so long, it's hard to assume that he's suddenly got the impetus to try to regain what he has lost instead of just going on another kamizake mission where he hopes he dies in the course of proving his worth and Bruce can forgive him in death the way (Dick imagines) he couldn't in life.

The plot itself is frustrating because, devoid of any and all backstory excepting "Dick used to be BPD" and "Dick got shot in the leg", this wasn't that bad. If this had taken place twenty issues ago, I'd have bought it as a legitimate arc (well, with the same identity issues as above, but...) -- there's nothing inherently wrong with Dick pulling a Donnie Brasco. Or certainly nothing more wrong than Dick going 'undercover' at the BPD to ferret out corruption.

The problem is that you can't ignore all the backstory. Which is why this issue sinks from "perfectly acceptable installment of a monthly book" to "not keeping a bad situation from getting worse". Which is a shame. I'm almost at the point where I wish Judd Winick, who seems to have a handle on the character, might step in. And followers of the Shrew know precisely what sort of dire statement that is.

Friday, April 15, 2005

The Shrew Speaks!

...Fanboy Rampage found it, but it's absolutely worth passing on: Ted Kord's last email (as discovered by Neil Kleid). Blue Beetle saw the writing on the wall and took action, albeit too late -- he cold-called Joe Quesada for a job.
So, I got on the horn with Ollie Queen and we got to talking. He put me in touch with Kevin Smith and Kev suggested I shoot you an email.

What I'm wondering, Joe, is whether or not you can find me work at Marvel.

Before you say anything, I know you've already got a bug guy and I'm not looking to muscle in on anyone's turf. I saw those movies and mad props to all y'all. Those were quality flicks. But who says lightning can't strike twice? Who's to say in the hands of the right writer that the old Ditko magic can't give Marvel another success?

All I'm asking for is a chance to do something different. I've had it with everything being so serious at 1700 Broadway. It's IDENTITY CRISIS this and IDENTITY CRISIS that. IDENTITY CRISIS ALL STARS and IDENTITY CRISIS ADVENTURES- enough! Just because OZ milked rape for six seasons doesn't mean we've got to stop telling stories about giant robotic Nazis.
Go read the rest.



... I'm extraordinarily pleased that Blacksad 2: Arctic Nation got nominated for several Eisners (Best Graphic Album-New, Best U.S. Edition of Foreign Material, and Best Painter (Juanjo Guarnido)). I picked up both Blacksad books last year at New York is Book Country and was very, very impressed. Guarnido's art is stunning and sly, all the more so because he's dealing purely with anthropomorphic animals and, as a rule, I don't care much for talking animal books. The translation of the first book's a bit spotty in places, but Juan Diaz Canales has a couple of great noir stories on his paws. [ Book One | Book Two: Arctic Nation | Book Three ]



... Whither the reviews? The Shrew has a daunting backlog and sometimes it's a challenge to find something interesting or relevant to say. Which occasionally doesn't stop me, but sometimes the filter kicks in. So yes, Batgirl and Y - The Last Man have been read, among other books, but coherent thought is lagging behind. And next weekend is the start of Passover, which is an involved process.

A comment about comments, while we're here. For those of you who are following me over from the prior incarnation, the comments work a bit differently here. First, you don't have to have a Blogger account to leave a name. Choose the "Other" option because "Anonymous" comments can get confusing. Pick a codename if you'd like, but please do leave some identifier and be consistent with it. Second, there is no automatic email notification (except to me) here and no replying directly to specific comments, so I'm responding less because I don't know if the commenter (usually an Anonymous) is coming back to check. I'm not trying to be haughty or stand-offish -- I'm just wondering if I'm replying into a vacuum.

Thursday, April 14, 2005

DEATH Jr. #1

This made me laugh about as hard as I Can't Believe It's Not the Justice League did. Which is a lot.

Gary Whitta and Ted Naifeh have created a charming and cleverly subversive little story here. There are plenty of yukks both high- and lowbrow and a boatload of references beyond the characters themselves -- the real estate agency selling the house next door is Holden & Callfield, for instance -- and generally a lot going on on many levels.

Death, Jr. is nominally a story about a young boy on his first day of school, getting picked on by the bully, going to class, meeting a friend, and having a few age-appropriate adventures... But it takes on a whole new look when the boy in question is the Grim Reaper's pride and joy. DJ is his daddy's boy -- he's got a morbid touch (which is hell on his pets; the cat gag never gets old) and his body is only skull and he'd really like a chance to use a scythe like Dad, even if he doesn't quite understand that urge yet.

DJ's new best friend is Pandora, a gothy little girl who has a thing for boxes (get it?) and a personality that could have been any Winona Ryder role in her Heathers-Beetlejuice period, and his classmates are a mixture of perfectly normal and totally freakish. DJ might not notice the difference between the 'special' kids and the general population, but everyone else is hyperaware, if unafraid; the odd kids are treated like special ed, not living curio cabinet specimens -- despite one of them literally being a sort of Thalydomide baby in a giant jar.

It is with this group of 'special' kids where Whitta has the most fun: Stigmartha with the bleeding hands, Pandora with her box fetish, conjoined twins Smith & Weston share a brain, and Seep, the jarred Baby Herman-esque specimen. Whitta develops each according to their oddities, especially the twins and Pandora. Smith and Weston are the epitome of left brain/right brain stereotypes -- one is brilliant, the other not so much; creative and computational, etc. -- and have the most to do out of the supporting cast. Including coating their chemistry teacher in feces. Pandora is the sort of precocious kid that we all knew (or were) as young'uns and who TV writers always try to portray and never quite get. Her need to open things (and for the opened things to become messes) is used sparingly and never goes past the point of being a good gag so that when it becomes time for it to play an important role in the plot, it seems more coincidence than paved path with neon arrows. By the end, where the danger is present and looming, we are engaged with the characters and concerned for their welfare even as we know that they'll probably be all right in the end.

Ultimately the reason Death Jr. works is that it about a boy whose goodness of nature is so genuine and so unconscious that it transcends the sardonic and becomes immune to the too-knowing who'd like to destroy it. The story and the humor wouldn't work if DJ actually was a clueless idiot. He gets teased for his innocence in the face of freakdom, but DJ's unpoisoned outlook on life is just that -- unpoisoned instead of impossibly simpleminded. He's a bright kid raised by a supportive and loving family and it informs everything about him, so that when everyone else snarks at him... it sounds a bit like jealousy. Pandora doesn't seem wiser for being more aware of her differences -- she just seems sadder. It makes for great and effective humor in Whitta's hands. Very much like The Incredibles, it uses gentle humor to show off the positive.

That doesn't mean you won't laugh yourself sick. Especially when the poo literally hits the fan.

Best of the week, hands down.

Wednesday, April 13, 2005

ULTIMATE FANTASTIC FOUR #17

This penultimate chapter of N-Zone was terrifically funny stuff. It had the same tone as Ellis's episode of JLU ("Dark Heart") -- witty and intelligent without flying over kids' heads. Now if only the cover didn't have that mildly freaky and totally unnecessary tuchus shot of Sue....

Reed and Ben's egress from the hot zone, a super combination of humor and use of powers, highlighting the fact that Reed and Ben were buddies before all the weird stuff happened, was wonderful. Similarly, the contrast between Reed and Ben's kinetic motion and Sue's anxious stillness as she waited at Johnny's side for their return. Reed and Ben kept in constant verbal contact to keep track of the other's progress, but Sue could only talk to the air and have faith that Reed wouldn't get distracted by the shiny.

Nonetheless, this was very much a Ben issue -- the big guy got to use his brawn this month and seemed positively cheerful that he could take care of himself without any of the uncertainty that has plagued him since his transformation. Ben has spent most of his time at the Baxter Building being confused and careful -- he doesn't understand the science that Reed and Sue breathe like air, he's afraid of breaking things through his ignorance and the newness of his ungainly form, and he's still not quite comfortable palling around with the younger Johnny. He's gotten so many of the best lines of dialogue since the start of the series, but he's also been looking for something to do besides serve as acerbic Greek Chorus and occasional interlocutor. Clobbering all the baddies here was a release in many ways, then -- a chance to be useful and self-sufficient and even to protect Reed from the effects of his own geekiness and curiosity, just like it was in the old days when he was keeping Reed from his daily swirlie. There's nothing inherently insulting in being the team muscle.

The trade has been solicited for June 2005, so add it to your wishlists.

Tuesday, April 12, 2005

SUPERMAN/BATMAN #18

Perchance an end to all this dystopia?

Back in November, Batman/Superman, Teen Titans, and JLA all unloaded horrible versions of a future world in the same week. The first two were arguably the more interesting -- I've done enough griping about JLA elsewhere -- and now both have drawn to a close, complete with repercussions. Teen Titans foreshadowed the return of Donna Troy and the... identity crisis of Superboy. Superman/Batman hints at more opaque events, but does mostly seem to enjoy recalling the past.

Absolute Power ends in a fashion consistent with how it ran -- heavy on the references with some questionable character moments in the thought-bubbles of the two protagonists. Bruce and Clark set things right with the timeline, bringing Saturn Queen, Cosmic King, and the Lightning Lord back to the Legion's justice -- funny how the adult Legion changes their names from Lass and Lad to Woman and Man, even though the decidedly adult team never bothered during the Levitz era -- and return to their own time. I really liked the resolution of the Ersatz Legionnaires' storyline (they did not travel back in time to rule the world, but instead to assure their own survival in their current timeline) until I thought about it for a second and got twisted up in the logic of why they'd disappear from their native timeline. But it does not matter.

Bruce and Clark travel back through a montage of important moments in DCU history -- and I have to confess that I didn't see their heads superimposed over the images until the third read-through; I couldn't tell where Batman's cowl began and the wooly mammoth ended) -- and, still rattled by what they've seen and done, seek out two of the heroes they'd killed. Diana is confused but accomodating and Ollie is cantankerous and apparently that's good enough. We end their story with the thoughtful pose over the Waynes' gravesite... and then take a detour to Pre-Crisis DCU for a really random shout-out to Alan Moore's Whatever Happened to the Man of Tomorrow? story. Old-skool Kal opened up the arc and closed it and neither appearance made a whole lot of sense beyond the possibility that it brought the number of references up to an even number.

I had several qualms with how the AU Bruce and Clark evolved -- I don't think Martha and Thomas Wayne raise a wastrel, among other moments -- and there wasn't a whole lot of depth to this investigation of how Batman (the archtype) and Superman (the archtype) are formed and remade. It was great for all of the references, but it didn't do much as a statement on the two foremost men in the DCU.

NEW WEST #1

This is going to be one of those reviews where I begin with "I really wanted to like this, but...."

The premise is intriguing: a noir story set in post-apocalyptic LA, a hard-boiled, weary ex-cop-turned-PI in a city where the accouterments of 21st century life are but an ironic reminder of days past since the fastest way of getting anywhere is by horse and there's no electricity. There's the requisite boozy blonde, crooked cops, and the resentful dame who hasn't forgiven our hero for whatever it was that cost him his badge. Phil Noto's pencils are beautiful and colored with a palette that fits this world-gone-awry.

But.

New West is a lovely read... until you start to think about what's going on. Jimmy Palmiotti's world-building is creative -- an electromagnetic pulse dropped LA and its environs back three hundred years and society has largely adjusted -- but doesn't go far enough and fails certain basic logical tests. The pulse was delivered via the Fuji blimp and it was apparently just LA that was affected, but LA has become Gotham during No Man's Land -- the rest of the country doesn't care and isn't involved; there is no FEMA, there are no exiles, there is no rebuilding, and there is no practical explanation for why a year has passed and the situation hasn't been corrected. After the blackout of 2003, they ran a power line under the Long Island Sound from Connecticut to New York; temporary power in LA shouldn't have been that difficult. The reason why is apparently part of the mystery, but the complete and total lack of curiosity on everyone's part is boggling -- nobody even wonders if there could be a plot.

It doesn't help that Palmiotti delivers this backstory in a miserable fashion: Dan, the protagonist, is telling the story of this localized apocalypse as a macabre bedtime story to the aforementioned boozy blonde, who is young enough to be his daughter (as all properly boozy blondes in noir stories are). Megan wants to hear about the day the world ended -- which not coincidentally is also the day her sister was killed right in front of Dan -- and he obliges, presenting the information (which is richly imagined, much in the fashion of the start of Y - The Last Man, if not as well realized) in such a fashion that cuts an unhappy middle ground between treating Megan like a simpleton and talking directly to the readers. Final score: Exposition Fairy over Palmiotti by TKO.

It's during this telling that Palmiotti lost me completely and irretrievably. The EMP was set off by Korean terrorists whose rationale was pretty much identical to that of the average Wahibis terrorist, al-Qaeda, and Osama bin Laden -- a strike against the corrupting influence of Western culture and ideas. Palmiotti skirts the religious influence by changing it to pop culture, which apparently makes it okay to sympathize with the terrorists -- Megan, previously a little dizzy and plenty drunk on scotch, suddenly spouts a long and intelligible defense of the terrorists and Palmiotti doesn't sufficiently (to my mind) defuse that outburst by just having Dan mutter something offhand and in his unreconstructed politically incorrect fashion about not blowing people up because they produce better movies. Megan, justifying the slaughter of thousands of innocents, comes out of the scene being the thoughtful one.

There's plenty of old-fashioned action befitting a noir tale -- with the exception that Dan wields a katana and not a handgun (there's a proliferation of hands hacked off at the wrist). Like all noir PIs, Dan acts heroically and occasionally ungentlemanly, gets clouted on the head at inconvenient moments, and rescued by tough dames. One of those dames is Megan, sober and armed, and the other is her mother, the one character here who really, really didn't work. Mrs. Hirsh is nothing but a gorgeous, bitter shrew of a woman whose vengefulness in the wake of her blaming Dan for her other daughter's death is completely undercut by the fact that the blame is mostly ludicrous and nobody in the story seems to recognize that except for Megan, whose opinion doesn't count because she's drunk, underage, and in love with Dan.

Why is Dan so hated? Why is his life miserable and lonely? On the day of the EMP, LAPD Detective Dan Wise was supposed to deliver the ransom money for the kidnappers of the Hirsh's elder daughter, but the bad guys got the drop on him, killing his partner and making off with the money and the girl... only to be killed when the van was destroyed as a plane affected by the EMP dropped from the sky and landed on the freeway. From this, the Hirsh family (Mr. Hirsh is the mayor of LA) set about destroying Dan's career and life and easily succeeding. There are plenty of irrational ways to deal with the death of a child, but... Mrs. Hirsh is so unremittingly bitter and cruel, effecting real damage through revenge not clearly deserved, that it's impossible to sympathize with her in even the slightest fashion. Yet Dan manages and goes off to commit an act of suicidal bravery to regain her respect and keep her from another loss.

Palmiotti is often involved with projects I want to like because of the premise, but rarely end up do liking because of the execution. Most recently, Monolith was deadly dull and his run on Hawkman with frequent collaborator Justin Gray has been frustratingly underwhelming. I'm starting to get the feeling that for a writer, Palmiotti is a fantastic inker.

Monday, April 11, 2005

SEVEN SOLDIERS: ZATANNA #1

And so begins the third miniseries of the Seven Soldiers project. As with Jake Jordan (Guardian) and Sir Justin (Shining Knight), Zatanna is about to embark on a quest as a form of penance -- she screwed up, so she's got to fix it. And by the time she realizes that it's not really her fault, it'll be too late to turn back.

... The real title of this is What If Zatanna were John Constantine.... With her mysical associates dropping off at a rate familiar to those who read Hellblazer and all from Zatanna's it-was-a-good-idea-at-the-time doings, well, she's a trenchcoat and a pack of Silk Cuts away from the life and times of a certain ex-lover of hers.

I exaggerate, of course. John-boy wouldn't be caught dead in a self-help meeting unless he was pulling a scam. But Zatanna has often had a touch of LA-style New Ageism about her and it doesn't seem that odd for her to be turning up in a group therapy session for wannabes and never-wases, although I wouldn't call her a spellaholic in light of what she's done -- which is incinerate her friends, set loose a world-destroyer, and acquire a creepy sidekick. While running to her buddies in the JLA may have been the wise idea, it's also the most embarrassing one.

Zatanna has always been one of the most accessible of the DCU's mages -- endless legs in fishnets aside, she remains charmingly human whether she's trading barbs with Aquaman in JLoA or slinging spells with other mages. Despite personal tragedy, there's none of Dr. Fate's remoteness or Jason Blood's eternal torment or any of the awesome psychological screwed-up-ness of the Trenchcoat Brigade. Zatanna can pull off a guest-appearance in a Green Lantern annual without making readers' eyes cross. Morrison gets that -- this Zatanna is alternately irrepressibly eager, acutely self-conscious, supremely competent... and letting loose world-eaters because she tried to conjure up a stud for a night of meaningless sex.

The opening premise of Seven Soldiers: Zatanna feels a bit like a highlight reel of some of Vertigo's best magic stories -- plenty of Hellblazer as well as of the several versions of Books of Magic (the Gaiman mini, the Reiber series, the current Spencer AU series), among others. But it doesn't feel derivative or predictable. While we have the first appearance of a character from the Zero issue (Gimmick Girl, in a cameo that doesn't require having read the Zero issue), the Sheeda have not been introduced and two bits says that those voracious aliens -- along with her father's books -- tie into Zatanna's dream fellow. Although it would be kind of funny if the "man of her dreams" turned out to be Constantine instead of an avatar of her father.

Now this is the point where I pause and exhort everyone who didn't pick this book up to flip through it at the shop on Wednesday just to get a gander at Ryan Sook's art. Which is gorgeous. Sook has a wide range of scenes in this assignment -- alternate realities and magical realms, dingy church basements, fire-lit studies in old mansions, rainy streetcorners in run-down neighborhoods -- and a varied cast of characters. And it all comes out vivid and just stunning; Sook's eye for detail is striking, but never so particular that an element or two of the fantastic can't sneak in.

Overall, I'd rate this above the Guardian mini and perhaps even the Shining Knight story, although that one is most definitely blessed with some achingly lovely art.

Saturday, April 09, 2005

SHREW BITES

OCEAN #5... Nathan Kane and crew versus Windows Doors and our ancestors. This is a high-quality Ellis-as-paranoid sci-fi thriller. Evil corporations, the worst part of human nature coming back to haunt, the threat of unimaginable horror looming close, wormholes, avarice, wiseass dialogue... all set up against Jupiter's moons. Derivative in the right ways and a lot of fun. Concluding next issue.



JUSTICE LEAGUE CLASSIFIED #5.... Best Guy Gardner in years. On the one hand, this is a terribly hard miniseries to read in light of Identity Crisis and now Countdown to Infinite Crisis. On the other... if you can forget about the main DCU, you'll laugh yourself sick. The SuperBuddies may have thought that they were in Hell by working together next to Guy Gardner's new bar, but Booster Gold takes things a little too literally when he futzes around where he shouldn't at the JSA headquarters. Special cameo appearance by Power Girl's cleavage.



THE PULSE #8... Whoever was holding Brian Bendis hostage so that he could turn out the piles of mediocre-at-best storylines over at Avengers Mansion has obviously let him free. Because this issue was nothing less than a reminder of how brilliant Alias was and why it is so very missed. The Pulse was supposed to be like this all along, but it wasn't -- it was the Ultimate Spidey Cliff Notes version of Secret War. But now we've got Jessica making crude suggestions for suppository alternatives, SHIELD coming apart at the seams, Ben Urich and JJ Jameson working together to actually report news, and Hydra making a supremely logical (if still nonsensical) pitch for legitimacy.

This is the Bendis we fell in love with -- fast-paced, potty-mouthed, and an eye for all the different ways people and organizations can screw with each other and how the lines between doing the right thing and not doing the right thing aren't always so very clear. Here's hoping for more of the same.



THE QUESTION #5... I've been saving this one. I adore this series -- the lovely Tommy Lee Edwards art, Rick Veitch's story and the Question's lyricism as he does his shaman thing. It's not for everyone, but I'm enjoying it immensely. This story ties into regular Superman events -- Lex Luthor's Science Spire -- and its purpose, which is to kill Superman. Lois is wonderfully rendered here -- flawed and intelligent and human and a skeptic and a dreamer all at once. Superman is no goody two-shoes, but a hard-working man doing his best and fooled not because he's gullible, but because he's genuine. And Vic himself, who wanders between his two worlds without regard or care, seeing everything but not always able to do anything. Beautiful.



SECRET WAR #4... One long messy fight, establishing what we already know -- Nick Fury got a lot of people in a lot of poop. It's a kind of neat way that the 'chickens coming home to roost' scheme played out, though -- the battle suits as bomb components. But there wasn't enough else going on. I'm enjoying Gabriele Dell'otto's art as much as anyone is, but this was all fight scene and nothing more. Very pretty padding, but padding none the less.

Friday, April 08, 2005

THE FLASH #220

I might have to be gentle here because Geoff Johns is giving me the only view of the Detroit Red Wings I'll see all season. (And yes, the Rogues have had the Stanley Cup for a while. It's not like the NHL needs it.)

After a whole lot of set-up, we've finally gotten started on Rogue War. Perhaps because of all that set-up, none of this was very exciting or thrilling or novel. Everything that happened was completely organic in terms of what Johns has been doing for the last year and that's both boon and bane. For all of the build-up and talk that has surrounded this arc -- Johns has been talking about this for the last year -- I was expecting at least one "doh!" moment and there were none. Which isn't to say that this was a bad issue; it wasn't, not by a long shot. It was very good. It just didn't live up to the hype -- it felt like all of the non-Rogue War issues, which is a solid "good" and occasionally "really good" and nothing that merits headlines over at Newsarama and breathless announcements of reprints from DC.

What happened: the FBI, at least in the embodiment of Jesse James, is out to finally get the Rogues and the 'reformed' members (scare quotes because of the whole question of free will and mental reprogramming coming out of Identity Crisis and Barry and the Top) are willing to go to extreme lengths to do so. The Rogues are off trying to figure out where the feds took Digger Harkness's body. Meanwhile, Zoom is still on the loose and the Wests are trying to get on with their lives.

What bothered me: Re-animating Captain Boomerang to find out the Rogues' hideout (and kidnapping Ashley Zolomon to get the information) seems like overkill in the extreme, no pun intended. Keystone's not that big and all of this de facto task force used to be a Rogue at some point. That they don't have (living) connections seems far-fetched as is the notion that Digger would tell them anything -- what would he gain by doing so and why does Jesse James think his information is still accurate? Wouldn't one of Piper's rats be of more use? And, finally, what role will Wally have in a Rogue war -- the most expedient solution for both him and the Keystone Cops is to let the Rogues all have at it, arrest the survivors, and try to keep the collateral damage to a minimum.

What could be intriguing: Zoom is a terrifying villain, far more so than the Gothamized Rogues. Zoom is scary because he's not out for personal gain. He's an unstoppable stalker against whom no reasoning works, a perseverant psycho who thinks he's being benevolent -- teaching Wally through tough love. Zoom doesn't think that Wally has learned enough of a lesson by Linda miscarrying their twins and has let his eye fall upon Jay Garrick. Zoom was the focus of the riveting Blitz arc and is great when used effectively. If he hooks up with the Rogues... that would be explosive.

And about those Gothamized Rogues... I understand there has to be some toughening up -- whatever Mrs. Zolomon says, the resident Keystone baddies have been closer to nuisance level than true terrors. I don't dislike the end result, let me be clear. I just can't keep from laughing at Johns for dissing Gotham's bad guys as lightweights after he's rebooted his own set to be just like them. Personally, I'm more scared of the Joker than of Trickster and of Mr. Freeze than Captain Cold. Johns's dislike of the Big Three is showing again, methinks.

Johns has been building up the Keystone Rogues for a long time and with a lot of effort -- some of the lead-in Rogue Profiles were quite good and Captain Cold's group is much closer to the classic style of collaborative theft (think Ocean's Eleven or The Italian Job, either versions) than they'd ever been and there's an air of proficiency that gives them weight. And, considering what they are doing and what Jesse James's group is doing, Captain Cold's Rogues could easily be the protagonists of a story without The Flash on the cover. Young Owen Harkness, who originated in Identity Crisis, is proving an interesting addition -- he's a natural, blessed with metahuman abilities and a mind that is unbalanced in productive ways. He's savage and controlled and Captain Cold looks at him and sees a bright future for the both of them. The new Captain Boomerang, with the right training, could be the best of all of them.

I've spent a lot of time griping here, but there's no major flaw to this issue. It's well-paced, it's a good jumping-on point for new Flash readers, and nobody is outrageously out of character. It's just... after all this build-up to the storyline, I expected a bang and not a whimper.

GREEN LANTERN: REBIRTH #5

My progress through the issues of Rebirth has been predictable. There was Denial, there was Anger, there was Bargaining and there absolutely was Depression. So either Apathy snuck in there somewhere or I've hit Acceptance.

No major gripes with this issue, which is not to say that it was perfect, only that there won't be any incensed rambling about the Giant Yellow Locust of Fear this time. But! I'm still impatient with the way Geoff Johns has decided to make Kyle Rayner acceptable to the Hal fans through Hal and his buddies (like Ollie) giving Kyle their benediction -- you may have saved the world a few times, kid, but it didn't really matter until we said it did. Wedging Kyle and Hal into the same spot is an unenviable task, but Johns seems to have chosen the most backhanded way of going about it. That said, I thought the handshake panel was fantastic even if I wish Johns had been a little more delicate with what followed.

I am withholding judgement on the final page -- Batman's little spitefest -- until the start of the next issue. Because if someone knocks the Bat flat on his keester ("Not while I'm standing..."), then it's all good. But if this becomes a Thing right square in the middle of a galactic crisis, I may have to get cranky. Bruce's distrust of Hal post-Emerald Twilight is not news, 'forgiveness' at Hal's funeral (GL 81) notwithstanding, but there's a time and a place for everything and this is neither. I strongly suspect that this will prove to be an opening for a big, impassioned speech by Hal, which will be dreadfully boring. Johns has no love for the JLA -- what he's doing writing the title come the summer is beyond me -- and he's made them the stick-in-the-mud, reactionary types before (Teen Titans, any appearance of Wonder Woman). We know this resistance to Hal doesn't last long -- he's already in the JLA by Countdown to Infinite Crisis -- so it's best to keep it to a minimum here.

As far as Hal himself, there was quite a bit to like here in terms of making the worst of his past storylines go away, but... as relieved as I was to see him freed of the self-doubt and wibbling that plagued the start of Green Lantern v3 and sparked road trips with Ollie, I sort of felt that it came on too fast. Hal's been free of the Spectre and Parallax, both forces stronger than him, for all of a couple of hours (at most) -- not to mention back from the dead -- and I'd liked to have seen him show some effects of that. He wasn't in suspended animation -- his consciousness has been active the entire time. As great a hero as Hal is, there should have been some confusion, some weakness, some reaction to suddenly being made flesh and blood and finding himself dressed in the uniform he last wore when he slaughtered his former comrades. Instead, Hal was pretty much... Hal As He Should Be. Which is the goal, obviously, but shouldn't happen straight out of the egg.

The fighting with Sinestro -- both Kyle and Hal -- was fun. That Hal should get his tuchus kicked on the back end of last issue's dramatic Gandalf-at-the-Bridge-of-Khazad-Dum moment was appropriate (but does not invalidate the previous paragraph) and if Johns is going to be inconsistent about whether he remembers Kyle and Sinestro have tangled before, well, there's nothing to be done except mutter darkly under our breaths and move on. I did not like the use of the rings as sentient police radios -- it's not a trait they've ever had and what was up with the whole Code 1963 thing? -- and I'm wondering if Johns isn't setting the rings up to be some sort of wifi network to replace the construct images of giant Guardian heads ordering the Lanterns around.

In my newfound peace, I'm going to have to reread the entire series in time with the release of the final issue. I'm sure I'll be kinder and gentler -- okay, not to the Giant Yellow Locust of Fear -- now that it's over.

Tuesday, April 05, 2005

FANTASTIC FOUR #524

Sic transit gloria the Mark Waid era of Fantastic Four.

I missed the first few issues, but was on board for Unthinkable (#497-500) which, along with Authoritative Action, remains my favorite arc. But despite a few (acid) trips to the wacky zone, I give a hearty thumbs-up to the run.

Before and during, Waid spoke of the importance of family to the title and how he wanted to remind folks of how powerful Sue Richards is and I think he accomplished both admirably. Under Waid's guidance, the FF snarked at each other, sacrificed themselves, snapped when things got too much, and saved the world a lot. In the process, the team gained a new respect for each other (and their powers) and reinforced their bonds of affection. Sue came out of this run stronger in presence and power; Johnny's stint as Galactus's herald was revelatory as far as the intelligent, responsible Johnny Storm went; Ben twice had to make the heartbreaking choice to return to the cage that is his body; Reed was ever brilliant, but his inability to stretch his beliefs the way he could his body shattered him and his determination to sacrifice himself -- in the N-Zone, in Latveria, in the subway with Ben -- showed that he hasn't recovered.

This last issue is a wrap-up and a review, summarizing where Waid has traveled on his tenure. Sue showed off her inner strength and Reed, impressed by that show, tried to make amends for the past by damaging his future, but Ben proved both friend and stalwart by not letting him. And Johnny cracked wise. And then they rode off into the sunset (or the microverse). Karl Kesel and then JMS have a high bar to meet.

PIGTALE #2

Better late than never here... Finally got around to reading the second issue of Ovi Nedelcu's title featuring talking pig Clyde and ne'er do well erstwhile detective Boston Booth and I'm still enjoying.

Talking-animal stories are usually love-'em-or-hate'em and I tend to be suspicious of them. This isn't quite one of those, though, as it's got a rational reason for why Clyde, Taxx, and the others have a voice -- the miracles of microchips. Not as detail-oriented as, say, We3 in the how and the why, but it's not the sort of story where that level of detail matters. Pig Tale is about the what more than the why.

Clyde, the most successful prototype of the now-deceased scientist who created him, knows that he is both resented by and useful to the scheming wolf Taxx, whom Boston encountered at the destroyed laboratory. Rightfully fearing for his life, Clyde is one scared little piggy. He understands why he can talk, but has no comprehension of what was done to him before the chip was implanted and must rely on Boston to help him. If Boston is not the most confidence-inspiring of protectors, he is at least earnest. Which is good because Taxx now has the entire lab population working for him toward his plan to take over the city. There's an Animal Farm quality to the story, to say the least.

Nedelcu's art reminds me of the old cartoons, back before Bugs Bunny got tall and thin -- and I mean that in a good way. There are a couple of panels where he zooms in too far to clearly see the motion he's trying to depict, but it's cheerful and pleasant and richly toned for a black-and-white book.

http://pigtalecomic.com/index.html. Go to previews to take a peek.

OUTSIDERS #22

Right. So. Get your affairs in order and look out for that fourth pale horse on the horizon. Judd Winick has put out two books in one week that haven't had me reaching for the Rubber Mallet of Readerly Vengeance. Because Outsiders didn't stink.

There. I said it. Never let anyone accuse the Shrew of being unfair to writers who don't deserve it.

Sadly, I think the last time I gave Outsiders a pass, it was the issue featuring Roy's recovery from his gunshot wounds and that was... many, many moons ago. Coincidentally, those gunshot wounds also come into play here. And, not so coincidentally, this issue is also mostly notable for Winick remembering that Roy and Dick have a history that goes back through half their lives. Which means we should perhaps expect some consequences of Dick realizing that Roy was going behind his back to 'Bruce' for info.

Winick, both here and in Green Arrow, has not been especially kind to Roy. If he's not treating Roy like a sleazy womanizer and none-too-bright guy whose sole attribute is his good aim, he's offing his nanny, impugning his sexual prowess, and torturing his kid. It hasn't been pretty. But here, even with the literal and professional tuchus-kicking Roy received, it wasn't nearly as disrespectful as, say, any appearance in Winick's GA. Roy came out of this story as being quick to rebound from his mistakes, still in possession of his friends' respect (not to mention that of Deathstroke), and competent. While Batman was right about Roy being careless, there's nothing especially embarrassing about getting hoodwinked by Deathstroke. It's when the Turtle starts getting the drop on you that you have to worry.

The Bruce-Dick interaction was a welcome relief from last month's attempts; Dick knows Bruce is right about Roy, but he doesn't want to hear him harping on it and says so without histrionics. It actually feels like this Nightwing and Batman occupy the same dimension as the ones over in Winick's Batman, which wasn't the case last month.

Also a pleasant change was the team seemed a little less... inept. Maybe because the comic relief B-team part of the Outsiders (Shift, Grace, Anissa, Indigo) was mostly kept quiet and Kory and Jen weren't exchanging sex stories. At this point, I'd gladly accept the notion that the team has been sabotaged from the start rather than that they've just been bumbling through with no one to blame but themselves. Because, really, they have made the JLE look like the SAS. Sadly, I don't think the mole will be Jen (what? Blame Ron Marz). Even more sadly, I don't think it will be any of the B-team either and we'll be stuck with this still largely uninteresting squad.

This wasn't a perfect issue -- let's not give Winick a false sense of security here -- but it was far better than it has been in the last year.

Monday, April 04, 2005

NIGHTWING #106

I've spent an inordinately long time trying to come up with something more profound to say than "Geez, thank heavens that is over". And I'm having no luck. It probably didn't help that I bought a $2 trade of A Lonely Place of Dying at Big Apple Comicon this weekend.

The bottom line on whether or not you loved or loathed the Nightwing Year One arc is whether you loved or loathed the original Dixon run on Nightwing. Because this is the prequel to that run, cheerfully ignoring anyone else's canon before or since. And it's a good deal more frustrating now, when there are years more of canon for Dixon to pretend doesn't exist, than it was back then.

As I've mentioned before, I came to the Nightwing title after having read the Wolfman/Perez run on New Teen Titans and it's hard to go from that Dick Grayson to this one. Dixon's run had its moments and never made me throw books across the room in pained frustration, but I never liked Dick Grayson as an ADHD himbo who needs Babs to think for him and Alfred to change his diapers. Dixon was aiming for playful and missed, ending up with brainless and that's not something I necessarily want to return. Devin Grayson can produce a terrifyingly lobotomized Nightwing, but she has a Dick who is more mature in his stupidity and not some Looney Toons character who needs to be told not to stick his tongue in the electric socket.

Similarly, I liked Dixon's take on Dick-'n'-Babs up until they actually got together -- they were like Dave and Maddie on Moonlighting with less name-calling, the anticipation so much sweeter than the payoff. But that hasn't been fared well in this Year One revisionist take. I don't think of Babs as Dick's True Love and I don't think it was ever totally obvious that they were always meant to be -- forgetting the Pre-Crisis age and maturity difference. Babs may have been the first girl he really noticed, but it's ridiculous to say that she was the only one Dick ever really noticed. It's terribly disrespectful to Kory to minimize the impact of her history with him.

Year One stories always suffer from the truism that you can't go home again and this one, as much as the Batgirl one from the other year, emphasize why.

Next month's story begins what looks to be a preposterous arc (hey, at least nobody's getting raped this time) and the begin of Phil Hester and Ande Parks' run as the art team. Having known the joy of Patrick Zircher on this title, I am somewhat failing in the enthusiasm department.

LEGION OF SUPER HEROES #4

Another issue, another happy sigh of contentment.

Mark Waid is back to the Parents Just Don't Understand theme that dominated the first couple of issues, but not in a way that makes anyone old enough to have seen the Star Wars when they came out the first time feel like an old coot. He is also continuing his path of both acknowledging the the prior incarnations of the team and then respectfully breaking with those traditions. It works wonderfully.

The Generational Crisis du Mois takes place on the family level and features the fears of a son of disappointing his parents. On the one hand is Sun Boy's embarrassment of his super-supportive flower-child parents and how crushed they would be if he quit the Legion, while on the other is the much more menacing shadow of Invisible Kid's parents and his father's reaction to what he considers his son's betrayal. Both cases have Legion-wide consequences -- the Morgnas are not only big fans, but also a necessary support mechanism for a team that is comprised of precocious children; the Norgs are part of the government elite and have the power to destroy the Legion in a very literal sense. Individually, Dirk feels smothered by his parents' enthusiasm, but Lyle (shown getting hit by his father in a flashback) has real fear for his safety. Lyle's actions are understandable and for all of the lack of foresight they showed, he comes out as far more mature than Dirk, who has not been exposed to such personal pain.

I've gone on before about how nice it is (for a Levitz-era reader) to see a Cosmic Boy with a personality and a spine; this issue, we get to see a Cos with spikes and prickles, too. He has already been established as a dynamic leader, secure enough in himself so that he can play possum and let others underestimate his control of the Legion. But now we see him acting openly and forcefully -- his reaction to Lyle's omission is harsh, but he is simply making the tough decisions a commander must make to protect the greater good -- and it is his good-naturedness that is hiding this time. Lyle responds, as eager to regain Cos's respect as he is desperate to stay with the Legion. Cos's depositing him with the Morgnas was a brilliant -- mercy in the guise of punishment because the latter was what Lyle was expecting.

Elsewhere, Brainy got an extra coat of personality paint this month -- a sense of humor (okay, an extremely perverse one) and some social skills to go with his usual irascible, impatient, arrogant self. His backhanded praise of Lyle's solution to the problem was the highest compliment (and Lyle took it as such) and his every conversation with Cos delights. The cameos of Chameleon (who plays dim-witted) and Colossal Boy Micro Lad (who isn't playing) were also vastly entertaining. Poor, sweet Gim.

The backup story pleased me immensely once I got past the wacky physics involved to make it work. [I can accept Phantom Girl appearing as a wraith in her home dimension while she's operating in the Legion's, but I don't quite buy the reverse -- it takes effort for her to appear at all on the Legion's plane and why she'd either exert that energy when she was engaged on her home plane or why there would be such strong residue that it wouldn't be noticeable that that was the case... Not buying.] Excepting the why, though, this was a great tweak on Tinya, whose inability to completely be part of the Legion's dimension is not merely restricted to the physical. Tinya is truly in limbo -- unwilling to live solely in her native plane and unable to live fully in the Legion's, she has connections everywhere and ties to nowhere. That it was Karate Kid and not Ultra Boy to find that out the hard way made it all the fresher in terms of interpretation.

ASTONISHING X-MEN #9

I know it's Joss Whedon and Joss is Good, but can I help it if I keep waiting for the Danger Room to start singing "Daisy" as it powers down? And, no, six weeks of mocking "The Danger Room is angry" apparently wasn't enough. Because while we're waiting for the kernel of existential philosophy that Whedon is wending his way toward to appear... my patience is being tested a bit. [And if this turns out to be some iteration of Cassandra Nova, I may not forgive him.]

This wasn't necessarily a bad issue, but it certainly wasn't great by any stretch. It sometimes feels like this arc was written as one screenplay for one story (the Astonishing X-Men Movie) and then broken down for transport without adapting each part to a serial format. Whedon's had years of episodic work for television, but two dozen pages of funnybook is different from an hour of film that may or may not need to tie closely into every hour that has come before it. Buffy wasn't 24 in terms of adherence to the serial format. There are scenes in Astonishing that would work fine in a two-hour movie or an hour of action drama, but feel dragged-out in a short and strictly serialized story and given an unnecessary importance simply because they take up so much space in an issue.

This time around, it was all the standing around and talking and wondering that Scott, Emma, Piotr, Logan, and Hank were doing. While their range of options was admittedly limited, they seemed a bit lacking in dynamism as they realized that. The intercutting with Kitty's tense scene didn't carry the impact it would have if it were on film -- it made the others look static and useless instead of working on a parallel track toward the point of convergence (understanding).

Also, there are dangling plot threads that are not keeping fresh. We are also still waiting for the true purpose of Agent Brand (the green-haired chick doing her best Sarah-Connor-in-T2 impression) and the whole Shi'ar plan to be made plain. While making us wait is fine, the question is whether we will remember -- or care -- when they are revealed. Agent Brand not being on screen for twenty-five minutes of a two-hour movie is not fatal, but Agent Brand not furthering her plotline for four calendar months may be. The bottom line may be that Whedon: Year One is a couple of kick-tuchus trade paperbacks.

To stop griping for a second, because this wasn't even close to the worst thing I've read thus far this week... The Dave versus HAL Kitty versus the Danger Room struggle was the high point of the issue, mostly because it had Kitty being smart and just radiating experience, which she has in spades and yet rarely has gotten to use so effectively. Whatever else happens in Whedon's first stint as X-writer, his fantastic treatment of Kitty -- letting her be a mature, thoughtful young woman -- may be how I remember him. Yet while Whedon's character work has been generally spectacular, I'm still not sure what Logan meant when he decided that Piotr going caveman on the Danger Room fusebox was a sign that the big Siberian was really back to his old self -- apart from the fact that it was Kitty he was worried about, Colossus acting like Juggernaut is not exactly how I'd encapsulate the essence of Piotr. Big Pete's modus operandi was usually that he was too much in his own head, not that he thought with his fists.