Sunday, December 30, 2007

The X-Axis Review of the Year 2007

It's the end of the year, and that means another full-length look at the state of the X-books. Bit of a mixed year, really, but things seem to be getting back on track again now. We kick off with Astonishing X-Men...

Oh, and since I didn't link to it earlier, here's the Marvel November sales post on the Beat. Note the slightly dodgy performance of "One More Day", part 3. (And if you want to know what I think of that story, you'll find some comments worked in with the Uncanny X-Men review piece.)

Sunday, December 23, 2007

X-Axis comments thread - 23 December 2007

Happy Christmas, everyone! And this week, we celebrate with a ridiculous five X-books. Cable & Deadpool guest stars Brother Voodoo; Exiles celebrates its hundredth issue by being rebooted for no particularly compelling reason; Ultimate X-Men abruptly resolves the Shadow King subplot in a single issue; Wolverine: Firebreak is just as good as you'd expect from Mike Carey; and Wolverine: Origins has a further offering from its seemingly inexhaustible supply of flashbacks that don't really work. (And this was one of the better storylines, too.)

Next week, the review of the year...

Sunday, December 16, 2007

X-Axis comments thread - 16 December 2007

This week: X-Men: Die by the Sword is another unfortunate blot on Chris Claremont's track record; and Ultimate Iron Man II picks up the origin story where we left off, er, two years ago.

Yes, it's a quiet one, but hey, there are six X-books out next week.

Saturday, December 15, 2007

Armageddon 2007

Rounding off the PPV year is Armageddon, one of the various generic events that has been around since the late 90s without ever really standing out from the pack. As New Year's Revolution has mercifully been dropped from the schedule, there's a long break after this show until the 2008 Royal Rumble on 27th January. Traditionally, that one is a major show, and they evidently want to build it up properly.

For those of you who don't follow wrestling, it's perhaps worth laying out the way things work over the next few months. Wrestlemania is treated as the biggest show of the year and will be booked accordingly (even though it's really just a particularly long PPV). That's at the end of March, and it's usually the point where major storylines pay off. The Royal Rumble in January is always headlined by the eponymous 30-man battle royale, in which the winner gets to challenge for the world title at Wrestlemania. So it's around this time that they start the build for the Royal Rumble, which in turn locks in the main event for March. You tend to get an unusually high level of forward planning at this time of year.

But that's forward planning for the spring, not forward planning for Sunday. This is a weird card, although on the whole, it looks like a better than average one.

1. WWE Championship: Randy Orton v. Chris Jericho. This hasn't quite worked in the way that the WWE might have hoped. Chris Jericho has been away from wrestling for two years, which he's spent touring with his band, writing his memoirs, and hosting the occasional show on VH1. But he's a great in-ring wrestler and a charismatic performer, and he does hold the distinction of unifying the WWF and WCW World Titles (even if his subsequent title reign largely saw him tailing around forlornly after Stephanie McMahon) so he's a welcome addition to the top tier of the roster.

Jericho's return was plugged for weeks on end with the random-looking "Save_us.222" videos, which consisted of old-fashioned computer text interrupting the show in 15-second bursts. It didn't take the audience long to figure out (mainly from the rumour mill) that these were promoting a Jericho comeback, and they started chanting for Jericho during segments that had absolutely nothing to do with him. This was a good sign. Except the WWE dragged the whole thing out long beyond the point of maximum interest, and kind of blew it.

So, Jericho finally shows up a good three weeks after the optimum time, equipped with a frankly baffling new entrance video based on the Save Us videos, which just doesn't feel right for his flamboyant character at all. Compare and contrast: here's his entrance video from immediately before he disappeared. (By the way, both of these loop after around thirty seconds, so for heaven's sake don't watch them the whole way through, unless you're particularly desperate to hear "Break the Walls" in full.)

See, colourful. Now, here's the new version. This stuff was fine for teasers... but it's NOT JERICHO. (The gap after the countdown is for the pyro, if you haven't seen the show.)

It didn't help that Jericho immediately went into a feud with Randy Orton despite them having no personal issue whatsoever. And then they gave away Jericho's first match for free on television, with no advance promotion - which might have been okay if it wasn't for the fact that it was a competitive match with Santino Marella, a character who hasn't otherwise been treated as a serious threat in months. (Immediately before, Marella had lost two straight matches to the semi-retired commentator Jerry Lawler. This week, he lost to the semi-retired RVD in thirty seconds. Jericho, the supposed big star and number one contender, took about five minutes of back-and-forth action to put him away. Not smart booking.)

All of this means that the Jericho/Orton segments just haven't been getting quite the reaction you'd expect. Still, I'm sure they'll have a great match.

Common sense says that Jericho can't win, because it hasn't been built up properly. Besides, as we'll see below, the challenger for January is either Triple H or Jeff Hardy, and neither of them makes sense as an opponent for Jericho. But common sense also says that Jericho can't lose, because this is his big return. I suspect Orton retains on a DQ, to avoid a title change while protecting Jericho as much as possible.

2. World Heavyweight Title: Batista v. The Undertaker v. Edge. Edge has just returned from injury, with a storyline where he's sucking up to Smackdown's general manager Vickie Guerrero in order to get himself a title shot. Quite why he needs to do that is hard to say, given that he already held this title when he was injured, and that would seem to give him a strong moral case for getting a title shot. But then Edge is a bad guy, so he has to get his title match nefariously, even when it isn't strictly necessary for him to do so.

Batista is still the defending champion, and the story is supposed to be that he's arrogantly confident of defeating both guys. Rumour has it that the plan is to headline Wrestlemania with Triple H and Batista for the Raw title, which would suggest that Batista loses here, turns heel, and jumps to Raw after winning the Royal Rumble - all perfectly plausible. Undertaker doesn't work a full schedule any more, so chances are that Edge is winning the title. These guys are usually good together, so I'm expecting a solid match.

3. Triple H vs. Jeff Hardy. Winner gets the WWE Title match at the Royal Rumble. Jeff is the Intercontinental Champion, but this is a non-title match, which is the equivalent of putting up a neon sign saying "Triple H is going to win." Loosely, the story is supposed to be that the evil management has given up on throwing bad guys at Triple H and has come up with a new tack: make him fight one of the midcard babyfaces who he actually quite likes. Of course, this makes no sense whatsoever, and it's resulted in some vague and baffled interviews from the wrestlers to the effect that although they have no personal issue with the other guy at all, hey, at least there's a title shot at stake.

Quite why they're using Jeff Hardy in this role is a mystery, and personally, I wouldn't have booked it. The match will probably be decent if it's allowed to be competitive, but I have a nasty feeling Jeff might just get squashed. Remember, Triple H effectively writes his own stories, and they tend to involve him being spectacularly wonderful.

4. United States title: MVP v Rey Mysterio. This is a fill-in feud, while MVP waits for his long-term opponent, Matt Hardy, to return from an appendectomy. As it happens, that may be for the best, because it means that Matt and MVP might get to do their big finale at Wrestlemania, where it belongs after so much build-up.

In the meantime, Rey Mysterio will challenge for the United States title, on the grounds that he's got nothing better to do this month. This should be another strong match, and MVP will retain if they have an ounce of sense. (If he loses the title, then they undermine the whole basis of the Matt/MVP feud, and why would they want to do that?)

5. Women's Title: Beth Phoenix v. Mickie James. Another obvious fill-in match. The number one babyface in the women's division is Candice Michelle, who is presently at home recovering from a very nasty landing during a match on Raw. In her place, we have Mickie James, who seems to have mercifully dropped a shortlived new gimmick where she distracted her opponents with displays of mild lesbianism. The less said about that the better.

In fact, Mickie is probably as good as it gets right now in terms of potential challengers for Beth - all the other half-decent female wrestlers are heels. But the only match in this division that anyone might genuinely care about is Candice returning to win back her title, so the only sensible result is for Beth to retain. As for the match, it'll be short and passable.

6. Shawn Michaels v Mr Kennedy. Veteran babyface versus rising-star heel. Logic says that Kennedy, as the rising star, ought to win - this is the sort of match that could actually elevate him, whereas if he gets pinned, it marks him down as a midcarder. But we shall see. Perhaps that's how they see him.

According to those who know about these things, Kennedy can be somewhat difficult to work with in the ring. The thrust of the criticism is that he seems to be so concerned about looking realistic that he's effectively not co-operating with his opponents (without really achieving much more in the way of realism). His matches can certainly be hit and miss. Michaels can carry almost anyone to a good match, though, and I'm sure Kennedy will be working his hardest. I think this should be fine.

7. The Great Khali v. Finlay. This is loosely connected to the neverending storyline in which Vince McMahon's estranged illegitimate son turned out to be Finlay's pet leprechaun Hornswoggle. (Don't ask. Really, don't ask.) Broadly, they've been hinting at some sort of deal on the side between Vince and Finlay, presumably as the first step towards finally undoing this nonsense somewhere down the line. For no adequately explained reason - although at least it's meant to be a mystery - Vince has started booking the midget in ridiculous mismatches, and despite being a bad guy, Finlay has started coming to the little guy's aid.

This match is supposed to be Vince's revenge on Finlay, and it's clearly the first step in Finlay switching sides. The Great Khali is the virtually useless seven-foot giant who has had almost uniformly awful matches with everyone under the sun. Only John Cena has actually had a good match with Khali on PPV. But Finlay is one of the best all-rounders in the business, with decades of experience, and he can make almost anything work. I'm not getting my hopes up, but I'll be interested to see what he can do with the big lug.

As for the winner, I'd be inclined to have Finlay win with some sort of screwjob involving the leprechaun. Why not?

8. CM Punk & Kane v. Mark Henry & Big Daddy V. Punk is still the ECW Champion, but this is just a random tag match in which he's stuck with three huge wrestlers. Only one of them is even approaching decent, and that's Kane, who's on his side. Henry is enormous but not much good, and Big Daddy V is just a very fat man. This sounds like a surefire disaster. I suspect the plan is for Punk to get pinned in order to set up a rematch for his title, which would be an even worse match.

Hopefully it will be short, but there's almost zero chance of this being any good.

Worth buying? Actually, yes, most of these matches have a strong chance of being entertaining or better. A good end to the year.

Sunday, December 09, 2007

X-Axis comments thread - 9 December 2007

This week: Ultimate X-Men #88, which is notionally the epilogue to "Sentinels"; What If? X-Men - Rise & Fall of the Shi'ar Empire (yes, that's really the full title); Northlanders #1, which is Vikings from Vertigo; and Ultimates 3 #1, which is just plain horrible.

- Not a rhetorical question: when was the last time Jeph Loeb wrote something that wasn't ungodly awful? Because his last four projects, as far as I can remember, were Ultimates 3 (unreadable), Wolverine's Evolution story (unreadable), the closing issues of Ultimate Power (miserable) and Onslaught Reborn (unreadable).

- I read with interest that J Michael Straczynski has effectively disowned "One More Day", claiming that he considered taking his name off the final two chapters but felt that would screw up Marvel's plans. This could, of course, be another publicity stunt, but it would be a very odd one.

It occurs to me that "One More Day" has many of the same problems as M-Day did. Assuming that the story is going in the direction we all think it is, it's not necessarily a horrible idea - if it's the start of a storyline that's intended to come full circle and cancel itself out. In other words, if they do a story where the marriage is broken up but hey, they overcome and get together in the end... well, that could work. The reason people hate this story so much, aside from the execution, is that they believe it's going to stick (at least for as long as Joe Quesada is still around).

The same could have been said about M-Day. But by all appearances, M-Day wasn't intended as the start of a new storyline - after all, the writers spent the next year and a half studiously ignoring it as much as they possibly could. I suspect OMD is probably in the same category. Quesada has figured out a change he wants to make; he's identified something which is vaguely story-shaped to get there; and he hasn't really thought through the implications of where that story logically ought to lead.

The tortuous ethics and marketplace positioning of Quesada's Spider-Man stories are becoming fascinating in their own right. Married Spider-Man? Bad. Divorced Spider-Man? Bad. Widowed Spider-Man? Bad. Spider-Man with magical curse arising from voluntary deal with Satan? Good! Relatable! Morally acceptable!

I actually feel kind of bad for the incoming writers who have to deal with this mess, as they've got a lot of talent and deserve the opportunity. But the set-up isn't going to do them any favours.

Sunday, December 02, 2007

X-Axis comments thread - 2 December 2007

This week, "Messiah Complex" continues in X-Men; Garth Ennis relaunches Dan Dare (honest); and the Max imprint has another stab at its Zombie series.

Saturday, December 01, 2007

The Darjeeling Limited

Wes Anderson's The Darjeeling Limited hasn't so much divided reviewers as scattered them all over the spectrum of opinion from great to middling" Now that I've seen it, I can see why. There's a lot to like in it, but also a lot of stuff that could easily be seen as irritatingly quirky or weirdly sentimental.

It's about three brothers - Francis, Peter and Jack (Owen Wilson, Adrien Brody and Jason Schwartzman) - who have been separated for a year following the death of their father. Francis has now dragged a reluctant Peter and Jack together for a long-distance train journey across India, in what he sees as a spiritual journey to bring the family back together, but in reality is plainly just a load of half-understood nonsense and tourist visits to temples. The titular Darjeeling Limited, if you're wondering, is the name of the train.

Anderson does love his quirkily estranged families, and this is a nicely constructed, gently amusing story which slowly drip-feeds the explanation of how these characters ended up in their broken state. It's basically a road movie - some characters go on a journey, and their relationships change along the way. The cast are great, and the Indian setting is beautifully shot.

That said, Anderson's films have a self-conscious quirkiness which is becoming a little bit repetitive, and it would be nice to see him try a different tone for once. There's also some validity in the criticism that the film starts off with the characters on a "spiritual journey" which we're obviously meant to find ludicrous, but rather botches the shift to their real spiritual journey where they really learn about themselves. At the end of the day it's still three middle class Americans wandering around rural India and being awed by the spirituality of their experience - and the distinction between tourist spirituality and the real thing isn't drawn especially well.

It's also not a desperately funny film, but then I don't think it's necessarily meant to be. There's a lengthy sequence which clearly isn't supposed to be amusing at all, and Anderson seems to have been going for quirky drama more than comedy. Perhaps Anderson's tics aren't as appealing when he's not being funny - perhaps they end up creating a distance that makes it harder to invest in the broken relationships that he wants us to care about. After all, Anderson is the sort of director prepared to make his characters spend the entire film carrying around something which isn't so much a metaphor as a groan-inducing visual pun - and who then wants to use it for a big, heart-warming moment.

I still liked it, but not as much as Anderson's previous films. He can get rather wearing when he's not being funny.

It's December!

And you know what that means - another brief window of opportunity to enjoy the same Christmas singles that they play every year, before they swiftly die from overexposure somewhere around December 14th.

The Christmas Number One used to be treated as a very big deal in Britain, even though there was never any particularly good reason for it. However, it did lead some 1970s glam rock bands to produce Christmas-themed singles which have worked out very nicely for them. Everyone knows Slade's "Merry Christmas Everybody" and Wizzard's "I Wish It Could Be Christmas Every Day", both of which must still be delivering hefty regular royalty cheques to somebody or other (hopefully the bands) over thirty years later. For the foreigners among you, here's what they sound like:-

Good records. The fact that they get played incessantly for a month every year and still haven't died says a lot for them.

That said, it's a little harder to understand the endurance of some other options, except perhaps because they've been included on compilation albums that shops play from start to finish. "Do They Know It's Christmas" only really works as an appeal - it's a bit miserable without that context. Paul McCartney's "Wonderful Christmas Time" wasn't a great song to start with, and the arrangement hasn't exactly aged well. And as for Jona Lewie's 1980 single "Stop the Cavalry", yes, it DOES mention Christmas, and it's not a bad record, but it's bloody miserable.

Not that outright festive cheer is a necessity. John Lennon's "Happy Christmas (War Is Over)" is a decent enough record, despite Yoko's wailing. And the Pogues' "Fairytale of New York" seems to have been accepted as a Christmas classic, despite featuring a bittersweet duet of love/hate between Kirsty McColl and a slurring drunk. It is, of course, brilliant, and according to Wikipedia it never charted in America. This is baffling, but provides an adequate reason to include the video for a song that even my granny probably knows backwards.

And as for this...

...well, to be honest, I mainly included it in the hope of baffling Americans. Believe it or not, these guys had eight hit singles in 1974-75.

The Waitresses' "Christmas Wrapping" crops up surprisingly often, considering that it bombed on its release over here in 1982. Perhaps mainstream tastes have belatedly caught up with it. There's no video, so enjoy this slowly-moving picture of the seven-inch single.

Another reason for the recycling of old singles is a relative lack of new Christmas singles that aren't either novelty records, or obviously ironic. Nineties synthpop act St Etienne somehow missed the mark with "I Was Born on Christmas Day", which is a thoroughly acceptable record, but never seems to get played anywhere. Perhaps it's just not direct enough.

The last serious attempt by a major act to add to the canon was arguably by the Darkness in 2003. But the Darkness' whole schtick was tongue-in-cheek tribute to bands like Slade and Wizzard, who define the Christmas single genre for the British. And they teetered on being a comedy act at the best of times. So does it count? Hard to say. It does seem to get played, and like a lot of their stuff, you CAN take it at face value if you want.

And this year... this year, Luke Haines is having a go. Which I stumbled upon the other day, and which prompted this little screed. The last time Haines put out a single at Christmas time, it was "Unsolved Child Murder", which may have been a miscalculation. This time, he's made "Christmas Number One", a Christmas song about writing a monstrously successful Christmas single, as part of the Black Arts - an unlikely collaboration between Haines' icy compatriots Black Box Recorder, and zany indie funsters Art Brut.

It's great, and naturally, Haines has once again been sure to couple a great chorus with just enough weirdness to reduce its chance of charting to zero - not least with the bleakly lo-fi zero-budget 1970s video. But how can you not love a song with the bridge "They'll have to bring back Top of the Pops this Christmas / Because we're too big for any other show"?