Wednesday, December 31, 2008

The X-books in 2008, part 4

We've done the X-Men and we've done Wolverine, so we can finish up with the stragglers - the assorted spin-offs that stagger around the fringes of the X-universe with their arms outstretched, hoping for a hug.

The C-titles were overhauled in the aftermath of "Messiah Complex", with Cable & Deadpool cancelled and replaced by two new solo titles, and New X-Men making way for Young X-Men and X-Force. Whether the line is healthy enough to support this sort of expansion is debatable, but to be fair, there's been a degree of success here. Most of the new titles are outselling their predecessors; but most of them are also losing readers at quite some pace. The big question is whether they're still finding their level, or whether they're going to spiral off into infinity.

02/08 X-Force #1 - 116,467
03/08 X-Force #2 - 88,650 (-23.9%)
04/08 X-Force #3 - 85,750 ( -3.3%)
05/08 X-Force #4 - 84,792 ( -1.1%)
06/08 ---
07/08 X-Force #5 - 76,978 ( -9.2%)
08/08 X-Force #6 - 69,010 (-10.4%)
09/08 X-Force #7 - 64,911 ( -5.9%)
10/08 X-Force #8 - 59,745 ( -8.0%)
11/08 X-Force #9 - 57,241 ( -4.2%)
6 mnth (-32.5%)
Because you demanded it, apparently, X-Force has been dusted off. This property has now been around, on and off, since 1991. Throw in Cable and Deadpool and it's surprising how much lasting impact Rob Liefeld had on Marvel, at least in terms of his ideas still being in circulation.

The idea this time is that X-Force are the X-Men's black ops team, a weird concept that ties into a strange storyline of Cyclops acting "darker" and keeping secrets from Emma Frost. This storyline hasn't been altogether successful, because the change in Scott's personality never seemed remotely natural or organic. When people started speculating that he must be the X-Men's token Skrull, that should have been a warning sign that things weren't quite clicking. It's improved somewhat in recent months - Fraction seems to have a better handle on it than most - but boy, you can see the editorial strings on this one.

As a side-effect, we have X-Force, a book in which grim characters are grim and shoot grim bullets and tear things apart and there's blood and stuff and it's supposed to be awesome but just seems senseless and irritating. Well, in the first arc, at least. It picked up somewhat after issue #7, but it's still a series I could happily live without.

09/08 Deadpool #1 - 75,058
09/08 Deadpool #2 - 65,400 (-12.9%)
10/08 Deadpool #3 - 61,833 ( -5.5%)
11/08 Deadpool #4 - 49,577 (-19.8%)
I don't regard Daniel Way and Paco Medina's Deadpool as an X-book, and to be honest, aside from buying the first issue to review, I haven't been reading it. But it's only fair to note that it seems to have got off to a flying start. True, the first three issues were Secret Invasion tie-ins, but issue #4 stands alone. It's way ahead of Captain Britain & MI-13, which also launched during the crossover, and there have been some favourable reviews. Way's take on the character, as shown in the Wolverine: Origins trailer arc, didn't interest me at all. But this may well have worked.

03/08 Cable #1 - 68,073
04/08 Cable #2 - 59,877 (-12.0%)
05/08 Cable #3 - 54,760 ( -8.5%)
06/08 Cable #4 - 49,996 ( -8.7%)
07/08 Cable #5 - 46,429 ( -7.1%)
08/08 Cable #6 - 45,050 ( -3.0%)
09/08 ---
10/08 Cable #7 - 43,358 ( -3.8%)
11/08 Cable #8 - 37,315 (-13.9%)
6 mnth (-31.9%)
Issues #6-7 had variant covers, so the decline is actually smoother than the numbers make it look. Nonetheless, it's clearly there.

The big idea with Cable is to pack him off into the future with the new mutant baby, so that he can raise her in the same way that Scott and Jean raised him. It's not a bad idea: it's a full-circle dramatic parallel for Cable, and it gets the kid into circulation as a character instead of just a prop. (Of course, you could have just had a teenager discover her mutant powers as per usual, which would have been a good post-M-Day story too... but that wouldn't work, because the kid is meant to be the reincarnation of Jean Grey and she hasn't been dead long enough.)

(Come to think of it, I wish they'd gone with the teenager. Plucked from obscurity, importance thrust upon them... that writes itself, doesn't it?)

I digress. This is a curious series, with a tiny cast: Cable is pursued by Bishop, and that's about it. Bishop's motivations remain thoroughly obscure, which is the book's biggest weakness. Maintaining the mystery is fair enough, but they've put Bishop in all sorts of situations where logically he should be explaining himself, and that's the problem.

The risk with this book was that, despite featuring the Littlest Mutant, readers would dismiss it as an irrelevant out-of-continuity book featuring a character who hasn't been a draw in years. The sales suggest that may be what's happening.

11/06 X-Factor #13 - 42,844
11/07 X-Factor #25 - 79,066 (+51.8%)
12/07 X-Factor #26 - 84,219 ( +6.5%)
01/08 X-Factor #27 - 81,350 ( -3.4%)
02/08 X-Factor #28 - 61,173 (-24.8%)
03/08 X-Factor #29 - 54,832 (-10.4%)
04/08 X-Factor #30 - 51,447 ( -6.2%)
05/08 X-Factor #31 - 48,231 ( -6.3%)
06/08 X-Factor #32 - 45,104 ( -6.5%)
07/08 X-Factor #33 - 53,088 (+17.7%)
08/08 X-Factor #34 - 50,416 ( -5.0%)
09/08 X-Factor #35 - 44,481 (-11.8%)
10/08 X-Factor #36 - 38,552 (-13.3%)
11/08 X-Factor #37 - 35,754 ( -7.3%)
6 mnth (-25.9%)
1 year (-54.8%)
2 year (-16.5%)
X-Factor had an odd year, holding on to its "Messiah Complex" sales for a surprisingly long time. It's now back where it was in mid-2007, before the crossovers kicked in, but it's taken a long time to get there.

Odd book, this. On the one hand, you've got Peter David writing, and he's often able to get blood from a stone. He's managed to extract some decent stories from the M-Day set-up (about the only writer who has), and his book's contribution to the "Messiah Complex" crossover - sending Madrox and Layla Miller into the future - was one of the best things about it.

On the other hand, the book has been plagued with art that could charitably be called inconsistent, and it seems to lack purpose. Bounced around from crossover to crossover, forcibly ejected from its previous setting and relocated to Detroit, vaguely echoing a noir theme that nobody seems to have told the artists about... you'd be hard pressed to say this book was about anything in particular these days. Thanks to David, it's usually worth reading anyway, but this feels like a title lost in the shuffle.

04/08 Young X-Men #1 - 71,593
05/08 Young X-Men #2 - 51,267 (-28.4%)
06/08 Young X-Men #3 - 45,227 (-11.8%)
07/08 Young X-Men #4 - 41,341 ( -8.6%)
08/08 Young X-Men #5 - 38,379 ( -7.2%)
09/08 Young X-Men #6 - 38,176 ( -0.5%)
10/08 Young X-Men #7 - 36,483 ( -4.4%)
11/08 Young X-Men #8 - 30,237 (-17.1%)
6 mnth (-41.0%)
The relaunch of New X-Men saw most of the cast jettisoned in favour of minor players, and the first six months squandered on a hopelessly confused story about Donald Pierce. In fairness to writer Marc Guggenheim, this may well be because he had to kill time waiting for "Manifest Destiny" to start - but then, if that's the case, they should have waited six months to launch the series.

Those of us who stuck with the book long enough tend to agree that it picked up considerably with issue #7, but the sales are pretty shocking. As with Cable, the September and October issues are variant covers (zombies and apes, if you're wondering), so the November drop isn't really 17%, but it's still bad. Look at it this way: Young X-Men was falling so fast that the variant covers didn't even make sales go up, they just cancelled out the drop.

The biggest mystery is why anyone thought this book needed a relaunch at all. New X-Men had its problems, but they were mainly to do with the grotesquely excessive body count, not the premise or the cast. It actually sold quite steadily at 37K when it wasn't participating in crossovers. Young X-Men jettisoned virtually everything about the old book, replaced it with unfamiliar characters, and launched with a dud story.

The result is cancellation with issue #12 - a truly catastrophic performance. And it's honestly hard to see what Marvel were thinking of with this one. Nothing about the book even leaps out as being a good idea in theory.

There is apparently talk of reviving New Mutants in its place, which seems like another terrible idea to me. For my money, the junior team have been revamped so often in the last few years that any other revamp - no matter how inspired - is just going to seem desperate right now. The way to go is to axe them, to relegate them to supporting character status in Uncanny, and to nurture them until they're capable of supporting their own book again.

11/03 Exiles #37 - 40,272
11/04 Exiles #54 - 34,180
11/05 Exiles #72 - 34,329
11/06 Exiles #88 - 30,928
11/07 ---
12/07 Exiles #100 - 33,416 (+20.3%)
01/08 New Exiles #1 - 47,618 (+42.5%)
02/08 New Exiles #2 - 34,454 (-27.6%)
03/08 New Exiles #3 - 30,480 (-11.5%)
04/08 New Exiles #4 - 29,231 ( -4.1%)
04/08 New Exiles #5 - 28,505 ( -2.5%)
05/08 New Exiles #6 - 27,533 ( -3.4%)
06/08 New Exiles #7 - 25,742 ( -6.5%)
07/08 New Exiles #8 - 24,436 ( -5.1%)
08/08 New Exiles #9 - 22,986 ( -5.9%)
08/08 New Exiles #10 - 23,048 ( +0.3%)
09/08 New Exiles #11 - 22,630 ( -1.8%)
10/08 New Exiles #12 - 21,682 ( -4.2%)
10/08 New Exiles #13 - 21,058 ( -2.9%)
11/08 New Exiles #14 - 20,493 ( -2.7%)
6 mnth (-25.6%)
1 year ( --- )
2 year (-33.7%)
3 year (-40.3%)
4 year (-40.0%)
5 year (-49.1%)
Finally, the relaunched New Exiles, which inexplicably sprouted an adjective at the start of the year despite changing very little of its contents. Sales have continued to decline, and the book is due to be axed with issue #18 - making a very respectable total of 118 issues.

This isn't quite Chris Claremont's last connection with the X-books - there's supposed to be a second GeNext miniseries in the pipeline. But it does look like it might be the end of the line so far as ongoing titles are concerned. New Exiles is built mainly around variations on his own creations (which was an editorial remit, not Claremont's own ideas), and at its best, it's been an innocent romp with a creator who seemed to be enjoying the chance to write some fun adventure stories in his own playground. At its worst - which unfortunately includes the current arc - it's just been a pile-up of ideas that don't cohere into a story.

Still, I can't help having some sympathy for it. It's quite endearing in its way, off to the side somewhere and just telling stories for the sake of it. Even if I don't always care for the results, I do like its spirit.

And that's the ongoing titles for 2008. In previous years I'd have gone through the minis and one-shots as well, but frankly, it's probably sufficient to say that they were a never-ending deluge and mostly forgettable. Perhaps the most notable of the bunch are Astonishing X-Men: Ghost Boxes (for all the wrong reasons, but we touched on that before) and the various anthology titles such as Divided We Stand and Manifest Destiny (which Marvel are apparently very keen to publish, and I suspect will continue to be nailed onto every available hook in an attempt to make them viable).

All told, it's been an interesting year for the X-books. There's a plan, at least, and there's a sense of direction that was previously lacking - but at the same time, there are fundamental problems that remain to be addressed, and I honestly believe that until they get rid of M-Day, they're working with a crippled premise. Certainly no writer has yet managed to convince me otherwise.

Maybe they'll bite the bullet and reverse it in 2009. Fingers crossed.

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The X-books in 2008, part 3

Wolverine. Wolverine, Wolverine, Wolverine. Wolverine.

Come to think of it, that pretty much sums up Marvel's publishing strategy for the character, doesn't it?

People have been saying for years that Wolverine is overexposed to the point of absurdity, and even Marvel make jokes about it, but it's never been more true. The character currently appears in three monthly solo titles - Wolverine, Wolverine: Origins and Wolverine: First Class - with a fourth, Wolverine: Weapon X, to be added in 2009. On top of that, he has enough miniseries and one-shots to amount to a de facto fifth monthly title. He's in both Astonishing X-Men and Uncanny X-Men. He's in New Avengers. He's literally ubiquitous.

At one point, I would have said that overusing Wolverine in this way risked damaging him in the long term, by making his appearances less special. But let's be realistic: we passed that point years ago, and it's doubtful that Marvel would ever have the nerve to pull him out of circulation to rebuild his mystique in the way that they've done with B-list characters like Nick Fury or the Scarlet Witch. (Which is a shame, actually, because it works. Look at Thor - keeping it off the market for a few years convinced everyone that it was a really big deal. Before, they didn't care about it at all.)

The batten-down-the-hatches economic climate means that Marvel are likely to play it even safer than usual over the next couple of years, and chances are that means even more Wolverine. So, how's he doing?

11/03 Wolverine #7 - 78,734
11/04 Wolverine #22 - 81,841
11/05 Wolverine #36 - 85,969
11/06 Wolverine #48 - 99,991
11/07 Wolverine #59 - 65,725 (-21.6%)
12/07 Wolverine #60 - 63,194 ( -3.9%)
01/08 Wolverine #61 - 60,857 ( -3.7%)
02/08 Wolverine #62 - 69,698 (+14.5%)
03/08 Wolverine #63 - 64,475 ( -7.5%)
04/08 Wolverine #64 - 64,871 ( +0.0%)
05/08 Wolverine #65 - 62,451 ( -3.7%)
06/08 Wolverine #66 - 112,469 (+80.1%)
07/08 Wolverine #67 - 96,651 (-14.1%)
08/08 Wolverine #68 - 92,182 ( -4.6%)
09/08 ---
10/08 ---
11/08 Wolverine #69 - 88,910 ( -3.5%)
6 mnth (+42.4%)
1 year (+35.3%)
2 year (-11.1%)
3 year ( +3.4%)
4 year ( +8.6%)
5 year (+12.9%)
Wolverine isn't really an ongoing title so much as a series of miniseries. The first half of the year is largely Jason Aaron, killing time during "Divided We Stand" with a fun few months of Wolverine hunting down Mystique. Aaron also wrote the similarly throwaway but equally enjoyable Wolverine: Manifest Destiny, and he's going to do the upcoming Weapon X series, so chances are it'll actually be one of the better Wolverine projects of 2009.

Starting with issue #66, we have Mark Millar and Steve McNiven's "Old Man Logan" arc, which, as you can see, has already spiralled off schedule. It's certainly sold pretty well; personally, though, I find the Wolverine-meets-Mad-Max stuff a bit self-indulgent at eight issues in length. Still, Marvel have taken an interesting decision by running an out-of-continuity story in the regular Wolverine title rather than as a miniseries. I think it's probably paid off, and we might well see more of this in future.

There's no point making guesses about the quality of Wolverine in 2009 - it changes entirely from arc to arc.

11/06 Origins #8 - 91,585
11/07 Origins #19 - 55,999 ( -6.7%)
12/07 Origins #20 - 53,548 ( -4.4%)
01/08 Origins #21 - 51,919 ( -3.0%)
02/08 Origins #22 - 50,324 ( -3.1%)
03/08 Origins #23 - 49,633 ( -1.4%)
04/08 Origins #24 - 49,299 ( -0.7%)
05/08 Origins #25 - 52,907 ( +5.9%)
06/08 Origins #26 - 48,059 ( -9.2%)
07/08 Origins #27 - 47,540 ( -1.1%)
08/08 ---
09/08 Origins #28 - 49,950 ( +5.1%)
10/08 Origins #29 - 58,841 (+17.8%)
11/08 Origins #30 - 50,359 (-14.4%)
6 mnth ( -4.8%)
1 year (-10.1%)
2 year (-45.0%)
Still trudging on. As you can see, Wolverine: Origins seems to have settled down to relatively steady sales in the high 40Ks, despite not being particularly good. Unlike Wolverine itself, this book does have an ongoing storyline: Daniel Way is bolting a convoluted conspiracy plot onto Wolverine's history.

This still seems like a thunderously bad idea to me. Contrary to popular belief, Wolverine's back story wasn't particularly complicated: he's an old guy, he travelled the world a bit, he was a secret agent for a bit, and then you hit Weapon X. All quite straightforward, and all very flexible - writers had plenty of settings to choose from. But Wolverine: Origins has hammered Wolverine into a tiresome straitjacket where everything has to be about the Big Conspiracy. Not only is it a lousy story in its own right, but it limits the sort of good stories you can tell with him. Retcons don't get much worse than this.

Origins has actually improved in 2008. In part, that's because the pace has improved from the soporific glacial musings of early issues. And in part, strangely, it's because artist Steve Dillon left the book. Dillon's a wonderful artist, but he was woefully inappropriate for this title: his hangdog, down-to-earth characters only emphasised the stupidity of the plot. A shift to more conventional and melodramatic artists has been for the better, because at least the art is now in synch with the writing.

Even so, the best thing of the year was the crossover with X-Men: Legacy in issues #29-30, which managed to make Wolverine's son Daken seem somewhat interesting, and which removed the book's weird air of being built around a major retcon that nobody else paid any attention to. But with issue #31, we're back where we started.

A part of me hopes that Origins is building to its conclusion, or at least might become a Daken solo title (since he's being added to the Dark Avengers and should be due for a push). However, I suspect it's going to drone on for another couple of years yet until the big story runs its course - and then be politely ignored for a few years before getting quietly brushed aside.

03/08 Wolverine: First Class #1 - 35,695
04/08 Wolverine: First Class #2 - 25,610 (-28.3%)
05/08 Wolverine: First Class #3 - 22,430 (-12.4%)
06/08 Wolverine: First Class #4 - 20,199 ( -9.9%)
07/08 Wolverine: First Class #5 - 18,788 ( -7.0%)
08/08 Wolverine: First Class #6 - 19,443 ( +3.5%)
09/08 Wolverine: First Class #7 - 16,168 (-16.8%)
10/08 Wolverine: First Class #8 - 14,936 ( -7.6%)
11/08 Wolverine: First Class #9 - 13,857 ( -7.2%)
6 mnth (-38.2%)
Another all ages book, although despite the title, it's actually about Wolverine and Kitty Pryde. Set loosely in early eighties continuity, it's perfectly readable in a retro sort of way. But like X-Men: First Class, it seems to be descending into a parade of guest stars and becoming a de facto team-up book, which is something of a disappointment to me. Surely team-ups are what you do when you can't think of any stories about the lead character?

In fairness, I realise that the First Class writers have a very difficult job here, since they can't tell any stories that would deviate noticeably from established history, and that limits what they can do. But I'd like to think there are better ways around it than dusting off the likes of Jack Russell, Werewolf By Night. And although Wolverine: First Class is an all-ages book, it often feels more like a nostalgia-fest for fans in their mid thirties than a book intended to attract kids. (The spin-off mini Weapon X: First Class - a kiddie-friendly retelling of Wolverine's kidnap and torture - suggests that Marvel themselves are thoroughly confused about what they're trying to achieve here.)

Peter David is writing some stories for the book in 2009. I have high hopes for that; I think he can work well in this format.

But paradoxically, even though we have too many Wolverine titles already, it's the new one that I'm looking forward to most. Jason Aaron did some good work with the character this year; I'm really pleased to see that it's got him a longer run. Chances are they'll be the best Wolverine stories of 2009.

In the final part, we'll look at the assorted spin-off X-books.

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Tuesday, December 30, 2008

The X-books in 2008, part 2

We'll kick off by looking at the three core titles: Astonishing X-Men, Uncanny X-Men and the book currently known as X-Men: Legacy. In the past, it's been possible to argue that there's no difference between the titles. In 2008, Marvel took steps to address that.

And the books now have defined roles. Uncanny is the lynchpin of the line, which runs the major stories that affect continuity. Legacy has turned into a Professor X solo title, revisiting old stories in flashback and trying to knit them back into a coherent mythology, after years when that sort of thing was desperately unfashionable. And Astonishing is a star vehicle for big name creators - formerly Joss Whedon and John Cassaday, and now Warren Ellis and Simone Bianchi.

So, how has this worked out for them?

11/04 Astonishing X-Men #6 - 134,840
11/05 ---
11/06 Astonishing X-Men #18 - 118,285
11/07 Astonishing X-Men #23 - 112,920 ( -3.8%)
12/07 ---
01/08 Astonishing X-Men #24 - 107,631 ( -4.7%)
02/08 ---
03/08 ---
04/08 ---
05/08 Giant-Size Ast. #1 - 105,508 ( -2.0%)
06/08 ---
07/08 Astonishing X-Men #25 - 121,974 (+15.6%)
08/08 Astonishing X-Men #26 - 94,244 (-22.7%)
09/08 ---
10/08 Astonishing X-Men #27 - 86,770 ( -7.9%)
11/08 ---

The Whedon/Cassaday run finally stumbled to a halt in May, a mere two years behind schedule. It's a hangover from another era, really. Not surprisingly, sales took a downturn after they finished; Whedon was a major catch for the X-Men back in 2004, and few creative teams were going to match that drawing power. Ellis and Bianchi have done pretty well, in the circumstances.

Of course, their run has already been lent a sour note by the indefensible Astonishing X-Men: Ghost Boxes spin-off miniseries - not so much because of the content, as the outrageous price tag. Sadly, it may yet prove that the format of Ghost Boxes sums up the times more than the actual content of the Ellis/Bianchi run, which has so far been a diverting but inessential read.

11/03 Uncanny X-Men #433 - 90,764
11/04 Uncanny X-Men #452 - 92,051
11/05 Uncanny X-Men #466 - 82,825
11/06 Uncanny X-Men #480 - 88,584
11/07 Uncanny X-Men #492 - 111,160 (+29.8%)
12/07 Uncanny X-Men #493 - 109,176 ( -1.8%)
01/08 Uncanny X-Men #494 - 105,520 ( -3.3%)
02/08 Uncanny X-Men #495 - 96,183 ( -8.8%)
03/08 Uncanny X-Men #496 - 89,054 ( -7.4%)
04/08 Uncanny X-Men #497 - 93,369 ( +4.8%)
05/08 Uncanny X-Men #498 - 82,090 (-12.1%)
06/08 Uncanny X-Men #499 - 81,100 ( -1.2%)
07/08 Uncanny X-Men #500 - 160,876 (+98.4%)
08/08 Uncanny X-Men #501 - 85,398 (-46.9%)
09/08 Uncanny X-Men #502 - 82,883 ( -2.9%)
10/08 Uncanny X-Men #503 - 87,196 ( +5.2%)
11/08 Uncanny X-Men #504 - 77,773 (-10.8%)
6 mnth ( -5.3%)
1 year (-30.0%)
2 year (-12.2%)
3 year ( -6.1%)
4 year (-15.5%)
5 year (-14.3%)

The October sales were boosted by the inclusion of 6,122 sketch variants. If you confine it to regular sales, the November drop was only 4%. Still, that's a little disappointing, and from the look of these numbers, "Manifest Destiny" hasn't exactly been setting the world on fire. In sales terms, we're roughly where we were in mid-2006.

Matt Fraction is rightly regarded as one of Marvel's rising star writers; his work is usually witty, inventive and clever. Nonetheless, his run on Uncanny has been hit and miss; it hasn't reached the heights of his excellent work on Iron Fist or his swiftly-cancelled Order. Part of the problem might be the limitations of M-Day; part of it might be the limitations of a major franchise; some of it is certainly to do with the art of Greg Land, whose plastic characters have the emotional range of an airbrushed brick, sucking the life out of the story. The recent issues drawn by Terry Dodgson have been significantly better.

Nonetheless, although there's a ton of potential in these stories, and plenty of interesting ideas, something isn't quite clicking yet. Let's hope they nail it in 2009, because Fraction is certainly capable of doing it.

11/03 New X-Men #149 - 102,591
11/04 X-Men #164 - 88,620
11/05 X-Men #177 - 78,405
11/06 X-Men #193 - 80,102
11/07 X-Men #205 - 101,401 (+21.5%)
12/07 X-Men #206 - 104,815 ( +3.4%)
01/08 X-Men #207 - 104,793 ( -0.0%)
02/08 X-Men: Legacy #208 - 88,132 (-16.0%)
03/08 X-Men: Legacy #209 - 82,243 ( -6.7%)
04/08 X-Men: Legacy #210 - 77,441 ( -5.8%)
05/08 X-Men: Legacy #211 - 79,818 ( +3.1%)
05/08 X-Men: Legacy #212 - 74,033 ( -7.2%)
06/08 X-Men: Legacy #213 - 71,893 ( -2.9%)
07/08 X-Men: Legacy #214 - 69,863 ( -2.8%)
08/08 X-Men: Legacy #215 - 68,047 ( -2.6%)
09/08 X-Men: Legacy #216 - 66,434 ( -2.4%)
10/08 X-Men: Legacy #217 - 65,888 ( -0.8%)
11/08 X-Men: Legacy #218 - 63,512 ( -3.6%)
6 mnth (-14.2%)
1 year (-37.4%)
2 year (-20.7%)
3 year (-19.0%)
4 year (-28.3%)
5 year (-38.1%)
The new direction hasn't done wonders for the sales of X-Men: Legacy. Off on the fringes of today's X-universe, and scrutinising stories from twenty or thirty years ago, the book is often a treat for long-time fans, but the extent of its broader appeal is more questionable. With this revamp, Marvel may have unintentionally repositioned Legacy as a B-title.

For my part, I rather enjoy it - Mike Carey is an underrated superhero writer, and I've come round to Scot Eaton's art. But then, I'm a hardcore fan, and I'd be the first to admit that the interest in this series lies more in the way it knits together old continuity and patches up the mythos, than in the present day storyline that serves to frame it all. It's a shame that sales have taken this sort of hit, but I can't say I'm entirely surprised.

So much for the three core X-Men titles. But there's another two off to the side...

11/07 First Class #6 - 17,050 ( -6.0%)
12/07 First Class #7 - 16,195 ( -5.0%)
01/08 First Class #8 - 15,986 ( -1.3%)
02/08 First Class #9 - 15,320 ( -4.2%)
03/08 First Class #10 - 14,907 ( -2.7%)
04/08 First Class #11 - 14,896 ( -0.0%)
05/08 First Class #12 - 14,566 ( -2.2%)
06/08 First Class #13 - 14,157 ( -2.8%)
07/08 First Class #14 - 13,870 ( -2.0%)
08/08 First Class #15 - 13,249 ( -4.5%)
09/08 First Class #16 - 12,842 ( -3.1%)
10/08 Giant-Size Special - 13,263 ( +3.3%)
11/08 ---
First Class ended with issue #16, but there's a miniseries scheduled for 2009. To be honest, charming as some issues were, the series was starting to degenerate into a parade of random guest stars, and perhaps it's for the best that they're calling it a day. On the other hand, the Marvel Girl back-up strips drawn by Colleen Coover were wonderful, and I'll certainly miss those; hopefully they can find another suitable vehicle for her.

The sales on all-ages books don't mean a great deal, but I've included them anyway.

And finally...

11/03 Ultimate X-Men #39 - 105,737
11/04 Ultimate X-Men #53 - 92,133
11/05 Ultimate X-Men #65 - 74,264
11/06 Ultimate X-Men #76 - 69,054
11/07 ---
12/07 Ultimate X-Men #88 - 51,633 (-18.1%)
12/07 Ultimate X-Men #89 - 50,516 ( -2.2%)
01/08 Ultimate X-Men #90 - 49,634 ( -1.7%)
02/08 Ultimate X-Men #91 - 49,062 ( -1.2%)
03/08 Ultimate X-Men #92 - 49,015 ( -0.0%)
04/08 Ultimate X-Men #93 - 49,107 ( +0.2%)
05/08 Ultimate X-Men #94 - 49,779 ( +1.4%)
06/08 Ultimate X-Men #95 - 48,137 ( -3.3%)
07/08 Ultimate X-Men #96 - 48,011 ( -0.3%)
08/08 Ultimate X-Men #97 - 47,050 ( -2.0%)
09/08 ---
10/08 ---
11/08 Ultimate X-Men #98 - 46,446 ( -1.3%)
6 mnth ( -6.7%)
1 year ( --- )
2 year (-32.7%)
3 year (-37.5%)
4 year (-49.6%)
5 year (-56.1%)
This book is being cancelled with issue #100, as part of the Ultimatum crossover - although chances are it'll be revived as New Ultimate X-Men or some such nonsense within a couple of months.

The Ultimate imprint has been struggling of late, and Ultimate X-Men is no exception. You only have to look back at the sales from previous years to see how this book has fallen. The problem, I think, is that the Ultimate imprint has lost its aura of being "special." Books which once featured big-name creators and wild reinventions of old ideas have started to coast along under the aegis of competent but little-known TV writers. They've become inertia titles - books which continue to be published simply because they already exist. Ultimate X-Men is squarely in that category, and if it is truly cancelled, it won't be much missed.

The November sales are surprising. Issue #98 is an Ultimatum crossover, but that seems to have had no effect at all. Much the same applies to Ultimate Fantastic Four (where sales nudged up by a trivial 1,132). This is almost unheard of for a major crossover at Marvel, and casts at least some doubt on whether the event is succeeding in its wider goal of reviving interest in the Ultimate line.

Five X-Men books, then, could be down to three in the relatively near future. And that's to be welcomed: five is too many, diluting the brand. Three, to be honest, is still more than I'd prefer - as a storytelling framework, I rather like the current set-up of Amazing Spider-Man, with creative teams taking turns on different arcs. But with the mixed success of that book, I doubt the format is spreading any time soon.

Next time, we'll look at the many publications of Wolverine...

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The X-books in 2008, part 1

As previously mentioned, I'm not going to do a full scale X-Axis Year in Review for 2008. With the best will in the world, those things took forever, and I shudder at the thought of writing another one.

But the end of the year is still a good point to take stock of where the X-books stand, especially because 2008 saw the re-emergence of some sort of grand plan for the books. And since the November sales analysis hasn't been published yet, I'll include the X-books' data here for your delectation.

First, though, an overview. 2008 in the X-books fell into three phases: the "Messiah Complex" crossover at the start of the year, "Divided We Stand" in the spring, and "Manifest Destiny" in the summer.

With hindsight, this looks even stranger than it did at the time. "Messiah Complex" was a reasonably successful storyline. Granted, the new X-Force were awkwardly shoehorned into the plot. But the basic idea was sound: the first new mutant since M-Day is born, and everyone goes chasing after it. Ultimately, it set up the new Cable series, in which Cable takes the kid into the future pursued by Bishop - something which seems to be a device to accelerate the kid's aging.

The crossover did well, and for the first time in ages, the X-books seemed to have some direction. And then... they did "Divided We Stand", in which the X-Men break up for no readily apparent reason and spend several months twiddling their thumbs. This felt like a waste of momentum at the time, but looking back, it's even harder to fathom what the point was supposed to be - except, perhaps, to kill time until Uncanny X-Men #500. If the arc had any other intended purpose, I can't imagine what it might have been.

With July, we reached the anniversary issue and the start of "Manifest Destiny", in which most of the mutants relocated to San Francisco. This was a good idea on multiple: it's a city with character, the Marvel Universe has too many characters clustered around New York, it actually makes sense for the outcast mutants to set up shop in the American city best known for its tolerance of minorities and other assorted oddballs, and it ought to provide a much-needed sense of hope and a fresh start.

(Actually, California is becoming oversubscribed too: San Francisco is also the setting for Eternals, though the X-books have chosen to ignore them, and if their book hadn't been cancelled, The Order would have been just down the road. Does nobody want to fight crime in Texas? But it still makes a change from New York.)

There's only one problem: hanging over all this is the spectre of M-Day, which still hasn't been resolved, and still poses all manner of difficulties for writers. The San Francisco move ought to work in part by playing off the traditional metaphor that mutants equal minorities. But by getting rid of almost all the mutants, M-Day has left the X-books with too few mutants for that metaphor to work any more.

Now, in fairness, it's easy to see what Marvel were trying to achieve with M-Day. By the end of the Grant Morrison run, you couldn't move for mutants. They'd become commonplace - a point hammered home by District X, a police procedural about an entire district populated mainly by mutants. There was something to be said for thinning the herd, and depowering them was a better solution than genocide. But M-Day overshot the mark, crippling the books' central metaphor and leaving nothing in its place. This wouldn't have mattered if it was merely a springboard for stories where the X-Men tried to set it right, but instead the books meekly accepted their new status quo and spent the next few years moving in ever decreasing circles.

Uncanny, under Matt Fraction, has at least begun the years-overdue story where the X-Men try to reverse M-Day. In the meantime, however, it continues to undermine almost every other story that the X-books try to tell. It's one of the main reasons why "Manifest Destiny" hasn't quite worked: it's built on a metaphor that won't work until M-Day is at least partially reversed. Once we get rid of M-Day - and hopefully that's what Fraction is building to - the new San Francisco setting could be a winner. There are strong writers on the core titles; there's an interest in history combined with an attempt to do something new. The potential is there - it just needs that M-shaped millstone to be removed.

In the next post, we'll look at how the core X-Men titles have been doing in 2008.

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Sunday, December 28, 2008

The X-Axis - 28 December 2008

There's virtually nothing out this week, which is hardly surprising. In the circumstances, over the next couple of days, we'll take a quick look at the current state of the X-books as 2008 draws to a close. This won't be one of those detailed "Year in Review" things I used to do, because frankly, those took a ludicrous amount of time. But a few months into "Manifest Destiny", it seems a good time to take a look at how things are going. And I'll throw in the November sales details, since they haven't gone up at the Beat yet.

This week's X-books:

Wolverine: First Class #10 - The First Class books really do love their random guest stars. This time round, it's Jack Russell, star of Werewolf by Night. Considering that the book ran for less than fifty issues in the mid-seventies, it's amazing that creators continue to dig Jack out whenever they want to do a werewolf story. But here he is, contributing his presence to a story where Kitty and Logan find a bunch of werewolves in the woods, complaining, of all things, about pollution from the local camera factory. (Because there's silver in photographic film, you see.) Francis Portela draws some quite good werewolves, but there's something a bit pointless about doing horror characters in an all-ages book, and ultimately it's a bit insert-tab-A-into-slot-B. Perfectly inoffensive, but you don't need it.

Wolverine: Origins #31 - With the "Original Sin" crossover behind him, Daniel Way returns to his previous story, as Wolverine and Daken set out in pursuit of Romulus. Even as the series closes in on him, there's still no indication whatsoever of why we should care about this guy. In fact, as if he wasn't enough of a generic villain already, we're told that the best way to find Romulus is to follow the trail of senseless violence. Wow, it's like the Shadow King without the charisma. Making matters worse, after "Original Sin" more or less managed to make Daken a workable character, he turns on Wolverine already within a single issue. Even the art takes a downhill turn - it's by Yanick Paquette, who's perfectly good, but seems to be in "fill-in" mode, and suffers from some heavy inking. "Original Sin" had actually done some work to win my interest in this series, but what do you know, take away Mike Carey and we're back where we started. That'll teach me to get my hopes up.

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Vigilante #1

Writer: Marv Wolfman
Penciller: Rick Leonardi
Inker: John Stanisci
Letterer: Steve Wands
Colourist: David Baron
Editor: Michael Siglain

These days, I can't help but approach a new DC Universe title with caution bordering on outright scepticism. The first issue is usually incomprehensible. It takes tedious Googling just to decode enough of the plot to review the thing. But I try to keep an open mind. After all, Vigilante is by veteran creators Marv Wolfman and Rick Leonardi. Surely they know enough to avoid making the usual blunders?

Well, yes, they do. Sort of. This is a new version of the Vigilante character, and apparently he's cropped up in Nightwing before - a story which is alluded to but not really explained. But I'm prepared to assume it was just a trailer and give them the benefit of the doubt. There's no real explanation of who the new Vigilante is, or what motivates him, though we do get a real name. But again, Wikipedia tells me that none of this was covered in the Nightwing story either, so I'm prepared to assume that it's intentionally unrevealed.

More problematically, though, the story is based on Vigilante discovering that the mob were involved in "the election bombings", and investigating that link. These "election bombings" are not shown in flashback, or explained, or even elaborated on, save to clarify that somebody died in them. We're never told who.

After a couple of readings, it finally dawned on me that this might be a reference to DC Universe: Decisions - a miniseries I haven't read, and had largely forgotten about. And as near as I can figure out from Google, yes, it is indeed all a reference to DCU: Decisions, although even there, I can't find out what specifically happened in Philadelphia or who died.

It's a central feature of the story, and yet even with half an hour on Google I can't find out what it is. Astonishing.

But leaving that aside, is the book any good? Well... it's okay. It's quite well paced. It's got art by Rick Leonardi, and I've always liked the energy and style in his work - even if he's sometimes a little too cartoony for the sake of drama. It all holds together reasonably well.

The lead character, though, confuses me. As already mentioned, we're told nothing about him. Apparently his earlier appearances didn't take matters any further. But nor is he played as a man of mystery: we see him with his mask off, and he chats amiably with his sidekick JJ. The resulting impression is of a generic antihero, something that isn't helped by the literally generic name. He's so generic that at first I wondered if it was an audacious post-modern device.

He's like the Tesco Value Punisher. He should come in a blue and white striped costume with VIGILANTE written in large black letters on the chest. Come to think of it, he even comes equipped with a Tesco Value Microchip.

It's not a bad comic, so much as a generic one which is skilfully executed (albeit with that blunder of missing exposition). But it's never really apparent why we should be interested in this guy; his past may be a mystery, but we're given no reason to think it might be worth learning about.

All thoroughly underwhelming.

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Monday, December 22, 2008

X-Men: Legacy #219

X-Men: Legacy #219
Writer: Mike Carey
Penciller: Phil Briones
Inker: Cam Smith
Letterer: Cory Petit
Colourist: Brian Reber
Editor: Nick Lowe

Following the "Original Sin" crossover, X-Men: Legacy returns to its normal business - Professor X revisiting characters from his past. In a change of pace, though, this is a single-issue story, and the subject is the Juggernaut.

If you're going to explore Charles Xavier's back story, then at some point you've got to deal with his stepbrother Cain. He can't really be omitted. I have a sneaking suspicion, though, that he doesn't really fit into Carey's wider agenda, which is why we're covering him in a single issue.

Xavier shows up to meet Cain in a bar, and - this being X-Men: Legacy - they talk about old stories. For once, Xavier is clearly the hero here, and the voice of reason. It's perhaps overdue for Legacy to use him in that role, and remind us that even though it's exploring the dodgier parts of his back story, he is still primarily the hero.

As for Cain - well, this could be a divisive one. A lot of writers have invested a great deal of effort in reforming Cain. For quite a while, the prevailing wisdom was that he wasn't all bad. During his much-maligned tenure on Uncanny X-Men, Chuck Austen pulled the trigger and had him switch sides to join the team - one of the few elements of his run that was generally well-received. That was followed with a starring role in New Excalibur.

All of which is perhaps understandable, because as originally conceived, the Juggernaut is a bit one-note. In fact, that's arguably the strength of the character: he's single-minded and unstoppable. But if you're going to keep bringing him back, you need something a little more, and that leads in the direction of a kinder, gentler Juggernaut.

It's surprising, then, to see Carey try and reposition Cain as an outright bad guy again, beating up innocent bystanders and talking about how this whole "reform" thing has been a weak-minded error sparked by his insecurities over his failing powers. Now that he's fully powered again, we're apparently back to the sixties. Carey plays with Cain's half-hearted attempts at redemption as a counterpoint to Xavier's storyline, and flags up the essential hollowness of Juggernaut as a villain character (he wants to kill Xavier and... then what?). But there's no doubt that this Juggernaut is back to being one of the bad guys.

Perhaps that's no bad thing. The X-books are short of decent villains (because M-Day idiotically wrote most of them out), and there's something to be said for Cain as Xavier's occasional nemesis. We haven't done it in a while.

And was there much more to do with Cuddly Cain, the Gentle Giant? I'm not sure there was. It was a nice enough arc so far as it went, but once you've reformed Cain, where do you go from there? He becomes just another strongman hero - and his "unstoppable" gimmick has to be toned down to allow tension. As a villain, he may have a restrictive role, but at least it's a unique one.

It's a well-told story, though it suffers from the usual Legacy problem that readers will need to be reasonably familiar with continuity if they're going to appreciate it - and if you are that up on continuity, then Cain's backsliding may feel a little contrived. But it's all very cleverly done, with a neat ending that makes clever use of Xavier's psychic powers, bringing some intrigue and visual interest to what's essentially a conversation issue. For those in the target audience, it's a good little story.

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Number 1s of 2008: 21 December

To the surprise of precisely nobody, the Christmas number one is Alexandra Burke, "Hallelujah". (There doesn't seem to be an embeddable official version, even with adverts, so enjoy the YouTube link.)

This has sparked something of an unlikely feud; existing fans of the song aren't desperately pleased by having "Hallelujah" recast as an X-Factor winner's song, complete with inspirational key change. Partly because of their campaign, but mostly because it's just a very good song, people have been downloading the earlier versions as album tracks - and under UK chart rules, those count as singles sales.

As a result, the Christmas number 2 is Jeff Buckley's version of the same song, leaping 28 places from last week. And even the Leonard Cohen original has charted at number 36. It's the first time either of them has ever made the UK singles chart, although that's more because they didn't release singles. It's not unprecedented for three versions of the same song to chart simultaneously - it happened all the time in the 1950s - but it's not something we've seen in recent years.

All this is terribly good news for Cohen, who sued his ex-manager in 2006 claiming that she had stolen his multi-million dollar pension fund, leaving him with only $150,000. He won that action (by default), but reportedly never managed to recover the money from her. Consequently, he was back on the road earlier this year, at the age of 74, so a nice hefty royalty cheque ought to be very welcome.

Needless to say, Burke can expect to be number one into the new year - and then we won't hear from her again until her album is released to coincide with the 2009 season of X-Factor.

And if you can't stand her version... well, look on the bright side. It could have been Eoghan Quigg.


The X-Axis - 21 December 2008

It's the week before Christmas, and all through the market, nobody was releasing any comics of particular importance. Check out episode 4 of House to Astonish to hear Al and me discuss Hellblazer #250 and X-Men: Kingbreaker #1 (as well as Phonogram #1 from last week). And over the next couple of days, we'll come back to X-Men: Legacy #219 (a one-off Juggernaut story) and... boy, it's really a dead week. I've got a couple of unread graphic novels and digests in my pile - might get back to you about a couple of them.

But first...

Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Season 8 #20 - Twenty? How long is this season? Anyway, this is an interlude between story arcs, in which Jeph Loeb shows up to tell us what his aborted Buffy animated series would have been like. Kind of. It's actually an extended dream scene (illustrated by the people who would have animated the series) with Buffy reminiscing about the happy days of Season 1, the moral being that things weren't so different. Obviously, if the series had happened, it wouldn't have been like this, but the dream format fits better as a break in the action for Season 8. And it's one of the better things I've read from Jeph Loeb recently - it's tight, it's punchy, and yes, granted, it hits all the obvious elements of Season 1 Buffy. Unquestionably a book for Buffy fans (it won't make a great deal of sense otherwise), but all rather enjoyable for them.

Dark Reign: New Nation - In which we have the privilege of paying four dollars to read trailers for upcoming series. Taking them in turn: the promotion of Secret Warriors baffles me, with the characters getting only a marginal role in Secret Invasion when they should have been central. However, the ongoing series is co-written by Jonathan Hickman, whose indie work has always been interesting, and it's interesting that the trailer focusses entirely on Nick Fury rather than the who-cares supporting cast. Actually not bad, though the colouring is lamentable (it's like looking at the world through urine sunglasses).

The Agents of Atlas trailer is pretty decent, and sets up a potentially neat idea where the good guys are running a supposed international criminal empire (per their recent miniseries) and the bad guys are running the government (per Dark Reign). The crossover might well help this book, by focussing the idea they were going to do anyway.

War Machine gives us a Greg Pak and Leonardo Manco story where he indirectly kills an evil capitalist. It's a bit generic, and although it repositions Jim Rhodes as a more violent hero, it does so in a generically mid-nineties kind of way. Not that it's bad - it's perfectly okay - but it's not especially inspiring.

The Skrull Kill Krew story, by Adam Felber and Paulo Siqueira, is a gunman killing some cows while some comedy hicks look on. This series was always going to be a tough sell for me: I'm bored to tears of the Skrulls, and the last thing I want to read is another series with more Skrulls. But even allowing for that, this is pretty weak. I don't understand why they're bringing these guys back - surely nobody really thinks the original series was a lost classic?

Finally, New Avengers: The Reunion is the Hawkeye/Mockingbird mini by Jim McCann and David Lopez (or at least, they're the ones doing this series). And this has some promise - I quite like the idea of the recently returned Mockingbird not trusting anything around her, and the art is rather impressive. Mind you, I have a slightly irrational affection for Mockingbird based solely on the fact that late-eighties West Coast Avengers was one of the first US books I started reading regularly, and I can't help wondering how many of today's readers really care about a relatively obscure heroine who's been dead for twenty years. But I quite liked this. I'm kind of looking forward to this series.

Ex Machina #40 - A one-off story in which Brian K Vaughan and Tony Harris meet their creations, as comic book creators pitching to make the official Mitchell Hundred comic. It's the sort of thing that could easily become gimmicky - let's be honest, it is gimmicky - but they pull it off, and the final page made me laugh more than anything else this week. Which is why I'm taking the time to plug it, to be honest.

God-Size Thor #1 - Seriously? God-Size Thor? We're really calling it that? Oh, whatever. This is another Matt Fraction one-shot, but set in present-day cotinuity and unconnected to his earlier stories. And boy, Fraction writes a great Thor. It's basically a homage to Walt Simonson's Thor #362, dutifully reprinted in the back, where Skurge the Executioner sacrifices himself for Asgard. Now, somebody's messing about with his memory - literally. The shifting artists are slightly jarring (much as I like Mike Allred, he seems miscast here), but it's a strong story and proves that Fraction should without question be next in line to take over the regular Thor series. And since we're regularly complaining about the price of Marvel's comics, let's note that your four dollars gets you a 38-page lead story and a 22-page reprint, with only three pages of adverts. Worth buying.

New Exiles #16 - Oh dear, this is really going off the rails. We've got a lead story with a confused idea about Kitty Pryde merging bodies with Mystiq, for reasons which aren't terribly apparent. There's a naked Rogue for thoroughly contrived reasons. And the back-up strip has Sage's evil Diana Fox persona suddenly deciding to be a hero for no readily obvious reason. At various times, New Exiles has shown some of the best and worst of Chris Claremont's current writing - and there are still flashes of genuinely good work - but this is not his strongest effort. The series ends with issue #18 (with hindsight, something that was clearly signalled by calling the arc "Away We Go"), and Claremont seems to be indulging himself in this final story, not necessarily with the best results.

Uncanny X-Men #505 - Colossus meets a bad guy from his past, the Beast recruits another D-list character for his research team, and Emma Frost finally figures out that Scott is up to something behind her back. Oh, and X-23 shows up. There's an awful lot going on here, which makes it hard to figure out whether it's about anything in particular, but most of it works, and Fraction's earned enough goodwill for me to give him the benefit of the doubt. Let's be honest: I really want Matt Fraction's X-Men to be good, as good as his work on other books, but so far it's been hit or miss. This is mostly hit, and that's encouraging enough.

X-Factor #38 - A late but strong contender for year's most ludicrously inconsistent art, this issue gives us four pages of Larry Stroman (including an establishing shot so awful you have to wonder if he's doing it for a bet), followed by a completely different issue by Nelson. It's... inconsistent. The action scenes are sub-par house style, but the talky bits aren't bad, and have a hint of Darick Robertson to them. Still, it's a very odd thing to see in a single issue. The story struggles to get past it, and villain Manu seems to be little more than a generic evil businessman. But there are some good sequences with Rictor and Theresa that redeem the book.

X-Men: Kingbreaker #1 - The next act of the story that began in the X-Men: Emperor Vulcan miniseries, now with the added burden of doubling as a set-up for the spring 2009 War of Kings crossover. It's a bit mixed. The characters are quite well written, and between this and the previous series, Christopher Yost has made Vulcan into a workable villain. On the other hand, the plot's a bit weak, to put it mildly. Still, fans of the Starjammers (or, perhaps more to the point, Havok) should probably enjoy this - it's nothing great, or especially ambitious, but it succeeds well enough at being a reasonably diverting Shi'ar story.

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House to Astonish, episode 4

This week, Al and I look at Hellblazer #250, Phonogram #1 and X-Men: Kingbreaker #1, plus the usual news round-up.

Available by download, by streaming from the podcast webpage, or by subscription from iTunes.

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Saturday, December 20, 2008

Time Management for Anarchists

Just so you know...

The next episode of House to Astonish will be up on Sunday (once we've recorded it, in other words).

Reviews... probably later that day, maybe Monday.

And the November sales analysis will be finished in a day or so.

But first... let's cover that one outstanding review I promised last weekend.

Time Management for Anarchists.
Writer: Jim Munroe
Artist: Marc Ngui

This is a one-shot from IDW, apparently in collaboration with the Ontario Arts Council. And when I picked it up, I was rather assuming that the title was ironic - like A Short History of Tractors in Ukrainian.

Well, it isn't. It's exactly what it claims to be - a book with advice for anarchists on how to be more productive.

Now, I'm not an anarchist. You don't get many of them in my line of the work. But I do think it's a somewhat interesting worldview which gets a rather bad press. People tend to think of anarchism in rather absolute terms, and it's true enough that a purely anarchist society sounds like a fairly unpleasant place. But you could say the same about a purely capitalist society, and hardly anybody seriously wants to bring about one of those.

You can understand capitalism (or socialism, or any other -ism) as being something to aspire to as far as reasonably possible, and there's no reason why you can't see anarchism in the same way. After all, as the anarchists rightly point out, the general trend of human society has been in their direction - from authoritarian monarchs to democracy to the relatively uncontrolled legal black holes of the internet - and many would say that's a good thing. Viewed in that light, anarchism starts to seem rather more relevant, and rather less theoretical. (I'll take this opportunity to plug Peter Marshall's excellent book Demanding the Impossible, if you want to read more on this.)

So: I'm not intrinsically opposed to a comic about anarchism. This one, however, isn't up to much.

It starts off quite promisingly. "In a timeshifted Toronto, political firebrand Emma Goldman is paying the rent as a graphic designer, just a few cubicles away from likeminded historic radical Mikahil Bakunin." This sounds like we're going to get a sitcom about philosophers transplanted to the modern day, which could actually work. And at first, it looks like that's what we're going to get.

But before long, the book shows its hand and turns into a lecture about the thoughts of Canadian anarchist Darren O'Donnell.

I call him an anarchist. The book explores that in more detail, with such gems of dialogue as this: "Do you consider yourself an anarchist?" "I identify as not being interested in authoritarian structures and heirarchies but I also believe that when you're surrounded by them you have to use them." So there you go. He might or might not be an anarchist, but he's definitely not interested in authoritarian structures and heirarchies.

O'Donnell's basic point - which is a fair one - is that people on the left tend to condemn out of hand anything that they associate with the corporate world. But some techniques of the corporate world are very effective, and in themselves ideologically neutral, and should be learned from.

Fine. He's right. However, this is an internal argument for those on the left; it's a discussion about how to get things done, premised on the assumption that we start with that kneejerk aversion to corporate techniques. If you don't start off with that attitude, then chances are you'll regard all this as blindingly obvious. Of course the techniques of the corporate world are effective - this is news?

I'm rather confused by IDW's decision to publish this book. It's certainly different, but it's not particularly good, and the subject matter is only really of interest to a fringe audience of anti-authoritarian activists. All a bit curious.

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Monday, December 15, 2008

Astonishing X-Men: Ghost Boxes #2

"The Last Testament of Scott Summers"
Writer: Warren Ellis
Artist: Clayton Crain
Letterer: Joe Caramagna

Writer: Warren Ellis
Artist: Kaare Andrews
Letterer: Joe Caramagna

Astonishing X-Men: Ghost Boxes has been rightly excoriated in all quarters for offering such outrageously poor value for money. For those of you who somehow failed to notice the shrieks of outrage last month, this book features sixteen pages of story, and costs four dollars. It is taking the piss, and more troublingly, it looks disturbingly like a test run to see just what Marvel can get away with in a troubled economy. The comics audience, being fans, are notoriously hard to shake off - hell, they hired Chuck Austen and people still bought the books. But this is the sort of thing that makes even the most hardcore devotee - even me - choke for a moment and ask, "Am I really prepared to pay that?"

Evidently the answer is "yes", but then it's not me they should be worrying about. Look at it this way: going by the ICV2 figures, Astonishing sells about 87K these days. Which means that at least 45% of them don't buy Ultimate X-Men. And something like 85% don't buy X-Men: First Class. Hell, a quarter of them don't even buy X-Men: Legacy, and that's supposed to be a core book. So whatever else you say about the Astonishing readership, they're clearly not completists.

Well, we shall see what comes of all this. What about the actual comic? (What there is of it.)

Ghost Boxes is a collection of four eight-page stories which tie in, very loosely, with the core series. They're all "What If?" stories, diverging from the events of the "Ghost Box" storyline itself. And they do advance the plot a little bit: it turns out those "ghost box" thingies are portals which people from a parallel Earth will use to invade and conquer us.

That's about the sum total of advancing the plot, though. Issue #2 has two stories, both vignettes set in post-invasion dystopias. The first, with art by Clayton Crain, has Cyclops moping around the ruins of the Mansion, blaming himself for getting it all wrong, and preparing to top himself. The second sees a bunch of straggling mutant survivors trying to get to safety.

As eight-pagers, they're okay; if they'd appeared as back-up strips in Astonishing X-Men itself, they'd work quite well as a counterpoint to the main story. Neither is exceptional, but they've both got a certain melancholy about them, that would play well in a different context. But putting them together in a separate book is, on aesthetic as well as financial grounds, a mystifying choice.

As before, the issue is padded out by reprinting Ellis' scripts. This time, in fact, this is a somewhat useful exercise. It reveals more about the artists than might have been intended.

Kaare Andrews, drawing the second story, does a rather good job with it. It's subdued, perhaps a little more than it needed to be, but there's some atmosphere and emotion to it. Comparing the script, it turns out that he doesn't follow it exactly: reveals are shifted from one page to the next, for example. But that's clearly done in service of the story.

But on the lead story, we get Clayton Crain, and comparing his work with the script is an eye-opening experience. The script calls for Scott to be standing on a plastic sheet before he kills himself (the implication being that he's trying to be neat); Crain frames the panel so that it's barely visible. The script says that one wing of the mansion should be "a bombed-out ruin"; the art gives us a basically intact building with an unobtrusive hole in the shadows. The script suggests that the ghosts haunting the Mansion should be presented using sampled art from old X-Men comics; Crain doesn't do it. A potentially interesting panel of Cyclops looking straight down into the portal on the floor and firing into it is rendered as a generic shot of Scott firing his optic beam. A panel with Subject X committing suicide is unintelligible without reference to the script (and though the panel description had too much going on for its own good, Crain could at least have made the important bits more prominent).

There's always been something a little unsatisfactory about Crain's work, but when you see it alongside the script, it's hard to avoid concluding that he has a shaky sense of drama, a limited ability to convey complex action, and no apparent grasp of why Ellis has asked for some of the things he has - all of which could have been done without compromising any sense of atmosphere.

I'm not sure that was the intended effect of publishing the script. Still, got to fill those pages somehow, eh?

Shame they didn't run these as back-up strips, because they'd have got a much more positive response. In this form, however, and especially at this price, give it a miss.

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Sunday, December 14, 2008

Next week's number one...

...will be Alexandra Burke singing "Hallelujah", this year's X-Factor winning song. It's an odd choice, apparently inspired by somebody doing it successfully during this year's American Idol live shows.

The Jeff Buckley version has duly entered the chart at number 30 as an album track download. But for my money, to truly understand the incongruity of "Hallelujah" as an X-Factor winners song, you've got to see the Leonard Cohen original... oh, and listen to the lyrics.


The X-Axis - 14 December 2008

Lots of stuff out this week. I've already written about Phonogram below, and come back over the next couple of days for Astonishing X-Men: Ghost Boxes #2 (and yes, there are other things to say than "How much?") and IDW's Time Management for Anarchists #1 (which... will take longer than a capsule would allow). As you'll see below, there's other stuff I could have covered, but hey, there's only so many hours in the day.

Civil War: House of M #4 - This, in case you've forgotten, is the flashback miniseries explaining how Magneto ended up ruling the world in the House of M miniseries several years ago. There's no connection with Civil War and, frankly, no apparent justification for that part of the title at all. Oh well - if you're enough of a completist to buy the thing just because it had Civil War on the cover, well, you've got a comic with Civil War on the cover, so that's what you wanted, isn't it? As for the actual story, it's competent but instantly forgettable, and I have no idea why this book exists.

Punisher: War Zone #1 - To tie in with the latest Punisher movie, Garth Ennis and Steve Dillon are reunited for a six-issue weekly mini. It's a return to the black comedy tone of their previous work on the character, rather than the nihilism of Ennis' later work. Okay, it's a bit adolescent on occasion, but Ennis is one of the best storytellers in the business, and his instincts are on form here. Dillon is perfectly cast on this sort of material, bringing Ennis' sorrowful losers to life in a way few artists could manage. It's the same stuff they were doing before, sure, but that was good stuff, and one more arc by them is good news as far as I'm concerned.

Wolverine: Flies to a Spider - Yet another unnecessary Wolverine one-shot. Wolverine shows up at a biker bar, and kills everyone, and then says they killed a little girl so they deserved it. And that's pretty much it. The art's not bad, and it's quite well paced, but there's really nothing to it. This is written by Gregg Hurwitz, who did a decent Wolverine annual a year or so back, but is also responsible for the generally unpleasant Foolkiller revival. This is little more than an empty revenge fantasy, with no apparent understanding of the lead character: Wolverine is not the Punisher, for heaven's sake. Weak.

Wonderful Wizard of Oz #1 - Unusually for one of Marvel's all-ages books, this adaptation has been pushed heavily in house ads. But then, this is by Eric Shanower and Skottie Young, whose art is eminently suitable for weird fantasy worlds, and who may well help to bring in a broader audience. Personally, I've never much cared for this story, and with its intentionally stilted dialogue and episodic plot, this doesn't do much to change my mind. Then again, for the most part, the stuff I didn't like about this is the same stuff I didn't like about any other version of the Wizard of Oz either, so I can't hold that against the creators. The pace feels a touch rushed, but it does look wonderful.

X-Men/Spider-Man #2 - Jumping forward to the late eighties, and the immediate aftermath of the Morlock Massacre. Handily for team-up purposes, there weren't many X-Men around at that point - although they seem to be fudging it slightly: if Dazzler is around, shouldn't Psylocke be there too? Christos Gage has found a neat solution to the usual problem of making a story seem important when it's set in the past: use it to lay the groundwork for something in the present. (And we'll be reaching the present in the final issue.) But the star of this series is artist Mario Alberti, who's doing absolutely beautiful work and should surely be a top name artist in a very short period.

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Phonogram #1

"Pull Shapes"
Writer: Kieron Gillen
Artist, letterer: Jamie McKelvie
Colourist: Matthew Wilson

"She Who Bleeds for Your Entertainment"
Writer: Kieron Gillen
Artist: Laurenn McCubbin

"The Power of Love"
Writer: Kieron Gillen
Artist: Marc Ellerby

Ah, something to be enthusiastic about.

The original Phonogram series came out in 2006/7, and was something of a cult success. The high concept, if you don't know, is pop music as magic. This is a brilliant idea, and it's amazing nobody did it sooner. Comics fans have always had a certain tolerance for the likes of Alan Moore and Grant Morrison droning on about the joys of amateur magic. But what they're basically talking about is the power of meditation, drugs, philosophy, whatever, to alter your reality by altering the way you see the world. And frankly, pop music illustrates that idea much better, much more effectively, and much more relevantly.

Phonogram is, I suppose, a sort of celebration of the power of pop music and the way it can mean more to you than it rationally ought to. The previous series drew mainly on nineties Britpop, because that's what the lead character was all about. With series two, "The Singles Club", Gillen and McKelvie are changing out most of the cast, and going for something else.

From the look of it, this is a Rashomon-style series, each issue showing the same night in the same club from a different perspective. For maximum range of musical references, Never on a Sunday will play anything as long as it doesn't have boys singing. First up is Penny B, the spirit of dance, who might not be the brightest character in the room, and might not be entirely brilliant at talking to anyone else, but is here to tell us (often to camera) all about the non-specific celebratory joy of dancing.

This being Phonogram, her chosen song is "Pull Shapes" by the Pipettes (number 26 in 2006, fact-fans). They're a sort of sixties-retro act who've always struck me as a bit heavy on the theory for pure pop abandon, but then Penny may not be focussing on that side of them. Judge for yourself.

Her interactions with the rest of the cast are, at times, a bit obscure, but then we'll see it all from their perspective later in the series. Taken on its own, though, it's a great sixteen pages about, simply, dancing.

Jamie McKelvie continues to get better and better. There's an elegant simplicity in his work, and he actually makes the dancing sequences work - harder than you'd think, in static images. The bold colouring by Matthew Wilson helps give the book its unique look, adding depth without any of that fiddly cross-hatching nonsense.

The series is also running some short back-up strips, with guest artists. "She Who Bleeds for Your Entertainment", with Laurenn McCubbin, is a resigned lament for the overused "suffering woman" archetype (off-the-shelf depth for songwriters everywhere), while Marc Ellerby gives the club DJs their own two-pager as they reluctantly play to a crowd of normal people at a wedding.

This is a great series. It's unique; it's well done; it's got passion for the material; and it convinces you that music is everything it claims to be. Go buy it.

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Saturday, December 13, 2008

Armageddon 2008

The final pay-per-view of the year is usually fairly minor. It's just before Christmas; the January show is traditionally a major one; let's fill the time and head home for the holidays. In the event, they've put some effort into promoting the top two matches, and not a great deal into the rest of the card. The best you can hope for with these shows, usually, is a decent evening of in-ring wrestling. Will we get it?

1. World Heavyweight Title: John Cena v. Chris Jericho. This is the first of three matches from the Raw roster. Cena won the Raw world title from Jericho last month, and this is the obligatory rematch. The title has changed hands several times in the last few months, so it's really time to calm things down. I'd be surprised to see it switch back again; I'm expecting a decent match with Cena winning, to draw a line under this story for now.

There's only one problem with that: by this point, the company should be building towards Wrestlemania 2009 in the spring, and traditionally that's the point where the conquering babyface wins the title from the heel champion. If Cena's already got the belt, then you can't do that story. But then, maybe they don't need to; it looks like they're already doing that story with the Smackdown title. For Raw, their biggest match is probably Cena defending against Orton, which could work well - even though he's meant to be a psychotic heel, a lot of fans will cheer an Orton title win.

2. WWE Championship: Edge v. Jeff Hardy v. Triple H. This is more complicated. Last month, Triple H was meant to be defending the title against Jeff Hardy and Vladimir Kozlov. On the morning of the show, the WWE ran a story on its website saying that Hardy had been found unconscious in a hotel, which turned out to be a storyline about a mystery attacker, but was rather tackily presented so as to make gullible readers think he might have overdosed. Anyhow, they ran Triple H versus Kozlov as the title match, and by god it was awful - ten minutes of tedious mat wrestling to the evident boredom of the crowd. And then Edge came out, continued his "ultimate opportunist" gimmick, to "save the day" by joining the match as the third man, and pinning Triple H for the title after Kozlov had done all the work.

Obviously fans weren't supposed to be thrilled with a Triple H/Kozlov match instead of getting Jeff Hardy, but even allowing for that, Kozlov really wasn't too impressive in there. So he's been shunted off to feud with Jeff's brother Matt, and instead, through a convoluted storyline involving qualifying matches and time limit draws, we have Edge defending against Triple H and Jeff Hardy.

The storyline here is that Edge, as a heel, doesn't fancy his chances taking on both babyfaces at once, but he's managed to get them to turn on one another, so hopefully they'll tear themselves apart and he can sneak in to get the pin. Simple. Oh, and there's an unresolved question about who actually attacked Jeff last month: everyone agrees Edge is the obvious suspect, but he insists it wasn't him, and he might have a point - after all, his character is to screw people over by seizing opportunities when they arise.

We certainly seem to be in a long-term build to Jeff winning the title. He could do it on Sunday, but I suspect he's more likely to win the Royal Rumble in January, allowing a build-up to a match with Edge at Wrestlemania in the spring. My guess is that Edge retains here by pinning Triple H after Jeff does all the work, and it'll probably be a good match.

Unusually, those are the only two title matches on the card (despite the company having a total of nine titles in circulaiton at the moment). And now, your filler...

3. Batista v. Randy Orton. A match for two of the big names on Raw who have else to do at the moment. Orton is arguably the hottest heel on the show, has a ton of momentum behind him, and is on something of a roll. Batista is a top-level babyface who's just come off an abortive one-week title reign, has lost a lot recently, and generally seems a bit directionless right now. He might be turning heel in the not too distant future, in which case the smart thing is to cash in some of his remaining babyface heat before he does so, and have Orton win convincingly. I expect a good match from these two.

4. Matt Hardy v. Vladimir Kozlov. Matt is the ECW Champion, but the title is not on the line here. It's very unusual for a champion to have a non-title match at a pay-per-view, and it usually means he's going to lose. This seems to be a case of the company writing itself into a corner and then changing their minds rather too late in the day: the match was apparently billed as a title match at the TV tapings earlier in the week.

Kozlov presents something of a conundrum for the company. His match last month was not good at all, and strongly indicates that he shouldn't be headlining shows any time soon. On the other hand, most of the audience won't have seen it, he didn't get pinned, and he's still got an aura of strength which they need to use somehow - though his appearance on ECW this week, in a shockingly inept sequence with Tommy Dreamer, won't have done him any favours.

I suspect that when they booked this match, they'd given up on Kozlov as a main eventer, and the original plan was to feed him to Matt Hardy, who's short of credible challengers, before banishing him back to the midcard. Now they've changed their minds and want to keep him in the Smackdown top tier for a little longer (perhaps so that Jeff Hardy can be the one to pin him for the first time). On that basis, Kozlov can't lose to the champion of the C-show, but nor can he win the title, because then he'd have to defend the bloody thing against the dork squad on Tuesday nights. So, non-title match it is.

Best hope it's short, because Hardy is good, but Kozlov... well, they've been working on Kozlov for a long while now, and he still needs more work.

5. Rey Mysterio v. CM Punk. This is the final of an eight-man tournament to win a shot at the Intercontinental Title, presently held by William Regal. The IC Title is Raw's secondary belt, and in recent years, it hasn't normally merited this sort of attention. However, there's a History of the Intercontinental Title DVD out, and this tournament was supposed to help promote it.

It's not altogether clear when the winner gets his title shot. Regal apparently went down with some sort of bug during November's tour of Europe, which is why he was eliminated almost immediately in his Survivor Series match last month, and why we haven't seen him much in recent weeks. He might well still not be ready to defend the title, which is why we're getting a number one contender's match instead.

Mysterio and Punk are both babyfaces, and they have no issue with one another, so this will probably be a straight wrestling match, and chances are it'll be pretty decent. Either could have a decent feud with Regal for the IC title, but my money would be on Punk, who's a more obvious foil for Regal's evil Daily Mail reader.

EDITED TO ADD: I forgot to mention that Punk is also co-holder of Raw's tag titles, along with Kofi Kingston... except that they lost the titles to Miz & Morrison on Saturday night at a house show in Hamilton, Ontario. Title changes at untelevised shows are very rare, so there's probably a story to this.

6. "Belfast Brawl": Finlay v. Mark Henry. A second match from ECW, and if that's not desperation, I don't know what is. The veteran Irish wrestler has been feuding with Henry for a while now in a thoroughly tedious story which mainly involves Henry threatening Finlay's midget leprechaun son. (Don't ask.) They had a tag match on ECW on Tuesday, which was bloody awful, and I can't imagine this is going to be any better. Pray that it's short, and pray that Finlay wins, because he's the babyface, so the story can't end until he does.

"Belfast Brawl", by the way, is one of the company's many, many ways of trying to make the same old no-disqualification match sound slightly different. It means they will hit each other with stuff.

7. "Santa's Little Helper Match": Maria, Kelly Kelly, Mickie James & Michelle McCool v. Maryse, Jilian Hall, Victoria & Natalya. Eight-woman tag team match, drawing on both the Raw and Smackdown rosters. They haven't announced what a "Santa's Little Helper Match" actually is, but chances are it's some sort of low-rent T&A segment.

This stuff doesn't draw ratings or money these days; there was a time when it did, but the audience seems to have grown out of it. The company employs a ton of interchangeable bimbos and can't grasp that the audience isn't interested in them. If you consider the women who do get a reaction from the audience, it's the likes of Vicky Guerrero and Beth Phoenix, and that's because they're clearly defined characters - in other words, for the same reason that male characters get a reaction. The company seems unable to take this simple lesson on board. Vicky doesn't get booed because she's plain, she gets booed because she's Eric Bischoff.

Anyway, the match... the only potential storyline here is that Michelle McCool, the Smackdown women's champion, is on the babyface team, even though she's clearly in the process of turning heel. Look for the heels to win and McCool to throw another strop afterwards, if not to turn on her cohorts altogether.

Worth buying? I'm not expecting any major storyline news, so it really depends on the quality of the wrestling. The two title matches, Punk/Mysterio and Batista/Orton should all be good. Hardy/Kozlov is unpromising to put it mildly. The other two matches should be dire, but they're also likely to be short. Depends whether four decent matches is enough for you, really.


Tuesday, December 09, 2008

The Ford Fiesta

The winter series of Top Gear has been a bit patchy, but Sunday's episode had two of the best features they've done in ages. One is the review of Communist cars. The other is this one.

Since the clip doesn't include the all-important set-up (and Americans will need a bit of context anyway), I'll explain it: Many many years ago, Top Gear was a sober show where men in jumpers reviewed family cars. Things have changed somewhat. Now, the show has received a letter of complaint from a Mr Needham, complaining that back in the good old days they used to do proper road tests of normal cars, and why don't they do that any more.

So: Jeremy Clarkson road tests the Ford Fiesta...

Stick with it.

(And in case the YouTube video gets taken down: here's the iPlayer link, for those of you in Britain. Communists at 20 minutes in, Ford Fiesta at 49 minutes.)

Monday, December 08, 2008

X-Infernus #1

"Soul Survivors"
Writer: C B Cebulski
Penciller: Giuseppe Camuncoli
Inker: Jesse Delperdang
Letterer: Dave Lanphear
Colourist: Marte Gracia
Editor: Nick Lowe

The publicity for this one didn't fill me with confidence. X-Infernus is a five-issue miniseries, which has been presented as a sequel of sort of 1989's "Inferno" crossover. Now, I rather liked "Inferno", which wrapped up the long-running Illyana Rasputin storyline in the course of three endearingly lunatic months of people being eaten by demonically possessed buildings.

But the last thing "Inferno" needs is a sequel. Illyana's story should have stopped there. There was never a good reason to bring her back, beyond nostalgia fetishism. Her story was that she had been corrupted as a child, that she struggled to be a hero despite that corruption, and that it ultimately overcame her, leading to Inferno. But, in the final act, she manages to set things right, and give herself a second chance to grow up all over again. Her tragedy gets a pay-off; and she gets a happy ending in the form of the chance to live a better life. Perfect ending.

But oh, no, we can't bloody leave it there, can we? No, we must bring her back, even though the character's story only logically leads in one direction - the finale we already did in 1989. It's horribly backwards looking. And although New X-Men devoted several months to convincing me otherwise, I saw nothing to suggest that the world needs more Magik stories.

Well, X-Infernus is the sequel to those New X-Men issues. Magik is still in Limbo, and still looking for her soul. On Earth, the X-Men - who haven't mentioned this plot in months, but whatever - have apparently been trying to get through to Limbo without success. In fact, it is a problem that Colossus hasn't mentioned this in the other books. He's been moping about the loss of his girlfriend ad nauseam. You'd think he'd muster at least a sliver of concern for his sister. But I digress.

Despite all my misgivings about this whole storyline, X-Infernus #1 turns out to be a pretty good X-Men comic. Instead of getting bogged down in history, it takes the New X-Men arc and uses it as a springboard for a new arc. Magik wants her soul back; the X-Men want to reach her and find out what happened to Pixie in the same storyline; and Belasco's daughter Witchfire has decided to take over Limbo for herself, providing the series with its villain.

CB Cebulski isn't perhaps the most distinctive writer around. He doesn't have the sort of strong authorial voice that you get from a lot of the big names. But what he does do, is well-constructed stories with a feel for the voices of the characters. His X-Men simply feel right; his Magik is one-dimensional in the right way (which is to say, she's more of a gathering storm than a participant); it's paced well; and it uses continuity the right way, as a source of back story for a plot that stands alone.

Giuseppe Camuncoli and Jesse Delperdang are also doing good work here. There's a slight hint of Mike Mignola, particularly in the Limbo sequences. Expressive characters, strong layouts, and an clear emphasis on telling the story rather than showing off. In this day and age, it's a pleasure to see an artist who understands the effectiveness of a simple old-fashioned grid layout.

Of course, what we're dealing with here is a good house-style X-Men comic rather than anything that reinvents the wheel (or pretends to). But it's an unexpectedly solid effort all round, and far better than you were probably expecting from it - to the point where it earns my goodwill despite my misgivings about reviving Illyana. And that's something of an achievement, really.

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Sunday, December 07, 2008

Number 1s of 2008: December 7

Well, to the surprise of absolutely nobody, it's Leona Lewis, "Run." There doesn't seem to be an embeddable version of the video, but here's the YouTube link.

And here's the original, a number 5 hit in 2004 for Scottish indie band Snow Patrol, now best known for their worldwide hit "Chasing Cars." It made the US Modern Rock chart, but apparently never troubled the Bilboard 100.

It's actually a pretty good cover version. It's smoothed off more of the rough edges than it needed to, but it's certainly got the epic quality that the original was going for. I'm not a purist; I quite like it.

With its massive download sales, "Run" is almost certain to stay at the top for a second week. But it's unlikely to manage a third, because that would mean holding off the winner of this year's X-Factor. Lewis, of course, won the show in 2006. This year's choices don't look quite so promising. It'll probably be Alexandra Burke, who's emerged as this year's diva option. It probably won't be JLS, the sole remaining group in the competition: the groups never win. The wildcard is gormless Irish teenage puppy Eoghan Quigg, whose appeal eludes me. But he's made it this far without being in the bottom two, so he's clearly picking up the votes.

The unlucky fourth placed candidate was Diana Vickers, a sort of Dolores O'Riordan-alike. Her elimination on Saturday was met with a horrific wailing and gnashing of teeth... from Eoghan, who is clearly smitten with her. Here's her farewell performance, complete with a distraught Eoghan bounding onto the stage ahead of schedule to proclaim his undying love. Cute, or unbearably drippy? The voters will decide...

Finally, simply because I like the video, here's "Cash In My Pocket" by Wiley, this week's number 18.


The X-Axis - 7 December 2008

If you haven't listened to House to Astonish yet, then now is as good a time as any to do so. Here's the download, here's the web page, and it's on iTunes too. This week, we talk about Umbrella Academy: Dallas #1, Secret Invasion #8, and X-Men: Noir #1.

There's a review of Haunted Tank #1 already up (it's not great), and I'll be reviewing X-Infernus #1 tomorrow (it's not bad, actually). And now, let's go through the rest of this week's ridiculous deluge of X-books, plus a couple of other vaguely noteworthy titles...

Cable #9 - The X-Men keep interrogating Bishop, who turns out to have a plan after all, while in the future, Cable is sorely vexed by ants with guns. It has its moments; the politically correct murderous insects are a nice touch. But there's still no apparent reason why Bishop doesn't simply explain his motivations (particularly since he claims to be trying to do so), which lends an air of contrivance to the whole thing. And I'm lukewarm about Ariel Olivetti's art here; there's a certain charm to it, but there's also an odd tension between the hyperrealistic textures and the exaggerated figures, which gives some of his female characters, in particular, an awkward, rubbery quality that doesn't serve the story. Still, it's trying something different for an X-book, and it's got its own feel, which is always welcome.

Marvels: Eye of the Camera #1 - Kurt Busiek's sequel to Marvels jumps back to the dawn of the Silver Age. We were going to talk about this on House to Astonish, but frankly, there's not much to say about it. It's got Jay Anacleto instead of Alex Ross, and while he does a respectable job, it's not going to turn heads in the same way. As for the story, Phil Sheldon is heading for a midlife crisis of general ennui when the superheroes come back and cheer him up again. It's fine as far as it goes, but so far it's not apparent what this is really adding to Marvels. Later issues apparently go into more modern history than the original series, and perhaps at that stage the point will become clearer, but for the moment this feels mainly as though it's treading old ground.

New Exiles #15 - Lots of running around on a world full of islands, defended by men in Iron Man suits and women with swords. Seems a poor deal for the ladies. Unfortunately, this is all becoming a bit confused, as Claremont starts wheeling out oddities such as counterparts of the Shi'ar Death Commandos (never especially interesting characters to start with) made up of counterparts of the X-Men. Confused yet? It's okay as far as it goes, but decidedly inward-looking and self-absorbed. Mind you, it's a book for Claremont fans, and it's being cancelled soon, so I suppose he might as well indulge himself in the final arc.

NYX: No Way Home #4 - Sales haven't been great on this series, which tends to confirm my theory that Marvel waited far, far too long to capitalise on any momentum. And it did have some, remember. X-23 was a very popular character for a while. This issue, the kids are on the run, there's a femme fatale type chasing after them, and Cecilia Reyes is back, having apparently escaped Weapon X somehow or other. We're in fairly familiar X-territory here, with mutants hiding from the unsympathetic authorities, and some of the art is starting to look a touch rough compared to earlier issues. But the characters are quite likeable, and it's a pleasant enough read.

Weapon X: First Class #2 - A re-telling of Barry Windsor-Smith's "Weapon X" story from Marvel Comics Presents. The framing device - Professor X helps Wolverine to explore his missing memories - certainly seems to contradict the "Original Sin" crossover that ended last week. I suppose there could be some clever explanation in the final issue, but I'm more inclined to think that the left hand just doesn't know what the right hand is doing. Anyway, the whole idea of doing "Weapon X" as an all-ages story seems insane, and the result is about what you'd expect: a fairly grim story tip-toeing its way through the letter of the rules on What You Can't Show while largely ignoring their spirit. It doesn't read like an all-ages book at all, and without that, what's the point? On the plus side, Mark Robinson is doing some very good art on this book, and deserves to get some higher profile assignments out of it; and there's a back-up strip with Deadpool recapping his origin, which adds no new material, but is done quite amusingly.

What If? House of M - Despite the title, this isn't really a House of M story at all. The premise is that, instead of wiping out mutant powers in House of M #8, the Scarlet Witch gets rid of everyone's powers. So most of the heroes and villains are wiped out... but hi-tech stuff still works, so the remaining guys get to appear in a story loosely based on a Red Skull arc from Captain America. It's never remotely clear why that should draw a line under the age of heroes, given that hi-tech villainy remains an issue, and that alien invasions ought to be a continuing problem. All rather scattershot and unsatisfying. There's also a back-up strip, the first part of a Runaways story where they end up being recruited as the Young Avengers (which is being serialised through all this year's What If? oneshots in an attempt to encourage you to buy them all). It's more promising than the lead story, but hardly worth picking up the book for on its own.

Wolverine: Manifest Destiny #2 - Gleefully silly nonsense with Wolverine fighting ridiculous martial arts guys in Chinatown. Four issues might be pushing it a bit, and it's got only the most tangential connection to the "Manifest Destiny" theme. But it's good for a laugh and, despite some issues with clarity in the fight sequences, Stephen Segovia's art is appropriately melodramatic. Superfluous, but unashamedly entertaining.

Wolverine & Power Pack #2 - The cover, with Energizer forcing everyone to play with her tea set, is a thing of beauty. The story has nothing to do with it, sadly: Power Pack visit the X-Men's school, and kind of want to enrol, but learn that on balance they're probably better off not being mutants. There are some great moments with a lovelorn Jack trailing around after Kitty Pryde, and while the story is straightforward all-ages material, the GuriHiru artwork makes it irresistible.

X-Men: Manifest Destiny #4 - A decidedly underwhelming package. The Iceman lead story simply isn't working, and is by far one of the weakest things Mike Carey's written for the X-books. And aside from that, we've got two generic short stories with Mercury and Nightcrawler. The Nightcrawler one is better, since at least it's got art from Takeshi Miyazawa, but neither is anyting to write home about.

X-Men: Noir #1 - We talked about this in the podcast, but the short version: it's a noir story with characters based loosely on the X-Men. There's a somewhat clever central idea: the X Men (no hyphen, mind) are a group of criminals trained by Professor Xavier, who thinks that the sociopath is the next step in human evolution. And there's a funny pulp sci-fi parody at the end. Judged purely as a noir story, it's actually not bad at all, and Dennis Calero's art has tons of atmosphere. But fundamentally, what's the point? It's a gimmicky parlour game, and the randomness of the premise only serves to drag it down.

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