Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Rest #1

Writer: Mark Powers
Artists: Shawn McManus & Lizzy John
Letterer: Ed Dukeshire
Editor: Stephen Christy
(Devil's Due Publishing, $3.50)

This is the second comic I've seen recently with a movie production company's logo attached. Rest is "produced" by Heroes actor Milo Ventimiglia and his collaborator Russ Cundiff, via their company DiVide Pictures. I've wondered before about why a production company would bother going to the trouble of turning a concept into a comic. Wikipedia helpfully offers an explanation by pointing out that the series was conceived during the writers' strike, which didn't extend to comics.

Anyway, Rest is a curious thing. John Barrett is a beleaguered, tired office worker in New York, who eats, works and sleeps. You know the type of character. But then he's approached by old friend Teddy, who offers John the chance to get involved in this great new product he's working on: a drug that removes the need to sleep. Now you can stay wide awake all the time and add eight hours to your day. Isn't that awesome?

This is quite an interesting idea; it's easy to see the appeal of adding another 50% to your waking hours, simply in terms of free time. And there's something primal and a little mysterious about sleep, and why we need it, all of which could make for a promising story.

Whether Rest is that story... well, that's not so clear from the first issue. There are quite a few pointers suggesting a "nasty pharmaceutical company conceals side effects" stories; there are also some suggesting a drug addiction analogy. There's a male bonding angle as well. The story could go either way; it could be a trite rehearsal of familiar plots, or it could use them as a framework to do something more interesting. Or it could be an utter mess.

The series is actually based on an unfilmed screenplay by Michael O'Sullivan, but for the comics, we have writer Mark Powers (presumably the same guy who used to edit the X-Men) and artist Shawn McManus. It's all thoroughly competent but perhaps lacking a little spark. The characters all have well-defined roles, but beyond that, they're rather generic; and the art is a little too bland to change that.

But the concept is intriguing, and I'm at least curious to know what the angle is here. There's something here, I think, even though I'm not quite sure what.

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Unknown Soldier #1

"Haunted House", part 1

Writer: Joshua Dysart
Artist: Alberto Ponticelli
Colourist: Oscar Celestini
Letterer: Clem Robins
Editor: Pornsak Pichetshote

Vertigo may have diversified over the years, but it still loves to revamp an old DC character beyond recognition. The original Unknown Soldier series was about a disfigured US intelligence agent who worked as a master of disguise in World War II. But, with one rather obvious exception, the new series doesn't have much to do with that.

This book is about a Ugandan pacifist, Dr Lwanga Moses, working away to make his country a better place during its brutal civil war. But he seems to have a split personality, in the form of a voice that wants him to lash out and fight back - a side of his personality that clearly terrifies him. And of course, it's one thing to keep those impulses in check when you're debating the issues in Kampala, but quite another when you're in the middle of a war zone.

Dysart's interest here - aside from telling a war story, and drawing on the underexplored potential of the Ugandan setting - seems to be in the limits of pacifism, and the point at which it becomes unrealistic. As he points out in his "On the Ledge" promo piece, pacifism sounds great when you're talking about civil disobedience, but as a response to genocide, it leaves a little to be desired. Not that this is an anti-pacifist tract; Moses' violent side is downright sociopathic. But he exemplifies both attitudes - devoted pacifism and mindless retribution - and who will presumably spend much of the series trying to find the balance.

It's a violent book, and unashamedly a piece of action entertainment, but powerfully illustrated by Alberto Ponticelli. And it's good to see Vertigo continuing to make good use of strong colours, in favour of the murky brown that used to characterise the imprint.

The premise is a bit contrived, to put it mildly, but with stories like this, it all depends on how literally you choose to take it. The book makes a promising start here, and this looks to be worth keeping an eye on.

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Monday, October 27, 2008

Number 1s of 2008: 26 October

(Or watch it on YouTube without the adverts in higher quality. I would.)

That's Girls Aloud, "The Promise", knocking off Pink after three weeks. It's almost certainly a one-week wonder, but I'll come back to that.

Girls Aloud were created in 2002 as the winners of Popstars: The Rivals, a Pop Idol-style show which whittled its way through an armada of contestants to come up with five girls and five boys. The boys became One True Voice, released two shockingly mediocre singles, then split up, to general relief. The girls became Girls Aloud, and ended up as the front-women for production house and songwriting team Xenomania, who are responsible for virtually all of their output.

Six years later, they're still going. They've seen off a ton of other talent show winners. They've seen off every other British girl band apart from the Sugababes (and now the Saturdays, but give them time). A lot of the credit for this has to go to Xenomania, who've given them material which is often very good, and often quite unusual. Their back catalogue ranges from ridiculous electro anthems to surprisingly good ballads to more electro anthems to eighties throwbacks to... well, I don't even know what this is.

And, admittedly, they've also released some cover versions, which are almost universally dire. But we shan't speak of that.

It's a very respectable career for a bunch of talent show winners. In fact, though, they're not as big as the British tend to assume, because they sell almost nothing abroad. According to their Wikipedia discography, their last album generated hits in the UK, Ireland and Croatia - and nowhere else. The Sugababes, in contrast, have racked up hits around western Europe and Australia.

And you might be surprised to learn that "The Promise" is only Girls Aloud's fourth number one - the other three being "Sound of the Underground" (their TV-promoted debut), "I'll Stand By You" (a charity single) and "Walk This Way" (um... another charity single).

I'm not quite sure about this new sixties direction, but hey, at least they keep changing, and that's always good in a pop act.

Now, this was meant to be the second of three consecutive number ones connected to The X-Factor, which is basically the current version of Pop Idol. The 2006 winner was Leona Lewis (but she's an anomaly - earlier winners were a motley bunch). Cheryl Cole from Girls Aloud is one of the judges this year. Next week, the finalists are releasing a charity single for injured veterans, which is practically guaranteed to go to number one.

But last week... well, last week's number one was meant to be "Don't Call This Love", the second single by 2007 winner Leon Jackson. He's no Leona Lewis, unfortunately, and the record entered at number 3 (dropping out of the top 10 entirely this week). This wouldn't have been so embarrassing, but for the fact that the number 2 single was "The Winner's Song" by Geraldine McQueen - comedian Peter Kay in a dress, singing a parody of the singles released by talent show winners. It's a damned odd record - it contains no jokes as such, just a subtly exaggerated version of what these records actually sound like. Gary Barlow wrote it.

It's a tie-in to Kay's Channel 4 special... deep breath... Peter Kay's Britain's Got The Pop Factor and Possibly a New Celebrity Jesus Christ Soapstar Superstar Strictly on Ice, which divided audiences in much the same way. The basic joke was that all of the acts had clearly made the final on the strength of their human interest stories rather than their abilities. (Good use of Cat Deeley, though.)

Since the record label won't let me embed "The Winner's Song", here's Geraldine's innovative medley of her favourite songs.

Leon Jackson came third to that. That's... not altogether encouraging.


Wolverine: Manifest Destiny

"Enter the Wolverine"
Writer: Jason Aaron
Artist: Stephen Segovia
Letterer: Cory Petit
Colourist: John Rauch
Editor: John Barber

Wolverine: Manifest Destiny is the story that Wolverine would be running right now, if it wasn't otherwise occupied with Mark Millar and Steve McNiven's alternate reality story. Just like every other X-Man, Wolverine needs relocating to San Francisco, and this is the book to do it.

The reasons for moving to San Francisco have been dealt with ad nauseam in other titles, so in practice, writer Jason Aaron's remit here is to fill a few issues doing something that amuses him, so long as it involves moving Wolverine to San Francisco. And what we get is a story about Wolverine arriving in his new home, and trying to smooth things over with some guys in Chinatown that he annoyed fifty years ago. Yes, it's the old "Wolverine knows these people from his chequered past" routine.

But sometimes the simplest ideas are the best. Aaron is basically doing a martial arts story here, complete with guest appearances by the Sons of the Tiger. It's a romp which takes itself just seriously enough (and no more), and this is sort of story it needs: simple, but solid enough for everything to hang on. It's perfectly well put together, the characters are well written, and there's nothing wrong with it. It's not trying to be high art, but it's good fun.

Stephen Segovia's art is quite promising. Yes, there's a heavily Leinil Francis Yu influence here (with a bit of stiffness at times), and yes, there are times when he's trying too hard (you don't need five irregular panels just to show Wolverine opening a can of beer). But he's good at establishing a location, he's good with body language, and there are actually points where he eases off the flashy layouts and lets the action speak for itself. I don't think he's found his own voice here, but he's certainly got something.

True enough, Wolverine is massively overexposed these days, and he doesn't really need one more throwaway side project. But I can't deny it's an entertaining one, and I'd be happy to see these guys do more with the character.

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Sunday, October 26, 2008

The X-Axis - 26 October 2008

Coming up over the next few days, we'll be looking at Wolverine: Manifest Destiny #1 (as close to notable as any of this week's X-books get), Vertigo's Unknown Soldier #1 (Gandhi meets the Punisher in Uganda) and DDP's Rest #1 (pharmaceutical conspiracies with Mark Powers and Shawn McManus).

But here's the round-up of other X-books (and a Thor one-shot, just because).

New Exiles #13 - Well, hey now, that's a rather nice underwater sequence in the opening pages. But the book soon gets bogged down in Claremont's latest pet idea: characters literally fighting their own inner ghosts, that nobody else can see. He's now got Psylocke and Sage both doing the same plot at the same time, with no apparent connection between the two - and by the end of the issue, Cat's (kind of) at it as well. It's so blatant that you figure it's all got to tie together into some unifying story, but with different plot explanations in each case, it's hard to see how that can be done. In fairness, if you leave aside that point, it's a perfectly readable issue, and I do approve of Claremont's attempts to bring some ongoing storylines and subplots into a book whose "visiting alternate worlds" set-up tends to resist them. But he's hammering this idea a bit too much, I think.

Thor: The Truth of History - This is another of those random one-shots that Marvel like to shove out for no apparent reason. But it's an Alan Davis one-shot, which makes it worth a look. This is a solidly crafted old-school superhero story, taking advantage of the fact that Thor and his cast are meant to be immortal. Volstagg blunders his way into ancient Egypt, so Thor and co have to rescue him. The obligatory shenanigans and "Ah, so that's how it really happened" moments ensue. It's all quite familiar, really, but Davis does this sort of thing very well, and knows how to make a story's familiarity into a strength. There are a couple of uncharacteristic anatomy slips (the less said about page 25 panel 1, the better), but this is a nice, cosy package.

X-Factor #36 - Peter David said in a recent interview that he's still writing X-Factor as a noir series, which is interesting, because nobody seems to have told the rest of the creative team. This is actually one of Larry Stroman's strongest efforts on the book, at least in the first half - but a chunky Longshot and frankly bizarre Val Cooper make their appearance as the book goes on, not to mention some cartoon bystanders who seem to be drawn in a completely different style from the rest of the book. Good opening sequence, though, and David is on form with some clever wrongfooting of the audience.

X-Men: Legacy #217 - Part two of "Original Sin", and I'm slightly disconcerted to realise that I clearly don't quite grasp this Miss Sinister character. I was under the impression that she was supposed to be some sort of reincarnation of Mr Sinister, but she really doesn't seem to bear much resemblance to him, at this stage. All a bit confusing. Still, Carey tells a good story, and he's done enough to get me somewhat interested in Daken, which is a first. Perhaps the conclusion to draw from this is that my problem isn't so much with Daken as a concept, as with the way in which Daniel Way has been writing him.

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Burma Chronicles

by Guy Delisle
(translated by Helge Dascher)

I told you I'd get to it in the end...

Burma Chronicles is the third travel book by French Canadian cartoonist Guy Delisle, following his earlier accounts of Pyongyang and Shenzhen. Unlike many travel writers, Delisle doesn't visit these places simply in order to write about them; rather, they're memoirs of trips that he took for other reasons. With Pyongyang and Shenzhen, he was supervising animation studios. This time, he's accompanying his wife (who works for Medecins Sans Frontieres) and their baby son on a year-long posting to Myanmar. On the fringe of the medical community, Delisle gets on with his cartooning, teaches a few animation courses for the locals, and generally wander about a bit.

As before, there's no attempt to impose a story. The book is a collection of vignettes. Some are straightforward accounts of the country itself, some are pieces of culture shock, some are about his experiences in the expat community of westerners, and it all comes together to build up an impression of his experience of the country.

Burma may be run by a military dictatorship, but it's an easier place to write about than Pyongyang. Delisle's book about the North Korean capital was mainly an account of staying in deluded "luxury" hotels, surrounded by Stepford party loyalists. Burma is a different matter; the locals seem much more willing to speak freely about the place, and the worst of the government's excesses are taking place out in the countryside.

On a day to day level, the state is more of a demented inconvenience. It relocates entire ministries to previously unknown cities without notice, and produces currency in absurdly cumbersome denominations because 50 and 100 are unlucky numbers, but 45 and 90 are propitious.

Stories like this are funny, but they're also a disturbing illustration of what happens when a country ends up run by lunatics. Instead of taking the obvious route of writing about atrocities that he didn't actually see, Delisle focuses on the way the dictatorship is actually experienced by the beleaguered citizens: comically inept and tacitly threatening at the same time, blithely implementing the most inane, irrational schemes imaginable, just because they can.

Delisle's talent lies in breaking down these alien societies into small, human moments, which he conveys with incredible economy and skill. There's a wealth of detail in his deceptively simple art, and a great command of the medium. A couple of dialogue free sequences, recounting trips to outlying towns in a series of 15-panel grids, particularly repay close reading.

In its way, Delisle's gently comedic approach, with an understated awareness of the issues always hovering in the shadows, is far more effective than a direct attack could ever be. He shows Rangoon the way it is - and the way it is speaks for itself.

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Cyber Sunday 2008

Of all the WWE pay-per-views, Cyber Sunday rejoices in both the worst name and the worst concept.

This is the annual "interactive" show. Now in its fifth year, it's never really worked, and it's never really drawn money. But for some reason the WWE still thinks there's some merit in the idea. Basically, the idea is that you have multiple-choice options for each match, and the fans vote on it. You can probably figure out for yourselves why this is a bad idea. It means a card full of TBAs, which hardly encourages people to pay money for the show. If the fans vote for a match that the company doesn't want (and it's happened before), then the storylines are temporarily derailed, or you get two surprised wrestlers improvising their way through a match. And if you preserve storyline control by making the options meaningless, then what's the point?

There's never been a clear answer to any of these points. But this year the company has an all-new angle: instead of using the website, they're going to do most of the voting by text message, and charge money for it. (And yes, they're still calling it Cyber Sunday - a title now both dated and inaccurate.) Of course, that means only Americans can vote - thus reducing the international appeal even further.

There's also, frankly, the question of whether you'd trust the WWE to run a premium-rate voting line. Because, let's face it, there is no vote too trivial for the average TV producer to rig.

Surprisingly, though, the WWE has apparently honoured the results of the voting in the past (and the appearance of some meaningless votes and some blatantly improvised matches tends to confirm that). So let's give them the benefit of the doubt here and see what might or might not be on the show this year.

Oh - I should have covered this stuff last month, when some of you migrated from the X-Axis website. But for those of you who don't know: the WWE has three shows, Raw, Smackdown and ECW. Each has its own roster and its own champion (as well as a bunch of secondary belts), and yes, that means there are three world champions, and yes, that is stupid, isn't it? Raw is meant to be the A-show, although they're giving more attention to Smackdown at the moment, because of its recent network jump. ECW is a very distant third, and exists mainly as a transition for rookie wrestlers who've just been called up to the roster (plus some more experienced guys who are there to help them develop, or who are being tested out for possible main event roles).

1. World Heavyweight Title: Chris Jericho v. Batista. The Raw title. Jericho's title reign continues with what looks like a filler defence. Although his feud with Shawn Michaels didn't seem to do much in the ratings, he's been a solid heel champion, and with John Cena due back soon, you really want a well-established villain for him to face. A Batista win doesn't really lead anywhere. Jericho is very good and Batista is perfectly fine, so I expect a decent match here.

The vote is to choose the referee, and the options are Randy Orton, Shawn Michaels and Steve Austin. Orton is just there to make up the numbers: he's a heel, there's no conceivable reason why you'd vote for him, and he hasn't even been lobbying for votes. Michaels has been in a long-running feud with Jericho which really deserved a better audience reaction than it received; he makes the most logical sense. Austin is making his annual contractual obligation appearance, which doesn't extend to actually promoting the show. Still, he was one of the biggest stars of the nineties, and they're clearly assuming he'll win. (If he doesn't, it'll be something of a surprise.)

I'm not a big fan of guest referees. If the referee plays it straight, it's generally a waste of time. If he sides with the heel then you have to explain why he doesn't just declare a submission victory thirty seconds in. And if he sides with the babyface, then you create a situation where the heel faces unfair odds - if he triumphs, he's a hero, and if he loses, the babyface becomes a lame duck champion. Best outcome is that Jericho wins and Austin disappears back into his cupboard for another year.

2. World Heavyweight Title: Triple H v. ???. This is the Smackdown title, and your options are Jeff Hardy, Vladimir Kozlov, or both of them at once. Hardy is a babyface who already fought Triple H last month in a good match. He lost, but it was close, so all logic says the fans would want to vote for that again. However, the company clearly wants fans to vote for Vladimir Kozlov, a stern-looking Russian who's been beating up midcarders for a while now, but has had very few extended matches.

Putting him in a main event match is a bit of a risk, and his all-business persona makes it very unlikely that the fans will vote for him over Hardy. If the company's lucky, they might get the three-way. My bet would be that if you vote for Hardy, he's going to lose. If you vote for Kozlov, it'll be a DQ finish, to set up a rematch (though I wouldn't completely rule out a Kozlov win for the shock value and to put even more heat on a rematch). And if you vote for the three-way, Triple H will pin Hardy to kick him firmly out of the title picture for the moment. Triple H/Hardy will be very good; it's hard to know what a Kozlov match would be like.

3. ECW Title: Matt Hardy v. ???. Your options here are Mark Henry, Finlay and Evan Bourne. Henry certainly won't win: he's a heel, and he's fought Hardy several times before. That leaves the veteran Finlay and the rookie high-flyer Evan Bourne. The company has made it abundantly clear that they'd like us to vote for Bourne, and so has Matt Hardy on his own website. I think there's a fair chance they'll get it; it's a fresh match, it's unlikely to come up again any time soon (since it's face/face) and it should be an excellent match. If you vote for Finlay... well, that'll be fine too. Hardy's almost sure to retain, either way: Bourne's clearly not ready for a title reign.

4. Undertaker v. Big Show. Your choice is between a "Knockout match", and "I Quit match" and a "Last Man Standing match." Since a Last Man Standing match already involves winning by knockout, two of these options are essentially the same. I don't much like Last Man Standing matches, which tend to drag horribly (because of the length of time it takes to do a false finish), and to be honest, I've been fast-forwarding past this feud, which feels horribly stale. I've just got no interest in seeing these two together. I suspect some sort of screwjob finish, probably involving the return of Edge, in order to drag this story out further, because Undertaker has nowhere else to go.

5. Kane v. Rey Mysterio. Hopefully the last match for this horrendously misconceived feud, which is mainly based on Kane whining about Rey's mask. Your options are a Falls Count Anywhere match, a No Holds Barred match or a Best of 3 Falls match. The commentators have been pushing for the Best of 3 option, but the fans almost invariably vote for the brawl. That doesn't play to Rey's strengths as a performer, but hopefully it can at least allow him to get a decisive victory over Kane so he can move on to more interesting things (for example, he'd be another good interim challenger for Jericho while we wait for Cena to come back).

I don't expect wonders from this.

6. United States Title: Shelton Benjamin v. ???. This is actually airing on the website, 15 minutes before the show starts. Benjamin is a midcard heel with tons of technical ability but a slight charisma deficit. Guys like him tend to remain stuck in the midcard until they hit on a character that works for them (if they ever do), and there's no sign of that happening. Your choices are R-Truth, MVP and Festus. The first two have been in a three-way feud over Shelton's belt; Festus is just there to make up the numbers. He's a tag team wrestler with a very odd gimmick, where he's docile until the bell rings, when he flies into a rage. It works better than you might think. But he's got nothing to do with this storyline, so if he wins the vote, it'll be a bit embarrassing.

MVP is a heel, so he probably won't get voted in (though he's the biggest star of the three, so I wouldn't completely rule it out). A shame, actually, since the match would be quite good. He's doing a losing streak story at the moment, so even if the fans do vote for him, there's zero chance of him winning the title.

That leaves R-Truth, who's an interesting wrestler. He had a brief stint in the WWE at the turn of the decade under the name "K-Kwik", as a rapping wrestler. After being laid off, he ended up at TNA, and spent a good few years there working a similar gimmick as Ron "The Truth" Killings. Now, he's become the first wrestler to jump from TNA to the WWE, with his gimmick intact. His time in TNA isn't being openly acknowledged, but he's using the same entrance music (apparently he owns it), and he's getting a reasonably serious push.

Which makes it a waste to put him in on the pre-show for his first PPV match. This is a bad idea, and a lose-lose scenario. If he wins, then you've thrown away a title change on a web stream nobody watched. If he loses, then you've blown his winning streak for no good reason. The outcome pretty much has to be a disqualification to set up a properly promoted rematch next month.

7. WWE Intercontinental Title: Santino Marella v. ???. Comedy heel Santino Marella has held the Intercontinental Title more through luck than skill for a couple of months now. He's determined to break the record for the longest ever IC Title reign. That record is currently held by the Honky Tonk Man, an evil Elvis impersonator who held the title for 64 weeks in the late eighties, largely by getting himself disqualified or counted out (and so retaining the title on a technicality). The idea of Santino getting a title reign of that length in 2008/9 seems highly unlikely, but you never know.

Your options here are Roddy Piper, Goldust and the Honky Tonk Man himself, all of them former IC champions, and all long since past their prime. Goldust is a makeweight, so the question is whether the fans will vote for Piper (as the biggest star) or Honky (as the guy Santino's been banging on about for the last few months, even though very few fans will have much idea who he is). Either way, it'll be a short comedy match - particularly if it's Honky, who's nursing a rather nasty hand injury at the moment. The title is inexplicably on the line, but I think the downsides of a title change outweigh the advantages, so Santino ought to retain.

8. ??? & ??? v. ??? & ???. Setting new standards in vagueness, this is a choice between three completely different tag team matches. Option 1 is William Regal & Layla v. Jamie Noble & Mickie James, but there's virtually no chance of that getting voted in: it's been treated as an afterthought on recent shows. Option 2 is John Morrison & The Miz v. Cryme Tyme, based on a feud running on their respective web pages, which the WWE optimistically thinks viewers might have seen. It would probably be a decent match, and there's an outside possibility that people will vote for it on the strength of the personalities. If it runs, then Miz and Morrison will win, because they're being set up for a match with D-Generation X on an upcoming Raw special.

Option 3 is Cody Rhodes and Ted DiBiase defending the Raw tag titles against CM Punk and Kofi Kingston. It's probably had the strongest build, it's likely to be decent, and it features a recent former world champion, so I'd say it's the most likely outcome. And on the principle that they always like to have one of the minor title change hands, I can see this one as a good candidate.

Plus... the WWE Diva's Hallowe'en Costume Contest. Sixteen women in costumes. You vote during the show for your favourite. Utter waste of time.

Worth buying? Well, it's on Sky Sports 1 in the UK, so I don't need to worry about that. There are some potentially good matches here, but also some potentially dreary ones, and they're going to be taking up a lot of time with minor matches and costume contest nonsense. Probably one for the completists, but it could surprise us.

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

X-Men: Worlds Apart #1

"Worlds Apart"
Writer: Christopher Yost
Penciller: Diogenes Neves
Inker: Ed Tadeo
Letterer: Cory Petit
Colourist: Raul Trevino
Editor: Daniel Ketchum

I'd normally include a graphic of the cover, but, hey, I'm running late.

As usual, despite the big "X-Men" logo on the cover, this isn't an X-Men story. It's a Storm miniseries, in which writer Christopher Yost wrestles with the problem of how to reconcile Storm's co-starring role in Black Panther with her position in the X-Men. And naturally, this involves one of her worlds falling apart through the intervention of a villain.

The main difficulty here, I think, is that Yost is engineering a solution to a problem that didn't exist in the first place. When Storm joined the cast of Black Panther, the X-books found a simple solution: they wrote her out. That may not have been the smartest move for Marvel in the long term, since it took one of their few high-profile female characters and banished her to the low-selling backwaters. But hey, part of the point was to lend her star power to a lesser series. And at least it meant she wasn't appearing on two books in two continents.

Now, Storm has been used in Astonishing X-Men lately, but that was presented on a "just visiting" basis. So it's somewhat out of the blue that this series kicks off with Cyclops lecturing Storm about her responsibilities to the X-Men. What responsibilities? She left the team. They're not exactly short-staffed. Hell, they've got about 10% of the world's known mutants on the roster. Who needs Storm?

So we've got a story with a false premise, and that's not a good start. If you can get over that initial hurdle, though, Yost does a decent enough job with it. There's a passable murder-mystery angle in Wakanda, and the story does a reasonable job of arguing that Storm has ended up as an outsider, rather than a family member, in both settings. On the other hand, all this is spelt out rather too directly for its own good, and key passages are too rushed to be convincing.

Mind you, perhaps Yost is right not to tease the break-up of Storm's marriage too convincingly. A lot of readers would probably take it as a welcome and overdue retraction of a terribly silly idea. No point getting their hopes up too much, unless it's actually going to happen. (Which it should. In fact, it'll inevitably happen at some point, because whatever you think of the merits of the original story, it hasn't done much to help the Black Panther, and it's only served to drag Storm's profile down. That's a lose-lose situation.)

The art's quite decent - it's late-nineties house style, but it's crisp and clear and knows how to convey emotion. Diogenes Neves is apparently one of those Brazilian studio artists, and this is more than acceptable work. There are a couple of rough patches, but the fundamentals are sound.

It's always possible that this series actually is intended to extricate Storm from the Black Panther supporting cast in anticipation of that book's upcoming relaunch. If so, Yost can be forgiven a bit of contrivance to manufacture an ejector-seat story for her. On the other hand, if it's just a filler mini - well, Storm's fans should be more than happy with this, but on the strength of the first issue, it's unlikely to capture much wider attention.

Sunday, October 19, 2008

The X-Axis - 19 October 2008

I've spent the day at work, so this is going to be a quick round-up of the X-books. We'll get to X-Men: Worlds Apart #1 and (honest) Burma Chronicles in the next couple of days. But in the meantime, here's the other stuff that the X-office put out this week:

Astonishing X-Men #27 - If you like exposition, you'll love this issue. Six pages of Scott and Hank talking about a box. One page of Abigail Brand travelling to the X-Men's headquarters. One page of her arriving. Six more pages of her explaining the plot. Then they go to China, and then they talk some more. I mean, in the broader scheme of things, it's a fairly well constructed plot; there's some clever misdirection about where these odd not-quite-mutants are coming from, and the basic idea has some potential as a twist on M-Day (by introducing a possible source of new mutants). But it's not exactly dramatic, is it? Poor Simone Bianchi is saddled here with almost an entire issue of talking heads, livened up more by typical Ellis cynical wit than by any sort of physical action going on. It'll probably be passable as the middle chapter of a trade paperback, but it's still not exactly breaking a sweat.

NYX: No Way Home #3 - Well, this is all a bit angsty. Mind you, that's what people used to like about the X-books, so it's not necessarily a bad thing. There's not much to say about this series that I haven't said before: Marjorie Liu's story is much better constructed than Joe Quesada's original series, but also rather safer. Artists Kalman Sandrasofszky and, now, Sara Pichelli can't reach the heights of Josh Middleton's work, but they're still good solid artists, and well served by the colouring. (One legacy of Middleton's involvement may be that this "street-level" book escaped the usual curse of portentous murky grey.) It's fine, and it's much more readable than the original series, but doesn't have such a strong voice.

Uncanny X-Men #503 - The X-Men chase Empath through the streets of San Francisco, and in the way of these stories, Pixie shows up to confront her demons and save the day. Fine in theory, but a bit ropey in practice. Pixie seems to be immune to Empath's powers for no readily apparent reason, and the plot is decidedly overfamiliar. And Greg Land is still drawing people with plastic grins, and excruciatingly stupid bondage gear. What's really starting to worry me, though, is the opening scene with Sam, Dani and Xi'an talking about how "I can't get used to the fact that so many mutants are just here, are living here out in the open." It's rather obvious that they're going for a "visible minority" deal, but post M-Day, there are too few mutants to make that work. If there's only 198 of them on the planet (or even anything in the ballpark of that number) then the ones who show up to San Francisco are going to be a fairly tiny quantity. Once again, we're seeing what a thoroughly bad idea M-Day was: it undermines far more stories than it supports. The San Francisco set-up is infinitely weaker for it. Then again... you could also wonder why Dani is so surprised at something which was utterly commonplace during the Grant Morrison period. Hell, District X had its own series. So... what's new about San Francisco, exactly? Nicer weather? I'm starting to get a sinking feeling that either the writers haven't quite thought this whole thing through, or at least that they're not managing to get the point across to me. The book has its moments, but we've seen what Brubaker and Fraction are capable of, and so far, Uncanny isn't in that league.

Young X-Men #7 - Hmm. After that awful first storyline, this book is starting to come together, as the proper team go on their first mission to deal with a mysterious island. And we all know what happens with X-Men teams go to mysterious islands on their first mission. I wouldn't say it was a runaway success or anything, but it's certainly a huge improvement from the first arc; the team dynamic is starting to work, the characters are well defined, it all makes sense, and there's a definite direction and momentum starting to emerge. I wouldn't go so far as to recommend it to the general public, but any X-Men fans who tried the first arc and gave up might want to give this one another look.

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

Ferryman #1

"Butcher's Bill"
Writer: Marc Andreyko
Artist: Jonathan Wayshak
Colourists: Carrie Strahan & Gabe Eltaeb
Letterer: Rob Leigh
Editor: Scott Peterson

Ferryman is a five-issue mini from WildStorm, this time sharing the billing with yet another new imprint: Dark Castle Comics. Dark Castle belongs to movie producer Joel Silver, who for some reason has decided to get into comics. I can only assume that it's a concept farm, but if you already are a movie producer, I'm not sure why you'd bother with the hassle of actually publishing a comic.

Anyway, Gabriel, the titular Ferryman, is a modern day version of Charon. His job is apparently to go out and kill people who sold their souls to Satan for power, and whose time has now expired.

That's actually only covered in the last two pages, but since the rest of the first issue is just an extended chase scene where he hunts down a typical escapee, there's not much else to talk about. It's a classic example of something that would make a strong opening scene of a graphic novel, but doesn't make enough headway to be a good opening issue of a serial.

This isn't an original idea; Reaper is along similar lines. But that's a comedy-drama, and Ferryman is... well, an action-comedy, I guess. It's too simplistic to hold much interest as a piece of writing, which is a bit disappointing coming from Andreyko. Jonathan Wayshak's art is another matter, though. Hovering in Sam Kieth territory, but with a sharper, brittler edge, he's got something, and looks to be worth keeping an eye on.

It's worth flicking through for the art, but there's not enough story to justify buying it. Still, they've tied up the rights for the film, and I suppose that must have been the main aim.

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Monday, October 13, 2008

Marvel Zombies 3 #1

Writer: Fred van Lente
Artist: Kev Walker
Colourist: Jean Francois-Beaulieu
Letterer: Rus Wooton
Editor: Bill Rosemann

Is this joke still going?

Marvel Zombies is officially on its third miniseries. But that doesn't count the Ultimate Fantastic Four arc, or the Black Panther arc, or the Army of Darkness crossover. In reality, we're now up to six stories about a world where the Marvel heroes became zombies and ate everyone.

So you'd think the joke would have been driven into the ground by now.

But, it turns out, there's some mileage in this one yet. Fred van Lente and Kev Walker solve the "where do you go from here?" problem by taking the franchise to its logical conclusion: zombie Deadpool invades the Marvel Universe. And the local heroes have to fight him.

Not the A-list heroes. That would be stupid; they can't possibly die, and a zombie story needs expendable bodies. And this is where the Initiative provides a solution, as the zombies arrive in the Man-Thing's swamp, and blunder into the Z-list members of the Florida team. El Conquistador, anyone? Aquarian, the space hippy? Now these guys are expendable.

For our actual hero, van Lente reaches for the logical choice: Machine Man, who can't be infected. And who's still acting like he's in NextWave.

The result is a surprisingly fun romp, which combines invading zombies with all sorts of easter egg continuity references for the hardcore fans. (And let's face it, who else is going to buy Marvel Zombies 3?) Kev Walker shows a hint of a Sean Phillips influence in his work, getting the right balance between grimy and superheroic. It's... it's really good, which I didn't expect at all.

Don't get me wrong; this really should be the end of the road for the Marvel Zombies joke. But it does look like going out on a high.

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Sunday, October 12, 2008

The X-Axis - 12 October 2008

It's a very quiet week for new comics, and I've already covered X-Men: Original Sin. But here's the rest of this week's X-books, and a couple of other titles.

Emiko Superstar - The Minx imprint limps on, with this book from Mariko Tamaki and Steve Rolston. And it's very much your archetypal Minx book: vaguely nerdy outsider discovers self-expression through art. It's got a nice angle, exploring the idea that hanging around with a subculture is not necessarily self-expression; and Rolston's art is clean, simple and direct. Still, you have to wonder whether the Minx imprint might not have been a bit too focussed on vaguely nerdy characters discovering the world of art - it's a niche demographic, surely.

The Helm #3 - I had mixed feelings about the first issue of this series, in which a nerd finds a magic helmet that talks to him, and which doesn't much care for him as a chosen warrior. It's a nice enough comedy premise, but it seemed a bit too formula. It's improved, though, with Mathew becoming more sympathetic and less broadly caricatured; and this issue throws in a clever twist which I really should have seen coming, but didn't. There might be more potential in this story than I first thought.

X-Men: Magneto - Testament #2 - Notionally this is an origin series for Magneto, but you'd barely know from the content. In reality, Greg Pak and Carmine di Giandomenico are using Magneto as a vehicle to do a story about the experiences of Jews in the run-up to the Holocaust, and any fantastic elements have virtually been expunged from this story. It's a well-executed piece, which cleverly creates a mounting sense of doom by allowing its characters to remain unaware of just how hopeless their situation is, and having them continue to give rousing speeches as if there was some possibility of the good guys winning here. I'm not sure it's really a Magneto series so much as a historical drama with his name attached, but it does work.

X-Men: Manifest Destiny #2 - This is supposed to be an anthology series about minor characters moving to San Francisco, but the SF location doesn't seem to play much part. What we actually get is a lead story about Mystique stalking Iceman for rather convoluted reasons; Juggernaut holing up in a Nevada bar to choose sides; and a somewhat overwrought story about Emma Frost feeling guilty about her past crimes. The Juggernaut story is strongest, with Dan Panosian - best known as an inker - turning out to be an unexpectedly interesting artist. The Iceman story is just a bit confused, frankly, and as for Emma wailing about her guilt... well, she's the sort of character where that ought to remain strictly subtext.

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Saturday, October 11, 2008

X-Men: Original Sin

Writers: Daniel Way & Mike Carey
Artists: Mike Deodato, Scot Eaton & Andrew Hennessy
Colourists: Rain Beredo & Jason Keith
Letterer: Cory Petit
Editors: John Barber & Nick Lowe

X-Men: Original Sin is the lead-in to a five-part crossover between X-Men: Legacy and Wolverine: Origins. The books are a natural fit; both titles feature their lead character exploring their past through the medium of the extended flashback. And the point when Wolverine joined the X-Men can be credibly presented as a major moment for both men.

The idea seems to be that Xavier helped to deprogram Wolverine when he joined the X-Men, thanks in part to a rather cavalier use of his powers. Having rescued his brainwashed son Daken from the Seemingly Neverending Conspiracy, Wolverine wants Xavier to help him in the same way; but thanks to his crisis of conscience, Xavier's not so sure. All straightforward enough.

Wolverine: Origins is a rare case of a book actually benefitting creatively from a crossover. The title is built around a series of supposedly earth-shaking revelations about Wolverine's past, but at the same time, it seems to exist in a continuity bubble. It's hardly ever mentioned in any other title - even Wolverine. Okay, yes, they mentioned Romulus in Wolverine #50, but that issue was (or should have been) an embarrassment to all concerned, and did nobody any favours. The point is, though, that Wolverine: Origins is a series which exists to publish revelations that are then studiously ignored.

If the book was telling a compelling story, then this might not matter. But it isn't, and for a title playing the "everything you know is wrong" card so heavily, to be so thunderously ignored is death. The mere fact that X-Men: Legacy has finally deigned to acknowledge its existence, therefore, can only help. At least Origins starts to seem like it might have some lasting impact; until now, it's been a series which has demonstrably had none at all.

The story itself is passable enough, and considering the vastly different styles of Carey and Way (who write half the book each), the tone is remarkably consistent. The art is more hit and miss. Mike Deodato does the first part, with some inventive but utterly gratuitous and distracting layouts. On the rest of the book, you get Scot Eaton, a solid but conservative artist.

Overall, it's better than I was expecting, and it does do some much-needed work in making Daken seem like he actually happened. But as a story, it's just okay; and it doesn't manage the bigger task of persuading me that I particularly want to read about Kid Wolverine, who still seems like a thoroughly unnecessary and unwelcome retcon. Still, I suppose it's a small step in the right direction.

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Tuesday, October 07, 2008

Number 1s of 2008: 5 October

So, "Sex on Fire" lasted three weeks at the top - longer than I'd expected, considering the Kings of Leon have always been more of an albums band. And now, here's another mild surprise.

Pink, "So What" (5 October to date). Alecia Moore has been racking up hits consistently since 2000. She's one of those acts who regularly makes the top ten, but rarely gets to the top. In fact, this is only her second UK number one (unless you count the Moulin Rouge version of "Lady Marmalade"). The first was "Just Like A Pill", and that was six years ago.

There's something a bit contrived about Pink for my taste. But if you look at her discography, there's some decent stuff in there. "So What" is a decent chorus with a trying-too-hard verse, and doesn't do much for me, but I can see the appeal.

For what it's worth, the song now holds the record for the biggest climb to number one, having jumped from number 38 in the previous week. That's because the track got an online release on a Friday, and scraped the top 40 on the strength of two days' sales. It's all a bit meaningless, but some people care about these things.

Anyhow, the surprise isn't so much that Pink finally got a second number one. The surprise is that she did it in the week when Oasis released the first single from their new album, "The Shock of the Lightning."

I've always thought Oasis were hugely overrated. Not bad, mind you. They're okay. But they've been mining the same basic idea for years. And even in the height of Britpop, Blur were always a more interesting band. If Oasis were bigger in the short term, Blur came out on top in the long haul, if only because their records actually feel like they might be relevant now, rather than an opportunity to reminisce about what you were doing thirteen years ago.

"Shock of the Lightning" is... an Oasis track. But as the first single from their new album, I'd have expected it to be an automatic number one. They're supposed to be an A-list act. Limping in third behind Pink and a month-old King of Leon song is unexpected.

Monday, October 06, 2008

No Hero #1

Writer: Warren Ellis
Artist: Juan Jose Ryp
Colourists: Digikore Studios

Warren Ellis may well lament the superhero genre's dominance of the direct market (and rightly so), but evidently he still sees something in there to interest him. Billed as a "serialised graphic novel", No Hero, his latest project for Avatar, is another twist on the genre.

The Front Line are a group of intimidating-looking drug-enhanced vigilantes in the sort of black leather costumes plainly designed not to be reassuring in the slightest. They've been around for years and, despite their appearance, they're apparently rather popular, and so high profile that one has to assume they're tacitly endorsed by the authorities. Josh Carver is a wannabe vigilante desperate to be recruited into the big time; he's not so naive as to be oblivious to the moral grey areas involved, but he still clearly thinks it's a good and worthwhile endeavour

But Ellis is really interested in vigilantism. The superhero genre is a useful vehicle for exploring that theme. After all, an awful lot of superhero stories take it as read that vigilantism is an unqualified good, at least so long as the vigilantes are good people. Following that mentality to its logical conclusion, No Hero seems to give us a city where the Front Line started out plugging the gaps in the system, but ended up becoming the system, and a rather questionable one at that.

Theoretically this is the same theme that Civil War was supposed to be about, but Ellis is actually addressing it. Ryp's artwork is a little over-detailed for my tastes, but works well with the story, steering clear of traditional superhero imagery but getting the point across (well, up until he's asked to draw a woman, at while point it all goes a bit Ian Churchill).

Of course, it's a Warren Ellis Avatar book, and there are some thing that come with the territory here. There's a pervading air of cynicism; there's some rather gratuitous violence; and there are points where he seems more worried about the thesis than the story. And, conversely, some people will be disappointed that, with all the freedom that Avatar allows, Ellis and Ryp have produced another superhero book.

Even so, it's a neat idea - and instead of simply deconstructing the superhero genre yet again, Ellis uses the vigilante angle as an entry point for some broader moral issues. This being an Avatar series, of course, there's always the risk that it'll all go a bit Wanted in future issues - but it's an intriguing start.

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Sunday, October 05, 2008

Four Eyes #1

Writer: Joe Kelly
Artist: Max Fiumara
Colourist: Nestor Pereyra
Letterer: Drew Gill

Joe Kelly's writing is frustratingly erratic, but it's always interesting. And when it's good, it's very good.

Four Eyes is one of his most promising books in a while. It's basically a 1930s gangster story. Little Enrico becomes the man of the house when his father gets himself killed while doing something very odd. And in the way of these stories, Enrico gets drawn into his father's world of... underground dragon fighting.

Yes, that's right, it's dragons in the Depression. Done wrong, this could easily be ridiculous. But perhaps there's no better time to dust off the poverty-stricken 1930s as a setting. The dragons seem strangely at home - they're fantasy elements, symbols of escapism, which have been dragged down to the level of the world around them. So while it could have been a cheap gimmick, it feels like there's a point to it.

Max Fiumara and Nestor Pereyra's artwork really makes the book. Fiumara's got the atmosphere of the thirties, with just enough exaggeration to keep it visually exciting. Oh, and he does great dragons. As for Pereyra, it's great to see a colourist who understands that a muted palette doesn't have to mean drenching the page in greyish brown, but who also knows when and how to bring on the fireworks.

All that said, there's one odd feature about this book, which I'm not sure quite how to interpret. Enrico keeps talking about dragons as though they're not meant to exist. But everyone else seems to regard them as a fact of life. They fly freely over the city, and there are newspaper articles about them at the back of the issue. So why is Enrico surprised that they exist? I'd normally assume that Kelly was hinting at some sort of dream angle, but he's already doing a similar theme with his miniseries I Kill Giants, so he surely can't be doing it again here. Perhaps it's just a weird distancing technique - and it does contribute to the dreamlike quality of the piece.

This is apparently an ongoing series, although there's no indication of when issue #2 might be out. The back cover says it's out "soon", which is no use to anyone - and rather worryingly, the Image house ads say it was meant to be out this month, so the book has apparently drifted off schedule before shipping a single issue. On that basis, I think I'll wait for the collection. But I will make sure to pick it up.

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The X-Axis: 5 October 2008

It's a relatively uninspiring week for the X-books, and there are plenty of more interesting things to write about in full (such as No Hero, Four Eyes and Burma Chronicles), so let's just bounce through the mutants here and get them out of the way...

Cable #7 - This is the first part of a new arc, "Waiting for the End of the World", and as the cover rather awkwardly proclaims, the book now comes with added X-Men. Setting the book off in a commercial backwater always struck me as an odd direction if they were hoping to sell comics, even though it had obvious commercial advantages in keeping the book self-contained. Now, we've got this odd structure where Cable's off in the far future looking after the baby mutant in a post-apocalyptic farming refuge, while Bishop has conveniently returned to the present so that he can interact with the X-Men. Odd. Perhaps the "Lone Wolf and Cub" set-up was never meant to be permanent, and was merely a device to age the baby by a few years relative to the other characters. Or maybe they've hit the panic button already; I wouldn't put it past them these days, given how frequently they reboot New/Young X-Men/Mutants. Anyway, the big problem with this series is that they're trying to sell the idea that Bishop is genuinely convinced that the kid is a threat, but they're also trying to conceal why he thinks that. And inevitably, that means you get some horribly clumsy scenes where Bishop is supposedly trying to convince the X-Men that he's right, yet still doesn't offer the most basic explanation of his motivations, for no apparent reason other than to serve a plot structure that isn't really working. Some of the far-future stuff's quite good, but the book as a whole has some hideous internal logic problems which it doesn't even seem to be aware of.

Civil War: House of M #2 - Continuing the explanation of how Magneto came to rule the world, in a timeline that never actually happened, from a crossover three years ago. Of course, none of that would matter if it was a compelling story. But disappointingly, it looks like we're just going to go through the familiar Magneto-as-freedom-fighter routine, where the humans are such bastards before he arrives on the scene that he gets to be a hero instead of a terrorist. It's all perfectly adequate - and there are some nice moments where the Genoshans are written as if they were heroic defenders of their way of life, playing off the inversion of Magneto's usual role. Still, the story doesn't seem to have any new angle on Magneto, and the book can't justify its existence solely on the strength of filling such a trivial gap in continuity.

New Exiles #12 - Not a bad issue, actually. It's Cat and Sabretooth on the run from the bad guys, with some details about Cat's background finally being revealed. Obviously she's a version of Kitty Pryde, but the series has been intentionally vague about the rest of background. It turns out that she's the version of Kitty who signed up for Emma Frost's school before the X-Men got near her, which is a nice enough riff on Kitty's debut. Nothing earth shattering here, but it's all perfectly enjoyable.

Wolverine Annual #2 - Yet another throwaway Wolverine one-shot, although for some reason this one enjoys the status of an Annual. It's written by Cable's Duane Swierczynski with art by Mike Deodato, who does some good work these days, even if his Wolverine is a bit too muscular. (He's not a bodybuilder, Mike.) It's a curious story about Wolverine showing up in a small town and fighting a weird monster that deafens people. Not a bad idea for a one-off villain; after all, Wolverine's central gimmick is that he can take the damage and get better, so you can do the theme properly. And it's a pretty decent gimmick story, for the most part - until it suddenly decides, a few pages from the end, that it's actually a metaphor for the suffering of native Americans. Cue some tacked-on moralising that doesn't really help the story. Not bad up to the point, though.

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Saturday, October 04, 2008

No Mercy 2008

The WWE may have a pay-per-view this weekend, but it isn't their top priority.

That's because Smackdown jumped networks this week, going from the CW to MyNetworkTV. This is not a favourable move. As I understand it, the CW is a third-rate network to start with. But MyNetwork TV is something of a disaster zone, to the point where it leaves Smackdown with a sword of Damocles hanging over it: if MyNetwork folds, what then?

All this illustrates one of the problems with the WWE's business. Smackdown drew good ratings by the CW's standards, but it still didn't get renewed, because it doesn't bring in ad revenue. The show may have plenty of viewers, but they're assumed to have no money, so advertisers don't care about them. (Thus proving that, even in American TV, there is in fact such a thing as "too downmarket".)

In fact, the WWE's demographics aren't as bad as all that, but they have an image problem. They know it, but they don't really understand how to tackle it. Getting rid of the dodgy sexual and racial politics, the abysmal comedy skits, and the excruciating acting would be a start; it's often remarkable how the WWE's output can be so high-end in production terms and low-rent in terms of scriptwriting, all at the same time.

Anyhow, the company quite correctly regards the network jump as their top promotional priority, and the pay-per-view as an annoyance which has to go ahead because it's been on the schedule for months. It's largely full of Raw matches (presumably to keep Smackdown clear for other purposes), and many of them are filler.

1. World Heavyweight Title, ladder match: Chris Jericho v. Shawn Michaels. The Raw world title, in other words. On last month's show, CM Punk was meant to defend the belt against five other guys in a convoluted "championship scramble" match. For reasons best known to themselves, they did an angle on the show where Punk was laid out by Randy Orton and eliminated from the match, allowing Jericho to take his place and win the title. Punk's obligatory re-match has already taken place on Raw, and it looks like he's out of the picture for the foreseeable future.

Jericho is already caught up in a long-term feud with Shawn Michaels, so that story duly continues here. It's taken a long time and a lot of work for Jericho to be accepted as a villain, but they've pulled it off. This is probably the strongest storyline on Raw at the moment, and they're virtually guaranteed to have a good match. I can't imagine Jericho losing the belt after only a month, so presumably he retains with some sort of screwjob (probably outside interference from his sidekick Lance Cade) to set up yet another rematch down the line.

2. WWE Championship: Triple H v. Jeff Hardy. Jeff Hardy has another stab at breaking through to the top level. This is a face/face match, and despite a token attempt at suggesting that Triple H thinks Jeff isn't in his league, they've done very little to build it up. Instead, the story has mainly featured both guys coming under attack from midcard heel Vladimir Kozlov, who's angling for a title shot himself.

Kozlov is a rookie who's spent the last few months going through the usual routine of beating lower-card wrestlers in short matches, with the gimmick of a Russian mixed martial arts champion. (He's actually Ukrainian, but that's still unusually authentic by pro wrestling standards.) It remains to be seen whether he's any good in longer matches, and putting him straight into a main event storyline for his first major feud is something of a risk.

Given Kozlov's orbit around the storyline, I'm guessing that he does a run-in and costs Jeff the match in order to set up a feud between them. Either that or Triple H wins clean. There's a remote possibility that Jeff could win if they decide to use shock tactics to get attention for Smackdown, but I don't see it. The match will probably be good.

3. ECW Title: Matt Hardy v. Mark Henry. Matt won the ECW Title from Mark Henry in one of last month's scramble matches. They've actually had a rematch already on the weekly TV show, but ECW is not replete with challengers, so they're having another won. It'll be okay if they keep it short, and presumably Matt wins to finally lay this feud to rest for the moment, so that he can move on to a more suitable opponent.

4. Batista v. JBL. Winner gets a shot at the World Heavyweight Title on the next show. There's no real storyline beyond that, and it's basically a match-up between two high-profile characters with nothing better to do this month.

Since Jericho is likely to retain, that pretty much guarantees Batista wins here. (Jericho/JBL would be an unenticing heel/heel match-up.) If JBL wins... well, it's probably a curveball and they'll sort it out over the next month. It's nice to see some actual forward planning for once, at least, and they should have a decent enough brawl.

5. Big Show v. Undertaker. The latest chapter in the long-running storyline of the Undertaker's feud with Smackdown general manager Vickie Guerrero and her faction of lackies. With Edge out of the picture, Vickie has enlisted the Big Show as her latest partner. And so, with that change of personnel, here we go again.

Actually, these two could have a decent match, but it feels like one that we've seen too many times before. Still, Smackdown is short of top storylines and needs somebody to keep Vickie occupied, so I can only assume that the bad guys win, to stretch things out for another few months.

6. Rey Mysterio v. Kane. A weird last-minute addition to the card. There's a thoroughly garbled story here, where Kane supposedly beat up Mysterio in a parking lot and tortured him (or something), and claimed to have broken his spirit. But then they needed somebody to replace an injured John Cena in last month's scramble match, so Mysterio was plugged into that role, apparently none the worse for wear, and the Kane story sort of fell apart.

The angle never made the slightest sense, and didn't seem to work. For some reason they've added the stipulation that Mysterio must unmask if he loses, but I think that's just to add finality to a match which, hopefully, draws a line under this misconceived story. If they were seriously going to unmask Mysterio, they'd have given it a lot more than six days build. (We'll just ignore the fact that Mysterio already lost his mask in WCW in 1999 and wrestled without it for the next two years. The WWE certainly do.)

The match will be the usual schtick were Mysterio takes a protracted beating and then comes back with a few moves at the end, I expect.

7. WWE Women's Title: Beth Phoenix v. Candice Michelle. This is the first title shot in ages for former champion Candice Michelle, proud owner of the worst entrance music in professional wrestling today. She's been out of action more or less since last October when she landed on her head in a horrifically botched spot during a match against Phoenix on live TV, and broke her clavicle. (You can find it on YouTube if you really want.) She returned briefly in the spring only to re-break the bone in her first match back. She's been back on the active roster for a few weeks now, but she's a bit out of practice.

Candice is a fairly typical product of the WWE's hiring policy for women: she had zero experience of wrestling and an uninspiring modelling resume. But she did have some charisma, she worked hard, and she had become a passable wrestler by the time of her injury. Frankly, she hasn't looked so good since her return, and I'm expecting a bit of a train wreck here.

The current champion, Beth Phoenix, is doing just fine as the straight man in her double act with inept Intercontinental Champion Santino Marella. I can't see any point in having her lose the title and upsetting their act.

Worth buying? Well, the Jericho/Michaels ladder match should be good, and Jeff Hardy fans will want to see him in a singles main event. That aside, it's a middling card at best, as you'd expect for a show which isn't a top priority.