Sunday, November 30, 2008

The X-Axis - 30 November 2008

Quite a bit going on for the X-books this week. There's the final issue of Secret Invasion: X-Men, reviewed below, and the final part of the "Original Sin" crossover between X-Men: Legacy and Wolverine: Origins (must everything have a colon these days?), which we'll get to in the next day or so.

Also out is Umbrella Academy: Dallas #1, but I think I'll save that for next week's episode of House to Astonish. And before you ask, yes, I know the big issue of the week is Batman #six-whatever, but I dropped Morrison's Batman run about four issues in. Judging from the reviews elsewhere, probably a good call. Anyway, it doesn't seem like the sort of story where it's worth buying the final issue just to review it, so I haven't bothered it.

That leaves, in terms of this week's X-books...

Ultimate X-Men #98 - It's Ultimatum time, and apparently Kurt and Alison have been killed off-panel between issues. Who the hell thought that was a good idea? Aron Coleite does his best with it, giving them some sort of send-off in a brief flashback sequence. Seems counterproductive to me, though. I realise they're going for the "anything can happen in the Ultimate Universe" vibe, and in theory that's a good idea - but only if you kill the characters off in a way that reflects the investment that the readers are supposed to have in them. Otherwise, you're actually sending the message that these characters don't matter, and that the other ones probably aren't worth caring about either. Same mistake that New X-Men kept making after M-Day. Anyway, this is an Ultimatum crossover issue, and frankly, who cares? The book ends with issue #100, presumably to be relaunched, although hopefully not. It feels like a tacked-on ending rather than any natural outgrowth of what came before, and sadder yet, that feels like an eminently fitting end for a book that hasn't really seemed to know what it was about since Brian Vaughan left.

Wolverine: First Class #9 - Another of those guest star issues of which the First Class books are so enamoured. This time, Wolverine teams up with Shang-Chi, Master of Kung Fu, on the thinnest of pretexts, thus enabling him to be frustrated by Zen riddles and achieve enlightenment all within the scope of 22 pages. I realise the First Class writers have a difficult task because they're trying to tell stories within the straitjacket of existing continuity, but it seems to me that this story has fallen into one of the traps: it's too meaningful for the lead character, and transforms him too much. That's not just because of the enlightenment stuff. The villain is Sabretooth, and the story acknowledges the idea that Wolverine can't seem to beat him - in fact, it's used as the plot rationale to justify asking Shang-Chi for help. And then... Wolverine beats him decisively. Years ahead of schedule. Um... no, no, you can't do that. Sorry. Seems odd, I know, to complain that a story is trying too hard to make itself meaningful to the character, and I understand why it's doing that. But if we're going to have entire series in this inherently questionable "hidden stories" format, then it's an innate problem that they've got to work around, and this one crashes straight through it with a sledgehammer.

X-Force #9 - Never a good sign when I pick up an issue to write a review, and the first thought that crosses my mind is "Have I actually read this yet?" It's a passable issue, but not much more than that. The main story is X-Force going after Mr Sinister and his latest batch of Marauders. Cue more slaughter, although the story makes a point of mentioning that the Marauders are clones and "not real". This seems to be an attempt to justify X-Force in killing them, but actually that's a non-problem. Existing continuity had the Marauders reborn in cloned bodies whenver they died - so you could already kill them with impunity, if you were so inclined. Making them "non-people" weakens them as characters to achieve no benefit. So why do it? The other half of the story sees Warpath fighting the Demon Bear with the assistance of random guest star Ghost Rider. This is a reference to an old Claremont/Sienkiewicz story from New Mutants, which was much, much better, not least because Sienkiewicz rendered the bear as a virtually abstract shape seemingly drawn in marker pen. The prettiness of Mike Choi and Sonia Oback, much as I like them, can only suffer by comparison.

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Secret Invasion: X-Men #4

Secret Invasion: X-Men #4 (of 4)
Writer: Mike Carey
Artists: Cary Nord and Ma Sepulveda
Colourist: Dave McCaig
Letterer: Chris Eliopoulos
Editor: Nick Lowe

The power of the X-franchise isn't what it once was, but the X-Men are still big enough to enjoy exemption from the major crossovers that would otherwise clog up their storylines. The compromise, over the last couple of years, has been for the X-Men and other major titles to produce tie-in miniseries, such as Secret Invasion: X-Men.

But these days, Marvel tend to structure their crossovers so that the story is confined to the miniseries, and the event merely serves as a backdrop for the tie-in issues. This is all very laudable, since it allows them to say with some legitimacy that they aren't trying to force you to buy all the tie-ins. However, it also means that the likes of Secret Invasion: X-Men face a double-whammy - not only are they irrelevant to the ongoing X-Men series, they are also irrelevant to the crossover which provides their sole reason for existing. What is a writer to do?

"Blow things up" seems to be the prevailing wisdom. Last year's World War Hulk: X-Men saw the X-Men and their extended supporting cast fighting the Hulk for three issues, for no particularly good reason, in a gleefully pointless piece of pummelling. Since it had no pretensions to be anything else, it was actually quite fun in its way.

This year, Mike Carey and Cary Nord give us a full-scale Skrull invasion of San Francisco, and the X-Men, as the local superhero team, rising to fight them off. My inner nitpicker says this doesn't really make sense, as California is quite well stocked with superheroes these days. (Eternals is set in San Francisco too. If you were a Skrull, wouldn't you be rather more worried about the awesomely powerful god-guys and their giant deity in the park?) But let's grant the book its premise. It's the X-Men versus the Skrulls. Okay.

Mike Carey has, I suspect, rightly guessed that everyone else would do paranoia stories about shape-changing Skrull infiltrators. So he's gone in the other direction, ignoring that stuff entirely, and playing up the token religion angle.

Well, slightly. He plays it up in a subplot with Nightcrawler and a stolen bible, but mainly it's just the X-Men fighting little green men for three issues. Kurt's storyline plays no part in the final issue, which is more about drawing parallels between Cyclops and the Skrull leader.

And not in a very satisfying way, either. This issue has one of my least favourite endings: the cop-out ethical dilemma. Unable to stop the Skrulls any other way, Cyclops decides to resort to germ warfare, and infects the villains with the Legacy Virus (which, coincidentally, turns out to be already capable of bumping them off). I'll grant that this is set up with a rather clever device of the X-Men surrendering and then going "ha ha, got you."

What we then get, however, is Cyclops telling the Skrulls that if they stand down they can have the antidote... and the Skrulls killing themselves en masse anyway. Um... what?

This doesn't work at all. The fact that the X-Men had a cure all the time utterly neuters the supposed moral dilemma which was the focus of earlier scenes. It also leaves the Skrulls without a remotely adequate rationale for committing mass suicide. I can't help wondering whether this is a last minute rewrite, with the existence of the cure being added at the script stage in order to stop the X-Men looking like utter bastards. Take away those few lines of dialogue, and chuck in a bit more handwringing, and the art would serve just as well.

Whatever happened, it certainly reads like a clumsy compromise, which toys with the idea of the X-Men crossing a moral line in wartime, only to back away from it at the crucial moment.

These thematic problems overshadow what would have been a flawed finale anyway. A bunch of Skrull spaceships blow themselves up right over San Francisco. Um... maybe I'm missing something, but isn't that a really bad thing? Won't they, like, fall onto the city below and kill thousands? Apparently not, but nothing in the story sheds any light on why.

This is all rather disappointing. The series seems to be hitting all the right notes in earlier instalments, at least in terms of being a harmless action story with some mildly diverting ideas around the edges. The final chapter, though, is something of a misfire.

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Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Number 1s of 2008: November 23

After three weeks of the X-Factor finalists and their charity single, it's back to business as usual...

Those first twenty seconds really do come off like a Calvin Klein aftershave ad, don't they? Anyway, this is Beyonce, "If I Were A Boy" (23 November 2008). It's been on the chart for three weeks, but climbs to the top now that the X-Factor record is starting to flag.

Under various guises, this is her sixth UK number one, the others being "Independent Women Part 1" (as a member of Destiny's Child in 2000), "Survivor" (ditto in 2001), "Crazy in Love" (with Jay-Z in 2003), "Deja Vu" (with Jay-Z in 2006 - no, I don't remember it either) and "Beautiful Liar" (with Shakira in 2007).

"If I Were A Boy" has the curious distinction that the more I hear it, the less I like it. At first glance, it's a decent enough "if only you could see things from my perspective" song. But then the more I hear it, the more whiny it starts to sound. The basic gist is that if only Beyonce were a man, she would be much better at it than any actual men - not just her specific man, but any man - such is their stunted emotional inadequacy, and their inability to appreciate their universally saintly womenfolk. But as a woman, Beyonce lays claim to understanding all perspectives. If you're not paying attention to the lyrics, you're probably imagining something a lot more nuanced than the actual contents.

It's a song for self-styled emotional martyrs, and men who want to indulge their inner self-loathing. And I have great difficulty believing that it truly reflects the experience of being Beyonce Knowles, who strikes me as neither downtrodden nor long-suffering. Basically, it's a nice enough idea, but it's got a streak of self-righteousness that makes it tremendously irritating when all is said and done.

"If I Were A Boy" is the lead single from her new album, "I Am... Sasha Fierce." Half the album consists of songs in the style of her new alter ego "Sasha Fierce", a conceit which probably wasn't supposed to remind me Leonard Nimoy, who once put out an album with a "Spock side" and a "Leonard Nimoy side."

Anyway, in America, they released two lead singles, one from each side. "If I Were A Boy" is the Beyonce song, and the other one rejoices in the title "Single Ladies (Put A Ring On It)". This device works quite well in America, where the idea is that each single appeals to different radio formats. It generally doesn't work over here, because our radio stations (even the commercial ones) are much more broad-minded about genre, so faced with two singles, they tend to just pick one and ignore the other. That's presumably why the UK label hasn't bothered with "Single Ladies" - or maybe they just thought it wasn't very radio friendly. It's crept to number 67 as an album-track download, presumably because the video is available online.

Since it's been out three weeks already, I don't expect "If I Were A Boy" to last long at the top. An intriguing challenger is Leona Lewis's version of "Run", which isn't even out yet. It's an extra track from the reissue of her debut album "Spirit", and she's been promoting it for a couple of weeks. But, for once, you can't download it as an individual track, and so it can't make the singles chart.

That's likely to change soon, because there seems to be a remarkable amount of interest in it. Not only has the Snow Patrol original spontaneously re-entered at number 28, but this week's number 57 is "Run (In The Style of Leona Lewis)" by Ameritz - a karaoke backing track. We've never had one of those make the charts before, and it suggests that once the Leona Lewis version is available, it's going to do well. Since Lewis is from the Simon Cowell stable, he's got a choice here: get her single out now so that it doesn't tread on the toes of the X-Factor winner, or hold off into the new year and risk missing the moment. Hmm...


Monday, November 24, 2008

The X-Axis - 24 November 2008

A day later than usual, but to be honest, it's a singularly uneventful week for new releases. There's a bunch of X-books in mid-storyline, which I'll do in capsules, and... yeah, that's about it, really. I can't remember the last time there was so little of interest. There's a new creative team on Thunderbolts, but we already talked about that on House of Astonish, so let's just do the capsules and be done with it...

Uncanny X-Men #504 - We talked about this on House to Astonish too, but what the heck. This is the first solo issue by Matt Fraction, and it's a definite improvement from the previous arc. A large part of that is because he's now working with Terry Dodson, who may be a cheesecake artist, but at least his characters look alive. The story is an odd grab-bag of ideas: Colossus is brooding, Emma's trusting Scott too much (and I do like the idea of casting her in the naive role), and the Beast is... in Argentina recruiting a mad scientist who fights supernazis? There's a slight tone problem here - these are all quite entertaining, but the South American lunacy doesn't feel like it's part of the same story as Peter's depression. But I'm delighted to see the X-Men finally doing something coherent to try and reverse M-Day. It's not just that removing everyone's powers was a bad idea which should be reversed on its merits (though it was); more to the point, it's something the X-Men should have been trying to reverse even if they didn't succeed. That should have been the focal point of all the stories over the last few years. Better late than never.

X-Factor #37 - Why do today's artists all make Longshot ugly? Wasn't he meant to be a pretty-boy character? Anyway, Siryn spends the issue being lectured by Valerie Cooper, while X-Factor are hunted by random bad guys in the basement of a warehouse, and somehow it's all a lot better than it really ought to be. There are some really well-constructed scenes here with clever use of Madrox's powers (and the idea that his duplicates have minds of their own, representing sides of his personality). A strong issue, not so much for the actual story as for the way it's told, but strong nonetheless.

X-Men: Legacy #218 - Scot Eaton's really growing on me. He was rather generic when he started on this title, and he's still not exactly flashy, but he tells a good story. Other artists might perhaps have done more with Carey's "tilt the world sideways" psychic battle scenes, but they might not have been so clear in getting the point across. Anyway, this is part four of "Original Sin", the crossover with Wolverine: Origins. It's ended up as a fairly conventional story by the standards of both books (with relatively little flashback material this time), but that's actually to its advantage. If we're going to have Wolverine's son Daken running around, then he really needed a story where he was treated as a standard feature of the Marvel Universe rather than a throwaway idea from a book that nobody else mentioned or cared about. If nothing else, "Original Sin" has done a lot to help with that problem.

X-Men: Worlds Apart #2 - After a reasonably promising start, this seems to be just a generic X-Men-versus-Shadow-King miniseries. And that's not good, because the Shadow King is a dreadful villain. He's an embodiment of evil, which is possibly the least interesting idea ever. Evil is worth writing about in the first place because it's an aspect of the human condition. A completely external inhuman thing labelled "Evil" is not interesting at all. And no, he's not quasi-mythical, or anything of that sort. (Pseudo-mythical, perhaps.) Look at your actual mythical figures of evil, and they're all recognisably human, at least at one remove - most of them are tempter or trickster figures, which makes the struggle against them a metaphor for resisting temptation, or not straying from the path of right. The Shadow King is just a space on the page where the villain ought to be. Art's not bad, though.

Young X-Men #8 - The kids go after Ink's tattooist, and discover that he's been powering up gang members all over the place. In the sort of quantities where, to be honest, it's surprising they haven't spotted him before. In fact, there's a general logic problem with all new mutants post M-Day: since Cerebro still works, and cataloguing the survivors has been a priority, how did they miss him, or indeed anyone else? (Astonishing X-Men went to the trouble of talking about a blind spot for sensors, which at least acknowledges the issue in a hand-waving sort of way.) Leave that aside, though, and this is perfectly okay. Now that the misguided initial arc is out of the way, we're settling down to a reasonably interesting team dynamic, and it's good to see them going out to do their own stories instead of getting caught up in X-Men mythology. It all helps to give the book its own identity. This isn't a great comic by any means, but it's vastly improved from the early issue.

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Sunday, November 23, 2008

Survivor Series 2008

We'll leave the X-Axis capsules for tomorrow, because if I don't get this up in the next couple of hours, it won't be a preview any more...

Survivor Series is one of the major pay-per-views in the WWE's calendar, if only because they've been using the name for years. Like a lot of the early shows, this one has a gimmick: traditionally, it used to be a show full of five-man elimination tag team matches. Of course, at ten wrestlers per match, that's an awful lot of wrestlers, which is why they've moved away from the format over the years. Nowadays, you get a bunch of conventional main event matches, and some elimination matches on the undercard.

To be perfectly honest, I haven't had time to watch most of the build-up for this show... but let's go through the card anyway.

1. WWE Championship: Chris Jericho v. John Cena. Jericho is still the heel champion on Raw, and his long-running feud with Shawn Michaels is over. That begs the question: do they want him to be a long-term champion, or is it time for a change now that the story is finished? The subtext here is that by now, the company will be lining up their plans for Wrestlemania 26 in the spring. If Jericho isn't going to be in the main event at that show, then they need to get the belt off him fairly soon.

Cena has been out with injuries for a while, and this is his return match. Unusually, it's been promoted entirely with video packages for Cena, and the occasional promo from Jericho; the two haven't even met in the build-up. Cena usually gets a divided reaction, not because he's written that way, but because a lot of fans rebel against his kiddie-friendly persona. However, this is his return match in his de facto home city of Boston, so he should get a hero's welcome.

I'm expecting a good match. Seems a bit sudden for Cena to win, so I'd guess some sort of storyline finish with Jericho retaining, setting up a rematch.

2. World Heavywight Title: Triple H v. Jeff Hardy v. Vladimir Kozlov. The match you were meant to vote for last month, damn you. Instead, to the surprise of absolutely nobody, the fans voted to see Triple H and Jeff Hardy again, and Triple H won decisively, retaining the Smackdown title. That seemed to set us up for Triple H and Vladimir Kozlov, the stone-faced Russian killer heel who's been ploughing his way through the midcard for months but hasn't had much experience at the top end of the card. He's also been wrestling Triple H at the untelevised live shows, and reports say it hasn't been great.

Meanwhile, there's been a sudden effort to rehabilitate Hardy, the story being that he's been driven to breaking point by coming so close so often, and is now acting even more erratically than usual. The WWE website has a story up claiming that Hardy was found unconscious at his hotel earlier today; obviously that's a storyline, but it tends to suggest Jeff isn't winning today. The usual wrestling websites suggest Edge is likely to show up, as well, which is probably enough of an event without a title change. So, Triple H probably retains here, and I suspect Jeff gets pinned to continue his self-destruction angle.

3. Casket match: The Undertaker v. the Big Show. Two very large men punch one another again, and this time the aim is to put your opponent in a coffin. One of the least interesting gimmick matches in the WWE repertoire, attached to one of their least interesting feuds. I honestly couldn't care less who wins.

4. Batista, Kofi Kingston, CM Punk, Matt Hardy & R-Truth v. Randy Orton, Cody Rhodes, Shelton Benjamin, William Regal & Mark Henry. Team Batista versus Team Orton. Batista needs to be rebuilt after an abortive recent eight-day title reign (he beat Jericho at the PPV to win the Raw title, and then lost the automatic rematch). But Orton has recently returned to the active roster from a long period of injury, and he's got tons of momentum behind him as one of the top heels on Raw. My instinct is that Orton's team should win here: that momentum is worth keeping, and you can always rehab Batista in December.

Batista's team are a bunch of decent midcarders. Punk and Kingston are the Raw tag champions, which doesn't mean a great deal. Matt Hardy is the ECW Champion, but he's got a knee injury, which is presumably why he's being put in a ten-man match where he won't have to do much. R-Truth is a rapper character from Smackdown; he only debuted recently but they seem to have lost interest in him already. Chances are he's getting pinned early.

Orton has a couple of second-tier singles champions in Benjamin and Regal, both of whom are generally good; Mark Henry from ECW, who isn't, but who'll be fine in a match like this; and Cody Rhodes. Cody is in an odd storyline, the thrust being that he's a midcard heel who keeps trying to prove to Orton that he's main event material, and can't quite get it done. Orton doesn't want him on the team, but he's stuck with the guy. This is a dangerous storyline: they're trying to get Cody into the main event mix, but they're doing so on the strength of a story premised on the fact that he isn't good enough to be there (yet). They've managed to pull it off so far. Anyway, that's presumably going to be the story focus of this match: what happens with Cody.

Lots of good wrestlers in this match, and the weak or injured ones can be easily concealed. I expect this to be entertaining.

5. Shawn Michaels, Rey Mysterio, the Great Khali & Cryme Tyme v. JBL, MVP, Kane, John Morrison & the Miz. Something of a dumping ground for wrestlers without much else to do. The team captains here are Shawn Michaels for the babyfaces and JBL for the heels, both of whom are spinning their wheels between feuds at the moment.

The teams are a motley crew. The babyface team comprises the ever-popular Rey Mysterio, the lousy giant Khali (who's just turned babyface in a dubious comedy role), and loveable criminal stereotypes Cryme Tyme, who are fairly popular but whose matches rarely amount to much. The heels are actually better: Miz and Morrison are one of the strongest teams around at the moment, Kane's alright as a big guy, and MVP... well, MVP's doing the dreaded losing streak gimmick, supposedly because he annoyed the wrong people.

Some potential interest here surrounds John Morrison, who has potential to go far, and how they treat him when he's in the ring with the top babyfaces. He beat Michaels in a tag match on Monday, which was something of a surprise; if he pins him again tonight, then they're presumably heading for a Morrison/Michaels feud, which would be a Very Good Idea.

With ten guys you can usually play to everyone's strengths as long as you work it out carefully. The good guys probably win, since the heels are stuck with MVP, who can't be on the winning team for storyline reasons.

6. Beth Phoenix, Mickie James, Kelly Kelly, Candice Michelle & Jillian Hall v. Michelle McCool, Maria, Maryse, Victoria & Natalya. The Raw women versus the Smackdown women. Alarmingly, this is an elimination match; it could drag on a while. The last time they did a ten-woman tag match at Survivor Series, it was for one fall, which seemed a more realistic assessment of the likely match quality. Both teams are a mixture of babyfaces and heels, so chances are the story will be internal tension on each side. It doesn't matter who wins, and the match is likely to be dire. (And yes, the Smackdown women don't get surnames for some reason. Don't ask me.)

Worth buying? Well, the two title matches have some interest, and Jericho/Cena should be good. And as long as they're laid out well, these elimination matches usually work. Should be an above average show.


House to Astonish, episode 2

Now available for download. And don't forget that you can subscribe on iTunes as well.

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Wednesday, November 19, 2008

I Hate Gallant Girl #1

Plot: Jim Valentino
Script: Kat Cahill
Art: Seth Damoose
Letters: Jason Hanley
Colours: Kanila Tripp
Editor: Kristen Simon

Every decade, the Fellowship of Freedom holds a pageant for female superheroes, with the winner joining the team and becoming the latest Gallant Girl. Renee Tempete wants to be the newest Gallant Girl, but she's not up to the exacting physical standards. Instead, she gets offered a job doing all the actual work for the winning useless bimbo...

That's the concept. And it's not a bad idea in theory, until you have to draw it.

Problem is, the story pulls artist Seth Damoose in two directions. On the one hand, Renee's got to be a plausible body double for the real Gallant Girl. So she can't look that different, at least from a moderate distance. But on the other hand, she's got to be (in some vague and unspecified way) physically unsuitable for the role. Effectively, the story requires her to be plain - and that's awfully hard for a cartoonist to get across.

The art doesn't manage it. Renee is signalled as "not suitable" by giving her black hair, but that doesn't really cut it. There's a half-hearted attempt near the end to suggest that she's a bit on the muscular side, but it just comes off as a dodgy piece of foreshortening. And like I say, if you exaggerate it to the point where it becomes clear, how are we supposed to believe that she could be plausible as a body double? (And for that matter, why does Renee even want to be Gallant Girl in the first place? We're told that she wanted to be a superhero, but why does she have to be that particular superhero?)

I assume the story is trying to satirise the way female superheroes are treated as eye candy first and as characters a distant second, and to use that as a general sexism metaphor - all fine in theory. But in doing so, they've come up with an idea that's virtually impossible to draw, and the book never manages to overcome that.

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Batman: Cacophony #1

Writer: Kevin Smith
Penciller: Walt Flanagan
Inker: Sandra Hope
Colourist: Guy Major
Letterer: Jared K Fletcher
Editor: Dan Didio

There's a tipping point in some people's careers, when you go from hearing their name and thinking "Oh good, has he got something new out?" to hearing it and thinking "Oh, is he still going?" It's that intangible moment when they stop being Now and become Then.

When Kevin Smith did Daredevil, it seemed like a reasonably big deal. Green Arrow... somewhat. A Batman miniseries... oh, is he still going?

The idea of this series is to pit Batman against Onomatopoeia, a villain from Smith's Green Arrow run. He has a mildly interesting concept: he talks in sound effects. And as Smith says, that's the kind of quirkiness that only works in this medium. Problem is, though, it's a gimmick, and it needs an awful lot more to make him into a character. Obviously Smith's going for "inscrutable enigma", and that's fine up to a point, but it means the story has to be about other people interacting with him.

What we get... is some sort of gang war set-up, with Batman hanging around the edges, and an awful lot of rather puerile stuff with the Joker. There's an anal rape gag which really doesn't belong in an all-ages title, but more to the point, just seems a bit desperate. Leave that aside and you've got a coherent plot, but one that doesn't have much space for Batman, and which doesn't give us much reason to care about Onomatopoeia. And they're supposed to be the focal points of the series!

It's not a horrible comic by any stretch of the imagination. It's not an ego trip; if anything, it's surprising how much it feels like a house style comic, which one of Smith's pet ideas thrown in. The problem is that it just doesn't feel like anything special - it seems like a hangover from the last big thing.

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Screen Wipe

Just for those of you who might have missed the new series of Charlie Brooker's Screen Wipe on BBC4 last night, here's the iPlayer link. And for those of you outside the UK... you won't have too much trouble finding it on YouTube. Best TV reviewer on British television, which is no doubt why he's buried in such an obscure part of the schedule.

I particularly recommend the final segment, starting about 22 minutes in, if you want to know what Paul Ross is up to these days...

Sunday, November 16, 2008

The X-Axis - 16 November 2008

Thanks to everyone who downloaded the first House to Astonish podcast last week, and who've been overwhelmingly nice about it. Al and I are planning to do one of these every two weeks, so you'll have to wait till next weekend for episode two.

Oh, and as promised, you can subscribe to it on iTunes now. Just search for "House to Astonish", and not surprisingly, we're the top entry for this little-used phrase. Somewhat more surprisingly, the number two entry is episode six of Knight Rider. Aren't search engines great?

Anyway, let's turn to some new comics. Tons of new titles this week, plus a few X-books in mid-storyline. I'll come back over the next couple of days to Batman: Cacophony #1 and I Hate Gallant Girl #1, but for now, here's the rundown on the others...

Galveston #1 - This is a four-issue mini from Boom! Studios, and it's a historical action drama. It's the Gulf of Mexico in 1817, and Jim Bowie and Jean Lafitte are teamed up to fight... ooh, stuff. They're genuine historical figures. Never heard of them, personally, but I'm willing to assume that's probably a reflection of how little American history we did at school. The credits on this are all a bit weird: it's "created" by Johanna Stokes and Ross Richie (whose name doesn't feature anywhere else in the book), plotted by Tom Peyer and Mark Rahner, and written by Stokes again. And then, just for further confusion, the artist randomly changes after eight pages, from Greg Scott to Todd Herman. Those first eight pages feature some murky and undramatic fight scenes (of the "oh, I guess that was meant to be him ducking a punch" variety), and the rest of the book just plain looks rushed. It's a bit of a mess, really; Bowie and Lafitte come across as a generic odd-couple without ever managing to be especially interesting, and the whole thing feels like it's going through the motions.

New Exiles #14 - This is part 2 of the six-part "Away We Go." Where previous writers have favoured a single big twist for their parallel worlds, Claremont seems to be taking a different route, constructing rather more convoluted societies out of an assortment of Marvel Universe elements. This time, we've got a version of Earth which is all islands and no land masses, humanoid reptiles instead of superhumans, and an army of heroes where the girls are all modelled on the Daughters of the Dragon and the boys are all modelled on Iron Man. (This seems a bit of a short straw for the girls.) And on top of all that, we've got a riff on the late-70s story about Lilandra fleeing the Shi'ar Empire to get help on Earth. And that's before the Exiles show up. There's an awful lot going on here - and from the look of it, next issue will be throwing in yet another evil version of the X-Men - but in fairness, it does actually hang together into something fairly coherent. And if nothing else, New Exiles feels like a book whose creators are having fun, which is more than you can say for a lot of titles. Take it on its own terms, and it's actually quite good fun.

Push #1 - Another WildStorm mini, this time apparently a prequel to a Dakota Fanning movie coming out in 2009. I suppose the idea must be to have the trade paperback out in time for the movie. It's a sort of paranoia action story about a guy working for a spy agency full of superhumans, and increasingly conscious that there are weird schemes going on behind the scenes. There's some slightly clumsy Oirishness in one sequence, but that aside, it's not bad at all. It's all entirely well crafted by writers Adam Freeman and Marc Bernardin (the guys who wrote Highwaymen), and Bruno Redondo's art is also fine. What it lacks is a voice or identity of its own, despite having a passably decent premise of hidden superhumans working as spies among us. It's thoroughly okay, but nothing likely to grab the attention of a wider audience. Still, if the movie does well, at least they'll have a respectable tie-in product in reserve.

Sir Apropos of Nothing #1 - Sir Apropos of Nothing is a character Peter David created for a trilogy of novels, now adapted for IDW into a five-issue mini by David himself and artist Robin Riggs. It's an odd thing, which seems to assume at least a vague working knowledge of the character, even though the source is mentioned nowhere in the issue. He seems to be a sort of self-centred anti-hero, in a story based mainly on tongue-in-cheek set-pieces. It's... y'know, it's alright, but it just feels like a bunch of stuff happening in a row, rather than giving me any particular reason to get involved in the story, and it seems as though the art should be veering a little further into cartoon territory.

Wolverine #69 - "Old Man Logan" continues, with a chapter that feels decidedly padded. I suspect the problem here is that Millar has got some beats he wants to hit in this story, and the pacing leaves chapter four with nothing much to do. Last month ended with the cliffhanger of Hawkeye's daughter turning out to be a villain; next month is the flashback story where Wolverine explains what happened to him. But there's no obvious progression from to the other, so once they've escaped the villain in the first few pages, there's nothing much to do other than wander around a bit until it's time to announce the flashback. In fairness, I can see what Millar's going for - the idea is that Wolverine's returning to his old self the longer they're on the road, which is fine. And road stories are always episodic. Still, it just doesn't feel to me like this is heading anywhere in particular - or perhaps more accurately, it doesn't feel like the events in this issue contribute to it heading anywhere. Some cute ideas, but it doesn't satisfy me as a story.

X-Men: Magneto - Testament #3 - Continuing the Marvel Knights miniseries about Magneto's childhood. With this series, the main challenge for creators Greg Pak and Carmine di Giandomenico is to find the right balance between two competing demands on the story. On the one hand, the story has to work as a Magneto story, otherwise why bother using him at all? On the other hand, it's primarily a historical piece about the Holocaust, and if your serious lest-we-forget story suddenly sprouts supervillains, then you run the real risk of (at best) a jarring tone clash. Thus far, the story has addressed that problem by shoving the fantasy elements to the very margins, confining them to a couple of moments where Max uses his powers in extremely minor ways. When forced to deal with them directly in this issue, the story jumps into an intentionally confused montage sequence to blur it over. All entirely understandable, but it does leave me wondering whether I'm really reading a historical essay with an entirely token X-Men angle tacked on to boost sales. It does work as a historical piece; it remains to be seen whether it can shift gears to function as a Magneto origin story and still retain the necessary sobriety. I can't help feeling that the book will struggle to succeed in both its self-appointed to tasks. But at least, at the moment, it's focussing on the more important one, and largely succeeding with it.

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Sandman: Dream Hunters #1

Written by Neil Gaiman
Adapted by P Craig Russell
Colourist: Lovern Kindzierski
Letterer: Todd Klein
Editor: Karen Berger

Sandman: The Dream Hunters started life as a novella by Neil Gaiman and Yoshitaka Amano - one of the few Sandman stories I haven't read, actually. This is a comic book adaptation by P Craig Russell, who's apparently been lobbying to do it for years. It's being done now to celebrate the twentieth anniversary of Sandman - which actually started in 1989, but it'll be 2009 by the time the series finishes and the collection comes out.

It's the sort of Sandman story which isn't about Dream at all. It's a mock Japanese fable, where he shows up as an observer to offer some commentary.

And it's the sort of story that most writers wouldn't get away with. Arbitrary weirdness abounds, but Gaiman holds it together with an intangible sense that this is just how things are. Talking animals with inexplicable shape-changing powers? Sure. Okay. If you say so. This sort of thing is tricky to pull off; judge it wrong, and it can seem terribly arch. But Gaiman has great instincts for this kind of thing.

Remaking the thing as a comic, at first glance, seems a bit unnecessary. But then, there's something to be said for seeing a different artist take a crack at a good story. And Russell, with a good script, is always a joy. Bits of this story don't entirely lend themselves to comics - chunks of expository narrative, for example - but he makes them work. There are some brilliant layouts here, pages held together with precisely diagonal rain. The animals are wonderfully expressive, and if the demons are a bit cute... well, it's not that sort of story, is it?

It may be a remake, but it's a beautiful remake.

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Monday, November 10, 2008

Weapon X: First Class #1

"Don't Look Back in Anger"

Writer: Marc Sumerak
Artist: Mark Robinson
Inker: Robert Campanella
Colourist: J Brown
Letterer: Dave Sharpe
Editor: Mark Paniccia

"The Recruit"

Writer: Marc Sumerak
Artist: Tim Seeley
Colourist: Katie Desouza
Letterer: Dave Sharpe
Editor: Mark Paniccia

Let's be honest, Weapon X: First Class sounds like it must be some sort of joke. The First Class books are all-ages titles. Weapon X was a vaguely experimental Barry Windsor-Smith story, light on plot, heavy on torture. It's hard to imagine an area of X-Men continuity less suited for the First Class treatment.

In fact, it doesn't read as weirdly as I'd expected. But that's mainly because it doesn't read like a First Class book. It's a flashback story with Wolverine asking Xavier to help explore his memories, all leading to a recap of "Weapon X" which starts at the end of the issue. Sure, it's got more of an eighties tone than today's Wolverine comics, but it doesn't feel like a kid book. It's more of a continuity primer, really.

Unfortunately, that continuity is all a bit murky. The framing device of Xavier exploring Wolverine's memories is all very well in theory, but sits uneasily (to say the least) with the current "Original Sin" crossover. And since this seems to be mainly a recap book, it's a bit of a problem that it doesn't seem to be on the same page as the current version of continuity.

Leave that aside, though, and you've got... a story recapping Wolverine's past. You probably know all this already, and it's not going to tell you anything new. There's nothing particularly wrong with the writing, it just doesn't bring anything new to the territory. The art's quite good, though - not too showy, but it's got some energy to it, and the subtleties of the body language are done well.

There's a back-up strip as well, an odd little thing which seems to be suggesting that Xavier thought about recruiting Sabretooth and thought better of it. Not subtle, but it adds a bit of intrigue for longer-term readers.

And in fairness, let's note that this book does offer reasonable value of money. It's four dollars, but for that, you get a total of 32 story pages - and that's acceptable, I think.

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Sunday, November 09, 2008

The X-Axis - 9 November 2008

Tons of X-books and new titles this week, most of them not especially important. And four Wolverine titles at once? Who scheduled that?

I'm planning to get back to Weapon X: First Class #1 and Sandman: Dream Hunters #1 in the next couple of days. And check out the first episode of House to Astonish, in the post below, for more on Ultimatum, Gigantic and Astonishing X-Men: Ghost Boxes. But here's this week's round-up.

Adam: Legend of the Blue Marvel #1 - Six-issue miniseries from Kevin Grevioux and Mat Broome about a 1960s superhero forced into retirement after the public find out he's black. Not a bad concept in theory, although it's awkwardly shoehorned into the Marvel Universe - it's one of those "If he's that important, wouldn't somebody have mentioned him by now?" problems. It's serviceably done, and Grevioux seems better off on a solo book (his New Warriors was plagued by characters fading into the background and going unnamed for issues at a time). But it doesn't seem to have a fresh angle on the subject, and it's a bit obvious. Still, I've read a lot worse than this.

Astonishing X-Men: Ghost Boxes #1 - Two stories, totalling sixteen pages, for an outrageous four dollar price tag. This was originally solicited as a 48-page book, so something's clearly gone horribly wrong. The material looks more like it was designed to appear as a back-up strip in Astonishing itself, where it would have worked reasonably well (though apparently Ellis planned it as a single issue with three stories - also viable). There's one by Alan Davis with the villain recounting a version of Astonishing #26 that we know didn't happen, and another with a quasi-Victorian X-Men on a parallel world. But they only make sense if you read them in conjunction with the core series, so publishing them as a mini is a weird decision at any price. At four dollars, it really is unforgivable price-gouging.

Cable #8 - Okay, I get the idea here. Bishop has decided that Cable's hiding in some weird future timeline that doesn't really count, so he's trying to destroy the world in order to box Cable in. And then, when he kills the kid, it'll all be cancelled out anyway. That kind of makes sense. But the series still suffers from the problem I talked about last month: sure, it's dramatically neat to keep Bishop's motivations a mystery, but there's no discernible reason why he isn't simply telling everyone - especially in scenes where he's actually trying to justify himself to the X-Men. Perhaps the mistake here was to write so much of the series from Bishop's perspective, where his failure to explain himself can't help but become increasingly clumsy. Still, there's something to this - flawed, but there's some potential in the underlying ideas.

Civil War: House of M #3 - Three issues in, it's increasingly clear that there really is no justification whatsoever for the Civil War tag on this book. It's simply the back story of Magneto in the House of M timeline. Creators Christos Gage and Andrea DiVito put all the pieces in the right order, and tell a coherent story, but it's difficult (if not impossible) to fathom what the point is supposed to be, other than to squeeze the last cents from these franchises. Filling in the backstory of an alternate reality that never existed in the first place? Why?

Gigantic #1 - Rick Remender and Eric Nguyen offer their take on giant monster movies. Remender likes the idea of the originals more than the sensibilities, and that's reflected in what we get here: Earth has been created by aliens for a TV show, and with the ratings flagging, it's time to dump a well-meaning giant robot in San Francisco. Great art from Nguyen (and unusually subtle colouring for something like this). I think it shows its hand a little too quickly on the "reality TV" idea - which is explained on page 1 - but on the whole, this is pretty good.

Sgt. Rock: The Lost Battalion #1 - Billy Tucci does Sergeant Rock, in a story which I believe is supposed to be loosely based on actual events. You wouldn't know; it reads like a fairly typical PG-rated war comic. Bit pretty, bit of token grit, and some tribute to the sufferings of actual soldiers. There's an attempt to present Rock and his supporting cast as personifying military traits, instead of just being exceptional soldiers. It's inoffensive and well-meaning, but light on plot and drama. Forgettable.

Ultimatum #1 - Marvel try to revive interest in the Ultimate Universe by having a major disaster hit it. As I said on the podcast, we've seen this before with flagging alternate universe imprints, and it's never worked yet. The art's okay - bit fiddly, but it does manage a sense of scale at some key point. Some of the dialogue is excruciating, though. ("Very verily"?) It's still better than most of Jeph Loeb's recent work - which is to say, it makes sense from one event to the next - but the whole thing feels a bit desperate. If this is the plan to reignite interest in the Ultimate Universe, then I think they've lost sight of what made it work in the first place: back-to-basics stories unfettered by the weight of continuity, with the creators given relatively free reign within that framework.

Wolverine and Power Pack #1 - Not really a new title so much as the latest arc in the ongoing Power Pack series, which bills every story as a separate miniseries. This is the out-of-continuity version where Power Pack are still cute little kids. The story is about what you'd expect: Wolverine and Power Pack team up to fight Sauron. It's fine, but no real surprises there. This book's real selling point is GuriHiru's art, which continues to hit precisely the right level of cuteness to make the book work. It's basically a very pretty kids' book, of limited interest to older X-Men fans, but it knows what it's about, and does it well.

Wolverine: Chop Shop - This month's unnecessary Wolverine one-shot is by Mike Benson and Roland Boschi, both completely unfamiliar names to me. It's based on the urban legend about people being drugged and having organs stolen. And that's quite a good starting point for a Wolverine story, since his powers let you go further with it than you could with most characters. But that promising idea ends up as a fairly standard noir story. Boschi is actually quite good, with a few striking page layouts and a engagingly rough, minimal style. Wouldn't mind seeing more of him. T he story, though, is average.

Wolverine: First Class #8 - The second half of a story with Wolverine and Kitty fighting, of all people, the Soviet Super-Soldiers. Now, I know Marvel time is a bit loose and all, but surely we're now at the point where the Soviet Union was gone by the time the FF showed up, let alone when Kitty joined the X-Men? That aside, it's fine and all, and a nice enough throwback to the eighties. But with such a deluge of Wolverine material on the market, it's hard to think of a reason why you'd recommend this one in particular - unless you have an especial yearning for that particular style.

X-Men: Manifest Destiny #3 - I picked this up and couldn't remember whether I'd actually read it, which is always a bad sign. The lead Iceman serial is all a bit confused, and isn't doing much for me. Young X-Men readers will want to note that the issue contains Graymalkin's origin story, which brings in a man-out-of-time element that hasn't been particularly noticeable in his appearances to date. It's a bit heavy-handed but I can see some possibilities. And there's a short Colossus story by Chris Yost and Humberto Ramos, which doesn't quite hit the emotional mark it was going for, but has its moments nonetheless.

X-Men and Spider-Man #1 - This is a four-issue mini with Spider-Man and the X-Men meeting at various points in their careers, but with a common storyline running through all those meetings. Basically, though, it's an excuse to mix up the X-Men and Spider-Man villains, which does give us something a little new. But the real draw is Mario Alberti's art, which is very impressive, blending the European style with the Marvel characters to surprisingly good effect. The story is okay, but the book looks absolutely wonderful, and is actually worth picking up for that reason alone.

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Saturday, November 08, 2008

House to Astonish, episode 1

In this week's thrilling first episode of House to Astonish...


Oh. Oh yeah. House to Astonish.

It's a podcast. Al Kennedy and me. Al used to write for Ninth Art too. We both live in Edinburgh. He's just down the road. It's terribly convenient. It's a news-and-reviews thing, kind of a fireside chat about stuff we thought was interesting. We're aiming to do one every couple of weeks, about 45 minutes or so. Nothing too fancy. Probably a bit rough around the edges at the moment. Hope you like it.

We'll get it onto iTunes in due course, but for the moment, here's the podcast web page, and here's the RSS feed. And I'll post links here too.

Anyway, in this week's thrilling first episode of House to Astonish, we talk about some of the latest DC cancellations and Marvel's digital comics plans, and look at Ultimatum #1, Gigantic #1 and the tremendous value for money offered by Astonishing X-Men: Ghost Boxes #1.

And before you ask, yes, there'll be more reviews here on If Destroyed tomorrow. So don't worry.

(Sits back to await the inevitable "I thought you'd sound more Scottish" comments...)

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Monday, November 03, 2008

Number 1s of 2008: November 2

Predictable enough that I'm writing this on Saturday and time-delaying it...

The X-Factor Finalists, "Hero" (2 November to date).

This is, of course, a charity single. The twelve acts who made the live shows of The X-Factor - effectively the current UK equivalent of American Idol - join forces to bash out a rudimentary cover of Mariah Carey's 1993 top ten hit in aid of injured soldiers. There doesn't seem to be an official video, so that thing above is the performance they did on the TV show. Amusingly, two of the acts are missing because, in true Spinal Tap style, the doors wouldn't open.

It's dire, of course, and dripping in syrup. Charity singles are odd things; if you stop to think about it, there isn't actually much "charity" in paying the normal retail price of a CD single, and getting a CD single in return.

The actual charity comes from the people who give up their time to make the single in the first place (and, where appropriate, from the retailers who give up their cut). Of course, in this case, the single was driven by the people behind the show rather than by the acts themselves, which complicates it all a little further. It's not as though Simon Cowell is oblivious to the power of good publicity.

From the customers' perspective, buying a charity single is really about expressing solidarity. That's what Band Aid was really about, for example, and why it was a kind of pop culture moment. With this... well, the charity almost gets overshadowed by the X-Factor brand, doesn't it?

Still, whatever the motives and however bad the product, it will raise money for a good cause. There are worse things to do with your life.

UPDATE: There's now an official video, although a rather makeshift one:


Sunday, November 02, 2008

The X-Axis - 2 November 2008

Just a round-up this week, for a variety of reasons. One, I'm very busy. Two, Astonishing X-Men: Ghost Boxes #1 didn't show up at my store. And three, it's a week of largely forgettable stuff that doesn't really merit a full review anyway. There's the last Minx digest, Token, but I haven't had time to read it yet. Might get to that later in the week.

In the meantime, let's run down a week which was relatively high in volume, and relatively low in memorability.

Captain America Theater of War: Operation Zero-Point - Or however you're meant to punctuate it. The cover actually has no hyphen and the colon after "Operation", but hey, things get convoluted when your sub-title has a sub-title. Anyway, this is the first in a series of one-shots about "the length and breadth of the larger-than-life legend of Captain America," whatever that means, "as told by the industry's leading experts in the field," which apparently means the Knauf brothers and Mitch Breitweiser. In practice, it's a 40-page filler story set in World War II, with Captain America fighting Nazi flying saucers. The tone's a bit wonky - it takes itself a little too seriously to get away with a plot as silly as that, and Cap himself feels out of character, bitching about foreigners who are supposed to be on his side. But it's passable enough if you like that sort of thing, and Breitweiser's art is excellent, giving the thing an air of reality it doesn't entirely deserve. Art fans may want to pick it up for that; otherwise, though, it's a fill-in writ large.

Giant-Size X-Men: First Class #1 - For those of you keeping track, X-Men: First Class has been cancelled, only to be replaced by this one-shot and a miniseries apparently called X-Men: First Class: Finals. You'd have thought it would be simpler just to cancel the book in seven months time, but oh well. This is an Hallowe'en anthology of fairly short stories where the X-Men go off and investigate Weird Stuff, much of which is the wrong sort of weird. The art is the selling point here; Dean Haspiel does solid work with a very silly Arctic story, and Michael Cho's makes great use of limited colour in his piece. There's also a very odd two-pager by Roger Langridge which would actually be more amusing without the tacked-on X-Men connection. And, entirely unmentioned in the solicitations or on the cover, half the issue turns out to be a reprint - of X-Men #40, an X-Men-versus-Frankenstein story which is one of the weakest Silver Age issues, but happens to fit the theme. It's very tough to recommend this at four dollars, but it does at least experiment with some art styles you don't normally see at Marvel, and deserves credit for that.

Mirror's Edge #1 - A video game adaptation, god help us, and if I'd realised that, I wouldn't have bought it. Still, WildStorm's got to keep itself occupied somehow. Mirror's Edge (the game) is apparently something to do with parkour, set in the near future, and with lots of jumping between rooftops. Mirror's Edge (the comic) has the unenviable task of translating that appeal to static images, and bolting on a plot. They do okay on the first point, and go through the motions on the second, with some very familiar stuff about grumpy old mentors, and a thuddingly cliched cliffhanger. In fairness to the creators, I don't think the concept lends itself to comics in the first place. Eminently missable, even so.

Battlefields: The Night Witches #1 - A new Garth Ennis miniseries for Dynamite. Can you guess what it's about? That's right, it's another war story. This one's set in Russia during World War II, and told from the perspective of a German footsoldier and a Russian woman pilot (a novelty which the regular air force treat with all the enthusiasm you'd expect). It's everything you'd expect from an Ennis war story: the familiar themes are present and correct, and done as well as usual. Artist Russ Braun holds up his end, telling the story clearly and effectively. It's good, but doesn't bring anything new to Ennis' already exhaustive exploration of the genre.

Secret Invasion: X-Men #3 - Is that woman on the cover meant to be Dazzler? She looks nothing like her, but I can't figure out who else it could be. Regardless, the Skrulls are still invading San Francisco, the X-Men are still fighting back, and Mike Carey is still throwing in enough little details to make this very basic story better than it deserves to be. Artist Ma Sepulveda does some good stuff with the psychic battle scenes, though the scenes in the real world often look a bit washed out. Still, all good throwaway fun.

Wolverine: Origins #29 - This is part three of the "Original Sin" crossover with X-Men: Legacy. As usual with both books, there's a present day story (Wolverine goes after the Hellfire Club to try and rescue Daken), and a parallel set of flashbacks (how Xavier reprogrammed Wolverine to be one of the good guys). The flashbacks are a bit of a retcon, but I don't have a problem with them - a fair case can be made that they're inserting an explanation for what already happened, rather than undermining the original stories. The present day stuff doesn't come off so well, largely because Wolverine has to spend most of the issue fighting a Hellfire Club "Inner Circle" composed entirely of random no-names whom we're given no reason to care about. (In fact, unless I missed it, only one of them even gets a name.) If we're supposed to take the Club seriously as players, then they need to be better developed than this. And if we're not supposed to take them seriously, why are we wasting so many pages on them? It's also awkwardly apparent that the artists of X-Men: Legacy and Wolverine: Origins are on entirely different pages about their approach to Miss Sinister, which is something that the editors should have sorted out. Still, the storyline is working out better than I'd expected, and it's done something to increase my interest in Daken.

X-Force #8 - X-Force versus the Vanisher. Setting our sights a bit low here, aren't we? This is a definite improvement from the first arc. There's less gratuitous bloodshed, there's more personality, and the plot makes more sense. But it's still got some fairly serious problems. The Vanisher is given an utterly gratuitous pseudo-cool revamp; everyone seems entirely unbothered about levels of violence that ought to concern them; the supposedly secret team attack the bad guy on a busy public street in full X-Force regalia; Archangel's "Death" persona lacks any subtlety or nuance, even by the standards of a book like this; and astonishingly, we're asked to believe that Wolverine isn't recognisable in his X-Force costume (which is basically the same as his regular costume, but light blue). So it's an improvement from the first arc, but it leaves a lot to be desired...

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