Saturday, January 31, 2009

House to Astonish, episode 7

In which Al and I look over the news and the April solicitations, review Dark Avengers, Batman: Brave and the Bold and Battlefields: Dear Billy, and take our first foray into the backwaters of Marvel UK...

Download here, or visit the podcast web page, or subscribe via iTunes.

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Wednesday, January 28, 2009


Best Picture nominee? Really?

Frost/Nixon is Ron Howard's adaptation of the Peter Morgan play, based in turn on David Frost's TV interviews with Richard Nixon in 1977. And there's a lot of interesting thing in it, but there's also something missing.

The performances are certainly excellent, with Frank Langella and Michael Sheen managing to transcend mere impersonation and getting to grips with the characters. In this version of history, at least, Nixon is still convinced that he did nothing wrong, and more legitimately aggrieved that Watergate has come to overshadow the rest of his legacy. As for Frost, he's mainly interested in his career; nailing Nixon only comes into it because it'll make him look successful.

The parallels between the two are well drawn, as is the notion that the interviews mirror what went wrong with Nixon's presidency - once again, Watergate overshadows everything else.

But... the first half of the film goes in for an awful lot of spoon-feeding. Unsure how to react to a particular scene? Don't worry. A supporting character will be along to tell you in a moment. It picks up once the interviews themselves get going, but still never persuades me to care about any the characters. And after going to some trouble to haul Caroline Cushing into the story, the film gives her nothing to do.

Yes, there's some interesting stuff in here... but a Best Picture nominee? I'm not seeing it.


Slumdog Millionaire

It's been almost a fortnight since I saw this, but I did say I'd write about it, so...

Slumdog Millionaire. An adaptation of the novel Q&A, in which a boy from the slums of Mumbai ends up enthralling the nation on the Indian version of Who Wants to be a Millionaire?. It's the latest film by director Danny Boyle, who always gets special attention here in Edinburgh, thanks to Shallow Grave and Trainspotting. But this one is a worldwide success.

It shouldn't really work. It's a fable, of course, and a story about destiny, or at least everything falling into place - and so it's driven by a string of staggering coincidences which ought to make it wholly ludicrous. It's a testimony to Boyle's skill and the energy of his direction that he makes it ultimately heartwarming rather than absurd. With a starcrossed-lovers tale like this, you could easily degenerate into cliche, but the film has a strong enough sense of its own identity to escape overfamiliarity and freshen the story up.

Of course, it has the advantage of combining an exotic setting with a framework that's very familiar but still unusual in a film. You'd normally get an obvious stand-in for Millionaire here; but handily enough, the movie rights to the show have become separated from the TV rights, making it possible to use the actual show.

I'm not sure it's quite as good as people are making out. It's a very well told fable, but it's not exactly deep. It works because it feels right, rather than because it's got much to do with the real world. But then, what's wrong with that? It's a modern fairy tale; and on those terms, they don't come much better.


Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Wolverine: Origins #31-32

"Family Business"
Writer: Daniel Way
Penciller: Yanick Paquette
Inkers: Serge LaPointe and Michel Lacombe
Colourist: Nathan Fairbairn
Letterer: Cory Petit
Editor: John Barber

After its crossover with X-Men: Legacy, Wolverine: Origins finally seemed to be heading somewhere. Daken had been redeemed to the point of being a passably interesting character; he and Wolverine were heading off to hunt down Romulus.

And then we get... this. A two-parter where Daken turns on Wolverine already. Uh... what? I never thought I'd say this about Wolverine: Origins, but this feels terribly rushed. For this to work, they needed to stick together long enough for it to be a surprise. We need to care about them as a duo before it becomes worth breaking them up.

In fact, Daken turns on Wolverine at the end of part one - so their pairing lasted one whole issue. Yes, alright, there's a double-swerve - Wolverine thinks it's all part of a plan to trick the bad guys, but it turns out that it isn't, and he's just been screwed. That's actually quite neat - but it's also six months early. Or, if you prefer, they should have got the pairing started long ago.

It's very uncharacteristic for this book to race through anything. If anything, it normally stretches everything to breaking point and beyond. I have a sneaking suspicion that Way has found himself caught in a scheduling trap: the crossover with X-Men: Legacy couldn't be brought forward, but Daken needs to turn on Wolverine so that he can appear in Dark Avengers. And so a whole chunk of storyline gets compressed into a ridiculously short space.

Well, it's a theory, anyway. Whatever the reason, anyhow, this story comes at the wrong time for the series.

X-Men: Manifest Destiny #5

"Kill or Cure"
Writer: Mike Carey
Penciller: Michael Ryan
Inker: Victor Olazaba
Colourist: Chris Sotomayor
Editor: Nick Lowe

Writer: Frank Tieri
Artist: Ben Oliver
Colourist: Frank d'Armata
Editor: Nick Lowe

Writer: Kieron Gillen
Artist: Sara Pichelli
Colourist: Christina Strain
Editor: Nick Lowe

X-Men: Manifest Destiny was a five-issue anthology of short stories based loosely - sometimes very, very loosely - around the theme of characters moving to San Francisco. Normally I'd review the whole miniseries in one of these posts, but in this case it'd mean wading through a load of eight-page shorts. So let's compromise by calling this a review of issue #5, but also looking at the whole of Mike Carey and Michael Ryan's Iceman serial, which ran as the lead strip.

I'm intrigued by the fact that Marvel keep putting out books like this. The anthology titles have never sold particularly well, and you suspect that with more creators to marshal, they probably involve a disproportionate amount of effort for the X-office. Usually, the end results are rather forgettable - though the limitations of telling eight-page stories that can't change anything are pretty severe, so it's hardly surprising. But they do provide a way for indie creators to get a foot in the door, and perhaps that goes some way to justify their existence.

Still... from the reader's point of view, these books tend to be fodder for completists. At best, some stories can be divertingly quirky, but that's about the most you can hope for. And Manifest Destiny was more of the same, really.

The lead Iceman story is based on the simple premise of Mystique chasing him around trying to kill him in a possibly half-hearted way, the pay-off being that she's been shaken by her recent encounter with Wolverine, and is trying to recapture the sense of certainty that came with being a villain. It takes an awfully long time to make this point, and doesn't exactly benefit from being serialised in short chunks over five months. And when you do get to the point, it just doesn't ring true at all.

Carey is usually a reliable writer, and Ryan is solid as ever, but this is really quite disappointing. It doesn't even have much internal logic. The climax sees Iceman freeze Mystique's hand in a block of ice to stop her operating a dead man's switch. Um... why doesn't she just use her shape-shifting powers to slip out? It'd be a good question at any time, but considering she did exactly that in the previous issue...

The back-ups are better. "Nick" is an Avalanche story, with the X-Men showing up to put the frighteners on a bad guy who's already living in San Francisco. The idea is that with so few mutants around, they can't really afford to haul these guys off the streets unless it's really necessary. It's a bit of a fudge, but the story gets away with it.

And Kieron Gillen of Phonogram fame gets to do a Dazzler story, appropriately enough. That's her on the cover. Yes, I know. Doesn't look anything like her, does it? I thought it was Lady Mastermind at first. Anyway, it's a power-of-song story - seriously, what else were you expecting? - with the odd but endearing idea that obscure seventies villain Man-Mountain Marko has also gone into the music business as a talentless thug trading on his overhyped reputation. There's something to it, but Dazzler's a character in need of more rehab than an eight-page short can provide.

The lead strip is frankly disappointing, the back-ups not bad - but it's still an anthology book for the completists.

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Monday, January 26, 2009

Uncanny X-Men Annual #2

"White Queen, Dark Reign"

Writer: Matt Fraction
Artists: Mitch Breitweiser and Daniel Acuna
Letterer: Joe Caramagna
Colourists: Elizabeth Dismang Breitweiser and Daniel Acuna
Editor: Nick Lowe

By including Emma Frost in Norman Osborn's inner circle, "Dark Reign" has taken the X-Men in an unaccustomed direction: they're participating in a line-wide crossover. And the X-Men don't normally do that. They're above that sort of thing. But sales aren't what they were, so apparently it's time to take a deep breath and interact with those other comics for a change.

At first glance, putting Emma in a cabal of villains seems a questionable move, and a tiresome piece of backsliding. But if you accept Brian Bendis' take on Norman Osborn, it makes a little more sense. Osborn doesn't necessarily see these people as villains, so much as characters who might be sympathetic to playing along with him. Three of them - Emma, Namor and Dr Doom - would tend to see themselves as wronged antiheroes. They're more ethically-challenged than outright malicious.

Taking this unlikely collection of characters as his springboard, Matt Fraction uses this annual to set up a previously unmentioned history between Emma and Namor, the two most sympathetic members of the group. More importantly, it also gives him the opportunity to tinker with Emma's back-story and re-cast her Hellfire Club days in a more sympathetic light.

Much of the story is a flashback, with Sebastian Shaw trying to recruit Namor as the Hellfire Club's White King, for no particular reason other than that he's terribly impressive. Emma, naturally, is packed off to seduce him.

The story takes quite a few liberties with history. In an apparent attempt to downplay her time as a villain, Emma is shown as a sidekick rather than a co-leader, subservient to Shaw. She's a dancer who made it big - something that was foreshadowed in the short-lived Emma Frost series - and she's naively convinced that the Club is about building a power base for mutants to protect themselves. As for Shaw, despite his protests about wanting to conquer the world, he's a rather pathetic figure, obsessed with appearances - actually a fair take on a character who insists on dressing like a Regency fopp, and it's surprising nobody's gone that way before.

In Emma's earliest appearances, she was also running a school and a multinational business, but none of that's mentioned here; it doesn't really fit the relationship that Fraction's trying to set up. There was a time this sort of thing would have got on my nerves, but it's a fun take on Emma - and if you like, you can always argue that these are Emma's flashbacks, and her take on things might be a little skewed in her favour. I don't greatly mind if this fits neatly with what came before; Fraction's characters are entertaining company.

Now, granted, there's one really enormous continuity error. The flashback is set before the Dark Phoenix Saga, and yet the Inner Circle includes Selene, who didn't join until years later. At this point in continuity, she should be sitting around twiddling her thumbs in Nova Roma, waiting for the New Mutants to show up so that she can debut. This doesn't seem to be a piece of artistic licence - by all appearances, it's just a huge cock-up. I suspect somebody got her confused with Sage, who looks a bit similar if you squint, and does appear in some early Hellfire Club stories. Unfortunately, Selene's involvement is essential to the plot, which is a slight annoyance.

Never mind, though. It's a refreshing take on Emma and Namor which builds a convincing relationship from scratch. And it's got beautiful, graceful art from both Mitch Breitwerser in the framing sequence, and Daniel Acuna in flashback. A lot of artists struggle with Atlantis - underwater is hard to draw - but Acuna pulls it off brilliantly. As for Breitweiser, he deserves a lot of the credit for making a retconned rapport between two unrelated characters seem natural and unforced.

Continuity purists will come out in hives with this issue, but the rest of us will have a great time.

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Sunday, January 25, 2009

The X-Axis - 25 January 2009

There's something of a backlog building up here, not least because a bunch of X-books this week call for a proper review. So... below, you'll find a review of Jeff Parker and Tom Fowler's Mysterious the Unfathomable #1 as well as the obligatory Royal Rumble preview.

Over the next few days, we'll look at Uncanny X-Men Annual #2, Wolverine: Origins #31-32 and the X-Men: Manifest Destiny miniseries. And I'll also finally get around to saying something about Slumdog Millionaire and Frost/Nixon. Well, that's the goal, anyway. We'll see how it turns out.

Also out this week...

Astonishing X-Men #28 - In which the X-Men wander around a hidden city in China, fight a few imaginatively-designed baddies, and learn essentially one fact to advance the plot, in the closing pages. It's all very relaxed, this book. And it's very pretty, but as for the story, there's not much to get your teeth into. Not that it's excessively "decompressed" - a fair amount happens, it just seems like fairly inconsequential stuff, for the most part. And much as Simone Bianchi's art is lovely to gaze at, he's not so good at drawing you into the action - all those elaborate, convoluted page layouts serve mainly to remind me that I'm reading a comic, rather than to enhance the drama. It's trying a bit too hard, I think.

Dark Avengers #1 - We'll talk about this in more detail on the podcast next week. But it's actually not bad. Now in charge of the Initiative, Norman Osborn unveils his new official Avengers team: a couple of maniacs from the previous line-up, and a bunch of Thunderbolts who he's passing off as established heroes. That includes Daken, parachuted into the mainstream Marvel Universe as the government's new official Wolverine. It's all terribly silly. I have no idea how this is supposed to lead to any sort of ongoing series beyond the "Dark Reign" storyline, which is meant to be over by the autumn. And while it would be going too far to say the story was riddled with plot holes, it certainly begs all sorts of questions. (For example, if Norman's passing off these guys as the real superheroes, how does he justify his team including the unregistered Spider-Man, wearing a different outfit?) But despite all that, it's an entertaining piece of fluff, with Ares providing some genuinely amusing comic relief. And I like the whole black-is-white idea of a fake Avengers team made up of bad guys wearing their costumes. Much better than I was expecting.

Dr Doom & the Masters of Evil #1 - A curio from Marvel's all-ages division: an ongoing series starring Dr Doom and the Sinister Six. I presume it's out of continuity; it certainly doesn't seem to be set in anything approaching the present day. Anyhow, Paul Tobin writes a rather likeable bunch of squabbling villains, wisely positioning them as the underdogs in the face of A-list heroes and villains (except for Doom, obviously, but he's not really the star). Some of it doesn't quite work - giving Mysterio the power to disguise his teammates with illusions allows for some nice comedy sequences, but it leaves the Chameleon with no role at all. A fun book, though.

Hellblazer #251 - Peter Milligan takes over as regular writer, with Giuseppe Camuncoli on art. It's one of those high concept stories that Milligan likes, with John Constantine suddenly developing some rather nasty scabs in apparent sympathy for a twelve-year-old industrial dispute. There's also an attempt to re-establish a supporting cast - something I think Hellblazer generally benefits from - and some pleasingly unfussy art. It's nothing revelatory, but it's promising.

New Exiles #17 - The penultimate issue before yet another relaunch. And it's a mess, really. The Scalphunter/Psylocke storyline gets an awkward inconclusive ending (though I suppose he might get back to it next month), there's a clumsy sequence with Rogue fighting the Shi'ar (largely the fault of some unimpressive art), and a back-up strip which still seems to think it can somehow get away with just declaring Diana Fox to be a hero after two years of writing her as anything but. Awful, I'm afraid.

Weapon X: First Class #3 - What were they thinking? Taking Barry Windsor-Smith's "Weapon X" story - which consists mainly of Wolverine being tortured repeatedly and going nuts - and re-telling it for the all-ages market is a very strange idea, and the resulting comic is as confused in tone as you'd expect. Mark Robinson's artwork is quite striking, to be fair, but writer Marc Sumerak ends up producing something that's toned down from the original, but still clearly doesn't belong in the "First Class" books. The back-up strip, revealing that a young Gambit was in the building at the time, is just inexplicable.

X-Factor #39 - The recap page includes a note by Peter David asking people not to reveal the plot online. Good luck with that one. Actually, I'll play along rather than give away the ending, but I've got no problem with people posting plot recaps on message boards. With the price of comics these days, it's practically a public service. More curious is a "recap" section covering material that wasn't in the previous story but could plainly have been handled in a few panels of flashback - how that's going to work in the collected edition, I've no idea. Still, David is right about one thing - this does have a great ending, the sort of twist that I didn't see coming at all but makes absolute sense the moment you see it. Very good.

X-Men: Kingbreaker #2 - It's the second issue of a Starjammers miniseries. It's passable. I can barely remember anything else about it. Um... yeah, the idea is that Vulcan is overstepping the mark with his flights of dictatorial fancy, and even the likes of Deathbird are starting to get a bit worried about him. Competent, as I say, but unless you're a particular fan of the characters involved, I can't imagine why it would grab you.

X-Men: Legacy #220 - At long last, the series catches up on Rogue in Australia, as she returns to their old ghost town headquarters to reflect on things. From the look of it, Carey is planning to resolve the long-forgotten subplot about where all that hi-tech equipment came from, something that was a big mystery twenty years ago but has barely been mentioned since. As usual, Carey tells a good story, and gives long-time fans plenty to enjoy. He's also cut back on the flashbacks in a big way, which might be for the best - a lot of them were allusions to old stories that wouldn't mean a great deal to newer readers. Still, it remains a book which is very heavily dependent on the X-Men's past continuity as a springboard for its stories - after all, that's the idea - and I suspect that can't help but limit its appeal.

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Mysterius the Unfathomable #1

"Mysterius the Magnificent"
Writer: Jeff Parker
Artist: Tom Fowler
Letterer: Saida Temofonte
Colourist: Dave McCaig
Editor: Ben Abernathy

Jeff Parker has made something of a name for himself in recent years as a writer of entertaining all-ages and vaguely retro superhero comics, such as X-Men: First Class and Agents of Atlas. With Mysterius the Unfathomable, he's trying something different: a standalone miniseries about an aging stage magician with genuine powers and Ella, the new sidekick who stumbles upon him. Through the joy of synchronicity, she ends up with little choice but to stick around as the latest "Delfi" - the name he gives to all his sidekicks.

This is a WildStorm miniseries, and it's nice to see that they still do this sort of thing. The imprint has had a rocky few years, and aside from its fading superhero universe, it seems to have become a dumping ground for video game adaptations and unused movie pitches. But it also gives DC a place to put comics that fit somewhere between the DC Universe and the Vertigo imprint. (Whether this is the best place for them is debatable. But at least it's a place.)

Mysterius himself is a vaguely obnoxious character who was apparently a fairly big deal at some point, but now makes a living doing seances and the like. He wouldn't be a particularly likeable protagonist, but he doesn't have to be, because Ella serves that role, and she's much more engaging. That leaves Mysterius free to be enigmatically annoying, a character that Parker writes rather well.

There's also an arch-sceptic character, John Darby, who's even more annoying than Mysterius himself. I was concerned for a while that the book was going to make the classic error of having sceptics who inevitably looked like idiots for denying the blindingly obvious. In fact, Parker avoids that trap: although we can tell that Mysterius has genuine magical powers, they're unreliable and unobtrusive enough that Darby is perfectly justified in saying he's seen nothing that couldn't be explained. Still, he's a one-note character, and infuriatingly smug as some professional sceptics can be, he feels excessively heavy-handed to me.

That point aside, it's a good first issue. Artist Tom Fowler makes Mysterius a suitably unheroic and self-important figure, and does very good work with the seance scenes in the afterlife, keeping the bleakness on the right side of dark comedy. And I like the presentation of magic as something that allows Mysterius to bend the rules rather than break them entirely; he's able to live a comfortable enough life in the margins, but doesn't seem to have any tremendous power over the real world. Magic is such a get-out-of-jail-free card that writers need to keep it on a leash to stop it ripping holes in the plot, and Parker judges it well here.

A strong start; I'll look forward to picking up the collection.

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Royal Rumble 2009

The Christmas break is over, and the 2009 WWE pay-per-view calendar is underway. Traditionally, the Royal Rumble is one of the big shows of the year - partly because it's been around since the eighties, partly because it has a beloved gimmick match as its centrepiece, and partly because it begins the build to Wrestlemania in the spring, the biggest show of the year.

For those of you who don't know (and yet still inexplicably care sufficiently to read these posts), here's how it works. The Royal Rumble match is an annual 30-man battle royal. Wrestlers choose a number at *cough, cough* random. Numbers 1 and 2 start, and everyone else enters in sequence at two minute intervals (or thereabouts). If you get thrown over the top rope and both feet touch the floor, you're eliminated. Last man left is the winner, and gets to challenge for the title at Wrestlemania. Since in theory anyone could win this ridiculously random match, it's traditionally a good place for somebody to break from the pack and be positioned as the big star leading to Wrestlemania.

Complicating matters, the WWE now has three weekly shows - Raw, Smackdown and ECW - each with its own version of the world title. The winner gets to choose which one to wrestle for. In practice, nobody takes the ECW title seriously, and there's no way it's going to headline Wrestlemania. So it's between Raw and Smackdown.

Because the Royal Rumble match itself takes up over an hour, the show usually has a fairly small card. And this is no exception...

1. The 2009 Royal Rumble. It's hard to screw this match up. Something is guaranteed to happen every two minutes, and the trick is to have enough turnover of wrestlers in the early part of the match to keep it entertaining. They've announced 21 participants, leaving 9 free spaces. A couple of those will probably go to retired wrestlers making surprise guest appearances. A couple will go to people returning from injury or recently signed back to the company. And the rest will go to whoever's standing around backstage.

They haven't done much to build for this match on Raw or ECW. Smackdown seemed to be building to a story with Triple H being forced to enter the match at number 1, but that seemed to have vanished when the show aired on Friday. The usual sources are reporting some last-minute re-writing of the show, though nobody seems quite sure why. One prevailing theory is that Randy Orton was meant to win and, for some reason, plans have changed - possibly because they now need him in a different role at Wrestlemania.

This would at least explain why Rev Theory, who perform his entrance music, were first booked for Raw on Monday, and then told that their services wouldn't be required. On the other hand, Orton/Cena strikes me as the biggest match they've got for Wrestlemania, which would make Orton the natural winner. Well, we'll see.

The participants can usually be divided pretty easily into established main eventers (who could plausibly win, even if it might be a bit of a surprise in storyline terms) and everyone else.

The big names: Triple H, the Big Show, the Undertaker, Randy Orton, Chris Jericho, Rey Mysterio, and Kane. The latter two would be very strange choices, but they're still positioned as main event wrestlers.

Everyone else: Finlay, Mark Henry, CM Punk, R-Truth, Carlito, Brian Kendrick, Vladimir Kozlov, Shelton Benjamin, Kofi Kingston, John Morrison & The Miz, Cody Rhodes & Ted DiBiase and Santino Marella. It'd be a miracle if any of these guys won; I can see John Morrison being elevated to main event status in the course of 2009, but my bet would be on him winning the Money in the Bank match at Wrestlemania rather than getting his title shot here.

Of course, it's always possible that one of the unannounced participants will win. Tough to call, really. But the match is usually a good hour's television.

As for the rest of the card:

2. World Heavyweight Title: John Cena v. John Bradshaw Layfield. This is the Raw world title, but the match is actually a backdrop to an ongoing storyline with JBL and Shawn Michaels. The risibly implausible set-up is that Shawn has lost all his money in the stock market crash, and has reluctantly signed up to work for JBL as a result. The minor fact that he already has a job as a headlining wrestler for the WWE seems to have entirely slipped past the writing team. But anyhow, that's the deal: Shawn needs money, so he's going to help JBL win the title and hold it through to Wrestlemania. This puts Shawn in a strange limbo position - no longer quite a babyface, since he's voluntarily helping a heel, but also not quite a heel, since he continues to act normally whenever he's not under direct instructions.

As you'd imagine, audiences were initially rather confused by this, but seem to be getting into the story now. The idea this time is that JBL has Shawn in his corner, and with Shawn's (obviously illegal) help, he should be able to win the title.

Gaping logic holes aside, it's not a bad story, and at least it's different. But there are several problems here. For one thing, we've seen plenty of Cena/JBL matches before, and they've never been brilliant. For another, the match obviously can't end until either Shawn interferes or he clearly passes up an opportunity to do so - and that makes it hard to get the crowd into the match. And the plot seems to demand that JBL should win, which means months of JBL title defences - not a particularly enticing prospect, though if they're kept short and used as a backdrop for the Shawn Michaels storyline, you never know.

I'm in two minds about this. I'm curious to see where they're going... but I don't expect the actual match to be much good.

3. WWE Title: Jeff Hardy v. Edge. Jeff won the Smackdown title at Armageddon in December, after months of chasing. This is Edge's rematch, though matters are complicated by a slightly odd story in which his wife Vicky, the Smackdown general manager, inexplicably ran a series of matches to establish whether he should get the title shot. Quite where they're heading with that, if anywhere, remains a mystery - but it's an odd choice to make the villain struggle to get his rightful rematch.

They're going with Jeff as an underdog champion, and playing up his various personal problems, and general eccentricity, to position him as a misfit overcoming adversity. Jeff's never been particularly good on the mike, and it's probably wise to programme him against Edge, who's excellent.

The story here is that Jeff has been plagued by mysterious incidents - hit-and-run attempts, pyro malfunctions - which suggest that somebody's trying to take him out. We're obviously meant to think that it's Edge, who denies everything. And most likely he's telling the truth, because by all accounts this slot is reserved for his old tag-team partner, recently re-signed from TNA...

Always loved that entrance video. Not that it's an especially brilliant piece of music - but it's precisely the right level of pretentiousness for the character. Anyway, look for him to show up in the title match, probably costing Jeff the title and setting up a feud through to Wrestlemania. Which, come to think of it, probably leaves Edge free to feud with Triple H. Oh lord.

The match should be excellent, anyway.

4. ECW Title: Jack Swagger v. Matt Hardy. Jack Swagger is a rookie heel who they've been steadily pushing on the C-show for a few months now. He's actually pretty good for his level of experience, and won the title from Matt on the regular show a couple of weeks back. This is the rematch. Normally, I'd say that was a bad move, but the ECW Title is a different beast - nobody really cares about it, and it makes no real difference to how many people buy the pay-per-view, so they were probably better off giving Jack his big win on a show which more people would see.

There's no way he's losing the title back after two weeks, so this is just the formality of Matt getting a rematch. Their first match was good, and this should be about the same standard.

5. WWE Women's Title: Beth Phoenix v. Melina. Beth is the defending champion, and she's currently caught up in a stalker storyline with crazed fan Rosa Mendes, whom her boyfriend Santino has inexplicably hired as an intern. That means Melina is more or less a token challenger, serving as a backdrop to that story. It's always possible, I suppose, that Rosa could cost Beth the title, but it seems too early for that. Probably a short match with Beth winning, to break up the card.

Worth getting? Well, it's always one of the big shows of the year, and in storyline terms, there's plenty going on here. The quality of the actual wrestling is harder to predict, but the Rumble itself is usually reliable, and Jeff and Edge should be good.


Sunday, January 18, 2009

The X-Axis - 18 January 2009

The dead month of January continues, with one of the quietest weeks I can remember. Al and I reviewed some trade paperbacks in this week's House to Astonish - specifically, Agents of Atlas, Rasl and House of Mystery. You can download the show here, or visit the podcast webpage, or subscribe via iTunes.

The final issue of Civil War: House of M is out this week, and you'll find my review below. Quite honestly, nothing else this week particularly catches my imagination, and I still have some movies I'm planning to write about, so we'll just cover everything else in the round-up...

Black Lightning: Year One #1 - From last week, but I was holding it back in case we needed it for the podcast. Obviously, it's the origin story of Black Lightning, and it's one of those "lone hero in corrupt gangland" things. The creative team of Jan van Meter (Hopeless Savages) and Cully Hamner are an interesting choice, and I like the idea of using the title character's wife as the point of view character instead of giving us the usual first person narrative from the hero. Nice art, too, though Hamner seems to have toned down his style a bit since the last time I saw him, and become a little more standard. On the whole it's pretty decent - though I can't help but raise an eyebrow at a story that wants me to believe that Metropolis has districts where the gang violence is so bad as to create a no-go area for Superman.

Blue Monday: Thieves Like Us #1 - I could have sworn I missed the last Blue Monday mini, but apparently the plot hasn't moved on much. It's still teen comedy, and after nine years, Bleu is still hoping to ensnare her beloved teacher Mr Bishop. Which leads the entire cast to spend a day at the zoo. It's that sort of book. Perfectly enjoyable, although as weirdly anachronistic as ever - these characters still have Walkmans, for heaven's sake. Still, I'm starting to get the feeling that it's a series heading nowhere fast, and while that has a certain laid back charm, I can't help wondering if it's ever going to pay off.

X-Infernus #2 - In which Illyana Rasputin gets rid of that "demon" design and goes back to looking the way she did in the 1980s. Why do I suspect that by the time we're finished, an awful lot of things will be back the way they were in the 1980s? Despite that, though, I'm quite enjoying this series. CB Cebulski's story has a bit of zip to it, and Giuseppe Camuncoli's bold artwork gives the book some energy. As a superhero artist, he could be one to watch - he certainly deserves to get some attention on the strength of this series. Shame he isn't doing the covers, which feature some fiddly and overcrowded group shots by David Finch.

X-Men & Spider-Man #3 - This is the second Christos Gage comic of the week (after Civil War: House of M #5), and it's by far the better one. The high concept here is that each issue, Spider-Man and the X-Men team up to fight a bad guy (invariably with Mr Sinister behind it all) at a different point in their careers. This issue brings us to the nineties, and Gage boldly embraces the story that defines nineties Spider-Man like no other. Yes, that's right, it's Ben Reilly, the spider-clone! And his beleaguered fans will want this issue, since it actually treats the much-maligned character with some affection. But the real selling point, as usual, is Mario Alberti's stunning artwork, which must surely mark him out for big things in 2009.

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Civil War: House of M

Civil War: House of M
Writer: Christos N Gage
Artist: Andrea Divito
Colourists: Laura Villari, Nathan Fairbairn and Bruno Hang
Letterer: Dave Sharpe
Editor: Bill Rosemann

Why? Why? For god's sake, why?

These are the questions that sprang to mind when Civil War: House of M was first solicited. They were still in mind when I finished issue #1, and they're still in mind now that the series is complete. Okay, technically they're only one question. But, to steal a line from Red Dwarf, it's such a good question that it's worth asking three times.

Even explaining the concept of this series will take a while. Back in 2005, Marvel published the summer crossover House of M. The high concept was that the Scarlet Witch, who had gone mad, used her reality-warping powers to change the world so that mutants were in charge and Magneto was the ruler. The story, such as it was (and for the most part it wasn't), involved a bunch of heroes regaining their real memories and going after Magneto, all of which led to Wanda just changing things back and trying to remove mutants altogether - a conclusion to which the preceding seven issues had singularly omitted to build.

God, it was rubbish.

That said, the basic concept had some promise, and some of the tie-ins weren't bad at all. Apparently the collected editions also did surprisingly well, which is why we got House of M: Avengers, a belated miniseries filling in the back story of Luke Cage's group. And here, in Civil War: House of M, we've got the back story explaining how Magneto took over the world.

You might be wondering what the 2006 crossover Civil War has to do with any of this. And the answer is "nothing whatsoever." It's shameless false advertising, something that unfortunately seems to be on the increase at both Marvel and DC. But that's another story.

What we get, then, is the back story of how Magneto ended up ruling the world... in a timeline that never happened anyway, because it was only ever a reality warp created by Wanda. Hence the central plot point of House of M, which was characters recovering their true memories. So this is, apparently, five issues of stuff that didn't happen.

Except occasionally, on the fringes of the story, Wanda shows up to object to the way minor characters are acting, and mess about with them. She plays no apparent role in the main plot, though, so these moments only serve to emphasise the convoluted and vaguely incomprehensible set-up.

The story is choppy, and seems uncertain quite what point it's trying to make. Broadly speaking, Magneto is clearly in the right: the humans really are out to get him, and the US government (under Nixon, of all people) is really sending out Sentinels to kill mutants. Magneto deposes Apocalypse as the leader of the mutant forces and then goes on to be a basically enlightened despot, conquering Genosha, which becomes the obligatory mutant Israel, and overthrowing the US government in obvious self-defence. There's a subplot where Xavier encourages him to work by diplomacy rather than warfare, and Magneto lacks the patience to go that way - but since Xavier's arguments are pragmatic rather than moral, and Magneto ultimately wins anyway, it's hard to see the point being made.

The story ends with a seemingly tacked-on sequence where Magneto reveals to his three kids that he was their father all along, thus alienating Pietro and Lorna (but not Wanda, who of course knows everything in this world). This doesn't work at all, because it has nothing to do with the main story. The family subplot is foreshadowed only by a brief scene in issue #2 - and besides, Magneto openly called Wanda his daughter just a few pages earlier. And if he hasn't acknowledged her as his daughter then, um, what's the official explanation for having her around at all?

This doesn't work. Christos Gage is a good writer, and he's managed to get unexpectedly good stories out of some weak franchises in the past. But here, he seems unsure what he's trying to do. If it's a morality play where Magneto wins but learns that it's a hollow victory, then the story doesn't get that point across. If the idea is that Magneto keeps making the wrong decisions but that Wanda is lurking in the background to stop him from suffering the consequences - which might have been an interesting approach - then we never really see that either.

Andrea diVito's art is perfectly fine and tells the story more than adequately, but it's not the sort of thing that can save a weak script. In general I enjoy Gage's writing, and I'd like to see more of him, but with the best will in the world, this is a mess.

(Oh, and yes, the book is officially called Civil War: House of M, not House of M: Civil War - whatever the logo may say.)

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House to Astonish, episode 6

It's an incredibly dead period for new releases, but there's still some news to talk about, as Marvel shift remarkable quantities of a Barack Obama comic, Watchmen gets released, and if you thought comics were overpriced in America... well, just wait till you take import costs and exchange rates into acount.

We also take a look at some trade paperbacks - the Agents of Atlas collection (just reissued in advance of their new series), and the first volumes of Rasl and House of Mystery.

Download the show here, or visit the podcast webpage, or subscribe on iTunes.

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Monday, January 12, 2009

Cable #7-10

"Waiting for the End of the World"
Writer: Duane Swierczynski
Artist: Ariel Olivetti
Letterer: Joe Caramagna
Editor: Axel Alonso

With its second arc, Cable remains a strangely off-kilter book. The series has already chosen an unusual direction: Cable has been entrusted with protecting the newborn mutant from "Messiah Complex", and to do that, he's taken her into the future. Unfortunately, with Bishop on his tail and with his time machine broken so that he can't go back, he's ended up heading further and further into what seems an increasingly unpromising future timeline.

Deliberately setting your series outside mainstream continuity is a somewhat risky move, and it's not altogether clear that it's paid off in commercial terms. But this arc goes for a parallel structure: half the story is devoted to Cable in the far future, and the other half has Bishop returning to the present and getting interrogated by the X-Men.

There are some rather nice ideas here. Bishop apparently believes that if he manages to kill the baby, then he'll hit the cosmic reset button - so his strategy is to gather up weapons of mass destruction and destroy the world. That's a nice little conceit, and a potentially fun idea. It also neatly plays on the idea that alternate futures don't "count", something that even Cable seemed to believe in the early issues.

But the resulting comic has a number of curious features. The cast is minimal and spartan - the child barely qualifies as a character at this stage - and for all the talk of world-destroying chaos and wars over North America, all we see is a few people in a farming community besieged by giant cockroaches. The epic scale suggested by the plot is singularly absent from the page. I assume this is a deliberate choice, partly reinforcing Bishop's argument that none of this really counts, but it makes for a rather unfulfilling read.

The story often seems contrived. The series is bending over backwards not to offer an explanation for why Bishop wants to kill the baby - which would be fine, if it didn't keep putting him in a position where he would logically want to explain himself. The attempts to gloss over this are cursory at best - of the "you wouldn't believe me anyway" variety - and it just doesn't fly. Making matters worse, Bishop's plan seems to involve crossing his fingers and hoping that the X-Men will open a box in another state at precisely the right moment for maximum dramatic effect. You can't help but roll your eyes at that.

Still... Cable is certainly trying something different, and it has its own unique, if somewhat desolate, feel. I do admire the effort, but something about the finished product doesn't engage me.

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Number 1s of 2009: January 11

A new year, and as you'd expect, not much has happened over Christmas. You don't release singles during the dead period. The argument used to be that the stores weren't open, but that's not a big deal these days - most singles sales are downloads. However, it's very difficult to promote a single over Christmas, which tends to make for a quiet January. And three weeks at the top for Alexandra Burke.

Taking advantage of that quiet period is the first new number one of 2009: Lady GaGa, "Just Dance". Universal don't seem to allow embeddable versions of their videos anywhere these days, so you'll just have to click on the link.

The usual music industry pundits have declared that 2009 is going to be the year of electropop starlets (in the same way that 2008 was supposed to be the year of Amy Winehouse clones), and Lady GaGa fits neatly into that bracket. Her album has been out for months in most of the world, but for some reason Britain is only just getting it now. Good debut single, though I suspect it's being talked up a little more than it really merits. And for some reason, every time I hear the opening bars, I keep expecting it to turn into "Y Control", which sounds nothing like it...

Elsewhere on the charts, Britain's girl band triumvirate - Girls Aloud, the Sugababes and newcomers the Saturdays - have all chosen to release singles in January, with intriguing results.

The Sugababes' single, "No Can Do", peaked at number 23 and seems to be flying out of the charts already. It's an odd record which probably deserved better. Not sure about that video, though. Clever, yes, but do it with the genders reversed and you'd be Spinal Tap.

Girls Aloud are at number 25 and climbing with "The Loving Kind". This is written by the Pet Shop Boys, of all people. Whether it's a Girls Aloud record... well, I'm not so sure about that. Back in their prime, the Pet Shop Boys occasionally mentioned a vague plan to retire from performing, and hire some younger singers to write songs for. And this is what it might have sounded like. You can tell it's a Pet Shop Boys song - the chorus includes the word "disinclined." Arguably the best thing they've written since "Single Bilingual". And since everything else I've mentioned has had embedding disabled...

Finally, we have the Saturdays, who are surprisingly in the lead right now, with "Issues" at number 6. Surprising because they're the newbies, but also because it's a rather limp ballad with a chorus full of awkward rhymes. Their previous single "Up" was much better.

The Saturdays' gimmick - though they'd strenuously deny this - is that two of them are former child stars. Frankie Sandford and Rochelle Wiseman were members of S Club 8, a pre-pubescent spin-off from S Club 7 (themselves a pop group cross-promoted with a BBC kids show), which must have seemed like a good idea at the time. Here they are in action.

The idea that two of those kids are now in the Saturdays is something I still can't quite get my head round...


Sunday, January 11, 2009

The X-Axis - 11 January 2009

Not much out this week, is there? You'll find Punisher #1 reviewed below, and I'll have a look at Cable #6-10 on Monday or Tuesday. There's also Black Lightning: Year One #1, but I think I'll save that one for the podcast - next week's schedule is even more devoid of interesting new releases.

I might also post about Official Index to the Marvel Universe in the next few days - it's not the sort of thing you can really review, but there are a few things worth saying about it. (On the whole, I like it.) Oh, and I'll review Slumdog Millionaire too if I get time.

Meanwhile, a quick round-up of the rest of the X-books:

NYX: No Way Home #5 - Wasn't this meant to be the street-level X-book? Marjorie Liu seems to be dragging it in a different direction altogether, as the kids are unwillingly taken under the wing of a mysterious baddie who talks about how valuable surviving mutants are these days. This is taking the series into much more conventional X-territory, and that's not the direction I'd have gone in - surely it erodes the book's distinctiveness? I've said before that this story has smoothed off a lot of the rough edges of the original series, but so far that's largely worked in its favour by giving it some much-needed structure. Here, we seem to be in danger of losing sight of the concept. It's all perfectly readable and polished, but doesn't really grab me.

Wolverine: Switchback - Yet another one-shot from the burgeoning genre of "Wolverine finds a Z-list baddie and kills him." The lead story, by Joseph Clark and Das Pastoras, is actually pretty decent, with beautiful artwork elevating a basically routine story about tourists mysteriously getting themselves killed on a remote mountain bend. It's not desperately original, but it's well executed, and actually worth a look on the strength of Pastoras' contribution. But the back-up strip, by Gregg Hurwitz and Juan Doe, is literally just "Wolverine meets some baddies and kills them." Hurwitz seems to fancy this as a wry comment on Wolverine's implausibly eventful life, but that's not a hugely interesting idea, and most of the page count is devoted to random violence. It's a waste of artist Juan Doe, a consistently inventive artist in need of a writer to match.

X Men Noir #2 - The indicia says there's a hyphen in the title, but the logo and the story say otherwise, so I'm going to go with them. As I said last month, I have issues with this sort of book. It's a noir story where all the characters are loosely based on the X-Men and their villains, and sometimes it's quite clever on that level. Using the Golden Age Angel to provide a "proper" hero as the protagonist is neat; there's a smart twist on Rogue as well. But at the end of the day, what's the point of doing a noir story with the X-Men? I can't think of one, and because of that, I can't help seeing this as just an elaborate gimmick, albeit a fairly entertaining one. I suppose a case can be made that the tropes of noir are so well-established that these days the whole genre has descended into pastiche, if not outright self-parody, so what the hell. Still, I don't really get what they're trying to achieve here.

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Punisher #1

"Living in Darkness"
Writer: Rick Remender
Artist: Jerome Opena
Colourist: Dan Brown
Letterer: Joe Caramagna
Editor: Axel Alonso

It seems that these days Marvel will take any change of creative team on a lower-tier comic as an excuse for a renumbering. Punisher #1 is essentially Punisher War Journal #26, but with Matt Fraction replaced by Rick Remender and Jerome Opena, the people who brought you Fear Agent.

Their first arc is a "Dark Reign" tie-in, which might seem an unpromising way to go with the Punisher. After all, he's a B-movie vigilante, more at home in his traditional role of gunning down nameless mobsters. But they're already doing that in the Max imprint Punisher series (now being renamed Punisher: Frank Castle for maximum confusion potential). This series, like Punisher War Journal before it, is apparently about trying to integrate the Punisher into the Marvel Universe.

I have to say that, despite largely enjoying Matt Fraction's run, I still have my doubts about whether this is really a good idea. Yes, he was created as a Spider-Man character. But that's not his most successful incarnation, and in recent years, when he's interacted with the rest of the Marvel Universe, it's worked partly because it's so incongruous. Can you keep that up when it's a regular format? I'm not convinced.

The "Dark Reign" gimmick, as you surely know by now, is that Norman Osborn and his allies have kicked out Tony Stark and are running the Initiative. That, at least, gives the Punisher something to kick against, and he duly starts off by trying to assassinate Norman Osborn on page 2. Unfortunately, where we go from there is a full-length fight scene against the Sentry.

Now, it's a very well-paced fight scene, and quite inventive, and almost manages to convince me that Frank would last more than five seconds against a guy who's supposed to be on a par with Superman. And it also points to a promising direction for the Sentry, a reasonably interesting character who's had nothing much to do since Brian Bendis dusted him off. Here, he's Osborn's dupe, wholly convinced that the good guys have won and everything's going to be fine now. It's a neat idea, and might be the role that the character's been missing. But that, I suppose, is probably a matter for the Avengers books.

However good a fight scene it may be, it's still just a fight scene, and doesn't take us much further into the story. At four dollars an issue, we need to get a bit further than "he doesn't like Norman Osborn" and "a mystery guy wants to help out."

By the way, this was solicited as a 48 page issue. And it is. But what the solicitation didn't mention is that the story only runs to the regulation 22 pages. The rest of the issue consists of a one-page essay by Remender, a recap of the Punisher's career lasting a jawdropping 13 pages (though in fairness, some effort has gone into it), a feature billed as a "Punisher Reading Chronology" which is actually just a list of trade paperbacks you might care to purchase, and a preview of Agents of Atlas #1. You can imagine my reaction when I got halfway through the issue and the story stopped dead. "Huh," I thought. "Is there a back-up strip? Oh."

Still, leaving aside the price tag and judging it as a first issue, what we have here is a classic example of writing for the trade. It's a good scene, but it's not a satisfying story - merely the opening pages of one. And I'm not convinced that will fly in the days of four dollar comics.

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Friday, January 09, 2009

A note on War Machine...

Marvel has put out a press release entitled "War Machine #1 is a hit with critics everywhere". "Critics can't stop raving about his new series," it says. "Marvel urges retailers to check their orders on War Machine, as the series continues to draw acclaim from all corners."

This came as news to me. I could have sworn I thought it sucked. I thought I said so. And I wasn't alone.

"This isn't unique. This is just bad." - Comics Bulletin
"It would be great if it was actually meant to be funny... Bloody awful, really." - Comiks Debris
"Pretty lacklustre... The artwork was great for the material and its possble without it, the book would be terrible." -

Perhaps none of us are corners.

But Marvel quote positive reviews from Timothy Callahan at CBR, Brendan McGuirk at Newsarama, Bryan Joel at IGN and Tonya Crawford at BrokenFrontier.

Crawford did indeed give the book a positive review. So did McGuirk, although it was a one-paragraph capsule following on a decidedly mixed full review by David Pepose ("I'm not quite sure if this series will triumph or collapse (sic)").

Bryan Joel, however, gave the book 6.7 out of 10 and said "the issue seems to punish longer-term readers... [There are] new supporting cast members, neither of which have the spark that Rhodes and Suzi did. In terms of plot, the book is on the flimsier side... The New Nation story crammed more edge and wit into eight pages than the entirety of issue #1... I'm personally a little underwhelmed."

And Callahan gave the book two stars out of a possible five, describing it as "a pretty shallow basis for an ongoing series... Ultimately, this comic reads like a concept from 1992, when the way to make a comic more interesting was to load a couple extra rocket launchers on a character's back. ... [A]fter one issue, it really just seems like an armoured Punisher riff, and that's just not enough."

And these guys, remember, are being cited by Marvel as examples of universal critical acclaim.

Look, I know it's advertising, but there's a line between hype and outright lying, and claiming that War Machine #1 is a critically acclaimed comic - let alone trying to back that claim up with selective quotation from negative reviews - is just outright lying.


Wednesday, January 07, 2009


I missed Demons when it debuted on Saturday, but I thought I'd give it a shot. So I tracked down a repeat on ITV2.

I lasted twenty minutes.

It's one of those Saturday night action/fantasy shows that British broadcasters suddenly decided to make again after Dr Who was a success. Most of them aren't very good. In fairness, ITV's previous effort Primeval was one of the better ones. Demons, however, is a journeyman Buffy clone. British viewers can watch the online version here - but for heaven's sake don't.

Because when I say "clone", I'm not kidding. It's set in London and our chosen one is a teenage boy. But he has a watcher figure, who's American, and whose name is Rupert. Inexplicably, they've cast Philip Glenister in the role - evidently he's desperate to escape typecasting, and the producers are out for revenge on Dick Van Dyke.

Just in case anyone watching hadn't figured out that it's a Buffy clone, our hero consults with his mentor in a special library full of magical books. That's where I turned it off.

Demons lacks any of the spark of Joss Whedon's dialogue, and it has all the visual flair of an advert for the DFS half-price sale. The best you can say for it is that the CGI isn't bad. But that doesn't stop it being a laughably derivative botch job.

Oh, god, and the opening theme tune. What were they thinking?


Tuesday, January 06, 2009

The Reader

The UK movie release schedule for January is promising. Danny Boyle's Slumdog Millionaire comes out on Friday; the week after is The Wrestler, already bearing a ton of excellent reviews; and at the end of the month there's Frost/Nixon, which I have my doubts about - it's directed by the workmanlike Ron Howard - but sounds worth a look.

And this week... there's Frank Miller's version of The Spirit, which did so well in America that they haven't even screened it for critics in the UK. Yikes.

So instead we went to the Filmhouse to see Kate Winslet and Ralph Fiennes in The Reader, an adaptation of the Bernard Schlink novel. By the way, if you click on that link, you'll get the trailer, which gives away the end of act one. Quite honestly, it's a much better film if you go in not knowing where it's headed, so I'd encourage you just to go and see it.

It's also, unfortunately, virtually impossible to talk about the film without giving away that plot twist, since it's absolutely central to the premise, and to the argument of the film. Basically, the film starts off as a "teenage boy has affair with mysterious older woman" story, only to veer off in a different direction once we learn more about Hanna.

The film has had very mixed reviews - Metacritic lists critics all over the scale from 100 down to 10. Personally, I thought it was a great piece of work. It's true enough that the film is more cerebral than emotional, particularly in the middle stretch - but that alienation and distancing is precisely the point. And some may feel that the film is attempting to introduce moral complexities where none exist, though I'd disagree (particularly if you take the story metaphorically). Robert Ebert's review addresses that point very well (revealing the plot in the process, admittedly).

Worth seeing, if it's showing near you.


Monday, January 05, 2009

Young X-Men #8-9

"The Y-Men"
Writer: Marc Guggenheim
Penciller: Rafa Sandoval
Inkers: Roger Bonet, Roger Martinez & Greg Adams
Colourist: Jose Villarrubia
Letterer: Dave Sharpe
Editor: Nick Lowe

Alas, poor Young X-Men - dead at issue #12. And that knowledge makes "The Y-Men" a strange read, because Marc Guggenheim clearly had plans stretching further than that. He thought he had six issues to get the new team into place; he thinks he has time to spend two issues setting up his new character Ink - and introducing yet another new character, Cipher. (Yes, with an I.)

And if this book was continuing, then "Y-Men" would be a much-needed story, clearing up Ink's origin, and establishing why he's with the team in the first place. But it also means that the book will only just have finished its set-up in time to expire. Truly, this title will be seen as a strange and clumsy footnote in years to come.

Previous stories established that Ink only joined the group in a botched attempt to turn on them for personal gain, and that the only reason the X-Men are keeping him around is to keep an eye on him. Not a bad idea; it's a potentially interesting team dynamic, leading to his redemption. Ink's powers are a little more corny: his tattoos give him superpowers. And issue #7 established that he's not even a mutant at all: he's just a bozo with a mutant tattoo artist.

I've seen some complaints that the "super-powered tattoo" gimmick is too silly even for superhero comics. Myself, I don't mind it. I can see the problem: it's so incredibly specific as to strain credibility. But it's no worse than, say, Tarot, whose powers depended entirely on having a convenient tarot deck to hand. It's a little silly, but the junior book can get away with that, and I don't think it's particularly out of tone with the rest of the story.

What we get here is a story where the Young X-Men go after the mutant tattoo artist, Leon, and end up fighting a bunch of gang members he's powered up to pay off a debt. Naturally, Ink gets to save the day, with the help of a mysterious character called Cipher who claims to be an X-Man and doesn't seem to talk to anyone else (which is your usual warning sign that she's a hallucination, but that's next month's story).

The book can't quite seem to make up its mind whether Leon is a villain or a victim of circumstances. He seems to shift role according to what's convenient for the plot. And the pay-off, though inventive, does stretch credibility to breaking point: Leon powers up Ink with a Phoenix tattoo so that he can beat the gang singlehandedly. I can sort of accept this working, especially since Guggenheim emphasises that Ink is only a pale copy of the real Phoenix. But why would he or Leon think of it in the first place?

Still, Guggenheim's starting to interest me in Ink. There's something to the character, though you have to be very charitable with your suspension of disbelief to get there. A lot of readers won't be that charitable, and I can't say I blame them. But he does have some appeal, and I don't much object to Guggenheim making him the focus of the series at this point.

Rafa Sandoval does a generally decent job on the art. His Roberto and Dani are all but unrecognisable, but the tattoo designs are quite smart, and there's some clever staging in issue #9, positioning Ink to obscure his Phoenix tattoo until the crucial moment, without being too obvious about it. And on colours, the always excellent Jose Villarrubia goes for a refreshingly light and upbeat palette (though it's a shame nobody thought to tell him that Roberto isn't white).

This isn't bad, actually. There's plenty here that could justifiably irritate the hell out of you, but if you can live with it, then there's also a fair amount here that works.

All academic now, though.

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Sunday, January 04, 2009

The X-Axis - 4 January 2009

Lots of X-books this week, and a couple of new launches. Check out House to Astonish episode 5 to hear Al and me discuss Incognito, War Machine and JLA - download here, or visit the podcast webpage, or subscribe via iTunes.

I've already reviewed X-Force below, and the Young X-Men review will be up tomorrow. And that leaves...

Incognito #1 - Ed Brubaker and Sean Phillips' other Icon series is a sort of mirror image of their first collaboration, Sleeper. Instead of an undercover agent trapped in a criminal underworld, we have a supervillain on the witness protection programme, turning to vigilantism as a way of getting back in control and escaping his life. But Zack is about as unsympathetic a character as you can get, which makes this perhaps less instant than the creators' other work: there's not many people here to like. Still, it's a strong start from one of the best teams around, and I'm convinced to give it a chance to prove itself.

Justice League of America #28 - This is part of an arc designed to bring back the Milestone characters, specifically the Shadow Cabinet. In practice, it's basically a big fight between them and the JLA. The problem here, I think, is that the story doesn't do enough to explain the concept of the characters, and what makes them different or unique. Donner and Blitzen come across well as a likeable double-act, and Icon has his moments, but otherwise they feel like just another superhero group, which surely wasn't the idea. Of course, fans of the characters will probably be delighted to see them back in circulation (and if you've listened to the podcast, you'll know Al disagrees with me on this one).

New Exiles Annual #1 - #1 and only, in fact. With the book rattling towards cancellation, Chris Claremont uses this issue to tie up the subplot about Proteus occupying Morph's body. For a while now, we've had an confusing fudge where Morph is possessed by Proteus, but Proteus has been hypnotised to think he's Morph. (So he acts like Morph, but technically, he isn't.) This issue uses a generic "visit world, fight baddies" story as a backdrop to change that, so that we've now got Proteus and Morph's minds sharing a body, and trying to co-operate. It's simpler, I suppose, but I'm not altogether sure it works: Proteus' rehabilitation seems too simple and a bit trite. And for that matter, the plot mechanics of the whole story seem entirely arbitrary. Might be a step in the right direction for the character, but we'll have to see what Claremont does with him in the closing issues of the series.

Ultimate X-Men #99 - The penultimate issue of the series, and the team are barely in it. Instead, it's Rogue and a bunch of supporting characters running around fighting low-level bad guys. This is a bemusing way to end the book, seemingly disconnected from what's come before, and only peripherally related to Ultimatum itself. To be fair to writer Aron Coleite, at least he's not doing an obvious closing arc. But quite why we're getting this story instead, I have no idea, and some of the fill-in art pages seem decidedly rushed. Cancellation is the right call for a book which feels old and tired, although this being Marvel, I suspect it'll be back with a new name in a matter of months.

War Machine #1 - An unimpressive nineties-retro mess, as mad cyborg Jim Rhodes heads to the developing world to kill bad guys with his many, many guns. Greg Pak and Leonardo Manco are a strong creative team on paper, but Pak can be hit or miss, and this is definitely in the "miss" column. It's self-consciously grim and gritty, and takes itself all too seriously. Manco's art is very good, and he does make the armour look impressive, but it's not enough to carry a flimsy story.

Wolverine #70 - Continuing the "Old Man Logan" arc, Wolverine takes an issue of flashback to explain why he retired. It's one of those "all the villains ganged up and killed the heroes" things, with Wolverine being tricked into doing terrible things. I'm not altogether sure I believe in Logan reacting like that, as opposed to going nuts and setting out for revenge. But Millar and McNiven do the scene as well as it could be done, and on balance I think they pull it off. But this being Mark Millar, I can't shake the sense that I'm reading a string of Cool Stuff in a row, rather than a satisfying story; I don't really believe in this future as anything more than a collection of post-apocalyptic stock elements crossed with a flick through the Official Handbook of the Marvel Universe, and that's the stumbling block here.

Wolverine: Manifest Destiny #3 - More harmless silliness as Wolverine tries to make friends with the ridiculous martial arts types of Chinatown in order to take on the Black Dragon. You couldn't accuse this book of taking itself too seriously. Purists might object to Wolverine being cast in the "novice who must come of age" role, but I do like elements such as the "proper" martial artists' contempt for Marvel's infamously useless ninjas. Enjoyable stuff, and much better than we've come to expect from a Wolverine mini.

X-Men: Magneto - Testament #4 - We've reached Auschwitz, and, well, you know what to expect from a story set in Auschwitz. As I've said before, although this miniseries is notionally telling Magneto's origin story, that's ultimately peripheral - it's primarily an attempt to remind readers of the horror of the Holocaust. The lead character is said to be the future Magneto, but nothing turns on that. And a good thing too, because he'd be glaringly out of place in a story as sombre as this. So far, this series is going pretty well, but the big test comes next month when it has to pull off some sort of ending without seeming trite.

X-Men: Worlds Apart #3 - Storm continues to fight the Shadow King, and quite honestly, I dont understand why we're meant to care. This seems to be nothing more than a schedule-filler between volumes of Black Panther, designed to keep Storm in circulation to some extent. But the Shadow King is such a generic bad guy that there's not much to be done with him. At this stage the series seems to be just trotting through the usual mind-control schtick from his stories. One for completists.

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X-Force #7-10

"Old Ghosts"
Writers: Craig Kyle & Christopher Yost
Artist: Mike Choi
Colourist: Sonia Oback
Letterer: Cory Petit
Editor: John Barber

Since I'm only doing full reviews at the end of each arc, it makes more sense to look at the whole story. So let's kick off 2009 with "Old Ghosts", the second X-Force arc.

It's a definite improvement on the first six issues, which took themselves far, far too seriously, and ended up being unintentionally funny. Partly, that's because Clayton Crain is replaced on art by Mike Choi and Sonia Oback. Their work is perhaps a little too pretty for this sort of story, but it's got more energy and less oppressive atmospherics. And partly, it's because the writers have tinkered with the tone: bringing Domino and Elixir into the cast gives them some characters who are neither grim nor tortured.

There are some welcome signs of long-term planning here. Although notionally written as a four-issue arc, these stories spend a lot of their time building up subplots for future use: reinstating an assortment of revived villains as expandable bad guys for future stories, and setting up Archangel and Wolfsbane's latest round of mental health problems.

All for the best. But does "Old Ghosts" hang together as a story in its own right? Well, not really.

The main plot has the team trying to recover a Legacy Virus sample which has fallen into the wrong hands. In itself, this is a classic example of the left hand not knowing what the right hand is doing. The plot of Secret Invasion: X-Men - published simultaneously - hinged on the fact that the X-Men already have a cure for the Legacy Virus, and aren't too worried about releasing it any more. In X-Force, the very same thing is portrayed as a threat of extinction. You can't have it both ways - and no matter how lax your attitude to continuity, there shouldn't be such an inconsistency between two stories coming out at the same time.

Moreover, it turns out that the bad guys already have other samples of the Virus anyway. So the whole thing is a wild goose chase, and doesn't seem to have added anything - save for a random fight against expendable Marauder clones, and a faintly silly (though quite well paced) climax with X-23 diving into molten steel.

Alongside this, there's an apparently unrelated B-story with Warpath going home and fighting a giant magical demon bear. This is a homage to an old New Mutants story from the mid-1980s, but how many readers will understand that, I'm not so sure. And this part of the story is a real mess. It's a seemingly pointless fight, resolved by a random guest star: the Ghost Rider, who literally just happens to be passing, and whom the plot awkwardly casts in a grindingly inappropriate "wise old sage" role.

Mind you, it's worth noting that after struggling with the big bear in earlier issues, Choi and Oback do a much better job with it in issue #10. They haven't tried to emulate Bill Sienkiewicz's design from the original story - more of an abstract shape than a physical creature - but they've given it a hazier quality and put more emphasis on the colouring.

There are some interesting elements in these four issues, and some ideas with potential for the long term. X-Force has certainly shaken off the worst excesses of its opening story. But "Old Ghosts" is still too scattered and unfocussed to be a satisfying four-issue story in its own right.

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Total Wipeout

The BBC's latest attempt at a Saturday night gameshow is another imported format. This is the UK version of Wipeout, a series ostensibly created by Endemol USA and licensed to twenty different countries. (The UK version, like most of the overseas editions, is filmed in Argentina.)

I say "ostensibly" because, according to Wikipedia, there's an outstanding lawsuit about this. Japanese broadcaster TBS is apparently suing for copyright infringement, claiming that Wipeout is a blatant rip-off of formats such as Takeshi's Castle and Ninja Warrior. Which it is. It's an obvious clone show.

Except in Japan, these shows are based on people trying to beat the course, rather than competing against each other. And that means you can go a long time without a winner. So for western sensibilities, it's been turned into a series of courses with the slowest people being eliminated.

Fine... but the end result is a bit of a mess. The BBC bills the show as presented by Richard Hammond, whose actual contribution is to sit in a small studio in London and provide sardonic commentary (leading to awkward gear changes when he has to try and be sincere on occasion). In Argentina, there's Amanda Byram, interviewing the contestants and... doing commentary from the side of the course?

Byram seems wholly unaware that Richard Hammond is involved in the show, and her interviews with contestants appear to have been cut to ribbons. And she's doing duplicate commentary. This rings alarm bells. Total Wipeout looks suspiciously like a disastrous location shoot which they've tried to save in the edit by parachuting in Hammond. Not entirely successfully: without the contestant interviews, we're left with a succession of interchangeable mystery individuals. And the audience-free course has, shall we say, a certain lack of atmosphere.

If it's not a salvage job, then there are some very strange editing choices going on here. For British viewers, here's the iPlayer link if you want to see for yourself. It's a strange, wonky thing, a good idea on paper, rather misjudged on screen.


Exciting news.

Luke Haines has published his memoirs. This, I must buy.

Interesting fact: if you search Amazon UK for "Luke Haines", then the number two result is Phonogram: Rue Brittania, coming above any of his actual records.

Amazon has a feature that tells you what people went on to buy after looking at a particular item. In the case of Haines' memoirs, 94% of people bought the book. 4% bought some of his records. And the remaining 2%... they bought Mamma Mia on DVD. Must be lost.

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Dawn of the Dumb

In the spirit of the preceding post, let's start keeping track of my cultural intake for 2009.

And we're... not off to a particularly spectacular start, actually, but I suppose we might as well be comprehensive. Charlie Brooker's Dawn of the Dumb is a collection of columns he wrote for the Guardian in 2005 to 2007 - both his "Screen Burn" TV reviews and some of the op-ed stuff for the G2 supplement.

Look, it was in a 3-for-2 offer at Waterstones and I needed a third book, okay?

Brooker is currently responsible for the largely excellent BBC4 series Screenwipe (which started off loosely based on his Guardian work but has deviated into something more thoughtful). He also wrote the well-received zombies-meet-Big-Brother show Dead Set for E4 (which, as it happens, gets its Channel 4 airing this week).

Most of this, however, is from before that - in the days when his persona was largely based on his TVGoHome website and a central theme of misanthropic rage. Sometimes this works; he's got a great ear for a phrase, and his wholly disproportionate reaction to everyday irritants hits the mark from time to time. But it works best in small weekly doses, and reading it as a book tends to expose his limitations. In 2005 you could make a strong case that he was a one trick pony - and a lot of these pieces suffer from weak endings.

Brooker was clearly aware of this, because around the start of 2006, there's a clear effort to start writing more positive reviews and channel his absurdism in other directions - as well as some more moderate think pieces that seem to come closer to what he really thinks without the heavy veil of irony. It's a huge improvement.

Still, there's nothing here to equal the best Screenwipe segments: Brooker is at his best when there's a real point behind the flailing, when he actually reviews stuff instead of using it as a subject for his schtick, and his polemics feel like he might really mean them. Today, he usually gets the balance right. Not so much in the pieces collected here - some of the early op-eds are precisely the sort of "Isn't X rubbish?" thing he now occasionally parodies as bad observational comedy on Screenwipe.

There are exceptions, though, such as his spot-on evisceration of Banksy, or an apparently sincere tribute to the joys of harmless obscure satellite channel Solent TV. And even when Brooker is just ranting for the sake of it, he's often worth reading, just because his viciousness is so inventively worded.

But... yeah, a lot of this stuff really belongs as a weekly column in a newspaper, and putting it together in a book tends to accentuate its weaknesses.


Saturday, January 03, 2009

House to Astonish, episode 5

This week, Al and I review Incognito, War Machine and Justice League of America. Plus the usual chatter.

Download here, or visit the podcast webpage, or subscribe on iTunes.

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Happy New Year

Forgot to say that in the last post.

And here's what's coming up in the next few days:

The new House to Astonish will be up either tonight or tomorrow, with reviews of Incognito #1, War Machine #1 and Justice League of America #28.

For the first time in a while, we've got a couple of X-book story arcs ending this week. So here on the blog, we'll be looking at the "Y-Men" arc from Young X-Men and "Old Ghosts" from X-Force. There's also New Exiles Annual #1, but I'm not sure it really merits a full review. We'll see.

I'm also inclined to take another shot at posting at least a couple of paragraphs about other books and so forth that I've read in 2009. I've tried this before and usually ended up giving up because I didn't have the time to write full reviews, so expect some of these to be little more than capsules... but hey, it's a blog and they might spark some discussion, so why not?


Friday, January 02, 2009

Yes, Young X-Men is cancelled

Since it always sparks "What, when?" comments whenever it's mentioned: yes, Young X-Men is cancelled. They announced it in Marvel Previews by putting a big "FINAL ISSUE" banner over the solicitation for issue #12, which didn't appear in the online solicitations (presumably because it's not part of the text file). So there you go.