Monday, March 30, 2009

The X-Axis - 29 March 2009

Wouldn't you just know it. I go away for the weekend, and there's a whole ton of D-list X-books to write about. Oh well.

I'll come back to the X-Infernus miniseries later, I think - it's a lead-in to the upcoming New Mutants series, which makes it somewhat significant. And don't forget the latest episode of House to Astonish (download here, or visit the podcast webpage, or download via iTunes), for reviews of Invincible, Top 10 and Dark Reign: Elektra.

As for the rest, capsules ought to do it, I think...

Battlefields: Dear Billy #3 - You'd think that by now Garth Ennis would have said everything it was possible to say about war, but he keeps finding new angles. This three-issue miniseries for Dynamite has been one of his strongest miniseries in a while. It's a love story about a nurse and a pilot; she hates the Japanese, for understandable reasons, while he kills them for a living. But beneath it, they're not really on the same page at all. Ennis explores the tension between the nihilist destruction of seeking revenge for everything that happened in the war, and the distasteful realpolitik of letting it all go. Smart stuff, and definitely worth tracking down in the collection.

Jack of Fables #32 - Matthew Sturges and Bill Willingham tie up the Bookburner storyline and clear decks in preparation for the Fables crossover starting next month. Jack of Fables, as a spin-off about the most obnoxious and superficial character in fabledom, is fairly superficial in its own right, but usually good for a laugh, especially as it has the patience to spend months setting up a punchline, and the audacity to use blatant deus ex machinas at the same time. This is fairly typical; there's not a huge amount of depth there, let's be honest, but it's enjoyable silliness.

Umbrella Academy: Dallas #5 - Hmm. Not sure about the massive detour to Vietnam. Yes, it's quite funny, but it spoils the momentum of the main story. Still, I can't be too harsh on a bunch of American soldiers led by a superhero and a monkey trying to steal a mummified emperor, even if it's got nothing to do with the rest of the plot. Gabriel Ba's art is spectacular as always, but it's the deadpan embrace of utter absurdity that really makes the book work.

Wolverine: First Class #13 - Peter David takes over as writer, but apparently we're still going with the format of a guest star for every story. This time it's Daredevil, who's an unusually good fit. Not only are they about the same power level, but they both love fighting ninjas. There's nothing particularly new to be found here, but it's a solid, old-school superhero story by people who know what they're doing, and that's what people buy this book for.

X-Force/Cable: Messiah War - This is the lead-in issue for the "Messiah War" crossover, and it's actually quite decent. X-Force writers Craig Kyle and Christopher Yost get the job of introducing the story, and they dutifully devote a fair chunk of the issue to recapping the plot from Cable. If you've been reading that book already, you might find yourself getting restless, but it's a necessary evil. Mike Choi and Sonia Oback are largely on form with the art, and there's some neat comic relief with a future Deadpool - who, thanks to his healing factor, is still around a thousand years in the future, and madder than ever. If we're going to have X-Force as an ultra-violent black ops team, then you really need some humour as well, and they've struck the balance quite well here. Bishop seems unusually sane for a change, and there's even a somewhat promising scene for Cable's other arch-enemy Stryfe. (And you don't see many of those.) Much better than I was expecting, to be honest.

X-Men: Kingbreaker #4 - This, on the other hand, is pretty much exactly what I was expecting. Everyone shows up, yadda yadda, big fight, Starjammers get their win back but the bad guys escape, pieces are duly shuffled into place for the start of War of Kings. I'd normally do a full-scale review of the completed miniseries, but really, what is there to say? It does its job as a set-up, if by that you mean it moves characters from point A to point B. Oh, and it gets rid of That Idiotic Sword, which has to be a good thing. Otherwise, though, it's just a series of events in a row, hoping that nobody will notice it isn't a story. Fine if you want to see these particular characters in action, but there's not much else going for it.

X-Men: Sword of the Braddocks - Not an X-Men story at all, but a New Exiles special, in which Chris Claremont and Scott Clark tie up the stray plot thread about Slaymaster travelling from world to world, killing off the local version of Psylocke. The resolution is exactly the one you were probably expecting (our Psylocke finally beats him in single combat), but hey, it does tie up a plot thread left dangling when New Exiles was cancelled. I'm in two minds about the art; there's some grating T&A elements, but there are also some attractive graceful panels.

The book also provides this week's misleading-the-customer alert, as the four dollar book only contains a 26 page story. What's in the rest of the book? Why, a reprint of "Bloody 'Ell" by Adam Warren and Rick Mays, originally published in X-Men Unlimited #47 (cover date July 2003) - not that the book actually mentions anywhere that it's a reprint, which makes me wonder if they're trying to palm it off as new material. Then again, maybe they just forgot to label it, since the story makes little sense unless you know it was published at a time when Psylocke was supposed to be dead. Either way, it's not in the solicitations at all. Mind you, at least it's a decent story - not a lost classic by any means, but typically bouncy Warren nonsense.

X-Men: The Times & Life of Lucas Bishop #2 - This wholly unnecessary spin-off from Cable seems to consist of little more than a recap of Bishop's origin story modified to fit the current version of continuity. A couple of scenes serve to explain why Bishop hates Hope so much, but that's not the focus of the series. Nor is anything else, really. It's just a bunch of stuff happening, as if somebody had decided to take a perfectly serviceable five-page flashback and expand it into a three-issue-long Official Handbook entry. I haven't a clue what the point of this was supposed to be, but it doesn't work.

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Friday, March 27, 2009

House to Astonish, episode 11

A day earlier than usual, as I'll be out of town for the weekend. (Which means no reviews till Monday, by the way.)

This week, the usual round-up of news and solicitations, reviews of Top Ten, Dark Reign: Elektra and Invincible, and another visit to 1980s Marvel. Download here, or visit the podcast webpage, or subscribe via iTunes.

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Monday, March 23, 2009

Number 1s of 2009: March 22

Well, I was right that the Comic Relief single wouldn't last long at the top: it dropped to number 3 in its second week. And for a while, it looked I'd be right about Flo Rida returning to the top for another run.

Instead, we get a surprise...

That's Lady Gaga, "Poker Face." And it's unexpected because it's been on the chart for ages, clawing its way up. It first charted way back on 18 January at number 30, on the back of debut single "Just Dance" reaching the top, and it seemed to have peaked a couple of weeks ago at number 3. Instead, it now makes a belated surge for the top spot, ten weeks into its chart run.

It's very difficult for record labels to control the release schedule of singles these days. For chart purposes, any download of an individual track counts as buying a single. Basically, if you don't buy the whole album, you're deemed to have bought a single. So as soon as you start promoting the second single from your album, people can download it. This has resulted in some very slow-burning climbs. It's a world away from the pre-download chart, where everything entered high and plummetted. It's also more realistic, because it reflects songs gaining popularity over time. Lady Gaga may be much-hyped, but this single made it to the top because it actually grew on people.

The record for the slowest climb to number 1 is 13 weeks, held by Celine Dion's 1995 hit "Think Twice", but 10 weeks really is exceptionally slow, and a sign of real, growing and sustained popularity. At first glance, the song feels like an exercise in taking a tenuous metaphor and battering it to death ("bluffin' with my muffin"?), but it's obviously tongue-in-cheek, and it's curiously likeable. Silly, but likeable. The video helps it enormously - evidently the time is right for eighties retro-glam.

I would normally take the video from YouTube, but thanks to their ongoing feud over UK rights, I can't. Fortunately, it's also on DailyMotion (and yes, it's the official version). However, YouTube does still have this live acoustic performance. Turns out she can actually sing.


Sunday, March 22, 2009

The X-Axis - 22 March 2009

Tons of X-books this week, as Marvel's ever-erratic shipping schedule strikes again. See below for reviews of Uncanny X-Men #504-507 ("Lovelorn") and the final storylines from Ultimate X-Men and Young X-Men. And that still leaves all this...

Wolverine #71 - The penultimate chapter of "Old Man Logan", as we reach the east coast. It's pretty much what you've come to expect by now: Mark Millar and Steve McNiven doing a dystopian post-superhero Marvel Universe future, with scattered cool ideas, and a serviceable road-trip plot to steer us past them. It's quite good fun for what it is, even if seven issues seems a bit self-indulgent for a fairly slight plot. Mind you, it's paced rather well, and it's not as if anyone buys Mark Millar Wolverine stories for the philosophical depth. It is what it is; you can probably take a guess whether it's your cup of tea, and you'll probably be right.

Wolverine: Origins #34 - The X-Men fight Daken in a serviceable enough story, though one which never really makes it terribly clear why Cyclops has bothered to take the vitally important magic sword into battle rather than just keeping it safe. If you're not following "Dark Reign", then the basic idea is that Daken has been drafted into Dark Avengers as an ersatz Wolverine, apparently to annoy dad. It's a shame that the story doesn't pick up more on the idea of Daken impersonating his father, which would seem to have more story potential than a fairly standard fight with the X-Men; but then, I suppose Way's hamstrung to some extent by the fact that he can't really resolve any of these issues decisively. It's an okay issue, and if you can live with him carrying the macguffin into battle for no obvious reason, Cyclops gets some good moments.

X-Factor #41 - Layla Miller is back, and as you'd expect, that means we pick up on the stories that were left hanging in her one-shot a few months ago. Peter David is still asking people very nicely not to reveal the plot, so I'll confine myself to noting that this issue has by far the strongest narrative of all this week's books, and the most effective twists and turns. There's some fill-in art on a scene near the end of the book, but it's perfectly fine fill-in art, so no problem there. Good issue.

X-Force #13 - Oh dear, we're back to killing characters for cheap heat. Actually, technically this is the second half of a two-parter called "Suicide Leper", so I suppose I should be reviewing it in full - but it's a very heavy week, and I can't really summon up the enthusiasm to talk about more murky bloodshed, so I'm going to rely on the fact that it's also a prelude to next month's crossover with Cable. Actually, the central idea is quite sound: the Leper Queen from Peter Milligan's X-Men run has been roped into a scheme of killing off humans to provoke anti-mutant backlash, she's not desperately happy about it, and she's trying to get herself killed. But it all comes down to the casual despatching of another character - one which, given the time-travel overtones, I suspect will be reversed with a reset button in a couple of months time. Still, the overreliance on killing characters is disappointing, and we're back to the murky and frequently stilted art of Clayton Crain. Not very good.

X-Men: Legacy #222 - Professor X, Gambit, Rogue and a bunch of alien scavengers all stuck in a giant Danger Room simulation. It has all the usual strengths and weaknesses of Carey's Legacy stories. I like the premise of Rogue being stuck with Mystique's voice in her head; it's an interesting variation on the old idea that she'd absorbed Carol Danvers, with some potential for conflict. And the Shi'ar pirates get some very funny dialogue. On the other hand, it's extraordinarily continuity-heavy, and seems to assume that we'll all remember the context of a conversation between Rogue and Gambit from Uncanny X-Men #350 (a mere 157 issues ago!) without it needing to be explained. I do, but I doubt how many other readers will. If you don't mind that, it's a fun issue.

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Uncanny X-Men #504-507

Writer: Matt Fraction
Penciller: Terry Dodson
Inker: Rachel Dodson
Colourist: Justin Ponsor
Letterer: Joe Caramagna
Editor: Nick Lowe

Matt Fraction's Uncanny X-Men has been getting mixed reviews, with murmurings about a lack of direction and focus, not least from me. Re-reading all four issues of "Lovelorn" together, though, I think perhaps I've been too harsh.

This isn't to say that the book suddenly stands revealed as another Iron Fist or Casanova. But reading the book in collection-sized chunks, the bigger picture is easier to see.

"Lovelorn" is a four-parter, with two main stories. In one, Colossus gets over his depression after meeting and beating a Russian gangster from his past. In the other, the Beast recruits an unlikely bunch of mad scientist characters to form an "X Club" who will try to save the mutant race. (To complicate matters, there's also the 2009 Annual, which takes place between parts 2 and 3. It's not part of either strand, but you really need to read it in sequence to put Emma's behaviour in context, so one trusts it'll be in the collection.)

Both of these plot threads have the right idea: they're addressing outstanding points that need dealt with. It's way past time the X-Men took some meaningful steps to reverse M-Day; and Colossus needs some sort of resolution for losing Kitty Pryde at the end of Joss Whedon's Astonishing X-Men.

The Colossus story is weaker. It suffers from using a new bad guy who isn't particularly well defined, and comes across as a generic Russian gangster with a gimmicky power. In fact, the most interesting part of this thread is Emma's involvement; she's not a character who normally hangs out with Colossus, but the subtext here is presumably that she's hanging out with the purest X-Man around in order to balance out her involvement in Dark Reign.

Four issues, though, isn't really enough to bring in a completely new villain from Peter's past and make us care about his defeat. This is one of the problems with continuity: although you can insert events into a character's past, it's rather difficult to convince us that they were important events when nobody's mentioned them before. In Peter's case, though, I think it's a bad idea anyway. A key feature of Peter's character is that his pre-X-Men life was, relatively speaking, pastoral bliss as a simple farmer. He really shouldn't have previous experience of shadowy government figures or superpowered mobsters, because it undermines his status as a comparative innocent. His back story is uneventful, to be sure, but that's a strength.

The X-Club story is more successful. Beast and Angel tour the Marvel Universe picking up the most unlikely mad scientists imaginable: obscure Golden Age hero Dr Nemesis, Madison Jeffries from Alpha Flight and Weapon X, and Yuriko Takiguchi from the shortlived late seventies Godzilla series. At last, the X-Men are actually doing something about the problem they've been whining about for the last three years; but more to the point, Fraction is taking the opportunity to broaden their horizons and reach out to the wider Marvel Universe to inject some much-needed silliness. It's fortunate that this arc was drawn by Terry Dodson, who has the lightness of touch for this stuff. (Oh, and yes, there really was a Darwinian group called the X-Club - though judging from the Wikipedia article, Darwin himself wasn't actually a member. Still, too good a coincidence to pass up, isn't it?)

So: we've got two stories here that hang together perfectly well. Why are people grumbling about focus? Because there's almost no follow-up from the previous arc. And that's especially strange when you remember that issue #503 ended with Scott discovering that his first wife wasn't dead. It's the sort of thing you'd expect to come up in conversation, if nothing else, and sidelining it for four months doesn't really work.

I suspect that Fraction has fallen into the trap of writing for the trade. Over the arc as a whole, there are references to those ongoing stories. The Sisterhood show up on the first page of the first issue; Magneto and the High Evolutionary crop up right at the end, picking up a subplot from the previous arc. In the good old days, writers used to throw in an obligatory page every couple of issues to keep a subplot alive. Fraction seems to think that he can get away with doing an obligatory page every trade paperback.

If so, he's wrong - that's not frequent enough to keep the plates spinning, and it gives the impression of stories simply being forgotten about, not least because the X-Men should be reacting to some of the stuff from the previous arc. The Sisterhood arc starts next month; I'm mystified by the decision to foreshadow it with a single page four months earlier. Nonetheless, read the storyline as a whole, and the subplot scenes are there. Fraction does have a plan here, even if it isn't readily apparent on a month-by-month basis.

Despite that flaw, reading the story as a whole answers a lot of my concerns about where the hell this series is going. Hopefully Fraction can get the hang of keeping his balls in the air more effectively, but I'm giving him the benefit of the doubt again.

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Saturday, March 21, 2009

Young X-Men #11-12

"End of Days"
Writer: Marc Guggenheim
Penciller: Rafa Sandoval
Inker: Roger Bonet
Colourist: Ulises Arreola
Art on future sequences: Daniel Acuna
Letterer: Dave Sharpe

Continuing the deathwatch theme, we have the final issue of Young X-Men, a book which tanked so spectacularly that it got axed within a year.

Marc Guggenheim is not a bad writer, but this book embodies one of the worst tendencies of superhero comics: the endless fiddling with concepts for no apparent reason other than a reluctance to let them go. Young X-Men is the successor to New X-Men, which itself was retooled drastically halfway through its run, and which in turn was the successor of a shortlived New Mutants book. Embarrassingly, New X-Men was actually on something of an upturn before they axed it to make way for this title, replacing half the cast, and driving the book into a ditch.

Through no fault of his own, Guggenheim has spent his first year introducing characters and setting up stories which will never see the light of day. We've had lengthy build-ups for Graymalkin, Ink, and Cipher, none of which went anywhere. The first six issues were devoted to an extended "gathering of the team" arc which was very badly received and, even in hindsight, still looks suspiciously like an exercise in killing time while the book was waiting for "Manifest Destiny." Once that was out of the way, the book actually improved significantly, but evidently too late to turn things round. And even once it had settled into a reasonably promising team book, it never overcame the feeling that they would have been better off sticking with the New X-Men cast - the likes of Mercury and Hellion had great potential, still relatively untapped.

This final story does at least try for some sort of resolution. Guggenheim completes his running subplot about Dust's terminal illness; and he wraps up Ink's story into the bargain. On the other hand, the story seems mainly designed to set up the idea that Dust becomes a villain at some point in the future. Which she won't - at least, not in this cancelled book. And perhaps that's for the best, as she seems to become off-the-peg crazy, rather than being an interesting bad guy. There's some blather about her soul becoming corrupted but, without any sort of symbolic overtones, it means little more than "she went evil."

Whatever the plan was, this feels like pure set-up, and doesn't belong in a final issue. And that's unfortunate, because the story has a parallel structure, cutting between the Young X-Men in the present day, and a bunch of survivors fighting Dust in the future. There's no direct plot connection; presumably the idea is to add a layer of dramatic irony to the team saving her in the present day. And since the Dust-as-villain stuff doesn't work, that bit falls flat - taking the future scenes with it.

Still, Ink gets some resolution, and subplots are dutifully resolved for the final issue, which is just about enough for the story to work. Kind of. Cancellation issues are always a compromise, and you can't really hold that against the creators. The book also offers guest art by the talented Daniel Acuna, working on the flash-forward scenes. It's a shame he's doing the half of the book that doesn't work, but there's definitely some flair to his pages.

The moral of this book, I suppose, is "If it ain't broke, don't fix it." Or, more accurately, recognise what you need to fix. New X-Men certainly had its problems: most obviously, it had become oppressively miserable, massively over-reliant on shock killings, and generally didn't give the characters a chance to function as teenagers. But it had a cast of strong, likeable characters - all they needed was a shift of emphasis and a lighter tone. It wouldn't have taken much to sort out the book's problems and bring out its strengths.

Instead, we got Young X-Men. And to be fair, this book did lighten up from its wrist-slitting predecessor. But it still didn't feel like the characters were teenagers, and the new roster was not an improvement. Throw in its widely panned six-issue opening arc, and it was dead in the water.

The book is being replaced by a relaunch of New Mutants, the original 1980s team. Frankly, this strikes me as the sort of thing you do when you've run out of ideas altogether. But it's written by Zeb Wells, whom I have a lot of time for, so hopefully he'll prove me wrong. As for Young X-Men - well, it just goes to show that the X-books won't support satellite titles so easily any more.

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Friday, March 20, 2009

Ultimate X-Men #98-100

Writer: Aron E Coleite
Pencillers: Mark Brooks and Dan Panosian
Inkers: Karl Story, Danny Miki and Victor Olazaba
Colourist: Edgar Delgado
Letterer: Albert Deschesne
Editor: Mark Paniccia

So it's come to this.

Remember when the Ultimate imprint was a big deal? Marvel hope you do. They'd like to recapture those days.

In hindsight, the Bill Jemas era was a strange period. It was the aftermath of Marvel's bankruptcy, and they were throwing anything and everything out there, to see what worked. Sometimes the result was inspired and imaginative; sometimes it was self-indulgent and misconceived. And in there, there was the Ultimate imprint.

The big idea, in theory, was to get back to the core ideas of the characters, and have a fresh start without the burden of forty years of continuity. There would be a small, focussed line of books, with big name creators. And in that way, the Ultimate books would be important.

Where did it all go wrong?

Well, for a start, Marvel singularly failed to keep up the idea of having big name creators on the books. Other than Ultimate Spider-Man, which is still written by Brian Bendis, there's been a constant trend away from the top writers, and towards some bloke you've never heard of who once wrote an episode of something on Sky One. In the case of Ultimate X-Men, the rot set in with Robert Kirkman, who was a somewhat credible choice of writer, but whose stories were uninspired. Now we have Aron Coleite. Who the hell is Aron Coleite? On most books that wouldn't be a problem - but the Ultimate imprint is supposed to be some sort of flagship, and you can't maintain that pretence while hiring complete unknowns.

Ultimate X-Men also suffered from the fact that it was never very well thought out to start with. The early issues embodied everything that is irritating about the work of Mark Millar - interchangeable characters being gratingly kewl. He brought nothing much to the X-Men concept, and left his successors nothing to work with. It was never a particularly worthwhile comic.

And now we come to Ultimate X-Men #100, the final issue. Of course, there's still a two issue epilogue to go, and this being Marvel, there's always a fair chance they'll bring it back in a few months. But I sincerely hope they won't, and frankly, I think they'd be very ill-advised to do so. The Ultimate imprint has big problems; they can't afford for the upcoming relaunch to look cosmetic. This is precisely the time to kill off Ultimate X-Men for the greater good.

What do we get in our final arc? Well, nothing that works as a finale for the series, that's for sure. It's an Ultimatum tie-in, rather optimistically billing itself as a three-parter. In fact, the previous two issues were mostly about Ultimatum survivors attacking the Mansion. This one is mostly about Madrox being used as a suicide bomber. A three-issue storyline? Do me a favour.

At best, this is forgettable nonsense. I'll grant that the idea is quite cute: Madrox, the infinitely duplicable man, being used as a suicide bomber. But it's not a story, just a throwaway idea strung out for a few pages. Who could possibly care? This final "story" can't even muster the dumb thrills of Millar's run. It's got nothing.

Superficially competent, yet utterly devoid of content, this is a book that deserved to die, and has just spent three issues advertising that fact. May it never darken our door again.

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Monday, March 16, 2009

House to Astonish, episode 10

A couple of days later than usual, we bring you the latest House to Astonish podcast, with a news round-up including our thoughts on the Watchmen movie, and reviews of Superman: World of New Krypton, War of Kings and Ex Machina.

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

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X-Men Noir

"X Men Noir"
Writer: Fred van Lente
Artist: Dennis Calero
Letterer: Nate Piekos
Editor: Nathan Cosby

Well, I gave it four issues, and I still haven't got a clue what the point of the "noir-verse" is.

If you haven't seen any of these books, the various Noir titles are noir stories with a cast loosely inspired by characters drawn from the Marvel Universe. Crucially, we're not talking about noir stories with superpowers here. There are no powers; it's just conventional noir stories inspired by old superhero comics.

Which begs the question: why, for god's sake? We've seen something vaguely along these lines before, with X-Men: Fairy Tales and its assorted sequels, in which old folk stories were re-told with modified versions of superheroes in the lead role. Why? Who knows? At best, they seem to be an expression of creative frustration: a belief that the only way to stretch Marvel's output is to produce increasingly contrived variations on the established franchises.

But transplanting characters from one genre to another isn't an idea, unless you're doing it for some purpose. Compare, if you will, "Kitty's Fairy Tale" from Uncanny X-Men #153, which is an entire issue of Kitty telling a little girl a bedtime story based loosely on the X-Men. And it works. Why? Well, partly because it's a cute gimmick. But also because it reveals how Kitty sees the rest of the team; and also because we get to see the team's reaction; and most importantly, because the story was designed as a wistful alternative happy ending to the relatively-recent Dark Phoenix Saga. And that's why it's more than just a time-killing gimmick.

X-Men Noir is as good as something like this is going to get. Dennis Calero's art always suited the noir influence on Peter David's Madrox and X-Factor stories, with great use of light and shadow rather than the usual pseudo-moody grit that so many artists use. And Fred van Lente writes a well-constructed story with some neat twists that, on re-reading, are subtly foreshadowed. (One of them is also a homage to an obscure continuity patch, which tells you what we're dealing with here.)

But what does any of this have to do with the X-Men? Well, not a great deal. In theory, the idea is that Professor Xavier has been running a reform school where he's been testing out his pet theory that sociopaths are predators perfectly adapted to the modern environment, and therefore the next stage in human evolution. It's a cute idea, but never really goes anywhere; for the most part, the X-Men don't seem to be sociopaths, so much as survivors.

Of course, they're not really heroes either - it's a noir story, after all - so Van Lente takes the interesting step of plugging in Golden Age hero the Angel as a brightly-coloured acrobat to drive the plot in their stead. Here, Angel seems to loosely symbolise the brighter and more morally certain world that lies ahead, once superhero comics displace the pulp genre - but at the same time, he's a character from the distant past, surrounded by more modern characters whose moral ambiguity would generally be seen as an improvement on his rudimentary simplicity.

So is Van Lente saying that comics have come full circle? That after sixty years of development we've finally recaptured the level of sophistication in a 1930s pulp? All a bit gloomy, surely.

The big problem with this book, though, is that the characters don't map terribly well to the X-Men, and the analogies generally seem forced and contrived. Xavier fits quite neatly; but Scott, Hank and Bobby have little in common besides superficial traits. The plot requires Jean to be completely reinvented. Magneto ends up playing the corrupt man who works the system to protect those he loves - but with nothing to underpin it, he's just a random antagonist who happens to have been labelled Magneto because that's what the X-Men's main villain is called. Some minor gangsters are made Irish so that they can be assigned the names of Sean and Tom Cassidy. The X-Men's school has a training room with a big sign on the door saying "Danger", even though nothing inside actually looks particularly dangerous. And so on.

The only X-Men character who would really be at home in a noir story is Wolverine, but he's only given a minor role here (presumably because they're saving him for a miniseries of his own). Otherwise, we have a noir story, decent enough in itself, which keeps trying to awkwardly map itself to an utterly unrelated concept. The point escapes me.

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If you're in Britain, you'll be wanting to watch Stewart Lee's Comedy Vehicle on BBC2 at 10pm. Arguably the best stand-up comic working in Britain today, and well worth half an hour of your time.


Sunday, March 15, 2009

Number 1s of 2009: March 15

Our third number one in as many weeks, and it's... well, this is a tricky one to explain.

That nine-minute epic (the song begins at about 4:30) is Vanessa Jenkins and Bryn West featuring Tom Jones and Barry Gibb, "Islands in the Stream". And yes, for the most part, it is just a straight karaoke version of "Islands in the Stream."

It's the second charity single for this year's Comic Relief telethon, following the Saturdays' version of "Just Can't Get Enough." The pattern in recent years has been to release one normal record and one novelty single, which usually sells on the strength of the video. In this case, you can only download the EP as a package, but you do get the full video as part of that package.

Vanessa Jenkins and Bryn West are supporting characters from the sitcom Gavin & Stacey. It's picked up a few awards; I've not seen much of it, but I've seen enough to know that a lot of the comedy here depends on knowing the character traits. (There's also a collection of implausible celebrity judges.) I'll leave it to somebody who's actually sat through a whole episode to try and explain, although as you can probably figure out, Ness is the force-of-nature character, and Bryn is a sort of perpetually enthusiastic simpleton.

They're played by Ruth Jones, who co-wrote the series, and Rob Brydon, a comedian who's been around for years getting generally good reviews for shows on the BBC's second-tier channels. His breakthrough show was Marion & Geoff, perhaps the definition of a low-budget schedule filler: an eight-minute show used to round out the hour-long slots on American imports. It consisted of Brydon playing a taxi driver who sat alone in a car delivering monologues about his divorce. You don't get that on Fox.

Tom Jones gets a credit on the single by virtue of actually being on it. Now 68 years old, Jones has been racking up hit singles consistently for 45 years. Surprisingly, this is only his third number one - the first two being "It's Not Unusual" in 1964 and "The Green Green Grass of Home" in 1966. That's 43 years between number 1 hits, which I believe shatters the previous record held by George Harrison - 31 years, between the original release of "My Sweet Lord" in 1971 and its re-release upon his death in 2002. (Assuming you're willing to count this as a Tom Jones single, anyway.)

Barry Gibb of the Bee Gees appears have been credited solely on the strength of his cameo appearance at the start of the video, though to be fair, he did write the song. I suppose he might be on there somewhere doing backing vocals. The original version of "Islands in the Stream" was a number 7 hit for Kenny Rogers and Dolly Parton back in 1983.

It's a novelty record, and I don't think it has the staying power of some of the earlier Comic Relief singles (such as "Show Me The Way To Amarillo", which somehow managed to become a short-lived national craze, on the strength of a video of Peter Kay lip-synching to it with assorted minor celebrities). Could be back to Flo Rida next week...


X-Men: Manifest Destiny - Nightcrawler

"Quitting Time"
Writer: James Asmus
Pencillers: Jorge Molina and Ardian Syaf
Inkers: Victor Olazaba and Vicente Cifuentes
Colourist: John Rauch
Letterer: Jeff Eckleberry
Editor: Nick Lowe

Spotting the untruths in Marvel's solicitations has become something of a spectator sport lately. This one is a particularly good example.

Originally solicited as X-Men: Quitting Time, the book was described like this:

"Since the move to San Francisco and after the events of X-Infernus, Nightcrawler realises a hard truth - he has to quit the X-Men. Kurt has realised that the X-Men just don't need him any more. He hasn't been operating at his highest levels and even the biggest strength he has - teleportation - has been made redundant by Pixie who can do it better and more efficiently. Don't miss the departure of one of the most important characters in X-Men history."

The title was officially changed to X-Men: Manifest Destiny - Nightcrawler a while back, but the solicitation copy on Marvel's website remains the same, specifically promising an important issue in which Nightcrawler is written out.

Well, it's not.

This is an inconsequential fill-in story which happens to use the age-old "I need to take a break" / "I'm feeling recharged and ready to go" framing device for Kurt to go off on his own for 30 pages. It does show some signs of last-minute tinkering - there's a scene near the end with a different artist which looks suspiciously as though it's been spliced in to keep Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa's "demon war" subplot alive - so in fairness to the publicity department, it's possible that the solicitation was accurate at the time it was written. But it's not accurate now, and like I say, it's still on the website.

I am sorely tempted to declare that the book merits no further comment, and leave it at that.

But then that wouldn't be entirely fair to the creative team. Take the book for what it is - a random Nightcrawler one-shot - and it's actually not bad. Nightcrawler revisits the town of Winzeldorf (the village from Giant-Size X-Men #1) where the locals have opened a museum in honour of the only remotely famous person ever to pass through, and have found another passing monster to lynch.

It's a perfectly sound idea for a Nightcrawler story, and there are some interesting ideas here: the villagers' ambiguous feelings about Kurt as a vaguely local celebrity who they still don't entirely trust, Kurt's delight at being commemorated, his misreading of the other monster despite setting out to give him the benefit of the doubt. And the art's pretty good as well - after an overdramatic opening, Jorge Molina settles down to a decent job. (Even the fill-in pages near the end are decent, though their last-minute nature is clearly signalled by the fact that Kurt's clothing suddenly changes - the sort of elementary blunder that rarely makes it through these days.)

On the downside, it's another of those stories which still thinks that central Europe is full of villagers in lynch mobs. For god's sake, people, Dracula and Frankenstein were set in the nineteenth century. This is supposed to be west Germany. What the hell are they doing with torches? For that matter, why does it still have traditionally dressed gypsies in horse-drawn wagons? There are plenty of travellers in Europe, but they're in motor homes these days. This is about as inane as writing a story set in upstate New York in 2009 where everyone wears a stetson and the saloons have swing doors and the only non-white characters live just outside town in a wigwam. Seriously, it is. It's lazy and condescending, and frankly slightly racist - was it really essential that the only entirely reasonable character in the village should be a visiting American?

The irony is, of course, that if only the Americans could be arsed doing the research, they'd discover that there are tons of stories they could be doing about the treatment of the Roma in eastern Europe, which would be far more interesting than the umpteenth retread of an old B-movie. But whatever.

On the whole, what we've got here is an above-average issue of X-Men Unlimited. Nothing more, nothing less. Don't believe the hype.

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The X-Axis - 15 March 2009

It's not so much a quiet week as a dead one. There's only two X-books out - X-Men Noir #4 and the Nightcrawler one-shot - and I'll deal with those separately. And otherwise... um, virtually nothing of interest. The sum total of everything else I bought this week comes to...

Astonishing Tales #2 - Well, it's kind-of-sort-of an honorary X-book. The anthology is currently running two X-related serials. One is an undistinguished Wolverine/Punisher story which has interesting art from Kenneth Rocafort (though sadly he's picked up some of the worst habits of the Top Cow studio where female characters are concerned), married to a generically uninspiring team-up plot. Bereft New X-Men fans may wish to know that it features Kimura and Predator X, but there's little else of note here.

The other one is a Mojoworld story by Jonathan Hickman and Nick Patarra, which is endearingly mental and actually worth a look. Mojo abducts Cannonball and Sunspot to replace his striking writers (um, how long has his been in the pipeline?), and we get a whole story of contract negotiations, in Mojo's typically senseless style. A nice mixture of absurd and deadpan - Hickman gets that Mojo works best when he honestly thinks he's fooling someone.

You also get a forgettable Iron Man 2020 story, and a Modok short by Ted McKeever which runs through most of the usual Modok jokes, but does them well. All told, it's a mixed package, but there's some genuinely worthwhile stuff here.

Captain Britain & MI-13 #11 - Well, it needs all the support it can get. I assume Captain Britain's in the title for the recognition factor, because this is really more of an old-fashioned team book centred around Pete Wisdom. It's a fun title, as vampires invade Britain with the traditional mixture of melodrama and knowing silliness. The art's rather inconsistent; Leonard Kirk is on top form, but bang in the middle we get a few pages of exposition illustrated by Mike Collins, who isn't doing his best work, and was presumably in something of a rush. Still, it's all perfectly readable, and they've wisely kept it away from the pages that really needed to be dramatic.

Fables #82 - This is an epilogue issue following on Boy Blue's death last month, perhaps because there's a month to fill before the crossover with spin-off book Jack of Fables starts in April. It's a good one, though, following up cleverly on the obvious questions that should come up in this situation - such as, is it actually possible for these characters to die permanently? Aren't the really popular stories supposed to be immortal? The book neatly answers those points and uses them as the basis for some clever scenes. Oh, and the woodland creatures are getting restless. Fables recently completed the major storyline that ran through the first six years of the title, which is the point where a lot of books lose the way, if they bother to carry on at all. So far, though, Bill Willingham is keeping the quality up.

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Saturday, March 14, 2009

Podcast update

Just so you know, we're recording the new House to Astonish on Monday, so it's going to be a couple of days later than usual.

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X-Men and Spider-Man

X-Men & Spider-Man #1-4
Writer: Christos Gage
Artist: Mario Alberti
Letterer: Jared K Fletcher
Editor: Stephen Wacker

It's hard not to be a little ambivalent about a book like X-Men & Spider-Man. On the one hand, the last thing the X-Men and Spider-Man need is yet more random miniseries. On the other hand, this is an enjoyable if inconsequential series, which is almost worth the money for the art alone.

Well, the art on the first three issues, anyway. Issue four looks a bit rushed by comparison - though it's still superior to a lot of books. The artist here is Mario Alberti, who has years of European comics under his belt, and who manages to combine European elegance with American storytelling to great effect. He's done some covers for DC before, but as far as I know this is his first sequential work for an American publisher, and hopefully we'll see more of him.

As for the story - well, the high concept here is that each issue shows Spider-Man teaming up with the X-Men at a different point in continuity. So issue #1 is the teenage heroes of the late sixties; issue #2 is the Morlock Massacre period of the mid-eighties; issue #3 is the spider-clone era of the nineties; and issue #4 is... well, somewhere just before Messiah Complex. And running through all these stories is a subplot about a long-running scheme by Mr Sinister.

(Which might explain why the book skips over the 1970s - it avoids doing two stories where Sinister can't meet the heroes because he hasn't been created yet. Or, perhaps, Gage just reasoned that so far as the X-Men were concerned, the seventies and eighties are all Claremont, and all one era.)

It's a clever device, in that it gets round the old problem of "If this is so important, why has nobody mentioned it until now?" that plagues continuity inserts. Here, at least, there's a clear answer to that question: "Because the heroes haven't realised its significance yet."

But the final issue underwhelms: Sinister's big plan turns out to be a clone of Kraven the Hunter, with the ungainly name of Xraven. I suppose it's meant to be pronounced "Eksraven", but that's still pretty damned ugly. This doesn't really work as a pay-off for issues (and notionally years) of build-up. Throw in the weakest art of the series, and it's all rather disappointing.

Still, wonderful art on the earlier issues. There must be more to do with Alberti.

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Cable #11-12

Well, I never did get around to writing up two of last week's X-books. (Which probably tells you most of what you need to know right there.) But let's clear the decks by getting them out of the way quickly. These will be brief, but then frankly, there's not a huge amount to say about either book...

Cable #11-12
"Wasteland Blues"
Writer: Duane Swierczynski
Framing sequence artist: Ariel Olivetti
Main story artist: Jamie McKelvie
Main story colouring: Guru eFX
Letterer: Joe Caramagna
Editor: Axel Alonso

This is an odd one - we don't get many two-part stories these days, and this looks suspiciously like something which has been slotted in for scheduling reasons to kill time before the "Messiah War" crossover starts with issue #13.

Cable is still stuck in the future with the mutant kid from "Messiah Complex", now aged about ten, and a time machine that will only go forwards. And this story, "Wasteland Blues", is two issues of Cable and Hope jumping forward in time through a post-apocalyptic wasteland hoping for civilisation to re-emerge. It's a two-hander, the basic point being that this is the first time we've seen Hope as an active character rather than a prop, and she gets to save Cable. And it's done well enough; Hope's a somewhat generic character, but McKelvie's good with his body language, and the details are handled well enough to make her work.

The pay-off is weirdly anticlimactic. Cable and Hope finally make it to the wreckage of the X-Men's mansion, where they find the message that Scott left for them a few issues ago. And... it doesn't say anything, really. It's just a message of encouragement. I was expecting something a bit more significant. Still, the scene does work in one respect, by giving Cable a few panels as a son rather than a parent, which is a nice inversion of his relationship with Hope. Overall, though, I can't help feeling we're just killing time here.

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Thursday, March 12, 2009

Number 1s of 2009: March 8

As I mentioned last week, we've had five female solo artists in a row - Leona Lewis, Alexandra Burke, Lady GaGa, Lily Allen and Kelly Clarkson - in a run that stretches back to last November. But that run screeches to a halt this week, as Kelly is booted off the top after a single week, dropping to number four.

In her place, we have Flo Rida featuring Ke$ha, "Right Round."

Now, at this point, I would normally link to the official version of the video on YouTube. Unfortunately, YouTube and the PRS are currently in a big fight about royalties for the UK, so the official versions of most videos are currently blocked over here. In fairness to the music industry, they didn't actually ask YouTube to take the videos down - YouTube did that of their own accord, in what seems to be a burst of brinksmanship. No doubt it'll all get sorted out sooner or later.

Of course, all the unofficial versions of the video are still easily available on YouTube. Which the PRS presumably doesn't have a problem with, since they didn't want the videos taken down in the first place. So: if you're British, here's one of the umpteen versions of the video that somebody has ripped from MTV. And if you're American and want to watch a slightly better quality version, you can always search for it yourself. *shrug*

This is Flo Rida's fourth UK hit, following "Low" (number 2 last year) and a couple of songs you've probably forgotten about which stumbled to the bottom end of the top 20 ("Elevator" and "In the Ayer", if you're wondering). This is fairly typical for second-tier rappers in the UK - they have intermittent big hits, but they can't seem to do it consistently. Guest vocalist Ke$ha is a pop singer who's apparently working on an album with Dr Luke and Max Martin, which presumably means she'll be pushed heavily later in the year as the next Katie Perry. And yes, she spells her name with a dollar sign. Cla$$y.

The record is formula pop-rap, to be honest. Take one mid-eighties sample, blather about strippers over the top, and there's your hit single. This week's lucky sample is "You Spin Me Right Round" by Dead or Alive. To Americans, it's a relatively obscure record which got to number 11 in 1985. It did rather better in Britain, where it reached number 1 (exactly 24 years ago this week, as it happens), and kicked off the late-eighties chart domination of producers Stock Aitken and Waterman.

Ah, the eighties. To be honest, it's the only Dead or Alive song that most people remember. They actually had another six hits, but you never hear any of them. If you're curious, here's their 1985 number 23 hit, "My Heart Goes Bang (Get Me To The Doctor)". Frankly, it's not as good as the title. The Dead or Alive version was last seen as recently as 2006, when a remix got to number 5 on the strength of lead singer Pete Burns' appearance in Celebrity Big Brother.

Flo Rida is a slightly surprising number one, because last week also saw the release of the official Comic Relief single for 2009. Comic Relief is a bi-annual telethon which used to stick out a novelty record for fundraising purposes, but in recent years has settled into releasing one "proper" single and one comedy one. The comedy one is a version of "Islands in the Stream" by the cast of Gavin and Stacey, and we'll come back to it next week depending on how it does.

The "normal" single this year is "Just Can't Get Enough" by the Saturdays, Britain's number three girl band - whose video, presumably because of the charity link, is still live. There are two version of the video, one with some token outtakes spliced in to justify the Comic Relief video, but I've linked to the sub-Christina Aguilera normal version.

Making number two, this is still the Saturdays' biggest hit to date, and bodes well for their ongoing crusade to break the duopoly of Girls Aloud and the Sugababes. That may seem like a tough job for a band who, let's be honest, aren't as good as either. But Girls Aloud have been around since 2002; the Sugababes had their first hit in 2000. So a gap is emerging at the younger end of the market. To their credit, they've released four singles now, each placing higher than the last - so they're doing something right.

"Just Can't Get Enough" was a number 8 hit in 1982 for a very early pre-miserablist incarnation of Depeche Mode. It's actually written by Vince Clarke, who left the band shortly after and went on to form bands like Yazoo and Erasure. Strangely, the video isn't on YouTube at all. You'd think Depeche Mode were embarrassed by it or something. Fortunately, German site Dailymotion has tons of copies of it... just admire that dancing.


Monday, March 09, 2009

The X-Axis - 8 March 2009

Two stories wrapped up this week - a two-parter in Cable #12, and the X-Men/Spider-Man miniseries - and I'll get to them properly in due course. But for now, here's a bunch of other stuff that shipped last week, some of which we'll probably talk about in more detail on the next podcast.

Dark Reign: Fantastic Four #1 - Yes, it's one of a thousand Dark Reign tie-in miniseries. But this one is also interesting because it's written by Jonathan Hickman, who's going to take over the regular title after Millar and Hitch finish up. And refreshingly, there's not all that much Dark Reign going on here. The bozos from the government are hanging around on the outside, but mainly, it's a good old-fashioned FF story in which Reed comes up with another Brilliant Idea for how he's going to set everything right, in Jack-Kirby-meets-Heath-Robinson fashion. Leave the tie-in aside, and it's an assured take on the team which bodes well for Hickman's upcoming run. (Oh, and Sean Chen's art is pretty good as well - but he won't be working on the regular title.)

New Avengers: The Reunion #1 - It's probably just the fact that I used to read West Coast Avengers when I first got into American comics, but I'm rather happy to see Mockingbird back in circulation. She and Clint were a fun couple. In the meantime, of course, writer Jim McCann is saddled with the task of persuading us that Mockingbird's time as a captive of little green men from outer space is a terribly moving and traumatic tale, and, er, no. Fortunately, it looks like the series is trying to get that out of the way and get back to the couple's dynamic. Lovely art, too, from David and Alvaro Lopez - though I wish they'd stuck with the original Mockingbird costume, since that ridiculous facemask was a gift to artists.

Solomon Grundy #1 - A seven-issue mini by Scott Kolins, in which the titular monster is sent off on a rather arbitrary mission to find out who killed him, and forgive them. Looks good, but it's a bit of a mess. DC characters show up out of the blue with no explanation whatsoever - yes, I know who Alan Scott is, but I have no clue what he's doing here. As for the lead character, he babbles a lot, and generally falls short of having a personality. Bit disappointing.

Strange Adventures #1 - Jim Starlin does cosmic stories, in the vein of thirty years ago. This is evidently something to do with the aftermath of the Rann-Thanagar War, and to its credit, unlike most of its DC stablemates, it actually bothers to explain the plot to new readers. See, it's not so hard, is it? Manuel Garcia's art is likeable enough, although it suffers from colouring that seems determined to throw every available shade at the page in an atmosphere-sapping rainbow cornucopia. Fine if you like that sort of thing, although it does mean you're expected to take seriously characters called "Prince Gavyn" and so forth.

Superman: World of New Krypton #1 - The book where Superman is going to appear over the next year, as he rejoins the people of Krypton on their new planet. This is quite a good idea for a short-term story, inverting Superman's role as an alien on Earth and making him an alien on his own planet. It gives the character a chance to be something other than an object of universal awe, too - although he remains special even on Krypton, on the grounds that he's used to his powers, and the rest of them aren't. So far, so good - my reservation here is that Krypton itself feels like a load of familiar dystopian ideas stapled to a dated Silver Age aesthetic, and I just don't believe in the place. Still, the idea's got something.

Ultimate Wolverine vs. Hulk #3 - Hell freezes over. Personally, I'd have included an apology for shipping the book three years late, but evidently nobody could be bothered. Says it all, really. As for the book, it's better than you're probably imagining - it's endearingly over the top, if nothing else - but it's not as though anyone's been on the edge of their seat waiting for this. Time has moved on, nobody cares.

War of Kings #1 - The first part of this year's cosmic crossover, and you'll never guess, but part one involves a sudden and unexpected invasion. Um, is there no other way of starting these stories? Oh, and it picks up in the aftermath of X-Men: Kingbreaker #4, which doesn't come out till next Wednesday. And no, it's not running late - Marvel intentionally scheduled this issue to ship two weeks before the lead-in. The mind boggles. Anyway, as you can tell, all this does wonders for my sense of goodwill. But it's actually better than average, and gets some good mileage out of Vulcan's Caligula persona (dumping the big talk and playing up the fact that Vulcan is just plain nuts). And it's got great art from Paul Pelletier. Fans of Marvel's outer-space books should like this one.

X-Men: First Class - Finals #2 - Hmm, this is a bit choppy. Random fight with character from an earlier issue of First Class, conversation, seemingly random sequence based on another earlier issue of First Class. I suppose Jeff Parker must be trying to tie things together here, but it seems a little forced to me - it's not as though the regular title had any particular thread running through it. I do like the scenes with the team talking about their plans for the future, though, as everyone plans to go and live in the real world except for Scott, who can't quite get his head around the idea. Nice touch.

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Sunday, March 08, 2009


I'll be doing some reviews in the next couple of days, but there's no time tonight. In the meantime, you could always visit The Beat and read the January Marvel sales column...


Monday, March 02, 2009

New Exiles #18

"Begin Again!"
Writer: Chris Claremont
Artist: Tim Seeley
Letterer: Tom Orzechowski
Colourist: Wilfredo Quintana
Editor: Mark Paniccia

I'll be honest, I was surprised by the number of people who wanted to know what I thought about Chris Claremont's upcoming X-Men Forever series. If you haven't heard, it's a book picking up where he left off in 1991, immediately after X-Men vol 2 #3.

Now, firstly, the final few issues of Claremont's run were an editorially-mandated reset button, putting Xavier back in his wheelchair, moving the team back to the mansion, and all that. So to be honest, if we're going to do this thing at all, I'd rather have seen it pick up with Claremont's original proposed ending to the Muir Island Saga.

But secondly, the project illustrates Claremont's weirdly marginal position in the X-books these days. In the seventies and eighties, he was the writer who turned the X-Men from an obscure failed property into the defining team book of their time. Now, he's writing strange little fringe properties like Exiles, GeNext and X-Men Forever, apparently aimed at a dwindling audience who think the franchise took a terrible wrong turn eighteen years ago. And you can make a strong case that it did - but it's a bit late to do anything about it now. Quite honestly, I can't help but find something a little bit sad about seeing Claremont forever replaying iterations of his past glories. At this stage in his career, I'd really rather see him go off and make something completely new, instead of playing the nostalgia circuit like this.

New Exiles seems to have been conceived, sensibly enough, as a playpen for Claremont to do what he wanted in his own little corner of the Marvel Universe, visiting parallel worlds and showing us new versions of characters he created. I recall seeing an interview where Claremont explained that the use of his own past creations was an editorial mandate, rather than his own choice; in any event, it's a rule that he interprets fairly loosely, as some of these characters have little in common with their namesakes.

And to give it its due, the book generally read like the work of somebody who was having some fun. But for the most part, the stories weren't great. Much of the time, it felt as though a bunch of randomly selected concepts had been fed through a blender. The final arc, with an army of lizards in Iron Man costume and another army of Daughters of the Dragon, and a bunch of Shi'ar Death Commandos made up of X-Men, and a plot loosely echoing something he wrote in the late seventies, was very much like that. Plenty of ideas, yes; none of them fundamentally bad; but no sense that it adds up to anything in particular.

Issue #18 is a final issue of the old school, apparently racing its way through the stories that the book would have been telling if it hadn't been cancelled due to low sales. (They're replacing it with another Exiles book.) So, Gambit inherits the throne of his world. Valeria Richards joins the team, paying off a subplot from the recent annual. Sabretooth and Psylocke hook up. Sage becomes a literal living computer. Rogue leaves the team to marry a lizard. And everyone more or less lives happily ever after.

It's very cramped. But you used to see this a lot, back in the days when comics got cancelled at short notice. Faced with the impossible task of wrapping up years of planned stories in 22 pages, writers would frequently just bite the bullet and give you a condensed summary of what was going to happen, so that at least you weren't left hanging. It's not an especially satisfying way of doing it, particularly as the book starts bouncing randomly around disconnected stories in an effort to tell us how everyone would have wound up.

The Psylocke/Sabretooth subplot has some chemistry going for it. Aside from that, though, I can't say any of these stories strike me as a great loss. It looks like, given the chance, the series would simply have drifted on in much the same way. It's a conscientious effort to give loyal readers some sort of resolution, and that's to be applauded; but it doesn't leave me wondering whether Marvel made the right call here.

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Number 1s of 2009: March 1

It's been a while. Lily Allen lasted four weeks with "The Fear" - pretty good considering she was giving it away on MySpace almost a year ago. Stuck at number two throughout her reign was the previous number one, "Just Dance" by Lady Gaga. It finally started dropping down the chart this week - just in time for the follow-up "Poker Face" to reach number 3.

Her replacement is Kelly Clarkson, "My Life Would Suck Without You." (Who says romance is dead?) The video isn't embeddable, but you can watch it here. I've only heard it a couple of times, but my initial reaction is that it's an above average production in search of a chorus. Still, it's doing well enough.

Clarkson was the first winner of American Idol back in 2002. This is more notable than it sounds, because for the most part, American Idol winners have not been exported to the British market. We have been untroubled by the careers of Ruben Studdard, Fantasia Barrino, Carrie Underwood, Taylor Hicks or David Cook, none of whom I have heard of, and all of whom I had to look up on Wikipedia. Actually, Cook's coronation single scraped the bottom end of the top 75, presumably thanks to people who saw the show on ITV2 - but that's hardly a big deal.

The exceptions are Clarkson herself, and 2007 winner Jordin Sparks, who has been tentatively pushed as an R&B act. And it's worth noting that the others didn't fail in Britain - they were simply never released here, evidently a deliberate choice by their label. One wonders why. Perhaps it's a tacit recognition that most of them wouldn't have got anywhere without the show - or a fear that the aura of the show would be damaged if too many winners went on to second or third rate careers. Certainly the UK producers, when faced with embarrassing and unwanted winners, have always been very quick to boot them into limbo. Just ask Michelle McManus and Steve Brookstein. I suppose the middle ground is to remain a reasonable success in your home country, and get politely ignored by your label's international division.

In theory, Kelly Clarkson's British counterpart would be Will Young, the unlikely winner of Pop Idol's first season. But he's a rather different proposition. He's still selling albums in Britain, but he's not the sort of act that Pop Idol was intended to discover. He's a likeably nerdy chap who makes average-to-decent MOR ballads with surprisingly good videos. That might be because he's gay and they don't want to do videos with a male love interest (his songs have a tendency to be addressed to the helpfully non-specific "you"), but whatever the reason, at least it's resulted in some genuinely inventive stuff. See, for example, the single-shot slow burn of "Leave Right Now", the swimming lessons in "Friday's Child", or the fabulously arbitrary and incongruous John Noakes tribute "Who Am I?" - none of them particularly great songs, but excellent videos.

Clarkson, in contrast, is a much more conventionally marketable singer. This is her eighth UK single, the biggest until now being "Since U Been Gone" (number 5 in 2004), and quite right too, because it's rather good.

Another notable thing: this is the fifth consecutive number one by a female soloist, following Lily Allen, Lady GaGa, Leona Lewis and Alexandra Burke. (If you want to nitpick, "Just Dance" was credited to "Lady GaGa featuring Colby Adonis", but that's close enough in my book.) And there's a fair chance it won't be the last, because the obvious challengers are Lady GaGa again with "Poker Face" at number 3, and Taylor Swift's "Love Story" at number 2. Which is an interesting one, actually, because the record company has decided not to bother with the original mix over here - country music not being a big seller on this side of the Atlantic, to put it mildly. Here's the version being used in the UK.

And here's the original...


Sunday, March 01, 2009

The X-Axis - 1 March 2009

Well, it took me forever to get around to reviewing the concluding issue of NYX: No Way Home (which came out last week), but it's finally up. As for the last issue of New Exiles (also out last week)... um, in the next couple of days. Hopefully.

Fortunately, it's a singularly uneventful week for new releases. Check the podcast to hear Al and me discussing Duncan Rouleau's The Great Unknown, the final issue of Blue Beetle, and the Obama issue of Youngblood (everything you feared and less). Download it here, or visit the podcast web page, or subscribe via iTunes.

And that just leaves three X-books that came out this week...

Wolverine: First Class #12 - This has always been more of a Kitty Pryde book than a Wolverine comic, but never more obviously than here. The story is set in the aftermath of Uncanny X-Men #150, and I can hear the collective mumbling of "So what?" already. Ah, but you'd be mistaken. Because this is a terribly useful point in continuity. It's the first time Kitty meets Cyclops after joining the X-Men, and so the first time she's exposed to his awkward relationship with Wolverine. And that's the story: the other alpha male in the team is back, and Kitty gets to spend an issue in his company and see how he compare. (Wolverine? He's barely in it.) Where Cyclops is concerned, writer Fred Van Lente evidently subscribes to the "uptight emotional cripple" school of thought, but he does a nice job of contrasting the two without actually undermining Cyclops' credibility; more than anything, we're invited to feel sorry for the guy and to dismiss him as far too screwed up to be anyone's mentor, and that's certainly a valid take on the character. It's also nice to see the series move away from the random guest stars, and back to focussing on the cast themselves.

Wolverine: Origins #33 - Do you like exposition? Then you'll love this book, which features fifteen gripping pages of Nick Fury explaining the plot. To be fair, at least it's a new explanation, with plenty of new information to back it up... but still, it's fifteen pages of a guy explaining the plot. Considering the languid pace that this book has taken in the past, you almost wonder whether Way has been politely encouraged to get a move on. As for the content of the explanation... well, this convoluted conspiracy theory has been nothing but a lead weight for Wolverine, so officially dragging James Hudson from Alpha Flight into the mess is a bit like the slow spread of gangrene as far as I'm concerned. It's also a "Dark Reign" tie-in issue, and with some justification, since supporting character Daken has been hauled off to appear in Dark Avengers - leading Cyclops to decide that the fake Wolverine in the Avengers needs to be taken care of. Now this bit, I'm in favour of. "What do the X-Men think about this fake Wolverine?" is not a story that Dark Avengers wants to tell, but it's also territory that really ought to be covered - so if Daniel Way thinks he can get a story out of it, everybody wins. That part of the issue is quite good; but god save us from more of this conspiracy gibberish.

X-Force #12 - This is the first part of "Suicide Leper", an arc based on the Leper Queen character from Peter Milligan's brief run on X-Men. She's not an immediately obvious character to revive, but hey, I suppose they're starting small and working up. It's also a lead-in for the "Messiah War" crossover with Cable, though on the face of it that just means there's a few pages of subplot about time machines. It's... okay, but too violent for its own good (which is to say, it's done so casually so that it doesn't mean anything). Clayton Crain's artwork is patchy. He seems to be lightening up the colours, and there are some nice dramatic explosions. But there's something lacking in his characters, who don't have the expressiveness to bring them to life.

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NYX: No Way Home

NYX: No Way Home
Writer: Marjorie Liu
Pencillers: Kalman Andrasofszky and Sara Pichelli
Inkers: Kalman Andrasofszky, Ramon Perez and Sara Pichelli
Colourist: John Rauch
Letterers: Joe Caramagna and Chris Eliopoulos
Editor: John Barber

It's been a long time since the first NYX series. Originally planned as an ongoing title, the book launched in 2003, and spluttered out seven issues over two years before being aborted - "cancelled" is too orderly a word.

The book was supposed to be about teenage mutant runaways in New York City, and was written by editor-in-chief Joe Quesada. It got nowhere fast, and had just about finished introducing the characters in time to get axed. In hindsight, the book might illustrate the best and worst of the Bill Jemas era: it looked great, and it was willing to depart radically from the superhero formula, but at the same time it was glacially slow, more than a little self-indulgent, and not quite as clever as it sometimes appeared to think.

The original series had two main selling points. One was the undeniably beautiful art of Josh Middleton - who quit after four issues. The other was the introduction of X-23, who had an initial surge of popularity. But she was relocated to the mainstream X-books quite some time ago. So the creators of this sequel - novelist Marjorie Liu and artist Kalman Andrasofszky - don't have much to work with.

What they've produced is certainly more polished than the original series. And that's not just because it actually came out. It's less meandering, more plot-driven, and better at defining the characters. On the other hand, in doing so, it ends up less distinctive, and forces the cast into a more conventional Marvel Universe story, with proper villains who must be fought.

Since we last saw them, the three remaining characters - Kiden, Tatiana and Bobby - have been renting a flat together, looking after Bobby's autistic little brother, and generally living a passable life on the margins of society. And now, in this series, Bad People come after them.

What does the story achieve? Well, it gives the characters some villains to fight in future stories. It appears to write out supporting character Cameron Palmer, and potentially replaces her as the group's mother figure with late-nineties X-Man Cecilia Reyes. And it explains what the ghost of Kiden's father is up to: he's trying to stop her getting killed, which apparently involves an awful lot of inscrutable and plot-convenient manoeuvring.

In other words, it's mainly more set-up for future NYX stories. And that would be fine if this was the first, or even the second, arc in an ongoing series. Except it's not; it's a miniseries, for a property which we'll probably never see again. Judged on its own - and it is on its own, here in the real world - it's not much of a story. It bounces along acceptably enough, to be sure, but shorn of its set-up role, there's not much to it.

Now, that said, Andrasofzsky acquits himself pretty well in Middleton's shoes, and even a blur of fill-in pencillers and inkers don't compromise the book too much. Colourist John Rauch makes sure to keep the palette refreshingly bright and upbeat. Heaven knows I appreciate a book that doesn't feel the need to keep hammering me over the head with how angst-ridden it is.

And the characters are much better defined in Liu's hands. Kiden remains something of a generically feisty teenager. But Tatiana is well written as a character who lacks confidence but stands her ground under pressure, and there's an interesting tension between Bobby's loyalty to the group and his understandable instinct for self-preservation (which, for a change, isn't used to make him unsympathetic). The villains are rather more off-the-peg, but at least there's a suggestion that their sadism as a rite of passage for the kids, which will do them good in the long run.

For all that, though, the series doesn't really work as a stand-alone story. And you can't justify a comic by arguing that it would be a decent opening act for some hypothetical series we'll probably never see. It is what it is - and what it is, is another six issues of set-up. Still, it has its moments, and I'd welcome seeing more from the creative team; just with a little more focus on producing something self-contained.

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