Sunday, August 30, 2009

The X-Axis - 30 August 2009

Well, I was planning to write something about X-Men Forever before heading off, but it doesn't look like I'm going to get round to it. (Which is another way of saying: barring a last-minute cancellation of tonight's Book Festival show, it ain't happening.) With that in mind, I'll hold off on reviewing this week's X-Men Forever #6.

So, after this, I'll be away for two-and-a-bit weeks. In the meantime, don't forget to download the latest episode of House to Astonish, where we talk about the rumoured management changes at DC, digital comics, the November solicitations, and other stuff, and review 2000AD, Fantastic Four and King City. Download it here, or visit the podcast webpage, or subscribe via iTunes.

(Oh, and I'm told that, contrary to what we assumed when we recorded the show, the 2000AD strip "Kingdom" has actually been running for long enough to pre-date the current Cable series. Just so you know.)

And while I'm away, you should also keep up with Al's blog at

Now, then...

Batman & Robin #3 - This is the final part of the Mr Pyg storyline, which could probably have sustained another issue if they'd wanted. But there's nothing wrong with being concise, and this arc has worked very well, setting up the new Batman and Robin, and giving them an appropriately grotesque villain to fight. Frank Quitely's good at grotesque - he's good at everything, actually, but he certainly knows how to draw a maniac in a pig mask wielding household appliances. And Pyg is a well-pitched character; not a traditional spandex supervillain as such, but comfortably in the familiar Batman territory of lunatics with themed henchmen. It's what you want from a Batman comic.

Dark Avengers #8 - Part five of "Utopia", and by this point I'm really starting to wonder why on earth they're running this story as a crossover - besides the obvious point that it boosts sales. The Dark Avengers are in a whole three pages of this issue, squeezed out entirely by an X-Men-versus-Dark-X-Men story which doesn't seem to have a role for them. In fairness, Matt Fraction is telling a story here which does seem to have some significant ramifications for the X-Men - it looks like we're going to do the "man-made island in international waters" routine, so apparently the San Francisco base is being dropped already. Frankly, if this is where they were heading, it's a shame they got rid of Providence, the man-made island in international waters from Cable & Deadpool - but maybe they weren't planning that far ahead. So far, "Utopia" seems to be suffering from a problem that afflicts a lot of Matt Fraction's X-Men stories: it's a good idea in theory, but it's cluttered up with vast amounts of superfluous characters who are just distracting from the real story. Less is more!

Dark Wolverine #77 - I'm pleasantly surprised to say that so far, I've actually enjoyed this series quite a lot. Now, frankly, in part that's because this version of Daken seems to bear little or no resemblance to any that we've seen before. But until now, Daken has been stuck in the leaden Romulus storyline from Wolverine: Origins, and once you remove him from that context, some rather more interesting sides of his character emerge. In this book, Daniel Way and Marjorie Liu (primarily Liu, judging from the interviews) are writing Daken as a schemer whose main concern is to secure his position and to be in control of his own life. So his main concerns are to make sure he's hedging his bets against the fall of Osborn's empire, and to subtly ensure that everyone around him knows he's not under Osborn's thumb, even if that means unwisely needling his own colleagues. This version of Daken is actually quite interesting, and certainly a viable anti-hero. This three-parter, with Daken playing off the ersatz Avengers against the Fantastic Four, and outwitting everyone in the process, is unexpectedly good fun, and suggests that perhaps Daken actually does have some sort of future as a lead character - in fact, he might even work better in that role.

Dark X-Men: The Beginning #3 - The final issue of an anthology series about Norman Osborn recruiting the Dark X-Men. And like its two predecessors, this too is talk-tastic. Paul Cornell and Leonard Kirk's Namor story at least breaks from the usual format, as it's Emma Frost rather than Norman Osborn who gets to do the questioning. But there's some interesting ideas about Namor's character, and at least they liven things up with the old "journey through the mental landscape" routine - sure, it's a cheap trick, but it does give the artist an excuse to draw interesting pictures. Jason Aaron and Jock do a rather nice intro story for Mystique, which says not a great deal about the character, but does it with suitably outrageous levels of bloodshed and firepower. And having run out of Dark X-Men, Simon Spurrier and Paul Davidson round things off with Norman making an unsuccessful attempt to recruit Aurora; this is the closest thing in the series to a proper story, though it runs into a common problem with split-personality characters, namely that they effectively cease to be characters at all. Still, even if this is a series for completists, there's certainly some entertainment to be had here.

Incredible Hulk #601 - Last month's Incredible Hulk #600 was effectively issue #12-and-a-half of Jeph Loeb's Hulk, so in effect this is the first issue of a new ongoing series. Basically, the new status quo is that Hulk gets the Red Hulk storyline (and it can keep it), while Greg Pak and Ariel Olivetti inherit Bruce Banner and Skaar from the Son of Hulk series. The high concept is that Bruce Banner, one of the cleverest men in the world, is in some ways even more dangerous now that he doesn't have to worry about turning into a musclebound thug at inconvenient intervals. And he's decided to try and do something to steer his son in the right direction. It's not bad at all, though Skaar's motivations are a bit obscure - he apparently hates the Hulk and is indifferent towards Banner, for reasons that were presumably explained in an earlier storyline, but aren't recapped here. Ariel Olivetti's art has the usual issues; his characters are nicely three-dimensional, but they don't always mesh neatly with the scanned-in backgrounds that he uses for outdoor sequences, and so sometimes the characters just look like they're standing in front of a backdrop. Generally fine, though.

King City #1 - We talked about this on the podcast; it's a story originally commissioned by Tokyopop, which is now being reprinted at Image over the course of twelve issues. Or, more accurately, they're reprinting the Tokyopop material for the first six issues, and then creator Brandon Graham is producing six more issues to complete the story. It's one of those books about a thief/spy type in a consumerist future city, and if you were looking purely at the plot, it'd be rather familiar. But there are some engaging quirky bits to liven things up, such as an inexplicably omnipotent cat (which, nonetheless, insists on acting like a normal cat). The real selling point, however, is the artwork, which makes incredibly effective use of negative space, unusual framings, and imaginative ways of implying action - plus crystal clear storytelling. It really is a class above most comics, and the book is worth picking up for that alone.

New Mutants #4 - The concluding part of the first arc, and I'll do a full review in due course (by which I mean, in several weeks time, but hey, maybe it'll be out in time for the collection). It's the end of the New Mutants' fight against Legion, and if you don't know who wins, you obviously haven't been reading this series for very long. Wells has a decent handle on all the characters, and makes imaginative use of Legion's gimmick that each of his split personalities has a different superpower. But on the other hand, it's still fundamentally ended up as a straight hero-versus-villain fight, and while Wells has some good ideas for the team dynamic, it's still not exactly clear what the premise of this series is supposed to be, beyond "reunite the cast of New Mutants". It's good as far as it goes, but it's missing a big central idea.

Wolverine: First Class #18 - Madrox shows up to visit, and Peter David takes the opportunity to do an all-ages version of some of the ideas he's been exploring with the character in X-Factor for a few years now. It's a good little story in its own right, but fans of X-Factor will probably want to pick it up too, to see David writing a younger version of the character and retroactively planting the seeds for some of his recent stories. Francis Portela's artwork is excellent, particularly when you consider that he's saddled with the gaudy green-and-yellow costume that Madrox used to wear in his early appearances - yes, it's striking, but it doesn't exactly blend in. I'm quite impressed by the way he manages to make it work.

Wolverine: Origins #39 - In which Daniel Way attempts to explain what the hell Jeph Loeb was banging on about in that Wolverine arc, and kind of sort of gets away with it. Basically, the idea is that Romulus wants to crown a successor, so he's getting his various pawns to fight one another to the death. And part of Way's explanation is that Wolverine was freed from Romulus' influence when Xavier wiped that part of his memory, so that restoring his memories after House of M actually restored Romulus' influence... hence random fight scenes written by Jeph Loeb. Alright, fine... but what's this successor going to be in charge of, if he's already killed all of Romulus' other pawns? A vaguely frustrating mixture of neat ideas and apparent logic holes, though it's worth noting that artist Scot Eaton is doing some excellent work on this story. Oh, and Romulus actually shows up at the end. He's basically an older vsion of Wolverine, although I have a sinking feeling he might be intended as the brother from Paul Jenkins' Wolverine: The End - and that's another story I was hoping never to have to think about again.

X-Force #18 - Well, you can never accuse X-Force of being subtle, and the closing pages of this issue are about as far removed from subtlety as it's possible to get. We're talking really absurd levels of gore here, although they're so absurd that, combined with some appropriately woozy camera angles from artists Mike Choi and Sonia Oback, the scene actually works on a vaguely surreal kind of level. The rest of the issue feels a bit like an obligatory wrap-up for the "exploding mutants" two-parter, but there's some promising material in the subplots, and somewhat against my better judgment, I rather liked this. The art has a lot to do with that, though - it's a rather more palatable series when Choi and Oback are aboard.

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Saturday, August 29, 2009

House to Astonish, episode 22

Featuring our usual round-up of news and solicitations, plus reviews of 2000AD, Fantastic Four and King City. And heaven only knows what at the end.

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

And don't forget, I'm going on holiday, so the next podcast will be in three weeks time!

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Number 1s of 2009: 23 August 2009

It's David Guetta's year, apparently.

That's David Guetta featuring Akon, "Sexy Chick". This is Guetta's fifth top 40 hit and his second number one of the year, following "When Love Takes Over" featuring Kelly Rowland in June. He also produced the previous number one, "I Gotta Feeling" by the Black Eyed Peas. Having vastly disliked "I Gotta Feeling", I rather prefer this one. You couldn't call it subtle (and the video is thoroughly phoned in), but it's got a bit of swagger to it.

As for Akon, this is his fifteenth top 40 appearance, and his third number one. The previous two were the rather forgettable "Smack That" from November 2006, and the thoroughly ridiculous "Lonely" from May 2005. You know, the one with the speeded up chorus sampled from a Bobby Vinton single. For some reason, I've always kind of liked it - it's so brazenly absurd that it's actually rather likeable.

Interestingly, just like "When Love Takes Over", this single was rushed to market a few days ahead of schedule, when the record company realised that an independent cover version was picking up sales. This suggests that Guetta's record company either needs to get a better sense of how to time its release dates in the first place, or needs to learn how to hold its nerve.

The song is actually called "Sexy Bitch" - "Sexy Chick" is the radio edit - but for some reason, that's the title that's being used on the official chart listings. The edit is actually an interesting choice, because the word "bitch" isn't routinely cut in Britain. Perhaps they had more sensitive markets in mind (like parts of the US). But even in Britain, there's some inconsistency. There have been 12 previous top 40 singles with the word "Bitch" in the title. And they are these...

1. The Rolling Stones, "Bitch" (No 2, 1971). No video, obviously, but here's the song. This one didn't pose any problems for the radio, because it was a double A-side with "Brown Sugar."

2. Elton John, "The Bitch is Back" (No 15, 1974). Doesn't seem to have caused any problems.

3. Rod Stewart, "Ain't Love a Bitch" (No 11, 1979). Never heard of it, and the fact that there's only one video on the whole of the Internet tends to suggest it's not often called for these days. But it's a perfectly inoffensive ballad.

4. The Olympic Runners, "The Bitch" (No 37, 1979). This is the theme tune to the Joan Collins film of the same name, and frankly, the sexual politics have dated poorly. It's not a subtle record, and unlikely to be covered any time soon without heavy irony involved. Nonetheless, it clearly didn't cause any major problems at the time, because here they are doing it on Top of the Pops on primetime BBC.

5. Stevie Nicks, "Sometimes it's a Bitch" (No 40, 1991). Scraping the bottom of the charts for one week, this isn't so much long-forgotten as never-known-in-the-first-place. It's not available online - her record company is inexplicably vigilant about it.

6. Spinal Tap, "Bitch School" (No 35, 1992). I don't recall much airplay for this, but that's hardly surprising. Not only was it a comedy single, but the whole joke (as I recall) was that Spinal Tap had made this staggeringly offensive and misogynist record, which they claimed was actually about dog training and had been sadly misinterpreted. This might have worked better if anybody had bothered to include that explanation in the video. Maybe it's in the opening scene, which has obviously been cut from the YouTube version. It's not one of Spinal Tap's better efforts, to be honest. However, the same album has "The Majesty of Rock", which is brilliant.

7. The Inspiral Carpets, "Bitches Brew" (No 36, 1992). A reference to the classic Miles Davis album, of course. With hindsight, this is so much duller than I remembered. So again, I'll post something else entirely - their startling and unlikely appearance on Top of the Pops with Mark E Smith, haranguing the audience, while reading the lyric sheet.

8. Sister Bliss with Colette, "Cantgetaman, Cantgetajob (Life's a Bitch)" (No 31, 1994) I haven't heard this in years, and it's actually held up pretty well. I believe it's one of the many "New York drag queen ranting over dance beats" records made around that time (and if it isn't, it's certainly influenced by them). But it's a good one. If there was a video, I'd embed it, but clck on the link to hear it. And yes, this is the same Sister Bliss who went on to form Faithless the next year.

9. Meredith Brooks, "Bitch" (No 6, 1997). Well, obviously. This is a school-of-Alanis Morissette record which failed to generate a career for Brooks in the UK - she managed one follow-up hit, "I Need", before vanishing. In America, she was a one-hit wonder. But at least it's a memorable one hit.

10. The Prodigy, "Smack My Bitch Up" (No 8, 1997). Notorious controversy-baiting single from the Prodigy, which had a video intentionally designed to be untransmittable before the watershed. It does still get dusted off for late-night TV fairly frequently. The lyric is sampled from the Ultramagnetic MCs. Somewhat to my surprise, it's on DailyMotion, so you can see it here if you want. Caution: contains nudity and "makes-you-think-dunnit" twist ending. Emphatically not safe for work. The single was understandably banned from daytime radio, not so much for the language as the theme. (The top 40 show apparently played the B-side and didn't name the single at all.)

11. The DJ Aligator Project, "The Whistle Song (Blow My Whistle Bitch)" (No 5, 2002). It's a subtle metaphor, you see. DJ Aligator - yes, with one L - is Ali Movasat, and according to Wikipedia, he's Iranian. The radio edit changes the lyric to "Blow my whistle, baby." It's, er, energetic. Also, intensely annoying. Don't say I didn't warn you. It certainly seems to have had terrible effects on the sanity of the video director, who felt that the song would be appropriately accompanied by scenes of forced dentistry.

12. Jet, "Cold Hard Bitch" (No 34, 2004). Jet are Australian rock throwbacks who notched up a few international hits around this time before retreating back to their home country, where they're apparently still going. Their inclusion on the same list as Spinal Tap amuses me somewhat.


Sunday, August 23, 2009

The X-Axis - 23 August 2009

I know I said I was going to do a full post on the first arc of X-Men Forever. And I will, honestly... it's in the queue. But I'm going on holiday in a week's time, so there's a lot of stuff to get done.

Which is as good a time as any to explain what's going to happen for the next while. Next weekend I'll be doing reviews and the podcast as normal. After that, I'll be off to spend a couple of weeks in New York and Philadelphia. So if you've any suggestions for what Susi and I should do there, post them in the comments thread. And that means three weeks between podcasts, though I might post from time to time while I'm away. (More likely, I'll set some posts to appear on delay... if I have time.)

And no, I will not be wandering the streets of Manhattan with a copy of the map from the mid-eighties Official Handbook trying to work out which flat belonged to Peter Parker. Although it's tempting.

In the meantime, let's run through this week's books...

Ex Machina #44 - Well, it's a key plot issue, that's for sure. We're clearly building towards the climax here, as Brian K Vaughan starts explaining all sorts of things that have been mysteries up until now, and in doing so, throws in a rather clever twist which I should probably have seen coming, but didn't. I've always liked the visual style of this book, which gives the superhero elements a rather homemade look, as if Mitchell was making his best effort to look the part, instead of being a proper hero. It pays off here, as one of the B-movie story elements turns out not to be quite as B-movie as it first appears, in a lovely piece of misdirection. A really good issue, and rewarding for those of us who've followed the story to this point.

Final Crisis Aftermath: Dance #4 - It's such a shame they advertised this book as a Final Crisis tie-in, because it's no such thing, or at least only in the very loose sense that the plot involves a recent catastrophe. And I suspect the crossover billing is just putting people off. It's actually just a Super Young Team miniseries, about the group of Japanese celebrity superhumans who have all the trappings of a superhero team without actually going out and fighting evil. At all. Basically, it's another of Joe Casey's deconstructions of the superhero comic, which comes full circle as its characters try to escape all that and be proper superheroes after all. Heavily tongue in cheek, and generally pretty funny, but there's actually a good superhero comic in here too. Fundamentally, it manages to make the Super Young Team quite likeable, because they're not complete narcissists - they're just rather shallow and naive, but with the potential to improve. The book still seems to be having all sorts of trouble with the art, though - after missing issue #2 entirely, ChrisCross also skips half of this issue, though at least this time we get Eduardo Pansica, whose style isn't miles away.

GeNext United #4 - In order to escape the mystical baddie, GeNext use magic to scatter themselves around India and disguise themselves as ordinary Indians. There's actually some potential in that concept, if you want to do a story about the diversity of modern India - although come to think of it, even that concept is somewhat misplaced in GeNext, a series set in the near future. But it's the execution that leaves most to be desired. The whole thing is rushed through at insane pace. The survey of Indian diversity somehow manages to avoid mentioning religion at all (even though the villain is an Indian goddess!). And artist Jonboy Meyers just isn't ready for prime time. His characters look awfully similar when he doesn't have race to tell them apart, and there are some shocking pieces of storytelling in this issue. A character somehow drops a heavy bag on a leg which is nowhere near it. A dancer is already placed in the front line of her group before the director moves her there in the next panel. This is clumsy, and it really doesn't do the book any favours at all. But the concept is so heavily compressed, I doubt it would ever have worked.

Hellblazer #258 - Peter Milligan's doing something quite interesting with this storyline, giving John Constantine a relationship with somebody utterly normal. The thing about Constantine is that he lives in a sort of genre landscape which is labelled as the real world, but is actually just a collection of stock characters wandering around darkened alleys and so forth. So if you put Constantine in a room with normal people (and allow them to be something other than just foils for him to trick), then there's quite a fun little dynamic there. And one of the questions is whether Constantine is being utterly selfish by dragging this woman into his life, and trying to justify it to himself as some sort of love-fuelled altruism. I'm not sure it's technically a horror comic so much as a smart superhero comic without the spandex, but it works for me.

Jack of Fables #37 - After abandoning his own series for the duration of "The Great Fables Crossover", Jack returns... for a few pages, before the story moves on to his son. Jack Frost got to be a sort-of-hero at the end of that story, but now he's decided to be a proper hero, and get away from the unfortunate and embarrassing legacy of his parents. However, while he may have the basic decency, he doesn't have any other sort of clue. It looks like we're going to get Jack Jr and his new sidekick on the rise, while "our" Jack and his old sidekick, having completed their big story, start to go into decline. Might work, although Jack Jr's relentless sunniness is already starting to get a bit grating.

Wolverine: Weapon X #4 - Good solid stuff here. It's nothing fancy and nothing particularly clever; Wolverine fights baddies for a whole issue, and they're an evil corporation who want to create more Wolverines for use as military weapons. There's kind of a theme (corporations evil!), but no real pretence that writer Jason Aaron is doing anything more than gleefully putting the boot in, with clear self-awareness. It's a fun romp, well paced, with some inventive sequences, and good powerful artwork from Ron Garney. There's not that much to analyse here, but it's an enjoyable back to basics affair from creators who clearly understand what works about Wolverine, and know how to avoid all the usual junk that drags his stories down.

X-Factor #47 - Oh, so that's what Peter David was going for. I've got to say, the recap page for this issue sheds a ton of light on how the plot is meant to fit together. I'd have preferred to pick that up from the actual stories, but maybe I wasn't paying enough attention. I'll have to see how it works when I re-read the whole thing. Anyway, the problem I had with the last couple of issues was that the story never quite seemed to be coalescing into anything in particular. Now that the structure of the whole story has become clearer, that's not an issue any more. And there's some great Peter David moments in this story, both in the throwaway comedy moments, and as the plot continues to thicken yet further. And it's a generally strong effort from artist Valentine de Landro, though the penultimate page features perhaps the least flattering picture of M I've seen. Surely the script said "angry", not "hag"? For the most part, though, he gets the subtleties right. A good issue; I'm reassured that the series is still on track.

X-Men: Legacy #227 - The second half of a "Utopia" crossover arc, mainly devoted to Rogue, Gambit and Danger rescuing the thoroughly obscure character Trance from nasty Hammer soldiers. Rogue gets to fight the ersatz Ms Marvel from Dark Avengers, in a scene that surely should have had more potential. After all, they're both vaguely connected to Carol Danvers, even if Rogue's current arc is about putting all that stuff behind her and moving on. You'd have thought there was something to be done with that, but what we actually get is a fairly standard fight scene. It's perfectly okay, and I can see how this story sets up Rogue's future role as the protector of the trainees (which is apparently where Legacy is going next), but I can't shake the feeling that more could have been done with this story.

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Summerslam 2009

Supposedly Summerslam is meant to be the WWE's second biggest show of the year after Wrestlemania, but if that's true, it's invariably a very distant second. That's particularly true at the moment, where the company seems to be more concerned about the ratings for Raw than it is about selling any pay-per-views. This has resulted in a string of bizarre and logic-free shows built around celebrity guest hosts, a format which is apparently set to continue for the rest of the year. (As for the other two shows, Smackdown and ECW, they seem to drift along perfectly happily beneath the company's radar. Worryingly, there seems to be an inverse correlation between how much attention the company pays to a show, and how good it is.)

I'm not buying Summerslam, mainly because I honestly have no idea when I'd get time to watch it before going on holiday next week. But there's some interesting stuff going on here, from a booking standpoint, so let's run down the card.

1. WWE Championship: Randy Orton v. John Cena. What, again? Actually, to be fair, these two haven't wrestled in a singles match on pay-per-view since February 2008. But they've been in three-ways, tag matches and so forth, often enough that this seems like a very overfamiliar match.

The problem is - and it's one of the company's biggest problems right now - that the main eventers on Raw are terribly stale. Every conceivable combination has been done, and they need to introduce some new blood to freshen things up. Unfortunately, the company has not been planning for the future, and so there aren't many wrestlers well placed to serve that role. One option would be to get rid of the brand split, or at least unify the world titles, so that they could draw on the Smackdown main eventers - some of whom have also been at the top since time immemorial, but at least it gives you more combinations to work with. Alternatively, they've got to try and elevate some of Raw's midcard wrestlers like MVP - but they haven't laid the groundwork to do that. So we're stuck with matches like this.

As a match, it'll probably be good. It just doesn't feel particularly exciting, that's all. And the usual principle applies: since there's no real benefit to a title change, Orton should retain, so that when he finally loses the title, it means more. In fact, I wouldn't be at all surprised if Orton retained by disqualification to avoid beating Cena decisively... which, oddly enough, was what they did in February 2008.

2. World Heavyweight Championship, TLC Match: CM Punk v. Jeff Hardy. Now this is more like it. Hardy has been around for years, but has only recently been elevated to the main event. Punk has been working his way up through the ranks since 2006, when he started off on ECW - but he's only recently turned heel and jumped to Smackdown, giving him a whole range of fresh opponents, and a relatively uncluttered show where he can be the star. Punk made his name on the indie circuit as a heel - he's genuinely "straight edge" (no drink, no drugs) but developed an effective heel act by being preachy and smug about it. Since Jeff Hardy's views on the subject of recreational pharmaceuticals are well known to differ, there's a natural fit here.

They've built this feud quite well. Punk began his heel turn by cashing in his "money in the bank" title shot (which he won at Wrestlemania) immediately after Hardy had won the World Title, effectively stealing it from him. Hardy won the title back at Night of Champions, by which point Punk had turned full-blown heel. Now, the usual news sources have been reporting for a while now that Hardy is planning an extended break from wrestling, but he seems to keep extending his contract for a little longer. We're told that he really is honestly, truly heading off in a week or so. Well, we'll see.

Complicating matters further, Jeff's brother Matt has been reinserted into the storyline. Matt turned heel a few months back, when he turned on Jeff and cost him the title (thus ending his first title reign). This didn't really work. Matt has a natural connection with the crowd as a babyface, which seems to keep him popular no matter how badly he's written. In part, it's because there's something quite believable about him as a put-upon babyface. He doesn't have that as a heel, and feuds with his brother have never seemed to work. So this time, Matt has apparently switched sides again, and is helping Jeff out.

This means one of two things: either Matt's being groomed to take Jeff's place (which would be sensible), or he's going to turn on Jeff in an attempt to cement the heel turn (which is risky, but might work). Either way, he's bound to crop up somewhere in this match, especially because it's no-disqualification, so there's nothing to stop him from interfering.

Oh yes... it's a TLC match, which is basically a ladder match with added hardware (tables and chairs, to be precise). Jeff's great at ladder matches. We haven't really seen Punk in many gimmick matches, but with Jeff there, I'm sure it'll be very good. It's really impossible to predict where they're going with this - there are plenty of possible outcomes, many of which would work. I think this is one of the most promising matches on the card.

3. D-Generation X v. Legacy. It's time for the seemingly annual D-Generation X reunion, with Triple H and Shawn Michaels reforming their tag team and dusting off the entrance video one more time. And I admit, I've always liked that entrance, with the strobing on-screen graphics. Nonetheless, we've been here quite a few times in recent years, and it doesn't feel like it's been that long since the last DX reunion. I don't sense quite the level of interest that the company was probably hoping for.

The other problem with DX is that they're a main event tag team in a company which treats tag team wrestling as a midcard sideshow. As a result, they've got nobody to wrestle - or at least, nobody who's credibly in their league. And this is a big problem. This time round, at least there's a makeshift main event heel team with the tag titles - Chris Jericho and the Big Show. But for the first match, we're getting the Legacy, Randy Orton's henchmen. These guys usually struggle to take out a main event wrestler in a two-on-one handicap match. Realistically, they're going to get annihilated. The only question is how thoroughly they get buried in the process. I don't expect this to be particularly good; the result is a foregone conclusion, but it's being presented as a main event, so it's got to go fifteen minutes or so. And that makes it very hard for even the likes of Shawn Michaels to have an entertaining match.

4. Unified Tag Team Titles: Chris Jericho & The Big Show v. Cryme Tyme. The other tag team match illustrates a similar problem. The Tag Team Champions get to appear on all three shows, so the belts are rather useful for spreading out the main eventers. And so we've got Chris Jericho and the Big Show as heel tag team champions, complete with the most irritating piece of entrance music in years. (It just randomly fades back and forth between their respective themes, which are wholly unrelated, and run at different speeds in a different key. It's truly abominable... although since they're heels, this might actually be deliberate.)

As heel champions, they must defend against a babyface tag team. But they're thin on the ground, to put it mildly. So here's Cryme Tyme, a midcard comedy act who've been doing the "loveable rogue" schtick on and off for a couple of years now. These guys have never even been particularly dominant within the midcard tag team picture, so all logic says they're completely out of their depth here. If they actually win, it'll be a miracle.

And again, that leaves the wrestlers with the problem of how to do an entertaining match, at pay per view length, when nobody believes for a nanosecond that the result is in any doubt whatsoever. One possibility is that they try to advance Cryme Tyme's other storyline, which involves white southerner Jesse ineptly trying to repackage himself as "Slam Master J" in order to join the group, to the Brooklyn duo's bemused horror. But I'm not sure how you'd actually work that in - he can't just cost them the match, because nobody believes they were going to win it in the first place.

Oh, yes... the company is trying to line up a Big Show/Shaquille O'Neal match for free television later in the year. If they've actually managed to sign Shaq up, they might do something here to advance that story. That's just about the only scenario in which I can imagine the babyface challengers winning: a run-in from their world-famous mate. (And we did establish a link between Shaq and Cryme Tyme when he guest-hosted Raw, to be fair.)

Otherwise... the heels win, and probably take twice as long to do it as they probably should. Jericho and JTG try their best and have a technically good match; it's not so great when the two big lugs are in the ring.

5. Intercontinental Title: Rey Mysterio v. Dolph Ziggler. Again? Rey already fended off the challenge of upstart heel Dolph Ziggler last month, and while Ziggler was at least allowed to have a competitive match with his main event opponent, he still lost cleanly. We seem to be in an odd storyline where the rookie heel is chasing the babyface champion. It's usually the other way round. Supposedly there's a degree of backstage politics involved here, because Rey was promised a respectably long title reign as Intercontinental Champion, and really, he hasn't reached that point yet. But somewhere along the line, this storyline really ought to pay off with Ziggler beating Mysterio and elevating himself to the next level. It might be tonight, given that they'll probably want at least one title change on this show. But I wouldn't count on it.

6. ECW Title: Christian v. William Regal. Added to the show very late in the day, when the company belatedly decided they really needed to get the ECW Title onto the card after all. ECW is the C-show, and its championship is something of an afterthought.

The show exists largely as a training ground for rookies recently called up from the developmental promotion in Florida. However, it has a few more experienced wrestlers to help them out, and these two fall into that category. Christian, as defending champion, is a great all-rounder. Regal has been around forever - he made his debut on World of Sport as a teenager - and works in a European style that doesn't always connect with modern American audiences. He is, however, a master of that style, and he's peerless with a microphone.

These two should have an excellent match - quite possibly one of the best on the show, if they're given time, and if the audience connects with their style. And I wouldn't rule out the possibility of Regal winning. The company's always been unsure about his style, but it's only the ECW Title, and he does have his supporters... and this show could use a couple of title changes, and the writers were only just saying that they'd run out of ideas for Christian as champion. So there's a good chance of a change here, I'd say.

7. Kane v. The Great Khali. God help us. This is one of the WWE's periodic "two very big men fight" matches, which tend to be lousy at the best of times. But Kane and Khali? Kane is a veteran, and perfectly fine in his role of huge, dominant, psycho baddie. Khali, on the other hand, is an Indian giant of, let's be frank, limited mobility and limited talent. About all he has going for him is his freakshow aspects of his size, so putting him in the ring with somebody built to his scale seems a terrible error. Actually, putting him in the ring with anybody at any time is questionable judgment, but he's under contract, so the writers have to find something to do with him.

Pray that this is kept short, because it certainly won't be any good. Khali will win, and Kane will probably vanish for a while, before returning at the same time as his "brother" the Undertaker, later in the year.

8. MVP v. Jack Swagger. Two midcarders from Raw who have been feuding since they were drafted to that show. The problem here is that these are both wrestlers that the company should be trying to elevate. Instead, by default of being a match with no titles, no established main eventers and no gimmicks, this is down at the bottom of the card. If anything, it cements their position as preliminary wrestlers.

There is no easy way out of this booking corner, and to be honest, I wouldn't have booked them on this show in the first place. I'd have pushed it as a first-hour main event match on Raw or something. At least then you'd be saying that they were wrestlers on the fringes of the world title scene.

Even then, there's a real problem with who wins. MVP is the only guy on Raw who could plausibly be shored up and elevated to the main event within a couple of months. So really, he needs a couple of decisive wins to rehabilitate him after a period of bad writing. But Swagger is a new arrival to Raw, from the much-less-watched ECW, and also needs a chance to establish himself. This is not the time for him to lose clean to a guy who's been pegged as a midcarder. It's a no-win situation, unless they manage to have a match so spectacular that both guys are elevated just from being involved - and down at the bottom of the card, that's unlikely. My inclination would be to go with MVP, because the staleness of the main event roster is a major problem that needs addressing urgently... but I wouldn't pretend it's an ideal outcome.

Worth buying? Well. Other than Kane/Khali, these are likely to be decent matches. The problem is that one of the main events is stale, and both of the tag matches are foregone conclusions. But Punk/Hardy, Christian/Regal and Swagger/MVP have promise, and some intrigue. It's not the card you'd expect from a show which was seriously intended to be the second biggest of the year, but there's some interesting stuff there.


Thursday, August 20, 2009

Number 1s of 2009: 16 August 2009

It's almost too depressing to contemplate, but... they're back.

The Black Eyed Peas, "I Gotta Feeling" already reached number one two weeks ago, before being interrupted by a Tinchy Stryder single. It turns out they've got more staying power than him, so they return for a second week. Strangely, the same thing happened with "Boom Boom Pow" earlier in the year (which, come to think of it, was likewise interrupted by a grime act making a bid for the mainstream - Dizzee Rascal's "Bonkers").

Now, the last time this happened, I posted a list of the interrupted number one singles from the last couple of decades. You'll notice that they were all from different acts (though Wyclef Jean appears on two of them). So, are the Black Eyed Peas the first act to do this twice?

No! They are not! In fact, they are in the illustrious company of Cliff Richard, with "Please Don't Tease" in 1960 and this classic from spring 1963.

Largely unknown in America, Cliff Richard was Britain's answer to Elvis Presley, in the days before we came up with the Beatles. Some of his early singles, like "Move It", actually aren't bad - though there's no getting away from the fact that he was still a blatant imitator of acts from the other side of the Atlantic.

Nonetheless, as the homegrown alternative who was actually in the country, Cliff was huge in the fifties and sixties. It gives you an idea of his chart dominance that the record which interrupted "Summer Holiday" was "Foot Tapper" by the Shadows, Cliff's own backing band. They also knocked "Please Don't Tease" off the top, with "Apache", easily the best thing embedded in this post.

Over the following decades, Cliff Richard settled into a comfortable niche as an adult entertainer, now playing largely to a small but devoted audience of women in late middle age. Nonetheless, thanks to their fanatical support, he continues to rack up hit singles, the last being "Thank You For A Lifetime", which reached number 3 last September.

The return of "I Gotta Feeling" will be a particular disappointment for the two acts who were meant to be fighting it out for number one this week. First up is Calvin Harris, with "Ready for the Weekend", entering at number 3 - the follow-up to "I'm Not Alone", a number one earlier in the year. It's not the most instant thing he's ever released, and that chorus sounds a bit generic to me, but it's actually sort of growing on me.

But for the tabloids, at least, this was supposed to be the week of Peter Andre, the Australian pop singer turned reality star turned would-be pop singer turned reality star again turned would-be pop singer again.

Hard as it may be to believe, Peter Andre was actually quite big for a while. This is his fourteenth hit single, and he has four previous number ones to his credit. Nonetheless, his career tailed off in the nineties, and for the last few years he's lived a sort of twilight existence on the fringes of proper fame, desperately trying to rekindle his career with a string of increasingly dubious TV projects. Doing I'm A Celebrity, Get Me Out of Here wasn't such a bad idea. But marrying horrific surgically enhanced glamour model and all-round taste-free zone Katie "Jordan" Price, who he met on the show, and then doing a string of low-rent reality shows with her, in which he was generally portrayed as a long-suffering halfwit, before going for the obligatory public divorce and comeback single about his own failed marriage... well, maybe that wasn't so smart.

If you're unfamiliar with Jordan, here's her own unforgettable foray into the realm of music, when she entered the UK heats of the 2005 Eurovision Song Contest, despite a near-total absence of musical talent. And yes, she is wearing a skintight pink catsuit while heavily pregnant, why do you ask? It's all very Jordan.

Caution: this video features cruelty to melody.


Sunday, August 16, 2009

The X-Axis - 16 August 2009

I'm still working my way through my backlog of comics, so let's have another batch of capsules to bring us a little further up to date. Actually, X-Men Forever is due for a full-length review by now, and it's turning out that there's quite a bit to say about that book. But we'll come back to that.

Don't forget this week's episode of House to Astonish, with reviews of Doom Patrol, Lenore and Ultimate Comics Avengers. Download it here, or visit the podcast webpage, or download from iTunes.

Adventure Comics #... um... - This would be the first issue of the relaunched Adventure Comics. With Superman himself off in another storyline, the series has been turned into a Superboy title with a Legion of Super-Heroes back-up strip, thus satisfying the nostalgia cravings of people who live in the past. But you can ignore that if you want. It's actually a single book with a parallel structure - both strips are set in Smallville, both are written by Geoff Johns, there's a degree of plot crossover between the two, but rather niftily it provides an excuse to use two artists on the book. And you get thirty pages of story for your $4. The book also manages to set new standards in bizarre numbering: although solicited as Adventure Comics #1, the cover actually has the number 504 superimposed on the number 1, and the indicia identifies it as "Adventure Comics #1/Adventure Comics #504 (variant cover)". Yes, it's full-scale parallel numbering, a system designed to cause maximum confusion!

As for the contents: the Superboy strip plays off the idea that this version of the character is supposed to be the cloned son of both Superman and Lex Luthor. He's come to Smallville to try and emulate his father... or possibly his fathers. Remarkably little actually happens in this first issue, but Johns gets away with it by providing a sustained piece of misdirection and an effective twist. The idea of the character comes across without heavy exposition, and the book looks great - artist Francis Manipaul and colourist Brian Buccellato do some great farmland.

The Legion, on the other hand, have always struck me as a clumsy idea from the Silver Age who have not adapted terribly well to modern conditions (which is to say, the last few decades). They're passably entertaining here, but I just get the feeling that Geoff Johns is in love with these characters and is not really selling me on why I should share that view.

Battlefields: The Tankies #3 - This is the concluding part of Garth Ennis' Battlefields project for Dynamite Entertainment: a trio of three-issue miniseries, allowing him to indulge in his favourite genre, the war story. There's nothing to link the three stories, but a bit of branding can't hurt to raise their profile. In a closing essay, Ennis announces another nine issues, in the same format, for 2010 - including a direct sequel to one of the first Battlefields arcs. Presumably it's this one, since "The Tankies" comes across more as an introduction of some characters for use in further stories. (And the other two don't really lend themselves to sequels at all.) To be honest, though, this struck me as the least successful story of the three. It doesn't have the emotional hook of "Night Witches" or "Dear Billy", and comes across as a rather generic exercise in dark humour crossed with war-is-hell. It's not bad, mind you - the other two Battlefields arcs were exceptionally strong, and even Ennis's weaker stories are miles ahead of the pack. But he's done better.

Cable #17 - As if to prove that nothing, but nothing, can put an end to this "Bishop chases Cable through time" storyline, with the whole world on the verge of destruction, Cable flees into space... and Bishop gives chase. Again. In itself, it's a perfectly good story, but the broader problem is that the book seems to be going round in circles, and there's no real sense that it's building to anything. Of course, if we drag it out long enough, then I suppose eventually Hope gets her powers and something will come of that... but for the moment, we seem to be stuck on a merry-go-round of chase stories. Presumably the idea is to keep increasing the stakes, but I think they peaked on that when Bishop started blowing up whole continents, and the fate of a couple of spaceships seems relatively inconsequential in comparison. That said, these problems are with the broader picture. As a two-parter, this is perfectly decent - veteran artist Paul Gulacy humanises it all, and there's a nice little scene where Hope is reunited with Cable and figures (after getting it wrong in the recent crossover) that this time she's recognised the impostor. All this is fine, but the series as a whole really needs to get to the point pretty soon.

Citizen Rex #1 - Every so often I pick up a book because the creators are acclaimed geniuses, and then it just washes over me without leaving much of an impression at all. This is a six-issue miniseries by Mario and Gilbert Hernandez, and while I'd love to say that I had some great insight to offer, to be honest, I just though it was self-consciously quirky in a mildly irritating way. Let's just say there's an entire sensibility going on here which doesn't do much for me. I can sort of see the appeal - it's got a strong creative voice, and it's certainly different - but it never really connects with me either intellectually or emotionally.

CyberForce/Hunter Killer #1 - Mark Waid relaunches early Image team CyberForce (and some other Top Cow group you've probably never heard of) in a miniseries which the cover optimistically bills as "summer's hottest event series." Good luck with that. It's a perfectly straight superhero book, loosely themed around the power that technology has in our lives. So there's a too-good-to-be-true new mobile phone on the market, and if you can't figure out where that's heading, you're clearly new around here. It's fine, though; Silvestri's characters fit with Waid's style, and Kenneth Rocafort's art is flashy in a rather enjoyable way (and has some great colouring, too). Better than you're probably imagining it was.

Dominic Fortune #1 - A four-issue miniseries for Marvel's Max imprint, in which Howard Chaykin returns to his cynically amoral 1930s adventurer Dominic Fortune. Chaykin is one of those creators who acquired an indestructible critical reputation for his work in the eighties, when he doing all sorts of experiments with storytelling. He also tends to churn out rather uninteresting sex-and-violence fantasies like this, books which just seem terribly old fashioned, as if they're still rehearsing the stuff that would have been transgressive when the creator was 18. That said, there's something curiously compelling about Chaykin's awkward, blocky artwork, which makes up in presence for what it lacks in elegance. But ultimately it just feels like a stock adventure story with some gratuitous censor-baiting.

Doom Patrol #1 - We talk about this on the podcast, but basically, it's a revival of the original Doom Patrol by Keith Giffen and Matthew Clark, with the three founder members back to being used as a field team by a dubiously unsympathetic chief. This first issue is mainly character bits, hung on a fairly basic plot, but it hangs together quite well, and there's certainly a lot in there. The back-up strip, reuniting Giffen with the rest of the creative team of Justice League International on a suburban-sitcom version of the Metal Men, is great (and makes up for its lack of page count by doing ten-panel pages to squeeze in the content). Giffen is hit or miss - as the closing preview for Magog proves - but this is one of his winners.

G-Man: Cape Crisis #1 - This is the Image series by Chris Giarusso, the guy who used to do those Mini Marvels strips that cropped up randomly at the back of Marvel comics and were frequently the best thing in the issue. This is on somewhat similar lines; while Giarusso doesn't have the opportunity to play off familiar characters, the style is much the same, set in what seems to be a world where some of the kids are superheroes, none of the adults are, and actual villainy seems to be a very low story priority. Giarrusso's comic timing has always been great, and he knows how to play off the genre cliches - I love the scene of G-Man trying to explain his power to the other kids and being cut off with objections that you can't be "kind of invulnerable." (I always wanted to argue that point with Rogue. I mean, I knew what Claremont was getting at by "partially invulnerable", but seriously...)

The Marvels Project #1 - Ed Brubaker and Steve Epting begin a sort of shared origin story for superheroes generally in the Marvel Universe. Presumably. I'm a bit wary of books like this, because overarching conspiracy theories rarely fit neatly with every concept. But we're off to a promising start; from the look of it, it's not so much that there's a single cause for everything, as that the US government is giving things a nudge along, with an eye on the upcoming war. Wisely, Brubaker steers clear of the major Golden Age characters, and opts for the Angel as his protagonist - one of those all-purpose vigilantes who's enough of a cipher that you can impose pretty much any role onto him. Basically, it's Brubaker and Epting doing Marvels in the Golden Age, and as thoroughly readable as that implies.

Ultimate Comics Avengers #1 / Ultimate Comics Spider-Man #1 - Again, check the podcast for more on these. By the way, despite those being the official titles, the logos just say Ultimate Avengers and Ultimate Spider-Man, so evidently sanity dawned somewhere along the line. From the look of these books, neither Millar nor Bendis is really all that interested in Ultimatum and its deck clearing exercise - they just want to put it behind them and get back to business as usual. Avengers comes across as essentially a continuation of Mark Millar's Ultimates, but somewhat more restrained and with the bombast toned down a bit. It actually works quite well; Carlos Pacheco does a wonderful job with some of the action scenes, and personally, I always thought Ultimates was the sort of book that would benefit from dialling it back a bit. Spider-Man is more or less what it always was - New York City has been entirely rebuilt in six months, which is pretty obviously the book's way of saying "Let's just pretend that didn't happen." New artist David LaFuente has done some great work in the past, and has some great moments here, but he still seems to be settling on a style; there's a flirtation with manga here that doesn't seem altogether consistent throughout the issue, and makes the book feel a little rough around the edges. But it's refreshingly light on angst, and that's something to be welcomed.

Uncanny X-Men #514 - Part four of the "Utopia" crossover with Dark Avengers. I can see why Matt Fraction was talking in interviews about needing a flowchart to keep track of his cast. At this point, we've got a cast of thousands wandering the pages of the book - the regular X-Men, the "dark" X-Men, Norman Osborn, the Dark Avengers, X-Force, the Science Team... Come to think of it, there's also an entire subplot about Professor X and the Beast in prison which doesn't even make it into this issue. The Dark Avengers seem, at least so far, to be surplus to requirements, in that their role could have been filled perfectly adequately by generic HAMMER troops, thus paring back the cast list to advantage. I can't help wondering whether this story started off as an X-Men "Dark Reign" tie-in and got turned into a Dark Avengers crossover somewhere along the line, complicating it further. It's quite good fun - the Dark X-Men team are quite well balanced, in that most of the team are actually perfectly decent people, and there's nothing really all that dark about them aside from their connection with Osborn. And Terry and Rachel Dodson have always been great superhero artists. But there's probably too much going on here, and it feels like it'd be a stronger story for thinning the herd of characters and focussing on fewer people with more screen time. That said, Fraction is finding the space for Scott and Emma, who are rightly his top priorities, so it works to that extent.

Uncanny X-Men: First Class #2 - Nightcrawler gets into an argument with the Inhumans over an issue of cultural relativism, and the X-Men have to get him out of trouble. It's okay, and perfectly acceptable so far as it goes, but it doesn't have the charm of the Jeff Parker issues, and some of the team (Jean in particular) feel decidedly out of character.

X-Men Forever #5 - Officially the end of the first arc, "Love -- and Loss!" (yes, with that punctuation), although if there wasn't a "part 5 of 5" on it, you'd probably never know. What a strange book this is becoming. I'll write about it in more detail later, but X-Men Forever has turned out to be a strange hybrid of, on the one hand, ideas that Claremont might conceivably have used if he'd stayed with the X-Men in 1991 and, on the other, stuff that would clearly never have seen print in a 1991 X-Men story in a million years. (Wolverine's dead! SHIELD's run by a second generation staff!) This issue even throws in a weird new spin on the entire X-Men concept, which would have dragged the entire franchise away from the "next step in human evolution" premise. Basically, the idea is that mutants burn themselves out by using their powers, so they're pretty much doomed to die young - making their powers a different sort of mixed blessing. Now, obviously, if this was the regular Marvel Universe, or even the diverged-in-1991 version X-Men Forever was supposed to feature, you could cite tons of obvious counter-examples (Magneto and Wolverine, for example), but this is a parallel universe, so Claremont can do what he likes. And hey, it's something different. The book is all over the place, but with a sort of manic enthusiasm that makes it unexpectedly hard to resist.

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House to Astonish, episode 21

This is one of the most frequently interrupted recording sessions we've ever had, so something tells me it's going to be rather bitty. Anyway, this week's reviews are Doom Patrol, Lenore and Ultimate Comics Avengers. (Or, as the logo seems to call it, Ultimate Avengers.)

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

And don't forget to check out Al's blog at

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Monday, August 10, 2009

Number 1s of 2009: 9 August 2009

If you enjoyed Tinchy Stryder's previous single, "Number 1", which spent three weeks at the top in April and May - well, good news, because he's basically made it again!

That's Tinchy Stryder featuring Amelle, "Never Leave You". Wikipedia and the BBC News continue to describe this guy as a grime artist, and, uh, no. Grime, as I understood it, was basically an inner city UK rap movement based on dark, minimal lo-fi arrangements. "Never Leave You" is a pop song with a bit of rapping on it. Not that there's anything inherently wrong with being on the ultra-commercial wing of UK rap - it's healthy to have a spectrum. But you can't make records like this and still lay claim to underground credibility.

Stryder is a Londoner with parents from Ghana. His real name is Kwasi Danquah, and I can only imagine what names he must have rejected before settling on something like "Tinchy Stryder", which sounds like it ought to be the double-barreled surname of a character from the Ministry of Silly Walks sketch. Mind you, for all I know it's some sort of incredibly clever piece of London street argot.

Of course, he's hardly the first UK rap act to make a shameless bid for mainstream appeal. Dizzee Rascal's quite open about the fact that he's going for the mass market these days. And Chipmunk's an interesting case - a kid who was winning awards on the strength of his unsigned mix tapes, but whose full scale releases are pretty obviously meant to be a lot more radio friendly.

Anyway, this is Stryder's second number one single. The guest vocalist, by the way, is Amelle Berrabah of the Sugababes (the one who replaced Mutya Buena), making her first appearance as a solo artist. I don't see this lasting longer than a week at the top - it's already on its way down the iTunes chart, which has the Black Eyes Peas set to return to the top for a second run.

Elsewhere on this week's chart...

The next highest new entry is "Get Shaky" by the Ian Carey Project at number 10, a dance record made by an American living in Britain that did well in Australasia last year. Fun little video. Refreshingly straightforward.

Little Boots fans (and her label) can breathe a sigh of relief, as "Remedy" climbs 19 places to number 14. After "New in Town" failed to be the expected smash hit, and her album crashed in sales on its second week, there's a lot riding on this single for her - she's in serious danger of becoming the poor man's Lady Gaga, and boy, that video looks like they've been revising the budget for this project downwards. But it can still be turned round.

And finally, Polydor apparently think the market will support even more girl bands, because not content with Girls Aloud and the Saturdays, their sub-label Fascination is now trying to launch Girls Can't Catch. Awful name, isn't it? In fact, it's a rejected name that was passed over for the Saturdays, which says a lot. Their claim to fame, if you can call it that, is that one of these girls is Phoebe Brown. No? Well, she was in Hope, a girl band who were in The X-Factor two years ago, and got knocked out in week 7. "Keep Your Head Up" isn't such a bad song, but the video is dire (croquet in a scrapyard?), and its chart debut at number 26, despite a big promotional campaign, suggests to me that they're aiming for a gap in the market that doesn't exist.


Sunday, August 09, 2009

The X-Axis - 9 August 2009

I'm still working my way through a backlog here - which includes a bunch of first issues from recent weeks that I'll hopefully get to, including Citizen Rex, Doom Patrol and Marvels Project. In the meantime, though, let's cover this week's X-books - neither of which really merits a full length review - and a few other books from the pile.

Absolution #1 - Christos Gage heads to Avatar for a six-issue superhero miniseries, with art by Roberto Viacava. Avatar have certainly come a long way from the days when their adverts were full of variant covers of unusually shaped women; nowadays, it's mostly Warren Ellis comics. But there still seems to be a sense of obligation in every Avatar story to crank up the violence to astronomical levels, as if to justify the company's market niche. This is, after all, a company whose copyright warning still routinely alerts readers that "All characters as depicted in this story are over the age of 18" - which isn't even true, by the way, unless some of the people in this issue's suburban barbecue scene are of extremely restricted growth.

Anyway, Gage takes as his starting point the frustration of cops who have to play by the rules when they know people are guilty, and then he applies that idea to a bunch of supeheroes who are basically the superpowered wing of the police. What you end up with is essentially Dexter with superheroes. The first issue is a bit cheerleading for my tastes - though there's nothing wrong with starting off the story that way, and to be fair, there's no doubt that Dusk is a seriously disturbed character. As Gage more or less acknowledges, it's a familiar concept which he's tried to freshen up by mixing in a different genre, but since the superheroes end up acting like glorified police officers, it doesn't entirely come off. It's relatively restrained by Avatar standards, mind you (which is to say, it's really no more violent than the typical issue of X-Force), but there are still some thoroughly gratuitous bits where you can't help feeling the book is trying to have it boh ways. "Look at this, isn't it horrible? Isn't it awful? You can't get this anywhere else, you know..." Basically an okay comic, with a few false notes that bring it down.

All-New Savage She-Hulk #4 - This book hasn't sold particularly well, but Marvel evidently like it, as the character is getting the back-up slot in the revived Incredible Hulk (which, despite the title, looks to be some sort of Hulk Family series - the lead strip is going to feature Skaar). Because low-selling miniseries don't get to wait for their artists, this issue has three pencillers and three inkers - but it looks solid enough, and it's still written by Fred Van Lente, a writer who can pull off the difficult task of simultaneously acknowledging the ridiculousness of the character's back story, and letting the occasional moments of drama work. Basically, though, this is the two She-Hulks fighting the Dark Avengers, plus a tie-up to resolve the main plot and keep Lyra around for future adventures - which results in her contributing nothing much to the resolution of her own mission, and makes me wonder whether it's a late decision. Still, more fun than it technically ought to be.

Blackest Night #1 - Now, I realise that this came out ages ago. After all, issue #2 comes out on Wednesday. But you'll recall that Diamond UK failed to ship the book to my store, and then the following week's consignment got lost in the post for the better part of a fortnight. Somebody asked in the comments thread why I didn't just go out and buy another one. To which the answer is: because then I'd end up with two copies, and I was never all that convinced about buying one. And now that I've read the first issue, it's another one to file under "DC Universe crossover in which I have not the faintest interest."

Which isn't to say that this is an impenetrable mess like the notorious DC Universe Zero. They've sorted that problem, at least. The premise is reasonably clear - somebody wearing black is raising deceased superheroes from the grave. I've no idea who or why, but it's only the first issue, and the story would presumably have got to that in due course. No, this is more of the Crisis on Infinite Earths problem, where you're presented with a barrage of characters and references to stuff that happened in the past, and it pretty much relies on an existing emotional investment in the characters for you to care about anything that happens. There's an awful lot of people standing around saying "Hey, remember when...?" Which, again, isn't a criticism as such; it's pretty much inevitable with this sort of story. But for the relative outsider like me, it's pretty much all "Hey, remember when...?" The plot boils down to something like 20 pages of memorial service, and then a bit of violence at the end (including a dreadful sequence with Hawkman and Hawkgirl, which misfires spectacularly and had me rolling with plainly unintended laughter), before the DC Zombies show up at the end for some fighting. Strip away the "Hey, remember when...?" and there's bugger all to it. Continuity's a tool, not a raison d'etre, and characters who bang on about their back story all the time evidently aren't doing enough interesting things in the here and now.

It's a pretty book. And I'm sure it'll go down very well with the core DC Universe constituency. After all, the company's last few efforts were downright irritating; this one merely doesn't hold my interest. They're heading in the right direction!

Captain Britain and MI-13 #15 - The final issue of yet another well-reviewed, low-selling series. Perhaps the problem with this book was that it didn't have an obvious marketing hook, beyond "hey, Wisdom got good reviews." It's just a very good, well plotted superhero book. Actually, that's not quite fair - the book does have a theme, which is Paul Cornell's take on Britishness. It's about having one foot rooted in tradition, but only one. The problem is that he's trying to sell that concept to a primarily foreign audience. Oh, and this issue also throws in some cameos by the likes of Digitek and Dark Angel, which is a bit self-indulgent, but it's the last issue, so go nuts, why don't you? It's a good, satisfying final issue - the storyline has evidently been allowed to run its course, and everything gets properly tied up. The book may not have lasted long, but at least it got a proper resolution.

Exiles #5 - The most recent renumbering failed to improve sales significantly, so Marvel are pulling the plug at issue #6. I know people will say that's too soon - and to some extent I agree, in the sense that if a publisher gains a reputation for axing books before they really get under way, it'll make the task of marketing a new launch even more difficult than it already is. But let's not forget that this is in fact the 123rd issue of Exiles. (Come to think of it, axing the book with issue #6 means that they can start the inevitable next relaunch with issue #125. Hmm.)

This is the second half of the robot-world storyline, and it's perfectly serviceable without ever quite being great. To be fair, I get the impression that the book is rushing through its subplots more than a little - they're going to tie up the dangling threads next month - so we get Hank suddenly announcing a revelation that probably should have been built up over more time, but obviously can't be. Jeff Parker was the right man for this book, he's chosen a good direction, and he's paired here with the very solid Casey Jones; but it was a mistake to try and relaunch the book immediately, instead of resting it for a while.

Incidentally, the cover is lousy: a generic action shot of Blink, drawn by somebody who has apparently never seen a textile in his life. Somebody buy this man some cloth.

Phonogram: The Singles Club #4 - This issue, it's the DJs - Seth Bingo and the Silent Girl. And we get them from one camera angle, in a six panel grid, for the better part of 16 pages. Now that's just showing off. Not the normal type of showing off that people do when they're not actually that good, but have learned to be flashy. The type of showing off you do when you're so good that you can get away with holding a single camera angle for the better part of sixteen pages, and actually be interesting within those limits. Even the dancers asking for requests don't make it into the panel. There's damned few comics out there that can get away with this sort of thing, and few enough that would even attempt it, and most of those would make it a tiresome theoretical exercise rather than just a great little character story about an egomaniac DJ who doesn't realise why he's funny. Why aren't there more comics like this?

Ultimatum: X-Men Requiem #1 - The cover has the colon between X-Men and Requiem, but I'm going with the version from the copyright warning, because if in doubt, ask a lawyer. I gave up on Ultimatum about halfway through, but the general consensus seems to be that it was one of the worst comics of the last decade, and from what I saw of it, I can well believe it. This is a one-shot serving as an epilogue to Ultimate X-Men, and you can't really blame creative team Aron Coleite and Ben Oliver for the hopeless set-up they've got to work with. I could point out that it's a wholly unsuitable and arbitrary finish for this series, and indeed all its stablemates, but you already know that. In this issue, the surviving X-Men have a funeral, there's a brief fight with some villains, then everyone goes home. It's just rubbish, but the attempt to attach any sort of genuine emotion to Ultimatum was doomed from the start. To be honest, this whole storyline has been so horrifically bad that I'm left kind of hoping that the relaunch bombs, lest somebody at Marvel gets the idea that they should be publishing more books like Ultimatum. I've actually pre-ordered the first issues of the relaunches, for podcast review purposes, but they're going to have to be pretty damned impressive to convince me that I want to continue supporting the imprint in any way shape or form after this fiasco.

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Thursday, August 06, 2009

The X-Axis - 6 August 2009

Okay, then, let's make a start on the backlog. I'm not exactly racing through my pile of comics, partly because I've been kept busy with other stuff this week, and partly because I'm confidently expecting this week's books will be late too. Still, let's at least catch up on the X-books.

Dark Wolverine #76 - That title, that title... It's the sort of title so embarrassingly bad that you almost feel compelled to apologise for writing it down. Like I'm doing now, really. I wonder how long you have to spent saying "Dark Reign" fifty times a day before it all just becomes meaningles noises, and calling a book Dark Wolverine starts to sound like a good idea, rather than a skin-crawlingly awful one? But actually, Daken's kind of growing on me. There were a whole bunch of problems with the character in Wolverine: Origins - not least that he was connected to the Romulus storyline, which is an absolute lost cause. If nothing else, "Dark Reign" has got him away from that quagmire, and given him a better context. The story's pretty straightforward: it's Daken politicking within the Dark Avengers, and the basic question is whether he's trying to expose Bullseye as a traitor or set him up - and vice versa. It's nicely ambiguous about everyone's motives, while still making perfect sense. But I'm actually starting to see something promising in Daken here, as a guy who clearly fancies himself as the smartest guy in the room, and whose main concern in life is just to prove that he's in control of his own life. He likes the fact that his teammates don't trust him, because it means they don't believe they can control him. There's something in there, you know. I'm not sure where you go with him as a lead in the long run, if they're even planning to - he seems like more of a supporting character - but I'm coming round to the guy.

Dark X-Men: The Beginning #2 - Fans of pulse-pounding negotiation-packed talking won't want to miss this issue, which features three thrilling stories of non-stop conversation. Oh, all right, that's a bit harsh. But this issue, we get the recruitment scenes of Cloak & Dagger, Michael Pointer and Daken - and despite the best efforts of the writers, that's really just three scenes of Osborn making people an offer that they can't refuse. Paul Cornell and Leonard Kirk (who seems to be channelling Rick Leonardi) have a stab at giving C&D a plausible reason to join the team, and kind of get to the right ballpark. But they rush through it in a way that doesn't give the duo much chance to put up any resistance, and they end up coming across as a bit timid. The Weapon Omega piece is a contrived blackmail scenario that makes you wonder why Osborn would possibly expect this guy to have the slightest loyalty to him. And Daken... well, there's a couple of nice ideas about his character, as he regards himself as the only sane one in the Dark Avengers. But it really is just a conversation. It's pretty clear that this is one of those series they commissioned first, and figured an idea for the content would come along later.

Wolverine: First Class #17 - This issue, Peter David digs up Patch, Wolverine's old disguise from the Madripoor stories. And then doesn't go to Madripoor. It was David who torpedoed this idea in the first place, during a short run on Wolverine where the supporting cast finally got to roll their eyes and make clear that of course they recognised the guy with the really distinctive hairdo. ("But if the psycho with the claws wants to think he's fooling people, hey, let him...") That's kind of the approach here, with Wolverine evidently convinced Patch is an awesome persona, and Kitty finding it all a bit bizarre. It actually comes off pretty well, getting the basic idea to work, without getting into the continuity. The story itself is about a politician from a dodgy Madripoor family; Kitty thinks he's great, and Wolverine's convinced he must be crooked because, well, he's dodgy, isn't he? David manages to tie up the story without giving a clear answer to that question, and still make it satisfying. There's also strong artwork from Ronan Cliquet, who has more than a hint of Darick Robertson. This is a good issue.

Wolverine: Noir #4 - It's the final issue of the miniseries, and I suppose at some point I should go back and re-read this just to see if it works any better as a whole. But at first glance, it's just another tread through the usual noir cliches mixed with recycled X-Men plot elements, and I still don't see why that's supposed to be a worthwhile exercise. At the very least, the front-and-centre artifice of it makes it impossible to get into the story as anything other than a pointless parlour game. I see they've commissioned another X-Men: Noir miniseries, but I don't plan to bother with it.

Wolverine: Origins #38 - Wolverine and Omega Red have a big fight in a prison. It's a pretty good fight, too. And Scot Eaton continues to get better as a superhero artist. Of course, it's all supposed to be building up to some revelation about Romulus, which is the point where my enthusiasm runs out. But he's not really in this issue much - it's more a stalling device to drag it out a bit longer, which happens to pick up on a more interesting subplot from earlier in the series. There's not much to say about it beyond "it's a fight scene", but at least it's a decent one.

X-Force #17 - Ooh, nice cover. I don't normally much care for the generic pin-up covers, but that's a nice X-23 picture. Anyway, if you were expecting Elixir to explain who the baby was, well, think again. We're back to the Leper Queen storyline which the crossover interrupted in progress, so apparently that's going on the back burner for now. That irritation aside, it's not a bad issue - the good guys get to do some heroism, and there's a promising subplot with Wolfsbane that suggests the book might be planning a story which isn't quite as depressing as its usual fare. And we've got Mike Choi and Sonia Oback on art for this arc, whose art is much more enjoyable than Clayton Crain's murk. On the down side, the book is still going for eye-rollingly gratuitous violence in an effort to justify its brand, which I could live without. But, hey, not a bad story.

X-Men Forever #4 - You'll be pleased to hear (unless you're indifferent, which come to think of it might be more likely) that despite the cover, this story does not unveil Dark Shadowcat. Instead, we get Kitty Pryde with one of Wolverine's claws, which doesn't make a lick of sense, but Claremont just about gets away with it by having people act astonished throughout the issue. X-Men Forever is off to a very odd start; in theory, this series is supposed to be picking up where Claremont's original X-Men run left off in 1991, but even if you leave aside the difference of tone between Jim Lee and Tom Grummett's art, it's hard to believe that a continued Claremont run would have featured anything like this. On the one hand, you've got stories he'd never have done at the time - teasing the death of Wolverine, going back to the Kid Storm period from the late eighties. On the other, you've got things like Sabretooth reverting to his late eighties persona and disregarding the way he's been written for the last twenty years. It's all very strange. But there's a certain enthusiasm to the book that carries it along. I'm not sure how much sense any of this will make to readers who don't have a fairly detailed knowledge of X-Men stories from 20 years ago, but somewhat to my surprise, it's proving oddly compelling.

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Monday, August 03, 2009

Number 1s of 2009: 2 August 2009

Oh god in heaven no.

Yes, it's The Black Eyed Peas, "I Gotta Feeling."

I really don't like this record at all. Which is probably unfair, because I've never actually listened to it the whole way through... but then, that's because I can never stomach it long enough. I'm not quite sure why I find it so irritating. I'm tempted to say it's the empty-headed blandness, but then you could say that about a ton of pop and dance records that don't particularly bother me. I think maybe it's the combination of that empty-headed blandness coming from a group who continue to hold themselves out as being in some way a proper band, and who, lyrically at least, are evidently setting themselves a very low bar these days.

The Black Eyeds Peas aren't really a band any more, so much as a ringtone generator. When they tell me they've had a feeling, my initial reaction is scepticism. "An emotion? Really? Are you sure it wasn't wind?"

It's the second single from their current album, and it's climbed to number one over the course of a month, so it's not just a case of one-week hype. Some people must really like this record. I find that a bit depressing, in the same way that a lot of "live for the weekend" records seem to me like implicit accounts of an otherwise bleakly dismal life. Maybe it's just me.

This is their second number one of the year, following "Boom Boom Pow", which had two separate runs in May and June. Also, it's produced by David Guetta, who had a number one under his own name in June with "When Love Takes Over." Just to complete the sense of treadmill, the song appears to recycle a sample that Guetta previously used in his 2007 single "Love Is Gone." Which was much better.

I suspect this won't be number one for very long. It was widely predicted to top the charts last week, and ended up tailing in at number three. What's more, this was an exceptionally quiet week for new releases. The highest new entry, at number 14, was "I Made It Through The Rain" by John Barrowman - which isn't even a single. It's a track from his 2008 easy listening album "Music Music Music", which has been championed (presumably ironically, but I haven't been listening) by Radio 1 breakfast host Chris Moyles. The original version reached number 37 in 1981 for Barry Manilow.

There's no official video for it, but if you want to experience the song, you can do so here. Barrowman is an odd figure. Americans will know him (if at all) as Captain Jack from the Doctor Who spin-off Torchwood. He's actually from Glasgow, but grew up in America. The BBC adores him, which means he's developed a weirdly multifaceted career as actor, all-round entertainer, talent show judge, and game show host. As a presenter, he's... well, unsettling. There's a sort of manically intense enthusiasm combined with inappropriate bursts of shouting. I keep expecting him to pull back a curtain and reveal Batman strapped to a deathtrap. Here he is in action from his Saturday night variety showcase Tonight's The Night, a show that makes vision itself seem an unwanted curse.

Masochists will be pleased to hear that a devoted fan appears to have posted the entire series to YouTube, and I can assure you it doesn't get any better.


House to Astonish website

We now have a proper website for the podcast, where Al will be blogging too. So go and visit and say hello.

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Good news, everyone.

Two weeks of comics have just shown up at my door. What an interesting coincidence that posting a recorded delivery parcel on Friday should also flush out a similar-looking parcel, correctly addressed, postmarked 23 July.

Sunday, August 02, 2009

House to Astonish, episode 20

A couple of weeks ago on Top Gear they did a feature to show that the Royal Mail will get a letter from Land's End to Orkney faster than you can drive it. Well, they should have tried it in Scotland, because from the look of it, you could beat the Glasgow to Edinburgh postal service on a three-legged mule right now.

Yes, not only have they still failed to deliver the books that were posted to me over a week ago, but they didn't manage to achieve next-day delivery on this week's books either - which means they won't show up until Monday at the earliest. And throw in Diamond UK's incompetence, and I think you'll find I'm still waiting on my copy of Blackest Night #1 which came out THREE WEEKS AGO.

Actually, to be honest, a part of me is quite enjoying a break from the weekly routine. But if last week's books don't show up at my door on Monday morning, I'm going to be mightily unhappy.

In the meantime: enjoy this week's episode of House to Astonish, as Al and I round up the San Diego news and the soliciations, and then review three books that Al bought completely at random from Forbidden Planet: Wildcats, Dark Reign: The Hood and Lone Ranger.

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

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