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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