Sunday, September 20, 2009

The X-Axis - 20 September 2009

After a couple of weeks away, there's something of a backlog building up. So let's start off by ploughing through the X-books and a bunch of debut issues.

Obligatory plug: don't forget to download this week's episode of House to Astonish, where Al and I talk about the big news at Marvel and DC, and review Beasts of Burden, Sweet Tooth and Vengeance of the Moon Knight. Download it here, or visit the podcast webpage, or subscribe via iTunes.

Beasts of Burden #1 - This is a four-issue miniseries - or, more accurately, an "at least four issues and then we'll see how it goes" series - for Evan Dorkin and Jill Thompson's stories about cats and dogs protecting their small town from mystic weirdness. Apparently they've been doing these in anthologies since 2003. It's a beautiful comic. Jill Thompson is a wonderful animal artist, and manages to get tons of expression into the cast with virtually no anthropomorphism going on. At first glance it might look a bit cutesy, but there's a dash of genuine nastiness in here which rears its head from time to time. Now, if it's done badly, that sort of thing can come across as a kids' story with some arbitrary adult content nailed on. But this book gets it right; it feels more like a fairy tale from the days before bowdlerisation. If I've got one criticism - and I do - it's that there's a lot of minor characters wandering around who seem fairly interchangeable. That aside, though, this is an excellent book.

Cable #18 - On this issue's thrilling cover: Cable holds a gun and clutches a child. Say what you will about Marvel, but god, they wouldn't know a decent cover these days if it kicked them in the face. Seriously, what is this meant to tell anyone, other than that it's another issue of Cable exactly like the last seventeen? Because there's already a perfectly good logo that says Cable. Use the rest of the page to say something else. Give people a reason to buy the comic. You know, like you used to do before Bill Jemas decided that every cover should be a generic pin-up shot. He's gone now.

Anyway. In the far future, Cable and Hope have fled into space, and Bishop has given chase. You know, Bishop really should have thought of this possibility when he started blowing up vast chunks of planet Earth just to box them in. And the plot problems don't end there, because even though Bishop is in possession of a nuclear device, and he's aboard the only ship in the universe where Hope might conceivably be, and the captain has even told him that Hope's on board, he's not prepared to detonate it until he has "visual confirmation." What? It's a fucking nuke! Just blow up the ship, you moron!

And that's the problem with this series. The characters are quite well written; Hope's starting to emerge as a decent character; in broad strokes, the story isn't bad; but the plot just falls apart on inspection. It's an infuriating book, because I can't help feeling it's only a couple of drafts away from being good - plugging the plot holes, giving Bishop some genuine reason for doubt. (Cable fires off an empty liferaft pod as a distraction, for example, so Bishop's not sure whether she's still aboard.) In the broader scheme, give Cable and Hope something to aim for so that it isn't just an endless parade of "Bishop chases them through a new environment, repeat until cancelled", and instead you have a macguffin providing the illusion of progress. (For example, what Cable and Hope really need is a replacement time machine - or the parts to repair Cable's.)

It exasperates me, this book. It would take so little to solve its problems... but it hasn't been done

Dark Avengers/Uncanny X-Men: Exodus - It may have taken until the last episode of the crossover, but at least the Dark Avengers finally have a role to play: they're needed to make up the numbers for Osborn's side in the big final battle. That's still a pretty minor role for a team who are supposed to be the co-stars in this story, though, and I can't help but feel that this story should have been simply an X-Men arc guest starring Osborn and his cronies. The upshot of this arc, if you don't know, is that we're moving on from the never-quite-worked San Francisco set-up already, and now the X-Men are living on an island off the coast. Apparently, for the purposes of this story, 1.2 miles off California is not American soil, which is news to me, since it's comfortably within US territorial waters.

The final issue is basically a big fight between everyone under the sun, with lip service paid to a couple of token subplots such as Dani Moonstar becoming a Valkyrie again. There's a rather good sequence with Emma Frost and the Sentry. But fundamentally, it's the same problem I've had with a lot of Matt Fraction's X-Men stories - the cast is too large, there are too many plots being juggled, there's not enough focus. And to be honest, the Utopia set-up doesn't really interest me. The X-Men in San Francisco could have worked (though it didn't). The X-Men on an island in the middle of nowhere is basically a return to the Mansion with more water and less context. I'm not sold.

Dark Wolverine #78 - This is the start of a second arc, as Daken causes PR problems for Norman Osborn, thanks to his overenthusiastic slicing up of baddies. I'm not sure I even buy that as a premise, to be honest. Yes, the Dark Avengers are meant to be bad guys posing as heroes. But they've never seemed all that bothered about using excessive force in public, and it seems to me that the none-too-subtle Bush-administration metaphor makes it something they wouldn't be ashamed about - if anything, they'd consider it a PR boon. "Yes, we torture and murder bad guys. We're keeping America safe. Got a problem with that, liberals?" Isn't that meant to be the story? Or shouldn't it be? For that matter, if Osborn doesn't want one of his heroes slicing up bad guys in public, why on earth did he recruit a Wolverine in the first place? Slicing people up is his only means of attack!

So... we've got a premise that I don't really buy into, and that's followed by a story Daken doesn't really appear in all that much. There's a convoluted conspiracy plot with Osborn, and some gratuitous lingerie scenes. What I liked about the previous three issues - Daken's playing both sides against the middle - isn't so apparent here, and instead it comes off as an exercise in killing time while the creators wait for Dark Reign to end. We all know Osborn's downfall can't come in this book, so where exactly can any of this be leading? On the face of it, nowhere, and that's a problem. If you want to read yet another Dark Reign conspiracy story, this is a decent one, but I think I'm bored of this set-up and I'm ready to move on, thanks.

Exiles #6 - Jeff Parker's relaunch meets with swift cancellation - though to be fair, if it wasn't for the renumbering, this would be something approaching issue #125. There wasn't a lasting increase in sales, so the decision to pull the plug is understandable; as I've said before, Exiles is a fairly narrow concept and probably due for a rest. Still, Parker had some interesting ideas; rehashing the original Exiles set-up with Morph playing the Timebroker, so that long-time readers knew from the outset that something wasn't quite right, was a clever twist on the formula. And Marvel have at least given him a double-sized issue to wrap things up. Inevitably, it still feels terribly rushed, but we do get a resolution to the Magneto storyline, and a head-spinning explanation of why the Exiles exist in the first place (which, basically, asserts that as different worlds get "fixed", the knock-on effects for the universe mean that the explanation itself is retroactively altered). With hindsight, it's a shame that they didn't give the series a proper rest and then relaunch it with Parker, since that might have worked. But it's probably time to put this concept to bed for the moment.

Magog #1 - From the pages of Justice Society of America, apparently. I've never been especially interested in this character, who always struck me as a slightly off-beam representative of "modern" superheroes when he debuted in Kingdom Come. But hey, it's Keith Giffen, so it's probably worth a look. And, well... it's not terrible or anything, but there's nothing much to grab me. Giffen writes Magog as one of those superheroes who spends his time grumbling about the fact that other heroes won't get involved with street crime or Sudanese child soldiers because they're too busy fighting aliens. So he's a sort of globe-trotting street-level superhero, who's very angry about stuff, and likes smashing up opposing henchmen. Nothing you haven't seen before. It's competent but not very memorable.

Models Inc #1 - At least it stands out on the shelf. The art itself is dreadful - it looks like somebody's put a photo through a blurry filter and drawn a black line around it, and frankly they'd have been better off just using a photo - but the cover layout is different from anything else, and that's something. (And if it's not a doctored photo... well, it looks like one, and isn't that the real issue?) As for the story... it's a revival of some of Marvel's 1950s model characters, written by Paul Tobin with art by Vicenc Villagrasa. And that begs the obvious question: why would you want to revive the 1950s model characters? Was the world really crying out for a twenty-first century take on Millie the Model? Even if it was, I doubt this will be the book to satisfy them, because it's excruciating. I have no idea who this could possibly be aimed at - a clumsy book about models having adventures on the fringes of the Marvel Universe. If it was vaguely witty and had properly defined characters, it might have a certain camp or cult appeal, but it doesn't really manage that either. Oh, and there's a back-up strip about some guy who's apparently on television abroad.

Nomad: Girl Without a World #1 - A four-issue miniseries for Rikki Barnes, the Heroes Reborn Bucky. Rikki's a tricky character - she's actually not bad in her own right, but she's tied to a notoriously awful series in Rob Liefeld's Captain America, and her back story, involving artificially created alternate worlds brought into our dimension, is practically impenetrable. Sean McKeever wisely cuts through all that, by stripping it back to a simple idea: Rikki is from a parallel Earth, she's stuck in "our" world which is familiar but different, and her story is about her trying to find a place. And in the first issue she tries to be Bucky again, only to be warned off by the Black Widow. Given that the series is called Nomad, I think it's pretty obvious where this is heading - but McKeever writes this sort of thing well, and he's keeping the series down to earth with a story about high school politics, of all things. This is a pretty good issue. (Oh, and although the cover is a straightforward pin-up, it's at least got some striking colouring.)

Strange Tales #1 - First of a three-issue anthology of indie cartoonists doing comedy strips with Marvel heroes. The main attraction here is the long-awaited appearance of Peter Bagge's The Incorrigible Hulk, which was completed years ago and shelved when Marvel had a panic about damaging the Hulk licence. It's being serialised over these three issues, and on the strength of the opening pages, it's hard to fathom what Marvel could have objected to. ("Second-hand smoke bad for Hulk! It violate Hulk's civil liberties!") All told, it's a pretty good package. Most of the strips are short enough not to outstay their welcome; Paul Pope's tongue-in-cheek semi-deadpan Inhumans story is quite charming, and Junko Mizuno's inexplicable "Spider-Man moves to a city of spider-people where he isn't very special" story is genuinely sweet. A lot of it's just silly, but that's no bad thing.

The Torch #1 - It's Marvel's 70th anniversary, so it must be time to revive the Golden Age Human Torch again! Actually, on the strength of this first issue, it seems to be more of a comic about the Torch's sidekick Toro - who was apparently restored to life somewhere or other, and if only they still did footnotes, I'd know. Avengers/Invaders? Just guessing. The angle is that Toro doesn't fit in anywhere, because everyone he knew has moved on. If you only read one comic this month about a Marvel superhero feeling that they don't fit in, make it Nomad #1. This is okay, but nothing much more than that, and feels like primarily an exercise in reviving a character for the sake of doing so.

Sweet Tooth #1 - See the podcast for more on this. Jeff Lemire's new Vertigo series is definitely more of an indie title in sensibility, and I suspect it's going to be a tough sell, but all credit to Vertigo for trying it. It's a post-apocalypse story about a kid who's grown up in the middle of the forest alone with his father, and now has to go out on his own. Apparently all the post-apocalypse kiddies have animal characteristics, and Gus has antlers and the expression of a startled deer. In plot terms, all very familiar, but the execution is impressive - even if the metaphor of innocence might as well have a flashing neon sign over it. It's a quiet, bleak and brittle piece, which manages to keep up that mood despite fairly racing through the opening plot. From the preview pages, I had this pegged as likely to be irritatingly quirky, but at full length it turns out to be much more enjoyable than I'd expected. Worth a look, particularly given that Vertigo is still selling its first issues for a dollar.

Uncanny X-Men: First Class #3 - This is a Banshee solo story, and it actually finds a relatively underused part of his history to work with. It's his wife Maeve, whose main function has hitherto been to spawn Siryn and get blown up by the IRA in an angstifying flashback. So, nice idea... but we end up with a rather awkward story about voodoo mutants and a bitter father-in-law. It all feels a bit contrived, and with both Sean and Moira featured prominently, much will depend on yuir tolerance fir the ol' Oirish accent. Adequate for what it is.

Vengeance of the Moon Knight #1 - Only in comics would a B-movie title like Vengeance of the Moon Knight actually seem like a good idea. Maybe the next relaunch can be Abbot and Costello Meet the Moon Knight? Anyway, Gregg Hurwitz and Jerome Opena bring Marc Spector back to New York, and he's out to make a name for himself as a proper, saner hero once again. The main theme seems to be Moon Knight's attempt to re-establish himself as an A-lister, which isn't a million miles away from what they've been doing in Ms Marvel. And although this isn't an official Dark Reign tie-in, there's the obligatory "renegade hero operating outside Osborn's control" schtick. It's all quite well done; the story is well paced, enough is done to acknowledge the previous stories without compromising the fresh start, and Opena's art is beautiful. The drawback is that the themes all seem a bit familiar; by this point in the Dark Reign storyline, we've seen pretty much everything. The back-up is a reprint of Moon Knight #1, not a particularly great story in its own right, but interesting for a chance to see Bill Sienkiewicz in the days when he was still finding his style.

X-Factor #48 - Are we nearly there yet? This storyline feels like it's been going on forever. Civilisations will die, continents will rise and fall, man will colonise the stars, and this storyline will still not be over. Apparently the book is heading for a relaunch with issue #200 (which, if you add up the first and second volumes, isn't that far away - though it's also rather meaningless, since the first 74 issues of volume 1 featured a different team of the same name). So presumably this has to end sooner or later, and I wonder whether it's being dragged out to fit that schedule. Anyway, this issue, the various plots shuffle a little further forward, and that's about all you can say about it. The story is over-long, and that's the bottom line.

X-Men Forever #6-7 - One issue drawn by Paul Smith, one by Steve Scott. And they're nice-looking comics, actually, even if Smith seems a bit sketchy at times. Claremont's characteristic juddling of subplots fits nicely with the fortnightly format, which keeps up the momentum while allowing him to pursue his digressions. Issue #7 is certainly something of a digression, as much of the issue is given over to a flashback story with the Howling Commandos. But it bounces along as enthusiastically as ever, and it's a strangely likeable comic for all its rough edges. As promised before my break, I'll come back to look at this series in a bit more detail... honest.

X-Men Legacy Annual #1 - Actually the first part of a four-part storyline which presumably continues in X-Men Legacy itself, although nobody seems to have thought it necessary to specify that in the comic. It's an Emplate story, which takes as its starting point the reasonable observation that the old Generation X villain was supposed to survive by feeding off mutants, so he's had a tough time since M-Day. For whatever reason, he's finally thought of visiting the X-Men to go looking for Penance - who, you might remember, he could feed on indefinitely because of her diamond body. Well, Penance isn't there, so he tries somebody else instead - presumably you're supposed to either remember Bling! from the Peter Milligan run, or figure out for yourself what her powers must be in order for the plot to work. That piece of exposition aside, it's a solid story which seems to be having fun with Emplate's all-round weirdness - though I wonder whether Acuna's art is too realistic to quite pull him off. There's also a back-up strip, picking up on the "Gambit joins Apocalypse" subplot which we all thought had been abandoned; apparently Carey's going to do something with it after all.

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