Monday, October 26, 2009

Number 1s of 2009: 25 October 2009

It's hard to overstate just how much The X-Factor dominates the charts at this time of year. For the benefit of the Americans reading, The X-Factor is the show that replaced Pop Idol a few years ago. It's essentially the same format with a few tweaks. The main difference is that The X-Factor has four categories - boys 16-24, girls 16-24, 25+ and groups - and four judges, each "mentoring" their own category.

You can't buy the individual performances from week to week, but that doesn't stop people going off and downloading songs that they saw on the show. And they do, in quantities that suggest a lot of X-Factor viewers are evidently not being exposed to music through any other channel. Two proper acts perform on the Sunday night results show, and those slots are far and away the most effective promotion a single can have in the UK.

Last week, the 2008 winner Alexandra Burke entered at number one with her first single proper (not counting her coronation release). It was the fastest selling single of the year. I wondered whether that might be bad news for X-Factor judge Cheryl Cole, who released her own solo debut this week. But she evidently didn't need to worry. The British public love Cheryl Cole. She practically matched Burke's weekly total in her first day.

So, that's Cheryl Cole, "Fight for this Love." (The YouTube version is here.)

Cole is a member of Girls Aloud, the girl band who were formed on Popstars: The Rivals in 2002. The original idea was to form two groups - one male, one female - who would battle it out for the Christmas number one. This shouldn't have worked. After all, it meant taking whoever came first, second, third, fourth and fifth in a talent show. And for the boys, it didn't work - One True Voice crashed and burned after two singles.

Girls Aloud, however, were given decent material and went on seven years and counting of legitimate success in the UK and Ireland. Even the reviewers generally like them. Curiously, they've never managed to translate that into success overseas. But against all expectations, they survived and thrived.

Cheryl Tweedy was 19 when she joined the group. She nearly managed to screw things up almost immediately when, in 2003, she was done for assaulting a nightclub toilet attendant. (She claimed self-defence.) After this rocky start to her career, she ended up marrying footballer Ashley Cole in 2006 and starting a sort of parallel career as a fashion icon.

Her solo career has clearly been in the works for a while. Girls Aloud can't go on forever - seven years is a long career by the standards of most pop groups, let alone reality TV girl bands. She joined X-Factor as a judge last year, and also put in a guest appearance on the UK version of's single, "Heartbreaker", which got to number 4 last year.

Cheryl Cole isn't the greatest of singers, but she's a star in Britain. And I quite like the single. Musically, at least, it's a grower. Now, lyrically, on the other hand, it's thoroughly uninspired - I honestly think this may be a song where literally every single lyric is a cliche. Verse two is dreadful. And the video's all over the place - I almost expect to be hauled into a focus group at the end and questioned on which look I prefer. At least when she did it on the X-Factor results show, they picked a strong visual and ran with it (even if it's a stupid costume). But she's clearly got nothing to worry about so far as her British sales are concerned.

If you count her Girls Aloud output (and the record), this is Cole's top 40 single, and her fifth number 1. Rather disappointingly, the four Girls Aloud number 1s are their debut "Sound of the Underground", a mediocre cover version of "I'll Stand By You", an equally mediocre charity cover version of "Walk This Way" with the Sugababes, and last year's "The Promise." But in a seven year career, they've never had a single peak below 11 - unless you count "Theme to St Trinians", the theme to last year's St Trinian's movie, which wasn't technically a single but did have a video, and crept into the lower end of the chart at number 51. It's a very strange record, not least because it seems to have been produced by complete amateurs (their voices all tail off separately at the end of each line). Actually, being part of the St Trinians revival, it's just a very strange record generally.

In Britain, X-Factor performances aren't available to download. There are good reasons for that. They'd count as singles, so they'd clog up the whole chart. And Simon Cowell doesn't want that, because (a) it'd spoil the coronation single, and (b) he has other acts he wants to promote in the run-up to Christmas. What we get instead is people downloading the songs that are performed on the show. This week's winner: "Hurt" by Christina Aguilera, spontaneously re-entering the chart at number 25.

The most perversely entertaining aspect of the show this year, though, is the state of the Groups category. Relying as they do on pre-existing groups to audition, the X-Factor always has to pad out this category appallingly. But rarely as badly as this year, where Louis Walsh ended up putting through a group of ex-strippers (voted out in week one), a passable group assembled by the production team from the cast-offs of the girls' category (voted out in week three), and John and Edward, Irish twins so unremittingly awful that even the famously adoring studio audience has been known to boo them. But there are enough malicious voters out there to keep them in the show week after week. As they keep surviving more deserving contestants, they're bordering on being a full-blown heel act. Hopefully they get the joke. Still, the sight of this duo as the last group standing is perversely entertaining.


Sunday, October 25, 2009

The X-Axis - 25 October 2009

It's been a couple of weeks since I've written one of these, so we've got something of a backlog to get through. And of course, as always, don't forget to check out the podcast for more talk about Anchor, Sugar Shock and Azrael.

I'll come back, I think, to Chew #5, Final Crisis Aftermath: Dance #6 and GeNext United #5 once I've had a chance to re-read the whole storylines. But for now...

Anchor #1 - This is a new ongoing series from Boom Studios by Phil Hester and Brian Churilla. Hester has written some interesting off-kilter high-concept fantasy comics in the past, such as The Coffin. This is a more straightforward action set-up, but it's still a pretty weird central idea. There's this big guy, right, and he exists both on Earth and in Hell. In Hell, he's singlehandedly holding off armies of demons who are trying to escape; on Earth, he's a confused guy who feels obliged to fight giant Kirby-esque monsters. It's the sort of idea that could easily be a mess, but actually, it works pretty well - it's got the sense of mythological scale that allows it to get away with such an odd premise.

Azrael #1 - DC have just reshuffled the Batman books again, and so they've dug up this concept for another shot. This isn't the original Azrael - it's a guy called Michael who's picked up the identity somewhere along the line. But writer Fabian Nicieza is sticking with the theme of cults and zealots. Basically, the idea is that the comic cuts back and forth between the present day (where Azrael's a fairly normal vigilante on the fringes of the Batman family) and six months time (where he appears to have gone stark raving mad). A nice enough idea. Granted, Michael's not a hugely interesting character in the present day sequences, and the first issue is an "abusive Catholic priest" story, territory which has surely been stripmined by now. And Ramon Bachs' art doesn't seem entirely comfortable with the action scenes. But nonetheless, there's something interesting in here.

Beasts of Burden #2 - Ah, this is good stuff. Pets fighting mystical evil is an okay concept, but it's all in the execution. Jill Thompson's art brings out the characters without anthropomorphising them too much, while Evan Dorkin's script manages to balance the suburban setting with a lingering sense of threat. This series could easily have been gimmicky or cutesy - or gone the other way and tried too hard to be "serious" - but it's a beautifully judged piece of work.

Cowboy Ninja Viking #1 - Now there's a title. It's a very tongue-in-cheek action/conspiracy story, starting from the intentionally ludicrous premise of an attempt to create government super-agents out of people with multiple personality disorders. Because they've got three personalities, you see, so that's three times as many useful skills they could have. Did it work? No, of course it didn't. But there's still a deranged cowboy/ninja/viking out there as a result. I love the idea, but I'm a bit more lukewarm about the actual comic. The plot's a bit opaque, and at times it feels like it's trying too hard to be clever. The biggest problem, though, is that the lead character has three personalities all of which seem to be essentially the same in different hats, which feels like a waste of the idea.

Dark Wolverine #79 - Boy, this feels like filler. "How many months of Dark Reign left to go? Six? Yeesh... uh, Daken has a fight with some minor villains?" I was more or less behind this series with the first arc, but it's losing me now. One problem is that the plot depends on you accepting that Norman Osborn can't allow his Dark Avengers to be seen beating up villains in public because of the PR consequences. But I don't really see what his problem is. Again, if "Dark Reign" is supposed to be an ersatz Cheney-verse, Osborn wouldn't be concealing the abuse of prisoners, he'd be trumpeting it as a tough-on-crime virtue. It's not as if Daken's even done anything particularly groteque. And when the whole "Dark Reign" set-up requires us to accept that Norman can hold a position of public trust despite a well-documented history of villainy and madness, you can't turn round and expect me to believe he's losing sleep over something like this. It just doesn't work. Oh, and there's a cringingly adolescent bit with a creepy store manager hiding cameras in women's changing rooms, which is just eye-rollingly terrible.

Deadpool #900 - Well, it's an anthology of Deadpool stories. Or rather, half of it's an anthology of Deadpool stories, and the other half is a reprint of Deadpool Team-Up #1, a James Felder/Pete Woods one-shot from years ago which wasn't especially memorable in the first place. A little Deadpool goes a long way, and to be honest, seven consecutive Deadpool short stories is a bit much. Fred van Lente and Dalibor Talajic do a good story with evil mimes, while Mike Benson and Damion Scott turn in a visually interesting conversation piece between Deadpool and a psychiatrist. On the other hand, the Joe Kelly/Rob Liefeld thing is like having sugar injected into your eyes. And Kyle Baker turns in some thoroughly odd-looking art for the last story, which I'm not at all sure works. It's like the comic book equivalent of a low-budget Adult Swim clip-art animation. Mainly, though, it's not that the individual stories are bad, just that it's hard to take this much Deadpool in one go.

Liberty Comics #2 - This year's fundraiser anthology for the Comic Book Legal Defense Fund, which is of course a very good cause. Themed anthologies tend to be hit and miss, and to be honest, this is more miss than hit. There's a lot of creators taking a few pages to inform us that free speech is good, which... well, we knew that, right? I mean, yes, you like free speech and you don't like censorship, and that's awesome, but a lot of the contributions are rather clodhoppingly literal and not especially insightful. Mike Allred does a passably amusing short, and there's a Painkiller Jane strip which gets the theme in quite well. Jason Aaron's opening strip isn't exactly subtle, but it's quite funny. But then there's also stuff like an overearnest, preachy Channel Zero four-pager, of which the less said the better. All in a good cause, but frankly not a great comic.

Sugar Shock #1 - This is the print edition of Joss Whedon and Fabio Moon's online comic, which originally appeared on Myspace Dark Horse Presents. It's actually only 24 pages long - the rest of the issue is filled out with sketch art - but at $3.50, that's still not bad value these days. We talk about this more on the podcast, but if you haven't seen it, the title pretty much tells you what to expect. It's a freewheelingly mental strip which cheerfully digresses all over the place, as an insane rock band (one of whom is a robot, and one of whom insists that she's not a Viking) go off into space to fight weirdness. It's a gag strip rather than a proper story, but Whedon is a good gag writer, with some great non sequitur cutaways. And thanks to Moon, it looks fantastic.

Uncanny X-Men #516 - In which Magneto shows up on Utopia, Xavier protests that the arch-villain can't be trusted, and everyone ignores him. Meanwhile, working through his short list of available remaining villains, Matt Fraction ends up using Scalphunter and a bunch of Predator Xs on a plane, which doesn't seem like that much of a threat to an entire island of X-Men, but okay. This isn't bad, actually. I like the idea of Xavier being sidelined while everyone else is cheerfully inviting Magneto in for coffee. And Greg Land's art is actually less irritating than normal this issue - partly because it looks a little less Photoshopped than normal, partly because there aren't many women in this issue.

Uncanny X-Men: First Class #4 - Storm and Phoenix hook up with the Daughters of the Dragon to fight Nightshade, of all people. I've never much cared for this mid-seventies villain in her leather bikini, and First Class stories are usually at their weakest when the writers seem to be indulging personal nostalgia. Nightshade's plan, it turns out, is to steal a mind-reading machine so that she can give kung fu skills to her robots. Um... yes, maybe if this had actually come out 35 years ago. But reading it in 2009, it just seems to date the creative team.

Unwritten #6 - This looks to be the start of the second arc, as Tom Taylor finds himself in jail awaiting trial for the murder of all those genre writers who got killed in issue #4. Unwritten is easily my favourite Vertigo book right now. It's got a strong, intriguing central idea. And it's turning out to be more than just a gimmick about a character escaped from fiction - it's a vehicle to do stories about genre, and the rules of fiction, and the way a story is experienced by its audience. All of which I find rather fascinating. But it's also got a strong plot as well, and I love to see Mike Carey stretching himself like this.

Wolverine: Origins #41 - Guest starring Skaar, Son of Hulk. Which isn't gratuitous at all, you see, because this series is about Wolverine and his son Daken, so they're going to contrast that with Bruce Banner and his son Skaar... No, I don't really care either. Frankly, even the plot recap on page 1 is enough to make your head bleed. And then we get one of those stories where Wolverine knows Romulus can second-guess his every move, so decides to beat him by taking random advice from a bloke in a bar... Nice art, though, I'll give it that, but the plot has now strayed so far from any sort of logic or common sense that I can't even be bothered being irritated with it any more.

X-Men Forever #9 - Well, my copy has a printing error that makes two pages largely unreadable, which is unfortunate. But mainly, this is the story of Ziggy Trask, the latest member of the Trask family, who's spent her life trying to redeem the family name by building some Sentinels that actually work. Silly woman, hasn't she read Essential X-Men? The Sentinels never work. Actually, there is something interesting about the character - Claremont works hard to present her as somebody basically normal who's grown up seeing the X-Men as the baddies and who isn't evil so much as obsessed with the family business. Also this issue: we get to find out who one of those people in the shadows is! (It's nobody we knew.)

X-Men Legacy #228 - This is part two of "Devil at the Crossroads", the Emplate story that began in this year's Annual. Emplate has kidnapped Bling, because although she's terribly obscure, she also happens to have very handy powers. So this is a story where Bling is held prisoner in a weird interdimensional haunted house by a guy wearing a gas mask, and Rogue has to go after her. Artist Daniel Acuna makes this one work; his self-coloured art has a weirdly oversaturated feel to it that doesn't always click, but turns out to be perfectly at home doing stories about a mad pervert in an interdimensional house. This version of Emplate isn't a mastermind so much as a weirdo, but then creepiness was always his strongest feature, so why not push it to the limit?

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House to Astonish, episode 25

This week, con wars, turtles, solicitations, and reviews of Anchor, Sugar Shock and Azrael. Download it here, or visit the podcast webpage, or subscribe via iTunes.

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Saturday, October 24, 2009

Bragging Rights 2009

The WWE's over-packed pay-per-view schedule means that we've got another show this weekend, only three weeks after the last one. A three week build is absurdly short for any show, and I'm pretty sure they'd be better off dumping some shows altogether, leaving time to promote the remaining ones properly. Fortunately, after this point, things calm down a bit - it's a monthly schedule through to at least Wrestlemania 26 in March.

But in the meantime, we have another three week build to another gimmick show which hasn't been thought out very clearly. And it doesn't help when the company keeps changing its mind from week to week about what they want to do.

As I mentioned last time, the WWE's current big idea is that all the secondary PPVs should have a theme. As it happens, the late October show used to be Cyber Sunday, where the gimmick was that fans picked the matches (well, up to a point) through online voting. A passable idea in theory, it never did well in practice, and so they've dumped that in favour of a loosely-themed Raw versus Smackdown show. The third brand, ECW, once again doesn't get a look-in. In practice, this means we get the two obligatory world title defences, and some "Raw versus Smackdown" matches. It's a very odd card.

It's also airing on Sky Sports 3 in the UK, so I don't have to pay extra for it. Which is good, because I wouldn't be too thrilled about paying for this one.

1. WWE Championship, 60 Minute no-DQ Iron Man Match: Randy Orton v. John Cena. This is the Raw title, and it's Orton versus Cena again. They've traded the title back and forth over the last few shows, but Orton currently holds the belt. This is supposed to be the end of the feud. If Cena doesn't win, he leaves the Raw roster - presumably to go to Smackdown.

Now, in itself, this pretty much gives away the ending. Sending Cena to Smackdown would be a very strange move. For all that he divides the audience, he's one of their biggest merchandise draws. Smackdown, on the other hand, is unquestionably the B-show. It's marooned on MyNetworkTV, an organisation on the verge of collapse which no longer even counts as a network for ratings purposes. The whole enterprise looks rather shaky. So while they want to keep Smackdown strong enough to be a viable second touring brand, it's not somewhere you'd naturally put your biggest star.

There is, in fact, a decent case to be made for abolishing the brand division altogether. Aside from avoiding the embarrassment of having to formally re-integrate the brands after the inevitable collapse of MyNetworkTV, it would go a long way to help the company's depth problems. Having the main eventers split between two brands limits the number of matches you can do. You can still have two de facto separate shows without formally limiting your options in that way.

I digress. Moving Cena to Smackdown seems a very unlikely move - but then, the WWE does a lot of very unlikely things these days.

Such as booking Randy Orton versus John Cena in a 60-minute Iron Man match. Basically, an Iron Man match means that whoever gets the most pins or submissions during the time limit is the winner. So, yes, they're promising that Orton and Cena are going to wrestle for an hour. And honestly, who wants to see that? Iron Man matches are popular with a certain type of wrestler that wants to prove he can do it. But the gimmick has never been much of a commercial draw. With particularly gifted wrestlers, such as Kurt Angle in his prime, you might be able to sell it to the connoisseur audience, but that's a very limited market. And Orton/Cena is not a match for that audience, anyway. Cena is more of a personality wrestler than a technician.

I have no intention of sitting through this - I honestly can't begin to imagine how it could be anything other than cripplingly tedious. Cena probably wins, because removing him from Raw is silly, and Orton presumably moves on to the next phase of a slow-burning storyline where his sidekicks are starting to show signs of worrying independence.

Naturally, giving this an hour (plus entrances) means that it eats up the vast majority of the show. Hence the five-match card.

2. World Heavyweight Championship: The Undertaker v. Batista v. CM Punk v. Rey Mysterio. This is the Smackdown title. The Undertaker won the title from CM Punk at the last show in the opening match, reportedly because Punk had managed to annoy the wrong people again, and the WWE decided to send him a message even at the expense of shooting their own product in the foot. This happens a lot, unfortunately. Punk probably doesn't care; he must know that the Smackdown roster is so lacking in depth that they can scarcely afford to move him back down the card.

Undertaker as champion has problems. He's nearing the end of his career. He's in failing health. He doesn't work on non-televised shows. He can't really be expected to do long main event matches. But he's also not the sort of wrestler who can be allowed to lose often, because it's (legitimately) extremely important to preserve his mystique. So this has all the hallmarks of a match designed to get the title off him without pinning him. The question is who gets the title. My inclination would be to put it back on Punk, the only heel in the match, who would then have three credible babyfaces pursuing him. Failing that, I suppose they could always give Batista another run. I don't see Mysterio winning; they've never had that much faith in him as a champion.

It's not beyond the bounds of possibility that Undertaker could retain. But he's got to lose the belt fairly soon, since they're doing a ladder match show in December, and there's no way on earth the Undertaker is doing a ladder match at his age.

Having three babyfaces and one heel makes for a weirdly lopsided match. But there's the possibility to do an entertaining match here, with Punk as the scheming heel picking his spots. Might work.

3. Bragging Rights match: Triple H, Shawn Michaels, The Big Show, Mark Henry, Kofi Kingston, Jack Swagger & Cody Rhodes v. Chris Jericho, Kane, Matt Hardy, Finlay, R-Truth, David Hart Smith & Tyson Kidd. Where do we begin? This is a 10-man tag team match, Team Raw versus Team Smackdown. Absolutely nothing is at stake beyond pride. Both teams contain an unlikely mixture of faces and heels, so the idea is that everyone takes great pride in their show and is willing to set aside their differences. Of course, the idea is also that both teams are hugely unstable and likely to tear themselves apart.

On Team Raw, we've got D-Generation X (Triple H and Shawn Michaels) as co-captains. Now, the company seems to be building towards DX versus Chris Jericho and the Big Show for the tag titles, presumably at the next show. Jericho is the captain of team Smackdown, while the Big Show is on DX's team. So one obvious possibility here is that Big Show turns on his stablemates and costs Raw the match. That's a pretty decent finish, actually - it builds to something down the road, and to the extent that it matters, the win is more valuable to Smackdown than to Raw.

Mark Henry, Kofi Kingston and Jack Swagger are midcarders who are basically there to make up the numbers. Kingston and Swagger were feuding over the US Title not so long ago, but this seems to have been forgotten already. Cody Rhodes is more interesting; he's one of Randy Orton's sidekicks, he's showing increasing signs of insubordination, and he's generally unlikely to play nicely with the rest of the team. He doesn't get on with DX at all, so they've got to do something with that.

The Smackdown team is utter chaos. It doesn't help that four of the show's main eventers are caught up in the world title match, leaving Chris Jericho and Kane to serve as the heel team captains. Kane is really a long-serving midcarder, but still has just enough star aura to work in the role.

Originally, they did a bunch of qualifying matches on Smackdown, with the winners advancing to form the rest of Jericho's team. And those winners were... midcard comedy tag team Cryme Tyme, midcard nearly man Dolph Ziggler, pushed-but-not-there-yet rookie Drew McIntyre, and a guy who had only debuted that week, Eric Escobar. This was mystifying. Aside from the fact that the team had five heels on it, the inclusion of not one but two little known rookies was frankly bizarre. Nonetheless, the company was apparently deadly serious about this up until Monday, when the penny finally dropped that Team Smackdown was a bit on the weak side. And so, at the next night's TV tapings, they swapped out all five qualifiers and replaced them with the guys they'd beaten in the first place. Truly weird booking.

In fact, this results in a much stronger team. Matt Hardy and Finlay haven't had much to do in a while, but they are Smackdown mainstays, they're consistently popular, and they're pretty good. R-Truth, who does a rapper gimmick, is better than his uneventful WWE run might suggest. But the big winners out of this are the Hart Dynasty, the undercard heel tag team who lost to Cryme Tyme in their qualifying match. DH Smith and Tyson Kidd are actually great (Kidd especially), but they've been marooned on Smackdown with nothing much to do. Hopefully their unexpected elevation to a PPV match will give them something to work with.

The match will be utter chaos, but there are enough good wrestlers in here that I can see it being fun. Smackdown should probably win - by cheating, obviously. They need the help.

4. John Morrison v. The Miz. Miz and Morrison were a long-running heel tag team before they broke up and Morrison turned babyface. Now Morrison is on Smackdown and holds the Intercontinental Title, while Miz is on Raw and has the US Title. So it's the battle of the secondary champions, and an opportunity to tie up the loose ends from that break-up angle that didn't go anywhere.

They've left it awfully late to do this match, but both guys are starting to get somewhere as singles wrestlers. Morrison is excellent, Miz continues to improve, so the match has a lot of potential.

With the wrestlers on different shows, there's no real possibility of doing follow-up stories - so common sense says the babyface should win. That's Morrison, which would give Smackdown a second much-needed win.

5. Melina, Kelly Kelly & Gail Kim v. Michelle McCool, Beth Phoenix & Natalya Neidhart. Raw versus Smackdown again. At one point they seemed to be planning a singles match between the two women's champions. But that wouldn't really have worked. Raw's women's title is currently held by Melina, who only jumped brands a few weeks ago, and we've seen her against Michelle McCool several times before.

Instead, we're getting a 6-man tag... which, to be honest, isn't much of an improvement. They've only just reshuffled the women's roster, so it's doubtful that most fans could even remember who's on which show right now. It's the wrong time to be doing this match.

As it happens, it's a team of Raw babyfaces versus Smackdown heels, which pretty much tells you who's winning. Women's matches in the WWE are rarely much good; the genuinely skilled workers are marooned in a sea of bikini models. But Kim, Phoenix and Neidhart are solid wrestlers, and the others are actually passable by WWE standards, so this should be okay. Raw should win, thus avoiding a clean sweep for Smackdown in the interbrand matches.

Worth buying? Not unless the prospect of an hour-long Cena/Orton match thrills you to the core, because that's going to be more than a third of the show right there.


Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Marvel Index #13

The generic solicitation for January's Marvel Index #13 promises to cover Spider-Man starting from Amazing #523, Iron Man from Invincible Iron Man #2, and X-Men from Uncanny #514. Granted, the exact issue numbers in a given issue of Marvel Index often change from the solicitations, because they have to write the solicitations before they know for sure how much the preceding issues will cover. But they don't change that much.

Now... Amazing makes sense. That book's up in the 600s. But Invincible Iron Man will only have reached issue #22 by January. And as for the X-Men, Uncanny #514 was part four of "Utopia", the crossover with Dark Avengers which only finished last month.

So what's actually going to be in this issue? Because the solicitation sounds very odd.


Saturday, October 17, 2009


There won't be any capsule reviews this weekend, since I won't get a chance to read this week's books until Monday. Might do the first arc of Wolverine: Weapon X if I get the time.

Number 1s of 2009: 18 October 2009

This one's so predictable, I wrote most of it yesterday...

It's a two horse race this week, but not a very close one. The new number one single is Alexandra Burke featuring Flo Rida, "Bad Boys". The video is here, but it's not embeddable, so instead we'll go with her appearance on the X-Factor results show last week, which is.

Alexandra Burke was the X-Factor winner in 2008, and already picked up her first number one over Christmas with her coronation single "Hallelujah." In the early years of the show, X-Factor winners would bang out a rushed covers album in the spring, which didn't exactly do wonders for the show's mystique, but at least enabled Simon Cowell to get some money out of unpromising winners like Steve Brookstein. More recently, the winners have disappeared for nine months and made a proper debut album, released to coincide with the next year's series of X-Factor. And so "Bad Boys" sees Burke shoot comfortably to number one with her first "proper" single.

As with 2007 winner Leona Lewis, the record company are clearly trying to make her trans-Atlantic. The video is obviously intended to look American. And they've roped in Flo Rida, who evidently isn't very picky about his guest appearances. (Technically, by the way, this gives Flo Rida his second number one single, following "Right Round" in March.) At the same time, though, they want to hang on to the X-Factor audience, and that's a tricky balancing act. The paradox of shows like X-Factor is that they select a new pop star on the basis of the votes of people who generally don't buy records anyway. And so we end up with "Bad Boys", a record that can't quite seem to make up its mind whether it's a cheerful pop ditty or a bid for urban credibility.

Nonetheless, it's number one by a margin of over 2 to 1. Tailing in at number 2 is "Bodies", the comeback single by Robbie Williams.

Robbie Williams left Take That in 1995 for a hugely successful solo career, in which he made some records that were genuinely very good, and some that were hopelessly self-absorbed. Though he never managed to break North America, he's a big star around Europe. Meanwhile, the rest of Take That disbanded shortly after he left, and saw their solo careers fizzle out. So when the group reformed in 2006, Robbie Williams decided not to bother joining them.

And then a reversal of fortunes took place. The Take That reunion turned out to be a bigger success than anyone had anticipated. Meanwhile, Robbie released his most self-indulgent and uncommercial album to date, "Rudebox", which pretty much bombed. These things are relative. It still went double platinum in the UK. But that's less than half the sales of any of his previous albums. And in fairness, the reviews of "Rudebox" were mixed rather than negative. The NME liked it. But whoever thought the title track was in any way, shape or form a good choice of single needed their head examined.

With "Bodies", he's returning to epic pop anthem territory, which was always his strong suit. The verse isn't exactly instant, though, and his own performance on the X-Factor was widely panned. Understandably so. It's the sort of thing you can get away before an adoring stadium who want to sing along themselves, but not when you're promoting a new single to people who've never heard it before. They've already gone into damage control mode over it. But it's better on record, and a number 2 placing isn't bad.

Besides which, with 90,000 copies sold, "Bodies" would have been a number one single in most weeks. Unfortunately, somebody decided to release it head to head with the fastest selling single of 2009.

It'll be interesting to see how well Alexandra Burke's sales hold up in her second week. Next week's biggest release is the solo debut of Cheryl Cole from Girls Aloud, who is also a judge on X-Factor. Obviously, she's meant to go straight in at number one as well. But up against the fastest selling single of the year, that might be a tough one.


Thursday, October 15, 2009


Dark Avengers/Uncanny X-Men: Utopia
Uncanny X-Men #513-514
Dark Avengers #7-8
Dark Avengers/Uncany X-Men: Exodus
Writer: Matt Fraction
Pencillers: Marc Silvestri, Terry Dodson, Luke Ross and Mike Deodato (with Michael Broussard, Eric Basaldua, Tyler Kirkham and Sheldon Mitchell)
Inkers: Joe Weems, Rachel Dodson, Rick Magyar, Mark Pennington and Luke Ross (with Marco Galli, Eric Basaldua, Rick Basaldua, Jason Gorder, Jay Leisten, Sal Regla, Jon Sibal and Ryan Winn)
Colourists: Frank D'Armata, Justin Ponsor, Rain Beredo, Dean White and Christina Strain
Letterers: Chris Eliopoulos, Joe Caramagna and Cory Petit
Editors: Nick Lowe and Tom Brevoort

Yes, it's the biggest crossover since the last one. And yes, it finished ages ago, but hell, at least the collected edition isn't out yet. I think.

"Utopia", by Matt Fraction and a veritable football team of artists (most of whom, to be fair, are backing up Marc Silvestri on the opening chapter), is a relatively rare example of Uncanny X-Men crossing over with a book from outside the X-stable altogether. In previous years, as Marvel's lead franchise, the X-Men tended to sit out the major events that were designed to boost the sales of lower-ranking titles. But the X-Men's star is not in the ascendance, and so for the first time in ages, Uncanny X-Men finds itself doing a crossover with a higher-selling title.

But in reality, this is an X-Men story which simply happens to take over two issues of Dark Avengers as well. True, Norman Osborn's all over it, but you could say that about all the "Dark Reign" storylines. The other characters from Dark Avengers are more or less banished to the sidelines, emerging sporadically to fill the role where a squad of random HAMMER goons might normally be.

And let's start with the positive. "Utopia" may be sprawling, but it does have a sense of scale. The rapid cutting around Los Angeles in the riot scenes is nicely chaotic. About half of it is drawn by Terry Dodson. It has actual, lasting consequences for the series, by driving the X-Men out of San Francisco proper and moving them onto an island in the bay. The feint of Emma turning on the team is well executed. The "Dark X-Men" turn out to be a relatively engaging team - instead of an outright travesty of the X-Men, they're mostly presented as a group of slightly reluctant draftees who are making a reasonably sincere effort. The big fight scenes with the Avengers come across well.

Plenty to like here. And yet, it doesn't quite work for me.

The first time round, I thought the problem might be that Fraction was once again losing his focus, and piling on too many cameos by minor characters, causing the story to lose focus. Reading it again, though, that's not the problem. There's a lot of characters floating around, but they're mostly in groups, and the number of plot threads isn't so unwieldy. True, "Utopia" could stand to lose things like Dani Moonstar striking a deal with Hela in order to take out Ares in an extremely peripheral subplot. But for the most part, the scale isn't the problem.

In fact, with Fraction trying to sell us on the idea of mass riots on the streets of San Francisco, you can hardly blame him for wading through the list of surviving mutants and hauling out some of the most obscure ones he can find. After M-Day, he can't really have generic mutants wandering the streets all of a sudden. So it's understandable that we suddenly end up with a speaking part for the likes of Meld, a character whose only previous appearance was in the Sentinel Squad O*N*E miniseries, but who has indeed cropped up on the official list of surviving mutants before.

There are some unfortunate lapses of exposition. The raising of Asteroid M is meant to be a big set piece, but the story never really identifies it or explains what it is. You have to read the recap page for that. And the stuff with the Sentry in the final issue comes completely out of the blue, foreshadowed only by a scene which appeared in New Avengers about five years ago. If you aren't familiar with the Sentry/Void concept, god knows what you're supposed to make of it. But again, this is minor stuff.

No, the problem here is... what's the story about, other than shifting the X-Men's status quo from A to B? What actually drives them out of town?

On the face of it, Fraction seems to want to write a story about the entire mutant race being driven into retreat. There's a lot of talk about civil rights campaigns, and mutants as a "people", and so forth. The story opens with our old friends the anti-mutant bigots lobbying for special breeding laws for mutants; it ends with the mutants setting up their own "nation". And that's a problem for starters: the number of surviving mutants is simply too low for this to work. Even so, Fraction nearly pulls that one off.

But there are two main forces at work here: the Humanity Now! coalition lobbying to restrict mutants from breeding, and Norman Osborn making a power play. And neither of them really have much resonance with the X-Men.

The coalition ought to work - but that story shoots itself in the foot when it reveals that they aren't a genuine grass roots movement, so much as a single maniac with mind-control powers. Which means the X-Men get to fight some cyborgs for a few pages, but there's no social movement after all. In fact, the whole storyline seems weirdly disconnected from the Avengers/ X-Men feud, as if Fraction needed something to justify his initial riots, and then wanted to sweep it under the carpet as quickly as possible. It seems a terribly wasted opportunity, since the Proposition X subplot seemed a promising idea.

As for Osborn, Fraction might be trying to tell the story where the X-Men can't stand up to the might of the US government. But Osborn doesn't really work in the role of evil bureaucrat. The central idea of Dark Reign is that he's a dangerous maniac posing as an authority figure. He's a travesty of Nick Fury. Which is fine, if you're writing Iron Man and want to confront him with an ironic moral lesson about power concentrated in the wrong hands. But Osborn is always going to be a supervillain, and he can't stand for authority in general. And he has no real reason to fight the X-Men, other than that he wants more power, because he's evil.

In fairness to Fraction, if Dark Reign is about anything, it's about a corrupt government invoking the trappings of authority to buy un-deserved trust, and he does present the story as something of a propaganda war. And presumably that's the idea: the X-Men flee San Francisco because they lost the PR battle, only to outwit Norman in the end and buy their safety on the beachhead. But for that story, we ought to see some sign of the public reaction, and why it matters so much. And the public are almost totally absent from this plot. There's no room for them. Even when Scott and Norman deliver their respective press conferences in the closing pages, their audiences are represented only by anonymous cameramen.

Oddly enough, this story would probably have worked better during the "Initiative" period, with Iron Man and his Avengers cast in Osborn's role, representing heavy-handed and patronising officialdom. Osborn isn't an interesting antagonist for the X-Men, because he doesn't stand for anything that resonates with the themes of this series.

That's the problem, I think: it's a story where the X-Men are driven out of town by two supervillains, neither of whom have any particularly interesting agenda or theme underpinning them. And the propaganda battle which Fraction seems to be trying to write about is played out in a vacuum, seemingly untouched by audience reaction. For all the epic scale and bombast, it can't help but feel a little hollow.

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Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Number 1s of 2009: 11 October 2009

Taio Cruz finally interrupted the hectic weekly turnover of number one singles, by hanging around for three weeks. But here we go again...

That's Chipmunk, "Oopsy Daisy." He's eighteen, and he's yet another in this year's parade of UK grime/urban acts bailing out of their genre in search of mainstream pop success. See also Tinchy Stryder, Dizzee Rascal and Taio Cruz, all of whom had number one hits this year while more or less abandoning any pretence of underground credibility in the process.

Chipmunk was being touted as the next big star of UK rap not so long ago, on the strength of mix tapes and the like. He's actually been making videos for longer than he's been releasing singles (full-scale releases, at least). He used to sound more like this.

"Oopsy Daisy" is his first number one, but his fourth chart appearance of the year. His first "official" single, "Chip Diddy Chip", made number 21 in March, and it's probably as close as any of his commercial releases have got to his roots. Of course, it also has a video showing him in school uniform, not to mention a baffling guest appearance by the ever-irritating Tim Westwood. "Diamond Rings" reached number 6 in July. He also crops up on the number 3 hit "Tiny Dancer", which, thanks to sampling issues, bears the unlikely artist credit of "DJ Ironik featuring Chipmunk and Elton John."

The uncredited singer, by the way, is Dayo Olatunji, who clearly needs better representation, since she seems to be on more of the record than he is.

With Chipmunk at number one, Britain's third-biggest girl band have to settle for the number two spot. "Forever Is Over" is the lead single from the Saturdays' second album, and sees them moving away from their previous synthpop records to autotuned mid-Atlantic mediocrity. Supposedly it's a song that Kelly Clarkson rejected - it certainly sounds like one. You can see the video here, but I think I'll run instead with last year's number 5 hit "Up", since it's actually quite good. (Non-embeddable YouTube version here.)

The Saturdays - Up

The SaturdaysMySpace Music Videos

"Forever Is Over" is the Saturdays' second number 2 single, and their fifth top 10 hit in only two years. But the number 1 slot continues to elude them.

Next week, we're guaranteed another new number one, as the release schedules ramp up again. Specifically, it's a race between the first proper single by 2008 X-Factor winner Alexandra Burke, and the comeback single from Robbie Williams. As of right now, Burke is winning hands down...


Sunday, October 11, 2009

The X-Axis - 11 October 2009

There's not too many X-books this week (which is good, since I've still got a backlog of storylines I wanted to review in full), but we do have a ton of other stuff.

Obligatory plug time: don't forget to listen to this week's episode of House to Astonish, where Al and I review Planetary, Dr Voodoo and Haunt, as well as the usual news and talk. Download it here, or visit the podcast webpage, or subscribe via iTunes.

Right, let's get to work...

Astonishing X-Men #31 - It's back! And through the wonder of scheduling, even though it's on time, it's still late! Yes, this storyline is set before the recent "Utopia" crossover which changed the X-Men's status quo yet again, so by the time it wraps up in five months time (or, let's be realistic, probably more like eight) it's going to be insanely out of step with the rest of the line. Has ever a flagship title sailed so emphatically into the backwaters as Astonishing X-Men?

The issue opens with Abigail Brand and a bunch of SWORD troopers attacking a random Brood outpost, which turns out not to really be the plot at all. Instead, the big set piece this issue is Brand returning to Earth and her craft nearly burning up on re-entry. So the X-Men have to save her. Which they do. And that takes half an issue, which seems a bit excessive. Oh, and then they land and a completely different story wanders by, to set up a cliffhanger that seems entirely unrelated. It's a bit choppy, to put it mildly.

Phil Jimenez takes over from Simone Bianchi on art. That's for the best. Bianchi made beautiful pictures, but they weren't very good at communicating the action - and if your comic is going to spend half its running time on a completely gratuitous action scene, it might as well be decipherable. Jimenez isn't as distinctive as Bianchi, but he's a very good superhero artist, and a better fit for the book. And his cliffhanger splash page is excellent. The overall package is solid enough, but the book still lacks a sense of purpose.

Batman & Robin #5 - I'll say this for Philip Tan, he's come on a long way since 2003, when he drew Uncanny X-Men during the Chuck Austen run. In 2009, he's actually not so jarring as a successor to Frank Quitely. That's not to say there aren't problems here. A scene with the Penguin falling from a skyscraper window which borders on impenetrable. But I can live with it, for the most part. The story here turns out to be the old "traditional hero challenged by new, more violent vigilante" schtick, which we've all seen done before. However, Morrison's also using it to raise the idea of Batman as a brand rather than a character, which plays into his theme of whether Dick can meaningfully become a new Batman rather than a Batman impersonator. And his Red Hood is quite entertaining as a deranged "Dark Batman" figure. Not classic stuff, but good fun.

Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Season Eight #29 - I'm teetering on the verge of dropping this book, and I can only imagine the comments to the effect of "What, only now?" Actually, it's starting to illustrate my point about scheduling. Joss Whedon wants this series to have as much story content as an actual season of Buffy the Vampire Slayer would have had. But one monthly comic contains less material than a weekly episode of the TV show (and far less material than four). And so here we find ourselves, two and a half years into the series, nearing the climax of a story that on television would have lasted say nine months. It's not that they're oblivious to the differences - the comic makes plenty of use of montage sequences that wouldn't have worked in the TV show, to speed through the plot mechanics. But it feels a bit meandering. And quite aside from the length of the series, even though the bad guys are a coalition of characters from the TV show, they've somehow ended up as a generic, faceless military unit. It's not quite coming together in the way it might have.

Cable #19 - This issue: somebody finally gives Bishop the reason not to blow up the ship which he actually needed last month. Oh well. It's Cable and Bishop versus the Brood in the far future, and I suppose if you're casting around for an X-Men villain who can crop up in that setting without causing horrible continuity problems, the Brood are the smart choice. It's passable, but the art lacks atmosphere, and the whole thing feels like it's on the verge of degenerating into a generic fight scene.

Chronicles of Wormwood: The Last Battle #1 - This is a sequel to the Chronicles of Wormwood miniseries which Garth Ennis did with Jacen Burrows in 2006. In some ways it's precisely the sort of thing you'd expect Garth Ennis to take to Avatar, which is to say that it's potentially hugely offensive and often in a gratuitously puerile way. But it's got more heart than you'd expect, perhaps because Ennis actually cares about religion, even if he doesn't believe in it. TV executive Danny Wormwood is the Antichrist, but unfortunately for his family, he's an essentially benevolent guy who quite likes Earth the way it is and doesn't want to bring about Armageddon. And since Jesus hasn't been quite the same since getting his head kicked in at a protest rally, the other side aren't making many moves towards the end of all things either. Unfortunately for Danny, Jesus seems to be feeling a bit better... You've got to be willing to put up with Ennis' more blatant censor-baiting - like a lot of Avatar books, it often feels like it's being offensive for the sake of it - but there's actually a decent story in here, and it's got art by Oscar Jimenez, who you don't see around that often.

Criminal: The Sinners #1 - Brubaker and Phillips return to their original Icon series after completing the first arc of Incognito. And the first thing that hits you about this book is the inside front cover and credits page, printed on perhaps the most staggeringly lurid electric pink and red background you've ever seen. I actually flinched on first opening it. It's truly hideous. Good work. As for the story, we pick up on Tracy Lawless, now working as a hitman with a certain lack of commitment to his craft. In the manner of these things, his boss is willing to let him go in return for one last job. Everyone knows this by now, but the storytelling on this book is impeccable, and it's a truly great example of its genre.

Daredevil #501 - This is the first issue by Andy Diggle and Roberto de la Torre, though they're picking up a storyline in progress, where Daredevil has agreed to become leader of the Hand. He hopes to keep them under control and use them as a force for good; they just want a new leader for their death cult. And naturally, the story is "Will the crazy ninjas corrupt Daredevil?" We could all see that coming; what's more surprising is for Diggle's first issue to answer the question emphatically with "Oh god yes." So either the book's going somewhere very odd and dark, or some clever piece of trickery is going to be unveiled in a few issues time. It's a good hook for the new direction, and at least it moves Daredevil away from his overfamiliar role of beaten-down loser. The art seems heavily influenced by Alex Maleev's take on the character, but there's nothing wrong with that, and Daredevil's bright red costume can actually work quite well as something weirdly anomalous in murky lighting.

Doctor Voodoo: Avenger of the Supernatural #1 - I'm so glad they added that lengthy subtitle to distinguish the book from all the other Dr Voodoo titles published over the years. Anyway, we talked about this one on the podcast. It's a New Avengers spin-off, the basic angle being that seventies D-list hero Brother Voodoo has unexpectedly become the new Sorcerer Supreme, and nobody is entirely convinced that this was supposed to happen. So he's stretching himself to breaking point trying to live up to the job. I like the idea, and Jefte Palo's art is excellent; the only real issue here is that the first issue piles on too many crises too early in the book's life. Sure, he's beset by trouble on all sides, but let's at least establish the status quo before we bring it crashing down. Aside from that, though, pretty good.

Doom Patrol #3 - This book really ought to be the other way round, with the "Metal Men" in the lead slot rather than the back-up strip. It's a fun strip, reuniting the Justice League International creative team, and the set-up of the Metal Men living in suburbia is just silly enough to work. The Doom Patrol story is pretty decent too, but it's developing into one of those information-overload series that Keith Giffen likes to right - and, quite honestly, I have absolutely no clue what's supposed to be happening at the climax of this issue when the bad guys are defeated by... uh... something. It involves Rita getting really big, but how that wins the fight, I don't get at all. It's still a fairly interesting story, but it's not as successful as the Metal Men strip at the back.

Gotham City Sirens #4 - I know, I know, but I quite like what Paul Dini's doing with this book. And besides, it's got the Joker in a Joker-themed airship with Joker-themed henchmen. We need more villains with themed henchmen. As one of them says, it "reminds me of when crime was fun - a modern art form." Rather more irritatingly, DC seems to be backsliding into its old habits of not explaining things properly. For example, Hush is impersonating Bruce Wayne. This is a centrally important plot point. Is there an explanation of why he's impersonating Bruce Wayne, and why he's being allowed to carry on doing so, for the benefit of anybody reading this title alone? Of course there isn't. Harley even asks the question directly, and the answer she gets is "It's complicated." I'm sure it is, but if you're going to use him that prominently in this series, then it's part of the plot of this series, so explain it.

Haunt #1 - See the podcast for more on this. It's a new ongoing series from Image, with credits that take longer to explain than the premise. The concept was created by Todd McFarlane and Robert Kirkman; the book is written by Kirkman; the layout penciller is McFarlane's regular collaborator Greg Capullo; the finishing penciller is Kirkman's regular collaborator Ryan Ottley; and the inker is McFarlane himself. Got all that? The actual concept is basically Spawn crossed with Brother Voodoo - or, perhaps more fairly, Spawn crossed with Randall and Hopkirk, Deceased. But it's a sound set-up for a superhero comic, and I can see the potential. The art isn't quite as successful; the three artists seem to be pulling in different directions, and while the result is okay, they've all done better work than this.

Kill Audio #1 - Boom Studios aren't afraid to diversify, I'll give them that. This is a new series by Claudio Sanchez and artist Mr Sheldon (yes, just Mr Sheldon), and it's certainly different. Kill Audio is a little immortal guy living in the city of Sight and Sound, and every so often somebody tries to kill him, which is more of an irritant than anything else. He goes off in search of his creator with a bunch of weirdos in tow, and it turns out that apparently his role in life is to sort out the problems with music. And that summary, if anything, makes it sound far more normal than it actually is. It's not just surreal, it's practically stream of consciousness. Boom are billing it as a story of "adventure" and "mystery", but it's too weird and freeform to work on that level. What it does have going for it is a unique look; the art, done in greys with flashes of bright red, manages to hold the book together. But to be honest, it's so off the wall that it ends up being just a bit irritating.

Planetary #27 - I refer you once again to the aforementioned podcast. The final issue of Planetary is mainly an epilogue. It'll work just fine as the closing pages of the collected edition that they can now bring out. But it's nothing to write home about as an issue in its own right; there's a lot of technobabble and not much drama. It's also fairly remarkable that nobody saw fit to include a plot recap, despite having a blank page on the inside of the gatefold, and despite the fact that the last issue came out three years ago. It might surprise people to hear this, but the details of the plot of Planetary are not fresh in my mind after that long a gap. As in, who the hell is this Ambrose guy anyway? Mind you, now that the thing is finally complete, I'm quite looking forward to setting it aside and reading through it from start to finish.

Strange Tales #2 - This, you'll recall, is the anthology title with indie creators riffing on Marvel Universe characters, the main selling point being the serialisation of Peter Bagge's "Incorrigible Hulk" story, which has been in a cupboard for years. This issue is decidedly hit and miss. In hindsight, they might have been better swapping some of these stories for the material in issue #1. That book was a bit heavy on the snark, while this issue has more strips that seem to show genuine affection for the characters. Jim Rugg and Brian Maruca's mock-seventies blaxploitation strip has a great ear for the awkward collisions of comics trying to apply Silver Age narration to The Issues ("How else could it end when a pusher comes betwixt a voodoo champion and his reformed prostitute lover!"), Jonathan Hickman turns in some gorgeous recruitment adverts for the job of Herald of Galactus, and Matt Kindt more or less plays it straight with his Black Widow strip. On the other hand, Tony Millionaire's Iron Man story peters out badly, and Kikuo Johnson does an Alicia Masters story full of blind jokes which were pensioned off in 1982. Patchy, then, but there's still good stuff in here.

Sweet Tooth #2 - I've been pleasantly surprised by Jeff Lemire's new Vertigo series so far. It's going to be a tough sell for them. The basic plot doesn't sound immediately promising: young survivor of a post-apocalyptic world. Throw in the fact that he's got antlers and looks a bit like a deer, and it starts to sound a bit twee as well. But it's all in the execution. Lemire has a great sense of pacing, and understands how to get loads of unspoken tension into scenes where not a great deal is actually happening. The crucial thing, though, is that the book doesn't feel the need to hammer us over the head with angst and misery; there's certainly a sense of looming threat, but at the same time there's a light at the end of the tunnel. Good stuff.

Vengeance of the Moon Knight #2 - The Sentry shows up, and for once he doesn't want to convey a message from Norman Osborn. This time, he just wants to discuss with Moon Knight the travails of being an insane superhero. With that cover-justifying guest appearance out of the way, we return to the story of Moon Knight continuing to resist the voices in his head, and trying to be a regular superhero again. It's actually pretty good stuff, and I'm enjoying Jerome Opena's art a lot. It's not a groundbreaking title or anything, but it's well put together. Quite why they decided to relaunch the thing from issue #1 is something of a mystery, as it actually continues plotlines from the previous series - the Profile shows up with no real explanation, for example. (Then again, by my count, it's over a year until they can justify adding up all the series and putting out Moon Knight #150, so they might as well relaunch while they can...)

X-Babies #1 - Hmm. As originally conceived, there were two jokes to the X-Babies. One was to have little miniature X-Men acting like immature versions of themselves; the other was to parody the overextension of the line by having the ultimate bad idea for an X-Men spin-off. Their first appearance, reprinted at the back of the issue, isn't even subtle about making that second joke. And when it came out, there were only five X-books. The X-Babies get dug out every few years for another guest appearance, and for my money, the joke's become a bit toothless; so far, this version is basically just a scaled-down, slightly naive version of the X-Men, trying to liberate the Mojoworld from people who want to replace them with bland, wholesome cartoons - inexplicably embodied by characters from Marvel's shortlived and largely forgotten Star imprint. That seems to mean we've got a story where the X-Babies symbolise rebellious creative integrity and, uh, no. That said, pitting the X-Babies against the likes of Planet Terry and Top Dog is such a weird concept that I can't help feeling there must be more to it than meets the eye, though for the life of me I don't know what.

X-Men vs Agents of Atlas #1 - Jeff Parker's Agents of Atlas series, featuring a team of revived 1950s superheroes, has plenty of good reviews but hasn't really managed to turn the buzz into sales so far. So it's good to see Marvel putting some weight behind them, with this miniseries and a back-up slot in Incredible Hercules. This is essentially an Agents story, but it ties in fairly closely with recent events in Uncanny - the X-Men still haven't moved all their stuff out of Graymalkin, so the Agents seize their chance to try and nick something. The X-Men get enough space to make it more than just a guest starring role, and Parker borrows Matt Fraction's introductory caption schtick as well. It's classic superhero team-up territory (misunderstanding, fight), but done very well; the book also cleverly adds some mystery by chucking in a back-up strip which starts off bearing to be a Silver Age meeting between the teams, but seems to be something else altogether. Even juggling the extended cast doesn't seem to trouble Parker. Great fun.

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Saturday, October 10, 2009

House to Astonish, episode 24

With Al back from his holidays, we return to our normal schedule with a new episode of House to Astonish. This week, we've got the usual news round-up plus reviews of the final issue of Planetary, and the first issues of the surprisingly similar Dr Voodoo and Haunt.

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

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Monday, October 05, 2009

Old Man Logan

"Old Man Logan"
Wolverine #66-72, Giant-Size Wolverine: Old Man Logan
Writer: Mark Millar
Penciller: Steve McNiven
Inker: Dexter Vines (with Mark Morales and Jay Leisten)
Letterer: Cory Petit
Colourist: Morry Hollowell (with Christina Strain, Justin Ponsor, Jason Kieth, Paul Mounts and Nathan Fairbairn)
Editor: John Barber

From time to time, I complain about writers and publishers losing sight of the fact that they're working in a serialised medium. After all, if you're reading a story in monthly instalments, it's clearly a very different experience from reading it in one go. Of course, it's only an issue with the original run, not the collected edition; but with monthly sales up in the 90K-plus territory, it seems a pretty safe assumption that most readers experienced this story for the first time in serial form.

And "Old Man Logan" is a good example of what I mean. Basically, it's Wolverine crossed with Unforgiven and Mad Max. Which is fine; as a character, Wolverine more or less fits with them both. It's set in a post-apocalyptic world where the heroes have all been wiped out or, like Wolverine, broken down and driven into retirement. The bad guys are running the country, but since it seems to be an utter dump and general all-round wasteland, it seems to have been a bit of a pyrrhic victory for them too.

We start off with Wolverine as a pacifist farmer who doesn't want anything to do with the hero business. A blinded Hawkeye shows up to enlist his help for One Last Mission crossing America to make a delivery, which will raise the money he needs to pay his rent. Wolverine agrees as long as he only has to drive the car.

At which point, you pretty much know where it's going. It's a road trip; Logan will come out of his shell and explain what happened to him; he'll get over the trauma at some point; there'll be a big moment where he fights back and pops his claws for the first time; and so forth. These barely even count as spoilers. The set-up is so familiar that everyone knows that's where we're going. But again, fine. Everyone knows where action movies and romcoms are going; the point is to enjoy getting there. If you do it right, the big pay-off works precisely because everyone saw it coming an hour ago.

Read it as a graphic novel, and it works. Yes, it's eight issues long, and it's a lightweight plot - some familiar tropes and some Marvel Universe paraphernalia. But read it in one go and it's paced about right. The episodic road trip scenes feel like part of a larger whole; the scenes where they pass by some random degraded superhero concept serve as dark comedy asides to break up the journey, and give Steve McNiven a chance to draw weird things while hinting at bits of back story to enjoy and move on.

Now, it's not exactly deep. You could just about make a case for the story being a metaphor of the nihilist superhero story as a dead end, with Millar taking some of his themes to their ultimate conclusion and starting to come out the other side. But that's a bit of a stretch. Chances are, it's just a load of things that Millar thought were cool. In a single sitting, that's enough.

Read it in serial form, though, and it's stretched over eight months. (More, actually, because the book ran late.) While it can justify its page count, it isn't the sort of story that's going to sustain interest for the better part of a year. By the nature of the story, you can't throw in tons of plot twists and turns to hold the reader's attention. It's too straightforward for that. And so you end up with a comic that takes forever to get somewhere fairly predictable instead of a graphic novel that takes about 200 pages to get somewhere enjoyably familiar. It makes a world of difference.

None of which is to say that, on a re-read, "Old Man Logan" suddenly stands revealed as a work of genius. There are still awkward shifts between black humour and sentimentality; there are still bits where the book is trying too hard, which undercut its attempts at sincerity. But it does lose its pacing problems; and while the concept was too slender to carry eight months of an ongoing series, it's fine for a story that you'll get through in an afternoon.

This was a story peculiarly unsuited to the serial format, since it needed the page count for a sense of scale, but didn't have the complexity or depth to work over eight months (and besides, it's the sort of story that works best when you just go with the flow - monthly interruptions don't help with that). There are perfectly good financial reasons why Marvel don't like graphic novels - cashflow, for a start - but a weekly or even a fortnightly schedule would have been an improvement. It works for Spider-Man; it would vastly improve a lot of stories for the X-books. This is a definite example.

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Sunday, October 04, 2009

The X-Axis - 4 October 2009

I was planning to get around to that "Old Man Logan" review today but... well, yeah, maybe tomorrow. And thanks to Marvel's ever-crunched publishing schedule, two more Wolverine storylines wrap up this week: "The Adamantium Men" in Wolverine: Weapon X #5 and "Romulus" in Wolverine: Origins #40. So we'll get back to them. In the meantime, though...

Echo #15 - Terry Moore hasn't exactly been racing forward with this storyline. Over a year into the series, we've finally got to a story point that most writers would have covered in act one. (After all, why did you think the series was called Echo?) Most people wouldn't get away with this, but Moore's good enough with the details that he can carry this sort of slow-burn storytelling, and use it to make the book seem firmly grounded before he starts bringing in the more outrageous parts of the premise. It's the art, though, that really bring the characters to life, and adds the depth to make the book work. Always a pleasure, this title.

Fantastic Four #571 - Well, this is what I'm looking for in a Fantastic Four story. Yes, some of the familiar elements are dutifully namechecked, but basically the Fantastic Four is the Marvel Universe title that can get away with big, sweeping, insane ideas. (I'd say "cosmic", but this isn't the 1970s and it's way past time we thought of a better term.) You could say that this is basically a Reed Richards solo story - or perhaps more accurately, that Jonathan Hickman has created a team book made up entirely of Reed Richardses - and yes, granted, the rest of the team aren't getting a great deal of time just yet. But I'm happy with this; written well, Reed's the most interesting character of the bunch, and I'm glad to see him being used properly, in a story that seems to get what this book is good at.

G-Man: Cape Crisis #2 - So cute! This is Chris Giarrusso's creator-owned book, with his own characters done in the style of the "Mini Marvels" strips that used to appear at the back of Marvel comics and were generally better than the main story. They're kid superheroes in a world with adults, so we've got them fighting bank robbers and delivering papers, with none of that angst-generating secret identity stuff to worry about. Oh, and there's a subplot about dandelions. It's a sweet and genuinely funny book, and what more would you want?

Jack of Fables #38 - Jack Frost keeps trying to start his career as a professional hero, while in a subplot, the title character continues to be tormented by the artist. To be honest, they're going a bit over the top with that subplot, which wasn't exactly subtle to begin with. Naive rookie hero Jack Frost, who achieves very little but looks very earnest in the process, is more entertaining. I'm not really sure where any of this is heading, though - Jack of Fables tied up most of its outstanding storylines in the recent crossover, so the jury's still out on whether it's laying the groundwork for a new direction, or just sort of meandering a bit.

Marvel Divas #3 - Better than the early covers would have you think. Not to mention the title, which is both thunderously awful and utterly unrelated to anything on the interior pages. It's really not the book that people were expecting - more accurately, dreading. In reality, it's a fairly relaxed drama about some C-list Marvel heroines, and the main selling point is the minimal but attractive art from Tonci Zonjic. Now, that said, it's certainly a bit Disease of the Week, and the referencing of Sex and the City feels terribly dated. There's a few overfamiliar elements. It's not a classic. But if you judge by the interior pages, there's still something quite likeable about it, for all its many flaws.

New Mutants #5 - This is a transition issue between the first storyline and the upcoming "X-Necrosha" crossover. (And please tell me it's not going to be Blackest Night with mutants and circuit boards.) Zeb Wells ties up some loose ends from the Legion arc, and establishes why Dani Moonstar is on this team despite having no powers. It's all done perfectly well, but most notable is the guest art by Zachary Baldus. His characters are a bit off model, admittedly, but it's beautifully expressive stuff, and he even pulls off a decent version of Warlock, always a challenge for artists who have to adapt him to their style. I'd cheerfully see him as the regular artist. There still doesn't seem to be much of a premise to this book beyond "let's reunite the New Mutants from 25 years ago", but at least it's being done well.

Uncanny X-Men #515 - This came out last week in America, but Diamond UK managed to delay it. It's the first part of "Nation X", as the X-Men settle in on their new rock. Greg Land is back on art, which is not good, but he doesn't actually do too much damage to this story - although there's an embarrassingly bad Psylocke scene. Fraction seems more focussed than usual with this issue; instead of worrying about his cast of thousands, we've got interesting scenes with Scott and Xavier talking about where the team's going, and a potentially promising new direction for Emma. Thinning down the herd of characters is very much for the best; there's still quite a few balls in the air, but it's enough for Fraction to keep track of and for the stories to actually get across. I was pleasantly surprised by this issue; it's one of his better scripts for the series.

Unknown: The Devil Made Flesh #1 - Despite the issue number, this is effectively the second arc of Mark Waid and Mink Oosterveer's Unknown, since the first miniseries only finished last month. The basic set-up last time was a terminally ill Sherlock Holmes-type detective applying her powers in search of evidence of the afterlife. The finale of that story was maybe a bit much, but the idea was good. With this story, Waid cleverly inverts the premise and throws up all sorts of other questions. It's an odd book, this, a curious mix of the traditional detective story with explanations so bizarre that even the X-Files would have baulked at them. (Yes, infrasound has been credited as a possible explanation for ghost sightings... but not ghosts that look like Zzzzax.) It could easily be very irritating, but it's self-confident weirdness is strangely engaging, and certainly unique.

X-Factor #49 - The penultimate chapter of the seemingly never-ending storyline? Surely not! Actually, about half the issue is devoted to Guido, Rictor and Shatterstar awkwardly discussing homosexuality, which starts off amusing, but ends up labouring the point somewhat. Meanwhile, the plot lumbers gamely on, with one last cliffhanger twist. I'm sure it'll all read much better as a complete story, but as a monthly serial this feels like it's taking forever, and the story even draws attention to one of its own plot holes. There are good bits in here, but it's not really coming together right now.

X-Men Forever #8 - In which Chris Claremont's version of the X-Men fights a Sentinel in the jungle, and then explores one of those remote scientific facilities that bad guys like to build. It's as melodramatic as ever, but it's decent melodrama which holds together on its own terms, and which sets up its mysteries well. Of course, there's always something to live with: this issue, it's Kitty explaining that she doesn't notice the claw coming out of the back of her hand because it's so sharp. Um, fine, but it's clearly much wider at the base, so that doesn't work. (And besides, why isn't she bleeding?) But I'm willing to give Claremont some room with this book, because for the most part he's winning me over. This issue's art is by Steve Scott; his Beast is a bit clumsy, but otherwise it's a solid effort.

X-Force #19 - I have no idea what's supposed to be going on with the cover; it doesn't have much to do with the actual story. This is mostly an X-23 solo story, as she tries to escape the Facility with the help of Agent Morales. X-Force being X-Force, it's something of a bloodbath, though this time it manages to keep the really excessive stuff down to a couple of spots that actually have a chance to mean something. There are some irritating plot glitches - if shooting Kimura on page 4 keeps her down for a couple of pages, why not do it again later on? - but it works as a B-movie chase sequence, and there's something oddly interesting about X-23's deliberately flat dialogue in this sort of story.

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Hell in a Cell 2009

It's been a while since I've done one of these. That's not because they've eased off on the pay-per-view schedule; it's because the last show was during my holiday. Actually, the schedule remains as crammed as ever, with another show due in three weeks time.

As I may have mentioned before, the WWE has a new strategy for the second-tier pay-per-views. The current theory is that except for the really major shows like Wrestlemania and Survivor Series which have been around since the eighties, the individual pay-per-views lack identity. Which is true. So the big idea is to take generic shows (in previous years, early October would have been No Mercy), and give them all gimmicks.

So in September we got Breaking Point, a show where all the main events were submission matches. This week, it's Hell in a Cell, where all the main events are Hell in a Cell matches. In three weeks time, there's something called Bragging Rights, which is apparently some sort of Raw versus Smackdown tournament, though it's all a bit vague. After that comes Survivor Series, which is a lynchpin of the calendar, and then December is TLC, a show based around ladder matches with added weaponry. January is the Royal Rumble (another lynchpin), February is still down as the generic No Way Out, and March is Wrestlemania.

The plus point is that at least the shows have clearer identities of their own. The downside is that traditionally, you booked a gimmick match to raise the stakes in an ongoing storyline. So this is a nightmare for the beleaguered writing crew, who have to alter the stories to accommodate the gimmicks, when it ought to be the other way around. Making life even harder for them, the company has decided to book a string of celebrities as "guest hosts" for Raw, which means that show now has to be written to accommodate them. Some of the guest hosts, despite being professional actors, have notably failed to demonstrate any convincingly genuine interest in the product. A couple evidently couldn't be bothered even to remember the wrestlers' names. It's generally excruciating.

But this is a pretty decent card. A Hell in a Cell match, for those of you who don't know, is basically a glorified cage match. The difference is that in a regular WWE cage match, the cage is right up against the ring, and you can win in the normal way or by escaping. In this version, the cage is bigger so that it includes some of the ringside area, and it's got a roof. Since you can't win by escape, every so often the wrestlers go up there to enjoy the view.

1. WWE Championship, Hell in a Cell: John Cena v. Randy Orton. Cena won the title from Orton last month, and this is Orton's rematch. Although they've been feuding forever and a day, the last match was reportedly better than expected, so there's a decent prospect they'll do well here. The tricky thing with this show is that there are three matches with the same gimmick, so they've got to find some variety, and leave somewhere for the main event to go. The match which goes on last has the advantage that it doesn't have to hold back, but the disadvantage that the crowd might be starting to tire of the gimmick by then. Still, I think they'll do fine.

Cena has had the upper hand on the last couple of TV shows, and given the WWE's usual reverse psychology, that would normally mean he's losing and Orton's getting the title back. But that doesn't really make sense. For one thing, it would give Cena a pointless three-week reign. For another, Orton's Legacy faction has to implode over the next couple of months, because Ted DiBiase needs to turn babyface in time to promote his straight-to-DVD movie The Marine 2 for Christmas. (I know, I know.) Orton/DiBiase isn't a main event feud in my book, so in that sense, it's better that Orton doesn't have the title at this point.

On the other hand, Raw is short of main event heels, so Cena has no obvious challengers, nor are there any midcard heels who would be obvious contenders to elevate. He could feud with the Big Show again, but we saw that earlier in the year and it wasn't very good. Orton, in contrast, could theoretically feud with Shawn Michaels (which is relatively fresh) or have a go at elevating a midcard babyface like MVP. I'm betting on Orton to regain the title, then, with this interregnum serving merely to keep Cena strong by ensuring he isn't simply defeated outright by the heel.

2. World Heavyweight Championship, Hell in a Cell: CM Punk v. The Undertaker. Smackdown's main feud is a good example of stories being messed about by the pay-per-view gimmicks. Punk is still the world champion, doing the preachy heel version of his "straight edge" gimmick that served him well on the indie circuit. Though he doesn't always have the best matches on the show, the character is working well. But he's still a recently-elevated upper midcard heel whose claim to main event status is remains a bit dubious.

The Undertaker is just back from a hiatus, and would normally be expected to win his first match back. Given that the character's whole schtick is utter dominance, he can't possibly lose cleanly to the likes of CM Punk. So, traditionally, what would happen here is that you'd do a string of matches where Punk was clearly losing, but managed to save his title by cheating, or even just by getting himself disqualified (since the title doesn't change hands on a DQ). Then, you build to a gimmick match where he can't win on a technicality like that. Simple.

But last month was the submission match show, and it's very hard to come up with screwy endings for a submission match. So what we ended up with was yet another retread of the dreaded Montreal finish (where the company doublecrossed Bret Hart to ensure that he dropped the title in his last night with the company, by declaring that he'd submitted when he actually hadn't). This was supposed to be a conspiracy between Punk and Vince McMahon, although you'd have thought that if Vince was that keen to stop the Undertaker becoming champion, he just wouldn't book him in title matches in the first place.

So. Here we are again, with another match that doesn't have disqualifications, and where it's hard to avoid a decisive ending. Undertaker is supposedly coming up for retirement in the not too distant future, so there's something to be said for giving him a last run with the title. Except if he does win, what the hell do they do in December, which is the ladder match show? I don't see the Undertaker doing ladder matches at his age - though they could conceivably protect him in a six-man match or something of that sort, so that he woudn't have to do anything particularly dangerous.

Short of massive outside interference, though, a CM Punk win is almost unimaginable. Luckily for these two, their characters are strongly enough defined that I think they can probably have a good match here without needing to overplay the gimmick.

3. Hell in a Cell: D-Generation X (Triple H & Shawn Michaels) v. The Legacy (Ted DiBiase & Cody Rhodes). DX versus Orton's henchmen for the second month running. Normally, I'd be irritated that this match is higher up the card than the tag team title match, since there's been something of a tendency in past reunions to treat DX as being above the tag team titles. But this time, they've re-formed the team specifically to deal with Legacy, so they've got something of an excuse for not pursuing the titles.

As already noted, there's a slow-burn storyline here where Cody Rhodes is slavishly loyal to Orton, and DiBiase shows a bit more independence, laying the groundwork for him to turn on the group eventually. Surprisingly, Legacy actually won their first match against DX last month; most people are betting on DX getting their win back here, but it seems to me that if the company is intent on elevating Legacy, as they should be, the correct booking here is for them to win the second match in vaguely contentious manner, and for DX to finally get their win back at Survivor Series.

This will probably be pretty good, as long as they resist the temptation to squash Legacy solely to re-establish DX as being in a higher league. And with DX, there's always a real risk of that happening; if Legacy do emerge enhanced after a feud with them, it'll be a first. Still, that seems to be the genuine aim.

4. WWE Tag Team Championship: Chris Jericho & The Big Show v. Batista & Rey Mysterio. An odd one. The tag titles have taken on a new importance since they were unified. Under the new rules, the tag champions are the only people who get to appear on all three shows - Raw, Smackdown and ECW. (Not that they ever go to ECW. Being allowed to appear on Raw, Smackdown and ECW is a bit like being allowed to work in London, New York or Dagenham. Poor old ECW don't even have a match on this show, and from the sound of it, they won't have a match next month either.) This means that the tag titles aren't just regular title belts, they're also a device to get wrestlers onto other shows.

Jericho and his giant mate have been mainstays of Raw and Smackdown since winning the titles, and it would be a terrible waste to see them lose. But on the other hand, they're facing two returning wrestlers: Batista is just back from a lengthy injury, while Mysterio is coming back from a drug suspension. Returning wrestlers usually win their first match back, to re-establish them. But are Batista and Mysterio really more valuable to Raw than Chris Jericho? I don't think they are. Batista's been given enough wins on television, and Mysterio's absence has been played down enough, that I think Jericho and the Big Show ought to retain. They're natural opponents for DX once the Legacy storyline is completed - in fact, the only natural opponents for DX - so it would be a shame to throw all that away.

Batista and the Big Show aren't great, but with Jericho and Mysterio, the match should be good overall.

5. WWE United States Title: Kofi Kingston v. The Miz v. Jack Swagger. This is Raw's midcard title. Kingston is the defending babyface champion, Miz and Swagger are obnoxious midcard heels. There's a rudimentary storyline here about the heels both trying to steal the title belt, which doesn't make a tremendous amount of sense, but at least serves to establish that everyone cares about the title.

Kingston's had the title since June, and frankly he's had about as much benefit from it as he's going to get, so it's probably time for a change. Either Miz or Swagger would be a defensible choice, since they're both rising stars as singles wrestlers with genuine promise. I suspect Miz would gain more from the title, and has better prospects of being elevated further in the short term, so I'd go with him. Match quality is hard to predict here; I see these guys as people who could probably have a good three-way match with other people, but who might be a bit choppy left to their own devices. We'll see.

Incidentally, I was surprised to notice on Smackdown that Kingston is now being announced as "from Ghana, West Africa." This is actually true, but after years of trying to convince us that he's Jamaican, it seems a bit odd to suddenly change tack. Especially when he's still got an entrance video full of beaches and Jamaican flags. Still, at least he won't have to attempt the accent any more. (There may be a movement to diversify the home towns, since Rosa Mendes has also suddenly relocated from San Mateo, California to San Jose, Costa Rica. She's actually Canadian.)

6. WWE Intercontinental Championship: John Morrison v. Dolph Ziggler. Smackdown's secondary title is mired in a rather lacklustre feud right now. The original idea was for Ziggler to beat Rey Mysterio for the title, but Rey had been promised a lengthy run with the belt, and that was the end of that. After Rey's drug suspension, the title was hastily transferred to midcard babyface John Morrison, presumably on the reasoning that it didn't make sense for Ziggler to win the title after all that build in an un-promoted match. Unfortunately, this feud hasn't really played to Morrison's strengths; he's not a guy who should be doing lengthy speeches before the live crowd written for an ultra-charismatic babyface, because his mike work isn't really at that level (and, to be fair, neither are the scripts he's being given to work with).

These two could actually have a good match, but they're so far down the card that I'm not holding my breath for a classic. My inclination is that Ziggler should probably win, because after months of telling us that he's in the same league as main eventer Rey Mysterio, he should not suddenly be struggling against a babyface a couple of steps down the ladder.

7. WWE Divas Championship: Mickie James v. Alicia Fox. Raw's version of the women's championship - and really, they ought to unify the two women's belts as they've done with the tag belts. They don't have the depth of talent to support two divisions. This is the usual deal of poor Mickie having to drag an inferior wrestler to a vaguely watchable match. Let's hope it's short and Mickie retains.

8. R-Truth v. Drew McIntyre. This was added to the card at the last minute. The storyline has been under way for weeks, though. I suspect somebody belatedly figured out that they can't do it on the next show, because the next show is a Raw vs Smackdown tournament. McIntyre is a Scottish wrestler who, for once, is legitimately Scottish and doesn't wear a kilt. He drifted around the lower end of the card for a few months at the tail end of 2007 before being booted back down to developmental.

This time, the company seems to be serious about him. He's spent the last few weeks attacking midcard babyface R-Truth for no discernible reason, which in itself wouldn't be such a big deal - but they've also had Vince McMahon go on TV and specifically endorse him as a future world champion, which is a very odd thing to do with somebody so far down the card.

McIntyre has yet to actually wrestle since returning to the show, so after the weeks of build, it seems quite bizarre to do this match virtually unannounced. This should be a TV match. But plainly he has to win, and the only real question is whether he looks good doing it. Since he's been out of circulation for so long, who knows?

Worth getting? It's not a bad card, to be honest. The women's match will be brutal, but it'll be short too. Everything else is likely to be good or better. Might well get this one.