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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