Saturday, February 28, 2009

House to Astonish, episode 9

In which Al and I return with more news; more new books; reviews of The Great Unknown, Blue Beetle and, er, Youngblood; and we exhume another character from the Official Handbook. Download here, or visit the podcast web page, or subscribe via iTunes.

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Sunday, February 22, 2009

The X-Axis - 22 February 2009

It's one of those weeks where I don't really have time to do more than run through the capsules, I'm afraid. So we'll hold off for now on the final issues of NYX: No Way Home and New Exiles, and hopefully I'll get to them later in the week. Otherwise...

Birds of Prey #127 - The final issue of a once rather-good title that seems to have been getting by on sheer inertia for years - by which I mean, it already exists and despite a lack of particularly compelling ideas for new stories, nobody has hitherto felt sufficiently moved to actually cancel it. The final issue is a load of running about which kind of pays off a long-running storyline about supervillains in Silicon Valley, but also ends with a decidedly tacked-on "so let's break up" schtick. Not absolutely awful, but mediocre enough to make me grateful that the book has been put out of its misery.

The Great Unknown #1 - I suspect we might end up talking about this on next weekend's podcast, if only because this was such a quiet week for new book. This is a five-issue miniseries by Duncan Rouleau, whose work on books like Metal Men has tended to feature very interesting ideas told in an insanely convoluted way. The Great Unknown marks something of a departure, because while the central idea is still refreshingly oddball, the art and writing are both stripped back and much more straightforward. Zach is an obnoxious genius who has inexplicably failed to achieve anything in his life; the story is about him finding out exactly why that is. And no, it isn't because he needs to be a nicer person. The book takes the high-risk approach of having a massively unsympathetic lead character, but he does have an abrasive charisma. Pretty good, and I'm pleased to see Rouleau taking a more direct approach with his storytelling - it's usually for the best.

Ultimate Fantastic Four #60 - This is the final issue? This? Half the team run around fighting Atlanteans for the whole story, and then a caption saying that the story is continued in Ultimatum and Ultimatum: Fantastic Four Requiem? Christ. With comics like this, it's no bloody wonder nobody gives a toss about the Ultimate imprint any more. Awful.

Uncanny X-Men #506 - In which ex-mutants start seeking refuge with the X-Men, Colossus rescues some women from slave traffickers, and the science team track down the guy who created Red Ronin back in those 1970s Godzilla comics. It's a pretty book, and Terry Dodson is doing some great work here, but there's still something missing. It's less than the sum of its parts. Perhaps the problem is that there's a bunch of Stuff going on, but I'm not getting the sense of a bigger picture or an overall direction. There are several plot threads in evidence, but nothing that seems to connect them. Now, sure, there are bits that look like they must be set-up for something, such as the ongoing theme of recruiting mad scientists from old comics. And I've no doubt that Fraction has a plan in mind - but it doesn't seem to be filtering through to give any particular structure to the stories I'm reading right now. I'm getting restless here...

X-Factor #40 - Once again, Peter David asks us nicely not to reveal the ending - not that I would have done anyway, since in this case it's the closing twist. Most of the issue involves a depressed Madrox going back to visit John Maddox, the stray duplicate who built a peaceful family for himself. As such, he now represents the embarrassing proof that the real Madrox didn't have to screw up his life quite so badly. Madrox has provided some of Peter David's best material over the last few years, as he's managed to take a mildly ludicrous gimmick superpower, and use it as an effective vehicle to tell stories about identity. This is no exception, with David and artist Valentine De Landro both at their best. Very good.

X-Men: Kingbreaker #3 - Sorry, but does this book serve any purpose at all, other than to get the Starjammers into position for War of Kings? I mean, is this story actually bloody about anything? Because it doesn't seem to be. It just seems to be some random action sequences designed to get the characters from A to B, and my interest is waning rapidly.

X-Men: Legacy #221 - It's one of those weeks when they deluge the market in X-books, in case you hadn't guessed. Of course, this is one of the better ones, at least for those with a decent knowledge of X-Men history. Professor X and Gambit are looking for Rogue, and they track her down in the X-Men's old Australian base - which is currently running a giant Danger Room simulation of stuff from Rogue's past. Great if you know all the references. But as so often with this book, I can't help but wonder what you're supposed to get out of this if, for example, you don't recognise re-enactments of scenes from the mid-1980s, or you've forgotten that Havok was briefly a brainwashed Genoshan guard for a handful of issues nineteen years ago. Legacy is very good at what it does, but what it does must surely be of niche appeal.

Young X-Men #11 - The penultimate issue, and apparently we're teasing the death of Dust. Actually, I strongly suspect they're not going to kill her - partly because the story has all the hallmarks of a feint, and partly because there's just no point killing off a perfectly decent character in the final issue of a third-tier X-book which bombed inside a year. The book isn't worth it. Anyway, the basic idea here is that Dust is dying and Donald Pierce claims he can help her out. It's an okay premise that doesn't quite come across. For this to work, we have to believe in Dust betraying the X-Men to try and save herself, and she just never seems desperate enough for that. Nice cover, though.

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Sunday, February 15, 2009

The X-Axis - 15 February 2009

Quite a bit to cover this week. Check out this week's House to Astonish to hear us talk about Bang! Tango, Batman and Secret Warriors - download here, visit the podcast webpage here, or subscribe on iTunes.

Down below, you'll find reviews of the Wolverine: Manifest Destiny miniseries and this week's X-Men Origins: Sabretooth one-shot.

And here's the rest of this week's X-books, plus a few titles I meant to review last week and never got around to...

Bang! Tango #1 - Check the podcast for more on this, but it's a Vertigo miniseries by Joe Kelly and Adrian Sibar. A mobster on the run after botching a job ends up in San Francisco and starts a new life as a tango instructor. Naturally, somebody from his past life shows up asking for a favour. It's a rather average crime comic with a tango motif nailed onto it, I'm afraid, which never seems to add up to anything more than the sum of its parts. Some of the art works well, but it doesn't really capture the sense of dance - admittedly a very difficult task in comics, but if you're doing to do a book about the tango...

Batman #686 - The first half of Neil Gaiman and Andy Kubert's "Whatever Happened to the Caped Crusader?", essentially an out-of-continuity piece in which a bunch of characters show up at a surreal funeral to lament the passing of assorted versions of Batman. It's pretty good, in fact, playing off the range of interpretations that the cast have had over the years. An apparent attempt to shift art style to reflect different takes on the character doesn't come off - with a handful of exceptions, it all just looks like Andy Kubert - but it does look good, and it's an endearing reflection on what the character is all about.

The Mighty #1 - This is a DC miniseries from Peter Tomasi, Keith Champagne and Peter Snejbjerg, which came out last week. It's a superhero book, but with no connection to the rest of DC's output. Alpha One is the world's only superhero, and he's got a whole police force entirely devoted to helping him out and cleaning up afterwards. Something tells me it's one of those "all is not as shiny as it appears" stories. Great art from Snejbjerg, who gives it a timeless, retro feel, and actually a rather good first chapter setting up a promising mystery.

R.E.B.E.L.S.#1 - Um... well, it's a DC Universe superhero book which I picked up on the offchance that it would be worth talking about for the podcast. Brainiac 2 comes to Earth with aliens in hot pursuit, and hooks up with Supergirl to fight them off. Perfectly okay, and some of the alien character designs are quite imaginative, but nothing that really grabs me.

Soul Kiss #1 - A miniseries by Steven T Seagle and Marco Cinello, and it's one of those books where explaining the concept entails giving away the plot of the first issue. Basically, though, a girl makes a deal with the devil and wants to get out of it. Striking art, though the style shifts awkwardly at times, from rough pencils to a pseudo-animated look, for no apparent reason. But none of the characters really connect with me; it feels like a parade of familiar types I've seen before.

X-Infernus #3 - In which the cast decamp to Limbo and run around fighting things for an issue. Not what you'd call philosophically deep, but hey, it's a series designed primarily to get Illyana Rasputin back into circulation, what were you expecting? It's a decent enough action story, which gives artist Giuseppe Camuncoli something to work with. He's the real selling point here, if you ask me. A lot of artists would have gone for angst-ridden murk, but here we get bold lines and bright colours, and it's all refreshingly energetic.

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X-Men Origins: Sabretooth

Writer: Kieron Gillen
Artist: Dan Panosian
Letterer: Todd Klein
Colourist: Ian Hannin
Editor: Nick Lowe

The X-Men Origins one-shots have generally been pretty underwhelming, but they just keep coming, for who knows what reason.

This week, it's Sabretooth, and the unusual creative team of Kieron Gillen and Dan Panosian. Gillen is responsible for cult hit Phonogram; Panosian is probably still best known as one of Rob Liefeld's regular inkers back in the nineties. However, his recent pencilling work has a rather engaging rough-edged, back-to-basics quality which fits Sabretooth quite well.

The real difficulty here is that Sabretooth doesn't need an origin story. He's a villain; that in itself doesn't disqualify him from getting a back story. But fundamentally, Sabretooth is just a homicidal maniac. There is no inciting event in his past that made him this way. It's just what he is.

And the character is stronger that way. He functions mainly as a dark counterpart for Wolverine, who represents the violent impulses that Wolverine resists. More generally, when used against other heroes, he's just an all-purpose slasher. This doesn't call for a detailed back story, or an armchair psychologist explanation. All that would just weaken him.

Fortunately, Gillen seems to understand all that, since what he writes isn't really an origin story at all, so much as a character piece about a psychopath who has drifted through life indulging himself. There are two main themes here. First, Sabretooth is a sadist who is just having fun at other people's expense. Second, in his own mind, he's trying to draw out the side of Wolverine that would act the same way - which, as he sees it, would be doing the guy a favour. He wants Wolverine to be his playmate.

None of this is really news, but the issue makes the point effectively enough. It's violent, but the violence is kept short enough to remain shocking. Most of the story is presented from Sabretooth's perspective, while deliberately leaving his motivations impenetrable. It neatly distills what makes the character work as a villain.

Here's the thing, though: we've currently got an entire series in Wolverine: Origins dedicated to laying out a murderously complex and ill-advised back story for Wolverine and much of his supporting cast, which would seem to include Sabretooth. So, if that's the version of continuity we're running with, shouldn't Romulus be in this book somewhere?

Well, yes, he should - but you see, that would mean writing a Romulus story, and Romulus is crap. Sabretooth's a perfectly strong character without him. Look at this book, imagine it with an added conspiracy theory of lifelong manipulation, and see how it stops working. The simplest characters are often the best. Sabretooth kills people because he's crazy. He doesn't need to be any more complicated than that. He's a straightforward idea, and best kept that way.

This book takes the simple approach and makes the character work. It doesn't bring any new insights, and it's not really an origin story, but it's a decent enough summation of the character.

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Wolverine: Manifest Destiny

Wolverine: Manifest Destiny
Writer: Jason Aaron
Pencillers: Stephen Segovia & Paco Diaz Luque
Inkers: Stephen Segovia, Noah Salonga and Paco Diaz Luque
Letterer: Cory Petit
Colourist: John Rauch
Editor: John Barber

As most of you surely know, "Manifest Destiny" is Marvel's all-purpose label for any story connected, however loosely, with the X-Men's relocation to San Francisco. As we've come to expect, it's not a crossover at all, and barely even an event - it's just a logo they stick on the first story set in SF.

Most of the X-books have run "Manifest Destiny" arcs in the regular title. But Wolverine is tied up with Mark Millar and Steve McNiven's "Old Man Logan" story at the moment - an out-of-continuity story that would normally have appeared as a miniseries. Instead, it's running in the main title, while Jason Aaron and Stephen Segovia are doing the "Manifest Destiny" story as a miniseries. Having written the previous arc in Wolverine itself, Aaron is effectively the book's unspoken regular writer at the moment, a position which will become official with the launch of Wolverine: Weapon X (and the repurposing of the existing Wolverine book as a Daken title - gratuitously confusing, isn't it?).

"Wolverine moves to California" isn't the most thrilling concept in the world, but fortunately that's not really what Aaron does. Instead, we get a kung fu pastiche, the idea being that Wolverine passed through San Francisco many years ago and caused a bit of a mess in Chinatown, which he'll have to sort out if he plans on living here. It's a very tongue-in-cheek affair, with the familiar "hero learns new skills from wise sensei" stuff and the sort of over-the-top martial arts gibberish that Brubaker and Fraction used when writing Iron Fist.

Of course, it's all terribly silly. But there's nothing wrong with that; most writers tend to take Wolverine dreadfully seriously, and as a change of pace, four issues of undemanding nonsense work perfectly well. Admittedly, the more seriously you try to take it, the less well it works - the story forces Wolverine into the "trainee" role, where he doesn't entirely fit - but on its own terms, it's a freewheeling romp.

To judge from the range of inkers, and the appearance of some fill-in pencils in the final issue, artist Stephen Segovia appears to have run into a few deadline problems along the way. Mind you, he started off the series inking his own work, which was probably where they misjudged. He's very much in the mould of Leinil Francis Yu, but without the scratchiness. There are some points where he seems to be trying a little too hard to be imaginative, at the expense of clarity, but for the most part it's a good looking book.

From the ending, it looks as though Aaron has it in mind to hold on to his kung fu characters as Wolverine's personal supporting cast. In some ways that's a smart move, since his solo title would benefit from a bit of stability, and a setting disconnected from years of accumulated continuity. On the other hand, these characters are a little bit silly, and I'm not altogether sure about using them as recurrent characters - there's a definite risk here of re-creating the New Orleans Guilds, and nobody wants that, surely.

Still, if some elements of this story sit a little uneasily in the bigger picture, it's been a fun few issues which have helped to lighten the tone. It all bodes well for Aaron's new regular series.

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No Way Out 2009

Traditionally, the WWE's February pay-per-view used to be something of a stopgap. It has an awkward slot on the schedule, between the Royal Rumble in January and Wrestlemania at the start of April. Since the main purpose of the Royal Rumble is to select the challenger for Wrestlemania, they didn't really need an extra show in the middle. But they were doing a show in every other month, so...

This problem was partially solved when the brand split happened. That left the company with two world titles, one for Raw and one for Smackdown. The Royal Rumble chose one challenger, and No Way Out would choose the other. Fine.

But this year, the WWE seems to have taken its eye off the ball so far as the title matches are concerned. To no great surprise, Randy Orton won the Royal Rumble - but instead of building for his world title match, we're getting a story where he feuds with the McMahon family. Meanwhile, the champions are defending their titles in random six-way Elimination Chamber matches tonight - which they're apparnetly hoping will sell on the strength of the gimmick.

One plausible theory is that the WWE has figured out that they simply don't have a particularly strong world title match for this year's Wrestlemania, so they're hoping to sell it on gimmickry such as a Mickey Rourke appearance (and more on that next month, I suspect). Still, they're not doing a good job of promoting their top storylines right now, and they've only got a few weeks to sort it out before the biggest show of the year.

Anyway, let's see what we've got on this show...

1. World Heavyweight Title, Elimination Chamber match: John Cena v. Chris Jericho v. Kane v. Kofi Kingston v. Mike Knox v. Rey Mysterio. An eyebrow-raising list, to be sure.

The Elimination Chamber is a convoluted variant on the cage match. Basically, though, you've got six wrestlers. Two start, and every five minutes another one enters. Elimination by pinfall or submission. Last one left wins the title. An utterly ludicrous way to pick your champion, of course, but hey, that's wrestling for you.

This one is for the Raw title. But with three of Raw's top stars tied up in other matches, they've had to descend some distance into the midcard to pad out the match. Actually, come to think of it, they could also have used CM Punk, who's at least a former world champion, even if he's been relegated back to the midcard. Unless he's going to show up in a last-minute addition to the card, defending his Intercontinental Title, it's hard to think of a good reason for leaving him out.

Anyhow, it's not too difficult to pick a winner here. Whoever leaves with the title goes on to defend it at Wrestlemania, so this is not the time for a shock win by an outsider. And with that knowledge, we can work through the list pretty easily.

Kane is an upper midcarder who held the title for one day (yes, one day) eleven years ago. He's the sort of guy you use to pad out matches like this. He's hardly likely to become the top star on Raw overnight. Mysterio is a more credible choice, but he's stuck in an unresolved feud with Mike Knox, which isn't exactly main event material.

Knox and Kingston are midcard wrestlers who you wouldn't normally expect to see in this sort of match. It's a big opportunity for them, but neither can sensibly expect to win - the question is whether they look out of place with the main eventers. Knox is a big thuggish heel who's perfectly okay in that role. Kingston is a guy from Ghana inexplicably being passed off as a Jamaican. He's got some impressive moves but his match quality is hit and miss.

Chris Jericho would be a plausible winner, except he's clearly being set up for a match at Wrestlemania involving Ric Flair and Mickey Rourke, which rules him out. And that leaves Cena retaining.

There's enough variation in these guys that they should be able to have a decent match, but it's terribly easy to predict the ending.

2. WWE Title, Elimination Chamber match: Edge v. The Big Show v. Jeff Hardy v. Vladimir Kozlov v. Triple H v. The Undertaker. Well, this is a bit more like it. Four established main eventers, the recently-elevated Jeff Hardy... and, yes, Vladimir Kozlov, but in a match like this they can disguise his limitations.

This is the Smackdown title match. Last month, Jeff Hardy lost the title back to Edge after his brother Matt turned on him. This came as a bit of a surprise to most people, since the role was generally assumed to have been reserved for the returning Christian. But apparently the WWE decided that this was far too obvious and put Matt in the bad guy role, with Christian returning to ECW this week as a babyface, effectively filling Matt's role on that show. This seems a terrible waste of Christian, who deserves better than to be stuck on the C-show helping to train the rookies. Mind you, a roster reshuffle is already scheduled for April, so he might not be there long.

Anyway, Edge is the defending champion, and in theory his chances don't look good, with a whole load of strong opponents. Common sense says he should retain, since he's the strongest heel character on Smackdown, he only won the belt last month, and he'd be better off as a defending champion at Wrestlemania. But the trouble is, none of the matches on this show obviously lend themselves to a title change, and the WWE will probably want one somewhere. Hopefully they'll add something to the bottom of the card - MVP vs Shelton Benjamin for the US title would be an obvious bet.

Otherwise, there's the dreary possibility that Edge might lose the title already, simply because somebody has to. An awful idea, but then Smackdown has rather written itself into a corner by exhausting most of the possibilities for interesting title matches. I suspect, though, that we're heading towards Edge retaining here, and then losing the title to Triple H at Wrestlemania.

Match quality should be pretty good, given the level of experience in this one.

3. ECW Title: Jack Swagger v. Finlay. Swagger won the title from Matt Hardy last month (an hour or so before Matt turned heel), and is now the rookie heel champion on the C-show. He's got a lot of promise for somebody so new, and the WWE obviously think highly of him.

All common sense says Swagger has to retain, so that he can move on to defend against Christian at Wrestlemania and against Tommy Dreamer beyond that - they've launched a long-term storyline with Dreamer pledging to win the title one last time before his contract expires in June. All this demands a heel champion. As for Finlay, he's a veteran who's on ECW to train the rookies, and that makes him the perfect opponent for Swagger. Chances are this will be pretty good.

4. No holds barred: Shane McMahon v. Randy Orton. So, here's the story. Randy Orton won the Royal Rumble, which means he's due a title shot at Wrestlemania. WWE Chairman Vince McMahon tried to fire him, so Randy beat him up and kicked him in the head. And that's him out of the picture. Vince's son Shane is now out for revenge.

Shane has wrestled before, and he's actually not bad for an amateur, though he also has the advantage of using tons of smoke and mirrors, and working with very good opponents. On the other hand, he's also pushing forty, and hasn't looked to be in brilliant shape during the build-up to this match - which included a notoriously unconvincing scene of him beating up Orton and his lackeys singlehandedly, the sort of vanity television that does nobody any favours.

Orton has to win here, since he's advancing to Wrestlemania. I suspect the idea is that he takes out Vince and Shane, and then forms an alliance with Stephanie. Or something along those lines. Anyway, this will probably be okay if they've worked it out properly in advance, and Shane will be leaving on a stretcher.

5. Shawn Michaels v. JBL. This appears to be the premature end of the logically impenetrable storyline in which Michaels was reluctantly working for JBL in order to raise the money for his family that, apparently, he somehow wasn't getting from his day job as a professional wrestler. Don't think about it, it really doesn't make any sense at all.

This is a long-term storyline which looked as though it was heading through to Wrestlemania, but out of nowhere we have a match where Shawn either wins his freedom or ends up working for JBL forever. That probably means they've belatedly come up with a new plan for Shawn at Wrestlemania, and they need this match out of the way - although I suppose there's always the outside possibility that Shawn loses, only for everything to get sorted out next month.

Shawn's very good, but JBL's matches have been unimpressive of late. He's on his last legs, really, and he was never the greatest wrestler in his prime. With no gimmickry to hide behind - this is meant to be a straight wrestling match - I suspect this could be ugly.

Worth buying? Um. Most of these matches should be decent, but none of them are likely to be great, and there are no particularly mesmerising storylines being advanced here. Then again, they're likely to do something to start the build for Wrestlemania - they've got to, really.


Saturday, February 14, 2009

House to Astonish, episode 8

In which we look over some of the announcements from NYCC, and talk about Neil Gaiman's Batman, plus the first issues of Bang Tango and Secret Warriors.

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

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Sunday, February 08, 2009

The X-Axis - 8 February 2009

The January dead period is evidently over, as this week sees a deluge both of X-books and of new titles. X-Men: Magneto - Testament is reviewed below, and time permitting, over the next week I might get around to writing about the first issues of Bang! Tango, Soul Kiss and The Mighty.

But also this week...

Agents of Atlas #1 - The first issue of an ongoing series, and if nothing else, it goes to show that Marvel aren't all about the bottom line. It's also a Dark Reign tie-in, but hey, they're not suicidal. Since the Agents miniseries finished up with the obscure 1950s heroes inheriting a worldwide criminal empire, they fit quite neatly into Dark Reign, and get down to work on the important business of double-crossing everyone in sight. As before, it's a very enjoyable title which manages the trick of embracing the inherent goofiness of these elderly characters while still taking them seriously and using them in a modern story. Fun.

Astonishing Tales #1 - Oh, Marvel Comics Presents is back. Ho-hum. The lead story is a Wolverine/Punisher serial which looks to have an entirely off-the-peg plot, but does feature some impressive artwork from Kenneth Rocafort, who has a nice little trick of scattering miniature panels around to convey confusion without actually obscuring the action. There's also a story with Mojo hiring Sunspot and Cannonball to beat the Writer's Strike, which comes too late to be topical. And there's a couple of Iron Man stories as well. Actually, everything here is basically okay, but it's still inessential, and the format of eight-page monthly instalments seems terribly ill-advised.

Bad Dog #1 - This is an Image book from Joe Kelly and Diego Greco about two misfit bounty hunters, one of whom is apparently meant to be a werewolf (though if you ask me, he looks more like a bear). All vaguely scabrous and earthy and mildly outrageous, but there doesn't seem to be much else to it. Mildly amusing if you like that sort of thing, but it's in one and ear and out the other for me.

Black Panther #1 - If you're wondering who the new Black Panther is - the one who, to judge by the promotional art in the house ads, has horrifically ill-proportioned thighs and a breast growing out of her shoulder - well, keep wondering, because this issue doesn't answer that question at all. T'Challa gets zapped, and there's some talk of arranging a replacement... but most of the story is just him going about his usual business in flashback, and chatting about Dark Reign with Namor the Sub-Mariner. This book is unusual in that it's usually better when tying in to Marvel's events (it seems to neutralise writer Reginald Hudlin's more irritating tendencies), and this is about what you'd expect from Hudlin writing a crossover story. As for artist Ken Lashley, the interior work is a damn sight better than the promo stuff, so heaven knows what they were thinking. But as we've come to expect, although Marvel solicited this as a 40 page book, it's not - it's a regular length story padded out with pin-ups and six pages of preview art.

Cable #11 - Looks like this is building to the climax next month when Cable finally finds that all-important time travel component and makes it back to the present day. But in the meantime, we get a whole issue of Cable and Hope wandering around a desert. Every bit as thrilling as you'd imagine. Half the issue features fill-in art from Phonogram's Jamie McKelvie, who does as well as you could expect with a singularly uneventful script. Still, though, can we just get this over with and move on?

Dead Irons #1 - A supernatural western with emo tendencies. I mean, listen to this: "Pain. It's the only thing in this world you can count on. We're born in pain. Suffer with it every day on this land. And die in it." And that's just the first line! It doesn't get much better, I'm afraid - lots of portentous muttering in low light. Actually, Jason Shawn Alexander's art is pretty atmospheric, but the story seems thoroughly missable.

Hotwire: Requiem for the Dead #1 - A Steve Pugh cyberpunk(ish) comic based on a story idea by Warren Ellis. In the near(ish) future, ghosts have started to manifest through the electromagnetic fields created by all our constant telecommunications chatter, and our heroine must sort them all out. It's a neat little idea, updating the ghost story into a literal ghost in the machine, and Pugh's painted artwork is often beautiful, with a European influence. On the other hand, it's the sort of book where the lead character is a sassy cop called - and I'm not making this up - Detective Exorcist Alice Hotwire, a name which is dramatically more camp than the rest of the story seems to intend. Looks gorgeous, though, and rather entertaining.

I Am Legion #1 - This is an old Humanoids book being reprinted by DDP, but it has the advantage of featuring art by John Cassaday. I have a vague feeling I've read this before, but it's not bad at all. Supernatural conspiracies in London and Romania during World War II, with Cassaday's ultra-realistic style well matched to a relatively low key story. The translation seems a little wonky when it comes to UK-specific references (high schools? in 1942?), but all told, it's a pretty engaging opening chapter for a mystery story.

Secret Warriors #1 - Marvel have devoted a lot of time to building up these characters, to no discernible effect - they show up in crossovers, and then they disappear into the crowd. Ho-hum. But this book is mainly written by Jonathan Hickman, a rather interesting indie creator, who's been matched with a strong storyteller in Stefano Caselli. And what do you know, the characters finally develop personalities and the series starts to feel like a promising team book. Again, I'm not quite sure what you do with this book once Nick Fury makes his inevitable return to running SHIELD (and the title really is lousy), but it's a much stronger debut than I was expecting.

Wolverine & Power Pack #4 - Wrapping up the co-star series, Power Pack go to Japan so that Alex can appear on Ninja Warrior, and Wolverine... um, wanders through in the middle pages so that he can deliver a homily, and then leave again. A bit contrived, to put it mildly. The main story is good fun, though, and GuriHiru's art on this series is a joy.

X-Men: First Class - Finals #1 - Apparently we've now jumped forward to somewhere around about the end of X-Men: The Hidden Years, with the X-Men in individual costumes, and getting menaced by robots based on extremely dodgy villains from the sixties. This does feel a little like the series has abandoned any pretence of trying to appeal to kids, and is focussing on entertaining its adult readers with a final arc filled with references to the likes of Jack O'Diamonds, but by that standard it does fine.

X-Men Noir #3 - Oh, I get it. It's a metafiction thing where the Golden Age Angel represents the upcoming age of superhero comics that will displace pulp noir. Not quite sure why that story requires the noir characters to be cast from superheroes as well, mind you. And you can certainly question whether the Golden Age of superhero comics was in any sense an evolutionary step forward from the noir period... but then, maybe that's the point. Still, at least Van Lente seems to have something in mind for this series beyond mere gimmickry, which answers my main concern about it. We'll just have to see whether he can tie it all together in some way.

X-Men: The Times and Life of Lucas Bishop #1 - It's a Bishop origin miniseries, because heaven knows his back story wasn't complicated enough to start with. Larry Stroman's on better form here than he was with his recent X-Factor issues, and I rather like his renditions of how the young Bishop visualises the X-Men. Other than that... look, it's another Bishop origin miniseries, and I don't see why we need one.

X-Men vs. Hulk - An original Chris Claremont story, illustrated by Jheremy Raapack, in which Wolverine gets Colossus to fight the Hulk, through means never entirely explained, in the name of some test or other. It's the sort of thing that would have made a perfectly passable fill-in issue back in the day. Your four dollars also gets you a reprint of 1970's X-Men #66, an utterly insignificant issue which happens to have the Hulk in it. (The solicitations, incidentally, listed Scott Clark as the artist and "a classic Claremont tale" as the reprint, neither of which is accurate.)

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X-Men: Magneto - Testament

Writer: Greg Pak
Artist: Carmine Di Giandomenico
Letterer: Dave Lanphear
Colourist: Matt Hollingsworth
Editor: Warren Simons

Although the miniseries X-Men: Magneto - Testament claims to be the origin story of Magneto, it isn't really. It's a story about the Holocaust, and a kid called Max who, we're assured, eventually grows up to become Magneto. But really, he could be anyone. Nobody here is especially bothered about exploring the motivation of the X-Men's arch-enemy; they want to tell you about the Holocaust.

There is always a danger that projects like this will slip into extreme bad taste. Sensitive portrayals of genocide are not generally enhanced by the inclusion of vengeful supervillains. Nonetheless, Marvel have generally managed to avoid that trap with Magneto, largely by not dealing too directly with the Holocaust itself for extended periods. This book takes the opposite approach, pushing any remotely fantastic elements to the extreme margins. Max is just a kid; his powers do not emerge; he simply suffers under Nazi oppression for five issues, before escaping with Magda (as established continuity demands) in the final issue.

Even that could have been tackily heroic, but Pak sidesteps that problem by ensuring that Max isn't given any particular credit for getting out. He simply seizes the opportunity during an uprising. The book does offer some suggestion of Magneto's later motives, pointing out that he tried the path of peaceful resistance, and look where it got him. But this is played more as a moment of existential despair: fighting back is futile, but if everyone is going to die horribly anyway, why not?

So, the series has avoided the disasters that could easily have befallen it, and remained on the right side of sensitive. But do you need to read it?

It's clear enough that the main purpose of this series is to tell everyone that the Holocaust was a horrific atrocity. Evidently conscious that this risks being overfamiliar, the series tries to bring the point home with fresh (and, we're assured, historically accurate) detail and by the use of a somewhat familiar character as a focal point. In all this, it largely succeeds. At the end of the day, it's still the standard approach - an older Max shows up in the epilogue to give us the "never again" speech - but then the Holocaust isn't the sort of subject which people should stop discussing for want of a fresh angle.

But I do have slight reservations about this approach to the subject. Let me see if I can explain this. In 1946, you could say "never again" with some conviction. Today, it isn't quite so simple. The catalogue of humanitarian atrocities continues to mount up. To be sure, there has been nothing on the scale of the Holocaust, but that must be little comfort to the 1.7 million Cambodians wiped out by the Khmer Rouge, or the hundreds of thousands who died in Rwanda in 1994, and so forth.

Now that so much time has passed, I wonder whether there is a risk of placing too much emphasis on the unique and exceptional nature of the Holocaust, and not enough on the dismal tradition of which it forms a part. There is something almost reassuring in the thought that the Holocaust was a one-off, which ended sixty-four years ago, and which will fade from living memory in the not-too-distant future.

The message from history, surely, is the horrors of which humanity is capable, and the need to guard against them. And to keep that message alive and relevant, it needs to be seen in a wider context of human nature.

It is interesting, too, that audiences in Holocaust stories are almost always invited to identify with the Jews. But by definition, most of us are not members of an oppressed ethnic minority; the message we should be learning is how a society not dramatically different from our own lost its moral compass so spectacularly. Everyone takes away the message that they could have been a Jew; perhaps not enough take away the message that they would have been a German.

Anyway. None of this is necessarily a criticism of Testament, so much as me wondering aloud whether the wider culture gives this sort of story enough context to remind everyone why it has ongoing significance, and not merely historical interest. On its own terms, Testament manages to pull off an extremely difficult balancing act of building a serious Holocaust piece around Magneto without cheapening it. And that is something of an achievement.

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Monday, February 02, 2009

Number 1s of 2009: February 1

Lady GaGa lasted three weeks at number one, but now it's time to move on, with...

That's "The Fear", by Lilly Allen, the first single from her second album. She hasn't much troubled the American singles chart, though her first album did okay over there. But in Britain, she was a major breakthrough star in 2006, with a bouncily cynical, vaguely ska album that was good enough to overcome its Mockney tendencies.

She's the daughter of actor and professional irritant Keith Allen, whose own forays into music included a bunch of novelty singles such as this inexplicable 1998 number one.

So it was a pleasant surprise when she turned out to be okay. "The Fear" is her second number one, the first being her debut "Smile", though personally I always preferred "Alfie", a ridiculous choice of single that somehow still got to number 15.

This is her seventh Top 40 appearance, though the last two were guest vocals for Mark Ronson and the Kaiser Chiefs; she hasn't actually released a single of her own since 2007. Instead, she made a poorly received chat show for BBC3 which sounded like it had been generated by a youth-TV parody machine. ("It's a chat show, right... but with a social networking website.") Never saw it, but by all accounts it was god-awful. There's supposed to be a second season in the pipeline, but it looks to have been kicked into touch.

I quite like "The Fear." She's obviously trying a different genre for her second album, and if the lyrics are well-trodden stuff about consumerism, there's still a couple of amusing lines in there. Yes, there's something rather contrived about her, and it's easy to see why she's the sort of act you're not really supposed to like... but I still think she's one of the more interesting mainstream pop acts in Britain.


Sunday, February 01, 2009

The X-Axis - 1 February 2009

Round-up time. You'll find reviews of X-Men: Worlds Apart and X-Force #11 below, and you can check the podcast for full reviews of Dark Avengers #1, Battlefields: Dear Billy #1 and Batman: The Brave and the Bold #1. And that doesn't leave much, actually...

Umbrella Academy: Dallas #3 - Number Five explains what happened to him, and why he's a ten-year-old boy. It's another great issue; Umbrella Academy may be absurd, but it certainly understands what makes the superhero genre appealing, better than a lot of titles that get mired in the established trappings. There's a man with a goldfish tank for a head, for god's sake! Where else do you get that? Blissfully ridiculous in all the right ways, and still balancing that with enough of a dark undercurrent to make the story work. You've got to love it.

Wolverine: First Class #11 - This is the second part of a story guest starring Jack Russell, the star of short-lived seventies series Werewolf By Night. As I've said before, I fear this series (and X-Men: First Class) may be too over-reliant on guest stars in lieu of really telling stories about the characters. Still, it's Wolverine turning into a werewolf and harrassing Kodak, which is quite good fun. And it uses Kitty well as a teenage sidekick, with credit due to artist Hugo Petrus, who actually makes her look like a teenager. Perfectly fine.

Young X-Men #10 - The origin story of Cipher, who it turns out actually exists. Well, it's not really her origin story - it's an explanation that she's apparently been hanging around for ages, we just haven't been able to see her. It's a bit of a stretch, but the book just about gets away with the idea that she's a "need-to-know" character who the Young X-Men, well, didn't need to know about, because they don't much matter. Still, now that we know the book is being axed in two issues time, the fact that we're still at the stage of introducing the cast can only seem academic.

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X-Force #11

"Who the Hell is Eli Bard?"
Writers: Craig Kyle & Christopher Yost
Artists: Alina Uyusov & Clayton Crain
Letterer: Cory Petit
Editor: John Barber

X-Force #11 is something you don't get so often these days: a whole issue devoted to explaining the origin story of a new villain. Now, I'm all for this sort of thing. The X-books could do with some new villains, and it's good to see Kyle and Yost eschewing the tired old mystery-man approach, in favour of giving their new bad guy a clear agenda straight off the bat.

It also means that Clayton Crain - apparently back on duty as regular artist - gets relegated to a framing sequence while Alina Urusov does some much more attractive and graceful work on the flashback. The colouring is a bit washed out for my tastes, but I'll still take that over oppressive darkness any day.

So far so good... but it's not a wholly successful origin story. The basic idea is that Eli was a minor-league Roman Empire politician, whom Selene tried to use as a pawn. Unfortunately he messed up the scheme and she wasn't terribly pleased with him. She cursed him with eternal life (the story actually seems to suggest he's a vampire, but it all gets a bit confused on this point) and he's trying to get back in her good graces.

Basically, he seems to be a smaller-scale version of Thanos, whose early stories largely involved him trying to impress Death by killing loads of people. Eli is set up in a similar relationship with Selene. It's not a bad premise; Selene is an underused character, and enough time has passed since the seventies to make the Thanos/Death set-up fair game to be re-used.

It falls down, though, in two ways. Despite Urusov's best efforts on the art, Eli's relationship with Selene feels cursory and doesn't convince me. And the story spends way too much time telling us that Eli's a weak and pathetic man - which rather undermines his credibility as a villain.

Still, the basic idea's okay, and the art's really rather good.

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X-Men: Worlds Apart

X-Men: Worlds Apart
Writer: Christopher Yost
Penciller: Diogenes Neves
Inker: Ed Tadeo
Colourist: Raul Trevino
Letterer: Cory Petit
Editor: Daniel Ketchum

In keeping with recent tradition, X-Men: Worlds Apart isn't an X-Men story at all. It's a Storm miniseries, and its inclusion on Marvel's publishing schedule seems to result mainly from a desire to bridge the gap between two volumes of Black Panther, the book where she now appears as a supporting character.

Christopher Yost is the lucky writer asked to fill these un-needed pages, and what he's come up with is a Shadow King story which, at least in theory, is about Storm being faced with a choice between the X-Men and the Black Panther. No previous story has ever seemed to treat this as a dilemma, but Yost has a miniseries to fill, so you can't entirely blame him for inventing a problem to solve.

The upshot is a story where the Shadow King menaces both sets of characters, and Storm saves everyone. And that's about it, really. It reads pleasantly enough - the first chapter actually sets up a reasonably decent mystery before unveiling the Shadow King at the end, and Yost knows how to pace a story. Diogenes Neves' artwork is a bit school-of-1994, but it's generally clear and pleasing enough.

But there's two main problems here. First up, we've got the Shadow King, one of the least interesting villains the X-books have ever produced. He's a psychic being who embodies evil. Ho hum. In this story, that means characters act on their suppressed negative feelings when he's around. That doesn't much improve matters.

The thing with the Shadow King is that he's effectively a non-character. He does evil things because he's evil, and when he's around, other characters also do evil things, because he's influencing them, and he's evil. And that's pretty much it. He's entirely one-dimensional, and he results in stories where "evil" is some sort of external force, a bit like a virus.

In fact, he's a secular Satan created by people who've missed the point of Satan. The devil is traditionally depicted as a tempter, and with good reason: it means that, dramatically at least, he serves as an anthropomorphic personification of temptation. He's the voice in your head that goes "Why don't you just...?" But the decision to give in always rests with the individual; there's a choice, there's moral responsibility, and so there's drama. With the Shadow King, you've just got a bunch of people acting out of character because there's standing next to a radiating source of evil. Storm even points out to people that they have no responsibility for their actions - and in the logic of the story, they don't. But on that basis, what's interesting about any of this?

If all he's going to do is bring out suppressed feelings, then that's not a story in itself. You could, I suppose, get him out of the way in act one, and then do the "Now that I know you have doubts, where does that leave our marriage?" schtick. But the story doesn't even do that; everyone hugs and makes up at the end, apparently taking everything in their stride now that the baddie is out of the way.

So: that's problem one.

Problem two is that the story never really asks Storm to choose between the X-Men and the Panther, even though that's supposed to be the point (and the pay-off is meant to be "Aha, I can save both"). It's half-heartedly set up in issue #2, where the Shadow King challenges her to choose which one she'll try to save - but since he insists that she can't actually save either of them, it's a bit of a false dilemma.

Surely the way to go here was to have the Shadow King set up the classic Hobson's Choice dilemma, so that she could save one of them, but not both - and then say "you're bound to betray at least one side, and then your soul will belong to me," or something along those lines. If you're going to do this story, make the choice the focal point of the plot, and make sure something hinges on the choice. Hell, at least tease the possibility that she might make the choice. We don't even really get that.

A mediocre mini, really. There's the skeleton of a story in there, but it hasn't been properly fleshed out.

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