Wednesday, April 29, 2009

X-Men: The Times & Life of Lucas Bishop

"The Times and Life of Lucas Bishop"
Writer: Duane Swierczynski
Penciller: Larry Stroman
Inkers: Mark Farmer and Robert Stull
Colourists: Matt Milla and Thomas Mason
Letterer: Cory Petit
Editor: Axel Alonso

Anyone who follows the X-books will have realised by now that just because a miniseries says X-MEN in big letters on the cover, that's no reason to think it'll be an X-Men story. But while X-Men: The Times and Life of Lucas Bishop may not be an X-Men story, the sub-title is a pretty accurate reflection of what you get here. It's a three-issue miniseries recapping Bishop's origin story.

In other words, it's a spin-off from Cable, where Bishop is currently cast in the role of a demented zealot chasing Cable and Hope through time, trying to wipe out the whole timeline in the hope of hitting the reset button and averting his own disastrous future. But Bishop's origin story has been covered in flashback minis before. So, does this add anything new? Is it something that Cable readers need to pick up, and does it at least cover the territory entertainingly?

Well, for the most part, it's a relatively straight recap of Bishop's back story, from his childhood in the prison camps of a dystopian future, through to the point where he travels back to the present day and joins the X-Men. The general thrust has all been covered before. There are two main additions - first, there's the obligatory explanation of why he thinks Hope will destroy everything. And that explanation turns out to be some scattered recollections and a message from the past (which we don't get to hear). It doesn't tell us what we really wanted to know, which is what she did wrong. But formally at least, it goes some way to justify Bishop's paranoia.

Second, there are some amusing sequences with Bishop imagining what the X-Men must have been like, apparently without the benefit of pictures, and of course getting it all horribly wrong. Artist Larry Stroman has fun with these, and they certainly raise a smile.

Stroman got quite a bit of criticism for his recent work on X-Factor. This is significantly better, with his exaggerations working to good effect, and his settings more atmospheric. There are still some of those love-'em-or-hate-'em tics, such as the haywire swirling of long hair, but it's a definie improvement, and something of a return to form.

The problem is that Bishop's back story was never really designed to work as a story in its own right. The basic premise was pretty clear from the word go: he's a paramilitary X-Man from a dystopian future. What followed was a rather fragmentary collection of flashbacks and anecdotes which appeared in different places at different times. To the extent that those flashbacks do have an arc, it's about Bishop joining the XSE and his sister Shard getting killed, when Swiercynzski really wants to write about the prophecies surrounding Hope. This isn't really his fault; it's the material he has to work with. But it's a problem nonetheless.

I suspect the real point is for us to read between the lines. When Bishop finally meets the X-Men at the end of the issue, we ought to get a cover version of Uncanny X-Men #281-282. But we don't, not quite. The stuff with Fitzroy's base is skipped entirely, as we go straight to Bishop's sidekicks getting killed, and X-Men picking him up. Cable seems to be wandering around the Mansion (a few years out of synch). A caption identifies it as the Xavier Institute for Higher Learning (against, about four years early).

These could be minor continuity errors, or simply a relaxed approach to streamlining history. But there might be a simpler explanation: that this isn't our Bishop, but merely one from a reality close enough that nobody has picked up on it. Close enough so far, at any rate. If the usual rules of dramatic irony are in force, chances are it'll turn out that Bishop screwed things up and brought about the future he was trying to avert.

Normally I'd say this was a cop-out - but in this case, there are two good reasons why it might work. First, it allows them to use the "real" Bishop in future without having to painstakingly absolve him of genocide. But second, as I mentioned at the start, this Bishop's whole ideology is that he thinks he can get away with slaughtering alternate timelines because they don't really count, and they'll all get cancelled out in the end. So if the pay-off is that he's not "our" Bishop, that's a nice twist - and a better one than just the straightforward time loop.

If that's the idea, I like it - but it didn't need a three issue miniseries to set it up. The bits that work would have worked just as well as flashbacks in Cable itself (or back-up strips, if you prefer). The rest is a broad recap of well-established history. That's fair enough for new readers, especially as Bishop's back story is scattered through a range of issues, most of which are long since out of print - if you haven't read it before, then this is as good a place as any to do so. But if you're familiar with the material, chances are this will mostly seem rather familiar.

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Monday, April 27, 2009

Number 1s of 2009: April 26

Well, Calvin Harris lasted two weeks. And we stick with the homegrown acts for our next number one...

That's Tinchy Stryder featuring N-Dubz, "Number 1." Stryder, real name Kwasi Danquah, is Ghanaian by birth, but grew up in London and has been around on the grime scene for several years now. Grime is England's mutant version of rap, which started off decidedly aggressive and underground but, as you can hear, seems to be steadily mutating into pop-rap. (It says a lot about the genre, though, that Stryder's Wikipedia entry finds it necessary to tell us not just that he comes from London, but which bit of London.)

Serious attempts to push Stryder as a national star began last year with "Stryderman", a single that bombed out at number 73. I suspect part of the problem was a chorus that felt the need to stress exactly which bit of London he came from. Londoners have a chronic tendency to assume that everything that happens in London must be of wider interest. In fact, stuff like this just comes across as parochial. Stryder finally achieved a breakthrough with his last single, "Take Me Back", which was in a similar pop-rap vein. That got to number 3 earlier in the year, and it's not bad.

The single also credits N-Dubz as featured artists. They're a London trio who've been putting out singles for a few years now and slowly gaining a mainly teenage fanbase. Until now, this hasn't translated into major hit singles - their biggest hit was "Papa Can You Hear Me", which reached number 19 last year - although their last album did go platinum.

"Number 1" is a fairly obvious attempt to cross over to the pop audience; it has more in common with the Flo Rida single than UK grime, if you ask me. Not that there's anything wrong with that; it's probably a good thing for any genre to develop a commercial wing rather than exist in rarefied (or hyperlocal) isolation. And despite the phoned-in video, "Number 1" is a decent enough little anthem. It's not a classic - the chorus never quite sticks in my head - but it's perfectly fine.


Remarkable coincidence alert!

I reviewed Wolverine: The Anniversary yesterday. Here's what I said about the back-up strip:

"There's also a short back-up strip by Jonathan Maberry and Tomm Coker, in which Wolverine fights off a bunch of ninjas and then wonders, for no readily discernible reason, whether they might be ghosts. No, Logan, they're probably just ninjas again. It's Wednesday. Coker's art is lovely, but the story is a confused mess which seems to think it's making some sort of terribly profound point."
And at 10.44am today, somebody called Celia Herrick posted to disagree:

You're usually pretty clever with your assessment of comics, but you really missed the boat with the Jonathan Mayberry story GHOSTS in Wolverine the Annivesary.

There are two whole pages of a dream sequence that set up the blurred line between dream and waking experience. How could you have missed that? Far from the confused mess you say it was, this was one of the most elegant and clearly thought out stories in quite a while. Reminiscent of Garth Ennis or Warren Ellis.

Maybe you should read the story rather than just cruise the art.

Actually, I had noticed the dream sequence, and I still thought it was a mess. But that's another matter, and hey, if you think I'm misreading the story, that's your prerogative.

Anyhow, Celia certainly started the ball rolling, because just one minute later, at 10.45am, one Robert N Norris chipped in with:
I agree with the last post. I think GHOSTS was really great. I wonder who this new writer is. I haven't heard of him before.
A minute apart! If I were a cynic, I might start to get suspicious.

Now, you might not know this, but thanks to the magic of Haloscan, I can see the IP addresses of commenters. And guess what? Both comments came from the same IP address - I won't post it, but I've checked it on, and it's a Verizon connection in Doylestown, Pennsylvania.

Which is a truly remarkable coincidence, because I checked Jonathan Maberry's MySpace page, and wouldn't you just know it, he comes from Doylestown, Pennsylvania too!

It's a small world, isn't it?

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Wolverine Noir #1

Wolverine Noir #1
Writer: Stuart Moore
Artist: C P Smith
Colourist: Rain Beredo
Letterer: Jeff Eckleberry
Editor: Daniel Ketchum

Marvel's Noir books are a weird misshapen hybrid if ever there was one. Characters from one genre, revamped in the style of another genre... just because. It's a familiar tack for superhero publishers in recent years, who have often tried to expand the genre by splicing it with other strains of pulp - at their critical peak, many of WildStorm's titles worked in the same way. It can work, at least on the level of critical acclaim. It can also come across as a pointless parlour game.

Marvel's Noir books look suspiciously like they fall into the latter category. It's important to be clear: these are not superhero books in a noir setting. There are no powers. They're noir stories where the characters are based on existing Marvel characters. Of course, for the most part, those characters weren't designed for noir. The question is whether they have something to offer the genre, or whether you just get an absurd crossbreed monstrosity.

Compared to many Marvel characters, Wolverine is well suited to be a noir protagonist. He's a morally conflicted, alienated anti-hero, with appropriately bleak overtones and a dementedly complicated back story. His powers are not essential to the character. Not surprisingly, writer Stuart Moore has chosen to transplant him into the typical private detective role.

You'll notice, by the way, that this bears no resemblance whatsoever to the version of Wolverine we saw in X-Men Noir. Apparently, despite the occasional mention in interviews of a "noirverse", there isn't one - the books are all free-standing.

The set-up is that Logan is running a detective agency along with his dimwitted partner Dog, with Mariko Yashida showing up as the obligatory femme fatale client. Logan evidently keeps his dimwitted partner around out of guilt; the implication is that he's somehow responsible for Dog's condition. There's also a Creed wandering around, and if you can't figure out that he's the villain, you haven't been reading Wolverine comics for very long.

Curiously, Moore's idea of Logan seems to rely principally on the Origin miniseries - hence the heavy use of Dog, and extensive flashback scenes with versions of Rose and Smitty. This is unusual. Of course, origin stories are supposed to be core to the understanding of a character. But everyone knows Origin is nothing of the sort; it's a harmlessly irrelevant chunk of back story clutter which can be ignored at no great loss to anyone. Nor is it particularly memorable in its own right.

So it's surprising to see Moore drawing so heavily on this unlikely source material. If you're going to transplant a character wholesale to a distant continuity, you'd have thought it made more sense to focus on his core defining elements.

That said, Logan's character is more or less on model - he's a sort of cross between the typical street-level version of Wolverine, and a general noir protagonist. Since they aren't that distant to start with, the book does have something of a Wolverine feel to it. We've lost the berserker rage stuff in favour of a hidden guilty secret, but it's still a cousin of Wolverine.

Artist CP Smith is a good choice for the noir books. He's always been big on shadow and darkness, and he has the skill to make a character-driven book visually arresting. He certainly seems to think he's working on a proper story. It goes a long way to give the book some credibility.

But my reservations remain. It's an exercise in transplanting characters from one story to another, and at the end of the day, it's a gimmick. The characters weren't designed for this. They're square pegs being hammered into round holes, and that knowledge unavoidably undermines the drama. The book isn't played for laughs; but at its core, and visible at every turn, is this arbitrary "let's do a bunch of noir stories for the hell of it" idea. The book is done with some skill, yet it remains unavoidably and visibly the sum of its parts, a Frankenstein story.

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Sunday, April 26, 2009

The X-Axis - 26 April 2009

It's Sunday! Check below for this week's podcast, and for those of you so inclined, there's also a preview for Backlash.

I'm planning full-length reviews for Wolverine: Noir #1 (which came out last week, but honest, I'll get to it), Detective Comics #853 (the second half of Neil Gaiman and Andy Kubert's "Whatever Happened to the Caped Crusader?") and X-Men: The Times & Life of Lucas Bishop. But first...

Astonishing X-Men #29 - Lord, this is slow. This issue, more thrilling exposition, as the mutants from the hidden city explain why they don't like Forge. I suspect it's been made more complicated by the need to cover a continuity glitch: the other X-Men books have been claiming that mutants lost their powers in every reality after M-Day, and since this whole story is about mutants from another reality, that leaves Ellis with some unwelcome and awkward explaining to do. (It doesn't fit with Exiles either, come to think of it. But then it's more important for the X-Men books to be consistent among themselves.) Conceptually, it's all fine as far as it goes, but the pace is sluggish. Simone Bianchi's art is a mixed blessing, too. The individual pictures are often beautiful, and there's a certain grace to the book, but the narrative flow is dubious. Just look at the first scene with Storm and Emma - this is supposed to be a fight scene joined in progress, but there's nothing to indicate action until panel three! And then, at the bottom of the page, there's a random picture of Emma's face, utterly disconnected from anything around it, and without dialogue. There's a lot to like about Bianchi's images, but they often seem haphazard and disconnected from the story - beauty for its own sake.

Fantastic Force #1 - We talk about this in the podcast, but suffice to say it isn't very good. Although it's not quite the atrocity that some reviewers have suggested (like Al), it's certainly mediocre. The book is a spin-off from Mark Millar and Bryan Hitch's Fantastic Four, and a storyline in which the entire population of a dying future came back in time and took over a duplicate Earth originally built as a back-up in case of ecological disaster. The Fantastic Force are their local superheroes. So: fine, you've got a duplicate Earth with a transplanted population. There's something in that. You could do stories about people fighting to control this new world, stories about people trying to set the agenda for a world given a second chance... there are parables to be done here. Instead, the story glosses over all that by playing the new Earth as paradise. It tries to focus on the Fantastic Force themselves, which is a mistake, since they're not very inspired characters, and writer Joe Ahearne doesn't bring much to them. As for the art, it tries for a Bryan Hitch feel and can't really bring it off - though to be fair, colourist Chris Sotomayor does some very good work which elevates the art to a degree. Originally intended as an ongoing series, this has been scaled back to a five-issue mini, and subsequently to only four issues, which suggests that Marvel are well aware that they have a dog on their hands. Take the hint. (However, I'll give them credit for effort on the extra material that's been used to pad out the book - instead of regular script pages, there's an extract from an earlier draft with annotations explaining why things changes. If we're going to have these features, that's the sort of thing I'd like to see.)

Hellblazer #254 - The plague and the Olympic Games. Not obvious ideas to connect, but Peter Milligan is having a go. There's an interesting attempt to argue that the Olympics aren't such a good thing - each new city embarks on a program of reconstruction which ends up displacing tons of people for the sake of a few weeks' television and a bunch of new civic buildings. It's a nice starting point for a story, but Goran Sudzuka's art doesn't have quite enough bite for this book. That's particularly apparent when a lacklustre piece of graffiti is solemnly presented to us as a masterpiece by "the new Banksy." Unfortunately, there's an aching gap between what the characters seem to be talking about, and what we can see.

Jack of Fables #33 - Jack is reunited with the cast of Fables proper, and they're about as delighted to see him as you'd expect. Meanwhile, the story gets on with establishing Kevin Thorn as a threat. From what we've seen so far, there's a risk of this guy becoming a cavalier omnipotent in the mould of the Beyonder. I suppose the idea is that Thorn doesn't care about people around him because he sees them as all just part of his fictional creation, but that would suggest he created everything, not just the Fables - in which case, um, isn't he God? Anyway, it's well paced and witty, which makes it as thoroughly readable as ever.

Skrull Kill Krew #1 - See the podcast for more on this. But in a nutshell, it's a seemingly pointless revival of a nineties miniseries which, despite the stellar creative team, was more of a curio than a lost classic. It's not offensive, it's entirely competent, but ultimately it's just there, and doesn't have the sort of hook that would make you go out of your way to read it.

Viking #1 - Again, see the podcast. But Ivan Brandon and Nic Klein's outsize album - priced at a remarkably generous $2.99 - is definitely worth your time. Instead of the usual raiding parties, these Vikings are a couple of Norse thugs preying on their own people, which is an underexplored angle. The art is the star attraction, though, giving the book a powerful and distinctive feel.

Wolverine: First Class #14 - This is the concluding half of a two-parter guest starring Elektra and Daredevil. I'd normally give it a full review, particularly since it's the first story by Peter David - but it's a busy week, and there's nothing unexpected to say about it. It's a straight-down-the-line superhero team-up story, by a writer who knows how these things work. Nothing innovative, but then it's not that kind of book. Ronan Cliquet's art is nicely dramatic, but aside from Elektra, all his women look alike (to the point where the letterer and colourist were evidently relying on clothing to tell them apart - when faced with head shots, they can't keep track of who's talking).

Wolverine: The Anniversary - Yet another Wolverine one-shot. The "anniversary" of the title is apparently something to do with the death of his beloved Mariko Yashida back in the nineties. But the main story, by writer William Harms and artist Jefte Palo, is actually a straightforward fill-in piece with Wolverine on a plane to Tokyo when a bunch of hijackers try their luck. From there, it's pretty much what you'd expect - but it's done well, and the stripped down art is quite striking. There's also a short back-up strip by Jonathan Maberry and Tomm Coker, in which Wolverine fights off a bunch of ninjas and then wonders, for no readily discernible reason, whether they might be ghosts. No, Logan, they're probably just ninjas again. It's Wednesday. Coker's art is lovely, but the story is a confused mess which seems to think it's making some sort of terribly profound point. Overall, though, this is one of the better Wolverine one-shots, thanks to good artwork throughout and a well-executed, if familiar, lead story.

Wolverine: Origins #35 - This is billed as a "Dark Reign" tie-in, but it's a bit of a red skies issue. As near as I can make out, the connection is that regular supporting character Daken is in this issue, and he's also in Dark Avengers. To be fair, though, the storyline's not finished yet, and the link might be stronger when you take it as a whole. Readers who were annoyed to see Daken beat the X-Men singlehandedly last month will no doubt be even more irritated to see him do it again in the opening pages of this issue, but hell, they're only the guest stars. More ludicrous is the idea that, instead of stealing the entire sword when he had the chance, Daken simply cuts a bit out of the blade. Um... how? What was he carrying on his person that enabled him to nick this supposedly indestructible item? I honestly don't get it. Still, there's a neat idea in here somewhere: like any father, Wolverine is trying to live vicariously through Daken, by redeeming him. And he doesn't want to know that this might not be possible. I quite like the basic story Way is trying to tell with these two characters (at least when they stop banging on about Romulus); it's the details that can grate a bit.

X-Force #14 - Part 3 of "Messiah War", and it's a lot of running around and fighting in the far future. Clayton Crain's art is downright murky, but the script is kept bouncy enough. Even though we're off in another dystopian future, Craig Kyle and Christopher Yost have steered clear of hammering the angst. Instead, there's actually some genuine humour in here - I rather like the future Deadpool "helping" his old friend by wandering around shooting dead baddies to make sure they're not zombies. More fun than I'd have expected.

Here's the thing I don't understand about this story, though. The whole thing hinges on the idea that because Hope is the only mutant to be born since M-Day, she's the only hope for mutantkind. But... why? They don't know what her powers are, so they have no reason to think she'll be able to change things. She's just one more mutant. If she's a one-off, her birth changed nothing; if she's the first of many, then mutants are already saved. Unless she's actually going to do something, what's the point of rescuing her? Why is she supposed to be so important?

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House to Astonish, episode 13

It's our six month anniversary, and as well as running down the news and July solicitations, we look at Vikings, Fantastic Force and Skrull Kill Krew.

Download here, or visit the podcast web page, or subscribe via iTunes.

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Saturday, April 25, 2009

Backlash 2009

A mere three weeks after Wrestlemania, we're already on to the next show. This is more an act of stubbornness on the part of the WWE than any sort of common sense, but there you go.

Traditionally, Wrestlemania is the climax of the year's storylines. This year's show had a decidedly last-minute feel to it, but still had to try and feel like a resolution to 2008/9. Nonetheless, Backlash is not the start of the 2009/10 season. It's more like the end of a transitional period where the company catches its breath before kicking off a new direction in May. In the meantime, they've done the annual draft allocating wrestlers to different shows - but that doesn't come into effect until Monday. (In fact, everyone's been appearing on every show for a while now, but they assures us that come Monday, they'll be taking the roster split seriously again. More on that later.)

This sort of programming doesn't lend itself to building a pay-per-view card - and there's some pretty glaring filler on the show. But let's run down the show...

1. World Heavyweight Title, Last Man Standing: John Cena v. Edge. As you know by now, the WWE has three "world" titles, one for each show: the WWE Title, the World Heavyweight Title and the ECW Title. Nobody cares much about the ECW belt, and they've stopped even paying lip service to the idea that it's equal in status. The WWE Title is currently held by Triple H. And the World Title belongs to John Cena, who won it from Edge three weeks ago.

Triple H and Cena are both on Raw. So as things stand, Raw has two titles, and Smackdown has none. Obviously that won't last. This is Edge's rematch, and since he's on the Smackdown roster, it's virtually a lock that he has to win - if he doesn't, it's probably because the company decided it was too obvious. We've seen Edge and Cena many times before, and the writers are making a half-hearted attempt to turn that into a strength by positioning this as the culmination of an epic feud (which it isn't, it's a revival of a feud from a couple of years ago). The matches are generally good, though.

I'm not a huge fan of Last Man Standing matches, where you can only win by knockout. The problem is that the equivalent of a near fall is to have the referee counting very slowly to ten, so they tend to slow to a crawl by the end. But I think these two should be able to make it work.

2. WWE Title: Triple H, Batista & Shane McMahon v. The Legacy (Randy Orton, Cody Rhodes and Ted DiBiase). Yes, that's right - a singles title on the line in a six-man tag match. Promoters do this from time to time for the novelty value, but generally the silliness outweighs it. In fact, they had an obvious storyline coming out of Wrestlemania, where the stipulation was that the title could change hands by disqualification. Since Triple H blatantly cheated behind the referee's back, Orton has a pretty good case for saying that he deserves a straight rematch. Unfortunately, he's meant to be the heel, so we're supposed to ignore all that...

So, through a string of logical contortions and stipulations added by evil people from middle management, we end up with this rather confusing match instead.

The idea is meant to go something like this. The babyfaces are all past victims of Orton. Triple H pretty much got his revenge at Wrestlemania. Shane McMahon was attacked by Orton as part of the build-up to Wrestlemania. And Batista has just returned from a lengthy absence due to an injury which, for storyline purposes, was credited to Orton. The villains, meanwhile, are the Legacy stable - Orton and his two generic lackeys - whose unifying gimmick is that they're all second-generation wrestlers.

If Orton's team wins, then he gets the title. Orton also gets the title if the babyfaces are counted out or disqualified. None of this makes the slightest sense as a means of determining your world champion, of course. But it's the sort of story you end up with when writers start treating the title as a macguffin.

It all makes for a very strange main event. For one thing, the WWE are teasing the possibility of a main event ending in disqualification or count-out. But what kind of draw is that? "Tune in on Sunday and see Randy Orton win the title on a technicality." For another, it means we have some wrestlers not normally seen in the main event. Shane McMahon, the owner's son, is an occasional wrestler with some star power, and a 6-man tag can use him in a way that plays to his strengths. But he really ought to be the weak link on the babyface team, and that's not how they're playing him. As for Rhodes and DiBiase, they're generic henchthug characters whose main job is to get beaten up by babyfaces who are trying to get to Orton. As a result, they have little credibility in their own right. They're actually quite promising performers, but we've been given little reason to care about them.

Which gives rise to a further oddity: whatever the company may think, the average viewer will see this as a match where two main event babyfaces and an upper midcarder team up to face one main event heel and two bozos. So the heels are the underdogs. That's not how it's supposed to work.

Screwball matches like this are often a device to switch the title without the champion being pinned clean. Another possibility here is that one of Triple H's teammates turns on him - the obvious candidate being Shane, who would fit Legacy's second-generation gimmick. It's certainly time to end the current storyline, which has been getting an increasingly lukewarm reaction from the crowds. A title switch to Orton, and Triple H feuding with the teammate who betrayed him, achieves that goal. Also, Raw has a plethora of main event babyfaces, and a shortage of heels - so a heel champion makes more sense.

I can't believe they'll do anything as stupid as a DQ or a count-out for the finish of a PPV main event, and I'd be very surprised if Rhodes or DiBiase picks up the pin. There are some stories you can do with Orton's sidekicks winning the title for him, but it doesn't seem like the right time for those plots. So I'm betting that Orton pins Triple H to win the title, thanks to a ton of interference and Shane switching sides. Seems to make the most sense.

The match will have to be storyline driven; it'll probably be above average, but there's a risk that the live crowd simply won't care about the story.

3. ECW Title: Jack Swagger v. Christian. Didn't they already do this match on free television in Christian's second week back? Oh well. ECW's heel champion defends his title against the brand's top babyface. There's no real story, besides Christian challenging for the belt. Nothing wrong with that - it's only the C-show, after all, and in wrestling the simplest stories are usually the best.

Swagger and Christian have been wrestling one another on live shows for a while now, and by all accounts the match has been very good. If they're given a little time - and they may well be, given the need to fill time - then this should be decent. It seems too early for a title change. Also, there's a running subplot about veteran Tommy Dreamer trying to win the ECW title one last time before his retirement later this year. They need Swagger as heel champion for that story. So Swagger's probably retaining on a screwjob in order to set up rematches down the line, and keep Christian strong.

4. "I Quit" match: Matt Hardy v. Jeff Hardy. This is the second time the Hardy brothers have feuded with one another, and it's the second time that it hasn't worked. The WWE has cut its losses and moved Matt to Raw, so this match is the blow-0ff. That suggests Jeff is winning. Not only is he the good guy, but he's one of the biggest names on Smackdown after the draft. On the babyface side, in fact, only Rey Mysterio and the Undertaker are bigger - but neither of them works a full schedule, so they really do need Jeff kept strong. Matt, on the other hand, will be a midcard heel on Raw.

All logic, then, says Jeff wins. There's a slight catch, though. Back in the real world, Jeff Hardy has been making noises about not renewing his contract when it comes up later in the year. That might lead the WWE to back off on him and give the win to Matt. I don't see it, though; if it's still up in the air on Sunday, then it makes no sense to drive him away.

Matt and Jeff work fairly well together; the problem is that nobody really buys them feuding with one another. It's probably for the best that they're moving on to other stories. Technically, it should be a decent match. An "I Quit" match is normally just a chaotic brawl, but they can't go too far in that direction, because Edge and John Cena will be doing the same thing later in the night. That might give them some problems, but I'm sure they'll figure something out.

5. Chris Jericho v. Ricky Steamboat. At Wrestlemania, Jericho took on three aging wrestlers in a handicap match: Jimmy Snuka, Roddy Piper and Ricky Steamboat. He beat them all. He's supposed to be the villain. It was all a bit upside down. And it didn't help that Snuka and Piper are both virtually immobile; depending on your mindset, their parts of the match were either excruciating or just plain sad.

Steamboat was another story. He's in his mid-fifties now, and his prime was almost twenty years ago. He hadn't wrestled in years. But he's still in pretty good shape. The psychology was still there. He actually looked like he still belonged in the ring. This came as something of a surprise. Before the match, he was probably the least known of the three legends; by the end, the crowd loved him.

So now, thrown onto the card at the last moment, they're going to do a proper match between Jericho and Steamboat. On the assumption that he's going back to retirement afterwards (which is probably for the best at his age), he should get his moment in the sun and win. It does Jericho no harm, and it's the ending everyone wants to see.

6. CM Punk v. Kane. I don't understand this at all. CM Punk won the Money in the Bank ladder match at Wrestlemania, which gives him a title shot whenever he wants it. He's also been drafted to Smackdown, which is light on main eventers, and where he'll be used prominently. So on paper, it makes sense to build him up with a win over a midcard heel like Kane.

But we already saw this match on Monday night's episode of Raw - and it wasn't much good then. It also ended with Punk getting a clean win (albeit in a botched sequence which they had to re-shoot). So they've achieved their goal. We don't need to see it again.

This is probably just here to pad out the card. But there are better candidates. For example, next week's Smackdown has MVP v Dolph Ziggler for the US Title - a match which violates the draft, because MVP's supposed to be on Raw now. At least if they did it tonight, they'd be getting it out of the way before the draft came into effect. Instead, we're getting a repeat of a match we saw for free six days ago. Why?

Plus... a comedy sequence with Santino Marella in drag kissing the Great Khali, which sounds utterly hellish. Putting that sort of thing on pay-per-view is a pretty glaring sign that they're desperately trying to fill the time.

Worth buying? Well, it's on Sky Sports 1 over here, so that's not really my concern. Overall, most of the matches will probably be decent, but the build-up has been terribly lacklustre, and I wouldn't be wildly enthusiastic about paying money for a comedy skit.


Sunday, April 19, 2009

The X-Axis - 19 April 2009

See below for Rampaging Wolverine #1, and I'll come back to Wolverine: Noir #1 later. But also this week...

Fables #83 - Part one of "The Great Fables Crossover", running between Fables, its spin-off Jack of Fables, and a miniseries, Literals, created solely for the purpose of this crossover. The Literals, who seem to be the personification of storytelling devices, strike me as the most interesting idea in this storyline. But they're not in this first chapter much, presumably because they're characters from Jack of Fables. Instead, most of this issue is devoted to pushing forward the Mr Dark storyline, about the Sandman-esque villain who blew up Fabletown a couple of issues ago, and presumably serves as the threat for everyone to unite against in chapter eight. I'm a little concerned about that, because so far he still seems a bit too generic for the major role he's getting. But that seems too obvious a trap for Bill Willingham to fall into, so I'll give him the benefit of the doubt for now. The issue also has a preview of Mike Carey and Peter Gross's upcoming series The Unwritten, which looks very promising.

Secret Invasion Aftermath: Beta Ray Bill - The Green of Eden - Yes, that's the full title. And yes, this is a belated Secret Invasion tie-in. The connection to the story is fairly remote, but writer Kieron Gillen picks up on one of the more interesting themes from Secret Invasion that went relatively unexplored. The Skrulls from that series were religious zealots, after all. And Beta Ray Bill is not just a Thor character, but an outright ersatz pseudo-Thor, an alien horse dressed as somebody else's idea of god. It's a neat angle, cleverly using Secret Invasion as a springboard for a story that's really about the character himself. Worth a look if you have any interest in Bill (and he does have his fans).

Uncanny X-Men #508 - Oh dear, Greg Land's back - although it must be somebody's idea of a rib to take Marvel's most enthusiastic light-boxer and force him to draw Spiral, a character with six arms. The big problem with Land, though, is that he can't act - there's no subtlety whatsoever in his expression or body language. He can pull off an expression that the script clearly asked for in terms, but left to his own devices it's crazy poses and manic grins all the way. I tell you, I can summon up some goodwill for Matt Fraction writing this book, but not when I have to read it through the prism of Greg Land. His scripts are always a bit self-aware and intellectually tongue-in-cheek; he needs an artist who humanises them, not one who laminates them.

X-Factor #42 - In which Madrox finds new reason to live by visiting a dystopian future, while Longshot makes friends with one of the firm's customers. Very much the middle chapter of a storyline, and you could criticise it for spelling out the character points a little more blatantly than was really required - but they're interesting character points nonetheless, and the book also pulls off a pretty good fight scene with the Sentinels, who usually suffer from overfamiliarity. Decent issue.

X-Men: Legacy #223 - When Joss Whedon introduced Danger as a character, the idea was that Professor X knew it was sentient, but kept it chained up in the basement anyway because it was useful that way. Mike Carey apparently has some trouble squaring that with his interpretation of Xavier's character (as do I), as a fair chunk of this story seems to be quietly retconning all that way. It was a total fluke that Danger became sentient; Xavier was trying ever so hard to find a way of letting it express itself, but wasn't quite sure how it all worked... you know the score. Blatant retconning, but I have no problem with it. The other half of this storyline, with Rogue confronting her past, doesn't feel like it's heading anywhere in particular, and seems a bit half-formed right now.

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Rampaging Wolverine #1

"Sense Memory"
Writer: Joshua Hale Fialkov
Artist: Paco Diaz Luque
Letterer: Dave Sharpe

"Unconfirmed Kill"
Writer: Chris Yost
Artist: Mateus Santolouco
Letterer: Troy Peteri

"Kiss, Kiss"
Writer: Robin Furth
Artist: Nelson

"Modern Primitive"
Writer, artist: Ted McKeever
Letterer: Troy Peteri
Editor: John Barber

Every Marvel movie spawns a plethora of miniseries and one-shots featuring the characters in question. So just imagine what we get when there's a Wolverine movie on the way. We're practically drowning in Wolverine stories at the best of times - but if there's a movie coming, there must be more! There simply must be more!

And so it is that I find myself reviewing Rampaging Wolverine, a 48-page anthology one-shot that seems wholly unclear about what it's supposed to be doing (other than getting another Wolverine comic out the door).

The title is presumably a reference to the short-lived late-seventies black-and-white comic Rampaging Hulk, and the cover design has a decidedly seventies feel to it. So is it a nostalgia book? Well, not noticeably, no. It certainly has nothing to do with the sort of Wolverine stories that were appearing in the seventies, when the character was still a work in progress.

Is it an art showcase? To a point. There's a Ted McKeever story at the end, which is as spiky as you'd expect. And Mateus Santolouco's work on "Unconfirmed Kill" makes good use of dot shading, which is something you won't see too often in other comics. But on the lead story, "Sense Memory", although Paco Diaz Luque's art is perfectly solid, it doesn't seem to gain much from monochrome.

Is it, then, a vehicle for some unusual type of Wolverine story? Well, there's certainly a recurring motif. There are four stories here, but two of them (a comic and a text piece) are linked. So that's three in practice. And for some reason, they all involve Wolverine getting stranded on an island. Whether this was intended as a thoughtful exploration of the "Wolverine gets stranded on an island" genre, or whether the writers simply all pitched the same sort of idea, it's hard to say. But whatever the intention, no obvious common themes come through; it just seems repetitive.

This is unfortunate, as the repetition undermines some stories which are basically okay. "Unconfirmed Kill" is basically a Hydra sniper trying to figure out why he can't seem to kill this guy; it's simple, it's pretty effective, and the level of violence is pitched about right. That leads into a rather silly text piece about Wolverine and a psychotropic spider, of which the less said the better. The McKeever story, with Wolverine taming the local monkeys, is a quirky throwaway piece, but raises a smile.

I have my doubts, though, about Joshua Fialkov's lead story "Sense Memory." It's one of those "now that Wolverine remembers his past, he goes to sort it all out" stories, which is fair enough. And though it treads overfamiliar territory, it's competently done. But the pay-off seems to miss the point of Wolverine entirely. Without giving away the ending, Fialkov seems to have mistaken Wolverine for a cross between the Punisher and Mr A, an interpretation so hopelessly off-kilter that he and his editor should both have sent that final scene back for a re-write.

The big problem for a book like this, of course, is that if you're buying it at all, then either you're close friend of one of the creators, or you're a Wolverine completist. With the volume of Wolverine material out there, it's hard to imagine anyone but the completists making it this far down the list. And by definition, the people who do get as far as buying this thing will have read an awful lot of Wolverine stories before they get there.

Does Rampaging Wolverine have anything new to offer them? Well, it's got a Ted McKeever story, and that's something different. The Chris Yost story isn't bad either, but it's from the established sub-genre of stories based largely on Wolverine showing off his healing factor. Other than that, we're in standard fill-in territory; the book is okay, but with so many other Wolverine books out there, you've got to be better than that to earn a recommendation.

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Monday, April 13, 2009

Wolverine: Weapon X #1

"The Adamantium Men", part 1
Writer: Jason Aaron
Artist: Ron Garney
Colourist: Jason Keith
Letterer: Cory Petit
Editor: John Barber

The X-books' other (quasi) first issue of the week is Wolverine: Weapon X #1, a new ongoing series from Jason Aaron and Ron Garney.

Now, obviously, the last thing the world needs is another ongoing Wolverine title, to join Wolverine, Wolverine: Origins and Wolverine: First Class (not to mention Astonishing X-Men, Uncanny X-Men, X-Force and New Avengers). He's a terribly overexposed character. But with Aaron and Garney, this looks like being one of the stronger books. And besides, with the existing Wolverine series being turned into a Daken book in a few months time, this looks suspiciously like a soft relaunch.

Arguably, the three existing titles leave something of a gap in the market. Wolverine has effectively become a string of unrelated miniseries. Wolverine: Origins is entirely devoted to a single multi-year storyline expounding on a painfully elaborate conspiracy theory. And that means there's a space for Aaron to write an ongoing series about, well, something other than that conspiracy theory. It's easily done: you just stop banging on about the past, and move forward.

Which is - sort of - what we get here. In his first arc, "The Adamantium Men", Aaron harks back to Wolverine's origin story, but does so without getting caught up in the fiddly details. Instead, as villains, he's dusted off the Roxxon Corporation, who were Marvel's standard evil capitalists for a long while before drifting off the radar.

They're obvious candidates for a revival, if you think about it. They're topical, and they make a sharp contrast with Wolverine himself. While they used to be blatant Exxon stand-ins, Aaron gives them a new subsidiary, Blackguard, a thinly disguised version of Blackwater. They're the entirely-above-board corporate mercenary force who look after Roxxon's entirely-above-board interests; and they're in the market for super-soldiers of their own. It's such a simple idea that it's amazing nobody's done it before.

So the set-up is simple: Roxxon are messing about with the old Weapon X technology, and Wolverine's going to stop them. A good starting point. The first issue is spent setting up that point - and also introducing everyone's favourite generic supporting character, the Sassy Journalist. I'm a little less sold on this subplot, which seems at first glance like familiar territory. But we shall see.

On the whole, the book lives up to my expectations. We've got a strong central concept, which uses Wolverine's history as a springboard, but doesn't get tied up in it. And Garney is on top form, with dynamic, if remarkably bloody, action sequences.

If there's a problem here, it's that the story seems to have been paced for the first chapter of a trade paperback, rather than for serialisation. That's not to say it's slow - it's got the action quota filled nicely. But there's no cliffhanger. Instead, the last few pages simply re-affirm the premise, and then the book stops. It's an odd piece of pacing that doesn't really work in monthly format. It'll be fine in the collection, but not so much here.

That's a minor point, though. I had high hopes for this book, and I'm pretty much satisfied with what it provided.

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Sunday, April 12, 2009

Number 1s of 2009: April 12

Even though it took her ten weeks to get there, Lady Gaga managed three weeks at the top with "Poker Face." And now... more synth pop.

That's Calvin Harris, "I'm Not Alone", the first single from his second album. He's a Scottish producer who had a string of eighties-influenced hits from his first album in 2007, and notched up his first number 1 last summer on "Dance Wiv Me", a collaboration with Dizzee Rascal. His other major singles are "Acceptable In The 80s", a none-more-eighties tribute to the decade of his birth, and "The Girls", a celebration of his own success with women which managed to come across as self-deprecatingly tongue-in-cheek rather than unbearably smug. Perhaps because of the video.

The video for "I'm Not Alone" is something else. The song itself has a fairly open-ended lyric about alienation. The video interprets that with Harris as a mad scientist impassively experimenting on his captive dancers. It took me a few viewings to figure this out, but the idea is that he's cutting bits out of them to assemble a Frankenstein replacement for his lost teddy bear. It's not remotely graphic, but still quite unsettling in its way, and I can imagine some of the music channels reaching for the Ofcom handbook when it came in. ("Is he tightening a vice...?") Considering it's a dance record, the video's hollow joylessness is a very bold choice, and I think it works.

The eighties revival is clearly in full swing now. As if this and "Poker Face" weren't enough, the current top five also features "In for the Kill" by La Roux, a record so eighties it ought to come with a Rubik's Cube and a poster of Arthur Scargill.

At any time in the last fifteen years, this would have seemed self-consciously dated. Now, it's suddenly acquired an air of modernity. We've hit the tipping point.


The X-Axis - 12 April 2009

See below for Exiles #1, and check out the podcast for discussion of that book, Flash: Rebirth #1 and Warlord #1. I'll do Wolverine: Weapon X #1 tomorrow. And that leaves... not much, actually.

All-New Savage She-Hulk #1 - Fred Van Lente and Peter Vale with a miniseries about... well, not the usual She-Hulk, although she does show up at the end. It's actually a book about Lyra, the daughter of the Hulk and Thundra from a one-shot you've probably never heard of. Thundra, if you don't know, is one of those thumpingly crass 1970s takes on feminism, where women and men live apart in a dystopian future, and woman are mighty warrior types. It's absolutely stupid, and the basic joke here is to play it straight, in a world where the surviving men are living in a forest and dressing as Wolverine to express their proud manly traditions. Whether the joke can sustain a whole miniseries, I have my doubts - Thundra is one of those characters who works in very small doses, every five years or so - but as a piece of absurd camp, it does raise a laugh.

Irredeemable #1 - I was going to review this last week, but didn't get around to it. It's by Mark Waid and Peter Krause, and the basic premise is "What if Superman was driven mad by everyone sniping at him?" Our Superman stand-in is the Plutonian, and unlike the real one, he doesn't take criticism very well. It's a fair enough twist on the original idea, although at this stage we've really just got a Superman who's turned psychotic, and it remains to be seen whether Waid can pull off the idea of him being driven nuts by an unappreciative world. So I don't quite share the breathless enthusiasm of Grant Morrison's afterword, which rather seems to suggest that this is supposed to be some sort of parable about the importance of being nicer to Mark Waid on the Internet. Let's hope there's more to it than that. A perfectly decent first issue, but too early to tell whether it works on any deeper level than "Superman went nuts and tried to kill everyone."

Ultimate Wolverine vs Hulk #4 - The origin of Ultimate She-Hulk, and I have to admit that it's a nice piece of misdirection. Lindelof spends the better part of an issue on scientist Jennifer Walters trying to solve the problems with the Hulk serum, only for Betty to actually take it. And since he was using Betty prominently, it's not really cheating - just exploiting the audience's preconceptions to swerve them. Of course, this sort of game-playing is all well and good. But is there anything more to the book? Not really - but it does have a gleeful absurdity about it which is somewhat likeable, such as the Hulked-up lab rats. Don't much care for Leinil Yu's take on She-Hulk, but for the most part the book is amiably harmless nonsense.

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Exiles #1

"Deja Vu"
Writer: Jeff Parker
Artist: Salva Espin
Colourist: Anthony Washington
Letterer: Simon Bowland
Editor: Mark Paniccia

Another relaunch of Exiles? It seems like only last year that we had the last one. And, in fact, it was. But Chris Claremont's New Exiles didn't set the world alight, so here we are again.

Despite the multiple relaunches, Exiles has been running more or less continuously since 2001. In reality, this is issue #119. That's a very long run for a book launched in the current century. It may not be a top seller, but it's sold consistently in the past, and you can see why Marvel don't want to give up on it just yet.

The premise is simple: it's What If? meets Quantum Leap. A bunch of superheroes from parallel worlds are yanked out of time and forced to go bouncing from world to world, sorting out the local problems. It's basically a string of variants on established Marvel Universe concepts. The book doesn't generally bother explaining this stuff; it's taken as read that the readers are broadly familiar with the originals, and will get the references. In another title, that might lead me to complain about accessibility for new readers. But Exiles exists to riff on pre-established concepts; it's the nature of the beast.

The problem with the original series, in fact, was that the formula ended up being rather limiting. There's only so much you can do with "arrive on world X, solve problem, move on." Eventually the book gave them control of their travels and an extra-dimensional headquarters; and from there, it ended up drifting into a more conventional team book that didn't seem to click as well. But the original format has been given a rest, so apparently we're going back to it.

Jeff Parker's debut issue is a standard "gathering the team" story. We get short scenes of the team members (or rather, most of the team members) in their home worlds, we get a pep talk by Morph (as the new Timebroker), and we get the start of their first mission. So far, so standard. And in fact, that seems to be the point. Although billed as a first issue, the story clearly assumes that we all know the Exiles, and we all know something's not right here. It loosely copies the original Exiles #1, but this time round, we know that Morph's lying about nature of the Timebroker; we know that there's something suspicious about Blink (presumably the character from the previous series feigning ignorance); and we know that there must be a better explanation for what's going on.

But very little of that is there on the page. There are some oblique hints about Blink, but otherwise, the book relies on a knowledge of earlier stories to provide that subtext.

Is that fair? Maybe it is. After all, Exiles had a solid audience until relatively recently, when sales went into decline. If the aim here is simply to recapture disaffected Exiles readers, then they'll know the context and they'll get the point. And if you don't know the history, then you're still left with a story that can be taken at face value, like the original Exiles #1.

Parker and Espin take us back to an X-Men-related roster: Blink, Wanda, Polaris, Forge and the Beast, with only the Black Panther rounding out the numbers (and even there, the story strongly hints that it's another character wearing the costume). Much of the first issue is given over to setting up their back stories, which might be overkill unless we're going to see more of their homeworlds in future. But by returning to the old format with mostly new characters, Parker sidesteps the risk of the relaunch seeming entirely backward-looking.

Nonetheless, on the surface, we're back in standard Exiles territory: arrive on world, get mission, save world. This wore thin after a while the first time around, so hopefully Parker has something up his sleeve to stop it getting stale. Since he's hinting pretty strongly that All Is Not As It Seems, I'm prepared to assume he does.

It's a book for readers with a reasonably broad knowledge of the Marvel Universe - not necessarily obsessive fans, but at least those who know the general layout of things. But it has some clever plays on the usual routines, with twists on familiar characters rather than just randomly changes to prove that it's an alternate universe. Good fun; not really a first issue, but an enjoyable start to Parker and Espin's run on the title.

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This year, at the Edinburgh Festival...

Lee Mingwei offers a new commission: "Elevation." From the programme:

Sitting high up and looking down on others can offer different perspectives, the sensation of being above a place, a situation or an idea gives an "overview" which can create a larger mental space within which to consider what one sees.

For the Festival, Lee Mingwei creates an installation, filling one side of the gallery and elevating viewers much like Edinburgh's physical situation, perched above and observing the surrounding terrain or indeed the gargoyles on Edinburgh's buildings. Gallery visitors at floor level will likewise see people above them without knowing what they are thinking or how they see those below.

So... he's going to build some stairs, then?

Friday, April 10, 2009

House to Astonish, episode 12

Episode 12 of House to Astonish is now up. This week, along with the usual news round-up, we talk about Warlord, Flash: Rebirth and Exiles.

Download here, or visit the podcast web page, or subscribe via iTunes.

And rather than wait for somebody else to point it out: we overstated the lack of manga in the Eisners. There's a translated manga category, and manga also picked up three other nominations - two in fairly obscure categories, but the other was Monster for best continuing series, which we should certainly have mentioned. This is what I get for not taking clearer notes.

It's three nominations out of 125, so the general point still stands, but anyhow, my mistake.

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Monday, April 06, 2009

X-Infernus #1-4

Writer: C B Cebulski
Penciller: Giuseppe Camuncoli
Inker: Jesse Delperdang
Colourist Marte Gracia
Letterer: Dave Lanphear
Editor: Nick Lowe

Because you apparently demanded it, it's the return of Magik. Actually, come to think of it, she returned in a New X-Men storyline a couple of years ago. But this miniseries drags her out of Limbo - both literally and metaphorically - and gets her back into the main cast, presumably in readiness for the upcoming New Mutants series.

Now, I always liked Magik. She was one of my favourite characters in the original New Mutants series. And that's precisely why I've always been very sceptical about the idea of bringing her back. Illyana's story was always set up as a tragedy: she's corrupted as a kid, she struggles against the corruption as a teenager, but it's too late and ultimately it consumes her. The upbeat ending, in the late-eighties "Inferno" crossover, was that she hit the cosmic reset button and got sent back to childhood to try again.

Story over. Great character as she was, what do you do with a revived Magik, other than repeat the same plot? She's a character built for a single story, which has already been told. And that's why I can't help but be sceptical about bringing her back. Particularly when they're already doing much the same story with Pixie, who had part of her soul stolen in the same New X-Men story, in an explicit echo of the original Magik story. At least with Pixie you can do "Is she doomed to go the same way?" - but surely that would be a stronger story if Magik was still dead.

Anyway, the decision has been taken that we're bringing Magik back, and that's the story that CB Cebulski and Giuseppe Camuncoli have to tell. And to their credit, they do it pretty well. Yes, like the recent X-Men: Kingbreaker miniseries, this is a series which exists primarily to get characters from point A to point B. But this time, it involves a character arc, with Illyana regaining some of her humanity and being drawn back into the fold. There's a story to be told here, even if it can't fully resolve the conflicts, and that gives the creators something to work with.

Now, true, there's some fuzzy plotting around. How come nobody realised that Pixie could teleport to Limbo before? What's all this heartwarming stuff in the epilogue suggesting that Illyana has a soul after all? But I like the idea of Illyana being reluctant to go home until she's herself again; and I like the way Pixie is written as happy and bubbly just as long as she doesn't have to discuss the topic of part of her soul being missing. There's a smart choice of villain: rather than wheel out Magik's arch-enemy Belasco yet again, Cebulski digs up Belasco's daughter Witchfire, an Alpha Flight character who's never appeared in the X-books before, but has every logical reason to stake her own claim to Limbo. And it has the right attitude to continuity: if you don't recognise Witchfire as an existing character, it really doesn't matter, because the story introduces her as if she was brand new.

Camuncoli's artwork is bold and energetic. It's refreshing to see a book like this steer clear of self-conscious grim-and-gritty angst, and play up the grand gestures instead. Not that the book doesn't take itself seriously, mind you. But it's content to play it straight and embrace the sweeping operatic melodrama, and that's the right way to go with this.

Does it persuade me that we need a Magik revival? Um... no. But nor does it drop the ball; we'll have to wait and see whether anyone has a new story to tell with Illyana. I like the book's style, and I'd be happy to see more stuff in this vein.

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Sunday, April 05, 2009

The X-Axis - 5 April 2009

Didn't get to X-Infernus last week, so I'll cover that in the next couple of days. Probably. I'll hold over Mark Waid and Peter Krause's Irredeemable #1 as well. And we'll talk about Flash: Rebirth on House to Astonish next week. But that still leaves plenty to talk about.

Oh, by the way, I've finally succumbed and started a Twitter account. I doubt it's of much interest to anyone who doesn't actually know me, but if you like reading periodic inanities that aren't long enough - and come to think of it, as a comics reader, you probably do - here's the link.


Astonishing Tales #3 - This is the anthology title that reprints stories from Marvel's digital service, in case you've forgotten. It gets a mention here because it's got two X-stories. The Punisher/Wolverine story is your typical Marvel Comics Presents filler, but the art by Kenneth Rocafort is quite good - if you can look past the stratospherically irritating levels of T&A. There's also a continuing Mojo story by Jonathan Hickman and Nick Pitarra, which is better than you'd expect. Mojo wasn't really created to be a media parody (that became the focus once Chris Claremont started writing him), and his schtick has become a little stale over the years, but it feels surprisingly fresh here. There's also a Iron Man 2020 story which is merely serviceable, and a throwaway but good-looking Spider-Woman eight-pager. Not a story-lovers' paradise, this issue, but the art's strong enough to make it worth a look.

Buffy the Vampire Slayer #24 - My god, the letters page is still running mail about the lesbian scene in issue #12. A year ago! Meanwhile, this is a fill-in issue by Jim Krueger and Cliff Richards, with Giles and Faith visiting a refuge for ex-Slayers in another of those backwater Eastern European villages. Solid and well put together, but not especially inspired, and the art is a little variable, with some panels looking rather more directly photo-referenced than others. Okay, though.

Cable #13 - Oh, was that meant to be Apocalypse's ship at the end of the previous chapter? I completely missed that, due it not looking anything like Apocalypse's ship, and nobody saying "Look, it's Apocalypse's ship." Well, never mind. This is part two of the "Messiah War" crossover with X-Force, and so far it's better than I'd expected. Both titles have a tendency to take themselves far too seriously, so bringing in Deadpool to puncture the pretentiousness is a smart move. And here's something I never thought I'd say: I like the use of Stryfe. He's always been far too muddled to work effectively as an arch-villain. Here, though, he merely thinks he's the archvillain, when in fact he's a bozo being led up the garden path by Bishop. That's a smart way of turning his flaws into strengths.

Dead Romeo #1 - A six-issue mini by Jesse Blaze Snider and Ryan Benjamin, about a 1980s rock singer back from the dead as a vampire... or something. To be honest, it's not entirely clearly explained what the hell is going on (I had to check an interview to confirm that he was actually supposed to be a musician), but the gist is that he's been brought back with a bunch of nastier undead types, and he needs to kill an innocent if he's going to stay around. Otherwise, he's going back to hell. There's an awful lot going on, and it doesn't really work for me; he's obviously not going to kill the innocent girl, and beneath a barrage of endearingly crazy ideas, the characters seem a bit thin. It tries hard, though, and the horror fans will probably go for it.

Marvel Assistant-Sized Spectacular #1 - Another anthology book, with a bunch of stories about minor characters (some recycled from the website) linked by a framing sequence about Marvel's assistant editors. The tone is all over the place; the links are played for comedy, and so is a Mini Marvels piece with Hawkeye, but then there are American Eagle and D-Man stories played entirely straight. And the assistant editor sequences are a little too heavy on the in-jokes, but what did you expect? It's more hit than miss, to be fair, and there's something quite enjoyable about the evidently sincere enthusiasm for this pointedly uncommercial project. Yes, it's four dollars for an anthology of stories about obscure nonentities, but it entertained me.

Seaguy: Slaves of Mickey Eye #1 - The long-awaited second series for Grant Morrison and Cameron Stewart's Seaguy. The first volume came out five years ago, so it's unfortunate that this book clearly assumes you've only just read it. And there's no drastic changes here: if remember the first three issues, well, this is more of the same. Now, Seaguy was one of Grant Morrison's more divisive projects. Some people think it's a fabulous entry in absurd, demented world-building with a weird internal cartoon logic that holds it all together; some people think it's just gibberish. But ignore those people. They're wrong. It's a book with real vision to it, and while you need to read the first series to get it, I'm glad the project is finally going to be completed.

X-Men: First Class - Finals #3 - More fighting of random villains... and then, out of nowhere, the book throws an unexpected curveball, completely wrongfooting the reader in a great example of how to be confusing for the right reasons. To be honest, the central plot remains rather underwhelming - a bunch of old villains are wheeled out, presumably to give some closure to all the earlier First Class stories. But that gear change halfway through is a very memorable scene, enough to raise the story up.

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Saturday, April 04, 2009

Wrestlemania 25

It's the biggest show of the year - at least notionally. Dating back to the mid-eighties, Wrestlemania was the first of the WWE's major annual shows, and it's still regarded as the biggest of the year. Clocking in at four hours rather than the usual three, this is supposed to be where the top storylines pay off after months of build.

But the general consensus is that the build-up to Wrestlemania 25 has been pretty lousy. We have main events thrown together in the closing weeks; we have a decided lack of anything very special; we have an incoherent and erratic build-up which seemed to change direction from week to week. Basically, they've made a total hash of things - so, if nothing else, we're going to find out what the Wrestlemania brand name is worth on its own. To be fair, most of the actual matches should be entirely decent; but there's little on this card that seems particularly special.

Two general points to keep in mind with this show: first, are they going to do anything with ECW champion Jack Swagger, who inexplicably isn't booked on the show at all? True, they have no obvious challengers for him right now - but that's because they forgot to write him any stories. Something tells me he's bound to show up somewhere. Second, who's doing the commentary? Tazz, the Smackdown colour commentator, has decided not to renew his contract, and made his last appearance on Friday night's show. That gives them the choice of having Jim Ross and Jerry Lawler do all the matches, or, I suppose, bringing in Matt Striker from the ECW show to take Tazz's place. (Frankly, it'd be a trade up; Tazz has been phoning it in for a while.)

Anyway, the matches.

1. WWE Title: Triple H v. Randy Orton. Randy Orton won the Royal Rumble in January, guaranteeing him a title match at Wrestlemania. Then he took forever and a day to decide which title he was challenging for. Eventually, we've ended up with a curious stop-start storyline in which Orton lays out various members of the McMahon family, leading Triple H to come to the rescue. Triple H is Stephanie McMahon's husband, something which has been occasionally alluded to, but never openly acknowledged because it's not part of the storyline. There's been no real effort to explain this; suddenly, we're just all supposed to know that they were married all along.

The company seems entirely unclear what story they're trying to tell here. Is it about Orton beating up the non-wrestlers until he has to face Triple H? If so, it's mystifying that the McMahons all showed up alive and well in the final build-up to the show. Or is it a story about Orton getting revenge for the time Triple H kicked him out of the Evolution group after he won the world title for the first time a few years ago? There are problems with that story: Orton is the heel and Triple H is the babyface, but at the time of the Evolution story, it was the other way round, so Orton's quest for revenge would be entirely justified. (Oh, and they can't show the archive footage of Orton winning his first title, because the opponent was Chris Benoit, and We Don't Talk About Him.) For a week or so there was a stipulation that they couldn't make contact until Wrestlemania, but that was forgotten about. It's an utter mess, basically.

Orton should win - despite the inept writing, he still has momentum, and they should capitalise on that rather than dragging out another lacklustre Triple H title run. There are plenty of story directions if he wins - Orton has his own lackeys, Cody Rhodes and Ted DiBiase, so you can do a six-man feud with Orton and co versus Triple H and Vince and Shane McMahon. If he loses, I can't see where you go next. The only really good argument for Triple H winning is that the babyface traditionally wins in the final match on the card, but I think the bigger picture outweights that. Whatever happens, it'll probably be a good match.

By the way, technically this is Smackdown's version of the world title, even though Orton is on the Raw roster. But it's all pretty meaningless at the moment, because there's a roster reshuffle scheduled to take place in two weeks time. If all the titles end up on one show, they can sort it out in the draft.

2. World Heavyweight Title: Edge v. John Cena v. The Big Show. This is the Raw world title, currently held by Edge (from Smackdown) and now tied up in a Smackdown feud. Basically, at the February show, Edge lost the Smackdown title, inveigled his way into Raw's title match, and won the Raw title. Confusing? Yes, it is.

Cena is here because he's owed a rematch (convoluted soap opera roadblocks notwithstanding). But they've done Edge versus Cena many times before, hence the three-way with the Big Show. This builds on a long-running Smackdown subplot where Edge and Big Show, two of the main heels, vie for the affections of Smackdown's general manger (and Edge's wife) Vickie Guerrero. Cena couldn't care less about that; he just wants the belt.

This is a midcard comedy storyline, and has no business in a title match for a major show. And they know it - it was more or less acknowledged last week when Cena was scripted to deliver a speech denouncing the heels for making a joke of the title. But they're committed now, so there you go. Cena should probably win, so that they can end the show with one of the good guys winning the title - except that this match really doesn't deserve to go on last. Then again, a Cena win ends the storyline, and who doesn't want to see that? Chances are it'll be okay; Edge is very good, Cena usually comes through for the big matches, and the Big Show is as good as giant wrestlers get.

3. Intercontinental Title: JBL v. Rey Mysterio. A completely random pairing of two wrestlers with no particular issue. The Intercontinental Title is the secondary title on Raw, and John Bradshaw Layfield won it from CM Punk a few weeks ago. He will defend it against Rey Mysterio... just because. Inexplicably, they had a non-title match on Raw this week, which was fine.

The only angle here is that JBL has promised some sort of big historic moment. The prevailing wisdom is that he'll win and retire as champion; his back has been troubling him badly, and he has a lot of other things to occupy his time. It would also free him up to return to the Smackdown announce desk - and if we're really lucky, they might just allow the IC Title to lapse altogether. There are too many championships floating around the WWE at the moment, and they need to start thinning the herd if audiences are going to care. There's some reason to think the WWE might be planning to do just that. For example...

4. WWE/World Tag Team Title Unification Match, lumberjack match: John Morrison & The Miz v. Carlito & Primo Colon. Raw and Smackdown presently have separate tag team titles (though for maximum confusion, the Raw titles are currently held by John Morrison & The Miz, who are on the ECW roster). This match should unify the belts, although it's always conceivable the match will end with a DQ, in which case both teams retain their titles.

Morrison and Miz are clearly the top heel tag team in the company at the moment; Morrison in particular is very good. Primo and Carlito aren't quite in their league. But the build-up for this match has been surprisingly solid: they're feuding over which team is best, and also over who gets the Bella Twins.

Ah yes - the Bella Twins. Nikki and Brie Bella are identical twin wrestlers, a gimmick which would be an awful lot more useful if there was such a thing as a women's tag team division. They're not desperately good, but they're identical, which gives them some novelty value. As matters stand, they've split, and one is hanging around with each time. I can never remember which is which - they have no personalities. I think Nikki is the heel. It doesn't really matter. An obvious finish, though, is for Brie to turn on the Colons and cost them the match.

Morrison and Miz should win this; they're the best choice of tag team champions right now. Unfortunately, the match is likely to be dragged down by the addition of a random stipulation: this is a lumberjack match, which means that the ring is surrounded by other wrestlers. Basically, it's a blatant device to get everyone on the show. Lumberjack matches are usually a waste of time, but hopefully they'll do as little as possible with the gimmick and focus on the match.

5. Shawn Michaels v. The Undertaker. The Undertaker has never lost at Wrestlemania, as the company never hesitates to remind us. This year, Shawn Michaels is challenging him. We all know Shawn won't win. It makes no sense for him to win. Undertaker's winning streak has been built up as a big thing. It would be a big deal for a rising star to break that streak. But not for Shawn, who's already one of the biggest stars of the last 20 years. So they should preserve the streak in case it can be cashed in more effectively next year. And they almost certainly will (unless they have one of their periodic panic attacks about being too predictable, which almost always leads to them making bad decisions).

The match is bound to be excellent, and the build-up has been pretty decent, based around Undertaker trying his usual mindgames and being outwitted by Shawn at every turn. The general consensus is that this is the de facto main event, and that's hard to argue with.

6. Extreme Rules: Jeff Hardy v. Matt Hardy. The long-running storyline of Jeff Hardy being harassed by a mystery attacker was supposed to lead to Christian (Edge's storyline brother) returning to the company and debuting as the villain. Then they decided everyone knew it was coming, and plugged Jeff's brother Matt into the role instead. Matt has been an effective midcard heel in the past, but he's maybe not so suited as a serious, main event heel. More to the point, history has shown consistently that fans just don't want to see the Hardys fighting one another. They don't buy into it, and it doesn't work.

That's the main problem with this feud. Technically, it'll probably be a very good match; but it's not one that fans particularly want to see. They'd have been so much better off sticking with the original plan, but there you go. Matt should probably win, because it's his first major match since turning heel - however, there's reason to think they might want to cut their losses and move on, in which case Jeff has to pin his brother to end the story.

7. Money in the Bank Ladder Match: Christian v. Finlay v. MVP v. Shelton Benjamin v. Kane v. Mark Henry v. CM Punk v. Kofi Kingston. The Money in the Bank Ladder Match has been running for a few years now. It's an eight-man ladder match. You win by climbing a ladder and retrieving a briefcase from above the ring - in other words, it's a stunt show. The winner gets a title shot which they can cash in at any time over the next year. Usually it's used to ambush a champion who's just been beaten up (a heel tactic, but even CM Punk used it as a babyface last year). Everyone who's ever cashed in the title shot has won, and gone on to at least a brief reign as world champion, so this is a reasonably important match in storyline terms. The winner is practically guaranteed elevation to the main event scene.

However, the eight participants seem to have been selected more or less at random, or at least as a reward for loyal service rather than with an eye to the quality of the match. Ladder matches, traditionally, call for high-flyers. Rey Mysterio should arguably be in here, although he tends to work around his injuries these days, and I can understand keeping him out. John Morrison would be a good inclusion, though he's tied up in the tag title feud. Jimmy Yang is too far down the pecking order to be credible. But what about Evan Bourne or Brian Kendrick?

Instead, we have a motley selection of mostly ground-based wrestlers, which suggests there could be trouble afoot. Kane and Mark Henry are all-purpose Big Guys; the match really doesn't need two of them. Neither would make sense as a potential world champion. They're both upper midcard blocking heels by nature, and that's where they are already. Finlay is a veteran midcarder who's probably in there to help hold the match together, but isn't a credible world champion either. Kofi Kingston is too junior to win; he needs more time in the midcard. Shelton Benjamin is technically very good but lacks the charisma to be a main eventer (at least without a serious repackaging to give him a character he can play more convincingly). I don't see him winning.

That leaves CM Punk, MVP and Christian. Punk won last year, and he's already back in the midcard, so I highly doubt they'll give it to him twice. MVP and Christian are both viable, though. MVP has just come off an inordinately long losing streak as a heel, and is now being rebuilt as one of the good guys. Christian, a heel for most of his WWE career, has recently returned to the company after several years away, and is going through the automatic phase of being cheered by crowds who missed him. My feeling is that the money in the bank title shot is a heel gimmick, in which case Christian is the better choice: he's likely to turn heel sooner or later, and cashing in the title shot would be a great way of doing it.

Of course, there are other things you could do with the title shot, if an outright babyface won it. He could use it to add himself to the main event on a major PPV; he could technically insist on main eventing Wrestlemania 26; he could set out to unify the Raw and Smackdown world titles by winning one belt the normal way, and then cashing in his title shot to force a unification match. But I'd still go with Christian turning heel; it's what they tend to do.

The build-up to this match has been extraordinarily lacklustre. The participants have done a bunch of tag matches, none of which was very impressive. It doesn't inspire much confidence in Sunday's match.

8. Miss Wrestlemania battle royal. Twenty-five women in a battle royal (or, quite possibly, 24 women and Santino Marella). The idea here was to get all the women wrestlers on the show, however briefly, and to bring in some retired women for guest appearances. Unfortunately, most of them declined the invitation, which has led to some scrabbling around to make up the numbers. Reportedly, they're so desperate that we may well be faced with the spectacle of Vickie Guerrero trying to wrestle.

A running subplot has been teasing a match between the Raw and Smackdown women's champions - currently Melina and Maryse - which would suggest they're moving towards unifying those titles as well. Presumably they'll try to do something on Sunday to advance that plot. As for this... well, it'll be dire. The winner could be anyone; it doesn't matter.

9. Chris Jericho v. Jimmy Snuka, Roddy Piper and Ricky Steamboat. Finally, we have the match that went terribly awry. At one point, this was supposed to be Chris Jericho versus Mickey Rourke, cashing in on Rourke's appearance in The Wrestler. This would have made sense. Jericho is one of the best heels in the company, and one of the best talkers. His character sees himself as a man who speaks the truth that the audience doesn't want to hear. So the idea was that Rourke would be friends with the sort of aging wrestlers who inspired The Wrestler, and Jericho would mock them all for missing the point of the film, which was really about old guys refusing to admit when their time was up, and the audience not really caring about them. (Which is kind of true - but positioning it as a heel interpretation was supposed to de-fang it.)

Unfortunately, in a rare moment of lucidity, Rourke realised that this was a terrible career move and thought better of it. Cue panic. In the meantime, Jericho continued to do weekly segments with random elderly wrestlers, building up to who-knew-what. And finally, it turns out that the best they could come up with was Jericho versus Snuka, Piper and Ricky Steamboat. Jericho has to pin all three to win. Ric Flair, who retired last year, will be in the legends' corner. Which is ironic, because most people would rather see him in the ring.

Piper isn't up to much these days. Snuka is barely mobile and hopefully they'll just get rid of him quickly. Any hope for this fiasco rests on Ricky Steamboat, who hasn't wrestled in years, because he actually did retire at a sensible age. He's way before my time, and but by all accounts he was brilliant in his prime, and he still seems to be in pretty good shape for 56. With an opponent as good as Jericho, he just might have it in him to salvage this.

The obvious finish is that Jericho pins two of the legends and loses to the third following interference from Flair and/or Rourke (who's supposed to be there, but has done nothing to promote it). Any hope of it being worthwhile rests on Steamboat.

Worth buying? Um. Not for the storylines, that's for sure. Most of the matches will be good, so it's still got that going for it. But the ladder match looks like trouble, and we've been given little reason to care about the other main events. It's one for the hardcore, I'm afraid.