Sunday, May 31, 2009

The X-Axis - 31 May 2009

Well, heavens, there's just a ton of X-books out this week, isn't there? Next week is a bit quieter, with just Exiles, New Mutants, and something called Wolverine: Revolver. But this week, Marvel are in the mood to drown us.

Three of them, however, are the concluding parts of storylines, so I'll give them full reviews in the next couple of days. That would be Ultimate Wolverine vs. Hulk, Wolverine: Origins and X-Men: Legacy. (Although I might as well point out now that if you're a Rogue fan, you probably want this issue of Legacy, because it's quite important for her.)

Also out this week...

Battlefields: The Tankies #2 - Garth Ennis's latest war miniseries has a rather uneven tone. It's obviously going for black comedy, but seems to waver back and forth between grim and slightly too silly. That's not to say it falls apart - Ennis is too good for that - but it does feel at times as though two slightly different stories are fighting for space, instead of complementing one another. Even the art seems unsure how graphic it's supposed to be, which means that at times we get fairly innocuous drawings drenched in blood-red colouring in a way that doesn't altogether work. But there's some good stuff in here as well, with Ennis' usual eye for detail, and a rather sweet scene where, for once, the obligatory hesitant, nerdy officer turns out to be talking sense after all.

The Literals #2 - Part 6 of The Great Fables Crossover. You know, I'm a little vague about how these Literals characters are supposed to work. Obviously they're some sort of personification of abstract literary concepts, but what does a personified genre actually do all day? And if they're elements of fiction, in what sense did Kevin "write" the real world? Probably best not to think about it too much, because they work best as a vehicle for a series of jokes, rather than as proper characters. And while that means the stories from their perspective have an uphill struggle, it still largely works. After all, they're the villains of the crossover, and they function rather well as obstacles for the Fables cast to deal with. Besides, the jokes at the expense of the genres are funny.

Rapture #1 - As the week's only significant new release , I imagine we'll probably talk about this on the next House to Astonish (that okay, Al?). But for the moment: it's a six-issue miniseries by Taki Soma and Michael Avon Oeming. It's an unusual collaboration; as well as co-writing, they've shared the art, with Oeming working over Soma's layouts. The result has some of Oeming's usual stark, angular approach, but a bit less stylised and a bit more cartoony. To be honest, the resulting art hovers somewhere between Oeming's usual work and Philip Bond, but that's no bad thing. The story is a sort of post-apocalyptic love story set in a world recently devastated by a war between rather generic superheroes, a premise that seems a bit forced at this stage - not least, the plot-convenient but enormously implausible idea that people are still taking commercial flights during this ostensible global catastophe. That's such an odd feature that a bit of me wonders whether it's deliberate weirdness. Like the art, then, not so sold on the story.

Wolverine #72 - The penultimate chapter of "Old Man Logan", which will be wrapped up in a one-shot at some point down the line. And yes, you guessed it, Millar and McNiven have taken seven issues just to get to the point where Wolverine finally snaps, pops his claws, and goes out to take on the bad guys. It's the sort of lightweight throwaway thing that will probably work well enough as a mildly silly graphic novel, but can't help feeling massively overextended in serial form at eight issues. I realise that this sort of story requires a long build-up for The Big Moment, but again, it's a question of whether you're pacing in page count or publishing schedule. In a big hardback slab, the build-up is probably about right. But in serial terms, we've taken the better part of a year to reach a moment that everyone saw coming last autumn, in a basic story with no real twists along the way, and that's too long to get to the point.

Wolverine: First Class #15 - This month's guest star: Thor. Kitty wants to meet him to impress her friends; Wolverine helps out because he thinks it'll be funny. All good straightforward stuff, but it's very solidly done. Scott Koblish provides art this month, and it's got a comedic quality I don't recall seeing from him before. (With Skottie Young scheduled to do Marvel Adventures Spider-Man, there are some interesting art choices afoot for the all-ages titles.) One other thing: I like the way David has found a new angle on early Kitty Pryde by seizing on a lacuna in the original stories. Those stories made a huge deal about her ballet classes (and even pointed out that she enjoyed them because she got to hang out with normal kids), yet we never actually saw any of her classmates. It would be stretching a point to say that we desperately needed stories about Kitty's dance classmates, but if we're going to have a Kitty and Wolverine series set at this point in history (and despite the title, it is a Kitty and Wolverine series), I'm glad they've found a legitimately underused angle.

X-Force #15 - Messiah War, part 5. Everyone hits one another. Punchy punchy. That's about it, really. So far this crossover has exceeded expectations, but I'm afraid we've finally reached the obligatory mid-storyline punchfest - not really something that plays to the murky strengths of artist Clayton Crain, either. Just to test my goodwill a little further, the story also makes Bishop look like a moron. Not only does he get the chance to kill Hope twice and fail to take the shot, but the second time he actually pauses to say that he won't hesitate. What a dimwit.

X-Men: Future History - The Messiah War Sourcebook - Completist fodder if ever I saw some. It's basically Cable explaining in nice short chunks about the various characters and concepts that have surrounded Bishop and Cable over the years (though Cyclops gets a few pages to tell us about X-Force too). As a catalogue of discarded concepts and aborted interpretations, it's actually quite readable and somewhat interesting. It does pick up on ironic contrasts with earlier stories, and I believe it may be the first comic to acknowledge openly that X-Treme X-Men was the most embarrassingly awful name in history. ("Storm claims it was an inside joke, and blames Gambit. Gambit blames Rogue. I blame society.") So I don't want to be too harsh on it - for what it is, it's entirely fine. But what it isn't is anything much to do with Messiah War, and there's the rub.

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Monday, May 25, 2009

Number 1s of 2009: May 24

As expected, the Black Eyed Peas only lasted a week with the inexplicably popular "Boom Boom Pow." It's still at number two, and doubtless it'll be clogging up the top 10 for a while, but at least it's on its way down.

For once, the winner of the Eurovision Song Contest makes a creditable showing on the chart. Until recently, of course, you couldn't actually buy the Eurovision songs whether you liked them or not. But these days, everything's available on iTunes, if only as part of the official Eurovision soundtrack album. This usually means a couple of acts scrape the bottom end of the top 75. This year, Alexander Rybak's "Fairytale" made it all the way to number 10. His record company can't have been expecting this, or they'd have made a proper video to promote the single. This is the official one - it seems to be just footage from the Norwegian heats.

Sales tailed off over the week after a strong start, so it's unlikely to go much further, but you never know. He certainly has the satisfaction of crushing the UK's entry, "It's My Time" by Jade Ewen, which reached number 27.

But the new number one is Dizzee Rascal and Armand van Helden, "Bonkers." Normally I'd link to the official version of the video on YouTube or DailyMotion, but there doesn't seem to be one. (Not that it's hard to find unofficial copies.) But it's on MTV UK's website, so I guess they'll have to do.

This is the third straight rap number one, if you care about such things. But that's really just a coincidence. It's Dizzee Rascal's second number one, following last year's "Dance Wiv Me." When he started, he used to specialise in lo-fi tales of depressing misery. Obviously you can't really keep doing that after years of conspicuous success, but it's pretty clear that he's chosen to go in a much more commercial direction. Of course, "much more commercial" is still decidedly wonky and lopsided by the standards of most artists. Still, it's one of the fastest selling singles of the year, and likely to stay at the top for a while.

The artist credit is shared with American producer Armand van Helden, who's been around for almost twenty years now. As near as I can make out, he's never been much of a presence on the American charts. But then they insist on taking airplay into account, which is a recipe for blandness if ever I saw one. He's not exactly a fixture in the UK charts either, but his singles reach the Top 40 often enough for him to be a well-recognised dance music veteran. They range from fairly typical floor-fillers to slightly more eccentric stuff like this.

Technically this is his second number one hit. The first was "U Don't Know Me", for a week back in February 1999.

I remember finding it rather boring when it came out, but it's aged pretty well, a decade down the line.

Really, though, van Helden ought to be credited with a third number one, a 1996 record which sampled a couple of lines from somebody else's record and for legal reasons gets credited as a remix. It was, admittedly, a time when many remixes bore little resemblance to the original record - the Aphex Twin once claimed that he had forgotten to remix a Lemonheads single but got away with handing in an old demo tape instead. Still, most people would agree that whatever this is, it's not really "Professional Widow" by Tori Amos.

(And yes, that's the oficial video. It was nailed together from old clips, and the record still managed a week at number one.)


Sunday, May 24, 2009

The X-Axis - 24 May 2009

With one thing and another, it looks like it's just going to be capsules this week. If time allows, I'll review the Umbrella Academy: Dallas miniseries, but we'll see.

Don't forget this week's edition of House to Astonish - download it here, visit the podcast website, or subscribe via iTunes.

And now, this week's books...

Ex Machina #42 - There's something a little simplistic in this "nature versus machines" set-up, but then I suspect that's partly the point. The villain buys into it wholeheartedly, Mitchell's not quite so sure. Besides, the villain's clearly insane. Still, the scenes with rats emerging to attack New Yorkers are very effective, particularly for a book which can sometimes feel a little detached in the way it deals with things. And the thriller subplot with the journalist is building nicely, even if the scenes of people talking about mystery boxes are a little heavy-handed. Seems a bit odd that they're publishing a New Year's Eve story in May - did the book drift off schedule at some point? - but it's a solid title.

Final Crisis Aftermath: Dance #1 - This is one of four "Final Crisis Aftermath" miniseries. From the look of it, they're not really Final Crisis crossovers, so much as "what X did next" stories featuring some of the characters from that series. Dance, by Joe Casey and ChrisCross, is about the Super Young Team, a Japanese group introduced in Final Crisis who aren't proper superheroes at all. They've got the costumes, and they've got the powers, but they're only really interested in dressing up and enjoying the attention. With names like Most Excellent Superbat and Shy Crazy Lolita Canary, they're intentionally hard to take seriously. But while they're shallow, they're not bad people, and their celebrity status is starting to give them pangs of conscience - shouldn't they be out there doing proper hero stuff, and not attending publicity events? If all this sounds a bit familiar, then yes, there's a hint of X-Statix in here, and more than a hint of Joe Casey's own recent run on Youngblood. But despite the inherently weird characters, it's actually played fairly straight, and it manages to make the Team genuinely likeable. Casey has been here before, but I'm happy to see him do it again.

The Great Unknown #2 - Duncan Rouleau's miniseries about an obnoxious failed inventor whose best ideas are inexplicably cropping up somewhere else first. I suspect I'm running ahead of the story here - Feld spends most of the issue trying to figure out what's going on, while I suspect I leaped to the right conclusion at the end of issue #1. But there's a great central idea here, a mysterious online company auctioning ideas stolen from inventors who deserved the credit. And besides, was our lazy and grating antihero really going to do anything with these ideas? You can't help suspecting that he'd have screwed it up somewhere along the line. Love the idea, love the art... pity the book could use a proofreader, one of those corners that shouldn't be cut. But it's worth bearing with that

Hellblazer #255 - The second half of Peter Milligan and Goran Sudzuka's two-parter "Regeneration". The first part set up a rather interesting idea about the disruption caused to communities relocated to make way for the Olympic Games, something that rather gets lost here. Instead, we get a fairly conventional twist-in-the-tale horror story about ghosts of plague victims, although it's also used to further the subplot with Constantine's latest love interest. I have a sneaking suspicion that Milligan came upon some pictures of the admittedly bizarre outfits worn by plague doctors and wrote a story around that, but that's no bad starting point. It's a perfectly fine story - it just stays in fairly safe territory for this book.

Jack of Fables #34 - This is just getting silly. But again, that seems to be the point, as Kevin Thorn starts obsessively re-writing reality for the sole purpose of aggravating Bigby as much as he possibly can. Of course, this begs the question of why Kevin can't just kill him directly (other than "Because there wouldn't be much of a story"), but the story has an answer to that. It's an odd one, this - with Jack off in the parent book, this issue has some of the cast of Fables mired in the deliberate insanity of Jack of Fables, and intentionally spends an issue stretching the suspension of disbelief to breaking point. Could have gone badly wrong, but on the whole they get away with it.

Killapalooza #1 - Adam Beechen and Trevor Hairsine with a miniseries about a rock band called the Clap who have superpowers and are also assassins on the side. In theory, not a bad concept as long as you go way over the top. In practice, a bit disappointing. The characters are largely indistinguishable from one another, the jokes about other bands are rather obvious, the art's a bit murky and indistinct. The fundamental problem, though, is that the premise is obviously too silly to take seriously, but the book never takes the headlong dive into demented absurdity that it needed in order to work.

Uncanny X-Men #510 - Oh dear, this isn't very good at all. It's a whole issue devoted to a fight scene between the X-Men and the Sisterhood, the upshot being (i) that the X-Men learn Psylocke's wandering around again, and (ii) the Sisterhood get hold of something, which is only identified on the last page. Did we really need a whole issue to cover this? Isn't this something that could have been covered in a few pages, setting us up for the return fight when the story reaches its climax? The problems here go beyond Greg Land's art, unfortunately. Matt Fraction has some interesting ideas in this series, but none of them feature in the Sisterhood storyline. Here, we just get a bunch of villains with no personalities fighting the X-Men for reasons which aren't very well focussed until right at the end. There's a really gratingly awful "it's so hot in here, why don't we take our clothes off" scene with the Stepford Cuckoos that could have been in a Chuck Austen issue. It's all a bit lousy. Obviously Greg Land's art doesn't help, with its lifeless characters and identikit women, but in fairness it doesn't feel like there was much here to start with. (Mind you, his cover is another matter. What the hell is going on with Emma's cleavage, and why is it a foot to the right of her chest?) Much as I want to like Fraction's X-Men stories, this arc is dying on its feet, I'm afraid.

The Unknown #1 - Mark Waid and Minck Oosterveer, doing a four-issue miniseries for Boom! Studios which I said I'd review last week. And didn't. Oh well. It's a detective story, anyway. Cat Allingham, "America's foremost detective", is one of those ultra-observant Sherlock Holmes characters. She also has angst. And a big guy as her Dr Watson. You know the drill. But I like the art, and by showing us her (evidently familiar) hallucinations without explaining them, the book gives us an unusual mystery to ponder. The actual case is downright weird ("the world's first quantum crime"), but there's something quite enjoyable about the way the Holmesian ultra-rationalist takes it in her stride - after all, by definition, such characters are always a step ahead. Not sure I'll pick up the rest of the story, but it does have something.

Wolverine: Weapon X #2 - In which Wolverine fights a bunch of private security guards with Wolverine upgrades, basically. Works a lot better than you'd expect, since Aaron and Garney's timing is impeccable, and there's some great use of colour with the glowing green claws on a page that's otherwise mostly blue. If I was going to be critical, I'd say that the story is a bit too cavalier about having people get clawed - it seems a bit too inconsequential. But that aside, it's a pleasant change to have a Wolverine book which is willing to go back to basics, avoid getting bogged down in back story, and show a sense of humour in the process. Thus far, the title is more than living up to my expectations.

Wolverine: Noir #2 - Well, it's certainly very dark. Regular readers know my issue with the Noir books by now: yes, they're done perfectly well, but what's the point of taking existing Marvel characters and shoehorning them into a different genre? I suppose you could see it as a long-term plan by Marvel to try and train their audience to accept other genres, and perhaps that's the strongest case to be made for the line. Anyway, this does pretty much what you'd expect. The art is striking and big on shadow, the writing is well paced but largely an exercise in rehashing familiar noir elements with characters on loan from Wolverine. If you put everything you knew about noir and Wolverine out of your mind, it would hold up reasonably well - but in practice, it's a patchwork of elements from other stories and the joins are so clearly visible that it's hard to take the result seriously.

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House to Astonish, episode 15

This week, the usual round-up of news and upcoming solicitations, plus reviews of Killapalooza, Final Crisis Aftermath: Dance, and Tales Designed to Thrizzle. (And a few words about Unwritten, too.)

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

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Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Number 1s of 2009: May 17

The Tinchy Stryder single managed three weeks at the top, holding the unfortunate La Roux at number two for the whole time.

In fact, over the last few weeks, the most notable thing about the charts has been their sheer uneventfulness. Last week, the entire top six was static. This week, there are only four new entries in the top 40 - one at the top, and the others at 38, 39 and 40. To be fair, there are some singles climbing the charts as well, but such a low turnover is still remarkable. Singles sales are actually on the rise (probably because more people are cherry-picking album tracks), but a side-effect seems to be that the really big hits jam themselves at the top of the charts and stay there for an age. In some ways, this is a good thing for the charts; the days when a single could get into the top 5 on hype alone, and then plummet out of the top 40 in a fortnight, are well and truly banished.

On the other hand, there's also another factor. CD singles aren't widely sold any more. Some acts seem to have had trouble getting their fans to switch to digital; as a result, they've suddenly become album artists. For example, take U2's current single "Magnificent", which bombed out at number 42 last week - their first single to miss the top 40 since 1987.

Anyway, here's your new number one.

That's the Black Eyed Peas, "Boom Boom Pow."

I thought they'd given up. More accurately, I hoped they'd given up. It's been three years since they last released a single as a group, which I suppose accounts for the otherwise inexplicably high level of interest in this record. It's their second UK number one, following "Where is the Love" back in 2003, and their ninth hit single in total.

The record is a sub-Kanye West exercise in minimal electronics and distorted vocals. Frankly, there's not much else to say about it. It's not appalling, but there's nothing particularly memorable about it. And heaven only knows who thought it was a good idea to release a single with the lyric "I'm so 2008, you're so 2000-and-late" in 2009.

Fortunately, although it'll presumably clog up the top ten for a while, it won't be number one for long: it's almost guaranteed to be shoved aside by Dizzee Rascal on Sunday.


Sunday, May 17, 2009

The X-Axis - 17 May 2009

To be honest, I haven't had time to read most of this week's books yet, so I'm not quite sure what I'll be giving full reviews. I might do Mark Waid and Minck Oosterveer's The Unknown #1 later in the week, and a look back at the second Umbrella Academy mini seems like it might be worthwhile. In the meantime, though here's the week's X-books, with some other stuff thrown in.

Fables #84 - Part 4 of "The Great Fables Crossover", a nine-part story running between Fables, its spin-off Jack of Fables and the created-for-the-purpose Literals miniseries. Since the main threat is the Literals, and they're from Jack's book, Fables itself seems a bit out-of-the-loop on this crossover. But strangely, that works to the story's advantage. Jack shows up at the Farm to bring the Fables up to date on the big threat, and naturally, nobody believes a word of it. Instead, what we really get is Jack being reunited with the cast of the parent book, and the usual chaos ensuing. You've got to admire the way this book can get away with a religious cult led by a talking badger. It's not exactly a deep story, but it's all good fun.

geNext: United #1 - Well, that's how Chris Claremont spells it, at any rate. This is a five-issue sequel to Claremont's geNext miniseries, about a group of teenagers who were the children of the X-Men in the timeline of Claremont's X-Men: The End story. Or something like that. It was all terribly complicated and none of it really mattered, as long as you understood that they were a next-generation X-Men team. The original series, with art by Patrick Scherberger, had likeable characters who showed some promise as the cast of a team book, but it didn't really provide a satisfying story. When I reviewed that book, I said that it read like it had been adapted into the opening arc of an ongoing series. Much the same could be said about this; it isn't the first issue of a freestanding mini, it's geNext #6, and it doesn't really feel like it's been specifically tailored as a jumping on point. Instead, it opens with an interminable discussion about whether the characters should become full-time superheroes, before a plot finally rears its head in the second half of the book. Jonboy Meyers, taking over on art, does well enough with what he's given, but it's incredibly talky. Some of the underlying ideas are good enough, and it's nice to see Claremont apparently bringing in an entirely new set of Indian characters instead of relying on his back catalogue. Still, it's rather sluggish reading, which doesn't seem terribly interested in being the first issue of a new story so much as an epilogue to the one before. I don't see it winning over many people outside Claremont's core readership.

Lockjaw and the Pet Avengers #1 - I was in two minds when they announced this. It's the sort of blissfully silly idea that ought to be worth a story, but a whole miniseries...? Well, here it is (and X-Men completists will take note that Lockheed's in it). It turns out to be a surprisingly straight, light superhero book, which just runs with the absurdity rather than hitting you over the head with it. This is your basic gathering-the-team issue, but Guara's art is excellent, and it bounces along rather breezily. There's also a guest appearance by Colleen Coover, drawing an origin flashback for the new Frog Thor. The basic set-up, using the Infinity Gems, is so gloriously at odds with the characters that it comes off well. I'm still not altogether sure there's a whole miniseries in this joke, but it's a very likeable book.

The Unwritten #1 - There's a fair chance we'll be doing this on the podcast, but it's worth mentioning, since it's a new Vertigo series by Mike Carey and Peter Gross, with the first issue priced at a very reasonable $1. See, that's how you do it. The series is about Tommy Taylor, whose father wrote a series of Harry Potter-style books starring a boy wizard of the same name before disappearing. Now Taylor lives a slightly unsatisfying life on the convention circuit, trying to get his own projects off the ground without much success. He's a man who's famous mainly for something he didn't really have any part in, which is an interesting starting point in itself. Of course, this being Vertigo, there's a fantasy angle on top of that. It's a very good start - Carey nearly overplays his hand by trying to convince us that the Tommy Taylor books were even bigger than Harry Potter, which I don't really buy (it's terribly hard to write a fictional pop culture phenomenonon on that scale and make it convincing), but the strong and intriguing premise comes across very effectively.

Wolverine #73 - Not to be confused with Wolverine #72, which isn't out yet, because it isn't finished yet. But that's part of the out-of-continuity "Old Man Logan" story, and so we're ploughing on with issue #73. Why are we doing that? Well, partly because the next arc will be a "Dark Reign" crossover tie-in, so it needs to come out on time. Partly because issues #73-74 would be returnable by stores if they were delayed, and we can't have that. And according to Marvel's official spin, there's a third reason: because issues #73-74 are really accessible issues released to tie in with the movie ("the perfect jumping on point for new readers the Wolverine film could help produce"). Well, it isn't.

These issues have an intriguing format: there are two fill-in stories, one by Jason Aaron and Adam Kubert, and the other by Daniel Way and Tommy Lee Edwards. But rather than give them an issue each, they've been split in two. So issue #73 has the first half of both stories. Got that? Way and Edwards' story, to be fair, more or less fits the bill of being an accessible Wolverine story. It's one of those old-fashioned fill-ins where Wolverine meets up with some apparently close friends we've never heard of before and will never heard of again. This time, it's a feud between aging biker gangs. With none of the continuity baggage weighing him down, Way does a pretty good job here, and Edwards is on form too. It's quite decent.

The Aaron/Kubert story, on the other hand, is about as far from newbie-friendly as you could possibly get. Not because it's continuity-heavy, but because it's an extended, and very well executed, joke about Marvel's overuse of the character. Much of it is a montage of Wolverine racing around from series to series, team-up to team-up, in a blur of meaninglessness. There's a rather grinding gear change at the end when the story tries to suggest that this demented overwork is a sign of mental breakdown, and I'll reserve judgment until next issue on whether Aaron can pull that one off. The rest of the story, though, is virtuoso stuff, and laugh-out-loud funny - but only if you know the comics well enough to get the joke. A jumping-on point? I don't think so. Still, if you do know the comics - and you probably do - this is worth getting. An unexpected winner.

X-Factor #43 - And the plot thickens. Because that's what plots do in vaguely noir-inspired stories. They thicken. It's interesting that Peter David clearly still sees this as a somewhat noir title, when he's simultaneously doing stories about time travel to the far future. It's certainly a more broad-minded interpretation of the genre than the usual pastiches. Just to prove that this book has some long-term planning behind it, it finally pays off on a subplot about Madrox and Layla which was set up... must have been years ago, surely? What continually impresses me about this book, though, is Peter David's ability to get some mileage out of unpromising characters. He's making Darwin entertaining, after all. This issue, he brings back a character who, on the face of it, couldn't be less suitable for the series, save perhaps for a tenuous connection with an existing cast member. It seems to work. There are two pencillers on this issue, which would normally be a warning sign a mile high, but in fact the art keeps up a high standard. Good book.

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Judgment Day 2009

Time for another pay-per-view. They're coming in three-week gaps at the moment - the WWE probably know that's too many, but they're committed to the schedule for the rest of the year, so that's the way it goes.

For once, it's a surprisingly gimmick-free show - all seven announced matches are straight one-on-one wrestling matches. This probably isn't because the WWE has had a sudden revelation about the drawing power of conventional wrestling. It's because the next show, in three weeks time, is Extreme Rules 2009 - the show that used to be ECW One Night Stand. And that's an entire show of gimmickry. So presumably we're getting a dead straight show in May in order that the June show will stand out more. By the WWE's standards, this is practically a purists' showcase.

1. WWE Title: Randy Orton v. Batista. That's the Raw world title, in other words. Orton won the title from Triple H at the April show, in an unnecessarily complicated six-man tag. The rules were that Orton would win the title if his team won in any way at all. But in the end, he did actually pin the previous champion himself, and they did a storyline injury to get Triple H off TV for a while. (Judging from the apathetic crowd reaction, the character really does need a rest.)

So, Monday Night Raw now has a heel champion. Triple H is on hiatus, and John Cena is supposed to be shooting another film over the summer. Shawn Michaels is taking a break as well. Working out way down the list of possible challengers, we come to Dave Batista, recently returned from (genuine) injury, and looking as though he might have been well advised to give it another month or so. Batista has started to talk about retiring next year when his contract runs out; it would probably be a smart time to do so, both from the point of view of his health and quitting while he's ahead. Of course, raising the possibility is also a smart move for negotiating purposes, so I wouldn't read too much into it.

It's way too early for Orton to lose the title, which has changed hands too frequently of late anyway. Batista, on the other hand, is getting a bit stale as a babyface, and they've been subtly laying the groundwork for a heel turn so that he can feud with Triple H down the line. It's fairly common to lose matches in the run-up to a heel turn. So I'm thinking Orton wins tonight thanks to interference from his lackeys, setting up a rematch in June which Orton also wins. (An outside possibility, continuing the theme that Batista can't control himself, is that he gets DQ'd, setting up a no-DQ rematch in June. If they come out halfway down the card, that's probably what they're doing.)

Batista hasn't looked great since his return, but he usually has good main events, and Orton's a strong heel champion. This should be fine.

2. World Heavyweight Title: Edge v. Jeff Hardy. This is Smackdown's version of the world title. Hardy's contract is also up for renewal in a few months, and there has been talk that he might really decided to take a few months' break. If so, a title change is unlikely - though the WWE might do it anyway, just to confuse the hardcore fans. Actually, it wouldn't be the worst move in the world; you could always have Hardy as champion up until his hiatus, when he gets annihilated by a heel challenger. But again, this title has changed hands rather a lot lately, and Edge has other challengers in the wings. They're already building up CM Punk as a credible opponent, for example.

So Edge probably retains here. He's wrestled Jeff Hardy many times before and the matches have usually been very good.

3. ECW Title: Christian v. Jack Swagger. And here's the C-show's version of the world title. Christian is a veteran midcarder recently returned to the WWE roster. He's very popular with the fans right now, and he's having good matches. Swagger is a relative rookie doing the arrogant amateur wrestler routine. He's very good for his level of experience, and the company has understandably high hopes for him. (Which means at some point they'll regret saddling him with that awful name. His real name is Jack Hager.)

Again, Christian's only had the title for a few weeks, so it's too early for a change. Given the shortage of other credible challengers, I'd imagine that they do an inconclusive finish here, to keep Swagger strong. There's also an unresolved subplot to take into account: Tommy Dreamer, a veteran of the original ECW, has promised to retire if he doesn't manage to win the title by the time his contract expires. That date was originally given as June 6, but they've been a bit quiet about it lately, so it's always possible they'll give him some sort of send-off at the Extreme Rules show later in June. If so, he probably has to get involved here.

Christian and Swagger had a very good match last month, so this has a lot of promise.

4. WWE Intercontinental Title: Rey Mysterio v. Chris Jericho. Both these guys were recently drafted to Smackdown from Raw. Mysterio won the IC title from John Bradshaw Layfield at Wrestlemania in a "match" that went about nine seconds (apparently because they'd mistimed the show and needed to cut some stuff). He had a successful run on Smackdown in he past, when he appeared to be a big draw with Hispanic viewers. The theory in drafting him to Raw was that they'd follow him to the A-show. They didn't. So he's back on Smackdown, which is probably better for him anyway - he was lost in the shuffle on Raw.

Mysterio and Jericho are excellent wrestlers who are apparently set for a lengthy feud. On that basis, chances are Jericho wins here, and Mysterio gets to chase to win his title back. They should have an excellent match. The only caveat is that Mysterio injured his knee taping a match for WGN Superstars on Tuesday night (causing Friday night's Smackdown to be rewritten on the fly, hence the odd heel/heel main event). However, everyone seems to think he'll be okay for tonight.

5. John Cena v. The Big Show. Basically, this is something for John Cena to do while he's out of the main event picture. April's show had Cena losing a Last Man Standing match to Edge with a faintly ridiculous sequence in which he got thrown through an exploding spotlight. This has led to an embarrassingly garbled story in which Cena shuffles around very slowly, to demonstrate his apparently extensive, yet utterly non-specific, injuries. How will he survive etc etc. Who cares? I don't expect much from this. Big Show probably wins to continue the storyline, since they've put so much effort into giving Cena the excuse.

6. CM Punk v. Umaga. Hmm, interesting. There's actually a story here: CM Punk won the 2009 Money in the Bank ladder match, which means he's got a briefcase containing a contract (evidently very wordy, if it needs a whole briefcase to carry it around) giving him the right to a world title match against any of the three champions at any time. They've had this device for several years now. Heels use it to ambush babyfaces when they've already been laid out. Babyfaces, in theory, would play by the spirit of the rules, as Rob Van Dam did a few years back. CM Punk, however, seems determined to just win by ambush, even though he's supposed to be a hardworking babyfaces. The loose cover for this is that Edge, Smackdown's heel champion, has himself won the title in the same way twice, so he isn't really in a position to complain. Still, it's not very heroic, is it?

The story here is that Punk keeps trying to ambush Edge after matches, and keeps getting inexplicably attacked by Umaga, the Stereotype That Walks Like A Man, before he can do so. We haven't established why yet. Umaga, a savage islander from Samoa, is the sort of character that every other form of entertainment stopped doing in 1983, but who inexplicably continues to crop up in wrestling. At least Umaga is actually Samoan, which is more than can be said for some of the WWE's foreigners.

I'm not quite sure what to expect from this. There's the potential for a rather nasty style clash, but it's also a fresh match. Apparently they're also in Punk's home town. The WWE has a tendency to try and cash in on that by having the hometown wrestler lose (which they think makes for a good audience reaction that should spill over to the viewers at home - the evidence for this theory is rather shaky, to say the least). But it's a tricky one. Both could use the credibility of a clean win, and both would be damaged by a loss. My instinct would be to let Punk win, to build him up for his presumably-upcoming title run; I think he needs it more. Then again, Umaga hasn't wrestled for so long that you can make a credible case the other way.

I really don't know what to expect from this, either in terms of match result or match quality. Which kind of has me interested in this one.

7. John Morrison v. Shelton Benjamin. John Morrison has been doing his Jim Morrison rip-off gimmick, as a heel, for quite some time. Now he's been moved to Smackdown as a singles wrestler, and somewhat out of the blue, the company has decided to turn him babyface. They're doing that by feuding him with Shelton Benjamin, a technically admirable but charisma-deficient midcard wrestler who (sing along with the commentators, now) has never quite fulfilled his potential.

It's hard to know quite what to make of this. Morrison has been a heel wrestler for years, in an assortment of gimmicks. He had brief runs as a babyface in the developmental territories in the very early stages of his career, where he was reportedly diabolical. But then, his wrestling has come on in leaps and bounds since then; he does have star quality; and he has the sort of flashy moves that work well for a babyface wrestler. His problem is that, like John Cena but more so, he's saddled with a gimmick that was designed to be ridiculous. This is fine when he's a pretentious heel, not so good when he's a babyface. They haven't quite figured out how to address this problem yet. Purely from a scriptwriting perspective, I suspect the answer is to play down the pretentious poetry and play up the witty, laid-back bohemian stuff - but of course, all this is contingent on whether Morrison can actually play such a character.

Since Morrison has only just turned, and he's already lost matches in this feud, he should probably win here. The match has the potential to be very good.

Worth buying? Actually, yes, if straight wrestling is your thing. No gimmicks, and a pretty respectable card of good wrestlers in promising matches.


Advise me.

Joss Whedon's Dollhouse finally gets a UK airing this week, albeit on the digital backwater of the Sci-Fi Channel - nature's way of telling you that Sky didn't want it that much. Whedon's normally reliable, but this sounds suspiciously like a vehicle for Eliza Dushku to show off her acting range. Which doesn't seem like the best idea in the world. So - is it worth my time?

Friday, May 15, 2009

New Mutants #1

"We Were Many, Once"
Writer: Zeb Wells
Penciller: Diogenes Neves
Inkers: Cam Smith and Ed Tadeo
Letterer: Joe Caramagna
Colourist: John Rauch
Editor: Nick Lowe

So here we are again.

The X-books' logo may be an X in a circle, but sometimes it feels like an ouroborous would be more appropriate. New Mutants was the very first X-Men spin-off, way back in 1983, before there was such a concept as "X-books." Judging from interviews, it was partly Chris Claremont's way of fending off a full-scale second X-Men title, and partly a way of accommodating Jim Shooter's feeling that the X-Men had lost touch with the school concept that he (rather debatably) thought was at the heart of Lee and Kirby's premise. The result was a team of teenage trainee X-Men.

But in 1983, there was a sensible role for New Mutants. The main X-Men book was doing nothing with the school, so there was plenty of scope to spin that part of the premise off into its own book. If nothing else, at least it explained why the X-Men, a group of adult superheroes, were somehow managing to maintain their cover identity of a school which hadn't had any pupils since the sixties. And the New Mutants themselves were good characters; some of them are unusual examples of characters genuinely changing and maturing with lasting effect. Cannonball's development from clumsy, out-of-his-depth rookie to leader of X-Force, over the course of about a decade, is one of the X-books' high spots.

New Mutants was a book which would inevitably run its course - they couldn't be rookies forever - and 100 issues was probably about right. It's not an obvious candidate for revival, to put it mildly.

Nonetheless, it's back. And on that level, my instinct is to be sceptical. But then, Zeb Wells is writing it, and he's done a lot of decent stories over the last few years. And he certainly steers clear of the obvious trap of trying to slot the characters back into their old roles as rookies. What he's writing here is more of a reunion book, which brings together the original characters but acknowledges that they've moved on.

And he writes the characters pretty well, too. It's nice to get back to having Cannonball as a competent leader rather than a face in the crowd. Sunspot is yanked back in the direction of being a friendly, outgoing character, but that's fine by me - the X-books have plenty of brooding sulky types. As for Magik, Wells plays her as a slightly mischievous, manipulative figure who still seems genuinely concerned about the stuff that actually matters. It's a different take on the "corrupted soul" idea than the handwringing woe-is-me routine that's been done in the past, but a fresh angle is needed if she's going to be brought back. Much to my pleasant surprise, Magik actually comes off here as a living character instead of a nostalgia act. Thank heavens.

At this point, I should note that there's something a bit odd going on with the Magik plot. The X-Infernus series, which was supposed to lead into New Mutants, extricated Illyana from an outstanding subplot and saw her return to live with the X-Men. This issue begins with her arriving at the Mansion out of the blue, and includes scenes of characters wondering whether it's really her (something they verify pretty quickly, but still). We're effectively told that she left and came back again, which reads rather strangely. I can't quite shake the feeling there's a rewrite here, if only to cover up a breakdown of communications between New Mutants and X-Infernus. Not that it damages the story, but it does read strangely, at least if you know what came immediately before.

The other point of criticism is that the book really does assume that it's playing to an audience who are already familiar with the characters. Now, to be fair, it probably is selling to people who read a lot of X-books. But still, the book seems to take it for granted that we already know Magik's back story, or remember the relationship between Magma and Empath, for example. And the big reveal at the end is the return of a villain who fought the New Mutants once in the eighties, had a big role in a mid-nineties crossover, and hasn't really been seen since. In an ideal world, most of the audience won't remember this stuff.

That aside, though, it's a good issue. I like Wells' take on the characters, and artist Diogenes Neves is doing solid work here. Okay, his Magma and Magik are a bit too similar, and I've seen flashier artwork. But he tells a good story, and does a great job with the final few pages. Wells sets up an effective mystery and makes sure to get the plot underway instead of dragging out the set-up.

The big question, of course is: if we're not doing the junior team again, what is the premise of this book? Is it an entire series about a bunch of characters who happened to be in a series with a stronger premise 25 years ago? Is it really just a second X-Men series which happens to have a dash of nostalgia thrown in? Come to think of it, perhaps that wouldn't be such a bad idea.

But we should know by the end of the first arc where Wells is heading with this, and whether there's a strong idea to hang the book on. I'm not honestly sure what that idea might be, but you know, I actually have faith that Zeb Wells probably does have something in mind for this book. He's overcoming my scepticism so far, at any rate.

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Free at last

Well, as threatened last week, I've cancelled my standing order with Forbidden Planet and I'm going to see how I get on with Red Hot Comics in Glasgow.

To celebrate this wonderful event, let's have a few videos from the Eurovision Song Contest semi-finals. (I'll be out on Saturday night, so I'll miss the show itself.) For the benefit of the Americans among you: the Eurovision Song Contest is an annual song contest with each country in Europe entering a different song. The quality is... well, often erratic. Some countries take it more seriously than others, although the western countries seem to be in relatively serious mode this year.

Until recently the winner has been decided by phone vote, but they're introducing a convoluted hybrid system of judging panels this year, after Russia won in 2008 and the western nations threw a collective tantrum, accusing the Eastern European countries of all voting for each other out of mutual loyalty. This was vastly overstated; it glossed over the fact that nobody voted for Poland, which last I saw was in eastern Europe too, and it completely ignored the fact that the winning Russian song was a multinational number one hit, the first single from the new album by a major Russian star, produced by Timbaland. They voted for it in eastern Europe because they genuinely liked it, a point which the British seemed to have trouble grasping.

This year, Britain is entering an Andrew Lloyd Webber song which sounds to me more like an X-Factor winner's first single. It's not brilliant, but it'll probably do better than some of the dross we've entered in recent years.

To be honest, there's a lot of rather serious ballads this year, and plaintive appeals for world peace, such as the Israeli entry.

I'm rooting for Moldova, who have taken the normally deadly approach of entering a folk dance. But it's so bouncy!

Bonus points for the completely gratuitous rapping in the bridge.

STOP PRESS! YouTube also has the official promo video. It's... got a touch of the Borats. "Hey, you know what'll sum up our glorious country? An opening shot of some sheep..."

Awesome. Go on, vote for them. Chisinau 2010.

Meanwhile, the Ukraine has opted for Europop. It's not a classic, but it does feature some quite bizarre staging. And it's called "Be My Valentine (Anti-Crisis Girl)", which makes it sound like an obscure Grant Morrison comic.

Albania has gone for the pop route too, but they've thrown in a weirdo in a green glitter suit. So odd you have to admire it, really.

Over in western Europe, here's Portugal's answer to... well, Noah and the Whale, I guess. This is growing on me. Listening to it again now, I think this actually has some genuine, real-world merit. Might be too good for Eurovision.

Norway, meanwhile, have entered something that sounds like it belongs in a musical. That's not necessarily a bad thing. The violin hook's got something.

Armenia are back for their fourth annual attempt to remind the rest of Europe that they exist. I don't know what it is with Armenia, but I keep forgetting about them. Actually, they consistently make the finals, and this year's ethnic pop effort is surprisingly decent.

The most eccentric entry of the year got screened out in the semi-finals, though. It's actually kind of growing on me after several listens, but guitar pop in 7/4 time was never going to fly at the Eurovision Song Contest. Sorry, Latvia.


Sunday, May 10, 2009

The X-Axis - 10 May 2009

This week's podcast has reviews of New Mutants, Power Girl and Fin Fang Four Return. And for blog readers, I'll come back to New Mutants later on. But first, here's some other stuff from this week's books.

Astonishing Tales #4 - More reprints from Marvel's digital comics service. I'm mentioning it here for the X-completists among you, since it's got a Wolverine/Punisher serial and a Mojoworld story both underway. I've written about them before, of course, and there's nothing new to report. The Wolverine/Punisher thing is a serviceable action story, but it does have some striking artwork going for it. Jonathan Hickman and Nick Pitarra's Mojoworld story, though, is ridiculous but genuinely funny, with Cannonball and Sunspot pausing at the end to argue over how old they're actually supposed to be these days. ("We were first published in 1982... that makes us, what, 36...?") You also get a throwaway Iron Man 2020 story which spends most of its page count on fighting, and an atmospheric, virtually-silent Daredevil short with little plot but a cute use of his powers. It's not a bad package, as superhero anthologies go.

Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Season 8 #25 - If you're wondering how "Season 8" got up to issue #25, it's because the series is meant to have roughly as much story content as a full season of the TV show, and obviously that's rather more than 25 standard comics. Anyway, after 25 issues of subplot about Dawn being turned into a giant, this is the pay-off. Or, perhaps more accurately - after 25 issues of subplot about Dawn being turned into a giant, this is the pay-off? It's a story about an off-the-peg jilted boyfriend, who nobody really seems appropriately angry about, with a very odd B-story about a sort of abusive Gepetto in the Scottish hills, who rather gets forgotten about at the end. The ideas are fine, but the treatment doesn't fly.

Cable #14 - Part four of "Messiah War", the crossover with X-Force. And it's better than you'd probably expect, to be honest. There's some good material with Bishop trying to keep up his facade of loyalty for Stryfe's benefit - and I like the way the story is using Stryfe, as a guy who thinks he's Cable's arch-enemy, but is actually just a nuisance in the path of the other characters. On the other hand, there's a weird torture scene which manages to be simultaneously too graphic and not graphic enough, and a very strange subplot with Apocalypse that doesn't seem to achieve a great deal. But I'll give it the benefit of the doubt and assume it pays off somewhere down the line. And there's a strong cliffhanger, taking advantage of the fact that Hope doesn't know all sorts of stuff which the readers are familiar with. Pretty decent, really.

Exiles #2 - Ah, a twist on the format. For some reason, even though they keep travelling between parallel Earths with counterparts of the familiar Marvel characters, the Exiles have generally managed to avoid bumping into themselves, or getting mistaken for a local. I'm surprised it hasn't been done more frequently, to be honest. But since this version of the Exiles is using high-profile characters like Wanda Maximoff and the Black Panther, I suppose we're going to get it more often. And indeed, we get plenty of scenes of the Exiles bluffing their way past the locals by crossing their fingers and hoping things generally played out like they did at home. The Blink subplot continues to build nicely, as well, simply by having her take a back seat in the story and gently nudge the characters now and again. Obviously it's a book for the devoted Marvel fans who get all the references, but that's fair enough in a parallel-worlds set-up. Good fun, and I'm pleasantly surprised that Jeff Parker has managed to reinvigorate the format.

Fin Fang 4 Return - We talk about this on the podcast, but it's a collection of shorts from the Marvel website (plus a reprint of the Christmas story, though they didn't mention that in the solicitations). If you haven't seen Scott Gray and Roger Langridge's strips before, the basic gag is that a bunch of monster characters from the fifties have been shrunk to human size and forced to live in the relatively prosaic setting of Marvel New York. So Fin Fang Foom is a chef, Gorgilla is just a well-meaning talking ape, the loveable Electro is a hopelessly out-of-date robot, and Googam, Son of Goom, still spends all his time scheming to take over the world. It's a simple set-up and the strips are generally very funny (the Madonna one is particularly good). Silly, but in all the right ways.

Power Girl #1 - Again, see the podcast, but I may as well reiterate my big question: what is the concept of Power Girl, other than that she's a Supergirl knock-off? The set-up in this series is that she's running one of those charitably-inclined technology companies that heroes tend to end up with (regular capitalism being a rather unfashionable occupation these days), but since there's no mention of any technical genius or vast wealth, I have no clue how she ended up with it. It's basically fine if you can live with the gratuitous T&A jokes, but the real problem here is that Power Girl comes across as a generic character.

Seaguy: Slaves of Mickey Eye #2 - One part convoluted metaphor to three parts dreamy nonsense, but it's the sort of book where that's a ringing endorsement. Features perhaps the most unlikely bullfighting scene in history. A series this absurd won't be to everyone's taste, but it has a strong enough plotline to hang together through the weirdness. I love it, personally.

X-Men: First Class Finals #4 - Um... more greatest hits from earlier X-Men: First Class stories, strung together with a loose "let's travel inside Jean's memories" plot. The pay-off is something about Jean dreaming about her fears, and frankly, it seems a bit of a weak justification for a four issue miniseries. Oh, and judging by the ending, we've also given up any pretence of First Class being more than a loose parallel to mainstream continuity (as the book apparently forgets to write out Hank before diving into Giant-Size X-Men #1). Anyway, it's perfectly inoffensive, but in its eagerness to remind us of First Class stories of yore, it doesn't manage to deliver a story on their level.

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House to Astonish, episode 14

It's the weekend of the Bristol convention! But we didn't go. So instead, this week, reviews of New Mutants, Power Girl and Fin Fang Four Return, along with the usual news round-up.

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

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Friday, May 08, 2009

I despair sometimes.

Forbidden Planet Edinburgh have failed to order my copy of Marvel Index for the second month running, despite having four standing orders for it, and despite my complaining about it last month, on the grounds that - get this - they place orders three months in advance.

For christ's sake. Even I know you can you adjust your initial orders long after that point. It's the reason why they changed the charts to "actual copies sold" in 2003!

I despair of this bunch.

I am genuinely, seriously considering buying all my comics by mail order rather than continuing to give them my trade.


Wednesday, May 06, 2009

X-Men Origins: Wolverine

"Birth of a Weapon"
Writer: Chris Yost
Artist: Mark Texeira
Colourist: John Rauch
Letterer: Todd Klein
Editor: Nick Lowe

No, not the movie, but the obligatory one-shot that came out in the same week. This is the latest in a series of X-Men Origins one-shots, which either recap the origins of X-Men characters, or just give them one to fill in the blanks. And just in case you're wondering, despite being released to coincide with the movie, this is set in regular continuity.

Time was, Wolverine's origin story consisted of some shadowy material about nasty people experimenting on him, and not a great deal else. But the last twenty years have left him originned to hell and back. One of the biggest challenges facing Chris Yost here is to cram it all into 30 pages of story. On top of that, he's got to structure it into some kind of vaguely satisfying story arc. And ideally, he's got to find a fresh angle to entertain readers who already know it all.

I don't envy him. It's a tough assignment.

Yost's approach is to go non-linear. There's a loose story with Wolverine at the tail end of his career in Canada with Department H, just before he hooked up with the X-Men. In amongst that, we get a bunch of scattered flashback scenes to the important stuff from Wolverine's history. The basic idea is that Wolverine's been destroyed as a person, and Xavier's going to come and help him rebuild himself as a member of the X-Men. Fair enough; it's the closest thing to a narrative arc that the material provides. Yost also throws in some original material near the end where Wolverine gets to fight off Department H in order to provide a suitable dramatic turning point.

Of course, there's a problem here, which is that the flashbacks feature material that Wolverine's not supposed to remember at this point in continuity. Yost gets around that by suggesting that Xavier is probing Wolverine's subconscious in preparation for recruiting him - which rather begs the question of how much he's supposed to know in this version of continuity. (For that matter, is Xavier meant to know about the Weapon X Project at this point? I have a strong suspicion he isn't.) Still, at least the story tries to pick its way through this minefield; I've got to credit it for trying.

It looks rather good. Mark Texeira, who had a run on Wolverine back in the nineties, is brought on to do the art, and he still does a good job of balancing over-the-top violence with the quieter bits. It's a shame we don't see him around more often. Okay, yes, his Wolverine's a bit top-heavy, and something of a giant... he's never quite got to grips with the scrappy underdog look. But he's good with catching the spirit of the character, regardless.

On the down side, the story is unavoidably rather choppy: it has to plough its way through bits of Origin, bits of Barry Windsor-Smith's "Weapon X" story, bits of Logan meeting Alpha Flight... there's a lot to cover, and seeing Origin in this context only flags up how absurdly disconnected it is from everything else. I know it crops up in the film, but they'd have been better off ignoring it; it only distracts from the arc that Yost's trying to impose on the material. The starting point should be Logan's pre-Weapon X military career, not the peripheral Pride and Prejudice and Mutants.

Marvel Kremlinologists will find plenty to ponder over here. Origin makes it in, but Daniel Way's Romulus storyline - despite being the focus of an entire ongoing storyline - seems to have gone missing somewhere. For that matter, nobody seems to have paid much attention to the recent flashbacks in X-Men: Legacy which also deal with Xavier's early contact with Wolverine. There's an issue here, because as I've pointed out before, there's no point doing the Wolverine: Origins story if it's not going to be received wholeheartedly into continuity. You either embrace it fully or you don't bother doing it. Its total omission from this story, which otherwise tries its best to squeeze in all major aspects of continuity, is curious.

All told, the book does the best it can with a very difficult remit - but Wolverine's history is now so fractured and messy that it just doesn't compress into a satisfying story.

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Sunday, May 03, 2009

The X-Axis - 3 May 2009

See, I finally got around to writing about "Whatever Happened to the Caped Crusader?" That's below. We'll get to X-Men Origins: Wolverine - the one-shot comic, not the movie - later.

Thanks to Steven Grant for plugging House to Astonish in his weekly "Permanent Damage" column, which is always much appreciated. In turn, wrestling fans might want to follow the link, since he's got a lot of thoughts about the state of wrestling storytelling this week. And I couldn't agree more about the BBC's Tonight's The Night, a John Barrowman vehicle for which the word "misconceived" doesn't begin to describe it. British masochists can watch the latest episode here - the rest of you may be able to see the BBC's chosen still photo of John Barrowman dispensing stardust to a grateful world, which pretty much sums up the experience.


Battlefields: The Tankies #1 - Another Garth Ennis war story, this time drawn by Carlos Ezquerra. It's just after D-Day, and a rookie London tank crew find themselves under the command of an incomprehensible Geordie veteran. More or less a return to comedy compared with the serious tone of some recent Battlefields stories, and to be honest, it's a bit light on plot, and a bit heavy on jokes about the Geordie accent. Mind you, there's a point in there somewhere, with the 1940s Londoners knowing absolutely nothing about the rest of the country. Doesn't look like a classic, but it's perfectly good fun.

The Literals #1 - Billed as a three-issue miniseries, this is really chapters 3, 6 and 9 of "The Great Fables Crossover". It exists, I suppose, to fit the structure of the story that Bill Willingham and Matthew Sturges are telling: one chapter for the Fables cast, one for the Jack of Fables cast, and one from the Literals' perspective, in strict rotation. The Literals are the bad guys in this story (most of them, at least), if only because they seem so indifferent to the consequences of the plot, but this chapter blithely takes everything from their perspective regardless. In tone and appearance, it's basically an extra issue of Jack of Fables, which is fine by me.

Phonogram vol 2 #2 - The idea here, if you've forgotten, is seven different stories, all in the same club on the same night from the perspective of a different character. This time, it's Marc the emo kid (the one who refused to dance last issue), reminiscing in self-pitying fashion about an abortive relationship with an unnamed probably-Polish free spirit - or at least, that's evidently how he chooses to recall her. Phonogram being vaguely magical, his recollection of her still manages to have a better sense of perspective than he does. Actually, there's not much magic in this story, but it dovetails very cleverly with what we saw last issue: a minor sequence which we already saw in issue #1 serves as the ending of this story, and thanks to the shift of perspective, it works.

Ultimate Wolverine vs Hulk #5 - Wow, this just gets dumber and dumber. Not that Damon Lindelof would disagree with that - he's clearly aiming to go insanely over the top, and the result is the sort of endearingly well-intentioned gibberish that works well enough if you switch your brain off, but doesn't entirely belong in an ongoing continuity where, y'know, future stories might want us to believe that Wolverine isn't functionally immortal. Ignore that consideration, though, and it's harmless nonsense - too throwaway to withstand the scrutiny coming its way after such the inordinate three year delay between issues, but it can time a joke, and it still raises a smile.

Uncanny X-Men #509 - You've got to love the cover, in which the two versions of Psylocke appear to have the same face, aside from a bit of shading of Kwannon's eye to acknowledge her ethnicity. As for the story... well, let's be honest, this series has problems beyond just Greg Land's art. There's just too much going on for any coherent momentum to emerge. Yes, the opening pages are full of demented grinning, but they're also a lecture on how awesome San Francisco is. The "Proposition X" subplot is introduced, billed as a major deal, and then ignored for the rest of the issue. Pixie is getting angry. The science team are thinking about building a time machine, for reasons that frankly amount to some handwaving and a "Just because." Psylocke's return is still being built up, but she doesn't get anything to do just yet. The Red Queen spends three pages delivering cryptic dialogue, the thrust of which is probably "She's Phoenix." Scott and Emma are having trouble. The Sisterhood attack the X-Men and seem to be after Wolverine. Now, in the last arc, Fraction didn't really bother trying to keep all the plates spinning, and just focussed on the ones that were immediately relevant - which didn't read very well, as it meant that the X-Men just stopped talking about things they should logically have been very interested in. This time, he's keeping it all on the page, but as you can imagine, there's no space to really develop any of these ideas; if the story is about anything in particular, it's about the Sisterhood, but their threat is so mysterious and ill-defined that it's hard to know what's supposed to be at stake. Oddly, there are plenty of stories here I'm potentially interested in, but none of them are actually being told, and the Sisterhood is probably the least promising of the bunch. It's a book full of ideas that I like in theory, but which aren't quite working in practice. I'm sure it's heading somewhere, and it'll all settle into some sort of structure in hindsight, but this just doesn't have the focus for a monthly serial.

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Whatever Happened to the Caped Crusader?

"Whatever Happened to the Caped Crusader?"
(Batman #686 / Detective Comics #853)

Writer: Neil Gaiman
Penciller: Andy Kubert
Inker: Scott Williams
Colourist: Alex Sinclair
Letterer: Jared Fletcher
Editor: Mike Marts

Neil Gaiman has never been entirely at home with superheroes. True, some of them show up in Sandman, but for the most part their roots are downplayed. When he ventures wholesale into the superhero genre, you get stuff like 1602 and Eternals, neither of which is among his more interesting work.

But Batman suits him a little better - particularly where, as here, he isn't asked to write a story so much as a eulogy. The term "iconic", as applied to superheroes, is much abused and much overused. The Martian Manhunter is not iconic, he's just been around a while. But there are a handful of characters, like Batman (and Superman, and the Hulk), who really have made the leap to being universally known, and have stayed that way for decades. Of course, only the broad strokes are really known to everyone, which is why they're so susceptible to reinterpretation; but a fair case can be made that Batman has become as embedded in the popular consciousness as, say, Sherlock Holmes.

This makes Batman more suited to a Neil Gaiman treatment. And what he gives us, as I say, isn't really a story at all. With Batman recently despatched in Some Crossover Or Other #whatever, these two issues consist of him (as narrator) watching his own funeral, as supporting characters and villains show up in turn to recount their dealings with different, and vastly incompatible, versions of Batman. Just in case you hadn't got the point that Batman is modern folklore open to multiple interpretation, one of them even dies in the style of Robin Hood, and the story makes sure to point that out.

Mind you, they're universally serious versions of Batman. True, there's a passing acknowledgement of the recent animated incarnations, and there's a twisted dark comedy version, but there's no space here for the sixties camp interpretation. Partly, that's because Gaiman wants to make the point that Batman, at his essence, is always the implacable hero who never gives up; the only way his story can end is with heroic death in battle, as it's impossible to imagine a retired Batman.

But I wonder if he's being overly selective in order to get there. I don't really see the Adam West Batman dying in action; there's no death in his world. That version surely lived out a pleasant retirement in the Bat Nursing Home before ascending peacefully to the great Batcave in the sky. You can make a case that he's not really Batman, so much as a parody... but I wonder. I think he's too prominent to be ignored if you're trying to make a point about the Core of the Many Versions of Batman.

Andy Kubert is somewhat miscast on this book. The nature of the story doesn't play to his strengths. It's not primarily an action story, and worse yet, it seems to call for him to imitate the styles of Batman artists of yore. Kubert is not a chameleon, and the style shifts end up on the periphery. And there's a bit of dramatic posing going on, which doesn't seem quite at home. That said, though, he pulls off the closing sequence quite well, his Gotham is well designed, and he does a good stoic Batman. A lot of it's rather good; it just lacks a certain delicacy at times.

Anyhow, when all is said and done, it's two issues of Gaiman telling us about the essence of Batman. There's a somewhat cryptic finish, but chances are it's nothing more than a reminder that as one version of Batman finishes, another one begins. It's basically fine for what it is, but it's nothing revelatory - in fact, having decided to try and get to the core of Batman, it was hardly going to be, because that's what most Batman writers try to do at some point. That's the inherent limitation here; Batman can be used in new ways, and placed in new contexts, and pitted against new villains, and his stories can be told in new styles, but there's not much more to be said about the core premise itself. Gaiman is spelling out a largely familiar subtext, which is often only slightly "sub" to begin with. It is what it is; it's not a classic, and it isn't Sandman, but on its own terms it's likeable enough.

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Saturday, May 02, 2009

In case you're wondering...

I'm not going to review X-Men Origins: Wolverine, because I don't plan to go and see it. To be honest, I'm not really that interested in adaptations to other media. Never bothered watching the animated series either.

The review on Mark Kermode and Simon Mayo's podcast has some very valid points about the pointlessness of over-exploring back story, though. (Worth subscribing.)

And they flag up the too-close-to-home analysis on the British Board of Film Classification's parental guidance website: justifying the 12A certificate, the Board explains that "it is always obvious that we are looking at a fantastic world that has little in common with reality."