Sunday, June 28, 2009

X-Men: Legacy #225

No capsules this weekend, because, well, I haven't read any of the books yet. But there's always this to tide you over...

X-Men: Legacy #225 (untitled)
Writer: Mike Carey
Artist: Phil Briones
Colourist: Brian Reber
Letterer: Cory Petit
Editor: Nick Lowe

The X-Men books don't do single issue stories very often. But Legacy #225 is one such story. At first glance you'd think it was an epilogue to Professor X's world tour. But really, this is finale - this is the story which brings some closure to the whole thing, as Xavier returns to the Acolytes (who were in the first arc), and basically tells them what he's learned.

Having spent the last year visiting old characters, having flashbacks, and generally coming to terms with his past, Xavier's message is, of course, that it's time to move on. The Acolytes are a relic from an earlier incarnation of the series, still obsessed with factional in-fighting and the future of the mutant race. But after Decimation, there are no factions, and there is no race. They're just wasting their time, and Xavier is there to persuade them to go and do something more productive.

If nothing else, this answers the question of why Mike Carey was assembling a rather unlikely batch of characters into a new incarnation of the Acolytes: the pointlessness of the team pretty much was the point. And as usual, Carey makes this work with the small character details. The remaining Acolytes may be mostly D-list obscurities, but they still get more personality than usual. And since Xavier isn't trying to beat them so much as persuade them, Carey gets to use his telepathic powers more imaginatively than usual.

The story makes unusually good use of Exodus, too. As a zealot, he's always been a somewhat interesting character, but one who can easily end up one-dimensional in the hands of the wrong writer. Here, he's a somewhat well-meaning character who's been holed up in a secret base with a bunch of henchmen because it's all he really knows how to do; Xavier prompts him to go and do something more constructive instead, and there's certainly some potential in having Exodus wandering around as a loose cannon trying to find a new role for himself.

So it's a decent issue, well paced, very readable. But the big question, of course, is where this is all heading. The X-books have been struggling to find a workable direction and gain any traction since M-Day, and that was four years ago now. By spending the last year revisiting old Professor X stories and drawing a line under them, Carey has dodged that problem rather than actually answering it. Nor does he offer any particularly concrete answers here. Yes, the situation has changed, the Acolytes and the X-Men need to do something else... but what? The last few years of stories rather suggest that nobody knows.

Carey's approach is to make the problem into the solution - to do stories about the characters trying to figure out what they're going to do now. That's fine as far as it goes, and it's certainly a phase that the book needs to go through. But at some point they need to come up with an answer, and really, that point should have come a couple of years ago. The San Francisco set-up doesn't seem to offer an answer so much as an attempt to ignore the problem.

And that's my reservation, I think. Carey is saying all the right things, and doing all the right things (or rather, the things that should have been done in 2006, but he wasn't here at the time, so it's not his fault). He's saying that the characters need to come to terms with their past, accept what has changed, and find a way to move forward from there. All well and good, and if I had faith that this was heading anywhere, I'd say this was a very good issue. But after four years of watching some of Marvel's best writers repeatedly fail to find that way forward, in favour of ducking the issue time and again, I long since stopped believing that it's ever going to happen. Maybe this time it'll be different, but I'd have to be some sort of sucker to have any faith in that until I see it on the page.

Labels: , ,

The Bash 2009

The WWE is an increasingly eccentric and erratic place these days, seemingly unable to hold to an idea for more than a day or two before losing in faith in it, or becoming captivated by another passing fancy. Hence "The Bash."

This show used to be called "The Great American Bash." It's an old trademark that they picked up when they bought out WCW, and which they dusted off when they were adding pay-per-views to the calendar. And then, earlier this year, they apparently decided they didn't like it after all. Can't say I blame them, really. It's a dreadful name. Still, apparently they'd already started the local promotion by this point, so we end up with this weirdly truncated name. "The Bash"? Who thought that sounded any good?

It's been only three weeks since the last pay-per-view. That's too short anyway - but this time round, the company has been derailed by the USA network requesting two special episodes of Monday Night Raw - one with a three hour running time, one with no commercials. Since those had to be attractions in their own right, Raw only got around to promoting its pay-per-view matches at the last minute.

And making matters even worse, the company spent those weeks on Raw introducing, and then almost immediately dropping, a bizarre and garbled story about Donald Trump buying the show, which was borderline gibberish even by the low standards of professional wrestling.

It has been said that the writers are a bit demoralised at the moment. It's certainly easy to believe. In fact, ironically enough, most of the actual matches on this show make reasonable sense in terms of long-term planning (particularly those involving wrestlers from Smackdown, the B-show, which tends to escape the worst of the company's changing whims). But the build-up over the last few weeks has been a mess.

1. WWE Championship, "Three Stages of Hell" match: Randy Orton v. Triple H. Quite a few of these matches make reasonable sense - but not this one. The WWE Title has been bouncing around like a pinball lately, which does nobody any favours. Orton won the title from Triple H in a six-man tag match in April. Triple H was then written out for a few weeks with an injury angle so that the character (undeniably overexposed) could be rested for a bit. Orton then went on to feud with Dave Batista, who promptly went down with a genuine arm injury requiring surgery. But the WWE apparently felt Batista's credibility couldn't withstand another unsuccessful challenge for the title. So he won it at the last pay-per-view three weeks ago. Then, the next day, they did an injury storyline; Batista vacated the title; and Orton won it back a week late.

This is all a bit chaotic. But it could have been worse; at least Orton, the heel champion, got his title back quickly, and got credit for injuring two of his main challengers. That keeps him suitably strong.

Now we're back to Orton and Triple H, a match we've seen many times before, and which is usually not that memorable. They already did a title match on Monday night's Raw. That ended in a draw (which means Orton retained the title). Now, at the last minute, we have a rematch which is not merely gimmicky but positively bloated. Basically, it's a best-of-3 series. First match is a straight wrestling match, second match is falls-count-anywhere, and the third ("if needed", cough cough) will be a stretcher match.

I'm fairly bored of this pairing already. I don't want to see them wrestle three times in one night. And I certainly don't want to see them in a stretcher match, where the aim is to put your opponent on a stretcher and roll it over a white line. They're almost invariably crap, mostly because you can't use near falls to build tension. In fact, I have so little interest in seeing these two wrestle yet again that this match is probably the decisive factor that makes me not want to buy this show. One match, on an otherwise interesting card... maybe. Three? Spare me.

Orton should win. It's far too soon to switch the title again, and there are ways of doing screwjob endings with his lackeys to give Triple H an excuse.

2. World Heavyweight Title: CM Punk v. Jeff Hardy. The Smackdown title. On the last show, Jeff Hardy won the title from Edge in a ladder match, only for CM Punk to bounce down the ramp and claim the any-time-any-place title shot he won at Wrestlemania. So, for the second year running, Punk ambushed a weakened champion and won the title.

Except last year, Punk did it to Edge, a dastardly villain who had done the same thing twice before to other champions, and had no business complaining about it. This year, he did it to the beloved Jeff Hardy. Cue heel turn. And it's a well-judged heel turn, since Punk is well placed to make the argument that, hey, nobody complained last year, so what's the problem? His "straight edge" gimmick, which he's been doing since his days on the indie scene, works well as a self-righteous, condescending heel convinced that he's in the right. The slight downside is that Chris Jericho is already doing a very similar heel character on the same show, but so be it.

So far, Punk hasn't officially turned heel. He's still wrestling like a babyface, he's not cheating, he's saying the right things in interviews - but he's just being slightly more smug and condescending about it. And, of course, he's being paired up against Jeff Hardy, who is bound to be cheered against him.

This could go either way. On the one hand, Jeff Hardy is still meant to be taking a break in the not-too-distant future; on the other, the show is short of top babyfaces at the moment, so Punk would quickly run out of challengers. My instinct would be to extend this storyline a little longer, which would mean Punk winning in slightly dubious fashion.

CM Punk doesn't always mesh with all his opponents, but I suspect he'll be fine with Hardy. This could be a good match.

3. ECW Championship, Scramble Match: Tommy Dreamer v. Jack Swagger v. Christian v. Mark Henry v. Finlay. Meet the top tier of wrestlers from the C-show. Dreamer, a veteran of the original indie promotion ECW, won the title from Christian on the last show. On paper this was obviously meant to be a terribly emotional moment, but it suffers from the usual problem that nobody cares about ECW storylines. The show is taped on the same night as Smackdown, before an audience who largely don't watch it. To make people care about Dreamer finally winning the ECW title that he was chasing for much of the 1990s, they'd have had to show a lot more footage from the original shows - something they understandably don't want to do, as the production values weren't fantastic, and it bears no resemblance whatsoever to the current show. WWE fans know Dreamer, if at all, as a low-ranking jobber from five years ago. Many of them would probably be quite surprised to learn that he was still under contract at all.

What this means is that we have a lame duck champion, who will probably be losing the title tonight. The likely winner is probably Jack Swagger, the rookie heel, to set up further matches down the line. The company apparently has high hopes for Swagger, and understandably so.

The scramble match was an idea that the WWE first tried last year, when they did three of them on one show. It didn't really work. Basically, it's a match with a 20-minute time limit, and whoever gets the last pinfall wins. I say "basically", because last year they explained the rules in a staggeringly elaborate and confusing way, with nonsense about "interim champions". All you need to know is that the aim is to pin someone, and then stop anyone else from scoring a pinfall until time runs out. Last year's matches were reportedly a bit of a mess, and this is unlikely to be much of an improvement - but hell, it's only the ECW title, and they've already given up on pretending that it's an equal world title.

4. Intercontinental Title, mask vs title: Chris Jericho v. Rey Mysterio. The storyline here is that Jericho has beaten Mysterio twice (and won his IC title), by taking advantage of Mysterio's mask - for example, tearing it off and then pinning him while he's covering his face. Now, Mysterio is putting his mask on the line in order to get another title shot. If Jericho wins, Mysterio removes the mask for good.

We're not supposed to mention this, but Mysterio already unmasked back in 1999 when he was in WCW. The WWE simply ignored that when they brought him into the company a few years later. (This apparently causes some controversy when they tour Mexico, since the authorities down there, believe it or not, actually enforce unmasking stipulations. I suppose the get-out must be that Mysterio unmasked after a WCW match, which the Mexicans don't necessarily have to recognise. But still...)

Mysterio without the mask isn't a very good idea, as we found out a decade ago. He just doesn't have the same presence without it. So the chances of him losing here are minimal. And in theory, this is a good next step for the storyline. The problem is that it's all running a bit too quickly - they haven't done nearly enough to build up this match. My instinct would be to do a DQ finish and set up for a properly promoted rematch down the road. If they do have a proper finish, then Mysterio has to win. As for the match quality, with these two it should be excellent.

5. WWE Unified Tag Team Titles: Carlito & Primo Colon v. Cody Rhodes & Ted DiBiase. The Colons (that's pronounced "cologne", if you're wondering) are the "unified" tag team champions, having won the Smackdown tag titles earlier in the year, and picked up the Raw tag titles in a Wrestlemania match which didn't even make it onto the show. Such is the prestige of the tag division. As unified champions, they're theoretically the only wrestlers entitled to appear and defend their titles on all three shows, although in practice they were sent to Raw in the last draft, and they've stayed there. For some reason, even though the titles are supposed to have been unified, they're still carting around all four belts.

Cody Rhodes and Ted DiBiase are Randy Orton's henchmen from the Legacy stable, and a tag team feud is a very good move for them. In theory, they're supposed to gain credibility from being involved with a main event wrestler like Orton. In practice, they end up being the guys who get beaten up while Orton escapes - so they spend most of their time losing matches to main event babyfaces. None of which helps their credibility much.

So a tag title reign would be a smart move. The Colons haven't been doing much since they won the belts, and it's probably time to move on. If Rhodes and DiBiase win (and Orton retains) then the whole Legacy group will have titles, which is always a good visual. You could even do a storyline with Rhodes or DiBiase trying to give the group a clean sweep of the Raw titles by picking up Kofi Kingston's US title as well. Or, more plausibly, you could send Rhodes and DiBiase to Smackdown or ECW to defend their tag titles against other teams, away from the shadow of Randy Orton and the main eventers. This too would be good for them.

I'm rooting for a heel win, then. It has many upsides, and not much downside. As for the match... well, it'll probably be okay, but I doubt they'll get the time to do anything particularly memorable, and the live crowds don't seem to care all that much.

6. WWE Women's Title: Melina v. Michelle McCool. I'm trying very hard to think of anything to say about this. It'll probably be short. It probably won't be very good. And there isn't that much to get excited about.

7. John Cena v. The Miz. This, on the other hand, is more interesting. Mike Mizanin was a reality show contestant who the WWE initially signed more as a gimmick. As it turned out, he's not bad - he's got decent heel charisma, which is to say that he's the right sort of annoying, and he's come a long way in the ring. His tag team with John Morrison was a big success, but with the spring draft, the WWE has taken the questionable decision to try and make them both solo stars.

This remains a debatable strategy. Miz is good enough to carry his end in a tag team, but has yet to prove himself as a singles wrestler. Still, they're trying. The story here is that former world champions John Cena and the Big Show are trying to get on with their own feud, while Miz has been hovering around the sidelines repeatedly challenging Cena to matches, and getting ignored. Since Miz chooses to regard each unanswered challenge as a win by forfeit, he claims to be on a remarkable winning streak against Cena. For his part, Cena regards the midcard heel as beneath his notice.

Now, Cena has finally turned his attention to the Miz, and this is where we find out how serious they are about him. If Cena just squashes him, then we've been wasting our time. Here's what will probably happen, though: Cena dominates the match, Big Show interferes, and Miz picks up a technical win. This might be okay, depending on how much credibility Miz is given. If Big Show does all the work, that's bad. If Cena just gets distracted and Miz capitalises, that's fine - it means you can do a rematch down the road, and Miz can brag about a highly questionable win, but at least he'll have achieved the upset largely through his own efforts.

This could be a great storyline match. It probably won't be, since they've botched plenty of opportunities during the build-up on Raw, and generally erred on the side of making Miz look like a harmless nuisance. It probably won't be a technical classic, either. I'd bet on a frustrating missed opportunity... but you never know.

8. No count-out, no-DQ: Dolph Ziggler v. The Great Khali. Dolph Ziggler is an undercard wrestler who has been given something of a push since jumping to Smackdown in the draft. You're not supposed to recognise this, but he's actually Nick Nemeth of the Spirit Squad, the male cheerleader group who were floating around Raw as comedy heels a couple of years ago. When they first repackaged him as Dolph Ziggler, he was given the bizarre gimmick of persistently introducing himself to people. Now there's a belated attempt to give him some credibility.

The Great Khali is a virtually immobile seven-foot giant now cast in the awkward role of fun-loving monster babyface. Ziggler has beaten him twice on technicalities (count-out and DQ, by tricking the referee), so this is the rematch where, in theory, Ziggler can't do that. This is logically the point where Khali gets his win back, and Ziggler's probably already got as much credibility from this storyline as he's going to get, so fair enough.

The match, of course, will be god-awful. It's the Great Khali, for heaven's sake, the man can barely walk.

Worth buying? Well, Jericho/Mysterio will be good. Punk/Hardy and Cena/Miz have some genuine interest. But there's quite a bit of filler on this card... and three Orton/HHH matches? I don't think so.


Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Uncanny X-Men #508-511

Writer: Matt Fraction
Pencillers: Greg Land with Terry Dodson (epilogue)
Inker: Jay Leisten with Rachel Dodson (epilogue)
Colourist: Justin Ponsor
Letterer: Joe Caramagna
Editor: Nick Lowe

Actually, there's no title on the published stories. But the solicitations say it's called "Sisterhood", so we'll go with that.

This is one of Greg Land's arcs, and it's all too tempting to roll my eyes heavenward and lament the plastic pictures. We've been there before, though. The problems with Land's art, and there are many, have been exhaustively documented. It's lifeless, it's airbrushed, it's stiff, it doesn't convey emotion, his women all look alike, his rictus grins are absurd. All true, all very familiar.

But usually, I would then lament that Land was undermining the story. And there's the rub. "Sisterhood" is just a lousy story to start with.

On the plus side, Fraction is getting better at juggling his subplots. Before, major storylines were going missing for months at a time, even when they should have been a huge concern for the characters. This time, the first two issues spend more time keeping the plates spinning, before focussing in on the Sisterhood in the climactic second half. That's a big improvement.

Sadly, though, the arc is just all over the place. The plot boils down to this. The Red Queen (apparently Madelyne Pryor, although it's never explained with much clarity) is a disembodied psychic thingie. She wants a body back. Her plan is to revive Jean Grey's corpse and occupy that, because apparently only Jean is powerful enough to hold her. She recruits a bunch of villainesses, she does a test run with Psylocke, she attacks the X-Men in order to recover a lock of Jean's hair, she uses the hair to magically locate Jean's body, but the X-Men trick her in the end, she tries to occupy the wrong corpse, it won't hold her, and she vanishes.

That's the basic plot. I think. It's presented in a terribly confusing way, and it's riddled with garbled developments and outright plot holes.

Why does the Red Queen want a physical body anyway? She seems to be fine as she is. And if that's her only concern, why was she involved in the Hellfire Cult in the arc before last? What was the point of her connection with Empath? If it was only a device to get him into the X-Men's mansion, why didn't she just send him to knock on the door and sign up? Why did the Sisterhood need to go to the trouble of recovering a lock of Jean's hair just to discover that Jean's body is in the X-Men's long-established graveyard under a gravestone clearly marked JEAN GREY-SUMMERS? How does burning through an unsuitable host body leave the Red Queen any worse off than she was before? What's all this gibberish about Psylocke and "murder spirits"?

And that would be bad enough. But there are more fundamental problems. There is a cast of thousands, almost none of whom have any emotional anchor to the plot. The Sisterhood members seem to have been selected using the Official Handbook, a blindfold and a pin. Obscure X-Men associates show up for two panels and then vanish again for the rest of the story. Yes, yes, I know, it's not a formal team book any more. Fine. But it still needs some sort of focus on a defined cast. It's just a hazy mess right now.

Even if you can look past the plot problems, and forgive the lack of focus - what was any of it about? What was it even meant to be about? I really haven't a clue.

For all his faults, Greg Land is not the major problem with this story. The story is the major problem with this story. Fraction has written some very good stuff in recent years, but his work on Uncanny has been inconsistent at best. This one is a shambles.

Labels: , ,

Monday, June 22, 2009

Wolverine #73-74

"A Mile in my Moccasins"
Writer: Jason Aaron
Penciller: Adam Kubert
Inker: Mark Farmer
Letterer: Cory Petit
Colourist: Justin Ponsor
Editor: John Barber

Writer: Daniel Way
Artist: Tommy Lee Edwards
Letterer: John Workman
Editor: John Barber

Wolverine #73-74 have an unusual history and an unusual format. They're basically fill-in issues, seemingly intended to fill the gap between Mark Millar and Steve McNiven's "Old Man Logan" storyline, and issue #75's Dark Wolverine story. But rather than run the stories intact, they split them in two and put half in each issue.

Good idea? Well, from Marvel's perspective, it does mean that you get two Adam Kubert issues rather than just one. The stories are different in style, though it would be going it a bit far to say they complement each other, rather than just co-existing comfortably. As it turned out, they were never needed at all; "Old Man Logan" ran so far behind the schedule that these issues had to be rushed out in May.

When they rescheduled the issues, Marvel solemnly claimed that they were an ideal tie-in for the movie, suitable for new readers. Well. In their favour, I suppose, there's one story by Jason Aaron (Weapon X) and one by Daniel Way (Origins), so you could argue that new readers get to find out which book they'd prefer. Except there's nothing in the issues to tell them that. And although Way's story is a reasonably accessible, self-contained affair, Aaron embarks on a breakneck parody of Wolverine continuity which will be utterly meaningless to new readers.

Way and Tommy Lee Edwards provide a traditional fill-in story where Wolverine helps out one of his seemingly inexhaustile supply of previously unmentioned old friends. This time it's an aging biker called Horrorshow, a cuddly chap with a beard who presumably lived up to the name back in the seventies. There's an internal squabble for control of his biker clan, and a wayward son to deal with.

The wayward son provides the hook that makes this a Wolverine story: Way gets to play up the parallels with Daken. But the story doesn't actually get bogged down in any of that continuity, and really, it's a perfectly decent affair. In fact, it's a welcome reminder that when Way steers clear of his unfathomable conspiracy storyline, and has the discipline of a limited page count, he writes a good Wolverine. It's still a fill-in issue, but a solid one.

Aaron and Kubert turn in something rather more unusual, playing off Wolverine's ridiculous overexposure. The poor guy has two (now three) solo titles, New Avengers, Uncanny X-Men, Astonishing X-Men, X-Force and New Avengers. He's awfully busy. And that's the basic idea - most of part one is a bouncily insane patchwork of one-panel snapshots, labelled "Monday", "Tuesday" and so forth, each with Wolverine fighting a completely different villain alongside another team, guest star or whatever. You'd think it wouldn't work, but it's brilliantly paced, Kubert gets across enough information to give the general impression of some typical Wolveirne story in progress, and every week seems to end with Wolverine in yet another bar with yet more of his ever-growing army of previously unseen acquaintances. Aaron even manages to get in some good lines. (The X-Men, facing Mystique with a flamethrower: "I thought I told you to kill that woman." "I thought I did...")

Now, none of this will make the slightest sense to new readers, as I say. But pausing to explain it all would kill the joke. For once, I think it's worth the inaccessibility.

The second half has a stab at bringing things down to earth, with Spider-Man showing up in a bar and trying to persuade Wolverine that he's working himself into the ground. Aaron tries for a bit of tragedy here - Wolverine's got an awful lot to atone for, and doesn't feel he can let up - but it doesn't really fit with the first half of the story. Problem is, if you take Wolverine's continuity literally, and try to make sense of all his many, many engagements, it's just too stupid - and too cynical - to form the basis for drama. You can laugh at it, but when you try and shift gears and go for emotion, it rings false.

Mind you, Aaron and Kubert very nearly get away with it, which proves how good they are. But even with an ending that doesn't quite convince, the first half is so impressive that the story is worth reading for that alone.

Labels: , ,

Number 1s of 2009: 21 June 2009

I have no idea what the deal is here, but for some reason, while YouTube won't show me the official video for this song on the artist's channel, it will give me a version of the song accompanied by a rotating graphic, which is, in fact, embeddable. That makes so little sense that I'm assuming it's an error rather than an intentional decision to exclude the video from the UK. So here's a version posted by someone else instead.

This is "When Love Takes Over" by David Guetta featuring Kelly Rowland. It's a very radio-friendly song, and they've been hyping it for some time. It was supposed to go straight in at number one this week. But the record label dragged it out for so long that a couple of spoiler versions started climbing the iTunes chart , resulting in a hasty midweek release that landed the single at number 7 last week. (The Airi L spoiler version still made it to number 22, but has now vanished altogether.)

Kelly Rowland, formerly of Destiny's Child, has the misfortune to have seen her solo career entirely overshadowed by Beyonce Knowles. In fact, her singles have generally done okay, but somehow she hasn't managed to acquire Beyonce's star aura. Even so, it's her fourth UK number one. Kind of. It depends whether you count her two number 1s with Destiny's Child, "Independent Women" in 2000 and "Survivor" in 2001. The third was "Dilemma", her collaboration with Nelly from 2002. And to be fair, her solo career has racked up another four top-5 hits. Yet she doesn't have the A-list aura about her. Moving to dance music might be a smart move, switching genres to escape the comparisons with her more successful ex-colleague.

She is, however, only the guest vocalist on this track. It's the lead single from the new album by French producer David Guetta, who's been around for the better part of a decade. He's yet to put in an appearance on the Billboard Hot 100 (though that could change with this single), and his chart record in Britain is somewhat spotty. Like many dance acts, rather than having a loyal fanbase, his singles sell according to their individual merits.

This is his first UK number 1. His previous biggest hit was "Love Don't Let Me Go (Walking Away)", credited to David Guetta versus the Egg, which reached number 3 in 2006.

But it's slightly debatable whether this really counts, because the single is a mash-up. The backing track comes from the Tocadisco remix of "Walking Away" by the Egg, a record which never made the top 40. The vocals are by Chris Willis, Guetta's regular vocalist, and come from Guetta's single "Love Don't Let Me Go" (number 19 in 2001).

Guetta's other previous top ten hit was "Love Is Gone", another collaboration from 2007, which only reached number 9, but seemed to crop up on video channels forever. I've still not sure quite what to make of the video, which seems unsure whether it's trying to be arty or lowbrow, and ends up not quite being either.

Since "When Love Takes Over" had enough interest to generate spoiler versions, I suspect it's going to be number one for a while yet. Good news for Kelly Rowland's profile.


Sunday, June 21, 2009

The X-Axis - 21 June 2009

I know, I know, there's still a backlog from last week. And I will, honestly, get around to Wolverine #73-74 and Uncanny X-Men #508-511. Joining the queue this week is X-Men: Legacy #225, a single-issue story which seems to round off the "Professor X revisits his past" direction by coming full circle again.

But in the meantime, you can always check out the latest episode of House to Astonish, where Al and I look over the latest news and solicitations, and review Captain America, X-Men Forever and Booster Gold (the first DC Universe book to introduce its new back-up strip, if you were wondering why we cared).

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

Next week, by the way, there's an absolutely insane quantity of X-books. Even ignoring Timestorm 2009/2099 X-Men (which everyone will) and Wolverine Magazine #2 (a reprint book), Marvel are dumping all of this on the market simultaneously: Astonishing X-Men #30, Dark Avengers/Uncanny X-Men: Utopia, Dark Wolverine #75, Uncanny X-Men #512, Wolverine: First Class #16, Wolverine Noir #3, Wolverine: Weapon X #3, X-Factor #45, X-Force #16 and X-Men Forever #2.

I really don't understand the logic behind this sort of scheduling. Yes, it drowns other publishers who are trying to ship in the same week - but surely, when you flood the market with this many X-books, you just end up cannibalising your own sales. What's the point?

Anyway. Out this week:

All-New Savage She-Hulk #3 - Very much a guilty pleasure sort of book - it's Lyra, the daughter of Thundra, fighting the Dark Avengers, for heaven's sake. But thanks mainly to writer Fred van Lente (with solid support from pencillers Peter Vale and Michael Ryan), it does work, partly by revelling in the sheer inanity of Thundra's - and by extension, the new She-Hulk's - origin story. If you don't know, Thundra is the heroine of an alternate future where men and women are at war. It wuzz lyke a metafawr, y'know? The unspoken joke is that the characters take it all deadly seriously, and the clever bit is that Lyra somehow still manages to be three dimensional enough for the story to work. Acknowledging the idiocy of Thundra's world and still making to switch gears long enough to get some drama out of it is actually quite impressive.

Cable #15 - The penultimate chapter of "Messiah War", which started strongly but seems to be degenerating into filler to justify its seven-issue length. Granted, a crossover is a de facto fortnightly comic, and it can afford to be more relaxed than a monthly in its pacing. But at this point we're just getting a lot of running around and fighting, and the story still hasn't really tried to explain why Hope is supposed to be so important. (If she was in the present day, I could buy her as being symbolically imporant and a political football. But I simply don't understand why we're supposed to assume that she's personally significant. For all we know, she could have the mutant power to levitate paperclips.) Ariel Olivetti is in very hit-and-miss form this month - there's a very good, dynamic sequence of Hope on the run, but also a lot of characters standing stiffly and floating in space. Not a great issue.

Captain Britain and MI-13 #14 - The Dracula storyline builds towards its conclusion, as Paul Cornell unveils a string of twists, and sets up for the big climax. If I'm being honest, I'm in two minds about this vampires-in-space concept - an army of vampires kind of misses the point of what vampires were originally about, and risks making them just another bunch of invading aliens. At the very least, it's a bit of a balancing act, and I'm not quite sure this manages to be the big, crazy idea it presumably wants to be. But it's a well-paced superhero book, tightly plotted, and has a lot going for it.

Final Crisis Aftermath: Dance #2 - Oh, apparently we don't get ChrisCross drawing this miniseries after all. We get Andre Coelho and Eduardo Pansica splitting the pencils instead. And while they're perfectly acceptable, they're not up to the high standards of the first issue. Shame, that. Joe Casey's story remains promising, though, as the Super Young Team, who started out dressing up as superheroes to play the part, now belatedly have to figure out what their role actually involves in practice. Their problem seems to be that they're trying to express their individuality by copying other people and by trying to plug themselves into some pre-defined role, and the story is really about them trying to wrestle back control of the situation and make the team what they want it to be - once they figure out what that actually is. Decent reading, and it's a shame that the Final Crisis Aftermath banner will probably put off people who would otherwise enjoy it.

Hellblazer #256 - Peter Milligan goes old school, as John Constantine tries to hold on to his girlfriend using a love potion. That plot's been doing the rounds for centuries, but somehow earlier generations don't seem to have found it as creepy as today's readers do. Strangely, it's drifted from "harmless fairy tale plot element" to "overtones of rape" without the content really changing that much. Naturally, that's the tension that Milligan is keen to play up here. Phoebe's an unusual love interest for Constantine, too, as her defining characteristic is normalcy - and Vertigo characters tend to keep their real-world interactions to subcultures. You never know quite what you're going to get with Milligan writing a title; with Hellblazer, it's a fairly straight take on the character, but one that seems to work.

Jack of Fables #35 - In which Bigby takes on the anthropomorphic personifications of genre fiction and, presumably, condemns Earth-Fables to a few years of experimental writing. This is the penultimate chapter of "The Great Fables Crossover", and I like the audacity with which they're foreshadowing the finale: the embodiment of Deus Ex Machinas pops in from time to time during the crossover to assure us that he'll be there at the end. It's the sort of glorious illogic that really shouldn't work, and come to think of it, a case could be made that the oddity of the Literals undermines the "reality" of the Fables characters. Somehow, though, it seems to click. Oh, and Jack isn't in it at all.

Phonogram: The Singles Club #3 - This time, it's Emily Aster, the girl so determined to get away from her own previous persona that she literally sold that part of her personality for power. (Good choice of wording, by the way. Most stories would say she sold that part of her soul. But "soul" doesn't really mean anything, and when people hear it, they think of old stories. "Personality" is more meaningful, and forces people to stop and think about what you mean by it.) It's a story about people in denial about their past and trying to construct a new identity which seems self-contained, but turns out in the end to be defined by a reaction against what they were before. Emily thinks she's a different person now, and in some ways she's right, but not as many ways as she'd like to think. Great work from Jamie McKelvie, too - the body language is spot on, the final panel brilliant.

Wolverine: Origins #37 - Hmm. Halfway through reading this, I was primed to complain that if it was that easy to track down Romulus, somebody would have done it by now. But then it turns out that it isn't that easy to track down Romulus after all, so fair enough. Except then I find myself thinking, well then, how dumb is Wolverine to spend the whole issue believing in a misdirection plot that I never bought? Still, it's well paced, and the subplot scenes in the prison with Omega Red are well done. I'd be inclined to forgive it its flaws and say it's a basically decent issue. Certainly Scot Eaton continues to get better and better; he improved noticeably during his time on X-Men: Legacy, and he's still improving here. Really, my problem with this issue is that it's all about Wolverine hunting down Romulus, and for reasons you're surely all more than familiar with by now, I don't think Romulus is a remotely interesting idea.

X-Men Origins: Gambit - Mike Carey recaps Gambit's back story, as drawn largely from the Fabian Nicieza stories in his solo series. It's a straight retelling, but this material was scattered over tons of flashbacks before, and there's something to be said for simply bringing it all together. Rather than force it into a artificial plot, Carey simply plays on a few parallels between different stories to give it all a sense of shape. For the most part it kinds of works, and it speaks volumes that Carey gives the individual Marauders more personality in a single page than most of them achieved in their first decade in print. But I have serious doubts about the final two page sequence, in which Gambit rescues an unidentifed little girl with white hair from some people in very strange clothes. This is him meeting Storm, during the period when she'd been turned into a child, and then helping to rescue her from the Shadow King's Hounds. But quite how you're supposed to work that out if you don't know the story already, I have absolutely no idea. Thematically, I can see what Carey's going for - he's trying to tie that scene back to a Fabian Nicieza flashback where young Gambit rescued his future wife Bella Donna, and create a (slightly specious) impression of starting anew. But surely it'll be a baffling non sequitur ending to any reader who doesn't know the original context of the scene - in Uncanny X-Men #266, a comic from almost 20 years ago. A strange choice, and I doubt whether it's a successful one.

Labels: , , ,

House to Astonish, episode 17

This week, we round up the news and solicitations, and review X-Men Forever #1, Captain America #600 and, um, an issue of Booster Gold the number of which escapes me.

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

Labels: ,

Thursday, June 18, 2009

Exiles #2-3

"Long Live the King!"
Writer: Jeff Parker
Artist: Salva Espin
Colourist: Anthony Washington
Letterer: Simon Bowland
Editor: Mark Paniccia

The assignment of breathing life back into Exiles isn't a particularly enviable one. The format always suffered from an obvious problem that it tended become repetitive in the long run: team arrive on alternate Earth, team are arbitrarily assigned mission, team achieve it, team move on. Yes, the same basic idea worked for Quantum Leap, but that show only ran for five years. In the real world, concepts like this run their course. Nothing wrong with that, mind you - superhero comics are anomalous in clinging to the idea that a good format it one that will survive indefinitely, even interminably.

Still, Jeff Parker and Salva Espin face a difficult task in shaking up the series without turning it into something else altogether. But so far things are going well. Parker's solution is rather clever: he goes back to the original format with a team of new characters, but throws in Blink (playing the innocent) and Morph, both of whom clearly know more than they're letting on. If you're an existing reader, the mystery of what they're doing is a subplot. And if by some happy chance you're a complete newcomer, the story still works on the same level that it did the first time around.

Of course, this subplot needs time to build, so in the meantime we have a two-part story which introduces our new cast against a fairly straightforward backdrop. It also gives Espin a chance to flex his muscles as a superhero artist; he seems to be increasingly comfortable as the story goes on, which is nice to see.

On this world, all the mutants are living on Genosha under Magneto, and the Exiles are supposed to help Wolverine overthrow him. Unfortunately, Wolverine's already dead before they show up. And Magneto's mutant paradise seems pleasant enough, really - even the local X-Men are on side. But the Exiles set about their business and, of course, it turns out that Magneto isn't being entirely honest with everyone.

All of this could have been rather predictable, but Parker sets it up well by focussing partly on the question of why exactly the Exiles are here in the first place, and taking a roundabout route to his pay-off. It works by playing off the mystery subplot of what the Exiles' format is: the story explicitly draws our attention to the fact that this is a basically arbitrary mission, and likewise makes plays up the seemingly arbitrary resolution at the end. Really, the big idea is to do the classic Exiles formula, but with a vague sense that something's not quite right here, and there are loose ends where the story cuts off.

It's a smart way of riffing on the formula, while still playing to its strengths. Which isn't to say that it won't have a shelflife - at some point everything has to be explained, after all. But I like their approach. There's life in this one yet.

Labels: , ,

Monday, June 15, 2009

Number 1s of 2009: 14 June 2009

Just one week for the Black Eyed Peas' comeback, thankfully.

Pixie Lott, "Mama Do (Uh Oh, Uh Oh)"

Eighteen-year-old Pixie Lott is a stage school kid from Kent, and is something of a project for Mercury Records, who have been working very hard to hype her up as the next big thing. Her real name is Victoria, but evidently "Pixie" has been deemed more memorable. Which it is, but it also makes her sound like some sort of cloyingly irritating child-woman. Perhaps that's what they were going for. I don't know.

She's been drifting around major record labels in development for a couple of years now, and frankly, much of the hype for her only served to make me mentally file her under "Irritating" before I'd actually heard any of her music. This is her first single.

But what does she sound like?

Well, she sounds like Duffy. More or less.

All that said... this record is growing on me. She does have a good voice, and if we're going to have a bunch of Duffy-type acts... well, that's not an unappealing prospect, really. It's got a good hook, it's got a strong chorus, it's a decently crafted song. I can't ever shake the feeling that it's been consciously built to a commercial formula, but at least it's been built well, and at least the formula is a good one.

The hype has evidently paid off, and the demand for this sort of music evidently remains underserved, as the record goes straight to number one. There was a time when entering at number one with your first chart single put you in a rarefied company. Not counting Al Martino, who was number one on the very first chart back in 1952, it took 42 years before anyone managed to start their chart career by going straight in at number one. (Band Aid don't count, because everyone on that record had had a hit single already.) Unfortunately, this was the record in question:

Since then, the rise of pre-release hype, the increasing numbers of one-off dance hits, and the convention of talent show winners releasing a coronation single have made it relatively commonplace for artists to begin their career with a new entry at number 1. The full list makes rather uninspiring reading. Yes, there's the Arctic Monkeys, Gnarls Barkley, S Club 7, Daniel Bedingfield, Britney Spears and the Ting Tings... but there's also a lot of stuff like this.

"Gym and Tonic" by Spacedust, which has the curious distinction of being the lowest-selling number 1 of 1998 (it didn't even make the year-end top 100). You can't get too worked up about being on a list with them, I think.

Curiously, Pixie Lott is listed twice on this week's chart, despite only having released one single. She's also at number 52 with "Use Somebody", a Kings of Leon cover. It's the B-side, but apparently people are downloading it as a stand-alone track. This is very odd, since it's cheaper to buy both tracks together (which, under chart rules, would register as a sale of the "Mama Do" single). Either "Use Somebody" is picking up sales in its own right from people who aren't interested in the A-side or, perhaps more plausibly, people are buying the A-side and then coming back later to buy the B-side.


Sunday, June 14, 2009

The X-Axis - 14 June 2009

Goodness, I'm drifting way behind schedule. Still haven't got around to doing a full review of last week's Exiles storyline, and this week we've got Wolverine #73-74 and the end of the Sisterhood arc in Uncanny to add to the list. I'll get to them.

But in the meantime, here's some other stuff.

Beta Ray Bill: Godhunter #1 - Another four dollar miniseries. But this one has a stab at value for money, by throwing in a reprint of the character's debut in Thor #337. For some reason, that's not mentioned anywhere in the solicitations, so I'm not sure whether they're reprinting the whole storyline in the course of this miniseries. Seems like the sort of thing you'd want to draw attention to. As for the main feature, Kieron Gillen and Kano go all the way back to Beta Ray Bill's origin story to give him an agenda: he's going to singlehandedly defeat Galactus. I suspect this may be heading in the direction of asking whether Galactus is some sort of necessary evil - whether that works, depends on whether you can make him a metaphor rather than a big guy in purple. But it's a strong first issue, and I'm quite pleased to see Marvel doing more of these three-issue minis; it's punchier.

Fables #85 - More of Jack at the Farm, which is really something of a side issue in terms of the wider crossover. Really, the main story is going on in Jack of Fables and Literals; this subplot feels somewhat like an effort to get the overbearing Jack out of the way by keeping him occupied. It's okay, but it's not the strongest part of the storyline, and Tony Akins' art feels like it's working very hard to fit the house style.

Genext United #2 - Or GeNext or GeNeXt or GeneXt, or however it's meant to be capitalised - I'm never sure. Anyway, for those of you who can't keep track, this is Chris Claremont's second miniseries about the next generation of X-Men characters in (more or less) the world of his X-Men: The End miniseries. Which basically means it's a bunch of teenage heroes in the not-too-distant future. In fact, though, this series appears to be mainly concerned with introducing the heroes and villains of India, all of whom are mythologically themed. It's a nice enough idea in theory, but it's strangely charmless on the page - the characters aren't quite properly defined, and it never really comes to life.

Uncanny X-Men: First Class Giant-Size Special #1 - Following the well-received X-Men: First Class, which updated the Silver Age version of the X-Men, we're now getting Uncanny X-Men: First Class, a miniseries about the 1975 roster. (Between this and Wolverine: First Class, you can't help suspecting Marvel have rather lost sight of the original pun.) This issue is basically an anthology as Scott learns about each of his new teammates, through the medium of the flashback. There's a whole bunch of creators credited, although we're not told who did which bits. Heaven only knows when it's supposed to take place; you'd assume it was early in the day, but Moira's wandering around as an in-house scientist, so it can't be. If this is even meant to be in continuity at all. Who knows? Anyway, it's a mixed affair. The Storm piece is rather good, and Nightcrawler's segment has delightful art; Banshee's is pretty but rather vacant, and Colossus gets a bizarre scene which can't seem to make up its mind whether it's doing an Archie pastiche, and if so, why. But Wolverine spouting a load of gibberish about his past ("Hey, who let the radioactive wolverine out of its cage?") is very funny.

Unknown #2 - Mark Waid and Minck Oosterveer's offbeat detective story continues, and it seems we're doing the "weight of the human soul" idea. Specifically, Waid seems to be interested in the idea that, with quantum physics and so forth, there might actually be something to measure - as he mentions in passing, there's a guy at Duke University who apparently wants to do experiments about this. So while it's notionally a detective story, it's actually turning out to be more about mortality and the outer reaches of mystery. All blended with a Sherlock Holmes type of set-up. Unusual, but quite interesting.

Unwritten #2 - A high concept Vertigo series if ever there was one: Tommy Taylor thinks he was the inspiration for his father's highly successful books about a boy wizard of the same name, but it turns out that, unknown to him, he might actually be the character come to life. This being Vertigo, of course, we all know that some sort of magic is probably going to be involved. So, understandably enough, the story is already focussing more on the mystery of quite what Tommy actually is. The concept is certainly fascinating enough to justify it. Hopefully, with Carey's profile and the previous success of Lucifer, this title will attract a large enough audience for the story to run its full length, instead of being cut short like Crossing Midnight.

X-Factor #44 - Yes, the story really is called "Dirty, Sexy Monet." Groan now. But that aside, it's another good issue from Peter David, who continues to impress me by taking seemingly unpromising characters and making them work. He did it before by grafting a personality onto the cipher Layla Miller, and he's doing it again with Darwin from X-Men: Deadly Genesis. Oka, I'm not altogether sure we need more stories about dystopian futures, but hell, it's a subplot, and I'll give it the benefit of the doubt. Lovely art too, even if Longshot feels a bit creepy.

X-Men Forever #1 - We'll probably talk about this on the podcast next week (bluntly, there's not much in the way of new releases). In theory, this is the series where Chris Claremont picks up the X-Men where he left off in 1991. In practice, it's already becoming a bit confused. The first issue is devoted to the X-Men hunting down Fabian Cortez, a loose end from X-Men #3 which would have made sense for the fourth issue. But half the team seem to have been quietly dumped, and Kitty and Kurt from Excalibur are back for no apparent reason. In fairness, I can understand why Claremont needs to slim down the team - the 1991 roster was designed to sustain two books with separate casts, and it's clearly far too big for a single team book - but this sort of wholesale reshuffling straight off the bat doesn't seem in the spirit of the gimmick. The story itself is a forgettable manhunt with an uninspired payoff, but there are a couple of potentially interesting subplots, as Claremont gets a chance to write that Scott/Jean/Logan romantic triangle that he kept hinting at, and to do the Rogue/Gambit relationship his way.

Labels: , , , ,

Monday, June 08, 2009

Number 1s of 2009: 7 June 2009

Oh dear.

That, unfortunately, is "Boom Boom Pow" by the Black Eyed Peas, returning to number 1 for a second run after a two week break. I can't say it's growing on me.

Still, at least it means there's now something peripherally interesting about the record. Not many singles return to number 1 for a second run. It didn't happen at all in the 1970s, or the 1980s. It's been more common over the last couple of decades. I suppose that's because the hype-driven market in the pre-download era led to more one-week wonders which, from time to time, would briefly overtake a number 1 with genuine staying power, before flaring out almost immediately.

Since 1990, eleven other singles have managed to return to the top. And here they are. (Take note, pub quiz fans.) I've linked to the videos, but I'll embed some of the ones that did nothing in America.

1. Shakira featuring Wyclef Jean, "Hips Don't Lie" was number one for a single week in July 2006, before returning to the top for the whole of August. The records in the middle were "Smile" by Lily Allen (rather good), and a McFly double A-side, "Please Please"/"Don't Stop Me Now" (almost totally forgotten, but it was a charity single for Sport Relief).

2. Eric Prydz, "Call On Me" A Europe-wide dance hit with a video that spawned a bunch of imitators paying similar lip-service to the concept of irony. (One even hired the same dancers.) The sample is from "Valerie" by Steve Winwood. It was number 1 in October 2004. The interrupting single was "Radio" by Robbie Williams, which I haven't heard in ages, but it's one of his better ones.

3. Daniel Bedingfield, "Gotta Get Thru This." This UK garage record kickstarted the career of New Zealand songwriter Daniel Bedingfield, who subsequently turned out to be more of an MOR balladeer. He hasn't released anything since 2005, but his sister Natasha seems to have taken his place. "Gotta Get Thru This" was number one at Christmas/New Year 2001-2, and the interrupting single was the Christmas release "Somethin' Stupid" by Robbie Williams and Nicole Kidman.

4. S Club 7, "Don't Stop Movin'" S Club 7 were a Monkees-style pseudo-band created for a BBC children's show, but they did have some reasonably good material. Occasionally. Strangely, their only American hit was "Never Had A Dream Come True" (no, me neither), but they did have international success in Australasia and parts of Europe. One of them, Rachel Stevens, went on to a middling career as a solo artist. "Don't Stop Movin" was a hit in spring 2001, and the interrupting single was "It's Raining Men" by Geri Halliwell.

5. All Saints, "Under the Bridge"/"Lady Marmalade" Girl band All Saints were huge in the late nineties, and this was the second of their five number 1 singles. Their only significant American hit was the previous single, "Never Ever". Good choice, America. There's really no excuse for this plodding R&B rendition of the Red Hot Chili Peppers classic. Their version of "Lady Marmalade" is better, but hardly essential, and nobody's felt the need to play it since Moulin Rouge came out. The videos are designed to be watched back to back, and were actually given a cinema release as a supporting feature - they were booed when I saw them. The band's career eventually sputtered out in a disastrously unsuccessful film, and an attempted relaunch in 2006 got nowhere.

This self-proclaimed epic was number 1 in May 1998. The interrupting record was "Turn Back Time" by Aqua, the theme tune to romantic comedy Sliding Doors.

6. Celine Dion, "My Heart Will Go On", from February and March 1998. As everyone knows, this is the theme to Titanic. I can't stand it. The records in the middle were "Frozen" by Madonna, and the video below, "Brimful of Asha" by Cornershop (on the strength of the Norman Cook remix, of course).

7. Various artists, "Perfect Day." In 1997, the BBC made a promotional schedule-filler video about how great their music coverage was, and roped in a whole load of singers to take part. For reasons which remain somewhat obscure, the song they chose was Lou Reed's drug anthem "Perfect Day." (The subtext may have been missed.) By genuine public demand, the record was released as a charity single for Christmas 1997, and returned to the top in New Year 1998. It's a very strange record, but for some reason Middle England was enchanted.

The interrupting singles were "Too Much" by the Spice Girls and this pester-powered classic.

8. Puff Daddy & Faith Evans, "I'll Be Missing You." The summer 1997 tribute to the late Notorious B.I.G., inexplicably commemorated with a cover version of a song about stalkers. As the British mainstream record-buyer had been wholly indifferent to him in life, this record presumably sold on its perceived intrinsic merits. The interrupting single was "D'You Know What I Mean" by Oasis (the one that sounds like all the other ones).

9-10. The Fugees, "Killing Me Softly" / David Baddiel, Frank Skinner & The Lightning Seeds, "Three Lions." These two singles actually alternated back and forth in summer 1996, and so they hold the unique distinction of interrupting each other's runs at the top. Most people will remember "Killing Me Softly", the Fugees' cover of an old Roberta Flack song. Those outside Britain will probably be unfamiliar with "Three Lions", the official song of the England team for the Euro 96 tournament. With lyrics by comedians Baddiel and Skinner (who were hosting a football comedy show at the time), set to music by the Lightning Seeds, it's actually a surprisingly good song about England fans clinging on to hope even though they haven't won anything in years. For any Americans who might be wondering, the "Jules Rimet" is what the World Cup was called back in the sixties, when England had last won it.

11. Mr Blobby, "Mr Blobby." Less-than-fondly-remembered 1993 novelty single spawned by Noel Edmonds' Saturday evening family entertainment show. Mr Blobby was meant to be a parody of badly-conceived novelty characters, but was so inexplicably popular that he simply became one in his own right. The record that interrupted his run, bizarrely, was "Babe" by Take That, which only managed to stall the novelty juggernaut for a week. What were people thinking when they paid money for this?


Sunday, June 07, 2009

The X-Axis - 7 June 2009

For the latecomers among you, don't forget to check out this week's episode of House to Astonish, where Al and I review Batman & Robin, Chew and League of Extraordinary Gentlemen: Century - 1910. Download it here, or visit the podcast webpage, or subscribe via iTunes.

There aren't many obvious candidates for full length reviews this week, but I'll come back to Exiles #3, a book which is simultaneously the end of a two-parter and midway through something longer.

Also out this week...

Astonishing Tales #5 - The problem with these anthology titles is that at only eight pages a month, the stories take forever to get anywhere. So we're still on the Wolverine/Punisher and Mojoworld arcs that have been going since the start, and not much has changed. The first one is a plot-lite action story with some pleasingly striking art from Top Cow's studios (and clearer to read than its initially chaotic appearance might suggest); the other is doing the familiar jokes with Mojoworld as an analogue for the comics industry, but they're certainly funny. The Iron Man 2020 story remains acceptable, and the rest of the issue is taken up with an eight page Frank Tieri/Marco Turini short introducing Shiver, a new western/horror hybrid character who's set up in extremely vague terms in a story that doesn't really work - but in fairness, he would at least be something different for Marvel.

Batman & Robin #1 - See the podcast for more on this. Dick Grayson is the new Batman, and Batman's evil son Damian is now Robin. Grant Morrison is going for something much more straightforward and direct here; it's basically a straight Batman story. The twist, I suppose, is that you have different characters as Batman and Robin. But it's not played as an impersonation, so much as the two fitting into new roles. Frank Quitely's art is beautiful as ever, and I love the slightly retro, timeless look of his Gotham, complete with modernised 20s-style cars. All that said, though, most of the issue is simply a very well done Batman story; but the closing scene, introducing a new villain, is genuinely creepy enough to elevate the book beyond that.

Buffy the Vampire Slayer: Tales of the Vampires - This is a one-shot, but it's also part of the Season 8 series. Presumably, that halfway-house status is because, although the story plays off the Season 8 theme of vampires entering the mainstream, it doesn't feature any of the regular characters. It's a freestanding horror story which takes place against that backdrop, with a bored smalltown kid falling in with the local vampires - and so readers with no interest whatsoever in Buffy might still find this of interest. Particularly as the creative team is Becky Cloonan and Vasilis Lolos, and what they've produced is more of an indie horror book than anything in the franchise's usual style. Surprisingly good stuff - I nearly skipped this spin-off, but I'm glad I didn't.

Captain Britain & MI13 Annual #1 - It's a Meggan story, recapping her background and explaining what she's been up to since we last saw her getting trapped in hell. It also comes with a Greg Land cover from the "photoshop head A onto body B" sub-genre, but he's done worse. It's a shame the regular title is getting axed imminently, as this issue sees Cornell setting out his stall to explain his approach to the character. Evidently he was going to go all the way back to her early appearances, play up the idea that she's an empath who's influenced by everyone and everything around her, and use that to explore some themes about identity and autonomy. Cornell's approach to her relationship with Brian had plenty of story potential, and hopefully he'll get to follow it up in some way in the remaining space.

Chew #1 - See the podcast, again. This is an ongoing series by John Layman and Rob Guillory for Image, about a detective who learns about things by eating them. And if you're wondering how many cases you can build around that theme, well, he lives in a not-too-distant future where, thanks to bird flu, chicken has been banned. So we're getting prohibition-era stories... with chicken. It sounds ridiculous, and when you stop to think about it, it is ridiculous. But the book manages to strike the right balance so that, against the odds, it all fits together. Guillory's art is really excellent; anyone who can get an effective double-page spread out of a man eating soup is clearly on to something.

New Mutants #2 - That's a wonderful cover, isn't it? Most Marvel and DC covers are incredibly samey. Perhaps that's one (minor) reason why so few people pick up stories in mid-stream any more - nobody bothers making covers that are designed to make people think "Wow, I want to buy that." There's way too much generic pin-up art, which is dull, dull, dull - or at least, does nothing to suggest that the interior is anything other than generic. So it's nice to see a book which actually does look different from everything around it.

Anyway, this is a Legion story. And to some extent, it seems to be a retread of the original plot - David wants to get his mind back together, and his multiple personalities want to resist it - albeit without the rather heavyhanded political message of the original. It's not quite as strong as the first issue, partly because it now seems that the New Mutants have just stumbled by coincidence upon one of their old enemies, but it's still a very solid superhero book, and Diogenes Neves' art is impressive.

Seaguy: Slaves of Mickey Eye #3 - It's the final part of the second arc. Which, to be honest, hasn't sold wonderfully. But hopefully that won't deter them from completing the trilogy, as Grant Morrison and Cameron Stewart's elaborate and absurd metaphors make this one of the most distinctive books DC are producing right now. Yes, alright, the basic underlying message is a fairly standard theme of pop culture and consensus dulling people's individuality - but it's all doggedly pursued to a dementedly ridiculous conclusion. It's the combination of sheer nonsense and a curiously unshakeable internal logic that makes it work.

Ultimate Spider-Man #133 - The series ends with a silent issue in which supporting characters have fights. Why is it silent? Well, my first instinct was to say that it was to give the book the impression of actually having some content. But to be fair, I suppose it does provide an air of mourning that wouldn't be present if Bendis had just done a straight Ultimatum crossover. Nonetheless, it's still just an Ultimatum crossover, and hardly seems a satisfying way to end the series. It's a shame that the (understandably) perceived need to reboot the Ultimate line as a whole has ended up bringing down Ultimate Spider-Man along with it, a book that was perfectly fine as it was.

Ultimatum #4 - Crap. Plotless fighting for the vast bulk of an issue, and a strong contender for the stupidest scene of the year, as Magneto gets his arm cut off with a metal sword. A sword that he then proceeds to control with his powers in the very next panel, just to hammer home what an idiotic scene it is. At this point, of course, I'm past finding Jeph Loeb's work irritating or even insulting, though I'd be well within my rights to feel either. No, by this point the fact that Loeb, and indeed Marvel, evidently think this will do is... just sad, really. It's pathetic in every sense of the word. This is going to save the Ultimate imprint? Do me a favour.

Wolverine: Revolver - Good god that's a terrible cover. It's like a Spitting Image puppet gone terribly wrong. That said, though, this is one of the better Wolverine one-shots in quite a while. Most of it is a single scene, a Russian roulette sequence which is a strong concept, well executed. It peters out a bit towards the end, admittedly. It's one of those stories where the writer had an excellent idea for the first act and tacked on the necessary extra bits to turn it into a story. But that first act is very good - and, relieved of the need to draw Wolverine in costume, artist Das Pastoras does a much better job on the inside pages.

Labels: , ,

Extreme Rules 2009

Another pay-per-view I don't have to buy! This one's on Sky Sports 1, so I get it as part of the standard subscription. Fortunate, as it's a bit of a mixed bag.

Extreme Rules is the show that used to be called ECW One Night Stand. The first one was a reunion show for the influential and fondly remembered nineties indie promotion; the second (still bizarrely called One Night Stand) promoted ECW's relaunch as a WWE brand. Once it became apparent that the revived ECW was a lame duck that couldn't support its own pay-per-views, One Night Stand was turned into an annual show based on the theme of gimmick matches. "Extreme rules" was the WWE's euphemism for ECW rules, which were basically complete anarchy.

Why the name change? Well, it's not prompted, as you might think, by a belated recognition that One Night Stand V makes no sense. No, it's because the WWE is currently striving for a PG-13 rating, partly because they think it'll make them more attractive to advertisers (they feel, with some justification, that their advertising rates don't fairly reflect the size of their audience), and partly because Linda McMahon is trying to get into local politics in Connecticut.

So, with its ECW roots almost totally forgotten, it's now just a show of gimmick matches - some only very slightly gimmicky, to be honest.

1. WWE Championship, steel cage match: Randy Orton v. Batista. Last month, Orton retained the title against Batista by intentionally geting himself disqualified. (Titles don't change hands on a count-out or disqualification.) So, reasonably enough, we're doing a rematch with no disqualifications. Originally, the point of steel cage matches was supposed to be to stop the heel running away, and to stop his lackeys from interfering. We're going back to basics here.

This all makes reasonable sense, but I can't honestly say that Batista and Orton make a particularly inspiring pairing. And they've rather booked themselves into a corner here. Batista has mounted so many unsuccessful title challenges in the last year or so that he really needs a win at some point. But this isn't time, Orton is better in the role of champion, and so they're going to have to find some convoluted way of letting Orton win while preserving Batista's credibility as much as possible - unless, perhaps, he's about to turn heel, which wouldn't be such a bad idea. Much of the build-up for this match has actually centred on a side feud between Orton and retired (but probably not for long) wrestler Ric Flair; but it's not obvious how you got Flair involved in a match like this.

Orton retains, almost certainly by escape from the cage; match should be okay.

2. World Heavyweight Championship, ladder match: Edge v. Jeff Hardy. We've seen these two many times before, but that doesn't really matter, because they both have a track record of putting on spectacular ladder matches. It'll be a stunt show, but it'll be a very good one.

Hardy is supposed to be taking a break in the not-too-distant future, though nobody knows precisely when. That makes it unlikely that he'll win the title here. Mind you, with Edge and Hardy practically guaranteed to destroy one another in this match, I wouldn't completely rule out the possibility of CM Punk bounding down to the ring afterwards to cash in the any-time-any-place title shot he won at Wrestlemania. After all, he's been circling Edge like a vulture for weeks.

That possibility aside, Edge probably retains. But it should be a great match.

3. ECW Title, hardcore rules: Christian v. Jack Swagger v. Tommy Dreamer. All WWE three-way matches are no-DQ, so the "hardcore rules" stipulation actually adds nothing.

Actually, that's not entirely true. Strictly speaking, in a no-DQ match, cheating is still illegal, but the referee can't punish you for it. So the subtle difference is that the referee ought to at least try and remove weapons from the ring in a regular three-way. Oh, and come to think of it, in a hardcore match, falls count anywhere - so expect lots of brawling around the arena to take advantage of the one thing unique to this match.

Tommy Dreamer is the last remaining wrestler from the original ECW - or, as many people would have it, the real ECW. His character was a sort of long-suffering nearly-man, who would continually be on the verge of winning the title, but always get screwed somehow or other. He did actually get it in the end, but that's not the bit anyone remembers. The story here is that Dreamer has pledged to retire unless he can win the title before his current contract expires, which means it has to be tonight.

Even though the ECW title is not very important, I really don't see the company having Dreamer as the champion of that show. He's not their type. And he's had periods of semi-retirement before. So my bet would be that he nearly gets there, and Jack Swagger - as the only heel in the match - screws him out of it to win the title. Then they can build to a one-off return match down the line, or perhaps Dreamer can take a protege under his wing.

It'll be a brawl, and I'm not sure it plays to the strengths of Christian or Swagger. But it'll probably be entertaining enough.

4. Intercontinental Title, no holds barred: Chris Jericho v. Rey Mysterio. "No holds barred" is just one of those endless euphemisms for a no-DQ match. Jericho's current gimmick is that he's irrationally and paranoically convinced that he's the one honest man in wrestling, and that everyone around him is a coward and a hypocrite. His current target is Rey Mysterio, who wears a mask. Why does he wear a mask? What does he have to hide? So Jericho wants to win Mysterio's IC title but, more importantly, remove his mask.

Mysterio actually wrestled without his mask for several years towards the end of WCW, but we're evidently supposed to have forgotten that.

Jericho and Mysterio are probably set for a long programme together, as it's probably the best fit for either of them right now. (Jericho, who has some influence in his own stories, seems to prefer extended ones - so long as they involve a good opponent.) That suggests Jericho should probably win the title here, leaving space for title vs mask matches down the line. These two should have an excellent match.

5. US Title, four-way: Kofi Kingston v. MVP v. William Regal v. Matt Hardy. Just a regular four-way, it seems. Kingston, who claims to be from Jamaica but is actually from Ghana (which I'd have thought was a much more interesting gimmick, but whatever), won the US Title from MVP on Monday. That was an odd piece of booking, since this match was already scheduled. But it was a good match, and probably did some good in boosting the credibility of this third-tier title.

Kingston and MVP are the babyfaces. Regal and Hardy are the heels, and there's a tentative suggestion that they're in the orbit of Raw's evil general manager Vickie Guerrero. Hardy, in particular, is currently wrestling with a cast on his hand after suffering what was initially a genuine injury. The idea is meant to be that he's lying about his injury so that he can keep using the cast as a weapon, although frankly, you'd have thought the advantages of that were outweight by the disadvantages of having a cast on your hand. Regal is just sort of floating around looking for something to do; as an old-fashioned mat wrestler, he seems very out of place in a four-way match.

I'm not expecting wonders here. There are good wrestlers in this match but for some reason I can't shake the feeling it's going to be a bit of a confused mess. Kingston should presumably retain, as otherwise the title change on Monday seems senseless.

6. Submission match: John Cena v. The Big Show. Quite how a submission match, traditionally a contest of mat-wrestling prowess, fits the "Extreme Rules" theme, I have no idea. And quite why anyone would book a submission match, traditionally a contest of mat-wrestling prowess, between John Cena and the Big Show, neither of whom is renowned for any such thing, is beyond me.

Cena does at least have a submission hold, the STF, as his secondary finisher. The Big Show doesn't, normally, so they've been hastily building up the camel clutch as his submission hold of choice. Broadly speaking, the story is that Cena can't win this match because there's no way he can get his hold on the seven-foot giant. A nice idea in theory - but in practice, it's a submission match between John Cena and the Big Show, and I can't shake the feeling that this has to be someone's idea of a joke.

Cena probably wins - the WWE's reverse psychology means that the more adamantly they tell you somebody can't win, the more certain it becomes that they will. But I can't imagine this match possibly being any good.

7. Strap match: CM Punk v. Umaga. This is, hopefully, the pay-off to the Punk/Umaga feud. The idea is that Punk keeps trying to cash in his title shot and take the world title from a weakened Edge, and Umaga keeps interfering for... hey, did they ever give a reason for that? Oh well.

I can understand what the writers had in mind here. It's a fresh pairing of two wrestlers on the fringe of the main event. But it's also a feud where both of them would be hurt by losing. And the in-ring chemistry hasn't been spectacular. Umaga won last month, this is a rematch with his chosen gimmick, and so as night follows day Punk should overcome the odds and win.

The strap match gimmick means they get to hit one another with a strap. It's every bit as exciting as it sounds.

8. Miss Wrestlemania, hog pen match: Vickie Guerrero v. Santina Marella. God help us. This is the comic relief segment. Santina Marella is comedy wrestler Santino Marella in drag, and s/he won the meaningless "Miss Wrestlemania" title in a battle royal a couple of months ago. Vickie Guerrero, Raw's evil general manager won the non-title from him/her a few weeks back, in an angle which also served to turn Santino babyface.

A hog pen match was a gimmick they used to do 25 years ago, and it's pretty much what it sounds like. Vickie isn't a wrestler, and the company has so little faith in Santino that they rarely let him do more than 90 seconds, so it's highly unlikely that this will be any sort of "match", so much as an extended lowbrow comedy segment that is likely to be about as funny as drinking bleach. Actually, Santino is generally very funny, but more for his delivery than for the material the company gives him. He hasn't been able to make this work, and I doubt anything will change tonight.

Worth buying? Well, on the plus side, Edge/Hardy and Jericho/Mysterio should both be very good; Orton/Batista and the ECW match should be fine; and on paper the US title four-way at least has good wrestlers. On the other hand, Cena/Big Show is ludicrous, Punk/Umaga might politely be called uninspiring, and Santino/Vickie will be excruciating. There's probably more good than bad, though.


Saturday, June 06, 2009

House to Astonish, episode 16

This week on House to Astonish, reviews of Batman & Robin, Chew and League of Extraordinary Gentlemen: Century, plus news and the usual other stuff.

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

Labels: ,

Wolverine: Origins #33-36

"Weapon XI"
Writer: Daniel Way
Penciller: Doug Braithwaite
Inkers: Bill Reinhold, Cam Smith, Paul Neary, Klaus Janson, Jesse Delperdang, Andrew Hennessy, Kris Justice
Colourist: Andy Troy, Art Lyon
Letterer: Cory Petit
Editor: John Barber

Wow, that's an awful lot of inkers.

Officially, this arc is a Dark Reign tie-in. But Wolverine: Origins is a book that exists to tell a single huge conspiracy story. It isn't a book that does tie-ins. So, despite the banner, Way ploughs on with his story. The first two issues can broadly be justified as tie-ins. The second two can't, but they've got the banner anyway.

Here's the story. Daken wants to get hold of the Muramasa Blade (the magic sword made from Wolverine's blood or some such thing) so that he can have it melted down and grafted to his claws. Then, he'll have awesome metal claws too. So he lures the X-Men into coming after him, steals a bit of the Muramasa Blade (which, by happy coincidence, they decided to bring with them for the first time ever), and goes off to get two of his claws covered in metal by the Tinkerer. Wolverine goes after him, Romulus is hanging around, and... yeah, that's about it.

This isn't a Dark Reign story, but Way duly acknowledges Daken's inclusion in the cast of Dark Avengers. The problem is that he has to tack it on to the first act of his story, where it feels like it's been nailed on at the last minute.

More fundamentally, though, the story singularly omits to tell us why Daken wants to have part of this metal sword attached to his claws. All we're told is that Romulus wants it to happen, because this will make Daken the next generation Weapon X - somebody who can kill Wolverine. So far so good... but that doesn't explain why Daken, who is suposed to hate Romulus, would be willing to play ball. And when we get to issue #36, it turns out that these metal claws are crap, fragile, and have to be used with enormous caution. Which begs the question of why even Romulus would think this was worthwhile.

Perhaps there's an explanation in an earlier storyline that I've forgotten. If so, it would still have been nice - no, essential - to reiterate it in this arc, because it's the antagonist's motivation! And it's not as if the recap page is much help. Issue #36, for example, provides no explanation of Daken's plot (dismissing it as "mysterious" even though it was fully explained in issue #33), and offers no reason why Romulus' henchman is wandering around, all of which is essential information to understand the plot.

You could go on. What exactly does Daken do to lure the X-Men to New York? Nothing, really, but the story just asserts that he lured them. Why does Cyclops bring the Muramasa blade, which he doesn't normally carry around? It's essential to the plot, of course, but that's not a good enough reason, and none is offered.

The problem with Wolverine: Origins used to be that it was slower than treacle. It's sorted that out now; the pacing is fine. The problem now is that we've got a story stubbornly trudging from point A to point B without much obvious internal logic along the way, and characters acting irrationally because the plot demands it. The more you think about it, the less sense it makes. It's good enough on a scene-by-scene basis, but the big picture - and this book is all about the big picture - is confused at best.

Labels: , ,

Friday, June 05, 2009

X-Men Legacy #220-224

Writer: Mike Carey
Penciller: Scot Eaton
Inker: Andrew Hennessy
Colourists: Brian Reber and Chris Sotomayor
Letterer: Cory Petit
Editor: Nick Lowe

Continuing our tour of dangling Professor X subplots in need of resolution, Mike Carey and Scot Eaton come to Rogue and Danger. With Rogue, he promised to cure her uncontrollable superpowers, and never got round to it. With Danger, his super-duper hologram suite became sentient, and he kept it locked up in the basement for training purposes.

What do these two stories have in common, I hear you ask? Well, not a huge amount, really. But "Salvage" brings them together as A- and B-plot, in a story which also takes the opportunity to revisit that ghost town the X-Men lived in back in the late eighties. It's not a location with any great significance for Rogue, and it's got nothing to do with Danger, but hell, it's a bit of colour.

As you can probably guess by now, I'm not sure all these elements really fit together into a single story. It ends up as a story where Professor Xavier and Gambit go looking for Rogue, and end up trapped in a malfunctioning Danger Room simulation along with a bunch of Shi'ar salvagers. Rogue wanders through a series of flashbacks from her past - well, that's what happens in X-Men: Legacy - while the rest of the characters try to sort Danger out.

The Danger plot works fairly well. The Shi'ar scavengers make good comic relief, patronisingly talking down to the backward locals even though they're clearly the stupidest people in the room at all times. And at times, the art achieves a surprisingly respectable impersonation of the original Danger storyline from Astonishing X-Men (not least because of Brian Reber's colouring). Since that original story had Xavier holding a slave in his basement, Carey wisely retcons it to tone things down - in this version, he was trying ever so hard to free Danger, but just never achieved it. Redemption is duly achieved, and Danger's storyline gets some sense of resolution.

And then, alongside this, there's a bunch of Rogue flashbacks that don't really lead to anything much. At the end, Xavier comes up with the solution he was looking for all along and... cures her, more or less out of the blue. That's potentially an interesting step forward for the character, who's been circling around the same angst point forever (though to be fair, it's not the first time that writers have tried to move her on). But in this storyline, her plot seems to meander around for the middle three issues before stumbling onto a random finale.

It's a good enough read; the salvage crew are great characters, and keep things lively. As a turning point for Rogue, though, it's an odd thing.

Labels: , ,