Sunday, July 26, 2009


No reviews today, because the ever-reliable postal service hasn't actually delivered the books yet. Which makes it kind of hard to review them.

They'll probably arrive on Monday. Of course, then I have to read them before reviewing them, so don't hold your breath.

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Saturday, July 25, 2009

Night of Champions 2009

The WWE seems to have figured out, over the last few years, that giving all the second-tier pay-per-views different names isn't really enough to make them distinctive. So themed shows like One Night Stand and Cyber Sunday have started creeping into the schedule, and there's apparently more of this to come. There's talk that the September show, which has just been renamed Breaking Point, will feature a whole card of submission matches; this seems terribly ill-advised for a whole range of reasons (it only suits certain wrestlers, it'll be repetitive, it stops matches using near-falls to build excitement at a quick pace, and it forces a gimmick match onto feuds that might not logically require them), but I wouldn't be at all surprised to see them go through with it.

Night of Champions has a more straightforward gimmick: all eight titles are on the line. It's the third year they've done this, and it's slightly more distinctive than it has been before, since the company relied on midcard title matches to fill out pay-per-view cards less than before. They've also remembered to hold off the televised title defences for a few weeks.

Just to set the scene, here's how the titles actually break down. The WWE, you'll recall, is divided into three separate rosters, each with their own show - Raw, Smackdown and ECW. Raw and Smackdown are notionally equal, but everyone knows Raw is the bigger priority. Ironically, this means Smackdown suffers less meddling and last-minute changes of plans, and is usually a better show. The company long since dropped the pretence that ECW was in any way equal - at this point, it's basically a starting point for rookies, plus some experienced guys to help train them.

Raw has three titles - the WWE Title for headliners, the US Title for midcarders, and the Divas Title for women. (Yes, it's a dreadful name, isn't it?) Smackdown has the World Heavyweight Title for headliners, the Intercontinental Title for midcarders, and the Women's Title, which is self-explanatory. ECW has the ECW Title, and should count itself lucky to have that. And floating around, there's the Unified Tag Team Titles, which is defended everywhere. That's important, because it means they double as a plot device to let wrestlers appear on other shows.

And now, the card...

1. WWE Title: Randy Orton v. Triple H v. John Cena. Orton is still the defending heel champion, and here he is fighting the two main babyfaces on Raw... again. The WWE's spin is to say that this is the three top wrestlers on the show, fighting for the top belt. The problem is that we've seen these three in every conceivable combination, and there's really nothing new about it. The same match headlined Wrestlemania in 2007, and the fact that they're still doing variations on it should be cause for concern.

The problem is that the WWE has fallen into the classic wrestling trap of forgetting to elevate the next generation of wrestlers until it's too late. Orton really needs somebody else to feud with. But there's nobody lined up for that slot. And there's nobody new for Triple H and Cena to fight either. And when they try getting new people into the mix, they always get cold feet at the last minute - hence the recent Cena/Miz feud, where Miz came across as a persistent mosquito rather than a genuine threat.

Orton as champion still has possibilities, so he should retain here. They need to keep him strong, and a title change would achieve nothing. My inclination is that they should try and move Cena and Triple H on to other things - turning Triple H heel might be a smart move, because it's been a few years, and he's good at it. Orton's lack of challengers is a problem, but having written themselves into this corner, they've got to just choose some midcarders and run with it. MVP would be the obvious choice, if only they'd commit to him.

The match will be entirely solid - it's just unlikely to offer anything we haven't seen many times before.

2. World Heavyweight Title: CM Punk v. Jeff Hardy. The Smackdown match is a bit more interesting. The back story: Jeff Hardy won the title from Edge in a ladder match on the June show. Immediately afterwards, CM Punk cashed in the "Money in the Bank" title shot he won at Wrestlemania, and pinned Hardy to win the title, effectively turning heel in the process. Hardy is still chasing for his revenge.

This is Punk's first run as a heel in the WWE (not counting a couple of weeks where they teased it in ECW). But he was a very successful heel on the indie scene, doing a smug and holier-than-thou version of his "straight edge" persona. As on Raw, the lurking problem here is a shortage of credible challengers, particularly once Jeff Hardy takes that sabbatical he's supposedly got lined up. Still, there's always Rey Mysterio, they're trying to elevate John Morrison, and at some point the Undertaker will show up. You can keep Punk busy as heel champion for a while.

Since Hardy is on his way out for the time being, Punk should retain here. The actual match quality could be erratic; Punk is not the most consistent wrestler around. But it's likely to be in the "okay to good" range.

3. ECW Title: Tommy Dreamer v. Christian. Really? Because this doesn't seem to be working.

Tommy Dreamer is the last remaining veteran of the original ECW, an influential 1990s indie promotion which eventually went bust. The WWE bought the rights to the name, but their version is otherwise wholly unrelated. Dreamer's role in ECW-proper was to be the long-suffering babyface who went through hell to try and win the title, and never quite got there. Not many WWE viewers remember that storyline, for obvious reasons - it was over a decade ago on an indie promotion! Nevertheless, here's Dreamer, never a particularly good wrestler, finally getting his belated title run. Not many people seem to care.

Dreamer won the title in June, and has held on to it for a surprisingly long time. He's still feuding with Christian, the guy he won it from, who appears to be in the process of turning heel. That's fair enough; Christian's a natural heel, who had to go through an initial babyface run after a lengthy absence from the company. I'd say this is probably the time to move the title back. However, the TV shows have been teasing a three-way feud with Vladimir Kozlov, which makes me suspect we're actually going to get some sort of non-finish.

Christian's very good, but I can't see this being much more than okay.

4. Intercontinental Title: Rey Mysterio v. Dolph Ziggler. Ziggler had the misfortune to debut during a period when the company was keen on silly names - see also Jack Swagger. In his initial run on Raw, he was also saddled with a baffling gimmick: he insisted on introducing himself to everyone. Since being drafted to Smackdown, however, he's been given a more serious push, and seems to be something of a priority.

I can see this being a good match. Ziggler's really not bad, and Mysterio is obviously great. And knowing WWE logic, I can easily see Ziggler winning. It'd be an upset win, but it would preserves his momentum, and free up Mysterio as a challenger for CM Punk's World Title, after a discreet interval. Plus, Mysterio is the sort of lower-tier headliner that the company would regard as expendable for the purposes of elevating a younger wrestler. There's a lot to be said for the challenger winning here.

5. US Title: Kofi Kingston v. The Big Show v. MVP v. Carlito v. Jack Swagger v. The Miz. Very strange. The build-up for this match initially suggested a three-way with Kingston as defending champion, the Big Show, and Evan Bourne. Bourne now seems to have vanished from the plot altogether, and instead we've got this mess.

Kingston has been around for a year and half now. He's actually from Ghana, but for some reason the company is billing him as Jamaican. He's got something, but doesn't seem to be quite ready to break from the pack yet. Then again, to be fair, he's never really had any compelling storylines to work with. He won the US Title from MVP at the start of June, somewhat out of the blue, after which they started the stuff with Evan Bourne.

Instead we're getting a six-way match, where the first pinfall or submission wins. It's going to be an utter mess, in other words. I presume this is just a device to get a bunch of people on the show. Big Show is a headlining giant heel, looking for something to occupy his time, and the US Title is probably beneath him - although having him win here, and drop it back to Kingston in a straight match, might work. Carlito has just turned heel, breaking up his tag team with brother Primo, who isn't in the match at all (but should probably interfere somewhere along the line, to advance their story). Swagger and the Miz are midcard heels who could both make credible enough champions, but this doesn't feel like the right place to make that switch.

Kingston probably retains in a chaotic affair.

6. WWE Unified Tag Team Titles: Chris Jericho & ??? v. Legacy (Ted DiBiase and Cody Rhodes). Now this is an interesting one. As I said before, the tag titles are important, because the champions can be used on all three shows. That's why, on the June show, the titles were won by Jericho and Edge. It meant that two extra main event heels were now available across the company.

Unfortunately, Edge almost immediately went down with a (genuine) Achilles tendon injury, which will keep him out for months. To make matters worse, this happened after they'd taped two weeks of television, prior to going on an international tour. So there hasn't been much time to change direction. They've settled for an unsympathetic Jericho blithely announcing that he'll be replacing Edge with a mystery partner on Sunday.

To be honest, there aren't many obvious contenders for this slot. The problem with announcing a "mystery partner" is that it's terribly underwhelming to bring out some random midcard heel. But with all the headliners otherwise occupied, that might well be what they end up doing. Kane is probably the best of a bad bunch, in terms of not disappointing the crowd.

The challengers are an equally odd choice. DiBiase and Rhodes are Randy Orton's henchmen, and this is a heel/heel match - something that usually doesn't work. But there's a running subplot here, with Rhodes as the loyal soldier, and DiBiase starting to question whether he's getting anything out of this relationship. DiBiase, in other words, is on the first steps of a babyface turn - but his partner isn't. Now, in the WWE's mind, Legacy are probably supposed to be elevated by hanging around with main eventers like Orton. What actually happens is that they get beaten up a lot. So there's a lot to be said for Legacy winning this match and getting the chance to go out and defend their titles on Smackdown and ECW, away from the boss's shadow.

As for Jericho... well, logically I suppose he transitions into a mini-feud with whoever he chooses as a partner. The Legacy are actually quite good, though they rarely get the chance to show it, and Jericho is excellent - so this could be good. I'm honestly quite intrigued to find out what they do here.

7. Divas Title: Maryse v. Mickie James. Maryse is a great heel character, but not much of a wrestler. Mickie's actually pretty good, certainly by the (admittedly undemanding) standards of the WWE women. As an actual wrestler in a division of swimsuit models, she's doomed to a life of trying to have decent matches with hopeless opponents. Maryse is a model, but at least she tries hard and she has genuine charisma.

I suspect Mickie wins here. They've built up this match reasonably well, and they're also hinting at pairing Maryse up with the equally self-absorbed Miz. That would probably be a very good opposites-attract double act, and I can see plenty of potential in it, but it doesn't need the title belt. (Or, rather, if one has a title, they both need one. Come to think of it, Miz is in the US Title match...)

8. Women's Title: Michelle McCool v. Melina. Um... well, it's Night of Champions, the gimmick is that every title is on the line, and so this match has to go on PPV. It'll be short, and it'll be used to give the crowd a breather between more significant matches. There's not much to hold anyone's interest here.

Worth buying? Hmm. My head says no, my heart can't help thinking that tag title match might be interesting. I'll probably wait to hear the results, and then buy the replay if it's a winner.


Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Number 1s of 2009: 19 July 2009

After two weeks of Cascada, and with the Michael Jackson deluge finally making its way down the charts, normal service is more or less resumed with the new number one - JLS, "Beat Again."

JLS were the runners-up in the 2008 series of The X-Factor, Simon Cowell's Pop Idol clone. The main difference is that X-Factor allows vocal groups to enter. But of course, it's a lot easier to find a decent undiscovered singer than four decent undiscovered singers who've already had the motivation to form a band - so generally, the groups don't do very well. And besides, it's harder to get a human interest angle in a four-piece - so the groups are even more screwed than that. In fact, in six years, they've never won. JLS, however, put up a fairly strong showing, coming in second behind Alexandra Burke (whose coronation single "Hallelujah" was the Christmas number one last year).

In theory, "JLS" stands for "Jack the Lad Swing." In practice, everybody seems to acknowledge that this is a truly dreadful name which must never be spoken of again.

Reaching the final of the X-Factor without winning has not generally led to chart success. By the time the runners-up release their own records, everyone's largely forgotten about them - and Simon Cowell has first refusal on their contracts. The other 2008 finalist was intolerable underage muppet Eoghan Quigg; his album came out a couple of months ago to reviews that weren't so much scathing as horrified, and lead single "28,000 Friends" failed to chart in Britain. (The album did okay in his native Ireland... for a week.) Until now, the only non-winner to have a number 1 hit was Chico Slimani, who topped the charts for two weeks in March 2006 with "It's Chico Time." But he was a novelty act, and that burned out pretty quickly too. Oh, and there's pop-classical singer Rhydian Roberts from 2007 - he's never had a hit single, but his album did well.

Oddly, Simon Cowell passed on JLS. The band are now signed to Epic, who clearly see a future for them as a boyband operating vaguely in the area of Timbaland and Justin Timberlake. The single, "Beat Again", is actually quite decent.

And then you see the video.

JLS were never exactly the greatest dancers in the world, so the decision to stick them on a sound stage and point a camera at them for three minutes was highly questionable to start with. This is some of the most ragged "synchronised" dancing I've seen in a video since "C'est La Vie." And at least the editor bent over backwards to disguise that. (But I direct your attention to the 2:05 mark for some of the worst Irish dancing you'll ever see.)

To be fair, though, it's not just that JLS aren't very good dancers - this video has the sort of choreography I thought had been banished in 1986. Grabbing the heart... just about excusable. Pointing at the wrist to signify time, though? Lying down at the mention of death? Oh god.

Lost for words, I called Susi over to look at this thing, and I can't really beat her description: it's the sort of dance routine that people come up with for an A-level performing arts exam. Wow. The label have given them the right material, they've given them the right promotion... and then they give them this video. It doesn't seem to have done too much harm, to be fair. This is one of the fastest-selling singles of the year. But god, the video is way off the mark.

In fairness, though, it's far from the worst video I've seen this week. Behold Alina Puscau's "When You Leave". It's awful in ways that defy all common sense. (And stick with it, because it gets even more horrible after the 2 minute mark, when it unveils its third and worst idea.)


Sunday, July 19, 2009

Messiah War

"Messiah War"
(X-Force/Cable: Messiah War one-shot; Cable #13-15; X-Force #14-16)
Writers: Duane Swierczynski (Cable), Craig Kyle & Christopher Yost (X-Force and prologue)
Artists: Mike Choi & Sonia Oback (prologue), Ariel Olivetti (Cable), and Clayton Crain (X-Force)
Letterers: Cory Petit (prologue and X-Force) and Joe Caramagna (Cable)
Editors: Axel Alonso and John Barber

Horribly late, I know.

When I belatedly reviewed the "Ghost Boxes" arc from Astonishing X-Men, somebody suggested that it was terribly appropriate that it was late. By analogy, I suppose, this review should take a year to show up and then achieve nothing.

To be perfectly honest, I've had these issues piled up next to my desk for a couple of weeks now, because I wanted to re-read the thing before reviewing it. Which is all very well in theory, but then you look at them and think, oh god, seven issues of futuristic murk... and you go and do something else.

Apparently, this story is seen as the middle chapter in a trilogy that began with last year's "Messiah Complex", and presumably concludes with something equally messianic in 2010. The previous story saw the birth of the first new mutant since M-Day. Cable disappeared off with her into the future. Meanwhile, Bishop identified her as the kid who had caused disaster in his timeline, and gave chase, intending to kill her and hit the cosmic reset button. And that's the set-up of Cable's ongoing series. (With the minor caveat that they quickly broke Cable's time machine so that he could only escape further and further into the future.)

Now, Hope is apparently tremendously important, so Cyclops - having agreed to pack her off into the future in the first place - is now equally keen to get her back. So we have X-Force being packed off to sort things out, using rickety time machines that will only allow them to stay in the future for 33 hours or so before the stress of time travel starts killing them. In the manner of plot-imposed arbitrary deadlines, it turns out that these slowly-building stresses come on awfully suddenly once the clock runs out.

The stage is set, then, for... well, for something to happen. And then, over the course of seven issues, it largely doesn't.

Here's what this story actually does achieve. For Cable readers, it brings Stryfe into the story - and quite cleverly, to be fair, playing him as a delusional pawn of Bishop, who thinks he's still the archenemy. It also brings Apocalypse into the story, and sets up the idea that he'll want to steal Hope's body once she's grown up. And Bishop's cyborg arm gets damaged. And... yes, yes, that's pretty much all we achieved in the course of seven issues.

For X-Force readers, essentially nothing happened - except that the crossover interrupted a story in progress and stopped the team saving somebody in issue #13. This comes up again right at the end of the crossover, in a hopelessly obscure scene.

It all starts off quite promisingly. Cable and X-Force - particularly X-Force - both suffer from a tendency to take themselves too seriously, so it was a smart move to bring in Deadpool for some comic relief. The opening issues are decent action stories. But pretty soon it just starts going round in circles, and by the end of the story, we seem to be more or less back where we started. X-Force return to the present day, more or less unaffected. Cable and Hope flee further into the timeline, with Bishop still in pursuit. Which is more or less where they were before the crossover. You could be forgiven for thinking that Bishop loses his time machine in this story, which would have been something... but Cable #16 confirms that he doesn't.

Fundamentally, the problem with this story is that not enough happens. You can't do seven issues of build-up with such an anaemic pay-off. Strangely, the final part actually teases a revelation which would have been vaguely meaningful: one member of X-Force announces that he's worked out why Hope is so important. Unfortunately, he still doesn't tell us why. Which seems particularly perverse, as he'll presumably be sharing it with us next month. The smart money, incidentally, is on "She's Phoenix" - which they already hinted at very strongly in the closing pages of "Messiah Complex" and would barely qualify as a revelation at all. But it would still have been better than what they did here.

With no progress on the plot, we're left with a lot of badly explained running around and fighting. Half of that fighting is illustrated by X-Force artist Clayton Crain, and boy, this story does not show him at his finest. Crain does dark and murky and (if you want to be charitable) atmospheric - and he's not even especially good at that. His fight scenes are a chore to decipher, and at times border on unintelligible.

But it's not like the dialogue does him any favours. There are some very strange lapses in exposition in this story. The end of part 1, for example, was evidently supposed to be a big reveal that Stryfe is living in Apocalypse's old base. There was no way any reader could have worked this out from the generic cityscape presented in part 1, and even the next issue takes nine pages to get around to mentioning Apocalypse's name. And the closing sequence of X-Force #16 - which depends on you knowing plot points from before the crossover, which aren't explained in the dialogue, and which aren't explained in the four-paragraph small-print recap page either - is utterly unintelligible. Curiously, it does manage a certain elegiac quality. But I have no idea how readers were expected to follow it. Even if X-Force could normally assume that readers had a working knowledge of stories from four months earlier, this is a crossover! That practically guarantees that a fair chunk of them won't!

This is a disappointing crossover. It starts off well, but never really gets going, before frustratingly petering out. The bottom line is that it simply doesn't have a strong enough story.

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The X-Axis - 19 July 2009

First, the obligatory plug for this week's House to Astonish: don't forget to listen to this week's House to Astonish. This week's reviews cover North 40, Wednesday Comics and Creepy. Download it here, or go to the podcast webpage, or subscribe via iTunes.

And now, this week's comics. Just a couple of X-books, and they're both bogged down in the middle of a storyline, so we'll do the long-awaited "Messiah War" review at some point too.

Beta Ray Bill: Godhunter #2 - There's something deeply wrong about the way the Silver Surfer looks on that cover. It's the teeth, I think. Oh, and the blood spattering from an indeterminate location. Anyway, you'll be pleased to hear that the Surfer looks perfectly normal on the interior pages. This is the middle chapter of Kieron Gillen and Kano's miniseries - Marvel have suddenly started producing an awful lot of three-issue minis, and it's actually a perfectly decent length for a lot of stories. The big idea is that Beta Ray Bill has set out to starve Galactus into submission. But he's not going to fight Galactus - he's just going to blow up every world Galactus targets, before the big purple guy can eat it. A neat idea in theory, but in practice there's just one slight problem: the locals don't want to play ball. It's a strong idea, with plenty of inventive details and a lovely closing sequence. Good book.

Dark Avengers #7 - Part three of "Utopia", with your guest creative team of Matt Fraction and Luke Ross. Which means it's really more of Uncanny X-Men #513-and-a-half - and indeed, the issue seems more interested in Emma's new X-Men team than in Norman's Avengers, who seem to have been included in their own book out of a grudging necessity. It's all quite good fun, though, in a cheerfully over-the-top kind of way. There's a very odd scene with Cyclops and Norman Osborn, with Cyclops trying to play the ice-cold alpha male, and Norman just gawping at this deluded loser in disbelief. To be honest, the way Fraction's been writing Scott, I'm with Norman - and I'm not altogether sure that was the idea. Oh, and so far the story hasn't really made much use of Cloak and Dagger, which seems a bit of a waste. But it's a reasonably entertaining crossover story, and to be honest, Uncanny could kind of use the help.

Fables #86 - It's the origin story of the Darkness - the Sandman-type guy who took over Fabletown and got sidelined during the recent crossover. This is a one-issue flashback story explaining how he got captured in the first place, by the brave men of the Boxing League, who've spent centuries dealing with particularly nasty dark creatures on behalf of the Emperor. Of course, as imperial forces, they'd normally be villains in this book; but thanks to their singleminded dedication to dealing with really, really nasty things, they come across more as having higher priorities to worry about. It's an odd little story about warrior monks that doesn't really have an ending, but then I suppose it's always possible that we're coming back to some of these characters later on. Jim Fern is this month's guest artist, and while some of the early dialogue scenes are a bit stiff, he really picks it up towards the end.

New Mutants #3 - Hey, the scene on the cover is actually in the issue! That's unexpected. It's part three of the opening Legion storyline, and effectively the second straight issue of the New Mutants fighting Legion. To be honest, it's starting to feel a bit drawn out, particularly since there are no subplots to break up the action. On the other hand, though, there's a nice sequence with Sam hamfistedly trying to protect Dani (who doesn't have powers any more), and the final scene with Magik is nicely unexpected. But a two month fight scene, with a third month evidently to come, seems a bit much to me.

Unknown #3 - This really is turning into one of the strangest books that Mark Waid has put out in quite a while. Detective Catherine Allingham applies her skills to investigate the "mystery" of what happens when you die. This issue, our villain turns out to be a guy who thinks it's his job to keep the life and the afterlife separate. Either way, he usually keeps himself occupied dealing with dodgy magicians, but weird scientific experiments attract his attention too. Then again, he might just be stark raving mad. At this point, I'm not really sure what this book is. It started off as a slightly offbeat detective story, but it increasingly seems to be wandering into areas of bizarre philosophy. Waid seems to be deliberately leaving it ambiguous as to whether the final issue will be full-blown mysticism, a story about obsessive maniacs, or a bit of both. A lot depends on whether he can pull it all together in the remaining issue, but it's certainly an interesting read.

Wednesday Comics #2 - Okay, now that the book is getting into its stride and past the "origin recap" stage, I'm starting to get into some of these strips as more than just vehicles for the art. That said, it's still a strange mixture of nostalgia object and technique showcase. But there's good stuff in here; the Batman strip works, Deadman makes good use of the page, Paul Pope and Kyle Baker are doing excellent art, and even the Metal Men strip looks pretty. Oh, and the Flash strip (divided into "Flash" and "Iris West", with slightly different art styles) is rather clever. On the other hand, I'm not sold on Neil Gaiman doing comedy, the Teen Titans and Wonder Woman strips are something of a mess, and the Kuberts' Sgt Rock strip has the pacing all wrong. DC were presumably going for a mass audience by throwing continuity out of the window and hyping the book in USA Today - I have my doubts how many people outside the existing audience will be willing to pay $4 for something modelled on a colour supplement. But there's something quite appealing about it, and there's enough good material here to make it more than just a novelty.

X-Factor #46 - Good lord, this story is getting complicated. At this rate, I'm going to have to sit down with all the relevant issues and a flowchart. Peter David has got quite a few balls in the air by this point, and he's still introducing more. That includes a villain who, last I checked, would surely have been too young to show up at the Summers Rebellion... but okay. Is this meant to be the same timeline as we've seen before? I'm honestly not sure. Anyway, maybe I'm just not in the mood today for particularly involved plots, but I'm starting to feel this is a bit too complex for its own good. There are some great moments in here - the fight scene with Darwin and Monet is very well done - but the big picture all seems rather obscure.

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Saturday, July 18, 2009

House to Astonish, episode 19

This week's reviews - Wednesday Comics #1-2, North 40 #1 and Creepy #1. Plus, the usual round-up of the news, and a low-rent Silver Age Daredevil villain.

And if you wanted to know what we thought of Blackest Night... well, blame Diamond UK.

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

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Sunday, July 12, 2009

Astonishing X-Men #25-30

"Ghost Boxes"
Writer: Warren Ellis
Penciller, co-inker: Simone Bianchi
Co-inker: Andrea Silvestri
Colourists: Simone Peruzzi with Christina Strain and Laura Martin
Letterer: Joe Caramagna
Editor: Axel Alonso

Astonishing X-Men was created for a reason. If you want to know what that reason is, hop over to Marvel's subscription site, which still describes the title as follows: apparently, it "takes the style of the X-Men movies, mixes it with the wit of Buffy, and holds it together with the classic flavour that made the X-Men famous." A description that made perfect sense when Joss Whedon was writing the book, and which evidently has not been revisited in the year since he left.

Incidentally, the subscription site also suggests that you allow 6-8 weeks for delivery of your first issue. Given the book's history, this seems optimistic to the point of folly.

But I digress. Astonishing was created as a star vehicle for Joss Whedon; he's long since gone. The problem is what to do with it next. Marvel seem to have gone for the option of making it a book where creators can do more or less what they want, without worrying about the other titles - not exactly out of continuity, but at least off to the side somewhere. And so we end up with Warren Ellis and Simone Bianchi.

Bianchi was an understandable choice; his art was generally considered the best thing about Jeph Loeb's ungodly Wolverine run, so there were good reasons to put him on a high profile title. Besides, nobody could deny that he's got his own style, and if this is going to be a creator-driven book, you want people with a voice.

Ellis has a voice too, but, shall we say, it's not one that you particularly associate with superhero comics. He's carved out a role at Marvel over the last few years doing revamps (usually horribly delay-plagued revamps) of second-tier characters. As a rule, for better or worse, he takes a book can gives it a strong central idea to revolve around. Iron Man? It's about the fusion of man and machine. Thunderbolts? Strip away the barnacles and get back to a team of villains posing as heroes, a couple of whom are trying to do the job properly.

With Astonishing X-Men, we don't get that. Yes, Ellis acknowledges the move to San Francisco and plays off M-Day to a degree, but at root his X-Men are Just Another Superhero Team, who encounter a mystery and investigate it for the next six issues. It's hard to pin down what "Ghost Boxes" is really all about.

The plot goes like this. The X-Men are called in to help with a super-powered murder. The victim seems to be an artificially created mutant, and he's been killed by a guy he was tailing. The X-Men give chase and (after a trip to Indonesia) fight said guy, who kills himself, and on inspection turns out to be a mutant from a parallel universe, apparently the point man for an invasion. After all, now that most of the mutants are gone, the world is a much more attractive target for invaders. The X-Men then follow another lead to China, where they meet more artificial mutants and more parallel mutants, and there's a big fight, and everyone points the finger at Forge. Finally, everyone goes to Wundagore to have a chat with Forge, who turns out to have gone mad, and is creating artificial "mutants" to fend off that invasion from a parallel world. He's got a portal to that world (the titular Ghost Box), and the invaders start trying to get through. The X-Men make a break for it, and on Beast's word, SWORD (who were duly mentioned in earlier episodes to set up their involvement in the finale) thwart the invasion by annihilating everything in sight. The end.

It's all rather unfocused. At first it seems to be about an alien invasion; then it changes tack completely and becomes a story about Forge losing his mind, even though the character wasn't mentioned until halfway through. A spaceship graveyard in Indonesia and a hidden mutant city in China both turn out to be nothing more than local colour, entirely peripheral to the plot. It feels like elements from a bunch of different stories strung together in a way that technically makes sense, but doesn't add up to a greater whole.

(And in fact, it doesn't entirely make sense. The final two chapters make great play of the fact that Forge's artificial mutants are shambling monstrosities - but there didn't seem to be anything much wrong with the guy who got killed in chapter 1.)

Matters get even more confused when you remember the tie-in miniseries Astonishing X-Men: Ghost Boxes. The book was rightly castigated for its price tag, but let's focus on the content, which was a string of short stories set in parallel realities. One of those stories, to be fair, did spell out what the invaders were up to, but the main series does that too. The others seem to have no connection to the rest of the story at all. It's all a bit mystifying.

I'm honestly not sure what, in Ellis's mind, this story was all about. There's a bit of dialogue scattered throughout the story about the X-Men taking tough decisions and growing up - there's even an ill-conceived stab at a lost-innocence vibe where character talk wistfully about the simpler days of the Silver Age. But none of this ever connects in any satisfying way with the story, and SWORD's enormo-deathray in the final issue, which zaps a bunch of unseen baddies on the other side of a portal, seems detached from any sort of moral consequences. Nor is it really a story about Forge's mental decline, since no explanation for it is offered.

If you were so inclined, you could probably find some sort of metaphor in Forge's homemade mutants. You could see him as somebody who wants to turn back M-Day and won't move on. I wouldn't be altogether shocked if that's the idea. Then again, it's ironic that you could also view him as a creator who's trying to fill the void left by M-Day, and has ended up creating a shambling mess. Most likely, though, it's neither of these - just a case of a writer without a big idea stringing together a bunch of small ideas and hoping for the best.

Oh, yes, the art. I'd say more about it, but I think everyone's picked up on the issues with Simone Bianchi by now: the individual pictures are beautiful, the panel-to-panel storytelling not so much. The panel layouts are showy, but almost invariably distract from the story rather than supporting it. The action sequences are murky. There's a fair amount of elegant posing. The irritations outweigh the good points in the long run; I can never escape the feeling that the art is showing off when it should be telling the story, and even though it has plenty to show off, that still annoys me.

So far as I can see, Marvel haven't actually solicited any further issues of this title, but there's talk of Phil Jimenez doing the next arc, so presumably it's moving to a de facto "series of miniseries" format. He's a much better storyteller, so I'm happy with that choice. Let's hope that, before his run starts, somebody sits down and works out more clearly what the book's actually about.

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The X-Axis - 12 July 2009

I have a pile of comics sitting by my desk, comprising the "Ghost Boxes" arc from Astonishing X-Men, the "Messiah War" crossover from X-Force and Cable, and the entirety of "The Great Fables Crossover". At least two of those are a couple of weeks overdue for a proper review. and one of them I'm hopefully going to get done tonight.

So, since none of this week's releases really merited a full review anyway, let's just run through the capsules.

Dark X-Men: The Beginning #1 - Two of this week's books are satellite tie-ins to the "Utopia" crossover between Uncanny X-Men and Dark Avengers. This is the first, a three-issue miniseries where Norman Osborn chats with each of his new recruits in turn.

There are three strips here, but frankly it'd be stretching a point to call any of them stories. In the first, Norman Osborn chats with Namor the Sub-Mariner about why he agreed to join the team. It's by Paul Cornell and Leonard Kirk, so the art is just fine and the dialogue hits the mark, but it's still basically 11 pages of dialogue, much of which seems to be referring to a story I don't recognise at all, possibly from Dark Avengers. There's actually a half-decent idea in here for the character - Namor has never previously made a big deal about being a mutant, but now that his own people have more or less been wiped out, is he latching on to these guys as a surrogate community to save?

Next up is a Mimic piece, which doesn't really work at all. The basic idea is that the Mimic has started taking the meds and got his mood swings under control (an ever-popular device for settling down a character whose personality changes with the weather), but what we actually get is an extended flashback to the highlights of the Mimic's career, in such scattershot terms that it won't mean much to anyone who doesn't already know the character's history. Superfluous at best.

Finally, Shane McCarty and Ibraim Roberson give us Osborn recruiting the Dark Beast. This one probably works the best, since even though it's another conversation piece, there's a bit of plot to go with it, and the conversation does something with one of the key ideas of Dark Reign, namely that Osborn honestly sees himself as someone who's doing the right things, even if that means stuff the public doesn't need to know about. (He's Dick Cheney, in other words.) The Dark Beast gets to play a twisted sort of conscience, since at least he's more honest about why he's getting involved: a nicer place to live. There's some potential in this duo.

All told, it's an acceptable book for completists, but nothing you need to go out of your way to see. Certainly it gives the impression of being created to milk the crossover rather than because anyone had any particularly powerful ideas about stories they wanted to tell.

Genext United #3 - Usual drill, so far as the writing is concerned. It's fairly average Claremont; there are a couple of half-decent ideas, but it's nothing particularly compelling, and oh god, here comes the mind control again. Still, his hardcore fanbase will like it. Actually, what mainly sticks in my mind about this issue is Jonboy Meyers' art. There are plenty of good points - there's a nice, spiky energy to his action sequences - but some of the fundamentals really need a bit of work. He's not good at expressions in quieter scenes, and some of the transitions between panels are very odd indeed. Take a look at page 4 of the story, if you've got a copy to hand, and see if you can figure out where the characters are standing relative to one another, and how they'd have to move between panels in order for this scene to work. No, really, try. The simplest solution is that the entire GeNext team cross the room off-panel somewhere between panels 1 and 4, but since they leave Sophia behind, it's terribly confusing. And then gawp in amazement at the final panel of the next page, where everyone teleports around the room. This is pretty basic stuff, and though in fairness it's generally clear enough what's happening, it still undermines the suspension of disbelief when the characters seem to have no consistent relationship to one another in space. It's really the sort of thing that artists should have knocked out of them before getting pro work for major publishers. Meyers does have plenty of ability, so it's odd that he does things like this.

North 40 #1 - Might do this on the podcast next week, but let's mention it in passing. It's a horror series from WildStorm, by Aaron Williams and Fiona Staples. Ancient magic tome is opened in small American town, surreal and horrible events ensue. It is, in fact, pretty creepy, mainly because it pulls off the tricky balancing act of having a basically normal world with truly bizarre and unpleasant elements thrown in - the art, in particular, pulls this off impressively. My problem with it so far is that it lacks strongly defined characters, so I don't really care all that much about the people this is happening to. But it's certainly got something.

Uncanny X-Men: First Class #1 - There's always one comic that I pick up to review and find myself thinking, "Oh yeah... what happened in that again?" And this week, it's the first issue of Uncanny X-Men: First Class, which so far seems to be not much more than a miniseries set some time shortly after X-Men #100 or so. Nightcrawler is upset about not being able to fit into the normal world, and so he jumps at the chance to visit Attilan, the home of the Inhumans, where everyone looks weird. And, of course, then he finds out that Attilan's not so great either. It's perfectly okay, but where Jeff Parker's X-Men: First Class generally felt like an updated Silver Age X-Men for younger viewers, this just feels like a slightly old-fashioned fill-in story.

Unwritten #3 - Tom Taylor continues to investigate his past, while a bunch of horror writers from assorted sub-genres show up to discuss Frankenstein. Cue a squabble between a thinly disguised version of the writers of Saw, and a character who doesn't seem to be a million miles from Laurell K Hamilton. Now, there's nothing particularly enlightening here about the nature of horror, though the run-down of sub-genres on page 2 is a great scene, but from the way this issue is going, it certainly looks as though Carey is starting to develop Unwritten into a wider discussion about the structure of stories, with genre plot elements (or, perhaps more accurately, plot elements from other genres) starting to invade the "real" world. All very interesting.

Wednesday Comics #1 - We'll be talking about the first two issues of DC's new weekly project on the podcast, so I'll leave the details till then. For now... a page is a very short space, and it's a format that few creators are used to working in. Actually, given the fold-out format, each strip really gets four pages a week, but only Ben Caldwell's unusual take on the origin of Wonder Woman goes that way. Realistically, the stories are going to take a little while to get going, and with hindsight, it's perhaps unfortunate that DC didn't include a couple of comedy strips to provide more instant gratification in the early weeks. A lot of the artwork is excellent, and it's an interesting experiment in format, but as somebody who's interested largely in story and character, let's just say I'm reserving judgment for now. This issue strikes me as more of a technique showcase than a piece of storytelling - I kind of respect the book but I'm not sure whether it actually does anything for me.

X-Men Forever #3 - You know, somewhat to my surprise, I'm actually quite liking this. Chris Claremont writing a "continuation" to his original X-Men run could have been rather depressing, but there's a genuine sense of enthusiasm about this book, and more focus than we've seen in some of his recent work. It's unfortunate that issue #1 was a bit plotless, since the subsequent stories have been tighter. Granted, a 1991 Claremont X-Men comic would have been nothing like this, but without having to accommodate other people's takes on the characters, he really does seem to be enjoying himself, and that comes across on the page.

X-Men: Legacy #226 - This week's second "Utopia" satellite book brings Rogue, Gambit and Danger back to San Francisco to help out with the riots. It's a two-parter and I rather suspect it's here mainly to try and give Legacy a much-needed sales boost, which they'll presumably use to try and springboard the next year's stories based around Rogue. This issue, people run around San Francisco and fight, and some very obscure mutants make cameo appearances. It's all quite well done, and the riot is actually a lot more real here than it was in the main crossover (where Fraction tended to assert it as a fact of the plot, rather than making it viscerally convincing), but whether it's actually about anything, other than reminding readers that Legacy exists, I'm not sure. Dustin Weaver's art is a little inconsistent around the edges, but generally solid.

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Monday, July 06, 2009

Number 1s of 2009: 5 July 2009

Last week, La Roux's "Bulletproof" entered at number one, and nobody noticed, because they all too busy listening to old Michael Jackson records. Six of them entered the chart last week, on the strength of two days of download sales. "Man in the Mirror", last week's number 11, was generally assumed to be the frontrunner, and was indeed leading the iTunes chart for a couple of days. But the Jackson sales slacked off as the week went on, and as it turns out, the song only climbs to number 2. That was probably its only shot.

However, a bunch of other Michael Jackson singles also climb. That gives him a total of 13 tracks on this week's top 40, shattering the previous record (which stood at either 6 or 7, depending on your tolerance for dodgy late-50s charts - see last week's post for more details). Counting Jacksons singles, he has a staggering 26 entries on the top 75. The previous records were set in the pre-download era, and Jackson is the first megastar whose back catalogue was readily available on his sudden death. This record will stand for the foreseeable future; it's not unbeatable, but I don't see it happening except in similar circumstances, and even then for an artist with the profile and back catalogue of a Madonna or a Paul McCartney.

But even without Michael Jackson, the number 1 slot still changes hands for the fifth week running. And this week's lucky winner is...

...Cascada, "Evacuate the Dancefloor." They're a German dance/pop act (lead singer Natalie Horler has British parents, but she was born in Germany). This is their sixth top 40 hit, and their first number 1, in a chart history that goes back to 2004. They're probably best known for the thumping 2005 single "Everytime We Touch", which was a number 2 hit in Britain, and even made the top 10 in America - unusual for a Euro-dance record.

Now, I rather like "Everytime We Touch." It's got a great tune. It is unrepentantly anthemic. It gets to the point. By thirty seconds in, it's as subtle as a brick to the face. And then, at the one minute mark, it reaches for a second brick. Awesome. And "What Hurts the Most" (number 10 in 2007) isn't bad either, once it gets going, in a thudding sort of way.

On the other hand, they also tend to make treacly ballad versions of their songs, for airplay on channels that wouldn't touch dance music. Here's "Everytime we Touch" with fullbore piano-driven sincerity. It's awful. And some of their upbeat tracks are a bit dodgy too - their cover of Savage Garden's "Truly Madly Deeply" is very questionable.

"Evacuate the Dancefloor" is somewhere in the middle. It's trying a bit hard to be a Proper Song for my tastes, and ends up with a verse that sounds like a Britney Spears B-side. The chorus isn't bad, but it's not their best. Still, they've been around long enough that I can't really begrudge them their moment in the sun.

Oh, and unless I'm forgetting someone, I believe this is the first German record to reach number 1 since "Loneliness" by Tomcraft in 2003. I recall the UK mix being slightly different to this, but this is the only one YouTube and DailyMotion seem to have.


Sunday, July 05, 2009

House to Astonish, episode 18

This week, Al and I review Existence 2.0, Justice League: Cry for Justice (guest starring Weeping Gorilla) and Greek Street, plus the usual news round-up.

Download it here, or visit the podcast webpage (where you can stream it, if you want), or subscribe via iTunes.

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The X-Axis - 5 July 2009

Okay, then. Two weeks of stuff to get through, one of which saw an enormous quantity of X-books dumped on the market, with the other seeing a ton of first issues. So some of these might be on the concise side, but it'll get up back up to speed.

I'll come back to the "Ghost Boxes" storyline from Astonishing X-Men, and the "Messiah Complex" crossover arc from Cable and X-Force, both of which finished in the week before last, since they really merit more attention than this. And later tonight, on this week's House to Astonish, Al and I are planning to look at the first issues of JLA: Cry for Justice, Greek Street and Existence 2.0.

But let's take a deep breath and get into the backlog.

Astonishing Tales #6 - The final issue of this low-selling anthology title, from the look of it - which is to say, they don't seem to have formally announced a cancellation, but they haven't solicited any more issues, and that's usually a bit of a giveaway. There's not much here to change any opinions you might have formed before. The Wolverine/Punisher story is lightweight fluff, but it does have quite interesting art, and I like the colouring a lot. Jonathan Hickman's Mojoworld serial with Cannonball and Sunspot is utterly absurd (and, with this chapter, depends on you knowing that Sunspot was a huge fan of Magnum back when he was first introduced in 1983, a character point that has understandably been allowed to fall by the wayside in the intervening years), but it's genuinely funny. The rest is competent but forgettable - an Iron Man 2020 story which seems to be trying to set up the character as an Ellis-style futurist for subsequent stories, and good luck with that one, and a Sabra short which kind of circles the topic of Israeli conscription without ever quite managing to say anything about it. To support an anthology title in this day and age would take much stronger material than this, but then Astonishing Tales was primarily a means of reprinting material originally commissioned for the website.

Batman and Robin #2 - Now this is a good comic. That opening page is a lovely piece of art, and Morrison is doing a great job here with the basic idea of Dick Grayson taking over as the new Batman. Even if they don't know who's in the costume, everyone who met Batman regularly can immediately tell it's a different guy, and his new Robin is just an infuriating brat. So there's a nice little angle about whether Dick can ever meaningfully be the new Batman, as opposed to just a Batman impersonator, which ties back to the old theme of "was Bruce Wayne pretending to be Batman, or was he pretending to be Bruce Wayne?" Alongside that, there's a wonderfully bizarre fight scene with some circus freaks, and more genuinely creepy stuff at the end with the Pig. Better than the first issue, I think.

Buffy the Vampire Slayer #26 - Either I've missed an issue somewhere, or worse, I've stopped caring enough to remember what happened in the previous issue. And I have a sinking feeling it might be the latter. Vampires have insinuated themselves into the mainstream, and the Slayers are on the run from a world that no longer has much time for them. Basically this is a whole issue of people running away and regrouping, with an admittedly cute ending that I'm sure would work much better if I could actually identify the character in the final panel from the art alone. (You can work it out, but I don't think it was intended that you should have to.) Perfectly alright, but not really grabbing me for some reason.

Cable #16 - Well, "Messiah War" sure didn't advance matters a lot, did it? Cable's still on the run with Hope, they're still fleeing further and further into the future because his time machine won't go back, they're still being chased by Bishop, and even Stryfe is still hovering around on the fringes. If the recap page is anything to go by - and so often, it isn't - Hope is supposed to have been deeply affected by meeting X-Force, because they're from her own time period, and "for the first time in her life, she feels like she's found some friends whom she doesn't want to leave behind." Quite why Hope would have any particular attachment to a time period she doesn't remember, let alone care about X-Force more than the people she lived with for five years earlier in the series, I don't really understand, but then, reading the story, I'm not quite sure that's how writer Duane Swierczynski was trying to sell the idea in the first place. What actually happens in this issue is that Hope gets separated from Cable during a time jump and lands two years early, meaning that she's going to have to make her own way and grow up a bit more before being reunited with him. There's some quite nice intercutting between the two of them, and some very good art from veteran Paul Gulacy. It's actually quite a decent issue, but undercut somewhat by the nagging awareness that "Messiah War" ended up heading nowhere, so why should this one be any different?

Captain America: Reborn #1 - Which is effectively an issue of Captain America with "#1" on the cover, but hey, that's what it takes to shift units these days. It seems we're doing the "lost in the timestream" angle, as Steve Rogers relives scenes from his past - which feels like a bit of a cop-out after he got shot in the chest and buried. This is decent enough, but it doesn't have the emotional weight of issue #600, and really, the return of Steve Rogers is the single least interesting aspect of Brubaker's story, so far as I'm concerned. Bryan Hitch seems awkwardly cast on this book - inker Butch Guice and colourist Paul Mounts seems to be trying their damnedest to maintain the tone of the regular Captain America series, resulting in what feels like a stylistic tug-of-war between Hitch's polished faces and something darker and looser that comes through at times. Not sure it really works.

Chew #2 - Thanks to his power to pick up psychic impressions from eating stuff, Tony Chu settles into his new job at the FDA, "the most powerful law enforcement agency on the face of the planet." As with the first issue, there's plenty of dark absurdity and a dash of gross-out comedy, but all while keeping a grounding in reality - a tricky balance to pull off. The basic set-up of Chu and his obnoxious boss is familiar stuff, but it's the comic timing and the details in the art that make it fly. As I said last month, I'm not quite sure where you go with this in the long run, but so far the high concept is working nicely. Oh, and it's interesting to note that, even though this is officially part of a five issue storyline, the first two issues have both been largely self-contained. You'd almost think the creators wanted the book to be accessible to new readers. How unfashionable.

Dark Avengers/Uncanny X-Men: Utopia - The first part of the Uncanny X-Men/Dark Avengers crossover, all of which is being written by Matt Fraction, and which should certainly help raise Uncanny's profile. The Humanity Now! Coalition (is the exclamation mark compulsory? Because if it isn't, I'm going to stop using it, if you don't mind) marches on San Francisco with a million people, which rather comes out of nowhere, given that the storyline has only had a couple of mentions in Uncanny to build it up. Actually, this makes a bit more sense when you get to part two, but it comes across very strangely here. And then you get a riot with the humans versus the mutants, and Cyclops singularly failing to calm everyone down. All this provides an opportunity for Norman Osborn to declare that HAMMER need to move in and take control, and there's your plot. If you can buy that premise, the rest is fine, but my problem here is that - repeat after me - there's only supposed to be 300 or so mutants in total, and even though Fraction has clearly been searching through the darkest recesses of The 198 Files to find obscure ones, I just don't buy this storyline with a grand total of 300 rioters (minus the ones who are trying to control the situation, minus the ones who aren't in San Francisco at all). Add another one to the increasingly long list of theoretically decent story ideas, strangled in the crib by M-Day. You can't do this stuff with 300 mutants. It just doesn't work. I'll keep saying it until it stops being true: if the X-office have no ideas for what to do with the post-Decimation set-up, and it sure looks like they don't, then they should be reversing it ASAP and at least provide a set-up that works for the stories they apparently do want to tell, about mutants as a minority population in San Francisco.

Dark Wolverine #75 - In other words, a Daken solo title. The actual Wolverine isn't in this story at all, but with the recent launch of Wolverine: Weapon X, I rather suspect that this is the soft launch of an ongoing Daken series, which will get a more sensible name once Dark Reign is out of the way. (No doubt with a shiny new #1.) In this issue - you'll never guess - Daken is impersonating Wolverine, charming the ladies, and scheming against his fellow villains. I've been skipping most of the Dark Reign tie-ins, but something tells me there's a lot of variations on this storyline being told right now. To be fair, it's well paced, and I like Giuseppe Camuncoli's art, which almost manages to make Daken's dodgy mohawk work. Curiously, even though this is co-written by Daniel Way and Marjorie Liu, Daken doesn't act much like he did in Way's previous stories - he's more flippant than before, for one thing. Granted, it probably helps that he doesn't have to interact with Wolverine here, and he gets an interior monologue to explain himself, but the dialogue doesn't read much like Way at all. As for the story, there's really not much to it other than "Daken winds up his fellow Dark Avengers" - which is done quite well, but where's it heading?

Deadpool: Merc with a Mouth #1 - Because you apparently are perceived to have demanded it, it's a second ongoing Deadpool series. This one is written by Victor Gischler with art by Bong Dazo. (Google says his real name is Angelo Dazo, but you've got to love somebody who changes his name to Bong.) AIM hire our demented antihero to retrieve an item from the Savage Land, and so he goes there and discovers... something that looks like it was intended to be a twist at one point, except they've been giving it away in house ads for weeks. It's the head of the Deadpool from Marvel Zombies. This is a straight Deadpool story in more or less the same style as Daniel Way's work on the main title, and there's no obvious sign of this book bringing a different angle to the character. It's basically an action comedy. But the comedy works - lots of good dialogue, and Dazo pulls off the visual gags effectively - which is really the bottom line here. It's entertaining.

Exiles #4 - The Exiles arrive on another world and have to liberate it from the robots who've already wiped out the human race. Um... that's basically it, really. Entirely solid, not sure what to say about it that we haven't covered in previous months, and it's a busy week so let's move on.

Gotham City Sirens #1 - A team book for female Batman villains, with Catwoman, Poison Ivy and Harley Quinn. The cover is faintly embarrassing, but the interior art by Guillem March is more acceptable (albeit also a bit more wonky). The idea is that Catwoman's not on top form at the moment, and ends up, somewhat against her better judgment, having to hook up with the two crazy girls. Paul Dini writes a pretty strong first issue here, setting up the characters well for those of us who don't read the Batman titles, and pitching his throwaway first-issue villain about right. Rather better than I was expecting, and actually quite enjoyable.

Marvel Divas #1 - This book drew an awful lot of flack for that admittedly godawful J Scott Campbell cover. The title is also somewhat mystifying, since of the four main characters, only the Black Cat could remotely be classed as a "diva" by my understanding of the term. Either Marvel need a dictionary or I do. In fact, they were being a lot more accurate when they billed Robert Aguirre-Sacasa and Tonci Zonjic's comic as Sex and the City with female superheroes (albeit C-list ones, which is kind of the point). The interior art is excellent, in fact, and the opposite of the cover in almost every conceivable way. As for the story... well, they talk about men for 20 pages and then an Issue of the Week plot is unveiled, which is a bit underwhelming. If only there was a stronger story I'd say this was a good comic; as it is, I'd still say it's worth a look on the strength of the art. And in fairness to Marvel, I suppose I can understand their logic in trying to attract attention to the book, but the problem is, they've done so by appealing to lowest common denominator - and in so doing, they've pretty much sent the message that the book would be of no interest at all to those people who might actually want to read 20 pages of Monica Rambeau and Patsy Walker discussing their romantic difficulties. I think that cover will alienate at least as many readers at it attracts - but to be fair, the book was always something of a niche proposition.

Uncanny X-Men #512 - The Beast's "Science Team" go back to 1906 to get blood samples from the parents of America's first mutant. This is in a different league to the preceding "Sisterhood" storyline, and it's hard to believe that both stories are by the same writer, Matt Fraction. Which isn't to say that this is perfect; it starts piling on the cute moments a bit too blatantly by the end, eventually reaching for one of the ultimate time travel cliches. But it's got a focus and enthusiasm that just didn't seem to be there before, perhaps because Fraction is getting an opportunity to write about some of his pet themes, and pay homage to Tesla. He also gets to work with Yanick Paquette on this story, who is rather better suited to draw Fraction's ideas. Best issue in quite a while.

Uncanny X-Men #513 - And then we have this, which is the second part of "Utopia", the crossover with Dark Avengers. It's perfectly fine, it has characters politicking nicely for control of Norman Osborn's new "X-Men" team, and it has the Dodsons on art (actually, with rather less of the cheesecake than usual). It's also unbelievably camp, with Emma wearing black to signify that she's one of the baddies in case anyone hadn't picked up on it yet. I'm in two minds about this; there's a lot of amusing bits, but it also sees Fraction hauling out a cast of thousands yet again, something which has contributed to a lack of focus in many of his stories. He's mentioned in interviews needing a flowchart to keep track of the characters, and one can't help thinking that if the writer's having that much trouble, what chance do we have? I wonder whether this is going to turn out to be another Matt Fraction story in need of streamlining. But it is quite fun if you're prepared to run with the idea.

Wolverine: First Class #16 - Guest starring Siryn and Dazzler, written by Peter David, and with art from the Gurihiru duo. And who wouldn't want a Wolverine series drawn by Gurihiru? They could call it Adorable Wolverine. I love their work, and they're actually very well suited for this book, which, despite the title, is really a Kitty Pryde series. It's a straight Kitty Pryde story for younger readers where she feels jealous of Siryn and Learns An Important Lesson, but it's Peter David and Gurihiru, for heaven's sake, of course it's good.

Wolverine: Noir #3 - In which this version of Logan explains his origin story, and Mariko turns out to be the Japanese equivalent of a flapper. Um... yeah, it's alright, but you know the drill by now: I just don't get why someone thinks the world needs noir versions of superhero characters.

Wolverine: Weapon X #3 - "The Adamantium Men", part 3 of 5. Wolverine runs rings round the twelve members of Strikeforce X for an issue, more or less. The reason why this book works is that Jason Aaron and Ron Garney can take a fairly basic concept for what happens in this chapter, and then make it work with the little details that allow the individual Strikeforce X members to have a bit of personality. That's what makes the difference between an enjoyable issue, and Wolverine beating up randoms for 20 pages. There's a slightly jarring bit toward the end where Aaron starts defending the credibility of his plot in the post-Bush world, which doesn't really work, but he pulls it back pretty quickly with the henchmen from Blackguard's human resources department (who summon back-up by radioing in an "HR Emergency!"). It's what you want in a Wolverine story.

X-Factor #45 - Somebody reminded me the other week that I hadn't actually reviewed X-Factor fully in ages. But then, the story just never seems to come to a natural break point. This issue, in the far future, Madrox meets up with what's left of Dr Doom, while back in the present, some of the team fight a mind-controlled Shatterstar, and the rest of the team aren't even in the book. The future sections are probably the most successful - there's something very likeable about a senile Dr Doom in chronic denial about his reduced circumstances - but it's another solid issue all round.

X-Men Forever #2 - Better than the first issue, I'd say. Claremont teases the death of Wolverine - which he could actually do in this series if he wanted to, since it's out of continuity. Of course, having set up a romantic triangle subplot in issue #1, he's hardly going to end it like that - but it's a good point in the series to remind readers that in theory, at least, this book can tell the sort of stories that would have been ruled out by inter-title continuity even if Claremont had stuck around. And it's got the requisite "How do they get out of that?" factor too. Oh, then Sabretooth shows up for a fight. Nothing groundbreaking here, but it flows quite nicely, the story is definitely stronger than the first issue, and there's a definite retro charm to it.

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Friday, July 03, 2009

Playlist: God Help The Girl

I've been listening to Stuart Murdoch's "God Help The Girl" album repeatedly the last couple of days, so let's give it some publicity.

Murdoch is the lead singer of Belle & Sebastian, and "God Help The Girl" is going to be a film musical. He hasn't made it yet. But he has released the soundtrack album, mostly original songs with a couple of B&S covers given an orchestral polish. He also apparently ran open online auditions to find singers; that's where he found Brittany Stallings, who does the lead vocal on this version of "Funny Little Frog."

Do pay attention to the lyrics, it's worth it. Belle & Sebastian's version got to number 13 in 2006, and their video makes the point a little more clearly than GHTG's project trailer.



For those of you wondering, here's the plan. From last week's books, I'm going to do full reviews of Astonishing X-Men and the "Messiah War" crossover. Everything else, I'll cover in this weekend's capsules.

We're recording House to Astonish on Sunday, so it should be up Sunday evening.

Oh, and in the meantime... if anyone can tell me what on earth is supposed to be happening in the closing pages of "Messiah War", I'd love to know, because I've read it several times now, and I haven't got a clue.

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Thursday, July 02, 2009

Number 1s of 2009: 28 June 2009

Everyone knows that when a major star dies, his records start flying off the shelves. And now that the UK singles chart counts downloads of individual album tracks as "singles", it's easier than ever for old records to make the chart thanks to a spontaneous surge of interest. As long as it's floating around iTunes on a compilation somewhere, it could theoretically chart at any time.

So when Michael Jackson died last week, a lot of people assumed that there was guaranteed to be a Jackson single at number one. What they got was La Roux, "Bulletproof".

(Incidentally, if you'd prefer to see it in the correct aspect ratio, here's the YouTube link. Which isn't embeddable, even though the equally official version on Daily Motion is. Don't ask me.)

La Roux are the duo of Elly Jackson, who's in the video, and Ben Langmaid, who has taken the traditional synth duo role of "standing motionless in the background" to its logical extreme by vanishing almost completely from the band's public profile. This has led to plenty of Blondie-style confusion about whether "La Roux" is supposed to be the name of the woman in the videos... but officially, it isn't.

They are, of course, 80s revivalists. It's somewhat ironic to see people deliberately re-creating a style of music which was driven in part by the technical limitations of early synths. But of course, if you're too young to remember it, it won't sound dated. And, after all, this stuff is getting on for 30 years old.

There's a lot of this around at the moment; a lot of year-end predictions had 2009 pencilled in as the year of the "electrogirl", mostly because a glance at the release schedules showed that La Roux, Lady Gaga and Little Boots all had albums out soon. Lady Gaga has done very well for herself indeed. La Roux are on their third single - the first, "Quicksand", failed to chart, but "In For The Kill" did very well earlier in the year, spending four straight weeks at Number 2. I'm not sure "Bulletproof" is quite as good, but it's a grower.

And then there's Little Boots, who might be giving her record label cause for concern. Despite ample quantities of hype, her first proper single "New In Town" stalled at number 13 before exiting the top 40 after four weeks. Odd, since it's quite a good record.

So what happened to Michael Jackson?

Well, the UK charts are calculated over a week's sales, from Sunday to Saturday. Since the news of Jackson's death came out late on Thursday night, there were only two days for the download sales to mount up. But on top of that, he has such a big back catalogue that a lot of people went for the greatest hits album instead. And the Number 1 on the album charts is indeed Jackson's album "Number Ones." That would be American number 1s, presumably, since he only had seven in the UK.

Those people who wanted to download a single had plenty to choose from, splitting the vote. The most popular was "Man in the Mirror" at number 11 - an unexpected choice, since it didn't even make the top 20 on its original release. It will climb this week, and it will challenge for number 1. To judge from the iTunes chart, sales have tailed off a bit, but he might well get there on the strength of a surge of sales on Sunday and Monday.

In total, six Michael Jackson singles made the top 40. Technically, the record for most appearances on a single chart stands at seven and is held by Elvis Presley - but it doesn't really count, because it was on a wonky late-fifties chart where the A- and B-sides of three singles were inexplicably listed separately. Despite having seven chart placings, he actually only had four singles on the chart. Disregard that, and Jackson matches the record set by, er, Elvis Presley again, this time in early 2005 when his record label decided to re-issue all his old singles on a weekly schedule.

Those casting around for an unequivocal piece of record-breaking will have to satisfy themselves by noting that Jackson had sixteen singles in the top 75, plus four singles by the Jackson 5. Nobody really cares about numbers 41-75, but technically they're part of the official chart. And 20 singles in the top 75 is unprecedented - the previous record was thirteen, set by the Jam, of all people, whose entire back catalogue was reissued when they disbanded in 1983. And since Wikipedia tells me that the Jam never even grazed the US chart, here's "Going Underground" and "A Town Called Malice", number 1 hits in 1980 and 1982.