Wednesday, September 30, 2009

X-Men Forever #1-5

Because you demanded it...

"Love -- and Loss!"
Writer: Chris Claremont
Penciller: Tom Grummett
Inker: Cory Hamscher
Letterer: Tom Orzechowski
Colourist: Wilfredo Quintana
Editor: Mark Paniccia

X-Men Forever must hold some sort of record for the most convoluted premise of an ongoing Marvel series. It's an X-Men series, of course, but not just any X-Men series. No, this is an X-Men series written by Chris Claremont, picking up where he left off in 1991. So it's the stories that would have appeared if Claremont had stuck around... except it isn't, really, because the stories that would have appeared in an alternate 1991 wouldn't have been much like this at all.

How times have changed. The Marvel that cancelled X-Men: The Hidden Years would never have commissioned a series like this. But then, Marvel have been searching for a role for Chris Claremont for a while now. He's no longer a writer that you could put on a flagship title; he's returned to the mainstream X-Men titles twice, to decidedly muted reaction. And he's not at his best having to play along with inter-title crossovers, even though he clearly gives it his best shot. But there's still an audience who want to read his stories, so he's been given a string of self-contained projects on the fringes of the X-Men universe - the off-to-the-side-somewhere X-Treme X-Men, an Excalibur relaunch, an Exiles revamp, X-Men: The End, and most recently GeNext - where he's been allowed, at least for a while, to do his thing for his audience.

Most of those books, though, weren't especially good. Since it was Claremont who got me into superhero comics in the first place, there's always a part of me hoping for a return to form. But I approach a project like this with some scepticism.

But, quite unexpectedly, X-Men Forever turns out to be the best thing Claremont's done in a long while. It's not because of the convoluted premise as such. It's more that the premise frees Claremont from the need to accommodate anyone else's ideas, unless he positively wants to write them in. He seems more comfortable here than he has been in years. Where X-Men: The End was overloaded and Exiles was meandering, this is actually focussed, and energetic, and fun.

Now, that's not to say Claremont is picking up where he left off. He's doing no such thing. To do that series, you'd really need to pick up somewhere before the end of his run, before the editors insisted on hitting the reset button and moving everyone back to the re-built mansion and putting Xavier back in a wheelchair. It's often overlooked now, but by the end of his run Claremont had spent several years doing his best to dismantle the X-Men status quo, and had more or less turned the title into a globetrotting adventure series which didn't even have an official X-Men team to star in it. Left to his own devices, one suspects, he would simply have wandered even further from the classic set-up, or at least strayed for longer.

What's more, if Claremont had been writing the book in 1991, he wouldn't have jettisoned the vast majority of the cast and replaced them with half of Excalibur. He wouldn't have killed off Wolverine in his second issue (he wouldn't have been allowed to, because Wolverine already had a solo title - even if it was a feint, as seems likely). He wouldn't have suddenly brought in Nick Fury out of nowhere, flanked by a continuity-busting team of second generation Howling Commandos murmuring that their dads fought in World War II. He probably wouldn't have revived the "Storm gets turned into a little kid" story which, at the time, had only just been wrapped up.

And he wouldn't have done any of this with Tom Grummett on art. If Claremont had hung around long enough to see Jim Lee depart for Image, he'd probably have ended up working with the likes of Andy Kubert instead, rather than Grummett's more solid and traditional style. The X-Men hadn't looked like this in years - you'd be going back to the earlier days of Marc Silvestri's run, at best, before his style had fully developed.

This is not a comic book of the 1990s, alternate or otherwise. It's a throwback to the eighties. But then, so it should be; that's Claremont's heyday, and that's the period they're really trying for. For the most part, though, he's wisely gone for the style of those stories, rather than picking up on the details of old stories. There's Storm as a young girl, admittedly, and it's odd that the series hasn't seen fit to explain this 20-year-old plot in more detail.

But 1991 was a break point in the X-Men's stories, and Magneto had just been killed off (in the days when this was still somewhat newsworthy, if not exactly novel), so Claremont finds himself free to start a bunch of new stories. He gives us a conspiracy plot about a group called the Consortium who seem to have turned Storm evil, a story which seems to be setting up Sabretooth as a replacement Wolverine, and a big reveal which inverts the whole nature of mutants, casting them as a doomed genetic quirk rather than the next generation of evolution. All of which is actually quite promising stuff, and would have worked back in the day.

I wasn't too impressed by issue #1 when it came out; on first reading, it's basically a big fight scene where the X-Men take on Fabian Cortez and then eventually win. It's much better on a second reading, when you can see it laying the groundwork for future issues. Claremont isn't often regarded as the most subtle of writers, and he does have a tendency to write scenes which practically have a flashing neon sign saying "Look, a subplot!" But there are also plenty of times when he doesn't do this - so, for example, issue #1 has Rogue making throwaway comments that only make sense in the light of the later Storm plot, and Kitty unobtrusively nursing a sore arm to set up a story three issues later. This sort of thing happened a lot in Claremont's original run, and tended to feed the impression that everything was playing into a grand design (and sometimes they even were) - but it hasn't been so apparent in his more recent stories. I'm pleased to see it.

The Storm plot works surprisingly well, too. Claremont's set up a decent mystery here, partly by using the unfashionable device of thought balloons to establish that the adult Storm isn't an impostor (or at least, doesn't think she is), without actually giving away much information about what's going on.

Granted, some of it's stupid. Kitty gets a fully functional retractable claw from Wolverine in a phasing accident? That's stretching the boundaries of credibility, to put it politely. And when the baddies start telling us that Kitty is suddenly massively dangerous now that she has a claw, they're surely overstating the threat posed by what is still essentially just a dagger.

But I can live with some of it being stupid, because in many ways this does manage to recapture the strengths of Claremont's original run, and it is something of a return to form after many nostalgia projects that weren't quite on the money. This could so easily have been an awkward raking over of past glories, and it's an unexpected pleasure to see it actually coming together like this.

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Tuesday, September 29, 2009


I'm not convinced.

They were trailing this show almost incessantly while I was in America. It's clearly a big deal for the network. Presumably it didn't impress the British so much, since it's ended up on Five. And I can see why. Sure, it's got a fun high concept - whole human race blacks out, has flash forward to next April, wakes up again. And it's got a decent cast. But it feels like a show which is too in love with its puzzle-box premise to actually work as a drama.

By which I mean: first, it's the sort of show where people spend a lot of time explaining the plot to one another - usually in such time-honoured contexts as "It sounds crazy, but..." or "Wait a minute, are you saying...?" Which is a bit cringeworthy.

And it doesn't seem to think it can leave anything unsaid. So one character is asked how he feels about the news of his daughter's apparent survival, and responds with a detailed shopping list of emotions which he is currently experiencing - all of which might have been somewhat interesting, if we'd been left to work it out for ourselves, but the show evidently doesn't credit us with that much intelligence.

Which means we're left with the puzzle - but that hinges on us having faith that the show is clever enough to pull it off, and I didn't think it was. The characters take forever to get around to fairly obvious observations. A conveniently large number of people seem to have implausibly spent their flashforward memorising the date, because the plot demands that this should be verifiable afterwards. An FBI agent brings in a captured terrorist and, more or less, tells her wait nicely in reception because somebody will be along shortly. It's not a well-written show.

And if it was a smart show - even on the level of its own premise - surely somebody in the course of the first episode would have made the obvious point: given that everyone now knows when the flashforward takes place, if it's the actual future, it surely won't be full of people calmly going about their regular business. Did nobody find themselves at a flashforward party, or see themselves surrounded by big hand-painted signs telling them next week's lottery numbers? If not, then either it's not the actual future because the flashforward event has altered it, or it is the actual future and the show isn't very well written. And since the structure of the show seems to hinge on "how do we get there from here", something tells me I'm not going to be overly impressed by the answer...


Sunday, September 27, 2009

The X-Axis - 27 September 2009

Thank heavens for Diamond UK. This would have been a rather heavy week for me, but fortunately the brave distributors have managed to lose Uncanny X-Men and Wolverine: Origins (along with six other Marvel books). Apparently we'll get them next week, once everyone at the warehouse has had a thorough search behind the sofa. But for once, Diamond have actually done Marvel a favour, since that still leaves us with two X-Men books and two Wolverine books. Three of each seems a touch excessive even by Marvel's notably unrestrained standards.

Anyway, the blog should be back to something approaching regular service now. So that long-promised X-Men Forever review will be on its way shortly, as will the round-up of Mark Millar and Steve McNiven's "Old Man Logan" story, which ended with this week's Giant-Size Wolverine: Old Man Logan one-shot. I might also do a full-length review of the "Utopia" crossover - by which I mean, I can't honestly think of much more to say about it, but I'll read it again and see what comes to mind.

Also out this week...

Dark Reign: The List - X-Men - Now, I haven't ordered any of the other List one-shots, but I could have sworn I remember some hype suggesting that they were meant to be important to the plot somewhere or other. What actually happens here is that Norman Osborn throws a tantrum about Namor's betrayal, and sends a big monster to kill the Atlanteans, leading to the obligatory fight. And naturally, it all ends in another stalemate, since nobody can win outright at this stage. (Which is turning out to be the big problem with most Dark Reign stories: the creators are having tremendous difficulty convincing me that something might happen.) To be honest, it all feels a bit peripheral, as if somebody wanted to pump out a few more one-shots based on the Dark Reign set-up - and since we've just come out of an X-Men versus Norman storyline, it seems premature to do it again.

That said, this is more of a Namor story than an X-Men one, so the emhasis is slightly different. And it's got art by Alan Davis, which is a selling point in my book - especially because he's one of the remarkably few artists who's figured out that Atlanteans don't walk, they swim, and whose Atlantis is interesting to look at as a result. As a fight story where the X-Men and Namor battle a sea monster, it's pretty good - but if this is typical of the List books, I don't see how they're advancing the wider plot, except perhaps by having Norman be slightly madder than usual.

Dark X-Men: The Confession - This rather odd one-shot is the pay-off for a long-running subplot about Scott and Emma keeping secrets from one another. I say "rather odd", because you'd expect this story to be written by Uncanny X-Men writer Matt Fraction - it even picks up directly from one of his scenes. Instead, for some reason it's been assigned to X-Force writers Craig Kyle and Chris Yost. Granted, that series does play into the subplot, since X-Force are one of Scott's secrets, but this is still primarily a Fraction plot. So it's rather jarring when the big conversation suddenly starts picking up on plot threads from the tail end of New X-Men and apparently laying the groundwork for the "Necrosha-X" crossover.

That aside, though, I quite liked this. Artist Bing Cansino isn't familiar to me, but his work is reminiscent of Georges Jeanty, and he has the subtlety to pull off a decent conversation scene. His Emma isn't quite as imposing as she ought to be, but in the context of the story it largely works.In the angst-ridden world of the X-Men, it's rather nice to see that Scott and Emma never actually have the big screaming argument depicted on the cover - instead, they sort of look a bit embarrassed at one another, apologise a lot and make up. And, admittedly, they recap the plot a lot - in some very choppy flashback scenes where the narration loses all sense of actual conversation. But I'm pleased to see these two acting like adults, since there are plenty of other characters in the X-books to take the adolescent role. It's the way I wanted to see this story pan out, and it's a welcome surprise to get my wish.

Final Crisis Aftermath: Dance #5 - Oh, we're back with the fill-in art again. Not often you get a six-issue miniseries with two issues of fill-in art. Luckily, Eduardo Pansica turns in a decent job here - the style shift from ChrisCross is noticeable, but it's more than acceptable work in its own right. As for Joe Casey's story, it certainly looks like we're heading for the natural climax where the Super Young Team finally emerge from being pretend superheroes to become genuine ones. Like a lot of Casey's superhero work, this is all terribly postmodern and satirical, but with a seemingly genuine desire to emerge on the other side with an updated, fit-for-purpose genre. Yes, it's got some serious credibility problems if you try to take it at face value, but there are more than enough interesting ideas in here to justify letting Casey run with it, no matter how absurd the notional plot may be.

Hellblazer #259 - I can't quite believe I'm writing this, but guest artist Simon Bisley shows unexpected restraint in this issue. Yes, Simon Bisley. Restrained. I know. But there's a point in the story where everything is supposed to go mental, and a slow build leading up to that, and much to my surprise Bisley plays it straight and makes it work. To be fair, it's been a few years since I've seen his art, but there's a lot more range here than I was expecting. Meanwhile, in the story, it turns out that Peter Milligan's not finished with Phoebe just yet - after all, this is Hellblazer, and just because a character is comprehensively dead is no reason to write them out. There's a good case to be made that John Constantine is basically just a superhero without a costume, and that nothing here is particularly outwith the range you'd expect from a regular Marvel or DC Universe title, but as long as Milligan continues to write the genre well, I have no problem with that.

Spider-Woman #1 - Ah, the Motion Comic. Now, the Motion Comic isn't available in the United Kingdom, for some unfathomable reason, so all I've seen of it is the clips on YouTube. And it's certainly entertaining to hear an actress wrestling with some of Brian Bendis' most overwrought dialogue. But from what I've seen, I can't imagine this being the way forward. As with many earlier attempts at "enhanced comics", what they've ended up with has ceased to be a comic at all, and become a piece of low-budget animation instead.

Anyway, here in Britain, we just get the plain old regular comic. And the art is certainly lovely. Maleev makes great use of colour, and does a fabulous Madripoor. (And thankfully, despite the excruciating cover, this turns out not to be Spider-Woman and her Amazing Friends.) But as a story, it's all rather dreary. Jessica is very unhappy because she's been replaced by a Skrull; SWORD offer her a job hunting down Skrulls; she mopes around for the better part of an issue feeling sorry for herself in moody lighting. It's all terribly ponderous and gloomy, and there's really no obvious reason why you'd want to spend time in the company of this whiny character. With a premise that boils down to a straight revenge plot, it ought to be more of a B-movie romp, but instead it seems to take itself far too seriously (an amusing comic relief cameo from Abigail Brand notwithstanding), and it simply isn't much fun.

Underground #1 - A miniseries from Jeff Parker and Steve Lieber? It's bound to be good. And it is. Yes, the set-up is pretty familiar: businessman wants to turn local cave into a tourist attraction, our heroine is a park ranger who wants to protect it. Nothing particularly new there. But it seems to be mainly a device to get the characters into a cave setting, and the real measure of this book will be what Parker does with them once he's got them there. In the meantime, Lieber is on the usual excellent form. He's always been a great character artist, and the cave scenes allow him to play with shadow and colour in all sorts of fun ways. Even if this does turn out to be just a stock plot in a cave, it'll be worth reading for Lieber's art - but I have faith that we're going to get more than that once the plot hits its stride.

Wolverine: First Class #19 - Peter David is reunited with former X-Factor artist Dennis Calero - which goes to show that the all-ages titles seem to be more of a priority for Marvel than they used to be - as Kitty and Wolverine go into space and fight Skrulls. Now, after Secret Invasion, I've had enough Skrulls to last me for a long while. But this is good fun regardless - the aliens are really just foils for Kitty in space, and David comes up with plenty of little details to make the story work. As usual with this book, it's a straight story aimed at the younger end of the market, but with plenty to enjoy if you just want to see a more traditional sort of X-Men story - besides which, Peter David is writing some of the best Kitty Pryde scenes in years.

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Monday, September 21, 2009

Number 1s of 2009: 20 September 2009

The rapid turnover continues, with yet another new number one. Actually, a new number one was virtually inevitable this week, because Pixie Lott's "Boys and Girls" crashed to number 6 in its second week on sale. That's not a good sign for her; that's what happens to records that are selling on the strength of the hype, but aren't gathering any momentum through word of mouth.

Or here's the YouTube version. (DailyMotion code seems to be crashing Blogger today, for some reason.) Anyway, it's Taio Cruz, "Break Your Heart."

Cruz is from London, with Brazilian and Nigerian parents. Not that you'd know it from the video, which seems determined to convince us that he's from Miami. One of the chart themes of this year has been London R&B acts cheerfully throwing credibility to the winds and making an unabashed bid for mainstream success, and Cruz is the latest in line. It's a perfectly decent pop song, but very much aimed at daytime radio.

This is the lead single from his second album, but it's his seventh top 40 hit. Until now, his biggest hit was technically "Take Me Back", a not entirely dissimilar Tinchy Stryder single where he did guest vocals, and which reached number 3 earlier in the year. As a solo artist, though, his biggest hit was "Come On Girl", which got to number 5 last year. The guest vocalist on that track is Luciana, and since it's frankly much more interesting, here's another of her tracks - "Yeah Yeah" by Bodyrox, which got to number 2 in 2006.

Judging from iTunes, Cruz is actually likely to hold on for a second week - his main challenger being "Empire State of Mind", a Jay-Z album track which isn't even officially out as a single. He's been playing it on TV shows to promote the album, though, which might explain why downloaders are homing in on it. It's currently sitting at number 15.

Oh, and it's worth noting that "Celebration" by Madonna made it to number 3. This is the token new track from an upcoming greatest hits compilation, her third, and it's met with a rather lukewarm reception in Britain, to the point where Radio 1 haven't even bothered playlisting it - perhaps understandable, as her last official single, "Miles Away", only just scraped the top 40, bombing out at number 39. In America, it became her first single to miss the Billboard Hot 100 since 1983. Evidently that was an anomaly. "Celebration" is pretty mediocre - particularly in the original Paul Oakenfold mix; the video uses a slightly more interesting Benny Benassi remix - but the fanbase is still there for it.


Sunday, September 20, 2009

The X-Axis - 20 September 2009

After a couple of weeks away, there's something of a backlog building up. So let's start off by ploughing through the X-books and a bunch of debut issues.

Obligatory plug: don't forget to download this week's episode of House to Astonish, where Al and I talk about the big news at Marvel and DC, and review Beasts of Burden, Sweet Tooth and Vengeance of the Moon Knight. Download it here, or visit the podcast webpage, or subscribe via iTunes.

Beasts of Burden #1 - This is a four-issue miniseries - or, more accurately, an "at least four issues and then we'll see how it goes" series - for Evan Dorkin and Jill Thompson's stories about cats and dogs protecting their small town from mystic weirdness. Apparently they've been doing these in anthologies since 2003. It's a beautiful comic. Jill Thompson is a wonderful animal artist, and manages to get tons of expression into the cast with virtually no anthropomorphism going on. At first glance it might look a bit cutesy, but there's a dash of genuine nastiness in here which rears its head from time to time. Now, if it's done badly, that sort of thing can come across as a kids' story with some arbitrary adult content nailed on. But this book gets it right; it feels more like a fairy tale from the days before bowdlerisation. If I've got one criticism - and I do - it's that there's a lot of minor characters wandering around who seem fairly interchangeable. That aside, though, this is an excellent book.

Cable #18 - On this issue's thrilling cover: Cable holds a gun and clutches a child. Say what you will about Marvel, but god, they wouldn't know a decent cover these days if it kicked them in the face. Seriously, what is this meant to tell anyone, other than that it's another issue of Cable exactly like the last seventeen? Because there's already a perfectly good logo that says Cable. Use the rest of the page to say something else. Give people a reason to buy the comic. You know, like you used to do before Bill Jemas decided that every cover should be a generic pin-up shot. He's gone now.

Anyway. In the far future, Cable and Hope have fled into space, and Bishop has given chase. You know, Bishop really should have thought of this possibility when he started blowing up vast chunks of planet Earth just to box them in. And the plot problems don't end there, because even though Bishop is in possession of a nuclear device, and he's aboard the only ship in the universe where Hope might conceivably be, and the captain has even told him that Hope's on board, he's not prepared to detonate it until he has "visual confirmation." What? It's a fucking nuke! Just blow up the ship, you moron!

And that's the problem with this series. The characters are quite well written; Hope's starting to emerge as a decent character; in broad strokes, the story isn't bad; but the plot just falls apart on inspection. It's an infuriating book, because I can't help feeling it's only a couple of drafts away from being good - plugging the plot holes, giving Bishop some genuine reason for doubt. (Cable fires off an empty liferaft pod as a distraction, for example, so Bishop's not sure whether she's still aboard.) In the broader scheme, give Cable and Hope something to aim for so that it isn't just an endless parade of "Bishop chases them through a new environment, repeat until cancelled", and instead you have a macguffin providing the illusion of progress. (For example, what Cable and Hope really need is a replacement time machine - or the parts to repair Cable's.)

It exasperates me, this book. It would take so little to solve its problems... but it hasn't been done

Dark Avengers/Uncanny X-Men: Exodus - It may have taken until the last episode of the crossover, but at least the Dark Avengers finally have a role to play: they're needed to make up the numbers for Osborn's side in the big final battle. That's still a pretty minor role for a team who are supposed to be the co-stars in this story, though, and I can't help but feel that this story should have been simply an X-Men arc guest starring Osborn and his cronies. The upshot of this arc, if you don't know, is that we're moving on from the never-quite-worked San Francisco set-up already, and now the X-Men are living on an island off the coast. Apparently, for the purposes of this story, 1.2 miles off California is not American soil, which is news to me, since it's comfortably within US territorial waters.

The final issue is basically a big fight between everyone under the sun, with lip service paid to a couple of token subplots such as Dani Moonstar becoming a Valkyrie again. There's a rather good sequence with Emma Frost and the Sentry. But fundamentally, it's the same problem I've had with a lot of Matt Fraction's X-Men stories - the cast is too large, there are too many plots being juggled, there's not enough focus. And to be honest, the Utopia set-up doesn't really interest me. The X-Men in San Francisco could have worked (though it didn't). The X-Men on an island in the middle of nowhere is basically a return to the Mansion with more water and less context. I'm not sold.

Dark Wolverine #78 - This is the start of a second arc, as Daken causes PR problems for Norman Osborn, thanks to his overenthusiastic slicing up of baddies. I'm not sure I even buy that as a premise, to be honest. Yes, the Dark Avengers are meant to be bad guys posing as heroes. But they've never seemed all that bothered about using excessive force in public, and it seems to me that the none-too-subtle Bush-administration metaphor makes it something they wouldn't be ashamed about - if anything, they'd consider it a PR boon. "Yes, we torture and murder bad guys. We're keeping America safe. Got a problem with that, liberals?" Isn't that meant to be the story? Or shouldn't it be? For that matter, if Osborn doesn't want one of his heroes slicing up bad guys in public, why on earth did he recruit a Wolverine in the first place? Slicing people up is his only means of attack!

So... we've got a premise that I don't really buy into, and that's followed by a story Daken doesn't really appear in all that much. There's a convoluted conspiracy plot with Osborn, and some gratuitous lingerie scenes. What I liked about the previous three issues - Daken's playing both sides against the middle - isn't so apparent here, and instead it comes off as an exercise in killing time while the creators wait for Dark Reign to end. We all know Osborn's downfall can't come in this book, so where exactly can any of this be leading? On the face of it, nowhere, and that's a problem. If you want to read yet another Dark Reign conspiracy story, this is a decent one, but I think I'm bored of this set-up and I'm ready to move on, thanks.

Exiles #6 - Jeff Parker's relaunch meets with swift cancellation - though to be fair, if it wasn't for the renumbering, this would be something approaching issue #125. There wasn't a lasting increase in sales, so the decision to pull the plug is understandable; as I've said before, Exiles is a fairly narrow concept and probably due for a rest. Still, Parker had some interesting ideas; rehashing the original Exiles set-up with Morph playing the Timebroker, so that long-time readers knew from the outset that something wasn't quite right, was a clever twist on the formula. And Marvel have at least given him a double-sized issue to wrap things up. Inevitably, it still feels terribly rushed, but we do get a resolution to the Magneto storyline, and a head-spinning explanation of why the Exiles exist in the first place (which, basically, asserts that as different worlds get "fixed", the knock-on effects for the universe mean that the explanation itself is retroactively altered). With hindsight, it's a shame that they didn't give the series a proper rest and then relaunch it with Parker, since that might have worked. But it's probably time to put this concept to bed for the moment.

Magog #1 - From the pages of Justice Society of America, apparently. I've never been especially interested in this character, who always struck me as a slightly off-beam representative of "modern" superheroes when he debuted in Kingdom Come. But hey, it's Keith Giffen, so it's probably worth a look. And, well... it's not terrible or anything, but there's nothing much to grab me. Giffen writes Magog as one of those superheroes who spends his time grumbling about the fact that other heroes won't get involved with street crime or Sudanese child soldiers because they're too busy fighting aliens. So he's a sort of globe-trotting street-level superhero, who's very angry about stuff, and likes smashing up opposing henchmen. Nothing you haven't seen before. It's competent but not very memorable.

Models Inc #1 - At least it stands out on the shelf. The art itself is dreadful - it looks like somebody's put a photo through a blurry filter and drawn a black line around it, and frankly they'd have been better off just using a photo - but the cover layout is different from anything else, and that's something. (And if it's not a doctored photo... well, it looks like one, and isn't that the real issue?) As for the story... it's a revival of some of Marvel's 1950s model characters, written by Paul Tobin with art by Vicenc Villagrasa. And that begs the obvious question: why would you want to revive the 1950s model characters? Was the world really crying out for a twenty-first century take on Millie the Model? Even if it was, I doubt this will be the book to satisfy them, because it's excruciating. I have no idea who this could possibly be aimed at - a clumsy book about models having adventures on the fringes of the Marvel Universe. If it was vaguely witty and had properly defined characters, it might have a certain camp or cult appeal, but it doesn't really manage that either. Oh, and there's a back-up strip about some guy who's apparently on television abroad.

Nomad: Girl Without a World #1 - A four-issue miniseries for Rikki Barnes, the Heroes Reborn Bucky. Rikki's a tricky character - she's actually not bad in her own right, but she's tied to a notoriously awful series in Rob Liefeld's Captain America, and her back story, involving artificially created alternate worlds brought into our dimension, is practically impenetrable. Sean McKeever wisely cuts through all that, by stripping it back to a simple idea: Rikki is from a parallel Earth, she's stuck in "our" world which is familiar but different, and her story is about her trying to find a place. And in the first issue she tries to be Bucky again, only to be warned off by the Black Widow. Given that the series is called Nomad, I think it's pretty obvious where this is heading - but McKeever writes this sort of thing well, and he's keeping the series down to earth with a story about high school politics, of all things. This is a pretty good issue. (Oh, and although the cover is a straightforward pin-up, it's at least got some striking colouring.)

Strange Tales #1 - First of a three-issue anthology of indie cartoonists doing comedy strips with Marvel heroes. The main attraction here is the long-awaited appearance of Peter Bagge's The Incorrigible Hulk, which was completed years ago and shelved when Marvel had a panic about damaging the Hulk licence. It's being serialised over these three issues, and on the strength of the opening pages, it's hard to fathom what Marvel could have objected to. ("Second-hand smoke bad for Hulk! It violate Hulk's civil liberties!") All told, it's a pretty good package. Most of the strips are short enough not to outstay their welcome; Paul Pope's tongue-in-cheek semi-deadpan Inhumans story is quite charming, and Junko Mizuno's inexplicable "Spider-Man moves to a city of spider-people where he isn't very special" story is genuinely sweet. A lot of it's just silly, but that's no bad thing.

The Torch #1 - It's Marvel's 70th anniversary, so it must be time to revive the Golden Age Human Torch again! Actually, on the strength of this first issue, it seems to be more of a comic about the Torch's sidekick Toro - who was apparently restored to life somewhere or other, and if only they still did footnotes, I'd know. Avengers/Invaders? Just guessing. The angle is that Toro doesn't fit in anywhere, because everyone he knew has moved on. If you only read one comic this month about a Marvel superhero feeling that they don't fit in, make it Nomad #1. This is okay, but nothing much more than that, and feels like primarily an exercise in reviving a character for the sake of doing so.

Sweet Tooth #1 - See the podcast for more on this. Jeff Lemire's new Vertigo series is definitely more of an indie title in sensibility, and I suspect it's going to be a tough sell, but all credit to Vertigo for trying it. It's a post-apocalypse story about a kid who's grown up in the middle of the forest alone with his father, and now has to go out on his own. Apparently all the post-apocalypse kiddies have animal characteristics, and Gus has antlers and the expression of a startled deer. In plot terms, all very familiar, but the execution is impressive - even if the metaphor of innocence might as well have a flashing neon sign over it. It's a quiet, bleak and brittle piece, which manages to keep up that mood despite fairly racing through the opening plot. From the preview pages, I had this pegged as likely to be irritatingly quirky, but at full length it turns out to be much more enjoyable than I'd expected. Worth a look, particularly given that Vertigo is still selling its first issues for a dollar.

Uncanny X-Men: First Class #3 - This is a Banshee solo story, and it actually finds a relatively underused part of his history to work with. It's his wife Maeve, whose main function has hitherto been to spawn Siryn and get blown up by the IRA in an angstifying flashback. So, nice idea... but we end up with a rather awkward story about voodoo mutants and a bitter father-in-law. It all feels a bit contrived, and with both Sean and Moira featured prominently, much will depend on yuir tolerance fir the ol' Oirish accent. Adequate for what it is.

Vengeance of the Moon Knight #1 - Only in comics would a B-movie title like Vengeance of the Moon Knight actually seem like a good idea. Maybe the next relaunch can be Abbot and Costello Meet the Moon Knight? Anyway, Gregg Hurwitz and Jerome Opena bring Marc Spector back to New York, and he's out to make a name for himself as a proper, saner hero once again. The main theme seems to be Moon Knight's attempt to re-establish himself as an A-lister, which isn't a million miles away from what they've been doing in Ms Marvel. And although this isn't an official Dark Reign tie-in, there's the obligatory "renegade hero operating outside Osborn's control" schtick. It's all quite well done; the story is well paced, enough is done to acknowledge the previous stories without compromising the fresh start, and Opena's art is beautiful. The drawback is that the themes all seem a bit familiar; by this point in the Dark Reign storyline, we've seen pretty much everything. The back-up is a reprint of Moon Knight #1, not a particularly great story in its own right, but interesting for a chance to see Bill Sienkiewicz in the days when he was still finding his style.

X-Factor #48 - Are we nearly there yet? This storyline feels like it's been going on forever. Civilisations will die, continents will rise and fall, man will colonise the stars, and this storyline will still not be over. Apparently the book is heading for a relaunch with issue #200 (which, if you add up the first and second volumes, isn't that far away - though it's also rather meaningless, since the first 74 issues of volume 1 featured a different team of the same name). So presumably this has to end sooner or later, and I wonder whether it's being dragged out to fit that schedule. Anyway, this issue, the various plots shuffle a little further forward, and that's about all you can say about it. The story is over-long, and that's the bottom line.

X-Men Forever #6-7 - One issue drawn by Paul Smith, one by Steve Scott. And they're nice-looking comics, actually, even if Smith seems a bit sketchy at times. Claremont's characteristic juddling of subplots fits nicely with the fortnightly format, which keeps up the momentum while allowing him to pursue his digressions. Issue #7 is certainly something of a digression, as much of the issue is given over to a flashback story with the Howling Commandos. But it bounces along as enthusiastically as ever, and it's a strangely likeable comic for all its rough edges. As promised before my break, I'll come back to look at this series in a bit more detail... honest.

X-Men Legacy Annual #1 - Actually the first part of a four-part storyline which presumably continues in X-Men Legacy itself, although nobody seems to have thought it necessary to specify that in the comic. It's an Emplate story, which takes as its starting point the reasonable observation that the old Generation X villain was supposed to survive by feeding off mutants, so he's had a tough time since M-Day. For whatever reason, he's finally thought of visiting the X-Men to go looking for Penance - who, you might remember, he could feed on indefinitely because of her diamond body. Well, Penance isn't there, so he tries somebody else instead - presumably you're supposed to either remember Bling! from the Peter Milligan run, or figure out for yourself what her powers must be in order for the plot to work. That piece of exposition aside, it's a solid story which seems to be having fun with Emplate's all-round weirdness - though I wonder whether Acuna's art is too realistic to quite pull him off. There's also a back-up strip, picking up on the "Gambit joins Apocalypse" subplot which we all thought had been abandoned; apparently Carey's going to do something with it after all.

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Saturday, September 19, 2009

House to Astonish, episode 23

It's been three weeks since the last episode, so Al and I take the opportunity to catch up on the big news and Marvel and DC, and talk about where all this might be heading. Plus, reviews of Vengeance of the Moon Knight #1, Sweet Tooth #1 and Beasts of Burden #1.

Download it here, or visit the podcast web page, or subscribe via iTunes. Oh, and don't forget Al's own blog, over at

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Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Number 1s of 2009: 30 August, 6 September and 13 September 2009

Something of a backlog has built up while I was away. The turnover of number one singles has been exceptionally high this year. Record companies seem to have finally got the measure of the new chart system, and figured out that they'd rather release several singles before an album comes out, thus ensuring control of the release date, and making sure they can build up anticipation more effectively, instead of having it spread over several weeks of sales.

So we've had a string of records, each spending a week at number one. In fact, this makes the seventh straight week that the number one single has changed - though to be fair, that includes the Black Eyed Peas returning to the top with "I Gotta Feeling." (And it's also worth noting that the same acts are cropping up repeatedly. There have been 21 number one singles so far this year, but from only 15 different artists.)

This is the sort of thing we used to have in the days before download sales were included, when the charts had insane levels of turnover. But the rest of the chart remains fairly steady; most of these single-week number ones are duly sticking around for months. It's all a bit odd, and I'm intrigued to see how this is going to settle down.

Anyway. Three more to add to the list.

Dizzee Rascal featuring Chrome, "Holiday" (30 August to 6 September). Remember when Dizzee Rascal was the voice of the grim, urban underclass? Well, now he's soundtracking Club 18-30 holidays, apparently. I've got no problem with his decision to go or a more commercial sound, but this isn't the most inspired thing he's ever done, to put it mildly.

This is Dizzee Rascal's third number one, all of which came after his shift to commercial dance music, and it gives him a total of eleven top 40 singles. As you might have guessed from the eighties retro feel, it's a Calvin Harris production job. Harris also appeared on Dizzee's first number one, "Dance Wiv Me" (2008); he doesn't get a credit on this single, presumably because he doesn't sing. According to Wikipedia, he originally pitched the song to the Saturdays, who rejected it. Oops. Harris had a number one under his own name earlier in the year with "I'm Not Alone", so in spirit if not in technicality, this is his second number one of 2009. You see what I mean about the same names cropping up repeatedly?

Ooh, somebody new. Jay-Z featuring Rihanna & Kanye West, "Run This Town" (6 to 13 September).

As I've mentioned before, rappers tend to have patchy chart records compared to other genres - even the major names have big hits interspersed with singles that scrape the lower reaches of the chart. Jay-Z first charted in the UK in 1996, when "Dead Presidents" reached number 31, but this is his first number one as a lead artist. If you count his appearances as a featured artist , and there are swathes of them, then it's his fourth number one, following "Crazy in Love" (with Beyonce, 2003), "Deja Vu" (also with Beyonce, 2006) and "Umbrella" (with Rihanna, 2007). If you don't, then his previous biggest hits were a brace of number 2 hits - "03 Bonnie and Clyde" in 2003, and "Hard Knock Life" way back in 1998.

It's interesting to note, though, that the UK chart has been more receptive to Jay-Z than the American one. He's actually had slightly more hits in Britain, and he started charting several years earlier. I imagine this is because the American chart includes airplay, which massively penalises genres that are only suitable for some stations.

Technically this is the second single from Jay-Z's new album, "The Blueprint 3." The first was "D.O.A. (Death of Autotune)", which came out in June and failed to chart altogether. As near as I can make out, it seems to have been released in the UK solely as an online video download, which might explain that oddity. Video sales are eligible for the singles chart, but it's not an especially popular format.

(Or, if that doesn't work in your country, here's the YouTube link.) This is Pixie Lott, "Boys and Girls" (13 September 2009 to date). It's her second single and her second number one, so bonuses all round for the Mercury Records PR department.

To be honest, I've only heard this a couple of times, so maybe it'll grow on me... but my initial reaction is that it's a bit soulless and limp, and suffers badly in comparison with the music it's blatantly referencing. There's something a bit stage school about Pixie Lott, as if you're watching a well-drilled imitation of enthusiasm. I'm reminded somewhat of the early career of Billie Piper, except this time with a video director who clearly thinks fashion photography is the zenith of civilisation. I am, at this stage, singularly unconvinced that Lott has the material to back up the hype campaign.


So did I miss anything?

Well, I certainly chose an eventful couple of weeks to go on holiday, didn't I? And we'll be talking about all that on the podcast this weekend. I'll save my views on this whole topic for later, when I'm less jet-lagged and more suited to coherent thought...

For the moment, suffice to say that whatever Marvel and Disney are saying, there are obviously going to be changes. As I understand it, Disney are basically valuing Marvel at almost 40 times its annual earnings. That only makes sense if they think there's value in the company to be unlocked.

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