Sunday, November 15, 2009

Service announcement

Ladies and gentlemen, a moment of your time.

Al and I have decided that it would make a lot more sense if both of us were blogging on After all, we're both on the show. And besides, the House to Astonish website is prettier. And it runs on WordPress, which has more buttons, so it must be better.

So, I'm packing up and moving over to Do follow.

This won't make any difference to how much I post, by the way - well, except that only one of us will have to plug the podcast. You'll just have it all on one site.

And yes, this site will stay up as an archive.

See you at the new home, where this week's X-Axis should already await you.


Saturday, November 14, 2009

Wolverine: Origins #37-40

Writer: Daniel Way
Penciller: Scot Eaton
Inker: Andrew Hennessy
Colourists: Andy Troy with Rob Schwager
Letterer: Cory Petit
Editors: John Barber and Jeanine Schaefer

More than three years into Wolverine: Origins, the great moment has finally arrived. It's time to unveil Romulus, the mastermind who's apparently been behind virtually everything in the series to date. Indeed, retroactively, he's been behind virtually everything, period.

And after such an extended build-up, does it deliver? Not really, no - but then most of us made up our minds about Origins a long time ago, and Romulus would have had to be something pretty remarkable to make us rethink it. After all, one of the central problems with this series is its attempt to subsume Wolverine's entire history into a monumentally complicated and wholly implausible conspiracy theory. Revealing who's behind it all doesn't make that any more or less of a problem.

Romulus may be the centrepiece of this story, but actually, about half the page count is given over to a plot where Wolverine gets suckered into fighting 90s villain Omega Red instead. And credit where it's due, that bit's quite good. It's an extended fight scene in a deserted prison, with some imaginative use of the setting. As so often with this book, the further it wanders from the main story, the better it gets.

Also in the plus column, this arc is drawn by Scot Eaton. He may not be the most distinctive superhero artist out there, but he's solid, he can tell a story, and he continues to improve.

But we come back to Romulus. What ultimately shows up is basically a big, burly, greying version of Wolverine, with his own artificial claws. Which... well, given the way he's been set up, what else was he going to be? Romulus is apparently dying, and wants the various super-soldiers that he had a hand in creating to fight each other to the death. The sole survivor will apparently inherit his position, whatever that actually involves. In fact, even within the story, some of them aren't interested.

This seems a good time to stop and wonder: what story does Daniel Way actually think he's telling with Romulus? I remember Way doing a Q&A a few months ago and getting a bit irritable at somebody who described Romulus as a plot rather than a character. But what's the idea meant to be?

So far, we have a big alpha male character who runs an enormous global conspiracy that appears to have no particular agenda beyond its own continuation. Romulus claims to be at the top of the food chain, and he's obsessed with creating an heir in his own image - though this apparently hasn't stopped him from also taking a hand in a bunch of other super-soldier types who don't look much like him at all, from Cyber all the way down to Nuke. (Incidentally, Way seems to have no interest in the "blond and dark-haired warriors fight throughout history" stuff from the notorious Jeph Loeb Wolverine arc where Romulus' name was first dropped. Given the highly selective way he's used the material from that story, I can't help wondering whether Way found it as bemusing as everyone else did.)

Romulus puts on a big show about his own power, but he's apparently on his last legs. And because it's supposed to be a metaphor about ancient networks of communication, he loves railways.

Does any of this add up to a very interesting character? Well, strip away the more absurd convolutions of the conspiracy theory, and there's something to be said for the idea of the secretive crimelord unable to deal with his mortality and trying to groom a doppelganger to take his place. Romulus is dying and he wants to "live forever" by creating a Romulus II. And because the new Romulus will actually have all of the qualities that the original Romulus merely claimed to have, he'll secure the legacy he wants. Alright. There's something in this. There's a tortuous metaphor here about father/son relationships which could actually make a story.

The problem comes when you do it with Wolverine, rather than a character created for the purpose. It casts Wolverine in the role of manipulated son trying to escape his father's shadow, and if you want to do that story, the Weapon X project already provides a more than adequate vehicle for the metaphor. Thematically, Romulus doesn't add anything to Wolverine's back story; and the insanely complicated conspiracy only serves to limit the sort of stories you can tell with him. He's a better character when he's just a victim of assorted and largely unspecified forces.

And the plot logic is tortuous. Romulus is going to crown an heir by getting everyone to fight to the death without telling them why or what they're fighting for? What? What does being the new Romulus actually involve, anyway? Nobody seems to think that's a point worth discussing, even though logically it ought to be driving the plot. The whole thing ends up working on a level of manipulation that seems to remove it from any resemblance to actual human behaviour.

Maybe that's why it doesn't work. Romulus personifies a standard theme of Wolverine stories: the hero tries to escape the influence of his brutalisers, and assert his own identity and independence. But he doesn't personify it very well, because the overwrought complications of the plot and the nonsense about food chains and trains and deaf-mute henchmen distance him so far from reality that he just doesn't ring true as a human being. And that makes him less effective to tell the story than the faceless military-industrial organisations that served the same purpose before him.

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Monday, November 09, 2009

Number 1s of 2009: 8 November 2009

The X-Factor continues to bestride the charts like a colossus. As a Saturday night ratings juggernaut, the show simply has a profile that the rest of the music industry can't match. And so, once again, it's an X-Factor-related number one.

That's JLS, "Everybody in Love." The official video isn't embeddable, so I've gone with their appearance on the X-Factor results show a couple of weeks ago. If you want to see the video, here's the link, but it's nothing especially memorable.

As British readers will know, and the rest of you might recall, JLS were the runners up in last year's show. Simon Cowell has an option to sign all X-Factor finalists, but to general surprise he passed on JLS. They duly signed to Epic instead, and their debut single "Beat Again" was number one for two weeks back in July. "Everybody in Love" reportedly sold more. I can only assume that's because they got to promote it on the X-Factor - they may not be one of Simon Cowell's acts, but as finalists who have moved on to legitimate success, they're still valuable to the show.

It surely can't be because of the single itself, which is such treacly nonsense that it reminds me of Blazin' Squad. If you don't know them, Blazin' Squad were a fantastically ludicrous ten-teenager pop-rap squadron who had a brief spurt of success in Britain during 2002 with some thoroughly mediocre and unbelievably overpopulated singles. Here they are in action. This seemed like a good idea to somebody at the time.

Back to JLS. If you're feeling generous, you could actually credit them with a third number one: "Hero", the charity single for war veterans which the X-Factor Finalists released last November. British viewers may enjoy watching the video and trying to remember what they were all called. The show is doing another charity single this year, so all the finalists are guaranteed a technical number one later in the month.

Just how much does X-Factor affect the charts at this time of year? Well, the previous number one was "Fight for this Love" by judge Cheryl Cole, which spent two weeks at the top and has apparently already shifted half a million copies. And before her, there was "Bad Boys" by Alexandra Burke, the 2008 winner. So that's three consecutive number ones all generated by the show. Leona Lewis has a new single out this week, and after that there's the 2009 charity single - so chances are they'll make it a straight five. Meanwhile, Cole has also picked up a number one album.

And because album track downloads count as singles sales, every week the show seems to spawn at least one spontaneous hit, as people suddenly realise they always wanted to own the original of a song that one of the contestants covered. This week, it's "Don't Stop Believin'" by Journey, which is currently sitting at number 19. It didn't even chart in Britain on its original release in 1981.

Down at number 32, there's even "You Should Have Known" by Laura White, a 2008 finalist who got knocked out in week five. It's not that bad, actually, but it's missing something.

The show is still raking in publicity thanks to the last remaining group, Irish twins John & Edward, whose near-total lack of anything resembling conventional talent continues to divide audiences, depending on how seriously they take the show. Actually, to be fair, they're getting slightly better - which is to say, recent performances have been within spitting distance of the right key. This week, common sense finally seemed to catch up with them, though, as they found themselves in the bottom two, and regaled audiences with this gleefully cackhanded rendition of "Rock DJ."

They were up against Lucie Jones, who can actually sing, and must naturally have felt confident, given that Simon Cowell's spent the last few weeks telling the papers that it would be a catastrophe if John & Edward won the show. And so, of course, that's not what happened. Note the point at about 1:40 where it suddenly dawns on Lucie that she's about to get screwed. Cue howls of viewer outrage.

Simon Cowell is an awesome, awesome heel. The WWE could learn so much from him.


Sunday, November 08, 2009

The X-Axis - 8 November 2009

We have a new podcast this weekend, so see the post immediately below for the comments thread. (You can download the show here.)

Meanwhile, with one thing and another, I still haven't read all of this week's comics... but let's race through the X-books and some of the other releases.

Astonishing X-Men #32 - Last issue, most of the story was devoted to the X-Men rescuing an aircraft in distress. This issue, we get seventeen straight pages of the X-Men fighting a Sentinel. A Sentinel made of meat, admittedly, but a Sentinel nonetheless. This is a throwback to the sort of thing Ellis used to write for Authority - very light on plot, very big on extended action sequences.

There is a plot, but it turns out to involve dead mutants being dug up and reanimated to use as weapons against the X-Men. No doubt there are readers who have been enjoying this premise in Blackest Night and X-Necrosha, and who will be thrilled to learn that they can now read a third concurrent story based on the same idea. In fairness, running into Blackest Night is sheer bad luck. But X-Necrosha is a crossover being published by the same editorial office. Don't they talk to one another? Didn't any alarm bells ring?

Of course, the plot is just a framework on which to hang the lengthy fight scenes, so it boils down to how excited you are about the prospect of a seventeen page fight scene. But it's really nothing to write home about on that level either. The climax is a mystifying sequence which hammers home the fact that Hank's aircraft has no weapons systems, only for him to unleash a barrage of what certainly look to be missiles on the next page. The art is certainly very good, if a bit busy. That aside, it's difficult to get worked up about this.

Black Widow: Deadly Origin #1 - Paul Cornell writes a miniseries retelling the Black Widow's origin. As it turns out, the story is actually set in the present day, but with flashbacks aplenty to fulfil the remit. Tom Raney draws the "present" scenes, with John Paul Leon handling the past - a massive style shift, but one that works fairly well, since at least it keeps the timeframes distinct. Unfortunately, the flashback scenes seem to assume that readers are largely familiar with the material already. For example, there's no attempt to explain how the young Natasha knows Logan, so apparently Cornell thinks all his readers are familiar with Uncanny X-Men #268, a story that came out 19 years ago. Moreover, the flashbacks are terribly staccato and rushed - the likes of Logan, the Winter Soldier and even Stalin show up out of nowhere and move on within panels. It all comes across as a bit unreal and disconnected, I'm afraid.

Cinderella: From Fabletown With Love #1 - A Fables spin-off miniseries, based on the idea established in the main series that Cinderella is secretly working for the Fabletown authorities as a glamorous Bond-style spy. This is by Chris Roberson and Shawn McManus, neither of whom is associated with the Fables franchise, but they're working hard to match the tone of the regular title. The story is actually the better part of a year out of synch with the other books, and I'm not sure the world really needed a third Fables book telling fairly similar stories to the main title. But it's an enjoyable read, and McManus is always an excellent storyteller.

The Great Ten #1 - Ten-issue miniseries, natch, featuring the Chinese state superhero team from 52. Seems odd to dust them off several years down the line, but okay. This first issue is effectively a solo story about Accomplished Perfect Physician - as he says, "not [a name] I would've come up with, but there it is." The basic idea is that some of the group are loyal soldiers of the state, but others, like the Physician, are trying to be more or less legitimate superheroes within the Chinese system. Why put them on the team at all? Well, because at least that way you can keep an eye on them. Bedard's setting himself a tough challenge if he's going to have an ongoing invasion story and focus on a different member every issue - but there's nothing wrong with ambition, and he gets off to a good start here. The pro-government members are handled fairly well; we're not invited to agree with them or even to think there's much moral ambiguity in it, but at least they're allowed to be sincere believers with a plausible viewpoint. Shawn McManus' art is good, strong stuff, and there's some potentially interesting material about Communist China's relationship with its national past. Good start.

Psylocke #1 - Well, that's a subtle cover, isn't it? I'll give David Finch this, though. The cover may be T&A, but at least it's reasonably well-composed T&A. Lots of nice parallel lines. Much better than the utter mess surrounding X-Necrosha #1. Anyway, this is a Psylocke miniseries, and she's going after nineties villain Matsu'o Tsurayaba again. From the look of it, the series seems to be a reconstruction job on a badly damaged character - Chris Yost's script more or less openly acknowledges that Psylocke's become rather directionless and has lost touch with her roots, and evidently the story is going to set out to reconnect her in some way or other. This is work that needs done, if Psylocke is going to be used at all - though frankly, she's such damaged goods at this point that I wonder if she's worth the effort that will be involved in rehabilitating her to dramatic viability. Inevitably, Yost's got a tough job ahead of him making this an interesting story in its own right, and it's all a bit angsty. But it does at least seem to understand what needs to be done with this character - she needs to be redefined clearly so that she can move forward. So that's a good start. The art's a bit fussy - lots of gratuitously curved panels that don't really add anything - but it serves the purpose fine.

Strange Tales #3 - This anthology of indie creators doing Marvel superheroes has been decidedly uneven, and this issue is no exception. The big selling point of the series was the serialisation of Peter Bagge's long-shelved "Incorrigible Hulk." Splitting it into three parts wasn't a particularly smart move (the story was originally conceived as a one-shot, so episode three now opens with a "Minutes later..." caption), and to be honest, it's not a lost classic, but it did work; the Hulk turns out to be somewhat at home among Bagge's characters. The rest of this issue's contributions are a mixed bunch. There's a lot of brief gag strips, some of which take the characters more seriously than others, but most of which are actually funny. In the lead slot, Stan Sakai reimagines the Hulk as a samurai; Jonathan Jay Lee gives us the Punisher as a martial artist and lapsed Confucian. There are a couple of other relatively straight stories which feel like they might have made a decent fill-in issue if they were expanded a bit. But at the other end of the spectrum, Corey Lewis' Longshot strip is all over the place. And Chris Chua's four pages are completely off the deep end - they're barely even comics in the normal sense, so much as a riot of colour and tiny panels leading in weird directions around the page. Technically he fulfils the remit of using Marvel characters, but it's really beside the point. It's not a story in any way, shape or form, but there's something unique and bizarre about it that can't help but hold the eye.

Stumptown #1 - Greg Rucka's new creator-owned series at Oni, with artist Matthew Southworth. We talked about this on the podcast, but suffice to say that it's a detective story set in Portland. While it's not exactly redefining the genre, Rucka has always excelled at this sort of thing, and this series sees him doing what he does best. Southwarth does excellent work here - apparently they've gone to great lengths to get the locations right, but for those of us who don't know Portland, it's more important that the art is reminiscent of the likes of Michael Gaydos and Sean Phillips, good company to be in.

X-Men Origins: Iceman - These origin recap one-shots don't sell a great deal, but I suppose they're providing material for a future collection. And I can see the logic: these are essential bits of continuity, and they might as well be available in a modern style for contemporary readers. In this issue, Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa and Phil Noto re-tell Iceman's origin story, which originally appeared in a back-up strip in 1968 or so. It's a faithful rendition, with all that that entails. In other words, the art's great, the pacing's vastly improved, and the whole thing is given a bit of context. But it's still the same story at the end of the day, so the creators are a bit hamstrung in what they have to work with. Bluntly, the source material is mediocre, and there's only so much that can be done to jazz it up. Still, they've made the best of it, and it does look wonderful.

X-Men vs Agents of Atlas #2 - The second half of a two-part miniseries, as part of Marvel's ongoing crusade to raise the profile of Jeff Parker's much-loved but little-bought Agents of Atlas team. While this has its moments, I'm afraid it does end up falling into the usual tropes of crossover territory - misunderstanding, fight, reconciliation, and so forth. The back-up strip, a lead-in to the Agents' back-up strip in Hercules, is a much stronger piece. Not that this is a bad issue; it's just a bit formulaic, and doesn't really capture the strengths of the regular series.

X-Necrosha #1 - This one-shot, leading into the crossover of the same name, came out last week, but I've only just read it. In fact, "X-Necrosha" is more like an X-Force storyline which is spilling over into X-Men: Legacy and New Mutants - one book gets the core story, the others are just taking the opportunity to have some undead villains show up. It's unfortunate that the story ends up appearing alongside DC's uncomfortably similar Blackest Night, but in fairness to X-Force writers Craig Kyle and Christopher Yost, they've been building up this storyline for quite some time. And you can see why: X-Force are supposed to be the violent, take-no-prisoners, black-ops version of the X-Men, but there's a desperate shortage of expendable mutant villains right now, so anything that generates short-term cannon fodder is helpful. There are three stories in this one-shot; the lead strip is by Kyle and Yost with art from Clayton Crain, and it's pretty forgettable. I'm still not impressed by Crain's murky artwork - his cover for this issue is an ugly mess - and the story seems to be following a rather obvious path. Fair play, though, for (literally) digging up some thoroughly obscure people: if you're wondering, Mortis is Dazzler's half-sister, and Berserker was a one-off character from an early issue of X-Factor. Zeb Wells and Ibram Roberson's Cypher story is fine, but the idea is done better in the New Mutants story that it leads into. Finally, Mike Carey and Laurence Campbell take a different tack on things, more or less ignoring the "under the control of Selene" bit so that they can play with the ghost of Destiny - and that's a story I've got some interest in.

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House to Astonish, episode 26

It's our one-year anniversary, and an extra-long, largely unedited edition. This week, the usual news round-up, reviews of Assault on New Olympus, Stumptown and Great Ten, and a special Q&A segment with questions from the people who replied to Al on Twitter.

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

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Friday, November 06, 2009

Wolverine: Weapon X #1-5

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

The launch of Wolverine: Weapon X has been less than auspicious. By all appearances, the big idea was to soft-launch a new Daken title. They've done this before, when Incredible Hulk was renamed as Incredible Hercules and became an entirely different book. But, because it seemed a bit like a short-term stunt, it managed to hold on to a lot of its inherited audience. (At first, anyway.)

So in giving the Wolverine series to Daken, and renaming it Dark Wolverine, Marvel seem to have had something similar in mind. And it's more or less worked - for Daken. Trouble is, then you have to find somewhere else for Wolverine to appear. So Wolverine: Weapon X was launched. But it was presented as yet another Wolverine title, and there wasn't much appetite for one of those. Consequently, the book has been ordered in the quantities you'd expect for an unwanted, unloved spin-off.

Which is a shame, because Jason Aaron's doing some good work on this title. From a marketing standpoint, it's perhaps unfortunate that the story didn't open with some big continuity event. But creatively, this is the sort of thing I want to see from a Wolverine series: a writer who gets the character, stories that make use of his background without getting hung up on continuity, inventive action, and all a bit over the top. It's a series that works in bold strokes, but there's nothing wrong with that in a Wolverine comic. And artist Ron Garney is perfectly cast here. Garney does bold, clear, straightforward, unfussy storytelling, but he knows when to push the boat out and go for the spectacular.

The plot: Wolverine is tipped off that the Weapon X Project's files have ended up in the hands of Blackguard, a dodgy private military firm who have been making their own Wolverines. And he sets out to shut them down. And that's basically it. This, by the way, is a good use of continuity: the Weapon X Project is a continuity quagmire, but for the purposes of this story, all you really need to know is that they were baddies who tried to turn Wolverine into a living weapon. And you can explain that in one sentence.

Obviously, "Blackguard" are a less-than-subtle reference to Blackwater, the private military firm that did work for the US State Department in Iraq. But Aaron isn't really interested in those controversies. Blackguard are simply a tongue-in-cheek evil corporation, complete with an anonymous and uncaring CEO, which disposes of unwanted personnel through its sinister human resources department. The CEO tells an employee who's about to be executed that "I'll have a moment of silence on my next conference call." It's all very silly, but it's the right kind of silly - Aaron manages to make these guys a genuine threat despite the jokes.

The point, sort of, seems to be that Blackguard is as corporately dehumanising as the Weapon X Project was, and has a similar cannon-fodder attitude to the staff. Their highly trained interchangeable Wolverines manage to lose a 12-1 fight against the ruggedly individual real thing because they insist on trudging around in a group, while he uses guerilla tacics and picks them off one at a time. Naturally, the long suffering leader of the Blackguard troops ultimately turns out to be a sort of noble warrior after all, and Aaron leaves open the back door to bring him back as a recurring villain.

There's some wonky plotting in here. Blackguard starts off as a Roxxon subsidiary, only to sprout its own shareholders about halfway through. A whole subplot about them trying to get a US government contract makes little sense, and seems to have been nailed on purely in an attempt to raise the stakes.

But it works, for the most part. Aaron gets the voice of the character, he writes good action sequences, and crucially, he can be knowingly over-the-top and corny without letting the story fall apart. It's a Wolverine story which is willing to be fun, and doesn't take itself too seriously; and I'm all for that.

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Sunday, November 01, 2009

The X-Axis - 1 November 2009

Right, then... I am honestly, definitely, genuinely going to catch up on reviewing some recently-completed storylines. There's a pile of them building up next to my desk, "The Adamantium Men" from Wolverine: Weapon X #1-5, "Romulus" from Wolverine: Origins #37-40 and the GeNext United miniseries being particularly overdue.

But first, let's round up this week's books. By the way, my copy of the X-Necrosha one-shot got delayed, so I'll review it next week. However, since Marvel saw fit to ship seven other X-books this week, I think I'll survive. (Marvel claim they try not to ship everything in a single week. Check the January 2010 solicits: week three features both Hulk and Incredible Hulk, both Uncanny X-Men and X-Men: Legacy, both Wolverine: Origins and Wolverine: Weapon X, and both Dark Avengers and Mighty Avengers. And you might have thought that Web of Spider-Man would ship in the one week of the month when Amazing Spider-Man doesn't... but you'd be wrong. If this is Marvel trying, I dread to think what would happen if they started phoning it in.)

Dark Avengers: Ares #1 - Intriguingly, this isn't a Dark Reign tie-in. Given that Marvel generally seem prepared to slap the logo on anything with a Norman Osborn cameo, this is remarkable restraint. Kieron Gillen and Manuel Garcia are responsible for this miniseries. It's a simple idea: Ares is the god of war, Norman Osborn asks him to train up some H.A.M.M.E.R. soldiers, and so Ares gets to play drill instructor. And since Ares is only marginally saner than Lobo, that's clearly a recipe for disaster. This first issue is mainly black comedy with the bemused soldiers trying to make sense of their maniac commander, with the plot rearing its head on the last two pages. And since it's only a three-issue miniseries, you might think that's leaving it a bit late. But the plot's secondary, really. The joke is Ares as drill instructor; the point is about the moulding of soldiers, and there's plenty of material about that. It's brazenly over the top, but so it should be - it's an Ares comic. Fun reading.

Dark Reign: The List - Wolverine #1 - The Dark Reign: The List one-shots are mildly bemusing. They were hyped as something important to the plot of "Dark Reign", but in practice they seem to be just filler stories, albeit by the writers of the characters in question. This one-shot, from Wolverine: Weapon X writer Jason Aaron and artist Esad Ribic, is barely even a Wolverine story. Norman Osborn, in full-blown raving maniac mode, decides to try and capture the World - the place from Grant Morrison's New X-Men run where later versions of the Weapon X Project were based. Marvel Boy, Wolverine and Fantomex head off to stop them. And then Wolverine gets mind-controlled almost immediately, so really, he's hardly in the issue.

Now, here's the odd thing. Aaron's Morrisonesque high concept is that Wolverine and the other inhabitants of the World have been brainwashed by a sort of artificial religion - "a virus that attacks the faith reserves." As such, it only works on people with existing religious beliefs, which is why the cynical atheists Fantomex and Marvel Boy are unaffected. The oddity here is that Aaron evidently sees Wolverine as being religious, even though he's claimed otherwise before. And in fact, the issue is rounded out with a reprint of "A Good Man", a back-up strip from Wolverine #175 which was Aaron's first published work. He won some sort of contest, as I recall. That story likewise hinges on the idea of Wolverine as religious, which makes it a smart pairing for the lead strip, but also results in two stories which, for my money, rather miss the point of the character. (To be honest, I have a sneaking suspicion that Aaron doesn't really understand the concept of idealism without religion.)

Still, all this is basically window dressing for a comic where sarcastic people run around fighting cyborg zombies, so let's not get too worked up about its shaky psychology. It's passably enjoyable, but it's hardly essential reading; Aaron's done better action romps elsewhere, and he's written a better Wolverine story this week.

Gotham City Sirens #5 - Well... hmm. The basic idea here is to pit Harley Quinn and co against a version of the Silver Age Joker, from back when he was goofy and ridiculous and essentially harmless. Which kind of makes sense, because Harley fits better with that version of the Joker. Except of course the Joker's been a cold-blooded psychopath for years, and so to square that circle, Paul Dini ends up reviving... a character from Batman #186 (November 1966). I mean, we're talking about a seriously obscure reveal here. And I'm not altogether sure it works, because part of the problem is that Dini still wants this version of the Joker to be a genuine threat rather than a cornball throwback, so he's trying to have his cake and eat it. I can see why the wider interests of consistency might rule it out, but I actually preferred the approach of previous issues, that the Joker was simply acting that way because Harley was involved.

Jack of Fables #39 - In which Jack Frost continues to become a proper hero, and our Jack continues to become even less of one. And... you know, it's a plot-advancing chapter in the middle of a four-parter, and beyond that there isn't a great deal to say about it. The basic idea of Jack Frost becoming a traditional fairy tale hero pretty much dictates that the story has to be somewhat predictable, which might be the problem with this issue. As a storyline, it really depends on whether they've got a clever idea to draw together the two seemingly unrelated plot strands in the concluding part next month.

Marvel Divas #4 - "Who cares what we're called?" someone asks in the final panel. Defensive much? And the reality is that somebody should have cared what they were called, because Marvel Divas isn't just a bad name for a miniseries, it's an embarrassingly, cringe-inducingly terribly name for a miniseries. The actual content has been much better than you'd expect. That's not to say that it's a lost classic which has slipped under the radar, but artist Tonci Zonic has done great work throughout. Okay, Daimon Hellstrom's acting a million miles out of character for the benefit of the plot, but I'm prepared to let that one slide. And yes, the cancer stuff was a bit disease-of-the-week. But it's had some good moments, the art is strong, the story is acceptable, and the whole thing comes in on the right side of average. Fans of the characters will probably have enjoyed this one.

New Mutants #6 - It's a Necrosha-X tie-in, which means that a dead hero rises from the grave as a mind-controlled zombie and fights... hold on, haven't I seen this somewhere before? Blackest Something? Anyway, the New Mutants don't have that many dead characters to revive, so naturally it's Cypher. And Cypher's been dead for... what, twenty years now? Seriously, if there's that many readers still out there who care about Cypher being brought back from the dead, it's probably time to close the shutters and move into a different line of work. Fortunately, Zeb Wells is smart enough not to peril his story on 80s nostalgia. Instead, most of the issue is devoted to Cypher stalking the New Mutants as they have their big reunion with Professor X, the idea being that the super-powered Cypher can interpret everything, and so offers a running translation on the subtext of everything people say and do. And that's a neat gimmick, well executed. I can't say I'm particularly grabbed by Blackest X as a concept - if there's any mileage in "heroes fight mind-controlled dead friends", DC already expended it. But this issue does manae to do something clever and worthwhile with Cypher's powers, which is about enough to justify the story.

Wolverine: First Class #20 - Talking of pointless nostalgia, this issue guest stars Captain Marvel. It's a two-parter with Skrulls, and while the first half was good, this issue just gets distracted by a guest star who we're obviously meant to think is pretty cool. And it never really persuades me of that. It comes across as a story where we're all meant to go "Ooh, Captain Marvel" - but if this is an all-ages comic then it should hardly be counting on familiarity with a character whose heyday was in the mid-seventies. Decidedly underwhelming.

Wolverine: Weapon X #6 - The book begins its second arc, and weirdness abounds. Logan's in a mental institution, being treated for his delusions that he's a superhero. Now, obviously, we all know that the Marvel Universe won't turn out to be a hallucination. That's not the point. The trick with a story like this is to make it as weird as possible, and generally maximise the WTF element. Jason Aaron and Yanick Paquette pull that off - the institution is done in a way that's so obviously bogus that it only serves to heighten the creepiness, almost as though the characters are wandering around a half-finished set. I do wonder whether four issues is a bit long for a storyline like this, but we'll see how it goes.

X-Factor #50 - Only Marvel would try to get away with publishing two anniversary issues in a row. Yes, this is issue #50, and the next one is issue #200. I know it doesn't really matter, but if you're going to use it as a marketing tool, don't draw attention to the fact that it's all bullshit! Conceal it at all costs! Anyway, this is the long-awaited conclusion of a complicated time-travel storyline that's been going without a break since issue #40. Like a lot of people, I rather lost patience with this arc a while ago, but I'll settle down and re-read the whole thing to see if it works any better as a collection. As for this final issue, I'm mainly just relieved that it's over, but there is a clever twist to explain Layla's "knows stuff" schtick. The series seems to have completely forgotten that her original original mutant power was to advance the plot of House of M, but hey, I wouldn't be reminding people about that either, if I was them.

X-Force #20 - The final part of "Not Forgotten", and again, I'll review the arc once I've re-read the whole thing. Basically, it's another issue of X-23 solving problems with ultraviolence. But then that's her thing. I do wonder whether it's time to advance her character arc and humanise her a little bit more, but then again the idea that X-23's been programmed to kill and has no real-world life experience is what makes her distinctive. Tone it down too much and she becomes Wolverine Lass, something that she presently manages to avoid. (Come to think of it, why doesn't X-23 figure into the plot of Wolverine: Origins? Not that I want her to, but logically, she should, shouldn't she?) The action is endearingly over the top, and it works in large part because Mike Choi and Sonia Oback's art manages to prettify it so much - though it's unfortunate that they make X-23, Morales and Kimura look so similar.

X-Men Forever #10 - What on earth...? This is the funeral of Wolverine, who apparently really is dead in Chris Claremont's alternate reality series. And so a bunch of heroes show up to tell us what a great bloke he was. Much as you'd expect, really. What's puzzling is that Claremont seems to be straying even further from the original premise of the series. Officially, the idea is that Claremont is picking up his original run on Uncanny X-Men from where he left off in 1991. So he's ignoring revelations that appeared after 1991, which is fair enough. And he's doing things like killing Wolverine which would never have been allowed in 1991, which is arguably against the spirit of the series, but still kind of acceptable. But now it turns out that this world doesn't have a Cable, and that a whole bunch of New Mutants stories apparently didn't happen either. Oh, and Warren isn't blue. At which point, not only are we contradicting stories that came out before Claremont left the series, we're contradicting stories that were acknowledged in the pages of Uncanny X-Men. This is all very weird, and it appears to be deliberately confusing - the closing scene contains no intrinsic drama whatsoever, but serves as a cliffhanger by foregrounding what otherwise seems to be a ginormous continuity error. We seem to be on a tipping point where the book either becomes horribly self-indulgent, or turns into a bizarre metatextual game, both of which bear little resemblance to the supposed concept of the book. Curiouser and curiouser... and yet I can't help wondering where on earth Claremont could be going with this. So he's still got my attention.

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Monday, October 26, 2009

Number 1s of 2009: 25 October 2009

It's hard to overstate just how much The X-Factor dominates the charts at this time of year. For the benefit of the Americans reading, The X-Factor is the show that replaced Pop Idol a few years ago. It's essentially the same format with a few tweaks. The main difference is that The X-Factor has four categories - boys 16-24, girls 16-24, 25+ and groups - and four judges, each "mentoring" their own category.

You can't buy the individual performances from week to week, but that doesn't stop people going off and downloading songs that they saw on the show. And they do, in quantities that suggest a lot of X-Factor viewers are evidently not being exposed to music through any other channel. Two proper acts perform on the Sunday night results show, and those slots are far and away the most effective promotion a single can have in the UK.

Last week, the 2008 winner Alexandra Burke entered at number one with her first single proper (not counting her coronation release). It was the fastest selling single of the year. I wondered whether that might be bad news for X-Factor judge Cheryl Cole, who released her own solo debut this week. But she evidently didn't need to worry. The British public love Cheryl Cole. She practically matched Burke's weekly total in her first day.

So, that's Cheryl Cole, "Fight for this Love." (The YouTube version is here.)

Cole is a member of Girls Aloud, the girl band who were formed on Popstars: The Rivals in 2002. The original idea was to form two groups - one male, one female - who would battle it out for the Christmas number one. This shouldn't have worked. After all, it meant taking whoever came first, second, third, fourth and fifth in a talent show. And for the boys, it didn't work - One True Voice crashed and burned after two singles.

Girls Aloud, however, were given decent material and went on seven years and counting of legitimate success in the UK and Ireland. Even the reviewers generally like them. Curiously, they've never managed to translate that into success overseas. But against all expectations, they survived and thrived.

Cheryl Tweedy was 19 when she joined the group. She nearly managed to screw things up almost immediately when, in 2003, she was done for assaulting a nightclub toilet attendant. (She claimed self-defence.) After this rocky start to her career, she ended up marrying footballer Ashley Cole in 2006 and starting a sort of parallel career as a fashion icon.

Her solo career has clearly been in the works for a while. Girls Aloud can't go on forever - seven years is a long career by the standards of most pop groups, let alone reality TV girl bands. She joined X-Factor as a judge last year, and also put in a guest appearance on the UK version of's single, "Heartbreaker", which got to number 4 last year.

Cheryl Cole isn't the greatest of singers, but she's a star in Britain. And I quite like the single. Musically, at least, it's a grower. Now, lyrically, on the other hand, it's thoroughly uninspired - I honestly think this may be a song where literally every single lyric is a cliche. Verse two is dreadful. And the video's all over the place - I almost expect to be hauled into a focus group at the end and questioned on which look I prefer. At least when she did it on the X-Factor results show, they picked a strong visual and ran with it (even if it's a stupid costume). But she's clearly got nothing to worry about so far as her British sales are concerned.

If you count her Girls Aloud output (and the record), this is Cole's top 40 single, and her fifth number 1. Rather disappointingly, the four Girls Aloud number 1s are their debut "Sound of the Underground", a mediocre cover version of "I'll Stand By You", an equally mediocre charity cover version of "Walk This Way" with the Sugababes, and last year's "The Promise." But in a seven year career, they've never had a single peak below 11 - unless you count "Theme to St Trinians", the theme to last year's St Trinian's movie, which wasn't technically a single but did have a video, and crept into the lower end of the chart at number 51. It's a very strange record, not least because it seems to have been produced by complete amateurs (their voices all tail off separately at the end of each line). Actually, being part of the St Trinians revival, it's just a very strange record generally.

In Britain, X-Factor performances aren't available to download. There are good reasons for that. They'd count as singles, so they'd clog up the whole chart. And Simon Cowell doesn't want that, because (a) it'd spoil the coronation single, and (b) he has other acts he wants to promote in the run-up to Christmas. What we get instead is people downloading the songs that are performed on the show. This week's winner: "Hurt" by Christina Aguilera, spontaneously re-entering the chart at number 25.

The most perversely entertaining aspect of the show this year, though, is the state of the Groups category. Relying as they do on pre-existing groups to audition, the X-Factor always has to pad out this category appallingly. But rarely as badly as this year, where Louis Walsh ended up putting through a group of ex-strippers (voted out in week one), a passable group assembled by the production team from the cast-offs of the girls' category (voted out in week three), and John and Edward, Irish twins so unremittingly awful that even the famously adoring studio audience has been known to boo them. But there are enough malicious voters out there to keep them in the show week after week. As they keep surviving more deserving contestants, they're bordering on being a full-blown heel act. Hopefully they get the joke. Still, the sight of this duo as the last group standing is perversely entertaining.