Countdown: Arena #1 (DC Comics)
By Keith Champagne, Scott McDaniel & Andy Owens
My better half was a big fan of the “reality show” Rockstar Supernova, so as a result, I watched much of the run of the series as well. After I read Countdown: Arena, I was reminded of a biting bit of criticism Tommy Lee offered up to a would-be rock star: “That was sautéed in wrong sauce.” Writer Keith Champagne faced an uphill battle when it came to crafting this DC Universe version of Mortal Kombat, that’s a given. But the premise here is ludicrous. Monarch forces heroes to fight alternate versions of themselves so he can amass the perfect army of superhuman soldiers. He’s able to force them to fight with the threat that he’ll destroy their homes, their entire worlds. But if Monarch has that kind of power, what he does he need a Batman for? A Nightshade? Or even a Superman for that matter? Another problem with the book is that its appeal relies heavily on the readers’ familiarity with these Elseworlds versions of DC icons. Champagne’s script offers little background on these characters or why we should care about them.
Compounding the flawed script and premise is the artwork by Scott McDaniel. I have no doubt he was chosen for this project because his loose, sketchy style allows for a quick turnaround. He’s usually adept with action sequences as well, but that’s not the case here. His work appears rushed, as it’s difficult to follow what’s happening. Champagne’s script serves to clarify. Furthermore, McDaniel’s loose pencils don’t allow him to differentiate enough among the alternate versions of the same characters. Wrong sauce tastes awful, and Arena is smothered in it. 1/10
Gear School original graphic novel (Dark Horse Comics)
by Adam Gallardo, Nuria Peris & Sergio Sandoval
Though there have been instances of Japanese comics fare (or Japanese-inspired) material I’ve enjoyed in the past, overall, I am not the target audience for manga and anime. I’ve often found the concepts incorporated into that sci-fi and fantasy fiction to be too surreal, not to mention the overt sexualization of teenage girls and exaggerated feminization of boys as well. So as I picked up Gear School, a manga graphic novel produced by Western creators, I figured I wasn’t going to get much out of it. Instead, I found a light, grounded story dressed up in some sharp sci-fi elements. Mind you, those with an affinity for mech properties such as Robotech and Mobile Suit Gundam aren’t going to find anything new here. Gallardo’s plot and script are fairly derivative; he’s not breaking new ground here whatsoever. But he handles the archetypes of the genre quite well. The teenage heroine and her best friend Moira are compelling characters. It’s easy to recognize Teresa’s insecurities in oneself, or at least one’s teen self. Fortunately, she’s not defined solely by her awkward side. Her refusal to follow the military school’s social-class structure and cliques adds an admirable quality to the character long before she emerges as a bonafide action heroine.
Peris and Sandoval’s artwork doesn’t sexualize the teen characters too much, though there is a brief instance in which one girl’s sports bra is visible. Furthermore, the all of the teen girls seem far too buxom for their tender age (but then, it’s been a long time since I walked the halls of a junior high). Still, the sexual elements are fairly understated for the most part and not too distracting. The Japanese influence shine through not only in the general style of illustration but in the designs of the tech and alien threats. The colors are crisp and full of energy. And the art and script alike don’t adopt a harsher tone in an attempt to bring some kind of mature edge to the book. The end result is a typical but entertaining sci-fi story that will appeal to all ages. 7/10
The Sword #1 (Image Comics)
by Joshua & Jonathan Luna
I really haven’t followed the Luna Brothers’ work in comics all that closely up to this point. Their previous efforts — Ultra and Girls — seemed like gratuitous, T&A fare. They may not have been, I don’t know, but I wasn’t drawn to the books, in any case. I sampled their art on Marvel’s Spider-Woman: Origin last year, and I was impressed with the soft, airy look they brought to the characters. The first issue of The Sword is a well-crafted, thoughtful and attractive-looking comic book. One can’t help but like the main characters immediately, and the tension later in the issue, during the interrogation scene, is quite enthralling. The power of that scene is almost enough to get the reader to overlook the derivative nature of the plot. When we’re introduced to the heroine in the wheelchair, we know she’ll end up miraculously healed at some point. And the death of her entire family at the hands of evildoers is something we’ve seen in genre fiction time and time again. Of course, these elements recur in comics and other fiction because they work; they’ve stood the test of time, and the Luna Brothers handle that familiar fare adeptly.
I’m pleased that the many female characters aren’t presented as sexpots; even Dara’s dad is a believably plump, middle-aged figure. The airy, hazy colors are in keeping with the softer tone in the linework as well. The Luna Brothers’ style seems clearly inspired not only by more realistic manga and anime, but by the comics work of the legendary Gilbert and Jaime Hernandez; good company to be in, without a doubt. Perhaps the most unfortunate aspect of The Sword is something beyond the creators’ control. The core plot and the protagonist are highly reminiscent of what one will find in another recently launched Image title: Durwin Talon’s Bonds. The timing of the concurrent publishing of these similar projects from the same publisher is unfortunate. 7/10
Teen Titans #53 (DC Comics)
by Sean McKeever, Eddy Barrows & Rob Hunter
When it was announced that Sean McKeever would be taking over this title, it renewed my interest in the adventures of DC’s teen super-heroes. After all, if anyone could bring strong, grounded characterization to the Teen Titans, it would be McKeever, writer of such strong titles as The Waiting Place and Sentinel. After several issues, that has yet to materialize. I realize that McKeever was thrust into the middle of a big, action-oriented storyline with his debut on the title, but I’m tired of waiting for the more down-to-earth subject matter to arrive. The time paradoxes inherent in the plot make for a confusing read as well, but even more frustrating is how much the dead Superboy (now forever referred to as Conner) impacts the storytelling in this title. Robin laments his death more than his father’s, it seems, and Wonder Girl seems completely and solely defined by her relationship with the dead super-hero. Superboy’s death was more than a year ago, and it was in another title. Surely the story should have moved beyond that by now.
Barrows’s artwork is confusing as well, but I think the fault lies more with a cramped plot and script, multiple action sequences and a far too unwieldy cast of alternate versions of obscure characters. The penciller doesn’t really exhibit a personal style here. Instead, his figures and linework remind me of the styles of a variety of different comic artists at different times. At times, the book looks as though it’s been illustrated by Phil Jimenez, and at others, like Tom Derenick worked on the book. The only really strong visual in the book is the scene between the young and future Miss Martians, which shows signs of a Bryan Hitch influence. 2/10