Before Watchmen: Moloch #2 (DC Comics)
by J. Michael Straczynski & Eduardo Risso
I thoroughly enjoyed the first issue of this two-part series thanks to writer J. Michael Straczynski’s successful humanization of a seemingly inhuman criminal, but the conclusion of the series disappointed. The reason is clear: Straczynski tries to add to and arguably even alter the narrative of Watchmen here, as his plot catches up to the events of the mid-1980s series. It’s a significant misstep on his part. Before Watchmen generally works when it’s used to explore new stories featuring the classic characters from the source material, but mucking about with Alan Moore’s story is definitely the wrong way to go. In Watchmen, while Ozymandias was the villain, he was always portrayed as being distanced from humanity. Other people were inferior in his eyes, but not the enemy. Here, Ozymandias glares at Moloch with contempt. Furthermore, Straczynski’s additions don’t jibe with elements from the original plot. In Watchmen, Moloch is portrayed as living in squalor in a slum, but in the time leading up to his death, this story has him earning big bucks from his employer. This script supports the argument many made when Before Watchmen was originally announced that DC ought not tinker with Watchmen at all.
Risso continues to bring his trademark darkness to a story that definitely merits it, but unfortunately, the nature of the plot here makes his significantly different take on the title character seem off. Since Straczynski has synched his plot up with that of Moore, Moloch now looks wrong. In the source material, he was a rail-thin, lanky, tall, withered shell of a man, but Risso’s interpretation of a hunched, troll-like, snivelling figure beaten down by life doesn’t jibe with that. In the first issue, it wasn’t a problem, because Straczynski’s Moloch was only tangentially connected to Moore’s. But here, they’re meant to be one and the same. 4/10
Deathmatch #1 (Boom! Studios)
by Paul Jenkins & Carlos Magno
Carlos Magno’s career in genre comics is on the rise, and it’s easy to see why. He boasts a detailed style that looks a bit like a blend of the styles of such super-hero artists as David Finch, Sean Chen and George Perez. While he’s done work for Marvel and DC in the past, I suspect it won’t be long before we see one of those publishers grooming him to be one of its big “new” stars. I think Magno doesn’t do enough to give the reader a sense of place as to the facility in which these heroes and villains are being held, but what does impress his the artist’s eye for design. While some of the costumes look like standard, archetypal super-hero fare, others are more distinct and inventive. The animalistic Nephilim boasts an odd but intriguing physiology, and the Rat boasts a pulpy yet monstrous look.
When Marvel announced its new Avengers Arena series, criticisms came quickly, and comparisons between that title and Deathmatch are unavoidable, given the similarity of their premises. However, there are some key differences set this title apart as the better of the two. First of all, there’s no risk of the creators knocking off a treasured C-list character. No one has anything invested in these players, so the hero-death shtick doesn’t come off as gimmicky here. Furthermore, writer Paul Jenkins is doing more than pitting super-heroes and villains against one another in fights to the death for someone’s entertainment. He’s building an entire world of heroes and villains in the midst of their most chaotic and trying experiences. The mystery here isn’t just about who or what is forcing these characters to kill one another, it’s about discovering who these characters are. Jenkins’s character concepts are mostly archetypal, but it’s nevertheless interesting to learn not only what they can do, but what makes them tick. The stronger focus on characterization helps lift this series up a bit. Mind you, the duel-to-the-death riff still isn’t something that holds my interest all that much, but thankfully, there’s a little more here on which I can focus instead. 7/10
Fatale #11 (Image Comics)
by Ed Brubaker & Sean Phillips
Some of the best issues of writer James Robinson’s deservedly acclaimed Starman series of the 1990s were the “Times Past” issues, self-contained flashbacks delving into the history of key elements from the series. This issue of Fatale reminds me of those comics, and demonstrates the strength and ambitious nature of the world writer Ed Brubaker is crafting. Ultimately, this issue ends up being a classic ghost story, offering little in the way of answers to the larger mystery of the tragic Josephine character but adding to the mystique of the property. This self-contained issue is so strong, had I read it before I put together my picks for the best comics of 2012, I think my choices might have been a little different. What’s most interesting about this issue is the American culture Brubaker explores, notably pulp stories and a time when the border between the U.S. and Mexico was more porous than it is now. Some strong new characters and a more overt glimpse of the Lovecraftian menace that’s permeated the story along the dark periphery of the plot make for a riveting read. Brubaker also manages to make Jo incredibly sympathetic despite the fact we see her consciously exploiting a hapless man who’s fallen under her inexplicable thrall.
Phillips brings a perfect noir, pulpy sensibility to the book that’s a major part of its appeal. The characters’ faces are thoroughly expressive and realistic, but he renders them in a somewhat simple way that makes their convincing and emotive qualities seem all the more surprising. While he employs an economy of lines to bring the characters to life, he brings a stunning of level of detail to bear in the backgrounds, which brings a strong sense of place to the mix, adding to the credibility of the incredible story. Perhaps more than any issue before this one, this episode of the series shows just what a vital role colorist Dave Stewart plays in the success of the visuals. While the colors remain muted for the most part throughout this issue, he employs a varied palette, tweaking the brightness and dullness of the colors to suit particular scenes. The flashbacks in Mexico are dark in a different way than the flatter, duller look of the scenes in the Ravenscroft house, for example. 9/10
Superior Spider-Man #1 (Marvel Comics)
by Dan Slott & Ryan Stegman
I really don’t get the outrage that’s arisen over the alleged death of Peter Parker and Otto Octavius acting as his cerebral stand-in. Even if we hadn’t seen the “death” gimmick time and time again over the years, it would be clear to anyone (other than kids, perhaps) Marvel wasn’t going to abandon or alter a marketable property and pop-culture icon on a permanent basis. This is clearly just a storyline — albeit what appears to be a long-term one — the latest storyline in Spider-Man comics that will undoubtedly be reversed, restoring the status quo eventually. The “twist” at the end overtly states that’s the case. That being said, that leaves me with this: does this temporary shift in Spider-Man make for a good story? It certainly makes for a different spin, but I’d be far more interested if writer Dan Slott wasn’t approaching the premise in such a ham-fisted manner. For such a brilliant man, Otto isn’t being very smart. I get that he’s arrogant and a weasel, but after months (or however long it’s been) of acting like Peter Parker, he’s suddenly acting like a bad guy again for all to hear. It doesn’t seem plausible, and neither does everyone’s apparent obliviousness to something being amiss with their friend. That being said, Slott still manages to have some fun here, notably with the new and not-so-improved Sinister Six. The Living Brain’s and Overdrive’s moments are quite amusing.
It seems as though artist Ryan Stegman has adapted his style a bit for this new Spidey series. He’s boasted a fairly conventional super-hero-genre style in the past, but here, there’s a looser, rougher approach, and I think the reason is clear. Stegman’s art is meant to reflect the harsher personality that lurks within the title character now. It looks a bit like the sort of result we saw years ago when Bill Sienkiewicz would ink the work of the late Jim Aparo on various Batman comics from DC. This edgier approach doesn’t quite work, perhaps in part because Slott’s script doesn’t fully commit to the darker tone that’s promised. Otto-Peter’s dialogue is corny, reflecting the Silver Age megalomania characteristic of super-villains from the 1960s. There’s a goofy tone to the action involving the Sinister Six as well, so the harshness Stegman tries to instill here feels a bit out of place. 5/10
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