Quick Critiques – July 19, 2007

All Flash #1 (DC Comics)
by Mark Waid, Karl Kerschl, Ian Churchill, Manuel Garcia, Joe Bennett, Daniel Acuna, Norm Rapmund & Ruy Jose

While I thought Geoff Johns did an admirable job of filling his shoes when he took over the writing reins of DC’s speedster icon, there’s no doubt that no one had a better grasp on the Flash in the past two decades (or more) than writer Mark Waid. Is his return to the character reason to celebrate? I honestly don’t know yet. This special — bridging the gap between the previous, short-lived Flash series and the renewal of the title Waid wrote for so many years — focuses on points of recent continuity. It explores the notion of who gets punished for the previous Flash’s death and who metes out the punishment, for example. Waid also tries to answer some questions that arose from Wally West’s return last month in Justice League of America #10, but the title character and script also dodge a number of them, holding out the promise of more answers in the future. All Flash boasts an accessible script that manages to boil down the convoluted history of the Flash — with its connections to time travel and mysterious, spiritual, pseudo-scientific forces of nature — into something newer readers will be able to follow. It’s also clear that Waid’s approach to writing Wally West, whom he knows so well, will not just be a regurgitation of what he’s done before. Instead, this is Wally trying to live up to more than a heroic legacy, but to responsibilities as a family man. The artwork for this special ranges from quite lovely to frustratingly ordinary. The use of multiple artists to get this project completed may have been expedient, but that comes to the detriment of the storytelling. The shifts from Karl Kerschl’s vibrant, Joshua Middleton-esque visuals to Churchill’s run-of-the-mill super-hero style is not only disappointing but jarring to the reader as well. We also get a taste of what artist Daniel Acuna has in store with his stint on Waid’s new Flash run, and while I like his work, his style seems too stiff for a speedster protagonist. 6/10

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Do You Believe in Magic?

Levitation: Physics and Psychology in the Service of Deception original graphic novella
Writer: Jim Ottaviani
Artist/Cover artist: Janine Johnston
Letters: Tom Orzechowski
Publisher: GT Labs
Price: $12.95 US

Writer Jim Ottaviani is well known in the comics industry for his passion for bringing the history of science to life in sequential storytelling. No one else really does what he does, and even if there were others, I doubt they could do it any better. Levitation is one of two releases this week from his independent GT Labs publishing outfit, and it stands out as a fascinating read. Ottaviani has timed this graphic novella well. With the films The Illusionist and The Prestige still fresh in the pop-culture consciousness, there will no doubt be a greater interest in his history of stage magicians from the late 1800s and early 20th century. Janine Johnston’s artwork certainly captures a sense of the historic here but has a wondrous quality at work as well. Ottaviani crafts a story that not only conveys the cold, hard facts but one that explores the personalities involved. He blends his approach to history with a respect for the legends to which it gave rise. Though the book is a bit pricy for a 72-page volume, there’s no denying that the storytelling is magical.

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True Britt

Full Color original graphic novel
Writer/Artist/Cover artist: Mark Haven Britt
Publisher: Image Comics
Price: $15.99 US

This graphic novel appears to be creator Xeric grant recipient Mark Haven Britt’s first published comics project, and on that level alone, it’s impressive. Of course, Britt isn’t entirely a newcomer to the comics industry; he’s the director of marketing for Image Comics. One might think that position have him a leg up on other creators, that his bosses at the comics publishing company did him a solid and published his work regardless of quality. I think one would be wrong in that assumption, though, because Full Color is a surprisingly engrossing, suspenseful and odd piece of fiction. Full Color is part crime novel, part 20s, slice-of-life storytelling a la Singles or Reality Bites. At first, the reader really doesn’t know what to make of Britt’s unusual plot and characters, but the further one delves into this urban drama, the more interesting it gets. The plotting is solid, but what really draws one in is the characterization. The more grounded moments of the story boast dialogue that strikes one as wholly genuine. The convincing and entertaining tone of the script is a testament to the skill of this rookie creator. Like the story, I wasn’t quite taken with the art at first, but the creator’s inventive gritty style and strong eye for anatomy eventually won me over.

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Quick Critiques – July 15, 2007

Annihilation: Conquest – Wraith #1 (Marvel Comics)
by Javier Grillo-Marxuach & Kyle Hotz

Writer Javier Grillo-Marxuach, best known as a creative contributor to TV’s Lost, returns to pen another Annihilation mini-series, and he introduces a new character in the process. Actually, one of the things about this script I enjoyed is that the mysterious alien warrior that serves as the protagonist is never named; he’s not even referred to as “Wraith.” Grillo-Marxuach’s story may be set in space, but it’s more of a blend of Western and martial-arts genres, dressed up as science fiction. I’m pleased to find that the reader need not be familiar with the Annihilation brand or even the events of Annihilation: Conquest – Prologue in order to follow this tale. It holds up well on its own. The mystery surrounding the title character draws the reader into the story, and his use of his morphing weapon in battle makes for some cool sequences. Given the seemingly ghostly nature of the hero, Kyle (The Hood) Hotz was an excellent choice the artist for this limited series. I don’t think he really captures the creepy, personally invasive nature of the antagonists all that well, but the action flows incredibly well. Gina Going-Raney’s colors further enhance the eerie, spectral quality of the protagonist, and they make his weapon — a gun, sword and more — seem more supernatural in appearance than technological. Of the Conquest titles Marvel announced a couple of months ago, I was really only leery of this one, but I’m pleased to discover it’s a solid member of the Annihilation line. I remain impressed with how Marvel’s handled the brand to date. 8/10

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Long Live the King

King City Vol. 1
“Book One: Cat Master”
Writer/Artist/Cover artist: Brandon Graham
Letters: Lucas Rivera
Editor: Rob Tokar
Publisher: Tokyopop
Price: $9.99 US/$12.50 CAN

Brandon Graham is hardly a newcomer in the comics industry, but King City is the first one of his projects I’ve encountered (unless my memory fails me, which is possible). I sought out this book thanks to a good buzz online, and I quickly discovered its good reputation is well deserved. Though a release from Tokyopop by a U.S. creator, I wouldn’t call this a sample of Amerimanga. Though there are Japanese influences in the plot and characters, there’s a much more European vibe at play, spiced up with American attitude (the good kind). Graham’s peripheral elements read like something out of Warren Ellis’s head, but he also brings a softer, more grounded quality to the characters and sci-fi society that’s attractive and entertaining. King City is a surreal story that incorporates multiple genres while dedicating itself to none. The result is a surprisingly unique and fresh foray into comics storytelling.

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Tip of the Hat

Stephen Colbert’s Tek Jansen #1
Writers: John Layman & Tom Peyer and Jim Massey
Artists: Scott Chantler and Robbi Rodriguez
Colors: Pete Pantazis & Aurelio Alfonso and Dave McCaig
Letters: Douglas E. Sherwood
Cover artists: Scott Chantler (regular edition) & John Cassaday (variant)
Editors: Randal C. Jarrell & James Lucas Jones
Publisher: Oni Press
Price: $3.99 US

If I had to describe this comic book in one word, it would be…. Lincolnish. (Lincoln was into sci-fi and comics, right? What? No? Oh.) OK, make that one word: Megamerican.

Were I allowed three real words instead of one truthy word, then those three words would be “pretty damn funny.”

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Thunderstruck

Thor v.3 #1
Writer: J. Michael Straczynski
Pencils: Olivier Coipel
Inks: Mark Morales
Colors: Laura Martin
Letters: Chris Eliopoulos
Cover artists: Coipel & Morales/Michael Turner
Editors: Warren Simons
Publisher: Marvel Comics
Price: $2.99 US/$3.75 CAN

Fan reaction to the cloned version of Thor that turned up in Civil War was almost universally negative, and that’s putting it mildly. Nevertheless, “Clor” may have been a smart move in one regard: fans’ hatred for the false version of Marvel’s thunder-god hero demonstrated how much they missed the character and fanned the flames of demand for his return. Well, his return has arrived… or at least it arrives eventually. Writer J. Michael (Fantastic Four, Amazing Spider-Man) Straczynski draws out the process for no good reason, making for a somewhat tedious read. Fortunately, Olivier Coipel’s stunning artwork distracts from the decompressed script. The artist captures the grandeur and magic of a story of a god, and he also brings a dark look to the visuals that adds an air of maturity and mystery to the book.

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You Can Handle the Truth

True Story Swear to God Vol. 1 trade paperback
True Story Swear to God #7

Writer/Artist/Cover artist: Tom Beland
Publisher: Image Comics
Price: $3.50 US/$3.75 CAN (comic) – $14.99 US (TPB)

When one writes comics reviews on a regular basis (which I’ve been doing since late 1995… oy), one tries to be mindful of the fact that the works being discussed are crafted real, flesh-and-blood human beings. Occasionally, I wonder how my comments — positive or negative — impact the creators who often hold their work near and dear to their hearts. I get e-mails from creators from time to time, and almost universally, they’re thankful and positive in tone, even in reaction to negative reviews. But I have to admit, this is the first time I’ve seen a reaction to my reviews actually in the context of a comic-book script.

With his latest issue of True Story Swear to God, creator Tom Beland has caught up to the publication of the comic-book title itself, and the story features a brief sequence in which Beland seeks out reviews of his work. The Fourth Rail, my previous review site with partner Randy Lander, is mentioned, as is Johanna Draper-Carlson, one of the most thoughtful and intelligent comics critics one can find online. Sure, it was a kick to see one’s name in a comic in such an unusual way, but what’s most striking about the scene is how honest Beland is about his reviews. Despite their glowing nature, he’s surprised and even a little bit puzzled by them. Honesty has always been the greatest strength of this autobiographical series, and the aforementioned example is just one of many to be found in the new issue and new collected edition.

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Our Worlds at War

War, what is it good for? Well, selling comic books, apparently.

War is the new black for super-hero comics these days. Marvel earned its strongest sales this century with Civil War in 2006-2007, and the publisher has developed a new brand for its lesser-known cosmic characters with its Annihilation titles, featuring space-faring heroes embroiled in armed conflicts as well. Marvel’s also grabbed fan attention with the recent launch of its latest event-driven crossover, World War Hulk, and it has just wrapped up the story of the Inhumans’ retaliation against mankind in Silent War. Marvel’s chief competitor, DC Comics, has embraced war as a dominant motif in its super-hero line as well. It’s easy to see in such titles as World War III, Amazons Attack and last week’s Green Lantern Sinestro Corps Special #1. It’s hardly a brand-new phenomenon either. Alien civilizations rallied behind bitter planetary enemies Rann and Thanagar in 2005, the Fantastic Four usurped control of a Balkan nation in 2003 and the Authority overthrew the U.S. government with its 2004-2005 Revolution. War and invasion have proven to be vital themes in super-hero comics today. And it’s no wonder — the industry and the genre are just proving to be true to their roots. After all, one could argue that without war, the genre just wouldn’t have taken hold in pop culture when it first took off seven decades ago. But are the super-hero comics of today holding true to form, repeating a familiar pattern? Or is the incorporation of war in the genre today something different than we’ve seen before?

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Quick Critiques – July 3, 2007

Fantastic Four #547 (Marvel Comics)
by Dwayne McDuffie, Paul Pelletier & Rick Magyar

McDuffie is in the midst of one of the most fun Fantastic Four stints I’ve had the pleasure of reading, and he manages to pull off the impossible. He handles the Torch/Thing interplay incredibly well, but he also manages to make the Black Panther and Storm funny as well. The science-fiction elements he brings to the mix are as inventive as anything one would find in a Warren Ellis script, and McDuffie manages to offer a nice blend of wholesome, playful super-hero fun with some compelling moments of drama and tension as well. McDuffie brings a classic sensibility to the title team despite the unconventional nature of the lineup, and the sense of wonder is infectious. The writer acknowledges other developments in Marvel continuity as of late (such as Civil War and the Marvel Zombies story arc from Black Panther), but knowledge of those minor footnotes aren’t required to appreciate this story. I was surprised that he decided to bring the new FF together with Mr. Fantastic and the Invisible Woman so soon after the team was rearranged, but I love that Reed doesn’t actually interfere with the new leadership dynamic. Pelletier’s art is a perfect match to the enthusiasm and bright, flashy super-hero action upon which the plot is constructed. The cosmic sequences look great and show the artist’s imagination, but he manages to catch the reader’s eye with the characters’ personalities in the everyday sequences. I’m at a loss, however, why Marvel has decided to adorn these comics with covers by Michael Turner. His sleek style (which is thankfully not as sexed here for this cover as it usually is) emphasizes intensity and a certain Kewl factor that just isn’t in keeping with what readers can find beyond the cover art. 8/10

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Poison Pens

Poison: The Cure #1
“Chapter One”
Writer: Jad Ziade
Artist/Cover artist: Alex Cahill
Publisher: New Radio Comics
Price: $9 US

The last time I came across Alex Cahill’s sequential storytelling was in the odd and frustrating graphic novella The Last Island. It was something of a storytelling experiment, as it explored the notion of a silent parable in comic-book form. It was intriguing but ultimately didn’t appeal to me. With this latest project, Cahill steps aside and lets someone else do the writing, and the wordless approach is cast aside as well. Poison the Cure seems on the surface to be something of a take on an environmental cautionary tale, but in reality, it’s more about the ethics of legitimate rebellion. Writer Jad Ziade explores pits the concept of non-violent protest against protection of self and others by any means necessary. What makes the story interesting are the more grounded moments the characters share, but interfering with the effectiveness of that side of the story are the science-fiction elements. It’s not at all clear why the framing sequence, set in the future, is necessary, and the sci-fi side of the main story is so subtle that I wonder why it was included as well. Poison the Cure is certainly an ambitious project with plenty of potential, but the execution feels a bit off.

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Rotten to the Corps

Green Lantern Sinestro Corps Special #1
“Sinestro Corps, Prologue: The Second Rebirth”
Writer: Geoff Johns
Artist/Cover artist: Ethan Van Sciver
Colors: Mouse Baumann
Letters: Rob Leigh
Editor: Peter Tomasi
Publisher: DC Comics
Price: $4.99 US/$5.99 CAN

Crisis on Infinite Earths. “The Death of Superman.” “Emerald Twilight.” “The Return of Superman.” Green Lantern: Rebirth. Villains United. Infinite Crisis. Ion. 52 #52. These stories and more are really required reading if one wants to fully appreciate the various continuity references that turn up in this new Green Lantern story. Johns’s script is incredibly dense, and even those with knowledge of the DC history at play here might be a little put off. To the writer’s credit, though, a creepy atmosphere of intense foreboding manages to pierce that wall of potential inaccessibility to pull the reader into the prelude to a cosmic war. The plot here may be dressed up with the notions of ideology, prophecy and emotion, but it’s actually quite simple: opposite numbers are getting ready to rumble. No, the book derives its strength not from plot but from atmosphere. Ethan Van Sciver’s dark artwork goes a long way to enhancing the tense and unsettling mood that pervades almost every moment in the story.

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The Music Man

Phonogram Vol. 1: Rue Britannia trade paperback
Writer: Kieron Gillen
Artist/Cover artist: Jamie McKelvie
Letters: Jamie McKelvie & Drew Gill
Publisher: Image Comics
Price: $14.99 US

Though lauded by many, Phonogram has also been the target of criticism. Writer Kieron Gillen’s been accused of immersing the plot in far too many music references, ranging from the somewhat mainstream to the obscure. I have to admit that I didn’t pick up on the majority of the band and musician references that serve as important elements when it came to the plot and characters. Nevertheless, that insider, inaccessible perspective didn’t deter me. Gillen’s powerful characterization and novel ideas, combined with Jamie McKelvie’s soft but solid artwork, make for an engaging read. This story isn’t really about Britpop, undiscovered bands or music as magic. Instead, it’s about art being corrupted, manipulated from something that inspires, something one loves, into something to be used for personal gain, for ego. We’ve all got our passions, things we love that, in part, make us who we are, and Gillen’s story is about what happens when a warm, soothing passion turned into a cold, hard weapon.

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Annotations – Justice League of America #10

With this week’s release of Justice League of America #10, Brad Meltzer and Geoff Johns’s JLA/JSA/Legion of Super-Heroes teamup tale comes to a close. And that means I have one last installment of my “Lightning Saga” annotations to share. The two writers, with their scripts for this event, have mined some somewhat obscure veins of continuity, and these notes should help some newer readers make sense of the story. For the previous four sets of these annotations, you can click here, here, here and here. Otherwise, let’s proceed with the final set in the series…

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Quick Critiques – June 20, 2007

Annihilation: Conquest Prologue #1 (Marvel Comics)
by Dan Abnett, Andy Lanning & Mike Perkins

Though Civil War lit up the sales charts for Marvel in 2006 and 2007, one could easily argue that its Annihilation brand was a bigger success. The various Annihilation limited series didn’t sell Civil War numbers, but the creators behind those titles managed to grab readers’ attention with a number of third-tier, space-faring characters that no one really cared about at the time. The first round of Annihilation was so successful that it spawned a new hit ongoing title (Nova) and this sequel event. My concern was that the writers would tread the same territory as before, but Dan Abnett and Andy Lanning introduce a creepy new threat. The tension in this script is palpable, and it really draws one into this cosmic drama. More importantly, though, the writers are careful to bring these impossible heroes down to earth. With the new Quasar, they do so with her relationship with Moondragon and her insecurities about living up to heroic legacies. With Star-Lord, it’s his charisma and humor that make the cybernetically enhanced hero seem like a regular guy. Mike Perkins was an excellent choice as artist. His style brings a dark sense of drama to bear as well as a creepy, almost supernatural air to it. More importantly, the photorealistic leanings in his art makes these alien beings seem like people, not impossible figures on the far side of the universe. The design for the physical manifestation of the technological infection that drives the story forward is simple but thoroughly effective in instilling a sense of foreboding. it also makes it clear to the characters and readers that the infestation is deeply rooted and seemingly impossible to overcome. 8/10

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