Beauty Is In the Eisner of the Beholder

The Spirit #1
“Ice Ginger Coffee”
Writer/Pencils/Cover artist: Darwyn Cooke
Inks: J. Bone
Colors: Dave Stewart
Letters: Jared K. Fletcher
Editor: Scott Dunbier
Publisher: DC Comics
Price: $2.99 US/$4 CAN

Artist Darwyn Cooke is no stranger to writing for the medium. He penned Batman: Ego and merited a lot of attention for his work on DC: The New Frontier (which is getting a big push during this holiday gift-giving season with its Absolute edition). But with his scripts on Superman: Confidential and now The Spirit, Cooke is really starting to come into his own as a comics writer. Based on the Batman/The Spirit one-shot Cooke did recently with writer Jeph Loeb, I was expecting a light, traditional super-hero romp in this first issue. Instead, Cooke offers up a clever and entertaining criticism of 24-hour news networks and superficial journalism. Even the writer/artist’s visual storytelling exceeds expectations, and given Cooke’s track record as a comics artist, that’s really saying something.

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Quick Critiques – Dec. 12, 2006

The Escapists #5 (Dark Horse Comics)
by Brian K. Vaughan, Jason Shawn Alexander & Steve Rolston

The plot takes a couple of unusual turns in this issue, turns that test one’s ability to suspend disbelief a bit. Max’s deduction of who’s behind Denny’s legal woes and Case’s encounter with the corporate lawyer are a bit difficult to swallow, and those moments took me out of the story for a bit. But overall, I remain thrilled with the storytelling techniques and the personal, slice-of-life focus of the plot. The most striking scene in the book is the final one, as we visit with Denny in jail. Vaughan brings a surprisingly harsh element into play. It’s such a divergent turn in the story that it packs a real emotional impact, but it’s an effective one. The writer drives home the notion that what’s happening is serious, not just off the wall. Jason Alexander’s dark artwork is as sharp as ever, but I like that the darkness doesn’t translate into grim-n-gritty territory. The script still maintains a traditional, light tone in the storytelling. Rolston’s artwork continues to impress as well. It reminds me of the styles of such other comic artists as Philip Bond, Tim Levins and Cameron Stewart. 7/10

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If You Can’t Stand the Heat…

Meltdown: Book 1
Writer: David B. Schwartz
Artist/Letters: Sean Wang
Colors: Guru-eFX
Cover artist: Chris Bachalo
Publisher: Image Comics
Price: $5.99 US/$6.80 CAN

The title of this two-issue limited series doesn’t refer to the protagonist’s super-hero identity but rather what the heat-based hero is going through. David B. Schwartz is just the latest new writer to offer up a realistic, mature and dark vision of a super-hero. We see so many of these stories these days, it’s difficult for new ones to stand out, to come across as something more than cliched. Schwartz’s story manages to stand out, just a little. This isn’t a typical super-hero story. It’s a tragedy about a man who’s been denied his dreams, his desires and a dynamic destiny. The grounded narration is compelling. The artwork is well done, but it’s inconsistent. Of course, this is purposeful, done for the sake of the storytelling, but I don’t think the approach works as intended.

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By George, I Think He’s Got It

George Perez: Storyteller hardcover
Writer: Christopher Lawrence
Cover artist: George Perez
Publisher: Dynamic Forces
Price: $29.99 US

I’m a huge George Perez fan and have been since I was a kid. I first remember sampling his work in the early 1980s on New Teen Titans and Justice League of America. There was just something about his work that set it apart from the art in other comics. The detail, the density of the panel layouts, the expressiveness of the characters’ faces… it all stood out as being unique, at least in my mind as a pre-teen and teenage comic fan. This isn’t the first time someone has published a book about Perez’s career — I have a copy of Focus on George Perez hiding around here somewhere — but this book strikes me as being more blunt and honest about the twists and turns on the path the artist has taken over the years. The writer examines not only Perez’s successes but instances in which he faltered or circumstances did not play out to his advantage.

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The Society Pages

Justice Society of America v.3 #1
“The Next Age, Chapter 1”
Writer: Geoff Johns
Pencils: Dale Eaglesham
Inks: Art Thibert
Colors: Jeromy Cox
Letters: Rob Leigh
Cover artists: Alex Ross (regular edition) & Dale Eaglesham (variant)
Editor: Stephen Wacker & Eddie Berganza
Publisher: DC Comics
Price: $3.99 US/$5.50 CAN

Ever since the Silver Age of Comics, stories featuring the Justice Society of America and its members have been about preserving tradition, about remembering where the modern icons of super-hero pop culture of today came from in the first place. That was true of Gardner Fox’s JLA/JSA stories in Justice League of America in the 1960s. It was true of Paul Levitz’s JSA stories in All-Star Comics in the 1970s. And it was true of Roy Thomas’s All-Star Squadron in the 1980s. I loved all of those stories and still do today. In this relaunched series, writer Geoff Johns balances the fondness of the heroes of yesteryear with an accessible script and a slightly darker edge.

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Boy Meets Squirrel

Raised by Squirrels trade paperback
Writers/Artists/Cover artists: Bram Meehan & Monica Banko Meehan
Publisher: Dream Weaver Press
Price: $4.95 US

The first thing that struck me about this book — and the first thing that would make an impact on anyone, I would imagine — is the title. I wasn’t sure what to expect from this indy title, but I imagined it was either a slice-of-life story or some kind of surreal comedy. It turns out it’s neither. Raised by Squirrels is an amalgam of the espionage and super-hero genres. The book gets its title from the name of the government agency that employs and deals with metahuman agents — S.Q.R.L. — but man, it’s just doesn’t suit the book. That’s just one of several problems with the book, but the creators also hit their mark in some regards. Chief among them is how they use narration and greytones to achieve a dark, tense atmosphere. This is a better spy book than super-hero story, and despite the awkward pacing, I found I was interested in the story. And that’s in light of the somewhat cliched plot. The art is rather unusual. At first glance, it seems a bit loose, just on the edge of being abstract, but ultimately, it’s stiff and a bit plain.

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Quick Critiques – Dec. 4, 2006

52 Week 30 (DC Comics)
by Geoff Johns, Grant Morrison, Greg Rucka, Mark Waid, Keith Giffen, Joe Bennett & Ruy Jose/Mark Waid & Duncan Rouleau

This weekly series has proven itself to be a major success for DC Comics, and this particular issue, given its cover and content, should have been something of a milestone for the title. Sure, there have been Clark Kent appearances earlier in the series, this is the first time one of DC’s big three characters has been the focus of the plot. Unfortunately, the writers don’t provide enough detail and context for the Batman/Bruce Wayne story to allow the readership to enjoy it. For example, there’s no indication where on the globe the plot begins, and there’s little indication as to what has finally broken the Bat, what has caused this personal crisis. What I did appreciate in the plot is Renee Montoya’s gradual transformation into the Question’s replacement. I love that we’ve really seen the character grow over the course of the past 30 weeks. The art by Joe Bennett is fairly standard fare, but some lack of clarity in the visuals also contributes to the confusion in the Batman plotline. The two-page Metal Men origin story that serves as a backup feature is, not surprisingly, a lot of fun. Given Dr. Will Magnus’s prominent role in this series, it’s too bad the creators didn’t get around to it sooner. Duncan Rouleau’s art for the feature is some of the best work I’ve seen from him. His exaggerated style suits the morphing characters, and Rouleau offers up some tight, crisp linework here. 5/10

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We Are a Hedge

Mail Order Ninja Vol. 1 & 2
Writer: Joshua Elder
Artist: Erich Owen
Letters: Lucas Rivera
Editor: Paul Morrissey
Publisher: Tokyopop
Price: $5.99 US/$7.99 CAN (per book)

After reading the first two volumes of this new American-produced title, I was struck by one overriding thought: it’s rather juvenile. I mean that in both the positive and negative connotations of the term. There’s a youthful energy to the characters, and on the surface, there’s an innocence at play that’s appealing (but quickly dispelled). But writer Joshua Elder’s script is inconsistent, switching between a zany comedy mode to straightforward action. Furthermore, the premise and story fail to follow any kind of internal sense of logic. Manga fans will be pleased, however, with artist Erich Owen’s Japanese-inspired artwork. It’s sharp and clean. He handles the choreography of action scenes quite well, and I rather enjoyed his eye for character design.

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Shh! Be vewy, vewy quiet…

Whisper #1
“Hydrophobia”
Writer: Steven Grant
Artist: Jean Dzialowski
Colors: Sunder Raj
Letters: Ed Dukeshire
Cover artists: Kody Chamberlain & Martin Redman
Editor: Marshall Dillon
Publisher: Boom! Studios
Price: $3.99 US

We’ve been hearing about this Whisper revival for a few years now, thanks to writer Steven Grant’s column at ComicBookresources.com. It was originally positioned at another publisher, later moving over to the up-and-coming Boom! Studios. I didn’t read the original Whisper series from First Comics, but fortunately, the only reference to the original incarnation is to be found on the cover (in the form of a poster behind the new version of title character). I like the idea of setting this new story in hurricane Katrina-ravaged New Orleans at the height of the natural disaster, but the art fails to really convey the sense of place and the overwhelming effects of the weather disturbance. Grant’s script is full of tension and action, and I like the dark political side of the plot.

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Kiss the Cooke

Batman/The Spirit #1
“Crime Convention”
Writer: Jeph Loeb
Pencils/Cover artist: Darwyn Cooke
Inks: J. Bone
Colors: Dave Stewart
Letters: Comicraft
Editor: Mark Chiarello
Publisher: DC Comics
Price: $4.99 US/$6.75 CAN

Though I’ve read a couple of the late, great Will Eisner’s past Spirit stories here and there, I’m really not all that familiar with the property and the supporting cast of characters. With Darwyn Cooke’s new ongoing Spirit series due in stores next month, this crossover with the Darknight Detective is a perfect primer for readers who might be unfamiliar with the more charming, crimefighting title character. Of course, the real appeal isn’t so much the meeting of two classic comics icons but Cooke’s artwork, and the pop-comic artist doesn’t disappoint his fans. With his artwork on this one-shot and his scripts for Superman Confidential, with writing and illustration duties on The Spirit and a New Frontier DVD release on the horizon beyond that, Cooke is gearing up to be the hottest creator of 2007. And it’s not as though he didn’t have some heat going already.

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Quick Critiques – Nov. 27, 2006

Incredible Hulk #100 (Marvel Comics)
by Greg Pak, Carlo Pagulayan, Gary Frank, Jeffrey Huet & Jon Sibal

This oversized, milestone issue is an excellent value. The main story continues the Hulk’s adventure on an alien planet, with more of the same regular readers have come to expect. Pak wisely offers an accessible script for new readers who haven’t sampled the “Planet Hulk” storyline. Adding to the value of the book are reprints of classic Hulk stories in which he’s taken to task for his “crimes,” but the real treat is an appearance by Richard Nixon! The strongest segment in this large comic is the second story, in which Greg Pak revives a little-known character from a short story in Amazing Fantasy v.2 #15. Mastermind Excello is a wonderful character. Not only is he defined by his intellect, but he’s a youthful rebel. In terms of inventiveness and sheer genius, he’s the equal to Reed Richards and Tony Stark, but the character something extra to set him apart: his youth. He’s a rebel but with more than enough savvy and resources to further any cause, even championing the Hulk. Pak’s script not only paints him as a genius, but as something of an innocent whose perspective manages to cut through politics and shades of grey. If Marvel doesn’t direct Pak to do more with this wonderful character, and soon, it’s wasting some great potential. 7/10

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Cure for the Uncommon Code

Enigma Cipher #1
Writers: Andrew Cosby & Michael Alan Nelson
Artist: Greg Scott
Colors: Imaginary Friends Studio
Letters: Ed Dukeshire
Cover artist: Jeff Johnson
Editor: Marshall Dillon
Publisher: Boom! Studios
Price: $6.99 US

Boom! Studios seems to focus its energies on publishing specific kinds of comics. There’s the farcical books (Hero Squared, What Were They Thinking) and the strong anthologies (Pirate Tales, Zombie Tales). And then there are the movies on paper. Boom! has published a number of comics that read a lot like movie or TV treatments, and the publisher has provided some solid entertainment in that vein. Among the previous limited series that fit the bill are Tag, X Isle and the superbly diverting Talent. Enigma Cipher is the latest “movie on paper,” and it’s a lot of fun, capturing the same sort of tension, excitement and conspiracy-theory drama as The Pelican Brief. There’s just one problem: the format. By splitting this story into two oversized comics, Boom! Studios missed a great opportunity to publish its first-ever original graphic novel.

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National Treasure

Outlaw Nation trade paperback
Writer: Jamie Delano
Pencils/Cover artist: Goran Sudzuka & Goran Parlov
Inks: Sudzuka & Sebastijan Camagajevac
Letters: Robert Solanovic
Editors: Karen Berger (original series)/Joe Pruett (collection)
Publisher: Image Comics/Desperado Publishing
Price: $15.99 US

I remember Outlaw Nation‘s original episodic run as a series from DC/Vertigo. I remember being intrigued by the intellectual and socio-political elements writer and co-creator Jamie Delano brought to the book. I also remember I didn’t follow the series the entire way through to its conclusion. After reading this new, black-and-white collected edition of the complete series, I think I robbed myself of a smart and entertaining reading experience. Dysfunctional family dynamics, conspiracy theories and symbolic characters converge, and the amalgam makes for an occasionally arduous but ultimately fulfilling read. Delano’s vision of a Broken America — past and present — is illustrated with great detail by artists Goran Sudzuka and Goran Parlov, whose eyes for distinct design more than compensate for the removal of the color art from this thick reprint.

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On a Wing and a Dare

Birds of Prey #100
“Blood & Circuits: Part One – A Chance To Do Good”
Writer: Gail Simone
Pencils: Nicola Scott
Inks: Doug Hazlewood
“Keepsakes”
Writers: Tony Bedard & Gail Simone
Pencils: Paulo Sequiera
Inks: Robin Riggs

Colors: Hi-Fi Design
Letters: Travis Lanham
Cover artist: Jerry Ordway
Editor: Mike Carlin
Publisher: DC Comics
Price: $3.99 US/$5.50 CAN

DC’s all-female super-hero title reaches a milestone that one doesn’t often see in the industry anymore, and it merits this special, oversized issue. Writer Gail Simone has wisely opted to make this landmark an accessible jumping-on point for new readers, and both stories work well on that level. I wonder if longtime readers of the title won’t be just a little disappointed, feeling as though something is missing.

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Breaking the Rules

Civil War #5
Writer: Mark Millar
Pencils: Steve McNiven
Inks: Dexter Vines
Colors: Morry Hollowell
Letters: Chris Eliopoulos
Cover artists: McNiven/Michael Turner (variant)
Editor: Tom Brevoort
Publisher: Marvel Comics
Price: $2.99 US/$3.75 CAN

The good news is that this issue doesn’t boast any kind of shocking development/ethical travesty such as the one in the previous issue that sent fans into fits of frenzy, angered over a gratuitous death and mischaracterization of longtime Marvel icons. The bad news is that the plotting in Civil War continues to disregard the actual premise behind the event. The emotion that arises from these circumstances makes for compelling drama in the super-hero genre, and there’s no denying that Steve McNiven’s meticulously rendered artwork is mesmerizing. Unfortunately, that same eye for detail is lacking in the plotting. It’s a shame, because there was a lot of potential in the original concept, but the story has now degenerated into heroes acting as villains for no good reason.

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