Quick Critiques – Nov. 13, 2006

Batman #658 (DC Comics)
by Grant Morrison, Andy Kubert & Jesse Delperdang

I’ve been enjoying Grant Morrison’s “Batman & Son” story arc for the past few issues, but with its conclusion, the star comics writer drops the ball. Nothing is resolved regarding Damian, the Batman’s alleged son by Talia Al Ghul, and his dichotomous adulation of his father and contradictory ethical beliefs. Furthermore, we don’t see the emotional impact of these developments on the title character himself. Given how he is driven by the loss of his family as a child, I would expect to see some kind of chink in his emotional armor, but it’s not to be found. Furthermore, Talia’s characterization in this issue isn’t at all consistent with what we’ve seen of her in the past. Where once she operated covertly and cared about others around her, now she’s presented as an over-the-top, cackling evil mastermind with a flair for the dramatic. Kubert’s angular, explosive artwork suits the loud, action-oriented tone of the script, and his design for Damian-as-Robin is sharp. Actually, it reminds me a bit of the work of one of my favorite Batman artists, Norm Breyfogle. He also conveys the monstrous nature of the Man-Bat ninja soldiers (who seem to be dispatched far too easily in this climactic chapter, by the way). 5/10

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Now with Kung-Fu Gripe

Action Figure; From the Journals of Richard Marzelak #1
“Late”
Writer/Artist/Cover Artist: Richard Marcej
Publisher: Baboon Books
Price: $3.50 US/$4.40 CAN

Commercial artist Richard Marcej has long dreamed of a life in which he earns a living as a comic-strip artist, freed from the shackles of a job with a major toy/greeting card company. He has taken those dreams and aspirations, as well as his anger and frustrations, and focused them into a slice-of-life comic that’s autobiographical (for the most part). Anyone who works in a restrictive office environment or who spends his or her offtime working on what he or she really loves will be able to relate to Marcej’s story. Unfortunately, the overall tone of this introductory issue is so negative that it’s a bit off-putting, even when one can relate to the main character’s bitterness.

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A Shot in the Dark

Bullet Points #1
Writer: J. Michael Straczynski
Artist/Colors/Cover artist: Tommy Lee Edwards
Letters: John Workman
Editor: Mark Paniccia
Price: $2.99 US/$3.75 CAN
Publisher: Marvel Comics

Elseworlds. What If?. “Imaginary” stories. Alternate-continuity plots have been a staple of shared-universe super-hero comics for decades, even before the Silver Age. These stories tend to be a payoff for diehard fans of the characters themselves, people who want to see a different spin on familiar figures. I know I enjoy such stories, as long as they’re executed well. Sometimes, the emphasis is on action and fun, and at others, the writer’s aim is to bring a darker, more mature tone to the characters, or perhaps a tragic one. Bullet Points definitely falls into the latter category, but the question readers will want answer is whether or not it’s executed well. Straczynski’s script is intriguing but hasn’t hooked me yet. Fortunately, Tommy Lee Edwards’s artwork always hits the mark.

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The Truman Show

Scout Vol. 1 trade paperback
Writer/Cover artist: Timothy Truman
Artists: Truman & Tom Yeates
Colors: Steve Oliff, Sam Parsons & Mike Kelleher
Letters: Timothy Harkins
Editor: Cat Yronwode
Publisher: Dynamite Entertainment
Price: $19.99 US

I have to give smaller publishers such as Dynamite Entertainment, Checker Publishing and IDW Publishing credit for bringing a number of harder-to-find comic properties from the 1970s and ’80s back for today’s readers. There was a lot of strong work being produced in those decades, and not all of it was coming from DC and Marvel Comics. I’d only sampled one Scout comic before, but I was interested in seeing more, especially given the respect I have for Truman works I discovered after he wrapped up Scout. This collection serves as an interesting look at the creator’s most personal work but also as a look back to a different time in comics.

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A Midnighter’s Summer Dream

The Midnighter #1
“Killing Machine, Part One”
Writer: Garth Ennis
Pencils: Chris Sprouse
Inks: Karl Story
Colors: Randy Mayor
Letters: Phil Balsman
Cover artists: Sprouse & Story/Michael Golden (variant)
Editor: Scott Dunbier
Publisher: DC Comics/Wildstorm Productions
Price: $2.99 US/$4 CAN

I wasn’t exactly taken with Garth Ennis previous new title, The Boys. Furthermore, I’ve been generally underwhelmed by Wildstorm’s relaunch event, “WorldStorm.” So it was with some trepidation that I approached this debut issue. Fortunately, not only does Ennis come through with a compelling script that demonstrates a real appreciation of the title character, but the artwork by Chris Sprouse is thoroughly pleasing, albeit in an unusual way.

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Quick Critiques – Nov. 5, 2006

Criminal #2 (Marvel Comics/Icon imprint)
by Ed Brubaker & Sean Phillips

Well, it’s official: the strength of the first issue was no fluke. But then, any of us familiar with Ed Brubaker and Sean Phillips’s past collaborations already knew it wasn’t a fluke. Brubaker’s plot advances briskly, much to my surprise and pleasure. I had thought this series might embrace a slower pace in order to allow Brubaker to focus on characterization, but the plot gallops ahead. It allows the writer to surprise us. The quicker pace means anything can happen — and does. The writer still shares strong characterization, especially when it comes to Leo. This issue demonstrates just how smart he is and how resourceful. The dichotomy of his concern for Ivan and Greta and his prioritization of always saving his own skin above all else is engaging.

Sean Phillips’s gritty art is, of course, a perfect match for the harsh world into which Brubaker guides us. I’m particularly taken with the muted colors Val Staples brings to the book, though. Staples’s past work has usually incorporated bright, garish hues, but he’s toned things down significantly here to achieve an appropriate atmosphere for this crime drama. 9/10

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Missed Opportunity – Selling Sale

This week marked the release of a new ongoing Superman title, one that merits the attention of fans of the medium, not just fans of the super-hero genre. Penned by Darwyn (DC: The New Frontier) Cooke and illustrated by Tim Sale, Superman Confidential is the result of a collaboration between two of the most respected talents in the industry today. That, combined with the fact that the book features the most recognized icon of comic books in history, should add up to a sales success for DC Comics.

Of course, by “sales success,” I mean the book should fare well in comparison to other comics. No doubt, it’ll land in the top 20 on the Diamond Comic Distributors sales list for November (which we won’t see until December). I’m betting it’ll sell in the neighborhood of 70,000 to 80,000 copies — respectable in the 21st century comics market. But I think the numbers could have been oh-so-much better had DC not missed out on a real marketing opportunity that could have reached a mainstream pop-culture audience.

The key to greater success and a wider audience for Superman Confidential is Tim Sale, but it’s not his reputation in the industry that could have boosted sales. Sure, his work on Batman: The Long Halloween, Dark Victory and Marvel’s various “color” books (Daredevil: Yellow, Spider-Man: Blue and Hulk: Gray) stands out as edgy and unique, but at the moment, his artwork is the industry’s ambassador to the masses who don’t read comics.

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And Now For Something Completely Different

Superman/Batman Annual #1
“Stop Me If You’ve Heard This One…”
Writer: Joe Kelly
Pencils: Ed McGuinness, Ryan Ottley, Sean Murphy & Carlo Barberi
Inks: Dexter Vines, Cliff Rathburn, Sean Murphy, Don Hillsman II, Bob Petrecca, Andy Owens & Rodney Ramos
Colors: Guy Major
Letters: Rob Leigh
Cover artist: McGuinness & Vines
Editor: Eddie Berganza
Publisher: DC Comics
Price: $3.99 US/$5.50 CAN

A reader posted a comment on my site recently, longing for the days of fun comics, in which super-heroes acted like heroes. I recommended a couple of new comics, noting that such comics haven’t disappeared altogether. I can now add another newly released comic to that short list of recommendations, and it’s Superman/Batman Annual #1. DC readers who love tightly scripted stories that maintain a strong sense of continuity won’t much care for this book, but there’s definitely an audience that will want to seek this comic out.

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That’s News to Me

Nightly News #1
“Chapter One: I’m Mad as Hell and I’m Not Going to Take This Anymore”
Writer/Artist/Cover artist: Jonathan Hickman
Publisher: Image Comics
Price: $2.99 US/$3.35 CAN

I’m a journalist by trade, and I don’t mean my comics criticism writing. I cover the court/crime beat for a daily newspaper, one that’s owned by a corporation that owns every English-language newspaper in the province. People often ask me about my work and how that corporate, regional monopoly affects it. I tell them it doesn’t. But I’m not naive. Though it hasn’t occurred in my experience, it’s a global reality now that the media is sadly subject and vulnerable to manipulation by political and business interests. Nightly News is about lashing back against that corrupted information network. Creator Jonathan Hickman — whose work on this new title holds him out as the comic industry’s new Brian Wood — makes a bold statement by telling a story of homegrown terrorists fighting against the co-opted conscience of democracy.

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Quick Critiques – Oct. 26, 2006

7 Brothers #1 (Virgin Comics)
by John Woo, Garth Ennis & Jeevan Kang

I couldn’t resist — though I’m not as taken with his recent works, writer Garth Ennis’s name on a comic book always gets me to pause and take a glance. I’m pleased I did so in this case. This introductory issue is pure setup, but there’s enough going on and enough character elements to pique my interest. This debut issue comes off as a cross between a standard super-hero group gathering plot and a Quentin Tarantino crime script. There’s an emphasis on a much more multicultural cast of characters, and despite space constraints, Ennis’s script allows us to get to know a bit about each of them. What really hooked me on the book is the sense of history and mystery established in the opening scene, flashing back to centuries ago in China. The script and art converge perfectly in that opening sequence. The art puts me in mind of Denys (The Question) Cowan’s art, to a certain degree. The colors help to reinforce the dark, gritty qualities in the main part of the book, but they are outstanding in that opening sequence, really driving home an ancient and historical atmosphere. 7/10

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Donner’s Party

Action Comics #844
“Last Son, Part One”
Writers: Geoff Johns & Richard Donner
Artist/Cover artist: Adam Kubert
Colors: Dave Stewart
Letters: Rob Leigh
Editor: Matt Idelson
Publisher: DC Comics
Price: $2.99 US/$4 CAN

Marvel Comics has made a lot of noise about its ability to lure TV and movie talent into the world of creating comics, especially as of late. DC has had its fair share of contributing talent coming in from other media (such as Kevin Smith and Brad Meltzer), but much more has been made of blockbuster movie director Richard Donner’s collaboration with Geoff Johns, his one-time assistant turned sought-after comics scribe. Donner’s probably best known as the director of Lethal Weapon, but almost three decades ago, he mesmerized moviegoers with Superman and Superman II. There’s definitely a more cinematic tone to the pacing of the plot, the way the dialogue plays and the simpler, more traditional characterizations for the supporting cast. Fans of recent, in-continuity Superman stories might find this story to be a bit frustrating at times, but viewed outside of that context, Donner and Johns’s story is fun and yet promises something epic in tone.

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Be All That You Can Be… Eventually

[The scene: a nondescript storefront in Small Town Main Street America.]

Ding-a-ding

Man Off Street: Hi, I was wondering if I could use the can?

Recruitment Officer #1: Hi there! Welcome to the Civil War Recruitment Office.

Man: Um, hi. I really gotta take a whiz…

Recruitment Officer #1: I’m Happy Hogan, and this is Pepper Potts.

Recruitment Officer #2: Hi! I have freckles!

Man: Sure. They’re nice. You got a bathroom here or what?

Recruitment Officer #1: Absolutely! But first, why not fill out a form? Pepper’s got pens!

Recruitment Officer #2: I have blue ones and black ones, Happy! And I keep drugs in this one, just like the FBI guy on Prison Break!

Man: Who names people Happy and Pepper?

Recruitment Officer #2: Stan did! Are you finished with your form?

Man: What’s this for?

Recruitment Officer #1: Well, in case you haven’t read the TV or watched a newspaper, America’s at war!

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There’s Strife After Death

Afterlife Vol. 1 original graphic novel
Writer: Stormcrow Hayes
Artist/Letters/Cover artist: Rob Steen
Editor: Luis Reyes
Publisher: Tokyopop
Price: $9.99 US/$12.99 CAN

This is my first Tokyopop book.

As best as I can recall, I’ve never read one of Tokyopop’s graphic novels. I am not a manga fan, and Tokyopop is known as a manga publisher, but more recently, it’s been branching out beyond Japanese adaptations. Afterlife is a U.S., homegrown horror graphic novel. It’s clearly inspired visually and conceptually by Japanese comics fare, but it stands up well on its own as an original and thought-provoking premise. Writer Stormcrow Hayes explores faith and ethics from a unique perspective, challenging his readers to question their own moral and social beliefs. The plot and characters are somewhat diverting, but the larger questions posed here stand out as the book’s greatest strengths.

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Adrenaline Junkies

Adrenaline #1
Writer: Tyler Chin-Tanner
Pencils/Colors/Cover artist: James Boyle
Inks/Letters: Fabio Redivo
Editor: Wendy Chin-Tanner
Publisher: A Wave Blue World Inc.
Price: $2.99 US

This small-press comic’s title tells the reader nothing of what to expect from it, and the cover art isn’t much help either. That makes the novelty of the premise to be found within all the more surprising. This first of eight issues is the setup for a competition between the villain and a reluctant heroine. The machinations to arrive at that premise are somewhat far-fetched, but I was surprised at how much I was drawn in by the international flavor and the strengths of the two main characters. This comic looks and feels like something we’d see from Devil’s Due Publishing, and honestly, I think it would appeal to that high-adventure, high-action fanbase. There’s potential in this book, but it’s not really in the premise. Instead, the potential lies in the skills of the creators and their room for development.

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Quick Critiques – Oct. 22, 2006

Civil Wardrobe one-shot (Brain Scan Studios)
by Rich Johnston & various artists

There’s a key reason why Internet comics columnist Rich Johnston’s satire of Marvel super-heroes and the publisher’s late-shipping crossover event is so successful: it’s more than a satire of super-hero comics. Johnston takes aim at pop culture, politics, big-box commerce, celebrity-sponsored spirituality and so much more in this one-shot. Some of the most biting satire is reserved for creations that sexualize children or force an artificial maturity and darkness into properties that were originally designed to amuse grade-school kids. The constant shifts in visual style make sense in the context of Johnston’s one-page-gag framework. It’s great that Johnston has managed to recruit the talents of some top industry professionals for this humor book, but the disadvantage is that the more polished, professional artwork makes for a sharp contrast with the more amateurish cartooning. While knowledge of Marvel’s Civil War event (both in terms of plot and publishing gaffes) will definitely add to the reader’s appreciation of this book, Johnston wisely broadens the book’s focus beyond that niche appeal. 7/10

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