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
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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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
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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