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WHAT IS THE BUY PILE?

Every week Hannibal Tabu (journalist/blogger/novelist/poet/jackass) goes to a comic book store called Comics Ink in Culver City, CA (Overland and Braddock — hey Steve and Jason) and grabs a whole lotta comics. These periodicals are quickly sorted into two piles — the “buy” pile (a small pile most weeks, comprised of books that are too good to not own) and the “read” pile (often huge, often including comics that are really crappy but have some value to stay abreast of). Thursdays (Diamond monopolistic practices willing), you’ll be able to get his thoughts (and they’re just the opinions of one guy, so calm down) about all of that … which goes something like this …

THE BUY PILE FOR SEPTEMBER 19TH, 2007

Highwaymen #4 (Wildstorm/DC Comics)

First of all, that Brian Stelfreeze cover is amazing. A flawless iconization of the two characters herein, with the background (mixing a marksmanship target with an odometer) perfectly punctuating the point. You don’t get the blood splatter effect that’s on the actual product at retail, but it’s a very nice piece of art. Anyhoo, on to the issue itself — it’s more action, great laughs (love the “Dune” reference) and more of a wildly over-the-top government conspiracy that could only happen (one would hope) in fiction. The deft development of McQueen’s health problem continues to work in such a nicely subtle way, Grace Anderson continues getting an on-the-job education in wetwork and the bad guys are almost an afterthought with the fantastic dialogue between the three leads. Great stuff here.

A bit of a hoo-hah has been made around one of the writers’ blogs which talked about why the series isn’t going past issue #5. Even CBR’s own illustrious and praiseworthy Steven Grant weighed in on the subject. For our purposes, that’s a dead end discussion — to quote Marc Bernardin, “Wildstorm solicited five issues of The Highwaymen, and that’s precisely what, to steal liberally from Tina Fey, our dozens and dozens of readers will get.” When readers do get those issues (including this issue, every single one has made the Buy PIle and has been “buy on sight” since the second installment) all they can do is all any of us can do in this life — enjoy the ride.

World War Hulk #4 (Marvel Comics)

Jump from the Read Pile. Despite schedule issues making much of the Marvel universe seem like the war has passed them by, the Green King is still hell bent on vengeance here, going toe to toe with a Doctor Strange empowered by an extradimensional demon, a bloody and destructive battle conveyed with all the raw power and kineticism that you can only get from John Romita, Jr. What was most effective, however, was a set of human testimonials in the “Great Arena” set up at MSG, including Tom Foster’s powerful “I’m ready for Hulk’s law.” The struggles the four “heroes” Reed Richards, Tony Stark, Black Bolt and Strange must suffer through here has such a sweet sense of schadenfreude that it’s practically fattening, all with the good Doctor Banner’s deadpan delivery and matter-of-fact narration (“On my second day on Saakar …”) leading to an acceptable use of “deus ex machina” to set up one worldbreaker of a finale. Dangerously entertaining, and Greg Pak deserves a raise.

Checkmate #18 (DC Comics)

Jump from the Read Pile. Ah, now this is what Checkmate is about — even within the agency, there’s internecine strife as a stray blade in a Metropolis alley means Amanda Waller’s dirty work is starting to come to light, forcing the other “royals” are forced to react. There’s a nice bit of tea and conversation with Oracle, a meeting between old friends, gunfire and politics making strange bedfellows. So delightfully textured, so carefully nuanced, Greg Rucka’s back in fine form with perfectly balanced art by Joe Bennett and Jack Jadson.

Penance: Relentless #1 (Marvel Comics)

Jump from the Read Pile. Here’s the central fact to hold on to: Robbie Baldwin, formerly known as Speedball, has gone what medical practitioners might call “stark raving batsh** crazy.” Using the old “waitress in a cafe” framing device as an introduction (and how gauzy and dreamlit she seems under the artistic guidance of Mister Paul Gulacy, aided nimbly by Rain Beredo’s colors), he follows a simple pattern and seems to be walking slowly back from the edge of the abyss he’d been involved with. But Baldwin still has plans and agendas of his own, which confounds and frustrates his handler (the normally-in-control Karla Sofen, known as Moonstone) and his functional boss (Norman Osborn, equally deranged but for different reasons). He’s snarky. He’s happy to erupt into violence. He’s also, looking at the last few pages, got a number of surprises up his spiked sleeve. Fascinating in a creepy way.

JLA/Hitman #1 (DC Comics)

Jump from the Read Pile. A while ago, Marvel made a big deal about showing the reverence Punisher had for Captain America. Transfer that concept to DC and you’ll get the backbone of this fairly funny story about one of Garth Ennis’ most surprisingly endearing creations. In the early years of the JLA (apparently, but it’s not worth wincing over since at “Hitman” story is not exactly canonical) Tommy Monaghan’s brushes with the DCU’s most powerful names led to conflict within the league as an interstellar threat looms. Superman struggles with both being considered a hapless do-gooder by his teammates (the Bat you could see coming, but Diana’s reactions to him were particularly cold) and his struggle with actually liking Monaghan before and despite knowing what sort of person he is. Along the way, Kyle Rayner gets hazed, a man has sex with a woman who has the head of an elephant, there’s jokes about breast milk cheese and exploding special forces veterans and a discussion about how every single other character who came from the Bloodlines crossover is “lame … really lame” (which segued nicely into a very apropos “Star Wars” quote). Really engaging reading on every level, and just a bit naughty for those who’re not all apple pie and picket fences.

WHAT’S THE PROGNOSIS?

Four jumps, five very re-readable comics … that’s a great start.

THIS WEEK’S READ PILE

Honorable Mentions: Stuff worth noting, even if it’s not good enough to buy

Comics Ink did not order a single copy of “Code” #4, “Genesis Five” #4 nor “Joe & Max” #4, so take that as you will.

“World War Hulk Gamma Corps” #3 was another surprise, an issue that got close to making the jump by having one of Hulk’s old military enemies strategize his way into a smart attack that ends up seeming too smart for its own good, seeing how it isn’t at the finale of the crossover (and therefore is invalidated by the simple fact that there can be no real consequence from it … whew, that was a mouthful).

“Birds of Prey” #110 wasn’t bad with a long phone conversation between Huntress and Oracle. It also showed an interesting societal slice of the DCU with villain “fan clubs,” showed a skillful use of essentially throwaway antagonists and generally went for the cute perspective even in life threatening situations. Which is fine if you’re a buyer of cute.

“Captain America” #30 was also very close to making it as the Red Skull continues to play chess with the people in Cap’s … well, it’s not really a “life” if you’re dead, now, is it? Nevertheless, the Winter Soldier gets some answers (and doesn’t like them), Falcon and Black Widow team up (and that doesn’t go well for a reason which surprises both of them) and disparate story strands are coming together skilfully. If this title keeps this kind of improvement up, it could make it home.

“Umbrella Academy” #1 has an interesting kind of atmosphere, equal parts postmodern angst, BPRD and “Lemony Snicket’s A Series of Unfortunate Events.” Set in two time periods, it throws around crazy ideas like Warren Ellis and Grant Morrison made out in the room (there’s a mental image that’ll haunt you for weeks) but doesn’t really make its protagonists out to be anything. Worth watching, though.

“Flash” #232 suffered from the same issue, given its wholly nondescript threat and the fact that it — pardon the pun — went by too fast, despite shining in every moment of dialogue. The kids are not well developed enough as characters to carry this kind of panel time.

Finally, two issues with smaller stories had moments — “World War Hulk Front Line” #4 showed a fairly saddening realization for Ben Urich (while leaving JJJ with egg on his face) and then worked its way close to the “this is what happened …” moment in the mystery story backup. Conversely, only Marc Guggenheim’s lead story in the anthology “Marvel Comics Presents” #1 worked (a mysterious police procedural with very Dick Wolf-styled pacing and energy), with the archaic Hellcat story lost from another decade, Stuart Moore’s strange story not working at its “corps,” the new Guardian story never getting engaging and a sappy interlude with Ben Grimm.

No, just … no … These comics? Not so much …

The title character made a dangerously stupid tactical error in “Annihilation: Quasar” #3 that made the weird-but-interesting bestiality issue irrelevant and essentially Spawned an old Marvel trope. Not working.

“Tales of the Sinestro Corps Presents Parallax” #1 was whiny and wholly inconsequential as Kyle Rayner held on to some maudlin plot point nobody will remember in two months while his body was used to maul Green Lanterns. Inconsequential.

“Army @ Love” #7 may not be as bad as retailer Steve LeClaire believes, but it did follow the “Countdown” model with lots of stuff not happening at the same time, including mice, elephants, cell phones and general goofiness.

Speaking of goofy things that didn’t work, Black Canary’s bachelorette party carried on in both “Countdown” #32 (which was again not even worth reading due to how little of consequence happened) and the “Green Arrow/Black Canary Wedding Special” which had an ending so implausible (Dinah, you’re better than that) that it killed any of the actual entertainment the issue might have elicited. Doubly dumb.

Of the other issues this week, nothing else was either good enough or bad enough to mention.

SO, HOW BAD WAS IT?

The jumps brought the week up, and even when things weren’t perfect, there was enough interesting (“Captain America,” “Umbrella Factory”) to at least not get mad.

WINNERS AND LOSERS

It’s a victory like Kanye West over 50 Cent — not even close.

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