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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 JUNE 20TH, 2007

Highwaymen #1 (Wildstorm/DC Comics)

Jump from the Read Pile. From the very first page, the best adjective for this comic book is “gripping.” Like the first issue of the lauded Warren Ellis mini “Red,” plans within plans trigger plans within plans, and the old guard left machinery in place — in the form of people, here — to make sure that old business stayed historical. The lead characters — I. McQueen (solicit copy calls him “Alistair,” but if it ain’t in the comic … oh, and he dresses like he’s the Third Man from “Planetary”) and Able Monroe (nicknamed “Speed” in the solicits … don’t just trust, check it out yourself — work together with the kind of practiced ease and sniping amiability that can only come from years of experience, and the characterization on the two of them is top notch given the close quarters available for it. Their opposite number — Jacob Sterne, the deputy director for the US Department of Clandestine Services “a few years after tomorrow” (nicely put) — is more of a stock type from Central Casting, a straightlaced and brutal bureaucrat who you could see meeting Norman Osborn for lunch. The entire package, however, is thrilling and well worth checking out, with clear and solid visual depictions and storytelling from Lee Garbett with Johnny Rench’s flawless coloring helping things stand out even more. A fantastic debut which has many interesting possibilities.

Annihilation: Conquest Prologue (Marvel Comics)

Jump from the Read Pile. A lot of pleasant surprises and a whole heap of story deftly crafted into one issue. On one hand, you’ve got Phyla-Vell, the scion of the legend Mar-Vell (now running a prison in the Negative Zone, which she may not know) and the sibling of the alternatively drunken and/or insane Genis-Vell, working her butt off to try and be somebody worthy of the power and legacy she’s shadowed by. On the other hand, you have the man formerly known as Starlord, Peter Quill serving as majordomo to the neophyte ruler of Kree space, Ronan (formerly the Accuser, now just “Lord Ronan” and barely seen in these pages). So you’ve got a fairly rich tapestry to play with already, when the Spaceknights of Galador show up to install a nifty new defensive software array to help the Kree get back on their military feet after the devastation of the Annihilation Wave (the other big thing Marvel was doing while that pesky Civil War was going on). Predictably, things go awry for virtually everybody here, and that leads to some moments of genuine tension and a mysterious sort of ticking clock crisis that’s fun to watch, including the appearance of an old threat X-Men fans will remember fondly. A great start to a whole new set of interstellar conflicts, told in such intimate terms as to make it easy for readers to become involved.

Guy Ritchie’s Game Keeper #3 (Virgin Comics)

New “buy on sight” title. There’s this guy named Brock … and Brock is bad news. He’s been bad news for a long time, apparently, but that’s not important right now. What’s important is that Brock had a second chance at life, and that was taken from him with flames and high caliber bullets, and now he’s gonna exact revenge on the people who are responsible. See how simple that is? It’s comforting. With the pacing of an episode of “Alias” and the mean spirited determination of Mel Gibson in “Payback” (back before we all found out how crazy he is) or even the new story arc in “Criminal,” Brock makes his way into Amsterdam and starts breaking eggs until he’s got the fixings for an omelette of data. An enjoyable immersive experience, Guy Ritchie apparently knows how to craft a story. Fun side note: Comics Ink owner Steve LeClaire read the first issue on a whim long after its release, found it enthralling and then started evangelizing it to customers, including the writer of this column. Mission accomplished.

Official Handbook of the Marvel Universe: The Mighty Avengers Most Wanted Files (Marvel Comics)

With none of the lunatic whimsy of the magical compendium nor any of the fascinating psychological insights of some of the Stark-narrated handbooks, this cut-and-dried look at the modern Republican Avengers, er, Mighty Avengers is the essence of a Joe Friday assertion. The hilarity of describing Ares’ long history as an alpha-level super villain before his current turn as a reluctant hero is somewhat ironic, the Black Widow’s entry doesn’t include retcons, er, “facts” revealed in this week’s “Captain America” issue, eight pages of Iron Man data doesn’t come close to comparing with the exhaustive art retrospective and eight pages of data on The Wasp (seriously) or the fact that her vital statistics section (powers and so on) is more than four times larger than that of Wonder Man, and two thirds bigger than Warbird. The Ronin entry is good crazy, Daisy Johnson is left out in the cold (she really took over where Rictor left off) and … well, okay, when you look at it all like that, it is kind of entertaining. But you do have a bit of an uphill drive to get all these precious gems of info.

Rex Mundi #6 (Dark Horse Comics)

This column has been on board with this title since its very first issue with Image Comics, taking in the grand tapestry of a world where France and Prussia are the super powers of the modern world and the US is a minor, provincial player, a world of magic and ritual instead of science and chaos. However, with this issues wholly digressive interlude into the past of the Duke of Lorraine’s daughter Isabelle … it’s like when you tuned into “The X-Files” and were all geared up for a juicy episode where the Cigarette Smoking Man would do cool stuff and Skinner would grimly bite out orders, and instead you got stuck with the Lone Gunmen doing something dumb. There’s too much going on — war, ancient Merovingian mysteries, murders and the endless hunting of the Inquisition — for such a seemingly pointless detour.

WHAT’S THE PROGNOSIS?

Three amazing books, one pretty good one … that ain’t bad at all.

THIS WEEK’S READ PILE

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

There are two comics that this column is unable to comment on in any way: “Sire Revelations” #1 and “Spike: Shadow Puppets” #1. Why? Well, the first one was not ordered at all by Comics Ink, which is a sort of review in and of itself. The second one was completely not delivered by Diamond due to one of their weekly line item errors. The entire order of the “Spike” comic just did not show up at Comics Ink — maybe it got to your store. When your entire industry is based on the machinations of a monopoly, you gotta suck those losses up and move on. So let’s do just that …

Three books were on a “maybe” pile for most of the afternoon and missed making it home by margins so close as to be heartbreaking. The best books that didn’t get purchased this week were “Incredible Hulk” #107, “Flash The Fastest Man Alive” #13 (also known in some cases as “the fake out”) and “Shadowpact” #14. What happened with those three?

Well, “Incredible Hulk” #107 showcased a whole host of terrestrial forces led by Amadeus Cho hell bent on not opposing the Hulk’s desire to murder Tony Stark’s ill-advised Illuminati group, but joining up and assisting the Green Scar. Severe and immediate, with an in-your-face script and Gary Frank and Jonathan Sibal making the art so fresh and so clean, it missed the mark only by making the last amazing moment with Hercules (one of his best appearances in years) move just a hair too fast. It needed perhaps three or four more panels for it to soak in what had really happened, or maybe a bit more perspective on that final panel. It may be one of those “kick yourself and go back and buy it later” things, but that’s for history to decide.

Bart Allen truly embodied what it means to be a hero in the final issue of “Flash,” an issue which caused a great deal of consternation online with shadow solicitations and a fake out that hoodwinked the pundits and prognosticators. There are no fewer than three “hell yeah!” moments like when you heard the shout “Wolverines!” in “Red Dawn.” However, the sheer weight of the opposition still managing to find ways to almost fail was too much to take, and there were just too many moving pieces that didn’t all work well in conjunction. An ambitious near miss.

Finally, the almost deadpan response of Blue Devil to the holy hit put out on him made “Shadowpact” fairly compelling, from its bit with the lawyer (that’s a Court TV special presentation worth watching) to the unexpected chumminess with Zauriel. The flippered bartender’s power move could easily be explained by the standing explanation from “Trials of Shazam” — the books of magic are being rewritten — and wasn’t jarring. Again, though, the sum of its parts was greater than the whole, and the three things that worked well on their own were just “eh” when you looked at the whole issue. In a time more flush with money, all three of these would have been purchases.

Inconsistent and sometimes unfinished looking art helped hobble the still enjoyable “Repo” #1, a book with the same sense of fun noirish atmosphere as you might find in “2 Guns.” The issue even took the time to, as Peter David says, pre-emptively snark itself by calling out a cliche in its own pages, and with some only slightly contrived exposition and a glimpse at an apparently fairly well conceived fictional universe, the book was good if not great. To jump (and to consistently stay on the Buy Pile), your comic should really be “great.”

“Checkmate” #15 was an improvement with a captivating (no pun intended) issue complicating the extraction mission with hurt feelings and intensive violence. The problem is, the violence wasn’t really for any purpose, and the political side ended up pacing in place (despite the introduction of one charismatic guest on the last page). Getting back to what works best though.

“Heroes for Hire” #11 was all right, with two stories in an abandoned NYC with Humbug reading from the Book of Catman (yes, you were a loser, but you can reborn in a jungle setting), Paladin continuing to be a jerk (only partially entertainingly so) and the entire result being not bad, but not compelling.

“Ex Machina” #29 was only effective in its “B” plots and flashbacks, with the current events involving Mitchell Hundred being inconclusive and unsatisfying.

“Transformers: Megatron Origin” #1 would have benefitted from a less dour colorist as Megatron’s rage is somehow made relatable in a story of government corruption abusing the working man, er, mechanoid. Not what you really want from the most dangerous robot ever forged, but it is what it is.

In “Captain America” #27, SHIELD is really not as impressive as they make themselves out to be, as Bu … er, The Winter Soldier runs into an ex girlfriend as he continues his quest to be caretaker of Steve Rogers’ legacy. An uninteresting retcon, a wholly forgettable Falcon appearance, a strange outfit choice for Sharon Carter (who herself was reading from the Book of Dirk Anger) and just weirdness all around.

The three short stories in “Spirit” #7 were all solidly okay. Which is why they’re all still on the shelf.

Likewise, the predictability in “Weapon” #1, all the way down to the plucky billionaire hip female sidekick, overshadowed the kung fu movie possibilities here, as the narrative lacked substance and gravitas, even of the patently pompous and ridiculous sort, instead reading more like Wikipedia Brown with hard light holograms and Wu-Tang-esque affectations.

Spidey’s overreaction in “Civil War Fallen Son: Spider-Man” was fairly easy to see coming, but the issue itself went nowhere and the whole thing really would work better as a trade, not single issues.

“Robin” #163 was a kind of cute done-in-one for father’s day, but could the villains have been any more cookie cutter if they were jobbers announced early in a televised wrestling show?

“Brave and the Bold” #4 had a few too many cliches, was a bit too frantic in its activity (Supergirl and Lobo were very contrived), but it was pretty.

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

An ambitious failure, “Iron Man: Hypervelocity” #6 was a talky and heady date with a hot girl who can discuss everything from superconductors to music to electoral politics and dresses provocatively, but ends up shaking your hand at the end of the night or passed out in the middle of a rocking party. Unsatisfying despite some really great moments in this final issue.

“Justice League of America” #10 took a looooooong time to get around the mulberry bush, with the tease of the classic Legion (Val Armorr with big collars! Where’s Tyroc?) being much ado about nothing. Pretty, nice in tiny dialogue moments, but a long way from serviceable.

This column is officially done trying to read “Moon Knight” with issue #11. The series is like an unemployment claim — it’s just not working.

Here’s a short story about “Banzai Girls” #1: no. Imagine all of J. Scott Campbell’s artistic drives and none of his zest for life or whimsy. After three pages, this issue was literally taken from the hands of the reviewer. “You don’t need to suffer that much for people,” was the quote.

“Countdown” #45 showcased the fact that the Monitors have their very own pet race of Zentraedi (and yet they’re not from Tirol), showed a character who died in a big and expressive way looking all hearty and hale (Superboy PUNCH!) in a big multiversal mess. Urg.

Does anybody think Peter Parker’s attempt at intimidation in “Amazing Spider-Man” #541 (picked up due to a reader request) was working? Moreover, given how smart the Kingpin is (he played Tony Stark, for the love of pie) and how calmly he prepared for the final page (which makes Peter look even dumber), it’s almost embarrassing for him to still be squaring off against the Spider after all these years.

“Army @ Love” #4 (which Comics Ink owner Steve LeClaire actively drives people away from) continues to be “not that bad,” despite not really going anywhere with confessions and truth and nobody really being affected by any of it at the end of the day.

SO, HOW BAD WAS IT?

Those three “maybes” loom large over even the techie jabbering of Tony Stark 2.0 and the cheesecake of “Banzai Girls.”

WINNERS AND LOSERS

Two jumps and three close to the mark will win out over the dreck, so let’s call it a winnah!

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