REVIEWS, PART ONE
I haven't written any reviews now in three weeks. Stuff has been piling up at Pipeline World Headquarters, and it's time to sort through it, review it, and file it away.
This is part one of the reviews this week. Part two is coming up on Friday, in a special Pipeline Extra.
AVENGERS #500 casued quite the uproar when it came out, with people breaking into a Love It camp and a Leave It camp. I'm closer to the Love It camp side of things. To me, AVENGERS #500 is a Michael Mann/Jerry Bruckheimer style spectacle. It's a loud book, filled with crashing and explosions and people going just a bit nuts.
This is why I think that Bendis can't catch a break anymore: The usual rant against him is that he stretches everything out into a six issue story arc. Nothing happens for the first couple of issues. It's all dialogue and no action. AVENGERS #500, on the other hand, starts with a few pages of cute dialogue inside the mansion, and then breaks out into an all out war on the mansion's grounds. Things start flying at the heroes -- literally -- without rhyme or reason. Stuff happens. Judging by the teaser at the end and the questions the Avengers are raising as this happens, they're well on their way to figuring out why and who. So please forgive Bendis for writing the first act of a movie here, instead of the usual Marvel mandate of "the beginning of the story." He's thrust the readers knee deep into this one, and some are complaining about having to wade out.
I'm willing to give Bendis the extra length of rope on this one. If he should hang himself with it, I'll switch camps. Check back here in a couple of months for that.
David Finch's art is solid superhero stuff throughout the issue, and he draws some nice explosions. I always liked Todd McFarlane's explosions from the initial story arc of adjectiveless SPIDER-MAN best, but these rank right up there. I know it sounds like a silly thing to say, but I notice these things.
If you want to find something substantive to quibble over, you could say that Frank D'Armata's coloring gets a little too color keyed at the end. In the midst of the rubble and the dust, the unrelenting oranges and blacks get a little muddy. I'll still give him credit for trying something other than literal coloring, though. It's a style he's been playing with over Alan Davis' artwork on UNCANNY X-MEN, also, and I'm enjoying it there. Besides, there's always the possibility that the issue printed out darker than was intended. We've seen that bugaboo destroy some of the best colorists' work in comics today. That's the one drawback with the high end Photoshop work.
SLEEPER SEASON TWO is the best monthly series currently being published. Once again, I'm caught up in the same trap with it as I was for its first season. I can't discuss it thoroughly without spoilers that would ruin half the fun of the book. Ed Brubaker and Sean Phillips are doing an amazing job with the characters, remaining true to them while sticking them in an untenable situation and throwing curve balls at them that don't feel forced. It's a delicate line to tread. Brubaker could easily fall into the trap of looking for twists to use to put the lead character in a bind. He doesn't. It all flows so naturally that it's twice as interesting as it would be otherwise.
The first "season" is now available in two trade paperbacks, and I can't recommend them both highly enough.
THE WALKING DEAD might come in second place for that monthly series category I just mentioned, for many of the same reasons. The twists come a little bit further from left field, perhaps, but it's more appropriate in a zombie book. To his credit, Kirkman works hard at showing the effects of those twists and takes the time each issue to explore the characters, and not just their predicament. The ninth issue is just another issue where, like SLEEPER, it would ruin the fun of the book to talk about it. You need to experience it for yourself. If you've fallen behind, don't worry. A second trade will be out in the fall. The first trade collecting issues #1-6 is already out.
Charlie Adlard has been a great replacement for Tony Moore. Count me as amongst the number who were worried when Moore announced he was leaving the book. Adlard has done a remarkable job as the new artist on this book, though, and might soon surpass Moore's work.
ASTONISHING X-MEN #3 is Joss Whedon's best issue yet. While I thought the first issue was a little shaky, the follow up issues have redeemed that first one in spades. As he gets into the characters more and we adjust our expectations to the pace of his plot, the story is starting to feel more natural. Yes, it includes plenty of riffs covered in the X-Books before, but this new presentation is certainly pleasing. Cassaday's art -- with unbelievably good coloring by Laura Martin -- is awe-inspiring, but without distracting from Whedon's story. Whedon's strengths certainly lie in the dialogue and character moments. Those show the most wit and insight. Characters act believably. Cyclops, in particular, is acting less like a jerk than usual. OK, so he is a little whipped by Emma Frost, but why pick nits?
I'm beginning to think that there aren't any new plots left in the X-Men Universe, but Whedon is doing a good job in remixing old ones to pleasant effect. I envy you at this point if you decided to wait for a hardcover collection. When that comes out -- probably in about a year, should Marvel continue with its hardcover line -- it'll be a very beautiful book to hold.
THE ULTIMATE TRIO
Last week saw the release of three Ultimate titles from Marvel. This, of course, is now a regular thing at the House of Ideas, soon to be renamed House of Ship Everything The Same Week. There is the tendency to put out multiple X-, Spider-, and Fantastic 4-related books in the same week. This is, needless to say, not the most brilliant marketing strategy in the world. It might be time for Marvel to look at their schedules and figure out which books to move up a week and which to delay a week. A schedule would be nice. There are four Ultimate books. Wouldn't it make sense to put one out a week?
ULTIMATE NIGHTMARE #1 introduces us to a couple of things, neither of which held my interest. The first is the Big Meanie Threat. The second is Ultimate Sam Wilson. The book is, in the end, the classic case of a book that shouldn't be read on a monthly basis. If I didn't already have the first three issues reserved, I'd not pick up another issue until the trade. Since I do have the issues reserved, I'll pick this one up as it goes along and not read or review it until it's finished. It may very well turn out to be a great series. This chunk of it is not very satisfying, though.
ULTIMATE X-MEN #50, a title which I accused of including the worst scene of decompression ever in comics last month, doesn't repeat that trick with this issue. Instead, we have some nice character moments from Brian K. Vaughan, and a complete set piece at Coney Island, beautifully rendered by new artist Andy Kubert. There's even a cliffhanger at the end to bring you back next month. This is the way comics should work.
It's interesting to look at Kubert's career over a longer period of time. The first time I remember seeing his art was on UNCANNY X-MEN just around the time Chris Claremont left. I liked the art back then, but it was relatively formulaic and stiff. You either liked the style or you didn't. Everything looked alike, including a lot of grimacing faces, some triangular shadows underneath people's noses, and layouts that emphasized big panels. That said, the right inker might make it look different. Didn't Sienkiewicz ink one of his issues once?
It grew stronger as the years went by. I remember the extra energy that appeared in his KA-ZAR run. As forgotten as the book may be, I think Kubert's art never looked better at the time. His style loosened up a bit and it looked like he was having fun.
After working on high end books like ORIGIN and 1602, Kubert's art traded in a bit of that spontaneity for a bolder look that looks more concentrated on design and panel structure. The characters don't all look alike.
And while many of the faces still look to be squinting and grimacing too much to this day, there's obvious signs of growth as an artist with ULTIMATE X-MEN. He still does a great job with the bold action scenes (see the runaway ride), but he's equally capable of drawing the quiet dialogue scenes (see the opening piece between Jean and Scott.)
Along the way, he does a great job in designing panels to show the gosh-wow factor that's been such a big part of this book from the beginning. This is one of the few superhero comics left today that still does that for me. There's a detached point of view from certain actions that give the reader the same sense of awe as the characters are feeling. In this issue, look at the distance Kubert gives us from the action when Scott fires his blast into the sky on page three. Traditional Marvel storytelling style would tell us to get really close to the action, or to force a perspective shot to make it three dimensional. Kubert's far off "camera placement" instead conveys the enormity of the action and shared with us the sense of awe that the characters feel.
So while most people might be concentrating on the writing turnaround -- from Millar to Bendis to Vaughan -- check out the art while you're at it. I think there's a lot there to like.
ULTIMATE SPIDER-MAN #63 confirms what happened at the end of the previous issue. If you were hoping against hope that it was a dream sequence, then I'm sorry. This issue is a satisfying chunk of story, although perhaps not one as clearly defined as the ULTIMATE X-MEN issue. We get reactions to the big event of last issue, as well as Peter's new drive to discover what's happening, misdirected though he may start out. The cliffhanger at the end felt a little anticlimactic, but I suppose that's just the structure of superhero comics. That scene has to happen and we all saw it coming. Next issue will be the point of no return for this storyline. All of the conflict and drama is leading up to it. Bendis and Bagley have to sell that story to make this arc work.
Mark Bagley's been drawing this title now for 63 issues without a break, including bi-weekly runs. At the same time, he's taken on other short term assignments, and yet never blown a deadline. (You can split hairs here. THE PULSE is bi-monthly now instead of the original monthly status it was supposed to be before Bagley was artist.) There's something fresh coming into his art right now, though. It looks looser, and I don't mean that in a bad way. It's like he's not concentrated so much on making every line perfect, but rather getting the energy of the original drawing onto the page. (See Kubert's aforementioned work on KA-ZAR.) Some artists tweak their stuff too much if they have extra time. I don't think that Bagley was ever one of those, but I think at this point he could draw the book in his sleep. He's certainly drawn enough of it. That appears to be translating now to a line that's fresher and more original, rather than lazy and staid.
UPDATES, CORRECTIONS, AND GENERAL NONSENSE
* How many people missed their flights to Comicon this year? Of all the con reports I've read in the past couple of weeks, it seems like every other one starts with "I missed my flight."
* In my review of ULTIMATE X-MEN #49 a couple of weeks ago, I originally made the mistake of referring to Vaughan's storytelling style as "deconstruction" instead of "decompression." There is, needless to say, a world of difference between the two. Thanks to Keith Phipps for writing in first with that correction.
* In the same column, I failed to include the ordering information on Steve Lieber's new book, FAMILY REUNION. Lieber, thankfully, chimed in with full ordering information on the Pipeline Message Board:
Here, to make things easy, are paypal links for both offers.
Two complete stories- 23 pages of top-quality comics- for two bucks, postpaid. If there's a better deal out there, snag it.
The writer on the book, Sean Stewart, also has a website over here.
* There is also the question of the mutant invisibility to recording devices in the Marvel Universe. I've had a couple of e-mails on the subject in the past couple of weeks to remind me that it was just a remporary thing. Thanks to Chris Arndt and Richard Zaric for reminding me of that. I have to quote Chris' e-mail, though, for comedic effect:
That Chris Claremont enabled a neat little plot device that a magical gift from Roma(?) enabled the X-Men (and only the X-Men including non-mutant Madelyn Prior) to avoid visibility to man-made artificial sensors in assistance to fake their deaths in the eyes and to the knowledge of the world.
Get it? Got it? Good!
Should Chris have gotten any of the niggling details wrong in that presentation -- no, I'm not going to fact-check him -- please post to the Pipeline message board with your further correction. This is not a road I wish to go further down.
* Todd McFarlane holds much power, but none over the Vertigo line of comics. When I mentioned something in last week's Pipeline Previews column about the cancellation of HELLBLAZER, let it here be known that I should have written "HELLSPAWN." I'd blame the automatic spellchecker there, but I still should have caught it on one of my proofreading passes. It must not be that strange a mistake, because Russell Smith was the only person to call me on it.
* I had several e-mails in response to last week's Pipeline Previews column regarding Jess Nevin's LEAGUE OF EXTRAORDINARY GENTLEMEN companion books. Those astute readers pointed out to me that the series is owned by Alan Moore and Kevin O'Neill. As such, it isn't subject to the same issues as the COMICOLOGY issues. That's the simplified version. I'll go with it. Thanks for reminding me, faithful readers.
* Reminder of the Pipeline review policy: I'm not asking for comp companies and, generally, I'm not accepting blind submissions for review. I just don't have the time nor the column space to review everything. I have plenty of comics right now to keep me busy. Seriously, I could not buy another book for the rest of the year and still have enough material to review in every column. If you have a website with sample pages or something, feel free to e-mail me a link. I'll look at it. If it's something that excites me, I might just write you back. Otherwise, as much as I hate to do it, I just can't look at everything right now. Sorry.
Maybe I'll set up a PayPal link. If I get enough donations, I'll take a sabbatical, accept everyone's comics samples, and just write Pipeline for a living.
* Also: If you're e-mailing me, please include a subject line. If it's something that makes sense and doesn't sound too spammy, it might just make it to my inbox. Don't crack a spam joke in your e-mail subject header because it'll get filtered out. Don't leave it blank, because I just skip right over those. Something simple like "pipeline" or "comics" will catch my attention and make it past the spam filters in one piece.
Pipeline returns on Friday with more reviews. They wouldn't all fit in here, so stop by at the end of the week for the most diverse set of reviews in this column in a long time: SPAGHETTI WESTERN, UNCLE SCROOGE, KYLE BAKER: CARTOONIST, NINETY CANDLES, and more.
Next Tuesday, I'll return with the Pipeline Photo Parade from San Diego. All those miscellaneous shots that have been sitting in my camera for the past couple of weeks are about to find a new home.
Meanwhile, Pipeline rolls into Rosemont, Illinois this weekend for the big WizardWorld convention. Yes, there'll be Yet Another Con Report after that one.
Over at Various and Sundry this week: A two part epic account of my experiences at the O.A.R. concert this weekend. Meat Loaf's new DVD and CD announced. Updates on the fourth season of '24.' Tigger is found "Not Guilty." DOOM 3 is out. The weekly DVD release round-up. And more.
More than 500 columns are archived here at CBR and you can get to them from the Pipeline Archive page. They're sorted chronologically. The first 100 columns or so are also still available at the Original Pipeline page.