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This may sound like the ultimate backhanded compliment, but I think Justice League got a whole lot better when it stopped trying so hard. Obviously I don't know if Geoff Johns, Jim Lee, and company ever felt pressured to a) single-handedly set a particular tone for the New-52 reboot, b) live up to fan expectations, and/or c) make sure the book came out on time. Regardless, once their first couple of arcs were done, some sort of tipping point seems to have been reached. It's not really Lee's departure (although Ivan Reis has been an excellent fit). I get the feeling that Johns is more comfortable with the stories he's telling, first with the Aquaman-centric "Throne of Atlantis" and now with a few issues exploring the expanded lineup. In this week's #19, Superman and Wonder Woman are testing international law, someone's broken into the Batcave -- which, I'm happy to note, turns into a League matter almost immediately -- and in a nice surprise, we get some time with Firestorm and the new Atom. The latter is especially fun, introduced in this issue as a horseback-riding warrior, which recalls both Wonder Woman's first appearance and the old Sword of the Atom stories. Oh, and a traditional League enemy shows up for the cliffhanger. This issue is basically a set of loosely-connected subplots, but they all flow together well, and collectively they evoke a "day in the life" feel. Justice League may finally have found its groove, and I hope it lasts a while.
It would be overly simplistic to compare the new Daredevil villain (introduced in this week's #25 by Mark Waid and Chris Samnee) to Bane, but I kinda got that sinking "Knightfall" feeling reading DD's battle with him. That feeling is about the only concrete parallel to the Batman epic, though: nothing drastic happens to DD (physically, at least), and there's no real rogues' gallery gauntlet to run before the final confrontation. It isn't even the final battle. Anyway, I should just clam up about Batman and emphasize how freakin' great Waid and Samnee are at building suspense. It's rare that Daredevil is in the dark (as it were) about his foes, but when he is -- and when that bad guy gets the upper hand despite DD being otherwise on the top of his game -- the effects are truly shocking.
Finally, I seem to have missed Sword Of Sorcery #6 when it came out last month, so I caught up with it and this week's issue #7 (both with "Amethyst" stories written by Christy Marx and drawn by Aaron Lopresti) concurrently. I'll be sorry to see this series end, because Marx and Lopresti have really done some fine world-building work. It may not resemble the original Gemworld, but clearly a lot of thought has gone into its mechanics and its design. These two issues have brought old DC villain Eclipso into the mythology, I take it as a sort-of replacement for original Amethyst foe Dark Opal (who I know only from his 1985 Who's Who entry). That's given the overall arc more of a superhero feel, but Marx and Lopresti have kept things grounded sufficiently in fantasy that even John Constantine's involvement is only a temporary intrusion. The New-52 "Amethyst" had a shaky start, but whenever I can locate the issues (i.e., clean up my office) I'll be eager to re-read it.
J. Caleb Mozzocco
I've spent some time this week catching up with the pre-New 52 DCU via some trade collections I've been meaning to read forever (And a couple I noticed at the library and thought, "Aw what the hell, I'll take those too").
Superman: The Black Ring Vols. 1 and 2, the trades collecting writer Paul Cornell's Action Comics run, were definitely at the top of the heap, in terms of quality. If you haven't read the story, it came from J. Michael Straczynki's "Grounded" story arc taking Superman off the table, leaving Cornell with a year's worth of Superman stories that couldn't star Superman. He came up with a story in which Lex Luthor, and Luthor's only friend and confidant (an android duplicate of Lois Lane) embark on a world-wide quest for ultimate, god-like power.
Along the way, Lex crashes against pretty much every other A-list villain (The Joker, Vandal Savage, Brainiac, Darkseid, etc) and a few surprises (Mr. Mind, The Secret Six and even Death of the Endless) and achieves his goal—but the tragedy of a villain is that even when he get exactly what he wants, he's not happy. Once again, Luthor loses, but in this instance he does so by winning. It's a great grand tour of the dark side of the DCU, one of the better Superman stories I've read, and the best Luthor story I've read. (I reviewed it more fully on my blog this weekend, if you're interested in me seeing me take many more words to say the exact same thing).
I was similarly impressed with Batman: The Black Mirror, the big, fat trade collecting the entirety of Scott Snyder's Detective Comics run, illustrated by Jock and Francesco Francavilla. That was just before the reboot, when Dick Grayson was still Gotham City's Batman, and Snyder did a hell of a job finding that particular character's voice, particularly when interacting with the rather sizable supporting cast (Commissioner James Gordon, Barbara "Oracle" Gordon, James Jr., Alfred, Tim "Red Robin" Drake). As with the Gates of Gotham miniseries Snyder co-wrote, the emphasis seemed to be on the concept of "Batman" as a team effort, a crime-fighting endeavor taking a whole family of like-minded individuals.
He also introduced a few new villains, which is always welcome in Batman comics, including one with close, personal ties to the characters. Reading it, I could see why DC kept Snyder around and on Batman comics when they rebooted, but it made me a bit anxious to read his New 52 Batman: He did this well with Batman II, maybe he'd knock it out of the park with the original....or maybe the opposite would prove true, as Grayson is in many ways a more complex and relatable protagonist than the more one-dimensional Bruce Wayne (More on Black Mirror here, if you're interested).
I was much less impressed with a pair of Secret Six trades I read. The first was Secret Six: Danse Macabre, collecting issues #15-#18, plus the "resurrected" issue of Suicide Squad from the "Blackest Night" event. Gail Simone handled much of the writing, with Squad writer John Ostrander writing one issue solo and co-writing the Six/Squad arc with her. J. Calafiore drew most of it, save for one issue by Peter Nguyen, Doug Hazlewood and Mark McKenna, which featured some of the sloppiest, half-finished, hard-to-read artwork I've seen published in a DC comic book. The title story is a sort of very dark, very violent take on the traditional Marvel fight-then-team-up formula, with Amanda Waller siccing the Squad on the Six, and the teams fighting one another to the death—until the greater threat of the Black Lanterns temporarily unites them.
I'm not a fan of Calafiore's artwork (his style just doesn't please me aesthetically), and I stopped reading this book monthly when he took over for the departing Nicola Scott. I can find Simone's work trying at times, particularly on this title, where she would dance back and forth between black comedy and serious writing so dark that it's often accidentally funny.
I found Secret Six: The Darkest House, collecting the last seven issues of the series (and one issue of Doom Patrol) a far superior read. Simone writes all but the one of those issues (DP's regular writer Keith Giffen handled that), and Calafiore drew all of them save that DP issue, which three different artists poorly illustrated (To be fair to them as individuals, any time you've got three guys drawing the same 20 pages worth of story, the results are gonna be less-than-stellar). The middle story, in which the Six journey to DC's hell on a suicide mission to bring back one of their earliest, deceased members, is by far the strongest, full of bizarre imagery, interesting moral dilemmas and the fruition of sub-plots from throughout Simone's run. It would have been the ideal story arc for the series to end on, especially given it's hopeful note of these villains seeing visions so terrible that it might scare them straight--or slightly straighter--and realizing that even if they're not all friends, they're at least allies, which is better than nothing.
Unfortunately, Secret Six went on for a few more issues, which seems to have been the result of a last-minute "Hurry up and wrap-up your books so we can reboot the universe in two months" order from on high. So Simone and Calafiore have about 40 pages in which to return Bane from the noble, heroic villain they were making him into (a direction writers previous to Simone had started him in) and back to the villain of "Knightfall." He tries to whip the Six up into getting serious and joining him in killing all of Batman's sidekicks, which just gets them cornered in a hideout, with every superhero in the DC Universe surrounding the joint and ready to storm it.
Simone seems to have been going for a blaze of glory, Butch and Sundance ending that breaks up the Six, but that doesn't really work when the opposing army our hero-villains are charging out to face are infallibly powerful pacifists who never take the lives of their foes. Two fewer issues would have served this quirky book, which I'm sort of surprised hasn't resurfaced in some form in the New 52 yet, better, I think.
Finally, in the manga department, I read the first volume of Rie Takada's Punch! That's the story of Elle, a teenage girl who just wants a plain, ordinary high schooler's life of dating and hanging out with friends, a wish made impossible by her parentage and upbringing. Here father was a world boxing champion, her mother was a world kick boxing champion, and she's being raised in a gym by her boxing coach grandfather, and is kinda sorta engaged to a 17-year-old boxing champ in the making, who scares away any and all boys who show the slightest interest in her.
Naturally, she meets a dreamy street fighter with a heart of gold and sparks fly. Suddenly, there are two hunks literally fighting over her, and she's fighting herself over her desire to date outside of the martial arts, and her feelings for the new guy. Complicating things further still, he starts training at her grandfather's gym, and gradually moving more and more into her life.
This is a romance manga more than a fighting comic, so while there are obviously fights in it, the focus is on the relationships and the feelings being poured into and out of them, tone vacillating wildly between melodrama and comedy. This first volume is almost all set-up, and once the premise is established and heightened, I'm uncertain how long it can remain entertaining, but it's a fun, funny premise, and I liked the art a whole lot.
I thought I was going to escape Land Face, but despite the setting of an outer space gladiatorial battle with Death's Head (yeah! Death's Head!), there are still those smarmy, overly smug and plastic smiles from Tony Stark in Iron Man #8. There's just something about the way Greg Land draws people that turns me right off a story, no matter how fascinating or compelling Kieron Gillen can make it. This issue is choc-a-block full of action and hard lessons on what exactly the greater good is when you've moved up to a galactic scale. The fight with Death's Head is fun, the comment about Tony experimenting with "his furry side" a little out of place, but through it all are some lovely metaphors to break down the big ideas to the reader in a relatable way. Greg Land's art is actually lovely when not dealing with faces or human expression, but concepts of Celestials and star systems. I want to love this book, but there's that sheen of falseness to the art that makes me hesitate if you feel the same, maybe this is a good issue to try before the big "The Secret Origin of Tony Stark" story that's coming up next issue.
"BRING US ALL THE HATE!," shouts one of Zola's mutates in Captain America #6 before a dimensionally lost Steve Rogers crashes into their fortress for a heroic attempt to save a child that isn't his. Rick Remender has suffered some by just not being Ed Brubaker and taking a huge leap away from the political thriller tone that made Captain America pop for a new generation. The thing is, he's gone toward what I feel is more Kirby-esque -- big ideas, big pictures, grand statements and heroic adventure so rich you can hear the swelling John Williams soundtrack with every turn of the page. God I love this book and I deeply apologize to anyone who feels it's "too weird" or "not Captain America anymore," but I simply can't contain this feeling anymore. John Romita Jr. (missing his Jr. title on the cover) draws in big bold lines of action, heroes just lunging off the pages to punch evil right in the face and the simplicity of it all makes the comic live in your mind. The pile of mutated cloned bodies that Captain America climbs seems weighty the orations on science ring in the mind, the simple idea of kindness versus ruthlessness linger in every panel. It's a bold, brave horror and I am on the edge of my seat.
Lastly, I read Cable and X-Force #7 and, despite the cover, there was a refreshing lack of ominousness between the meeting of Cable and the all-new Cyclops. Their relationship is summed up beautifully as Cable's rag-tag crew liberates an alien criminal from somewhere under the high-security prison, the Raft, where Colossus conveniently surrendered himself to a couple issues ago. Hopeless is fantastic with conversation in action; it's natural and comfortable and takes into account a lot of history that stands between people like Domino and Boom Boom as well as Scott Summers and his son. I'm still not sold on Dr. Nemesis' new hip look, but the banter between him and Forge is worth a dopey outfit. Even if you don't regularly read the title, this issue is worth picking up if only for the cover "confrontation."
Well, I just ended the weirdest week of my life -— I live just north of Boston, 'nuff said -- so the package of advance review copies from Drawn and Quarterly couldn't have been a more welcome distraction. And when I opened it up, I thought "They read my mind." The first book out of the box was Tom Gauld's You're All Just Jealous of My Jetpack. I thought Gauld's graphic novel Goliath was the best graphic novel of 2012, so I'm predisposed to like anything he does, but I have to admit Jetpack is very different in tone. Gauld's trademark style—silhouetted figures, simple settings, muted palette—remains the same, but the subject matter is much lighter. The book is a compilation of short gag comics originally drawn for the UK paper The Guardian. This is comics for the well-read, filled with knowing jokes about literary and film tropes. Some of them made me laugh out loud, while others are almost like abstract exercises that stretch the capabilities of the medium a bit. It's a smart, funny, handsome little book that is a nice read and would be a great gift for a Serious Reader as well.
The term "graphic novel" is used these days to refer to pretty much any comic in book format, but Rutu Modan's The Property really feels like a novel. The story of a young woman and her grandmother who travel from Israel to Warsaw to reclaim property lost during the Holocaust, it has a fairly complicated plot and an interesting cast of characters. It's not a simple read, but it is impossible to put down, and Modan takes full advantage of the economy that the comics medium provides, letting the pictures provide the setting and descriptions and the dialogue carry the story. In one sequence, for instance, the grandmother looks out the window of a cab and sees the modern Warsaw cityscape morph into the Warsaw of her girlhood. Modan also uses changes in palette to signify shifts in time and place, and each of her characters has a distinct personality that you can take in at a glance (although things are not always quite what they seem). There is a particularly beautiful scene toward the end that is set in a cemetery, done mostly in dark, muted colors, punctuated only by the bright colors of the candles that visitors have placed on the graves. There is no question that this will be one of my picks for the best book of 2013.
Pogo: Through the Wild Blue Wonder: The Complete Syndicated Comic Strips, Vol.1: 1949-1950 by Walt Kelly
My interest in funny animals and classic comic strips led me to checking out Fantagraphic's first volume of Pogo comics that they published in 2011. I've always known Pogo to be highly regarded, but I never bothered to really check it out until getting this volume. Fortunately I've found that the work lives up to its reputation. The artwork is outstanding, with Kelly's cartooning and characterization skills on full display. His use of line work, black placement, and textures is phenomenal, allowing him to give the characters and background plenty of detail when it's needed, but without anything getting muddled or lost. The setting, Okefenokee Swamp, comes to life with dozens of characters that seem to be living real lives rather than just waiting around for the punch line. The writing contains lots of charm and getting to know the characters is a delight. While most of them at first appear to be dimwitted swamp animals (most everything is written in their "swamp-speak" dialect) there is a lot of truth to be found in what they say or come to realize. What I enjoyed most about Pogo was that even when I didn't find certain strips to be funny in themselves (there's a lot of pun humor), they wove together to make fun stories about the residents of the swamp. These made the book a very enjoyable experience to read and one that I'm sure I'll revisit in years to come.
Rocket Raccoon and Groot: The Complete Collection
Collecting Incredible Hulk #271, Rocket Raccoon #1-4, and material from Tales to Astonish #13, Marvel Preview #7, Annihilators #1-4, and Annihilators: Earthfall #1-4
I'll be honest here. When I bought the first issue of the second volume of Guardians of the Galaxy back in 2008, I didn't know any of the characters, I didn't know anything about Marvel's cosmic universe, all I knew was that there was a raccoon holding a gun on the cover and I had to read it. I went on to read and love the entire 25 issue run and picked up this book hoping to learn a little more about two of the more unusual characters, Rocket and Groot. The collection features the characters' first appearances, as well as an issue of Hulk from 1981 that had Rocket in it, a Rocket Raccoon miniseries from the '80s, and some more recent appearances in the form of Annihilators #1-4 and Annihilators: Earthfall #1-4 (sorry Groot fans, it's pretty much a Rocky love fest for most of this book). What surprised me the most about this collection was how much history these relatively unknown characters have in the Marvel universe, dating all the way back to 1960 when Groot was just a monster from Planet X (cue lighting and thunder)!!! Additionally, a lot of classic talent is represented in this book, such as Jack Kirby, Sal Buscema, and some great early work from Mike Mignola. It's fun to see the different ways artists choose to represent the anthropomorphic animals. As far as the story goes… I get the feeling that early on the writers tried to make Rocky's home planet as crazy as possible, and the rest of the comics are trying to make sense of it all. Killer clowns and mercenary bunnies are the norm, and plots focus around evil toymakers who are supposed to make toys to entertain the mentally insane human population, but instead start a deadly war. It makes for some fun intergalactic action, with lasers, explosions, and space travel, but at the same time I wish I could have seen some more time away from the nonsensical home world. Are you interested in seeing Rocket Raccoon and a cyborg walrus save Hulk from a deadly lawnmower? If the answer is yes, then this book may be for you.