What I bought - 14 June 2006

I went to ye olde comic booke shoppe thinking I wouldn't buy much. Silly me! 30 dollars later, I returned home and got to reading! And of course it just wouldn't be a good day unless I told you what I think of my purchases. But first ... a very special feature! You may think Cronin ruined Civil War #2 for you, but he didn't really. I'm here to tell you what really happened. Read no further unless you want everything ruined!

Seriously. Watch: Peter Parker ...

reveals ...

that he's ...

gay! And an illegal immigrant! Marvel - always on the cutting edge of relevance!

Okay, maybe not. However, as a public service, I will tell you why every single book I bought this week is better than Civil War #2, which I didn't even read! See what an excellent reviewer I am????

Checkmate #3 by Greg Rucka, Cliff Richards, Bob Wiacek, and Steve Bird. $2.99, DC.

A guest penciller on issue #3 does not bode well for Jesus Saiz's future on this title, but I'm not really buying it for the art, after all, and Richards, although not as good as Saiz, is fine enough. Rucka's story moves along nicely, as we learn what the Chinese are really up to, and the team Checkmate sent into China finds itself in trouble (imagine that!) while the home team bickers. Describing it makes it sound not very good, but it's a nice book that has a lot of promise to it. I mentioned when writing about The OMAC Project that if Rucka can stay away from the superheroics, he'll be fine, and he keeps it to a minimum here. The Big Two should always have a nasty little spy comic, and this fits the bill. As usual with books I like, I hope it survives.

Not everything is rosy, though. The complaints most people have with the book concern its sprawling cast, and Rucka is trying to make sure everyone gets some screen time and is distinguishable from each other. His favorites are Sasha and Beatriz, but everyone gets some lines, and the political debate the group has in the "castle" helps make each of them individuals. I am sure that Rucka will flesh out each character as we go along, and that's another reason why I hope the book survives. Checkmate appears to be a book that rewards you as you read more of it, so it would be nice if it kept going. And the more I see of Mr. Terrific, the more ridiculous his face-painting looks. It's like he's going to a hockey game or something. Jeez, Michael, do something different! And now that we've (well, I've) learned that Bea was in fact a spy, casual comments by Sasha about her killing people she's slept with are intriguing. Again, I don't know if Rucka is making this up or if it's an event that really happened. But the dynamic between those two ladies is the most interesting in a book full of interpersonal conflicts.

So the book is moving along nicely. Murky spy capers, a touch of superheroics, and lots of potential. What's not to like?

Why you should buy this book instead of wasting your money on Civil War #2: It features the greatest Brazilian spy/superhero/model/Internet millionaire around!

Ex Machina Special #2 (of 2) by Brian K. Vaughan, Chris Sprouse, and Karl Story. $2.99, DC/Wildstorm.

Why this two-issue story had to be told as a "Special" remains beyond my ken. I just ain't gots the smarts, I suppose, ta figger it out. It's a nice little story, but not as knife-sharp as the regular title is - basically, this is two issues of the Great Machine fighting a bad guy with similar powers, only that he can talk to animals. Vaughan does throw in a moral dilemma for Mitch and brings it back to his radio interview, where he gets ambushed by the host, who starts in on capital punishment, and it's all very ironic, but this "special" didn't have the depth of the regular title. It's still weird that it wasn't just a part of the title, especially as I originally thought it was to give Tony Harris a chance to catch his breath, but publication on the regular series doesn't seem to have slowed. Bizarre. Nice art by Sprouse, as usual, a fine story, but not up to the usual standards. Of course, the usual standards are high for this series, so this ends up being better than most of the stuff that comes out.

Why you should buy this book instead of wasting your money on Civil War #2: Nobody in Civil War gets eaten by dogs! Now that's entertainment!

Fables #50 by Bill Willingham, Mark Buckingham, Steve Leialoha, and Andrew Pepoy. $3.99, DC/Vertigo.

Fifty issues in, let's take stock of Fables, shall we? This issue is almost a microcosm of the series as a whole, which is kind of interesting. This series started fast and furious, but is has kind of meandered for a year or so. The problem has been a lack of Bigby Wolf. Despite the large cast, he is clearly the star of the show, and once he left the series, Willingham, it seems, found it difficult to muster a lot of interest in the stories. They were decent enough, but they didn't pop like the earlier ones. In this issue, however, Bigby returns in full force (after Mowgli found him in the last story) and the first half of the issue brings back some of the magic, as Bigby goes on a secret mission to the Homelands and explains to Gepetto how it's going to be. It's a very nice tale, and Willingham grounds the Fables again in the real world with his "Israel option." This part of the issue is the best story in the title in a long time.

In the second half of the issue, despite the presence of Bigby, things bog down again. It's not that the story is uninteresting - Bigby is reunited with Snow White, and they work out how they can live together, all leading up to their wedding, plus we learn about the seventh kid Snow White bore. A lot of things happen, but it feels rushed, as if Willingham isn't all that interested in it and just wants to get it done. I certainly appreciate compressed storytelling occasionally, but the relationship between Bigby and Snow is at the heart of the title, so it would have been nice to maybe get an extra issue out of the reunion. Not a big storyline, but a little more.

Now the players are back in place, and I hope the book will pick back up because Bigby is back in the fold. With titles like this, it's very helpful if the creator has a ending in mind, and this feels like the time that Willingham needs to turn a corner and begin an endgame. I'm sure you could do a lot of different stories with this conceit, but the danger is that Willingham will simply get bored with it. I can see two more years of this, and I hope we're aiming toward some great showdown. I just hope it has regained its mojo.

Why you should buy this book instead of wasting your money on Civil War #2: Bigby clings to the top of a beanstalk because he's scared to jump onto a cloud. Only in comics does that sentence not make you sound idiotic!

JLA: Classified #22 by Steve Englehart, Tom Derenick, and Mark Farmer. $2.99, DC.

I bought this on a bit of whim, because it is written by Englehart and stars the worst group ever to appear in the Justice League. The only original issues of these guys I own is the four-part "death" of the Justice League that ended the first series, and even in four issues I could figure out that these guys were losers. But that's what's fun about them!

First, I didn't hear Scipio's head exploding in joy because Vibe is in this book, but maybe he doesn't know it yet. But Vibe is there, along with Steel, and Vixen, and Gypsy, and ... the Royal Flush Gang! Plus: Aquaman swims the dangerous waters of ... Lake Erie! Yes, the lake that once caught on fire (or was that the river that flows into it?) because it was so polluted is a fun place for Aquaman to do laps. But it doesn't matter, because all this promises is olde-timey superhero action, and Englehart delivers.

Not much to say about the book - J'onn takes the rookie Justice Leaguers to Ontario on a hiking trip to hone their powers and learn to work as a team. The Royal Flush Gang attacks because they think the rookies will be easy pickin's, but Steel thwarts them at the last second. But they're not finished yet!

There are nice things about this issue and one, small, annoying thing. The interaction between the characters is nicely done, although the fact that Steel, who is as much a loser as the rest of them, thinks he's in the same league as Batman, Superman, Wonder Woman, and the rest of DC's A-listers is quite funny. It leads to some nice interaction between him and J'onn, but it's still funny. This is a group that never really got a chance in the League, and they were dumped rather unceremoniously. Yes, I keep calling them losers, but as we know, good writers can make any characters good, and it would be nice to see Englehart make them more interesting. The Royal Flush Gang is done well, too. They're certainly menacing, but we never take them too seriously, and when they inevitably lose, they lose any bit of bravado they had. It's fun to see "loser" villains take on "loser" heroes, because the stakes are as high as if the big guns were going at each other - but in a psychological setting. The JLA needs to beat the Gang because the Gang is so inept, while the Gang needs to beat the JLA because the JLA is so inept. It's interesting to see it play out.

I did not like the references early on to the collapse of the Soviet Union, the spread of AIDS, and Chernobyl. Yes, it dates the story in the past, but we know it's in the past because of who's in the League, and we all know that this League fell apart before (or during) all these events, so Steel was certainly not created after them. If DC insists on tweaking its history and not letting its characters age, then they shouldn't retroactively date their old stories. Because what happens in twenty years if someone wants to write another story featuring this League? It gets tweaked again. It's a minor thing, but still annoying.

I bought this on a whim, and unlike another purchase I made on a whim (see below), it was thoroughly enjoyable. Check it out - it's a fun superhero story with a nice heart.

Why you should buy this book instead of wasting your money on Civil War #2: It has Vibe, meng! VIBE!

Legends of the Dark Knight #207 by Bruce Jones and Ariel Olivetti. $2.99, DC.

Speaking of whims, sometimes they bite you in the ass! I got this because I enjoy Bruce Jones, to a certain extent, and figured a short story by him would avoid the horrible pitfalls that his run on Incredible Hulk fell into. I also like Olivetti, and even though I flipped through the book before I bought it and was unimpressed, I figured I'd give it a shot.

Well, don't make the same mistake, people! I beg you! This is the kind of book that you want to take back to the store and say you handled only with soft cotton gloves so that none of your disgusting oils got on it and it's still in perfect mint condition and can you please get your money back or at least exchange it? First, the art is terrible. Absolutely awful. It looks like it is completely done on computer, and it has that coldness and lack of flow that computer art often has. Comic book art should be slightly surreal and impressionistic, and this hyper-real stuff leaves me cold more often than not. Olivetti can do a LOT better.

The art hurts the story, but the story doesn't really need the hurting. It's not a horrible story, but it's dull. For some reason (I'm sure it will be explained at some point, maybe), Bruce is waxing poetically about how Gotham City doesn't have a song associated with it. Wha-huh? He eventually ends up at an engagement party thrown by one of Gotham's elite, where he meets the sister of the future bride and ends up getting her into bed. Go, Bruce! It's a weird scene, though, because in conjunction with the art, it feels like a set piece with all the emotion drained out of it. Lilith, the girl, breaks down and confides in Bruce for absolutely no reason at all, and then, when her sister disappears, she somehow blames Bruce for boinking her instead of looking for her, even though Bruce had no idea. She actually uses the term "bedding me" when talks about Bruce gettin' it on with her - who uses that? Bruce, feeling guilty, goes out into the night to find Janie, the sister, and when he returns to Lilith's apartment, she has been sent Janie's finger. Ooh, scary! There's also a subplot involving one of the servants who has been impregnated by the fiance, which presumably will play into this.

As usual with all stories, it's not necessarily what happens, but how it plays out. There's nothing terribly wrong with this story, and the presence of Bruce Wayne is always nice, but it feels so detached that we are never drawn into the story. This has a lot to do with the art, as I've mentioned, but the dialogue feels fake, and all the characters feel like puppets. Even the banter between Alfred and Bruce feels forced. It's a weird story, and I'm not even sure Lilith is human (I'd be happier if she weren't), but it's not engaging. Sorry, Mr. Jones and Mr. Olivetti!

Why you should buy this book instead of wasting your money on Civil War #2: Well, I can't really argue that you should. At least Bruce doesn't reveal anything in this book!

Squadron Supreme #4 by J. Michael Straczynski, Gary Frank, and Jonathan Sibal. $2.99, Marvel.

Oh dear. After last issue, which was okay but contained some dumb (and easy) socio-political speeches from JMS, I hoped we would regain our footing in this issue. For a while we do, as Emil Burbank does terribly evil things, which is awesome, and the Squad beats up hapless Middle Eastern soldiers, and then they contemplate what they should really be doing with all this power. Mark Milton and Burbank debate a bit, and Stan wonders if they should really be the thugs of the United States, and he has a nice little conversation with Edith, who's kind of weird. So far, so good.

Ah, but then. Oh, JMS, you almost had me. So close. SO CLOSE!!!! Without any warning, we're thrown into a flashback with Edith, as she reminisces about her childhood and her wonderful mother and her horrible father. I mentioned last issue that she was raped and how stupid that was, and JMS fleshes that out a bit, but it's still d-u-m. Stereotypes abound: the mom is a wonderful, nurturing soul married to a "Christian" who hates women, slaps the mother, can't deal with his superpowered daughter so he calls her evil, yearns for a son, and thinks her getting raped is punishment for her evil. Then, Mom finds out that Dad is boinking some sweet young thing! Shocking! In a fit of rage, Mom starts to drive away, but Dad tries to stop her and Mom drives off a cliff. Horrors! Dad doesn't want the scandal to ruin him! Boo-hoo!

This is bad storytelling. It's also lazy storytelling. JMS put his computer on cliche-o-rama and pressed "go." After the excellent MAX series, I had high hopes for this series, but it's letting me down. If the next few issues don't pick up, it may be sayonara for the Squadron. Oh well.

Why you should buy this book instead of wasting your money on Civil War #2: Emil Burbank is pure evil, and that's good stuff!

Ultimate X-Men #71 by Robert Kirkman, Ben Oliver, and Jonathan Glapion. $2.99, Marvel.

I thought the Ultimate Phoenix Saga might come to an end here. How foolish of me! This part of it wraps up with a nice twist and a killer panel, even though they give it away on the cover. It works much better in the comic, however. The Phoenix story is nicely done although I thought it would simply mirror the movie too much. In the movie, the explanation of the Phoenix works fine because regular movie-goers perhaps will not accept the comic book explanation, but this is a comic, so it can be as goofy as Kirkman wants! At the last second, however, he gives us a nice twist that sets up future stories plus moves the characters - well, Charles and Jean, at least - forward, which is always a good thing.

The art is still sloppy, especially during the fight scenes, which add nothing to the book whatsoever. I mean, the X-Men fight the Brotherhood and beat them. Tra-la-la. What was the point of it all?

Still, it's a very fun comic book. Everything Astonishing X-Men isn't!

Why you should buy this book instead of wasting your money on Civil War #2: Jean Grey/Phoenix to Charles Xavier: "Mortal, if you had the ability to hurt me, I would have killed you long ago." Now that's cool.

Umbra #1 (of 3) by Murphy and Mike Hawthorne. $5.99, Image.

I understand that this is six dollars, but it's completely worth it. This book is astonishingly good. Search it out and buy it!

"But Greg," say you, "what's it about?" Why are questioning me?!?!?!? Go now!

Oh, all right, I'll tell you. It's Iceland in 1999, and a forensics specialist, Askja Thorasdottir, arrives at a crime scene. She gets squeamish around dead bodies, which makes her profession rather weird. Anyway, there's a skeleton out in a cave, and Askja is called in to investigate. She continues to make strange discoveries about the body: it's a Neanderthal skeleton, but it's wrapped in a modern shawl and has a porcelain filling in a tooth. She finds a bullet in the spine, shot from an old Soviet gun. What the hell's going on?

Well, we don't know. The writer, whom I'll call Robocop¹, keeps building revelation on revelation, building the tension, until the final cliffhanger, which shows that there are forces at large here that do not want Askja to find out what's going on. Meanwhile, a police inspector, Freyja Skulasdottir, puts the moves on Askja. Those freewheelin' Icelanders with their crazy promiscuous ways end up gettin' it on at a hot spring, while someone sinister watches. More drama!

The story zips along for forty pages (hence the price tag) and never lets us catch our breath, and Robocop keeps it strangely bizarre (what's up with the auks?) while still making sure it's hard-boiled cop stuff. Hawthorne, whose art is not flashy, gets the job done. It's in black-and-white, so we get a good sense of the twilight of Iceland, where presumably we're in winter and therefore daylight lasts not long at all. He does a good job with Askja, too, as she experiences all kinds of emotions, and Hawthorne gets her moods right.

This is a very cool book. By far the best one I bought this week. I look forward to the next two issues. Go buy it now!

Why you should buy this book instead of wasting your money on Civil War #2: Were you not reading? Iceland, chicks making out naked, extinct birds, Neaderthals with modern dental work getting shot in the back, a creepy mystery - what the hell's not to like????


Supermarket #3 (of 4) by Brian Wood and Kristian. $3.99, IDW.

Why you should buy this book instead of wasting your money on Civil War #2: At one point our principals go to Secret Agent Sushi restaurant, where over the door is an octopus with a pirate patch on. That's cooler than anything to do with Peter Parker!

So. Not a bad week, but disappointing on a few levels. Umbra made up for it, and did Vibe. Whoo-hoo! Let's hear it for loser JLAers!

¹ Get it? Get it???? Oh, never mind.

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