Friday, 17 August 2007

Capsule Reviews For The Last Two Weeks

The personal problems alluded to in the post before last meant I was unable to get to a comics shop for a couple of weeks, so I'm now going to review two weeks' worth of comics (and skip the weeks previous) in an attempt to catch up. Almost all of these are DC titles, and I'll discuss their relevance to Countdown-the-event (which is still metastasising little mini-Countdowns - the most recent of which is the newly announced Countdown: Arena) tomorrow, but for now I'll just be talking about their quality in and of themselves.

Booster Gold #1 by Geoff Johns, Jeff Katz, Dan Jurgens & Norm Rapmond (DC) was the biggest positive surprise I've had in a long time. I'm normally not a fan of Johns' writing at all, but I've noticed he's capable of very good work when co-writing - he had a few good moments in 52 and his Up, Up And Away in the Super-titles last year with Busiek was excellent - so I gave it a try.

It's actually a very competent, fun superhero first issue, although it did feel a bit like a 52 hits medley - Supernova! Booster pretending to be selfish when he's really being good! Rip Hunter's blackboard! Time is broken! I also wonder how long the title will be able to run given that the only plot that current writers appear able to conceive of for Booster is act selfishly - have a change of heart - become good but get no credit.

It's also a worrying sign that this comic contains more snide digs at other comics - including ones written by Johns himself - than any other I've read recently. Most of these (including the new title for this blog for the next week or so) come from the mouth of Rip Hunter, so I wonder if this is some kind of meta-thing, but still, there's only so many times characters in a comic can point out how bad other comics those characters appeared in are before the whole suspension-of-disbelief thing collapses in a jumbled mess like this sentence.

But there's a lot to like about this title (Johns & Katz are doing nothing original - the relationship between Booster and Daniel, for example, is straight out of Hero Squared, hardly the most original comic in the world itself), and the hints about future issues suggest Booster Gold could be a great source of rip-roaring light-hearted adventure through time and space. It's a flawed first issue, but suggests the series has a lot of potential.

In particular, I liked that Batman was portrayed as the only member of the current Justice League of B-Listers to have some faith in Booster Gold and some decency. I'll be talking soon about how Batman has been portrayed post-IC (and in particular how the revamp of his character has been seen as much in his guest appearances as the main titles), but it's very consistent with Morrison & Dini's ideas of how the character works.

Batman #667 (by Grant Morrison and J.H. Williams III, DC) is a perfect example of this - Williams throughout draws Batman to look like the Dick Sprang version (although coloured by Dave Stewart to highlight the similarity between the Sprang and Frank Miller interpretations), even laying out the double page title in a variant of the old Batman-head logo. This is a Batman with a sense of humour and a desire to socialise, very different from the Dark Avenger of Darkness and Vengeance who Wreaks Terrible Vengeance in the Dark because the world is Dark but he is Darker of recent years.

Morrison's Batman has so far not had the impact one would expect, and I suggest this is largely down to the choice of Andy Kubert for the art. Kubert's art, while popular, is stronger on atmosphere and dynamics than on clear storytelling, and Morrison is telling the kind of story that relies on readers being able to pick up on some quite subtle details in the art.

Thankfully, J.H. Williams III is on the title for a few issues, and as regular readers will know I consider him easily the most inventive artist working in comics, who can tell a story with the utmost clarity while at the same time making each page a thing of beauty in itself. This storyline appears to be a riff on Agatha Christie's And Then There Were None (originally published under a title I won't repeat here), but featuring international versions of Batman, thus continuing Morrison's ongoing theme of identity, and showing us yet again who Batman is by showing us who he isn't.

Incidentally, I'd love to know how the Knight's appearance here works with his JLA Classified appearance, and if his surname is a reference to Morrison favourite Rupert Sheldrake. We shall have to wait and see, but this was a promising start.

Brave & Bold #6 (by Mark Waid & George Perez, DC) is the end to the first story, and thus impossible to review on its own - the issue only makes sense if you read the first five. I would find it difficult to review anyway, as this series simply hits too many of my buttons. If someone asked me to explain what I meant by superhero comics, I would give them the first six issues of this series, as they're quite close to being the Platonic Ideal of superheroics.

In precisely the sort of universe-spanning story I was hoping for from Countdown, these six issues have gone from a locked room mystery to an interplanetary war being manipulated by cosmic beings in order to remake the universe to their own ends in a thousand years. The story has taken in Batman, Green Lantern, Supergirl, Lobo, Adam Strange, Blue Beetle, the Legion of Superheroes, Destiny of the Endless, and the Challengers of the Unknown, and done so in a way that lets even those readers who know nothing of these characters grasp their essential details, and doesn't conflict with anything in other titles.

It's not the best comic ever or anything, but it does what it does as well as it's possible to do it. I simply can't imagine anyone liking superheroes (at least anything published by DC or Marvel between say 1970 and 1990) but not liking this.

Action Comics #854 (by Kurt Busiek & Brad Walker, DC) is something I'm going to discuss in more detail in the 'Countdown roundup' post, as it ties in with Countdown, but suffice it to say it's a story of Jimmy Olsen and Krypto fighting Titano, which should tell you instantly whether it's the kind of thing you want to read or not.

What I will say though is that the last year or so of Supertitles have increased my respect for Kurt Busiek enormously. Busiek's work on Superman has been wildly variable, and has ranged from extremely good (some issues have been almost All-Star Superman good, though these have been the exception rather than the rule) to the fairly poor (the various religiously-infused stories). But they've always been readable, and more often than not enjoyable.

But the thing is, Busiek's been trying to tell one shortish (six part or so) story, Camelot Falls, for most of the last 18 months. But in that time he's produced what must be close to thirty Superman titles as writer or co-writer. He's had his story interrupted by art problems and had to do fill-in stories, he's had to cover Action, whose supposed regular permanent writing team have produced I think four (maybe five) issues since Infinite Crisis, and he's even had to do fill-in stories when his fill-ins got postponed (the original Krypto story he wrote). And then on top of that he's having to tie all this in to a mega-crossover.

In the circumstances, the stories having any kind of coherence at all would be an achievement worthy of praise, but the fact that at his best Busiek has produced some of the best Superman comics of recent years, while at his worst he's produced competent enough journeyman work, shows a rare level of professionalism.

JLA: Classified #41 (by Pete Milligan and Carlos D'Anda, DC) is part five of the disappointing Kid Amazo storyline. D'Anda's art style is too cartoony for this kind of material, but even were it not Milligan is just going through the motions here. Someone needs to decide what the point of JLA: Classified is, exactly. Early on, it was simple - almost 'All-Star Justice League'. The best creative teams tell stories free from continuity, using any era of the League. Sometimes these could be file stories (as in Ellis and Guice's New Maps Of Hell), but even so the first twenty or so issues of this title were extremely good - Morrison's Seven Soldiers prologue, I Can't Believe It's Not The Justice League and New Maps Of Hell were all excellent, interesting work, and Engelhart's Detroit League story, while bad, was at least different.
But since then it's settled into a comfortable mediocrity, with competent creators writing stories about the League as it was immediately pre-Infinite Crisis, with most of the stories following the same patterns. The only exception was Slott & Jurgens' Red King Rising story, and that was better in the concept than the execution (which may well have lived up to the concept had Slott written the whole thing rather than only plotting the last few issues).
A rotating-teams, non-continuity title like this can't survive on reader inertia, and JLA:Classified is getting dangerously close to trying to do just that.

Modok's Eleven #2 (by Fred Van Lente and one or more artists who might be any or all of the nine other people credited but without their job titles in this comic, Marvel) is a decent but not great issue by itself. This comic is sticking very close to the traditional heist movie plot, and so this issue is the planning section, which doesn't work so well as a single issue. But I'm sufficiently intrigued that I want to pick up the rest of this series to find out how the story goes. Plus, it's Fred Van Lente, so it's subsidising stuff like Action Philosophers. And there's a They Might Be Giants reference.

The Boys #9 (by Garth Ennis and Darick Robertson, Dynamite) is exasperating. Ennis appears to be trying to tell what could be an extremely good story about non-powered people hitting back at the super 'heroes' who show no concern for the collateral damage they cause. This story is livened up by Ennis' trademark dark and often scatalogical humour. When the balance is right, The Boys works. However, when, as in this issue, the balance tips too far toward the kind of humour Ennis uses in comics like Kev or Dicks, it just becomes tedious. Even back when applying gross-out humour to corrupt superheroes who aren't anything like their public image was a new idea, when Rick Veitch was doing it in Brat Pack, it wasn't especially funny. Now, someone getting caught short and having to go to the toilet on the floor of a Batcave-analogue is tedious and unoriginal, and distracts from the genuinely good stuff. A weak issue.

Much of what works in this issue is Darick Robertson's art, which has some extremely subtle facial expression work (see for example the bottom tier of panels on page 14). But even here, Robertson appears to be inking in a notably more slapdash way than his other work (see the bottom tier on page 12). This may be an aesthetic choice, but if it is it's not one I would have made. If not, it may be because Dynamite can't pay the advances Wildstorm can, and so Robertson can't put in the same time he did on the earlier issues. I hope the latter is not the case.

About Flash 231 and Shadowpact 16 I have little to say by way of review - both are competent and enjoyable but forgettable comics. I will, however, discuss both in the Countdown-event post tomorrow.

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