Is It Wednesday Yet?
12 February 2008
12 February 2008 — Here we are again with another installment of your favorite comic book review series. As always the comics you're about to read about won't be released until tomorrow (13 February 2008), so these reviews are free of spoilers and should help inform your purchases on new comic book day.
Our grading scale is simple:
Buy: An excellent comic book.
Borrow: A good comic, but save yourself some money by reading a friend's copy.
Flip Through: Give it a once-over at the comic shop.
Skip: This doesn't need to be explained.
Black Panther #34
Writer: Reginald Hundlin
Colorist: Val Staples
Letterer: Cory Petit
Cover: Salvador Larroca
Review: Tim Glancy
Whenever there is a "new" anything, the idea usually fails. New Coke? The New Blackjacks? The New Adventures of Old Christine? Is there any surprise that the word new is the kiss of death for a product?
At the end of Civil War, when it was announced that the team would be undergoing a radical overhaul, I was among the masses calling foul. When it was announced that Storm and Black Panther were taking the spots belonging to Reed and Sue, I was comforted a little. The Fantastic Four aren't just a team, they're family. Since the family aspect was still there, I wasn't going to bemoan the book. Now it was akin to two families becoming one, something any married person can relate to. However, once I started reading the stories, I was hooked. The initial issues of Fantastic Four were good, but Black Panther has been superb. This is, truly, an old school Fantastic Four tale. Multi-dimensions, galactic threats, zombies and Skrulls are just part of the plot. Throughout the story the Panther-led team has been sent from one reality to the next, and now they've finally landed on a planet in their universe. Good news, right? Well, this planet happens to be run by Skrulls. That is, Skrulls who've taken the identity of either white, upper-class humans or black, downtown humans. The planet, of course, mimics New York City circa 1950-1960.
Reginald Hundlin is a great writer who can seemingly tell any story he wants, but it's been a while since his voice has come through. It's here that it returns, as he shows an appreciation for his roots. The inclusion of two pioneers of the civil rights movement — Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and Malcolm X — was great. First of all, they're inclusion isn't forced, which isn't an easy task. They're also portrayed with such dignity that younger readers will want to read more about them in a history book. Hundlin's respect for these two men clearly comes across on the page, making this issue a great read. Yet, Hundlin keeps the action fast, the dialog witty and the general tone light.
Aside from being the strangest named art duo of all time, Cafu and Bit bring the goods here — as they do every month. This is a big adventure book, and the art conveys that. The battle scenes are beautifully mixed with realistic moments, and, for good measure, a helping of crazy powers and characters are tossed in. Cafu also does a wonderful job of making sure each character is distinguishable from the next. Not just the main characters, but all of the characters. It's nice to have a superhero book look as mature as it reads.
All in all, I don't think you can go wrong with Black Panther. Buy this book and enjoy!
Dead of Night Featuring Man-Thing #1
Writer: Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa
Artists: Kano and Nick Percival
Colorist: Javier Rodriguez
Cover: Karee Andrews
Dead of Night Featuring Man-Thing is the latest attempted relaunch of the bayou-dwelling, fear-tasting Marvel answer to Swamp Thing. This time around, the beast has been given a horror digest flavor, in the same vein as the pulp books published during EC's heyday. Dead of Night borrows heavily from the themes and devices introduced in The Vault of Horror and Tales from the Crypt, and there isn't a genre more deserving of a revisitation. As a MAX title, Man-Thing can finally break free of the stereotypical treatment he's been given in the past and emerge as a seriously chilling creation — even if his origins are very, very similar to his DC counterpart.
Writer Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa has a fairly strong grasp of the horror genre: he knows how to quickly define a cast and sway his readers' feelings about it on a whim, and he delivers on the few instances where he's looking for a shock. Although he occasionally goes overboard in his quest to use big words and long conversations, even those potential pitfalls are kept fairly tolerable. I didn't like the way he tied the book into the Marvel Universe, but it was at least done in an inventive way that I'd never seen before.
Kano, who provides the artwork for the majority of this first issue, offers solid, stylish visuals that focus on storytelling first. Flashy art would be counterproductive in a setting like this one, where the real emphasis should be on the characters and their odd tale, and Kano seems to understand that. His work is a mixture of Tim Sale and Goran Parlov: very clean and simplistic, but never shirking on detail. Like Parlov, he can display a gory payoff realistically, further driving home the impact of an important moment. Like Sale, his characters all have unique faces, and their own obvious personalities. While he occasionally shows signs of being rushed (his backdrops could use a bit more refinement, and the later pages of this issue show a sudden drop in overall quality), for the most part I enjoyed his contributions.
Dead of Night is bookended by a pair of painted pages featuring The Digger, whose introduction and conclusion to the story is in the same vein as the Crypt Keeper in Tales from the Crypt. Nick Percival is the painter of choice for these brief asides, and provides a markedly different flavor than Kano's work in the rest of the issue. Percival's work is grotesque, which I mean as a compliment. The Digger's decayed skin falls from his bones, his tattered clothes look like they were last washed century ago and his entire world is cloaked in a dense fog. It's a little cheesy, but that's understandable in a book like this, and provides a nice respite for readers at the end of the issue.
This is a real mixed bag: when it's working, it's topnotch, but it's only really working for about half of the issue. The rest of this debut is somewhat sloppy: the story seems to have climaxed too early (this is just part one of a four-issue arc), the artwork has some serious ups and downs and I'm not particularly compelled to see where this all leads in the second chapter. Still, it's a much better treatment than I'd expected for a character who has been little more than a doormat in the past. On the occasions that everything comes together, it's great. Borrow this if you get the opportunity. It could've been a masterpiece, but instead it's merely "pretty good."
Iron Man and Power Pack #4
Writer: Marc Sumerak
Artist: Marcelo DiChiara
Letterer: Dave Sharpe
Review: Dan Toland
The story so far: at the brand new Museum of Super Heroics, the Power family and Tony Stark find themselves in a battle against an army of animated Iron Man armors. And now we're caught up.
Every now and then, we, the comic book reading public, are treated to a shot of "Iron Man through the years," where for whatever reason a whole bunch of Tony's various armor designs are on display. This almost never fails to be a bit of a geek-out moment. And this time is no exception, as the second and third pages give us a two-page spread of 10 different armors, all whaling on Tony's force field. It gets bonus points for including the classic 70s and 80s suit, which has been scientifically proven to be not only the best Iron Man design, but a contender for best superhero costume ever. This is a fact, and I will brook no argument. When I am made Emperor, my first act will be to force Marvel to give Tony this suit back. All shall love me and despair.
Anyway, Power Pack and Iron Man battle the army of armor, then go off to face the person controlling them, which comes as no surprise if you read the previous issue — or if you have a mild understanding of who the bad guys in the Marvel Universe are.
This was a very fun book. It's perfect for younger readers: very sunny and colorful. Sumerak has written several Power Pack minis over the past few years, and he's clearly having a good time.
And one of the big things I enjoyed here is Tony Stark: he's likable. After years of Iron Man being a total dick — compounded by the fact that Marvel is trying to shove him into as many comics as they can before his movie comes out — I have to admit I was surprised by how normal he is here. This is the Iron Man I read as a kid. Actually, this is the Iron Man I read until two or three years ago. No hidden agenda, no SHIELD intrigue, no enforcement of the superhero police state. Here, he's just fighting suits of armor and collaring bad guys. He even plays well with others; he talks to the Powers like intelligent, mature people, which is something you can't always say about the Iron Man in Mighty Avengers.
I have to confess to never having been a big fan of Power Pack. It's not that I thought it was a bad book; it just wasn't on my radar. I was probably about 10 or so when the first series started, and when I was 10, I didn't really want to read about other kids. (No one volunteers to play Robin at recess.) However, this is a fantastic book that was created with kids in mind, and if they give it a shot, they'll get a lot of enjoyment out of it. This is a book you should buy for your kids and feel confident that they'll get a charge out of it. Chances are you will too.
Marvel Comics Presents #6
Writers: Marc Guggenheim, Christos N. Gage, Robert Venditti and Rich Koslowski
Artists: Dave Wilkins, Francis Tsai, Joyce Chin, Jeremy Haun and Andrea Di Vito
Inker: Ande Parks
Colorists: Tony Washington, June Chung, Sotocolor's J. Brown and Laura Villari
Letterer: Dave Sharpe
Cover: Dave Wilkins
Review: Dan Toland
Anthology books are funny things. They can do a lot of things most monthlies can't, such as tell shorter stories, spotlight obscure characters and provide an avenue for new talent. The original MCP did all of these in spades and I applaud its return. (Anyone remember the Don McGregor Black Panther storyline? That was made of awesome.) Of course, the downside to an anthology is that a short story starring a minor character presented by untried talent can, well, suck. (And the original MCP had loads of suck, too. I'm looking at you, Shamrock.) Quality and consistency are slippery things in a book like this. On the plus side, if you don't like a story, hey, it's only eight pages.
Vanguard: Unintended Consequences (part 6 of 12)
Detective Stacy Dolan is being framed for the very murder she's investigating.
On the plus side, the art is fantastic. It's dark, moody and expressive. The writing, not so much. Guggenheim (who writes for TV) has apparently watched a whole lotta cop shows. He has a love affair with the phrase "get in front of" an investigation, using it twice in an eight-page story. Here's some actual dialog:
Stacy: I don't even know —
Lieutenant: I don't know what you don't know and I don't know what I don't know.
Guggenheim is one of the new writers on Amazing Spider-Man. Despair.
Savage Land: Alliances (part 2 of 3)
The Roxxon Corporation is sending a small army, including Killer Shrike and the Plunderer, into the Savage Land to take control of the area's Vibranium deposits.
Once again, the art is beautiful to look at. It's incredibly lush, and there are almost no panels without a background rendered in fine detail — every blade of grass is accounted for. The story's not bad, either, but depends on your taste for Ka-Zar and the Savage Land. The storytelling here is solid.
Captain America: 4F
On D-Day, Cap philosophizes to himself about his role in the war as an inspiration to soldiers. This frames the story of Walter Riley, set in December 1941, who has been classified 4F and has a pretty crappy time of it.
In this small Indiana town, soldiers receive free soda, haircuts and buckets of admiration. People who try to volunteer and are physically unfit to do so get ostracized and beaten up on the sidewalk for no adequately explained reason. "We'll teach you to be too sickly to fight!" It's a reminder that the American Dream tends to be overshadowed by the hammerheads that populate the American reality. It's a nice story that fills its eight pages and doesn't overstay its welcome. Not to sound like a broken record, but the art is quite good, and perfectly suited for this quiet, character-based story.
Weapon Omega (part 6 of 12)
Michael Pointer, the host of the Collective and the new Guardian of Omega Flight (the Canadian-based Initiative branch), is all kinds of messed up. Meanwhile, USAgent is reporting various goings-on to Iron Man, while simultaneously going behind Stark's back to investigate the barrels of things that don't feel right about Omega Flight.
More than any other story in this issue, this is the one that makes me want to go find the rest of the issues. Not much happens in this issue, but the story being told sounds like an interesting one. And, say it with me now, "The art is great." Di Vito's been knocking around Marvel for a few years, and he delivers the good job I've come to expect from him.
All in all, this comes out on the high end of what an anthology title can do. It's inconsistent, and definitely rewards a long-term commitment. But there's variety to be had, and even the bad story was pretty to look at. Hopefully this will be around for a good long time. Borrow this; if a particular storyline grabs you, there's always (presumably) the trade later on.
New Avengers #38
Writer: Brian Michael Bendis
Artist: Michael Gaydos
Colorist: Jose Villarrubia
Letterers: RCV and Comicraft's Albert Deschesne
Cover: Marko Djurdjevic
Review: Dan Toland
The New Avengers found themselves a Skrull, leading them to believe that a full-scale invasion has begun. Luke Cage suspects the Mighty Avengers' Tony Stark of being a Skrull in disguise, for largely the same reason a good size chunk of fandom does (his sudden and dramatic transformation into a total wanker).
During a battle at Doctor Strange's Sanctum Sanctorum, the Avengers took out a huge pile of bad guys, but Stephen Strange lost his home and his magical abilities in the process. Finally, Jessica Jones ran from the battle, with her baby in tow, realizing that exposing her to massive supervillain battles is probably not the ideal way to raise her. She finds asylum with the pro-registration Avengers, which is pretty much guaranteed to raise Luke's blood pressure to unforeseen heights.
And it does.
On one hand, this is a bit of a breather issue after the massive battle in Greenwich Village; however, at its heart, this is a very powerful character-based dramatic story about a marriage in very sudden, very serious trouble. This issue is a huge success in that both sides of the issue come across: by running to the Mighty Avengers and registering, Jessica is betraying everything that Luke and the New Avengers fought for in the civil war. However, the fugitive lifestyle, where bad guys can (and did) come crashing through the front door at any moment, is the worst possible situation a child can be in. And when you have a child to consider, everything — your principles, your pride — have to go out the window; you bite the bullet and do whatever you have to do to make sure that she's in a safe place.
Bendis does a brilliant job with this. He's able to have it both ways; neither Luke nor Jessica comes across as being 100% right or wrong. Both have valid arguments. And they're both kind of acting like assholes. There are no jokes, no snarky one-liners. The dialog comes across as completely natural, and the fight sounds like an actual married couple having a fight: when Luke brings up Captain America's death during an emotional point, it sounds appropriately dramatic, but it's also a total cheap shot designed purely for emotional manipulation. It's not nice and it's not something to be proud of, but that is what couples do in a fight. And when Jessica totally ignores it and launches into some emotional manipulation of her own, rather than pausing dramatically at the mention of Steve's death — which is what most writers would have her do at that point — it just adds to the verisimilitude.
The art is pretty good. Gaydos' people look like people, and not people-shaped costumes, which is always a big plus in my book. I'm especially fond of his Jessica: she's average-looking, leaning towards pretty, but not the drop-dead gorgeous bombshell usually seen in comics. And his New York is beautiful. The colors are muted, and although nothing was ever said in the dialog, this really seems to be taking place very early in the morning; it's still dark, but there's an orange wash over everything outside. It's very stunning.
You're not going to see something like this in comics very often. Usually, after a few months of battles and intrigue, you get a quiet breather issue. This is quiet, but there's no girl talk or baseball or practical jokes or the usual inconsequential, dialog-driven filler. This is something that could have repercussions for years to come, as Luke has to decide if he wants to hold onto his principles or his family. This is powerful stuff. Buy it.
Nova Annual #1
Writers: Dan Abnett and Andy Lanning
Pencilers: Mahmud A. Asrar, Wellinton Alves and Klebs
Inkers: Juan Vlasco and Nelson Pereira
Colorist: Guru eFX
Letterer: VC's Cory Petit
Cover: Nic Klein
Richard Rider, current dome bearer of the golden-helmed Nova Corps, has been working long and hard to aid the Kree in their resistance against the Phalanx. He's been infected with the consciousness-manipulating Transmode Virus, and thus far has been successful in overcoming its influence. Ultimately, though, it's going to be a losing battle and the intergalactic warrior is eager to find a cure as soon as he can. Now, with the aid of Knowhere, a scientific research facility located at the edge of time and space, he's searching the past and the future for that cure.
The writing tandem of Dan Abnett and Andy Lanning has pleasantly surprised me through both issues of Nova that I've reviewed so far. Although this annual is really just a fleshing out of the hero's past and destiny, it's still an entertaining, approachable read. Richard Rider never loses sight of his humanity, even when he's 60 years old aboard an intergalactic cruise ship, and he's easy to identify with. While Rider often toes the line between a genuine guy and somebody who's just a little too wholesome, enough of that is kept in check to keep the reader rooting for him from cover to cover. In Nova's battle against the Phalanx in a dark, distant future, Abnett and Landing provide an ongoing motivation to see this issue through to the end. It fits nicely alongside the continually entertaining narrative in the ongoing series.
The artwork is handed by a mixed bag of fill-in artists: five pages by one name, three by another, a two-page spread by a third contributor, then back to the first illustrator again. The majority of the heavy-lifting is done by Mahmud Asrar, whose work shows a lot of promise. His characters can occasionally feel stiff and needlessly over-muscled, but he gives them each a unique face and he's got a nice handle on how body language can help tell a story. His backdrops are almost always nicely detailed and populated, too, which is becoming a rarity, and he always manages to leverage that to expand the depth of the tale with a little extracurricular background activity.
The rest of the visuals are handled by Wellinton Alves, the regular series artist, and newcomer Klebs. Alves is an artist whose work apparently suffers during the transition from pencils to inks, because I've seen some of his raw artwork and it's stunning. In print, though, it loses a lot of its luster and feels a bit too realistic for its own good. In contrast with Asrar's work, Wellinton's contributions feel empty — a bit too straightforward and literal for its own good. He's got his moments, like when he's briefly sketching the golden-bodied future Quasar, but they aren't frequent. Klebs's work, which only appears on a handful of pages, is the worst of the trio. It isn't awful, but it doesn't add anything to the story. His work is so detail-heavy that it gets tough to follow and doesn't have much personality.
Really, a carousel of styles and treatments like this can be more than a little distracting, and is a major reason why I rarely bother with annuals unless the regular creative team is left fully intact. In this instance, it's less an issue than normal, since the artistic changes are almost always accompanied by a change of tense — past, present or future. Some shakeups can be expected, and if the art chores simply have to change hands, it's as good a situation for it as you're going to get. Still, it can be jarring, especially when making the leap from Asrar's tight, under-detailed Phil Hester-like approach to Alves's more lifelike, if wooden renderings.
Even in this annual, which isn't close to an integral part of the story, Nova continues to overachieve. Aside from the occasional jolt of a jump between artists, this is a good read. The artistic choices hold it back from being everything it could be, but this is still worth borrowing. I'm slowly becoming a Nova fan.
Punisher War Journal #16
Writer: Matt Fraction
Artist: Howard Chaykin
Colorist: Edgar Delgado
Letterer: Joe Caramanga
Cover: Alex Maleev
Review: Tim Glancy
This is, in all honesty, a Punisher story that I think really should have been told years ago. For years, we have seen Punisher lay waste to his victims with little thought given to the survivors. Occasionally a survivor would come back in an ill-fated attempt to kill Castle, but what happens to those who don't seek revenge?
For those who have been following War Journal, the events of issue #4 are still etched in your mind. For those who missed it, said issue dealt with a superhero funeral: that of Stilt-Man. Aside from the lameness of the villain, the story was fairly interesting. At the close of the book the Punisher destroyed an entire bar full of supervillains, but at least two manage to make it out.
The Gibbon was one of the two, and he's our focal point here. Matt Fraction, who has done a great job with this series so far, handles this turn towards the sublime very well. It's seemingly easy to write a fast action story, but when the book slows down and you need to focus on a third- or fifth-string character, that's when a writer displays his skills.
Before this issue I think it's fair to say that no one cared about Gibbon. Afterwards, Fraction will probably change that opinion. He takes the evil out of an evil individual and makes you want to cheer for the bad guy. Sure, he's a screwed up loser, but, damn it, did he really deserve what happened to him at that bar? That's the question here, and you don't necessarily get an answer.
I do have to warn, however, that this is a somewhat slow story. Most people buy Punisher comics for guns and mayhem, but that's not on the menu today. You do get a tremendous story that's worth enjoying, however.
There really isn't a ton to say about the art, because when you put Howard Chaykin's name on a book, you are pretty damn near assured of getting an awesome looking story. This is no exception. One of the things that I have always loved about Chaykin is that he pays a tremendous amount of attention to details. Little things like clocks on the wall, the way clothes change when people shift, facial expressions — all are just small examples Chaykin's talents.
You can probably guess that you should buy War Journal, but let me give you one more reason. This is a standalone story. You don't need to be reading the book monthly to understand this issue, and, frankly, you don't need to read it ever again if you so wish. You only need to pick it up this once for a really good story. That's a beautiful thing when it happens.