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Is It Wednesday Yet?
19 August 2008

19 August 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 (20 August 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.

The Incredible Hercules #120
Writers: Greg Pak and Fred Van Lente
Pencilers: Rafa Sandoval
Inkers: Roger Bonet and Greg Adams
Colorist: Marte Gracia, Dennis Calero and Raul Trevino
Letterer: VC's Joe Caramagna
Cover: John Romita, Jr.

Review: drqshadow
While the vast majority of the Skrull population occupies themselves with a full-scale invasion of Earth, Hercules is discretely taking the fight to a different level. He's gathered a ragtag crew of immortals, gods and cosmic entities, and is leading a gutsy assault on the realm of the Skrull gods. It's been a long, brutal road, but in this month's concluding chapter, they've finally reached their goal. The religious leaders of the Skrull pantheon lie battle-ready in their path, and suddenly these guys look a lot tougher and angrier than Herc and his God Squad had anticipated.

Greg Pak and Fred Van Lente have done fine work here, draping their storytelling in a steep, spiritual lore without getting carried away with longwinded Biblical dialog. If you've been waiting to discover who the Skrulls were talking about when they said, routinely, "He loves you," then you might be surprised to hear that the answer is here, rather than within last week's Secret Invasion #5. And while that entity's identity is left somewhat murky, it's at least nice to have some answers.

While Pak and Van Lente have a firm grasp of the kind of fervor this character seems to draw out of his followers, I wasn't impressed by the blunt solution they present to this situation. How do you defeat an endless army of religious zealots bent on the eradication of your species? Why, you gather a few of Earth's least-known deities, travel to Skrull heaven and get into a fistfight with the man in charge. Who knew it could be so easy?

This looks a lot more like an issue of Spawn from 10 years ago than it does a modern series from Marvel. I don't necessarily mean that as a bad thing, because McFarlane's green-eyed devil has enjoyed some fine visual moments over the years, but it's a bit outside the boundaries of the publisher's typical illustrative style. Rafa Sandoval's work contains about as many lines as I can stand on any given page, but retains a certain charm all the same. His renditions of Hercules and Amadeus Cho are distinct and vibrant, and when he really needs to deliver a crisp, impressive splash page, he cashes in. When he's on point, Sandoval is a real talent, but troubles with consistency are ultimately his downfall. He can't decide if he wants to be Travis Charest or Chris Bachalo, often alternating between styles during a single page.

There's a lot of pomp and circumstance in this issue, but I found it to be ultimately unsatisfying. The way we reach the climax is happenstance and coincidental, which leads me to wonder why we needed three issues to set it up. Isn't the point of a lengthy story arc to lay sufficient groundwork so that the final chapter can put it all to use effectively? Why was the tide-turning weapon found randomly on the ground in the middle of the issue, immediately put to use and then forgotten? Incredible Hercules is well on its way to becoming a quality series, but this tie-in wasn't a step in the right direction. The sporadic bright spots make this one worth flipping through.

Iron Man: Director of SHIELD #32
Writer: Stuart Moore
Pencilers: Carlo Pagulayan and Steve Kurth
Inkers: Jeffrey Huet and Andrew Hennessy
Colorist: Joel Seguin
Letterer: VC's Joe Caramagna
Cover: Adi Granov

Review: drqshadow
Even if the recap page hadn't clued you in, there would have to be no question that this month's Iron Man: Director of SHIELD is the concluding chapter of the story arc. When a cluster of nuclear weapons aboard the SHIELD Helicarrier are remotely ordered to detonate in less than three minutes, that doesn't leave a whole lot of wiggle room. It's either the end of the threat, the end of the world or some time traveling / slow motion-dependent garbage. My money is on the first.

Stuart Moore's nuclear-themed drama has provided some compelling reading, while also posing some unsettling questions. The notion of a military device devised to usurp control of the entire world's nuclear arsenal isn't that far-fetched, and the very thought of it falling into the wrong hands is a legitimately pants-wetting proposition. Where the concept loses a bit of steam is in its execution. Sure, I can imagine a couple hundred Pentagon employees coming together to build something like this. What I have a little trouble imagining is the thing taking the form of a purple, building-sized floating brain with flashing lights and an automated self-defense system. But I suppose such peculiarities are to be expected considering the medium ditto for the Tetsuo-like tendrils that hook the brain's pilot to its control system.

Beneath the cartoony excesses, this really is a sharp, smart storyline. It's not quite as grandiose and world-shaping as the premise would lead you to believe, but at its core it's still a fine example of a brand of storytelling that's a perfect fit for Iron Man's unique characteristics. Stark gets equal opportunities to shine mentally and physically, and his dialog is layman-friendly. It's far from uncommon for one of Marvel's mightiest to lose his readers when he uses brainpower to solve a complicated problem (Mr. Fantastic and Dr. Strange have been doing it to me for years), but that's a trap that Stuart Moore avoids

Dueling artists Carlo Pagulayan and Steve Kurth don't prove to be much of a match for one another this month, although neither left me particularly impressed. Pagulayan's work is the better of the two, showing the influence of Frank Quitely in the care and precision he grants to the page, if not the overall composition and pacing. His characters have real depth and personality, although they don't always look comfortable on the page. When the narration switches gears and Kurth takes over, the issue loses a lot of momentum. Pagulayan's artwork wasn't perfect, but he's a saint compared to Kurth's awkward illustrations. Kurth is given more chances to visually surprise us, as the story twists and turns much more frequently in the second half, but his work is so stiff and clunky that they provide little more than blown opportunities.

With a regular artist, I think Stuart Moore could make some real progress with Iron Man. He's found a nice blend of action, adventure, technology and espionage, based it in a world that's a little bit too familiar and given it a slightly outrageous slant to keep his readers entrenched in the storytelling. With a regular rotation of artists, he's never had a chance to really dig in his heels and make a mark, and that's a trend that continues this month. Flip through it, but don't pay it any serious mind until Marvel can secure a regular illustrator.

True Believers #2
Writer: Cary Bates
Artist: Paul Gulacy
Colorist: Rain Beredo
Letterer: Artmonkey's Dave Lanphear
Cover: Paul Gulacy

Review: drqshadow
Be honest: when you saw the title, did you expect this series to be about a small group of counterculture "warriors of the information age," dedicating their lives to revealing every last lie, conspiracy and cover-up on the planet? If so, good for you. Myself, I was expecting some kind of goofy buddy road trip, hitting the roads in search of a mythical golden Stan Lee statue or something. But nope, it's conspiracies, lies and cover-ups, like The X-Files, only with a decidedly superheroic flavor.

But the surprises aren't simply relegated to the book's theme. Writer Cary Bates is using this series as an opportunity to poke and prod at a heretofore-unexplored segment of the Marvel Universe. This issue wastes little time in letting its readers in on that fact; its cold open features scenes from a leaked DUI video starring a (literally) wobbly legged Reed Richards. The message rings loud and clear: if we're going to dig deep into the secret scars of the superhero community, nothing can be sacred.

While those ambitious first few pages set the stage for something truly original, the follow-through proves to be somewhat of a disappointment. After its shocking opening, True Believers loses much of its edge. It regresses into a simple mystery, and its quick solution leaves lingering questions about the significance of the case in the first place. The issue is overfilled with dialog, half of it needless, and outside of a heavy-handed accent here or there, I had trouble distinguishing the characters' personalities. The actual squad of True Believers only appears for a brief segment, coming and going so quickly they felt like guest stars in their own series.

As long as Paul Gulacy's artwork focuses on the title cast, it resides somewhere between good and very good. He tries something new with every page, whether it's a challenging camera angle, an original texture or an entirely different illustration style. And while that often reveals his weaknesses, it also unveils a variety of strengths that I otherwise wouldn't have credited him for. Gulacy can't draw a car to save his life, but he can effectively use pointillism to indicate a change in lighting and atmosphere. He channels Jae Lee, Eduardo Risso and Tony Harris, all within a three page span, and while some of those tributes are more successful than others, it's a change to see this kind of public experimentation. It's not the best-looking series on the market (Gulacy's Ben Grimm is just plain terrible), but it's something different which is in keeping with the title's theme.

There's room for a series as ambitious as True Believers, this issue's opening pages prove that. But it really needs to commit to that direction and stick with it. Instead of the ballsy image that this series projects for itself, it's really just a new coat of paint slapped on an old car. Original concepts are where this series shines, but when it's time to follow those up, it loses its nerve. Flip through it for Reed's joyride in the Fantasticar, but don't bring it home with you.

X-Factor #34
Writer: Peter David
Penciler: Larry Stroman
Letterer: VC's Cory Petit
Inker: Jon Sibal
Colorist: Jeromy Cox
Cover: Boo Cook

Review: drqshadow
What's that, another Secret Invasion tie-in? Yes indeed, with Skrull mania sweeping the nation it would seem that no series, no matter the shape or size, is immune to a special appearance from the green-skinned, wrinkle-chinned aliens. X-Factor's involvement comes in the form of Darwin, a mutant whose father has charged the team with locating and returning his prodigal son. The good news: they've found him. The bad: he's sitting tight with Longshot, who's a Skrull named Talisman. It gets worse: She-Hulk and her partner, Jazinda, are after Talisman, too. And we all know how well superheroes typically mingle when their plans unexpectedly coincide.

Long story short, the team is already brawling with She-Hulk in the city streets when the issue begins. As usual, Peter David does a great job blending serious action with tension-splitting narration. He keeps the book's individuality at the forefront, even when the team's getting their ass handed to them. As Madrox is hurled through the air, he quips, "The whole 'She' part tends to make you overlook the 'Hulk' part," and suddenly I completely understand his frustrations. David has had a connection with these characters for so long (he first wrote for the series way back in 1991) that their little personality quirks and individual peculiarities can be taken for granted. He knows Strong Guy like no one else, and while I'll admit that sounds absolutely ridiculous, its importance in this series can't be overstated.

But the writer's best days with the book are behind him. When the series was on top, it would match a biting wit with a set of legitimately moving storylines and themes. He could balance the jokes with serious moments that brought his readers closer to the characters themselves; there were instances of humanity and weakness that made them endearing, relatable and real. These days, the series has ramped up the goofiness and lost touch with those subtle, honest undertones. David remains a compelling author, and his writing here is no exception, but perhaps I've been spoiled by his earlier run with X-Factor.

Artist Larry Stroman certainly gives the series a personality, although it's not one that I'm particularly crazy about. While his work has a quick, sketchy nature and persistent lightheartedness, his compositions often seem unfinished and underdeveloped. His renditions of She-Hulk were so far from the mark that I couldn't tell if this was supposed to be Jennifer Walters or some other nameless, green-skinned, purple-garbed behemoth of a woman. The character in this issue has a different hairstyle, different body language and the face of an aging Asian woman.

That's not to say Stroman doesn't have his moments. When he pulls himself together, quits with the deliberate sketchiness and really sets his mind to delivering something cool, he can get the job done. Talisman's first appearance this month looks like something Jim Lee put together between issues of WildCATs. For that matter, almost every moment Talisman is in the panel, Stroman's work shows marked improvement. Pity he couldn't be around from start to finish.

I remain a fan of Peter David's work, although he's lost a bit of momentum over the years. While the modern form taken by X-Factor doesn't compare favorably to its brightest moments, the series is still more entertaining than the majority of its modern competition. Larry Stroman's artwork provides a stumbling block, but the issue is worth borrowing in spite of that.

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To hear reviews of 1985 #4, Moon Knight #21, Punisher #61, Uncanny X-Men #501 and X-Factor Special: Layla Miller, download Earth-2.net: The Show, episode 259.


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