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Is It Wednesday Yet?

20 November 2009 — Here we are again with another installment of your favorite comic book review series. As always, the reviews are free of spoilers, so read on without fear of having your experience ruined!

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.

Astonishing X-Men #32
Publisher: Marvel
Released: 04 November 2009
Writer: Warren Ellis
Penciler: Phil Jimenez
Inker: Andy Lanning
Colorist: Frank D'Armata
Letterer: VC's Joe Caramagna
Cover: Phil Jimenez
Cover price: $2.99

Review: drqshadow
Never ones to turn a blind eye to a friend in need, the X-Men were quick to aid Abigail Brand, the green-haired, green-goggled, green-lip-gloss-lovin' SWORD employee you may remember from Joss Whedon's run on the title. As long as you've got your color code in order, I guess, you needn't look far for an assist in the Marvel U. It should go without saying, then, that when the dashing Ms. Brand crash-lands aboard a disintegrating spaceship, she probably won't be alone. And, sure enough, no sooner does the team get her back on terra firma than they're assaulted by the latest revision to the Sentinel line. This round, the towering robots have stretched a patch of human skin over their surface, and its original owner isn't exactly unknown to the team.

Writer Warren Ellis doesn't draw the line there. What's worse than a Sentinel all decked out in flesh and bone, Terminator-style? How about one that can fire Brood monsters out of its fingertips? If that doesn't sound like a recipe for an extended fight scene to you, it should, because that's exactly what's on the menu. Faced with the new peril, half the team dedicates themselves to tackling the big, fleshy robot while the others concentrate on wiping out the sharp-fanged alien beasties it's fired into the crowd of onlookers. How to deal with a public nuisance? Let's start with closed fists and work our way up from there. Not exactly the brainiest thing he's ever written.

It's also not the most captivating. Ellis seems to think more of the fight's importance than carries over to the printed page, spending full spreads on the movements and slow fall of the defeated Sentinel (whoops, spoiler, they defeat the Sentinel) and the regurgitated battle with its Brood offspring. It's a nice effect, one that draws his readers' attention to a few climactic moments and broadcasts them in slow motion for added impact, but the watering-down effect it has on the story is profound. The Day After Tomorrow used the same tricks in place of good storytelling, but I expect that of Roland Emmerich. I hope for more from Warren Ellis.

Of course, the seeds of success for any good fight scene are really planted by its artist, and Ellis lucks out in this respect. His partner, industry regular Phil Jimenez, delivers a great showing that realizes every intricacy of the script. While his compositions and storytelling are undeniably solid, it was Jimenez's concentration on the little atmospheric touches that really made me stand back and take notice in this issue. The cluster of gulls he suspends in the air — providing the magnitude of the attacking Sentinel as a point of reference — also grants us a constant reminder of the story's seaside locale. The effects of Storm's lightning onslaught on the Brood, still seen in the distance as the scene shifts to her teammates' struggles with the giant robot across town, establishes the sheer size of the battlefield. Jimenez's work is beautiful on the surface, but its real power is hidden in the details.

As far as Warren Ellis contributions go, Astonishing X-Men #32 is very light reading. It's quite a bit more mainstream than any of his other works, even his run with a more family-friendly team in Ultimate Fantastic Four, which is a disappointment. It's more off-center than the rest of the mutant family, admittedly, though not by much. I would've liked a briefer skirmish, a few more unexpected developments, and a different flavor than what I got. It's not a terribly bad showing, particularly on the artistic front, but it also didn't leave me very hungry for the next issue. Flip through it.

Cinderella: From Fabletown with Love #1
Publisher: DC Comics / Vertigo
Released: 04 November 2009
Writer: Chris Roberson
Artist: Shawn McManus
Colorist: Lee Loughridge
Letterer: Todd Klein
Cover: Chrissie Zullo
Cover price: $2.99

Review: drqshadow
When it comes to the supernatural land of Fabletown, the less the modern world knows about it, the better. In fact, the sheer existence of the settlement depends on it. So what to do when bits and pieces of contraband and supernatural artifacts begin appearing outside the city walls? Why, look no further than Cinderella herself; shoe salesman by day, secret agent by night.

In case you're still in the dark, Fables is based on the modernization and revitalization of the residents of the fairy tales you grew up with. Cinderella herself is a perfect example; while the idea of the bashful former younger stepsister as an international agent of espionage may not sound particularly fitting in theory, it shines in print. Who better to do your secret dirty work than the girl everyone in town sees as the shallow, empty-headed ditz with more time for fashion than friends? And, surprisingly enough, Cindy (as her close acquaintances know her) actually makes for a convincing, effective field agent. Chris Roberson, the writer of this particular spin-off, wastes no time in establishing that. He opens the issue in the midst of a particularly short scuffle atop Big Ben that doesn't turn out so well for the bad guy.

If you're a stranger to Fables, you'll likely miss out on a few specific details, but the major points of emphasis are laid out in the open for the uninitiated. Cindy handles most of those explanations internally, with a handful of thought balloons spilled across each page, but they're sparse enough to leave the majority of the layout open for moving the primary plotline forward. It reads smoothly and easily, even if it does get a bit cutesy from time to time. Needless to say, if talking animals aren't your thing, you may want to look somewhere else.

Shawn McManus fits this series like a glass slipper. His simple style is right at home with the characters Disney reinvented generations ago, but his tremendous knack for scene-stealing perspective and strong grasp of the characters' multifaceted personalities are his most important tools. McManus grabbed my attention with the issue's first big panel — the aforementioned fracas at the tip of London's best-known timepiece — and kept hold until the midway point, when that sharp eye for detail began to wane. By the time Cindy lands in Dubai — the first stop on her search for the men behind this naughty smuggling operation — it's like a different artist has climbed into the driver's seat. He's still working the simple, cartoonish style with various degrees of success, but the heart-stopping scenery that initially caught my eye faded away into something more mundane.

Those same flaws can be applied to this issue as a whole. Everything starts out well enough: an original premise, a solid set of initial cast members, a fine series of opening panoramas. But upon closer inspection, the magic begins to wear off and we're left with something a bit less spectacular and a bit more everyday. It's less than it could have been, and is a few missed opportunities from a must-read. The concept and strong introduction is enough to make it worth borrowing this month, but things are going to have to pick up in a hurry to keep it at that level the next time around.

Savage Dragon #154
Publisher: Image
Released: 04 November 2009
Writer: Erik Larsen
Artist: Erik Larsen
Colorist: Steve Oliff
Letterer: Tom Orzechowski
Cover: Erik Larsen
Cover price: $3.50

Review: Desmond Reddick
Her: Helpline. How can I help you?
Me: My editor sent me a comic to review, but I don't really know how to review it?
Her: Is this really a problem?
Me: You haven't read this comic, have you?
Her: Is it that bad?
Me: No, I love it.
Her: Why are you calling the helpline then?
Me: I don't know how to review it.
Her: Don't be ridiculous! What book is it?
Me: Savage Dragon #154.
Her: Oh, yeah. I've heard that's a hard one for new readers to get into.
Me: I've been reading it for years.
Her: What? Synopsize the fucking thing then and get off the phone!
Me: I'm about four or five issues behind.
Her: Ah, now I understand. Let me help you.
Me: That's why I called the helpline.
Her: Don't get cute.
Me: Sorry, ma'am.
Her: Let me see, okay. Dragon died right?
Me: Yup.
Her: How many Dragons are in this book?
Me: Two. No wait. Three! Four if you count Malcolm.
Her: But the Dragon we're following doesn't remember anything, right? Like the very first appearance?
Me: Yeah, because his son gave his corpse some blood and now he's back.
Her: And Dart is fighting Daredevil, the old pulp hero?
Me: Yeah, and Overlord is planning something.
Her: Guess what?
Me: What?
Her: We just synopsized this book.
Me: Wow... thanks!
Her: No problem. You okay on your own now?
Me: Uh, one more thing. What are you wearing?
Her: ...
Me: Hello? Damn.

Anyway, unless you are a hardcore fan of Savage Dragon, like myself, you won't have a chance of understanding just about anything that's going on.

The story will absolutely boggle your mind, seem entirely too frenetic, and end with a cliffhanger that might actually cause your nose to bleed. I mean, I've got a cold and maybe the picking has been more than usual, but it's never bled like this before.

I'm a few issues behind on Savage Dragon, and even though I've spent the better part of two decades reading this book (as I mentioned in the transcription of the entirely true phone call I made) and I felt lost.

There are constants to this title: Erik Larsen makes every issue worth its cover price by having a ton of shit happen, his art is the direct lovechild of Jack Kirby, and somehow the book has managed to unravel its plot in real time over the past 17 years. It is truly a unique book.

Like the Lee / Kirby Fantastic Four run, it keeps you on your toes from issue to issue. But unlike that series, Savage Dragon has a continuity from issue to issue. This makes it nigh impossible to jump in cold.

This is not the issue to take a chance on. The bottom line is this: if you're a fan of Savage Dragon, you'll buy this book. If not, skip it until they advertise an issue to jump on with.

Stumptown #1
Publisher: Oni Press
Released: 04 November 2009
Writer: Greg Rucka
Artist: Matthew Southworth
Colorist: Lee Loughridge
Cover: Matthew Southworth
Cover price: $3.99

Review: Desmond Reddick
Stumptown begins like a lot of good crime stories do: a person is shot underneath a bridge. But it's what's after this very effective and beautifully orchestrated five-page opener that really makes this a book worth reading.

Dex is a private investigator with a bad gambling debt. When the head of the casino with which she is indebted offers to drop the debt in exchange for Dex finding her granddaughter, it's like a weight is lifted. But of course, it will not be that easy for our heroine.

With his talent for female leads and grasp of the Pacific Northwest, Greg Rucka crafts a PI story that actually feels new! There's a lot of clichés broken right off the bat: the PI, the target, and the financier behind the job are all females. This can walk some dangerous ground with the possibility of painting all the men as villains, but we haven't quite seen that yet here. In fact, Dex's brother is responsible for much of the human moments. He has Down's Syndrome and likes video games. But the book refuses to get too sentimental; it only gives us glimpses at who our wise-talking PI really is at home.

The story unravels throughout this first issue at a great pace and ends with a superb cliffhanger. The locale of Portland (which is sometimes called Stumptown in case you didn't know) is felt in the plot of the story. None of the happenings are outrageous or over-the-top as a story set in LA or New York might be. That's not to say that there isn't danger, only that the danger is real and palpable without being too dramatic or put on.

Depicting this story visually is not the easiest task in the world, but I believe they got the best creative team for the job. Southworth's art is quiet and measured. The angles and distance of the shots are reminiscent of the Coen brothers at their best, and that suits the morose crime drama very well. Highlighting the art is a modern master among colorists.

Lee Loughridge bathes panels in their source lighting and it never seems unsuitable. His work has never looked better — even though he's done high-profile work on Scalped, The Punisher, Hellblazer, and Batman. The colors, like the writing and art, perfectly captures the setting and tone of the book with a dreary wet look.

Don't let the independent nature of Stumptown keep you away from it. Fans of Daredevil, Scalped, and Gotham Central will find both a look and a storytelling style that is very familiar, and yet Stumptown is dripping originality and wit. I loved it. I'll be buying it and so should you.

Vampirella: The Second Coming #3
Publisher: Harris Comics
Released: 04 November 2009
Writer: Phil Hester
Artist: Al Rio
Colorist: Romulo Fajardo, Jr.
Letterer: Ed Dukeshire
Cover: Franchesco
Cover price: $1.99

Review: Damien Wilkens
As I started this book I was forced to recall a conversation I had about a year ago with an old high school friend of mine. He was a huge comic fan from back in the day that had long fallen out of touch with the industry. If I recall, we spoke about what had been the most notable comic book developments of the time, which over the course of the next hour degenerated into a rather involved discussion of how Vampirella is able to keep her outfit intact, and if it is actually a help or a hindrance in battle situations. We both agreed that double-sided tape was the order of the day, and that whilst wedgies could be an unwanted consequence of her wardrobe, the tradeoff in wind resistance would help her speed in combat. This conversation was conducted completely stone-faced, and before parting ways, we simply shook hands. I haven't seen him since and quite frankly I hope I never do again, simply so he can relay this story at my funeral as the last time he ever spoke to me.

It's sort of a mystery as to how a Vampirella comic sells at all in the 21st century, but a second look at the various cheesecake covers and the cheap price tag, it's a little easier to figure out. The fact that pop culture will mind-rape the public with anything that has fangs these days may even result in some sort of sales boost, but since Vamp isn't a 20 year old emo kid promising to whisk lonely housewives away to a land of glitter and bad dialog, I'd say probably not.

In this book, our title character is facing the very real and poignant issue of... wait, nope, it's a zombie apocalypse. There are a horde of unsightly baddies in possession of Vampirella's corpse, and it's up to her troop of equally underdressed vampire followers to save the day — bringing with them equal amounts of double-sided tape and whup ass.

What follows is an issue pulled right out of 1994. If not for the artistic clarity, this could very well be a story from that period, and I'd be hard-pressed to notice. All of the familiar tropes are there: clichéd mustache-twirling villains that love the sound of their own voice, a character with an internal monologue that doesn't stop even as he's dying, and a half-naked vampire sexpot talking and posing like she's goddamn Wonder Woman.

Al Rio competently filled his role in drawing the female form here, with the added bonus of being able to put together a pretty damn good action scene as well. His monsters are effectively hideous and his humans are a lot more detailed than you'd expect, given the subject matter. Oh, they still have impossibly large dirty pillows, but the whole thing doesn't come off nearly as cartoonish as one would expect.

It's sort of silly even giving this book a grade. Either you're already buying Vampirella or you're not. It's not a bad book and it has a low cover price, but I'd still say just borrow it. There's not much here for new readers, and it's really just sailing by on the cult popularity of its title character.

X-Men Origins: Iceman #1
Publisher: Marvel
Released: 04 November 2009
Writer: Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa
Artist: Phil Noto
Letterer: Rob Steen
Cover: Phil Noto
Cover price: $3.99

Review: Damien Wilkens
Iceman is one of the best characters Marvel often forgets they have. One of the original X-Men, an Omega-level mutant, and a unique presence in a world full of grimacing heroes, Bobby Drake has been often reduced to less than the sum of his parts, with a wooden portrayal in film and often only thought of by comic creators when they need to fill a page with mutants. The newly born DC fanboy in me is forced to wonder how much better-treated the character would be if he'd been created by them.

We'll never know the answer. For now, all we have are books like this.

Ah, the origin story. Never more frequently have comic readers been given something that they never asked for in the first place, and Marvel loves to do it more than anyone.

On their own, these stories aren't bad or even offensive most of the time; more often they could be described as useless. They slavishly revisit origins that most anyone reading them could recite in their sleep, rarely offering anything new or relevant to current continuity.

You may notice that I haven't said anything of this book yet. There's a good reason for that: you already know what happens. Bobby Drake discovers that he's a mutant, exposes himself as such while saving his girlfriend, and this leads to him becoming the second member of the X-Men. Old comic readers will balk at the idea of paying four dollars for something they already know, and new readers have no reason to care about a character that's been made completely irrelevant in modern comics.

The art, on the other hand, is a standout. Phil Noto alone handles the penciling, inking, and coloring duties here and what results is a very clean, classic feel. His characters work despite being statuesque, and his use of cool tones fit perfectly with the book. He's not a superhero artist — which is proven when he actually has to draw a costumed character — but he excels when dealing with slice-of-life set pieces that really make Bobby Drake's world a place you'd want to live in.

As I read this, I kept waiting for that engaging twist, that subtle retcon that could plant the seeds for a character revival. It's a lot like expecting a sobbing call from an ex-girlfriend; I was expecting something that never had a chance of happening. But I still waited because I love the character, and I so desperately wanted a justification for the publication of this comic. Starting this book, I was optimistic and a little bit reserved. After reading it, I'm disappointed and a little bit angry. Flip through this for the art.


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