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Is It Wednesday Yet?

13 April 2010 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.

Amazing Spider-Man #627
Publisher: Marvel
Released: 31 March 2010
Writer: Roger Stern
Artist: Lee Weeks
Colorist: Dean White
Letterer: Joe Caramagna
Cover: Lee Weeks
Cover price: $2.99

Review: Desmond Reddick
The synopsis of this book is completely simple: An unknown object hurtles through the air in NYC and Spidey's on its trail. Like all unknown objects hurtling through NYC, it lands in Central Park, and we discover that it's the Juggernaut, bitch! Only, he's had the shit kicked out of him. The rest of the issue is the unveiling of the mystery of who kicked Juggy's ass.

See? Simple. Maybe too simple, even. Though the structure of the story and the plot reveal will please those who read Spider-Man in the early 90s, the rest of the book feels like it was written in the early 90s. I was honestly hoping that Roger Stern was going to come in and show these whippersnappers how to write a Spider-Man story. Unfortunately, much of the book felt like Claremont was writing it.

If there's one character where you can go overboard with internal monologue, it's Spider-Man. He's kind of innately built that way, I suppose like Molly Ringwald's character in Sixteen Candles. It happens and it's awkward, but we accept it nonetheless. But it was a little much this time around. The most ridiculous line I have read in a comic book this year is uttered by Spidey in this one; upon finding Juggernaut's battered body in the park, he looks at the sky and screams, "Something can stop the Juggernaut?!?"

Thankfully, Lee Weeks continues to quietly show the world that he really is a master of visual storytelling. His sense of pacing and movement is among the best in the business, and I hope he can get some more mainstream kudos as I've loved his work since Daredevil: Last Rites. His style is both reminiscent of Joe Kubert and David Mazzucchelli, and if that isn't a ringing recommendation, then I don't know what is. Weeks makes this book worth reading for the art alone.

In the end, I suppose the greatest weakness and greatest strength of this issue is that it has the feel of a 90s Spider-Man story. It captures the look of the best comics of the time while delivering a story a little too wordy to be ultimately enjoyable. Still, I would have to say borrow this one as it deserves to be read.

Cloak and Dagger
Publisher: Marvel
Released: 31 March 2010
Writer: Stuart Moore
Penciler: Mark Brooks
Inker: Walden Wong
Colorist: Emily Warren
Letterer: Dave Sharpe
Cover: Mark Brooks
Cover price: $3.99

Review: Sean Lemberg
The duo of Cloak and Dagger have long hung around the fringes of the Marvel Universe, often making an appearance but rarely having a major part to play. They've been bit players in Amazing Spider-Man, and had small roles in both House of M and Civil War, but their own self-contained adventures have never been all that successful. In Marvel's current big-picture continuity, the pair finds themselves mixed in with the X-Men, thanks to a timely opportunity for redemption presented by Norman Osborn.

In his first adventure with the characters, journeyman writer Stuart Moore reveals a surprising understanding of what makes them tick. While Osborn had recruited the duo for covert actions with the Dark X-Men, it didn't take long for Emma Frost to invite them on board with the real squad. One thing's strange about that setup, though: Cloak and Dagger aren't mutants. And while the rest of the team is more than accepting of that fact, it's something that nags at Dagger. An uncertain character at heart, she's struggled with the news that she's certifiably non-mutant. Dagger wants more than anything to find acceptance somewhere, anywhere, and despite the other X-Men's assurances, she just can't see that happening within Xavier's legacy if their powers come from different sources.

Moore's story is at its best in dealing with that kind of emotional stress, when he can speak volumes without a lot of dialog. In dealing with a character that wants to be counted among the persecuted just to fit in, he's turning the mutant dynamic on its ear. Later in the issue, when the focus moves away from that, the tone becomes more generic and the issue loses its hook. If this was a testing of the waters to see if the headlining duo could support their own monthly series again, well, that was their chance.

Mark Brooks' artwork gives the issue a strong personality, albeit one that's a bit more effective in pin-ups and splash pages than more mundane, story-driven layouts. His style is heavily influenced by animation: simplistic and minimal in general, but sharply detailed where it needs to be. Brooks nails Dagger's pensive confusion in her facial expressions and body language, then brings to life her presently awkward, uncertain relationship with Dagger. His prior familiarity with the X-Men is a huge benefit, since the mutants are involved so closely with the plot, but the new characters he's asked to introduce aren't nearly as exciting as the established ones he's already spent some time with.

I was enjoying the direction this one-shot seemed to be headed when it suddenly zagged off at a more common angle. This resulted in a story that's certainly more digestible to the mainstream, but also much less involved and unique as a standalone. It's tricky because Marvel's interested in printing books that make money. You've got to expect a certain quota of explosions, collapsing walls, sailing automobiles, and fisticuffs. But in moving to meet those expectations and produce what will probably be a better-selling one-shot, the issue lost track of the very specific elements that were working to set it apart. Flip through it, but don't expect to be clamoring for a new series when you reach the last page.

Justice League of America #43
Publisher: DC Comics
Released: 31 March 2010
Writer: James Robinson
Penciler: Mark Bagley
Inkers: Rob Hunter and Norm Rapmund
Colorist: Pete Pantazis
Letterer: Rob Leigh
Cover: Mark Bagley
Cover price: $3.99

Review: Sean Lemberg
James Robinson continues his inaugural run with DC's biggest and brightest this month in Justice League, and if you haven't kept up with the first two issues, I'll save the elaboration: skip it. Frankly, I can't imagine this issue entertaining anyone who does manage to make sense of it, but the vast majority of readers who haven't memorized the official DC Comics Encyclopedia (2010 edition) will find JLA #43 to be an impossible riddle to comprehend.

A disjointed, confusing fight scene right out of the gates doesn't exactly set a pleasant opening tone. Over the course of six splash pages we're expected to keep up with four competing internal narrations, some of which don't even contain a single finished thought, terribly generic spoken dialog, a leap or two through time, a kaleidoscope of brightly colored special effects, and a mashup of compositions and characters so busy they'd make George Perez throw away his toolbox and curse the industry. Robinson's idea is to show anarchy, a squad in the heat of battle with no interest in fighting together as a single unit. It works too well, not just spoiling the team's chemistry but the narration too. Those six pages may as well have been blank.

From there, the story embarks on a streak of unprovoked, unexpected leaps through time and space without so much as a nod of the head or a complete sentence to prepare its readers. More than once a central character is right in the middle of explaining a crucial plot point when the story, like a reckless drunken driver with a death wish, yanks the wheel in a different direction and we race off to another gaudy, overwritten dead end of a plot device. A telepath would have a tough time figuring out what Robinson was thinking here.

Mark Bagley's artwork doesn't do much to ease the pain. Perhaps feeling the pressure to deliver on such a large stage, Bagley overdoes it in every single panel. There's too much detail, too many moving pieces, too many panels to convey too large of an idea. Even in the aforementioned splash pages that launch the issue, there's just too much going on to get a clear idea of what's actually happening. Granted, a large part of that is due to Robinson's compulsion to include as many characters on a single page as possible (and the wealth of narration boxes don't make things any easier), but it's not the writer's job to simplify and organize a layout. The best artists can abridge precisely this kind of a complicated scenario into easy-to-digest scenery, but Bagley somehow manages to make it even worse. He's just as much to blame for this issue as Robinson is maybe more so.

Considering the experience and notoriety of the creators involved, Bagley and Robinson's run on JLA can be considered nothing less than a monumental disaster. It's so concerned with playing by the rules, including every single character remotely involved, and precisely defining its spot in present continuity that it completely forgets to tell a story that's moderately interesting. This is impossible to comprehend, frustrating to attempt, and, overall, a terribly maddening experience from cover to cover. Skip it and set fire to anyone you see leaving the store with a copy under their arm. They'll thank you for it later.

X-Force #25
Publisher: Marvel
Released: 31 March 2010
Writers: Craig Kyle and Christopher Yost
Artist: Clayton Crain
Letters: VC's Cory Petit
Cover: Clayton Crain
Cover price: $2.99

Review: Sean Lemberg
This is going to get a bit complicated, so stay with me here. Remember Bastion? Pink cyborg from the future, hates mutants? He's developed and unleashed a special virus with the interesting perk of reanimating the X-Men's dead enemies. Having noticed this recent twist, a psychic vampire named Selene has borrowed that same virus and used it to revive the entire population of the obliterated mutant island Genosha. Her ultimate goal is to devour the spirits of the zombie nation, using the gathered power to then ultimately become a goddess. X-Force, naturally, is against that idea.

That's an awful lot to expect your readers to keep track of, and it's only the tip of the iceberg. X-Force writers Craig Kyle and Christopher Yost have been building to this moment from the first issue, and that kind of depth just can't be summarized in a few recap paragraphs. As an irregular reader, a lot of the events and characters in this issue skimmed right over my head, but they also didn't seem to lose a lot of weight in the process. A mid-issue throwdown between two characters I'd never heard of still felt like a big deal, even if I wasn't quite sure who I was rooting for or why. Kyle and Yost know how to effectively frame and pace a big story, although some of the accompanying dialog can get pretty cheesy.

Their partner, Clayton Crain, enjoys many of the benefits provided by fully painted artwork, but despite 16 preceding issues with which to hone his craft, he also still falls into several of that medium's traps. On the positive side, his work is twice as rich and vivid as that found in more traditionally illustrated books. Crain's responsibility for both the layouts and the colors ensures that what we're getting is an exact representation of his vision, uncompromised by the competing ideas of an inker or colorist. At the same time, he's also without the guiding hand of a direct editor to reign in his more elaborate concepts or cut him off when he stretches too far.

That's often been my main complaint with painted sequential art: the creator feels so obligated to show off what he can do that he often forgets to ask himself whether or not he should. Crain's a talented artist, but he occasionally uses his digital paintbrush as a crutch, covering up a lacking composition with an unwelcome extra special effect or detail. Having said all that, however, he gives this series a look unlike any other. He is its personality, and when his work is hitting the right notes (which it is frequently this month), it's breathtaking.

If you've kept up with this series from the start, issue 25 should provide a fair sense of closure, at least as much as possible in an ongoing series. For the most part, though, it's just a slightly longer, more permanent continuation of what had come before. Excessively dark artwork; a shadowy, moody tint to the storytelling; and a set of characters who don't really seem to understand the concept of real emotion that's the current iteration of X-Force in a nutshell. It's not in the upper echelon of books on the market today, but it's also a small step above the glut of imitators jammed into the middle of the pack. Flip through it.


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