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Is It Wednesday Yet?

19 October 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.

Deadpool MAX #1
Publisher: Marvel / MAX
Released: 06 October 2010
Writer: David Lapham
Artist: Kyle Baker
Letterer: VC's Clayton Cowles
Cover: Kyle Baker
Cover price: $3.99

Review: Sean Lemberg
Well, I suppose if there had to be a MAX rendition of Deadpool the latest character to pass through Marvel's shovelware-inspired publicity department they could've chosen much worse than David Lapham. As coincidence would have it, I'm right in the midst of rereading Lapham's self-published classic, Stray Bullets, so that probably gives me a good frame of reference as to how seriously he's taking this project. Is this the same guy that blew me away with that charming, bloody series and his recent work on Terror, Inc.? Or is it a pale impersonation, out for the easy cash-grab with one of the publisher's most over-published characters? Let's find out together!

For some characters, a spinoff MAX series delivers new life, a fresh start, a different perspective. The Punisher was on life support, subsisting on a joke of an ongoing series in the Marvel Knights line under the watch of a carefree Garth Ennis before getting the mature-rated reboot. The change in scenery invigorated both character and author. Without a mass audience tag to hold him back, Ennis returned to form, abandoned the limp-wristed superhero satire he'd been investigating, then put the guns back in Frank's hands and the scowl back on his face. For others, like Blade and Nick Fury, a MAX run provided little more than just another brief miniseries, a diversion before returning to business as usual.

To his credit, Lapham follows the mold of the former. He isn't satisfied with telling the latest in a series of wacky Deadpool stories; he's here to put his own stamp on the well-worn crimson visage of Marvel's foul-mouthed mercenary ninja, and he aims to do so via a long, intertwining series of myths and legends, keeping Wade Wilson himself out of the spotlight unless absolutely necessary. Whispers and rumors provide testimony to the assassin's skill level, while his targets' paranoia proves they're more truth than fiction. It's a more grounded tale than most of Deadpool's previous exploits, which admittedly isn't saying all that much. Although it certainly isn't without a few moments of gratuitous excess itself.

The issue's visuals, provided by fellow indie writer / artist Kyle Baker, make for an awkward match. Baker's artwork feels limited and rushed, like a quick set of layouts hammered out on bar napkins over the course of a long, drunken night on the town. His style floats from loosely realistic to grotesquely exaggerated, with the two extremes coming gracelessly face-to-face in more than one panel. As the issue wears on, the quality of Baker's work degrades further and further, like a descent into madness. One would think that such a style would lend itself nicely to a crazed, chaotic blast of melee action (of which there are several in this tale), but even in that situation Baker disappoints, with a stiff, uncoordinated effort.

Despite David Lapham's attempts to base the early portion of the issue in a more vivid, realistic world, around the midway point it transforms into something more on par with a hallucination. It moves quickly and recklessly, lurching from one awkward motif to the next, and never quite finds that sweet spot to curl up and get comfortable in. Is this an espionage story? An action series? A black comedy? Perhaps all of the above? Yes and no. It tries them all on for size, but none makes for a good fit. Maybe this series will find its stride after it's notched up a few more kills, maybe not. Right now it's merely taking wild stabs in the dark, desperately searching for an elusive personality and masking its indecision with buckets of bloodshed and the occasional bad joke. A crazed ride, if not a particularly memorable one, and not something I'd count among Lapham's best efforts. Flip through it.

Secret Six #26
Publisher: DC Comics
Released: 06 October 2010
Writer: Gail Simone
Artist: Jim Calafiore
Colorist: Jason Wright
Letterer: Travis Lanham
Cover: Daniel LuVisi
Cover price: $2.99

Review: Tom Hemmings
Dear Lord, please keep me safe in case I find this issue anything less than perfect, for I know that should I do so, the Internet will hunt me down and display my insides on the nearest tree for the crows to eat. Amen.

The work of Gail Simone and in particular her stint on Secret Six has become something of a sacred cow amongst the more dedicated comics fans. That's not to say I don't get the appeal. I thoroughly enjoyed her run on Birds of Prey, and I picked up the Villains United and Secret Six minis that lead to this ongoing. However, somewhere along the way other people seemed to be rating this somewhat higher than I did, and my interest waned to the point where I dropped the book. Is Simone able to reignite my interest here?

Not really.

This is the second of a four-part arc, but clearly there is a lot of interpersonal stuff going on here that stretches back throughout the run of the book; you couldn't just pick up the first part and be up to speed. However, as unfamiliar as the specifics might be, the overall style is something that any long-term comic fan should know by heart. Teammates questioning betrayals, troubled relationships, hidden antagonists, trips to the DC Savage Land. You could change nothing but the names in this and mistake it for an old issue of X-Men.

Is that a good thing? Well, being fair to Simone, she's at least not mimicking Claremont's overly wordy style. However, just like those issues of X-Men, the ongoing continuity is intimidating. This isn't a story revolving around a couple of characters with the rest following along because they're all great buddies; everyone in this book has something going on. To a near-fresh reader (I'm about 20 issues behind), it's a little bewildering. Not to bang on a very old and worn-out drum, but DC really needs to institute a recap page. Although, in the case of this book, it might have to be several pages long in order to make sense.

I also don't think this is the best example of Simone's writing, and to be fair that's the reason I stopped picking it up in the first place. I used to thoroughly enjoy the close-knit trio of the Birds of Prey because they were each fleshed out and got their own stories. With a group of six, Simone is still trying to give everyone something, and in the end they all come out worse off. Her comedy, which is usually her strength, is diluted when we don't get the chance to see characters talk beyond the bare minimum required to advance their own sub-plots. On top of that, even the Six seem to have grown tired of Ragdoll; his deliberately weird shtick definitely doesn't have long-term appeal.

Jim Calafiore's art is an upgraded 1990's style, which actually fits in nicely with the retro feel of the book. There's some weird stuff going on with a couple of faces (Amanda Waller looks stretched not fat, and Black Alice's head looks hexagonal), but it's always consistent (Black Alice's head looks consistently hexagonal). There's also a good level of detail at work here, so even if there is slightly dated art like certain characters appearing to have been drown without eyeballs you don't feel like the artist slacked off.

I'm a bit torn on this book to be honest. Just when I figured I was caught up, something went over my head. Gail is clearly rewarding her loyal followers, but it's come at the cost of being able to attract anyone new. I'm not jumping back on based on this issue, so I have to give it a flip through.

Superman: The Last Family of Krypton #3
Publisher: DC Comics
Released: 06 October 2010
Writer: Cary Bates
Artist: Renato Arlem
Colorist: Allen Passalaqua
Letterer: Pat Brosseau
Cover: Felipe Massafera
Cover price: $4.99

Review: Sean Lemberg
In the final chapter of this Elseworlds revival tale, the El family is confronted by the consequences of their crash-landing on and eventual adoption of the planet Earth. Departing their doomed homeworld as a family rather than merely jettisoning their infant son in a tiny experimental rocket the Els landed in a familiar Kansas cornfield and promptly set about improving the human race. But at what point do good intentions and noble scientific devotion twist into hubris and evolutional obstruction? More pointedly, would the human race have been better off without a single Superman than it is with a whole family of them?

Well, I hope you like text, because Cary Bates has crammed so much of it into this issue, an encyclopedia editor would say "Damn!" The book is drowning in word balloons, caption boxes, talking heads, and hyperbole, explaining the scenery and chatting about character struggles when it would be sufficient to illustrate them. That gives the issue a much more thoughtful pace, which seems appropriate for the kind of farsighted questions the series seems determined to ask, but won't gain it any endorsements as a page-turner.

At their core, the kind of observations and commentary Bates offers in this issue are bitterly poignant. That they're also so terribly long-winded and awkwardly non-conversational may ultimately hold this series back from being the modern classic it could've been. It reads more like a dissertation than a story, with moments of action occurring in the background of each panel simply to further the conversation and rarely to provide any measure of drama or suspense. That central train of thought is compelling and creative enough to keep the issue moving along nicely, but it's more like reading a good conceptual sci-fi novel with a loosely related string of illustrations than a traditional comic book.

Speaking of which, Renato Arlem's artwork is similarly unspectacular on the surface and rich beneath. Arlem's work appears drab at first glance, literal and pedestrian without much cause for excitement, even in moments fueled by adrenaline. As the story progresses, though, the depth of his vision for this slightly skewed rendition of our world becomes clear, as does his intimate understanding of the El family and the complex emotions they work through as one hard question leads into another. His style isn't flashy, and it doesn't make for good pin-ups, but it's refined, sharp, and intelligent. His unsuspecting, grounded artwork walks hand-in-hand with the concept-focused nature of the story itself.

It's great to see the old Elseworlds imprint alive and well with such an intelligent story at its fore. While The Last Family of Krypton may not be the most enthralling Superman tale ever spun, it's right up there with his most thought-provoking. It has its weaknesses, and I'm not sure why Cary Bates didn't trust his artist to convey some of the ideas he refused to remove from the dialog, but it's successful in spite of all that. This series won't hold the attention of the action-craving audience for long, but those in search of mental nourishment will find plenty of food for thought. Borrow it.


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