Neil Gaiman’s Overture

In honor of today’s release of The Sandman: Overture, I recently took it upon myself to reread Neil Gaiman’s epic masterpiece from start to finish for the first time in years. My intentions were twofold: one, it seemed a good idea to refamiliarize myself with the story, since it had been years since I’d done so. Second, because hell, it’s a damn good story, and all damn good stories deserve to be reread time and again.

Similar to my last blog regarding Y: The Last Man, there’s not much I can say to add to the countless praise that’s been heaped upon the series over the years. So instead, I thought I’d relate my own thoughts on each TPB in and of itself, along with some token reviewing. One note: I’m grading these trades on a Sandman-only scale, since the body of work in its entirety trumps just about anything else out there critically. So, without further ado:

1. Preludes & Nocturnes: Morpheus’ first fling is a little bit of a mixed bag, as by Gaiman’s own admission, he was a little lost having not written an ongoing series before. It’s a basic quest tale: the king is imprisoned, the king breaks free, the king must then set about the task of rebuilding his fallen kingdom. Along the way he interacts with various denizens of the DC Universe, including Mr. Miracle, Dr. Destiny, and J’onn J’onzz. All of the series core concepts are laid out, including the Endless (although only Destiny and Death make an actual appearance), the Dreaming, and its myriad denizens such as Lucien, Cain and Abel, Eve, and Matthew (Cable) the raven. Lucifer makes his first appearance, setting the stage for his epic abdication. Oh, and some guy named Dave McKean began making a name for himself with his trippy covers. Like I said, it’s a little unfocused as compared to what was to come, and it certainly didn’t hit the literary heights of its sequels. But it’s a solid foundation, and an extremely competent successor to the “British Invasion” kicked off by Alan Moore’s Swamp Thing. Score: 7/10.

2. The Doll’s House: Generally considered to be the ultimate Sandman story, “The Doll’s House” is Neil Gaiman let loose and at his best. Still in the process of rebuilding his kingdom, Morpheus discovers upon taking a census of the Dreaming that several of its key residents are missing: Brute and Glob (the embodiments of brute strength and base cunning), Fiddler’s Green (a place who takes the form of Teddy Roosevelt), and the Corinthian, the eyeball-chomping living nightmare. Gaiman tied ideas and characters from Jack Kirby’s Bronze Age iteration of a kid-friendly, superheroic Sandman into a waking nightmare of child abuse, serial killers, monsters literally living in your head, and a girl named Rose Walker tying it all together. Rose quickly became the prototypical female Gaiman protagonist: outgoing, thoroughly modern, and extremely strong, but with a niggling bit of immaturity at her core. The story itself is actually staged as a three-act play, with Rose and Morpheus acting as the strings that tie the whole thing together. As a bonus, the story takes a break in the middle to introduce us to Hob Gadling, a man whose refusal to die begets a lifelong friendship with Morpheus that’s a key piece of the series’ tapestry. It’s a beauty of a story, and showed the world that Neil Gaiman was on his way to very, very big things. I absolutely love this story, and it’s tied for my personal favorite of the series. Score: 10/10.

3. Dream Country: The first trade to collect one-shot issues of the ongoing series, this collection of but four issues is a great showcase for Gaiman’s wide range as a writer. The first tale is of psychological horror, featuring a novelist who magically enslaves a muse to aid him in his quest to get out of a sophomore slump; the tale of what cats dream about, and why we should be afraid; the World Fantasy Award-winning “A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” featuring the Bard himself, William Shakespeare, performing his classic play for an otherworldly audience; and finally, the weird, extremely out-of-place “Facade,” featuring a female version of DC stalwart Metamorpho who just wants to die… but can’t. “Facade” is easily the weakest issue of the entire Sandman run for the simple fact that by this point, Gaiman had skillfully illustrated that he was very, very far beyond his initial (however tangential) connection to the DCU proper, and Miss Metamorpho (or whatever her name is) taking center stage for an issue was a very strange, unnecessary choice indeed. But beyond that, the rest is great, particularly seeing Gaiman play with history a bit in “A Midsummer Night’s Dream.” He has an uncanny knack for portraying Elizabethan England, supported by his encyclopedic knowledge of the same. A great primer for Sandman; I’d readily hand this to someone who had never read the series before as a gateway drug. Score: 8/10.

4. Season of Mists: Gaiman, at his audacious best, blows the roof off of Christian theology by having Lucifer abdicate his throne as monarch of Hell. He then hands Morpheus the key to Hell, takes his bow, exits stage left, and heads off to Earth to admire sunsets and open a nightclub. Morpheus is left with the seemingly-simple task of finding a new caretaker for Hell, and what follows is a gather of deities both major and minor, along with an abstract concept for two, vying for control. The whole thing is wrapped like a burrito by Morpheus’ initial task of freeing an ex-girlfriend from Hell, whom he banished there 10,000 years ago for spurning his romantic advances. Gaiman’s intricate working knowledge of different mythologies, and allowing those deities to play off each other, creates an immensely entertaining ride as the stakes grow ever-higher the more he deliberates. Unfortunately, the ending is a deus ex machina, and Morpheus never has to actually make said decision, which is a letdown to say the least. But still, this is the first time we really begin to see the subtle change in Morpheus’ character in dealing with ex-girlfriend Nada, a result of his seventy-five years in captivity. That slow change would take hold over the remainder of the series, and become a key point in the series’ conclusion. Score: 9/10.

5. A Game of You: This time around, it’s fairy tale tropes that get turned on their head by Gaiman. Playing off the idea that everyone has a secret, fantastical world inside their head wherein they’re the star of the show, Gaiman introduces this concept in the form of “skerries:” minor facets of the Dreaming that exist only as long as the person internalizing them is alive. A skerry from the inside of protagonist Barbie’s head is reaching critical mass, as a creature known only as the Cuckoo begins to assert itself and cause disaster in the waking world. There’s a wide assortment of supporting characters in this arc who would later reappear in the series and/or its spinoffs, including punky/homey lesbians Foxglove and Hazel, and the witch Thessaly. This story typifies what would become a recurring theme in Sandman as it continued: stories in which Dream himself is not the focus, but instead merely plays a supporting part. Incidentally, this volume’s art by Shawn McManus is the best sustained run for the series as a whole. That’s not to knock earlier collaborators Sam Keith or Kelly Jones, but their contributions were minimal and never for entire stories. Overall, a solid, but not great outing. Score: 8/10.

6. Fables & Reflections: The second volume to collect the series’ myriad one-shots, plus the “Song of Orpheus” special. Similar to “Dream Country,” this is a great entry point for someone unfamiliar with the series. A couple of the stories, though, are fairly inessential reading: “The Hunt” and “Soft Places,” while technically proficient enough, add nothing to the overarching, ongoing tale of Morpheus. The other side of that coin is “Song of Orpheus,” which is one of two seemingly-unassuming issues that play key roles in setting up the series’ finale in “The Kindly Ones.” (The other is the end of “Doll’s House,” in which Dream lays claim to Lyta Hall’s unborn son.) The trade is rounded out by the classic “Ramadan,” sumptuously illustrated by P. Craig Russel. This issue stands as one of the finest one-offs in the entire series, and is fondly remembered as such. Score: 8/10.

7. Brief Lives: Morpheus’ and Delirium’s quest for their missing brother, Destruction, is the focal point of this story. Dream, stuck in a funk after the termination of his latest romantic entanglement, decides walking the waking world with his little sister in order to find their wayward brother would be a good means of taking his mind off his problems. Morpheus has no intention of actually finding Destruction, who left instructions when he quit his post that none of them ever seek him out. But the best laid plans of the King of Dreams come crashing to a halt when it appears that some mystical force is acting to stop their quest by killing those they seek in order to find Destruction. This story brings to a head several plot points that set the stage for  sthe epic “Kindly Ones,” including Morpheus being forced into making a decision that will ultimately seal his fate before the series finale. It also sees Morpheus changing and embracing his own humanity, a trait he has long denied within himself. But a kinder, gentler Dream King ultimately cannot sustain the course he’s on… Score: 10/10.

8. Worlds’ End: Gaiman got into a bit of a slump story-wise in the arc that bridges the events of “Brief Lives” to “The Kindly Ones.” This six-part story defies all known storytelling conventions to become an ode to telling tales. In the eye of a “reality storm,” myriad denizens from all different times, places, and dimensions seek refuge at the Worlds’ End, an inn/bar that remains fixed outside of all reality for just such an occasion. The residents of the inn then spend six issues telling various stories, all of which wind up involving Morpheus in some way or another. Each issue is technically well-rendered, but when you look at the entirety of the six issues and try to stack up a meaningful overarching story, you find there isn’t much of one… which is the point. The point is in the individual stories themselves; the trees rather than the forest, as it were. This results in a somewhat tedious outing, especially if you’re looking for, say, forward momentum. Noteworthy exception is the issue that focuses on Bronze Age oddity Prez, the teenager who became President. Similar to what he did with Kirby’s goofball in tights ’70s iteration of the Sandman back in “Doll’s House,” Gaiman deconstructs a fairly bizarre concept and applies basic notions of logic to his otherwise fantastical story. This volume is frustrating to get through; it’s almost as though Gaiman just wanted to show off his writing chops for six issues rather than jump immediately into “The Kindly Ones,” which is really his only real misstep throughout the course of the series. Score: 6/10.

9. The Kindly Ones: The first Sandman story I ever read also happens to be Morpheus’ last. At a whopping thirteen issues, there’s a lot going on here, and not all of it is especially essential to the overall story. Yes, it’s nice to see Rose Walker return, and revisit a few of the denizens from “The Doll’s House,” but how does her quest to uncover the truth behind her lineage tie into “The Kindly Ones,” exactly? Or how about the angel Remiel’s attempt at getting Lucifer to reclaim Hell? Neither of these have a single thing to do with Lyta Hall’s vengeance against Morpheus after her son, Daniel, is kidnapped by Loki and Robin Goodfellow (and just who they are working for or why they kidnap the child is never addressed, either). But honestly, these diversions are so well-written, they actually serve to deepen and enrich the overall plot. Lyta’s vengeance brings down the Fates on Morpheus’ head and domain, and there’s very little he can do to stop them except for embracing the inevitable. A true tragedy in every form–starting with the fact that it didn’t have to happen the way it did–Gaiman rose to the challenge of bringing Morpheus’ story to a close with style, dignity, and power. Marc Hempel’s abstract art style is off-putting at first, but soon transmogrifies into the perfect visual realization of this tale. Score: 10/10.

10. The Wake: The epilogue to end all epilogues, Gaiman takes the first three issues of this volume holding a wake for Morpheus, and introducing us to Daniel, the new aspect of Dream. Gorgeously illustrated by Michael Zulli, the capstone of Morpheus’ life is the somber reflection you’d hope for. Daniel proves from the outset to be a more humane version of Dream than Morpheus ever was, opening the promise of a whole new feel for the series had it continued. But to do so would have been in error: this was Morpheus’ story, not Daniel’s, and so the introduction of Morpheus’ successor is a fitting end indeed. The other three issues involve the following: the last word on Hob Gadling’s refusal to die; a return to one of the “soft places” that serves as an unnecessary juxtaposition of Morpheus and Daniel; and finally, “The Tempest,” which is the follow-up to “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” and portrays an older William Shakespeare, nearing the end of his life and writing his final play to fulfill his bargain with Morpheus. The latter is the final word on the comic’s literary aspirations, a sort of fourth-wall-breaking vehicle for Gaiman to say, “Look. Comics can have the same value as prose any day of the week.” Which was sort of the point all along! Score: 9/10.

And that concludes my personal overview of the Sandman library. Gaiman, of course, extended the reach of the series with his two fantastic miniseries starring Death, “The High Cost of Living” and “The Time of Your Life.” (Bonus: these stories both feature the best work of one of my favorite artists, Chris Bachalo, before he became tainted with manga stylings.) He would also go on to write the Endless Nights hardcover, featuring all-new tales of each of the Endless, and The Dream Hunters, a prose hardcover featuring art by P. Craig Russel. And then of course there’s the two ongoing series that grew out of Sandman’s fertile soil: Lucifer by Mike Carey, and the less-fondly-remembered The Dreaming by… whoever. The series got cancelled because it couldn’t hold a candle to its source material. And then there’s the dozens of spin-off miniseries, featuring everyone from Thessaly the witch to Merv Pumpkinhead to Petrefax from Worlds’ End. I haven’t read many of these series, but they’re definitely a collective portrait of quantity over quality.

And now it comes full circle, with Neil Gaiman back to write one more yarn featuring Morpheus and company, taking it back to the beginning, to the events just prior to Preludes & Nocturnes that left him so weakened he was able to be captured by a mortal man for seventy-five years. Gaiman is back, Morpheus is with him, and it’s about damn time.

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Y: Brian K. Vaughan’s Masterpiece

I just finished binge-reading Y: The Last Man last night for the first time. “Whaaaa?” you ask. “How the hell could you miss out on this series? It’s only one of the most celebrated series of the last ten years, fool!” (Cue Mr. T voice.) Well… I’m not perfect, and the last ten years have certainly seen more than one occasion where I could barely afford the comics I was already buying, let alone checking out anything new, no matter how critically acclaimed and well spoken-of.

And so Y slipped through the cracks. HOWEVER….

After the awesomeness that is Saga piqued my interest in his writing earlier this year, I set out to fill the Brian K. Vaughan-shaped hole in my life by first checking out Ex Machina, followed by the adventures of Yorick Brown, Agent 355, and Dr. Alison (not Ayuka!) Mann. Now, Ex Machina was a great, well-thought out read capitalizing on post-9/11 political weirdness, although its economy of words (a Vaughan trademark) and its abrupt, serious downer of an ending marred it a little for me.* But the originality of the plot, the meticulous nature of its execution, and above all, the flawlessly humanistic approach to both the writing and the characters make it, as a series, one of the all-time greats. However, for all its naturalism, Ex Machina is a little too episodic, a little too written-for-TPB. It’s still a great story, populated with well-rounded characters (not to mention its not-too-subtle lefty politics; hey, I’d vote for Mitchell Hundred!), but that episodic nature prevents its overall story from having as organic a feel to it as would present in Y, and that stalls it out a bit, particularly as the story heads to its conclusion.

But then it came time for Y: The Last Man.

I approached the series almost haphazardly. I was in a Barnes & Chernobyl, had a gift card to spend, and hastily grabbed the first trade without much thought other than, “Oh, I’ve been meaning to read this.” Yoink.

….And upon reading it, I was hooked. Not just hooked, but amazed. Awed. Um… wowwed. Vaughan’s world where all men have died, except for the aforementioned Yorick and his campuchin monkey, Ampersand, is one of the greatest comics I’ve ever read. It’s easily among the top Vertigo series of all-time (joining the heights set by SandmanTransmetropolitan, 100 Bullets, and Preacher), and frankly, should be looked upon as not only the best series of the Aughts, but one of the best comic series ever written, period. I do not make this claim lightly, as anyone who has read my list of Desert Island Comics might attest.

Y is a grand, sweeping epic, taking place in real time over the course of five years. It addresses thoughts and notions on what a man-free world might look like that only the most intricate imaginations can conjure. Crazy ladies with one boob running around in an Amazonian cult? Check. Hardcore Israeli women determined to capture the mythical last man in order to solidify its “tentative” hold on power and autonomy? Check. The highest-ranking American female politician unexpectedly thrust into the role of President? Check. How about the male Russian cosmonauts stuck in orbit when the “gendercide” strikes? Do they hold the key to mankind’s return? Check, check, check. Vaughan’s man-free world is layered, nuanced, and of infinite depth.

And then there’s his characters. Yorick, 355, Dr. Mann, and all the rest are among the most fully-realized, three-dimensional people ever put to page. Their thoughts, hopes, fears, senses of humor, frailties, and failings are as rich as anything written in any medium. There’s Yorick’s unrealized death wish. 355’s inability to emote for fear of being hurt. Dr. Mann’s fierce determination to break away from her childhood. Hell, even the monkey, Ampersand, has all the personality of the favorite pet you had growing up. (Bonus: he won’t quit throwing his poop.) Vaughan has all of these characters constantly playing off one another, building off each other, with all of the skill and wit of Joss Whedon on BuffyThese traveling companions, determined to reach San Francisco so that Dr. Mann can continue her research into what caused the gendercide (not to mention why Yorick and Ampersand are immune), and then head to Australia, where Yorick’s long-lost fiance was last seen, form bonds the likes of which are rarely, if ever, seen in comics (or any other medium for that matter). They’re not just friends, they genuinely care for one another, and thus so do we readers.

I could continue to blubber on about how astounding Y: The Last Man is. But certainly, enough has been written over the years by finer wordsmiths than me, and all I’m doing at this point is being redundant. So I’ll leave it at this: my inner life is richer than I ever could have imagined for having read this series. If you haven’t already done so, do yourself a favor and read it in its entirety now. Not tomorrow, not next week, now. You’ll thank me for it. And if you have read it? Read it again, fool!

Keep readin’ those funnybooks,

~ILL DIABLO~

*No exaggeration: Ex Machina has one of the harshest downers of an ending I’ve ever read in anything or seen in any movie. Not quite on par with, say, Schindler’s List, but pretty goddamn depressing.

What I’m Reading 0017: 10/16/13

As promised, here’s a current, up-to-date installment of What I’m Reading. I’ll do everything in my power to bring both these posts and others out on a more consistent basis in the future, if for no other reason than writing them keeps me sane in a world where I’m not able to write for a living. But enough about my bitchiness. That’s not why you’re here! Let’s review some comics, dagnabbit!

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1. Wonder Woman #24 (DC, W: Brian Azzarello, A: Goran Sudzuka). With the status quo of this book irrevocably shaken up, Diana begins to feel the pressure of her decision to kill War. Nothing like this has ever been done before with Wonder Woman, and I for one say it’s about damn time somebody did something new and different with this long-standing, yet typically static character. Forget Straczynski, forget Gail Simone, it’s the damn 100 Bullets guy who finally came up with something new and creative to say about Wonder Woman, her ties to ancient Greece, and the pantheon to which she’s now an ironclad part of. What Brian Azzarello is building here is the type of run that will redefine the character for years to come, if not the next decade-plus. I have no idea how long Azz is planning on staying on the title, or if DC’s going to run him off the way they have almost every other talented writer in the business, but I’m here for the long haul. Wonder Woman is easily the best, smartest, most exciting book DC is offering today (although there isn’t much in the way of competition, which makes this book stand out all the more). This issue features a meeting of the gods in the wake of Diana’s assumption of War’s role, which certainly sets up the events of the next arc. Can you say “god war?” That looks to be where Azzarello’s headed, with nothing less than the throne of Olympus at stake, and Diana caught in the middle even as she refuses to accept her new role. And don’t forget the First Born, here a prisoner of newly-minted king of Olympus Apollo and currently being used as a night-light. As ferociously set-up as this guy has been, it shouldn’t be too much longer before he’s once more an x-factor in play once again. All in all, as Azzarello’s third mega-arc begins, this is a great jumping-on point for new readers, yet also doesn’t feel like a blase retread of what’s come before. If only DC had more books that rose to the challenge the way this one does, it might not be in the dire straights it currently is creatively. Score: 10/10.

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2. Uncanny X-Men #13 (Marvel, W: Brian Michael Bendis, A: Chris Bachalo). A bit of a slack “Battle of the Atom” installment, this, as all the various players move into their positions for the grand finale. All hell breaks loose at the Jean Grey School as the Bad Future X-Men (I guess that’s what I’m going with) make their preparations to send the Young X-Men back home, although of course nothing goes according to plan. With the Team Wolverine Modern X-Men down for the count, it’s down to Team Cyclops and the, ahem, Good Future X-Men to save the day. (Re-reading that last sentence, I’m beginning to question my own sanity.) This story’s gotten pretty nutty, but the introduction of the Good Future X-Men, and their dissociation from their “bad” counterparts, proves that its point is to indict the current state of mutant affairs with the X-Men. More or less, they have to get their shit together and get back on the same page, or absolutely nothing good’s going to come of it. How this will play out, or how the Young X-Men figure into that equation, is anyone’s guess. Nonetheless, “BotA” has proven to be a fun ride, easily the funnest X-Men crossover in years, despite its headache-inducing continuity. This particular installment was pretty much all action, with some fairly exciting moments here and there, but was otherwise light on actual content. Still a fun read, just not an overly meaningful one. (Although hopefully somebody does something about this Raze idiot before the story’s over. See how stupid he looks on the cover? That’s how stupid he looks all the time.) Score: 7/10.

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3. Avengers #21 (Marvel, W: Jonathan Hickman, A: Leinil Francis Yu). Anyone who says that tie-in issues to an event comic aren’t relevant clearly forgot to get that memo to Jonathan Hickman, because there’s some MAJOR developments for Infinity to be had here. Annihilus’ annihilation wave is finally unleashed with unforeseen results; Ronan the Accuser leads a Kree revolt; the Ex Nihili stage a revolution of their own; and Captain Universe finally awakens from her coma to join the fray. Like I said, a lot happens, but it rather feels like Hickman’s checking off a to-do list in this issue rather than telling an organic story. Which isn’t an entirely bad thing, but it does leave this issue feeling more than a little sterile. And frankly, if Captain Universe waking up is all it’s going to take to defeat the Builders…? Laaaaame. But there’s plenty more story to tell, if you include the various and sundry Avengers and New Avengers tie-ins, so everything is far from over. I just wish the proceedings had a little less of a mechanical feel and a little more heart. Score: 7/10.

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4. New Avengers #11 (Marvel, W: Jonathan Hickman, A: Mike Deodato). And now for the other side of the Infinity equation (sounds like something Kirby-esque all of a sudden!), Thanos’ assault on Earth to find/kill his bastard son and how that somehow ties into the alternate Earth incursions saga that’s run its course through this book to date. How those two things tie together is still something of a murky subject, although Hickman does make inroads in this issue.  But other than that, I’m failing to see how the Thanos part of the story is going to dovetail with the Builders part of the story, as we’re now more than two-thirds of the way through the Infinity epic with no clues on that front whatsoever. Frankly, I’ve been sorely disappointed with Thanos’ role in the story so far; he’s done relatively very little, especially considering his much-hyped headliner status going into this whole thing. Here’s hoping Hickman has an incredibly brilliant trick up his sleeve for tying all this together and he doesn’t stumble as he nears the finish line. All of the members of the Illuminati come off as stiff and interchangeable this issue, and no one character does or even says anything particularly memorable, which leaves me feeling like tying the Earth-incursions arc into Infinity has been something of an afterthought. We’ll see how it all shakes out. Score: 5/10.

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5. Hawkeye #13 (Marvel, W: Matt Fraction, A: David Aja). Just in time to make me remember how cool this book was, Hawkeye finally returns! After hitting a stumbling block the last couple of issues (including the downright sloppy annual), Matt Fraction seems to be getting back into his groove and moving forward with the story, even if it takes a bit of a retread of recent events to get there. This issue picks up at the funeral of Grills, which as it turns out happened before Kate left with Pizza Dog and Barney Barton showed back up. Fraction doesn’t make that explicitly clear at any one point, so it takes him reiterating what we’ve already seen to make it so.  But after the minor hiatus this book’s recently seen, a little reiteration isn’t necessarily a bad thing, since it’s only a minor part of the issue. But then again, I DID say it’s time to move the book forward, and revisiting the events of the past three issues, even if it is from a different perspective, is more retroactive than proactive. With all of his players finally lined up, Fraction looks like he wants to move forward, although having the solicits read that next issue stars Kate Bishop and her adventures in Los Angeles might prove me wrong. Because I don’t freaking read this book for supporting member Kate Bishop. I read it for HAWKEYE, who I am desperate to see NOT getting kicked in the nuts by life and start kicking some ass again. But here I am, looking at a pretty well-executed, emotionally poignant issue (where Clint has to deal with his guilt over his indirect responsibility for Grills’ death), and keeping my fingers crossed for the best. However, all things considered, it’s definitely time for Fraction to put up or shut up and get this story MOVING again. Score: 7/10.

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6. Hunger #4 (of 4) (Marvel, W: Joshua Hale Fialkov, A: Leonard Kirk). Speaking of comics failing to live up to their expectations, Hunger comes to a close with little in the way of fanfare, as Rick Jones embraces his destiny and leads the final assault against Galactus and, ah, Gah Lak Tus (the prototype Ultimate version of Galactus created by Warren Ellis some years ago, a swarm of space bugs that was brought to the big screen as such in Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer). With Mahr-Vehl’s death hanging over his head, Rick charges into battle, in a last-ditch effort to activate the weapon Mahr had developed to stop the creature the Kree had created millennia ago. It’s good, prototypically-heroic stuff, one that allows Rick to finally earn the mantle he’s been striving for since gaining his cosmic powers at the end of Ultimate Doom. Unfortunately, all he really does is punt the ball a bit, because now Galactus, sans swarm, is headed directly for Earth, while Rick’s Watcher is telling him that his ultimate destiny lies elsewhere. Ah, excuse me, but shouldn’t saving Earth be a bit of a priority? Guess not, since this entire series is kind of moot since the main event lies elsewhere anyway. But with the exception of issue three, Hunger has been a basically fun series, even if solicits for the upcoming Cataclysm series rendered its ending a non-event anyway. In other words… it’s been fun, but what was accomplished that couldn’t have been tacked onto its parent series? Did we really need all these goings-on with Silver Surfer, Captain Marvel, and Rick Jones, if the entire time we all knew Galactus was going to make it to Earth anyway? Fialkov has done an admirable job of making me feel like it’s all important, but the reality is this: let’s just get to the real story already. This series has been a fun diversionary prelude, but little more. I can’t truly bring myself to care that Captain Marvel is dead or that Rick Jones is now more fully in sync with his destiny and powers since these characters have been so ill-defined (not to mention seldom-used) up to this point. And frankly, the larger point is this: if the Ultimate universe is on the chopping block, how many readers are really going to care anymore? 2000 was a looong time ago, and this corner of Marvel’s universe lost its original luster many, many moons ago. Frankly, if it hadn’t been for the ongoing critical and financial success of Ultimate Spider-Man, it’s probable the Ultimate U would have met its demise much, much sooner than it appears to be now. All good things must come to an end, and the Ultimate Universe is no exception. It’s just that it may have, frankly, overstayed its welcome–not to mention original purpose–by more than a few years. Score: 6/10.

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7. 100 Bullets: Brother Lono #5 (of 8) (DC/Vertigo, W: Brian Azzarello, A: Eduardo Risso). Well, NOW some things are happening! I complained in last issue’s review that this book seems to be treading water, but I should have had faith in Brian Azzarello. As if he’d let Lono’s big return fall on its face! The Mexican drug war looms ever-closer to the church/orphanage where Lono’s been holed up, desperately trying to turn his back on his bloody past. Too bad circumstances–not to mention the sudden pressure from Father Manny–are conspiring to shove him back to his old ways. But when the local drug czar is sending men around to recruit the girls–and I do mean girls–from the orphanage to accompany him as “entertainment” for a party… well, it looks as though Lono’s pacifistic days may finally be at an end. This series has proven to be a fascinating meditation not on revenge, as its predecessor was, but rather on redemption. Lono, always the least-irredeemable (and most entertaining) person in 100 Bullets, is being expanded upon as a character in ways that frankly I would have never expected to be possible. That Azzarello is able to turn such a sadistic villain into a sympathetic character–and maybe even a hero–is a testament not only to his grasp on who Lono is, but also on his sheer skill as a writer in general. Highly recommended even if you never read 100 Bullets. (And if you didn’t, what the hell is wrong with you?) Score: 8/10.

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8. Nowhere Men #6 (Image, W: Eric Stephenson, A: Nate Bellegarde). At LONG last the first arc of this stellar series concludes. Nothing hampers my interest in a series (new or otherwise) more than erratic shipping; and since this issue, had the series shipped on time and monthly like it was supposed to, should have been out in MAY… well, let’s just say I had to go back and revisit the previous five installments before reading this one. Everything World Corp and Grimshaw Holdings has wrought comes to a head, which seems poised to leave the world a vastly different place than it once was. Which was the World Corp founders’ original vision–just not in the regard this issue leaves things. Unfortunately, there are more than a few plot holes in this initial arc which this issue fails to wrap up, such as: just how long was Dade in a coma? And if it was a result of “coming down with a case of telepathy,” why did it happen and why the hell did it result in a coma? Where’s Thomas Walker in all this? How did the genetically-modified gorilla wind up in the basement of the arctic Grimshaw Holdings base? Why the hell can’t the creators respect their readers enough to get this book out on time? Okay, okay, so it’s probable that (most of) these plot points will be addressed in future issues. Although, with the finality of one of the lead character’s apparent demise, it must be asked: where does the series go from here? It would seem the world is on the cusp of a global pandemic, but then what? But, nitpicks aside, this was a rip-roaring fun issue, with solid action, closure, human-level drama galore, and a great set-up for the next arc. If science is the new rock ‘n’ roll, what happens when science changes the face of the world? Hopefully we won’t have to wait another four or five months between issues to find out. Score: 8/10.

And that’s it! Keep readin’ those funnybooks!

~ILL DIABLO~

 

To the Bat-poles! NEIL GAIMAN’S BEEN BANNED!!

It’s come to my attention that, last week, a New Mexico high school was bullied into removing Neil Gaiman’s Neverwhere novel from its mandatory reading list by a close-minded, mean-spirited, censorious mom who was apparently shocked that her daughter might read something that has the word “fuck” in it. (Cue Helen Lovejoy’s and Maude Flanders’ shrill cry, “Won’t SOMEbody think of the CHILDREN?!”)

The passage in question that made her so irate reads thus:

A late-night couple, who had been slowly walking along the Embankment toward them, holding hands, sat down in the middle of the bench, between Richard and Anaesthesia, and commenced to kiss each other, passionately. “Excuse me,” said Richard to them. The man had his hand inside the woman’s sweater and was moving it around enthusiastically, a lone traveler discovering an unexplored continent. “I want my life back,” Richard told the couple.

“I love you,” said the man to the woman.

“But your wife–” she said, licking the side of his face.

“Fuck her,” said the man.

“Don’ wanna fuck her,” said the woman, and she giggled, drunkenly. “Wanna fuck you….” She put a hand on his crotch and giggled some more.

Oh, man. That’s some pretty fucked up fucking shit. Holy fuck, this fucking woman’s fucking daughter is going to be scarred for fucking life! All be-fucking-cause she read the word “FUCK!” Fuck me running, that’s some harsh fucking shit.

The mom in question, one Nancy Wilmott, actually succeeded in getting Alamagordo High School to remove the book. The cowardly school board acceded to her forceful, unconstitutional request and is currently “reviewing” the book for content. Wilmott’s other bone to pick with the book was the sexually-charged nature of the above passage, which she contends is R-rated… to which I call BULLSHIT. If you call THAT sexually charged, it’s extremely evident to me that you’ve never turned on your TV or watched a movie or read a book. Aside from the use of the word “fuck,” there is absolutely nothing going on there that her 15-year-old daughter can’t see anytime she wants on basic cable. And as for the word “fuck,” let’s be real: the girl is FIFTEEN YEARS OLD. If she hasn’t heard the word “fuck” by this point in her life, then her overbearing mother needs to get her off the tit and out into the real world NOW. Can’t protect ’em forever, lady, nor should you try.

But unfortunately, it seems the school board is going to back down to this sanctimonious, self-righteous bitch. The school superintendent said,

I reviewed the language personally. I can see where it could be considered offensive. The F-word is used. There is a description of a sexual encounter that is pretty descriptive, and it’s between a married man and a single woman. Although kids can probably see that on TV anytime they want, we are a public school using taxpayer dollars. On that basis, we have decided to temporarily remove the book until we can review it with our panels and make a decision.

Wow, dude. Way to have a spine. It’s great to know that our educators, whose primary function is supposed to be to open students’ minds to the world around them, buckle like a belt when it comes to pressure brought about by ONE busy-body PMRC-wannabe mom. Especially since the school has a waiver system in which the students can opt out of reading a particular book in lieu of others on the list, although of course Nancy Wilmott denies her daughter was ever given the chance to utilize her waiver.

There is, however, one silver lining to this story, and that’s the high school’s English teacher, Pam Thorp, is vigorously and publicly fighting the censorship. She had this to say:

I cannot and will not condone the censorship this parent is promoting. The implication that we are careless or irresponsible simply is not true. Presenting challenging material of merit that may contain some foul language or mature situations, in a sensitive and academic manner, is part of our responsibility to our students in order to engage them in evaluating the human condition. I take that responsibility very seriously and strive every day to encourage my students to think … about the world, about their community, about their friends and about themselves. Censorship is the opposite of that.

Bravo to Mrs. Thorp. I certainly wish her the best of luck in this terrible situation, although, given New Mexico’s freakishly pervasive conservative culture, I fear she’s on the losing side of this battle. Sure, the Comic Book Legal Defense Fund is on the case, but this is, unfortunately, just another instance of a Moral Majority-type parent thinking she has the right to dictate for EVERYONE what SHE personally finds offensive. Bottom line: just because Nancy Wilmott finds page 86 of Neverwhere offensive–nothing else with the book, mind you–it does NOT mean she has the right to dictate to anyone else what is and isn’t appropriate for them to read. Reading is meant to open minds, not close them (unless you’re reading a Glenn Beck or Ann Coulter book). Anyone who believes otherwise is fooling themselves, and needs to get a life otherwise, instead of imposing themselves on somebody else’s.

What I’m Reading 0016: 10/15/13

BAM! As promised, another day, another post! I’m still playing serious catch-up with my reading, so forgive me for reviewing these books a freakin’ week late. I’ll get all current tomorrow when this week’s new batch ships, okay?! So let’s cut to the chase already!

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1. The Walking Dead #115 (Image, W: Robert Kirkman, A: Charlie Adlard). Never let it be said that Robert Kirkman doesn’t make good on his promises. He said “All Out War” would be big, and damned if he was screwing around! With Rick’s Survivors, the Hilltop, and Ezekiel’s Kingdom forces rallying together against Negan’s Saviors, victory should be inevitable, right? Well… let’s just say, if that were true, there wouldn’t be much going on for the next eleven issues of this magnum opus. A big hairy wrinkle gets put into Rick’s plans at the end of this issue, though observant readers could probably see it coming. Nonetheless, it’s the calm before the storm, and Kirkman doesn’t miss a beat. Rick, now widely viewed as not only the man to defeat the Saviors but also the man who will rebuild society, has a nice, quiet moment with Andrea that reveals his fears and, frankly, his humanity. Rick’s been a little bit too much of a hair-trigger badass lately for my tastes, but the opening sequence reigns that in nicely to reveal that underneath it all, he’s still just a small-town sheriff trying his hardest to be a good guy in a world gone verrrrry wrong. All of the main characters have excellent moments of humanity on the eve of war (which is always the best time for stuff like that): Michonne lets her guard down in a way she hasn’t since before Morgan’s death with Ezekiel after a night of (presumably) hot love-makin’ (although I shudder to think what Ezekiel might define “hot love makin'” as), and Carl earns his manhood in way that involves neither a snipping of the tip nor adolescent sex. Great, great stuff. Yeah, the last few pages might be a little pro forma, but as I said, this is the calm before the storm. Shit happens. Kirkman’s obviously got one hell of a game plan here, and if the callbacks to the prison storyline on the myriad variant covers are any indication, his intentions are to swing for nothing less than that arc’s greatness. Ten years on, and TWD is still one of the best, most consistent books on the stands. Miss it at your own risk. Score: 8/10.

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2. Astro City #5 (DC/Vertigo, W: Kurt Busiek, A: Brent Anderson). This issue’s a little bit of a mixed bag for me. While it’s technically solid, it’s also quite a break from the type of AC story we’ve always seen. But then again, after the stagnant first three issues of this volume, maybe a little shaking up is just what the doctor (Strange? hyuk hyuk hyuk) ordered. This issue sees the return of the purple skinned, ’80s-Bowie haired Broken Man, last seen narrating the first issue of this current volume. He consistently breaks the fourth wall throughout, alternating between wanting to give the reader information they’ve “come to him” seeking, and then admonishing them for the same. Crazy-ass freak! What results is a glimpse into future arcs of AC, some of which delve into the city’s past while others are set squarely in the present. And despite their disparate nature, Broken Man assures us they are connected. Like I said, this issue is just… different. It’s nice to see Busiek stretching his wings a bit, but this issue certainly isn’t designed to lure in new readers, or hell, even old ones. It’s more or less a signpost that gives the indication that Busiek does, in fact, have a greater plan at work here, one that won’t make sense for awhile. Ah, the long game it is, then! Provided he keeps all of his ducks in a row, I have every confidence Busiek can pull it off. (Unless we’re talking about his Avengers run, which saw the debut of not one but two of the most reviled Avengers of all time, Triathlon and Silverclaw, and read like the Bronze Age regurgitated thirty-five year-old leftovers all over his keyboard.) But this is Astro City I’m talkin’ ’bout here, which is Busiek’s bread and butter. If the man says he has a plan, then he’ll pull it off. Okay, so it may take like seven or eight months between issues to pull it off, but hey… Score: 7/10.

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3. X-Men #6 (Marvel, W: Brian Wood, A: David Lopez). Brian Wood once again shows his discomfort at having his characterization-heavy X-book wedged into “Battle of the Atom” here, as not a hell of a lot happens in this issue that couldn’t have been done better by a different, more superhero-adept writer. The “bad” Future X-Men finally stand revealed, and one of them turns out to be Wolverine’s son, apparently with Mystique (!?), because he’s sporting blue skin, shape-shifting abilities, and the silliest-looking red sideburns this side of an evil ’70s circus clown. Yes, that’s right. Wolverine’s future son’s choice in hairstyle is even worse than Daken’s. And then he proceeds to impale Wolverine or something (the weak art doesn’t exactly make it clear), which would normally leave Logan saying, “It’s only a flesh wound!” but for some reason that’s not specified, Wolverine doesn’t have a healing factor anymore! Wait, what? When?! How?! Huh???!!! Look, folks, this is what recap pages are supposed to be for. If Wolverine doesn’t have a healing factor right now, which is, y’know, one of his signature things to have, it would probably be a good idea to either a) mention in the recap page, b) tell us where and how this happened on the recap page, since it hasn’t been brought up over the course of the last six parts of this story, or c) just throw some freakin’ exposition into the issue to clarify the matter. “Oh, Logan, it really sucks how you don’t have your healing factor anymore.” “Yeah bub, this adamantium poisoning I’ve got as a result really sucks balls.” “Damn, Logan, and if that’s not enough, why the hell aren’t you dead yet, since your healing factor was the only thing keeping you alive and relatively youthful for the last hundred-plus years?” “Damn, bub, that’s some serious sense you’re talkin’.” See how easy that is? So, okay, that’s really more the editor’s fault than anyone else’s but still… come on. Have a sense of continuity, especially when Wolverine not having his healing factor anymore suddenly plays such a key part in this issue. I realize that’s a bit of a beside-the-point nitpick to get so hung up on, but things like this really irk me because they could be avoided so easily. All it takes is someone giving a shit. Ah, so, anyway, back to the rest of the issue: the Bad Future X-Men show their true colors, and everything pretty much goes to hell in as long as it takes to say it. Good thing the Good Future X-Men are here to save the Young X-Men and the Modern X-Men from the Bad Future X-Men…. aaaarrrghh…. brain… imploding…. too… many… X-Men…*BLOOOOSH* Score: 5/10.

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4. Captain America #12 (Marvel, W: Rick Remender, A: Carlos Pacheco). Nuke, the poster boy for the Bush-era sense of jingoistic, militaristic, ultra-right-wing, Randian American “patriotism,” returns in this issue to run around and be an asshole. Which is pretty much all he’s done since Frank Miller introduced him in the climactic issues of the historic “Born Again” Daredevil story. Nuke is pretty much the opposite of Cap, and makes for a great foil whereas Nuke believes in the absolute rightness of the United States simply because it’s the United States, Cap believes the basic tenets of our country are what make us great, not the whims of our government. These characters were pretty much designed to mix it up. No actual sparks fly just yet between the two, but the writing’s on the wall. And what better time, when Cap is still reeling from his years spent in Dimension Z, and feels as much an outsider now as he did when he first awoke from suspended animation? He’s questioning everything, which leads to a tearful breakdown when he confesses to Falcon exactly how much he lost while trapped in that hellscape. I honestly don’t remember the last time Cap was written as such a vulnerable, human character, but damn is it nice to see the man behind the legend come to the forefront. As easy as it is to write Steve Rogers as a paragon of both virtue and perfection, many writers tend to forget that underneath it all, he’s just a kid from Brooklyn trying his best to stand up to the world’s bullies. As for the rest of this issue, we are treated to a rather strange set-up for some goings-on in China, which involve a dragon who may or may not be related to good ol’ Fin Fang Foom. I haven’t a clue where this arc is going, as Remender intentionally keeps the details murky. Alas, on the artistic front, Carlos Pacheco continues to churn out the worst art of his career, modifying his style to the point that he doesn’t even vaguely resemble his past self. He’s striving for a minimalist approach, but his efforts, even with the mighty Klaus Janson on inks, fall completely flat. This wasn’t a bad issue, but after the amazing set-up this arc had last month, I was expecting much, much more than I got. Score: 7/10.

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5. Infinity #4 (of 6) (Marvel, W: Jonathan Hickman, A: Jerome Opena). Without a doubt, Thor steals this entire issue in one amazing, awesome scene. I’m not saying ANYTHING more about it than that. Otherwise, hey-how-are-ya, Thanos vs. Black Bolt? That confrontation, engineered to sow the seeds for the upcoming Inhumanity book, goes about as well as you’d expect for Black Bolt. Sure, he got a hell of a lucky shot in last issue, but you don’t catch Thanos napping twice. His search for his son, Thane (oh-so-lazily named), leaves the world a vastly different place than it was before. Turns out Thane is a member of a lost Inhuman tribe (see Hickman’s Fantastic Four run for more details on them), and he’s actually a pacifistic healer-type. So naturally, the onset of his powers vis-a-vis the terrigen bomb Black Bolt and Maximus set off results in a pretty horrific outcome for the poor guy. Elsewhere, in the inky vastness of space, the tide turns in the war against the Builders, one of whom as the audacity to slap Thor. That’s right. This alien fool SLAPPED THE SON OF ODIN. Did I mention Thor steals the entire issue…? (I also said, I wouldn’t say anymore about it, but I guess I blew that.) Now, as cool as the Thor scene is, the remainder of this issue feels a bit light on content, despite setting up some pretty major stuff for the remainder of Infinity. It’s high on concept, but low on human elements, something I can pretty much ding Hickman for on just about anything he’s ever written. Captain America, for example, is essentially reduced to the role of the brilliant and inspirational tactician, nothing more. And considering this is an Avengers story, the fact that Thor and Cap are the only two Avengers to even show up this issue is a bit of a problem, too. Second- and third-tier characters such as Gladiator are being given much more weight and significance than, say, 90% of the rest of the team. What was the point of expanding the team’s roster to the degree that it has been, if none of the characters are ever going to actually do anything? I suspect Hickman has a grand plan at work, but I have to admit I’m getting a little impatient waiting for it to bear fruit. All in all, an enjoyable issue, despite my gripes over Hickman’s personal writing style. All signs point to everything making sense in the end. Score: 7/10.

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6. Thor: God of Thunder #14 (Marvel, W: Jason Aaron, A: Ron Garney). Okay, okay, okay. After reading this issue, I’ll be the first to admit that maaaaaaybe I graded last issue a liiiitttle too harshly. But in my defense, the swift change in storytelling style, the obvious shilling for the upcoming Thor movie sequel, and the blecch-tastic art of Ron Garney were a little too much for me to handle at once. Jason Aaron’s obviously getting his Tolkien on, as a hastily-assembled league of representatives from the nine worlds come together to halt Malekith’s murderous rampage across those same worlds. The grouping of disparate characters, the quest against evil, the high-fantasy trappings, the trolls, elves, magic, et cetera… well, all of it feels very, very akin to Fellowship of the Ring in my book, as opposed to more highbrow conventions of the Gorr arc (not to mention the vast superiority of Esad Ribic’s art). But, similarities to classic 20th-century literature aside, this issue is just plain fun. Reading the interactions between the representatives of the nine realms is a blast, especially since none of them like one another very much. Thor in particular chafes at the bridle a bit more than usual, as he would be all too happy to hunt Malekith by himself. Malekith proves to be a devious foe worthy of such unconventional attention, even if his motives are a little on the thin side. Unfortunately, as I indicated above, Ron Garney’s inherently lazy art continues to grate. But all that aside, it should be a great ride seeing where Aaron takes this story, especially considering the terrifying last page. Score: 7/10.

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7. FBP: Federal Bureau of Physics #4 (DC/Vertigo, W: Simon Oliver, A: Robbi Rodriguez). Okay, first and foremost: THAT is an awesome cover, and easily the best of the week. Simon Oliver wraps up FBP‘s first arc with this issue, and while it’s not a mind-blowing finale by any means, it is sturdy, and it does set up the future nicely. The threat of the FBP having to now compete with private sector physics-solutions corporations is an intriguing idea, one that points to the direction the book will be headed in the same way that the ascension of the Smiler in Transmetropolitan signaled where that book was ultimately going. Adam is well on his way to becoming a fully-realized, three-dimensional character, although he sure as hell seemed a little too cool dealing with Jay, his would-be killer. All of which served the story well, but doesn’t seem terribly realistic to me otherwise. And I’m still waiting for Cicero to become as fleshed out as Adam, because as I’ve stated before, right now he’s little more than a well-meaning egghead (with awesome hair). But these are relatively minor quibbles: Oliver and Rodriguez’s world where the laws of physics are slowly going more and more wrong is fast on its way to becoming one of comics most original ventures. If you aren’t reading this wholly unique (if slightly flawed) book, do yourself a favor and check it out. Books like this tend to be smarter than their intended audience and flame out more quickly than they should, and it would be a shame if it happened here. Score: 8/10.

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8. Sidekick #3 (Image/Joe’s Comics, W: J. Michael Straczynski, A: Tom Mandrake). “Things just keep getting worse for Barry” should be the tagline for this book, a la “The World’s Greatest Comic Magazine!” The poor guy just can’t seem to catch a break, although if he didn’t keep attempting to catch that break by doing things that are inherently dickish, his fortune might actually change for the better. Which is, actually, the very point of Sidekick, to see just how long it takes Barry to figure out that taking shortcuts to happiness isn’t the right way to go about attaining it. In this issue, Barry tries relocating from New York to St. Louis and donning a new superheroic persona, “The Bullet,” in order to start fresh. Which in Barry’s mind means he can also whore himself for corporate sponsorship as soon as the news media makes him an overnight phenomenon. Unfortunately, things get more than a little predictable from that point on, as Barry is of course eventually exposed as the fraud that he is in the most public way possible. On the flipside, we also get some backstory on the succubus-like woman who’s been haunting Barry’s dreams and subconsciously controlling him, none of which adds up to anything that lends itself to why the hell she would be controlling Barry in the first place. Honestly, I’m a bit worried as to where this subplot is going: if it’s revealed that all of Barry’s current misfortune is the result of him being manipulated by this woman, I’m calling cop-out. I’d hope Straczynski to be a better writer than that, but then, he is the guy who had Gwen Stacy bang the Green Goblin and secretly give birth to two fast-aging kids who grew to adulthood in a matter of just a few years and then ran around trying to kill Spider-Man. So yeah, Straczynski could potentially lay an egg here. The writing’s not quite on the wall yet–this issue may have just been a bump in the road, well-intended though it was–but now the series is at a point where it’s easy to envision it going either way. Score: 6/10.

 

Aaaaaand that gets us up to date, as tomorrow is Wednesday, and a fresh batch of comics goodness comes out of the oven, freshly-baked and ready for mass consumption. And with THAT horribly belabored metaphor, I have only this to say:

Keep readin’ those funnybooks!

~ILL DIABLO~

What I’m Reading 0015: 10/14/13 (Tardy-Farty Edition)

Welcome to the Tardy-Farty Edition of What I’m Reading. I might have had this up in a more timely manner, but the freaking dogs keep ripping the freaking modem cable out of the wall…. no es bueno. Anyway, in the interest of time (and because I’m fixing to head to the comic store to buy MORE comics), here’s some quick hits:

1. Lazarus #4 (Image, W: Greg Rucka, A: Michael Lark). Lazarus continues to be one of the most exciting debuts of the year (Image seems to be pulling those off more and more lately, don’t they?). This issue sees Forever Carlyle double-crossed by her family, and the deadly, ass-kicking results, as Rucka and Lark’s first arc concludes on an ominous note. Game of Thrones-esque intrigue continues to ensue, set in a thoroughly well-thought out future world. Michael Lark continues his usual stellar work, making this one of the absolute best books on the shelves. Score: 10/10.

2. Trillium #3 (of 8) (DC/Vertigo, W & A: Jeff Lemire). Lemire trips up a bit here, redeploying the upside-down pages trick he used in issue one, but instead of dividing the issue in half that way, he uses it sporadically throughout as the scenes shift between Nika and Billy. Which means that every two or three pages, you have to rotate the comic 180 degrees. Which is annoying, and makes this issue a bit grating to get through. Otherwise, however, it reads great, as Nika and Billy’s worlds begin to become intertwined, which looks to be leading to catastrophe. Despite the gimmicky obnoxiousness, Lemire is batting a thousand with this book. One of Vertigo’s best–and most original–in years and not to be missed. Score: 8/10.

3. Green Arrow #24 (DC, W: Jeff Lemire, A: Andrea Sorrentino). Ollie returns to Seattle just in time to throw down in a rematch with Count Vertigo, the count of adult-oriented and edgy comics fare. Now that this “Villains Month” foolishness is over, Lemire and Sorrentino can get back to the business of redefining Green Arrow for the 21st century. Fortunately, last month’s issue was one of DC’s strongest showings for the entire villainous debacle, and tied directly into what had come before while setting up the immediate future. And what a future it is: his inner ear screwed up and unable to aim an arrow, Ollie must go into combat against the Count with nothing more than his wits and his mitts (and Shado). The result is a spectacular, knock-down drag-out fight that wonderfully highlights Green Arrow’s tactical abilities and makes outstanding use of Sorrentino’s sense of pacing. A great read for any fans of Brubaker & Fraction’s Iron Fist. Score: 9/10.

4. Detective Comics #24 (DC, W: John Layman, A: Jason Fabok). The Wrath storyline comes to a rather unspectacular finish, ending with a pretty sub-standard formula. Too bad, because the first two installments were a great set-up, leaving me to believe that perhaps Layman was told to cut his story short, given the suddenness of the conclusion. And for no apparent reason, the Wrath’s technological capabilities skyrocket to preposterous levels here, taking all of the fun out of the presumptive Batman/Wrath battle. Additionally, the dialogue is clunky, stiff, and downright terrible in places too, another weird happening that didn’t occur in the preceding issues. I’m not sure if Layman just didn’t know how to end this one, or if the editors interfered (which of course would NEVER happen at DC), or what. Pretty disappointing. Score: 4/10.

5. Marvel Knights Spider-Man #1 (of 5) (Marvel, W: Matt Kindt, A: Marco Rudy). This book is pretty much a study in how much can go wrong when you focus on style over substance, even if that style is very pretty pictures. Kindt’s story is papyrus-thin: at the challenge of Arcade, Spider-Man must overcome ninety-nine villains in one night, gauntlet-style, or some people go boom. That’s it. This skimpy plot is supposed to act as a lo-fi indie foil to Marco Rudy’s highly-designed, J.H. Williams III-wannabe art, but the whole thing falls flat. Whereas Williams’ art and page layouts are highly defined by their creative design elements that serve as an enhancement to the story itself, Rudy’s garish page layouts serve to enhance nothing but itself. It has no sense of pacing, and the design elements are there just… because. Because they “look cool.” Because he could. Because he totally stole David Mack’s trademark random triangle ornamentation on every other page. I think Rudy would be better served in his career as a cover artist rather than someone who has to visually plot and pace an entire comic, and I think Matt Kindt would be better served if he stayed away from superhero comics altogether and stuck to indie-flavored fare such as Revolver. Score: 2/10.

6. The Superior Foes of Spider-Man #4 (Marvel, W: Nick Spencer, A: Steve Lieber). Hands-down, this is one of the funniest comics I’ve ever read. Ever. Nick Spencer has found a near-perfect balance of humor, action, and villainous intrigue with this book, and this is the best issue yet. Its only real ongoing weakness thus far has been the relatively lightweight development of the New Beetle and Overdrive, but that gets cured pretty quick for the former in this issue (with hilarious results). The Shocker and Boomerang have a confrontation rife with a kind of HBO-caliber human interaction, just before the last page serves as one of the best, least-predictable cliffhangers I’ve read in awhile. If you haven’t yet checked out this book… then stop. Get off your ass NOW and check it out. Score: 9/10.

7. All New X-Men #17 (Marvel, W: Brian Michael Bendis, A: Stuart Immonen). The other X-Men of the future are here, if for no other reason than to add more levels of convolution to this fun, headache-inducing story. Turns out those rascals that showed up in the first place represent the dark side of the current Team Wolverine/Team Cyclops schism in the X-Men’s ranks, and now the other half of the future equation represents a more peaceful, utopian vision. With this newest wrinkle in the plot, all things point to the absolute necessity of the Young X-Men returning to the past, where they belong. Bendis clearly had a blast coming up with the future permutations (no pun intended) of the X-Men, all of whom are fun and logical. At this point “Battle of the Atom” could go either way: to a spectacular finish, or to a collapse under its own weight. Everything’s so up in the air right now, it’s impossible to tell–which is the mark of a great story. Score: 8/10.

8. Hunger #3 (of 4) (Marvel, W: Joshua Hale Fialkov, A: Leonard Kirk). This issue is a steep, steep drop in quality following the surprising goodness of the first two. For whatever reason Fialkov felt compelled to jam just about every cliche under the sun into these twenty-two pages, up to and including the noble, self-sacrificing death of a hero, the cowardly withdrawal from battle by the underachieving hero, and then the redemption of the same like three seconds later. Rick Jones decides he can’t handle this whole Galactus situation and bails, and literally in the span of two pages, discovers Peter Parker was Spider-Man, is dead, and gets his shit together to rejoin the fight. Lazy, lazy, lazy writing. And what, exactly, is Silver Surfer doing for this entire issue, other than providing running commentary and generally acting like a frightened schoolgirl? Considering the future (and possibly demise) of the Ultimate universe starts here, I sure as hell hope the remaining issue comes out strong. Score: 2/10.

Aaaand that’s all she wrote for this go-around, but reader beware: three more brand-spanking new blogs are en route in the next three days! A new (recent) record!

Keep readin’ those funnybooks!

~ILL DIABLO~

What I’m Reading 0014: 10/1/13

Quick, to the bat-poles! There be new comics to review!!!! Some of you may have noticed a shift in my reading habits over the last few months. When I started this blog, I was heavily focused on superhero fare, and primarily from Marvel, at that. But in a concentrated effort to diversify my reading habits, I’ve intentionally begun branching out into other genres, and trying new, untested comics. Sometimes they fly, sometimes they don’t. But I owe it to myself to not get in a rut and frankly reading (almost) nothing but superhero comics gets a little boring after awhile. Don’t get me wrong, I have a long history with non-superhero fare; in fact many of my favorite comics of all time are of the non-capes and tights variety. But the last couple of years has seen me shift away from those books, especially in the face of the talent draught that’s recently plagued Vertigo (ending only very recently, with the kickoff of their “Defy” initiative). The other reason for this is simple…. there’s a surplus of great superhero books being published right now! Marvel’s currently putting out a much higher great-to-crap ratio than they have in years (noteworthy exceptions being Matt Fraction’s tepid Fantastic Four and FF and anything featuring Spider-Ock); and while DC’s currently content to reside in the gutter for the most part, the books they are getting it right with (Green Arrow, Wonder Woman, Aquaman) are all knockouts. But that hasn’t stopped me from attempting to enrich my weekly reading experience, with my hope being that this diversity is passed onto YOU, my readers, so that you might discover something new you might not have tried before. Superheroes may be the mother’s milk of the comic industry, but that doesn’t mean comics of any other genre are any less valid or exciting. With that exploratory spirit in mind, then, let’s get down to the reviews, starting with….

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1. Sex Criminals #1 (Image, W: Matt Fraction, A: Chip Zdarsky). Yes sir, that there is a vagina in the form of an open book. The most deranged thing ever to spring forth from Matt Fraction’s inherently bizarre mind, Sex Criminals is all the quirk of his Hawkeye thrown into a very, very dirty–yet totally fun–comic. The star of the book is Suzie, who discovers at the dawn of her sexual awakening as a teenager that when she has sex (and, more specifically, when she climaxes), she can stop time. POOF! Have an orgasm, stop the world and everyone in it except for her. On the surface, this sounds like a completely ludicrous concept. It shouldn’t work at all, except–MATT FRACTION TOTALLY SELLS IT. By focusing on Suzie’s tragic past and how it corresponds to her present–not to mention her, ahem, bizarre powers–Fraction creates a portrait of a realistic, three-dimensional, fully-formed character we can immediately sympathize with, who just happens to be at the center of this absolutely batshit crazy scenario. The first issue follows Suzie as she narrates her own past, her adult self doing walk-throughs of still shots of her childhood, giving us the lowdown as to what’s happening. She’s had it rough: her father killed in a random act of violence, resulting in her mother withdrawing into the bottle. Suzie’s isolated and alone, until one day in the bath she discovers her unique ability. Which, as it turns out, seems cool at first but actually makes her feel MORE isolated. Her frustration with not knowing what or why this is happening is compounded by the fact that she really can’t explain what is happening to ANYBODY. Anytime she tries, all she receives in response is a blank stare. So she tries going to the “slutty girls” for help, and winds up getting a sexual education that’s one of the most hilariously raunchy scenes I’ve ever read in any comic, or seen in any movie. Trust me on this. And trust me that this is one hell of a fun, and funny comic, with a 100% unique premise and a lead character Fraction made me care about immediately. Chip Zdarsky’s art has a little bit of the ol’ Michael Avon Oeming style going on, and suits the book perfectly: playful, yet not cartoony. If I had to make one complaint, it’s that Fraction’s writing gets borderline smug at times, a little too pleased with how clever it is. But whatever. Go buy this damn book today. You won’t be disappointed. Score: 9/10.

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2. Saga #14 (Image, W: Brian K. Vaughan, A: Fiona Staples). What? You’re NOT buying this comic? What the hell is wrong with you? Saga falls into that very, very elite category of comic that’s so consistently good, I’m running out of things to say about it. I, and all the rest of the comics-media realm, have literally said it all. Here, have a reference point: you like Star Wars? REAL Star Wars, not that prequel crap? And you also like stories with real, fully-formed characters, fully realized worlds, and more characterization than you can shake a stick at? You like comics that don’t suck? Well, then, Saga is for you. This is absolutely one of the best comics being published today, by anyone.  There is nothing bad going on here, and if there is, I can’t find it. So just buy the damn comic, okay? Score: 10/10.

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3. Jupiter’s Legacy #3 (Image, W: Mark Millar, A: Frank Quitely). If there’s been a comic in recent memory that had a great set-up but needed a good kick in the ass to get it moving, it’s Jupiter’s Legacy. The first two issues were all unlikeable characters and set-up, with nothing much actually happening. That all ends here, as Millar unexpectedly kicks things into high gear and gets the ball rolling fast. Time’s up for Superman-analogue The Utopian (comics really need to start coming up with better names for their Superman analogues), as an army of “allies,” lead by his loser son Brandon (who is a puppet of his uncle Walter) decide the old way of doing things is over with and done. No more secret identities, no more defensive measures only. No more sitting on their hands and letting fallible human governments dither and not fix anything. Walter and Brandon are determined to fix the world’s problems, a move the Utopian would never have allowed. So he has to go. Such a big move so early in the series is a bit unorthodox (especially when coupled with the fate of the Utopian’s wife, Grace, in a truly, awesomely brutal moment), but it also underscores the fact that the Utopian was never the main character in this book. It’s instead been Brandon all along, and now he’s in the spotlight and has a chance to shine with his father out of the way. This issue starts out going full-throttle and never lets up, as Walter and Brandon’s coordinated attack against the Utopian proves to be brutally efficient. Brandon’s sister Chloe proves to be a loose end, escaping with her son-of-a-supervillain babydaddy Hutch to fight another day. Millar really, really impressed me on this one, and although it doesn’t quite live up to its own (Millar-perpetuated) hype, this issue was certainly a step in the right direction, pulling together all the seeds that were sown in the previous issues in a stupendously exciting way. My biggest complaint here is my standard one I have with Frank Quitely-drawn comics: his conveyance of emotion is pretty limited, his faces look just plain weird, his women are all walking sticks, and he couldn’t draw a background to save his life. Now, on the plus side: this is still some of the best work of his career, the splash page revealing Grace’s fate being of particular note. But it still has that same Quitely-ness about it that leaves a bad taste in my mouth; it also bears noting that, for a guy that’s not hyper-detailed, it REALLY rubs me the wrong way that he can’t hit a monthly deadline to save his life. But that’s a whole ‘nother ball of wax, okay? The main thing is, Millar is finally living up to the hype on this book, and it’s about damn time. He may finally have something exciting if not entirely unique cooking at last. Score: 8/10.

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4. Fatale #17 (Image, W: Ed Brubaker, A: Sean Phillips). Speaking of comics that could use a kick in the ass… I give you Fatale, a comic that is long overdue to wrap up its storyline. Inexplicably, this has been the hottest seller of the incomparable Bru/Phillips’ joint career, which may be a contributing factor as to why it JUST. WON’T. END. Brubaker has spent the last five or six issues mining into the past of femme-fatale-embodiment Josephine, each tale with the exact same plot: man meets Josephine. Man falls in love. Man gets obsessed. Man loses everything because of obsession. Man dies, or meets with a fate worse than death. It’s gotten tedious by this point, and although the overall quality of this issue is notably better than the last half-dozen or so due to its tying-in of recent ’90s history to the modern times of the plot, it still has all of the above elements in play. Which has become repetitive. Repetitive, I say. Repetitive by nature. You can only read the same plot so many times before all the luster wears off. This book has a great premise and great technical execution, but it’s just the same thing over and over again…. and needs to get its point already. Which it may finally be doing, much to my eternal relief. Fatale is an inherently good thing, but too much of even a good thing is, well, bad. This is by far the weakest Bru/Phillips collaboration in my book, miles and miles behind Sleeper and Criminal and Incognito (are we ever going to get the conclusions the latter two series, by the way?). But it’s not because the book sucks. It’s because it’s spiraled completely out of their control, much like the men in their story do when under the thrall of Josephine. Shit! This book IS Josephine! And it has Brubaker and Phillips in its thrall! Quick, somebody call the  Lovecraftian monster-men on their asses! Score: 6/10.

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5. FBP: Federal Bureau of Physics #3 (DC/Vertigo, W: Simon Oliver, A: Robbi Rodriguez). FBP has turned out to be one of the most unexpected surprises to come out of Vertigo’s “Defy” initiative. It shares some DNA with Ghostbusters, in that it’s about blue-collar guys working a job that involves extraordinary situations with a scientific bent. This issue finds our protagonist, Adam, stuck in the bubble universe and staring down the barrel of teammate Jay’s gun. But because of the inherently wonky physical nature of a bubbleverse, the bullet, when fired, goes off in crazy directions instead of straight ahead to its target. This lucky save begins a cat-and-mouse game between Adam and Jay, with any and all weirdness imaginable coming into play. Take, for example, Adam getting hit by a semi: the semi buckles and bends and breaks under the weight of striking him, instead of the other way around. Smart plays on familiar tropes are what make this issue so exciting; a leap off a skyscraper leads not to death but rather to Adam grabbing the side of it and “peeling” down the side of it. It’s almost a Looney Tunes cartoon, but with actual life and death, not to mention lots of cool, random ideas thrown into the mix that allows the reader to understand that there are no rules in a bubbleverse except one: expect the unexpected. We also get a peek into Adam’s past, which opens up a fat can of knowledge as to who he is as a character. I hope writer Simon Oliver does the same for the rest of his cast soon; as it stands, neither Jay nor Cicero have particularly expansive personalities just yet. They’re moderately interesting, but basically just fulfill their given roles in the story and that’s it. But the sheer wealth of imagination that fuels this book is utterly irresistible, making it Vertigo’s best since the end of Scalped. There also isn’t anything else like it on the stands, which should tell you something right away: Oliver and Rodriguez are two of the most impressive minds in the game today. Check this book out while it’s still relatively easy to come by the early issues, because I foresee big things in its future that will make these first issues some of the hottest back issues around. Score: 8/10.

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6. Ultimate Spider-Man #27 (Marvel, W: Brian Michael Bendis, A: David Marquez). With only one more issue to go until the Ultimate universe is either destroyed or rebooted AGAIN (depending on which conspiracy theory you subscribe to) in Cataclysm, it’s hard to muster up a ton of enthusiasm for this book right now. Sure, technically speaking, this issue is well-written, well-drawn, and overall well-executed. But there just doesn’t seem to be a lot of point to watching Miles get back into the heroing game, team up with Spider-Woman, Cloak and Dagger, and Bombshell; get into one helluva knock-down-drag-out with Taskmaster, and shut down the evil Roxxon corporation if in a few months none of it will matter. But hey, that’s all semantics. Looking critically at this issue and this issue alone, Bendis scores a solid if not mind-blowing win, as the fight with Taskmaster consumes most of the pages. Pulling off issue-long fights can be incredibly tricky; you have to maintain the fight’s momentum for the entire issue while simultaneously making the reader feel like you’re not padding out the issue just because you had nothing else to say. Luckily, Bendis pulls it off, and although I’m not crazy about Ultimate Taskmaster (he’s an energy absorber… lame), he still makes for a good, solid villain for our loosely-knit band of heroes to overcome. But again…. none of this may matter in a few months, so what, exactly, is the point anymore? Score: 6/10.

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7. Wolverine and the X-Men #36 (Marvel, W: Jason Aaron, A: Giuseppi Camuncoli). As we hit the halfway point of “Battle of the Atom,” a couple of important things happen. First, Jason Aaron acknowledges that the previous four chapters have been a bit repetitious, by having a character riff on that very fact in a funny bit of dialogue. Second, we hit the turning point at the end of the issue, which completely changes the story’s direction, which definitely needed something other than X-Men fighting X-Men. And third… well, he just pulls off a fine, if flawed issue of this comic. It’s not perfect by any means, but it’s also a good shot in the arm. And Future Deadpool gets the best scene, so who could argue with that? Mysteries abound, and of course not all is as it seems. When the hell is it EVER in the X-Men universe, though? The psychic showdown between Emma Frost and Future Jean Grey falls short of its promised awesomeness, although Aaron has the mental throwdown play out in a way I’ve never seen done yet totally makes sense: we see it happening from the perspective of the onlookers, who see nothing more than two women standing there staring at one another really, really hard. But Modern Cyclops has the wherewithal to say that this psychic battle is, “one of the fiercest I’ve ever seen.” The man knows his stuff, especially when it comes to people standing there staring at one another. Over all, not the best comic of the week, but a good game-changer for “Battle of the Atom,” keeping the story’s momentum going off in uncharted new directions. Score: 7/10.

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8. Avengers #20 (Marvel, W: Jonathan Hickman, A: Leinil Francis Yu). The secrets of the Ex Nihili and the Abyssi (abysses?) are exposed, which may prove providential for Captain America and his allies, as things are looking grim in the fight against the Builders. Even the proud and mighty Kree have surrendered. It’s a mind-fuck seeing the all-knowing Kree Supreme Intelligence so readily admit that victory is not possible and then submit to the Builders’ will, but that’s what happens here. It’s also unusual seeing Captain Freaking America admit defeat…. but that, too, is what happens here! Say it ain’t so, Cap! The Greatest Generation just didn’t know how to make quitters! Surely it’s a ruse, but still, watching Cap admit defeat is pretty damn strange. Infinity has proven to be endlessly surprising, so I’d be willing to bet that even this seemingly-obvious ploy isn’t quite what it seems it seems. Leinil Yu’s art is magic as usual, even making the Sonic the Hedgehog-haired Ex Nihila look cool. Some of his page layouts are a bit confusing, but that’s a problem he’s always had. No worries. Needless to say: if you’re enjoying Infinity, you’ll enjoy this issue. If not, you probably will want to skip it, as it won’t win any converts. Score: 7/10.

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9. Uncanny Avengers #12 (Marvel, W: Rick Remender, A: Salvador Larroca). Talk about a stagnant issue. There is pretty much no new ground covered whatsoever, just a reinforcement of the “Apocalypse Twins” story’s status quo to date. Kang’s manipulating the twins? Check. Scarlet Witch wants Wonder Man’s help in “rapturing” all mutants to a new planet she’s going to create? Check. There’s unrequited feelings between the two of them? Check. Havok gets Cap’s approval for how he’s running the team? Check, check, CHECK! We’ve SEEN THIS BEFORE, Remender! I’m not sure why he insists on dragging this story out like he has. It has a lot of good elements, but unlike this arc’s precursor, Uncanny X-Force‘s “Dark Angel Saga,” each issue does NOT add more layers to the story. Much of what’s happened in the last four issues could have been dealt with in two or three issues at the most. Now, don’t get me wrong–there’s a great cliffhanger at the end that potentially changes the game, but really, it’s time to wrap this story up and move to something else. Salvador Larroca, so brilliantly unstoppable on Matt Fraction’s Invincible Iron Man run, comes off as sloppy and undisciplined here, his entire style shifting into something more akin to master of lazy pencils Ron Garney. The entirety of this story so far–now in its eighth chapter with no end in sight–has been a rollercoaster ride in terms of quality. Here’s hoping that upcoming artist Steve McNiven can help inject some life into the proceedings, because Remender himself seems to be floundering. Score: 4/10.

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10. Wonder Woman: First Born #23.2 (DC, W: Brian Azzarello, A: Aco [or possibly ACO]). This Villains Month crap has found its way into Azzarello’s  Wonder Woman! There was a #23.1 featuring Cheetah, but it wasn’t even written by Azzarello. Blech. Skip! So here we have the origin of First Born, and, well, it’s… actually, it’s pretty unimpressive. It also does little more than reinforce what we already know about He With No Name, rehashing that Zeus doomed him to die after seeing a portentious vision about his kiddo overthrowing his throne someday. And that Hela took pity and saved him. What follows is depressingly predictable: First Born is raised by the animals, grows up, gets mad, wages war to get Daddy’s attention, get punished and condemned to eternal imprisonment. Yawn… I suppose that even a superb writer like Azzarello can get tripped up when sucked into company-mandated event crap. As for the art, it doesn’t suck exactly, but as we’ve seen from artistic fill-in issues on this book in the past, there’s only one Cliff Chiang. And this Aco or ACO ain’t it. Not exactly an outstanding issue, but not really skippable, either, as it is the kickoff point for Azzarello’s third arc on the book. Just make sure you only shell out what you have to and get the 2D cover. Score: 5/10.

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11. Aquaman: Ocean Master #23.2 (DC, W: Geoff Johns & Tony Bedard, A: Geraldo Borges). In the “Throne of Atlantis” Aquaman/Justice League crossover, Geoff Johns pulled off the impossible: he made a guy named Ocean Master a Justice League-level threat. I don’t care how many years the guy’s been around, he’s a joke. A joke with a silly-looking mask and stupidly dated name. But NOW…. the guy’s a fully-realized, empathetic villain with serious designs on power who isn’t afraid to kill any number of surface-dwellers to get his way. Despite having co-written this issue with “meh” writer Tony Bedard, Johns uses the Villains Month gimmick as an opportunity to show off just how developed this formerly-lame character has become in a relatively short amount of time. During the big Forever Evil-tied-into breakout at Belle Reve prison, OM is busted out with the rest of the captive villains, but since he certainly doesn’t think of himself as a bad guy, he doesn’t partake in all of the mayhem and destruction and slaughter like the other prisoners. But he does perform a mercy killing on a guard who was kind to him; this is truly an act of kindness in OM’s mind. He genuinely doesn’t regard land-dwellers any differently than you or I would regard a mouse or a cow. Again, he doesn’t think of himself as evil; merely an overthrown monarch destined to reclaim his throne. But the limits of his compassion are put to the test when he leaves a woman to be raped, and her son to be killed. I really don’t want to spoil the moment, but again, Johns (and, yes, Bedard) prove just how well-rounded Ocean Master has become. Easily the best Villains Month issue I’ve read all month, this issue is a testament to the fallacy of the black and white good versus evil mentality, and how even the darkest villains can be seen as more human with the correct writer in place. Score: 8/10.

 

And that’s it! Read Saga, okay? And have yourself a good time with some Sex Criminals. I guarantee you will not be disappointed!

~ILL DIABLO~