Sunday, December 16, 2007

A Trip to Tokyo in The Latest Issue!

I remember when I first saw Japanese comic books, or Manga, produced in the U.S. for American readers. They showed up at my store, five titles, to take up residence in our graphic novels department. They were Chobits, by manga collaborators CLAMP, about a romance between a human and a human-like AI; Great Teacher Onizuka, by Tohru Fujisawa, about a delinquent who becomes a beloved high school teacher; Initial D, by Shuichi Shigeno, about a young man becoming the greatest street racer; Love Hina, by Ken Akamatsu, a comedic tale of a young ronin finding himself caretaker of a girls dormitory; and Samurai Girl: Realbout High School by Reiji Saiga and Sora Inoue, about a school where fights aren't broken up, they're graded. These five titles were definitely chosen for their diversity, an attempt to catch a weak graphic novel economy unawares, and to try to introduce something relatively new and unique (Pokemon, probably the penultimate example of a successful anime series, had been on TV for about three years).

Five years and thousands of releases later, it's fair to say Tokyopop exceeded expectations in a big way. The manga section of your local bookstore is probably three times the size of the rest of the graphic novel department combined. There are hundreds of different series' to choose from, ranging in quality from very good to very, very bad, but the variety to choose from is almost an adventure in itself: Action, drama, comedy, romance, emo, mystery, sci-fi, sports, fantasy, historical, or any variation on those themes can be found in any random title you pull off the shelf. Manga has even been adapted by many American artists in an attempt to attract an established audience in a world where most independent comics will never see mainstream success. There are so many manga titles put out, in fact, that a truly standout title can often be missed in the pool outside of Naruto, Fruits Basket, and Sgt. Frog.

Which brings us to our review this week, The Kindaichi Case Files: The Magical Express by writer Yozaburo Kanari and artist Fumiya Sato. The Kindaichi series focuses on second year high school student (think junior year) Hajime Kindaichi, a clumsy, lazy, awkward, and socially benign young man who has few friends and little inclination to become more popular. However, many times has he found himself involved in murder mysteries where he used cunning and logic to solve puzzles others would have found impossible to decipher. It turns out he actually is the grandson of famous Japanese detective Kousuke Kindaichi, and that natural instinct, combined with a 180 IQ, has constantly surprised his peers, who expected him to be not much more than a footnote in the story. Several times has he been involved in stories where the impossible has come to pass, only for him to eventually explain how each sinister crime was committed and capture those responsible.

The Magical Express begins with a package delivered to Tokyo's Metropolitan Police Department. It's a trick box, the kind that can only be opened by following a strict set of instructions. Captain Isamu Kenmochi and the TMPD had inspected the box and thus far had been unable to open it, so Kenmochi turned to Hajime, since Kenmochi has known the young detective since his first case. Naturally, Hajime opens the box in a matter of seconds. Inside is a wooden marionette, with it's limbs twisted in a disturbing manner. Besides the marionette was a note:

"This coming April 28'th
I have cast a magic spell on the
train passing through Shikotsu-
Ga-Hara marshlands in Hokkaido.

Enjoy the magic of death and fear

-The Puppetmaster.

This leads Hajime, Kenmochi, Miyuke Nanase (Hajime's childhood friend who always tags along on his cases), and Ryugi Saki (a Hajime fan boy and assistant who videotapes everything) to board the train in question, where a famous magic troupe entertains the passengers on the train's passage to the station hotel at the end of the line. There, the Magic and Illusion Troupe (pretty unimaginative name) will perform at that hotel's theater. The magic group is a very famous one, renowned for their impossible magic tricks such as the "Living Marionette." Well wouldn't you know it, the first day on the train, the "Puppetmaster" slips a miniature bomb on onto the train (in a rose salad, no less), claims there's another bomb on the train, demanding the evacuation at the next station, and then somehow (and without ever being seen, mind you) murders the leader of the Magic and Illusion Troupe, Gentle Yamagami. And then, just as amazingly, the body disappears without a trace. And then reappears at the hotel, twisted in the same position the marionette delivered to the police had been.

And so the chase is on! Who is the "Puppetmaster"? How did he pull off the disappearing corpse trick? What does this have to do with the death of famous magician Reiko Chikamiya five years ago? And will Hajime Kindaichi survive a killer's wrath to solve the case?

The books of the Kindaichi Case Files series play out with much the same setup: Murder one is committed, Kindaichi's on the case; there's never a shortage of suspects, usually there are a minimum of eight suspects who have varying relations to the victim; many times there is an obstacle preventing the heroes and suspects from leaving the site of the murders, whether a storm or lack of transportation, effectively trapping them with the killer in their midst; there is never just one murder, usually three or four of the supposed suspects become victims themselves while the investigation is ongoing; there is never one clue leading to the apprehension of the murderer, it's a trail of smaller clues that tell the story (usually of revenge) of the killers origin and eventually his identity; usually someone close to Hajime such as Miyuke (or even Hajime!) may find themselves in peril due to Hajime being too close to solving the case and the killer wanting him out of the way; finally, Hajime lives up to the legend of his grandfather and solves the seemingly unsolvable case.

Despite the seeming sameness of the series, I love reading what probably amounts to Sherlock Holmes for a younger generation. It's a lot of fun following along as this young prodigy calmly moves from scene to scene, probing each corner, searching for the tiniest clues, and tearing apart a suspect's alibi when he finally announces who the murderer is. This is in large part to the effective writing styles of Yozaburo Kanari, who's strength is weaving all the clues together so that they're in plain sight, right where you'll likely miss them. He also excels in character creation, making innocent (at least of murder) parties seem like the guilty suspect, and making the murderer a sympathetic character himself (or herself). Rarely is there a character in the Kindaichi Case Files you don't feel something about, good or bad. That said, there are weaknesses in the writing style. When Hajime isn't "on," he's a lot like other young Japanese anime males in that he doesn't know a lick about girls. His interactions with friend Miyuki are almost infantile (they have crushes on one another but don't know the other feels the same) to the point of perversion, and he always goes gaga over pretty girls or women. It's really the only true weakness of the series, but not completely out of character. It's just hard to take him seriously as a detective sometimes when he's stammering out words when introduced to a woman. Also, I'm not happy with the way Detective Kenmochi is portrayed in this book. Usually, he's a competent cop who, while not brilliant, has a keen mind. Not so here, where he's almost a mental defect, the obviousness of the plot holes he tries to explain away.

The artwork is pretty good. Fumiya Sato is a typical manga artist, good enough to properly capture the elements that Kanari puts into play. Her character designs are solid to the point where you will rarely if ever confuse the identity of two separate characters. In the scenes where the story is told from the murderer's point of view, her outline is always that of a shapeless asexual shadow, never dropping any clues as to who this character might be. Character expressions and set details are done very well, and the depictions of death are almost twistedly beautiful in a way that perfectly captures the horror of the moment. This is actually one of the better drawn volumes in the series, a sign that Sato has no intention of slowing down her involvement.

The whole thing leads to a completely satisfying conclusion, as each clue is brought to light and nudging the reader to go back to that particular chapter and see for themselves the clues they missed. Additionally, it's worth rereading the book to see it from a knowing point of view. I absolutely love The Magical Express, and would ask that even if you don't like manga, or if you're apprehensive about a medium that's essentially aimed at teenage Asian boys (understandable) that you should pick up this book (or if you're new, get the first book in the series, The Opera House Murders) and give it a shot. You might be pleasantly surprised.

As a final note, The Latest Issue will be taking this weekend off as I visit family for the holidays, but we'll be back next week with a new review at some point. Happy holidays!

Friday, December 14, 2007

Prince and Picoult: Wonder Women

Recently I was dining with my good friend and confidante Kirima, a member of an Eskimo tribe who migrated from Alaska long ago. We've shared a copacetic relationship; I buy her dinners, and she helps me with the opposite sex (I am a comic book reviewer, go figure). Upon the slightest mention of The Latest Issue Kirima immediately pointed her fork (along with a helping of tofu salad with basil and cashews) at me and declared: "Dammit, you still haven't reviewed any Wonder Woman on your page!"

Naturally, I reminded her that I spoke of Wonder Woman in my review of The Brave and the Bold 5 in the beginning of November, but she quickly shouted (so that all the patrons of the restaurant were peering over their teacups at us) "Not that guest-star crap, you need to review the actual Wonder Woman comic! That Jodi Picoult run just went trade, you should review that, you sexist prick!"

And so I did. Never mind the fact that this advice came from someone who actually owns Wonder Woman pajamas, I did need to review a DC title (lest the hordes that are my ally Steve breathe ever so much more down my neck) and I had to admit that the Jodi Picoult run on Wonder Woman had initially caught my attention, if only for the fact that it was a mainstream author who was coming in and writing one of the most prolific characters in comics. It's something that still doesn't happen often, for good reason or not; Many authors of Picoult's (My Sister's Keeper, Nineteen Minutes) stature don't often sully themselves by "stooping" to write comic books. In Picoult's own words, though, she thought it was "far too cool an opportunity to pass up", citing Brad Meltzer (Identity Crisis, an upcoming arc of Buffy the Vampire Slayer) as someone she admired who often crossed the barrier from author to comic writer. She is also a self-proclaimed Wonder Woman fan, and seems to have a pretty good grasp on the character. But the nagging voice at the back of my mind as I'm picking up this title is screaming: "It's going to suck!! Did Jonathan Lethem teach you nothing??"

Wonder Woman: Love and Murder opens with a black-suit wearing Diana Prince (WW's secret identity) staring at herself in a lavatory mirror, attempting to distinguish between what makes her Wonder Woman and how to blend in with the human population she had been sent to protect. Upon exiting the restroom, we're introduced to Nemesis (Tom Tresser), a c-rate vigilante-turned-superhero shape-shifter and Diana's partner at the Department of Metahuman Affairs. The two have been assigned to work security at a superhero-themed fun park, protecting a reality-show winner who won the chance to be the new Maxi-Man. While working the tables, a roller coaster suddenly falls apart, chaos ensues, and Diana pulls a Clark Kent move and Wonder Woman arrives on the scene to save the day. Wanted fugitive Wonder Woman.

The two realize this when they get back to HQ (Nemesis doesn't know DP is WW) and are told by their commander, Sarge Steel, that the US government wants to question Wonder Woman for the circumstances surrounding her murdering Maxwell Lord one year ago. Fans will remember Wonder Woman murdered Lord because it was the only way to stop the psychic control he used on Superman to make him attack other heroes. The World Court had apparently dropped all charges, but leave it to the US government to take things into their own hands. Wonder Woman can't help but feel that things aren't what they seem, and it eventually leads up to the return of not one but two powerful villains, cloak and dagger plotting, and the eventual lead-in to the DC Amazons Attack storyline.

I actually liked Love and Murder. While it wasn't the greatest story I've ever read, I liked the idea Picoult ran with, conflicting Wonder Woman with the public hero she is and is confidant being, and the human side of her, underdeveloped, as much different from Clark Kent's human side as can be. It goes a little far at times (as Diana Prince, WW doesn't know how much gas costs at the pump... or how sed gas pump works) and turns silly, it's a good idea and is played well for the most part. Less impressive is the scene where Wonder Woman has surrendered herself to the government and is locked in what is deemed an "impervious" cell, I could accept the fact that she turned herself over willingly to avoid an international incident. But when the agent proceeds to apply electrical shocks because WW is unwilling to exchange Amazon technology for her freedom, she has superman-level strength and should have been able to escape any prison in which she was being wrongfully held.

Nemesis is borderline useless. He's got a major crush on Wonder Woman, not realizing that his partner is WW incognito. He berates Diana constantly for her lack of basic human instincts, while lusting not-so-secretly after her superhero persona. He's also a wisecracker. He's a white, shape-shifting Chris Tucker, and it's only in the series' fourth issue that he comes into his own as a useful character, and it's done nicely, too. Also a wisecracker? Don't laugh, but some of the best lines are spoken by Batman during the fourth issue as well, and that is all wrong for that character. He speaks lines you expect from Guy Gardner, not Bruce Wayne. My final writing complaint comes with the way this book ends, as Wonder Woman is locked in mortal combat and Picoult drops a major cliffhanger at the very end... and then turns the reigns of Wonder Woman over to the next writer. I'd have loved to see what Picoult could have done with two more issues, and it seems like she just didn't have the time to help finish what could have been a better series.

The artwork surprisingly jumped around a lot between these five issues. The first two were drawn by Drew Johnson (Supergirl, 52) and Rodney Ramos (Countdown to Final Crisis) with some conflicting styles. Johnson's work is pretty good, the character art looks great, and the frustration that appears on Diana's face whenever she faces something she doesn't understand looks perfect. Ramos' art isn't bad, but it definitely pales compared to Johnson's. Issues 3 and 4 were drawn by Terry Dodson (Marvel Knights: Spider-Man), and are not really much of a step up from Johnson and Ramos. It's obvious Dodson doesn't love drawing backgrounds, as he gives as many panels as he can get away with no backgrounds, characters performing against a blank slate. Some people defend this style, but it's not one I agree with unless used well, and Dodson doesn't carry it well enough. Finally, Paco Diaz (Teen Titans, X-Men: Emperor Vulcan) rounds of the artist merry-go-round with what probably amounts to my favorite work in this book. The fight scenes are incredibly captured, and the character work is the best of all the issues. It helps Picoult end the title in style, even if the writing and dialogue were less than they could have been.

Obviously, Jodi Picoult's run on Wonder Woman has it's flaws. The suboptimal writing and dialogue, the artwork carousel, and Nemesis' sidekick status detract from what could have been a much better take of a high-profile relaunch like WW. Also, there are no special features in this trade, like limited covers or any special interviews (except for an introduction written by the author). Still, despite the cracks in the facade, I liked this title enough to recommend it to Wonder Woman fans or those who might harbor interest in the most powerful female character ever in comics. I think Kirima would approve.

Sunday, December 9, 2007

Ultimate Disappointment

It really shouldn't be like this... but it is.

With the regular monthly success of the Ultimate universe for Marvel, it's easy to forget that only three regularly-running series set in the Ultimate Universe: Ultimate Spiderman, Ultimate X-Men, and Ultimate Fantastic Four. Despite strong sales, Marvel doesn't seem too interested in investing in any more regular series, but writer Mark Miller and artist Bryan Hitch have come close to creating a fourth with their two miniseries of The Ultimates, the Ultimate version of the long-standing Avengers team.

Yes, I know this is the second Avengers review in a row. I realize that. I also realize I haven't reviewed a DC title in a month, and when I meet a DC comic I can review, I'll do it. But you can't ignore The Ultimates, Ever. The first series gorgeously introduced us to the new team, brilliantly re-orchestrated the origin of Captain America, and creating something darker and more serious than Marvel had ever undertaken before. After it's blazing success, Ultimates 2 raised the bar farther, questioning respects to faith and what the US Government might do with a billion-dollar superhero team. Through all this, the perfect writing of Mark Miller (Ultimate X-Men, Authority) and the spectacular artwork by Bryan Hitch (Sensational She-Hulk, Authority) perfectly blended the two series and did such a fantastic job that a third series was simply unavoidable. Conversely was the idea of bringing back Miller and Hitch, who were replaced by writer Jeph Loeb (Fallen Son: The Death of Captain America, Superman/Batman) and artist Joe Madureira (Uncanny X-Men, Battle Chasers). Ultimates 3 is actually Madureira's return to the comics industry after working concept design for video games, and many comic fans will be getting their first-ever look at this new artist.

It's a shame there isn't better material here. The comic hasn't gone two pages before a very angry Venom appears and knocks Thor through a wall and an all-new Ultimates team takes on this rampaging beast, who keeps asking "Where is she??" over and over, single-mindedly searching for some woman who doesn't appear to be a member of this new team.

And it is a new team! Several members return to this group; Captain America, Iron Man, Thor, Hank Pym, Quicksilver, Scarlet Witch, Wasp and Hawkeye return, but almost none of them are the same as in the previous series. Add brand-new members Black Panther and Valkyrie (yes, this is the same Valkyrie who was just another non-powered member of the disastrous Ultimate Defenders group, she's back and apparently has a flying horse and some unexplained powers) and you've got a whole lot of insane reformatting of the series.

Hawkeye's changes are probably greater than everybody else's, the death of his family in Ultimates 2 seems to have created a man who's unafraid of death and seems to relish the sweet embrace. Even more disturbing, his new costume looks less like Hawkeye (he's even dropped the bow and arrow in lieu of double pistols and a mini-crossbow) and more like Daredevil villain Bullseye, complete with the proper forehead adornment.

Captain America isn't even here for this opening sequence, as he's for some reason (read: no particular reason) decided he needs to find himself. So now he's never around. Oh, and Tony Stark has a sex tape with former Ultimate, full-time corpse Black Widow that's patrolling the internet. Do you feel tension yet??

The action is frentic, but it takes too much of the issue. The big battle between the Ultimates and Venom goes for 12 pages, and that's more than half the book. The rest of the book are quick little story-fillers, written solely because someone told Loeb the entire book couldn't be one battle. The story feels too rushed, and maybe this is because Ultimates 3 will only be a 5-issue series, as opposed to the 12 and 13-issue series' the first two were. That really shouldn't be an excuse, though, as Loeb should have enough experience to work around that. Besides that, though, the book reads as "dumb." Huge panels are full of action, while in several instances characters rely on one-word statements intended to be indicative of the current situation.

The art, meanwhile is fantastic. I hope this isn't a series that's going to exist purely for it's artwork, but if it is, you could certainly do worse. I do have issues with it, but I can certainly see why Wizard magazine once dubbed Madureira one of the most influential comic artists of all time; That doesn't mean they weren't wrong, but he is damn good, and it's a shame he doesn't get more to work with. Frankly, though, it seems like they got Madureira to put on the best damn T&A show in comics, as skimpy costumes dominate the story. Wasp's new costume reveals a ton of skin (and ironically, for the first time, a mask), Scarlet Witch is wearing even less than usual, and as you can see from this image of Valkyrie below, the two-page shot never looked so good. Hell, we're even shown the Tony Stark-Natasha Romanov sex tape on the first fracking page of the book, so loose morals could possibly be one of the prevalent topics for the next four issues.

Even the guys get into this act; Black Panther looks one part WWE, one part WWF (and never utters a word) and even drunk Tony Stark has all his pectorals in order. And the ironic thing? This story takes place in Winter. You'd think the women would at least have winter uniforms or something. Not that I mind at all looking at the pages, you realize; It just seems a little much.

This is not the Ultimates. Miller and Hitch, that's what the Ultimates are. And to think, this is going to go on for five issues (Although with Madureira known as an unusually slow artist - even for the comics industry - that could last over a year). Five issues of this crap?? I don't think so. I can only thank the Son of Odin that I didn't buy this issue: That can only fall on the shoulders of fellow scribe Elmo, who can be forgiven for purchasing this title through the sheer fact that it says Ultimates on the cover. But these are no Ultimates. It's kind of like the pretty waitress/actress/models you see around Hollywood or New York City. Fun to look at (over and over), but once you get close and personal, you realize there's just not much there.

On a side note, sorry for taking so long between posts. Some boxes are harder to put down than others, and I'll be back to at least a weekly schedule from now on, Latest Issue Guarantee.

Tuesday, November 27, 2007

Overdue Backstory

Everyone remembers House of M, right? Right?

Before Messiah Complex, One More Day, World War Hulk, Planet Hulk, and Civil War, House of M was the major Marvel event that shook the cosmos and rearranged the entire universe. During the eight-issue series, we saw a number of House of M spin-offs, some good (Spider-Man, Fantastic Four), others not so much (Hulk, Iron Man, Uncanny X-Men). The one thing missing was a House of M rendition of one of the most important teams of all time, the Avengers.

So how do you make a version of the Avengers in the House of M continuity? Steve Rogers never took the Super Soldier serum. Giant Man's a scientist stooge. Thor's still dead. Hulk is... the Hulk. So how's it done? Simple, you tell the story of the B-Team superheros who are the first to meet psychic mutant Layla Miller and set the gears in motion for the downfall of the House of M.

And so we begin with Luke Cage, recently self-removed from prison and walking the neon-lit streets of Times Square with one thing on his mind: revenge. See, his childhood friend set him up and left him to die in prison, and now Cage is back, after being experimented on and subsequently escaping from prison, prepared to rectify that issue. And after he does that, he single-handedly becomes the fastest-rising kingpin of organized crime in New York, one looking out for the dwindling "Sapien" populace. One thing remains true of Cage in this reality: Before he was black and at the bottom of the social ladder, now he's just a homo sapien (not homo sapien "superior") and in the same place. And it doesn't seem he would have it any other way.

About halfway through the first issue of this miniseries it turns from a blaxploitation comic to a sapianploitation comic with the addition of other non-mutant heroes who don't have a place in this new world order. Iron Fist, Moon Knight, The Prowler, Tigra, Misty Knight and Mockingbird (setting up an obvious future Mockingbird death scene) appear, but probably most important of all Cage's new recruits is his first, Hawkeye. As you can guess, this is the first chronological appearance of Hawkeye's "rebirth" after being killed by the Scarlet Witch in "Avengers: Disassembled." Hawkeye is a wonderfully rendered character, angered that "in a world where the girl-next-door shoots lasers from her eyes, people decided skill with a bow didn't mean much," and genuinely wants to prove himself in that world.

And what great writing brought that about! House of M: Avengers may be long overdue, but the writing certainly wasn't shoved out the door unfinished. Christos N. Gage (Authority) is a writer who has impressed me with what little I've seen of him so far. I loved the X-Men miniseries he wrote for World War Hulk and this series looks to be just as good in the script department. If he focused on comics instead of trying to write TV shows and movies like The Breed and Teenage Caveman, he might be up there in the Geoff Johns and Matt Fraction category. I wish I could say the same of the first issue's artwork. The use of shadows in the cover art is a bit much, but not a deal-breaker. Inside, however, is art that ranges from pretty good to pretty pathetic. That it all comes from one artist, Mike Perkins (Captain America) is astounding in and of itself. We usually like Perkins' work, but parts of this issue seem rushed, while others look great set against the mediocrity surrounding them. Perhaps those issues will be settled later in the series.

And I definitely can't wait for the rest of this series to show up on comic store shelves. House of M: Avengers #1 may be well past it's due date, but this was a story that for too long had gone untold, and while I didn't love the first issue, I certainly liked it enough to patiently wait for issue 2, and then the rest of this series to materialize and show Marvel fans what they'd been missing.

Friday, November 23, 2007

Cap's Dead, But Not the Captain!

"Nobody's dead but Bucky."

Wait, Bucky's alive? Winter Soldier? Ooookay....

In the great tradition of comic book companies bringing a long-unused character back from the dead in order to sell a few books, we here at The Latest Issue are proud to review Captain Marvel 1, also known as "Hey, that's not Billy Batson!" #1.

Actually, our good friend Mar-Vell isn't dead yet. No, the story doesn't take place before the events of Jim Starlin's The Death of Captain Marvel, back in 1982.

Or does it?

Actually, this Captain Marvel story takes place not long after the Marvel Civil War, during which a time-displaced Captain Marvel accidentally got ejected from the Negative Zone and immediately was put to work as warden of the new superhero gulag that our friend Steve of Stevereads so pleasantly reminds us exists each and every time we review a Marvel comic. Iron Man had a reason for giving Mar-Vell such a ridiculously silly assignment: He didn't want Marvel to die.


As any fan of science fiction will tell you, time travel is tricky business. Our friend Brian said so in his Sound of Thunder review on Moving Picture Trash. Change something, even the smallest thing, and you could seriously frack up the space-time continuum. Mar-Vell has already fought Nitro in the battle that caused the cancer that eventually ended his life, so he already carries this curse in his blood. He will eventually die of cancer, once he's returned to his own time. But if Mar-Vell were to take up arms in the conflicts that come naturally as a superhero, and he were to die before returning to his own time... You see where I'm going with this. Marvel doesn't want to die on his back. He wants to eventually die a warrior's death. So he abandons his post in the Negative Zone prison. And he leaves.

He disappears.

To France, where he spends his time at the Louvre looking at paintings and pondering a life that ended poorly, at least in his opinion. This lasts as long as it takes for some idiot super-villain named Cyclone to find Mar-Vell, try to make a name for himself by offing an already-dead hero, and wind up paste.

The ensuing story involved a S.H.I.E.L.D. agent named Heather Sante, a strange cult that worships the return of Captain Marvel, and Tony Stark, AKA Iron Man (I know he's got a movie coming out, but does IM have to be in every comic Marvel puts out these days? Avengers, Order, Thunderbolts, Penance, Ms. Marvel, She-Hulk, etc until I throw up), all of which is compounded by the fact that it's a scant five-issue series, a sign that the company doesn't have much faith in attracting too many new fans with this new, improved CM.

And is he really improved? The Captain Marvel who died almost 25 years ago was comfortable with his inevitable demise, knowing he'd lived a full life, the only way he knew how. This Marvel hates the idea of dying "in my bed. On my back." He wants to die in battle, an honorable death. Apparently the Kree became Klingons when I wasn't looking. It's a bit much, creating an emotional paradox where there had existed none before.

And yet we can't hate this title. We actually like it very, very much. Brian Reed (Ms. Marvel, New Avengers: Illuminati) was tabbed to write this series, and he's done a spectacular job. The dialogue is crisp, the storytelling is smooth, and it really couldn't have been done any better. Despite the inconsistencies of Marvel's character, it's really only something people who read earlier Captain Marvel would pick up on, and how many of those people are still reading comics? The artwork by Lee Weeks (Incredible Hulk) is incredible. Vast landscapes and enclosed spaces, closeup faces and action sequences, none of it looks poor in the slightest. There are a few panels with nonexistent backgrounds, but such minimalism is rare and gives the art almost an old-timey look to the not-too-recent history of comic art.

We really didn't know what to think of the return of Captain Marvel. For geeks with long memories, this should be the start to a spectacular series, even if it's one that's far too short. I fear new fans will miss this book, however, and I feel I have to urge them: Read this book! It's fantastic and shouldn't be missed by anyone!

On a side note, be sure to also check out The Death of Captain Marvel. It's old, but damn good, and you should see for yourself a tribute to one who was once right up on that pedestal with the Fantastic Four and The Avengers.

Tuesday, November 13, 2007

Law and Order

If you could be a super-hero for one year, would you?

Marvel's Civil War storyline has been accused of a lot of things. The continuity was confusing, characters appeared in seven different places at the same time, Sally Floyd was introduced, and to of course hear Steve tell it, every Marvel character is now complicit with the murder of Steve "Captain America" Rogers and any issue in which a certain character doesn't go over to Tony Stark's Helecarrier and punch him in the head is a travesty for the company. Not my words, mind you, but I say simply that Marvel seemed to drop the ball on what should have been a universe-changing event. Only two major changes have taken place: Almost all the heroes in the US are under the watchful eye of S.H.I.E.L.D. and only a few major players remain at large, BUT that will probably change before the end of next year; Also, Captain America was killed, BUT we'll see how long that lasts. Marvel's flip-flopped before, and there's really not any reason to think these major changes are actually that for the long run.

However, often overlooked are the many successes that came about after the dust settled. Avengers: The Initiative is starting off as a great series, the New Warriors story is extremely good, Mighty Avengers and New Avengers have both been solid titles, Ms. Marvel has been fantastic since the Civil War, and Immortal Iron Fist has been just wonderful. But no post-Civil War title has been more original and as interesting as The Order.

Of the 50-States Initiative that Tony Stark (Steve's nemesis) had started, California's program was the most unique. Instead of using established heroes, drug up from the bottomless annals of the Marvel Universe, they decide to draft volunteers. Civilian volunteers. People who want to be more than they are, do more than they can. And so these people are trained to be the best they can be, are given nanite injections that artificially create superpowers that last one year, and are tasked with protecting the state of California from anything that would threaten it.

And what a litany of threats California has. When the Order isn't defending the San Gabriel mountains from the flames of the Infernal Man, preventing a sleeper Russian nuclear team from accidentally blowing up the California seaboard, or protecting the shoppers on Rodeo Drive from a swarm of Zobos (think Zombie-Hobo hybrid), they're facing internal disputes (like the ones between speedster James "Calamity" Wa and psychokinetic Mulholland Black), political pressure (the California Historical Society wants them kicked out of the building they own because it's a historical landmark) and the ever-mysterious "M.A.N. from S.H.A.D.O.W." who would seem to like nothing more than to see the Order fail.

We enter issue 4 of this series written by Matt Fraction (Punisher War Journal, Immortal Iron Fist) and drawn by Barry Kitson (Legion of Super Heroes) with the the re-emergence of Zobo hordes once again attacking downtown Los Angeles. Even worse, there appear to be exactly twice as many of the loathsome bastards as when the Order faced them in the third issue. Then, to add insult to injury, the team is undermanned, with Calamity getting the day off (and off-grid) and Mulholland being placed on a special assignment to determine how and why a former Order operative was found dead less than 6 hours after being fired. It isn't long before S.H.I.E.L.D. sends backup, but big question still unanswered is who created these things, and why.

One of the best parts about the series so far is the attention to character development. Each issue starts with the "interview", the one these volunteers took before being accepted into the program. We learn a bit about their history, and get an insight into how they came to volunteer for the program. In this issue, we look at Magdalene "Veda" Marie, daughter of a German father and a Mexican mother, who at a young age decided she wanted to focus on tae kwon do and help orphans. Then she grew up, won tournaments, got noticed for modeling, transitioned to actress (one that could do her own stunts, no less), and used the money she gained to help orphans. Now she has the power to create golems from the earth and control them in battle. Quite a career so far.

While I question the need to artificially create superheroes for the state of California with the current super powered population exceeding that of several small cities (and why wouldn't any of them volunteer for California anyway?) it's only a slight nitpick. I unabashedly love The Order and how the series has progressed so far. Fraction is a fantastic writer, one that truly understands pacing, suspense, action, and the human condition. He plunges you right into this drama of normal people becoming something greater than themselves. Kitson's artwork is not always consistent, sometimes it seems like he spent more time on some panels than others, but is mostly very good, and his style compliments the story being told perfectly.

I can't stress this enough: The Order is a superlative series, and you should be reading this book if you love superhero comics, period. If you haven't yet, pick up the first four issues at your local comic shop, and ogle at what probably comes closest to perfection this side of the Marvel/DC threshold.

Saturday, November 10, 2007

Christopher Reeve Returns!

I always hate sharing reviews, like the one I share today with our sister publication Stevereads. It always feels like I'm doing something unoriginal, retreading on someone else's work. But in this case, I have two things going against me: one, last week had shown a dearth of possible review choices, essentially leaving me with this one; and two, this issue is too damn good not to review!

Now, there are two kinds of comic fans in this world. There's the kind who've never heard of -- or only heard of in fleeting glimpses -- the Legion of Super-heroes. Every once in a while, when they appear in the continuity, these comic fans couldn't care less. For them, the Legion is nothing too special.

Then, there are the Legionnaires. Probably the most devoted fans ever, these fans look upon every instance of the Legion in DC history as scripture, who know every Legionnaire's terribly-conceived nickname and history, from Bouncing Boy to White Witch, Braniac-5 to Timber Wolf. And this issue we're reviewing tonight, Action Comics #858, is for them. Written by Geoff Johns (fast becoming our favorite DC scribe) and with art by Gary Frank (Squadron Supreme), this issue begins a new Superman-Legion storyline that could be fantastic when all is said and done.

It all begins on an alien planet in the distant year 3008, where civil war has run rampant. Two parents strap their child into a rocket and, inspired by the tales of Krypton's last son, launch it into space and towards Earth, so that it may live a full life and become a new hero to the people of earth. After some travel, the rocket crash lands in the heart of Smallville (There's even a sign: "Welcome to Smallville - Birthplace of Superman!") where it lands in a crop field. What is it with aliens and crop fields, anyway? Ahem. Moving on...

A couple, driving by in their "hover-truck", witness the crash and look to see what it is. When they see an alien baby has emerged from the pod, they do what any person on Earth in the year 3008 would do.

"We kill it."

And so it begins, and we are returned to today, where Christopher Reeve -- I mean Clark Kent -- is suffering the usual doldrums of being a shy, sensitive young man in Metropolis. He can't make any friends, his best friend is an obnoxious photo-geek named Jim Olsen, and as far as Lois Lane is concerned, she might not exist. So after getting a chewing out by Perry White over his self-confidence issues (Perry's no smooth talker, let's say that much) Chris -- I mean Clark -- gets what he thinks will be a brief reprieve when Braniac starts tearing up a nearby park and Christopher -- I mean Clark! -- leaps out a window and changes into Christopher Reeve -- dammit, I mean Superman! Turns out this isn't just some random Braniac attack, though. It's actually a message from Braniac's descendant, Braniac-5. Turns out something terrible is happening in the future (as alluded to in the recent JLA and JSA story lines) and now Braniac-5 feels he has no choice but to bring Chris -- I mean Superman -- to the future to solve what's happening.

This is a good first issue, but I still feel a little lost as far as some of the more Legion aspects go. I'm no member of the Legion fan club, that's for sure, but I'm slowly but surely leaving the other end of the spectrum after some Steve-approved Legion reading. Even I know the story, first told back in Adventure Comics #247 (April 1958), where Cosmic Boy, Saturn Girl and Lightning Boy (later Lightning Lad) first recruited young Superboy to the future to become an honorary member of the Legion. But there's still a lot about the Legion I don't know, and it's not something that can really be picked up overnight.

Also, the art is a little... I don't really know what to think of the artwork by Frank. The layouts are gorgeous, and the backgrounds are beautiful. It's the character art that I have a problem with. Besides the fact that by now we know who played Frank's favorite version of Superman (hint: it ain't Dean Cain), all the characters not portrayed by a dead celebrity (and that doesn't count a young Christopher Reeve -- I mean Clark Kent!) are a little creepy-looking (okay, that covers the young Kent) The eyes are a little too wide, as if they all belonged to the same suicide cult, looking for new recruits. It's like butter-face. Every thing's good "but the face".

This issue and probably this whole series should be the best thing to happen to Legion fans and non-Legion fans alike. For the fan-boys, the very appearance of the Legion should be reason enough to pick up this book. For non-Legion fans, the opportunity to learn for yourself about the Legion should be the perfect pretense for picking up this book and the subsequent issues. As I said before, Geoff Johns is fast becoming one of my favorite writers, and as long as he keeps writing for Action Comics, I'll take a gander.

Just no more Christopher Reeve... please!!

Wednesday, November 7, 2007

The Latest Issue... Now with Less Summarization!

Many of you have let me know that I summarize a bit too much in my reviews, and you're right! I've come to realize that I'm letting too much of the plot come off in my reviews, even unintentionally, and now the new, leaner reviews I've tried out the last couple of times have worked better than I could have imagined! So from now on, no more plot spoilers for those of you who simply enjoy me berating the hell out of Omega: The Unknown for paragraphs on end. I'll review, and hopefully you'll read these titles on your own and feel the same way I do.


Sunday, November 4, 2007

... And Justice for All

One word: "Wow."

Still with me? Good. I may still be relatively new to this whole comic book business, but I can say I think without a doubt that Justice Society of America 10 is the greatest comic I've read, certainly in recent memory.

Now, to fully understand it, you need to go back in time to the Crisis on Infinite Earths, and learn there were once TWO Supermen, Earths 1 and 2. Kal El, the original Superman, and Kal L, the one who's cousin is Power Girl. Got it? Good.

Apparently, at the end of that Crisis, when the Multiverse was destroyed, Kal L (Earth 2 Superman) was stuck in the only universe left (Earth 1) with no purpose whatsoever. When Infinite Crisis came around (95-96) DC killed off Kal L and Power Girl (his cousin) mourns his death.

Still got it? Maybe? Well, don't worry if you don't understand every emotion coursing through this book, because all you need to appreciate this issue are a pair of eyes and a sense of wonderment. It's gorgeous, from the Geoff Johns and Alex Ross storytelling, to the Dale Eaglesham artwork, to the specially painted pages by Ross, this comic comes nothing short of brilliant.

To summarize, at the end of JSA 9, the team had solved the problem of a dead super-villain causing an inextinguishable towering inferno by having Starman (Thom Kallor) create a black hole and toss the dead Goth inside. This apparently had the dubious effect of bringing a whole new Superman from... somewhere, none of them knowing quite who he is.

Remember when I said there was supposedly no Multiverse? Uh, yeah. Didn't take, I guess. Actually, taking Marvel's explanation of chronal physics (Steve is frothing at the mouth about now) a new Universe exists for each choice of every decision that is made. So even if the Multiverse was destroyed during the Crisis on Infinite Earths, there's no reason to think that new universes didn't immediately start popping up since. Okay, end of the Marvel allegory right there.

Anyone who's read Kingdom Come (and shame on you if you haven't, read it and come back later) will know exactly who this man is. This is the Superman from Earth-22 (as Starman refers to it), transported from an Earth where superheros run rampant, and only Superman and his allies were keeping it from destroying the people they'd sworn to protect. All the Sudden, this Superman finds himself in what is almost a complete opposite, where teams like the Justice Society keep those kind of things from happening to begin with, where people are protected by the heroes, not protected from them.

There's one sequence (if you check out this book, you'll know it when you see it) that is just done beautifully. I won't give any details away, just read it if you haven't already... or, hell, even if you have read it already. I've reread that sequence a dozen times already, and it still hits me right there, every time. As I said before, the artwork by Dale Eaglesham is good enough anyway, but when the new Superman thinks back to his Earth the flashbacks are done in gorgeous Alex Ross paintings. It makes me desperately want a new Alex Ross book to read, or to just go back and reread Kingdom Come. There's simply nobody like Ross. There really isn't anything wrong with this issue. The ending does seem a little slapped together, but not so much that it detracts from the rest of the book. And that's really just a minor quibble.

Probably the most intriguing part of all this is that DC's new promotional ad is a two-page spread reciting: "...And Evil Shall Inherit the Earth." Among other interesting parts of the spread are a trio of Supermen who appear to be the "evil" supermen. One is Hank Henshaw, the robotic Superman who appeared after The Death of Superman. But one of the others is this alternate Superman, apparently harnessing the power of the Atom. It's one more piece of the puzzle that we're getting from this current JSA run, and I can't wait for more from this team, and to see where it all ends up.

Saturday, November 3, 2007

Jolly Green... She-Hulk?

Consistency is always a good thing. For instance, I purchased She-Hulk 22 the other day. I brought it to the register and my favorite bookstore clerk, Ann, rung me up. She scanned the bar-code, but before she placed it in my bag, she glanced at the cover. She got this look on her face, like someone stuck a Ceti Eel into her ear canal, and remarked: "She-Hulk? My god, look at her breasts!" Later that day, my friend Mary noticed my copy lying on the kitchen counter and remarked, "My god, look at her breasts!"

And it's true. Jennifer Walters, AKA "She-Hulk", AKA "Shulkie," AKA "Big-Breasted Green Girl" (OK, I made that one up) has the only pair of FFF's in the universe this side of the pornographic industry. But we love her. Not because of her mammoth mounds, per se (although we imagine there are some virgin readers who wouldn't if she was, I dunno, the Hulk) but rather because the last few years we've been treated to fantastic storytelling by Dan Slott and Ty Templeton; and perhaps more importantly, because Jen is an irreverent, funny, friendly, driven human being we can all identify with. The only difference between us is that she can turn Green and hurt people when she doesn't want to be herself. Not a bad deal.

At the end of She-Hulk 21, Slott ended his run as writer on the series. Jennifer Walters, previously de-powered in the wake of World War Hulk. got her gamma-radiated powers back. She got her lawyer job back at her old law firm, GLK&B. She was hanging out with her best friend, Guy "Pug" Pugliese. All was right with the world.

Well... not so much. When Peter David takes over writing a title, it's a big deal. He's got the experience that comes from writing every hour of every day you can over a lifetime. His recent run on X-Factor is fantastic. And it can possibly be assumed that this run on She-Hulk will eventually be the same. I say eventually, because it sure isn't there yet.

She-Hulk 22 opens in New York (where else could it be?), where a wannabe super-thief, calling himself "Hi-Lite" breaks into the New York Museum of Antiquities to steal a cup purported to be the basis of the Holy Grail. It sure didn't look like the cup of a carpenter, but Hi-Lite obviously had a buyer ready because he was just about to make off with the cup when he was interrupted by a security guard. Firing blindly with a laser cutter, Hi-Lite grazed the guard but almost did more than that, as the guard then seized up and had a heart attack. Not wanting a murder on his conscience, Hi-Lite applied CPR until paramedics and police arrived on the scene to resuscitate the guard. He was then immediately arrested.

Now, if this had been a Dan Slott story, our lovable She-Hulk would be defending this villain with a conscience (who's cousin just happens to be one of her nemeses, guess which one!) and get him perhaps a second chance on the right path. Uh... no. Instead, we're introduced to Jennifer Walters: F.B.I.


She's working for a subsidiary of GLK&B called Freeman Bonding Inc. and is apparently a registered bounty hunter, tasked with bringing in Rockwell "Hi-Lite" Davis for skipping his court date. "How it all happened is a funny story. I'll probably talk about it when I stop crying."
Why not now, Peter David? Remember what I said about consistency? What did you do to She-Hulk, Peter?


Sorry about that. It's like when someone tapes over your favorite episode of Battlestar Galactica with a Three Stooges marathon. There's nothing wrong with the Stooges, but Galactica is infinitely better.

And that's the problem here. By changing the continuity, or at least altering it to his style of narrative, he's taken away (at least for the time being) part of what made Shulkie a unique, fun read. It's not bad, but I enjoyed Dan Slott more.

That's not to say it's all bad. The artwork, penciled by Shawn Moll (Outsiders) is light years ahead of the previous Rick Burchett work, even though Hi-Lite, listed as 25, looks like a 40-year-old in his mug shot. (Spoiler!) The return of Titania and her boyfriend Absorbing Man is compelling, although it illustrates that Titania is She-Hulk's only REAL nemesis besides life as Jen Walters. And as I said before, there's no reason to think David's story won't get better.

She-Hulk 22 is not She-Hulk at her finest. But I refuse to give up on the old girl. I'll buy the next issue, and perhaps the next, until I am convinced beyond a shadow of a doubt that Peter David has ruined the series. I really don't want for that to be the case, but we'll be keeping a watchful eye in her direction, hoping David can catch this particularly green-tinted lighting in a bottle.

Thursday, November 1, 2007

The Bold and the Brave

I've been struggling lately.

I've been trying to figure the proper place to review my first DC comic. Anyone who's paid attention knows that every comic review I've done so far has been of a Marvel comic book (technically Marvel Zombies vs. the Army of Darkness was a collaborative between Marvel and Dynamite Entertainment, but I digress) and the reason for that is simple. I don't usually read DC comics.

This can be traced to when I first started reading classic comics. my favorite character as an uninitiated reader was Captain America. I knew next to nothing about his history, though, and my colleagues Steve and Elmo thereby embarked me on the classic Avengers runs, when characters such as Giant-Man and Hercules were regular characters, and Hawkeye, Scarlet Witch and Quicksilver were just getting their legacies started. Avengers led eventually to Fantastic Four, Thor, Iron Man, X-Men, Cable/Deadpool. She-Hulk, Nova, Thunderbolts, and the like. Note the relationship. All Marvel titles. Steve has been especially adamant of making me take notice of what he firmly believes is the superior comic company. Slowly, I've been accepting reads of several titles, not the least of which were the vaunted super-groups, Justice League and the Justice Society of America. I've been pleasantly surprised by some of it, though I can't in good faith agree that DC is that much better than Marvel, especially since the latest Justice League run has been even by Steve's admission pretty bad, and when the 52 and Countdown series have been either partly or completely convoluted to the uninitiated.

But that brings me to one title that DC has put out that is not bad. In fact, it's been very, very good! The Brave and the Bold is the classic formula of a superhero match-up, in which DC heroes pair-up in stand-alone stories that follow a central story that eventually brings everybody together for a big showdown. So, in one issue you'll have Supergirl teamed up with Lobo, which turns to Batman and the Legion of Superheroes, which turns to Green Lantern and Batman, all without breaking the central continuity.

In The Brave and the Bold 7, a pair of very similar heroes team up in a true stand-alone story, as Wonder Woman and Power Girl team up in a tale involving a second-string villain, the Philosopher's Stone, and red kryptonite! It all begins in what we can only assume is Egypt, since we're never told exactly where. Wonder Woman and Power Girl are duking it out with what must be a battalion of resurrected mummies. Now, let's face it. Mummies are not going to be much of a threat to these two. Wonder Woman, with her super strength and indestructable bracelets, is the toughest woman in the business. And let's not forget Power Girl, seemingly a second-string superhero but for the fact that she's basically a female Superman without the weakness to this universe's kryptonite (since she's from another universe's Krypton). There should be conceivably no stronger all-female pairing in the entire comics industry, and the pair should have no problem with any obstacle placed in their path.

Well, that's only about half true. Power Girl seems to have an authority problem, as she doesn't exactly take well to any idea of Wonder Woman being the brains of the outfit. She prefers to punch her way through an army of the undead, wheras WW naturally carries the wisdom of Athena so she doesn't rely overly on brute strength. After Wonder Woman's idea for stopping the mummy threat pans out, the two are about to part ways, Wonder Woman back to her Justice League, Power Girl back to her Justice Society. Retreiving WW's Lasso of Truth from the rubble, PG is in the midst of handing it to her when Diana asks her:

"Where are you off to now?"

"To murder Superman in his Fortress."

Naturally this brings on the "uncomfortable silence" as neither woman can quite believe that those words came out of PG's mouth. When both regain their composure, WW believes that Kara has obviously been brainwashed, and has to physically restrain her with the Lasso to try and figure out who did this, and why. She finds a blank spot in PG's memory, and only a few stray words make it. One is of special interest to Wonder Woman: "Megistus."

This leads the duo to the Royal Library of Alexandria, where Diana explains the legend of Megistus. Apparently, he was a powerful sorcerer who had the usual power trip and stole the treasures of the Library with the intent of becoming the most powerful sorcerer ever. He hadn't been seen in ages, and for that matter, neither had the Library, supposedly lost in time. But, with a few magic talismans and oils, Diana solves THAT problem with what amounts to very little effort.

There's more, but I wouldn't want to ruin the surprise for any of you, would I? Really, I have almost no problems with this issue, or this run as a whole. The pairing of these two powerhouse females is truely inspired, with the wise and noble Wonder Woman almost bickering constantly with Power Girl, who is much less mature, more likely to lead with her fists. She's almost at a teenager level of immaturity, she has all this power but she doesn't have the training or will to use it wisely. Honestly, could you say you'd be different? You have the power to beat the living crap out of bad guys, and when you face off against someone who for all intents and purposes can't be beaten by brute strength alone, wouldn't you be bitter and angry, too? She also seems to have a natural dislike for Wonder Woman, as if she thinks WW believes she's so much better than PG. It's a perfect imperfect match. The Bob Wiacek (Omac Project) and Tom Smith (JLA/Avengers, JSA) artwork is very good, clean and uncluttered. and the writing by Mark Waid (Legion of Superheroes, 52) and George Perez (too many works to account) is great. A story of conflict and resolution at it's best, and despite a few shortcuts to keep things moving at a brisk pace, it's done very well.

I only had a few complaints about this book. One: a poor attempt to tie it in to the main storyline at the end was mostly unnecessary. The inclusion of the Challengers of the Unknown as a whole is pretty confusing to me, but that may be mainly because I don't know anything about them. But my biggest complaint about this title was the 8 page "advertisement" in the very middle of the book for a certain fish-shaped cracker. It's easily removed, and doesn't take any energy to skip, but 8 pages??? What, is DC that hard up for cash? At least when Marvel takes a couple pages to advertise items, it's usually their own merchandise or an upcoming series.

The Brave and the Bold is a solid series that has successfully integrated both great storytelling and compelling action, and they continue this trend in issue 7. If you're going to read DC, this had better be one of the titles you're picking up on a regular basis. If not, now's the time to get in gear.

Monday, October 22, 2007

Two is Better

These men understood it... two is better than one!! Scroll down and you'll see not one, but two reviews for your reading pleasure! What's the occasion, do you ask? Well, it's almost a week since my first post, and since it took me so long to write one, I decided to add a bonus second review at no extra charge! I'm off to Philadelphia this week, I wish I could say I was off to some 'Con for some exclusive news, but it'll be family that keeps me away from my computer this week. Hopefully I'll have something ready to go as soon as I get back, so there won't be many delays from now on. Until then, take the wise words of the above men to heart, and come back next time!

Unknown No Longer

In the never-ending quest to find out whether or not big-budget comic book companies should bother shelling out the extra green for big-name authors continues as we take a look at the first issue of Jonathan Lethem's miniseries Omega: The Unknown. For Lethem, author of the New York Times bestseller Fortress of Solitude, this is his first jaunt into the world of comic writing, following in the footsteps of Eric Jerome Dickey (Storm) and Jodi Picoult (Wonder Woman). Unlike his predecessors, Lethem seems to have a passion for his subject, though few others did.

The original Omega the Unknown was a Marvel release from 1976-1977 and only lasted 10 issues before being canceled due to poor sales. It told the story of James-Michael Starling, a gifted 12-year-old boy who apparently had a superhero as a guardian angel. That hero, Omega, would always appear whenever the boy was in danger, though we never found out in that ten issue run what their connection was. Although it was canceled and didn't do very well sales-wise, apparently the comic had a small cult following, of which Jonathan Lethem was an supposed member.

Fast forward to 2007, and the first issue of the new miniseries is released. It opens in a forest at night as the titular Omega is camping near an abandoned cabin. As he prepares the fire and cooks his dinner (two ducks or swans from the look of it) three robotic figures are checking out a space ship that appears to have crash-landed in the area. Whether the ship that crashed is theirs or Omegas is yet to be explained. The robots track Omega down, there's a brief scuffle, a nice opening monologue by Omega speaking to himself before he's struck from behind by one of the 'bots. Then the whole comic gets kinda... bad.

After Omega is rendered unconscious, 14-year-old Alexander awakes from his nightmares, which are apparently common. His parents, to whom he refers as Rupert and Lydia, come in and check up on him. This is where the comic gets not just weird, but painful to read. The dialogue is so clammy, so... uptight. These people don't talk like you and me. It's understandable for Alexander, who we realize is -- say it with me, people -- "gifted," but his parents have no excuse. They're supposed to be "normal" but they don't talk like it. They certainly don't talk like normal Pennsylvania suburbanites. The dialogue isn't all bad. When told he's a teenager now, and doesn't need to refer to kids his age as "children," he responds: "I'm fourteen years old, yes. But teenager, if I've understood correctly, is a social role." Who among us hasn't felt like that? We're old enough, but feel like we don't truly belong with any of the others. And, when told by Lydia that learning social behaviors might be fun (what high school did she go to?) he miserably responds "The more often you use that word, the less I believe you." It's pretty good, but doesn't last long.

After a near-collision with a gas tanker runs Alexander and his parents off the road the day after his most recent nightmare, Alexander is surprised to see the decapitated head of his mother lying next to him on the ground outside their crashed vehicle (guess Alex wasn't wearing his safely belt) and even more surprised when it speaks to him. This is all before he blacks out and we're mercifully devoid of him speaking for several pages.

However, this only serves to introduce another "meh" character, known at first as "Mr. Kansur" and after a few minutes we're revealed his superhero avatar, The Mink. The Mink?? Anyway, the Mink is a self-obsessed glory-hound, the type of person who is famous for being famous. He's called to the scene of the accident by the New Jersey Police (Alex and his 'rents were traveling to NYC at the time of the accident, this probably took place on the Jersey Turnpike) to check out the decapitated, android head of Lydia. Fascinated, the Mink hooks Lydia's head up to a car battery to see if that would get it running, I guess, and succeeds in melting all the fabricated skin and muscle tissue off the head before the metallic head itself blackens and burns up. Before he takes off he learns the fate of the surviving Alexander (in a coma at the hospital) and has someone keep an eye on him, in case he's as interesting as his parents were.

At Colombia Presbyterian Hospital, Alex is deep in his coma, with a young nurse named Edie Fallinger. She's new and, as of this point, the only person who seems to care for this comatose boy lying in a hospital bed for seemingly no reason. It doesn't take long, but he does eventually wake... which coincides with the forgotten hero Omega's escape from his robotic captors. Somehow, seemingly feeling the direction he must go, Omega hitchhikes his way to New York City... towards this boy he's supposedly sworn to protect.

Let's get down to it. Omega: The Unknown is confusing. It's a world of glory-hogging superheros, corrupt police, uncaring medical establishments, and occasionally searing kindness. It's got bad dialogue, so-so art by Farel Dalrymple (Pop Gun War; Yeah, I never heard of it, either), and an unbelievable situation in which the good nurse takes Alex into her life (somehow I believe Social Services would have something to say about that) The best parts are where Omega makes his appearance, never saying a word, just fighting for this boy who resembles a younger him. And when Alex starts exhibiting powers... well, the idea doesn't seem to stem very far from the ideas expressed in the 70's run.

Omega: the Unknown is not good. Having picked up the first issue, it might be the natural response of many readers to never ever pick up the subsequent issues. This is just a vanity piece by a bestselling author, and Lethem still can't pull it off correctly. Marvel only agreed to put this bunch together because they did the math and Jonathan Lethem = $$$. Even if the comic does poorly, it's only a 10 issue miniseries so it's not a lot of money out of Marvel's pocket; plus the trade release will almost certainly be an indie fan's wet dream.

I never read the original Omega. Now, thanks to Marvel and Lethem, I never want to.

Thursday, October 18, 2007

Come Get Some!

Way back in 1981, a hero was born. With an inimitable swagger and a chainsaw for an arm, Ash Williams (a.k.a. Bruce Campbell, uber-hero to geeks everywhere) tore a legendary run through three movies and four video games and left us such memorable lines as:

"Gimme some sugar, baby."

"THIS... is my BOOM-stick!"

and my personal favorite:

"Shop smart... Shop S-Mart."

And now the legend is back, not doing a sequel to the great Bubba Ho-Tep, but instead diving headlong into the Marvel-ous world of comic superheroes. And to top it off, he's going to face down Earth's mightiest cannibals!

It's Marvel Zombies vs. the Army of Darkness!

Released in September, the hardcover of MZvtAD collects issues 1-5 of the limited series. It's a dark day in this universe, as the skies open up and a man from another dimension falls from the sky... and lands in a dumpster. This is our hero Ash, and he's back from a short jaunt into the afterlife for reasons he can't quite remember.

Ash quickly realizes that this isn't his home dimension as he emerges from the alleyway to discover a superhero battle between a "guy using a construction tool of mass destruction as an artificial appendage" and an "idiot in the Beelzebub bodysuit." But before Ash can enter the fray, an old friend appears. It's the Necronomicon, book of the dead, speaking through a possessed bag lady. She tells him that this world is about to end, that "an Army of the Dead will rise."

Naturally, Ash doesn't much like the idea. So after helping Thunderball defeat Daredevil (like most of us, he doesn't quite realize who are the good and bad guys in a new universe) and discovering that the whole planet is full of superheros and supervillains, he seeks out the best of the best to enlist their efforts. This takes him to Avengers Mansion, where he's greeted rather coldly by the team, which includes some of the greatest Avengers of all time: Colonel America, Iron Man, Thor, Black Widow, Hawkeye, Ms. Marvel. and... Luke Cage? This is Luke Cage as in the yellow-shirt-and-tiara-wearing Luke Cage, not the bad-ass everyman Luke Cage that we're used to these days. Avengers regulations must have been pretty lax in that universe. (Spoiler! Kinda...) Maybe that's why things didn't go so well for them.

They treat Ash's story pretty lightly (it doesn't help that he introduced himself by blasting the gate intercom with his "boom-stick" to get their attention) and one Wanda Maximoff transportation spell later, Ash finds himself in a Central Park pond. Mere seconds after his transportation, pink lightning blasts from the sky, and Ash knows that it's all starting. He runs into the streets, yelling to the already panicked masses that the best thing they could do now is run home and kiss their asses goodbye. (sheez, with heroes like this, who needs Dock Ock?) This naturally leads to the introduction of another hero, Spider-Man, tying up Ash in webbing (odd he doesn't gag him too) and about to take him to be dropped off at the local P.D. when Ash recounts to him what got him sent to this universe. Apparently, he had been about to walk through the Pearly Gates (he was told he couldn't bring his chainsaw and shotgun in with him) when suddenly blood sprayed everywhere, and Ash turns to see a superhero crouched over a heaping pile of bodies. After determining a shotgun blast to the chest had no discernible effect, Ash was blasted into this universe.

Just as he finishes telling this story, they turn a corner and see that this same superhero has now joined Ash in this universe and made mincemeat out of the recently very much alive Avengers. It is in fact the Sentry, or at least a zombified version of him, and this is especially relevant because this is the first instance in the Marvel Zombies continuity where it has been specifically stated that Patient Zero of this zombie strain was Robert Reynolds. When this universe was first introduced in Ultimate Fantastic Four issues 21-23, the initial infector looked more like a zombie Superman, spit-curl and all. Obviously this wouldn't fly as long as DC still makes money, so it had been universally accepted that it was in fact the Sentry. But this is the first confirmation of it.

And the dead begin to rise. Colonel America, then Black Widow and eventually the whole Avengers team begin to reanimate, and New York City is officially screwed. Spider-Man and Ash stay just long enough to rescue one woman trapped cornered in the street, but it's one nanosecond too long, as Colonel America uses the opportunity to put the bite on Spidey. The two still escape, but After Peter Parker abandons Ash to check in on his family (as detailed in the one-shot Marvel Zombies, Dead Days) Ash is joined by a guy named Frank.

"Uh, what do they call you anyway, other than Frank?"

"The Punisher."

"Ugh... of course they do."

(They actually used his logo in that scene when he spoke his name; I tried and tried but couldn't find that exact image to do a true quote; I assure you it would've been more bad-ass that way)

After ditching Punisher and taking a good amount of guns and ammo on the way, Ash is just about to write off all the heroes in this universe when he suddenly turns a corner and sees Winter "Bucky" Soldier trying to take a bite out of former X-Man, permanent Marvel G-list superhero Dazzler. After saving her, Ash makes sure to check long and hard for zombie bites.

This is a general theme. The only characters that Ash hangs with (and that Ash WANTS to hang with him) are the ladies. Especially the ones in the zero-gravity spandex. Before too long Ash, Dazzler and Scarlet Witch (so sorry about not believing Ash now) are searching for the Necronomicon, which Ash is sure is the cause of, and perhaps the cure to, this now-global epidemic. This takes them first to Sorcerer Supeme Stephen Strange's sanctum sanctorum ("What's that? Some kinda super-hero tongue twister?"), and eventually to the kingdom of Latveria, where humanity's last hope is a despot named Doctor Doom.

This book is borderline great. It's got great artwork by Fabiano Neves (Xena, Warrior Princess; at least for the first 3 issues) and the writing by John Layman (House of M: Fantastic Four, Xena) is good if not great; there are holes and inconsistencies in the plot that a better writer wouldn't have missed. There are great humor scenes including (but not limited to) the Blob being chased by a column of zombified heroes, an interrogation of magical tomes in Dr. Strange's library, a zombified Power Pack appearance which leads to "a purely superfluous cameo featuring nextwave five pirate super heroes who get ruthlessly dispatched off-panel mere moments from now, in the most humiliating and degrading ways imaginable," "Sorry, Ash, there's no such thing as a 'Quinjet mile-high club -- and if you don't take your hand off my knee, I'm going to break it off," and a superb scene in which, upon meeting Doctor Doom, "Miss Maximoff, kindly inform your associate that I am the absolute monarch and lord of Latveria, and if he addresses me again as 'Yo, Threpio,' 'Hey, Tin Man,' or 'Domo arigato, Mister Roboto,' I will remove his head from his body." Ash is personalized perfectly, right on line with his Army of Darkness characterization. It even has a great twist at the end.

Unfortunately, like I said before, the art quality only goes through issue 3. I don't know what Neves was doing, but artwork was taken over in issues 4 and 5 by Fernando Blanco (Strangers) and Sean Phillips (Black Widow, Marvel Zombies), and while they aren't BAD, they're certainly not as good as Neves. When Ash disguises himself in a Doombot armor, it comes off terribly. It's striking... one minute there's fantastic artwork; The next, it's drab.

The best part, though, is the return of Arthur Suydam. He continues to reproduce excellent covers based on former Marvel title covers, only zombified. His work is nothing short of spectacular, and each cover is in the back of the book, just waiting for you to check it out.

And you should! This is a great series for people who loved either Marvel Zombies or the Army of Darkness series (or both!) and you should at least check it out at your local Barnes and Noble while it's still on display (it comes plastic-wrapped, but just ask a bookseller if you can open it up to take a look). It's well worth owning.

After I get back from Philadelphia I should be posting on a more punctual timeline, hopefully you'll find this review more than makes up for the time it took to get a second review out! I'll see you next week!