Amazing Spider-Man #537
Marvel / Writer: J. Michael Straczynski / Artist: Ron Garney
I'm not sure whose idea it was to have Spider-Man act totally out of character in the Civil War mini-series and publicly reveal the man under the mask; but over in his own flagship title regular Spidey writer J.M. Straczynski has taken the idea and spun a sequence of excellent tales on how this single act has impacted not only Peter Parker, but his wife and aunt as well. In this issue they're in hiding in a seedy hotel, but it isn't long before their presence is noticed and bought to the attention of one of Spider-Man's enemies. While plans are laid against his family, Peter Parker himself struggles with the idea that he has the weight of the nation on his shoulders and how does he know if he's doing the right thing. His subsequent meeting with Captain America is both uplifting and educational as JMS mixes achieves a tone of awed respect mixed with trademark Parker puns and impish humor. The central part of Cap's lecture is in fact a lengthy quotation form mark Twain in the nature of patriotism and is a far from subtle metaphor in the current US political and cultural climate.
DC / Writer: Will Pfeifer / Artist: David Lopez
So the father of Selina Kyle's baby is revealed. And I couldn't care less. This series and this character have been badly treated by DC in recent years and shows no signs of getting any better. The early Ed Brubaker scripted issues (with art by Darwyn Cooke and Cameron Stewart) of this incarnation were brilliant cutting edge work, but now it's just bland soap opera that wouldn't be amiss on daytime TV.
The last two words in this book are "The End" and the conclusion of this story line would be the perfect place to put this book out of its misery.
Civil War #6
Marvel / Writer: Mark Millar / Artist: Steve McNiven
The first three issues of the current Marvel Universe "mega cross-over" event managed to do something I thought had become impossible, enjoy and care about what was going on in the Marvel Universe of characters. While the basic idea of a "superhero registration act" was far from new, I can recall at least three other occasions when similar idea has been used as a plot device, the execution and the build up to the rift between the various factions of both heroes and villains was focused more on the human elements of the drama and as a result was far more engaging than DC's recent company wide event Infinite Crisis, which was nigh-on impenetrable except to the most avid of DC continuity geeks.
Back to Marvel's Civil War and certain events in issue #4 were both brutally unnecessary and the explanation for them a simple copout. I had hoped that #4 was just a minor slip; issue #5 was little more than a bridging piece to this issue. Unfortunately the issue confirms my worst fears for the series, in that has moved from human drama to little more than a slugfest between so many costumed antagonists that you need a score chart to follow it.
DCU Infinite Holiday Special #1
Compared to past DC Comics Holiday Specials this year's attempt is a disappointing affair with a selection of poorly written and executed stories that do little to reflect the holiday spirit. In keeping with what seems to be current DC editorial policy of writing only for committed fans, you really need to be up on the minutiae of current DC continuity to understand who's who and what's what. I also have a suspicion that in a couple of instances that the tales have been written based on character backstories that the writers and editors know in detail, but haven't actually been published yet. This book is an accurate reflection of everything that's bad in DC's current output at the moment, with the penultimate page splash panel being particularly disturbing. They could have done so much better than this.
Detective Comics #827
DC / Writer: Paul Dini / Artist: Don Kramer
Paul Dini continues his impressive run of single issue Batman stories with another strong tale. This particular issue revolves around the reappearance of the Scarface ventriloquist dummy in the Gotham underworld. But with the original Ventriloquist dead, just who is pulling the strings? And is it true that the dummy itself is more than a simple carved block of wood?
Dini, and artist Kramer, spin an entertaining yarn that has Batman once more being as much a detective as he is a costumed super-hero. The twists in the plot aren't too difficult to anticipate but are still a joy to read when they are revealed.
The Devil's Panties #8
By: Jennie Breeden
Pulling together another selection from Breeden's eclectic and humorous webcomic, this issue covers topics such as comics conventions, intelligent cats, how to get rid of Jehovah's Witnesses, and the pain of new boots.
Told with a sardonic smile, Breedon's brand of humor may not be for all, and while some of the strips leave me a little bemused (as I have no common frame of reference), others strike a very familiar chord and are laugh out loud funny. I spent some time having a brief chat with Jennie Breeden at last year's WizardWorld Texas convention and she is as witty and charming as you would expect from her strips, which are honestly, and at times alarmingly, auto-biographical in inspiration. The artwork is a little crude in execution, but it adds to the strip's charm as it adds a layer of immediacy and spontaneity to the creative process.
Jack Of Fables #6
Vertigo / Writers: Bill Willingham & Matthew Sturges / Artist: Steve Leialoha
This spinoff series from the excellent award winning Fables series continues to develop a distinct narrative tone all of its own as it centers around the misadventures, past and present, of the seemingly ever present "Jack," who has played many parts during his fabled existence. This first of a planned two part tale takes a look at another of his fairy tale personas.
Co-writers Willingham and Sturges (Standard reviewer disclaimer: Matt Sturges is a personal friend.) spin an entertaining yarn that perfectly suits Jack's role as entertainer, raconteur and all-round roguish knave. It's a story of wit, low comedy, scheming, lust and opportunity as Jack at first charms his way into the Snow Queen's castle and then her bed. Of course she ends up being taken in by his charms and eventual bestows upon him the powers that make him Jack Frost (at least for a while).
Unfortunately due to scheduling changes it seems that we will have to wait several months (issue #11) for the second part of this delightful tale. While the dedicated comics fans are to some extent prepared to forgive things like this, it would definitely put off any casual readers who may have picked up this issue and would, naturally, expect issue #7 to have the conclusion between its covers.
Jonah Hex #15
DC / Writers: Justin Gray & Jimmy Palmiotti / Artist: Jordi Bernet
When DC relaunched Jonah Hex I was delighted to see it on the shelf as both a sign of the increasing resurgence of the Western genre in comics and the return of a much loved character. Unfortunately the fact that DC also released a Showcase volume with 500 pages of classic Hex stories from the past at the same time just highlighted the fact that this modern incarnation was a poor substitute. In truth the series has limped along, especially when compared to DC's other Western title, Loveless.
However recent issues promised to tell the "gruesome" origin of Hex and the story, which concluded this issue, was a return to Hex as a strong driven man. It delved into the man's psyche and the events that molded him, developing a back story that informed his actions in a logical and coherent manner. In this concluding chapter we learn the one part of Hex's origin I didn't want to know, just how his face became so hideously scared. To be honest I'd rather that this had been left alone, the hints dropped in early chapters were enough and it would have been great to have told the story of his origin while still retaining some sense of mystery. The fact that the act itself comes off as a little contrived also diminishes from the impact.
The origin story arc was on the whole a powerful and entertaining read and did a lot to salvage this title's slide into mediocrity, but it still has a long way to go to match past glories.
JSA: Classified #20
DC / Writer: Scott Beatty / Artist: Rags Morales
The one character from recent incarnations of the Justice Society that has fascinated me the most is the blind physician Dr. Mid-Nite. In many ways he has developed into the moral center of the team yet has received very little attention when compared to other members of the JSA roster. The two part story that concludes in this issue goes some way to redressing that oversight as it examines the man from both moral and medical perspectives.
Writer Scott Beatty, ably abetted by strong work from artist Rag Morales, spins a tale of vacuous celebrities and illegal transplants of meta-human body parts that is both horror story and morality tale. It serves a dual role as both straight forward action/adventure and as a well developed commentary on the excesses of celebrity obsession with physical transformation.
The medical aspects of the book seem for once to be spot-on with the concept of xeno-grafting being recently nominated as the best "imaginary" medical technique in comic books during 2006. The transformation of a literal throw-away forgotten victim from the DC Universe's past into a chilling new villain showed skill and imagination in building on the rich history of continuity rather than being either a slave to it, or ignoring it completely. These two issues (#19 & 20) combined to produce one of the best stories in this titles run to date.
Negative Burn #7
Desperado / Image
As usual the latest issue of this erratically scheduled black & white anthology series offers a mixed bag of subjects, styles and approach. However on this occasion the good tends to out weigh the mediocre, with nothing descending to the level of "bad."
It opens strongly with an effective slice-of-life/ coming of age piece, "Night Time" by Micheal Cho. From there we jump to a Western then on through self-referential comedy, mythical action comedy (Alexander Grecian and Riley Rossmo's surprising "Berserker"), a seemingly pointless sketch book section, another fun high concept comedy piece (Shane White & Pav Kovacic's "Volstagg: Barbarian Cop"), to a proto-realistic super-hero story, concluding with a tale of action and intrigue in World War I. The last two stories both end with "to be continued" captions, but unfortunately I found them to be the two weakest entries in the book and neither did enough to hook me into picking up the next issue to see "what happens next."
The strength of this title is its variety and value for money at $5.99 for 64 pages of story (or 8c/page)content, compared to the $2.99 for 22 pages (or 15c/page) in one of the standard books from the big-two publishers.
Okko: The Cycle Of Water #1
Archaia Studios Press
/ Writer/Artist: Hub
ASP brings the stunning French series OKKO to a US audience in a more familiar format as a four issue comic book mini-series. Written and illustrated by the excellent "Hub" the series is set in an "alternative" medieval feudal society that looks remarkably like Japan, but isn't. This opening issue sets the scene by introducing the four main characters and the mystery that sets them upon their quest. It does so through the excellent use of character, dialog and action. Not a single panel is wasted, nor a single line of dialog. The character interplay speaks far more than reams of expositionery text or unnecessary "flashbacks." I was immediately hooked. I am hoping that once this translation / adaptation is complete that ASP will issue an English language version in its original hardcover "album" format. If they do it will definitely find a place on my bookcase.
Roam: Demon Engine
Octavio Studios / Writer/Artist: Chris Medellin
I picked up a copy after chatting with writer/artist Chris Medellin at the recent WizardWorld Texas. I was on the lookout for books with a distinctive Texas feel, the fact that his book was also a Western with a few aliens thrown in for good measure made it a definite read. Roam is a envelope title for a series of Western stories that Medellin plans to tell, although it appears that Demon Engine is the only one to appear so far, and this 48 page graphic-novella was published back in 2003.
The book has an excellent premise and starts well enough with its own distinctive style in terms of both art and story telling. As the story develops it seems to take sudden jumps in narrative and occasionally looses its plot thread. Some of the menace isn't built up enough and seems to just "arrive on the scene" lessening the impact. The artwork, especially in the later stages, comes across as a little rushed in places too (although this may be attributable to the personal circumstances Medellin alludes to at the back of the book).
Having said all that I think that in "Sixkiller" and Pinkerton agent "Pratchett" Medellin has a couple of engaging lead characters, and I'd definitely be on board should he ever decide to tell their stories.
Vertigo / Writer: Jason Aaron / Artist: R.M. Guera
In a text sidebar towards the back of this book the editor describes it as "Sopranos on an Indian Reservation." A good tag line summary, but it's far more than that. In short this book is simply intense. Aaron's story of Dash Bad Horse and his return to the reservation he ran away from at age 13 grabs you by the throat from the first few pages and keeps hold right through to the last page reveal. A reveal that turns the book and your assumptions on its head. This is gritty, ugly, full of violence and racial slurs, yet carries with it a sense of untranished reality of the criminal underbelly of the seamier side of modern reservation life.
Guera's dark wash art style fits the story well and adds to the overall feeling of chaos and terror that pervades the book. This isn't an easy read, but it's a powerful one.
One of the best books to carry the Vertigo label in a long time.
The Spirit #1
DC / Writer/Artist: Darwyn Cooke
To my mind Darwyn Cooke is simply the best storyteller working in comics today. As such he is a fitting choice to continue the legacy of arguably comics' greatest story teller, Will Eisner, and continue the adventures of Eisner's signature character, The Spirit.
If this first issue is any indication, then that legacy has ended up in sure hands. Cooke manages to pay homage to and build on classic Eisner motifs without becoming slavish to him. While aware of what came before, he also adds his own distinctive style and techniques in this introductory story that brings us straight into the center of the action. Here is straightforward drama, action, humor and characterization without the need for any distracting exposition or origin stories. By far and away the best "adventure" comic I've read in a long time.
FWD Books / Writer: Steven Goldman / Artist: Jeremy Arambulo
Writer Steven Goldman (a recent acquaintance thanks to the Austin Creators Group) has developed a great high concept vehicle that has vast potential. The idea of a fleet of ethereal taxis that circulate New York picking up the spirits of the recently departed lays the foundations for any number of compelling human dramas. Unfortunately in this first offering from 2003 the effect is hampered by poor storytelling that means having to flip back pages to figure out what's happening and who certain individuals are.
The concept was better served by the 2004 anthology Styx Taxi: A Little Twilight Music and has since been further developed as a webcomic.