Friday, March 25, 2005

Reviews for comics from the week of 03/24/05

The Expatriate #1: Mixed feelings about this. I’ve been ridiculously excited about the series ever since I first saw the preview art pages by newcomer Jason Latour, and his work here is everything I hoped it would be after seeing those pages. The fact that flatter Josh Richardson is my homie set aside, the colors themselves (which, Josh will tell you, are ultimately totally in Latour’s control) are spectacular, so powerful at times that they threaten to overcome the other elements of the book, but beautiful enough that I don’t mind at all. Latour has a great flair for kinetics, as well, and the action scenes that pepper the opening issue are all convincing and exciting – I’m put in mind of Sean Phillips’ work on Sleeper and Cliff Chiang’s on Human Target. The pencils and inks do a great job establishing the characters, which is necessary to the book because writer B. Clay Moore doesn’t give us a lot to respond to. The two Evil CIA Agents are clever characters, and their repartee is fun to watch. But the lead characters – Jack Dexter and Maria Lobo – are both pretty vacuous at this point; their dialogue isn’t particularly revealing, and they pretty much just go through the motions of explaining themselves to each other – “I’m on the run and I can’t tell you why!” “Well, I guess that’s okay because I’m married to a thug I don’t love and just want to escape this town!” I’ve seen that before, many times, and it was done best in Tom Waits’ classic song, “Burma Shave.” I’m going to stick with the series for a bit because I have confidence that these characters will be developed a little more, and because the art is a really rare find, but I hope Moore takes his protagonists to a less conventional place than he has thus far – he’s promising that he will, and I’m inclined to trust him.

The Incredible Hulk #79: I missed this last week, so I picked it up on Wednesday. I honestly don’t have much to say about it. Lee Weeks kicks ass drawing The Hulk kick the shit out of Fin Fang Foom, of course, and otherwise this didn’t make much of an impression. There’s a guest appearance teaser that closes out the issue, and the appearance made me roll my eyes because this character seems to appear in every Marvel comic, but on the other hand there is a genuine relationship between said character and The Hulk and there’s no reason Peter David won’t be able to make the appearance worthwhile.

Pigtale #2: The “cute as a button” characterization from the first issue takes a bit more of a back seat this time around, giving way to more visual experiments, and my feeling is that the book is better for it. When a series is written and drawn by the same person, almost every time you’ll find that the creator is better at one than the other, and Ovi Nedelcu’s “right hand” is clearly artwork. Several sequences here manage both to drop my jaw and make me take a second, closer look, especially the pages that take our villain down into his secret lair – there’s one page in particular that follows a small make-shift elevator down into the black oblivion and the panel design, while simple and elegant, is among the most amazing I’ve ever seen. The characters still aren’t really knocking my socks off and the plot is fairly cookie cutter (“Let’s revolt, fellow animals, and kill all the humans!”), but I’ll stick around for the eye candy at least a while longer.

Spellbinders #1: This was my Pleasant Surprise of the Week. I’m a huge Mike Carey fan, and his Lucifer series (despite occasional ups and downs) is the best epic fantasy series in publication, but a lot of his Marvel work has disappointed me. I just don’t think he’s got a comfortable grip on the superhero genre. It’s clear from this issue, though, that Marvel have given him the football and let him run with it in his own style, and the change in the quality is immediately apparent. We’re introduced to the world of the series through a brief, chilling opening scene that balances quirky humor, grotesque and fascinating horror and fantasy elements, and more down-to-earth personal relationships, and that scene seems to set the tone for the rest of the book – the series looks to balance all three of those elements with great skill. The characterization is efficient and effective, although we meet a few too many characters right off the bat and it’s a little hard to keep track of them all. The main characters are given plenty of time, though, and it’s a cast of unique, interesting people, with no obvious clichés or one-note wonders. The plot and pacing are a real change of pace, both for Marvel and for Carey, with the status quo being quickly established and then abruptly, surprisingly turned all on its ear in the final pages, with a cliffhanger that spits on all the expectations I had brought to the book. The artwork isn’t spectacular or shocking, but it’s perfectly competent at telling the story clearly and establishing unique looks for the characters without, again, making clichés out of them. The final package has a lot more in common with Carey’s charming My Faith In Frankie miniseries than with his boring Ultimate Elektra, and while I’d had some doubts about the premise, I’m completely reassured that this will be a lot of fun to keep reading. If not for Sleeper, actually, this would have been my favorite book of the week.

Spiderman/Human Torch #3: I’m a little bit tired of Spiderman stories about how Peter Parker dealt (or continues to deal) with the death of Gwen Stacey, but this is a fair balance of emotionally wrought material and goofball humor. The villain of this issue has some hysterical “super-ape” lackeys, and when, during an escape in the stolen Spidermobile, he shouts at one of them, “Don’t lick that wrapper! That was on the floor!” I cracked clean up. Slott remains one of the best writers in the business for combining serious super-hero drama with goofball humor and wry self-awareness that isn’t smug or ironic.

Hellblazer #206: This was a great little one-shot that takes a break from Constantine proper and focuses on the effects that recent events have had on his friend, Chas. I’ll say this much: poor fucking Chas. Having been possessed by a demon of some kind that, upon exiting, left a bit of demon feces in his body/soul/mind, he spends a great deal of this issue just Doing Awful Things. Great character moments here, especially at the end when he realizes what’s happened and tries to face the consequences, completely unequipped for the fallout from behavior he would never have exhibited on his own. The interaction between John Constantine’s hellspawn daughter and Chas is also a nice scene, with the element of danger waxing and waning in the same unpredictable storminess as a normal conversation between a fourteen year-old girl and her uncle figure – the content of the conversation is largely the same as what such a mundane discussion would be like, as a grown man speaks to a young girl about questions of identity and individuality. The dialogue is fairly interesting in its own right, especially as the girl is given some revealing voice-over narrative earlier in the issue, but the element of mortal danger that accompanies the scene makes a nice extra layer. It’s just the sort of thing Carey really excels with, and it’s nice to have an issue of this series that stands on its own – I wish there were more of them. Guest artist Giuseppe Camuncoli (The Intimates) handles most of the material well, though his take on “Crazy Chas” is a little too cartoonish and not really imaginative enough for my taste – it detracts from the believability of the situation just when that believability would be most helpful to the story; I can’t imagine Chas’ wife not noticing, “Gee, he looks completely out of his mind and his eyes are glowing red. Maybe I oughta give that bastard Constantine friend of his a call and see if something’s up.” Still, I found Carey’s firing on both cylinders this week.

Conan #14: Hard to keep reviewing this because “more of the same great stuff” can only be stretched out so far. The series keeps balancing the standard “sword and sorcery” material with bits and pieces of more subtle characterization, such as Conan’s decision in this issue to sacrifice his female counterpart rather than himself. It’s a moment in which you don’t completely admire his bravery and morality, and it adds a nice shade of gray to what is otherwise a completely black and white character. The showdown at the end (which closes this arc) was powerful and believable, and Conan’s boastful celebration in the closing pages was charming and funny, in spite of some increasingly sloppy pencil work from the otherwise impressive Cary Nord (whose character designs for the Bone Woman are spectacular and beautifully creepy). Kevin Sutton did a great review of this issue over on ComiX-Fan in which he points out that the near-invincible Conan will have a hard time, going forward, in creating tension, because we’ll always know that he can face down anything. “If it bleeds, I can kill it,” he says, and that might simplify the dangers Conan will face throughout the series. However, as Sutton also points out, Busiek cleverly side-stepped this in the first arc through Conan’s failure to protect the more vulnerable supporting cast he’d built, and I’m confident Busiek has it in him to keep things just a little complex. So, yeah: More of the same great stuff.

Sleeper Season II #10: All of a sudden, I realize the structure of the second season completely mirrors the first, and it makes me want to go back and re-read every issue of the last several months. The first half of the series set all the pieces in play, slowly establishing the mood and the new status quo for the characters. The next three issues start throwing monkey wrenches in the machinery, raising questions about the everything that’s been established thus far, and the last three issues – if this one is any indication – bring everything crashing down in a spectacular, inevitable disaster. This is probably my favorite issue of the second season so far, and it’s by far the most grotesque; the scene that closes the issue, between Holden, Miss Misery and Peter Grimm, is absolutely disgusting, but also holds a strange kind of perverted excitement so that it’s hard not to stare. Phillips does a great job illustrating what Grimm’s mind-whammy is like, and the narration builds on that image without repeating anything. We also see Grifter coming into play as an important piece on the chess board, and it’s a lot of fun to see how his tale in the Point Blank prequel series is playing into the conclusion. My favorite book of the week, for sure.

The New West #1: There’s a lot about this that I like, and I lot that I don’t. There are some solid, if cliché, characters here, particularly the lead, who is described by the artist as “a tough guy in the vein of Jake Gittes from Chinatown,” with a little Bruce Willis and a little Robert Mitchum. The relationships are well established, too, although the Mayor’s daughter sex kitten is a little cookie-cutter, and her attraction to the Dashing But Forbidden Lead is a little too obvious – by and large, though, the motivations are believable and the tough guy voice-over narration is enough to fill in a little color. The main thing that doesn’t work for me is that Palmiotti has a really amateurish style of dialogue that relies way too much on exposition, and a lot of it doesn’t make sense – in the opening scene the Sexy Daughter asks the Dashing Lead to recount a story she’s obviously heard over and over again for no discernable reason, and when she interrupts his story to say, “I know where Polytechnic is; I was going there for visual arts,” I can’t imagine they haven’t already had that discussion. There’s no reason for her to be saying that, and it comes across as really lazy storytelling. Once we get past the expository opening, however, the plot develops quickly and believably, and the world Palmiotti has imagined, in which some kind of techie terrorism has killed electricity (just in L.A.? Across the country? Throughout the world?) is not terribly clear but nonetheless establishes a great mood and a wonderful setting for the action piece that follows, which is funny and slick and makes the book worth reading. The cliffhanger ending is compelling and I want to read the second (and final) part of the story; I just hope the craft of it will match up more closely to the second half of what we get here than the first half.

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