Saturday, August 6, 2011

Bats, Gods, and Other Assorted Freaks: FUNNYBOOKSINREVIEWAREGO!!!

Lots of really fascinating comics material has come out in the last little bit: Grant Morrison's Supergods, Ray Fawkes' One Soul, Dave McKean's Celluloid, Jim Woodring's Congress of the Animals, the new League of Extraordinary Gentlemen... All great books deserving of in-depth reviews. But honestly? I'm a little too tired from my day job right now to discuss them with the sort of intelligence they deserve. So instead, I think I'll just engage in something we haven't seen too much of around the nerd farm lately: straight-up reviews. That's right. It's that time again: FUNNYBOOKSINREVIEWAREGO!!!

Batman Incorporated #7
by Grant Morrison and Chris Burnham

You knew I had to start with Batman, right?

With all the over-arching plot and mysteries in this book, surrounding not only the evil bad guys' schemes but also Batman's own, it's easy to forget that, really, Batman Incorporated is all about Grant Morrison having fun with some of the goofier aspects of the Bat-Myth. Nowhere is that more clear than in this issue, which is a low-rent re-working of RIP, on the rez, starring Chief Man-of-Bats. It's touching and funny, and embraces the ridiculousness of the character...

Riding. A. Buffalo.
...while still acknowledging the very real problems facing the Native American population. I came away from the issue feeling like Man-of-Bats, for all his limitations, might just help more people on a real, personal level than Batman himself ever has. As Bats himself says, "It doesn't have to take millions... The idea just works."

Grade: A-

Detective Comics # 879
by Scott Snyder and Francesco Francavilla

Decided to give Snyder's Detective run another try, and was impressed. The story, about Jim Gordon looking into the supposed rehabilitation of his son, James Jr, was a tense, low-key little mystery story with a sad and kind of terrifying ending. I did spend much of the story kind of confused, since I was under the impression that James Jr was dead, when he's instead, apparently, a psychopath. The Wikipedia didn't entirely clear things up for me, either; it confirmed his not-deadness, but said nothing about him being crazy. Of course, the same entry (for Commissioner Gordon himself) also fed me some kind of convoluted bullshit about Barbara Gordon not being the Commissioner's biological daughter, which made me want to take this whole weird Gordon family history and chuck it out a window from a very great height. 


But, whatever. It's funnybooks. So Gordon's got a psychopathic son who's under the supervision of Leslie Tompkins (because she's apparently the only freaking doctor in Gotham City who's not a super villain). Okay, fine. It's a neat little story about his apparent rehabilitation under the influence of powerful anti-psychotic drugs, and whether it's for real or not. I enjoyed it quite a bit.

I enjoyed the frame-story about the Joker's most recent escape from Arkham a lot less. It involves him telling his doctor a story designed to goad the man into touching him and (through a typically-intricate Joker plot) guaranteeing his escape. It's a well-written sequence, very creepy and reminiscent of the sort of thing Alan Moore might have done in his pre-Watchmen days. For any other madman sort of villain, I'd have loved it. But for the Joker, there's one major problem with it: there's no joke involved. The story he's telling doesn't have a punchline. There's no pleasing irony to it. Nothing. It's just a really creepy, really personal, way to goad the doctor into attacking him. And, good as it is, that kind of kills it for me. It does give me hope for Snyder's upcoming Swamp Thing run, but this issue only ranks a...

Grade: B

The Mighty Thor #4
by Matt Fraction and Olivier Coipel

Thor vs the Silver Surfer! Odin vs Galactus! All! Out! God! Battle! Epic! Awesome! Exclamation Point!

One of my favorite things about Matt Fraction's Thor work is his conception of godhood. Beings like Thor and the Surfer, powered by unimaginable cosmic energies that place them into a realm far beyond human understanding, nonetheless fight in ways that we can understand. But when you're someone like Odin or Galactus, ancient creatures possessed of the literal power of creation, physical combat simply isn't done. Far better to launch mental attacks, attempting to hurt your enemy with twisted versions of his own darkest memories.

These are the best sequences in the issue, revealing as much about the attackers as they do the attacked. Odin plays off Galactus' final days as a human being, when he was a scientist desperate to curtail the inevitable end of his universe. Just check this out:

"...and I don't remember any one-eyed trollops!"
So many levels of awesome there. First, Odin's placating Galactus' endless hunger with the promise of a never-ending supply of food, which is nasty enough. But he also tempts the big man with the other two things he can never have again: the company of his peers, and sex. And how disturbing is the sexual aspect of that scene? The eye patches mean that's Odin masquerading as the sex toy waitstaff, after all, seducing Galactus' memories of men long dead. And later (even more disturbingly), he stands in as Galactus' enormously pregnant wife, doomed to be lost when their universe ends and Galactus is reborn in our. The look of joy on Galactus' face when he sees her says everything you need to know about how effective that particular attack was, and sold me once and for all on Olivier Coipel's artwork. His storytelling may not be the best, but any artist who can make his characters act like that is deserving of my respect.

So what does this tell us about Odin? Well, apart from the hint of lurking transvestism, it shows us Odin tempting Galactus away from weightier concerns with basic human needs: food, sex, companionship. Makes perfect sense for the guy who set up Valhalla as a reward for his faithful worshippers, and says a lot about Odin's understanding of human nature.

Galactus, meanwhile, lurks as Odin's shadowy and imposing father in memories of a harsh killing winter from before Odin forged the nine worlds. It was a time of no food, no warmth and no comfort. So Galactus attacks with need, while Odin attacks with the fulfillment of needs. One nurtures, the other destroys. But both are working up to killing blows.

I also like the comparison Fraction's giving us here: both Odin and Galactus are survivors of lost universes, their minds anchored in places and even times that no longer exist outside their own heads. I don't usually think of Odin like that, but it's entirely true. Granted, he re-made the world to his own liking, while Galactus was forced into his current existence by implacable cosmic forces beyond even his understanding. Which, I suppose, makes them nice opposite numbers, a sun god type and a lord of the underworld to match him. It's a nice undercurrent to the current story arc, anyway, and it serves to add yet another piece to Fraction's on-going Odin character study. So I'm quite happy with it.

Grade: A

FF # 6-7
by Jonathan Hickman and Greg Tocchini

I haven't particularly been a fan of Jonathan Hickman's alien Inhumans idea, and I'm still not. But these two issues, dealing with the Kree genetic seeding program that lead to all those Inhumans out there, add great scope to the whole thing, and make me like it a little bit better, anyway. The story goes back to the days of the seeding itself, and a prophesy about one of the seeded (to our eyes, obviously Black Bolt) that terrified the Kree Supreme Intelligence so badly that he called for genocide. It also brings Black Bolt back to the land of the living (thank god), uses Lockjaw effectively, and is just in general a whole bunch of very entertaining funnybook nonsense.

Grade: B+

Red Wing #1 (of 4)
by Jonathan Hickman and Nick Pitarra

"Time Pilot" isn't just the name of one of my all-time favorite retro video games, it's also the core premise of Jonathan Hickman's new mini-series from Image. Well... The story's really about how time travel might be used as a weapon of war. But it's told from the perspective of the pilots who form the front lines of that battle, so... Time Pilots.

Though things go way more wrong for them when they crash than they ever did in the game...
Whatever you call it, it's good to see Hickman, whose star is steadily rising at Marvel, maintaining his indie roots with creator-owned work like this. Both an exciting adventure story and an exploration into science fiction theory, Red Wing is the kind of funnybook I'd like to read more of.

Grade: A-

SHIELD #2
by Jonathan Hickman and Dustin Weaver

Reading the plot synopsis at the beginning of this issue reveals just how surreal an experience reading this series can be: "In the Immortal City preserved deep below Rome, Sir Isaac Newton and Leonardo da Vinci battle for leadership of the High Council of Shield … The situation looks dire until a ghostly and glowing Michelangelo Buonarroti appears … But as Leonid listens to Michelangelo's understandings of parallel universes and non-linear time, he finds himself joined by … [his] own father, The Night Machine – Nikola Tesla!"

What?!

That's right. It's sci-spy super-action, starring the greatest minds in human history! As I've said before, it's all glorious nonsense, bizarre and tremendously fun, especially if you're a history buff. The plot lurches forward hugely this issue, with Newton stepping more firmly into his broad pulp villain role, and this version of Shield coming one more step closer to its end, presumably to make room for the SHIELD of Nick Fury.

If I have a complaint with the issue at all, it's that some of the delicacy has begun to drop out of Dustin Weaver's artwork, which leaves his stuff looking uncomfortably like Jim Starlin. While there are far, far worse artists to emulate, and while this book's philosophical content might certainly put one in mind of Starlin's own Marvel work, I liked Weaver's earlier style a bit better.

Otherwise, though, this was a lot of fun. SHIELD isn't the best thing on the stands, but it's well-worth three bucks a month.

Grade: B+

Moon Knight #1-4
by Brian Bendis and Alex Maleev

I, like most funnybook fans, was more than a little leery of this book's premise when I first heard it: long a sufferer of multiple personality disorder, Moon Knight has now taken on the personalities of Spider-Man, Wolverine, and Captain America. Which, you know, sounds like the most marketable mental disorder ever...

But it's Bendis, and Bendis can usually be counted upon to do interesting things with odd premises. And he is making it better than it sounds. It's clearly Moon Knight's impressions of Marvel's most popular heroes, for instance, which is a nice touch. None of them quite match up with the characters as we readers know them, and none of them are actually complete personalities. They come off more, in fact, like various aspects of Marc Spector's own personality given flesh. And gaudy spandex pervert suits. Hrm. Anyway...

The gimmick plays best when Spidey, Cap, and Wolverine stay in Moon Knight's head as the voices of his fractured personality. But there's also an unfortunate sequence in issue two when Our Hero actually dresses up as Spider-Man to take on some bad guys, and... Yeesh. I think it's supposed to play out as a sign of just how far gone Marc Spector really is, a bad idea that the character has. But Bendis hasn't had time to really sell us on the gimmick in the first place (and this is an idea that the audience REALLY needs to be sold on). And because we're still getting used to it, the Spidey costume comes off more like a bad idea on Bendis' part. If we'd had time to settle in and get used to Moon Knight's invisible friends, we'd be engaged enough in the character that we might have happily watched his fragile sanity tip out of balance, with the voices in his head moving from friendly (if cajoling) advisors to more insistent voices demanding control. Then it would feel like Spector was crossing a line, and I might actually give a damn. But as it is, Moon Knight dressing up as a more popular super hero just comes off like a lame sales gimmick, exactly the sort of stupid shit the most cynical fanboys out there envisioned when the series was announced.

How is it beyond the questionable gimmick, though? Actually... not bad. It's Bendis working in his best genre niche, the street-level crime story unfolding in a super hero world. He's got a good mystery brewing over the identity of the new Kingpin of LA, rehabilitations of a number old West Coast super villains, and a really great macguffin: an old Ultron head, up for sale on the black market. And artist Alex Maleev is working in a scratchy version of his usual style that conjures up original Moon Knight series artist Bill Sienkiewicz. I'm sure it's just something he can crank out on a monthly deadline, but it fits the character well. So the book is good stuff in a lot of ways, and I can't help but think that if they'd just done it as a straight-up old-school Moon Knight story, I'd dig it a lot. But the gimmick keeps getting in the way. I'm having trouble deciding if the good outweighs the bad. With every issue I wonder if I'm going to get the next one, and…

Y'know… I've only just realized that this book costs four bucks a pop, and it's not worth that. So I guess I'm done with it.

Grade: B-

Butcher, Baker, Candlestick Maker #1 (of 4)
by Garth Ennis and Darick Robertson
The Boys #57
by Garth Ennis and Russ Braun

The Boys is once again in mini-series mode, where the on-going series continues apace while a mini runs concurrently, to be slotted in between future issues. It's a storytelling mode that Garth Ennis has employed to great effect twice in the run already, but now we're getting to the real nitty-gritty: the life story of the mysterious Mr. Butcher.

As it turns out, he's the son of a saintly mother and an abusive father. Even for Ennis, that's surprisingly cliché, but as usual, he weaves something interesting out of it. The balance between those extremes of parental example, and his desire not to turn into his father, is what makes Butcher a good guy instead of a monster. Well, actually… I think Butcher's still a monster. But he's at least a monster who's been pointed at the right kind of target. And he was pointed that way, early on, by his younger brother Lenny, who was good-hearted and kinda scrawny, and kept him from slipping over the line. And that explains, at long last, why he recruited Hughie.

And Hughie, of course, is now more than ever the central character of The Boys series proper. It's his decision to continue working with the Boys, in spite of his misgivings about their mission, that drives the book dramatically at this point. Can he make any difference in the outcome of Butcher's mad quest for vengeance? More importantly, should he? The Homelander's plans are far, far worse than anything Butcher's got in mind, and a world where the Boys and the Seven destroy each other might be a better world for everyone.

Grade: A

Captain America #1
by Ed Brubaker and Steve McNiven
Captain American and Bucky # 620
by Ed Brubaker, Marc Andreyko, and Chris Samnee

So here's what Marvel's done with Captain America in preparation for the current movie. Following the recent death of Bucky Barnes in Fear Itself, Steve Rogers takes back the shield in an all-new Captain America #1, while the old series numbering continues as "Captain America and Bucky," and features adventures of Cap and Bucky in the happier (?) days of World War II. It seems a nice split, honestly.

The new Cap series is designed to be friendly to fans of the movie, with a fast-paced adventure story that's mindful of Cap's history, but handles it in such a way that you don't need a funnybook doctorate to understand it. An old ally (and romantic rival) launches an attack on Cap at the funeral of the woman they were both in love with back in the war, and we're off into an adventure involving boy geniuses, vengeance from the past, and a new branch of Hydra to boot. It's breezy pulp fun with just the right tone, a breath of fresh air for the character's new beginning, aided and abetted by the pretty pictures of Steve McNiven. His very open pages help tremendously with that breezy feel, and propel the story along stylishly, and at a good pace:


It's the best issue of Cap I've read in quite some time, and allays any fears I had about Brubaker returning to the slightly more... constipated feel the series had before they killed Rogers off.

Captain America and Bucky, meanwhile, is a "Year One" sort of approach, telling the title characters' story from the perspective of sidekick Bucky Barnes. Co-written (which usually means "mostly-written") by Marc Andreyko, it takes a more human approach than the slick new Cap solo book, and (being a long-form origin story) lacks that series' breakneck action. But it's just as entertaining, and promises great things to come. This book also features fantastic artwork from the amazing Chris Samnee, whose combination of rock-solid anatomy and cartooning skill is always welcome in any funnybook I read.

So it's a good new status quo for Cap, and may very well bring me back to the character for not just one, but two, ongoing series. But we'll see how I feel when the next ones hit the rack...

Grade: B+

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