Saturday, October 29, 2011

Tales of Gods and Spacemen: FUNNYBOOKSINREVIEWAREGO!!

Two weeks' worth of funnybooks to cover here, one with a decidedly mythological tone, the other with a decidedly science fictiony one. I have no deep point to make with that statement, mind you; I just think it's interesting that those two seemingly disparate approaches hit in such great numbers in such a short period of time, especially considering that the vast majority of the books I'll be talking about here are super hero books. Just goes to show what a weird genre mish-mash super heroes really are, I guess. At any rate... Without further ado... FUNNYBOOKSINREVIEWAREGO!!
Fear Itself #7 (of 7)
by Matt Fraction and Stuart Immonen

I'll most likely do a more in-depth look at Fear Itself a bit later, once I've had a chance to sit down and re-read the whole thing. Matt Fraction had a lot of balls in the air here, and this issue was his last chance to catch them all before this whole super-porn juggling act came crashing to its end. I think he managed to snag most of them, if not all, but time will tell. In the meantime, though, I can comment on the merits of this final issue in and of itself...

This series has suffered from an unfortunate lack of emotional immediacy along the way. In fact, I often missed the intended emotional impact of some of the big shocking events in previous issues until I went back over them for review. This final issue alleviates that somewhat, mostly thanks to Captain America. He reaches his point of apotheosis this issue, and it's the emotional tipping point of the series, Marvel's greatest hero rejuvenated by the bravery of his allies, and I'm a big enough sap that I was right there with him. It's a great super hero moment, aided by having this as the exclamation point at the end:

This kind of stuff is what's made Fear Itself Cap's story for me, and Fraction pays off on it well. Unfortunately, Fear Itself is also supposed to be Thor's story in a big way, and Fraction never quite makes me feel very much for him. I'm more caught up in Odin's personal drama, honestly, and Thor winds up feeling like a secondary character in that story. Maybe it's because he's too noble, too ready to set out and face his own death, prophesy be damned. I mean... SPOILER ALERT... he dies in this story, and I feel more for Odin as he loses his son than I do for Thor as he loses his life. That's problematic.

Although I do like the idea of The Adventures of Captain America and Odin, so maybe I shouldn't bitch too much. Bottom line, I dug Fear Itself, and this final issue delivers both emotionally and on the titanic super-fights. It's going to take a re-read before I decide if it's a classic of the super-porn genre, but for now I'm pretty happy with it.

Grade: B+

Thor #7
by Matt Fraction and Pasqual Ferry

This flashback issue tells the story of Odin and his brother Cul, later known as the Serpent. I always enjoy these glimpses of the world-before-the-world that Fraction's given us in his Thor run, and this one's no different. I was immediately struck by the parallels between Odin & Cul and Thor & Loki. Brother gods, one fair-haired, one dark. One noble, one not-so-noble. One who sees the value of humanity, one who sees only cattle. Considering some of the stuff Fraction's written about the Norse gods and Ragnarok cycles, and how they tend to repeat themselves with only minor variations over and over again, that's fascinating to me. Odin may have single-handedly erased all memory of this world, and built ours over it in his own image, but even the All-Father can't escape some things.

Maybe even more interesting to me is the implication that Cul wasn't just an evil god who fed off his worshippers' fear, or even a god who went mad, but instead a god who was actually possessed by something greater and more primordial than himself. That something is the Serpent, and here it seems to stand as a sort of opposite number to the World Tree. Or at least, that's how things play out: Cul takes the Serpent as his patron, while Odin ties his own fate to the World Tree. 

That's a really interesting scene, in fact: Odin sacrifices his right eye to gain knowledge from the Tree, and it gives him the prophesy that dooms Thor to die finishing the Serpent off once and for all. Fraction's been treating the Tree as this ineffable source of everything in this book, and this scene only serves to deepen its mystery. Now, in fact, I really do wonder what Odin was going to do with the seed he had Thor fish out of the Tree in the last story arc. Odin could have built a whole new Nine Worlds around the Tree that sprung up from that seed, and in light of what we've found out about his guilt at screwing things up in this world, I wonder if that's not exactly what he intended.

One thing that does disappoint a bit in this issue is the appearance of Cul's court. These are the evil bastards whose souls resided in the hammers the Serpent used to recreate his shock troops in the present. They're a great bunch of psychopaths, certainly, hangers-on that egg Cul on to greater and greater evil even as they alienate him from his own brothers. But they look pretty much exactly like they do in their modern guises. So there's a dude that looks like the Absorbing Man, another one who's like a big purple Hulk, and yet another who's covered in rocks. Whether that was dictated by Fraction, or whether Ferry just drew them according to the Fear Itself character guides, I don't know. But it was a bad choice either way. I might have been able to handle the others, but the Thing is a pretty specific look, even for a rock guy, and I'm not sure I like the implication that he's just this mythological bastard reborn.

Still, this was a fun issue overall, and it was really nice to see Pascual Ferry back on the series. Good as Olivier Coipel can be, I like Ferry better, and I hope he's sticking around awhile.

Grade: B+

Wonder Woman #2
by Brian Azzarello and Cliff Chiang

This book really is shaping up nicely. Azzarello's treatment of the gods feels very true to the myths to me, even as Chiang's very modern visual interpretations of them keep them fresh. They're even using my favorite obscure Greek god: Eris, called Strife here. She makes a good Wonder Woman villain, I think, especially in the “Suicide Girls” mode she appears in here:

Still diggin' that logo, too!
This issue brings our first look at Paradise Island, too, and it feels just as right. It's a boisterous man-hating warrior culture, lusty and alive in a way that the traditional idealized Amazons never quite did. Azzarello takes the question of Amazon lesbianism on up-front, as well. A couple of jokes made at Diana's expense make it clear that this is a sexually active culture without making a major issue of it.

"Rusty bits," eh? "Staff," eh? Wink-wink, nudge nudge!
Which is, really, how it probably should be handled.

It's good stuff all the way around, though, and if I have a complaint with the book at all, it's that Azzarello sometimes doesn't have the best ear for the more formal dialogue he's being called upon to write for these mythic characters. In response to an Amazon threat to separate the testicles of the injured Hermes from his body, Wonder Woman says that, if they try it, she'll be certain to “separate your soul from the land of the living.” Which... ugh. Clunky. Stuff like that doesn't come up often, but it's awkward, and especially jarring in light of how good this book is otherwise.

Grade: B+

Spaceman #1 (of 9)
by Brian Azzarello and Eduardo Risso

Near-future dystopian science-fiction from the team that brought you 100 Bullets. While I was never a huge fan of that book, it was mainly because I felt that I'd seen its take on the 21st Century crime drama done better elsewhere. But Risso is one hell of a funnybook artist, and I've enjoyed Azzarello's Wonder Woman work so much that I thought I'd give him a shot on sci-fi, too. Besides, this first issue is value-priced at only a dollar, so I figured... what do I have to lose?

Not a thing, as it turns out. Spaceman is a damn fine read. Set around a bottom-feeding criminal culture in a world that looks as if it might have been flooded out by melting ice caps, it stars Orson, the Spaceman of the title, who was genetically engineered to survive the rigors of space travel. He's been pretty definitively grounded now, for reasons we don't yet know, and ekes out a living by scavenging  metal out on the waters at the edge of a flooded city.

There's a good bit of social satire at work here, as well, the plot revolving as it does around a kidnapped orphan from the compound of a celebrity couple in the style of Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie. Azzarello has developed a great little set of future-slang here, too. It's a mix of texting slang (lol lol lol) and cleverly mis-spoken words (“You ear me” instead of “You hear me”). My favorite bit is the use of the word “brain” for “think,” but it's all pretty good, simultaneously alien and familiar in a way that's not easy to pull off. It takes a little adjustment, but after a few panels, it even scans pretty well when you read it.

So it's a good first issue, well-worth the dollar I paid for it, and I'll be coming back for more at full price next month.

Grade: A-

Butcher #4
by Garth Ennis and Darick Robertson

After Billy Butcher's disturbing behavior at the end of the last issue of The Boys, the latest chapter of the character's “secret origin” mini-series reveals a bit more of how he got that way, and why he hates the supes so much. It's one of the uglier moments in the series' history (which is saying something with this book), and... Oh, hell. There's no way to discuss this without spoiling it. So...

[SPOILER] Butcher's wife Becky is raped by a supe on vacation, doesn't tell Butcher, and is subsequently killed when the hideously powerful fetus that results rips its way out of her womb in the middle of the night. Butcher wakes up to find the thing floating, bloody, in mid-air over their bed, shooting heat rays out of its eyes. He beats the thing to death with a lamp, its head splitting open like an over-ripe melon (on-camera, of course), and the issue ends with him crouched beside Becky's corpse, both of them covered in blood. [/SPOILER]

Yeah, I can see why that might turn a borderline personality like Butcher into a full-blown psychopath.

[SPOILER] It also raises some questions about who it was that raped Becky. They see the Seven making a public appearance on the beach, but none of them seem to pay her any particular attention. The powers that the fetus was sporting would seem to point to the Homelander, him being the Superman archetype of the book (and the primary focus of Butcher's hatred), but I have no idea if Compound V breeds true or not, so it really could have been anyone. [/SPOILER]

So, yes. Yet another gut-wrenching and marvelously effective issue of The Boys. Word is that we're two storylines away from the big finish on this series (not counting this Buther mini), and I will be sad to see it go. But, man... The ride's gonna be good from here on out.

Grade: A-

Superior #6
by Mark Millar and Leinil Yu

Say what you will about his public persona as a huckster (I find that not believing anything he says in the name of PR is the best policy), the charity work Mark Millar ties directly to his success in the funnybook business makes him okay in my book. Likewise, cynical as the man's work can be, the best of it always reminds us that he's a sucker for the good guys at heart. And that comes through loud and clear this issue, when his Multiple-Sclerosis-stricken hero visits a youth hospice, where the bravery of other disease-stricken kids convinces him not to sell his soul in return for the power of Superior.

Of course, demon space monkey Ormon has other plans for him. He's powering up Simon's school bully as Superior's robot arch-enemy Abraxas, to wreak havoc across the city unless Simon takes the deal. Millar's been setting this up for a couple of issues now, so it's no big surprise, but it's fun to watch it play out nonetheless.

And that sums up my reaction to Superior in general, I think: not great, but a lot of fun. And sometimes, that's enough.

Grade: B

Secret Avengers #18
by Warren Ellis and David Aja

Under Warren Ellis, this series has become a collection of little funnybook bon-bons. Which is to say, there's not much to them, but that's not the point. They're ephemeral treats, designed to taste very very good for the short period of time it takes to enjoy them. Unlike bon-bons, however, they each cost as much as a whole damn Whitman Sampler. You always pay more for quality, of course, but whether they're worth the price is wholly dependent upon what ingredients have been mixed in.

So if last issue was, say, some kind of tooth-shattering caramel nut cluster, then this issue, featuring David Aja drawing kick-ass martial arts battles on Escheresque stairwells, is a chocolate-covered truffle. Your mileage may vary, of course. Some people like nut clusters just fine. But I'm not gonna pay four bucks for one. For a truffle as tasty as this one, though... I'm in. I mean, just look at this shit:


And as if that's not enough, then he goes and gets all Steranko on our asses!

Hot damn, that's good stuff. Aja, as always, brings the goddamn thunder.

What's that? What's the story about? Uhm... Well... Captain America, Sharon Carter, and Shang-Chi go into this weird broken Escherverse to beat the hell out of some Shadow Council goons. That's about it, really. I mean, there's a broken copy of Arnim Zola around, too, I guess, and some kind of strange matter that could turn the Earth into a sun, but... Really, it's all about the stylish ass-kicking. And, in this case, that's all I need.

But we'll still have to see what flavor they're offering next month.

Grade: A

And now for a brace of Jonathan Hickman...

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

Not an entirely satisfying ending to Hickman and Pitarra's mini-epic, I'm afraid. It's thematically complete, certainly, time travel becoming something of a metaphor for the paths we choose to take in life. But the story of the two young time pilots we've been following through the series feels... not incomplete, exactly, but maybe a little pointless. They actually have very little to do with the real story, in the end, and so I'm left wondering why Hickman spent so much time on them.

I do like the wrap-up of the real story, though, and I get the feeling that a re-read of the whole thing now that it's done might be pretty rewarding. So it's not a total loss, at least.

Grade: B+

FF #11
by Jonathan Hickman and Barry Kitson

All the various plotlines of Hickman's Fantastic Four run to date are coming together in this issue, to be resolved in next month's Fantastic Four 600. It's kind of impressive to watch it all come to a head like this, to be honest. He's woven together threads involving his Four Cities, the Inhumans, the Kree, the multiversal Reeds, and (lest we forget) Annihilus and his Cult of the Negative Zone. That's a lot of plot, but it's all so well-established that it's not confusing to see it all collide like this. My favorite example of this is [SPOILER] Ronan the Accuser using two of the other-dimensional Reeds to recreate the Kree Supreme Intelligence. [/SPOILER] That's an elegant (and unexpected) solution to two very different plot points, and it's just plain cool to see all these things bouncing off each other.

All in all, it's a fine set-up for the grand finale, and promises a truly epic ride for the big anniversary issue. While I won't call this funnybooks at its best, it's still a damn fine read.

Grade: B+

Ultimate Hawkeye #3 (of 4)
by Jonathan Hickman, Rafa Sandoval, and Jordi Tarragona

A better all-around performance on this issue than last, as Hickman's story of Asian super-human revolt  continues. The action movie feel is still in place, but things have a bit more direction now, and the entrance of Hawkeye's team of junior Ultimates varies things up nicely. Rafa Sandoval's stopped with the Hawkeye pin-up pages here, too, giving the action a better flow.

And then, of course, there's the Hulk. His deployment here lacks the apocalyptic feel of his appearances in the original Ultimates series, and his control over the transformation means we don't get anymore great “Traumatize Banner” moments. But it's still fun to see the big guy in action.

Where this goes next, I'm not sure, just as I'm not sure how Hickman's going to wrap this up in just one more issue. But I'll be here for it, and I might not even cringe too badly at paying the four bucks...

Grade: B

The Ultimates #3
by Jonathan Hickman and Esad Ribic

Three good issues in a row is three more good issues this title's seen since Millar and Hitch left at the end of the second series. And this is good stuff, Esad Ribic delivering on his usual gorgeous visuals, and Hickman giving us all-out action as Nick Fury leads the SHIELD fleet against The City. It... doesn't go well. Bottom line, The City has 1000 years of technological advancement over Our Heroes, and that's not an advantage they're going to overcome with Helicarriers, nukes, and Starktech.

But it's still entertaining as all hell to watch them lose.

Grade: B+


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