Friday, October 14, 2011

Ultimate Sci-Fi: Funnybooksinreviewarego!!

Funnybooks! Staaaale funnybooks! Get'cher weeks-old funnybook reviews right here!

That's right, folks! It's time to play catch-up with the books we didn't talk about during our coverage of the DC Reboot. We've got a whole bunch of funnybooks to cover, enough that it'll take two posts to deal with them all, and that kind of volume can only mean one thing: brevity. So now, once again... QUICKIESAREGO!!!

The Ultimates #1&2
by Jonathan Hickman and Esad Ribic

Running right alongside DC's reboot is Marvel's uncharacteristically quieter response: rebooting their Ultimate Comics line. The new Ultimate Spider-Man is the big news-grabber here (and we'll get to it in a minute), but far more exciting for me is this reboot of The Ultimates. Ten years ago, this was the most cutting-edge super hero book on the market, a vision of the genre's future. But the series has since become... uninspired (to put it politely), and descended into wretched self-parody (to put it a bit less politely). It ceased to be cutting edge, and simply became neanderthalic crap (to put it truthfully).

Welcome back to the future. Jonathan Hickman's delivering his typical science fiction approach, with a city that encloses itself inside a sphere of accelerated time, emerging only hours later with a thousand years of social and technological growth, and a desire to reshape the rest of the world in its image. It's engaging stuff, and if Hickman's not the type of writer who's likely to deliver a "Hulk straight!" kind of moment, he does give us this great bit with Thor and the new Captain Britain:

What Nick said.

Of course, as you can see above, it doesn't hurt that Hickman's aided on the art side by Esad Ribic. A realist who nonetheless has a gift for expressive cartooning, Ribic's one of the most impressive artists in the industry these days, and it's a pleasure looking at his pages.

Bottom Line: This book feels like the future, and I'm curious to see where it takes us.

Grade: A-

Ultimate Hawkeye #1&2 (of 4)
by Jonathan Hickman and Rafa Sandoval

The companion mini-series to Hickman's Ultimates, this Hawkeye book also explores the idea of emergent super-societies, albeit in more of an action movie setting. And in that, both series owe a large debt to the work of Warren Ellis. This type of social science fiction is his forte; I detect hints of his recent Supergod mini here, but mostly I'm put in mind of Ellis' Stormwatch. The series that lead into the Authority, Stormwatch was about a semi-military international super-force that dealt with the very types of threats on display here. The Asian super-people here, in fact, could be an homage to an Asian science experiment gone awry from that series. It's a nice nod, and it makes me think that this is what the Ultimates might have been like if it had been born of Stormwatch instead of the Authority.

All of which is really interesting, but is Ultimate Hawkeye any good? Yeah. Yeah, it's okay. The ideas are better than the story, I think. The action movie approach makes the book feel a bit shallow in places, and artist Rafa Sandoval doesn't help. While he has a pleasingly solid line, he has a bad habit of squeezing some of the more complicated story elements into tiny panels that are dominated by much larger simple-but-useless shots of Hawkeye posing with his bow. While I'm sure that makes the pages faster to draw, it hurts the story, and makes the comic feel dumber than it really is.

Bottom Line: I like this book, but if it weren't tied so tightly into the Ultimates and its themes, I don't think I'd be willing to pay four bucks a pop for it.

Grade: B

FF #8&9
by Jonathan Hickman, Steve Epting, and Rick Magyar

Much like Ed Brubaker, Jonathan Hickman is a writer whose work feels so grounded that you sometimes have to remind yourself how completely insane the stories are. In these issues, for instance, we witness a war between the Inhumans and a bunch of artificially-evolved Mole People; the Wizard, Diablo, the Mad Thinker, the High Evolutionary, and Dr. Doom becoming part of the Future Foundation; and three other-dimensional Reed Richards variants trying to split the world in half with the aid of the Mole Man. All these characters bounce off each other to cataclysmic results, complete with double-crosses, mass murder, destruction on a grand scale, and of course awesome super-fights.

But Hickman's approach to all this... and the visual approach of artist Steve Epting, it must be said... is so mundane, so matter-of-fact, that it all comes off like business as usual. Just another day in the life of the FF. That's neither good nor bad, understand. It just is. Hickman's characterizations are spot-on, the plot twists are genuinely twisty, and Epting's work is such a rock-solid example of classic super hero art that complaining about it all not being... loud enough... seems petty in the extreme.

Bottom Line: Good funnybooks, well-worth the three bucks I'm paying for it.

Grade: B+

Red Wing #3 (of 4)
by Jonathan Hickman and Nick Pitarra

Sometimes, I find it difficult to get a feel for the pace of Hickman's writing. This is both good and bad. On the one hand, it often makes his work feel more unpredictable to me than it really is, and that's exciting. But on the other hand, sometimes the odd pacing makes his stuff feel aimless, and that's never a good thing. Ultimately, I think, I just haven't learned yet to trust him and enjoy the ride. But I trust him more on personal projects like this one than I do on his corporate spandex work (which may say something fascinating about how I read those books, but I could probably write a whole other post on that all by itself). At any rate. The trust I'm willing to extend him here (trust he earned on books like Transhuman and Pax Romana) means that I'm okay with the fact that I don't know how he's going to wrap this sprawling time travel narrative up in just one more issue.

The plot, now that it's been revealed, is essentially the same one as Grant Morrison's Seven Soldiers: mankind's far future descendants invade the past to raid for the resources they need to stay alive. Rather than Morrison's mythic approach to that idea, however, Hickman's going for a hard science fiction take. That approach lends the story a life of its own, and introduces some interesting twists. The invaders aren't technically from the future, for one thing. They're from the future of the next timeline over in the multi-dimensional stack. So while they're still more or less mining their own past for resources (and doing it with an anger and vengeance that's terrifying to behold), they're doing it in such a way that it doesn't disrupt their own present.

That's a hell of a plot, and one that (other than its similarities to Seven Soldiers) is fairly unique in science fiction, near as I can tell. It's also a story told with intelligence, that doesn't spoon-feed its audience much. You've gotta work a little bit with this book, but as I've said before, that's the kind of work I enjoy as a reader. Couple that with the Time Pilot adventure story at the book's core, and I'm sold.

Bottom Line: An entertaining piece of science fiction adventure that treats its readers as if they have half a brain. That alone makes it worth my funnybook dollar.

Grade: A-

Ultimate Spider-Man #1
by Brian Michael Bendis and Sara Pichelli

The big money book of the Ultimate Reboot. Peter Parker is dead, Miles Morales is the new Spider-Man, and this is his origin story. And you know what? It's charming as hell. Bendis is at his best when he's writing the kind of small human moments this book is full of, and Sara Pichelli's artwork is just beautiful. She's got a slight manga influence, and I see a bit of Chris Sprouse in her as well. But she's already integrated those influences into a style that's all her own.

Bottom Line: I can make no specific criticisms, but, good as it is, I'm not sure I enjoyed it enough to shell out four dollars for it every month. Wait for the trade. Or, better yet, wait for Marvel to come up with a reasonable pricing strategy for their digital releases...

Grade: B+

Criminal: The Last of the Innocent #1-4
by Ed Brubaker and Sean Phillips

What we have in the latest Criminal outing is a pretty standard noir plot given spice by context. We've all seen the tale of the average joe who marries into money, becomes disenchanted, and plots to murder his wife. But when the average joe in question is a stand-in for All-American funnybook icon Archie Andrews... Well. That's a horse of a different color.

Brubaker and Phillips handle it well, too. Things like casting Jughead as a drug addict are no-brainers, really, but Brubaker really digs in here and finds some deeper (if cynical) truths about the Archie characters. I'm most impressed with Riley Richards, the stand-in for Archie himself. The image of Archie as the All-American Boy is a strong one, and you'd think that Brubaker would have to twist the character around considerably to turn him into a fitting noir protagonist. But I always thought there was a slight air of the con man about him. He was constantly juggling two girlfriends, after all, both of whom would seem to be way out of his league, and in my (admittedly limited) experience with the character, he always seemed to be trying to get away with something. Looked at from that perspective, it's not at all a stretch that the always-cash-strapped Archie would settle on rich bitch Veronica, grow to regret his decision, and plot to murder her.

Bottom Line: Great noir as usual, with an added layer of pop culture commentary. I have some qualms with the ending, but I think those are more personal than objective. Read it. Love it. Thrill to the understated wrongness of watching Archie-sex.

Grade: A-

Captain America #3
by Ed Brubaker and Steve McNiven

Maybe the most fun Brubaker's long run on Cap has been. This book is light and action-packed, without the depressive angst his super hero work too often falls into. This is not to say it's pure fluff, of course. There's still some good drama here, and that slight wistfulness for the past that's part of any modern-day Cap adventure. Still, though: any book featuring Jimmy Jupiter, the Ameridroid, and a fantasy dimension Hydra can't be all bad.

It's not as difficult to remind yourself just how batshit the proceedings really are as it's been in the past, though, and that in part is due to the artwork of Steve McNiven. While McNiven's not the best storyteller in the business, he more than makes up for it with genuinely beautiful figures and innovative layout. This is a gorgeous book full of insane concepts, and McNiven doesn't let you forget it.

Bottom Line: Loads of fun, but maybe not four bucks' worth of fun. I'm enjoying the ride, but it may be time for me to save some money and wait for the trade.

Grade: B

Captain America and Bucky #622
Written by Marc Andreyko and Ed Brubaker
Art by Chris Samnee

This World War II era Cap series, told from the perspective of kid sidekick Bucky Barnes, was a pleasant surprise for me when it debuted in late summer. It deals with the characters' overhauled war career, starting from Bucky's recruitment, and it's been a ripping good adventure story thus far. I've enjoyed watching Bucky's development as a stealth fighter, and the early days of his partnership with Cap.

That's why I was a little concerned this issue, when the story leapt ahead a bit to the Invaders. Don't get me wrong; the Invaders were one of my favorite super-teams when I was a kid, and it's always nice to get a good story with them. But it does advance the WWII narrative ahead a little further than I was expecting this early in the run. It's a fun story, though, very much in the tradition of the old Roy Thomas series, and I enjoyed reading it. So ultimately, I can't bitch too much.

Especially not in light of more great work from artist Chris Samnee. Though this issue's battlefield setting doesn't allow him to bust out much of the period detail that made the earlier issues so stunning, his solid cartooning is always a welcome sight.

Bottom Line: Fun and straightforward super hero funnybooks. Though it hardly sets the world on fire, the art alone would make it worth the three bucks.

Grade: B


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