Quick rundown of the last books of 2006 first:
Despite its flaws, I'm sticking with Flash: Fastest Man Alive probably at least through #12, or whenever the incoming creative team's first arc ends. I look at #7 (written by Danny Bilson and Paul DeMeo, pencilled by Ron Adrian and Art Thibert, inked by Rob Lea & Alex Lei) and besides the GOB Kadabra images, it just feels awfully cardboard. The art is decent, although the bits with the obligatory hot new neighbor are pretty cartoonish in a very Tex Avery way. The story is divided between the disconnected Kadabra business (which I guess establishes Bart in Los Angeles) and picking up the existing subplot about Valerie's kidnapping. The latter is apparently an attempt by her father, the villain Mota, to ... get a new body? Bart's evil counterpart Inertia is involved, and he in turn is being helped by Deathstroke (to tie in with their Teen Titans appearances), and that's about it. Mostly the book is a collection of familiar names, costumes, and character types running around dealing with motivations that seem to have been grafted to them. I honestly can't remember how much longer Bilson & DeMeo have on this book, but I keep getting it so I won't miss the start of the new team.
I've already talked at length about Justice League of America #5 (written by Brad Meltzer, pencilled by Ed Benes, inked by Sandra Hope), so in case that leaves you thinking I totally hated it, I didn't. It's perhaps the most ambitious Red Tornado story ever, but I still don't know if that makes it a good Justice League story. Maybe the best little bit of business (besides GL and Batman's microscope fun) was Roy Harper's "Pretty bird," which naturally recalls the old Green Arrow/Hawkman feud. I like the Benes/Hope team too, although the panel of Geo-Force and his doctor makes him look about 8 feet tall, or her about 4 feet.
Ah, Nextwave (#11 written by Warren Ellis, drawn by Stuart Immonen) -- is there anything you can't do? I will miss you like I miss "Firefly," "Mystery Science Theater 3000," "Arrested Development," Hourman, and innumerable gone-but-not-forgotten pop-culture joys. #12 will be bittersweet.
Over in 1602: Fantastick Four #4 (written by Peter David, pencilled by Pascal Alixe, inked by Livesay), the Fantasticks, the Frightfuls, and von Doom fall off the edge of the world (nice touch) and end up in the land of Numenor, the Sub-Mariner. This was never a very deep series (pardon the pun), but it is clearly more concerned with wit and parody than with plot. It's good that this issue sets up the final conflict, but it's bad that there's only one issue to go.
What says Christmas more than a rejuvenated ex-teen-sidekick with a chip on his metal replacement shoulder? That's the conceit of the fine Winter Soldier: Winter Kills special (written by Ed Brubaker, drawn by Lee Weeks and Stefano Gaudiano, with Rick Hoberg) that I picked last time as my favorite one-shot of 2006. Using Bucky and Toro's last Christmas together (the last Christmas of World War II, in fact) as a counterpoint for the Winter Soldier's first real Christmas in the modern world, Brubaker and his artistic collaborators continue to argue convincingly that undoing one of the more untouchable Marvel deaths was a good idea. Indeed, WS fights, and then of course teams up with, his spiritual descendants in the Young Avengers, for more juxtaposition fun. It's pretty zippy for something so heavy, but like all good Christmas stories, it's about a lonely person finding out he's not so lonely after all.
Another highlight of 2006 was Matt Wagner's Batman, spotlighted here through Batman and the Mad Monk #5. I'm running out of different ways for the same superlatives. Even so, DC, please give Mr. Wagner a regular Batman title, just so I can keep trying.
The first word that comes to mind when picking up Hawkgirl #59 (written by Walter Simonson, drawn by Renato Arlem) is "texture." Arlem's work uses a lot of shading effects and is very detailed and sort of photo-influenced, so together with Alex Bleyaert's vibrant colors, it really pops. Arlem's linework is very reminiscent of Howard Chaykin's, but his layouts aren't as flasy, nor are his figures as stylized. Fans of Kendra's rear end and/or underwear will find at least a few panels to like, though. The issue itself isn't too bad, with Kendra trying to date again but feeling hemmed in by the continuing influence of her (literal) soulmate Hawkman, apparently killed by space vixen Blackfire in the Rann-Thanagar War. We know this because, in a nice touch, Blackfire shows up on Earth hunting Hawkgirl and wearing Hawkman's wings. Building up to this are scenes with Batman and his recommended armorer picking out a new arsenal for Hawkgirl. Simonson tries to infuse it all with a light, breezy tone (even Blackfire complains about her wacky starship computer), but it doesn't really come together. Maybe the closer to Chaykin the artist gets, the more Simonson's scripts seem to recede.
More killer aliens populate Superman/Batman #31 (written by Mark Verheiden, pencilled by Matthew Clark, inked by Andy Lanning) in what I pray is the penultimate installment of this particular arc. Clark and Lanning take over for Ethan Van Sciver this issue, and while their work doesn't have the sharp edges Van Sciver's does, it's not completely dissimilar. A couple of fairly obscure DC aliens reappear in this issue too, so there's that. The issue reminds us of one of the arc's main conceits -- that baby Kal-El might not have originally been humanoid when his rocket landed, and his goopy tentacled form scared the Kents until he could shape-shift instinctively to look like one of them. This in turn produced buried resentment, yadda yadda yadda. That wouldn't be so bad, except -- isn't that one of the elements separating the Superman origin from the Martian Manhunter origin? J'Onn shows up here too, so maybe there will be some exploration of that next time. Otherwise it's KIll All Humans, just like the past few months.
The Ventriloquist returns, sort of, in a pretty strong Detective Comics #827 (written by Paul Dini, pencilled by Don Kramer, inked by Wayne Faucher). There are a few little bits of flair that make this story endearing, like a new criminal disguise for Batman, and having the Scarface dummy dressed as Robin at one point, but the real strength of this story is its presentation as a mystery and its refusal to give up all its secrets at once.
"Grotesk" heads into the home stretch in Batman #661 (written by John Ostrander, drawn by Tom Mandrake). It's not as good as last issue, and this time Grotesk gets a little more theatrical. There's death, and fire, and explosions, and Batman's intense, so pretty typical.
Supergirl and the Legion of Super-Heroes #25 (written by Mark Waid, pencilled by Barry Kitson, inked by Mick Gray) finds the Legion having to deal with the dual problems of a slightly crazy Mon-El and the attacking Wanderers (which I think I called the Legion of Super-Villains last time...). Both are very familiar Legion concepts which are integrated surprisingly well into the new framework. The Wanderers now make a lot more sense than just a bunch of Legion wannabes and/or potential rivals. Good issue all around.
Guy Gardner: Collateral Damage #2 (by Howard Chaykin) was just a mess. I can't say much more than that. Every character but Guy seemed to exist solely to be dumber, on at least one level, than he. Maybe someday I will be motivated to revisit these two issues, but not anytime soon. Chaykin does draw some nice Green Lanterns, though.
52 #s 34 and 35 (written by You Guessed It, breakdowns by Keith Giffen, #34 pencilled by Joe Bennet and inked by Ruy Jose, #35 pencilled by Phil Jiminez and Dan Jurgens and inked by Andy Lanning and Norm Rapmund) provide our transition from '06 to '07. They were probably most notable for Luthor's interrogation of Clark Kent in #34, and the subsequent New Year's apocalypse in #35. Oh sure, the Black Adam stuff will be important in a couple of months, but the literal crashing and burning of the Everyman project was pretty gut-wrenching, especially against the backdrop of a Superman-themed New Year's Eve.
Superman #658 (written by Kurt Busiek, pencilled by Carlos Pacheco, inked by Jesus Merino) wrapped up (at least for now) the potential end-of-the-world scenario told to our hero by Arion, and let me say it's pretty bleak. Reaching the end of this issue was like waking up from a particularly bad -- but exquisitely drawn -- dream, and realizing you're late for work. Nothing against Busiek, just that the issue still finishes on a down note.
Superman Confidential #3 (written by Darwyn Cooke, drawn by Tim Sale) is a little more cheery, but it also has a "down" ending (ha ha, because I am looking at the last page). The sentient Kryptonite appears to have returned, Superman sticks it to both Luthor and Gallo and has a meaningful conversation at the Fortress of Solitude, and Lois continues to be smokin' hot. I am still waiting to see how the Kryptonite thing plays out, but otherwise I am on board with this team.
JLA Classified #31 (written by Howard Chaykin, pencilled by Kilian Plunkett, inked by Tom Nguyen) concludes a very fine story of the League's covert involvement in a super-conflict between a couple of banana republics. This issue they fight the big monster on the cover, but it's really just an excuse to get a little more flashy. If you haven't been following this story already, consider getting the paperback.
If Mike Norton and Andy Owens are the new art team on The All-New Atom (#7 written by Gail Simone), I'll be very happy. They bring a zippy, simple style to the book that suits Simone's scripts pretty well. The issue's good too -- Ryan has to deal with a time-guarding Linear Man, fights some cowboys, and has to decide whether a date with the erstwhile Giganta is a good idea.
Nightwing #128 (written by Marv Wolfman, pencilled by Dan Jurgens, inked by Norm Rapmund and Rodney Ramos) concludes the Raptor storyline by making me wonder about the overall timeframe of the book. It's supposed to be One Year Later, but the Lexcorp stuff suggests otherwise, and I think it might even be self-contradictory. Still, Dick's final fight with Raptor 2.0 did make me believe he was Batman's heir, and that's progress.
I'm still trying to find my way around the subplots, but Manhunter #27 (written by Marc Andreyko, pencilled by Javier Pina and Fernando Blanco, inked by Robin Riggs) was a good superhero-lawyer story, perhaps even better (dare I say it) than She-Hulk. I believed Kate as Wonder Woman's lawyer, and I'd almost buy this book just for that, her costume notwithstanding. Art was good throughout, thanks to the consistent look given the pencils by the inks of Robin Riggs. There is a lot of black ink in this issue, which to my untrained eye lends the pages a very serious feel, appropriate under the circumstances.
I suppose Fantastic Four: The End (#4 by Alan Davis and Mark Farmer) is gearing up for the last act. Ben and Johnny, the Inhumans, and the Silver Surfer defeat a Kree Sentry on Mars (sound effect: "BARSOOM" -- nice!), Sue finds another old FF villain under the sea, and Reed defeats the Super-Skrull only to wind up against yet another old FF villain. It all looks nice, and it probably all makes sense, but it's more like Alan Davis betting himself he could work every FF character into just six issues.
Finally, All-Star Superman #6 (written by Grant Morrison, drawn by Frank Quitely) was another great issue. It might be a little gratuitous for Morrison to reference his own work (DC One Million) in an "all-star" context, and some of the plot points might be a little overplayed, but considering that the post-1986 Superman has never had to deal with Pa Kent's death, this issue was a good encapsulation of the emotions that made the Earth-1 Superboy grow up. In fact, this issue is almost the entire concept of the series in microcosm. Morrison's macro-arc concern's Superman's last "twelve labors" before his death, and of course Pa's death is proclaimed by the cover, so mortality is at the forefront of both the issue and the series. However, we know Pa will die, we know Superman won't, and the latter is confirmed by the events of this issue -- twice over, in fact. Superman doesn't realize it, but we do, so our concern is not with the superficial conflicts presented, but rather with his (and our) reactions to them. Sometimes the meta is just overwhelming, you know?