Thursday, November 30, 2006

New comics 11/29/06

Let's get the bad out of the way first. SPOILERS FOLLOW....

The last big piece of the speedster puzzle from Infinite Crisis is revealed in The Flash: The Fastest Man Alive #6 (written by Danny Bilson and Paul DeMeo, pencilled by Ken Lashley and Andy Smith, inked by Art Thibert), and honestly, it amounts to "because we said so." Basically, after Bart takes care of Griffin (who dies in a somewhat incoherent sequence where a giant boulder is dropped, Wile E. Coyote-like, on him), we flash back to the Battle World where Bart, the Jay Garrick of Earth-Whatever, Barry Allen, Wally West, and Max Mercury are standing around talking about how best to warn everyone else that Superboy-Prime has gotten away from them.

First off, I’m willing to ignore the space-time issues as to how beings who can travel through time and across multiverses unaided are worried about catching someone who’s, granted, about as fast as they are. Still, standing around? Only Jay and Wally are even in costume. Shouldn’t they be racing after Superboy, talking strategy on the run? Wouldn't that have been more, y'know, EXCITING?!? Anyway, since Wally can share and steal speed, he proposes absorbing the others’ Speed Force energy to push him to eleven. Bart says no, it’s too dangerous, and you have Linda and the kids to think of -- let me do it! And that’s how it happens. That’s why Bart’s been so reluctant to use the Speed Force -- he feels guilty for something he volunteered for, and his friends agreed to. Man, what a crappy bit of fiat. Nothing in there suggests that Bart couldn’t have transferred the SF energy back to the others once he was done with it. Nothing in it suggests that Bart abandoned them on the Battle World (which, by the way, means that Barry Allen and Max Mercury are still alive out there, since DC’s apparently unconcerned about that screwing up the timeline the way it did in Flash vol. 2 #150). Therefore, nothing prevents Bart from finding Wally and the rest, telling them he’s done, and restoring their speed to them. The little jolt he gave Jay this issue is probably an acknowledgment that he can do just that. Good grief, DC, at least with Kyle Rayner you burned a lot of bridges! Here you’ve just put up some flimsy barricades. Basically, Bart is the Flash for as long as he wants to be, and since there’s hardly anything new or innovative about Bart-Flash, you’re going to have to work a heck of a lot harder to convince me to buy this book. Another guest artist, this time Andy Smith helping out Lashley, does improve the overall look of things with a sort of Alan Davis-meets-Dick Giordano style.

I’m really not very fond of Ethan van Sciver’s cover for Green Lantern #15 (written by Geoff Johns, drawn by Ivan Reis). Since when does Hal Jordan have black eyes with little white pupils? Inside is better, as GL fights the Global Guardians, a couple of Faceless Hunters from Saturn, the Rocket Reds, and a special surprise team on the last page. Oh, and we see the new Sinestro Corps. It’s entertaining enough, but there’s an undercurrent of sexism that kind of spoils it for me. The prominent female characters are a (mind-controlled) seductress (Crimson Fox), a man-hating murderess (the new Star Sapphire, who still gets a cool origin), or a prisoner (Cowgirl, who does escape her guards). Maybe I’m being unfair, but it rubbed me the wrong way.

Van Sciver provides interior art for Superman/Batman #30 (written by Mark Verheiden), which, as it happens, is a sequel to a plotline from Verheiden’s short run on Superman last year. That was a pleasant surprise. The thought of Alfred turning to sweet, sweet bourbon as a tonic for his stresses was also kind of funny, if a little wrong. However, the rest of it was just very strange. Batman and Plastic Man breaking into the Fortress of Solitude was probably the highlight, although I think the Alien Bad Guy just spoiled part of 52. Otherwise, Superman and Kilowog somehow conclude that they have to Kill All Humans, Superman’s eyes get all red and glowy, and ... yeah. I’m not long for this book.

I was looking forward to the all-Batman, all-Grant Morrison issue of 52 (#30 written by Johns, Morrison, Rucka, Waid, breakdowns by Keith Giffen, pencils by Joe Bennett, inks by Bennett and Ruy Jose), but this issue wasn’t it. For one thing, it featured a two-page Origin of the Metal Men, and while I don’t have anything against the Metal Men, they’re not exactly part of Bruce’s One Year Later development. Seeing Kate Kane in the old Wayne Foundation penthouse -- one of my absolute favorite fictional buildings, giant fake tree and all -- was nice, but jumping back and forth from Gotham to wherever Nightwing and Robin were, was a bit confusing, and I went over those scenes again to confirm that they hadn’t come back to Gotham only to have Robin fly back to the desert with his super dune buggy. I did have to smile at the Ten-Eyed Assassins, but rather than this issue being the done-in-one wonder I was expecting, now I’d like to see a more satisfying follow-up.

Over in Batman #659, guest writer John Ostrander and guest artist Tom Mandrake bring us Part 1 of the four-part story of Grotesk, yet another new Batman antagonist that hits a number of familiar notes. He’s a vigilante who kills because the skels deserve it; he’s an unstoppable brute with (yes) a grotesque look; and he has a mysterious connection to one of Bruce Wayne’s old flames. Thankfully, Bruce and Alfred figured out the connection right around the time I did, which redeems the issue considerably. Ostrander also includes a nice scene with Gordon and a disguised Batman, and Mandrake’s art looks really good. He was a fine regular Batman artist in the ‘80s, and he’s only gotten better.

Batman/The Spirit (written by Jeph Loeb and Darwyn Cooke, pencilled by Darwyn Cooke, inked by J. Bone) was fun, although I shamefully admit not being up on my Spirit Rogues past P’Gell. This is basically a $4.99 ad for Cooke's Spirit series, beginning next month. It's not exactly the sly meditations on the human condition that Will Eisner's originals were, and neither the Spirit nor his supporting cast dominate the pages like the more colorful Batman characters, but Cooke's style is the selling point here, and it's enough of a Spirit story (not to mention a more carefree Batman story) to be a pretty good ad.

Captain America #24 (written by Ed Brubaker, drawn by Steve Epting) didn’t feel like Part 3 of 3, since it seems more concerned with setting up a big throwdown involving the Red Skull and a very welcome Surprise Guest Villain. Sharon Carter joins Cap’s side and also links up with Nick Fury, Cap fights Hydra goons and SHIELD cape-killers, and ... is the Winter Soldier in this one? No. Oh well, he would've gotten lost in all the Hydra beatdowns. Anyway, good clean fun, and the next-issue blurb sounds sufficiently hyperbolic.

Nextwave #10 (written by Warren Ellis, drawn by Stuart Immonen) featured a short fight sequence between our heroes and the Not Brand Ecchers, followed by a series of freakish dream sequences showing the Nextwavers as "real" superheroes, or at least more traditional superheroes. It’s the first issue of Nextwave that isn’t riotously funny, and in fact it’s a little more like Planetary, but it’s still good. Boy, Stuart Immonen can draw. Be assured, though, it ends in typical Nextwave fashion.

Jog liked Guy Gardner: Collateral Damage #1 (by Howard Chaykin), and Kevin Church compared it to American Flagg!, so I’ll agree with both and postulate further that it shouldn’t have been G’Nort who acts as the P.O.’ed voice of the Green Lantern Corps, but Raul the Cat (or something like him) with a power ring. Can you imagine? It would have made this Flagg! fan very happy, and it would have prevented an otherwise jarring transition from the purely comedic goofball G'Nort was in Justice League International to this pragmatic, jaded canine creature. Ch’p would have worked as well. Guy translates into a typical Chaykin protagonist smoothly, although he’s not quite the socialized Guy found in other DC books, nor does he have all the charm of Reuben Flagg. I do think that Chaykin is well-suited for Guy, and next issue should be good as well.

Full Post

Monday, November 27, 2006

New comics 11/22/06

We begin with Planetary Brigade #1 (written by Keith Giffen and J.M. DeMatteis, drawn by Julia Bax), a pastiche of the Hulk's origin used as the backdrop for the first grouping of the eponymous Justice League parody. The Captain America figure, who doesn't appear in the regular series so you know something's up, plays into that inevitability in a fairly clever way. Not as bwah-hah-hah as the other Hero Squared titles, but still fun. Julia Bax's art also seems more polished than Abraham's, so while I still like Abraham's stuff, I wouldn't mind seeing more of Bax's.

At first Fantastic Four: The End #2 (by Alan Davis) feels more like Alan Davis' Last Avengers Story, dwelling more on Iron Man's personality and seemingly throwaway gimmicks like the Bug Squad than on the interconnections of the former Fantastic Four. In terms of a single issue with "Fantastic Four" in the title, I'd say this is a pretty meandering effort, although the Avengers bits and a scene with Ben Grimm on Mars are entertaining. In the larger context, I'm hopeful that this issue lays the foundation for future plot points. It's only issue 2, after all.

52 #29 (written by Johns, Morrison, Rucka, and Waid, breakdowns by Keith Giffen, pencils by Chris Batista, inks by Jack Jadson) offers what is almost an obligatory gap-filling story about the last original Justice Socialites turning off the lights. We all know there will be trouble when one of Luthor's new heroes has the same codename as Green Lantern's late daughter, and I guess the resolution of that fight is unexpected. However, the cynic in me notes that the new Justice Society title is just around the corner, and this issue makes a fine teaser. I do have some issues with DC's devotion to legacies, so maybe I'll revisit this issue in more detail later. Thanksgiving with the mad scientists is fun, though.

Hawkgirl #58 (written by Walter Simonson, drawn by Joe Bennett) felt like old-school Wonder Woman, with the heroine in peril and her platonic male friend rushing to help and getting in trouble himself. I'm not sure I buy Kendra's answer to the issue's climactic dilemma, and again if I were being charitable I'd chalk it up to a certain freewheeling it's-only-a-comic sensibility. It's not completely implausible, but at the same time it could be seen as an excuse to march a bound and gagged Hawkgirl past the brink of a messy execution rendered across a two-page spread, and bring her back. It comes uncomfortably close to being a snuff film with a reset button. Joe Bennett's art is a better fit for Simonson's scripts and the book overall, and I'm willing to give the book a chance through the upcoming Rann-Thanagar War storyline, but it's getting to the point where Kendra has been humiliated enough.

Speaking of Wonder Woman, lo and behold Wonder Woman #3 (written by Allan Heinberg, drawn by Terry and Rachel Dodson) came out last week. It's a well-executed fight scene involving Hercules (shouldn't that be "Heracles," or is that his secret identity?), Giganta, Cheetah, Dr. Psycho, and the Mystery Villainess (revealed eventually, but I don't want to give away the ending). There's also a lot of finger-pointing directed at Diana for taking that year off and going plainclothes, which leads to the M.V.'s ultimate plan to become Wonder Woman herself, apparently. Hey, why not? Thanks to Justice League of America and this book's own tardiness, we know how things turn out. Still, now begins the long wait 'til #4.

You know, if you're Richard Donner and you have a new idea for a Superman story, you can include Bizarro, Sarge Steel, and any number of regular DC-Universe references, but when you bring in Zod, Ursa, and Non, they could fight Ambush Bug and it would still feel like a ripoff of Superman II. Naturally, such is the case with Action Comics #845 (written by Geoff Johns and Donner, drawn by Adam Kubert), which of course throws in a Kryptonian child at least superficially reminiscent of the kid from Superman Returns. Anyway, this issue presents a fight with Bizarro alongside Lois' reluctance to slap a pair of glasses on the boy and call him Christopher Kent. (Good choice for a first name.) I was a bit disappointed that Clark didn't outsource last issue's raid on the boy's transport to Batman, especially since the establishing shot of the Kent Farm featured a couple of bats cavorting before the full moon. That's about how I felt the whole issue -- clever in parts, but not as much as I'd have liked.

Finally, more Phantom Zone shenanigans crop up in Supergirl and the Legion of Super-Heroes #24 (written by Mark Waid, pencilled by Barry Kitson, inked by Mick Gray), another entertaining issue built around a fight with the Legion of Super-Villains. I don't know if I've spent enough time with this book that it no longer feels like I'm missing everything, or if the familiar elements are helping me get into the book more, but I've been digging it more than usual the past couple of issues and I hope that continues.

Full Post

Wednesday, November 22, 2006

Crisis On Thursday, or To Grandmother's Earth We Go!

I consider myself lucky to have grown up in the era of annual Justice League/Justice Society team-ups. My first issue of Justice League of America was #137 (Dec. 1976), the conclusion of the JLA/JSA/Marvel Family epic. The promised Superman/Captain Marvel fight didn't quite come off so well, but I was still hooked. Lucky for me, the next five years would produce what I consider some of the best -- if not the best -- JLA/JSA team-ups ever.

If only (for the sake of this post, that is) they'd come out at Thanksgiving. Unfortunately, the annual visit with the Justice Society happened during the summer, mostly in July and August. JLA/JSA: Virtue and Vice, the Geoff Johns & David Goyer/Carlos Pacheco one-shot, was set during Thanksgiving, and that seems to be the tradition now, but that only tends to prove it wasn't so then.

Still, the JLA/JSA stories have always had a Thanksgiving feel. The Justice Society consists of the League's older relatives, in spirit if not necessarily in fact, and it's an opportunity for the all-star League to feel like it's part of a larger family. Back in the day, having the two Flashes or Green Lanterns interact wasn't as common as it is now, to say nothing of the unique relationship between Earth-2's Huntress and her "Uncle Bruce" from Earth-1, or the Kryptonian quasi-cousins Superman and Power Girl. Besides, once their features in All-Star Comics and Adventure Comics were gone, the annual visits with the JLA were some of the only chances to see the Justice Society. Therefore, an annual visit with people who are as close to family as the JLA might get sounds a lot like Thanksgiving to me. Now imagine your tryptophane-induced stupor interrupted by a supervillain or five....

Justice League of America #s 147-48 (Oct-Nov 1977): "Crisis in the 30th Century!" brings the two teams to the Legion of Super-Heroes' future, where the JLA and JSA become pawns of demons Abnegazar, Rath, and Ghast, who each want to Rule The World in their own ways. Since these turn out to be mutually exclusive, they each pick certain heroes as champions. Superman, Batman, Green Lantern, Green Arrow, and Black Canary represent the JLA, while the featured JSAers are Flash, Green Lantern, Doctor Fate, Power Girl, and Hawkman. Finally, a whole slew of Legionnaires includes Saturn Girl, Lightning Lad, Shadow Lass, Wildfire, Ultra Boy, Brainiac 5, Princess Projectra, Chameleon Boy, and Sun Boy. The climax finds the last bad guy imprisoned by a familiar bit of space-junk that, apparently, later became a familiar Legion location. Not even Power Girl hitting on the Earth-1 Superman -- ewww -- can tarnish this tale.

JLofA #s 159-60 (Oct-Nov 1978): "Crisis From Yesterday!" has the two teams defeated by ... Jonah Hex, Viking Prince, Enemy Ace, Miss Liberty, and the Black Pirate?!? It's all part of a plan by the Lord of Time, who has infused the heroes of DC's various historical comics with enough super-energy to do the job. His plan, strange as it may sound, is actually to get the heroes mad enough to attack him. Thus, #160 opens with Leaguers Superman, Flash, Hawkman, and Elongated Man, plus Socialites Wonder Woman, Star-Spangled Kid, Dr. Mid-Nite, and Huntress, racing on a Cosmic Treadmill towards the Lord of Time's citadel. However, they too fall victim, one by one, to the Lord of Time's defenses (Wonder Woman's not-quite-fastball-special leaves Superman in a coma), until one hero remains ... and Ralph Dibny, the World-Famous Elongated Man, short-circuits the Lord of Time's master computer to save the day.

JLofA #s 171-72 (Oct-Nov 1979): These two issues are a change from the usual cosmic crisis, being instead a locked-room murder mystery aboard the Justice League Satellite. The victim is Mr. Terrific, making his first JLA/JSA appearance since 1972. Batman and the Huntress are both featured, naturally, and Barry Allen gets to show off his CSI skillz. The three detectives make a fine set of investigators, but the Batman/Huntress dynamic is complicated by the recent death of the Batman of Earth-2. Accordingly, Huntress tells Batman she wasn't sure if she could take seeing Uncle Bruce so soon. (For his part, in the 1978 team-up, Batman was wondering if he and Silver St. Cloud might someday have had a daughter.) Some might therefore think Batman reacts with uncharacteristic emotion when Huntress takes the brunt of a computer explosion, but in context it makes sense. The rest of the story has a couple of head-scratching moments, and what might be an artist's error belies the JSA's closing vow to see that Terrific's killer receives justice, but on the whole it's a unique effort that still shows the strengths of a by-now-familiar format.

JLofA #s 183-85 (Oct-Dec 1980): "Crisis On New Genesis!" was a landmark story in a few ways. Issue #183 was Dick Dillin's last before his death, resulting in DC turning to Avengers artist George Perez (whose New Teen Titans #1 went on sale the same day as his first JLA issue). So, George Perez drawing two issues of the JLA, JSA, and New Gods vs. the hordes of Apokolips and the Injustice Society -- sounds good, right? It pretty much is -- Darkseid wants to move Apokolips physically into the Earth-2 universe, destroying Earth-2 in the process. The only drawbacks are the references to the '70s post-Kirby New Gods stories, which were apparently so awful that DC assigned them their own faraway little corner of Hypertime. Leaguers include Superman, Batman, Green Lantern, and Firestorm; Socialites include Wonder Woman, Power Girl, Doctor Fate, and Huntress (making an almost all-female JSA, to balance the all-male League); and New Gods include Orion (in the '70s superhero suit and mask), Lightray, Big Barda, Mr. Miracle, Metron, Oberon, and Highfather. Highlights are Green Lantern comparing Highfather to a Guardian of the Universe, and the triple threat of Batman, Huntress, and Mr. Miracle sneaking into Darkseid's control room. Also, Power Girl and Firestorm get to flirt, much to Superman's (and the reader's) relief.

JLofA #s 195-97 (Oct-Dec 1981): It's hard to top an Apokoliptian blowout, but darned if this team-up ("Targets On Two Worlds"/"Countdown To Crisis"/"Crisis In Limbo") didn't try. Perez was winding down his tenure on Justice League of America, and he was helped a little by Keith Pollard, although you can't really tell. The third team here is the Secret Society of Super-Villains, headed by the gorilla-bodied Ultra-Humanite and including (from Earth-2) the Monocle, Rag Doll, Brain Wave, Psycho-Pirate, and Mist, and (from Earth-1) Killer Frost, Signalman, Floronic Man, and Cheetah. Ultra figures that, by removing certain superheroes from both Earths, it'll set up a cosmic chain reaction that will remove all the superheroes from one Earth -- he doesn't know which. At least, that's what he tells his Society -- in reality, he knows it will only affect Earth-2. Most of the story is an inversion of the regular JLA-JSA format, as the villains meet as a group, split up for their individual assignments (capturing their archenemies), and get back together for the big finish. JLAers include Batman, Firestorm, Black Canary, Wonder Woman, and the Atom; JSAers include Hawkman, Superman, Flash, Hourman, and Johnny Thunder. (No Starman despite Rag Doll and the Mist, so fans of the James Robinson series might be disappointed.)

Anyway, there they are -- five classic Justice League/Justice Society stories which, for me, make for a pretty good run. Maybe next year I'll tackle some non-multiverse JLA/JSA classics.

[All stories written by Gerry Conway except the Legion issues of 1977, written by Paul Levitz and Marty Pasko. As indicated, most stories pencilled by Dick Dillin, with the final five issues pencilled by George Perez.]
Full Post

Sunday, November 19, 2006

New comics 11/8/06 and 11/15/06, plus a few comments about reading

For various reasons, most of which you don't want to hear (trust me), I've been doing a lot of reading in addition to each week's new comics. Recently I finished the last big chunks of Essential Doctor Strange Vol. 1, and today I read all 25 issues of Hourman. Now, of course, I'm trying to think about what to say for the last two 52s, because with a new one every week they tend to blur together.

Now, here's the thing: the Doctor Strange stories were all from his ten-page feature in Strange Tales, but for the most part each led into the next, allowing a much larger story to be serialized over many months. Those stories had very brief recaps of the previous issue's events, maybe a fat caption or two, or a flashback at the most -- but space was at a premium.

Accordingly, each of Hourman's monthly issues contained 22 pages of story, so it had more room to do full-blown 1- or 2-page recaps of the previous issue. This made reading all the issues in one sitting a little rocky, but I know I appreciated those recaps when I was reading the book as it came out. What's more, both titles used footnotes to remind readers of what had happened when, which isn't surprising for an original Silver Age book or for the Silver Age wannabe that Hourman was.

52 does very little in the way of flashbacks and/or recaps, depending on its publication schedule and the reader's own memories to do the job. However, its format is so unusual -- a 52-part story told in 20-to-22-page weekly increments -- that its narrative structure might still not be apparent, at least not to someone like me who hasn't taken the time to read it all to date in big chunks. The big-chunk approach may even miss the point of 52's immediacy, since one can read several "weeks" in an hour or so. (Longer if your finger moves along the page, like mine does.)

Anyway, that may all be elementary to you, but I hope it makes up for some quick and dirty capsule reviews to get me caught up.

November 8

Tales Of The Unexpected #2: I liked Will Pfeifer and Cliff Chiang's miniseries that established the Crispus Allen Spectre, but so far these Spectre stories are a big game of cosmic "chicken," with Spec seeing how far Allen can hold out before the ironic punishment starts. Thank goodness for the hilarious Dr. Thirteen backup. If it comes out in paperback by itself, I'm there.

JLA Classified #29: Still good, although why put the kiddie ads in the book with the naked Wonder Woman?

52 #27: Montoya trains with Richard Dragon, Skeets kills Waverider, and Ralph and the Spectre put the zap on Jean Loring's head. Really, DC, make Ralph and Sue happy again. It won't "cheapen" Identity Crisis. Trust me.

Green Lantern #14: Maybe I'm weird, but you won't bore me by exploring a Green Lantern's jurisdictional issues. However, I agree with Ollie -- never take off the ring. I'm a bit surprised to see the alien villain again so soon. Wasn't he in one of the last Kyle Rayner storylines?

Firestorm #31: Freddie E. Williams II contributes some noticeably different art to about half this issue, and it's only a little distracting. Gehenna and Jason have a nice come-to-Jesus moment, although it's spoiled at the end by what looks like a strange deductive leap on Prof. Stein's part. As far as the fighting and flying and zapping goes, this feels like the end, but according to the last page there are more secrets to be revealed. I'm sorry to see Stuart Moore and Jamal Igle leave, but I trust them to have at least one more good issue in them.

Superman #657: Wow. Post-apocalyptic carnage on par with JLA's "Rock Of Ages," but with a twist that "ROA" only teased. I still can't get over the "meteor" that caused the nuclear winter. Oh, and the new villain also seems superficially similar to Samaritan's arch-foe from the last Astro City special.

Batman #658: "Batman And Son" ends as it began, with a lot of attitude and not so much plot. I was hoping that Damien would be used as a kind of AzRobin, the grim 'n' gritty sidekick who'd even make Jason Todd cringe. However, it's probably more believable that he just wants to please his dad. Also, part of me can't believe that DC would ... I almost wrote "let Batman get pregnant," but you know what I mean. Kid's still alive, and Batman still officially has fathered a child, as far as we know. Shame we have to wait until February for Morrison's next issue, and with the Joker too.

November 15

1602: Fantastick Four #3: The Elizabethan FF in an air/sea battle with Doom and the Wizard near the end of the world, so pretty good.

Astro City: The Dark Age Book Two #1: I was playing Spot The Marvel Event with this one, and I think I picked out the Celestial Madonna storyline. Anyway, the two brothers seem to be drifting towards each other's respective areas, acquiring some shades of gray to go along with the darkening Astro City of the '70s. Sometimes I am really a shameless Busiek sycophant, huh?

Checkmate #8: I had thought this issue was spotlighting the recruit from #5, but I might have been remembering a different recruit. Anyway, another fine undercover installment, with the identity of the mole not revealed (at least to a dope like me) until the last page.

Omega Men #2: The Omegas fight Superman, Green Lantern, and a few Titans. I think they represent the heroes Marv Wolfman used to introduce them back in the day, which was a nice touch. Oh, and they also fight Vril Dox. The art suits the Omegas and the space stuff pretty well, and it's not so bad with Superman, but Wonder Girl doesn't come off so well. Still, much like the Adam Strange miniseries, it's another space opera involving mistaken identities and running from various planetary governments, and that's all good.

Green Lantern Corps #6: More than Guy and his rookie partner busting up a sentient city (which seemed a bit cruel, but that's how Guy rolls), I enjoyed the scenes with Soranik Natu giving Korugar the big green energy finger. I can see where both sides are coming from, and both are perfectly understandable. However, it and the Thanagarian Lantern's marital problems are more variations on the old Hal Jordan dilemma of splitting time between home and space, so let's find some new conflicts for these new Lanterns pretty soon.

Birds Of Prey #100: The big anniversary finds Oracle and Huntress recruiting a new pool of agents while Black Canary spends time with her "daughter." Really, the Black Canary story was just gravy, because the main one (featuring the new team's breaking into and out of prison) was good enough for me. Let's put it this way: it convinced me to buy a BoP paperback and start catching up.

Aquaman: Sword Of Atlantis #45: Man, I am apparently just a Busiek fool. Arthur's forces fight the Ocean Master's in an Ewoks-vs.-Empire situation, except this time the Ewoks win when Arthur apparently uses some of the old Aquaman marine-telepathy mind tricks. You can put as many sword-and-sorcery elements into this book as you want, but I've always liked the talking to finny friends. Nice and uplifting, with the old Aquaman anointing the new one, and a kind-of surprising revelation about one of Arthur's companions. A fine conclusion of the first story arc and transition to the next.

52 #28: Already I miss the all-machine Red Tornado who's switched bodies in the current Justice League series. Could he turn a junkyard into parts of himself? Of course not. I was a little disappointed with the relatively brief appearances of Batwoman and the Emerald Head, two characters I want to see more of, but at least I got something. Again, like I said up top, 52 pretty much comes down to "did I like whatever random things happened this week?" and on balance, I did.
Full Post

Thursday, November 16, 2006

Bond Issues, Part 2

Keeping Marc's warning in mind, I nevertheless plunged ahead with the remaining "official" James Bond films. (Also, forgot to mention last time that I watched the Mystery Science Theater 3000 episode "Operation Double 007," starring Sean's goateed brother Neil and about as good as you'd think. Still better than A View To A Kill.) The Moore Era gets tough towards the end, so brace yourselves....

Moonraker (1979): I think I can sum up this movie through one comparison -- it turned Jaws, the relentless, unstoppable killer from The Spy Who Loved Me, into Silent Bob. The big guy gets some moments of menace, most notably a creepy scene during Rio's Carnivale, but overall he's reduced to surviving improbably and mugging for the camera. Oh, and falling in love with another social outcast who wouldn't have been part of Drax's master race. I don't know if that's meant as biting commentary, given that Lois "Holly Goodhead" Chiles seems to have been cast for her looks, not her talent. I did like the gondola/hovercraft and the return of John Barry's alternate "007" theme, and if you grade the Bond movies on a Nick Fury, Agent Of SHIELD curve, Moonraker just seems to make it.

For Your Eyes Only (1981): Am I correct in observing that this is the only Bond film where the underlying conflict is simply Britain vs. the USSR, with no caveats for SPECTRE, crazy generals, arms dealers, etc.? It’s probably the most well-made of the Moore films. However, my unrepentant affection for The Spy Who Loved Me remains steadfast. Lynn-Holly Johnson is blackboard-scratching annoying, and I thought the obvious comparisons between the Countess and Bond’s late wife could have been explored more. Also, Bill Conti’s score is a little too bright and jazzy. Still, the cinematography is gorgeous, especially in Greece. Moore should have gone out on this one.

Octopussy (1983): This film gets points for working in the eponymous short story as being part of Bond’s and Octopussy’s shared backstory. Having the crazy Soviet general’s plot depend on manipulating NATO politics is also fairly clever. Unfortunately, once Moore dons that clown costume, the last shred of his dignity drops away. Good thing John Barry is in fine form, contributing what may be the quintessential arrangement of the Bond theme.

A View To A Kill (1985): This movie actually has a couple of good parts; namely, Moore’s scenes with Patrick Macnee, and the Paris car chase. I liked the blimp too. Okay, and I liked the Duran Duran song. The rest of it, though.... I mean, I know the Bond people want to present the so-called "Bond women" as more than bimbos, but if your geologist is played pretty unconvincingly by Tanya Roberts, what good is that? (See also Lois Chiles.) By this point, Moore looks like Bush 41.

The Living Daylights (1987): This isn’t a bad Bond movie at all, and it’s certainly an improvement over much of the Moore Era. However, Timothy Dalton never seems comfortable as Bond. To be sure, the movie requires him to be playful and charming, a la his predecessors, but to convey this he puts on a kind of nervous smile the rest of his face can’t quite back up. This does not support the two-crazy-kids vibe the movie wants to promote between Dalton and Maryam D’Abo. The movie itself is sprawling, almost bloated, with a plot that’s a challenge to keep straight. It feels about 3 hours long, so what should have been its climactic setpiece in Afghanistan only gives way to an anticlimactic showdown with Joe Don Baker and his sublimated erectile-dysfunction issues. The techno-flavored score provides a nice bit of late-'80s nostalgia.

Licence To Kill (1989): This movie’s straightforward revenge story goes too far the other way. Its dramatic beats are grounded in Bond’s friendship with Felix Leiter, and in the loss of his official status. (The resolution of the latter is, naturally, a foregone conclusion.) Unfortunately, the friendship had never really been established, thanks to the umpteen different Leiters over the years (including the stiff in The Living Daylights), and the actors don’t sell it here. Now, if Moneypenny's fiance/new husband had ended up fed to a shark, that might have worked out better. (For the movie, that is.)

GoldenEye (1995): Pierce Brosnan finally gets to play 007 in a fun, self-aware, self-confident performance that lifts the whole movie. Actually, everyone in GoldenEye seems to be having a good time bringing Bond into the post-Soviet Union era (not to mention the Internet age). It’s as if the producers made a list of essential Bond elements and decided to do right by each while still allowing for upgrades -- for example, Daniel Kleinman’s opening titles. The new M and Moneypenny both call Bond on his casual sexism, and Famke Janssen and Izabella Scorupco are both tremendously appealing in their roles. The only questionable part for me is Eric Serra’s minimalist score, wisely replaced with a full orchestra for the grandiose tank chase and not entirely out of place otherwise.

Tomorrow Never Dies (1997): Perhaps the most openly satirical Bond film, but that’s not saying much. Most of it is running and fighting and shooting and driving, and that’s all done well. TND also benefits (at least for me) from incoming composer David Arnold, who recognizes the value of a flamboyant score to this series. However, like the object of its alleged satire, TND is ultimately pretty superficial, which for a Bond film is saying something. I do like a lot of little moments -- M's rolling briefing, Bond and Q at the Avis desk, and Bond and the torturer, in particular. Still -- not that I want this to be a Crime-Alley-"my-parents-are-dead" motif -- given the circumstances of her relationship with Bond, Paris’ death might have been another opportunity to remember Tracy’s.

The World Is Not Enough (1999): The best Brosnan Bond, Denise Richards notwithstanding. I thought Brosnan was a good fit from the beginning, but he grew into the part more with each movie. In this one he seems more mature, again romancing a woman comparable to Tracy Bond (and again, that aspect passing without explicit comment). TWINE also brings back Robbie Coltrane’s Russian gangster from GoldenEye. One of the least effective parts of the movie (again, besides Denise Richards) is John Cleese’s "R," but that gives Bond and the audience a chance to say goodbye to Desmond Llewellyn’s Q.

Die Another Day (2002): Perhaps this movie works best as a sort of coded commentary on the whole series. There are certainly enough Easter eggs, with at least one reference to all 19 movies thus far. However, in its move from gritty, post-9/11 realpolitik to orbiting death rays, invisible cars, and electrified body armor, it wants to be bigger than any of them. I could live with the orbiting death ray, and the cloaking device might actually work, but the body armor was too much. (It’s still easier to take than the rifle-plus-shield that Joe Don Baker wields in The Living Daylights.) Bond in Cuba thanks to China is an ironic treat, "London Calling" is played, and John Cleese seems more on the ball than in his debut. I can't remember if Hugh Grant was ever seriously considered as a Bond, but main villain Gustav Graves looks enough like Grant to make me wonder if that wasn't some kind of message too.

And with that, Brosnan closed out a series of four films which tried to ground themselves in espionage-flavored adventure stories but which ended up playing riffs on their predecessors. Under Moore especially, the Bond movies had settled into some pretty familiar formulae, so that by the time Dalton took over, the boundaries had been established. However, to me, Licence To Kill showed that erring unfailingly on the side of "reality" doesn't necessarily work either. Thus, Brosnan's movies inevitably included an element of self-awareness, not least thanks to Brosnan's love for the series and previous history with it. Depending on one's perspective, I suppose that either helps gloss over the Brosnan Era's shortcomings or diminishes it in light of the series' more undisputed high points. Me, I liked Brosnan pretty well as Bond.

Still, they all could have used the three-inch scar that Fleming gave him....
Full Post

Friday, November 10, 2006

Bond Issues, Part 1

It may be hard to justify, but in the run-up to every new James Bond movie, something compels me to watch all the others in chronological order. Not, like, in a punishing marathon of two sleepless days, and not even on a strict "Seven [Time Periods] Of 007" schedule, but just whenever. It’s probably some subconscious threshold event -- if I can make it from Dr. No through Die Another Day and still have an appetite for the character, then I’ll see the new one.

I might not make it this year. I’m at the halfway point with a week to go, and I can’t see devoting an entire weekend to ten films' worth of Moore, Dalton, and Brosnan. Therefore, here are my thoughts so far.

Dr. No (1962): I’ve also been re-reading most of the books in publication order (just Octopussy left) and it’s ironic, but this was the first book that really felt like it could propel the character to film stardom. I can see why it was chosen for the first movie, despite it being one of the later books. The movie is a little more compressed, and I think it suffers from not yet having developed some of the trappings of the series. It is also not as slick as its successors, but that’s probably to be expected. Regardless, you can’t argue with Sean Connery’s presence in the role, backed up by the famous Monty Norman theme (woven into a score by John Barry). Production designer Ken Adam, who really brought a lot to the series, contributed a couple of space-age sets (most notably the room where Dr. No’s voice is first heard) and otherwise livened up the mundane London and Jamaica locales.

From Russia, With Love (1963): This is probably Connery’s best Bond, a thrilling tale of pretty straightforward espionage given a twist by the incorporation of SPECTRE into the book’s SMERSH-centered narrative. Red Grant doesn’t get the buildup he does in the book, but Robert Shaw makes him plenty menacing, and Daniella Bianchi is excellent as Tatiana Romanova.

Goldfinger (1964): Probably the quintessential Bond film, but I rate it just slightly below FRWL due to Pussy Galore’s conversion. (It’s about as likely as Tilly Masterton’s swooning over Pussy in the book.) Other than that, there’s a lot to like about this movie, which really opens up the scope of the series. The books never went in for gadgets on the scale of the Aston Martin DB V, and they tended to short-circuit the villain’s plot just before it got to the crucial step. Here, Bond gets down to the 0:07 mark before the bomb is defused, and Goldfinger’s still at large. Plus, Bond comes to Kentucky, and golf!

Thunderball (1965): The first real widescreen (2.35:1) Bond raises the stakes even more. Unfortunately, it dumps the book’s angle that Bond is ordered to the spa for his health (this is restored for the remake, Never Say Never Again) and I can never quite connect the funeral with the rest of it. However, once the bomber is hijacked, we’re off. This feels like an expanded and slightly reworked Dr. No, if only because it’s SPECTRE causing trouble in the Caribbean, but with the elaborate underwater sequences it goes ‘way beyond what the first film presented, and even Goldfinger’s big final battle.

You Only Live Twice (1966): Naturally this movie had to be bigger, so the plot shifts to SPECTRE hijacking space capsules in order to trigger nuclear war. This may be the best-looking and best-sounding Connery movie, with Ken Adam and John Barry really outdoing themselves. By putting a face on Blofeld, Donald Pleasance also gives Mike Myers’ career a second act. (I watched this right after I watched Halloween, coincidentally.) However, the film’s misogyny and its attempt to make Bond "Japanese" haven’t aged well.

On Her Majesty’s Secret Service (1969): When I first saw this movie, I tended to wonder how it would have turned out if Connery had returned alongside Diana Rigg. Her character has to look pretty forlorn next to George Lazenby, and it's not like he's not credible -- he certainly looks more like Fleming's Bond than Connery does -- but Connery + Rigg > Connery + Honor Blackman, even. Still, Connery apparently wasn't aging well, judging by the next film, so this is probably for the best. The movie itself is very ... mod, I suppose, although I'm probably misusing that word. Director Peter Hunt was the previous films' editor, and fills the fights with quick-cut gimmickry. Ken Adam's absent too, for the first time since From Russia, With Love; and there's a truly annoying Christmas-y song (the movie takes place at the holidays) which could have come from the Barney songbook. Other than that it's pretty good, and would have been a good transition into Roger Moore.

Diamonds Are Forever (1971): However, Connery came back for one last "official" hurrah, and I have to say, he looks more like Bond's dad than he does the guy from You Only Live Twice. The pre-credits sequence doesn't quite work, because it's hard to connect Connery with the character who married Diana Rigg. Other detriments to the film include its assassins, Mr. Wint and Mr. Kidd. I don't have a problem with them being gay; I have a problem with them being annoying. Also annoying is Tiffany Case (Jill St. John) and Shady Tree, the old gangster who moonlights as an unfunny Vegas comedian. However, Ken Adam is back, and Connery's old mojo works more often than not.

Live And Let Die (1973): This year, I watched with screenwriter Tom Mankiewicz's DVD commentary on. He does a good job contrasting Roger Moore with Connery, explaining that Moore's style allowed Bond to have a different kind of humor. Specifically, Moore almost brought a "twit" sensibility to the character that Connery definitely didn't have. Moore's Bond could walk into the Fillet of Soul and play the buffoon, whereas a similar scene with Connery would have ended in violence. Now, that might have been closer to the original novel, but for 1973 I doubt it would have gone over very well. Ken Adam, Q, and John Barry are all on vacation for this one, so one of the high points is music by George "I Managed The Beatles" Martin and, of course, the classic title song by Paul McCartney and Wings.

The Man With The Golden Gun (1974): Bond takes on the former Dracula as Christopher Lee classes up the joint with his portrayal of the titular villain, Francisco Scaramanga. Surprisingly, Moore isn't as outclassed as one might imagine. Maybe it's because Scaramanga sometimes gets lost in all the travelogue-y details of Bond's tracking him throughout the Far East. These include the camera's unfortunate gawking -- that's the best way I can think to describe it -- at the locals, as they in turn gawk at the weird white man being chased by maniacal killers. The Moore movies did this a few more times, especially in Octopussy, and it never really got any less offensive. The movie wants to present this as a commentary on the carnage invading these peaceful little villages, and to underscore that TMWTGG brings back Sheriff J.W. Pepper, a slightly more cultured ancestor of Buford T. Justus, who gets to be the Ugly American again. However, where J.W. actually got to comment on the carnage invading his little Louisiana fiefdom in Live and Let Die, here he's just a goo-based punchline. Oh, and the theme song is one of the worst too, although John Barry uses the melody well in his score. Ken Adam is still absent, but a sunken M.I.6 office is a set-design highlight, as is Hi Fat's mansion. Finally, Herve Villechaize is a lot of fun as Scaramanga's henchman, Nick Nack.

The Spy Who Loved Me (1977): My favorite Moore movie, and in my top three Bonds overall. Sure, this movie starts from practically the same premise as You Only Live Twice, its SPECTRE elements were excised to avoid litigation, and it opened the door to the over-the-top Moonraker, but it has such swagger and joie de vivre, it's hard for me to resist. Ken Adam is at the top of his game here, offering the undersea citadel of Atlantis and the mammoth submarine pen, as well as a mix of expressionistic and Jet Age headquarters for M.I.6 and the KGB. The song, Carly Simon's "Nobody Does It Better," is perfectly complemented by Marvin Hamlisch's score, which is infused with wakka-chicka guitar work eminently appropriate to the era. Nods to continuity include a reference to Bond's wife, as well as M's first name and Q's last name. There's a moody set piece incorporating a Laser Floyd show at the Pyramids. All this and I haven't mentioned the Union Jack parachute, Jaws, or the Lotus. It's a long way from From Russia, With Love, and there are some groaners, but on the whole it all works in spectacular fashion.

Not a bad way to end the first half. We'll have to see if the second ten reach similar heights.
Full Post

Tuesday, November 07, 2006

New comics 11/1/06

Seems like every week I’m complaining about how hectic it’s all become, and this week was no different. Wednesday was my birthday (37, woo!), but I had a big stack of comics to read, long-distance congratulatory phone calls, and a Grumpy Old Fan column to write.

Anyway, about those comics....

Seven Soldiers #1 (written by Grant Morrison, drawn by J.H. Williams III) arrived here a week late, and even though I've read other commentaries online I'm still not sure what to make of it. Overall I enjoyed it, especially the Zatanna bits, but coming to it relatively cold I probably didn't get as much out of it on the first reading as I could have. I'm seriously considering getting the four paperbacks when the last one comes out in a few months.

Justice League of America #3 (written by Brad Meltzer, pencilled by Ed Benes, inked by Sandra Hope) was the first issue since #0 that, on balance, I enjoyed. Most of the enjoyment came from Green Lantern, Black Canary, and Arsenal fighting an army of multicolored Red Tornadoes, but a cameo by an old reserve member and that last-minute reveal were also welcome nods to the book’s history. As slow as this reinvention has been, at least Meltzer knows how to handle the minutiae. I just hope the "Big Three fantasy draft" doesn't last much longer.

Superman Confidential #1 (written by Darwyn Cooke, drawn by Tim Sale) was a decent opener that started out with the Royal Flush Gang and ended with our reporter heroes working to bring down an evil casino developer. I have to say, I am not the biggest fan of Tim Sale’s Superman (it’s the face, mostly), but his Lois Lane is very saucy. I am also a bit dubious on what appears to be sentient Kryptonite. If it’s just a narrative device, though, that’s OK. I wouldn’t expect Cooke to set up the Kryptonite for an heroic sacrifice and/or telling Supes it’s always loved him.

For an issue with a nice anniversary-friendly number, Detective Comics #825 (written by Royal McGraw, pencilled by Marcos Marz, inked by Luciana del Negro) tells a pretty inoffensive, unremarkable story about the return of Doctor Phosphorus, a character who first appeared in a Detective from about thirty years ago. I could say more about his narrative significance and the melding of 1970s nuclear fears with 1940s-style corporate deceit, but that really doesn’t come into play here. Batman figures out a scientific way of stopping him, it’s a bit more lighthearted than it would have been prior to Infinite Crisis, and next month Paul Dini will be back.

I like the new-to-52 art team of Patrick Olliffe and Drew Geraci (52 #26 otherwise produced by writers Grant Morrison, Geoff Johns, Greg Rucka, and Mark Waid, with breakdowns by Keith Giffen). I also like the return of the Sivana Family, which I don't think even the nostalgic Jerry Ordway series had time to bring back. (Had they been seen in Outsiders?) They work well with the Black Marvel Family, too, and "Tawky Crawky." As for the rest of it, not to sound like a broken record, but 52 itself is becoming immune to these little weekly roundups. It has its own rhythm and its own pace. In fact, since I've just gotten through watching "Friday Night Lights," it strikes me as a similar kind of thing. "FNL" isn't telling a larger story, as far as I can see, just exploring the same sorts of sports-vs.-everything else tensions every week. 52's job is, apparently, to keep DC Nation entertained weekly while filling in the missing year. Of course, I say that now, but when things pick up in a few weeks and it all starts coming together, I'll look like an idiot.

Hawkgirl #57 welcomes new artist Joe Bennett (fresh from 52) to go along with returning writer Walter Simonson, and darn if the book doesn't make more sense than it did under Howard Chaykin. To be fair, the story seems a bit more straightforward than the Chaykin arc, since it deals with Kendra being kidnapped to stand trial for her role in the Rann-Thanagar War, but Bennett's work is moodier and less flashy. Again, I still like Chaykin, but in hindsight he probably wasn't the right artist for this book.

The All New Atom #5 (written by Gail Simone, drawn by Eddy Barrows) finds the miniature invaders and the Evil Atom (don't think his codename is in this issue) all causing problems for our hero, not to mention his father and the Dean having issues with him too. I liked this issue pretty well, even if it did lead into the Brave New World preview which is, by now, five months old. (Will the paperback put it in its proper place?) Barrows, like Bennett, has the kind of style that doesn't call attention to itself, which makes its wow-moments stand out that much more. When Bennett shows Hawkgirl winging over the city, or here, where Barrows shows Ryan Choi size-changing to impress his dad, it's impressive to the reader too. Also, Simone must enjoy the miniature-invader dialect, because clearly she's having fun with it.

I want to like Nightwing #126 (written by Marv Wolfman, pencilled by Dan Jurgens, inked by Norm Rapmund), but it's not easy. For one thing, isn't the name "Biotech Pharmaceuticals" something like "Robot-Made Cars"? I thought biotech was more of a process or a classification, not a brand. Anyway, this is more of some guy in battle armor being killed and no one being quite sure who's behind it or why. There is a bit of tension when one of NW's buddies (who might be new to this arc, for all I know) is threatened with death, and Marv has Dick doing what you'd expect Dick Grayson to do -- namely, have warm conversations with Alfred Pennyworth and get set up to give acrobatics lessons (not a euphemism). It's not a bad issue, but it's just kind of there.

Supergirl and the Legion of Super-Heroes #23 (written by Mark Waid, pencilled by Barry Kitson, inked by Mick Gray) presents a verrry interesting story that I'm surprised wasn't called "Supergirl's Return To Krypton!" Unfortunately for the Legion, they render Supergirl powerless in a "Mission: Impossible"-esque attempt to get her better adjusted to the 31st Century, just when what I take to be the Legion of Super-Villains attacks. Best issue in a while, and that's saying a lot.

I was also surprised at how much of She-Hulk 2 #13 (written by Dan Slott, pencilled by Rick Burchett, inked by Cliff Rathburn) I was able to follow, given its roots in '80s Marvel continuity. Basically, it's the origins of Thanos and Starfox, continued, as presented through more of Starfox's trial on Titan. However, because the focus is on Starfox's alleged abuse of his mind-control powers, it's easier for me, the rookie, to understand; and, of course, having She-Hulk as the reader's guide also helps. Finally, once again it's good to see Rick Burchett working. He has a distinctive style that doesn't get in the way of his solid storytelling, and he's just so versatile otherwise.

Agents of Atlas #4 (written by Jeff Parker, pencilled by Leonard Kirk, inked by Kris Justice), and Beyond #5 (written by Dwayne McDuffie, drawn by Scott Kolins) are similarly new-reader-friendly, although I'm a little confused about who's watching the AOA on the first page. Still, both tell pretty straightforward superhero stories with a lot of panache -- AOA has fights with giant lobster-creatures and a fun montage of Shutting Down Enemy Bases, and Beyond uses its focus on Hank and Janet to set up its last-reel reversal. Looking forward to the conclusions of both.

I liked Criminal #2 (written by Ed Brubaker, drawn by Sean Phillips) more than I did #1, probably because this was the issue that put the big heist into motion and I could follow the characters better once I saw what they were doing. Not much more to say beyond complimenting the skills of the writer and artist, and others have done that more eloquently than I could.

Appropriately enough, we close with Fantastic Four: The End #1, by Alan Davis (and Mark Farmer inking, according to the cover). If you've read The Nail or Superboy's Legion, you can expect more of the same here -- highlights of the FF's storied history, rearranged in new, apocalyptic patterns. The opening fight with a borgified Dr. Doom especially recalls The Nail's Batman/Joker bloodbath, right down to the casualties. Making everyone subject to an anti-aging treatment, and setting the story in an indeterminate future, also brings to mind Howard Chaykin and Jose Luis Garcia Lopez's Twilight miniseries, which recast many of DC's goofy '60s sci-fi characters. All of this is to say that I doubt Davis will go too dark with this miniseries, its title notwithstanding. Moreover, whatever happens, it will look very very pretty.
Full Post