The Shopping List 4-20-11

Some housekeeping before I get around to the reviews.
1) Bells’ Kitchen has now received over 1,000 views. Thanks.
2) One of this week’s reviews, the one for Twilight Guardian #4 was also picked up by videogame and entertainment supersite IGN for their weekly MyIGN reviews. Check it out.

I’m not saying I’m a ravishing success, but it’s cool to see people appreciate my writing. Which leads to the best advice I could ever give myself (and all of you).

You want writing advice?

You may have some skills, but 10,000 other people have more. Try harder. Do whatever it is you love, then do it again. Try harder until there are only 9,000 people who are better. Then 8,000. And on and on. Of course, this all happens one week at a time. Here’s this week.

Avengers Academy #12Avengers Academy #12 by Christos Gage and Tom Raney ****

Issue #11 of Avengers Academy was an expository festival. It was a slog, but it was all in service of page one of this issue – the student of AA, with the experience and powers of their future selves. Christos Gage has to cut some corners and play some sleight of hand to get around some logical flaws, but he turns in a great issue.

The strength of Avengers Academy has been seeing each character’s different reactions to each situation. Here, some enjoy their enhanced skills and future knowledge, other despair that they still aren’t “normal.” Some charge into battle, others retreat. Since these are newer characters and they are still being defined, we can watch them evolve. It’s hard to really change the character of Tony Stark after 40 years of stories. But each battle these students go through adds a little more paint to the canvas. With the exception of Finesse, each of the kids has a real emotion moment and a real development. You don’t see books like this enough.

The actual Korvac storyline is a little thin – he shows up, kicks some ass, the kids power-up and kick his ass, but the stuff that matters to me – those emotional moments – are all excellent.

Tom Raney’s art is never flashy, but he takes a lot on his shoulders here. He partially designs three new characters, ages the Academy forward a good ten years, and, oh yeah, depicts a hard-fought battle with a cosmic-level villain. He’s not pushing any boundaries and work like this won’t win any awards, but no one should any complaints about the visuals of this book.

Invincible Iron Man #503Invincible Iron Man #503 by Matt Fraction, Salvador Larroca and Howard Chaykin **

Mercifully, the “Fix Me” arc of Invincible Iron Man is now over. I wasn’t a fan of the “Stark: Disassembled” story, but this takes its place as the worst of Fraction’s work on the title. It’s not that there is one glaring problem with the story. There are a few.

Comics books are a visual medium and seeing two people debate is not as interesting to look at as people in metal suits punching each other. The action is ramped up in this finale, but the Tony/Ock scenes are primarily out of costume, something Larroca commonly struggles with. Behind these characters, backgrounds are almost nonexistent. They seem to be fighting in a neon green abyss.

The best arcs of IIM, “World’s Most Wanted” and “Stark Resilient” were 12 and nine parts, respectively. Those stories had reveals and twists and turns. Each month, you didn’t know what was coming. This was a simple story with not enough meat. Even still, their endings are both non-climaxes. Tony grovels, leading to Doc Ock’s retreat. (I guess feeling superior was enough for today.) Pepper picks a fight only to have Sandman and Electro run away. My only hope is that these attacks were setting the stage for a big Sinister Six throwdown in the future. As it stands, they feels unfinished.

To make matters worse, it appears the two plots were cut short to shoehorn in some Fear Itself-related scenes. Nothing is gained in the scenes and Fraction even has to reverse a decision one page after it was made so as to not conflict with what he himself wrote in FI #1. I hope the sales bump from the Fear Itself banner is worth the four of five wasted pages. Sloppy.

The best part of these issues have been the flashbacks. They showed how much these characters have changed as aged as well as laid the retroactive seeds for this eventual confrontation. Paired with a style that is unrecognizable as modern-day Larroca, they were winners.

I’m not thinking of dropping this book, but “Fix Me” was certainly a stumble.

Oh, and there’s an eight-page short of Tony’s parents meeting. It’s not related to anything. It has ugly Chaykin art.  It’s inconsequential.

Thunderbolts #156Thunderbolts #156 by Jeff Parker and Kev Walker ****

Another month, another solid Thunderbolts issue. Not content writing Marvel’s best book right now, Jeff Parker is also writing the most consistent. It’s exciting. It’s funny. It’s a tour through some lesser-seen parts of the universe. Pick up any issue and you’ll see that this book shares more than conflicted protagonists with Secret Six.

They started as fellow inmates, but these half-dozen half-heroes have really bonded. Look at the scene with Ghost, Moonstone and Juggernaut outside the selection room, they work together, even off the field. Their opponents hardly even matter. Last arc, we had Godzilla rejects. Now, zombie ghosts. Awesome. And more importantly, each of these stories have given Parker a reason to add a new member. Hyperion didn’t work out so well. We’ll have to see about Satana. And with so many new recruits on the way – Shocker? Mr. Hyde? – there’s only more discord on the way.

Kev Walker continues his trend of inventive layouts and panel borders. There’s a scene where Songbird, Mach V, Fixer and John Walker are interviewing potential Underbolts. Each interview happens in a different room with different participants, but at the same time. Parker may be asking a lot of his artist and readers, but Walker (with an assist from Frank Martin) slays the sequence. To anyone willing to truly pay attention to visual details, the scene is perfectly clear.

I almost sick of hyping this book. Start buying it already!

Twilight Guardian #4Twilight Guardian #4 by Troy Hickman and Sid Kotian ***

With issue #4, Twilight Guardian, one of the winners of Top Cow’s 2008 (seriously) Pilot Season comes to a close.

A number of threads have been introduced in the past three issues and it’s possible the story got too big for its own good. What Troy Hickman is able to wrap up, he does well. The mystery of Dusk Devil, and that of the strange man in TG’s apartment last issue, are cleared up. But most importantly, Twilight Guardian saves the day. Since she was introduced, Pam has needed a sense of belonging, a purpose. Here, she comes out of the story more sure of herself, certain that she is a true hero.

But as I hinted, Hickman isn’t able to address everything. We’re not sure what her dad really wants. Where’s her ex-boyfriend dissipate to? In a standard series, this would be fine. Some of the best comics aren’t divided into defined arcs; the stories flow into one another. But who knows if we’ll ever see TG again? There are a lot of balls left in the air. Without knowing if they’ll ever come down, it left me feeling a bit uneasy.

Artist Sid Kotian didn’t slack on this concluding issue either. He hasn’t drawn much action in this series, but each time when he has, he’s proven his worth. His panels are open and clear, with a good sense of emotion. As in past issues, he adopts another style for the comic with the comic, here simple black and white lines for a hero steeped in objectivism, special dedication to Steve Ditko.

The saga of Twilight Guardian may not finished, but this series is. Next time you’re looking around your comic store, give Twilight Guardian a shot. She’s like no other hero on your pile.

X-Factor #218X-Factor #218 by Peter David and Emanuela Lupacchino ***

I figured out my problem with the more action-oriented stories in X-Factor. They stray away from what makes the book unique. There are enough superhero teams in the Marvel universe and comics in general; there’s only one super-powered detective agency. Hell, based on concept, X-Factor has more in common with Powers than it does X-Men.

Moving on to this specific issue, is Black Cat being set up as a new member to the team? The whole idea behind a guest appearance is to see how they clash with the standard team. But here, Black Cat deals with the attackers on her own. If someone was on the roof with her, it would add some X flavor to the scenes and she wouldn’t have to talk to herself to get some exposition across. From a writer as skilled and experienced as Peter David, it’s a strange flaw to see.

By now, readers should know I love Lupacchino’s art. This issue specifically has some nice moments. When Rahne delivers the news about Guido, she’s clutching her cross. A nice character moment there (possibly David’s). And her Black Cat is equal parts sex bomb and coy kitten. Good.

This isn’t the best issue of X-Factor, but it’s only because I’ve seen such great things from this creative team that I get disappointed. Next issue should wrap us this story and if I read the last panel correctly, Layla knows something. Let’s hope it adds some spark.

The Shopping List 3-30-11

After last week’s list of dull and disappointing books, March ends with a a well-balanced, enjoyable stack of comics. Some were better than others, but there wasn’t a true stinker in the bunch.

Spider-Girl's Here

Well, I did. Buy good books. Don’t buy bad books. Is that too much to ask?

Detective Comics #875Detective Comics #875 by Scott Snyder and Francesco Francavilla *****

All my favorite Batman stories are really Jim Gordon stories. Year One? Sure, it’s an origin, but Jim changes as much over that year as Bruce. The Killing Joke? Batman is the same guy at the end of the story that he is at the beginning; he plays Nick Carraway to the Commissioner’s Gatsby. We never even seen Bruce Wayne. I say all this because Detective Comics #875 is another great Batman story that’s about James Gordon, not Batman.

The issue gives us a look back at James Gordon Jr.’s childhood. It seems Jim has always been a bit weary of his son. The question is whether his fear is warranted or not. James Jr. has no problem admitting he’s a sociopath, but we haven’t seen him do anything wrong. It’s a testament to Francavilla and especially Scott Snyder that we fear this kid just because of his appearance and demeanor, not his acts.

Snyder spins a nice mystery told in two decades and wraps the whole thing up in 20 pages. This guy is new to the comics game, but he’s showing true skill here. Francavilla certainly pulls his weight too. From the moodiest colors I’ve seen since Laura Martin on Astonishing X-Men (remember the red hues right before Kitty found Colossus?) to two killer two-page spreads, he’s a revelation.

Since Scott Snyder came on, Detective Comics has simply great stories. Get in while it’s still early.

Captain America #616Captain America #616 by Ed Brubaker, Cullen Bunn, Frank Tieri, Howard Chaykin, Mike Benson, Kyle Higgins, Alec Siegel, Travis Charest, Ed McGuinness, Jason Latour, Paul Azaceta, Mike Deodato, Paul Grist, and Pepe Larraz ****

This issue, commemorating Cap’s 70th Anniversary, has 104 all-new pages from over a dozen modern and classic creators. 104 pages, only eight of ads. Five dollars may be more than you’re used to, but that’s the content of over three regular issues of Cap for only a dollar more.

The two Brubaker stories, one following Bucky (illustrated by Mike Deodato) and one following Steve Rogers (Ed McGuinness) are far and away the best of the book. Some critics have asked if we need an arc of Bucky in jail when we just got one, but that arc didn’t have his fighting a Communist bear, did it? The concept is the same, but a Russian gulag is a very different situation than an American prison. In the second lead feature, Ed McGuinness enters into contention as my favorite superhero artist … I dunno … ever? Big action. Big emotions. Steve looks like a mountain of muscle. It’s just so pure that no one can touch him.

The rest of the stories, like any anthology, are a mixed bag. Howard Chaykin tells a nice story, but his art is marred by modern coloring. The over-rendered faces make his people look puffy action figures. Frank Tieri’s story relies too much on a very foreseeable twist ending and ends up saying nothing at all. Jason Latour does his best José Luis García-López impression, adding a well-appreciated bleak feel to Cullen Bunn’s story. The remaining two stories are golden age tales, one wacky, one in the midst of WWII. They’re throwaways, sure, but some will enjoy cameos by the likes of Baron Blood and Union Jack.

I may sound a lot down on the non-Brubaker tales, but every Captain America fan will find something to like in here. Give it a chance. You won’t regret it.

Spider-Gril #5Spider-Girl #5 by Paul Tobin, Matthew Southworth, and Sergio Cariello ****

When creating a sidekick or spin-off hero, it’s too easy to have them confront their hero’s adversaries. Robin fighting Two-Face. The Young Avengers facing Kang the Conqueror. Luckily, Spider-Girl tweaks that convention. As the teenage female version of Spider-Man, Anya Corazon has become a rival to Ana Kravinoff, the young daughter of Kraven the Hunter.

It isn’t a surprise that Ana is the better fighter, but you don’t get a spider costume by being foolish. Knowing she’s at a physical disadvantage, Spider-Girl uses her environment and resources to win the day.

With a lot of ground to cover before wrapping the series up with issue #8, writer Paul Tobin also starts to bring together some of the threads he’s introduced thus far. After months of teases, we get some answers regarding Anya’s sketchy neighbor and Raven, the mysterious group somehow involved with the death of Anya’s father.

Artist Matthew Southworth stumbled on the out-of-costume sequences in last month’s issue. His inky, shadowy art was great for action scenes, but when Anya was with her friends, it was out of place. This month, he’s assisted by Sergio Cariello. Cariello has a more open style, allowing large fields of color, setting his sequences apart from Southworth’s. And since the artists split the issue by scenes, the transitions are never jarring.

With only three issues left before the title is cancelled, I can’t recommend jumping on now, but when the trade comes out, it’d be worth putting on your shelf.

Amazing Spider-Man #657Amazing Spider-Man #657 by Dan Slott, Marcos Martin, Ty Templeton, Nuno Plati, and Stefano Caselli ***

Much like this month’s issue of Captain America, issue #657 is an anthology in all but name. Here, the remaining members of the Fantastic Four each relate a story of Peter and Johnny Storm’s adventures as superheroes and as friends. Also like Cap, it’s a mixed bag.

The Martin sequence is just connective tissue between the stories. There’s no heavy lifting, but he successfully navigates the sadness these characters are feeling.

Slott writes Ty Templeton a prank war between Spidey and the Torch. Before this book, I’ve never seen Templeton’s art. It’s super simple, but super bold. It’s sort of silver age on crack. If this is what the I’m With Stupid miniseries is like, I’ve got to track that down.

Nuno Plati illsutrates the time Sue Storm got arrested for indecent exposure. It’s not as sexy as that may sound, but it does allow Slott to reverse the motherly role that Sue plays on the team. Also, seeing Johnny and Peter able to lecture someone is great. With its thin lines and pale colors, Plati has the most stylized art in the book. It’s not for everyone, but more importantly, it’s not the right fit for the story. It’s too serious, especially because of the color palate I mentioned.

The final story lets Johnny save the day for once. The Human Torch is probably the weakest member of the FF, but here he’s able to show up the big brains on Reed and Peter. Nice idea, but it’s the weakest of the trio. It just doesn’t have much to it other than “Hey! Johnny’s OK too!” Stefano Caselli however, looks great. I was underwhelmed with his art on the “Spider-Slayer” arc, but here, he’s back. I can’t put a finger on it, but he’s back to the days of Avengers: Initiative. Maybe the coloring? Who knows. Maybe it’s just a more exciting story.

These 30 pages feature four artists. Each has a radically different styles, but no one comes off as the runt. Pair that with a triad of cute, if too light stories and you’ve got a winner. A character question: why does Peterkeep his mask on in the flashbacks? The middle one, where they actually fight criminals, OK, but in space? In space, no one can learn you identity. And camping? Why is anyone in costume? That’s tipping your hand a bit far. They could have just been some friends in the woods. Now they’re clearly heroes in the woods. Just saying.

Ultimate X #4Ultimate X #4 by Jeph Loeb and Art Adams ****

The third issue of Ultimate X came out on June 16, 2010. Since then, writer Jeph Loeb was named Executive V.P. of Television and artist Art Adams and his wife had their first child. Adams has claimed full responsibility for the delay, but it’s hard to fault him for focusing on his family. All that said, I’m surprised at how much I didn’t feel lost starting this story.

Like previous issues, #4 mostly stands on its own. Liz Allen hasn’t been seen thus far in the series, so readers have nothing to reread to get acclimated. At first, the book seems like the high school drama we’ve seen before, but there’s a twist because Liz is, you know, Firestar.

What will surprise readers is that this isn’t a superhero book. It’s a book about how young people are affected by their abilities. It’s more fantastic than a series like Demo, but it doesn’t rely on villains and violence. People complain about Jeph Loeb because of books like Ultimatum and Hulk, but this proves he has a variety of voices.

Adams’ art certainly isn’t rushed. Once a book is this late, there’s no excuse for the art to be lacking. And it’s not. Each line is precise. Character’s emotions ring true. Backgrounds are full of details. This seems like a real, lived-in world.

You may have to dig through some longboxes to catch up, but Ultimate X features two veteran creators telling a story unlike anything in your stack this week.

Zatanna #11Zatanna #11 by Paul Dini and Jamal Igle ***

Defining the boundaries of magic is always an obstacle course in superhero comics. Scarlet Witch can commit genocide with three words, but not poof Ultron out of existence? In order to offer some real conflict, the story needs certain spells to work and others not to work. The very climax of this issue, concluding the Oscar Hemepl/Stringleshanks story, relies on such a convenience. In case the audience didn’t understand how it works (which we didn’t), Dini says (through Zee) there’s “no point in going into why and wherefores now.” It’s weak. In comics slugfests, Spider-Man or whoever always needs to come up with some alternate plan or specifically summon up all their remaining energy and then some to KO their opponent. In a good story, it’s never as simple as one more punch. It’s not a bad ending, but it’s too convenient.

Also this month, Jamal Igle takes over art duties from Bells’ Kitchen favorite Cliff Chiang. Igle may not have the identifiable flair of Chiang, but he’s a talented artist in his own right.He’ll do just fine here.

Puppets are creepy. Marionettes. Socks. Hand. Creepy. Creepy. Creepy. The very idea of sticking your hand up someone’s ass and controlling them is creepy. And sexual harassment. You know it. I know it. Zatanna knows it. And now, thanks to Paul Dini and Jamal Igle, she’s has conquered her fear of puppets. “Pupaphobia” is a good story, but in this world of budgets and down economies, it’s not worth my three dollars a month. Sorry guys.

While I’m thinking of it, I have a confession to make. I hate letter columns. They’re either readers’ half-baked ideas on where the book should go or page upon page of ballwashing. Does anyone really enjoy knowing how much some jamoke in Wisconsin enjoys Superman? They never have any real criticism, just “I’ve never really liked the X-Men before, but WOW! Writer X made me a believer! Make mine Marvel! Excelsior!” Blech.