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.

Library Reviews 9-17-10

Nothing too in-depth, but some quick thoughts on some books I’ve read recently.

Batman and Robin: Batman RebornBatman and Robin: Batman Reborn by Grant Morrison, Frank Quitely and Philip Tan

I do not believe this is the be-all, end-all series that some people are calling it. These are good comics, not great. Interesting is not a big enough word for Grant Morrison’s ideas, but too often, I feel he can’t follow though on them. I remember being so excited to read his New X-Men and Animal Man, but they never met my expectations. Come to think of it, only WE3 and All-Star Superman have. Here, he creates two unusual villains in Professor Pyg and the Flamingo, but very little comes of them. Both conflicts are solved by punching enough people enough times.

Since Philip Tan’s art is perfectly underwhelming, the real star here is Frank Quitely. I still don’t like his figures, but this is exemplary comics storytelling. I don’t necessarily mean his illustrated sound effects or camera angles. I mean things like showing Alfred preparing a meal in the penthouse, taking an elevator down the tower, climbing a ladder down to the batcave, and down a fight of stairs to the garage. We get a tour of the new base of operations, interactions with Dick and Damian, and a look into Alfred’s character. ALL IN ONE PAGE. Much admiration for that.

Hulk: Vs. X-ForceHulk Vs. X-Force by Jeph Loeb and Ian Chuchill with Whilce Portacio

I’m glad I didn’t pay for this, but I enjoyed reading it. It doesn’t make sense. It will not change your life or how you look at it. It’s just punchy, stabby action. It’s nice to see a cartoony take on the X-Force characters. The art on that book was always dreary or photo-realistic. Nice change-up here. The final issue in the collection, however, is the stand-out. That issue features Leonard Samson going under psychoanalysis from an unlikely doctor. That was my favorite. It was more cerebral, showing a side of Jeph Loeb I’ve always liked. This book isn’t worth buying, especially at its $4 price tag, but on a rainy day, for free, it’s worth a look.

Iron Man: Execute ProgramInvincible Iron Man: Execute Program by Daniel Knauf, Charles Knauf and Patrick Zircher

It must have been daunting to take over this book right after Warren Ellis wrote “Extremis,” but the Knaufs have nothing to be ashamed of. They write the best fun, playboy Tony Stark I’ve read, Matt Fraction’s book included. If you’re reading Iron Man with Robert Downey, Jr. in your head, this is a perfect fit. The only problem is that the story itself isn’t anything to write home about: Tony Stark loses control of his suit, blah blah blah. In fact, halfway through the book, I remembered that I read it last year or so. If that doesn’t tell you how memorable this book isn’t, nothing will.

Incorruptible, Vol. 1Incorruptible by Mark Waid and Jean Diaz

This was a cool book. Max Damage was a great superhero who decided to turn it around when his world’s greatest hero turned to evil. I’ve said before I enjoy villain books and seeing him try to do good, going as far as torching his stolen money and cars, is an interesting idea. There’s four issues here, so there’s not much more than setup, but it’s a lot of fun. I’ve never heard of Jean Diaz, but his art is impressive. Characters are larger than life and his panel layouts keep the pages interesting. I definitely plan on keeping up with this book and its sister, Irredeemable.

Justice League of America: When Worlds CollideJustice League of America: When Worlds Collide by Dwayne McDuffie and six pencilers

Six pencilers for seven issues? Really? That should show how little DC cared about making this a top-tier book. Dwayne McDuffie pulls some old Milestone characters into the DC universe and … I don’t really care. Only Hardware gets enough room to show some character, but all I can really remember is that he curses a lot. I knew I wasn’t going to enjoy this book. I don’t know why I continue reading it. “Thank you Holden Public Library. May I have another?” At least I didn’t have to pay for it.

Supergirl: CandorSupergirl: Candor by five writers and seven pencilers

With this book, DC’s trade department confused the hell out of me. Two of the stories don’t even involve Supergirl! After a cluster of four stories from around the DCU, this book collects the One-Year-Later story from Supergirl. It’s a strange tale, which desperately needs some context. Supergirl and Power Girl are stuck in the bottle city of Kandor (maybe there by choice?), fighting against the cruel dictator Kal-El. It isn’t Superman Kal-El (I think), but I never understood who he was. The last issue is outside of the bottle, but without any explanation or closure to that storyline. How did they get out? Was it a dream? Did I miss something? This book was not only bad, it was badly put together.

Superman: For TomorrowSuperman: For Tomorrow, Vol. 1 by Brian Azzarello and Jim Lee

Superman is not interesting to me when he’s facing a physical threat. He’s Superman! He will not lose! Yes, the actual conflict of this book didn’t intrigue me, but I did dig Kal debating issues with a priest. The conflict of religion and superheroics is always an interesting one. It’s moments like those that remind me of how good Azz can be. It is nice to see some Jim Lee artwork, if only to see once again how big of an influence he has had on the industry. Sadly, I have no desire to read volume 2.

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