New Comic Reviews! (5-17-16)

Red Hood Arsenal 12

(Red Hood / Arsenal)

Red Hood / Arsenal #12

“Vote Now and Vote Often!”

Scott Lobdell (writer), Joe Bennett (pencils). Cover by Tyler Kirkham.

We’re two weeks out from DC Comics’ big Rebirth attempt, the publisher’s latest attempt to alienate any fans that aren’t forty-year-old white guys. Every one of DC’s non-Vertigo titles is slated either for cancellation, or a shiny new issue number one. Against all odds, one of the Rebirth titles is a new volume of Red Hood and the Outlaws, once again penned by Scott Lobdell.

Way back in the far-off time of September 2011, Lobdell’s RH&tO was one of the worst launch titles of the New 52 line. The book was critically panned, yet somehow lasted for over forty issues. Was there anyone out there who enjoyed that nihilistic garbage? Apparently so, because rather than cancel the book, DC relaunched it as Red Hood/Arsenal, with the same writer at the helm – presumably because no one else gives a toss about either of those characters at this point. And here we are, with the penultimate issue of RH/A on the racks, and a new volume of Outlaws after that. If anyone out there knows just what Scott Lobdell is using to blackmail DC into publishing this tripe, let me know – or leak it to Gawker, while you still have the chance.

Red Hood/Arsenal #12 continues the recent storyline that revealed a dark time in Arsenal’s past, when a group of mercenaries he assembled went off the rails and massacred an entire town. Instead of taking any kind of responsibility for the atrocity he was absolutely responsible for, Arsenal instead trapped the team in the shell of a wrecked building, then commandeered a drone plane to blow them to pieces. Because this is a comic book, the team of mercenaries survived and gained superpowers to boot, and now the Iron Rule (as they laughably call themselves) are out for revenge.

There’s an element of meta-humour to Arsenal’s predicament – captured by the Iron Rule, he finds himself at the mercy of an online “live or die” poll, which leans overwhelmingly in favour of his execution. For those not in the know, that’s a pretty obvious reference to a poll DC conducted for Jason Todd (Red Hood) back in the 1980s, back when Todd was still running around in elf-booties as the second Robin. The fans weren’t much kinder back then, and Batman quickly found himself auditioning for a new sidekick. Based solely on that, I’d almost give this comic the benefit of the doubt, if it weren’t for the fact that by page two, someone describes Arsenal as “charming,” which is a pretty clear sign that Scott Lobdell and I aren’t going to be on the same wavelength any time soon. Plus, by the end of the issue, they go back and all-but spell out the gag, because I guess anyone reading this title was too stupid to catch it the first time. A wise man once said, jokes are like frogs – you can try to dissect one to see how it works, but it definitely won’t survive the process.

The other story thread continued from last issue involved Red Hood’s attempts to help the Joker’s Daughter reform and become an antihero like him. With almost any other character, that idea might have worked, but from her very first appearance in the New 52 DC Universe, Joker’s Daughter has been shown to be utterly psychotic and without any redeeming qualities whatsoever. In fact, she’s so one-dimensional that she’s served little purpose other than being a plot device – in this case, proving that both Jason Todd and Scott Lobdell make remarkably poor decisions. Anyway, after Joker’s Daughter went back to her old habits of wearing her leathery face mask made out of the Joker’s severed facial skin – I’m going to just let that one sink in for a second – Jason decided the best way to deal with her was to shoot her in cold blood. You can see why Arsenal and Red Hood keep being teamed with one another; they share the same problem-solving skills. This issue, we see that he didn’t kill her – in fact, after putting a bullet in the Joker’s Daughter’s chest, Jason was even nice enough to call her an ambulance. So why then did he shoot her at all? If he wasn’t going to kill her, why not just use his vastly superior martial arts skills to incapacitate her and drag her off to Arkham Asylum? Well, obviously if he did that, he couldn’t brood in the shadows, monologuing about who the real crazy-people-wearing-dead-guy’s-faces really are.

This comic does have one positive thing going for it, and that’s Joe Bennett’s artwork. Though he’s mostly wasted on a subpar script, his clean lines and dynamic page layouts shine through, especially his fantastically creepy flashback to the Joker maniacally beating Jason with a bloody crowbar. In fact, here you go…

 

Joker

 

I just saved you three bucks. Go spend it on a better comic.

Darth Vader 20

Darth Vader #20

“The Shu-Torun War pt. 5”; “The Misadventures of Triple-Zero and Beetee”

Kieron Gillen (writer), Salvador Larroca and Mike Norton (artists). Covers by Mark Brooks, Reilly Brown and John Tyler Christopher.

When Marvel Comics and their Disney taskmasters officially launched their line of Star Wars comics last year, they seemed bound and determined to fight the unfair stigma that licenced comics, by and large, suck. Sure enough, thanks to some of the best writers and artists in the business today, Marvel’s Star Wars comics have been excellent, with Darth Vader perhaps being the best of the bunch. Set in the aftermath of the first Death Star’s destruction at the hands of the Rebel Alliance, the follows Vader as he recovers from the Empire’s first major defeat. Complicating matters further is Vader’s discovery that he has a son – a revelation that takes place in the single greatest scene in all of comics from last year. Seriously, go Google that shit. I’ll wait.

Wasn’t that awesome? Who would have thought you can get that much emotional impact out of a dude wearing an expressionless robot mask?

Anyway, this issue finds us nearing the end of the series’ fourth story arc. Vader has successfully dispatched his would-be rivals for his position as Emperor Palpatine’s apprentice, and now he’s off for revenge against the traitorous Doctor Cylo, the mad scientist who transformed Anakin Skywalker’s charred and de-limbed husk into the bad-ass cyborg we all know and love. Meanwhile, Vader’s agent Doctor Aphra has been captured by the damned, dirty Rebels. With the man himself otherwise occupied, Vader assigns her rescue to his personal Droids, 0-0-0 and BT-1 (Triple Zero and BeeTee, lovably murderous counterparts to C-3PO and R2-D2)… and naturally, if they can’t save Aphra, they’re to ensure her silence by killing her, and everyone else in sight.

Though setting this series in such a dense period of Star Wars lore ran the risk of handcuffing it creativity, Kieron Gillen has managed to carve out his own niche, building on both the classic Star Wars trilogy and the often regrettable prequels, bringing life and resonance to these characters in a way that few writers have successfully done so before.  The highlight of this issue is a brilliant monologue from the Emperor, charting his rise to power through the sacrifices of his previous protégés, Darths Maul and Tyranus. The speech does more to develop Emperor Palpatine’s motivation, personality, and his complex relationship with Vader than all six movies he appeared in. Instead of being an inscrutable shadow or a ridiculous caricature (or an old woman with chimpanzee eyes – look that up too), this Emperor is a Machiavellian genius, whose unwavering belief in his own vision is magnetic enough that you can absolutely understand why a troubled Anakin Skywalker would be drawn to him. At the same time though, Palpatine is shown to be fallible, his control of his Empire threatened by internal back-stabbing and the constant threat of betrayal. He maintains order through sheer willpower and constant manipulation – and though Vader is one of the few willing to call the Emperor on his bullshit, he remains loyal to him… at least up to a point.

What really strikes me about this series is that, far more so than in the movies it draws from, every character is smart, and their actions always make sense. Nothing is done simply for the sake of plot convenience – there’s no mouthy Admiral sassing Vader, just so the audience can see him get Force choked to death, while Vader spouts a bad-ass one-liner about his disturbing lack of faith. In this comic, Vader’s allies and enemies alike understand what he represents, and what he’s capable of – as much as anything, he’s treated as a virtual force of nature. His agent Aphra knows that Vader will inevitably kill her, but willingly serves him because, well, what else is she going to do? In this issue in particular, an enemy of Vader’s makes a point of not even bothering to try to deceive him, because come on, this is Darth Vader, it’s just not going to work.

Like most Star Wars tie-ins, the Darth Vader comic pays slavish attention to continuity, particularly in the form of visual details. This absolutely plays to Salvador Larroca’s skills, who shows an almost obsessive technical precision toward weapons, uniforms and ship-designs (for the most part anyway, there’s one background image of an Arquitens-class Imperial light cruiser that slightly off model, and I’m sure that put the fine folks at Wookieepedia into a right tizzy, but we’ll chalk that one up to artistic license). I could offer some mild complaints about Larroca’s style of drawing oddly incongruous faces, where his heavy rendering meshes awkwardly with colorist Edward Delgado’s vivid pallet choices – that’s entirely superficial and subjective though, personal tastes aside, Larroca’s artwork on this series is excellent. It’s certainly striking in any case, especially compared to this issue’s back-up story drawn by Mike Norton, which is perfectly fine, but fails to stand-out in any real way.

Darth Vader is a series that treats Star Wars as the grand space opera that it always should be, balancing an epic scale with some of the finest character moments the franchise has ever seen. If you’re not a Star Wars fan already, this book probably won’t convert you, but if you’re at all into the source material, this is well worth checking out.

Catwoman 52

Catwoman #52

“Faceless pt. 2”

Frank Tieri (writer), Inaki Miranda, Pop Mahn and Giuseppe Cafaro (artists). Covers by Joshua Middleton and Inaki Miranda

Shifting our attention back to another of DC’s lame-duck series, we have one of the more conspicuous Rebirth cancellations. Catwoman had a resurgence of sorts over the last few years, with former writer Genevieve Valentine revitalizing things with a new direction that saw Selina Kyle mostly hang up her catsuit to focus on running a major criminal empire. Once Valentine left the book, Frank Tieri quickly brought things back to the old status quo of jewel heists and dead fences. Although there was none of the innovation Valentine brought to Catwoman’s world, her take on the character admittedly wasn’t universally accepted, so at the very least Catwoman purists were happy with the return to form.

Unfortunately, it turned out that Tieri joined the series just as it was winding down toward cancellation. He’s done a decent job introducing some new ideas while evoking better Catwoman comics of old (especially Selina’s Big Score, a clear inspiration to Tieri). The thing is, how much can anyone accomplish when you know all of your ideas will be rendered meaningless as soon as you’re gone?

This issue has Catwoman caught between the Black Mask and the White Mask, having just learned that she has a very personal history with the latter. The False Face Society looms in the shadows, there’s a cursed artefact, and solicitations for this issue promise that Selina Kyle’s life with be changed forever. It won’t, though. Even if this issue ended with any sense of resolution – and it doesn’t – none of this matters as of next month. Everything Tieri’s done in the past six months will be swept away by the tides of Rebirth, and the odds are good that none of this will ever be referenced ever again. Catwoman will eventually resurface in the pages of another book, but elements like the Faceless Skull and the White Mask will be forgotten.

That isn’t to say that anything exceptional will be lost. Tieri’s story here was average at best, likely rushed to fit into the final issue. It concludes with a non-ending that resolves nothing. As for the artwork, nothing takes me out of a story faster than inconsistent work brought on by several different artists trading off pages in the same issue. It’s fine when it serves a narrative purpose (like the flashback sections of this issue), or the different artists have complementary styles, but that’s not the case here. With Inaki Miranda, Pop Mahn and Giuseppe Cafaro all sharing joint credits for pencils and inks, there are too many chefs in the kitchen. When you have can’t even maintain a consistent design for your main villain from one page to the next – especially when the work is further muddied by three different colorists.

Honestly, I’m disappointed – as one of the New 52 titles, Catwoman’s quality was always uneven, but after such a hot streak in 2015, I wish it wasn’t going out on a whimper and a mewl.

All-New X-Men 9

All-New X-Men #9

Dennis Hopeless (writer), Mark Bagley (pencils). Covers by Bagley, Pasqual Ferry and Ken Lashley.

This month’s issue of All-New X-Men begins a three-part tie-in to the current “Apocalypse Wars” storyline, a loose crossover between the current X-Men titles that I expected to have very little interest in. Of the titles involved, All-New X-Men easily has the best hook, as the time-displaced Beast and his teammate Genesis (the teenage clone of Apocalypse) find themselves sent back to ancient Egypt to witness Apocalypse’s rise first hand.

Beyond the trappings of an “event” storyline, this serves to highlight the main theme of Dennis Hopeless’ All-New X-Men, that being the battle for one’s soul. In this series, Genesis seeks to escape what he fears is his destiny, to become the same “megalomaniacal world-ending steroid Hitler” as the original Apocalypse. The teenaged Cyclops faces a similar conflict, having been brought to the present day only to learn that he shares a name and face with the most hated mutant terrorist in the world. The young Beast struggles with feelings of inadequacy over his failure to find a way to bring himself and his friends back to their own time, away from a darker modern age that he worries will corrupt them all. Oya is torn between her deep commitment to her faith, and a church that condemns her mutant powers as being satanic in nature. Since coming out as being gay, Iceman now finds himself pushing away teammates who were like brothers to him, because he no longer knows how to interact with them as he did before. Angel continues to deal with the repercussions of breaking up with Wolverine (the teenage girl version, not the short hairy guy), who he desperately loves, but cannot bear to watch acting in her reckless and self-destructive way.

That’s a lot of pathos for one comic series, but I’d argue that it all adds up to a larger idea – the battle for the soul of superhero comics in general. By that, I mean the ability to tell a gripping story without resorting to lazy conventions like shock violence, gratuitous sex and Women in Refrigerators. This is a comic that has the potential to connect with young readers in the way the first Marvel Comics of the 1960s did, providing entertainment not just for kids, not just for 40 year old men, but for everyone to enjoy.

There are a lot of fun things about this issue. You have ancient Egyptian battles, a scene of the Beast experimenting with a ton of obscure time-travel devices from old comics (my favourite being the time-crystal baseball bat from the Astonishing Spider-Man and Wolverine miniseries), and the pure awesomeness of Deejay Kid Gladiator. That’s not what I’m going to take away from this issue though. The thing that will stick with me is the scene where Genesis thinks about how exhausting it is to constantly maintain a happy face for the outside world, while hiding the depression or anger he feels inside. That’s something that hits incredibly close to home for me – moreover, it’s as poignant to me at age 30 as it would have been if I were reading this at age 15. Given the concepts involved in this series, I could see it resonating with a lot of readers in the same way.

As an aside, as I was writing this set of reviews, the news just broke that Darwyn Cooke passed away this morning from cancer. Cooke was one of the greatest Canadian comic creators of all time, whose timeless art at brought life to overlooked classics, and brought a grace and charm to every page he created. He’s probably best known for creating DC: The New Frontier, which is fantastic, as are his run on The Spirit and (funny enough) Catwoman. At a time when so many comics looked virtually identical to one another, his retro 50’s pop-art style always stood out as something fresh and exciting. Beyond his nostalgic style though, Cooke was a master storyteller, both as a writer and artist. His death leaves behind a void that few could ever hope to fill – but hopefully not for lack of trying, because if there’s one thing every aspiring artist in the medium could learn from, it’s the sense of inspiration, optimism, joy, and sheer love of the comic book craft that shone through Darwyn Cooke’s creations.

Darwyn Cooke

New Comic Reviews! (1-19-14)

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Star Wars: Dark Vader and the Cry of Shadows #2

Tim Siedell (writer), Gabriel Guzman (artist). Cover by Felipe Massafera.

 With both Marvel Comics and Star Wars now under the Disney umbrella, no one should have been all that surprised by the recent news that Dark Horse is losing the Star Wars licence after a 23 year relationship with the brand. While Dark Horse has put out some stellar titles over the years – and a few colossal stinkers – I’m excited to see what Marvel does with the franchise, especially since it looks as though Disney will try to establish a more cohesive take on the Expanded Universe concept.

 Cry of Shadows tells the story of Hock Malsuum, a disillusioned former Clone Trooper who finds new direction as a soldier of the Empire, and as a devotee of Darth Vader. It’s a clever look at an element of the Star Wars mythos which is often overlooked, that is to say, to a lot of people within the narrative of Star Wars, the Empire were the good guys. Though the movies and most other media depict the Rebellion as underdog heroes, an underdeveloped theme was that the Empire was said to have enjoyed a good deal of popular support among the masses. With that in mind, it’s easy to see how Darth Vader could be a shadowy boogeyman to some, but a powerful symbol of order and control to others, especially among the military class. At the same time, it’s interesting to see how Malsuum’s quest for personal identity corresponds with his rise within the Imperial ranks – but also, one would assume, his eventual split with the totalitarianism that it represents, as he continues his development from numbered clone into a fully rounded person.

 This is the type of well-drawn, well-written story that uses the Star Wars licence to its fullest, without just recycling the same type of story we’ve seen many times before. If books like this are how Dark Horse is finishing up its Star Wars affiliation, it’s at least going out in style.

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Nightwing #27

“Curiouser and Curiouser”

Kyle Higgins (writer), Will Conrad (artist). Covers by Conrad and Jon Katz.

 Hey, here’s a thought… having a minor character discover Nightwing’s secret identity might have a little more dramatic potential if he hadn’t been publicly unmasked four months ago in the first issue of Forever Evil, an action which was designed to have ramifications throughout DC’s entire “New 52” line. I suppose it’s too much to ask for DC’s writers to be on the same page – not that it’s their fault, that’s what editorial I for – but it’ really a stupid oversight to make. Even if you hand-wave it away by saying this story takes place before Forever Evil, the overlap still either neuters what Kyle Higgins is doing on this book, or it invalidates the plot twist in Forever Evil by telling us that the big events of that miniseries will probably be negated or reversed at the end of the story.

 This issue sees Nightwing – decidedly not a captive of the Secret Society or anything of the sort – teaming up with uneasy ally Marionette, to go after their mutual enemy the Mad Hatter. We get a small peek into Marionette’s horrific past with the Hatter – but then, but issue’s end, we’re left guessing as to what parts of her story can and can’t be believed. Throw in some interesting artwork by Will Conrad, and this would probably be a book I’d be able to recommend, if only DC could get its shit together. As it stands, I find it hard to get invested in a storyline that could be imminently undercut by the whims of the editorial or marketing departments.

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Amazing X-Men #3

“The Quest for Nightcrawler pt. 3”

Jason Aaron (writer), Ed McGuinness (artist and cover).

 Can we all agree that Azazel is an incredibly stupid character, and that every relic of Chuck Austen’s abominable run on Uncanny X-Men from the mid 2000s should be forgotten forever? Thank you.

 Alright, that said, if anyone has to plumb those depths, Jason Aaron is the guy to do it, since he has an amazing gift for taking stupid characters and making them much better than they deserve to be. As with the late, lamented Wolverine and the X-Men, Amazing X-Men is a book where Aaron is free to cut loose and have fun, and as a result it’s already become one of the best current Marvel series. It doesn’t hurt that Aaron has already introduced one of my favourite D-List characters to the team (Firestar, who sadly doesn’t appear in this particular issue), and that his first storyline involves the return of my absolute favourite X-Man, and in a way that’s both respectful to the character’s origins, and to the story that killed him off.

 So dig it – Nightcrawler is dead, but the eternal rest in Heaven that he’s earned for himself has been cut short by his dickbag demon father Azazel, who is busy trying to annex both Heaven and Hell using a fleet of flying pirate ships, captained by some of history’s greatest monsters. The X-Men have been inadvertently sucked into the afterlife and split between a few assorted karmic resting places, and Storm is reunited with the Fuzzy Elf himself. It’s fun and wacky without being a pure comedy book, Ed McGuinness just kills it with his fantastic pencils – this book is pure quality, and every X-Men fan should be reading it.

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ImageJustice League of America #11

“Despair”

Matt Kindt (writer), Tom Derenick and Eddy Barrows (artists). Covers by Barrows and Jon Katz.

 So, this issue raises some interesting ethical questions about the proper priorities that come with being a superhero. The majority of the Justice League of America and the Justice League of No Fixed Address remain trapped within the Firestorm Matrix, which the Crime Syndicate apparently plans to use as some kind of ill-defined weapon of mass destruction. Stargirl and the Martian Manhunter have managed to escape, but both are somewhat the worse for wear, and they find themselves being hunted by the Secret Society. Now, the Manhunter wants to go after the Matrix, rescue the trapped heroes, and take a stab at maybe saving the world. Stargirl, on the other hand, wants to throw in the towel, accept that it’s the apocalypse, and go ensure the safety of her own family.

 The way this comic is written, it seems like the reader is meant to side with Stargirl. She’s the optimistic, spunky young heroine, compared to the dour, aloof Manhunter. It’s implied that the Martian Manhunter is cold and detached in part because he’s already lost his family and his world, whereas Stargirl is following her heart. So what does it say about me, when I find her to come across as a selfish and petulant child, who clearly never learned either the Spider-Man lesson about power and responsibility, or the Spock lesson about the needs of the few and many? Am I a terrible person for thinking that if you have the potential ability to save millions of people from death, maybe your own family half a continent away can fend for themselves for a little while? Am I the kind of heartless, unfeeling alien that we’re supposed to think J’onn J’onzz is?

 Or maybe this comic is completely wrongheaded, and that’s a part of the reason it feels like such a confusing mess. It feels like for four months, this comic has really gone nowhere, with a story heavily padded to match the pacing of the Forever Evil-dictated release schedule. The current narrative flows in and out of flashbacks to Stargirl’s past, though far less clearly than it did last month… and while the blurring between past and present events may be a conscious creative choice, this isn’t Memento, and Matt Kindt isn’t Christopher Nolan, so the end result is just an obtuse jumble that pulls the reader out of the story. And then there’s the line that says that Stargirl’s driving motivation is, and I quote, “an unfathomable sadness”. Let’s ignore for a second that a line like that would come across as trite and hackneyed, even if it didn’t inadvertently quote from a South Park episode – when you can take one of the few characters in the “New 52” that normally seems to be somewhat of an optimist, and boil her down to angst and moroseness… I mean, Jesus Christ, it’s like anything that might even be the slightest bit happy or pleasant is complete anathema to DC Comics.

 Screw it… I’m going to go read Amazing X-Men again.

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Revolutionary War: Dark Angel #1

“Girlfriend in a Coma”

Kieron Gillen (writer), Dietrich Smith (artist). Covers by Mark Brooks and Salvador Larroca.

 “Revolutionary War” sees Marvel Comics revisiting the alleged fan-favourite Marvel UK line with a series of one-shot, wherein characters like Death’s Head and Dark Angel are dusted off to take another swing at the returning Mys-Tech organization. Hopefully, some of that meant something to you, because it’s all Greek to me – despite being a lifelong Marvel Zombie, my soul exposure to the UK imprint came from the occasions when I accidentally picked one up out of a quarter bin. It happened every so often… in my rush to snap up everything with Wolverine or Spider-Man on the cover, I’d inevitably end up with the odd copy of Warheads or Battletide, and I’d make a half-hearted attempt to muddle through the cyberpunk shenanigans before tossing the comic aside and moving on to Punisher War Journal.

 So, I’m not saying that Revolutionary War isn’t good – it’s just not for me. I have no investment in or history with these characters, and Kieron Gillen isn’t wasting his limited pages trying to convert me to the cause. This is a comic written for pre-existing Marvel UK fans… if anyone out there has ever seen such a thing, please pass along the news accordingly.

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ImageGhosted #6

Joshua Williamson (writer), Davide Gianfelice (artist). Cover by Matteo Scalera.

 Jackson Winters is a master criminal – if you need someone to arrange an Elvis-themed casino heist, he’s your man. He also has a nasty habit of running afoul of all manner of spooks and poltergeists, and other assorted occult weirdness. This issue kicks off Ghosted’s second story arc, which sees Winters forced to settle accounts over a failed heist from his past, as he’s given a job that’ll take him to Mexico’s seedy underbelly, and the world of human-trafficking devil-worshippers.

 I picked Ghosted up as an after-though, based entirely on flipping through and spotting the genuinely unnerving panel of what Winter is being sent to recover. It was a striking image, made all the more effective because of how much realism and restraint new series artist Davide Gianfelice uses the rest of the time. My first exposure to Ghosted definitely me impressed – this was a well-written issue that consistently surprised me, but both defying expectations and avoiding obvious clichés. I’ll definitely be back next month, and I’ll be keeping an eye out for the collection of the first five issues too.