One Shot 3: Astro City #1/2

Twenty-two pages fills up fast.  There’s no denying that.  Action sequences often eat up huge chunks of a book, and you can only fit so much dialogue on the page before it becomes cluttered, not to mention how much of the probably excellent art you’ll be covering up by doing so.  So, understandably, most writers will have their stories run in arcs, often using well over 100 pages to let it unfold.  It’s not hard to see why, but the tendency to keep expanding the story is part of what makes it so rewarding when you come across a single issue that manages to not only exemplify what it is you so love about that particular book, or even comics in general, but that manages to do so with an impressive economy of storytelling.  One Shot is meant to take a close look at why those issues work as well as they do, the way they do.

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Mini-Reviews

Arkham Reborn #1 (of 3)

Arkham

With the popularity of the absolutely stellar Batman: Arkham Asylum and the recent relaunch of the Bat-franchise, it should come as no surprise that Gotham’s infamous Arkham Asylum would get its own miniseries.  After the mass breakout from the Asylum and subsequent explosion, Jeremiah Arkham, ancestor of the Asylum’s original designer, has taken it upon himself to continue the grand, bumbling legacy of the world’s only criminal institution with a revolving door.

Hine does a good job building the book slowly, despite the fact that the entire mini-series is only three issues long.  Here we meet Arkham’s new staff, specifically Jeremiah Arkham, who believes in curing Gotham’s madmen with love and respect; Alyce Sinner, sole survivor of a massive suicide cult and expert on the criminally insane; and Aaron Cash, now Arkham’s head of security and one of the tragic figures to come out of Dan Slott’s excellent Arkham Asylum: Living Hell.  Jeremiah has met with some small success in his bid to rehabilitate, but we know that the laws of comic book storytelling says that that can’t last – Dr. Sinner soon betrays him, revealing the Asylum’s dark, heinous underbelly in a bid to keep things crazy.

There’s nothing unpredictable here, but Hine does a good job setting the mood and introducing everyone, while artist Jeremy Haun turns in excellent work on all fronts, designing a few new characters and an all-new Arkham and still managing to craft a few extremely memorable images.  The pair seem well-suited, and while it seems that the entire mini’s purpose is to keep Arkham Asylum the same hellhole it has been these past few years, at least they seem to be having plenty of fun with it.

Grade: B+

Detective Comics #858

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Years after the character was introduced and months into her first solo title, “Go” marks our first foray into the origins of Kate Kane.  Growing up moving from military base to military base, Kate and Beth Kane really only had each other growing up.  A few issues back, it was hinted that something bad happened to her growing up, and now we see what that is: after earning a post in France, Mrs. Kane, Kate and Beth were kidnapped by terrorists during a security alert.  While Kate couldn’t see what was happening to her mother and sister, the aftermath certainly left an impression.

Rucka’s storytelling is far more solid here than in the previous arc, perhaps due to the shortened arc’s tighter focus.  Whatever the reason, the issue provides a quick, tragic glimpse of an origin that didn’t go at all where I thought it would, and was wrapped up in a single issue, leaving next month for the fallout.  J.H. Williams III makes an abrupt shift in style for the bulk of the issue, giving the flashback to Kate’s youth a vastly more structured layout and color-palette.  The contrast between the two time-periods is gorgeous and memorable, once again suggesting Williams as one of comics’ top talents.

The Question back-up finally wrapped up its opening arc with this issue.  The lack of room the story had, confined as it was to these back pages, took away from some of the suspense the story might’ve had if it had had more room to build up an atmosphere or throw us a plot twist or two, but it has nonetheless remained a consistently entertaining action comic, thanks in part to Rucka’s collaborator, Cully Hamner, whose layouts and art make it a joy to watch Renee in motion.

Between the issue’s two parts, Detective Comics features a pair of artists at the top of their games, anchored by strong writing of two fascinating new heroines.  It’s well-worth your time.

Grade: B+

Astro City: Astra Special #2 (of 2)

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Astro City: Astra Special concludes on a high note.  Anyone who has graduated college can relate to what Astra is going through as she continues to tell her boyfriend Matthew about the increasingly bizarre possibilities open to a young woman of her immense talents.  From mundane jobs with research institutes on Earth to a chance to untie, one world at a time, a series of realities knotted together by a madman’s destructive last act, Astra has, for the first time in her life, no idea what to do next.

While the other part of the book will probably resonate less with others, using a now-grown child heroine to look at and condemn our deranged obsession with celebrity culture largely works.  Though there are a few painful, relatively clunky moments, Busiek works hard to keep the emotions honest and keep it all part of Astra’s story.

Astro City: Astra Special combines Jack Kirby’s flare for bizarre cosmic world-building with a more grounded, human story.  Anderson’s pencils are much improved when he’s dealing with these larger-than-life concepts, and together the pair brings us a small-in-scope, massive-in-scale story about the pains of growing up.  It isn’t the most memorable Astro City story, but it’s honest and entertaining, and continues to flesh out the best setting in comics.

Grade: A-

Blackest Night: Superman #3 (of 3)

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Blackest Night: Superman, which started out so much vastly stronger than the other “Blackest Night” related books, ends here more with a whimper than with a bang.  The book does have some interesting revelations about the weaknesses of the Black Lanterns, as well as an explanation for what New Krypton is up to throughout the event, but it amounts to little more than that, in the end.

Despite its failure to live up to its own eerie opening issue, Blackest Night: Superman #3 nonetheless offered solid action illustrated by Eddie Barrows doing what he’s most comfortable doing, with (perhaps sadly) the best writing Robinson’s been doing, lately.  Robinson continues to use the emotional spectrum’s color-coding to vastly more effect than the main mini to give us a neat, inside peak into the characters heads in otherwise wordless scenes, a trick that works especially well with Psycho Pirate in the mix.  Ultimately, Blackest Night: Superman isn’t bad.  It’s just forgettable.

Grade: B

Mini-Grade: B

– Cal Cleary

Read/RANT

Astro City: Astra Special #1

Blackest Night: Superman #2

Detective Comics #857

Review: Astro City: Astra Special #1

Astra

Kurt Busiek’s Astro City has been going on for a good long time now.  Busiek and series-regular artist Brent Anderson have used the titular city to examine every conceivable era and archetype of comic book characters.  From the heart-breaking look at the effects of a Crisis on the ordinary man in “The Nearness of You” to the means and motivations of an aging supervillain in “I’ll Show You All”; from using the superhero myth to examine reform for criminals in “The Tarnished Angel” to using it to display the beating America’s national identity took in the 70’s in “The Dark Ages”, Astro City has used its world to stay relevant in all the ways mainstream comics desperately wish they could.

Astra Furst is the daughter of Astro City‘s Fantastic Four analogues, the First Family.  Born of a union between her mother and the monstrous (reformed) son of one of the world’s greatest villains, Astra has grown up in the spotlight.  Last featured as a little girl sneaking away from the ultra-high tech compound on which she grew up so that she could attend a normal school, Astro City: Astra Special #1 now finds her graduating from college and facing all the challenges that come with it… and then some.

Brent Anderson’s pencils remain a little stiff and cartoonish, quite different from what has become the norm for mainstream comics, but his artistic sense and design is so pervasive to the setting that it’s hard to imagine it any other way.  Anderson’s weakest point here is in the facial expressions, but that hurts the book less than you’d think, and his strongest suit – creating a memorable sci-fi setting, costumes and imagery – is so vital to the book that the rest is easily forgivable.

Astra’s story is simple, but, as always, there’s more going on than meets the eye.  As a recent graduate without direction, I found Astra’s story especially relevant.  Does she join an up-and-coming superhero team?  She has invitations from think tanks, grad schools and massive corporations, but Astra thinks they’re more interested in her family name (and money) than in her brain.  She has an unlimited number of options, but no direction.

It’s a fun issue, and it does a fair job at appropriating the superhero myth to a couple different purposes – child celebrities growing up, and graduation, specifically.  Even without those themes hovering in the background, however, Astra Special #1 (of 2) offers the beginning of a quick, enjoyable adventure.  It isn’t perfect, but it lives up to Astro City‘s reputation of smart, engaging superhero stories.

Grade: B+

– Cal Cleary

Read/RANT

Review: Wednesday Comics #3

Wednesday

Last week’s Wednesday Comics was the first to really disappoint.  The premise of the project should suggest that the creators compress their stories as much as possible, at least in general – when all’s said and done, they only really have 15 pages to finish the story.  While some creators have risen to the challenge, like Caldwell on Wonder Woman or Pope on Strange Adventures, some strips that started out strong have begun to peter off already.

There is still the seeds of genius that were strongly evident in the first two issues, but there are too many non-starters here.  The flaws remain relatively unfixed, with the weakest pages among the first two issues showing little improvement.  Not all is bleak, of course – a project with this many gifted creators is bound to have some astonishing moments – but I am not sure that a book facing all the challenges that Wednesday Comics faces can afford to have many more issues like this one: Not bad, but not quite worth the trouble.

Grade: B-

– Cal Cleary

Wednesday Comics #2

Wednesday Comics #1

Review: Wednesday Comics #2

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Though Wednesday Comics #2 didn’t do much to improve over the flaws of the first one, and certainly won’t change any minds about the project as a whole, it also kept all the charm, wit and creative energy of the first issue, and even improved upon some of the slower stories.  The keyword with Wednesday Comics is variety, and you get a lot of it.

Busiek’s Green Lantern is a wonderfully retro The New Frontier-style sci-fi adventure, while Pope’s Strange Adventures is classic pulp action.  Flash reads like a bizarre blend of romance and super-hero stories, while Baker’s Hawkman offers a dark, fascinating look at a frequently muddled character.  As with the first issue, not every story is a hit, and the two biggest offenders from #1 (Teen Titans and Sgt. Rock and Easy Co.) remain relatively weak, though both show at least some signs of improvement over the previous issue.

Meanwhile, the creators are making full use of the space, sometimes in interesting ways.  The Gaiman/Allred Metamorpho is essentially one enormous panel while Caldwell’s surreal Wonder Woman features roughly fifty panels on its only page.  

The format is definitely bringing out the best in many of these artists, most of whom have admirably risen to the challenge.  The less-glossy pages and creases that come from the folding were a worry to some people when it came to the quality of the art, but rest-assured, this is rarely the case.  Only Caldwell’s Wonder Woman and the Arcudi/Bermejo Superman seem to have been hampered by the fact, each of them a little too dark for their own good.  Despite that, however, both pages remain well-crafted and interesting.

Wednesday Comics is too scattershot to appeal to everyone, but those who try it out will find a selection of interesting stories by star creators that hearken back to the early days of comics and the traditional stories without being lazy or condescending.  Everyone involved seems to be having far too much fun to either.

Grade: A-

– Cal Cleary

Read/RANT

Wednesday Comics #1

Review: Wednesday Comics #1

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Wednesday Comics is here!  While DC often struggles to stay relevant in the fact of a vastly more trendy Marvel Comics, it’s had a few successes in recent years.  One such success was their year-long event, 52, a weekly with an absolute powerhouse of a writing team that managed to gain both critical and fan acclaim – no small feat for an event comic largely lacking Batman, Wonder Woman and Superman.  After that, of course, DC felt the urge to repeat their success story with the watered down Countdown and then again with Busiek’s Trinity.  Still, three years in and the weekly format, once a fresh revival, had begun to seem stale.

That all changed with the announcement of their next weekly, Wednesday Comics, a 12 week long project, packaged as a newspaper, in which superstar creative teams would be given continuity-free reins on a vasty supply of DC characters to tell their stories… one page each week.  There were a lot of risks, obviously, but the announcement of the creative teams was where they had it: Gaiman, Busiek, Allred, Azzarello, Risso, Gibbons, Pope, Baker and many more, all getting involved in the project.

So, with all that expectations, how does the issue stack up?

Very well.  Very well, indeed.

It’s tough to review due to the grab bag nature of the book – Caldwell’s Wonder Woman, for example, is gorgeous and surreal, while Kubert’s Sgt. Rock and Easy Co. on the very next page is about as bland as can be.   I toyed briefly with the idea of reviewing each story, but the simple fact is this: these stories stand together or fall together, but the strength of an Azzarello/Risso Batman doesn’t necessarily offset the slow start of the Berganza/Galloway Teen Titans.  You buy one, you get ’em all.

And, as a collection, it works.  This, this is traditional super-hero comics done right.  For those yearning for a set of simple, gorgeous stories, Wednesday Comics delivers.  Not every story will be a hit, but #1 offers a number of strong starts and relatively few missteps.  I eagerly await seeing where it will go.

As a note, however, the stand-outs of the issue for me were Batman, Kamandi, Supergirl, Metal Men, and The Demon/Catwoman, with Superman and Wonder Woman having okay starts but gorgeous art.  The only pages I didn’t really appreciate at all were Teen Titans and Sgt. Rock and Easy Co., so the bulk of the issue was, for me, a hit.

Grade: B+

– Cal Cleary

Read/RANT

The Archives: Conan, Vol. 1: The Frost-Giant’s Daughter and Other Stories

Conan at times can be a hard character to write. You don’t want another mindless book of decapitations and naked women. There’s that side of Conan sure, but you also need some substance along with your flash. This book is phenomenal! It looks great and the story is great.

We get the lust, action, and blood along with a heart pumping, gut wrenching and roller coaster ride of a story. Conan hasn’t looked this good in years. Cary Nord’s art fits the barbarian perfectly. It’s not often that an old character feels fresh but Busiek accomplishes that here. Man even the chapter break art is done by Joseph Michael Linsner! What’s not to love about this! I don’t want to oversell it but if you’re looking for this type of book, buy this one and have a blast!

*****

The Archives: Conan, Vol. 0: Born on the Battlefield

This is a great example of how a book can be much better in trade than in single issues. I have always loved Conan as a character and I was very excited when I heard about the new Dark Horse book. I stayed on the book for quite a while, but I bailed near the end of the series. It was just too annoying for my brain to have to keep up with all these different stories. This was one of them. This trade collects issues 0, 8, 15, 23, 32, 45, and 46. I just can’t remember what happened in a story I read a year ago can you? Recently though, after reading issue 0 of the new Conan series, I was Conan inspired again. I picked up all the trades of the series and am having a blast!

This story comes to you from the brilliance of Kurt Busiek and Greg Ruth. I loved this story! I recently read Greg Pak’s Skaar Son of Hulk. I complained because there was a young Skaar introduced, and then by the end of the issue he was an adult. I thought Pak missed out on a lot of good storytelling opportunities like what is included in this book for example! This book presents the early days of Conan. From being a child to being a teenager.

This covers certain important early events in the barbarian’s life which are entertaining and at times emotional. I’m not usually a big coming of age fan, but I guess it’s awesome when it’s Conan style! Greg Ruth’s art is very stylized and I could see some people disliking it for its obscurity. But I thought it was an interesting look at Conan. I guess he usually draws horror stories which makes a lot of sense when you see it, but I thought he drew a fine Conan. And let’s not forget the masterful writing of Busiek. Who makes us love and hate characters we are barely familiar with. This book provided so many emotional ties and action scenes for the perfect blend that should be tasted when reading any sword and sandal type book. Man I loved this!

*****

Foilball’s Review Roundup #32 – THE GROANERS!

“Ah, I’m so lazy this week.” – Billy Zonos

Instead of doing the usual coverage of my twice-monthly DCBS shipment, I thought I’d split my remaining reviews into separate Roundups divided by overall quality: The Groaners, The Mediocres and The Gooders. This, obviously, is The Groaners. For those that have read the following books, yes, I feel your pain. For those that have not, yes, you dodged a bullet and your wallet thanks you.

Anna Mercury #2 (**): OH MY GOD. This one is awful. Forget every nice thing I said about the first issue. This series reads likes it’s based on an idea that’s 10 years old. You got me, Ellis. Oh, you bastard.

Dreamwar #3 (**1/2): Things are not looking up. Finally, we get some kind of explanation… well, no. We get Superman crying after Batman is killed, “Hal… Ollie’s dead. Why didn’t it matter to us? What are we doing?” Yeah, I’d love the answer to that one too. Please? Thanks. Oh, wait… Zealot killed Batman:

Justice League of America #22 (*): One. I hate the Amazo story from the opening arc. Two. I still hate it. Three. Why does every woman that Benes draws look like a total whore? Four. Black Canary serves it up fresh. Wait, that was awesome! Five. Red Tornado… don’t care!!!

The Programme #12 (-): To be honest, I skimmed it and then read the end. Of what I read, I have no idea what this book was supposed to be about and I don’t really care to ever know.

Runaways #30 (*1/2): It could have been worse. If you skip the first 15 or 16 pages, the wrap-up is kind of nice. My favorite/best part of this travesty? Finding out just how fucked up Nico has become.

Amazing Spider-Man #563 (**1/2): Note to Bob Gale – Stop telling cheesy jokes. This has been a message from your readership.

Superman #677 (*): Um, is this supposed to be in continuity? Superman talks like a fucking idiot! Misogyny? Check. Naiveté? Check. I mean, shit. The guy talks about his dog like a 7-year old would. How lame is this? I thought Robinson was this huge talent? And who the heck is this lame-ass Atlas character? GAH! I didn’t think it could get worse than the Busiek Superman run, but this one has shown me the error of my ways.

Superman/Batman #49 (**1/2): I’m surprised how bad this was as compared to the other 5 parts of this story. The end just didn’t work for me. I don’t buy Lana Lang trying to poison the earth with Kryptonite in order to force Supes to leave, never mind the fact that she has been behind this plot the whole time. This is just ludicrous to me. This story is definitely out of continuity. I don’t see Johns or Robinson paying much attention to this particular change in the Clark/Lana dynamic. Oh, but I did like that final page (with Batman inside that vault filled with all types of Kryptonite): Yep, Bats is a douchebag.

Trinity #3-4 (**): This book is boring. And ugly. Bagley doing DC characters just doesn’t look right. As much as I hate doing it, I’m dropping this book. Maybe if the plot picks up later, I’ll jump back in. For now, I’m just gonna ignore it. Sit it out like my pal, Superman.

The Ultimates #4 (*): I don’t know what bugs me more? The awful plot or the “ripped straight from cheesy movie” dialogue? “Come with me if you want to live.” Really? REALLY?!?!

Uncanny X-Men #499 (**1/2): I loved the first 4 parts… this was a jumbled mess. The A and B plot did not sync up well, every cutaway was painful, and the revelation that the mysterious hippie woman was Mastermind’s daughter was actually a non-event. Meanwhile, back in Russia… their faces: priceless.

Wolverine #66 (*): MOST OVER-RATED BOOK OF THE YEAR. Everyone is literally jacking off into each other’s mouths over this one… I just don’t see it. This book is atrocious. So atrocious, someone needs to give it a red power ring. DING. I mean, BIG DEAL, Millar is adapting “Unforgiven” and using Wolverine to play the role of William Muny. I don’t care! Why!?!? Why is this a good idea? (And I like westerns…)

X-Men: Legacy #213 (**): Are we ready for some super-retcons? So, let me break this one down: Mr. Sinister has a machine that in the event of his death will transfer his essence into the body of Professor X? 

And on that note… I’ll post The Mediocres tomorrow, maybe. Hey, it’s the Fourth of July, I may be busy. Like, drinking and stuff.