Thursday, January 26, 2006

Good News Round-Up

Or: "All Things Just Keep Getting Better"

Okay, from the top:

1) Chris Claremont finally gets the boot off "Uncanny X-Men" after two years of nothing, preceded by six months of nothing, preceded by sixteen years - the first seven of which were excellent, the last nine of which were spent gradually sliding down the ladder of quality. Those who still enjoy his work despite the fact that he's got nothing intelligent or creative or particularly insightful left to say about the X-Men can be comforted with "New Excalibur" and various fringe projects, where he won't be able to embarrass himself. Much.

I must again quote my X-guru on the matter: "I'm an enormous fan of his 1980s work. Wouldn't be here if it wasn't for him. So it makes me sad to see him sullying that run with this frankly dreadful nonsense we're getting now. He could have been remembered as the greatest X-Men writer ever. Now, that statement is going to have to be qualified. 'Not his second [or third] run, you understand. Not that one. The GOOD one. ... Claremont has not been able to write consistently good stories in over a decade. When he was on miniseries, people said it would all be okay when he was on an ongoing title again. When he was on Sovereign Seven, people said it would all be okay once he was on the X-Men again. When he was wrecking Fantastic Four, people said the same thing. (And incidentally, how many of those terrible early plots from his arc did he get around to resolving? None.) And now he's on the X-Men. What's the excuse now? A dwindling number of fans are still trying to argue that we have to think in the long run. It's the only fig leaf they've got left."

2) Claremont's replacement is Ed Brubaker, a writer of great versatility and talent, who has demonstrated a firm grasp of the X-Men in his preliminary miniseries "Deadly Genesis". Combining a sensibility about when (and how much) to use continuity with a fresh perspective, and the added bonus of not being connected to "Civil Bore", the Mighty Marvel Millar Moron Mega-Event... well, what more could I ask for?

3) How about another X-Men book getting some upward mobility? Doomed from the start by stylistic incompatibility, Peter Milligan finally bows out, dismantling his team in his coda storyline, "The Blood of Apocalypse". He's replaced by Mike Carey of Vertigo fame, and while much has been made about his unorthodox choice of cast, I refer the doubters to this Newsarama interview: It's very comforting to see that Carey, unlike some of his predecessors, has devoted quite a bit of thought into who he's writing, and why. And it doesn't connect to "Civil War". The only downside is that Carey will be working with Chris Bachalo, whose recent work looks like he just swallows a bottle of ink and vomits it onto the page.

4) Cassandra Nova - my pick for the best X-Men villainess introduced since Dark Phoenix - makes an appearance in issue 13 of Joss Whedon's "Astonishing X-Men". Nice to know some people haven't forgotten what Grant Morrison brought to the canon.

5) And speaking of the Shiny-Headed Lunatic, Grant Morrison's retooling of the Wildstorm line, scheduled for this summer, will include two series he'll be writing. The first is "Wildcats" (with Jim Lee), which I'm not familiar with but am willing to try provided it's accessible; the other is "Authority" (with Gene Ha), a book I have been waiting for this particular writer to get to since Millar left it. Be still my frontal lobe. :) Gail Simone will be writing "Gen13" (with Talent Caldwell), which falls into the same category of "Wildcats", but I'm optimistic.

6) "Ultra", one of my favorite recent miniseries by the Luna Brothers, has been picked up for a television series adaptation. A tribute to its quality.

And there was much rejoicing in comicsdom. :)

Tuesday, January 24, 2006

Movie Review: Carnival of Souls

Or: "Dancing With The Stars: Sixth Sense Edition"

Another moldy oldie early '60s horror film, though this one is much better than "The Brain That Wouldn't Die" (ironically, both films came out in the same year).

Mary Henry is the sole survivor of a fatal car crash. Dragging herself out of the river where her friends drowned, she immediately packs up her things and moves across the country, traumatized and desperate to start over. For a while, things seem to go her way: she finds a place to live, gets a job and meets a guy. But she's soon haunted by visions of a pale, decomposing man at every turn... and worse, there are moments when the world around her just stops seeing her.

"Carnival of Souls" is very atmospheric and moody, though probably not much of a horror film by contemporary standards. It seems to be reaching for psychodrama, and might would have succeeded except Mary's a bit two-dimensional. The movie also suffers from extreme padding - sometimes repeating a scene two or three times, with little variation. I get the feeling this was a common practice in those days, with this specific genre, simply for the sake of reaching minimum length quota with barebones plots. An above-average movie, if you can get over the frustration that inevitably results from watching Mary run down the same hall over and over again.

Monday, January 23, 2006


So Mike Carey will be replacing Peter Milligan on "X-Men". I like Carey all right... and he certainly doesn't suffer from the same stylistic problems Milligan does when writing in the mainstream.

The rosters, as near as I can make out, will be as follows:

Joss Whedon/John Cassday (Astonishing X-Men): Cyclops, Wolverine, Colossus, Shadowcat, Emma Frost and Beast.

Mike Carey/Chris Bachalo (X-Men): Cable, Mystique, Sabretooth, Rogue, Iceman and Cannonball.

Ed Brubaker/Billy Tan (Uncanny X-Men following up on Deadly Genesis): Marvel Girl, Nightcrawler and Havok are confirmed, the rest are unknown.

And now I'm realizing that, come the summer, I'll be reading all three core X-books, at least on a trial basis.


Sunday, January 22, 2006

Comics Review: January 22

Runaways: East Coast/West Coast (9-12)

After a mildly disappointing two-parter, Brian Vaughan bounces back with yet another excellent arc of "Runaways". Having been framed for assaulting his partner Dagger, Cloak flees New York and recruits the Runaways (with whom he has a history, as seen in the previous series) to help clear him. Meanwhile, the New Avengers search for Cloak, paving the way for an inevitable meeting with our teen protagonists.

"East Coast/West Coast" has it all, really. The Runaways interact with the larger Marvel Universe - in the hands of a lesser writer, this might have diluted the story, but Vaughan knows exactly what he's doing and actually uses the New Avengers to great effect: Molly finally gets to meet Wolverine in an absolutely adorable pair of scenes, Gert and Victor have sushi with Spider-Man (who was, after all, the second teen hero to appear in the MU after Bucky), etc.

It works. It really works. Vaughan's characterization of the New Avengers, particularly Spider-Man, is spot-on, and at the same time he never loses sight of his main characters: we see how Molly feels about her "team", Nico's still a little confused over Karolina's departure, and Chase exposes a darker side to his personality.

There's comedy, there's drama, there's mystery... one of the best books Marvel's putting out right now.


Legion of Superheroes #13

The conclusion of Waid's first maxi-arc, conversely, does not work.

The problem is simply one of space: having devoted entire issues to the Legion's battle against Lemnos' forces, Waid fails to develop certain characters sufficiently. So when said characters have a change of heart and turn the tide of the battle, it falls flat because we haven't seen any reason why they'd switch sides. They deliver exposition explaining their motives, but that's something we needed to know when these people were introduced - as it's written, it pretty much comes out of the blue, and consequently fails to convince me that this is anything more than a deus ex machina. This isn't the first time Waid fell into such a trap - last issue also featured several plot twists which turned up without being properly established (ie: Projectra's magical powers, which she probably knew she was going to inherit but never mentions until the plot requires their use).

It's a pity, really, because a lot hinges on this issue: a Legionnaire quits the team, Brainiac has hatched another plot behind his teammates' backs, and the Legion win their first major victory, essentially saving the entire galaxy. But these elements all turn upon contrivance, and most of the story's strength is lost as a result.

I'm not quite sure why this series is faltering now, considering its early issues were quite good and Waid is hardly a slouch in the writing department. Then again, I do recall feeling increasingly disappointed with his run of "Fantastic Four" towards the end (that penultimate Galactus story started out very well and took an abrupt nosedive), so maybe that's just how things go with him.

Saturday, January 21, 2006

An Ode To Chris Claremont

Having looked back on Chris Claremont's body of work since his second comeback, (X-Treme X-Men #1), I now present my response to the news that he's been taken off "Uncanny X-Men". Sung to the tune of Ray Charles:

Hit the road, Chris
Don't you come back to this
No more, no more, no more, no more
Hit the road, Chris
Don't you come back to this
No more

"What you say?"

Hit the road, Chris
Don't you come back to this
No more, no more, no more, no more
Hit the road, Chris
Don't you come back to this
No more

"Oh woman, oh woman, don't treat me so mean,
You're the meanest old woman that I've ever seen
I guess if you say so
I have to pack my things and go."

That's right!

Hit the road, Chris
Don't you come back to this
No more, no more, no more, no more
Hit the road, Chris
Don't you come back to this
No more

"What you say?"

Hit the road, Chris
Don't you come back to this
No more, no more, no more, no more
Hit the road, Chris
Don't you come back to this
No more

"Now baby, listen baby, don't you treat me this way
'Cause I'll be back on my feet some day."

Don't care if you will 'cause it's understood
You ain't got no talent, you just ain't no good!

"Well, I guess if you say so
I have to pack my things and go."

That's right!

Hit the road, Chris
Don't you come back to this
No more, no more, no more, no more
Hit the road, Chris
Don't you come back to this
No more

"What you say?"

Hit the road, Chris
Don't you come back to this
No more, no more, no more, no more
Hit the road, Chris
Don't you come back to this
No more

Don't you come back to this...
"Uh, what you say?"
Don't you come back to this...
"I didn't understand you..."
Don't you come back to this...
"You can't mean that..."
Don't you come back to this...
"Oh, now baby, please!"
Don't you come back to this...
"What you tryin' to do to me?"
Don't you come back to this...
"Oh, don't treat me like that..."
Don't you come back to this...

Friday, January 20, 2006

Movie Review: Happy Endings

Or: "All's Well That Ends Well, As Long As It Ends"

(Note: With the last part of "Dianapalooza" hitting a bit of a snag, I've broken it up into individual reviews, which I'll be putting out every week or so until I run through the list.)

Don Roos must have skipped Storytelling 101 when they gave that all-important "Show, Don't Tell" lecture.

On paper, this has all the ingredients of a successful "slice of life" movie. You've got a bunch of characters wandering through their lives, dealing (or failing to deal) with various problems: infidelity, desire, greed, the pursuit of happiness, and so on. They're all flawed, they're all accessible, and they each have a story to tell.

The problem is that Roos doesn't let them tell it. What he does is intersperse little text captions throughout the movie, detailing what's happening/has happened/will happen to these characters at any given point. It's basically a shortcut through character development, where we're told all sorts of things about these people but we don't see any of it, we don't have any insight into their personalities that isn't encapsulated in a sentence or two. Roos gives us entire relationships that are summarized rather than dramatized, even in the film's most climactic moments.

Consequently, it all comes up rather short. We're told one character will be the happiest of the group in twenty years, "but that's another story" - well, if we don't know how, and we don't see him go through any process that might get him to that point, who cares? Roos is self-defeating here: the only reason I can think of as to why he'd cut corners is to trim the length of the movie without sacrificing any of the subplots. But by doing this, he basically cuts out any on-screen character development. The cast members jump from Point A to Point B, and we're told how they got there, but it's not enough. We're supposed to see transition and growth, that's the whole point.

Sometimes these excursions are even contradictory: when Frank and Jude get together, the narrator tells us it's not going to end well for her - but when we see her for the last time, she's singing in a nightclub, wearing an expensive dress and looking pretty happy. It's not like you can ignore these SMS-like messages: the characters don't stand on their own without it, because there's no other way you can get the information.

Big disappointment overall. The acting was good - Lisa Kudrow surprised me by not getting on my nerves, and there was something captivating in Maggie Gyllenhaal's performance as Jude. But Roos holds back too much.

Tuesday, January 17, 2006

April's Fools: Highlights from Marvel Solicitations

The big news is that the "Marvel Knights" imprint, formerly known for allowing edgier stories with mainstream Marvel characters (the "PG-13" to MAX's "R", I suppose), has collapsed for the purpose of retooling. All MK books are being folded back into the mainstream while the imprint itself will become a home for "limited series by high profile creative teams that fall outside of the realm of the Marvel Universe." Of course, the fact that the MK books seem to outnumber the mainstream both in volume and in hype status might have something to do with it... Full article here:

But anyway, to the highlights. As April is a comfortable month in-between events, not much is going on, though Civil War is duly being teased here and there.

* Robert Kirkman may (or may not) be tackling the Phoenix in "Ultimate X-Men". I'm waiting for the conclusion of his first arc before evaluating whether it's worth the time.

* For the benefit of those clinging to "Spider-Girl" to the bitter end, the Hobgoblin returns.

* Black Panther and Storm are getting married. I'm still unable to shake the feeling that it's one of the most forced relationships in the Marvel Universe - they're both African, they're both superheroes, and that's about it. As such, it's impossible to be invested in it.

* Having accidentally spoiled the major plot twist approaching in "Daredevil" last month, the text spells it out this much: a major supporting character is on the way out. Very promising.

* Charlie Huston's "Moon Knight" launches. Snore.

* Stuart Moore writes an issue of "Wolverine". If anyone's tracking where Wolverine turns up per month, add "in the heart of Africa" to the list.

* "Annihilation" begins proper, with Simon Furman, Andy Landing and Dan Abnett, Keith Giffen and Javier Grillo-Marxuach launching the first issues of four miniseries: respectively, Ronan, Nova, Silver Surfer and Super-Skrull. For the cosmically-inclined.

* "Amazing Fantasy" concludes the Death's Head 3.0 story, and announces another dreadful "theme" month at Marvel, this time Westerns in June. God help us all.

* Surprisingly, "Power Pack" gets another miniseries, this time featuring the Avengers. Those digests must be doing very well.

* "Spider-Woman: Origin", "Sentry", "Marvel Zombies", "X-Men: Deadly Genesis" and "Books of Doom" conclude. On a related note, Doom returns in JMS' "Fantastic Four", proving once again that the term "leave well enough alone" is completely alien to Straczynski.

* Daniel and Charlie Knauf take over "Iron Man" with issue 7. Don't worry, Granov is also replaced with Patrick Zircher, so it just might resume a monthly schedule. Whether Knauf is bringing anything new to the table is a question better suited for those who read "Iron Man". :)

* Bendis and Coipel, the "mega-team" from "House of M" (pfft), reunite for a "New Avengers" annual. Run hard, run fast.

* I don't understand a single letter of the solicitation for "Nextwave". If this is supposed to be winning over unfamiliar readers, it's not working.

* "Astonishing X-Men" continues to do its own thing, for which I'm grateful. The cover's a bit of a spoiler, but I'm more annoyed by the fact that... well, when you see it, you'll know.

* Over in "Exiles", the newly-assembled team reaches "Future Imperfect". Long-time readers will recall the Exiles have faced the Hulk before without much success; will they fare any better against the Maestro?

* The bad news: Claremont is still on "Uncanny X-Men", launching a three-parter explaining how Psylocke has returned, and what Jamie Braddock is up to. As an aside, I absolutely refuse to be intimidated by a villain who runs around wearing nothing but a white thong and hoop earrings. The good news? Brubaker takes over in July. Le w00t indeed. :)

* Issue 6 of "X-Factor" promises to unravel some of the mystery surrounding Layla Miller. I think this is the one that will make or break the series for me: if PAD can redeem this waste of ink, I'm on board for life.

* In Milligan's series, the return of Apocalypse devastates the X-Men. I have to admit, it's a storyline with a lot of potential, and I'm tempted to check it out despite Milligan's lackluster performance.

The rest of the solicits are here:

Sunday, January 15, 2006

Comics Review: January 15

Fables: Arabian Nights and Days (42-45)

It's strange that "Fables" is so low-profile these days: it's one of the best Vertigo books being published, it's extremely consistent, and Willingham could certainly have used the positive attention after the beating his reputation took during his stint on the Batman line.

In any case, I personally see "Fables" as the contemporary successor to Neil Gaiman's masterpiece, "The Sandman". Oh, there have been countless spin-offs and series set in that specific universe, but I don't feel many of them made proper use of Gaiman's themes relating to stories. "Fables" does just that, appropriating a cornucopia of mythical and legendary figures and transplanting them into 21st-century America, following an invasion of their homelands by the mysterious Adversary (whose identity was revealed in the previous arc). It's a premise with near-limitless potential, and Willingham has been up to the task: we've seen the Big Bad Wolf in World War 2, Jack (of the Beanstalk story) making movies in Hollywood, Prince Charming as Mr. Big, and so on. All done with equal parts loyal interpretation and revamping, and with multilayered plotlines spanning several arcs. Willingham also takes risks with his characters, shifting the players around and removing central figures for months at a time. It's all quite dynamic and exciting.

All of which leads us to the current story, in which Willingham expands the scope of his series yet again. Having focused almost exclusively on European-based fables (ie: Hansel and Gretel, Snow White, Beauty and the Beast, etc.), we now shift gears as Arabian fables led by Sinbad arrive in the "mundy" (Fable slang for mundane/"real") world, bringing about an inevitable culture clash. Unfortunately, Fabletown is still unstable following a major coup by Prince Charming, and to make matters worse, Sinbad has brought a deadly weapon of unstoppable power with him.

It's a fast-moving storyline, with a brilliant twist towards the end. Willingham makes good use of the "Arabian Nights" template, and it's pretty interesting to see the juxtaposition of Western and Eastern imagery (to say nothing of the amusing mistranslation scenes).

"Fables" is a must-read for fans of the more literary, artistic sensibilities; it seamlessly combines a modern setting with fantastic creatures of lore, and provides a universe where almost anything can happen.

Saturday, January 14, 2006

So Long, Spider-Girl

Or: "All Good Things Come To An End (Some Sooner Than Others)"

Marvel has reported that "Spider-Girl" is being cancelled at issue 100. I've taken it upon myself to eulogize the Little Series That Could.

"Spider-Girl" will probably go down in history not as a particularly significant Spider-book, but as proof of the rarely-exercised power of the readers. In many ways, the claustrophobic, monotonous market of today exists because we allow it to - or to be more precise, because we don't take any specific, collective action to change it.

This is most evident in "Spider-Girl", a series which - by every "law" the direct market follows - should not have made it to twelve, let alone a hundred. It features a female protagonist, spins out of an extremely unpopular crossover event (The Clone Saga) and emerged out of an issue of "What If", and it takes place in an alternate future. And the fact that the series was never, ever a high seller proves as much. But for a very long time, "Spider-Girl" succeeded in achieving something very few books these days can boast: establishing a faithful readership. For almost ten years, it maintained consistent sales, and it did so without variant covers, ultra-mega-crossovers or any artificial gimmick. Rather, it worked because it didn't aspire to be anything more than what it appeared to be: a fun, endearing retro-style Silver Age book with modern sensibilities, that went a step further by applying the generational approach to Spider-Man (who, in mainstream continuity, reached fatherhood and promptly lost the kid, lost the wife and moved back in with Auntie).

In retrospect, this was clearly a series that had every right to work, in spite of general sales trends. It cast Spider-Man as an adult in a way that could not be reinterpreted or retconned; it created a distaff version of Spider-Man that, for once, actually had a direct tie to the original; and it allowed DeFalco to play with a lot of Spidey-continuity through temporal detachment, so you could see what became of the Osborn line fifteen years later, etc. It provided something the regular Spider-Man books weren't offering: undiscovered territory.

The MC-2 boom that arose from Spider-Girl's popularity was a big mistake, for several reasons: by expanding the universe, May became less of a focalizer, as we now had other ways to explore this new take on the MU (a future which was refreshingly not dystopian). But it was also too much, too soon, and DeFalco ended up writing all his protagonists with the same "voice" (which promptly led to their cancellation; they were already knock-offs, and did not develop any sense of individuality in time to attract readers).

But even as the rest of the line crashed and burned, "Spider-Girl" moved on. I've honestly lost count of the number of times cancellation drew near (a symptom of the series' inability to climb up out of the lower end of the sales spectrum). Fan support, under two separate regimes (Jemas' and Buckley's), was enough to keep it going, and remember, this was long before digests were introduced into the market.

So what went wrong? Why is the axe falling now, in a "this time we mean it" tone?

Well... as I've said before in past reviews of "Spider-Girl" (a book I've dropped recently), the series took a wrong turn somewhere. Looking back, I find I can't point to the specific turning point: was it when the Kingpin was killed off in a lame bait-and-switch, proving DeFalco didn't have the stones to hurt his main cast? Was it the overextended Lady Octopus storyline? Or the black costume arc, which had all the trappings of a major development for May and didn't ultimately have any effect at all?

Somewhere along that line, the series went stale. And, based on its recent performances on the chart, it started losing the readers it had held onto for so long. It was, I think, the lack of drama that killed it. When May was just starting out as a heroine, I think it was easy for DeFalco to convince us that a single slip in battle would kill her. After playing variations on that theme ten or twelve times, it ceases to be convincing. There were no more overarching storylines: everything was broken down into episodic, "ouroboros"-type issues that were resolved all too quickly and left no ripples. May herself stopped changing, her supporting cast kept getting bigger and bigger despite the fact that most of them had nothing to do. It's not that DeFalco lost his passion for the series, because he's clearly still as enthusiastic about it now as he was then. It's just creative entropy, enforced by the fact that after a while he stopped bringing anything new to the table. And instead of reminding us about the positive qualities of the Silver Age, "Spider-Girl" started indulging itself in the aspects of that period that we (by which I mean the readership) had outgrown. The Scooby-Doo endings, the Very Special Episode moments, etc.

Sadly, "Spider-Girl" will be remembered for being the longest-lived Marvel book with a female protagonist, and for being a testament to the power of the readers, more than for anything that actually happened in the book. Because the content stopped being something we could really compliment a while back. And maybe it's for the best that the series end now, while its descent is still fresh, rather than have it go on and lose even more of what made it enjoyable.

In the end, I can only offer Tom DeFalco and the remaining "Spider-Girl" fanbase these words of consolation: with zero publicity and advertisement, Mayday Parker outlasted Arana. And in these times where marketing rules all, that definitely says something.

Tuesday, January 10, 2006

Comics Review: January 10

Y: The Last Man #41

Another standalone issue, this time delving into the backstory of Agent 355. It isn't quite as good as the Beth-1 and Beth-2 stories that preceded it, primarily because there's nothing particularly surprising about the information we're given. Also, the framing sequence for the flashbacks is a bit too thin.

The problem with standalone stories within a larger narrative is that, more often than not, the ongoing plot is put on hold while they play out. Now, if the story is entertaining enough, it's not really a problem - "Hero's Journey" back in issue 27 was essential reading in its own right, and I doubt many Y fans were complaining about issue 36's "Boy Loses Girl".

By comparison, there's just not that much to say about this one. It's very by-the-numbers, and strangely predictable for a Vaughan story. Better luck next time.


Hard Time #2

I only realized this in hindsight, but by keeping Ethan mostly isolated from the rest of the prison, Steve Gerber has come up with the perfect way to insert new players into the mix: whenever a character is introduced, it's not that much of a stretch to believe he was always there and just hasn't crossed paths with our protagonist until now. He's certainly done a good job of crafting some unique and unusual types, such as the Samoan candy addict Kilo.

Gerber also takes this opportunity to give Ethan (and the readers) a long-overdue lesson on how prison life works, as well as introduce a foreboding new character straight out of Arkham Asylum. Since most of the issue is given over to the explanations, not much happens on the level of plot, although Ethan again manifests his power in a new, slightly confusing way. More on that as it develops, I suppose.


Colossus: Bloodline

Ouch. Points to Hine for giving it the old college try, but this one goes off the rails very, very badly.

To be fair, the premise of "Bloodline" is one that absolutely necessitated a miniseries, if not a storyline in the main ongoing. One criticism I have to agree with regarding Joss Whedon's "Astonishing X-Men" run is, having brought Colossus back from the dead in a particularly traumatic way, Whedon hasn't done much of anything with him so far. Hine picks up on that with this story, which promised to explore the psychological ramifications of Colossus' return.

(As an aside, this seems to be a regular thing for Hine, who's also writing "X-Men: The 198" and "Son of M", more books resuming discarded threads by other writers. Not quite the prestige you'd expect from a member of the "Ten Terrific", but I suppose money is money.)

However, having based the plot on Colossus, and having delivered a first issue heavily focusing on how his imprisonment has changed him, Hine proceeds to tell a completely different story about Grigory Rasputin and a bunch of Peter's relatives we've never seen before. How shoehorned does it get? Mr. Sinister is wheeled in to deliver two solid issues of exposition monologue. I'll repeat that: Mister Sinister Explains It All for two issues. Clearly, Hine got a little sidetracked into exploring the myth of Rasputin, creating a tenuous (not to mention ridiculous) connection to the mental instability often experienced by Colossus and his siblings (Mikhail and Illyana).

Bafflingly, the end result of Hine's story is attributing Peter's unstable behavior to another external force altogether - as if his imprisonment had no effect on him at all. Hine ends up undermining himself; having set up the dominos, he goes outside for a game of soccer. All this story achieves is yet another send-off for Mikhail, with Colossus himself going right back to where he started at the end of the miniseries.

Extremely disappointing.

Tuesday, January 3, 2006

Comics Review: January 3

Top Ten: Beyond The Farthest Precinct

Let's get the obvious bit out of the way: this is not "Top 10" as Alan Moore would have written it. Of course, these days I doubt even Alan Moore could write "Top 10" the way he would have written it; it's one of his last great works, and while the first series had an open ending (Moore had originally planned a seasonal approach before abandoning it altogether), it stands on its own in such a way that really should have signaled "HANDS OFF". After several years, DC finally lost its patience and brought in science fiction novelist Paul Di Filippo to write a five-issue sequel.

Di Filippo is yet another shining example of how credibility is automatically awarded to non-comics writers, whether they deserve it or not. Yes, he's a novelist. Yes, he's a "real" writer. But honestly, even a casual glance at his output should have disqualified Di Filippo, at least with regards to this specific miniseries: his characterization is flat and one-dimensional, his technobabble is inscrutable, and his plots are simplistic to the point of banality. Whatever his merits elsewhere, this is not a person who should be writing "Top 10", certainly not after Alan Moore.

And this incompatibility inevitably manifests itself in the work, as Di Filippo manages to miss every single point of appeal the original series had. The characters are reduced to ciphers, curios and stick figures. There's no narrative flow to speak of (it reads more like a disjointed collection of half-written vignettes). The dialogue is painfully trite. The high concepts are botched and/or unfathomable. And any sense of wonder relating to Neopolis and the world within its walls is nonexistent.

Evaluated on its own, it's a poor collection of stories that were never developed past the conceptual stage. As an attempt to cash in on Alan Moore's "Top 10", it's downright insulting. I suggest reading "The 49ers" instead and treating that as the bookend to the series.


X-Factor #2

My God, that Layla Miller is annoying.

Aside from the repetitive "I Know Stuff" gag, this is another good issue from PAD; the antagonists of the series, Singularity Investigations, are introduced, while X-Factor takes on its first case.

PAD wears his influences on his sleeve here; a self-professed Buffyverse fan, it's clear what he based Singularity Investigations on, to say nothing of Layla's job in "filing". It's not necessarily negative - I can think of worse role models than Joss Whedon - but one major criticism of the "Angel" television series is that it had a penchant for overdoing the Evil Lawyers riff, cloaking-and-daggering to X-Files proportions at times. Intrigue is all well and good, but this is exactly where PAD failed with "Fallen Angel", where you had way too much obfuscated nonsense while readers stared blankly in confusion. "X-Factor" is treading on thin ice as it is, in the sense that it's employing devices that have proven the undoing of various ongoing stories in the past (ie: using overhyped and underdeveloped characters, sourcing itself in flawed Event storylines, etc.). Again, we've only just started the series, so it's possible my concerns are unfounded... but it's important to note that so far PAD hasn't dispelled them.

Anyway, back to the issue at hand. The cast is completely assembled here, with Monet's arrival and Rictor's decision to join X-Factor. It's an amusing contrast to "New Avengers" taking an entire year to reach that same basic point - a reminder, I suppose, that while decompression has its uses, there's something to be said for getting to the bloody point before we all stop caring.

As far as I've seen, this issue contains the first reference to mutant re-empowering in the near future. So the permanence of "Decimation" lasted all of one month. Hurrah.

It's still very hard for me to see where this book is going, and whether PAD has learned from past mistakes. But so far, so good.


Young Avengers Special

With the ongoing series hitting a series of delays, Allan Heinberg brings together a group of artists to tell five separate short stories, each focusing on a different Young Avenger before Iron Lad recruited them (a reminder: the team was already partially assembled in the first issue, and to date we haven't seen their actual first meeting).

True to form, Heinberg keeps things very close to the chest; we only see bits and pieces of the kids' lives, or rather what they're choosing to tell Jessica Jones. We see a possible origin for Billy's powers, what Teddy was using his shapeshifting for, how Eli got involved with MGH, and what Cassie was doing the night she discovered the team (Runaways reference! I await the crossover with much drooling and rubbing of hands).

But the most brilliant scene is when Kate discloses the deep trauma that motivates her. It's a scene that's all the stronger for the presence of Jessica Jones, and one of the things I'm especially loving about Heinberg is how he's as good with other people's characters as his own. Jessica isn't here to fulfill some pointless cameo quota: Heinberg uses her own past as established in "Alias" to mirror Kate's. At that moment, she's more the Jessica Jones of "Alias" than anything you'll find in "Pulse"... and at the same time, we see two women who've undergone a similar experience and who chose radically different ways of coping with it. It's an interaction that works both ways: Kate finds a kindred spirit, and Jessica feels a twinge of regret, the thought that maybe she could have chosen the path Kate walks.

Wanda Maximoff also puts in a brief appearance; I have to admit, it was surprisingly pleasant to see the Scarlet Witch depicted as something other than a raving madwoman. I was never the biggest fan of her character, but in two or three pages Heinberg gives her more depth than anything I've seen in recent years.

Strictly in terms of plot, there's zero movement here, as this special takes place between issues 8 and 9 (ie: Patriot has left the team, but the Skrull hasn't attacked yet). But the character pieces give us more insight into the big question of the series - who these kids are - while hinting at further connections to various Avengers. And the last panel reveals the inevitable return of a major antagonist.

"Young Avengers" was the best new ongoing Marvel series of 2005. Most definitely worth reading.


Exiles: World Tour - New Universe (72-74)

The World Tour Saga is going to be a very interesting experience for me both as a reader and as a critic, in that I'm only familiar with 2099 and Future Imperfect; the New Universe, Heroes Reborn and Squadron Supreme are known to me only by their general reputations. This means I'm in a position to evaluate Tony Bedard's work on both levels: can he contextualize these popular universes for people who aren't familiar with them? And can he recapture the "feel" of those universes for people who are?

The former question, at least for this arc, receives a positive response. I came away feeling that I'd learned enough about the New Universe to gauge whether it even sounded interesting to me or not; odds are I'll be looking those older stories up someday. Bedard really manages to achieve a relevant connection between the ongoing Proteus storyline and the New Universe setting. Characters from that reality make appearances sure to please the older fans, while still retaining an actual purpose in the plot.

Bedard uses a rather inventive technique to capture the essence of the New Universe: the Exiles arrive in 1987. Now, they don't time-travel - it was established way back in the beginning of the series that some timelines move faster/slower than others. But the point is that this enables Bedard to recapture the actual sense of the era these books were written in. The first NU page of issue 72 has a cinema playing Robocop, Dirty Dancing and Lethal Weapon. People are arguing whether hip-hop or hair bands will be survive in the mainstream. It probably goes a long way towards recreating the atmosphere of the original stories.

I'm not in a position to judge whether Starbrand, Justice, Nightmask and DP7 were in character or not, but they were certainly accessible to me as "tabula rasa" characters. And really, this isn't the platform for in-depth explorations of the characters: it is, after all, still an "Exiles" story that happens to have familiar guest-stars.

Now, there's some interesting movement on the level of the characters, but before I get to that, I want to point out that "Exiles" isn't as old as it might appear to be. Its high numbering belies the fact that it's only about five years old, give or take - the result of publishing eighteen issues a year. All in all, that's not a lot of continuity. And while I'm very much anti-continuity in terms of inter-writer runs, I certainly appreciate that Bedard is taking advantage of the Winick stories to enhance what's happening now.

I'll elaborate. At this point, we're down to three Exiles from a group of six: Beak has been sent home, Namora is dead, and Mimic has been possessed by Proteus. In the course of the New Universe story, an Exile dies horribly. The execution is a bit wobbly because we've spent the last six issues with this character critically injured, then gaining a super-powerful healing factor, then being possessed... which should have been it, really, except we see a part of him is still fighting. And then he dies. It's an enormous moment, the death of an original cast member, but it's a bit squandered because it's hard to be sure he's actually dead.

In any event, this story also marks the inclusion of a new Exile, as Heather gives Mojo video access to the Multiverse in exchange for Longshot. This works so well, in so many ways: appealing to Mojo through television, referencing Winick's "So Lame" story, and using Longshot's own history of being brainwashed as a way to start from scratch. But it also highlights a particular strength of this series, in that it can often take things established in the past and reconfigure the pieces without changing them. In this case, we already know Longshot has the ability to affect probabilities, a "good luck force field", and Bedard posits that it makes him and the people around him immune to Proteus' abilities. It's plausible - use a reality-warper to block a reality-warper - and it's necessary because up until this point the balance of power was decidedly shifted in Proteus' favor.

Even if you're not familiar with Longshot, it doesn't matter because Bedard once again successfully achieves a double exposition: Heather explains exactly who he is - but since he's just been mindwiped, it's information he needs to hear as well.

Caught off-guard by this new opponent, Proteus escapes to another reality with the Exiles in pursuit. Interestingly, Bedard doesn't restore everything to status quo for the New Universe - Justice is gone, Nightmask is either dead or seriously injured, and Starbrand knows something he apparently wasn't supposed to find out for a while. I'm fine with that - the NU is a dead imprint anyway, and you can't very well have Proteus and the Exiles stampede through without leaving a mark. Better to leave those kinds of continuity questions to the zealots.

I never thought I'd be so excited to read "Exiles" again. Bedard's been steadily and consistently improving with each new issue, and if things keep getting better at this rate, it might just surpass Winick.