Saturday, July 17, 2004

Ultiman Giant-Sized Annual #1

(This review was originally published at Comic Book Galaxy, and is posted here for safekeeping)

By various writers and artists
Publish by Image/Big Bang

The creators from Big Bang Comics bring us six stories (as well as some Hightest Honey Pies), that aren't really from 1964 but don't really belong in 2001 either in this month's one-shot; Ultiman Giant-Sized Annual #1.

Once again, the retro-bug has chomped me in the behind this month. I expected good things from AC Comics's Fighting Yank, and in fact I was disappointed when I was only able to snag a copy of it a week after its release. I didn't expect much from Ultiman, though. Maybe I'm just more a creature of the Golden Age than the Silver, or maybe I just haven't been happy with most of Image's material, but for whatever reason while I hoped Fighting Yank would stand apart from the crowd, I harbored more than one or two preconceived notions that convinced me Ultiman would be just another dehydrated cough from a well that is dangerously close to running dry, if it hasn't already.

Nothing could be further from the truth. In fact, I suspect in the weeks and months to come, I'll find myself scanning the racks for more comics with the Big Bang label on the cover. For those who might not believe the writers of yesteryear compare the scribes of today, Ultiman is the burning bush that will convert your fanboy butt for good. What will probably come to your mind almost immediately after closing the pages of this one-shot is how much more skilled the writers of the past were at giving us stories that were only a few pages long while still giving us a feeling of completion.

Remember the horrible Marvel crossover annuals of the nineties? When it came to short-short comic stories, the writers of the nineties weren't able to give us anything more than brief morality plays with second-rate art and third-tier characters, all in the form of one big oversized, over-priced piece of crap that wouldn't make much sense anyway unless we went out and bought all the other "Atlantis Attacks!" or "Evolutionary War" issues. Like the writers of the sixties, the authors of these six stories are able to give us tales that don't take up much room, but don't make you feel like you've just ingested the comicdom version of fast food, either.

The first story is "The Human Lightning Rod," in which Ultiman does battle with a lightning storm which seems to have targetted a pretty young girl. What struck me about this first story is the relationship between Ultiman and his alter-ego. While the world seems to know that Chris Kelly is Ultiman, what they don't know is that when he's not leaping tall buildings, he poses as Carl Kelly, Chris Kelly's brother who has nothing nice to say about the blue-clad champion of justice. I thought this was quite an original idea, especially from a comic which mirrors stories of the past. By the way, though Ultiman is an obvious Superman-clone, he is also a bonafide hero of Big Bang Comics who appears outside of this one-shot.

In the second story, "The Day Ultiman's Powers Went Wild," Ultiman's super-hearing is pushed beyond its boundaries after Ultiman handles a deadly piece of Ultranium (the same substance which gave Ultiman his Ultra-powers so he could protect people just like Ultimate Spider-Man and then go home and play Ultima). At first, the power boost helps Ultiman deal with the many dangers the inhabitants of Empire City face, but eventually the sounds of the city are too much for his senses. Ultiman's solution at the end of the story is cute, but does leave you feeling a little incomplete.

The third story is probably my favorite; "The Beatnik From Outer Space." The hero of this story is the super-strong fireplug ThunderGirl. When ThunderGirl spots a drill-shaped spaceship plummeting towards Earth, she hurries to the scene of the crash where, instead of the little green aliens she was expecting, she finds Bongo Bill: the Beatnik From Outer Space. Well, not really from outer space. It turns out that Bill was abducted by aliens in 1961 while he was playing his bongos in the park (dig?). After three years of endless and fruitless interrogation of the beatnik, the aliens have returned to destroy the Earth.

Bongo Bill's dialogue pretty much makes this story. It's almost worth the price of the comic just to read groovy lines like, "It didn't crash, blondie! The nosecone is a giant drill, Jill!" and "Like, we're all doomed!"

The hero whose name graces the cover of this comic is once again absent in, "The Thing From Zugan." Instead of Ultiman, the giant alien who lands in the South Pacific and starts tearing up everything he sees has to face the fury of Blackjack and his Flying Aces. This is another of the more enjoyable stories in the comic. Mike Robert's penciling style is wonderfully and weirdly unique, and while only 11 pages long, this is probably the most complete story in the issue.

Ultiman returns, along with Gary Carlson's scripting in "The Curse of King Tut's Tomb." The villain Purpleface and his pack of goons break into a museum exhibit, only to awaken the ancient and powerful evil of King Tut. When Ultiman intervenes, King Tut's curse latches onto him with hilarious effect. We get to see Ultiman turn into old Ultiman, Woman Ultiman, Child Ultiman, Big Fat Ultiman, among others. Ultiman eventually finds a way to defeat King Tut, aided by the powerful hero known as the Great Pyramid (big guy + a pyramid for a head).

Daniel Reed brings us the story and art for the final chapter of the Ultiman Giant-Sized Annual; "The Secret Origin of The Great Pyramid." Archaeologist Adam Rush and his greedy partner Nathan Nether find their way into an ancient pyramid, only to be caught between the fury of two rival gods and granted powers to fight in the respecitve gods's names; one for evil, one for good. A fitting end to a great issue.

But the issue isn't quite over just yet. The funniest part of the issue isn't inside the comic but on the back cover. Nat Gertler and Mark Lewis will have you laughing your butt off with "The Cavity Crusade," a darkly humorous homage to the Hostess Twinkie ads of the seventies. Savage Dragon fans might be shaking their heads and moaning, "been there, done that," but Gerler's and Lewis's rendition is a bit different from the parody ads you'll find in the pages of the mighty finhead.

So do your funny bone and your inner child a favor and pick up a copy of Ultiman Giant-Sized Annual #1.


--Mick Martin

The Skull Man #1

(This review was originally published at Comic Book Galaxy, and is posted here for safekeeping)

By Kazuhiko Shimamoto, Shotaro Ishinomori, and Ray Yoshimoto
Published by Tokyopop

A mysterious anti-hero plays a ferocious game of cat-and-mouse with a long-legged rival in the first issue of the The Skull Man.

While seemingly a complete unknown amongst the comic book consumers of the Western World, readers in Japan are no stranger to Skull Man; a hero created by Shotaro Ishinomori in a 3 part special New Year's mini-series in Shonen Magazine over 30 years ago. The dark hero is most well known as being the inspiration for another of Ishinomori's more popular characters; Kamen Rider. Ishinomori approached Kazuhiko Shimamoto in the summer of '97, while both were working on Cyborg 009: The Battle of The Gods, in hopes of passing the torch to Shimamoto in the form of this new limited series.

Those who have no idea who the hell any of the people I just mentioned are, and are likewise ignorant of the American-obscure titles I just mentioned; it's okay, don't be scared. Read on, you're not alone. Those who have no idea who the hell any of the people I just mentioned are, and are likewise ignorant of the American-obscure titles I just mentioned, but you don't want to admit it because you're afraid someone will break down your door and take away your "Obscure Comic Knowledge" badge, and are presently scratching your chin and muttering something like, "Yes, the innovative Ishinomori, of course, Kamen Rider, oh, those were the days..." in order to keep up the facade; keep reading or else I'll call the fuzz. And, if any of you are genuinely well-read in the above-mentioned titles and are impressed with my knowledge of same; stop being impressed. I read it all in the comic. You bastards of Eastern obscurity.

In "How did The Skull Man come back to life?", a short text piece in the back of the issue in which Shimamoto explains how he came to work on this limited series, Shimamoto explains he wanted to render this comic "accessible to first-time readers, yet to be a continuation of the original." Well, being completely ignorant of Ishinomori's work other than the information the notes in The Skull Man #1 provide, I can't speak intelligently about Shimamoto's loyalty to the original concept. However as one of the first-time readers he mentions, it's clear that Shimamoto has given a story with a great deal of promise.

With little dialogue and completely absent of narration, Shimamoto tells us this first story mainly through a simple yet unique style of manga art. The most distinct quality of his art is his ability to give the story the grandiose feel of the metroplotian city comic, while at the same time drawing the reader's attention solely to the main characters. Perhaps my favorite part of this issue is a scene in which Skull Man (in civilian attire) follows a sexy assassin through packed crowds of city-dwellers. While each member of the city's masses is drawn distinct from one another, Shimamoto keeps all but Skull Man and his prey in a light grey (The Skull Man is a black-and-white comic, by the way), leaving the reader to enjoy the chemistry between to two rivals while preserving the urban feel.

Shimamoto claims he has stuck to Ishinomori's 70's design of Skull Man's costume for the most part, and while I've never seen the original design, it's easy to tell this was a good choice. With a big round silver helmet, cape, and a black outfit Skull Man probably stole from a morbid high school band leader, the Japanese anti-hero looks pretty damn silly. Somehow, though, this only adds to the sinister feel of his character. There's something wonderfully twisted about a bubble-headed hero smiling and gloating on a dark rooftop after he's ripped someone's throat out.

While the "less-is-more" technique with the scripting works for a little while, The Skull Man #1 could definitely use more dialogue and/or narration. Like much of what Marvel has been putting out lately, Skull Man breezes by too quickly, though at 35 pages it's much longer than most books Marvel releases. I would hope this particular style won't last past the first issue. Not only does it go by too quickly, but some more information about these characters is needed before the reader can really care about them. While there's nothing wrong with a healthy degree of intrigue, first-time readers like myself still have no idea about the intentions, motivations, or the abilities of this Skull Man.

Still, Skull Man seems promising. While there are some things, stylistically, which could have been improved in the first issue, I'm looking forward to the rest of the limited series and would recommend the first issue over a lot of what you'll find on the shelves these days.

--Mick Martin

Ruse #2

(This review was originally published at Comic Book Galaxy, and is posted here for safekeeping)

By Mark Waid, Butch Guice, Mike Perkins, and Laura DePuy
Published by CrossGen Comics

Super-sleuth Sean Archard disappears as the Powers That Be in London turn against him and his mysterious partner in the second installment of CrossGen's new series, Ruse.

At the end of last issue, Emma Bishop used her magic to freeze time in order to save Sean Archard once again. This time Emma and Archard found themselves trapped on a docked ship they had boarded--right before it caught on fire--while investigating a mysterious death involving narcotics being transported through the innards of dead fish. Instead of saving Archard, Emma succeeds in attracting the attention of Miranda Cross; a foreign dignitary who posesses magic powers of her own and who has apparently taken a special interest in the enigmatic Sean Archard. Emma and Sean manage to escape Miranda's clutches (supposedly, without Archard being made aware of her threat) as well as the ship itself. Shortly afterwards, Sean Archard disappears altogether, while Emma finds that Sean's name has become synonymous with mud among the wealthy and powerful elite of London who had counted themselves as friends and allies only the day before.

What makes Ruse work so well is Mark Waid's attention to the characters. By the very nature of the series setting--a turn-of-the-century London with a classic Holmesian atmosphere where sorceresses wage secret wars and gargoyles circle the skies like vultures--it would be very easy for the story to devolve into an incoherent and contrived mixing of genres where the drama would hinge on nothing more than the contrast of setting. Waid avoids this pitfall by keeping the story character-driven rather than milking the more fantastical elements.

Sean Archard is not only an enigmatic and eccentric character, but one of the more colorful and enjoyable protagonists to grace the pages of comicdom in recent memory. While thoughtful and stoic, Archard still has a very real warmth about him that makes him tough not to like. "Emma, why are you smiling? We've discussed smiling," Archard tells Emma after they escape from the fiery ship.

While I call Archard "the protagonist," it's not that simple. Who is the real main character of this story; Sean Archard or Emma Bishop? Archard may be the super-sleuth who dives head-first into danger, but we see most of this through Emma's eyes. She narrates the story and, as far as the more magical aspects of the story are concerned, she's holding all the cards. I'm not suggesting that this ambiguity makes the series any less intriguing; quite the opposite, in fact. Sometimes, it's almost as if you are not reading the story of Sean Archard and Emma Bishop, but rather reading the story of Emma Bishop who is, in turn, reading the story of Sean Archard. At times, Emma's "time-freezing" doesn't seem to be much more than punching the pause button on a VCR.

As far as the progression of the story is concerned, Waid shows us just enough to keep the intrigue alive. We learn nothing more about Emma's mystical origins, nor why such a being has decided to dedicate herself to the exploits of a London detective, but it doesn't seem to matter. We know she's magical, we know she's kept this a secret from Archard (or so she thinks), and that's all we need to know for now. We learn that the seductive Miranda Cross is the villain we thought she was, but more important than any of this issue's other developments is Archard's disappearance. By the end of the issue it becomes clear that, for reasons only the sleuth himself knows, Archard has uncovered something which makes him feel it is important to take matters into his own hands. This could mean a good deal of change in the chemistry between Emma and Sean, considering the question of whether or not his plans have anything to do with discovering Emma's secret abilities. It also makes things interesting because he has now (unintentionally?) freed himself from his magical safety net.

Butch Guice's pencils are beautiful, especially in terms of depicting even the slightest nuance of the characters's facial expressions and the meaning behind them, but I have one minor art complaint.

There seems to be a healthy degree of sexual tension between Emma and Sean. This certainly makes sense considering the idea of a handsome Englishman and his shapely, blonde assistant working together for so long in matters concerning life and death. I would just like to see this handled a bit more subtly. In certain scenes, especially right after Sean and Emma escape the burning ship, their physical language makes it appear that they're about two minutes away from hopping into bed already.

I'd also like to point out something which may seem minor, but to me speaks volumes about the creative team's dedication to the readers. The addition of "The Penny Arcadian" on the inside cover of the book is really a treat. CrossGen provides such a synopsis on the inside cover of all of their titles, but this particular way of handling it is great. Not only is it a testament to the team's intent to keep new readers involved in the story, but it's a unique way of informing while at the same time preserving the feel of the story's setting.

If you like intrigue and mystery the way it should be written, and don't mind the occasional witches brew nor the aforementioned circling gargoyles, pick up a copy of Ruse #2. So far, this is the best series coming out of CrossGen I've come across and as long as Waid and company keep up this kind of work, I'll be saying that for a long time to come.

--Mick Martin


(This review was originally published at Comic Book Galaxy, and is posted here for safekeeping)

By Dave Dorman, Del Stone, Jr., Chris Moeller, and Scott Hampton
Published by Image Comics

Edgar Wallace is given a quest to free the people of the Wasted Lands from the tyranny of wealthy Rail Barons in a post-apocalyptic world that looks more like the 1800's than the twenty-first century in Dave Dorman's Rail.

Before the events of Rail, humanity was subjected to the Iron Wars; a series of conflicts in which the sinister mastermind known as Grin defeated other Rail Barons and in doing so, gained control of all of the land around Mortal City. With an army of drugged zombies called "drones" at his command, Grin now seeks to extend his influence even farther. Now, the police in Mortal City are finding railroad cars filled with bodies, but with no jurisdiction beyond the city's boundaries, only a ranger like Edgar Wallace--also known as "Edge"--has the freedom of movement to investigate the crimes. Edge's old buddy Iggy travels out into the Wasted Lands to give Edge a disc containing chemical data on the railroad car victims and as soon as the disc changes hands, both Iggy and Edge are attacked by a pack of mutants on motorcycles. In the course of evading the mutants, Edge encounters a mystical being who offers him a quest whose success or failure will determine whether or not humanity has any hope left at all.

Rail is an interesting concept that falls short in execution. While the narration and dialogue keep telling you about the hard, gritty world of the Wasted Lands, you keep waiting for the art to show you this dark world you've been hearing about. Even Edge himself looks nothing like the hardened warrior you hear about. With clean, simple attire and a young, unmarred face, Edge looks more like some yuppy-playing-cowboy from City Slickers.

The dialogue comes off as contrived and stale, trying desperately to convince you of what the art cannot. "But never let writers make stuff up about you," Iggy tells Edge after a young boy asks for Iggy's autograph on a pulp magazine in which Iggy is the hero, "The stories they dream up never happen in the real world!" "If only they knew the truth!" Edge responds. Oh, yes, how hard and lonely is the life of the gun-toting good guy. I'm convinced.

Later, in the midst of Edge's flight from the pack of motorcycle mutants, Edge runs into a mysterious, magical being who tells him, "You may call me a ghost or a witch, an apparition or even a figment of your imagination. I prefer to be known as...a guide vocal. I cannot tell you in which direction your future moves. I can only offer you words, cryptic as they may seem." She then goes on to list a number a very specific things which, well, really aren't cryptic at all. Dorman and Stone seem to be trying very hard in instances like this one to shove the characters down our throats, "This is the mysterious one, see? And he's the hard, gritty one! Okay?" Once again, you find yourself wanting them to simply show you what these characters are all about through action rather than dictate what they are through long-winded dialogue.

Dorman has also, in my opinion, chosen the wrong story to tell for this particular one-shot. The bulk of the story centers around the long action sequence in which Edge runs from the motorcycle mutants. Unfortunately, Dorman's art does not lend itself well to action. The movements of his characters seem incredibly stiff, especially in the case of a brief melee Edge gets into with one of the mutants.

While I understand Dorman has more planned with these characters, Rail is, after all, a one-shot and it doesn't really leave you with any sense of completion.

I would say skip Rail for now and wait to see what Dorman can come up with in the future. With a 46-page book carrying a $5.95 price tag, it just isn't worth it.

--Mick Martin

Nightside #1

(This review was originally published at Comic Book Galaxy, and is posted here for safekeeping)

By Robert Weinberg andTom Derenick
Published by Marvel Comics

Private Detective Sydney Taine and her brawny partner Ape Largo find themselves in the middle of what appears to be gang war, but which promises to be much more, in the first installment of Marvel's new series, Nightside, "Ikkyu's Skull, Part 1: Hostile Takeover."

As the 800-pound body of Nightside gang boss Jelly the Belly is dragged out of the Hudson River, Sydney Taine has already been hired to find out why two other Nightside gangs have lost their chiefs to foul play over the last few weeks. With Jelly gone, only two bosses remain, and after a brief stop at the crime scene, Sydney Taine pulls on the tightest leather body suit you'll ever see outside Batman Returns, and her and her musclebound partner head for "The Nightmare House:" an exclusive club owned by one of the two surviving Nightside heads of state, Simon Benedict.

So what is "The Nightside?" Well, before you know that, you need to know about "The Others." The Others are a race of supposedly mystical beings, from whom the legends of vampires, werewolves, and others of their ilk have apparently sprung. But they are not so easily classified as their legendary counterparts. Like us, each is unique in his/her own way. Some crave the taste of blood while some can change their shape and control the minds of beasts. The rules you might find in your favorite RPG's Monster's Compendium don't necessarily apply. And while sunlight won't turn them into smoldering piles of ash, they still don't much like it. Most socialize together, at night, in an underworld they've created for themselves where they can revel openly in what they are while still keeping their "otherness" a secret: this is the Nightside.

Somewhere between the Nightside and the Dayside is Sydney Taine, but this first issue doesn't even begin to let us know where that is, or where her alliegances lie. We know she is comfortable among the Others, knows quite a bit about them and that she's been hired by something called "The East Coast Council" in order to keep what she calls, "The Secret" secure by finding the gang bosses' killer. After a brief tussle in The Nightmare House, we find out she knows how to get medeival on the Others if she needs to, and we know she looks very good in her extremely tight leather body suit while she does it. I am also fairly sure that some kind of rabid, mutant pineapple was slaughtered in the making of this comic book, in order to give Sydney Taine the hairstyle her creators were looking for.

Dead produce aside, this issue is an extremely good read. The art has a beautifully sleek, black quality to it (or maybe I'm just obsessing over the absolutely airtight aforementioned leather body suit). The true testament to Derenick's talent is his rendition of the Others. They look menacing, even in the cases of background characters seen from afar, but without appearing overly fantastical. This "realistic" portrayal of the characters is extremely important to the overall mood of the story.

By the end of the issue, you don't know much more about the characters than you do in the beginning. In fact, you can find out more about them than what I've told you here at Marvel's website. This is good. The mystery of the story goes beyond the simple question of "whodunnit" and extends to the characters. How much Weinberg chooses to show us, I believe, will be the key to whether or not this book succeeds. Sydney Taine is an intriguing character, and while we can be given little hints every now and then, overall a very thick shroud needs to be kept around her. All it would take to ruin this book would be an origin issue.

Slap down an extra three bucks on the counter for Nightside #1 if you get the chance. It's dark, interesting, unique, and I'm not sure if I mentioned it before, but the main character wears this leather body suit that's so freaking tight...

--Mick Martin

Bloodstone #1

(This review was originally published at Comic Book Galaxy, and is posted here for safekeeping)

By Dan Abnett, Andy Lanning, Michael Lopez, abdScott Hanna
Published by Marvel Comics

Not enough comics out there about half-naked women killing monsters, you say? Well, then wait no longer! Elsa Bloodstone takes her first awkward steps towards fulfilling her father's legacy in Bloodstone #1, "Blood Runs Thicker...".

Elsa Bloodstone, an irreverent and feisty young girl with a wisecrack for every situation (because we don't have enough of those in mainstream comicdom) and a desperate need to reveal her belly button whenever possible, is the daughter of the late Ulysses Bloodstone; world-famous monster-hunter. Having never met her father and accustomed to being dragged across the world by a mother who has a tough time keeping a job, Elsa keeps herself sane with a lively sense of humor which is sometimes charming, sometimes cute, and sometimes makes you want to reach into the page and smack her upside the head. When Elsa and her mother first come to Ulysses's former home in order to see what they can auction off, Elsa is completely ignorant of her late father's adventures. Her only clues are the fitful dreams she's been having in which she finds herself cutting through hordes of vampires, and the simple fact that if your dead father has things like glowing skulls and embalmed internal organs lying around the house, there's a good chance he was into something a bit more risque' than telemarketing.

Bloodstone is definitely a fun read. Lopez's art keeps the cartoonish feel of the comic going, though the action sequences could use a little work. There's a page in which Elsa is punching the flaming head off a vampire (actually, this is one of Elsa's aforementioned dreams), and it took me more than a few flips through the pages to realize she had actually punched his head off, and that the guy didn't just have a really small, weird looking head.

I should point out that this dream sequence was a wonderful idea. A lot of times, origin issues fall flat on the action side of things because the main character is still wet behind the ears and it just wouldn't be believable to have them drop-kicking hordes of bad guys right away. This was an original way to give us some action right off the bat, while at the same time showing us what Elsa will be capable of once her origin is unraveled.

The scripting is funny, giving the title a big goof appeal, but unfortunately a lot of the humor seems forced. Maybe I'm just too old, but this is the main turn-off for me as far as this title is concerned. Well, that and some of the teenybooper dialogue ("It's not Haunted," "It SO is!"). If these elements could just be turned down a little bit, while maybe showing us some more of Elsa's softer, sensitive side, I would definitely add Bloodstone to my list of wanted monthly titles. I just can't relate to a character when half the time I want someone very big to paste some very strong adhesive material to her lips.

If you like your dark comics to be a bit more light-hearted than most, pick up a copy of Bloodstone #1. It won't hurt. I promise.

Just remember, I warned you about the whole "wanting to smack her upside the head" thing.

--Mick Martin

Avengers #47

(This review was originally published at Comic Book Galaxy, and is posted here for safekeeping)

By Kurt Busiek, Manuel Garcia, and Bob Layton
Published by Marvel Comics

Separated from her team, stuck in the lair of The Master, Warbird finds an unlikely ally in the Scarlet Centurion--son of Kang--who may or may not be a dark figure from her past in The Avengers #47, "In The Heart of Battle."

With so many villains and heroes already joined in what may be Busiek's most ambitious and epic story arc during his tenure on The Avengers, one might question the wisdom of devoting an entire issue of that arc to one character. Kang's armies are on the move in Europe while The Master's bio-techno-whatsisses have turned North America into both a prison and a fortress. Squads of Avengers are infiltrating The Master's compound above the Arctic Circle, fighting off Kang's hordes in France, and racing towards the orbiting Damocles Base while the U.S. military is warming up the engines of their dormant Sentinel arsenal just in case the Avengers should fail. I mean, there's a lot going on here already. Do we really have time for an entire issue about some blonde who slept with the wrong guy? Don't we have Sex and The City to deal with this kind of stuff? As soon as I saw the preview to this issue, I felt like that kid in The Princess Bride when his grandfather gets to "the kissing parts." Aw, not more kissing! I want splash pages and variant covers of mass destruction, dammit! Blood, blood, blood!

Well, after reading it, I think it's safe to say neither Sarah Jessica Parker or Fred Savage will have a problem with it. This is a war story, pure and simple.

In the beginning of the story, Warbird is unconscious in the snow from the explosion The Master detonated in his base last issue. While in la-la land, she dreams of the past events that have marked Kang's son Marcus as her particular demon. A long time ago, in an Avengers arc far, far away, it seems a guy named Marcus used his daddy Immortus's technology to seduce Carol. It was only when Marcus died later that she found out her feelings for him hadn't been real, that she had, in effect, been raped. Warbird awakes surrounded by a cadre of The Master's sea-wolves, and after narrowly escaping them, runs right into the man of her "dreams."

Sort of. Because while this is Marcus, son of Kang (who is a past version of Immortus), we're led to believe this is a different Marcus. Even though he looks just like the old one.

Confused? Well, you won't be. One of Busiek's trademark skills as a writer is his ability not only to give us a coherent and exciting account of a multilayered conflict, but to also keep the battle royal accessible to new readers. This is especially important in the case of this particular arc, because, well, Kang's in it. Kang's very existence in the Marvel Universe is enough to give your average continuity-hound an aneurysm, much less a brand-spankin' new reader who might need a graph to keep track of all the different villains and heroes involved in this arc.

This is why an entire issue was necessary to tell this story. In the beginning, Busiek gives us a clear and sober account of what could, in the hands of a lesser writer, devolve into a very temporally and sexually confusing flashback (Marcus is her lover, then her son, then her lover, then he's dead; don't ask me, I live much too far from either side of the Mason-Dixon Line to explain it). If this story had been broken up and told between scenes of battle, I would have found myself fumbling for back-issues and thinking, "Wait, I thought he was dead, and wait, no, I get it now but, huh, Kang is Immortus, but then, wait...WHO THE HELL IS RAMA-TUT?"

Warbird and the Scarlet Centurion form an uneasy alliance as they make their way through The Master's lair. Bewitched by Warbird, but knowing her past and what he represents to her because of it, the Centurion tries desperately to gain Warbird's trust, even taking a beating at the hands of The Master's goons to do so. I should point out that if you're an Alpha Flight fan, there's one panel in this part of the story which will drive you absolutely buggy with anticipation for the next few months.

"In The Heart of The Battle," is not one of "the kissing parts." In fact, the title of this issue is pretty accurate. This is a war story. This is a story about how the events of this particular world war temporarily isolate Carol Danvers and force her not only to confront one of the demons of her past, but to make a choice between what she should do as an Avenger and what she wants to do as a woman. And while it's too soon to tell, there's no doubt in my mind that the events of this issue, particularly the evolving relationship between Warbird and the son of Kang, will have some monumental effects on the stories to come in "The Kang Dynasty."

Pick up this issue, and shame on you if you don't already have the other issues in this arc. It's one of the better stories Marvel's putting out these days, and it's worth digging through the back-issues for those other issues now before you really have to dig for them later.

--Mick Martin

Thursday, July 15, 2004

The Defenders #10

(This review was originally published at Comic Book Galaxy in 2001, and is posted here for safekeeping)    

By Erik Larsen, Kurt Busiek, Eric Stephenson, and Sal Buscema
Published by Marvel Comics

The "Big Four" return from their brief space quest in order to free the Earth from Orrgo and the Headmen in "Head To Head."
This review is going to be tough to write. Since the first issue of the new series, I've been a hardcore Defenders, well...defender. I've raised my voice against the hordes of Defenders-haters in so many online scuffles, they'll probably be printing pictures of me in Wizard for Defenders non-fans to pin to their dart-boards. That's why it hurts so much to say "Head To Head" is, to date, my least favorite installment of the series.
In the beginning of the story, we find out how the Headmen happened to become allies with the beloved "Timmay!" of Marvel Comics: Modok (in the previous issue it was revealed that Modok and A.I.M. have been secret partners with the Headmen since their re-emergence in The Defenders #5). The Flying Brain-Chair of Evil designates himself and his A.I.M. cronies as a neutral third party once the hostilities break out between the Defenders and Orrgo, which leads us to an interesting question.
What is he doing in the story? He's the issue's narrator, but any one of the Defenders--or even the Headmen--could have acted as narrator. Maybe I'm forgetting some continuity point, but for the life of me, unless Busiek and Larsen are using him to plant a seed for a future story, I can't think of one practical or aesthetic reason for Big Head and his Magical Barcolounger to have showed up anywhere in the Headmen/Orrgo storyline.
It's a shame, too, because time wasted on Modok could have been put to better use elsewhere, namely in developing more of the trademark aspects of The Defenders that make the series so great, as well some of the things that have needed work from the beginning.
For example, there's a brief, hilarious scene in the beginning of the issue in which Headmen member Morgan exacts a unique kind of revenge on the classmates who tortured him in junior high. Unfortunately, this is the only scene in the book where there seems to be any real attempt at humor. Even the Hulk, who has been the enduring home of humor since the first issue, is strangely left with nothing funny to say. There's a bit of an attempt for some Hulk-funny in the beginning, but it falls flat. The Hulk asks Doctor Strange, "Now we smash argyle-monster?" You don't laugh, though. You just think, "What? How would he even know what argyle...oh! Irony. Heh."
Then there's the Silver Surfer. The poor guy never gets a chance to shine. Which is silly, really. He's silver. He's naked. Shining is pretty much what he's best at.
Seriously though, hardcore Silver Surfer fans have been clammering for a stronger presence for their favorite ex-herald in The Defenders, and while in the past I've been unwilling to agree with any negative statements about what is currently one of my favorite monthly reads, I'm finally forced to agree with them. This guy is a marquee Marvel character and he's getting less front-row panel time than the "Little Three."  I had hoped this would change, especially considering the fact that the reason Hulk, Namor, and Strange left Earth in the first place was to find the Surfer and bring him back. But the only time he's really in the spotlight this issue is when he's being batted around like a cat-toy. I admit, in the beginning I thought the Surfer fans were just being whiny. At this point, though, it's near impossible to not empathize.
The one positive thing I can say about this issue is how the team dynamic is evolving. The gap between the Big Four and the Little Three is growing larger and larger. As time goes on, it's becoming more apparent that the Curse is doing something to the mental stability of the Big Four. From the evil, sideways grin Strange gives the team at the end of the issue, to the revelry the Hulk takes in attacking frozen and helpless opponents, the reader is watching the Big Four turn into what, I'm assuming, will be a much darker team in the upcoming The Order.
Overall, I would suggest you to spend your money on something else, but come back next issue. Hopefully things will be back to "normal" when the team fights to liberate Fish-Man's home from Bunny-Head and Tooth-Face.
-- Mick Martin

Wednesday, July 14, 2004

The Incredible Hulk #33

(This review was originally published at Comic Book Galaxy in 2001, and is posted here for safekeeping)

By Christopher Priest, Len Wein, Peter David, Jon Bogdanove, Herb Trimpe, Sal Buscema, Joe Staton, and John Ridgway
Published By Marvel Comics

Queen Divine Justice of Black Panther fame reunites with her half-ton, green-hued dance partner and three classic stories from the Hulk's past are reprinted in this 100-page "Monster" issue, marking Tom Breevort's last issue as Editor. We also get some previews from the new art team on the title, along with some words from the series' new ongoing writer; Bruce Jones.

I think my overall attitude towards The Incredible Hulk this past year could be likened to that of a lonely Taleban soldier manning a rusty anti-aircraft gun in the heart of Kabul, who hears a whistling sound overhead and thinks, "Well...maybe it will only be a little bomb." With the exception of the two-part Abomination tale, Paul Jenkins' run on the title has given us stories which define the art of masterful build-up, and whose endings too often define the art of anti-climax. None moreso than his final story arc "Spiral Staircase" (co-written by Sean McKeever), which ended in such an "ABC Afterschool Special" way, it made me want to pump my fist up and yell, "And knowing is half the battle!" Hulkophiles were also subjected to the limited series Hulk Smash! whose only saving grace was that there were only two issues, and are currently enjoying the "dialogue is for wusses" style of Startling Stories: Banner, in which we find out all super-powered musclemen have really big chins. Only three things have kept Hulk-nuts like myself more well-behaved than our favorite character this year: a two-part story in The Avengers where we found out how to say "Hulk Smash" in Greek, the Hulk's hilarious appearances in The Defenders, and a four-word phrase which we drone in our heads like a desperate mantra: "It isn't John isn't John Byrne..."

So, I wasn't expecting much from this issue. As an avid Black Panther reader, I'm no stranger to Priest's superb writing talent (the main story of the issue is a fill-in written by Priest: "Something Borrowed, Something Green"), but Jenkins's run had already been interrupted by two fill-ins, both of which--at best--can be described as "not horrible." So, like the aforementioned Afghani soldier, upon opening the issue I hunkered down and hoped the shrapnel would hit me in a spot that had nothing to do with reproduction.

Praise Allah; the bomb never hit. If I'd been reading Black Panther as long as I have The Incredible Hulk, I might actually be mad after reading this issue. While Priest has made his name scripting the ruler of Wakanda, I think his best story of the year can be found in the pages the Earth's mightiest mortal.

The story opens with Queen Divine Justice, troubled and confused, summoning the priest Kono at Wakanda's Tranquility Temple. With a heavy heart, Queen unloads on Kono a story of humor, love, and loss of innocence.

Queen becomes aware of the Hulk's presence in Wakanda only after T'Challa's military does. While heading back to the states from a Defenders mission, the Hulk makes a pit stop in Wakanda for some water. No more tolerant of greenie than their American counterparts (and with the Black Panther absent from his kingdom), the Wakandans throw their military might at the Hulk, including a couple of those Godzilla-class Panther Prowlers. Thinking she can accomplish more with her smile than the military can with their bombs (Queen and the Hulk first met and "dated" back in Black Panther #15), Queen hurries to the scene, hoping to calm the Hulk down and maybe even make him into something of a hero.

Their first stop is Queen's kitchen, but after the Hulk "redecorates" the place because of an unfortunate choice of words, Queen decides on something a little more up the Hulk's alley.

As it turns out, a Russian sub has sunk in the Atlantic and Queen convinces the Hulk to go save it by telling him it's filled not with Russian sailors, but with puppies. En route is a hilarious scene involving Queen trapped in the Hulk's arms as he takes one of his 100-league leaps, fighting to keep both her consciousness and her lunch. I always thought folks like Rick Jones were able to take going up and down and up and down like that a little too well.

It isn't just the humor which makes this scene memorable. It's memorable because it gives us the same feeling we get in one of the following scenes where we witness the Hulk wrestle the Russian sub from the ocean floor, and it's the same feeling that has been so dreadfully absent from the pages of The Incredible Hulk since the days of Roy Thomas and Len Wein.

The title has been so choked with psychological intrigue and introspection that it's forgotten one simple fact: this guy isn't just a really, really strong guy playing a mental game of multiple-personality musical chairs: he's a force of nature. He's a nuclear tornado. The whole world is just one big ugly sandbox to him and God help you if you're one of the toy soldiers who gets caught in his wake. Don't get me wrong, there's certainly a place for Hulk stories which revolve around the psyche, but I think some writers have forgotten that what makes the Hulk's psyche so intriguing is the idea of exploring the mind of a creature who is more like an earthquake than a man. Priest remembered that.

Queen, on the other hand, gives the story a truly sweet and tangible heart. She calls the Hulk "Bruce" in the narration because, as she tells Kono, "The most basic human dignity we can afford each other is to call each other by our own name," certainly a rare sentiment in the world of the "super." And when she refers to the Hulk as her "date" and says he loves him, you believe her. Their love for each other is real. And while it certainly doesn't make them lovers, they are much more than friends. The phrase, "kindred spirits" seems too cliche' to use, but it's really the only one that fits. They're two people frighteningly alone in the world and absent of love, but still
unwilling to take the world's crap without a fight. All this makes their "break-up" at the end all the more heart-wrenching.

While I've mentioned Priest's name enough times, I should probably point out that the unique feel of this issue wouldn't be possible without the art of Jon Bogdanove. His cartoonish style lends itself both to the more humorous sides to the story, along with the tender ones. My only complaint is the Hulk's really, really thin legs. But...what the hey. I've spent so long trying to deal with the "big, big body, little head" Hulk drawings, that the "big, big body, Kate Moss legs" version is almost a relief.

As for the rest of the "Monster" issue...well, it's interesting. The issue reprints The Incredible Hulk #204, #205, and #335. Maybe I'm assuming too much, but it seems to me the intent of reprinting these particular stories is to prepare readers for what the new creative team has in store.

"Vicious Circle!" (#204) is the last in a long line of Len Wein/Herb Trimpe tales. In this particular story, a professor by the name of Kronus sends Bruce Banner back in time in order to stop himself from being caught in the gamma blast which originally transformed him into the Hulk. "Do Not Forsake Me!" (#205) gives us the epic battle between the Hulk and the Crypto-Man which resulted in the death of Jarella; the Hulk's most devoted lover, second only to Betty Banner herself.

What does this have to do with what's to come? Well, in Tom Breevort's editorial on the letters page, he writes, "Writer Len Wein recently revealed to me that he hadn't truly intended Jarella to be permanently demised, but he left the series before he could pay off on what he'd set up. Oh well." An interesting comment, considering Jarella is featured in both of these reprints. Who knows? Maybe Betty's death won't keep Hulk and Bruce lonely for long after all.

The ending of the first story, "Vicious Circle!" made me think of something Bruce Jones says in the interview on the last page of the issue. Banner finds out he can banish the Hulk from his life through Kronus' time machine, but only at a terrible cost: the life of Rick Jones. At the story's conclusion, he stomps off saying, "No, I didn't destroy the Hulk! He and I are still soul-mates for the duration, but at least THAT I can live with!" Which reflects somewhat this comment by Jones: "The Hulk seemingly detests Banner; Banner may have felt the same once, but it did him no good. He must gain at least a semblance of control over this Hyde-like side of his personality; he can't waste time detesting it."

The last story is the classic, "The Evil That Men Do!" (#335) by Peter David and John Ridgway, in which the grey Hulk comes face-to-face with a disturbing reflection of himself: a killer spirit which resides in the body of a lonely gas station attendant named Gil, and emerges to commence with his dark work once Gil has fallen asleep.

Considering Bruce Jones' past work on horror comics, this final reprint comes as no suprise. Though I should point out that Jones has stated that The Incredible Hulk will not transform into a horror comic during his tenure, but that the predominant feel of the series will be "paranoia."

All in all, The Incredible Hulk #33 is definitely worth the extra dough. Priest and Bogdanove give us a wonderful tale that should take its rightful place in the pantheon of Great Hulk stories, a few stories that have already been there for quite a while, along with a glimpse of what's in store for the green goliath after the changing of the guard.

--Mick Martin

Monday, July 12, 2004

Review - The Watch: Casus Belli #s 1-3

The Watch: Casus Belli #1-3
By Christian Read, Stewart McKenney, and Annette Kwok
Published by Phosphorescent Comics

The Watch: Casus Belli is the third volume of The Watch, a superhero conspiracy saga about a world gone awry after thousands of its citizens spontaneously acquire superhuman powers. The Watch Inc., founded by the powerful telepath Jack Hawkins, acts as a superhuman mercenary organization. In the third installment of the series, the team is sent to help stop a supervillain’s merciless assault on Beijing. While battling the villain Lucifer and his warped cronies, the team is in for more than they bargained for, including surprise attacks by heroes and villains alike, and an encounter with the mysterious Abaddon that may or may not help answer the question of why the world has spawned so many super-powered warriors, as well as hinting at a shadowy agenda on the part of Jack Hawkins.

My first impression was that The Watch: Casus Belli promised to be nothing more than a smaller press superhero-fight book. A good portion of the first issue is reserved for listing the various players and their respective powers, and I sighed a little at one particular line from the character Luc Coltraine: "My powers say he’s vulnerable to my strength level." It read like the kind of line Internet "versus thread" debaters quote for future reference, while leaving the more discerning readers scratching their heads as to how anyone can know what their "strength level" is, and wondering how long it will take for the tabletop RPG to come along.

Further reading reveals that, while it certainly is the action that drives the story, more than "just another" superhero-fight book, it’s a damn good superhero-fight book. It’s smart and funny, with some great lines like, "I’m an iconoclastic leftist poet who juggles helicopters. You ain’t seen nothing like me," and the bloody fisticuffs are done with an artistry most superhero battle mags lack. It has the feel of a more cartoony Ultimates, except that it plunges headfirst into the action.

The main problem with The Watch: Casus Belli is its size versus its scope. By the time the UN-sponsored superhero team, UNite, arrives in the third issue, the cast list is already too long. Along with The Watch and Lucifer’s followers, the superhero duo Magus and Paladin battle Lucifer in the skies above Beijing, former Watch member The Fisher shows up hoping to take revenge on Jack Hawkins, and the villain Abaddon and his thugs the Blackday Soldiers trouble the heroes as well. In spite of the prompts tagged to each battle (e.g., "Event 3 –Adelaide Green Vs. Johnny Grond"), it’s tough to not get lost in the action. This is the first full-color volume of The Watch, and I suspect that had a lot to do with the length of this installment. Regardless of the reason, with multiple super-battles raging across a war-torn Beijing and a dense conspiracy just beginning to be understood, it’s really more than three issues–regardless of the storyteller–could withstand. That, coupled with a climax that serves mainly to build suspense for future issues rather than as resolution, leaves you more confused than intrigued.

Still, it should be mentioned that I’ve never read either of the first two volumes of The Watch, and those with some emotional investment in the characters and story may feel differently. If nothing else, if you’re like me, the more engaging aspects of The Watch: Casus Belli may pique your curiosity enough to make you want to track those first two volumes. Unfortunately, on its own, it leaves a lot to be desired.

Monday, July 05, 2004

Review - Fallen Angel

Fallen Angel
By Peter David, David Lopez, and Fernando Blanco
Published by DC Comics; $12.95 USD

The trade collecting the first six issues of Peter David’s creator-owned endeavor, Fallen Angel, introduces us to the dark city of Bete Noire and its dark heroine, Lee (or Fallen Angel, as the city’s more notable figures know her). By day, Lee coaches girl’s soccer, and at night she dons a crimson shroud, taking up her regular table at her regular bar, waiting for those in need of her supernatural gifts to call upon her. Sometimes charming, sometimes sexy, and sometimes dark and just plain ugly, Lee’s motives are as steeped in mystery as her origins, and her sense of responsibility towards the people she helps goes only so far as she feels they deserve.

Lee is the most enigmatic hero David’s scribed so far, and the questions of her beginnings, her motives, and her strange abilities fuel the story’s suspense. Not only is it refreshing to see a female-lead comic whose heroine is both strong and sexy without close-ups of titanic bosoms every few panels, but Lee is one of the more likeable protagonists of recent memory. She’s a good deal more fallible than the superhero hosts of Marvel and DC, and her childlike antics during grisly battle sequences are wonderful, like her pension for squeaking out "‘Kay" before tearing apart rooms full of bad guys.

Fallen Angel’s potential is immeasurable, and its most engaging aspect is the mystery behind its morally ambiguous characters. From Lee’s sometimes-nemesis/sometimes-lover Doctor Juris, to the spikey-haired drug dealer Asia Minor who furnishes a bachelor pad out of a mausoleum, each of Bete Noir’s eccentric figures deserve as much speculation as any comic book message board could offer.

David Lopez’s pencils play a big role in realizing David’s vision of Bete Noire as a place where the boundaries between good and evil are blurred; every character is both angel and devil. There are delightfully subtle bits you might miss, like the chain-smoking Slate exhaling a smoke-ring halo over Lee’s head, or how he can always be found with a cigarette dangling from his lips, yet you never see him light it.

One of the more interesting and disturbing features of his work are the eyes of his subjects. The eyes are distinct to each character; the slightly drunk euphoria of Slate; the fierce, determined blue of Graymalkin; the muted sorrow of Doctor Juris. Flip through the book and you’ll see Lopez occasionally puts one eye just a bit off-center, as if every character in Bete Noire suffers from irregular lazy eye, and no one can really be sure if they’re seeing what they think they see.

Perhaps my only complaint with the pencils has more to do with the script than Lopez’s skills. Lee doesn’t feel like a superhero. She doesn’t talk like one or act like one, but it’s tough to see her as anything but a costumed crimefighter when she shows up perched on balconies in Spider-Man crouches, or traverses Bete Noire’s streets by leaping onto windowsills and rooftops.

It isn’t Lee’s acrobatics that weigh this title down, though; it’s the dialogue. Unfortunately, the situation is so dire that it threatens to drag all of Fallen Angel’s potential down with it.

David’s often been criticized for wasting time with one-liners, puns, and other assorted wittiness, and that criticism has never been more justified than when considering Fallen Angel. David sets up cardboard cut-outs like the worried mother who seeks Lee out in the first chapter, the vengeful thug Shadow Boxer, and the terrorist Azmil for the more three-dimensional characters like Lee and Doctor Juris to easily knock over with their disingenuously spontaneous wit.

More frustrating, however, is David’s insistence on deconstructing his own work at every turn. From Lee and Juris spelling out the symbolism of their strange relationship in the beginning of the second chapter, to the villainous demon’s diatribe during the climactic battle of the collection, every golden egg is plucked and held under the reader’s nose to brag about how shiny it is.

Likewise, each "subtle" mystery is shoved down the reader’s throat. For example, one of Fallen Angel’s more peripheral characters is Dolf, an elderly German who owns a bar named "Furors." And hardly an issue goes by without being reminded that his name is Adolf Dolf, and he’s an elderly German, and he owns a bar named Fuhrer’s "Furors," or the reader gets more improbable hints, like the drug dealer Graymalkin calmly recognizing Dolf’s pistol as one favored by the Wehrmacht, or Dolf nonchalantly, and without any apparent reason, mentioning he had an abusive father as terrorists are threatening to kill him.

What should be telegraphed in fine print is broadcast in neon signs. It kills the suspense, the mystery, the metaphor; everything that makes this story unique and engaging. Fallen Angel could be Peter David’s best work in comics to date, but it isn’t. Not yet.

Friday, July 02, 2004

Review - Hench

By Adam Beechen and Manny Bello
Published by AiT-PlanetLar; $12.95 USD

Everyone knows who they are. They're grunts. They're human shields. They're the guys Joker dresses up so someone looks more ridiculous than him. They're the henchmen. They're punching bags.

Adam Beechen strives to give the faceless an identity with Hench, a graphic novel chronicling the henchman career of Mike Fulton. Originally a college linebacker with dreams of making it in the pro's, Fulton's dreams are dashed when he's injured during a game. Without a football scholarship to fund his education, and bills stacking up for his critically ill son, Fulton turns to crime not only to make ends meet, but also to capture the excitement of his earlier days.

The tale opens with Fulton holding a gun to the head of a bound and apparently helpless superhero named The Still of The Night. The rest of the story is told in flashback as Fulton reflects upon how he could've mucked up his life enough to end up in a situation where he either has to kill or be killed.

Like another recent AiT/PlanetLar release, The Planet of The Capes, superhero norms are turned on their head in a way that isn't really all that new. The heroes aren't so heroic; the bad guys aren't all that bad. And, once again the heroes and villains are designed as homage to existing characters like Superman, Daredevil, The Joker, and so on.

But Beechen isn't really trying to say anything new about the concept of superheroes, other than to answer the question of how these kooky supervillains could ever find anyone willing to act as cannon fodder. Beechen convincingly describes why a man would embark on a career he knows full well can only end badly. And while Fulton's life of crime has none of the glamour of the protagonist of Mark Millar's Wanted, like the banal and cowardly life Wesley Gibson leads before becoming a villain in that series, when you look at Fulton's alternative, wiping the butts of costumed felons doesn't seem all that bad.

Hench is a story about finding redemption. Mike Fulton could've been a gangster, a gangbanger, a compulsive gambler, or a drug dealer. This is a story we've heard before. Beechen and Bello give him funny costumes, deposit him into the world of superheroes, and what follows is a funny, sad, and disarmingly believable story about a man looking for salvation.