Saturday, October 8, 2011

Capsule reviews: Comics from 9/21 and 9/28

In which I attempt to get caught up from the last few weeks...

Legion of Super-Heroes #1 (DC, $2.99, Paul Levitz, Francis Portela) - Having lost several team members recently due to the events in Legion Lost #1, some of the recent trainees from the Adventure Comics series are brought up to the big leagues.  Of course, the people who trained for years in the Legion Academy are passed over, in favor of a few newbies who had all of one adventure, in which one of their number was killed.  Nope, nothing at all arbitrary about who the Legion chooses for their ranks.

Snark aside, this is a decent enough introduction to a new story arc.  The main story concerns a Legion team investigating a watchworld on the edge of Dominator space that has stopped communications with the United Planets, which moves along well enough.  There's also some subplots advanced and some nice character bits as well, including a nice bit of interaction between Brainiac 5 and Mon-El.  Overall, this issue is enjoyable enough for any Legion fan.

What it isn't is a particularly good introductory issue for a new reader.  While I'm just as glad that DC didn't yet again reboot the Legion continuity, this is still theoretically a potential fresh start that should ideally be new-reader friendly.  Not only is this a #1 issue, it's part of a huge re-launch of the DC line, and as a result may draw in the curious reader who might not otherwise do so under other circumstances.  Other than making sure there are caption boxes giving the names and powers for most of the characters, Levitz makes no special effort to make this issue especially engaging for the new reader, nor does he go out of his way to highlight what makes the Legion so engaging for its long-time fans, and how it's unique as compared to the rest of the DC universe.  Given the floundering status of the Legion in recent years, this was a golden opportunity to bring new readers into the fold.

Sadly, that opportunity appears to have been wasted.  Granted, it doesn't fail to the degree that Legion Lost did in this regard; the story is functional enough, and I no major complaints about Portela's art.  Still, it irks me that what could have been a bright beginning to a new chapter in Legion history turns out to be just another first chapter of yet another story arc.  

Fables #109 (DC/Vertigo, $2.99, Bill Willingham, Mark Buckingham) - Part two of "Inherit The Wind" moves along briskly; about half the issue concerns the choosing of the successor of the North Wind, but there's also further developments with Bufkin and company's continuing adventures in Oz, the ongoing training of the former Nurse Spratt, and even the status of the Farm is briefly addressed.  There's a lot going on here, with several twists and turns along the way, but Willingham and Buckingham handle it all adroitly.  As always, recommended.

Dark Horse Presents #4 (Dark Horse, $7.99, Evan Dorkin, Jill Thompson, Sanford Greene, Chuck Brown, Filipe Melo, Juan Cavia, Robert Love, David Walker, Peter Hogan, Steve Parkhouse, Steve Niles, Christopher Mitten, Howard Chaykin, Ricardo Delgado, Carla Speed McNeil, Dara Naraghi, Patrick Alexander) - Best issue of this anthology series so far.  Greene and Brown's Rotten Apple, Love and Walker's Number 13, Chaykin's Marked Man, and McNeil's Finder all continue to entertain.  There are several new pieces here as well; Dorkin and Thompson provide a delightful Beasts Of Burden story to kick off the issue, Melo and Cavia introduce us to the opening chapter of  The Adventures of Dog Mendonca and Pizzaboy, Hogan and Parkhouse also kick off the Resident Alien storyline, Niles and Mitten kick off the Criminal Macarbe story, Delgado provides us with a beautiful, wordless Age Of Reptiles story, and Naraghi wraps things up with a haunting story called The Protest, with a one-page gag piece Teenagers by Alexander acting as the issue's coda.  All of the stories are quite enjoyable (there's nothing as weak as Neal Adams' Blood to drag things down), and the wide variety of genres and styles is a definable bonus.   This continues to provide one of the best bangs-for-the-buck in the comic book marketplace today.  Recommended. 

Conan: Road Of Kings #8 (Dark Horse, $3.50, Roy Thomas, Mike Hawthorne) - Conan heads down into the catacombs beneath Tarantia, with the child Albiona in tow, in search of the comic's plot.  Along the way, he fights some monsters, meets once again with the various surviving conspirators from last issue, after which more monsters show up.  I suppose I shouldn't be so dismissive, but part of me can't help but think - and I know this is going to sound awful - that this story wold pick up if the kid got whacked sooner rather than later.  As is, the plot for this issue is somewhat thin, albeit ably illustrated by Hawthorne.

Hellboy vol 11: The Bride Of Hell And Others (Dark Horse, $19.99, Mike Mignola, Richard Corben, Kevin Nowlan, Scott Hampton) - Ah, just when I was getting a little depressed about the state of comics today, along comes Hellboy to remind me just how good comics can be.

The six stories reprinted here are all from Hellboy's earlier days, long before he left the B.P.R.D.; chronologically they range from the 1950's to the 1980's.  This is one of the many strengths of the Hellboy universe - when Mignola set up the basic concept of the character many years ago, he allowed himself over three decades of time in which it was stated that Hellboy was having various adventures.  This gave him the freedom to go back and tell whatever stories he wanted to set during those years, without having to tie said stories in to the ongoing more recent story arcs.  As a result, continuity is used as a tool, rather than being a straightjacket to hinder storytelling, or a master that must be served before other concerns.

The stories here are generally smaller in scope then the apocalyptic epics that have shown up in recent years in both Hellboy and B.P.R.D., but are no less effective and enjoyable for that.  One of the great things with these stories is that Mignola is free to choose different artists for different stories, playing to their respective strengths.  As a result, we have Richard Corben illustrating a tale involving lucha libre Mexican wrestlers teaming up with Hellboy, while Scott Hampton provides the art for a gothic tale involving vampires and ghostly yet beautiful females, and Kevin Nowlan helps to show us a demented tale of aliens and farm animals; if you know anything of these artists, you can probably already start to imagine just how well each of those pairings work.

Not only is this a very enjoyable collection in and of itself, but because these stories aren't tied in to more recent events in the Hellboy universe, it's also a fine jumping-in point for anyone curious about the character and the overall mythos surrounding him.  Recommended for both long-time fans and potential newcomers.

Near Death #1 (Image, $2.99, Jay Faerber, Simone Guglielmini) - Hired assassin Markham has a near-death experience, in which the threat of Hell makes him reconsider his ways, after which he seeks to balance the scales by saving lives to make up for all the ones he killed.  It's a simple premise, but an effective one, allowing for all sorts of potential stories as he seeks to thwart his former employers.  One of the interesting things about Markham is that his new goals haven't really changed who he is; he's still an amoral murderous SOB, and it's out of fear, not any moral epiphany, that Markham seeks to make redress.  This raises an interesting question - is it the deed that counts, or the intent behind it? 

This is a strong first issue; Faerber's plot moves along at a nice place, not stretching things out unnecessarily, and hits all the right hard-boiled elements, which Guglielmini illustrates effectively.   Recommended for any fan of crime/noir fiction.

The Spider #2 (Moonstone, $3.99, Martin Powell, Hannibal King, Gary Phillips, Roberto Castro) - This came out a few weeks earlier, but my shop got shorted on copies by Diamond, so I only recently was able to get an issue of this.  The lead story, part one of 'Blood Reign of the Thunder King', involves New York City being deluged with thunderstorms of unusual and unnatural intensity.  Of course, there's someone behind all this, but how does even the Spider fight the weather?  Powell's plot is appropriately over the top here, and King's artwork is suitable to the story, if a little stiff in places.  Meanwhile, part two of the Operator 5 back-up, 'The Faithful', concludes our hero's struggle with the Nordic Cross (for now, at least) in a satisfying fashion, with a suitable mix of intrigue and adventure.  I'm not terribly familiar with Operator 5 as a character, but I would like to see Phillips and Castro do more with the character.  In both stories the semi-monochromatic technique applied to the coloring helps in evoking a period feel, but that visual approach probably won't appeal to everyone, especially the "I hate black-and-white comics" crowd.  Recommended for pulp fans. 

Secret Avengers #17 (Marvel, $3.99, Warren Ellis, Kev Walker) - A mysterious semi-truck is wandering the desolate areas of serbia, kidnapping residents using hi-tech means.  Not necessarily the most engaging of concepts, but Ellis manages to get some mileage (heh) out of it.  There are some cool moments here and there, but overall this isn't as good an issue has the previous one; partially because the story - despite some occasional bits of superhero weirdness - almost comes across as mundane, in spite of its high-tech premise - but also because of Walker's somewhat murky art, which occasionally serves the story well, but also occasionally hinders the enjoyment thereof.

You know what would have improved this issue?  If the evil semi was revealed to actually be U.S. 1 - now that would have been awesome.

All-Star Western #1 (DC, $3.99, Justin Gray, Jimmy Palmiotti, Moritat) - After enjoying the various done-in-one issues that had graced Jonah Hex, I was a little saddened to find out that with the transition to All-Star Western more emphasis would be placed on multi-part stories.  Jonah Hex was one of the few titles out there that delivered quality comics that didn't stretch themselves out, prostate to the unholy god of decompression.

I shouldn't have worried.  I had forgotten that Gray and Palmiotti had occasionally done multi-part stories in the past on Hex, and had pulled it off quite nicely.  It should then come as no surprise that the first issue of All-Star Western is a doozy, gracing us with a strong first chapter that gives us plenty of content, but also leaves us wanting more, laying down the groundwork for the rest of the storyline in a manner that feels neither rushed nor forced.

Hex is called East to Gotham City, where it appears that a Jack The Ripper-style killer is having his way with the local working women.  Hex is forced to team up with Dr. Amadeus Arkham, who in later years will help build a certain Asylum that will be named for him.  Of course, Hex would rather work alone, caring little for Arkham's presence, and the Doctor's first impression of Hex isn't terribly favorable, either (Arkham's continuing attempt to psycho-analyze Hex provides no small amount of entertainment for the issue).  By the issue's end, the unlikely duo realize that the evil they face is far more powerful, and pervasive, that they first anticipated.

This is both a wonderful first part to the current story, as well as an excellent introduction to the character for those who might have overlooked Jonah's adventures in the past. Gray and Palmiotti are at the top of their game, and Moritat, who had recently been working on The Spirit, is pretty much the perfect artist for a book like this.  His style has a certain roughness to it, but is also very fluid, with excellent composition and panel layout.  He also handles various period details well, such as Arkham's use of absinth in a couple of scenes.  It really is just an excellent comic book.  Highly recommended.

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