Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Capsule reviews: Comics from 8/31 and 9/7

Secret Avengers #16 (Marvel, $3.99, Warren Ellis, Jamie McKelvie) - Just when I thought I was pretty much done with mainstream Marvel comics, they suck me back in by putting Warren Ellis on one of their titles.  How can I resist?  This is what I want from my four-color superhero comics: tightly written adventure stories dealing with absurdly crazy ideas played absolutely straight.  There's a bit of Ellis's Global Frequency here, as well as a hint of NextWave, but it's also very much its own thing, and very much a superhero comic, even if it doesn't resemble much that is produced by the Big Two these days.

The plot is simple, taking an old idea from Marvel ideas gone by and ramping things up to... oh, 17 or so.  Steve Rogers leads Beast, Black Widow, and Moon Knight to investigate an underground city once built by the Secret Empire, due to the detection of Von Doom (time travel) Radiation being detected.  From there, they make their way through the city, discovering just what's at stake, leading to a taut, satisfying conclusion.

The script by Ellis is tight, giving us just enough to make us care about the characters, and enough pseudo-science to make the threat credible, without drowning the reader in unnecessary minutiae.  Some might complain about the casual violence and killing the Avengers commit here, but you can't run a black ops mission without breaking a few henchmen: this is an operation run by Steven Rogers the super-soldier, not Captain America the superhero.  The art by McKelvie may not be spectacular, but it is solid, and gives a nice sense of scale as our heroes investigate the underground setting.  If Marvel continues to let Ellis tell accessible done-in-one stories like this, then I'm on board for the ride. 

Vescell #1 (Image, $2.99, Enrique Carrion, John Upchurch) -There's a huge amount of information to be processed while reading the first issue of this series.  Some current comic book readers seem to think that not having every little thing spelled out in an obvious manner is somehow a sign of bad storytelling, put personally I like it when a comic has enough packed into it that it benefits from a second or even third reading.  Demons, magic, cyborgs, dimensional barriers being broken, and technology-induced personality transfers between bodies... Carrion isn't afraid to throw a lot of different elements into the mix to tell the story he wants to tell.

Not that everything here is perfect.  Some of the information, as well as the different plot elements of the story at hand, could perhaps have been handled in a smoother fashion.  The issue is slightly bigger than average (36 pages instead of 32), and even then it feels cramped in places.  This isn't aided by Upchurch's art, which is nice in spots, but doesn't carry the story as well as it might.  Also, the backgrounds and shading tend toward the monochromatic; a bit more variety here would have helped.  Still, even though flawed in spots, there's enough her that's of interest to make me want to read the next issue, just to see where all of this is going.

Rocketeer Adventures #4 (of 4) (IDW, $3.99,Dave Gibbons, Scott Hampton, Joe Pruett, Tony Harris, John Arcudi, Brendan McCarthy, Ashley Wood) - Final issue of this anthology mini-series, and overall the quality of the stories has remained consistently high.  "A Day at the Beach" by Gibbons and Hampton is a fun little romp, complete with our title hero riding a surfboard while flying in the air... how can that not be fun?  "Waterlogged" by Pruett and Harris pits our hero against a Japanese submarine, and "The Flight of the Aeronaut" by Arcudi and McCarthy has Cliff clashing against his Nazi opposite number, both stories dealing effectively with the wartime era as a backdrop.  The issue concludes with two nice watercolor illustrations by Ashley Wood.  I wasn't certain initially how much I would enjoy these non-Stevens take on the Rocketeer, but overall this mini-series has been a lot of fun, and I wouldn't object to seeing further tales of Cliff and company from IDW in the future.

Phases of the Moon: The Spider/Domino Lady #1 (Moonstone, $2.50, Steven L Frank, Bill McKay, Remy Mokhtar) - This is the first of three books that form a crosover between six different Moonstone characters, each issue being a flip-book concentrating on a different character.  The issue starts with the Spider investigating a murderous cult, and winds up being framed for the murders, which draws in the attention of the Domino Lady.

I wanted to like this, I really did.  Unfortunately, the art on the two different parts of the book simply did not work for me, being a bit too cartoony for this kind of tale.  The story is okay, but didn't really grab my interest enough to make me want to pick up the other issues in this storyline.  I'm giving the rest of 'Phases of the Moon' a pass.

Action Comics #1 (DC, $3.99, Grant Morrison, Rags Morales) - And so the reboot begins.  Okay, it actually began the week before, but I'm giving Justice League a pass.  The much-discussed remolding of the Man of Steel, bringing him back to the earliest presentation of the character, viewed through a modern lens, is obviously meant to shake up reader's expectations, and hopefully draw in those who have in the past dismissed Superman as a 'boy scout'.

More often than not, the 'back-to-basics' approach eventually fails, but in this instance I think Morrison has pulled it off.  In no small part this is due to the fact that the original concept of a activist crusader against social ills and moribund justice during a time of economic uncertainty is something that can resonate with a lot of people today, in a way that it might not have in previous decades.  There's very much a sense of humanity to the character, that hasn't always been present in more common depictions of him as the 'perfect' superhero.   He's young, he's brash, he's not yet truly invulnerable, he sees things in simplistic terms, he makes mistakes, and there's room for him to grow from all that.  Then there's Luthor, who is very much again in the mold of the Byrne-written evil businessman, but that also works well here, combining two common foes from the early Superman stories, the amoral and unethical businessman with the brilliant scientist mastermind.

Morrison's script is a fun one, packed with little bits of meta-commentary and call-outs to previous era, but the basic story is straightforward enough for a newcomer to enjoy (provided they're not the sort of fan who wants every little thing spoonfed to them in simplistic datapoints), while having enough detail and depth to reward multiple re-readings.  The art by Morales works nicely in conveying the story (especially during the action sequences), and helps to emphasize that this a Superman who is having fun with his abilities, even as he is being sorely tested.  Overall, I enjoyed this very much, and look forward to seeing what follows.   

Stormwatch #1 (DC, $2.99, Paul Cornell, Miguel Sepulveda) - I suspected that the first issue here would be a bit clumsy and awkward in spots, and unfortunately I was right.  Cornell has the unenviable task of introducing multiple characters (many of whom may not be familiar to the reader), giving the basic setup of our book's premise (and how it differs from the original Stormwatch), and of course introducing the plot of the initial story arc.  He makes an game attempt at juggling all these factors, but parts of this first issue are still a bit uneven and forced.  It doesn't help that Sepulveda's art is a little clunky in spots.  Hopefully, now that introductions are out of the way, and the writer-artist team have perhaps a little more breathing space to work with on future issues (this first issue feels as if it was very much produced under a rather tight time schedule), what follows will hopefully be less of a bumpy ride.

Because the basic concept is a decent one; a group of superhumans who work behind the scenes to combat various threats, as opposed to the more public actions of more conventional superheroes.  You also have an appropriately over-the-top threat for our heroes to face (the Moon is attacking the Earth).  It may well still wind up paling when compared to Warren Ellis's classic run on the title (which was one of the best superhero team books ever, and quite frankly was far better than the Authority which followed it), but taken on it's own it should hopefully be an enjoyable enough title to read.  I'll be sticking with this through the initial storyline, hoping that the problems that show themselves here will be smoothed out over time.

Elric: The Balance Lost #3 (of 4) (Boom!, $3.99, Chris Roberson, Francesco Biagini) - Wait, this is a four issue mini, right?  Because while the various disparate plot threads are moving along at a decent pace, if there's only one more issue to wrap things up then quite frankly I can't see how it's not going to come off as rushed.  Also, Eric Beck, our new aspect of the Eternal Champion (and really, 'The Eternal Champion' would have been a better title for this story, given that Elric is only one character of many here) is still something of an annoying git, and I don't really anticipate that changing too much in a naturalistic manner with only one more issue to go.  That's a shame, because the non-Beck portions of Roberson's story are entertaining, and Biagini's art does everything asked of it, and then some.  I just hope I'm wrong, and that Roberson ties everything up smoothly, and can avoid the problems with the resolution that I'm unfortunately anticipating.

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