Wednesday, 4 July 2012

Review: Avengers Vs X-Men - Round 7

Avengers Vs X-Men - Round 7 By Aaron / Bendis / Brubaker / Fraction / Hickman / Coipel

'No More Avengers' - not quite the game changing statement of intent that it was clearly intended to be, but Cyclops' proclamation at the end of the previous issue certainly upped the ante to a considerable degree. Those expecting a similarly aggressive seventh issue are likely to left disappointed however - despite no shortage of action and bloodshed, this is a relatively tame issue as far as genuine shock and intrigue go.

This is certainly a series that has lived up to its rather confrontational title, and this issue carries on gamely. Fraction's script does feature its fair share of conversation inbetween the riotous action, but it feels a little as though it is merely filling the space before fight scenes that are beginning to feel inevitable. To his credit though, Fraction does manage to fit in a good amount of characterisation into his script, some of it fairly subtle. Cyclops has been the stand out character so far, and continues to straddle a fine line between strangely likeable anti hero and reprehensible arch-villain. It is to the writers credit that they have managed to portray him in such a nuanced way, and transform one of the Marvel Universe's most iconic heroes into arguably its most memorable antagonist in recent years.

Indeed, at this stage the mutant side of the battle are emerging as a far more interesting group of characters. The Avengers are all characterised well enough here - and Black Panther's mid issue outburst was certainly a surprise - but they do not excite in the same way, and there is little to suggest that they will be as affected by the events of this series as the mutants will. Many of the ideas being introduced seem a little half baked, and are not being given the attention that they probably merit.

Another competent issue, but a predictably disjointed one. Fraction's script is decent but his pacing feels strange, and he struggles to create any sense of intrigue or interest in the Avengers role in the story. Cyclops is still stealing the show, but few other characters are shining, and despite brief hints to the contrary it seems that the majority of development will be occuring in the series' many tie ins. A shame, as the premise of the plot is still sound and deserves more than the skeletal story that we appear to be getting.


Tuesday, 3 July 2012

Review: The Amazing Spider-Man

Whether fairly or not, much of the clamour surrounding the Amazing Spider-Man has been focused on questioning it. Was the revamped costume a good idea? Would Spider-Man's iconic origin story remain intact? And perhaps most importantly, should the film even exist? Perhaps a slightly melodramatic phrasing, but a more than valid musing. A full reboot of the Spider-Man movie franchise just a decade after it was launched is a drastic step, even if Spider-Man 3 was something of a disappointment and Sam Raimi's plans for Spider-Man 4 reeked of a director being let a little too far off his leash.

An unfortunate by-product of its close proximity to Raimi's trilogy is that it is very difficult to judge Marc Webb's follow up on its own merits. Every storytelling choice and character is automatically placed under the microscope, and it has to be said that they do not measure up particularly well. Spider-Man's origin is intact here despite suspicion that Webb would opt against yet another retelling, and he adds little of note to the iconic story first told in Amazing Fantasy #15. There are tweaks - and a couple are likely to annoy some hardcore fans - but there is nothing earthshattering here. The film's cast is a real mixed bag too. Martin Sheen manages to breathe life into the somewhat temporary role of 'Uncle' Ben Parker, but Sally Field is forgettable as Aunt May - arguably one of the most important members of Spider-Man's supporting cast. Denis Leary is the pick of the bunch as hard-nosed Captain George Stacy, and his character arc is the strongest of the film, even when set against the surprisingly impressive Chris Zylka, who plays bully with a heart of gold 'Flash' Thompson.

Of the leads, Emma Stone has already managed to surpass Kirsten Dunst as love interest of choice and is very impressive, managing to add depth to a character whose comic incarnation is often accused of being one note. Andrew Garfield gives a curious performance - he seems more at ease as wise cracking, light hearted Spider-Man than Toby Maguire ever was, yet seems uncomfortable as Peter Parker, and fails to give the character the meekness and humility that defined his early years. Playing opposite him Rhys Ifans is surprisingly bland as Curt Connors, and his scaly, villainous alter ego is equally uninspired. His links to Peter's parents are interesting, but never explored enough - although this is of course something very much left open ended.

Perhaps Webb's greatest weakness as a director is his unwillingness to use some of the strongest aspects of the source material. Jonah Jameson is absent, and although attempts are made to transpose his character onto George Stacy they are never quite successful and are curtailed by the end. In fact, aside from a very brief cameo the Daily Bugle is entirely ignored, despite a bizarre desire to emphasise Peter's interest in photography. Potential material for a sequel, maybe, but it feels strange within the context of the film. Aunt May's role is severely limited too, and while Norman Osborn is mentioned a couple of times, his son Harry is  never mentioned, and is really missed as a 'buddy' for Peter.

While it may seem unfair to hold this reboot of the franchise up against Sam Raimi's original trio of films, it is impossible not to, and when judged by their merits it is difficult to look at this opening salvo particularly positively. Its script is patchy, with average dialogue, some of which seems written for the trailer. Yes, some of the action sequences work well and feature solid choreography, but it seems redundant with such a weak choice of villain. The Lizard seems to borrow heavily from both Doctor Octopus and the Green Goblin, while retaining none of their visual splendour, depth, or superb casting. Even Peter Parker feels off colour, with an attitude that is hardly in keeping with his comic book counterpart. The Amazing Spider-Man is not a disaster, nor is it too much of a misstep for the franchise. It can however be improvement upon, and should be in time for the inevitable sequel.


Wednesday, 27 June 2012

Review: Spider-Men #2

Spider-Men #2 By Bendis / Pichelli 

That's Spider-MEN, not Spider-MAN. Over a decade since its high profile launch, Marvel have finally decided to published a crossover between the 'Ultimate' re imagining of the Marvel Universe, and the regular one that we all know and love. And as the character who launched the line, not to mention one who is currently celebrating his 50th anniversary, what better choice of star than Spider-Man. After last months issue one proved to be more prelude than full fledged instalment, this issue moves the story considerably forward, as we are treated to an extended meeting of Peter Parker and his alternate Universe replacement Miles Morales.

Characters who should be allies fighting over a simple misunderstanding is so common in superhero comics at this point that it is pretty much a trope, and with this in mind it is hardly surprising that the two 'Spider-Men's first meeting ultimately resulted in such a thing. Peter and Miles' duel in this issue does feel perfunctory and a little unnecessary, but it is good fun nonetheless and a logical way of bringing the two characters together. Miles' eventual victory over Peter could be classed as a little unrealistic, but given Peter's confusion it seems fair enough. The rest of the issue was just as believable, and I thought that Peter's gradual realisation as to his surroundings was handled very well.

The plot of this series remains a little murky however. Mysterio's involvement is a plus, and so far his Ultimate incarnation has been handled with aplomb, yet his place in the issue seems to guarantee the sort of enigmatic plotting that can lead to frustrating among readers. The excitement around Peter's entry into the Ultimate Universe is enough to sustain interest for the time being, but a more substantial narrative will be required in later issues. While Bendis' characterisation is very solid throughout, this issue also feels lacking in a little heart at times. Although once again, this will surely come to fruition later in the series, in these early issues it would have been pleasing to display a little more emotional response from the characters, even if it is only hinted at. 

These are both minor nitpicks though, and for the most part this is an encouraging issue after what felt like a half baked opening chapter. Bendis' script is smart, Pichelli's artwork is glossy and dynamic, and the plot is capably maintaining a constant air of intrigue. This is not a series anywhere near approaching classic status yet, but this second part feels like a solid foundation to build on.


Saturday, 23 June 2012

Retro Review: Starman Volume 1: Sins of the Father

Starman: Sins of the Father collects Starman (Volume 2) #0-5  By Robinson / Harris 

One of the hallmarks of the D.C Universe, and one of the major distinctions that sets it apart from its Marvel counterpart is the relatively commonplace nature of 'legacy' heroes. For the uninitiated, a legacy hero is a shorthand way of describing a new, generally younger, character taking on an already existing superhero mantle, often one which they already have some sort of pre-existing familial link to. The overarching theme of this collection may be one that is typical to the classic D.C Universe, but its narrative content and overall style could not be further from the norm. Jack Knight, the son of the Starman of the Golden age, is the star of  the series, but he is a staunchly atypical hero, and a broadly conflicted character. Knight is very much a reluctant occupant of the Starman mantle, and constantly feels the pressure of the two men in his family to previously go by the name - his father Ted Knight, and brother David. In many ways Jack is the archetypal everyman - he is a hero not by choice but by necessity and constantly rails at the effects that his 'secret' identity has upon his otherwise comfortable, if slightly jumbled existence.

That isn't to say that this is a storyline entirely without classic superheroics, and to be fair it does have its fair share of action, but framed against a backdrop that has much more in common with the real world than even the grittiest superhero epics of the modern day. Tony Harris' pencils and Wade Von Grawbadgers excellent, distinctive inks are both cartoony and understated, creating a style that effortlessly blends the fantastic with the flawed, often unattractiveness wrinkles of reality. There are ridiculous, over the top, overpowered characters and magical, unexplainable objects - the enigmatic Shade for example, or the mysterious Hawaiian shirt with a terrible secret - and they are made all the more fantastical by their presence in a world that never seems anything less than real.

Despite the whimsical, Golden Age character that this series borrows its name from, this collection is as close to a 'real world' take on a superhero as you are likely to see. This is a hero without a real costume, powers of his own, or the sort of heroic posturing that defined the likes of Captain America and Superman when they were first created. Jack Knight is a truly unique creation and it is his characterisation, not to mention the vibrant, realistic world that James Robinson and his art team create, that make this collection such a joy to read. Sins of the Father is a rough diamond, and by no means the perfectly crafted epic that something like Watchmen or Sandman can claim to be, but a fantastic read nonetheless and an inspiring opening to the series.


Wednesday, 20 June 2012

Review: Avengers Vs X-Men: Round 6

A VS X Round 6 By Aaron / Bendis / Brubaker / Fraction / Hickman / Coipel / Morales 

At its exact halfway point Avengers Vs X-Men finally appears to be springing into life. That's not to say that the opening handful of issues were particularly bad, more that they seemed affected by the same malaise that afflicts most of Marvel's recent attempts at 'epic' event storytelling. The story was a little too disjointed to be entirely satisfying, and despite the large scope I had my doubts about the lasting impact that it would have. Those doubts have not been entirely banished, but this issue combined with the previous issue's cliffhanger have done a lot to restore my faith in what had been a vaguely flagging series.

Jonathan Hickman scripts this issue and does a solid job. His dialogue is among the best that the series have seen and the pacing, while not perfect, is fine. From the off there is a real sense of scale and impact here, put across in a more natural way than the rather forced nature of some of the earlier aspects of the plot that hinted at such things. Cyclops' conversation with Xavier feels like a real tipping point for the character and, to borrow an overused phrase from Marvel's marketing department, it seems as though nothing will ever be the same. Cyclops was once a character most frequently described as dull - it seems unlikely that such criticisms will hold much weight after this series has reached completion. It is true of course that there have been past attempts at granting the character a more 'edgy' nature - most notably by the pen of Grant Morrison - but not have felt as final as this one. Cyclops' villainous turn feels both weighty and entirely natural, and really works for the character.

As his character takes centre stage, it feels inevitable that the rest of the cast will be shunted to one side. This does give this issue less variety than what is typically on show in an event title, but it is not necessarily a bad thing and gives the plot a more cohesive feel. It is not all the Cyclops show though, and although Hope's characterisation is still failing to grab me I was pleased to see Beast given something significant to do, even if it seemed slightly gratuitous to the issue's wider plot.

Oliver Coipel takes over on art duties from John Romita Jr, and puts in some impressive work, ably assisted by Mark Morales on inks. Coipel's style lacks the idiosyncrasies that characterise Romita's style, and while his work is a little plainer and more lacking in atmosphere, it is polished and consistent throughout. Some of his storytelling is a little patchy but on the whole this is a great looking comic book.

Despite the encouraging steps that seem to have been taken with this issue, I can almost feel the writer's hands looming over the reset button. Cyclops' sweeping promised changes to the world are exciting and genuinely interesting, but feel temporary at best. His threat at the issue's close also feels a little empty, although it should make for an action packed second half to the series. In many ways this is the issue that I have been hoping for since day one, but I am still not fully convinced that it will be enough to make for the classic story that this series should have produced.


Thursday, 31 May 2012

Review: Wolverine and the X-Men #11

Wolverine and the X-Men #11 By Aaron / Bradshaw 

Perhaps more than anything else, the best way of judging a series on the up is in the way that it handles a crossover. Far from shying away from slotting this title into a much bigger conflict, Jason Aaron has managed to deliver yet another solid instalment in its tie in with Avengers Vs X-Men. After a couple of months of umming and aahing, this issue finally sees Wolverine and the X-Men joining the conflict proper, the X-Men team taking on the Avengers while Wolverine helps Hope to escape from Earth's Mightiest Heroes. Although the issue's dramatic conclusion has already been played out in the core Avengers Vs X-Men series, this issue does an admirable job of revealing the thinking behind Wolverine's decision.

While the core series, at times comes across as a somewhat slapdash, unsubstantial read, it is issues like this that do a better job of sketching out the character beats behind the - admittedly somewhat sluggish - action sequences that have punctuated the crossover so far. It is the sequences that pander to the main series that come across as weakest though, and even a writer as talented as Jason Aaron struggles to make the superhero brawls of this issue particularly interesting. What appears to be the crossover's selling point - The Avengers taking on the X-Men - has become diluted and fails to grab the imagination at roughly the story's halfway point.

It is predictably in the characterisation that Aaron really shines, and as with the rest of the series he manages to balance out the cast relatively evenly. Wolverine takes centre stage, but that is to be expected and Aaron does manage to put a newish spin on a character who is all too often reduced to little more than a poorly fleshed out caricature. Even if his decision at the end of the issue has already been spoiled, by providing the logic behind it Aaron manages to make it feel fresh and interesting.

Nick Bradshaw takes over from Chris Bachalo on art duties once more, and impresses more than in his previous stints on the series. His style lacks the abstract qualities of Bachalo's work, but is much clearer and easier to follow. His layouts are more strictly regimented too, but once again this makes for an plot that is simpler to read than some of Bachalo's more obtrusive efforts.

When left to its own devices this is an issue that shines and it is only when it gets too bogged down in the wider mechanics of the crossover that it becomes a little tiresome. Even when taken simply as a regular issue in this series though this issue manages to work surprisingly well, and even benefits from the weighty, epic nature that the storyline has been given. Solid work.


Friday, 25 May 2012

Why Did The Spider-Man: Reboot Fail? Part 20: Villains Galore

The Amazing Spider-Man (Volume 2) #17 By Mackie / Byrne / Green
Peter Parker: Spider-Man (Volume 2) #17 By Mackie / Romita Jr / Hanna 

Remember the Sinister Six's return a handful of issues ago? Not the most memorable of stories but set against the rest of the Spider-titles post-reboot output, certainly a decent one. This loose two parter serves as a follow up or sorts, showing a royally pissed off Venom out for vengeance against his former team-mates.

Mackie's script begins with the Sinister Six's de-facto leader - The Sandman - who is decomposing after Venom took a bite out of him in the previous issue. There is something genuinely touching about his plight, although Paul Jenkins does a better job of dealing with it in a later issue. As the Sandman pledges to kill Mysterio, blaming his ex-team mate for his situation, the scene changes and we check in on Peter, who is on his way to a job interview. Glory Grant's appearance was a welcome surprise and it is always good to see Peter's friends looking to help him out. On his way to the interview - somewhat inevitably - Peter's moral code gets in the way, and after helping a mother rescue her baby from the bars of his own cot (yes, really) he is accidently implicated in a drugs raid on her apartment. The scene reads slightly improbably, but is genuinely quite amusing.

 Peter's captors are soon distracted by the appearance of the Sandman, who is making a nuisance of himself, gradually falling apart as he goes. After escaping and changing into his costume Peter sets off after him, before they chance upon Mysterio and Electro in an abandoned warehouse, the pair having become something of a double act. Sandman reveals that he wants Mysterio dead, as the master of illusion was the one who convinced him to allow Venom a place on the team. A brief fight ensues, before Spider-Man pulls the ceiling down on them, rushing Sandman out of the warehouse in the process and leaving him to the police. The final page reveals that, against all odds Peter managed to turn up to his interview on time, although his potential employers have already decided that he is overqualified for the position. That old Parker luck eh?

The second part follows directly on, with a well again Mysterio and Electro resolving to take down Venom before he gets the chance to attack them. Mysterio leaves and, somewhat coincidentally Venom attacks, setting upon Electro and defeating him embarrassingly quickly, in the space of just two panels. After leaving him cowering on the ground Venom leaves, with his dialogue indicating that he may have left him for dead. Although Mackie leaves his fate ambiguous, and he did eventually return, it seems an inauspicious way to treat such a powerful villain, particularly after Spider-Man's ominous (and ultimately pointless) comments about Electro being powered up in the previous issue.

The scene moves to Peter Parker, who is engaged in an awkward conversation with Jonah Jameson, the Daily Bugle head honcho still refusing to print his photos of Spider-Man. The scene reads slightly oddly, with Jonah behaving in decidedly odd fashion. It has an unsettling effect, which I suppose is kind of the point, but it doesn't quite work, with Jameson's actions coming across as mindlessly enigmatic, and Peter making a buffoon of himself. We are treated to a brief interlude, where Kraven having heard of Venom's activities, decides that he will take the fight to the villainous alien symbiote - using Spider-Man as bait! As Peter leaves the Daily Bugle he runs into Robbie, who is arguing with his son 'Randy', who it is revealed has recently gone through a divorce and moved back to New York. Robbie tries to give Peter money but he turns it down and leaves. Once again, it is good to see Peter's friends helping him out. Randy's role in the scene also works well as foreshadowing for a later plot development.

Later, while swinging across the city Spidey is caught by a poison tipped dart, and captured by Kraven. It seems a disarmingly simple way of taking him out, but we'll run with it. Spidey is strung up as bait, and Venom appears shortly (and conveniently) after. Venom is not taken in by Kraven's ruse, and the pair run off to fight, leaving Spider-Man to free himself. After interrupting the fight he tricks Venom into trapping himself in the middle of a ring of fire, before Kraven idiotically bursts through and attempts to kill the symbiote. Spider-Man intervenes, taking down Kraven while letting Venom escape. The scene's conclusion is outrageously nonsensical - after being defeated by a roll of flaming up newspaper in the previous issue, Venom is shown here walking through A WALL OF FLAME with no ill effects. It makes literally no sense, as far as I can see. The issue concludes with Peter returning to his apartment only to find that he has been evicted. Once again - that old Parker luck eh?

It is always fun to see Spidey's rogues gallery show up, and in that respect this two parter works well. The Sinister Six are all visually striking foes (although Electro's new costume is very bland) and they generally look great here. Ultimately though, the story doesn't really work. None of the villain's motivations are particularly strong and it quickly devolves into everyone trying to kill each other with Spider-Man stuck in the middle. Mysterio and Electro's connection is poorly defined and never mentioned again, and Sandman's initially heartbreaking circumstances are undermined by his perplexing desire to kill Mysterio. Mackie's dialogue is largely uninspired too, and does little to convince.

The 'Parker luck' theme is beginning to feel overdone as well. Although it is, to some extent, a hallmark of the character it has felt like overkill in recent issues, and Peter's personal life has become an unrelenting stream of misery. While it is nice to see his supporting cast looking out for him, it is beginning to feel a little samey and depressing.

The artwork is a mixed bag. John Byrne's pencils are predictably erratic, with some nice renditions of the characters mixed in with some lacklustre panels and missing backgrounds. Even Romita Jr's usually reliable artwork feels off form, and is a little too sketchy for my liking in patches. His Venom seems to have changed too, and taken on a more wiry physique with absolutely huge hands. It doesn't really work for me.

Although this is, on some levels, a fun, action packed couple of issues, it is unable to boast an intriguing plot, believable characters or witty dialogue. There is nothing irredeemably awful about this two parter, it just doesn't really work on any conceivable level.