Saturday, 31 December 2011

Review of 2011

As with every year, it feels like it has come around twice as quickly as before, but nonetheless, we are on the cusp of 2012, and hence a whole new year in the world of comic books. 2011 was an up and down year for comics, but will personally always be a year that I remember as the one that I started to regularly buy D.C comic books. I had often previously picked up titles as collected editions, but had always stuck to Marvel for single issues, a peculiar quirk of them being the company that got me into comic books. D.C's 'New 52' initiative seemed a great place to jump on, and I have not been disappointed in the five titles that I am picking up. For the first time ever D.C are challenging Marvel on my pull list and it actually feels great, despite some misplaced brand loyalty initially making me uneasy about it.

 Either way, despite more mixed fortunes than their rivals there has been much to cheer for Marvel too. Fear Itself flopped but Daredevil's relaunch under Mark Waid has earned widespread critical acclaim and was recently voted CBR's best ongoing of 2011. Ultimate Spider-Man has shot back to the top of many people's reading lists through the unexpected death of Peter Parker, and introduction of Miles Morales as his replacement. And of course lets not forget the Avengers titles, which after an underwhelming 18 months have rapidly improved in the second half of 2011. With D.C's relaunch still firing on all cylinders and Marvel's Avengers vs X-Men event Amazing Spider-Man's 'Ends of the Earth' storyline on the horizon too, there is much to expect from both companies in 2012. But who was I most impressed with in 2011? Read on to find out...

Best Single Issue: I, Vampire #1 by Joshua Hale Fialkov and Andrea Sorrentino 
I picked up the first issue of I, Vampire completely on a whim, amid the hype and bluster created by the D.C relaunch. In truth it is not the sort of series that I usually go for - I was burned out on vampires before Twilight, and horror has never really been my thing. In the space of a single issue however, Joshua Hale Fialkov and Andrea Sorrentino hooked me on Andrew and Mary Bennet's story. Because that's what the series is - the story of two starcrossed lovers who just happen to be vampires. One of them relentlessly bloodthirsty. Sorrentino's beautiful art completed what for me, was the best single issue of 2011.

Best Character: Miles Morales
Given the monumental pressure on his shoulders, it is a huge surprise that Miles Morales has even begun to live up to it. Peter Parker's replacement as Ultimate Spider-Man, his story has barely begun to get going yet, but Bendis has already managed to invest me in his character. Somewhat more unassuming than the bespectacled Peter Parker, Morales is shy, humble, but above all possesses obvious heroic quality. The decision to make him a thirteen year old boy was a brave move but has so far paid off, giving his character a unique slant. Miles Morales could yet be the biggest hit in what has been a career full of them for Brian Michael Bendis.

Best Villain: Norman Osborn
There are many who disagree with Norman Osborn's ascent into being an adversary shared by the whole Marvel Universe, as opposed to just Spider-Man. Formerly the alias of the Green Goblin, Osborn has been Spider-Man's greatest foe for decades, and I would agree that it is a shame that he rarely appears within the pages of Amazing Spider-Man anymore. Those feelings, however, are tempered by the fact that he appears such a natural fit to be a universe wide threat. Osborn is ruthless, cunning, and clinically insane, and his appearances in both Avengers and New Avengers towards the end of the year have turned both into must-read titles.

Best Story-Arc: Who is Jake Ellis? (#1-5) by Nathan Edmonson and Zoran Taljic
I have no doubt that quite a few people will not have heard of Nathan Edmonson's breakout success, and in fact the series was brought to my attention almost by accident. This does not change the fact that Edmonson, along with artist Tonci Zonjic are responsible for what has been the most gripping, exciting and most importantly original arc of 2011. Edmonson's plot oozes cinematic quality, helped ably by Taljic's moody yet cartoony artwork. I have no doubt that both will be names to watch in 2012.

Best Comic Book Series: Animal Man
One of the most pleasing things about the D.C reboot so far has been its capacity for getting me involved in series' and characters that I previously had only the most cursory of knowledge. Animal Man is one such title, initially made popular by Grant Morrison in the late 1980's and experiencing something of a resurgance of late. Despite my ignorance I heard good things about Jeff Lemire's reboot, and was far from disappointed. Lemire's take on the character is creepy ahead of all else, a style matched by Trevor Foreman's sketchy, macabre style of artwork. Foreman is something of an acquired taste, but his pencils give the plot an edge that they may not be there under a more conventional artist. Lemire is sowing the seeds for an epic story but the core plot is still moving along nicely and the series manages to be a well rounded read each and every month.

Best Writer: Brian Michael Bendis
Brian Michael Bendis is a writer who, perhaps more than most, has to contend with a number of detractors. It's true that since being elevated to the upper echelons of comic book writers, his work has not always been  as good as it could have been. His event books have often flattered to deceive, and despite several high points his run on Avengers has been uneven. Despite this, 2011 will have been a year to remember for Bendis. His relaunch of Ultimate Spider-Man has been outstanding so far, and the Avengers titles have been firing on all cylinders since their disappointing Fear Itself tie ins earlier in the year. Bendis plans to leave the franchise late next year, and all signs point to the superstar writer going out with a bang.

Best Artist: Daniel Acuna
Despite loving his style, Daniel Acuna's work has often flown under my radar. With his Avengers issues however, I have finally got a chance to sample the Spanish artist's work, and what a treat it has been! Acuna's style is distinctive, and though I would not instantly put it down as a suitable one for a conventional superhero book, he copes admirably well with action sequences despite his dreamlike style often coming across as more static than particularly dynamic. While Bendis' scripts on Avengers have been suitable solid, Acuna's artwork has made the book in recent issues. I hope to see more of him in 2012.

That's all for now from me, thanks a lot to everyone for reading! Be here in 2012 for more on my series on 'Why The Spider-Man Reboot Failed'. Most importantly perhaps, I hope each and every one of you have a happy and fulfilling new year. Live long and prosper.

Friday, 30 December 2011

I, Vampire #4

I, Vampire #4 by Fialkov / Sorrentino

The irony of the D.C reboot is mainly found in the fact that its most successful titles aren't as well represented by sales as they could be. I, Vampire sums up the problem - Joshua Hale Fialkov and Andrea Sorrentino are crafting an epic, slow burning story, the tragedy being that not enough people are reading it. One of the most pleasing facets of the story has been Fialkov's willingness to use established D.C characters, with a scattering of  references to Batman in previous issues and John Constantine's star billing in this weeks #4.

Although some of the wider plot threads continue to drift along, for the most part this is a done in one story about a 'vampire' and his struggle to control his ability. Constantine's appearance was a somewhat obvious move for the title, but he is more than welcome and Fialkov writes him with unexpected verve and confidence. For those unfamiliar with the character he is well introduced, without any intimidating info-dumps and plays a refreshingly pivotal role in the story. The plot, while being simple is rendered well, and its central figure is once again introduced effectively in a limited timespan, Fialkov forging the sort of emotional connection with the reader that often takes several issues of development. One gripe would be the lack of last issues newly introduced supporting cast - I thoroughly enjoyed them and was hoping for more this issue. I also expected the story to have developed a little further at this point, although Fialkov's measured style is one of the stronger aspects of his work. Andrea Sorrentino's work is once again, simply beautiful, atmospheric and haunting. The book looks superb and has a style to it that many top tier titles would do well to learn from.

I, Vampire still isn't flashy, colourful, or particularly gimmicky, but it certainly fits into a niche not otherwise occupied in the world of comic books - despite its somewhat done to death subject matter. It won't be for everyone, but Fialkov and Sorrentino look to be crafting the sort of storyline that deserves a lengthy run to match its obvious scope.


Thursday, 22 December 2011

Why Did The Spider-Man Reboot Fail: Part Five - And Here, My Troubles Begin...

Amazing Spider-Man #3 by Mackie / Byrne / Hanna

Peter Parker: Spider-Man #3 by Mackie / Romita Jr. / Hanna

Surprisingly enough, Amazing Spider-Man's second issue was a decent enough story in its own right. Sure, it had the same faults that have plagued the rest of the reboot, but at its core it was a solid slice of superhero action, with a cool villain. A good conclusion to the story may have kickstarted what was already a somewhat disappointing start for the rebooted Spider-Man titles. Unfortunately what we were ultimately given fell a little short of the mark...

Amazing Spider-Man #3 follows on from the end of #2, with Peter Parker (now as Spider-Man) exiting the scene while handily recapping the events of the previous issue. He also forgets that the Spider-Man costume that he is wearing doesn't have webshooters and falls to earth in embarassing fashion. Oops.

We then get an origin for our intriguing new villain, Shadrac, as his shadowy master reveals that he is Override, a pre-reboot villain who took part in the Gathering of Five ceremony in an attempt to save his dying wife. The ceremony held five possible outcomes - one being power, but Override ultimately received death, a 'reward' that appears to have transformed him into Shadrac, a ghoul like character. The shadowy figure reveals himself to be Dolman, the previous owner of one of the five shards required to perform the ceremony, who is now on a quest to recapture the shard. Or something. If it sounds boring and convoluted, it's because it is. I could feel my brain turning to mush just typing it out. Override was actually a very interesting character before the reboot, but loses a lot of his depth as Shadrac. His dying wife seems abruptly forgotten about, and he simply becomes an anguished pawn of Dolman's and an essentially useless character, cool design or not. This is the point where the arc begins to go off the rails.

Mackie switches the scene to Peter Parker, who has stopped off at Tricorp to pick up some webshooters, that he has inexplicably stashed at his place of work. It seems like an awkward way of squeezing Tricorp into the story, which isn't actually a particularly bad thing given how irregularly Peter's new job was mentioned later on. Peter runs into resident A-hole Javier who tries to rope him into viewing an 'exciting' new project. Unfortunately Peter is forced to leave to track Shadrac, much to the disappointment of his new boss. While Mackie obviously has the best of intentions with the scene, it reads very irritatingly. The balance between being Spider-Man and having a real life has always been a fundemantal aspect of the character, but it comes across as forced  here, and far too early to show Peter letting down his new employers. He comes across as a bit of a jerk, even if he does have the best of intentions in mind.

Shadrac and Dolman continue to look for the shard, but are interrupted by Spider-Man and Iceman (?). Dolman is revealed to be in complete control of poor Shadrac, but is nowhere to be found as Spider-Man and Iceman take on the beleaguered villain. Iceman's appearance is completely inexplicable, he seems to have been placed in the story purely for the visual of his ice against Shadrac's fire. It makes some wonky sense, but isn't explained very well and after a few pages of enjoyable enough tussling, Iceman literally freezes Shadrac in a block of ice.

The story continues in #3 of Peter Parker: Spider-Man (not #2, confusingly enough. We'll get to that next time). Here, Mackie takes the interesting step of recounting the plot through the eyes of a handful of innocent   bystanders, the idea being that Betty Brant and Jonah Jameson are trying to piece together the events so as to include them in a story. The idea is neat but doesn't really work, it ends up being fairly annoying having to see the events of the conclusion second hand, it doesn't help that Mackie's dialogue is sort of clunky too. I think that the idea would have worked more effectively in the middle part of the storyline. MJ being interviewed about Spider-Man was a nice idea though, and she is written very convincingly. It's always nice to see her showing up at this stage, even if it is a cameo.

Anyway, various bystanders guide us through what is a very formulaic story, as Shadrac breaks free and runs off the pawn shop owned by yet another person to take part in the Gathering of Five ceremony. Spidey and Iceman follow, but somehow allow him to build up a significant lead over them, despite the fact that they should both probably be quicker than him. Never mind. They eventually track Shadrac through a sewer, bringing them to an underground cavern, where he is revealed to have kidnapped the pawnbroker, with Dolman joining the two of them in some sort of bizarre ritual. The characters keep talking about preventing Dolman making contact with 'the spindle' but it's unclear what it is. It's also unclear why the pawnbroker needs to be there, Dolman refers to him having the spindle, and having hidden it somewhere in the crevice but it's all very sloppily explained. I'm not sure why Dolman couldn't have just gone to the pawnbroker himself without involving Shadrac, particularly as it's already been established that he can control the holders of of the other shards. At several points reading this story it feels like I've missed a few pages somewhere along the line.

Anyway, Dolman starts suddenly getting really powerful - again its unclear why - giving off lots of yellow crackly energy and levitating a couple of feet off the ground. Who knows what he actually plans to do with this power, he is a really poorly defined character. The next few pages are a total mess, as Dolman seems to cause the cavern to collapse around them and the other characters sort of...flail around a bit. Eventually Shadrac leaps at Dolman and thrusts his arms into his chest, revealing that if he can't stop him as Shadrac, maybe he can as Override. No, I don't know what he means either. There is a big explosion and Spider-Man and Iceman run away, pawnbroker in tow.

The final civilian - a hobo - finishes telling the story to Jameson and sneaks off when Spidey and Iceman show up, neither of whom can remember seeing a hobo on the scene. When he is alone, he removes his hood and reveals himself to be.. Dolman! And Shadrac, the two of them having somehow merged. He slinks off into an alley, and is never seen again.

This was a really poor end to what had started off as a promising story. The involvement of the Gathering of Five was completely unnecessary - apart from revealing what happened to a couple of characters - and feels tacked on. Mattie Franklin is completely forgotten about, after the first couple of pages of Amazing #3. I have no doubt that she will appear again, but it feels pretty jarring. Peter being back as Spider-Man doesn't really have the impact that I thought it would either.

Shadrac was a decent enough villain who became completely pointless by the stories end. As I said earlier, Override was a good character and seems to have been totally ruined. As I keep pointing out, he does have a cool design but that doesn't make up for his failings in every other respect. Dolman is an atrocious villain with no motivations or personality to speak of. Mackie does make a half hearted attempt to give him a British accent, but it adds nothing to the character and he is very very weak throughout. Iceman's presence was pointless, and he really added nothing to the story apart from being able to cover Shadrac in ice - which ultimately never achieved anything. The pawnbroker's also seems pretty superfluous, and does very little. He only actually appears in a handful of panels - again, what was the point?

It pains me to say it, but this was a total failure of a storyline. Mackie seemed to have good intentions, dealing with the ramifications from the Gathering of Five, but nothing is properly explained or resolved. Dolman/Shadrac never appeared again, and it is easy to see why. The story is a convoluted mess. Byrne's art on part 2 is excellent, and makes the story somewhat readable, but Romita Jr.'s work on the conclusion is less successful, often coming across as slightly muddled and sketchy. The artwork was enough to rescue the first two issues of the reboot, it unfortunately can't do the same here.


Wednesday, 21 December 2011

Review: Ultimate Comics: Spider-Man #5

Ultimate Comics: Spider-Man #5 by Bendis / Pichelli 

As is inevitable, the latest Ultimate Spider-Man relaunch was not short of naysayers. Poor old Miles Morales - the now deceased Peter Parker's replacement as Ultimate Spider-Man - was up against it from the start. Everything, from his age, to his race were placed under the closest of scrutiny, yet all the doubts seem to have been forgotten since the series itself actually started. Bendis has shattered all expectations with an opening that -  whisper it - may have reached the quality of his initial run on Ultimate Spider-Man. The series has been a slow burner thusfar, but with Miles finally in costume, the action amps up a notch with its fifth issue.

After meeting a none too pleased Spider-Woman at the close of #4, Miles is quickly brought into custody at the Triskellion, home to a justifiably suspicious Ultimates team. Miles is introduced to Nick Fury, and after its revealed that Fury is aware of Miles' uncle Aaron, their conversation is interrupted by Electro breaking himself out of custody. A brief fight scene ensues, as Electro takes down Iron Man, Hawkeye and Spider-Woman but Miles (aided by no small amount of luck) manages to subdue him and he is shot by Nick Fury. Miles appears to have proved himself, and at the issues close is finally awarded the nifty black costume that he has been sporting on the series' covers.

The series has been accused of severe decompression so far but although it's hardly silver age style storytelling, this issue does manage to fit in a pleasing amount of plot. Miles is introduced to the Ultimates, defeats a villain and is given his costume - and Bendis even manages to fit in a page or two dealing with his admittedly limited supporting cast. As ever, Miles is a likeable, if somewhat blank character and his reaction to meeting a group of world famous superheroes is suitably realistic. By the same token, it's fun seeing the Ultimates, although they were taken down a little too easily by Electro, a villain hardly among the big hitters of the Ultimate Universe. This brings me neatly onto my main complaint with the issue - despite it being fairly lucky, it seemed a little unbelievable, not to mention slightly predictable, that Miles would be able to defeat Electro where three of the world's premier superheroes failed. I had enjoyed seeing him built up as very much a rookie superhero, and he seems a little too competent in his fight scene with Electro.

That said, this is still a very enjoyable comic book. The subplot concerning Miles' uncle Aaron continues to be interesting and promises to be brought to the fore next issue. Sara Pichelli's art is as excellent as ever, although her handle on the Ultimates is not quite as strong as her version of Miles Morales has proved to be. The action seems a little static, but she does capture Electro's powers very well. This may not be the strongest issue of the titles relaunch, but it is still a good read, and carries on the momentum of what has, so far been a solid debut storyline.


Tuesday, 20 December 2011

Why Did The Spider-Man Reboot Fail: Part Four - Because Nobody Demanded It

Amazing Spider-Man (Vol.2) #2- by Mackie / Byrne / Hanna

If you've read my previous two entries, you may be surprised to hear that the debut issues of Amazing Spider-Man and Peter Parker: Spider-Man's second volumes weren't too bad. They were fairly dull, and had their flaws of course, but they were not complete failures. With the reboot's first multi-part story, writer Howard Mackie had the chance to tell a gripping, elaborate tale, and hook readers onto what had so far proved to be an underwhelming new direction for the two titles.

Mackie actually makes a solid enough start, and the first issue of this three parter is a decent enough story, perhaps the most enjoyable of the reboot so far. I complained in the previous part that the new Spider-Man lacked characterisation, and lo and behold! The first four pages of Amazing Spider-Man's second issue are given over to fleshing out 'his' character, as he stops a mugger. The scene is nothing special really, but it is interesting to get a glimpse into the character's head. The idea of a fan of Spider-Man replacing him is fairly obvious, but is played out well, and a character who I had complained of being unlikeable is made far more engaging in the space of a few pages. Very nice.

What follows, however is less pleasing, as Mackie gives us the latest in a series of 'stock scenes' that have plagued the reboot. The two scenes in question remind us of how young and in love Peter and Mary-Jane are , as well as looking in on Aunt May who is in typically irritating form. The scenes add literally nothing that we do not already know, save for a worrying early sign that Jill Stacy may 'like' Peter. The first step on the road to what eventually made a welcome supporting character into a loathsome presence in the titles. More on that soon, I'm sure.

The villain of the piece is then introduced, Shadrac - a shabby looking bandaged man in a long overcoat. His appearance is actually more interesting than the previous two villains to appear in the reboot, and although his personality is barely glimpsed, we are given a look at a 'mysterious figure in the background' who appears to be controlling him as he breaks into Osborn Industries (not Oscorp) demanding to see new CEO 'John Stone'.

The rest of the issue passes by more quickly. Peter is actually shown at his new place of work (take a picture), clearly the darling of his new colleagues. One of his co-workers, Javier, appears to be Tricorp's resident douche, and acts very off towards Peter for no apparent reason - although he does correctly guess that Peter has made a mistake in one of his calculations. The resulting explosion is quickly forgotten about as the team are relayed footage of Spider-Man and Shadrac dueling outside Osborn Industries. Presumably his meeting with John Stone didn't go so well. Conveniently enough Peter is required to head into the field to procure a DNA sample, and he promptly heads over there.

We are given another glimpse into the new Spider-Man's head as 'he' battles Shadrac, who after a few pages trading punches has his bandages torn off, revealing him to be a glowing skeleton-thing. It looks cooler than it sounds, honest. His design is probably the best thing about the character, particularly as he still doesn't have much of a personality to speak of. Shadrac beats up Spider-Man, before Peter Parker breaks his no-powers rule to carry him to safety. He unmasks him, and shock horror - he, is a her, a teenage girl to be precise. The new Spider-Man is revealed to be Mattie Franklin, a minor character from the much maligned Gathering of Five storyline, where she took part in the ceremony in question, in place of her father and received vaguely defined superpowers. She will not shut up either, and grates a lot in this scene. After glancing guiltily at a billboard of his wife, Peter changes into Mattie's conveniently stretchy costume, and swings off into action. That lasted long.

Despite how predictable it was, it is good to see Peter Parker back in costume, although the excitement quickly wears off. Much is done in the issue's early stages to endear the new Spider-Man to the reader, so in that respect it is a massive disappointment that she is written in such an irritating way after being unmasked. Ultimately there weren't any real clues as to the new Spider-Man's identity, and it is resolved too quickly to be a truly satisfying arc. On paper Mattie makes sense, but in practice she turned out to be a massive disappointment.

The bulk of this issue is fine though. Shadrac is a much more interesting adversary than the Ranger and the Scorpion, and although he isn't given much in the way of personality his design is very cool and makes for a fun fight scene. Byrne's artwork is once again excellent, and Mackie's pacing is very good. None of the scenes are particularly interesting in their own right, but the action zips along very nicely and this issue is certainly more exciting than the previous two. The links introduced in this story to the Gathering of Five storyline are somewhat less welcome. It was a dreadful, universally reviled story that did not even need to be told. Its presence here also makes the reboot's intentions seem very confused. Was it intended to be a clean break from the previous titles? If so then why reference them in just the third comic book to be released since the reboot. In any case, if they had to carry on pre-reboot storylines then there were far more interesting ones than the Gathering of Five. While this issue doesn't bode well for the future, it is actually an entertaining story in its own right. Nothing special of course, and still nothing to justify a character-wide reboot, but a fun enough start to what eventually turned out to be an abysmal story-arc.


Why Did The Spider-Man Reboot Fail: Part Three - The New Beginning, Again

Peter Parker: Spider-Man (Vol.2) #1 by Mackie / Romita Jr. / Hanna

So far, so mediocre. Howard Mackie's first issue of post-reboot Amazing Spider-Man was hardly a disaster, but failed to entirely capture the imagination. On his first issue of sister title Peter Parker: Spider-Man, Mackie teams up with John Romita Jr, the pair having recently joined forces on the titles successful first volume.

The first page sees Peter Parker standing, somewhat nervously over the body of a policeman, camera in the hand. Not an entirely thrilling way to start the issue, particularly given the promise of an interesting new career in the first issue of Amazing Spider-Man. It turns out that Peter is taking pictures of the new Spider-Man, who is clashing with a group of armored heavies calling themselves 'The Agents of Anarchy'. The group manage to break out a colleague of theirs known as 'The Ranger' from a nearby police van, and he promptly exits, with the new Spider-Man doing the same, albeit somewhat less gracefully. The scene is very brief, but it is mildly interesting to see Peter Parker taking pictures of someone else as Spider-Man. Mackie seems to be setting Spider-Man up as a bit of a klutz, and once again 'he' isn't shown to be much use at all. Mackie's dialogue is decent, apart from the few lines that the Ranger gets - they are all horribly hackneyed. Towards the end of the scene a Police Officer describes Peter as a 'kid' the second reference in two issues to his youth. It comes across as very forced and unnecessary, but isn't a major issue yet.

The scene shifts to the Daily Bugle, in a scene presumably intended to remind readers that everything is as it used to be. Jonah Jameson is on top form, actually rewriting Betty Brant's story to show the new webslinger in a bad light. Jameson's portrayal doesn't bother me as much as Aunt May's reversion to type in Amazing Spider-Man #1 - he does after all tend to be defined by his hatred for Spider-Man - but in context this seems to represent something of a worrying trend towards ignoring character development. The scene doesn't really accomplish anything apart from introducing Senator Stewart Ward, but it is good to see the Daily Bugle cast showing up. Peter and Betty also appear to be on good terms, a development that I have always liked.

The next scene is a brief interlude, as Stewart Ward is bombarded in his hotel room by spooky otherwordly messages, that appear to be reminding him of some past misdemeanor. It all comes across as a little to vague and wishy-washy to be immediately compelling, particularly given that we have barely been introduced to Ward as a character. The scene would have had more impact if he already had a strong presence in the stories, and ultimately comes across as a cheap way of making him an important character.

After a page of groan-inducing interaction between Peter and Aunt May, Mackie brings us over to JFK International airport, where MJ is returning from a modelling gig a few days early. Jill Stacy has joined Peter, which at this stage is a welcome move. Introducing Gwen Stacy's relatives was an inspired move on Mackie's part - they were an interesting addition to the pre-reboot supporting cast. MJ and Peter's reunion is fairly touching, if a little hammy, and is followed by Stewart Ward entering the scene, amid a wealth of publicity. Ward is promptly attacked by the Ranger, and the new Spider-Man enters the scene a page later, prompting a bit of obligatory soul searching from Peter. It is obviously nice to see him conflicted as to whether he should be helping out or not, but it seems slightly unbelievable that he would stand by and watch. Much of the tension is also alleviated by the knowledge that he will be Spider-Man again. It's easy to forget that he was a civillian just a couple of years earlier, when Ben Reilly was Spider-Man, so the development isn't that original, although the fact that he doesn't know who this Spider-Man is does put a unique spin on the idea. Spider-Man and the Ranger tussle for a few pages, and once again Spider-Man is defeated. It is realistic that the new Spider-Man would be somewhat less experienced, but it seems like Mackie is laying it on a little thick. The Ranger is after Stewart Ward for as yet unknown reasons, and keeps reminding him of 'the monster that he really is'. Once again, it isn't very engaging, particularly as there are no real clues yet as to 'what' exactly Ward is. As the Ranger is bearing down on his prey, Peter Parker enters the scene and lays a punch on him, serving as a distraction to allow Spider-Man to attack him from behind. He really unloads on the villain, hitting him several times until he is lying on the floor, before leaving. Peter remarks that he is 'like an embarrassed kid lashing out at a bully'. The issue ends with the Ranger being captured and Peter resolving to find out more about the connection between Ward and the Ranger.

Once again, this issue isn't a disaster - it is just a little dull. There are no strong emotional moments and only very basic characterisation. Mackie has a decent handle on Peter's voice and general character, but this should really be the minimum requirement for a Spider-Man writer, and it is frustrating seeing him not being in costume. The new Spider-Man is not particularly interesting as a character. Very few clues have been given as to 'his' true identity, and although seeing him lash out at the Ranger was pretty cool, the mystery around him seems a little forced.  The Ranger is simply a dull villain, boasting a bland design and fairly uninteresting powers. He isn't an awful choice, but more thought should have been given to the first villain after the title's reboot, particularly as he is a new character. His dialogue is atrocious throughout, and although it is implied that his intentions are more noble than a typical villain, the idea is half baked. John Romita's art lacks the mass appeal of John Byrne's, but his style has become synonymous with Spider-Man and he and Mackie seem to work well together. His action sequences carry a bit more weight than Byrne's, and overall there is little to choose from between the two artists. Both are solid choices for the relaunched titles.

This was slightly better than Amazing Spider-Man #1, but not by much. The art is solid, Mackie's script is slightly better and Aunt May doesn't grate quite as much. There is still little weight behind the story though, this feels like an average Spider-Man yarn rather than the event that a new #1 should be. The Ranger is an uninspired villain and the Stewart Ward subplot gets off to a relatively bland start. This is decent work from all concerned, but a minor failure as a first issue.


Monday, 19 December 2011

Why The Spider-Man Reboot Failed: Part Two - The Legend Reborn

The Amazing Spider-Man (Vol.2) #1  By Mackie / Byrne / Hanna 

The issue opens with the Human Torch investigating Spider-Man's disappearance. The Torch narrates the opening two pages, which serve as a fairly clunky way of getting new readers up to speed with the events of the past few months. Despite his severely workmanlike dialogue, The Human Torch's appearance is welcome, if a little random - he plays no significant part in the story and disappears from the title for a good few months. 

The story moves on to Peter Parker himself, enjoying a relaxing time at home with his newly returned Aunt. This scene is where the problems really set in. Peter's internal narration is constantly reminding us of how great his life is without the burden of being Spider-Man, which does not sit too well with his generally guilt ridden attitude. This isn't a major problem though -it is fairly obvious that he will be back in the webs before too long and it is actually fairly refreshing seeing Peter happy with his life for a change. My real issue with this scene is the way it deals with Aunt May. Peter's elderly aunt was a mainstay of the title for a numbers of years, but in all honesty was barely missed when she was deceased, and this issue does little to remind readers of what they were missing when she wasn't around. May's characterisation seems to have regressed entirely back to the Silver Age. She treats Peter like a child, dotes on him to the point of irritation and actually uses the phrase 'That horrible Spider-Man'. Years of character development appear to have been thrown out of the window for the sake of an unnecessary nostalgia trip. MJ shows up briefly and is revealed to have resumed her supermodel career, a fact touched on before the reboot. I don't have a problem with the development, and find it can actually make her a more interesting character. In this case she only appears very briefly though.

The issues villain is introduced shortly after, a revamped version of The Scorpion who seems to be causing trouble for the sake of it. His new design is solid, but somewhat lacking in inspiration and his motivations are pretty much non existent. The character tends to be at his most interesting when he is railing against his status as a 'freak', a facet that is barely touched on here. Betty Brant shows up taking pictures of the commotion, a welcome move on Mackie's part. It's always good to remind readers that Spider-Man has one of the healthiest supporting casts in comics, and its especially welcome seeing Betty being portrayed as strongly as ever. The 'new' Spider-Man is also introduced here, and gets 'his' clock cleaned by the Scorpion. It's easy to scoff at the character, but initially at least it was an intriguing enough idea, and one never really seen before in Spider-Man's history. Little is done to make the character immediately compelling but the mystery itself is fairly strong in its own right, underdeveloped as it may be. 

The action moves back to Peter Parker, who is across town at an interview for a seemingly lucrative position  at 'Tricorp' Industries. Once again, it's easy to scoff when you know where the plot will eventually end up, but initially it seems an intriguing move. It was hardly new, given that Peter had moved to Portland for a similar job just a couple of years ago, but it is more interesting than yet more Daily Bugle, beloved it as it is. Unfortunately Mackie fails to make the job, nor any of his potential co-workers interesting in the slightest. Great care has obviously been taken to make their appearances as diverse as possible, but they barely have a glimmer of personality between them. Anyway, The Scorpion appears and it emerges that he is after Peter.  After a brief tussle, the 'New Spider-Man' appears and a couple of pages of fisticuffs ensue, before Peter takes the villain down using his scientific acumen. Suffice it to say that Spider-Man exits, and Peter reveals to  Aunt May that he was given the job for 'thinking on his feet' in what is clearly intended as a heartwarming final page. 

The issue is not without its faults - as I have hopefully made clear. The Scorpion is hardly an exciting choice of villain and none of the new characters introduced are given much room to shine either. Mackie's dialogue ranges from adequate to horrible and Aunt May's characterisation is truly grim. Despite this, it isn't a complete failure as a debut issue. The identity of the new Spider-Man is relatively interesting, and makes up for the half baked mystery around the Scorpion's employers. Peter's job at Tricorp is hardly thrilling, but the promise seems to be there for interesting stories. John Byrne's artwork is very solid throughout. His action sequences could use a bit of work, but for the most part his pencils are vibrant, detailed and expressive throughout. Unfortunately the story is, on the whole, a little dull. The only thing genuinely 'new' or different about the series is the presence of a new Spider-Man, and honestly - I think most people would have preferred to see Peter wearing the webs. Not a disaster by any means, but a below par start for Mackie and   Byrne. 


Why The Spider-Man Reboot Failed: Part One - Background

There is a reason that Spider-Man is arguably the most popular comic book character of all time. With a few notable exceptions his titles have been consistently good for a number of years and have encompassed some of the finest (and often groundbreaking) super hero stories of all time. The likes of 'The Night Gwen Stacy Died', 'Kraven's Last Hunt' and 'The Death of Jean Dewolff' are all held up as high points in comic book storytelling, and the character has been the subject of many other classic stories, with many comic book greats having tackled his universe.

With that in mind, it often comes as a surprise when the Spider-Man books are struggling. When he is the victim of, not just one poor story but a seemingly never ending succession of uninspired and sometimes downright awful tales. There have been several periods of Spider-Man's history that have polarised opinion - The Clone Saga or Brand New Day for example, yet none have been as universally reviled as the era that saw both Amazing Spider-Man and Peter Parker: Spider-Man relaunched with new #1's for the first time in the character's history. Despite the era that it followed not being one of the more commercially successful spells for the Spider-Man titles, it had, broadly speaking, a good time to be a fan of the character. All four Spider-Man books were telling solid, easily distinguishable stories, with more than passable artwork. A number of intriguing subplots appeared to be heading a conclusion - in short, the era was one of my most memorable as a Spider-Man fan. And then came the 'Final Chapter'. Advertised as the culmination of several long running and noticeably popular story arcs, the Final Chapter was a widely criticised storyline for a number of reasons. Aunt May's death - widely known as one of the finest Spider-Man stories of all time - was undone, and following a climactic (off panel) duel with the Green Goblin, Peter Parker decided to retire from his career as Spider-Man. The story was ill conceived, poorly paced, and a sloppy way to close Amazing Spider-Man's 35 year run. Issue #441, released in November 1998 was the title's final issue, and after a month long break both it, and sister title Peter Parker: Spider-Man were relaunched with new #1's. Long running Spider-Man writer Howard Mackie was tasked with writing both comics, with legendary artists John Romita Jr and John Byrne tackling art duties on one title each.

The stage had been set for the latest acclaimed Spider-Man run, yet what followed was one of the worst eras in the character's history - both critically and commercially. What went wrong? Although I read the issues in question a number of years ago, I have lacked the will to return to them since. With this in mind I thought it would be interesting to return to the period and read the issues in order, noting down my thoughts, and finally aiming to pinpoint what exactly went wrong, and whether the period deserves to be called the worst in Spider-Man's history. With that in mind, read on as I tackle the very first issue of a phase that has become synonymous with failure, lack of inspiration and all round suckage - 'The Reboot'!

Wednesday, 7 December 2011

Review: Animal Man #4

Animal Man #4 by Lemire / Foreman

Possibly the most pleasant surprise to be found among DC's new 52 has been two of the less heralded additions to the line - Jeff Lemire's Animal Man and Scott Snyder's Swamp Thing. Two titles that deal with the supernatural side of the D.C Universe, their opening storylines have gradually intertwined to the point where the new D.C Universe's first crossover appears to be forthcoming.

Animal Man's first four issues have seen the veteran superhero's seemingly idyllic family life put under considerable strain, his daughter Maxine having appeared to inherit his animal based powers. Maxine's gift has made her an object of desire for 'The Red', the supernatural power that is the source of Animal Man's powers, with the powerful pre-teen key in its struggle to defeat the plague-like 'Rot'. This issue sees her struggling to rescue her father from the Rot, while another one of its diabolical agents pursues the rest of her family.

Placing Animal's Man's daughter at the forefront of the book has certainly been an unexpected move by Lemire, but is a more than welcome one. What could have been a somewhat cliche family dynamic has become much more interesting - helped by the fact that Maxine is a charming and likeable character in her own right. Animal Man himself has seemed like a slightly peripheral figure at times, but it is pleasing to see the entire family given a role to play in the series. The pacing of the issue is excellent too - a lot of plot is packed in without it ever seeming rushed, and the story moves along in exhilarating fashion.

Perhaps the most impressive thing about this issue is the macabre tone that is prevalent throughout. Travel Foreman's art is an acquired taste and his human figures do at times leave a little to be desired, but he provides a great take on some of the more supernatural aspects of the issue. Foreman is also a better storyteller than it might appear at first glance, and he handles what could be a confusing plot in style. Lemire's humour too, is subtle but ever present - the issue is far from slapstick but there is a surreal undertone that is played with in a pleasingly light hearted way at times.

Animal Man is not flashy, and I do not doubt that Lemire is yet to play his full hand. Ably assisted by Foreman, he is telling a slow burning story, that may yet become something of an epic. Perhaps not the capes and japes superhero book that you might expect, but a great read nonetheless, and for my money the most consistent book of the last six months.


Wednesday, 30 November 2011

Review: Daredevil #6

Daredevil #6 by Waid / Martin

Mark Waid has achieved the unthinkable in just six issues - the acclaimed writer has made Daredevil fun again, ably assisted by his art team of Marcos Martin and Paolo Rivera. This may seem a small victory, after all many forget that Daredevil was founded on the light hearted ideals shared by much of Marvel's 1960's output - but in recent years the character has been put through the emotional wringer, surrounded by death, violence and high crime. His propensity for emotional turmoil has been such that it is now considered a fundamental part of Matt Murdoch's character. Mark Waid will not change that overnight, but what he has done with his opening six issues is convinced me that there is a place in Daredevil's world for sunshine as well as gloom.

This issue is action packed from the get-go, with Daredevil hot on the heels of a deadly new adversary. The action soon shifts to an underground hideout straight out of the 60's and a plot that would not have been out of place there either! This issue does perhaps lack the nuances and intelligence of some of Waid's other issues, but in place there is fast paced action that the equal of any book currently on the stands. At first glance Bruiser seems a somewhat uninspired new adversary, but Waid manages to put a modern day spin on the character that sets him aside from the rest of Daredevil's rogues gallery. A repeat appearance would be more than welcome.

Without taking anything away from the quality of Waid's script, it is once again the visuals that make this such a joy to behold. Marcos Martin's pencils are energetic, detailed and crisp. His layouts are brilliantly imaginative and tell the story with refreshing verve. His style feels retro, while still embracing the advances of the 21st century.

Six issues in this, this title is no longer the surprise hit that it was at its debut. What is perhaps more remarkable is that Waid, Martin and Rivera have largely sustained the same level of unbroken quality. There have been peaks and troughs, of course, but the troughs have been infrequent and the peaks have been pleasingly maintained. Daredevil may not yet be able to boast the levels of emotional depth that it could under the likes of Bendis and Brubaker, but it is all the more well rounded for it. This is not a comic that anyone will dislike, and I would wager that few will not love it. Bold? Yes, but in this case well deserved.


Friday, 25 November 2011

Review: I, Vampire #3

I, Vampire #3 by Fialkov/ Sorrentino

It would be easy to accuse I, Vampire of pandering to the current, Twilight inspired trend for romance inspired horror stories. Indeed, Joshua Hale Fialkov's story ticks all the boxes - starcrossed lovers, a likable, heroic vampire as protagonist and an all new take on a monster that has been terrorising readers across the globe for decades - the vampire. That is not to say that I, Vampire bears any resemblance to Stephanie Meyer's ubiquitous series. Although it is just three issues in, Fialkov looks to be sowing the seeds for an epic, character driven story, complimented of course by lashings of blood and violence.

Lesser known writer Fialkov has a measured, almost ponderous style that could easily be mistaken for decompression - it is not. It's true that this series has been slow so far, and also that this issue has little in the way of plot. This is, however a beautifully told story that is unfolding in a naturalistic way. Far from shooting his load with cheap thrills and plot devices in the opening issues Fialkov is gradually building his universe from the ground up. Andrew Bennet is an engaging protagonist, while arch-foe and former lover Mary is becoming an enigmatic and fearsome adversary. This issue also does a good job of introducing something of a supporting cast for Bennet, giving the reader enough information to intrigue without ever coming across as heavy handed.

Although Fialkov's writing is pitch perfect for this series, it is matched by his artist, the equally lesser known Andrea Sorrentino. The comparisons to Jae Lee are obvious, but also fair - Sorrentino's gloomy, shadow heavy style is very similar and is a perfect fit for this series, lending a dark atmosphere to its narrative.

I, Vampire was hardly one of the more heralded of D.C's new 52, but is shaping up to be one of the brightest new books around. Joshua Hale Fialkov's script is subtle but laden with hooks, and is subtly woven into the wider D.C Universe. Complimented by superb art, it is not hyperbole to call this one of the most beautifully produced comic books on the market at the moment. I only hope that it gets the sales figures that it so richly deserves.


Friday, 18 November 2011

Review: Spider-Man: Shed

The Amazing Spider-Man: Shed, collects The Amazing Spider-Man #630-633 by Wells / Bachalo / Rios

It is unlikely that there has ever been a Spider-Man story that has split collective fandom down the middle as much as last years Shed. Although he is one of Spider-Man's oldest foes the Lizard has hardly been one of his most compelling, with the nature of his character lending itself to repetitive story arcs. While several writers have attempted to combat the Lizard's lack of long term appeal, none of his revamps have stuck and he has ended up reverting to type every few years. It is true that he is one of Spider-Man's more visually spectacular villains, there is only so many times you can see Spider-Man battling to defeat Curt Connors reptillian alter ego without harming him, eventually (and inevitably) defeating him through the use of some sort of hastily devised serum. With the character starring in the forthcoming Amazing Spider-Man film, the time clearly seemed ripe last year to give the tired rogue a more lasting overhaul. Opinions on Shed have ranged from disgust to acclaim, but thanks to my stubborn Spider-Man buying habits I have only just got around the reading the much reviled story. Does it deserve the criticism that it received in some quarters? Or is Shed merely a misunderstood gem?

Zeb Wells is a writer whose interpretation of the Web-Slinger I have long admired. Put simply, he has a great handle on Peter Parker's voice and has managed to excel telling more off-beat Spider-Man stories that other writers would perhaps not attempt. This arc is no exception and if Wells is to be criticized for anything it should not be his handle on the character. Wells' Parker is shy, nervous and humble, retaining a sense of humor without descending into the wisecracking loser that he is sometimes mistaken for. While some Mary Jane apologists would take issue with Peter's flirtations with other women, the Black Cat and Carlie Cooper scenes are all pitched perfectly and are among the highlights of the arc. I find Peter to be a more engaging character when his personal life is in disarray, and this story is no exception. Carlie Cooper in particular is an excellent foil for him and I found it an interesting twist having Peter be stood up by a date who needs to be present at a crimescene. It could easily become tired, but for now it is an interesting subversion of what by now is a ubiquitous Spider-Man trope.

The Lizard sequences are less convincing, something of a bad omen considering the pivotal role that the character plays in this arc. Wells seems confused as to his intentions for the character, with the plot initially seeming as cliche as any of his previous appearances, and just as predictable too. There is little in the way of suspense or surprises regarding Curt Connors' transformation here.

Of course the meat of the story occurs when Connors has been transformed - this time for good. This is a new iteration of the Lizard, one that eventually severs all ties with its human counterpart. The idea of the Lizard without Connors initially seems pointless and this story does little to convince otherwise. His new schtick of driving humans wild is somewhat confusing explained as well as executed and does not really add much to the character, with mst of his subtleties lost with Connors. Visually the new Lizard is spectacular and Wells does attempt to inject some much needed depth late in the day, but he remains an unconvincing adversary.

Much has been made of the stories so called 'explicit content', with several choosing its dark nature as a point for criticism. It is true, that this is a dark, harrowing story, but I wouldn't say that it particularly bothered me, although I could have done without some of the more obvious sexual imagery. It is always interesting to see Spider-Man plunged into more mature situations, and while this is clearly not a story suitable for all ages that is an entirely different issue.

Another plot given some face time here, albeit briefly is 'Negative Aunt May' - Peter's Aunt May having earlier been transformed into a bitter old crone by Mr. Negative. The subplot was initially interesting but lost direction over time and gradually fizzled out. Its conclusion at this story's close was welcome, but was very rushed for such a long running plot thread. I didn't feel that it had as much emotional resonance as Wells was hoping for, although I must admit I found the closing panel with Peter and May to be fairly touching.

The artwork over the course of this four issues is the very definition of inconsistent. Bachalo at his best is one of the finest artists in modern comics, and at times he manages to reach that peak here. His rendition of the Lizard is truly frightening and enough to make an unremarkable villain something more than the sum of its parts. Unfortunately this arc also seems some of the artists worst excesses, and some of the arc's action sequences are very difficult to follow. Emma Rios is a good artist but her soft, clean style is an abrupt shift from Bachalo's and she is never given much of a chance to shine.

Shed was, in theory, a good idea. The Lizard has long been in need of a retool and Wells and Bachalo seem like fine choices to be charged with his rebirth. Their second duet on Brand New Day Spider-Man feels like a missed opportunity however - the new Lizard is hardly an improvement on his old character and scarcely seems worth the collateral damage accumulated across the four issues. A frustrating read, but one ultimately worth checking out.


Wednesday, 16 November 2011

Review: Ultimate Comics X-Men #3

Ultimate Comics: X-Men #3 by Spencer / Medina

This is the dawning of a new era for Marvel's Ultimate Universe. After years of questions over its relevance the line has been propelled to the forefront (perhaps temporarily) of Marvel's stable of title. It could be down to a lack of competition (and much has been made of the recent cutbacks at the House of Ideas) or perhaps the injection of youth provided by up and coming writers Nick Spencer and Jonathon Hickman. Maybe it is simply a by product of the media coverage granted to uber-creator Brian Michael Bendis' now Peter Parker-less Spider-Man relaunch. Either way, if there was a time for the Ultimate titles to impress it is now.

As I reported last week Ultimate Spider-Man is continues to be a consistent performer into its fourth issue, with Nick Spencer's Ultimate X-Men relaunch proving to be something of an ugly sibling to it so far. On paper Spencer should be the perfect choice for a hip new X-Men title - he excelled on Morning Glories after all, an independent title with a glaringly similar 'gifted youngsters' style premise. So far however he has flattered to deceive, with Spencer's Ultimate X-Men lacking in the fresh ideas and concepts that the X-Men franchise has thrived on in the past.

It's easy to forget that in its initial run under Mark Millar, Ultimate X-Men more than held its own next to Bendis' acclaimed early Ultimate Spider-Man arcs. The franchises 616 iterations have longed seemed bloated and overly confusing, and could easily be accused of having become a victim of their own success. The comic book that ate itself perhaps? Millar's back to basics, stripped back versions of the characters shone and I had similar hopes for Spencer's run, with many of the more overexposed X-Men characters taken off the table by Marvel's 'Ultimatum' event. The stage was set for a back to basics triumph, from a writer yet to handle Marvel's Mutant heroes.

This third issue sees little in the way of improvement on Spencer's below par start, with many of my fears for the title looking like being confirmed. Brian Michael Bendis made the 'underground X-Men' - Kitty Pryde, the curiously non-mutant Human Torch and Bobby Drake - into compelling characters with an intriguing group dynamic. With Rogue introduced to the mix the quartet should by rights make for an engaging core cast. The problem is that they have been shunted to one side, cowering in the sewers for the entirety of the series' opening three issues. They have barely interacted with the core plot and their sequences feel frustratingly inconsequential as a result. This brings me neatly onto the antagonist of the series - The Sentinel styled Stryker, who strikes me as about one of the most cliche, bland X-Men villains I have encountered in years. His costume evokes the worst excesses of the 90's and his characterisation so far is too over the top for my liking. His masterplan also seems to vague to be interesting - haven't we seen enough bigoted villains whose ultimate aim is to wipe out all of mutantkind? The idea itself is not bad, but has been seen more convincingly elsewhere, even in the archetypal 90's crossover Operation Zero Tolerance.

Hickman has passed up an opportunity to inject some fresh impetus into a defunct series, by making it as hackneyed as the X-Men franchise has ever been. Evil mutants, suspicious government agents, puritanical mutant hating humans, oh and course of the obligatory 'underground X-Men', on the run from a world that naturally, hates and fears them more than ever. All of this on their own could easily be fashioned into an interesting premise in their right. Together they seem forced. Even the interesting idea of mutants originally being government creations has been frustratingly underplayed. We have been here before, and it had better art.

Not 'bad' per se, and potentially a good introduction to the X-Men to a newcomer, but when a comic is this derivative it needs to be highly polished too. This is no rough gem.


Thursday, 10 November 2011

Review: Ultimate Comics Spider-Man #4

By Bendis / Pichelli

It is inarguable that D.C are currently making bigger waves in the comic book industry than their traditional rivals Marvel. The company who have largely ruled the roost for the last 50 years have finally been toppled - temporarily? Perhaps, either way it is good to see Marvel putting up a fight with books of the quality (and newsorthiness) of Brian Michael Bendis' Ultimate Spider-Man reboot.

It was predictable that the focus of many would be on Peter Parker's replacement as Spider-Man, 13 year old Miles Morales. What wasn't so predictable was that he would become such a well defined, likeable character so early in the titles run. While the similarities with Peter are obvious, he is also a well developed character in his own right. Avoiding the comic book cliche of being an orphan, while also carrying elements of the 'reluctant hero' that have served Spider-Man so well over the years. Morales is far from the conventional square jawed superhero and is all the better for it. In many ways he feels like the closest to a modern day retooling of Peter Parker that we have received since his inception. Is Brian Michael Bendis the modern day Stan Lee? The comparisons are obvious, Bendis crafted the Ultimate Universe and revolutionised comic book storytelling. He has his detractors but that should be seen more as an affirmation of his popularity than anything else. I dread to think of what the keyboard warriors of today would have had to say about Stan The Man.

In terms of action this issue moves as slowly as the previous three. There is a hint of an action sequence but little more - that story was told in the issue of Ultimate Fallout that introduced readers to Miles Morales. Again, the naysayers could find cause to complain but as someone who read that story I see little to be bothered by. It does however suggest a dangerous trend in modern day comics - when I buy a comic book I expect that comic book to contain a full and self contained story. If what is currently an exception becomes the rule I will begin to question my comic buying habits.

In place of fast paced action there remains the ponderous character development that has characterised this series. The foundations are there for one of the more memorable comic book creations in recent times, and they look to be solidly built, if lacking in the verve that many would demand. Ultimate Comics: Spider-Man may not be the energetic, loudmothed romp that Stan Lee delivered in the 1960's, but it is a comic book series planted squarely in the present day, with all the sensibilities that carries with it .


Thursday, 3 November 2011

The New 52: Three Months On - Or, My Relationship With The Big Two

Three months ago a self confessed Marvel Zombie decided to give the D.C Universe a try for the very first time in his sixteen years collecting comic books. Three months on, my D.C pile has already outnumbered my Marvel pile on one occasion, and has come close a number of times. Why the sudden defection? Am I in danger of becoming one of the ever vocal lapsed Marvelites.

I have always nurtured affections for several of D.C's characters - primarily Batman and Superman. If D.C reprints were as widely available as Marvel ones in UK newsagents my four year old self may even have chosen the two above to collect rather than the X-Men and Spider-Man. Superman and Superman II are among my favourite comic book movies and while I never threw myself into it with the same vigour as Spider-Man's animated series, I admired Batman: The Animated Series from afar. I have no issue with D.C's stable of characters - I have just never been exposed to them in the same way that I have been to Marvel's. I have tried to get into D.C's Universe a couple of times, but have always found it daunting and have never managed to pick up one of their titles on a regular basis. Although the companies Universe wide reboot has been criticized by longer term readers, it provided the perfect opportunity for a shameless Marvel Zombie to broaden his horizons.

Action Comics seemed a perfect starting point. Set in the early days of the rebooted D.C Universe, it saw Grant Morrison return to the character following his acclaimed run on All Star: Superman. As one of the few D.C runs that I have read and enjoyed (albeit as a collected edition), his return was a definite purchase for me.

Batman and Robin was the second title to catch my eye. While I was familiar with neither writer Peter Tomasi nor artist Patrick Gleason, the idea of Batman having a son immediately caught my attention. While not a traditional part of the character's make up it seems somehow natural to me. A brief flick through #1 and Gleason's pencils had confirmed my purchase. The book looks beautiful and was worth a buy for me on the strength of that alone.

My next, and final two purchases of the New 52 were reserved for slightly more off-beat titles, with both featuring characters that I was barely familiar with before picking up their respective #1's. I, Vampire was perhaps the more surprising of the two, at least for me. I have little interest in Vampire's or the supernatural, but writer Joshua Hale Fialkov piqued my interest in the concept with an impressive interview, and Andrea Sorrentino's impressive, Jae Lee-esque pencils confirmed my purchase.

Animal Man, while being a character I knew next to nothing about, was the subject of a critically lauded Grant Morrison reboot in the 1980's. Although that alone wasn't enough to convince me to buy #1, impressive reviews led me to pick it up, despite not being immediately enamored with Trevor Green's scratchy pencils.

Somewhat surprisingly, the two less heralded series have been by far the two that I have enjoyed the most, with Action Comics and Batman and Robin flattering to deceive despite superb art and overall presentation. Weirdly though, the lack of cohesion between the two titles has actually made them more satisfying reads. The comic reading populace is clearly burnt out by Universe wide crossovers and tie ins, to the extent that even the suggestion that two titles are interlinked would see me eyeing them with a degree of suspicion. I suspect that the days of sprawling, epic crossovers are nearing an end, particularly after Marvel's latest effort, in the shape of Fear Itself was met with a collective sigh by even the most zealous Marvel Zombies. There are problems with the two - the changes made by Morrison to the Superman mythos seem awkward and Batman and Robin's pacing has been sluggish, but at least both feel like complete stories.Animal Man is apparently linked to Swamp Thing, but as someone not familiar with the latter I can honestly say that I didn't realise that the two were interconnected. Take note Marvel - this is how you tie issues together, with subtly and tact rather than brash, and rather empty proclamations. Both Animal Man and I, Vampire work superbly as exercises in how to tell self contained stories, despite the fact that both will clearly be linked with other series somewhere down the line.

That is not to say that it is all good news however. It is telling that more successful of the four books that I have sampled are the ones that are least bogged down in the continuity of the D.C Universe. It is difficult to reconcile the renegade Superman of Action Comics with the caped crusader that we are all familiar with, and Morrison's version of him seems slightly off. The supporting cast are generally portrayed well, but Superman himself seems to have been altered for the sake of it. The concept of Batman training his son is a solid one, but the reader is provided with little context, or background for their relationship. Not a problem for a hardened D.C reader, but for a novice such as myself it has been difficult to involve myself in their relationship.

The bottom line seems to be that when freed from continuity, D.C's reboot has been excellent. However, it is a little to difficult to reconcile this new universes versions of their more iconic heroes. I have never been a stickler for continuity, but I like to recognise the characters that I am reading, or at least be gradually introduced to their worlds. I don't want D.C to hold my hand, but I for one think that the new 52 could do with being a little more reader friendly. I can just about handle it, but with new comic book readers increasingly thin on the ground, more needs to be done to get comic novices involved in their more celebrated characters.

Friday, 28 October 2011

Daredevil #5 Review

Daredevil #5
By Waid / Martin

One of the more recent of my increasingly sporadic blog posts was a gushing entry, near overflowing with praise for the first issue of Mark Waid’s new Daredevil relaunch. The comic in question was everything that a debut issue should be, it was vibrant, witty, fast paced and above all fun, with plenty of plot to boot. While the following three issues failed to quite reach these heights, I’m pleased to report that this weeks #5 marks a return to form for the series.

The middle segment of a three part arc, this issue picks up with Matt Murdock (Aka Daredevil) defending a client – in both senses of the word. Once his assailants are dispatched, he gets to work on uncovering the mystery surrounding him and learns of a conspiracy stretching far wider than he anticipated. Waid’s plot is dense and filled with intricacies, a fact that may put off more casual readers but not one that makes it any less readable. This is by no means a shallow read and does require some thought on the readers part, but still manages to be an action packed romp with the brains to counter its full colour superheroics. Waid’s pacing is adept and the story zips refreshingly quickly from scene to scene without ever feeling rushed.

Of course Matt Murdock is not the only member of the books cast, a fact that the reader is ably reminded of through a brief, if intriguing scene checking up on Foggy Nelson. One of the most valuable skills in comic book storytelling is being able to juggle subplots with the main thrust of the story and Waid proves adept at it here. The villain of the piece is skilfully introduced too – on the surface he seems little more than a shallow, well…Bruiser (you’ll get it if you read the book), but there a number of interesting touches to his character and appearance that made him a compelling enough adversary.

Mark Waid and Marcos Martin should be applauded for creating a comic book that works very well on several levels. Light hearted but tense, conventional while still remaining unpredictable, I am willing to bet that this will become one the characters defining modern day runs.


Monday, 8 August 2011

An Objective Look At The Night Gwen Stacy Died

Few would argue that The Amazing Spider-Man #122 is one of the greatest Spider-Man stories ever told, perhaps even one of the greatest comic book stories ever told. Boasting both the deaths of Spider-Man's first love and his greatest enemy, the conclusion of 'The Night Gwen Stacy Died' has gone down in history as one of the most significant comic book stories of all time, heralded by many as the end of the Silver Age of comic books.

I first read the story a number of years ago, very shortly after I began collecting comic books. As you might expect, it blew my four year old self away, despite the fact that I only read the conclusion of the two-parter. However, since then I have only read the story perhaps once or twice, and while I have remained happy to call it one of my favourite stories of all time, that opinion has begun to feel increasingly less well informed. To this end, earlier this evening I re-read the issue - with the first part of the storyline once again absent (to my great shame, I do not own a colour copy of the issue)

One thing that immediately struck me about the issue was how close it was to the 'Turning Point' episode of the 90's Spider-Man: Animated Series, to this day one of my favorites from an excellent series. Despite there being a number of key plot differences, the fight between the Goblin and Spider-Man on the bridge is hugely similar and I actually found myself imagining the dialogue using the characters voice actors from the show. Not a particularly interesting point, but an interesting aside nonetheless.

Of course this brings me onto my main (and perhaps only) quibble about this issue - the dialogue. Of course hokey dialogue is a product of the era that this story was written in, but at several points I found it to be really overblown and a little too wordy.

Where the issue really shines is in its sincerity. This is a Spider-Man driven to almost unfathomable grief, followed by rage caused by the death of a loved one, at this point something never really seen before in a generally light hearted series. Yes, the dialogue is sometimes clunky but it always rings true and heightens the emotional impact of the issue. It is refreshing to read a comic where death actually means something, as opposed to being a cheap plot device that will generally be undone in a matter of months.

Conway also excels in his use of the supporting cast, many of whom shine despite very limited page space. Mary-Jane appears very briefly, but in the space of just a handful of panels shows a glimpse of the multi-layered character that she eventually became, a far cry from the vacuous party girl created by Stan Lee years before. The likes of Robbie, Jameson and Harry are all given time in the spotlight too, with each other their renditions being pitch perfect, however limited they are in length. Harry's anguished appearance is a particularly poignant look at the tragedy of his friendship with Peter, and an excellent precursor for his villainous turn later in the series.

Which brings me neatly onto the true villain of the story - Harry's father Norman Osborn, the original Green Goblin. While many would see this, the story originally intended to be his swansong as his finest hour, I would disagree. While an effective choice of villain, in truth the Goblin is portrayed as fairly one-dimensional here, with little of the depth to his relationship with Peter glimpsed in later stories. His presence as an antagonist is welcome though, and his death a powerful moment, if not quite as effective as Gwen's earlier on.

While I have left him till last, that is no reflection on the quality of Gil Kane's artwork. He is often overlooked, perhaps rightly so, in favour of more prolific Spider-Man artists, but this issue is a near enough perfect artistic performance. His fights are brutally brilliant, but perhaps even more effective are the emotional scenes, where Kane showcases his impressive range of facial expressions. He perhaps does not deserve to be mentioned in the same breath as the likes of Romita and Ditko, but this is probably one of the most artistically excellent issues of Spider-Man ever produced.

It is difficult to give this issue a grade, partly as it would seem churlish to give such a classic issue less than an A+. What I would say though, is that even decades on the story still bears a significant emotional weight, and stands as one of the most important, if not best Spider-Man stories of all time. A true classic.

Wednesday, 20 July 2011

Daredevil #1 Review

Daredevil #1 - By Waid / Rivera / Martin

It isn't often that I will gush with praise over things (or at least I hope not), but I am going to give you an advanced warning: I will be doing so in this post. So if that sort of thing bothers you, turn away now (preferably to one of my other posts).

With that out of the way I can get to the business at hand - possibly the best produced comic book that I have read for some time. Before this issue was released much was made of the decision to return Daredevil to his superhero roots after years of his adventures being swathed in darkness and despair. This was certainly not a misrepresentation of the approach taken by Mark Waid to this issue - within the first few pages we are knee deep in swashbuckling superheroics, as the man without fear takes on classic Spider-Man villain the Spot. Right from the off Waid's writing bristles with enthusiasm, with Paolo Rivera as inventive as ever. He and Martin working in tandem are a supremely wise choice of artists, and do a sterling job illustrating Waid's witty script.

Far from being solely focused on its action sequence this issue does a fine job of establishing the characters new status quo, one that I find immediately appealing after years of dark, angst ridden stories (not that a lot of them weren't enjoyable). While Matt Murdoch as a lawyer is far from a new development there is enough unique spin placed on it here to make it intriguing. The cliffhanger does not have me quite as excited as the rest of the issue but nonetheless I am curious to see where Waid takes it.

The back up story, far from being superfluous was very enjoyable, and benefited from superb art from Marcos Martin, who makes even the most mundane sounding action utterly engaging. While the plot is far from thrilling and little happens, it works well as a character piece and a good way of establishing Matt and Foggy's relationship.

As a series that I have eagerly anticipating since it was announced, it brings me great pleasure to recommend this issue more than any I have read for a long time. Yes, it is vastly different to how Daredevil has been portrayed in recent years but don't let this put you off - it actually fits the character more effectively than you might think. I would struggle to think of a better debut issue than this for quite a while, I just hope that the rest of the series can live up to my already lofty expectations.


Wednesday, 29 June 2011

Retro Review: Spider-Man: Masques

Spider-Man: Masques, collects Spider-Man #6-7 by Todd McFarlane

Over a year ago I reviewed Spider-Man: Torment, superstar artists Todd McFarlane's first work on the character as both writer and artist. While Torment has become one of the most talked about Spider-Man stories in recent years, his second storyline failed to make the same impression, and has been largely forgotten about in most circles. At times, Masques feels a lot like a product of the 90's, featuring many of the most notable excesses of the era. Despite this it is refreshing to see Spider-Man appearing in a different sort of storyline, far removed from the more 'fun' arcs that the character is known for.

Masques features the short lived 'Demonic Hobgoblin' as the villain of the piece, as he kidnaps a small boy, seeking to remake him in his own image. While this particular take on the character is not one that is generally well thought of, I thought it worked excellently in this two-parter. His motivations are a little murky and his dialogue is very hackneyed, but there is a real sense of menace and fear around the character, largely created by McFarlane's superb, atmospheric artwork. His renditions of regular human's often drew criticism, but he was born to draw a story of this nature.

Ghost Rider also appears, and although he is also very well drawn I found his presence in the story a little forced and pointless. I have never thought him to be a particularly interesting character, and there is little done here to develop his character beyond a very basic level. The idea of Spidey finding conflict with a hero using more extreme methods than his is one that has been done to death over the years, and there is little attempt here to put a new spin on it. Nevertheless, the character looks great and fits with the overall tone of the story.

If you can put up with some poor dialogue and questionable storytelling from McFarlane, I would recommend this as at the very least, a beautiful looking comic book story, and an attempt to tell a different sort of story with Spider-Man. The character himself has little of note to do, but that doesn't matter too much as McFarlane crafts a cinematic thrill ride, with some superb visuals. It might sound like I am damning it with faint praise by calling it his finest work on the adjectiveless Spider-Man title, but that doesn't make it any less true.


Monday, 20 June 2011

The CLiNT Experiment

Just over a year ago Mark Millar announced the latest in a long line of ambitious comic book projects - a monthly British comics anthology, with the long term aim of moving comic books back to the mainstream. A highly ambitious brief, and perhaps one that even Millar himself did not realistically believe that he would achieve. Nevertheless, CLiNT was announced in May last year, as a mix of comic strips, features and news, all produced by young British talent. At its inception Millar described CLiNT as The Eagle for the 21st Century, confirming that he would be aiming it at the 16-30 age bracket, ambitiously declaring that he wanted it to be 'passed around lunch halls and common rooms'.

The first issue (pictured above) launched in September, featuring strips by renowned British celebrities Jonathon Ross and Frankie Boyle. Largely a success, CLiNT #1 sold out and was confirmed for a second printing by its publisher Titan in November. Reviews were mixed, with seasoned comics readers praising the strips, while criticizing the magazines features for their somewhat low-brow nature. But they were missing the point. Seasoned comics readers were not the magazines target audience. I didn't like the features any more than they did. I was buying CLiNT for Nemesis, Kick-Ass and Turf, not for 'Sexy Chavs', or 'Top Ten Milfs'. But I understood why they were there, and accepted them, without ever really enjoying them. I loved Kick-Ass and its sequel was more of the same, Jonathon Ross' Turf was very good, if a little unpolished. Frankie Boyle's Rex Royd was not my cup of tea at all but nonetheless, there was a lot of good stuff in the magazine, something that hasn't changed nine months on.

In its early months CLiNT was dishearteningly ubiquitous, occupying pride of place in mainstays such as WHSmith and Tesco, and confusingly appearing on corner shops up and down the country. Had comic books finally cracked the mainstream again? The answer was of course, no. The confetti, premature. Since those heady days CLiNT has failed to maintain its position in shops, in my experience at least, and has shipped late at least twice. Can it be a surprise that interest is waning when the most reliable way to keep up with its erratic schedule is through its creators twitter feed? CLiNT will not be passed around lunch halls and common rooms if it can't be bought in the first place, and almost a year after its high profile launch, the public seem in danger of dropping out. The strips have for the most part been excellent, and Millar seems to have reigned in the spurious additional content, but in a notoriously fickle marketplace, no excuse can be given to lose interest.

I have no access to sales figures - for all I know CLiNT could be flying off the shelves, but for my money it is vital that the magazine sticks to a regular release schedule. I am a seasoned comic book reader, and avidly look forward to the magazine every month but even my affections have begun to wane. I can only imagine how difficult it must be for the uninitiated to stay abreast of the magazines schedule. Lest we forget, to many not interested in comics Mark Millar is hardly a celebrity, let alone one deemed worthy of following on twitter (sorry Mark), whether they read his magazine or not. I was happy to read the release date of the magazine's latest issue on Millar's twitter feed, other readers may not have been so fortunate.

In short - Mark is doing a great job with the content. CLiNT is fantastic value for money, even if you skim over the features. My main criticism would be the scheduling. Mark cited the absence of any new Kick-Ass 2 content as the reason for this months latest delay, but I would put getting the product on the shelves ahead of ensuring that the selection of strips is as perfect as it could be. I can understand Millar wanting the product to be as good as it can be, but as long as the strip that replaces it can stand up to Kick-Ass 2, I'm sure that regular readers will not have a problem. What they may have a problem with is following a periodical that appears on an increasingly erratic basis. Retailers may feel the same way. Mark's choice of strips so far has been superb, and as long as what he chooses to replace any wayward ones is of a similar ilk I for one will still be happily buying.

Sunday, 19 June 2011

Retro Review: The Amazing Spider-Man Annual #4

The Web and the Flame by Lee / Lieber

Amazing Spider-Man Annual's have played host to a number of significant stories over the years, among them being the debut of the Sinister Six and the first mention of Peter Parker's parents. While this story cannot claim to be as much of a milestone as either of those classics, it is certainly a lot of fun, and while not quite a must read for any fans of Silver Age comic books, a more than worthy purchase.

All the way through, this story bears Stan Lee's unmistakable stamp. From his trademark fourth wall breaking captions, to his jazzy (if amusingly dated) dialogue. In places it can read as very cheesy, but if you are willing to accept that as a product of its time period then it shouldn't bother you too much. Indeed, for the most part Lee's writing has aged very well, carrying with it an undeniable charm and energy that is a great fit for the character. While the core plot is a little silly, the story is carried by the dynamic between Spidey and the Human Torch. It's easy to forget that once upon a time the two had a real rivalry, and this annual is a stark reminder of the edge that their relationship used to have. The two bounce off each other pleasingly, with Stan penning some fantastic quips that do not come across as nearly as dated as a lot of his dialogue does. Stan Lee's brother Larry Lieber is on art duties and does an able job. He is not quite John Romita Sr but his clear, smooth style is a more than capable substitute. The rest of the art team are on good form as well - Mike Esposito's inks are characteristically tight and the colors jump off the page (I couldn't find a credit for them anywhere so apologies to the talented creator who provided them).

The Wizard and Mysterio seem logical choices of villains, and serve their roles well, within ever being given much characterization. In truth, both are largely sidelined for the duration of the story and could have been replaced by any number of other villains with minimum fuss. Nevertheless, their combined mechanical expertise makes for an interesting variety of threats to be thrown at the two heroes. Just don't expect multi-layered characterization or well thought out schemes.

Of course this story is very much a product of its time, and carries with it a number of the flaws commonly associated with Silver Age comic books. The plot is nothing special, or indeed original and is held together by a number of contrivances and inconsistencies. In places it is very predictable and lacking in any tension or real atmosphere. In short - this story is not one to be taken too seriously. However, as long as you take it for what it is, The Web and the Flame is sure to be a comic book that you read with a big smile on your face.


Monday, 13 June 2011

TPB Review: Spectacular Spider-Man: Countdown

Spectacular Spider-Man: Countdown
, collects the Spectacular Spider-Man (volume 2) #6-10 by Jenkins / Ramos

Despite being undeniably one of Spider-Man's premier rogues, it could be argued that over the years Doctor Octopus has been mishandled on occasion. Despite being the star of some classic stories (and a well received movie), the good doctor has also appeared in some very forgettable comics, with his appearances often lacking the gravitas that a character of his stature probably deserves. While he is perhaps more known for his emotional, character driven stories Paul Jenkins also drew plaudits for his revamp Spidey's arch nemesis the Green Goblin, in the fan favourite A Death in the Family arc. With Doctor Octopus appearing in Spider-Man 2, Jenkins was chosen as the writer to take advantage of the character's increased exposure, and featured him as the focal point of his second arc on Spectacular Spider-Man, titled Countdown.

The story sees Octavius at his scheming best, as he kidnaps a Palestinian Foreign Minister, promising to release him only if Spider-Man unmasks at a scheduled time. Jenkins manages to craft an excellent Spider-Man story here, in my opinion using all the elements that make the web-slinger such a great character. His supporter cast - so often marginalized during the JMS era is utilized superbly well across the five issues. While Big John clearly has the potential to become very annoying I found him a likable presence and it's a shame that he has disappeared from the books with his creator. Jenkins is as adept as using classing members of the supporting cast as his own creations, and MJ and Peter's relationship, so often a bone of contention among Spider-fans, is displayed touchingly without being overplayed. This story is a good example of what MJ brought to the Spider-Man mythos while she and Peter were married. The likes of Jonah Jameson, Robbie and Flash Thompson are all here too, and while not playing major roles are all portrayed well. Despite his incapacitation the scenes with Flash in particular are very touching and a real highlight. Jenkins' scripting is superb and the pacing of the story is excellent. despite being spread across five issues it rarely lags and every page is used well.

Doctor Octopus too is at his villainous best here, Jenkins understands his personality and delivers a multi layered, if obviously insane villain. It was pleasing too, to see the criminally underrated origin story from Spider-Man: Unlimited #3 revisited. His fight scenes are superbly done and all in all I think there have been few better portrayals of the character.

This brings me neatly to Humberto Ramos' artwork. Few artists divide opinion as much as he does but I love his distinctive style and consider it a great fit for the character. His action scenes bristle with energy and even his human characters are well drawn, if very very odd.

For me, there have been few better stories featuring Doctor Octopus, and it is a shame that the character has not been this well done throughout his history. Nothing too groundbreaking occurs over the course of the five issues but if you are looking for a quintessential Spider-Man arc featuring one of his greatest villains, look no further.