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.