28 Aug 2011

Mini Reviews 28/08/2011

While we may not always have the time to review all the comics we get every week, we do try and provide a snapshot of the latest releases, mixing the good with the not so good.

Writer: Jonathan Hickman
Art: Esad Ribic & Dean White
Marvel $3.99

James R: A long time ago, back when Mark Millar used to write comics rather than extended movie pitches, I loved The Ultimates. The first two 'seasons' of the title were outstanding, and brought about a new sensibility to Marvel characters that ended up informing the look and feel of the Marvel movies that have reigned supreme over the box office in recent years. If you've read comics for a while, you'll know where it went wrong - I'll just say 'Ultimates 3' and 'Jeph Loeb', shudder a little, and move swiftly on. I would have been happy to leave my Ultimates experience there, but Marvel's relaunch of the book certainly got my attention - I'm a fan of Jonathan Hickman (with the exception of FF and Secret Warriors) and after his striking art on Uncanny X-Force Esad Ribic seems a fine choice to illustrate the book. So, what do we get in our polybag? (And Marvel - please, please stop doing that. It's not 1994 anymore!) It's a solid start, but there's a striking feeling of deja vu here. There's a huge coordinated strike by (as yet unidentified) science-villains leaving Nick Fury perplexed, which reads fine but a lot of the elements you will have seen before - the attack reminded me of early issues of The Authority, the Tony Stark parts were very similar to the Knauf’s Director of S.H.I.E.L.D. run... and that's your lot! I came away feeling a tad underwhelmed given the talents involved. I'll take a look at issue #2, but at $3.99, I'll be expecting something more original, and a little more substantial than 20 pages of story. 6/10

Matt C: This book was solicited as Ultimate Comics Ultimates #1, which is just about the stupidest name for a comic I’ve heard in a long while, but fortunately the indicia shows this is simply Ultimates #1, which makes a lot more sense. Anyway, while I keep announcing I’m done with the Ultimate Universe, when Marvel hire a creative team that catches my eye, I find myself trotting back to see what they have to offer, and this relaunch, with Hickman and Ribic at the helm, is a case in point. Hickman’s got a habit of being as ambitious as he possibly can when tackling any project, and while on occasion it can feel like his reach exceeds his grasp, for the most part it’s impossible not to admire what he sets out to achieve. Ribic is capable of bringing real dramatic weight to the page backed up with thrilling action, and he impresses here, putting across the worldwide nature of the storyline, where essentially Nick Fury’s Ultimates team find themselves at the centre of a coordinated attack from an unknown force. Hickman brings his smarts to the story, pacing the rapid deterioration of the situation very well, but even though there’s a lot to be positive about on the surface, I still couldn’t help but be curiously unmoved. It’s a well put together book, but while I might still consider coming back for a second helping I’m still not seeing my enthusiasm for the Ultimate Universe being reignited any time soon. 6/10

Writers: Michael Benaroya, David Baxter & Dave Elliot
Art: Javier Aranda, Gerry Leach & Jessica Kholinne
Image $2.99

Stewart R: After an interesting and promising debut I can see what the writers are trying to do in this rather blood-thirsty second instalment as the seemingly under-powered Lone Star army of Duke and the Deacon’s make an initial attack upon New San Diego and as a plot point it helps to establish that this is far from a clear ‘good vs evil / right vs wrong’ conflict. They also show that the citizens of New San Diego are incredibly media-hungry and slightly removed from reality as a result, despite the post-apocalyptic nature of their world, and that’s a neat parallel with the Western world’s thirst for 24-hour entertainment and slowly developing immunity to scenes of violence. Unfortunately by painting such a raw and honest picture like this the writers have managed to make it difficult to really want either side to come out a winner. The macho New San Diegan Marksmen come across as gun-totting ‘jocks’ who are far too willing to decimate their foes, while the Lone Star army fly under the banner of religious zealotry, and neither are really groups a reading audience wants to throw support behind. The hero is blatantly supposed to be Drake McCoy but he’s reduced to odd appearances scattered throughout and I feel an opportunity was missed to see this lop-sided fight from his perspective. A bit of a shame and at such a bulky time for my pull-list I’m afraid this isn’t strong enough for me to continue with. 4/10

Writers: Scott Snyder & Lowell Francis
Art: Gene Ha & Art Lyon
DC $2.99

Matt C: The finale of this Flashpoint-related mini is actually the strongest episode until it undoes all its good work in the final couple of pages. Subject Zero’s confrontation with Kal-El is well handled as the two battle across a decimated Britain, now ruled by the Amazons. Also of note is the way Kal’s relationship with Lois is portrayed, an emotional bond manifesting itself even though they are dramatically different from their regular DC Universe counterparts. Ha turns in his strongest work for the series, with the exciting carnage exploding against a familiar backdrop. Then it drops the ball in a confusing sequence where one character perishes without it being entirely clear how. Add to that, it all feels rather rushed, robbing the ending of its impact. I didn’t really venture into the world of Flashpoint tie-ins too much, but from what I’ve seen I would say you would have been perfectly fine just sticking with the main series. 6/10

Writers: Ed Brubaker & Marc Andreyko
Art: Chris Samnee & Bettie Breitwieser
Marvel $2.99

Matt C: Maybe it’s the after effects of watching Captain America: The First Avenger at the cinema, or maybe it’s because I've been looking for something like this ever since Brubaker included those Invaders-centric flashbacks in his early issues of Captain America, but this WW2 set series is proving to be far more fresh and entertaining than the regular Cap book following it’s relaunch. That might sound strange, describing something so steeped in nostalgia as “fresh”, but it truly is a breath of fresh air when most other Marvel books seem to be caught up in Fear Itself, as it harks back to an age when cynicism wasn’t the order of the day, and the villains weren’t vaguely depicted and their motivations were clear. It helps to have the right artistic team to capture the correct tone for the period, providing a retro visual style without coming across as too cartoony, and Samnee’s evocative images coupled with Breitwieser’s washed out colours fit the bill. I like to think this is how a reader might have viewed Captain America comics back in the 1940s but with the addition of contemporary storytelling sophistication to suit our modern sensibilities. Adventure, excitement and derring-do never go out of style. 8/10

Writer: John Rozum
Art: Frazer Irving
DC $2.99

James R: I feel as if my reviews have been maudlin of late - with the imminent rebirth of DC, it’s like I've been writing sad-faced 'last issue' reviews forever! I must say that this is the one that hurts the most, as it's a definite full stop. One of our fine readers (That One Guy - that's his name, not that he's our only… ah, you know!) informed us that Xombi's writer, John Rozum, has confirmed that there won't be any further issues. Bah. My dreams for a Vertigo relaunch dashed, I'm now just left with six issues of insane and brilliant comic invention. This issue ties up 'The Ninth Stronghold' with typical aplomb as David Kim and his gang of mystics race to foil Roland Finch's scheme. Rozum continues to bombard the reader with cool concepts - ideas that are worthy of whole arc in other titles (such as the Sisterhood of the Blood Mummies) are introduced for just a few pages - before being replaced by something just as creepy and inventive. I've mentioned before that Frazer Irving is an artist who needs the right book to properly display his talents, and with the exception of the now aborted Gutsville, I can't think of a better showcase for his work. Flicking back over this title, it is astounding to see how many novel and smart ideas were crammed into the six issues. I guess the old maxim about the flame that burns twice as bright burns half as long is true, but I'll be offering all kinds of sacrifices to arcane powers in the hope that we see Rozum and Irving back together somewhere in the future - the world of comics will feel a little duller for their absence. 9/10

Writer: Mark Sable
Art: Paul Azaceta & Matt Wilson
Image $2.99

Stewart R: It appears that my slight criticisms of the first issue may have been heeded as the very first page gives us a breakdown of all of the characters - be they American forces or local Afghans - which really does help to clarify who has been doing what so far and who appears in this issue! Very helpful indeed! That allows us to follow the soldiers of Combat Outpost Alamo’s desperate attempts to fend off the gathering masses of the undead who not only threaten them but the local populace as well. Sable resists the urge to go into the depths of why the zombies have risen and instead uses flashbacks to highlight the incredible difficulties and pressures felt by some Afghans in the face of demands and requests placed on them by both the Taliban and the Western forces. It’s this attention to the finer details of the general Afghanistan campaign being waged for the past decade that elevates this above the usual zombie-laden comic books and the writer also finds a nice line on clashing personalities amongst the various troops fighting for their lives which adds yet another dimension. Azaceta’s art is well suited to the jumping back and forth between the subtler moments of the flashbacks and the explosive action of the outpost siege. It seems that my doubts following the first issue have oozed away like so much decaying zombie flesh... 8/10

Writers: Conor McCreery & Anthony Del Col
Art: Andy Belanger & Ian Herring
IDW $3.99

Matt C: The conclusion of this series plays out in a predictable manner – in other words, there aren’t really any surprises – but it’s delivered with such vigour that it’s hard not to get caught up with the events presented on the page. Sure, some of the dialogue is clumsy at times with an overreliance on ‘thees’ and ‘thous’ and some elements feel a little too contrived, but overall it succeeds because the writers have taken an ingenious idea and put a lot of thought into it, spinning it out into a cleverly constructed, engaging story. Belanger has kept things lively in the visual department, introducing some real invention into his panel layouts, and this issue sees a marvellously choreographed decapitation as its possible highpoint (and there’s a sentence I never thought I’d write!). Tackling the Bard in this way could very well have been doomed to failure had the creative team not had complete confidence in what they were doing. There’s no question of this having anyway near the longevity of the source material, but there’ also no question that many readers will find much to enjoy in this tale for many years to come. 7/10

X-MEN #16
Writer: Victor Gischler
Art: Jorge Molina & Guru EFX
Marvel $3.99

Stewart R: When I saw early solicitations for this new arc I really did roll my eyes a fair amount. The Future Foundation involved? A Bermuda Triangle mystery? Oh dear. Thank Beast’s stars and garters then that this actually turns out to be a very entertaining first chapter of “Betrayal in the Bermuda Triangle”! It’s clear that Gischler is going for fun from the get-go with an amusing educational trip for the FF as Spider-Man tries to act as wise-cracking teacher to the kids, who despite being genius-level intellects themselves still want all the excitement and mystery that involves going through childhood. From here we’re quickly into team-up territory as the two groups come together for a common purpose and an impending cross-dimensional adventure. There’s a good amount of recognition of the changing alliances that both sides have been making in recent times and it’s done with a decent amount of tongue-in-cheek humour thanks to the involvement of Ben Grimm and Wolverine. I won’t spoil any of the neat scenes containing both these iconic Marvel characters but if Gischler carries on with the great levels of banter and humour shown here I’ll definitely have to start a campaign for a Wolverine and Thing spin-off title soon! Jorge Molina really excels himself with pencil and ink getting across a similar feel established on this title by Paco Medina previously but clearly making it his own; that double-page spread is simply superb! With Marvel packing in the X-related titles each month it’s great to see that the quality seems to be remaining high across the board! 8/10

Writer: Grant Morrison
Art: Scott Clark & Dave Beatty
DC Comics $2.99

James R: Ugh. Just ugh! I was tempted to submit a one-word review for this, but I feel it's my responsibility to be more constructive in my criticism! Alright, this issue takes place inside the ‘web 3.0’, an “incredible” virtual reality environment, masterminded by Waynetec/Batman Incorporated. Trouble is afoot when it's infected by a virus that threatens to kill everyone logged on - including Bruce Wayne. The problems here are twofold - one is Morrison's writing, which (and I say this as a man who loves Final Crisis) has lurched back into inexplicable again. For example, the Billionaire hostages are told: "If your avatar is hurt or killed you can say goodbye to your entire fortunes." Er... how?! There's also a sequence with a digital dog, and I'm tempted to tell you to pick this issue up just so you can see how bad it is! The larger problem is the art though - the whole issue is illustrated as if we were in a computer simulation, which jars on every page, and makes it hard to see what the hell is going on. With the DC relaunch imminent, this feels like a filler, and hopefully when Morrison re-spawns, he comes back as his talented self... 3/10

Writer: Jonathan Hickman
Art: Steve Epting & Paul Mounts
Marvel $2.99

Matt C: Issue #8 sees this title back on target after the two-issue diversion into the world of the Inhumans that left many scratching their heads wondering whether they’d picked up the right book. Yes, I understand that Hickman needed the Inhumans in play for his grand narrative, and that meant getting them from the position they were left in following War Of Kings to where he wanted them to be, but really, two issues?! Back in the day they used to do that kind of thing in a couple of pages! Anyway, this is more like it, with the main plot driving forward as Reed, his dad and the assembled villains set forth to defeat the remaining Reeds of the Interdimensional Council, and it’s generally exciting, although the pacing gets a bit too frantic at times, with a feeling that there’s almost too much going on. The characterization is strong though, and the way the cast interact together results in some of the issue’s most memorable moments. The other huge plus point here is having Epting back onboard as he brings a sense of epic urgency that has been missing since he left. So long as Hickman doesn’t get sidetracked again things should get back to normal i.e. this will be one of Marvel’s best superhero books again. 7/10

Writer: Jason Latour
Art: Chris Brunner & Rico Renzi
12-Gauge $3.99

Matt C: Perhaps the most important element for a successful crime comic is the atmosphere. Obviously the writing and art have to be good, but if they don’t combine to create a feeling that danger lurks around every corner, that the cast are living in a world where violent death is a day to day possibility, then chances are the reader won’t get sucked into the story. Loose Ends doesn’t have that problem because each page appears to be soaked with a sense of doom: doomed situations, doomed lives – characters may be living life in the fast lane, but there’s really only one destination they’re headed towards. While the bulk of this issue is taken up with various flashbacks, even there you can see fate starting to take hold, slowly wrapping itself around the members of the cast. The mean, moody art electrifies the script, adding occasional flashes of innocence (usually corrupted innocence at that) and staying one step ahead of the reader. 12-Gauge aren’t a household name (so to speak) but it they can publish more material of this calibre then their reputation will surely grow exponentially. 8/10

Writer: Rob Williams
Art: Rebekah Isaacs, Livesay & Andres Mossa
Marvel $2.99

Stewart R: Well, this time-travelling extravaganza finally reaches its conclusion and you know what, it’s one of the best self-contained stories I’ve read from Marvel for a good while. Rob Williams - with help from a handful of other writers - ensured that every character involved in the time-hopping chapters contributed to the story as a whole and at the end their influence is really felt as Williams brings all of the plot strands together and ends Tony Stark’s desperate mission that spans years for him. Okay, so thanks to the chronological nature of the plot this could be seen as something of a throwaway ‘What If?’ venture, especially as it is unlikely to sow many seeds into the greater Marvel Universe, but it still grabs us with Tony’s plight and continuing fight in the face of adversity and also shows us once again that any team of makeshift Avengers can work better together than alone as individuals. Isaacs finishes what she started at the beginning of the series and while her art is pretty decent she seems a touch rushed in places and I can’t help feel that Livesay has also been a little heavy-handed in a couple of places to take something of the sheen away from her pencil work. Aesthetic grumbles aside this is a fitting end for a great series. 8/10

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