2 Jan 2012

Mini Reviews 01/01/2012

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. The festive break seemed to make concentration hard and procrastination with mince pies all the more easy so this week we have a bumper offering of reviews from the past two weeks' worth of deliveries for your pleasure! Happy New Year!


CAPTAIN AMERICA #5
Writer: Ed Brubaker
Art: Steve McNiven, Giuseppe Camuncoli, Jay Leisten, Matteo Buffagni, Justin Ponsor & Laura Martin
Marvel $3.99

Matt C: Two issues of Captain America in the same week? Something’s obviously gone a bit wrong somewhere and that something becomes pretty apparent once you check the credits and realise McNiven had a fair bit of help getting this issue in the can. No disrespect intended to Camuncoli, but his style is different enough to McNiven’s that it really jars once we start hopping back and forth from one artist to the next after the halfway point. I might (might!) have been able to let it slide if the story was up to scratch, but unfortunately it’s not. After a shaky start this arc looked like it was going somewhere at midway point but it lost its spark almost as quickly as it found it. Brubaker is looking more and more like he’s going on autopilot with this title now; it’s becoming a little more like a straight-up superhero book, and the shadier aspects that appealed so much look like they’ll be headed to the Winter Soldier series when that comes up. That’s a dead cert on my pull-list, and after knocking Captain America & Bucky on the head I’m wondering how many star-spangled comics I need on a monthly basis. 4/10

Stewart R: 2011 has been the year that has seen Steve Rogers profile increase significantly in the Marvel Universe and also on the shelves in terms of numbers of publications featuring his appearances. The problem for me is that I thought the Captain America title was firing at its best back when Brubaker was in charge but it was Bucky wearing that famous uniform in pretty much just one main title. This final chapter of the 'American Dreamers' arc is a reasonable finale but I’ve been underwhelmed by the whole thing anyway. I get what Brubaker is trying to do by inflicting Steve with possibly the biggest weakness he could carry - doubt - but the overriding plot about the re-emergence of Hydra - who seem a touch lightweight to me here - and faces from Cap and Fury’s WW2 past just failed to be gripping at any point; a touch strange considering the noir pedigree of the writer and what he’s accomplished previously. While I’ll happily look at McNiven’s art whenever he’s got something to offer, this is far from his best work and I’m not convinced he was a perfect fit here... which is alright anyway considering that Camuncoli comes in halfway through here and doesn’t quite get things right either. Something of a juddering issue in a stuttering run which confirms that I made the right choice in not picking up #6 as well this week. 5/10


CAPTAIN AMERICA #6
Writer: Ed Brubaker
Art: Alan Davis, Mark Farmer & Laura Martin
Marvel $3.99

Matt C: Maybe if I’d had a month’s gap between #5 and #6 I may have offered more leeway, but as it stands – and I say this with a tinge of sadness – it’s time to remove this book from my pull-list. The double-whammy of mediocrity has really hit home. This is a (relatively) better issue than its predecessor but when you compare it to Brubaker’s initial run of 30-odd issues, it doesn’t come close. It feels like he’s just going through the motions now, essentially phoning it in. Alan Davis brings a touch of class to the proceedings but there’s no edge to the story here and there’s a real sense of ‘been there, done that’. If it was a $2.99 book I might have considered giving it the benefit of the doubt out of loyalty to what was, not that long ago, the best superhero book on the stands, but if Marvel are going to stringently hold to their $3.99 price point for their top tier titles then my wallet’s helping me to make a decision I may or may not regret down the line. 5/10


SECRET AVENGERS #20
Writer: Warren Ellis
Art: Alex Maleev & Nick Filardi
Marvel $3.99

James R: What an issue to sign off on. At this moment in time, it's tough to say when we'll see Warren Ellis writing a comic again - Fell is allegedly coming back sometime soonish but Anna Mercury and Doktor Sleepless have been added to Ellis' AWOL list. So for now, this final Global Frequency style issue is a fine reminder of what Ellis can do. I'm a sucker for a time-travel story, and this is a corker. Black Widow makes a last minute escape from a mission gone wrong due to the 'Escape Hatch' - a nifty time travel device. She finds herself thrown five years in the past, and we then join her attempt to alter history and save the team. Ellis shows how good he is by making every panel count, and jamming each page with great ideas. Alex Maleev also does a great job illustrating the temporal toing and froing (at one point, drawing the past as a newspaper comic strip, Modesty Blaise style, to reflect the era). If there's a complaint, one could say that it's only nominally a Secret Avengers tale - Black Widow could easily have been any number of characters - but that is nit-picking on my part. A treat from first page to last, and as excited as I am to see Rick Remender take over writing duties here, this was a brilliant finale to Ellis' mini-run. 9/10

Matt C: After last month’s knockout issue, it begs the question, has Ellis been saving the best till last? On the evidence of this done-in-one instalment he most definitely has as it’s another cracker. The Black Widow has to prevent the death of her teammates by embarking on a time-hopping mission where she must alter the past without damaging the timestream. It’s an ingeniously constructed plot and Ellis shows that he’s one of the few writers working in comics today who can pull something really unexpected and revitalising out of the hat (just a shame he’s so slack with a lot of his other series). Maleev always turns in something impressive, and while he steps back from the photorealistic style employed on Scarlet he still has plenty of tricks in his repertoire, and here we see him use a nifty spin on those newspaper spy strips from way back when. After not the most convincing of starts Ellis has gone on to deliver some blinding issues of Secret Avengers, which for my money remains the only essential Avengers book on the stands. 9/10


THE ACTIVITY #1
Writer: Nathan Edmondson
Art: Mitch Gerads & Kyle Latino
Image $3.50

Stewart R: This debut feels like that first 15 minutes of new espionage TV series - we get a brief demonstration sequence which highlights the skillset of the team involved and then we get to meet the people behind those abilities. That in itself could be shrugged off as being clich├ęd but to be honest I haven’t read anything like this - outside of the larger than life pages of GI Joe perhaps - in quite some time and found it quite refreshing. Edmondson elects to keep things brief and gives Gerads a fair amount to carry with his art in the early stages where he has to deal with action and more concentrated moments of emotion to show what The Activity have been through in the recent past. I like the fact that there’s little in the way of gung-ho bravado to be found amongst the team members and strange as it is to say I also like the fact that it feels that we’re reading about a group of people simply doing their jobs rather than ‘saving the world’ or ‘fighting a war’. There is of course the slight feeling that something else is going on behind the scenes but Edmondson resists the urge to grab it from his bag of tricks and rub it in our faces like other writers might have. Certainly a sturdy debut effort, not mind-blowing but high in promise. 7/10


WOLVERINE & THE X-MEN #3
Writer: Jason Aaron
Art: Chris Bachalo, Duncan Rouleau, Matteo Scalera & Various
Marvel $3.99

Matt C: I was really resistant of this title at first. Bar one outstanding instalment I felt X-Men: Schism was a bit patchy and I wasn’t thoroughly convinced Aaron could get me interested in the mainstream X-Men universe again - there was still a lot of the po-faced posturing in evidence that had turned me off the franchise several years ago. But people we’re giving it the tumbs up and while I wasn’t completely sold on the first issue, the second was a blast, and then there’s this one, the clincher. It’s seems that Aaron is channelling a kind of contagious energy throughout the pages (matched by Bachalo’s frenetic art), dousing everything in genuine humour, the end result being a thrilling and funny book that somehow returns to the core idea of the X-Men while giving the impression of reinvention at the same time. It carries with it a very similar vibe to Aaron’s massively overlooked Astonishing Spider-Man & Wolverine miniseries from last year, and just as that book did, this one will leave you grinning from ear to ear. This may not be what everyone wants from an X-book, but for me it’s a thoroughly refreshing reintroduction to the mutated corner of the Marvel Universe, and if Aaron can sustain this level of fun throughout the series then I’ll definitely be sticking around. 9/10


AVENGERS: THE CHILDREN’S CRUSADE #8
Writer: Allan Heinberg
Art: Jim Cheung, Mark Morales, John Livesay, Justin Ponsor & Paul Mounts
Marvel $3.99

Stewart R: I’m not convinced that the upcoming Avengers vs X-Men event is going to much cop and a part of that is down to just how well Heinberg has been doing with this drawn out event - this pretty much has been Avengers vs X-Men for most of the series! He’s dealing with a wide and varied cast, managing to keep those ‘talking head’ moments punchy and relevant, and delivers a constant sense of tension bubbling throughout because of the implications that he has brought to the party through the resurrection of the Scarlett Witch. I’ll admit that Wiccan’s constant, unblinking devotion to his (possible) mother is getting a touch long in the tooth now but thankfully Heinberg addresses that as Speed and he wheel round on the X-Men and Avengers and ask exactly what their plan for the Scarlett Witch is other than capture her. It’s a nice look at the path of redemption that oh, so many heroes have had to tread in their careers and asks questions about just where the line should be drawn for unforgivable acts of destruction/evil. Heinberg importantly manages to make this feel like an event, large in scope, important in consequence and that’s something that can’t be said of the publisher’s Summer tentpole efforts. As for Jim Cheung’s art? Bloody awesome innit!? 8/10


SPACEMAN #3
Writer: Brian Azzarello
Art: Eduardo Risso & Patricia Mulvihill
DC/Vertigo $2.99

Stewart R: I’m really starting to get into this strange tale of kidnapping in the distant future. The altered dialect that Azzarello has come up with was difficult to grasp when reading the debut but three issues in and I’m fully in the flow when reading it and it really does set this apart from other comics that look at times far ahead. I also like how he looks at the way the media tends to work with Tara’s famous, adoptive parents using the public eye to appeal for her return, all the while thinking about their image and that helps to highlight just how famous Tara is and how valuable she appears to be to several different parties. The interesting diversions come through Orson’s dreams/memories where we get to catch glimpses of him and his crew mates toiling away in harsh conditions, presumably out in the further solar system and Azzarello links that into a neat twist which should certainly complicate our protagonist’s task of protecting his young ward. A third of the way through the story and I’m definitely locked in to pick up the remaining six issues. 8/10


FLASH #4
Writer: Francis Manapul & Brian Buccellato
Art: Francis Manapul & Brian Buccellato
DC $2.99

James R: The new year kicks off with the Flash creative team still producing the goods. There's nothing particularly new I want to say about this title, but I'm making it my personal mission to make sure that it gets the readership the book deserves. Seeing that - when we cut down to it - comics were born to be a disposable medium, and superhero books are often derided for being childish, it's a book like this that elevates them to the realm of art. Manapul's art is a joy to behold, and every issue, he and Brian Buccellato find new ways to utilize the graphic medium to tell a brilliant story. This issue only sees Barry Allen in a cameo role, as we find out the truth behind Mob Rule, and their increasingly desperate bid for survival. From beginning to end, it’s a non-stop blast of great ideas - I know I should just revel in the here and now, but with each passing instalments I'm hoping that Manapul and Buccellato have got a cornucopia of tales planned for the Scarlet Speedster. If you haven't already, at $2.99, this book is definitely worth adding to your pull list! 9/10


G.I. JOE: A REAL AMERICAN HERO #173
Writer: Larry Hama
Art: Ron Wagner, Wil Rosado, S L Gallant, Brian Shearer & Priscilla Tramontano
IDW $3.99

Stewart R: Quite the mixed bag from Hama and Co this month with strong elements scattered in and around some weaker storytelling. The weaker side of things comes in the form of the Joes armament contract-selling antics in the fictional Emirate of Benzheen. I appreciate that such storylines about the selling of hardware have been seen before but it just feels mistimed at a point when this title had been riding through a period of consistent quality. Of course it all then boils down to the somewhat predictable ‘against all-odds’ scrap that we’ll see unfold next issue but it feels like Hama on autopilot. I’m also not keen on the whole cyborg tangent the Arashikage clan plot takes as that seems to be going just a step too far. BATs (Battle Android Troopers) are one thing but cyborgs just seems a little too sci-fi here. There are however moments of triumph as Sneak Peak, already jaded with guilt from his mission to Darklonia, has to deal with another problem of a personal nature, and then there’s that scene with the ninjas and Cobra Commander. I’m always impressed that in this world that he pretty much created, Hama can still simplify things to raw emotional pieces that really resonate and he and the art team pull together 5 panels of incredibly effective shock and sadness. Bit of a mixture so 6/10 it is.


AQUAMAN #4
Writer: Geoff Johns
Art: Ivan Reis, Joe Prado, Ever Ferreira & Rod Reis
DC $2.99

Matt C: Is that it? Well, excuse me if I was expecting a whole lot more! I guess maybe I got the impression that the New 52 books we’re all heading for initial 6-issue arcs so I was a bit surprised to see things wrapped up here, and wrapped up so quickly at that. The relatively slow-build of the preceding three instalments suggested great things were on the horizon, and I thought we’d get something far more engaging than what amounts to nothing more than an Aliens rip-off. Reis continues to impress with the ‘widescreen’ visuals but Johns’ plot has been, strangely, rather flimsy. That said, up to this point there’s been a lot to enjoy (certainly more than I ever expected from an Aquaman book!) and seeing what Johns has lined up has me thinking this less-than-impressive issue can be written off as a teething problem and not something more worrying. 5/10


VENGEANCE #6
Writer: Joe Casey
Art: Nick Dragotta & Brad Simpson
Marvel $3.99

Stewart R: For a comic that sprang out of nothing more than the six Gabriele Dell’otto images that eventually made up the series’ covers - the epilogue note from Tom Brennan explaining that is a nice touch - this has been quite something! Admittedly not the strongest chapter of the run, this finale is a fine send-off for a story that has spanned the globe and dimensions in the course and yet focused on teams of heroes and villains who remain under the radar. Casey elects to involve Latveria directly in proceedings and that provides the perfect battleground for the chaos that ensues as all the various threads come explosively together. The action is superbly displayed by Dragotta who has excelled throughout and his standout work here features when the teenage In-betweener goes through something of a metamorphosis. That transformation is matched with some neat writing from Casey looking at the balance that comes from that character’s existence as well as how the Teen Brigade walk a similarly knife-edged line in their operations. There are one or two threads that remain floating free to the last page but I’m really hoping that their presence simply means that we might get a follow up from this great creative pairing. Definitely pick this up in collected form, guys! 8/10


GREEN LANTERN CORPS #4
Writer: Peter J. Tomasi
Art: Fernando Pasarin, Scott Hanna & Gabe Eltaeb
DC $2.99

Stewart R: Tomasi clearly seems intent on making this a book about the wider Corps, keeping the human Lanterns that we know and love prominent but not overshadowing the other personalities amongst the ranks. With John Stewart’s survivors struggling to keep themselves alive when surrounded by their near-unstoppable foes, Tomasi shows the extremes to which the strange Keepers will go to make their point and leaves it to Pasarin to show them in splash-based horrific glory. It’s a good marker that really shows the level of threat present and is then complimented by Guy Gardner’s harsh interrogation treatment of his prisoner. Thrown amongst it all we get to see the rest of that initial Lantern team from Xabas going through various forms of post-traumatic stress syndrome and if I didn’t know better I’d say that we have a writer who is drawing clever parallels to the conflicts that Western nations have waged in the past 10-20 years here. That may bend some noses out of joint but I think, when handled so precisely and brilliantly as it seems to be here, it makes for one heck of a thrilling, emotional read. So good on so many levels. 9/10


HAUNT #20
Writer: Joe Casey
Art: Nathan Fox & FCO Plascencia
Image $2.99

Stewart R: To cross media boundaries a bit I think the famous phrase to sum up the change in Haunt the best would be “We’re not in Kansas anymore, Toto!” In one fell swoop Joe Casey has taken all that he required from the previous work of Robert Kirkman and transferred it to a very different landscape indeed. To accompany this shift in locale there has also been an unexplained change in Kurt Kilgore - ghostly half of the Haunt team - which sees him being strangely cryptic and somewhat unfazed by the torture his brother is being put through. With Casey at the helm I’m sure that his bizarre attitude will be explained in the not-too-distant future and that might possibly tie-in when we get a closer look at the mysterious Still Harvey Tubman who gets a great introduction here. The Second Church are cast as brooding, iron-fisted captors but we’re thankfully far from cackling despot territory yet and I’d be surprised if we ended up with anything as simple and trite as that from this writer. Fox’s art is a little confusing in a couple of places but aside from that it just feels ‘right’ on this title, especially when depicting the strange architecture of the Radical City of the Second Church. A sturdy issue to end 2011 with and I’m optimistic on where this creative team may lead Haunt in 2012. 8/10


AMERICAN VAMPIRE #22
Writer: Scott Snyder
Art: Rafael Albuquerque & Dave McCaig
DC/Vertigo $2.99

James R: This month's American Vampire sees Scott Snyder take a grand narrative leap forward to the 1950s. He’s huge Elvis fan and his love for the rock & roll era is clear in these pages. We're introduced to a new protagonist in the shape of Travis Piper - a rebellious teenager turned vampire hunter as he chases down the vampire responsible for killing his family. The fun here is seeing Snyder brilliantly use a number of ‘50s tropes - Rebel Without A Cause style teenage rebellion and drag racing - and adding a bloodsucking twist to them. Rafael Albuquerque has been excellent throughout this series, and it's good to have him back on the pencils here as he delivers both the ‘50s aesthetic and the action with aplomb. After the breathtaking miniseries Survival of the Fittest I was slightly worried that Snyder couldn't keep up both the breakneck charge through American history and the high standard that's quickly become his trademark. More fool I, as after this issue it's clear that this racer has got plenty more gas in the tank. I advise everyone to get hip to this jive daddy-o. 9/10


BATMAN: THE DARK KNIGHT #4
Writer: Paul Jenkins & David Finch
Art: David Finch, Richard Friend & Jeromy Cox
DC $2.99

Stewart R: Darn it. Before this point, this had been one of the DC titles that I was picking up but was planning on possibly shedding once the first 6 issues had passed. Now, following a such a strong turn, I will probably find that hard to do! While it was kind of telegraphed through the past few issues just who could well be responsible for the chaos unfurling in Gotham and beyond, the true success here is Jenkins delivering Bruce’s inner-monologuing throughout as he weighs up just how much is riding upon his success in bringing this reign of terror to a quick end. In the space of just a few pages Jenkins addresses the fact that Alfred is in to the twilight of his days and I appreciate him doing this as it’s an issue that both Bruce and the reader don’t ever really like to think about. He also looks at the complicated partnership that Bruce shares with Jim Gordon in both of his guises as Gotham philanthropic lynch-pin and titular Dark Knight and, while I’m not yet sold on the romantic interest involved here, looks at our hero’s reticence to let love into his life. There’s plenty of action that also takes place and Finch is certainly producing work worthy of gracing any Batbook in the range! A definite improvement and worthy of 9/10


AMAZING SPIDER-MAN #676
Writer: Dan Slott
Art: Humberto Ramos, Victor Olazaba & Edgar Delgado
Marvel $3.99

Stewart R: Bit of four dollar throwaway fun here. Also a bit of a cheat really considering that Spidey appears on the cover but doesn’t appear within the book itself! Nonetheless there’s something irresistible about a villainous royal rumble and that Dan Slott is clearly has fun while laying a smattering of groundwork for what is to come in 2012. He brings ‘the band back together’ so to speak by reforming all of the members of the original Sinister Six under the leadership of the physically failing Doctor Octopus for them to then take on the infamous Intelligencia. It’s all good fun as the two groups fight for control of a powerful weapon known as the Zero Cannon which jettisons anything within its target area into outer space. That does leave a few questions over the fates of certain individuals and Slott doesn’t go into any further details on that point. I’m also not quite sure on his characterization of the new M.O.D.O.K. who seems a touch too much like the old giant-faced terror for my liking. Small niggles aside it is an enjoyable read and Ramos takes Slott’s plotting and script and fires in with his usual high quality visuals. 7/10

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