Coming Up From The Crack Pipe: Reviews of 5/4 Comics

I'm sure Hibbs will be around sooner rather than later (I'm betting Free Comic Book Day followed by Mother's Day put him on the ropes, but not down for the count), but here's how things stand with me. After three months of staying away from video games, I fired up the PS2 again. So maybe the books this week didn't wow me because my brain was on God of War, the game I can only describe as a Ray Harryhausen movie on crack—highly recommended for those who would enjoy such a thing. And speaking of crack, I owe a big ol' debt of gratitude to Rob Bennett for turning me on to The Wire. Not quite done with Season One, but the first four discs have some of the best TV I've seen in a while. If you like crime novels that also do the heavy lifting of character studies and social analysis, this is the show for you. It's really, really fucking good. (Oh, and I'd like to re-use that God of War excuse, please, to aplogize for not commenting on the ol' Haloscan this week. Normally, I try not to leave anyone who makes a comment dangling but when you're stuck getting your ass beat by a unending wave of fire-breathing three-headed hell hounds, it gets way too easy to let time get away from you…)


So. Now that you know where my brain is at, here's some comic book reviews:


AMAZING FANTASY #8: Picked this up because I kinda liked last issue and, surprise, I kinda liked this issue. A lot of the little traps that Arana fell into are neatly avoided here: rather than just being the dutiful agent with the all-knowing back-up team, Scorpion has her own agenda and knowledge base that she’s willing to work with. Yeah, there were the occasional head-scratchers here and there, but very highly OK.


BATMAN DARK DETECTIVE #1: My expectations were not high, so it’s not surprising this managed to more or less clear them. Marshall Rogers is one strange artist—great design sense, nice attention to detail, passable body language, and then suddenly there’ll be a panel or two where everything is utterly lifeless—it’s like an illustration of two mannequins facing each other. Very odd. As for Englehart, I was (and am) a huge fan of his '70s Marvel work but remember work in the '80s and '90s that! became! a! little! heavy! on!--well, you get the idea. Fortunately, people here do more than exclaim, and I like his take on The Joker. Is the whole thing still a bit anachronistic and limp? Yes, and yet I would again throw this on the high side of OK because I enjoyed reading it.


BLOOD OF THE DEMON #3: Oy, this issue. I don't even know where to begin. The capper for me, however, was Batman refusing to get the League involved because Gotham is his city (lame, but in character, I'd say), Zatanna deciding he's mismatched and contacting the League anyway (okay, gotcha), and then a page showing Zatanna seeing that all the members of the League are fighting menaces of their own. Great. Does Zatanna then go on to help anyone? Take the three minutes to help each hero, get the JLA together, and then transport them to help Batman? No, Zatanna apparently decides to go back to bed, or check her email, or something. So why was it brought up? Because Byrne only wanted the scene to appease crotchety guys who go apeshit when it's not explained why Batman doesn't call the League—people, in short, like John Byrne. In the store, Hibbs seemed to think it was OK, I definitely thought it was Awful.


CONCRETE HUMAN DILEMMA #5: Plot-hammered, badly paced, and Chadwick runs a letter in the back that really seems to take the piss out of the sterilization arguments used in the series: in short, not really what I would call a return to form. Weirdly, I find I still have some emotional connection to the characters (I was a very casual Concrete reader at best, way back when) so I sorta hope Chadwick tries again soon—maybe more time at the drawing board will shake off a lot of those faults. 'Til then—Very low Eh.


DETECTIVE COMICS #806: Obviously, I missed an issue. Or two. And yet, I can't guarantee that this would have made any sense at all even if I had read them. I thought this arc was going to be Batman meets Bonfire of the Vanities; it seems, instead, a bit more like Batman meets Invasion of the Body Snatchers via some of the more boring stretches of The Godfather. Or something. Take the word Eh, reverse it, and you've got the first two letters of "Help!"


EMBROIDERIES OGN: After two exceptionally strong volumes of Persepolis, Marjane Satrapi follows up with an exceptionally well-written, crudely drawn quasi-sequel, as a group of Iranian women trade stories of love and sex. The book's gotten some guff because of the art, and rightly so: the visual-verbal blend is outrageously out of whack; anatomy's off kilter; page layouts are cramped; the women hold their heads up at weird angles and seem to talk out of their throats—everything about it suggests either a book that was rushed to market or an artist whose range of talent is dramatically limited. But, honestly? I don't read Jules Feiffer's work for the art either: I read it for the keen sense of character, irony and insight into the condition of a gender and a culture. (For ten points of extra credit, compare and contrast Feiffer's neurotically anxious and arrogant men with Satrapi's scathingly candid and jocular women. Pick up your papers and begin.) Admittedly, my employee discount might have taken the sting out of this, but if money matters to you, wait for the softcover and/or check it out of a library. You should like it fine. Good.


ESSENTIAL DEFENDERS VOL. 1 TPB: Thanks to this, along with the reprint of Tuk The Cave Boy that also came out this week, I am absolutely convinced the Marvel Reprint Department runs on a series of dares and wagers. Unless I'm mistaken, this is the third consecutive Essential to include The Incredible Hulk #126, a hat trick I can see no other explanation for save mischievousness. While this material really shows how far the mainstream's come in more than thirty years (Hibbs was reading some of this stuff aloud in the store on Friday, to hilarious effect), it also shows us how much ground comics book stories themselves used to be able to cover—a Lovecraft derived Dr. Strange story becomes a series of interlocking one-shots spread across three different titles to create a brisk little mini-epic while still juggling a subplot or two from each book. I'm also a sucker for how Marvel books were much more eager to throw their influences into the mix (superheroes fighting Lovecraftian Undying Ones? It'd be awesome if only the artists' interpretation of the latter didn't resemble deformed cat people…) While you have to have a strong constitution (or stronger predisposition) to handle so many pages written in faux Stanglish, I'm enjoying this alot. Good, but surely not for everyone.


FELT TRUE TALES OF UNDERGROUND HIP HOP ONE SHOT: I made it about a third of the way through. Although I love Mahfood's work, a lack of familiarity with the main characters really hindered this for me—considering that they are "two of the hottest rappers in the underground hip hop scene today," I don't feel like I can merely chalk this up to me being a fogey ("two of the hottest rappers in the underground hip hop scene today" is kinda like saying "well, they're big in Japan…") There are some transcendent points in the book (like all of Mahfood's loving portraits of women for the section "Dirty Girls") but mainly, this seems like the ultimate CD pack-in transmuted into unsuccessful rack fodder. Damn shame, too. Eh.


GLA #2: Humor is not easy: some of the riffs in this I thought were very clever (comparing the superhero loner speech to the "it's not you, it's me" speech, the Magnolia soundtrack gag) and some I thought were very, very lame (that two or three page rejection grid might have worked without the ads breaking it up—maybe—but it sure felt like super-dull filler to me). I actually thought this was more miss than hit, myself, but part of why humor isn't easy is because it's so subjective. A high Eh.


LEX LUTHOR MAN OF STEEL #3: What's really maddening about this is that the scenes between Lex and Bruce were so good. In fact, those may have been some of the best "Bruce Wayne, Playboy" scenes I think I've ever read—Azzarello and Bermejo totally sold me on them. But the rest of the issue, putting aside continuity concerns, was both baffling and/or plain ol' Out Of Character. Batman gets kryptonite so Superman beats the crap out of him and takes it? Winner of this week's "Uhhhh…what?" award. If it hadn't been for those scenes between Bruce and Lex, I'd insist that the DCU file a restraining order on Brian Azzarello. But with those scenes: a very frustrated Eh. (The Shrew has an interesting take on the whole thing, by the way, which may just show me up as a DC dilettante, a title I'd be glad to wear if it meant this stuff could make any sense.)


MATADOR #1: A lot of ground covered in the first issue, which is all to the good, and the art team is having fun playing with the reader's expectations. Can't put my finger on my misgivings—things happen so quickly they're a little flat, maybe, but that's counterbalanced by not being really sure where it's going to go from here—so let's go with a cautious Good.


SEA OF RED #2: Not exactly subtle, is it? What started as kinda clever quickly became kinda obnoxiously dumb. All the smirky in-jokey elements work against, not with, the seriousness of the lead character, and yet nothing ever gets entertainingly insane, the way it might in, say, Eric Powell's hands. I'm at Eh, and ready for things to not get any better, but we'll see.


SEVEN SOLDIERS SHINING KNIGHT #2: First issue didn't work for me, and this didn't either—I still have no sense of who the title character is (even with a character named Guilt working him over), the horse didn't get to talk enough, and the rest of it seemed a mess. Sure, the art was pretty but give the knight a rack and this could have been a Top Cow comic. I'm calling it Awful until I get convinced otherwise.


SHANNA THE SHE DEVIL #4: Cho deliberately chose to make this uninteresting by not being arsed to give anyone apart from the narrator any personality (and that's hardly more than him saying "Holy buckets!" over and fucking over again). And since one or more of these guys dies gorily every issue, it's becoming really, really tedious, too. Although there's nothing in the story that's remotely similar to The Phantom Menace, there's something eerily familiar in paying to watch someone with talent squander tons of pulpy potential. Awful.


SHARKNIFE VOL. 1 OGN: When cornered, I tend to slip in to a high concept babble. For example, I might describe Sharknife as "OMAC meets Iron Wok Jan by way of a Paul Pope influenced graffiti tagger,:" but that certainly wouldn't tell you whether it's good or not. And that's because, frankly, I just don't know. The parts of it I liked, I really liked a lot: its premise is deeply whimsical without, I think, being ironic; the simple giddiness of a fight where finishing moves are performed with hammerhead sharks is infectious; and Corey Lewis does a great job pulling new surprises out of his sleeve just when things might start to feel stale. I couldn't tell a fucking thing that was going on in the fight scenes and yet the sheer kineticism of the design conveyed all the tension and impact needed. But, in the end, it felt a bit like watching three episodes of a giddy Saturday morning cartoon in a row—or maybe like being trapped on a tilt-a-whirl operated by a grinning carnie who didn't much care if I was enjoying myself or not. Sharknife is a helluva ride, but even by the end of its first volume, it's too soon to tell if there's anything more resonant than watching an emerging talent take pleasure in the powers at his command. Good.


SUPERMAN #216: Clearly, this was supposed to come out before Day of Vengeance #1, and, clearly, it would have stunk, anyway. But it might have stunk a little less—the Jean Loring thing, in particular—if DC'd had their scheduling a little more together. And does the Spectre decide to destroy all magic because he gets in a pissing match with Shazam? He's the Spirit of Vengeance, not the Spirit of Pettiness… Throw in a ending where Superman is apparently a mindless husk on an iceberg (making him a fine reader surrogate), and you've got the makings of an Awful little issue.


SWAMP THING #15: I had no idea what was going on, or what the threat might be (giant amoebas that can use refrigerators?), but I liked the struggling guy with the stroke who shirked Linda Holland way back when—it seems like a good direction to go in, although the execution of the rest of this issue suggests an inability to get there (or anywhere) in any coherent fashion. Kinda Awful.


ULTIMATE FANTASTIC FOUR #18: Seemed like a pretty half-hearted attempt to capture the glories of widescreen action (it never got better than that beautiful double-page spread of the shuttle being chased across the desert by that big-ass thing) and/or wrap up the script in about ten minutes. I pretty much blame Kubert, who either thought it'd be funny to put Jawas into script (with gaffi sticks, to boot!) or was on too tight a deadline to design anything new. There were some great little sequences in this arc, but this wrap-up left a bit of a bad taste. Eh.


ULTRA VOL 1 SEVEN DAYS TPB: After enjoying the first two issues of the mini, I decided to wait for the trade and I'm glad I did. This was a strong fun read about three friends dealing with their careers and their love lives after their fortunes are read—that the three friends are superheroines is kind of an odd twist, but one that ends up working out in the long run. It's a quick, slick way to ruminate on class differences and the complexity added to romance as a result of female empowerment in our culture. It's not a particularly deep rumination, mind you, but it helps undercut the occasionally calculated feeling the project sometimes has (probably my own biases). If you're a fan of Bendis's lighter work, you should pick this up. Good.


VILLAINS UNITED #1: I never should have bought the transformation of Catman into a potentially interesting character, and yet I did, which is a testament to Simone's, Eaglesham's and Von Grawbadger's talents. If it wasn't for that, I don't think I could continue to suspend enough disbelief to keep the whole venture going. ("If we succeed, Cheshire, you will get Asia." Wha? All 1.3 billion people are just gonna go along with anything she says or something?) Interesting enough to make me come back for the second issue. OK.


Y THE LAST MAN #33: Too much plot-hammering going on here, I think, even for the old romantic triangle trope. Vaughan's pulled this sort of thing off before but I am currently mightily underwhelmed. Eh.