FINAL CRISIS #2: I don't think people are claiming in bad faith that the reason they're not enjoying this series is that they can't understand what's going on in it--it takes some careful attention to figure out how everything fits together--but I'm enjoying it so much that I keep having the impulse to say "okay, what exactly don't you understand? I'll try to explain it with reference only to stuff in this series itself!" As far as I can tell, all the information that's being withheld from the reader is being withheld in the interest of suspense. But it's also true that making readers fill in the blanks is Morrison's big narrative strategy here. The best bottom-dropping-out moment in this issue works by omission: when the scene shifts to Turpin about a third of the way through the issue, he's still on the trail of the missing kids he was looking for last issue, and somewhere in the middle of that sequence you're supposed to remember that--oh, crap--he already found them, so something is desperately wrong here. (The final-page reveal would've been a lot more effective if it hadn't been spoiled two months ago.) I think it's interesting that Dan DiDio was asking audience members at Wizard World what this series was about, and got a bunch of different answers; I'm guessing that the elevator-pitch premise of Final Crisis is going to be part of what's eventually revealed, so in the meantime Morrison is giving us a lot of pyrotechnics to keep it entertaining. And it works: the Big Science Action/Super Young Team/Sonny Sumo sequence at the beginning is a great set-piece and sets up a whole lot of intriguing characters in a bare minimum of space. This is really Excellent stuff, beautifully constructed and drawn, and that Flash cover is just fantastic.
NEW AVENGERS #42/MIGHTY AVENGERS #15: Clever to see these released the same day, because they're two variations on the same formula (they even have a nearly identical "transformation" scene in the middle): the story of how a couple of the Avengers were replaced by Skrulls, surrounded by redrawn sequences from earlier in their respective series that we can now read differently knowing that those characters are Skrulls. John Romita Jr. is credited with "breakdowns" rather than pencils on Mighty Avengers, and it shows--there's nowhere near the detail and expressiveness here that there was in World War Hulk or Kick-Ass, and Klaus Janson and Tom Palmer seem to be working from loose pencils without adding much to them--there's not a lot of definition to the faces and figures, and not a lot of backgrounds. It's Good, if sort of scanty--it reads like a scene that's been fleshed out to a full issue.
The Jim Cheung/John Dell artwork on Mighty Avengers is a lot more effective, in part because it's a lot slicker, and slickness goes well with the "clip show" arrangement of the story. At times, Cheung is like a much less obviously photo-reference-dependent Greg Land, drawing the eye in with lots of soft curves that Justin Ponsor's color-modeling accentuates, but doing very simple panel-to-panel transitions--lots of slow zoom-ins, and a slow pan around the room for a lengthy talking heads scene (a much more straightforward version of the technique Jones uses for the Sonny Sumo sequence in Final Crisis). Still, I'm getting pretty tired of the trick (which we see in the Jessica Drew/Madame Hydra scene here) of repeating a single image to indicate that a conversation has a consistent emotional tenor. Cheung's talented enough at drawing facial expressions that he shouldn't have to resort to cut-and-paste. I'm also pretty confused by what's going on in the final scene--so Jessica's present at Genosha as House of M begins? can someone explain what's going on, please?--and as good a line as Maria Hill's "my spider-sense is tingling about you" is, it's not a concept she'd have, is it? And I'd like to point out that, as far as I know, Columbia University has no science buildings with 12-foot picture windows featuring a majestic view of the midtown Manhattan skyline. Quite Good, anyway.
MADAME XANADU #1: I picked this up because I usually like Matt Wagner's comics and the cover was pretty, but man is this disappointing--an unbroken string of lifeless Olde Tymes fantasy clichés with incredibly annoying mock-high diction ("He ignores my wardings as if crossing a rain puddle. And transmorphs cold steel into living flesh... with but a wave of his hand"). I kept expecting a Thunderskull-style caption to read "Erstwhile..." Amy Reeder Hadley's artwork is smooth and likeable, but I agree with Diana: there's nothing to hold onto here. Awful.
MCSWEENEY'S #27: This is not a comic book, and it came out a few weeks ago with barely any notice in the comics blogosphere. This issue of the different-format-every-time magazine is a slipcased $24 set of three books: a collection of short stories (including one by Stephen King), a book of image + text + humor pieces that are mostly by artists with some connection to the fine-art world (including a few Joe Brainard Nancy images, Raymond Pettibon, Jeffrey Brown, Paul Hornschemeier, etc.), and the volume that will probably be of greatest interest to comics types: Autophobia, an 80-page sketchbook by Art Spiegelman. A note explains that it's a reproduction of most of a sketchbook he kept between March and May of last year to get rid of a fear of drawing he'd developed; "since cartoonists are supposed to work for publication," he concludes, "I figured I would complete my private gesture by shaming myself in public."
What's peculiar about this sketchbook is that most of its drawings are, in one way or another, about Spiegelman's anxiety about comics, drawing, and public recognition: the first one is called "Finished Art," and it's a picture of anthropomorphized comics pages that are lying on the ground, with "all their spontaneity beaten out of them." Then there are children "lost, deep in the forest of marks," some self-loathing self-portraits, a couple of pages in tribute to Dick Briefer's Frankenstein comics, an inspired little doodle called "On the Corner of Steinberg and Death," and so on. Spiegelman's such a natural cartoonist it's sort of painful to see him force himself to draw, working past the expectations of an audience that he's placed on himself, maybe more than anyone else has placed them on him; if cartoonists are "supposed to work for publication," which I don't know about, then it would follow that all artists are supposed to work for some kind of public attention. But that doesn't mean they don't also get to make art for themselves. Stumbling across this sketchbook would be a pleasure, even if--especially if, actually--you didn't know who Spiegelman was. Seeing it presented with this kind of deluxe frame and ritualized self-abasement actually does make it a little embarrassing. So I think that averages out to an Okay.