The Change-Up: Jeff's 3/9 Reviews of 3/8 Books....

Yeah, I had to go pick up a package I had shipped to CE yesterday, and all those bright shiny new comic books were just staring at me, so I figgered, you know, what the hell? AMERICAN VIRGIN #1: Oh, Becky Cloonan, what have you gotten me into? That's not entirely fair; I try to pick up any first issue of a ongoing Vertigo to help give it a little nudge out of the gate, but the draw for me here was Cloonan. I'm impressed the previews led me to believe the storyline was going to go a certain way--it helped keep the turn of events surprising--but overall, I didn't dig this too much. Cloonan's scenes only intermittently show the charm we saw regularly in Demo, probably because the script ricochets through the introduction of eight main characters, two seduction scenes, two rallies, and seven changes of location, with tons of dialogue in every scene. (Little wonder the scene with the bum in the gas station was poorly staged--it's evidence of Cloonan's talent and skill they didn't all turn out like that.) Seagle introduces us to a ton of characters but--again, unsurprisingly, because of the script's speed--none of them seem either likeable or complex: a teen sex comedy on the same subject would hit most of these same notes with only the slightest difference in tone. Only the ending, which is more The Constant Gardener than 40 Days and 40 Nights, gives me any reason to come back for issue #2: one of the things that was effectively conveyed in this issue was Adam's conflation of God and his girlfriend, and it'd be nice if a genuine examination of faith came out of all this--or more chances for Cloonan to cut loose. Technically, this is probably sub-Eh, but first issues of ongoings are almost always choppy, so I'll toe the line at Eh, and see what the next issue brings.

BOMB QUEEN #2: Lord knows, as a big ol' pinko liberal of the San Francisco ilk, I'm down for a book that examines why people tolerate so much blatant corruption in their government. But Jimmie Robinson's mini, about a town under the thumb of a violent supervillain for so long the citizens actually prefer her to the prospect of any real change, can barely pose that quandry, much less ponder a solution with any clarity. And that wouldn't be a problem if all the madcap bombings and killings and superhero fights that fill up the issue were done with any inventiveness but a single page aside, this was just loud, dumb and dull. Reading Bomb Queen is like listening to your neighbor's kid practice heavy metal guitar every day. It may pay off for them somewhere down the line and you've got to admire their moxie, but it's a chore to put up with nonetheless. Awful.

DOWN #4: Not that I'm keeping track, but a little bit of a lag between the first three issues and the last, yeah? It sure seemed like it, and yet the art also seemed very rushed, with the colorist working overtime to keep the art from feeling flat. Lord knows, I'm all for women with pigtails shooting men in the head, but this seemed too compressed to have any real weight: I neither felt like Deanna became truly corrupted, and the only revelation about her character--that's she's willing to further to make sure that the people who deserve to die get killed than anyone might have imagined--lacks any oomph to it. It's merely a case of the baddest of the badasses winning. Maybe I'm missing nuances to be seen in the trade, but I also found this sub-Eh.

EXTERMINATORS #3: Feels like the third strike to me. A seduction scene where two characters who don't know each other talk about cockroach mating habits and end up having sex is straight out of a Revenge of the Nerds movie, but I'd be hard-pressed to say it was any worse or less realistic than any other scene in this issue. I firmly believe there is a Great American Graphic Novel to be written about pest controllers in modern day Los Angeles, and I am now firmly convinced this will never be it. Bummer. Awful.

FANTASTIC FOUR FIRST FAMILY #1: Great art is a wonderful thing. Without Chris Weston and Gary Erskine's gorgeous art, I would have found this story perfectly serviceable, albeit a little padded. The idea of setting it between the events we know about in FF #1 seems sensible, and there's no real bones of contention to pick about the characterization. I also liked the decision to break it into chapters like the early FF issues did, and working the name of a Master P song into one of those is, uh, commendable, or something. But at this point, it's all about the art. Weston and Erskine excel in technical detail and identifiably real people--they're a dream match for the Fantastic Four, and this issue gets a high Good from me just from the look of it. Fans of the FF and/or Ministry of Space should check this out. It's lovely.

FELL #4: Reveals the only real flaw with the format Ellis and Templesmith have cooked up--if there's no story for them to turn their super-compressed chops on, it's kind of underwhelming. The issue does other pieces of work, mind you: it establishes Fell as a guy who's willing to cheat the rules to put away a bad guy, and it continues to embellish Snowtown's many urban failures. But you know when you watch an episode of a TV show you really like, and it's not nearly as good as the previous episodes, but you like it anyway because you've developed a fondness for the show itself? This is that episode. Good, but not great.

FIRESTORM #23: I thought I'd try this issue as a jumping-on point since I haven't really read anything since issue #2 or #7, or something. And it was perfectly serviceable, even if the final twist seemed lifted from the old Rutger Hauer/Mimi Rogers flick Wedlock. I worry a bit about having every piece of drama in the issue (crazy missles! strange attackers! arbitrary distances!) come from everything but the main characters, but hopefully that'll be unique to this issue. A high OK.

HARD TIME SEASON TWO #4: The most ambitious of the four issues, and, unfortunately, suffers for it: we've got Cindy's "origin," increasing prison tensions, the Cutter subplot and its still unexplained effects on Ethan, all jammed into 22 pages. It kept me turning the pages, certainly, but I never felt like I could synch up with the material. As for the majority of it, Cindy's story, it was sympathetic but unoriginal, the kind of thing that gets points for trying but not much else. I've been enjoying this since the reboot, so I'm hoping this is just a momentary Eh in the overall picture.

HYSTERIA ONE MAN GANG #1: This is a very much a glass half-empty/half-full comic (as is usually the case when the storytelling is first-rate but the story isn't). The idea of a guy who is so tough he's a one-man gang is funny and you gotta like a gang who wears eggs on their shirts (it's like The Warriors carried to even more absurd extremes), but there's no characterization, there's no story, and just because the obnoxious child ward is beind done so deliberately (at an almost Kricfalusian level), it doesn't make her any less obnoxious. Still, those action sequences are pleasingly kinetic. If you've got money in your budget earmarked for supporting new talent, you could much worse than picking up this very OK book, but it's kinda slight.

POWERS #17: Probably not really jumping the shark as much as much as working its way up to a misguided third act but I find that cold comfort. I care about the characters enough to hang around for the ride, but giving both cops Powers is one of those hooks that manages to be both utterly unique and utterly generic at the same time. (How many movies have we seen where the third act utterly subverts the first?) Despite the bitching, this gets a Good because of high quality execution and that Oeming interview of Ellis on the letters page that I didn't bother to read on the Web. It's very good reading, and I felt like I learned more about Ellis than in his last ten interviews put together.

PULSE #14: Made me all nostalgic for those issues of Alias, but the emphasis is different since Jessica is no longer as much of a fuck-up: not even in the recounted flashback to when she was fucked up, is she a fuck-up. That's not really a big problem or anything. I mean, it's not like even the worst fuck-up is a mess 24/7, but I liked Jessica much more when she was a mess and you didn't quite know why. So this is a pretty good place to wrap things up, more than likely, and certainly an OK issue, but it would've been nice to be all verklempt about it, and I wasn't.

RETRO ROCKET #1: I liked Tony Bedard's writing on Exiles enough to check this out, despite not being a Mecha fan, and I thought it was decent: Bedard lays out his setting with a lot of skill, and the character and situation of Retro is nicely set-up without being too over-explained. And Jason Orfalas' art is elegant and clean, with a lovely color palette backing things up. If there are problems, it's that the conflict isn't particularly clear--Retro's biggest problem seems to be that the people around him are dicks and talk openly about mothballing him--making this read feel a bit too lightweight. But it's a Good first issue, and if people like me, who lack the giant-robot-appreciation gene, enjoyed it, hopefully the people this is aimed at will really like it.

SENSATIONAL SPIDER-MAN #24: "His webline-advantageous!" "His webline-advantageous!" Come on, Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa, you know you want to write it, so go ahead. Every other element of this feels like an issue from Mr. McF's million selling Spider-Man title so why not? (Christ, I feel like Jimmy Stewart in Vertigo badgering Kim Novak to put on Madeline's dress...) I can undersand the appeals of going retro (hey, if they put anyone on this team that draws like Ross Andru and Mike Esposito, I'll be the last one you'll hear complaining) but the stinkiness of McFarlane's run hasn't really had time to fade. Give it another three or four hundred years, maybe. Awful.

SEVEN SOLDIERS FRANKENSTEIN #3: Wow. In this issue, Grant Morrison wields the exclamation point like it was a barbarian sword, lopping off the top of my head and exposing my brain to a frightening new world. I think I liked this issue even better than the first, since the enemy is sentient water(!) and you've got the Bride of Frankenstein finally showing up. Plus, just the other day I was thinking about that golden age Human Torch story where all the pets of the world turn on their owners, and how much that story realy disturbed me as a kid even though the threat seemed, compared to Galactus, relatively lame. And here's a lovely updating complete with carnivorous hamsters, angry bunnies, and--well, I dont want to give page 14 away but I both laughed and shivered a little bit (and then laughed a lot more). This is my dream superhero comic for 2006 and between it, Nextwave, Shaolin Cowboy, and other titles like Daughters of the Dragon, I feel like this might be a new trend. (Maybe, I dunno, the "New Fun" or something...) Anyway, whatever you call it, I thought this was absurd and entertaining and Excellent, and I heartily exhort you to go get it. More like this, please.

SEVEN SOLDIERS MISTER MIRACLE #4: Morrison goes for a series of super-tight switcheroos--maybe Grant's the one escaping? First, from Kirby's New Gods mythos? Then from his own Seven Soldiers storyline?--that aims at catapaulting this right into Flex Mentallo territory, where the hero's resurrection transforms the first three issues into a metaphor for the resurrected character's psychological imprisonment (or, depending on how you look at it, it was always that way)/ I don't think it works nearly as well good ol' Flex, but it's kind of touching to see Chaos Magician Morrison craft one of the most Christian comics I've ever read. And there's tons of wonderful ideas and lines in here: when Dark Side says, "If the god-machine has merged her consciousness with his, then she too is doomed. There can be no escape from Omega. Omeaga is the life trap!" it's about as as close to my long dreamed-of Phil Dick/Jack Kirby collaboration as I'm going to get. Very Good, although I think it won't rate nearly as high with Seven Soldiers apostles and agnostic New Gods fans.

TEEN TITANS #33: Essentially a lead-in to IC #6 although the resonances with the Titans Future storyline makes it a good fit as an issue of Teen Titans. And if you're not as violently tired of the twin caption narration of Loeb's Superman/Batman, you'll have more patience at seeing it used, to even far less effect, here with Nightwing and Superboy. Marv Wolfman co-wrote the script which explains why everybody seems even more whiney and nearly every character has a a scene where they put a hand to their head in pain or angst, but the mix of plot references, character appreciation, and mutual admiration shows the hand of co-scripter Johns. Despite my bitchiness, it's probably OK if you're still emotionally invested in IC but, hot on the heels of Infinite Crisis, this suggests to me that I'm not.

Tomorrow Stories Special #2: Alan Moore and Rick Veitch do a that nouveau-retro thing with an "America's Best" story that reads like a Gardner Fox Justice League story, Steve Moore and Eric Shanower do another lovely Margie/Promethea story, Steve Moore, Arthur Adams and Joyce Chin do another Jonni Future tale, and Alan Moore and Jim Baikie grace us with another First American story. And if you've followed these creators, you're getting exactly what you expect: The America's Best story is charming but seems missing the modern context Moore would wrap around such pastiches; the Promethea story looks stunning and reads dully; the Jonni Future story is gorgeous and mildly titillating but also dull; and, despite a story idea perfectly and brilliantly suited for the characters and tone of The First American, the First American story has moments of pure brilliance but overstays its welcome by about eight pages. If it were $4.95, the quality would trump the banality, but at $6.99? Sure, it's 64 pages, but I still can't give it more than OK.

ULTIMATE SPIDER-MAN #91: I like the Peter/Kitty romance, and Bendis has managed to make them neurotic teens in a way familiar to any fan of Stan Lee while still feeling fresh. That's really an impressive accomplishment. Even with that bad patch, this may still end up being the Bendis book I most enjoy reading. A high Good.

UNTOLD TALES OF THE NEW UNIVERSE NIGHTMASK: What a shame that the storyline that's gone unfinished for so long gets drawn by Arnold Pander while he's waiting in the drive-thru at In-N-Out. I didn't really care, mind you, but if it'd be drawn by Chris Weston I bet I would have. Eh.

PICK OF THE WEEK: "And murder comes to the farmyard!" Absolutely, positively SEVEN SOLDIERS FRANKENSTEIN #3. Brilliant.

PICK OF THE WEAK: I was pretty rough on the group this time out--I wonder if that's what happens when you review the books at home with them right in front of you instead of at work when you're dredging 'em up from memory? (Which might explain why Graeme's been such a holy terror since he started...) I say EXTERMINATORS #3 since it pisses away a lot of potential, money and good will.

TRADE PICK: I'd like to say LA PERDIDA GN but I haven't picked it up to see if my major concerns with the last issue got resolved. I'll let you know. Until then, I'm most interested in giving an extended sit-down to ROCKETO VOL 1 JOURNEY TO THE HIDDEN SEA TPB and see if it measures up.

Oh, and it didn't come out this week but Naoki Urasawa's first volume of Monster was tremendously engaging melodrama. I loved it.

There. Now to figure out what I'll be reading about at the store Friday and doing if work is quiet on Saturday....