Until the 12th of never: Graeme reviews today's books. No, really. Today's books. Who knew?

Surprisingly early reviews this week, because I'm out of town this weekend - Kate and I are off to Mendocino to escape the rat race for a couple of days - and I'd feel bad if I didn't get the chance to tell you about Kaare Andrews' Frank Miller fetish. For those of you who're interested in what Kate's watching on TV as I type this, it's a Johnny Mathis concert from PBS last night. Apparently he's a native San Franciscan, which I was kind of surprised to learn. The PBS host said that something that made most San Franciscans proud was that Mathis was born in their city, which is either overstating Johnny's importance to most people or a telling fact about how disconnected I am from the San Francisco zeitgeist. But, while Kate looks up Johnny's Wikipedia entry, I guess I should tell you about the comics that came out today... 52 WEEK THIRTY-ONE: Well, that was surprising. After the relatively relaxed and low key last few issues, we have the return of intensity and foreboding disaster: Everything goes horribly wrong in space! Captain Comet dies! Aliens get possessed by some evil monster! And back on Earth, Ralph Dibny starts acting like a detective again and makes me feel dumb for not knowing who Supernova is yet. We're still playing the delayed gratification game - actually, the space plot brings the first look of the big bad, so that's some gratification, I guess. And perhaps that's really the building suspense game, on reflection? - but we're getting somewhere again, it feels like. And there's something unexpected and strangely fulfilling about the introduction of destruction caused by an honest-to-goodness bad guy again after thirty weeks of soap opera and shades of grey. Yes, I'm shallow, but this was pretty Good, if you ask me.

JUSTICE LEAGUE UNLIMITED #22 and MARVEL HOLIDAY SPECIAL 2006: I loves me the Christmas comics. They manage to completely bypass my cynicism and bad feelings about the world of comic books, and put me in a warm and happy mood that makes me want to listen to Phil Spector telling me about how great the holidays are. The Justice League book completely fits into this; it's a pretty generic story - Flash needs to learn the true meaning of Christmas, so the Phantom Stranger appears and takes him to the Christmases Past of Batman - but there's something traditional about that familiarity, so it magically gets a Good that it probably would miss at any time that wasn't the most wonderful time of the year... The Marvel special (featuring the cover of the month from Frazer Irving - It's a Norman Rockwell tribute! With a really, really cute grumpy She-Hulk on the edge of the page!) is a bit more of a mixed bag: The three strips are enjoyable (especially Wong teaming up with Fin Fang Foom, with art by Roger Langridge), but that's only 22 pages of this 52-page book. The rest is a collection of adverts, an Official Handbook entry for Santa (a nice idea, but it wears thin after four pages), reprints of previous holiday special covers and, most oddly, "holiday ornament" cut-outs, which are recycled cover art remade as clip-art for you to trim out and trim the tree with. Because, really, what says yuletide fun more than Civil War? The strips are fun and Good, the package brought down just to an Okay by the filler at the back of the book. Ho ho oh.

JUSTICE SOCIETY OF AMERICA #1: Okay, ignoring the rest of the book for a minute, can I say how much I enjoyed the last page of this issue, and the four panel look at the storylines from the next year of the book? Don't even concentrate on the hints themselves (although the return of Golden Age Superman again and the apparent murder of Batman are attention getters aimed directly at the continuity porn fans that this book is made for), it's the format that I found refreshing and one I want to see copied elsewhere - Boasting that there really is some longterm planning, and also that the rest of the series will offer something different from the soap operatics that fill this premiere issue. Sure, the pacing is nice - the new team gets gathered in the first issue, including introducing all of the brand new characters - but nothing really grabbed me about the plot itself. Someone is killing off DC's "legacy" characters? Wasn't the plot of the first arc of the last JSA series? I wonder if that's repetition or intentional callback? It's also something less... I don't know... optimistic, maybe, than what I'd hoped for? Don't get me wrong, it's all very competent and perfectly Okay, but I'm still disappointed, for some reason.

MANHUNTER #26: It's back! DC's version of Spider-Girl, the book that won't die, returns with this new issue that's meant to be new reader friendly and... isn't. As a non-Manhunter reader, I'm lost with the subplots even as much as I appreciate the (somewhat obvious) introduction of the main character through Wonder Woman's guest shot. But that's kind of problematic as well, because her guest shot is so firmly rooted in pre-Infinite Crisis continuity (Wonder Woman's still dealing with the fallout of murdering Maxwell Lord? But that happened, what, two years ago?) that her own book is doing its best to ignore. It's fine, but nothing special. Eh, but I hope it works out for them nonetheless. I like the underdog thing, what can I say?

NEWUNIVERSAL #1: Yes, I know it's meant to be all lower case, for some reason, but I'm ignoring that wankiness. There's something false about the set-up in this issue - Characters speak in unnatural dialogue that sounds like bad movies, while captions introduce characters and places clinically and make a point of being inorganic. The plots that cycle into action midway through the book are nothing original, either: Murder and falsely accused murder and mysterious symbolism, all of which have come part of the popcultural landscape thanks to shows like X-Files, Lost and... well, Heroes. There's something about this book that feels really reminiscent of Heroes - the mysterious appearance of powers in a group of indivduals who don't understand them, but are linked in ways they don't understand, the mythology and explanations that will come out in time. Given the choice between the two, I'd go for Heroes right now - It seems more outwardly aware of the history and cliches that it's playing around with, which is the kind of thing I dig - but, I admit it, I'm in for this for the next few issues, just to see where it goes next. Nothing really new, but that doesn't stop it being a cautious Good right now.

PURITY #1: Hibbs hands this to me, and tells me to look at it, because the art's worth seeing. And he's right, for the last few pages - Something happens there to tighten up the way everything looks and suddenly it goes from looking like Ron Lim to being Geof Darrow-esque, and I stop thinking that maybe he's gone insane from having to read everything that comes out each week. But even Darrow-esque artwork doesn't save writing that seems to steal the "What if angels were film noir characters" idea and change it into "What if angels were Quentin Tarantino characters only without the dialogue?" There are some terrible cliches here in place of characterization - the beating up gangbangers scene being but one of them - but this isn't one of those series that really cares about such small things as characterization when there are people to shoot through the head with special guns that kill angels. It's fine for what it is, but hardly likely to sell to anyone outside of an audience already predisposed to stories where the spiritual aspects are there only as disguise for the bloodthirst. Eh.

SPIDER-MAN: REIGN #1: I can't really remember where the "It's like Dark Knight Returns, only with Spider-Man" buzz for this book began, but having read the first issue, I'm now convinced that it came from some Marvel staffer trying to undercut the inevitable realization that this book is Dark Knight Returns, only with Spider-Man. And not in a good way. It's almost impressive how close the rip-off... um, I mean "homage" is: You've got the hero as a broken old man who'd rejected the superhero ways of his youth who does the fragmented narration that comes impressively close to noir parody (Or here, Frank Miller parody) and at the end of the first issue reclaims his costumed identity and with it his youth (The narration for these scenes really is a bizarre wannabe Miller moment: "The mask thinks it's funny. It's laughing. Laughing. I can't take it. My ears can't take it. So I stop listening. I turn off the volume."). You've got the forces of authority that have become corrupted and dystopian. You've got the dramatic scenes in the rain. And, to make the whole thing complete, you have the expositionary dialogue from insincere television talking heads pretending to be savvy media and political criticism. Quite clearly, writer-artist Kaare Andrews read Dark Knight at a young age and was permanently scarred, and all of his career has been leading up to this particular series... It's just sad that, well, it's so amazingly close to one of the most well-known superhero comic books of all time that you can't get past it and appreciate it as anything on its own. Which is a shame: Andrews' artwork is amazing (some odd computer generated inserts aside - Is that a photo of a car on the last page, stealing attention like that?), and deserves a stronger story than it's been given; it's nicely idiosyncratic (especially for a Marvel book) and kind of close to some of Kyle Baker's more cartoony work, but works with the grim tone because of the color palette he's working with.

But, yes, it's a grim tone. Which fits for the whole "I wish it was 1986" thing, but not for the whole "It's Spider-Man" thing. Am I the only one who thinks that Spider-Man may have been a melodrama, but one that had a constant undercurrent of jokes and humor and, you know, not being completely, pointlessly bleak? I might be judging this too early; for all I know, the next three issues will move more and more towards a lightening up and an idea that - hey! - Everything is not pain and misery. But... somehow I doubt it. I'm sure it'll be grim and gritty and self-important, and as spectacularly illustrated as it will doubtlessly be, I'm also sure that it'll stay as needlessly derivative and Eh as this first issue.

SUPERMAN CONFIDENTIAL #2: Man, but Tim Sale can draw. Darwyn Cooke likes to play up the insecurities of the younger Man of Steel, but it's still Sale's show here - The look on Superman's face on the last page says more than any amount of word balloons could ever do. Good.

ULTIMATE VISION #1: Oh, I give up. "I'm a robot! But a sexy robot! And I want to save the universe, but... I'm overpowered by a man taking advantage of my naive nature!" Mike Carey takes an old-school plot and brings his own brand of sexual subtext to it, making it... well, more interesting but not necessarily any better. I'm not sure we're supposed to really take the innocent female falling prey to the evil male thing too seriously or read anything gender specific into the story, but that's kind of inescapable in a book where the cover features the title character fainting towards the reader, breasts first, robot breasts or not. Crap.

WELCOME TO TRANQUILITY #1: You've got to love a book that has a reach that exceeds its grasp, and that's definitely this book. There are some great ideas here, but the execution is frustratingly scattered - The artwork doesn't sell the characters right now (Is it too cartoony to sell the drama? Maybe, but more importantly too many of the faces look too similar, which isn't good on a new book with so many brand new characters), and the script is too big on scenes and bringing characters on stage to have enough space for a plot to bring you along with it. But the end of the book, and the start of the real (first? Is this a mini or an ongoing?) plot caught my attention much more than anything else: A closed-room murder mystery? Now that's a story I haven't seen enough of in superhero books lately. What I'm left with, then, is a new series that wants to be different from everything else around, but tries too hard and feels unfocused, but still manages to make me want to read the next issue to see what happens when things settle down and it works out what it wants to be. Okay, and here's hoping it gets better as it goes along.

PICK OF THE WEEK is probably 52, surprisingly. There were lots of good things to read, but nothing really great - although I still haven't read this week's Dr. Strange: The Oath, but I'd be surprised if that doesn't knock the pants of everything else when I get to it - and the PICK OF THE WEAK book is Spider-Man: Reign. It might not have been the worst thing I read, but it was probably the biggest missed opportunity. The choice for TRADE OF THE WEEK is even easier than complaining about Batman rip-offs, though; ESSENTIAL DEFENDERS VOLUME 2 came out today, and that means that lots more non-team weirdness from the '70s is available for the masses to read, enjoy and secretly wonder what happened to Marvel's quality control back in those days, and who could want more than that?

So, before I skidaddle to a world offline, what's everyone else been reading?