Wednesday, August 29, 2012

Two by Johns

I've mentioned superstar DC writer Geoff Johns in other posts, but have yet to address his work directly. Today, August 29, 2012 presents a perfect chance to correct this oversight. Two of his New 52 titles have dropped into my hot little hands, and I'd be a prude not to discuss the supposed smooch-fest that is Justice League 12.

Last week, friends forwarded to me a shot of Superman and Wonder Woman lip-locked, asking my opinion. I realized, "DC wants mainstream news outlets reporting this, and so they are." But why? People like me would be reading comics if they were printed on toilet paper, and have seen this kiss before. Hell, we've even seen the tale in which Princess Diana and Clark spend a thousand years trapped together in a medieval world, in the throws of all-or-nothing passion.

No, it's everyone else, readers of one or two comics provided they can afford it, who matters to DC in this case. The publisher took a great risk, after all, in relaunching their entire Universe and reestablishing their characters from scratch. The New 52 is a more diverse Universe (so DC announced last November), featuring a fuller spectrum of minority heroes, and a better representation of gay and lesbian characters.

Overall, the New 52 has been a critical and financial success. In seemingly unrelated news, President Obama came forward in unequivocal favor of gay marriage earlier this year. Marvel, DC's main competitor, snatched some of that spotlight by wedding gay X-Man Northstar to his lover Kyle. DC, not to be outdone by the feats of minor characters, made more noise- I mean news- by saying that one of their MAJOR characters was gay. Um... alright.

What is this in front of me? Is DC trying to assure homophobic readers that their comics are safe? Possibly. As a fan of great stories no matter who's in them, such cynicism doesn't interest me. Johns (lest I forget whom this post regards) is an exceptionally thoughtful, not to mention careful, writer. Rather than flip a status quo because it's in need, like a wool blanket in April, he brings elements into play because he has plans for them.

This kiss heard round the world comes at a time when DC's icons, Superman especially, face accusations of being shallower than their counterparts from the "Old 52." Some fans find them less engaging, and less human, in their exploits. And yet, this Justice League tale, drawn by Jim Lee (and nine inkers, which may be a record), presents a young team coping with the stress of public disapproval.

Caught on film fighting each other, Green Lantern and Wonder Woman both take drastic measures to ensure the League's future. One quits, opting to focus on the cosmic threats that his ring is better suited to handle. The other severs contact with the first and best friend she's made since leaving Paradise Island, Steve Trevor. As the League's government liaison, Trevor helped build the heroes' good reputation.

A recent misadventure, against the villain Graves, leaves him near death. To Wonder Woman's claims that she's blinded him to the dangers they face, he says, "I thought you weren't like everyone else. I thought you didn't think I was a puppy dog following you around."

A fairly organic lead-in to Superman and Wonder Woman discussing (by moonlight) how superheroes can share their lives without destroying loved ones. Johns does fine here what he does with excellence elsewhere- make old ideas fresh, familiar poses startling, and comics something to be thrilled at by just about anyone.

Aquaman, strangely enough, is the character most benefiting from Johns' talent at the moment. The Justice League's walking sight-gag up until last fall, Atlantean ruler Arthur Curry now stars in a no-nonsense action series that one doesn't so much read as snort.

Since the first issue, Johns and workhorse artist Ivan Reis have given Aquaman the bold, cinematic treatment he's lacked for decades. The current issue is the penultimate chapter of a story called "The Others." In it, Arthur's wife Mera finally meets the rough and ready squad of adventurers who know her husband better than anyone. No, not the Justice League, but a huntress named Ya'Wara, a hooded soldier called the Prisoner, a Russian spaceman known as Vostok, and the Operative, who could very well have escaped from G.I. Joe.

Together, they battle Aquaman's nemesis Black Manta for possession of a trident that's one of several weapons said to have destroyed Atlantis. Like most summaries of Johns' scripts, however, I come up short in the face of what an addictive reading experience he creates. Reis, a penciller of muscular grace in the John Buscema range, fills his panels with sinewy dynamite. The action unfolds like a legend in the making, and goes by way too fast. To accuse other creators' work of being a fast read can be insulting. But like literature's best scribes, Johns writes for himself. In doing so, he manages to never insult us.

Saturday, August 25, 2012

The Hottest Mess

Their golden flight rings held high since the late 1950s, DC's Legion of Superheroes is one of comics' most endearingly dense sagas. Taking place one thousand years in the Justice League's future, the Legion has never been as popular as Superman and his bench of icons. Nor has the Legion, made up in most of their iterations by teenagers, ever seen the limelight shined on the Teen Titans (comprised mainly of sidekicks).

These interplanetary heroes, whether you read them as The Legion (2001), The Legionnaires (1993), or as Superboy's pals in Adventure Comics (1958), have retained a fiercely loyal following rivaled perhaps only by the X-Men. This probably has to do with there being thirty plus members, each hailing from a different world in the galactic governing body called the United Planets. Some have blue skin, while some are giant methane-breathing fish. All have incredible powers that make life in the 30th Century more interesting.

The story-by-story mechanics of dedicated Legion reading may be byzantine, but the rationale isn't. The harder a comic is for the casual reader to enjoy (and the average writer to write), the more a true nerd will love it. The post must go on, however, so my first snapshot of this phenomenon is Legion of Superheroes 50 (1988), written by Paul Levitz, drawn by Keith Giffen and inked by Mike De Carlo.

Aside from my first post, this is the oldest comic I've yet to discuss. It's from an era when creators delivered a full meal of art and text that wasn't just a slim chapter in some foregone conclusion of a graphic novel. "Life and Death and the End of Time" is the issue's title, and brings our heroes- Brainiac 5, Saturn Girl, Mon El and Duo Damsel- up against the Time Trapper, a being embodying entropy.

"All things have ended here," says a rare narration box, describing the Trapper's surroundings, "even those that never began. Dreams have crumbled to dust, and lives have faded out of memory. In all the Universe, it seems there only remains energy enough to swirl the fragments of the past-" This mature, philosophical stuff is not immediately followed by punching. Levitz, the Legion's most lucid guide since 1977, always puts the characters first. Their personalities drive the story, no matter what natural disaster or villain smears the horizon. With the Trapper having recently killed Superboy, the aforementioned members have decided to hunt and obliterate the creature.

Brainiac 5, green-skinned and super intelligent, is the leader of this mission. Saturn Girl, a founding member, is telepathic. Duo Damsel can split into identical twins (and become one person again later). Mon El, like Superboy, is basically invincible, as well as super speedy and strong. What they have in common is a belief that the idea of the Legion must never be undercut by existential threats. They haven't told the rest of the team about hunting the Trapper. Both the act and the secret go against the team's constitution. If successful, however, they might not return.

Artist Giffen, away from his penciling chores since this run's first three issues, is back. When his career began in the mid-to-late 70s, creators like John Byrne and Jim Starlin had ushered in an era of marvelous technical detail and sweeping emotion. This time around, Giffen and inker De Carlo mime the the lantern-jawed ruggedness of legend Jack Kirby. The lines are bold, the tech is labyrinthine, and characters snarl readily. The battle against the Trapper, with a backdrop of cosmic desolation, features force-lines indicative of action too fast to be seen.

In the end, Brainiac 5 unleashes the power of the Infinite Man, a heroic entity locked in the comatose body of a man named Jaxon Rugarth. Embodying a Universe that operates in endless cycles, the Infinite Man is the Time Trapper's polar opposite. Their epic struggle eliminates the villain's theoretical (and literal) advantage over the Legion in a blaze of blue coruscation. When Brainiac 5 and company return home, badly injured but smiling, they know they owe the rest of the Legion an explanation. Ten years on as a fan myself, Brainiac 5's defense rings truer to me with every read. Next week, in "The Hottest Mess" part II, we'll find out why.

Wednesday, August 22, 2012

Schrodinger's Cat and the Men Who Feed Her

Possibility, identity, and the merits of multitasking are celebrated in a trio of comics released today, August 22, 2012. I'll start with the first issue of Before Watchmen: Dr. Manhattan, because Adam Hughes' art is both impossibly refined and ecstatically delivered. Known today mainly for his sensual Catwoman and Wonder Woman covers, Hughes' sequential interior work is rather rare. He had notable runs years ago on Justice League America and Ghost, but the privilege is entirely ours to see him telling stories again.

Dr. Manhattan, of course, is the blue naked guy from Watchmen, DC's bestselling 1986 graphic novel. After a lab accident atomized his human body, Dr. Jon Osterman reconstituted himself by manipulating his own "intrinsic field." This brought him awareness of himself at every age, throughout time, simultaneously. Don't fret. This isn't a physics lesson delivered by the Blue Man Group. Writer Alan Moore's eery take on the subject makes Watchmen one of the most engaging reads comics can offer.

Here, Babylon 5 creator J. Michael Straczynski impeccably mimics Dr. Manhattan's chilly, present-tense narrative, established by Moore. With the place and time being Germany, August 14, 1938, Manhattan says, "I am nine years old. I am unwrapping a birthday present from my father. Quantum Physics," he continues, envisioning a kitten, a baseball mitt, a teddy bear, "says that as long as the box is closed, it could contain anything, in any state of existence."

Hughes' remarkable page layouts (sepia tinted by colorist Laura Martin) answer the age-old question, "Should Norman Rockwell have tried working with spray paint?" Absolutely, he should have. "The present is wrapped," Dr. Manhattan later says, watching his human self enter the intrinsic field chamber. The door then closes and locks, before destroying him. "What's inside the box?"

A question for next month. Right now, "Who is Matches Malone?" is a puzzle we can tackle by reading the third issue of Batman Incorporated. By writer Grant Morrison and artist Chris Burnham, this title pits Batman and Robin (three different Robins, actually) against a worldwide criminal syndicate called Leviathan.

The concept plays deftly to Morrison's strengths, which typically involve freakish disguises, bloody rituals, and just about anything else the cerebral Scotsman dreams up. Here, we get Bruce Wayne undercover in mob territory as Matches Malone, an info-trading weasel who dresses like something washed up from the dismal shores of 1974 (the era, in fact, of his creation). Burnham, a relative newcomer with a full-bodied, kinetic style, is the perfect artist to enliven the lunacy lurking in Morrison's mind.

Morrison himself dazzles in this issue, serving up playful slang in one crisp course after another. "I've heard a few things about you," says torch singer Lumina Lux to Malone, "but nobody prepared me for Sir Galahad." He answers, "I'm like true love and nuclear war- there's no way to prepare for Matches."

Similarly, there's little preparing for how incredible The Flash is, considering that most comics revitalized by the brilliant Geoff Johns end up shriveled on the vine (I'm looking at you, Hawkman and Justice Society). But this version of the fastest man alive, co-written by artist Francis Manapul and colorist Brian Buccellato, is an issue-for-issue masterpiece.

Manapul, once criticized publicly by writing partner Jim Shooter for weak cover art, now generates routine brilliance. Once establishing that the Flash should think as fast he moves, his writer/artists have sprinkled micro-panels throughout his world, illustrating our hero's quick moments of insight. Consistently iconic paneling also highlights the Flash's many Rogues, who frequently gang up against him (and each other). The cherry atop all of this is Buccellato's coloring, which is almost too beautiful for comics. Using subtle watercolor hues for the backgrounds, his boldly painted figures race through the Twin Cities of Keystone and Central.

This issue sees the Rogues Captain Cold and Heatwave under arrest and in armored transit. Cold's sister, the ethereal Glider, uses her phasing power to dump the police escorts and free Heatwave. Cold himself is rescued by the vigilante Pied Piper- in short, The Flash is never a dull read. Especially when Glider and Mirror Master steal a runaway monorail. I just have to wonder if Manapul would be so incredible if not made a fool of by an industry vet who should have had more class. Or maybe Shooter should run his mouth more often.

Saturday, August 18, 2012

Graphic Vibrance

"All of us so beautiful," says Reed Richards, leader of the Fantastic Four, "like a perfect emotional molecule turning in mathematical space." He speaks to his nemesis, Victor Von Doom, as they play a four-dimensional chess game that (naturally) threatens to destroy New York City. "I don't need my robot's eyes to crush you!" replies Doom, speaking indeed through the collapsed face of his gigantic mechanical doppelganger.

Now, if this had come from lesser imaginations than those of writer Grant Morrison and artist Jae Lee, the absurdity might validate comics' juvenile reputation. But Fantastic Four: 1234 is a series from 2001, published by Marvel under their Knights imprint, which specialized in mature, exotic takes on familiar characters. Morrison, with a fearlessly creative streak unrivaled in modern comic book writing, has built his career by successfully floating dense, bizarre concepts. Before going further, however, let me say that:

Reed is the brilliant Mr. Fantastic, who's also a human rubber band. His soulful wife, Susan, is the Invisible Woman. Johnny, her man-boy brother, is the Human Torch. Their best pal Ben Grimm is the rocky Thing (and my avatar). As Marvel's first family, they're the Fantastic Four. Writer Stan Lee and artist Jack Kirby launched their magazine in 1961 to answer DC's Justice League of America.

1234 explores the FF's essential cores, as they deal with friends (blind sculptress, Alicia Masters), foes (the egomaniacal Mole Man), and those who's loyalty comes and goes with the tides (Namor, the Sub-Mariner). That Doctor Doom will try to toy with their reality is a given; that Morrison will toy with his readers, and have Reed discover that Doom escaped into reality from his own dark psyche, is joyfully unexpected.

Settle down- that conceit only lasts a page. It's one of several crisp, poetic exchanges between the icons that give Lee room to not only strut, but cartwheel (and don't confuse him with famed X-Men artist Jim Lee, or he'll twist your pretty little head off). Most of his art from the early 2000s is texturally craggy, with statuesque figures seemingly adrift in melancholia. He's well matched by the always operatic Morrison.

Few writers, in fact, trust their creative partners to carry so many double-page spreads. Here, with one of the industry's finest pens at his command, Morrison's writing feels radically ethereal. When lesser scribes try to match the loftiness of Lee's art by doubling their word count, it gets ugly. Morrison never does. "Love is the name we use to pretty a savage genetic imperative," says Namor to Susan, with whom he's been obsessed for years. "Only you can calm the storm in my thoughts."

The speckled coloring of Jose Villarrubia is miraculous to behold. His hues run between rusty and aquatic, and bring warmth to Lee's stony surfaces, vast skies, and misty night encounters. My only minor quibble regards the printing of certain comic magazine pages, which appear blurry. This may not be the case in a 1234 trade collection, which is easily found in both hard and softcover editions.

Drawn with startling beauty, written with straightforward gusto by a man who sometimes stretches icons too far, Fantastic Four: 1234 has stuck to the wall, when so much from the House of Ideas doesn't. It's a reason I love comics.

Wednesday, August 15, 2012

Pulp Museum

That's certainly the notion one gets when a comic by artist J.H. Williams III is released. This week of August 15, 2012 sees a new Batwoman issue hit the stands. And it hits hard, as the monstrously talented Williams packs twenty pages (half of them double-spread) with more designs and textures than fill most comics in a year-long run. His work deserves to be seen on walls, the taller the better.

Marketing savvy alone connects Batwoman, Kate Kane, to Bruce Wayne and Batman. Her battles against were-creatures and child-killers, when not illustrated by Williams, are distressingly stale (no offense to Amy Reeder and Trevor McCarthy, who thanklessly tried to hold his paper for a few months). Williams' psychotropic sensibilities are a propulsive force entirely their own in current monthly comics. Turning his pages (co-written by W. Haden Blackman), it almost doesn't matter who stars in the narrative. You read because there's no telling what will appear on the next page. There's no predicting Williams' innovative layouts, against which most scripts pale in comparison.

Not that it isn't thrilling to see Williams return with demi-goddess Wonder Woman in tow. "World's Finest" is the name of this remarkable team-up, in which Kane's gory realm of darkness meets Diana's gory realm of Greek sensuality. Williams gives each character her own visual palette (just as he does with the civilian Kane and her girlfriend, Detective Maggie Sawyer). It'll be pure joy seeing them clash, in what is likely a four or five issue storyline.

But there's plenty of pure joy to be had, here and now, with Before Watchmen: Rorschach. Written by Brian Azzarello and drawn by Lee Bermejo (the team behind Batman: Noel), this may be the most beautiful and compelling series to spin out of the best graphic novel of all time. Bermejo's stunning, gritty art suites Azzarello's sparse dialogue perfectly. On the trail of a killer named the Bard (who carves poetry into the backs of his trickin' victims), vigilante Rorschach speaks with the same taciturn menace that creator Alan Moore established in 1986. As our hero bludgeons a man named Carter for info about drugs (in the confines of a peepshow booth), he snaps the man's elbow. "The sewer," says Carter, perhaps untruthfully. "Wasting time with the arm," Rorschach replies. "Moving on to the back."

Colorist Barbara Ciardo's cool, coppery work evokes the night streets of late 70s New York perfectly. Bermejo's aerial shot of the city, though clearly a photographic tracing, throbs with heat and deserves to hang in the MET. His textural shots of sewers, alleys and Cadillacs are equally transporting. The end, in which Rorschach's alter ego visits a diner, face bashed purple, comes too quickly. "The muggers... they made a mistake," he tells the waitress and cook. "Meaning you didn't have anything on you?" she asks. "Meaning I'm not dead," he answers.

If, however, you'd rather trek on the campier side of pulp, there's a new series called The Victories, by Michael Avon Oeming. The very adult Powers, with Brian Michael Bendis, is this artist/writer's most notable work. Here, Oeming throws us neck-deep into the sleaze by introducing the Jackal (a foul-mouthed riff on the Joker) and Faustus (a desperately funny Batman), as they pummel and slash each other like playmates of old.

Planned as a five part series, The Victories' first issue is intensely promising. The narrative unfolds in a nameless city where, "The buildings creak like an old man's bones." In this near future, pandas are genetically engineered pets, and a drug called "float" is eased through the streets by corrupt legal gears.

Oeming's art, always deceptively cartoonish, is here full-throttle phantasmagoric. Painterly blue backgrounds push forward scenes of crimson mayhem. The morning after is lit by bilious yellow and green, and scrawled over by TV chatter. Faustus sits in his tenement apartment drinking, surrounded by pages that say "I hate the sun" from top to bottom. Only one other member of the Victories, Metatron, is mentioned, and he's supposedly on the moon. Four more characters grace this issue's cover, and I can't wait to meet them, zits and all.

Saturday, August 11, 2012

Rare View From the Top

History hasn't been kind to Hawkman (or Hawkgirl for that matter). With one of the most painfully convoluted origins in comics, he's never quite reached the heights of other Justice League members like the Flash or Green Lantern. His essential facts are: he was born during Ancient Egypt's 15th Dynasty as the Prince Khufu. He and his lover, Chay-Ara, were murdered by a sorcerer named Hath-Set. If not for the alien Nth Metal, found by Khufu in a ship crashed from the planet Thanagar, their story would have ended.

The Egyptian lovers were reincarnated, multiple times, in the twentieth century. And because even a basic summary of their adventures (and identities) to date would require its own post, I'll focus on Carter Hall and Kendra Saunders, the Hawkman and Hawkgirl that writer Geoff Johns streamlined for DC in 2000.

Their flight empowered by Nth Metal, Carter and Kendra serve as St. Roche, Louisanna's aerial judge and jury. A fantastic, atmospheric tale from 2004 sees a mutated maniac, who calls himself St. Roche, trying to frame Hawkman for several grisly murders. While writers Jimmy Palmiotti and Justin Gray give a third tier hero what he'll always need more of, iconic storytelling, artist Ryan Sook proves himself the big ticket reason to read.
Compared to most sequential artists today, Sook's work is hard to find. His expressive, sloe-eyed figures and sense of shadow-play helped him graduate to "cover artist" in just a few years. He has great company in legends like Adam Hughes and Kevin Nowlan (especially the former, whose eye-candy approach to Catwoman helped fill-out Cover Run, a brilliant coffee table book). His rendition of the Hawks, as they investigate murders where the victims have had wings and a red X placed on them, is beautiful and bold. Kendra, like most of Sook's women, looks like an art deco chanteuse. Carter is stoic, square-jawed, and scary as hell when he needs to be.

Wonderful mileage is pumped from the fact that the Hawks are destined for each other, and destined also to die again. Carter purposefully walls himself off from Kendra, stumbling into the arms of torch singer Domina (of whom Bette Davis would approve). Kendra's attempts to reach Carter, even as a friend, are emotionally pitch-perfect. Convincing romantic tension is one of the best ingredients for an addictive, long-running comic, and few writers do it well.

Thankfully, this tale's long on the gothic horror, too. When Hawkman catches up with the killer, he finds a deranged zealot who's been bathed in experimental viruses and anti-viruses. The result, a lopsided green troglodyte, believes himself to be the reincarnation of St. Roche. He deems his victims diseased and "cures" them. At least until the Hawks exercise their maces on his lumpy skull.

Sadly, DC hasn't collected Hawkman 28-31 into a graphic novel. They're an incredible find for readers willing to browse their comic shop's back issue bins. Sook does leave the series soon after, though, so try not to fall too hard for him.

Wednesday, August 8, 2012

The Man Show

And a great showing it is, on this second Wednesday of August 2012. Let me of course start my reviews with Conan the Barbarian 7, drawn by the increasingly incredible Becky Cloonan. Her panels are like fairy tales etched in bark, and, coupled with Dave Stewart's softly gorgeous colors, are the reason I rediscovered the Cimmerian months ago.

Naturally, writer Brian Wood (DMZ) helps, in this fleshed-out adaptation of Queen of the Black Coast, a 1934 short story by Conan's creator Robert E. Howard. This comic unfolds in three issue arcs, making today's the first part of "Border Fury.'' Young Conan, traveling with the haughty, striking Queen Belit (referred to above), returns to his homeland of Cimmeria. Conan's mother welcomes him back to the dismally pastoral realm with, "Ah. A slave girl. Nice to see you didn't arrive empty handed."

Savage Belit refrains from killing Conan's mother. But she does try to gut the women who laugh when a dog frightens her, causing her to slip in the mud. Conan intervenes, assuring her that worthier enemies await. The next issue will bring our hero and his Queen up against Conan of Canach, a misfit Cimmerian who's been killing and torching villages indiscriminately. A comic with more righteously chopped limbs, you won't likely find.

Or, if you like 'em suave, Gambit (of X-Men fame) stars in his own series with today's first issue. A Cajun thief and heart-breaker by trade, Remy LeBeau currently teaches at the Jean Grey School for Higher Learning. But don't start yawning yet. Being one of legendary Uncanny X-Men writer Chris Claremont's last creations, Gambit can charge non-living objects with explosive kinetic energy. Playing cards are his signature weapon, though he's fairly mean with a bo staff, too.

Writer James Asmus is joined by artist Clay Mann (X-Men Legacy) in giving Gambit an addictive, stylish start. While infiltrating an education fundraiser, thrown by a man who bankrolls super-villains, LeBeau is true to the character longtime Marvel readers know (without the tedious french accent). Our leading man, of course, plans to rob his host blind. It doesn't hurt that the fundraiser is staffed by sultry and school-girlish women. Whether they help or hinder the Cajun, as he breaks into a tesseract room of super-curios, will have to wait for issue 2 (though I'm thinking the whole series will give this question a hard riding).

A hard ride, unfortunately, awaits anyone hoping to enjoy Before Watchmen: Ozymandias 2. Writer Len Wein, who helped create comic icons Wolverine and Swamp Thing decades ago, has the challenging task of scripting Jae Lee's artwork. Page for page, it's ethereally flawless in line, composition and texture.

Wein doesn't seem to care how many words a picture might be worth. While dialogue balloons alone wouldn't take much from Lee's layouts, white narration boxes, clumped together in twos and threes, reduce beautiful pages to science fair posters. And, "You don't tell me what I want to know, and you'll just wish you were dead," is typical of the pap mustered for the origin of Ozymandias, a character from Watchmen, the greatest graphic novel of all time.

Still, with Lee's superhero art rare of late (he drew most of Stephen King's Dark Tower comics for Marvel) this project is substantially alluring. Toward the end of the six issue series, there will hopefully be less to say and more to show.

Saturday, August 4, 2012

Goldilocks and the Dude

Goldilocks, in the swinging 60s parlance of early Marvel comics, of course means the Mighty Thor, God of Thunder. Extracted lovingly from Norse mythology by writer Stan Lee and artist Jack Kirby, he's the superman you can drink with, and a staple of Earth's Mightiest Heroes, the Avengers.

The Dude, a living mortal whose mythos intertwines with that of his comic creation, Nexus, is artist Steve Rude. Throughout the 80s and 90s, he and writer Mike Baron enraptured readers with the hero's adventures on the pastel planet of Ylum. Known for exceptionally clean lines and masterful, detailed layouts, the Dude teamed with scribe Kurt Busiek (Marvels) in 2001 to forge the The Mighty Thor: Godstorm, an anthology of sorts, presented in three prestige-format issues (comics without ads).

Clean, masterful and detailed only begin describing this labor of love. Godstorm is meticulously styled after the Tales of Asgard backup stories that ran in Journey into Mystery during the 60s. Jack Kirby, an artist capable of dense, action-filled pages or spacious, four-panel layouts, used the latter here to emphasize the Asgardians' grandeur. Vince Colletta inked Kirby's pencils with his always fine lines, giving Tales the feel of an alien tapestry.

Busiek and Rude present Godstorm as tales told by an old Norseman to two young boys (who remind us of Thor and his half-brother Loki), giving the series a swashbuckling, anything-can-happen spice that made Marvel's first decade so enthralling. As the old man waxes dramatic on past events, he astounds the boys by rolling some runesticks and also describing Thor's future adventures with the Avengers in New York.

New York, that is, in the 1960s. This further layer to the homage is beautifully done, and that Busiek does it so readily is one of many reasons to revere him. To Thor, about to attack the villain, Janet says, "Strike away, Handsome! But leave something for the winsome Wasp to clean up." Iron Man replies, "Are we planning to talk him into unconsciousness, Avengers- or are we ready to take him?" Thor, Odin, and the rest of Asgard thankfully speak in light Shakespearean, which isn't done consistently (or very well) in current comics.

The Dude's art is stunning. He's one of the only draftsman who can include motion lines, following Captain America's shield for example, without them cheapening the action. All of his figures are lithesome (except Volstagg the Voluminous), and his Asgardian armor is all that Kirby intended: they look like Aztec space insects.

Thor: Godstorm exists as a hardcover graphic novel. For space reasons, I myself have a "no hardcovers" rule. Then again, for Busiek and Rude's belated kiss goodnight to an era, I'd probably make an exception.

Wednesday, August 1, 2012

One Bullseye In the Bunch

And despite David Aja's engaging cover, it isn't Hawkeye. This new series, written by Matt Fraction (The Defenders) and drawn by Aja (The Immortal Iron Fist), hopes to capitalize on the brilliant Avengers film. In fact, it reads like a screenplay written for actor Jeremy Renner: "You cowboy around with the Avengers some. Guys got, what, armor. Magic. Super-powers." Clint Barton goes on to list "shrink-dust" and "grow rays" and "magic" yet again, all the while he fights with a "stick and a string from the Paleolithic era." Before you can turn the first page, the narrating Barton says, "Paleolithic. I looked it up."

Only because Aja's art is so scruffily reminiscent of comics legend Dave Mazzuchelli's (Batman: Year One) do I even turn to page two. Last I knew, the Hawkeye portrayed in Marvel's The Avengers had at least a dozen technologically enhanced arrows. Last I read, the Hawkeye fans have enjoyed for years in comics wasn't a shit-heel who, after being wheeled out of a hospital with his many human injuries, kicks the wheelchair into traffic for no earthly reason.

But this is Matt Fraction's Hawkeye. Basic physics be damned, he can incapacitate thugs with a thrown playing card to the throat and redirect cars with a quarter through the driver's window. Oh, and the word "Bro" appears almost 30 times. Do you love the word, Fraction, or hate it? Either way, borrow Clint's dictionary. Look up "subtlety."

Sigh. Not every writer can be Mark Waid. A craftsman of clever, epic comics since the early 90s, Waid is a master of tone and characterization, who frequently revitalizes solo characters. He's had memorable runs on The Flash and Captain America, and his current gig, Daredevil, is Marvel's brightest book. The latest issue, drawn by the incredible Chris Samnee (The Mighty Thor), shines with a shared-universe exuberance that not every Marvel comic has. Tony Stark and Dr. Strange help Hank Pym (the size-changing Giant Man) as he navigates the brain of Matt Murdock, Daredevil. Our titular hero, who's blind but compensates with enhanced "radar" sense, needs help regaining it.

As Pym battles nanobots inside Murdock's brain, his memories mix with those of the patient. Murdock remembers his own origin, a barrel of chemicals spilling on him, but sees Pym's. Murdock thinks of a perfect beach and his love, Karen, but sees Pym's wife Janet instead.

It's all around wonderful stuff, with great representations of Marvel icons, as well as some soap opera antics from Foggy Nelson, Murdock's law partner. Their scene at the end brings the cover into focus while setting up the next issue's mystery. A bullseye indeed.

Which leaves Action Comics, off target and underwhelming. Wunderkind writer Grant Morrison (Batman Inc.) doesn't usually deliver choppy work, but with three artists drawing this issue, it sure feels like he did. Rags Morales, Brad Walker, and the enigmatic Cafu all pitch in with their muscular best. But in a story where Superman battles a different super-powered son of Kansas farmers (the Neo Sapien named Adam), he'd better come to a less hair-brained conclusion than this: "If I stop thinking- if I stop doubting and second-guessing myself- if I just rely on instinct- on what I do best- and put my trust in action!"

But thinking only stays off Superman's to-do list for a page, since doctors can't promise to save Lois Lane from her internal injuries. He zooms off to read "every medical text ever published." Then he operates (the docs help) using his x-ray and heat vision. He saves her life, and she recovers, in a few pat, compressed panels. And, if this issue wasn't already a swaying stack of Jenga bricks, Clark's landlady proves to be an imp from a "higher mathematical dimension."

Morrison is said to be exiting Action Comics with issue 16. Whoever replaces the brainy Scotsman will hopefully make a well-paced, readable comic from what's left in his wake.