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Is It Wednesday Yet?

15 September 2009 Here we are again with another installment of your favorite comic book review series. As always, the reviews are free of spoilers, so read on without fear of having your experience ruined!

Our grading scale is simple:

Buy: An excellent comic book.
Borrow: A good comic, but save yourself some money by reading a friend's copy.
Flip Through: Give it a once-over at the comic shop.
Skip: This doesn't need to be explained.

Northlanders #20
Publisher: DC Comics
Released: 02 September 2009
Writer: Brian Wood
Artist: Davide Gianfelice
Colorist: Dave McCaig
Letterer: Travis Lanham
Cover: Massimo Carnevale
Cover price: $2.99

Review: drqshadow
An old, familiar face takes the lead role in this month's Northlanders. Sven the Returned, the protagonist of the title's first storyline, has laid low and lived the good life in seclusion with his family since the last time we saw him. But such peace was bound to be shattered some day, and in the years since his previous adventure he's become something of a walking, talking myth among the Viking people. So legendary are the tales of his ferocity that young would-be warriors have begun to search for his place of respite. After all, what better way to launch your own reputation than with the head of a genuine folk hero in your hands?

Returning alongside Sven is Davide Gianfelice, Northlanders' original artist. Having since moved on to a full-time gig with Vertigo's Greek Street, it's tough to overvalue the importance of his familiarity with both the character and author Brian Wood's vision of the world humanity left behind a thousand years ago. He's well-suited for this series, with a knack for getting the most from his panels without overcomplicating them. He shows tremendous restraint, drawing your eye to the subject by emphasizing their stark, desolate surroundings. He calls his audience's attention to more subtle nuances of the scenery; the appearance of a seagull floating lazily through the sky, for example, indicates a sailing ship's sudden proximity to land. And, when it comes to it, he floods the war zone with blood, guts, and enough crazy-eyed violence to send a shiver through the heart of even the most hardened veteran. Gianfelice is a perfect accomplice for this kind of work, and it's too bad he can't stick around for a few more issues.

Brian Wood's storytelling is one part epic poem, one part standard comic book narration. Its brevity and easy vocabulary ensures that the story will remain an effortless read, but its unusual setting and almost boastful scale give it plenty more substance than your typical comic. Sven clearly hates waiting for these potential assassins to arrive at his doorstep. He'd rather dive right into the heart of the fight, and let the violence of the battle sort out who actually deserves such legendary status. But the appeal of spending just one more day of peace with his family is too much to leave behind. Instead, Sven stands vigil at the furthest edge of his land and waits impatiently for the day his quiet isolation will eventually be disturbed by an invading force. He's a complicated character, filled with conflicting impulses, and left to his imagination the perceived incoming threat grows more and more serious with every new day.

Northlanders has a lot in common with Brian Wood's other, more well-known Vertigo series, DMZ. They're both period pieces, dependent upon the unique identities of the era in which they're set to instigate the action that defines them. Sven and Matty share a thoughtful, uncertain nature that makes them relatable and appealing, and both know more about the world than they'd ever admit to themselves. If you've enjoyed one, you'll no doubt find a place in your pull list for the other. And if you can't enjoy either, well, we don't really have all that much in common. Buy it.

Strange Tales #1
Publisher: Marvel
Released: 02 September 2009
Writers: Nick Berlozzi, John Leavitt, Junko Mizuno, Dash Shaw, James Kochalka, Johnny Ryan, Michael Kupperman, Peter Bagge, Nick Bertozzi, Perry Bible Fellowship, Jason
Artists: Nick Berlozzi, Molly Crabapple, Junko Mizuno, Dash Shaw, James Kochalka, Johnny Ryan, Michael Kupperman, Peter Bagge, Nick Bertozzi, Perry Bible Fellowship, Jason
Colorists: Chris Sinderson, Star St. Germain, and Joanne Bagge
Letterer: Star St. Germain
Cover: Paul Pope
Cover price: $4.99

Review: drqshadow
One of Marvel's most experimental and well-known titles, dating back to the era when the publisher was still known as Atlas Comics, Strange Tales has gone through more facelifts over the years than Joan Rivers. Depending on the arrival of new talent, the tides of the political climate, or the whims of the present editorial team, the series has endured countless false starts, format changes, and cancellations over the years. Before the EC Comics-inspired legislation of the 1950s, its focus was on graphic horror and gore. Later, Jack Kirby gave the series a string of well-received sci-fi monster stories. Stan Lee and Steve Ditko introduced Doctor Strange and traipsed around the abstract mystical countryside. Jim Steranko changed the game with a classic psychedelic espionage romp, dubbed Nick Fury: Agent of SHIELD. And so on.

Today, 30 years removed from the cancellation of that original series (and with a decade's worth of distance from the latest attempt at a revival), Strange Tales is changing shape yet again. With a new vision, a radically different landscape, and a willingness to try something completely off-the-wall at the front of their minds, the head honchos behind this series have, amazingly, corralled a high-powered squad of well-known independent creators and set them loose without restriction in the merry Marvel playground. The results are, at times, stunning. The sheer amount of variety and boundless creativity alone makes this worth a peek; if you don't like what you're reading now, a completely different approach is never more than two or three pages away. Everyone from James Kochalka to The Perry Bible Fellowship chimes in this month, touching every genre from absurdist black comedy to surreal, wistful adventures through the subconscious.

My favorite segment in the premiere would have to be Peter Bagge's blunt, hilarious "Incorrigible Hulk," in which the renowned underground prodigy tackles every subject from second-hand smoke, liberal apologists, and the green goliath's historical wardrobe decisions. All this and a drunken rampage through the NYC streets in just six overstuffed pages. Alas, this also reveals one of the shortcomings of the format: as soon as you fall in love with something, it's over and done with a moment later. Fortunately, the Bagge tale (and one or two of its peers) concludes with a promise to continue the adventures next month.

The Hulk proves to be a favorite subject for many of the issue's contributors, further proof that they were given an unusual level of freedom for this project. The indie darlings are free to use whomever they like in whatever situation they want without fear of repercussions, and, predictably, a select few go out of their way to push that leniency to its limits. The second brutally short one-page Perry Bible Fellowship strip is proof enough that Marvel was willing to let just about anything slip by, and the result is a punch line that had me genuinely laughing out loud.

Frankly, I'm stunned a major publisher could allow something so fresh and open-minded to hit the market. Strange Tales #1 continues the proud legacy of innovation established by its forefathers, refusing to follow the rules of what constitutes a mainstream comic, and emerging with a real winner of a premiere issue as a direct result. Get out there and buy this; let Marvel know that this kind of experimentation is something you want to see more of. I can guarantee it's much more interesting than anything you saw in Ultimatum.

Ultimate Comics Spider-Man #2
Publisher: Marvel
Released: 02 September 2009
Writer: Brian Michael Bendis
Artist: David Lafuente
Colorist: Justin Ponsor
Letterer: VC's Cory Petit
Cover: David Lafuente
Cover price: $3.99

Review: drqshadow
Although a few things may have changed in Peter Parker's life since he was presumed dead at the climax of Magneto's summertime attack on humanity, for the most part it's been business as usual in his newly relaunched eponymous ongoing series. Peter has swapped lady friends and taken a new job, but otherwise very little has changed. He still attends classes at Midtown High with Kitty, Gwen, and MJ, and still manages to skip classes to fight crime with minimal consequences. A glowing preemptive obituary from J. Jonah Jameson has made Spidey a much more popular hero than in the past, but he still feels just as ostracized from the general population as ever, if not more so.

On board with the series from the very beginning, nobody has a better grasp of these characters, or perhaps of the Ultimate Universe as a whole, than Ultimate Spider-Man writer Brian Michael Bendis. With the new launch and renumbering, Bendis had a big chance to shake things up and completely change the tone and identity of this series, but (for better or for worse) he's opted instead for a direct continuation of what was working before. That makes this an extremely easy series for old fans to jump right into without missing a beat, although he's also been careful to keep it open and welcoming for new readers. Bendis has kept marching right along with the curious, conversational asides that made the original series so approachable, constantly toying around with the specifics of the heroes' identities, their powers, and the average man's reaction to them. This month, for instance, while Johnny Storm lies incapacitated in the living room, Aunt May wonders if he'll ignite her couch in his sleep. I'd never really thought of it that way before, but the question alone cuts through some of the tension of the moment and grounds the book more squarely in reality. Hey, it's a valid question.

Bendis has his flaws, though, some of which are coming a bit more into focus with the new series. Gwen, in particular, has been treated like an entirely different character since the relaunch. I get that a lot has changed in these kids' lives since the end of the last series, but I'm not entirely sure how that would lead to her transformation from the mature, older sister-type into the bubbly, cheery teeny bopper she's been for most of the last two issues. The rest of the cast has gone through some similar changes, too, although none are quite so profound as Ms. Stacey's. They're familiar, but skewed. Almost like a new writer is still trying to figure them out.

This is precisely the status of artist David Lafuente. Following up on the quality of work put forth by Mark Bagley and then Stuart Immonen is no small task, and so far it's one I haven't discovered Lafuente is up to. His ultra-sleek, manga-influenced visuals float somewhere in between John Romita Jr. and Archie, rarely settling in one place for long. His emphasis on the lead characters as kids is important because it's easy to forget most of them don't even have their driver's license yet but also drains a lot of the magnitude from the book's more serious moments. Perhaps most unsettling, Lafuente still hasn't managed to produce an illustration of Spider-Man that I've been happy with. He's a work in progress.

The same can be said for the new Ultimate Comics Spider-Man as a whole: it's very familiar, but also ever so slightly off base. It's like watching Magnum PI with Don Johnson playing the lead role. He's saying the right words, doing the right things, and the look is right, but something's just off. Long-standing fans will want to give this a borrow, because the new developments have a lot of potential, but everyone else may want to settle for a brief flip through first.

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