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Is It Wednesday Yet?

27 October 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.

Adventure Comics #3
Publisher: DC Comics
Released: 14 October 2009
Writer: Geoff Johns
Artist: Francis Manapul
Colorist: Brian Buccellato
Letterer: Steve Wands
Cover: Francis Manapul
Cover price: $3.99

Review: Guest
After returning from the dead, Conner Kent has spent the last two issues doing, well, a whole lot of nothing. I have to admit, even as someone who worships at the alter of Geoff Johns, this has been a difficult book to stick with. Conner has moved in with Ma Kent and has been keeping lists of things that both Superman and Lex Luthor do — crossing them off as he learns more about who he truly is. This has led him through such epic adventures as having dinner with his girlfriend and playing with Krypto. You really get a feeling that in the pile of books that Geoff Johns has to write every month, this one is probably at the very bottom of the list. Whilst it's clear he grasps the character, there's honestly no plot, and there's little sign it's going to pick up soon.

In this issue, Conner has finally decided to do something — namely, find Lex Luthor to see if there's any good at all in him. Naturally, if you're on the hunt for Luthor, the first person you go to is... Tim Drake? Yeah, I don't get it either, and really, the whole thing just turns into an excuse for the two to work through their daddy issues. That's not a bad thing on its own, but it's sort of false advertising when you have Superboy and Red Robin on the cover rocketing towards some unseen enemy, as if untold amounts of both "whup" and "ass" were about to meet at Awesome Junction for a play date.

Francis Manapul's art is really a mixed bag here. That's not to say that it's inconsistent, because it isn't, but the man really has no business drawing a superhero comic. And I mean that as a complement. His sketchy, polygonal style works extremely well in the more personal, grounded moments, but falls into the unnatural when the action starts. Strange as it may sound, Manapul works best when the characters are doing nothing, letting the images speak for themselves.

And perhaps Johns realized this strength and it's the reason these issues have been so reserved of action. I suppose we'll find out next month, when we are promised an epic scuffle with a character that just about no one ever wanted to see again. As for this issue, it's not a bad place to start if this is a series you've been eyeballing on the racks, but it's not going to captivate you, either. The characters are really too busy dealing with their own issues to worry about much of a plot. It's the sort of issue that gives you a breather in a trade before diving into the climax. For that reason, you should just flip through it. It's good, but not four dollars worth of good.

Detective Comics Annual #11
Publisher: DC Comics
Released: 14 October 2009
Writer: Fabian Nicieza
Artist: Tom Mandrake
Colorist: Nathan Eyring
Letterer: John J. Hill
Cover: Jim Calafiore
Cover price: $4.99

Review: drqshadow
Rich children are going missing in Gotham City, and as always the responsibility of their safe return has fallen to Batman and the Boy Wonder. Sending Robin undercover as one of the spoiled brats in question, Dick had hoped for an easy avenue directly into the villainous kidnappers' lair, but his plans didn't unfold without a hitch. When Robin was taken captive, the electronic beacon he was carrying went AWOL. Now his sidekick is trapped in the line of fire and time's running out for Batman to make another of his famous last-second rescues.

It's been a while since I've heard from Fabian Nicieza. I know he's been back on the scene for a few years, but I haven't been particularly motivated to check out any of his new work. If this issue is any example of how he's been keeping himself occupied, though, I'm happy to have kept my distance. His work with the X-Men in the early 1990s was, at the time, some of my favorite stuff, but my tastes have changed since then while his writing has stood perfectly still. This issue offers a plethora of dated, overused concepts, weak dialog, one-dimensional characters, and confusing plot devices.

The cast may be wearing the wardrobe of Batman and Robin, but they're every bit as faceless and interchangeable as the supporting cast of Xavier's mansion was 15 years ago. What small characterization Nicieza feels compelled to include usually comes in the form of a short sentence, affirming the character's secret identity or loosely alluding to a single, identifiable personality trait without offering any new introspection. Amon, the issue's primary villain, is as lukewarm as they come. I don't understand why the ritualized sacrifice of a cluster of wealthy children necessitates a larger than life raven's mask and a stegosaurus tail, or why he calls everybody "meat," but somehow I think I'm better off remaining ignorant. This roster of heroes is trying with every fiber of its being to simply tread water, but they can't even manage to do that without getting their feet tangled and slipping under the surface.

Tom Mandrake's filthy art direction sets an appropriately dark mood, but I couldn't stop seeing similarities to Darick Robertson. His gritty but cartoony approach is mostly to blame for that, but his shady choice of scenery and the throngs of dirty, over-rendered sleazeballs wandering the streets don't hurt. The similarities are there, but Mandrake doesn't always benefit from them. One thing Robertson brings to the table that's missing from Detective Comics Annual #11 is constant visual stimulation, often paired with a dirty, appropriate sense of humor. I may not always like his compositions, but I'd be remiss to neglect the hearty helping of personality and liveliness that Robertson brings along with every outing. Mandrake's work misses that entirely. His scenery is technically okay, but it's usually lacking that certain undefined element that helps bring a page to life. His panel choices are often dull and unremarkable, following the narration but refusing to elaborate. He offers a fair enough take on both the Question and Azrael, but his Batman is iffy — Bats is excessively blocky, stiff, and postured, like a plastic-molded action figure.

I really can't endorse this. Although the Batman family has been home to some pretty decent storytelling lately, Detective Comics Annual shouldn't be associated with it. This issue features an empty plot, bland characterization, dreadful dialog, and generic artwork. It offers nothing new and accomplishes little. Skip it and focus on the monthlies.

House of Mystery: Halloween Annual #1
Publisher: DC Comics / Vertigo
Released: 14 October 2009
Writers: Matthew Sturges, Mark Buckingham, Bill Willingham, Peter Milligan, Chris Roberson, Matt Wagner
Artists: Luca Rossi, Mark Buckingham, Giuseppe Camuncoli, Stefano Landini, Michael Allred, Amy Reeder Hadley
Inkers: Richard Friend, Jose Marzan Jr., Kevin Nowlan
Colorists: Lee Loughridge, Dave McCaig, Laura Allred, Guy Major
Letterers: Todd Klein, Sal Cipriano, Jared K. Fletcher
Cover: Esao Andrews
Cover price: $4.99

Review: drqshadow
Well, if there were ever a holiday more appropriate for a themed Vertigo tie-in, I'd be hard-pressed to name a better candidate than Halloween. It's certainly a better fit than the Christmas annual they pushed out several years back. For an imprint that prides itself on its anything-goes attitude and almost complete creative freedom, an awful lot of creators have taken that kind of liberty as a hint to do something dark, spooky, and otherworldly. Which isn't necessarily bad news; in fact, it actually serves to unite many of the publisher's most well-known characters, a sort of orange and black brotherhood of the night. Not to mention the natural ties such tales carry to the occult and arcane arts, which are like the peas and carrots of a Vertigo writer's diet.

So this month, in honor of the creepiest holiday of the calendar year, Vertigo is embracing that facet of their personality with a creator-loaded anthology of short stories. New authors try their hand at old faces, old ones take the opportunity to present their latest ideas in as brief a fashion as they like, and the whole thing is tied up with a single background narrative. Each tale is just a few pages in length, affording a certain degree of liberty to both author and audience. These stories are long enough to allow a good amount of depth, but short enough to be over before you're ready to give up on them.

More than just a common publisher and a universally spooky air unite these anecdotes. Although its subject matter has covered almost every single mature situation imaginable, the Vertigo line has often been home to a shared sense of gallows humor and black comic timing. It's also housed a cast of extremely charismatic and flamboyant characters, none of whom are the least bit shy about opening up and just being themselves when the spotlight shines, regardless of the creators in charge of their care. Add those together with the brevity of each individual story and you'll wind up with a raucous roller coaster of an issue that's a great encapsulation of what makes Vertigo tick.

For the purposes of this issue, that commonality is extended just a bit further into the realm of subject matter. See that big, handsome, droopy mask on the cover? It's passed around like a hot potato from character to character, scene to scene, era to era, as the issue winds its way from start to finish. Its involvement with some stories is as a mindless accessory, while others treat it with an almost holy level of fearful respect. Whatever its purposes within each plotline, it does serve as an effective tool for further tying each short story into the next, and for ensuring that the subject never wanders too far from the horrific. This is a Halloween issue, after all.

It's also a load of fun. Whether it's worth the full $4.99 cover price is debatable — after all, these are some very brief tales we're reading — but if you've been a fan in the past, it's probably worth a closer look. DC has lined up a fine roster of creators to contribute to the issue, and they're each having a real ball with the opportunity. It's shallow, but in the end that winds up being a lot of its charm. Borrow it.

Incredible Hercules #136
Publisher: Marvel
Released: 14 October 2009
Writers: Greg Pak and Fred Van Lente
Penciler: Reilly Brown
Inker: Nelson DeCastro
Colorists: Guillem Mari, Ulises Areola, Adam Street
Letterer: Simon Bowland
Cover: Rafael Albuquerque
Cover price: $2.99

Review: Guest
Whenever Hercules and Thor have fought, Herc has found himself eating dirt from beneath the God of Thunder's boots. Apparently not having gotten his recommended daily value of fist to face, Herc has taken it upon himself to don Thor's outfit and start an Elvan war, all so he can make fun-time with the queen. Deciding to play along with the faηade, Thor has taken up the mantle of Hercules with the goal of delivering a beating so epic that it could only be described in Ye Olde English with Dio playing in the background.

Though I've been making a rather brisk transition from Marvel Zombie to DC... um... Lagoon Creature (?) over the past year or so, I will give the House of Ideas credit: they have zero problem making fun of themselves. Some would argue they do it a little too often, but as someone that really couldn't care less about any of the serious storytelling that Marvel's done lately, I personally appreciate it.

Oftentimes you'll read a movie review and the critic — who was either highly inebriated or just paid a lot of goddamn money — will describe the latest Adam Sandler movie — in which he's married to a woman way past his league and shouts a lot — as "laugh a minute." Rarely, if ever, is that the case. But with this comic, that's the absolute best way to describe it. It's a genuinely funny book from the first page, and it doesn't stop for the next 21 that follow. Everything, from the absurd sound effects to the punchy dialog, is designed to get a chuckle. And at least once per page, it succeeds in doing just that. It doesn't particularly matter why these two are brutalizing each other, and next month, it really won't matter, but perhaps that's why this works so well as a single issue. It's just a fun ride that gives you the distinct feeling that the people creating it actually had fun in the process, which isn't exactly common in the current landscape.

What really gives the book so much light energy is Reilly Brown's art, which doesn't fail to be expressive despite its cartoony quality. Not only does this man deserve more high-profile work, quite frankly, he needs to be drawing a cartoon. His characters are larger than life without being absurdly proportioned, and are able to convey a genuine sense of warmness when they're not delivering Norse nipple twisters and kicking each other in the nards. If he's not drawing an Avengers book in six months, then there is no justice in this world.

It goes without saying that you should buy this. Lay back, laugh your ass off, and have some fun reading a comic for a change.

Scalped #32
Publisher: DC Comics / Vertigo
Released: 14 October 2009
Writer: Jason Aaron
Artist: RM Guera
Colorist: Giulia Brusco
Letterer: Steve Wands
Cover: Jock
Cover price: $2.99

Review: Guest
Vertigo means a lot of different things to different people. If you're a U2 fan, it's a place for Bono to take you to learn really poor Spanish. If you're a comic fan, it generally means a fantastic imprint that puts out a lot of great, mature stories that really shine in trade format.

Single issues, not so much.

Perhaps it's a complement to Scalped that I don't have that much to say about it. It's not bad. Far from it, actually. I just have no earthly idea what the blue hell is going on, and not in a Grant Morrison "I just skipped eight issues in one panel" sort of way, either. The simple truth of the matter is that I haven't read an issue of Scalped in over a year and thus, have no clue who any of these people are. I know there's a very deep conflict involving the main "villain" of the book, Red Crow, and his dealings with other unsavory types on the reservation, to the point of trying to forge alliances with those he's wronged in the past. It doesn't take any previous knowledge to realize that this is some compelling stuff, but as the third part of a five-issue arc, it does take some knowledge to fully appreciate it.

At the very least, RM Guera's art stands on its own. It's well-composed and the storytelling is tight from panel to panel. Over the previous 31 issues, Guera has mastered the "noir on an Indian reservation style" that runs through this one, with Brusco's colors — well, mainly one color, brown — giving an earthy atmosphere to every page.

And that's really all I can say. To fault this book for comprehension issues would be a crime, but to praise it just for having good art and what I simply assume to be good character development would be equally unfair. Thus we are left with the quintessential Vertigo title, one that can really only be appreciated in collected form. I don't think I could possibly give a skip to a better comic, and it's weird to say that's exactly what this issue deserves. Don't buy the single issues, or at least, not this one. Grab one of the trades, as it's really the best way to read Scalped, or any Vertigo title for that matter.

The Unwritten #6
Publisher: DC Comics / Vertigo
Released: 14 October 2009
Writer: Mike Carey
Artist: Peter Gross
Colorists: Chris Chuckry and Jeanne McGee
Letterer: Todd Klein
Cover: Yuko Shimizu
Cover price: $2.99

Review: drqshadow
Life's not always filled with peaches and roses when you're the son of a famous author. Tom Taylor is living proof. The child of one of the globe's most popular writers, he shares more than a father figure with his supposedly deceased dad's old work. Turns out the lead character in every one of those generation-old masterpieces is also named Tommy, and that's led to some good-natured debate among devotees concerning which stories are truth and which are fiction. Some even claim he's the miraculous offspring of the pen and ink itself. For most of his adult life Thomas has made a slim living, feeding off the convention circuit and signing his pa's crusty old books, but lately that ho-hum existence has taken a swerve for the dramatic. That might have something to do with his beginning to believe the legends about his own literary origins. Or maybe it's the bloody massacre he's being tried for.

Mike Carey's done fine work here, tailoring an engaging, rich, playful world that's easy to fall in love with but close enough to cold, harsh reality that it actually stings. Wrapped within the veil of this fantasy tale is a sharp, intelligent dissection of the influence modern media has on our hearts, minds, and culture. Mixed in with the frequent leaps between literature and current narration, Carey intersperses quick glances at a variety of news sources, chat rooms, forums, even online advice columns, revealing how the sudden, dramatic fall of such a prominent figure has touched all of them. In a land where instant information is cleverly and transparently mixed with opinion and immediate judgment, how can anyone really expect to receive a fair trial?

Carey's partner, artist Peter Gross, uses the frequently shifting narrative to showcase his versatility. When the pages of Papa Taylor's old manuscripts are the focus, his style takes a thin-lined, beautiful illustrative slant, something that wouldn't seem at all out of place in the middle of a leather-bound epic. On the pages more concerned with modern events, Gross backs away from his early detail and relies more on his simple compositions to carry the show. A subtle shift in colorists between pages completes that transformation, resulting in a very deliberate and effective change in flavor that cleanses the palette and cues the reader's imagination that it's time to shift gears.

There's a whole lot going on in this issue, and I still only feel like I've scratched the surface. While there's little doubt in my mind that this series would be best read in a trade, where its subtleties can be better appreciated, that doesn't mean it can't be enjoyed today in its original, episodic format. In The Unwritten, Carey and Gross have patched together a mature, diverse, enveloping central plotline, candy-coated it with a delicious fantasy cover story, then let the two bleed ever-so-slightly into each other. The lines between truth and fiction are as blurry within this issue as they are between its contents and the world outside your window. Buy it.

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