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Is It Wednesday Yet?

10 November 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.

Ambush Bug: Year None #7
Publisher: DC Comics
Released: 28 October 2009
Writers: Keith Giffen and Robert Loren Fleming
Pencilers: Keith Giffen, Art Baltazar, and Franco
Inker: Al Milgrom
Colorist: Guy Major
Letterer: Pat Brosseau
Cover: Keith Giffen
Cover price: $2.99

Review: drqshadow
Around since the early 1980s as little more than chaotic comic relief, Ambush Bug is to the DC Universe what Deadpool is to the Marvel landscape just without so many guns, a regular ongoing series, or a body ravaged by cancer. He's a geek who happened to stumble upon the last surviving trace of an alien species (a wardrobe) and not-so-gradually lost his mind thereafter. But the Bug is more a vehicle to satirize the industry as a whole than a legitimate character, a chance for his creators to loosen their belt buckles and go wild. Even if it's just a coincidence, the circumstances surrounding this issue continue that pattern. It's been almost a year since Ambush Bug #5 shipped, leaving fans of the character hungry for the final installment of this six-part miniseries. Instead, after 11 months, DC has shipped an unexpected seventh issue instead, using the majority of its page count to wonder aloud about the fate of issue number six.

If you're curious, Keith Giffen can still be funny. Sometimes he tries too hard and the jokes fall flat, but he's still a genuinely entertaining writer and everybody has their hits and misses. Reunited with Bug co-creator Robert Loren Fleming, Giffen uses his old partner's presence as an inspiration to steer the storyline directly off the tracks, only a few inches outside the station. Like I said, it's funny sometimes absurdly so but I kept expecting something to pull everything together in a neat little package and that never happened. It's just Giffen and Fleming musing about whatever springs to mind: the status of their storied sixth issue, the dawn of modern civilization, Jurassic versions of each of DC's major characters, or the publisher's ongoing love affair with epic crossovers.

This issue is all over the place. I can't overstate that. I know a lot of the appeal of this character comes from his disconnection with the scenery and the complete lack of respect for the fourth wall, but sometimes that kind of liberty only encourages these guys to push the envelope further than it needs to go. I was enjoying the chaos until the midway point, when Ambush Bug himself finally makes an appearance and the storyline plummets off a ledge into the land of utter incomprehension. Once our writers find the courage to slam their editors in print, then realize they can play it off as madcap storytelling and get away with it, there's no looking back.

There's crazy, there's criminally insane, and then there's Ambush Bug #7. On the few occasions it comes out of the haze and tries to make some jokes, it's quality work. Giffen and Fleming's sense of humor can't be second-guessed, but this is so self-indulgent and nonsensical, I'd given up on it just a few panels after the title character said his first line. Good thing, too, because that's right about the point this whole mess becomes completely unbearable. There aren't enough drugs in the world to make this feel right. Skip it.

Arkham Reborn #1
Publisher: DC Comics
Released: 28 October 2009
Writer: David Hine
Artist: Jeremy Haun
Colorist: John Kalisz
Letterer: Sal Cipriano
Cover: Frazer Irving
Cover price: $2.99

Review: Desmond Reddick
The Battle for the Cowl tie-in books sucked the big one. There, I said it. There was one, however, that had seemingly dick all to do with the actual event that made me glad I bought them all. Battle for the Cowl: Arkham Asylum was a book that gave due credit to one of the more enigmatic characters in Batman's Arkham, the bin where Bats puts the loonies.

We left that issue with the son of Arkham's founder, Jeremiah, deciding to rebuild and repurpose the old dark house that has looked so foreboding since the 1970s. But, rest assured, you need not have read that one-shot to understand what's going on here. In fact, you're probably better off; you'll be more surprised and creeped out.

At the beginning of this issue, Jeremiah is unveiling the almost finished revamped Asylum to a group of onlookers composed of those with vested interest: Bruce Wayne, Commissioner Gordon, and three people you probably don't know so it doesn't matter. Despite his radical treatment methods, Jeremiah is honestly good-natured and wants the building completed to the exact specifications his dead father left behind.

In fact, he's so good-natured that the law enforcement contingent at the unveiling is very uneasy. Except Bruce, because he's Hush or something. But, as all good "old, dark house" stories go, people are not always what they seem and surprises lurk around every corner. And just wait 'til you meet Dr. Arkham's personal patients in his "private wing."

The story just screams pulp horror and Hine is relishing it. It is paced beautifully and is perhaps the best first issue I've read all year. The building has been a staple of the Batman mythos since Denny O'Neil was God of the Batverse, and has always brought with it some darker elements to the psychosis of his gallery of rogues, but it really feels as though this mini is giving us a new beginning for the inmates of this home for the criminally insane.

Jeremy Haun's artwork is about the best that DC has right now, and I hope he can springboard from this into something huge. He's like a fluid mixture of Kevin Nowlan, JH Williams III, and a little bit of Dale Eaglesham. The characters all have a personality and their own sense of movement; in fact, I've never seen a better depiction of the criminally insane as far as gestures and body language. Simply amazing.

It's almost as if one asked, "What if Shutter Island took place in Gotham City?" The story and characters are compelling, the art is creepy and beautiful, and it has the makings of the best miniseries of the year. Buy it.

Ignition City #5
Publisher: Avatar
Released: 28 October 2009
Writer: Warren Ellis
Penciler: Gianluca Pagliarani
Inker: Chris Dreier
Colorist: Digikore Studios
Cover: Gianluca Pagliarani
Cover price: $3.99

Review: Guest
As I sit here with my default snack of Mountain Dew and pretzel sticks, a rare smile comes across my face. "This is going to be an easy one," I think to myself. Avatar is one of my favorite indie publishers. And Warren Ellis? He's the goddamn king of Avatar. So I'm just going to sit back, relax, and enjoy a great comic book.

(15 minutes pass.)

Alright, what the blazing fuck was that?

No, this is a joke, right? Just a cruel joke that my editor's playing on me that's totally not funny, by the way. Oh, I see what this is. Yeah, you got me. Nice one. You replaced the good Warren Ellis book with something completely horrible. You didn't think I would notice?

It... it's real, isn't it?

This book is fucking terrible. I wish I had some better way to express such a feeling, but I can't hear myself think over the sound of my heart breaking. Was Warren Ellis asleep while he was writing this? Did he spill tea on the script and just turn it in with all the important words blocked out? That's the only way this makes any sort of sense, since the narrative itself has me completely lost. The Steampunk Western setting is interesting enough, but beyond that, it's pretty much a nothing book. There's a ginger girl named Mary and something bad happened to her daddy. This causes her to say "gun-fuck" a lot, and shoot highly powerful firearms near assembled groups of innocent people. Seriously, why is it that the one company writing the worst stories (Marvel) is the only one with the foresight to put in recap pages? To make things even more confusing, this final issue of the miniseries ends as if there's going to be a sixth issue next month.

What's perhaps the most insulting is the art. Gianluca Pagliarani worked so hard and put everything he had into the carefully detailed setting, but couldn't be arsed to put anywhere near as much effort into drawing human beings. It's amazing to see such ugly characters walking around such a beautiful and unique backdrop. Characters either have zero lines or 87,000 lines on their faces. Everyone looks like a stack of Play-Doh that has been punched repeatedly by a child. My only explanation is that five minutes before deadline, someone reminded Pagliarani that there needed to be humans in the book and he drew them as quickly as possible. Either that, or he drew with his feet whilst his hands where occupied with a furious session of Guitar Hero.

Skip this book. You're money is better spent on just about anything else Avatar puts out.

New Avengers #58
Publisher: Marvel
Released: 28 October 2009
Writer: Brian Michael Bendis
Penciler: Stuart Immonen
Inker: Wade von Grawbadger
Letterer: Albert Deschesne
Colorist: Dave McCaig
Cover: Stuart Immonen
Cover price: $3.99

Review: Guest
I suppose I've truly stepped into Bizarro World now, since I found myself utterly hating an Avatar book and now, after reading a Marvel title... I kinda really like it.

Oh, it hurts to say that.

Luke Cage has seen better days; the victim of a power-draining attack by Chemistro, the New Avengers had to leave him in the custody of Norman Osborn, who is the only person with the power to find a way to operate through Cage's unbreakable skin. As leader of essentially everything and as the one character that needs to be in every single book Marvel publishes this year Norman is left with little choice but to help out and smile for the public. Of course, things aren't that simple, and there is conflict abound between the two Avengers teams.

What results is really one of the last things I expected to see from 2009 Marvel: fun. Not to say that it's particularly light and jumpy, but Bendis is able to craft a pretty interesting tale out of what should really be a nothing issue. Whilst his characters do banter a lot, it's nowhere near his word-heavy worst. There aren't thought balloons tacked onto speech tacked onto more thoughts. If nothing else, he's dialed himself down enough for the scenes to speak for themselves. His sense of timing and pacing is strong enough that you can often forgive him when characters trade insults more fit for a schoolyard than a battleground.

The art is exactly what you'd expect from a Marvel book; it's almost as if Stuart Immonen studied every panel he could of Leinil Yu and Mike Deodato, resulting in a weird combination of the two that's thankfully without the carbon copy faces or overt moodiness of either. Though it's irritating to see so many Marvel books being drawn the exact same way, it's sort of difficult to fault the book on that alone, since the storytelling is fairly good. The brief fight scene we get is more fun and full of life than what either of the aforementioned seems capable of offering these days. I can't begin to tell you how refreshing it was to see rooms that were actually brighter than secluded caves and colors that haven't been completely muddied.

Despite my enjoyment, it's hard to fully recommend this one; the price is a big factor, and though it does a decent enough job on its own, the book does have a "writing for the trade" feel to it. I'll say give it a borrow. If it can entertain someone that's almost completely given up on Marvel, chances are you'll dig it too.

Secret Warriors #9
Publisher: Marvel
Released: 28 October 2009
Writer: Jonathan Hickman
Artist: Alessandro Vitti
Colorist: Sunny Gho
Letterer: Dave Lanphear
Cover: Jim Cheung
Cover price: $2.99

Review: drqshadow
Norman Osborn and his Avengers have been ramping up their efforts to hunt down and eradicate Nick Fury's ragtag gang of Secret Warriors. This month, the excrement finally strikes the rotary cooling apparatus. Osborn's pet operatives within HAMMER have caught up with the Warriors at last, locating their base before the stealthy sneaks can leave it behind. With Ares and Bullseye in tow, the Iron Patriot is strapped in, geared up, and ready for war. And with Nick Fury out of the house on a top secret mission, the bad guys' timing could not have been much better. Assuming, of course, that this wasn't all a part of the Warriors' plan.

The very first thing you're going to notice in this issue is the artwork of Alessandro Vitti, which I instantly fell in love with. His unconventional style and focus on individuality gives this team the identity they've sorely lacked since their first appearance in Mighty Avengers #13. I've always seen these guys as a vanilla cluster of also-rans bland, flavorless, and utterly forgettable but it only took a few panels for Vitti to inject them with a compelling, much-needed dose of energy. The story he tells with each character's expressions, clothing, and body language would take an eternity to spell out with words, which frees his writer to concentrate on other aspects of the story.

Vitti also delivers one hell of a fight scene. He gets his chance to flex that particular muscle fairly frequently this month, with amazing results. It's been a long time since I've been this happy to see a set of two-page spreads crammed so closely together. Alessandro skimps on no detail when the Dark Avengers and Secret Warriors come to blows, and writer Jonathan Hickman wisely wastes little time getting us there. The artist's work in this kind of situation is bursting with vigor and overflowing with expressive details, while remaining easy to navigate and expertly composed. It's genuinely fantastic work.

Jonathan Hickman's writing is equally refreshing. Spending most of the issue out of the limelight, Hickman uses his word balloons so sparingly, I began to wonder if he were working with a strict letter count. This issue cuts straight to the chase, which is a true change of pace in a landscape overpopulated by large, sweeping story arcs and constant dramatic pauses. Whether he's documenting a fistfight or a political maneuver, Hickman gets to the point without hesitation, and that's something I can really get behind.

I was prepared to hate this issue from the moment I laid eyes on it, but it quickly and cleanly worked to completely overcome that initial bias. It's a real surprise, an action book that doesn't shy away from its identity with a dash of spy work thrown in to spice things up. Hickman and Vitti have done magnificent work in taking one of Brian Michael Bendis' less interesting ideas and elevating it into something that's approachable, invigorating, and explosive. This isn't what I thought it was, and chances are it's better than you're giving it credit for, as well. Buy it for the artwork alone, the solid storytelling is just icing on the cake.

Unknown Soldier #13
Publisher: DC Comics / Vertigo
Released: 28 October 2009
Writer: Joshua Dysart
Artist: Patrice Masioni Makamba
Colorist: Jose Villarubia
Letterer: Clem Robins
Cover: Dave Johnson
Cover price: $2.99

Review: Desmond Reddick
I've recently made the acquaintance of a Sudanese refugee. A slight and beautiful girl with eyes so brilliant, you could never know what's behind them. In fact, if you were to find out, you'd probably be stricken with the unbearable grief she has buried somewhere inside her. Just yesterday, she for some unknown reason decided to tell me a bit about why she came to Canada. Maybe it was because she trusted me; maybe it was because she needed to let it out, and I just happened to be there; or maybe it was because I was a white middle class guy who she felt needed to know.

She told me things that I already knew, horrible things that curled my gut at times and my fists at others. I felt helpless, sad, livid, and, funnily enough, honored that she chose to tell me. I knew these things were happening and have even contributed meagerly to charities intent on stopping them, but when she told me, I heard the truth with startling clarity. I was shaken for the rest of the day and I have a feeling will be for a very long time.

As fate would have it, that afternoon a copy of Unknown Soldier #13 was waiting for me to review. So here I am, intended to review a comic depicting evil so real and profound, words on a page, or on a computer screen for that matter, cannot give them justice.

Just last week, I had a conversation about a comic depicting the face of war that did so in an incredibly disrespectful way, and here I am reading a comic about a "faceless" hero in wartime that carries weight and is almost too respectful of the subject matter.

With this book, Joshua Dysart has the lofty intention of creating historical fiction only seven years in the past. But like Sudan now and Rwanda before, the struggle in Uganda is nowhere near the international priority it should have been. Our protagonist, Dr. Moses Lwanga, is a Ugandan refugee who returned to Uganda to provide medical help for those struggling through a particularly brutal civil war. But none of that explanation is found in this issue, nor is the reason for the bandages on his face. And funnily enough, it doesn't really matter.

This is a story about Paul, a child forced into being a soldier and facing the psychological trauma as a result. It shows the life Paul has in the care center for children like him, and flashes back to his wartime experiences before he begs Moses to get him to safety. The inhumanity that is shown in wartime is nothing compared to the horrors my student related to me, but I imagine it is covered elsewhere in the series. How much rape and mutilation can a book have before losing any weight those horrors carry? Ask Garth Ennis' readers.

As a result, the true sadness comes in the portrayal of psychologically damaged veterans. Veterans who are only a few years older than my own children. Years younger than the girl I mentioned above. So perhaps you understand why I couldn't just tell you why the book should be bought or skipped altogether.

Did I have problems with the story? Yes. In fact, the very idea that a rehabilitation center would engage children of war in war games as a way of working out their issues seems a hell of a lot like getting a survivor of attempted murder to act out that murder. And Moses seems a little too helpful when he agrees to escort Paul through the world's most war-torn area. Still, the meticulous research this book has gone through brings doubt to any of the problems I have with the story, because I simply don't know. What I do know is that there's a lot of stuff that happened in Uganda that would seem unbelievable if we didn't know it to be true. Regardless, these problems are drops in the bucket compared to the big picture.

And speaking of pictures, this is part one of a two-part arc with art by Patrice Masioni Makamba, currently a political refugee from the Democratic Republic of Congo (as modern times paradoxically state that any nation with the title "Democratic Republic" are anything but) living in France. Makamba's an accomplished and startlingly bold artist whose slightly exaggerated portrayals of human movement and the terrain with which it interacts gives the violence a sense of hyper-realistic terror, and the more human moments with Moses and Paul some emotional weight. It is in the facial expressions of the children that Makamba gets his point across. A little girl, in particular, whose only self-worth is measured in her carnal usefulness to boys. The story already had me haunted, the art only heightened it.

I could argue that a story so real and bleak would be better served being read whole instead of in serialized parts and that is often the case with Vertigo books but what really matters is that this is a story that deserves to be read.

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