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Is It Wednesday Yet?

07 April 2010 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.

New Avengers #63
Publisher: Marvel
Released: 24 March 2010
Writer: Brian Michael Bendis
Artist: Mike McKone
Colorist: Dave McCaig
Letterer: Albert Deschesne
Cover: Stuart Immonen
Cover price: $3.99

Review: Guest
It's kinda hard for me to be open-minded when it comes to Marvel these days. Make no mistake, there are some bright spots here and there, but it's not easy for me to get excited for another book about Norman Osborne vs. the world. Oh, and look, Bendis is writing it. Shocker.

Considering that I knew exactly what I was getting from the start, I'll say I was pleasantly surprised to see some fun action on the first few pages. McKone is good artist that just happens to be much better suited to drawing DC characters. His clean, rounded style feels out of place in the over-shadowed Marvel world. That said, he does some fun comic book action here, even if the storytelling isn't perfect.

As for Bendis, when New Avengers started, I found his approach to dialog fresh and exciting. Now that I've been reading it for four straight years, the magic is gone. What once was punchy and amusing is now just tiring. Every few pages the book pauses so that we can flashback to the previous day and talk about our feelings. I'm all for character development, but the constant chatter was exhausting by page seven. Even worse, the exchanges do little to add to the plot; Luke and Jessica have been talking about making a better world for their baby since Marvel remembered that Luke Cage existed, and Clint and Bobbi act as if they barely know each other.

I was able to sit back and have some fun when the blabbering stopped, but even that stood as a pretty good representation of the book as a whole: light and easily forgettable. Flip through it for the art, and try to skim through all of that talking. You're not missing anything.

Northlanders #26
Publisher: DC Comics / Vertigo
Released: 24 March 2010
Writer: Brian Wood
Artist: Leandro Fernandez
Colorist: Dave McCaig
Letterer: Travis Lanham
Cover: Massimo Carnevale
Cover price: $2.99

Review: Guest
New rule: If I can't hear a Viking metal song in my head while reading a comic, it's not worth buying.

The first time I reviewed an issue of Northlanders, it caught me by surprise. As good as it was, it wasn't the level of astounding that I had expected given the hype. Going in this time, my expectations were lowered quite a bit, which made things even better when it ended up rocking my world.

Though the idea seems like it can't miss on paper, the truth is that a book like this has got to be a difficult one to write. There's a balance to reach between frosty decapitations and bearded politics. Head too far in one direction, and the result can be messy. What makes this issue so amazing is that neither overstayed its welcome. Just when I'd had enough violence, we get some plot. Get some more story, then let's swing the ax around a bit. It's a perfectly paced story that manages to stand on its own despite being the sixth issue in an eight-part arc. By the end of the issue I had met a young mother that I truly cared for, and a villain that I absolutely need to see taste steel. It's simple, effective storytelling, and Brian Wood hit it out of the park here.

Leandro Fernandez's art is a great fit, and it's amazing that a Punisher artist was able to make such an easy transition. Whilst the violence is a familiar element, it's worth noting just how well he handles the drama. He hits every beat, keeping pace right along with Wood's writing to make what is easily one of the best comics I've read this year.

Buy Northlanders #26. I missed out on the series the first time. I won't make that same mistake again.

Secret Warriors #14
Publisher: Marvel
Released: 24 March 2010
Writer: Jonathan Hickman
Artist: Stefano Caselli
Colorist: Sunny Gho of IFS
Letterer: Artmonkey's Dave Lanphear
Cover: Jim Cheung
Cover price: $2.99

Review: Desmond Reddick
Alright, so this issue of Secret Warriors deals with Daisy and JT consoling each other over how mean Fury is (amazing it's taken this long for them to figure it out) by dismissing a member of the Secret Warriors. Then we get a look at the warring terrorist groups HYDRA and Leviathan where we learn who HYDRA's great traitor is. But is that traitor only traitorous when it comes to HYDRA?

There you go. I have a feeling that regular readers will really like this issue. It's steeped in inner-continuity. So steeped in fact that anybody else would be left in the dust. This is so reader-unfriendly that they don't even tell you which character has been cut from the team. (It's Druid, but I shouldn't have to read that in the recap page when the opening of this book is Daisy reacting to last issue's events. Also, they give the character's first name but not his codename. Okay, there's that.)

There's also the fact that we have three organizations here HYDRA, Leviathan, and the Secret Warriors but the lines drawn between them are tenuous at best. I know that adds to the tension and mystique as to who's on whose side, but it just plain makes it confusing when trying to tie the three storylines together. Add to that the awkward flashbacks which explain why characters established as good guys for well over 30 years are now bad guys, and the story is kind of a mess.

Stefano Caselli is a talented artist who almost made Avengers: The Initiative readable. Almost. The guy has a visual style all his own, but he needs to be on a giant robot book. His storytelling skills are pretty tight, but the character design is downright awful. Every villain looks like they belong on Mighty Morphin Power Rangers. It's hard to find a villain menacing when you're too busy wondering what the fuck those things on their head are supposed to do. Seriously, every villain. It's terrible. He's a great artist but needs to find his niche.

Overall, the book feels like the story's moving in a positive direction and tons of stuff is happening, but new readers won't understand a bit of it. As a trade, it might be a really fun ride (if you can overlook the character design), but as a standalone comic I have to say flip through it.

Supergod #3
Publisher: Avatar
Released: 24 March 2010
Writer: Warren Ellis
Penciler: Garrie Gastonny
Inker: Nursalimsyah
Colorist: Digikore Studios
Cover: Felipe Massafera
Cover price: $3.99

Review: Sean Lemberg
In this bleak portrait of an alternate future, Warren Ellis imagines the integrity of the entire planet's superpowered population as being one of two things: compromised or nonexistent. Against that backdrop, the Cold War has been amplified to a terrifying degree. Rather than threatening each other with fistfuls of nuclear weapons and stern words, America and the Soviet Union have waged open war using superhumans. Of course, in retrospect, those warring nations may have been better off dealing with radioactive fallout. There's no controlling the emotions of these gods among men, who treat collateral damage to some of the planet's greatest treasures with the same degree of sympathy that you or I might grant an anthill.

Though the series isn't told from their perspective, Warren Ellis goes to great lengths to ensure we understand just how different these creatures think; they're more than superior beings physically; the supergods are also in a completely different place mentally. Like Doctor Manhattan in Watchmen, the focal points of this series are difficult to relate to, which also makes them tough to predict or understand. They act in a way that might seem completely insane to you or I, but which makes perfect sense to them. India's anointed savior Krishna, for example, deals with his appointment as leader of an entire nation by wiping out 90% of its population. To the planet at large it's genocide, but to Krishna it's merely a reduction of his responsibilities to a more reasonable level.

This is an occasion where Ellis' penchant for lengthy, vocab-heavy monologues actually seems appropriate. Of course, upon close inspection it's just another vehicle for the writer to share his own opinions about humanity's shortcomings (cleverly presented as the thoughts of an Earthbound god), but so long as this isn't your first experience with his work, that shouldn't be entirely unexpected. The high concepts never stop coming in Supergod, for better or worse. As a direct brain dump of crazy ideas, original concepts, and thought-provoking natural reactions, it's fascinating material. As a gripping, cognizant narration? Not so much.

Garrie Gastonny, the artist tasked with translating Ellis' loose musings into something resembling a sequential story, performs adequately. Many times it feels like he's struggling to keep pace with the big theories floating around, others it seems as though he's darted out too far ahead and has to tread water while the words play catch-up. Gastonny's work isn't particularly thrilling especially when our attention is called to the human narrator behind this tale but he blossoms when the focus shifts to the supernatural creatures that drive it. It takes a lot just to reign in some of this writer's ideas closely enough to realize them, and while Garrie does manage to do so effectively, he doesn't embellish and enhance that material quite as much as the series needed to be an outright success.

This isn't a mass market book. It's too cerebral, too caught up in its own deep, detailed imagination to bother worrying about the kind of readers who probably wouldn't give it the time of day to begin with. Like many of this author's best works, the real treasure of Supergod is in its concepts and theories, not in its narrative. It's a dissection of what we believe about the men and women underneath the capes and cowls, a radical alternate proposal of who they might be and what they might do on our own soil. It's truly fascinating stuff, but it's also terribly dry and plodding. If you've enjoyed some of Ellis' trippier material in the past, this was made with you in mind. If you haven't, there's nothing in these pages that's going to change your opinion. Borrow it if you're curious; it shouldn't take long to decide which camp you fall into.

Superman / Batman #70
Publisher: DC Comics
Released: 24 March 2010
Writer: Joe Casey
Pencilers: Ardian Syaf and Jay Fabok
Inkers: Vicente Cifuentes, Norm Rapmund, and Marlo Alquiza
Colorist: Ulises Arreola
Letterer: Rob Leigh
Cover: Ardian Syaf
Cover price: $2.99

Review: Desmond Reddick
This book is an Our Worlds at War Aftermath issue. Well, I guess it is the nine year anniversary. Wait, that makes sense. The ninth anniversary traditionally calls for an unnecessary comic book tie-in to a mediocre crossover. I have two years to pen the epilogue to Deathmate for Megan. I'll need an artist; what's Jim Calafiore doing? She's going to love it!

Anyway, in this third of a four-part story, Superman and Batman face off against a shape-shifting Durlan terrorist intent on killing the last Kryptonian. In the process, Superman takes on mechanical villain NRG-X at the Fortress of Solitude, and Batman flies into space.

To be fair, for how ridiculously frivolous it seems to give us more Our Worlds at War, this is actually a pretty good book. Joe Casey has nailed both characters and their interactions beautifully. Batman needs to convince Supes that this is a personal war, and Batman's involved because his pride has been hurt by being duped by a shape shifter. It's actually some of the best Supes / Bats dynamic I've ever read. It's too bad there wasn't more of it.

To add to that, when NRG-X breaks into the Fortress of Solitude, he is met by a Superman Robot and Kelex (the Fortress' caretaker robot) to which Kelex responds, "Intruder alert! Home turf has been breached bring the pain, cuz!" Oh yeah! It's retarded but entirely fun.

Since I appear to be the guy charged with reviewing every book featuring art by newcomer Ardian Syaf, I'll add that this book is beautifully rendered in a style that is both modern and reminiscent of the Superman books of the early 2000s. This time, the two artists both featuring the unlikely Klingon-sounding names of Syaf and Fabok produce a work that is seamless. I defy you to figure out who drew what. The action scenes are excellent, and the dialog might be a little stilted but it's forgivable for the enjoyment.

So I'm torn on a rating. I don't think that the crossover deserves an epilogue nine years in the making, and I certainly think a four-issue storyline for said epilogue is totally ridiculous. But it's so much better than the original crossover, and the creative team knocks it out of the park. You see my dilemma. Ultimately, this is worth checking out, but due to the length of the storyline I would say borrow this and grab the trade if it intrigues you.

Uncanny X-Men #522
Publisher: Marvel
Released: 24 March 2010
Writer: Matt Fraction
Penciler: Whilce Portacio
Inker: Ed Tadeo
Colorist: Justin Ponsor
Letterer: VC's Joe Caramagna
Cover: Terry Dodson
Cover price: $3.99

Review: Sean Lemberg
Frustrated once again in their efforts to coexist with humanity, the X-Men have stepped out of San Francisco and into isolation. Raising Magneto's former asteroid headquarters from the Pacific Ocean, the team has granted it a new name and a revised purpose: Utopia, a sanctuary for mutants to escape the constant persecution of their bigoted evolutionary forefathers. Of course, an unnamed few of the group's bitter enemies have taken these developments as an invitation to attack. In this instance that means an unleashed pack of Predator Xs loose on the island, and a mysterious subsequent hunt for those responsible.

Writing this series must be one of the most taxing jobs in all of comics. Think of the long and speckled history of the X-Men, both on the page and behind the scenes. The editorial responsibilities alone are enough to give the most hardcore fan a migraine, with so many of the team's members appearing in other books at roughly the same time. Add to that a lifetime's worth of crazy, crisscrossing continuity and an unusually large roster, and you've got a recipe for serious intimidation. Matt Fraction's tackled some challenging titles already during his time at Marvel, but there's really nothing out there even close to what he's facing with Uncanny X-Men.

To his credit, Fraction keeps a healthy percentage of the team's membership both primary and insignificant accounted for at some point this month. Many of those check-ins don't really add anything to the big picture really it's Scott, Emma, and Magneto's story but they pad out what's otherwise a fairly slow month in terms of actual storytelling. I'm not really sure if that's a good thing or a bad thing; everyone wants their favorite mutant to enjoy a little page time, but not at the expense of moving the story forward. By the time its final pages roll around the issue does begin to budge, but the question is how many readers will have stuck around to enjoy the payoff. It's a chapter that spends so much effort threatening to go somewhere that by the time it actually does, most of the suspense it depends on has long since faded away.

A return to familiar territory for Whilce Portacio this month also doesn't quite result in the kind of spark you might expect. Bumping into these characters for the first time in nearly two decades, the Image Comics cofounder hands in a spotty, inconsistent effort that varies between incomplete and overwrought. I'd worried that his style would seem dated after so much time away from the Marvel spotlight, but that's not the problem. Portacio has evolved to include newer inspirations alongside the older sensibilities he was known for in the 1990s, but curiously his biggest problems involve two of the basics: proportion and natural posture. The X-Men, particularly Colossus, appear constantly uneasy in their body language and change shape and size more than once per page. Piotr's constantly scaling hands are a perfect example; in one panel they'll be teeny-tiny lady-paws, the next they're the size of his head. I was a fan of Portacio's work years ago, but lately he really appears to have regressed.

There's one big event going on this month, and you can pretty much figure it out by taking a quick glance at the cover. The entire issue drags its feet getting to that payoff, and while Fraction delivers an interesting twist in the final pages, it wasn't enough to salvage my expectations. Uncanny X-Men is moving slowly, deliberately, and quietly. You'll probably want to flip through it, although that cover really tells you everything you'll need to know.

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