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Is It Wednesday Yet?

25 September 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.

Daken: Dark Wolverine #1
Publisher: Marvel
Released: 09 September 2010
Writers: Daniel Way and Marjorie Liu
Penciler: Giuseppe Camuncoli
Inker: Onofrio Catacchio
Colorist: Frank D'Armata
Letterer: VC's Cory Petit
Cover: Giuseppe Camuncoli
Cover price: $3.99

Review: Tom Hemmings
With the ongoing exploration of Wolverine's century-plus lifespan, it only seems natural that along the way he should pick up the odd junior counterpart. This started with X-23, his fragile-minded yet ultra-violent teenage female clone. However, given the value of the Wolverine name, Marvel decided to go back to the well and created something they could really cash in on: Logan's bitter son, Dark Wolverine. Not that anyone actually calls Daken "Dark Wolverine" in the comic; it's just the best way to profit off the brand name without actually tricking people into thinking this is a proper Wolverine book.

With the restart of the main Wolverine comic — which Daken had been headlining for a while — Marvel has chosen to spin him out into his own series, but they've absolutely stacked the deck in favor of him creatively. Daniel Way has been guiding the Wolverine titles for some time now — he co-created Daken, and has written a significant chunk of his story so far. He is backed up by regular writing partner Marjorie Liu, who some of you will recall I was very complimentary of back in my review of Black Widow. From the start the pair's tapping into fresh perspectives on Wolverine himself, and through this we understand how some people have come to justifiably hate him. The man is in effect a mass murderer regardless of his motivations and what remorse he may or may not feel. Daken might not be pure of motive either, but he too has played the hero — so how much really separates father and son? In terms of character these men could not be more opposite, but morally there is very little difference. Way and Liu clearly have a handle on the characters involved; the space of Daken's solo appearances have allowed far more in the way of character development than you might have otherwise expected for this relatively fresh character.

The actual plot is extraordinarily thin in this particular issue, but as part of a larger story it seems perfectly fine. Riddles are put in place, Daken's potential and direction are explored, and a great deal seems set to happen as this series unfolds. The story within this issue isn't the strongest opening, but by placing Daken in an environment with a wide selection of one-off characters we get a feel for how they respond to him personally and how he interacts with them. It's simple but effective, whilst the rest of the story sets up something larger to be explored in future issues.

The art here is truly impressive. Camuncoli's work has the detail of a David Finch without resorting to archetypal character faces. There are hints of inspiration from Steve Dillon as well, which can be no bad thing. In particular his version of Logan is superb; the opening sequence is strong thanks in large part to Camuncoli's immensely powerful portrayal of this character, which in this book is as good as if not better than Steve McNiven's Wolverine. The associated art team seems perfectly on form here too; inks and colors mesh to create what is in some places one of the best-drawn Marvel comics. However, this doesn't apply to every page. In particular, some of Daken's facial expressions seem too defined; they actually made him ugly by trying too hard to make him devastatingly handsome.

By itself this isn't a standout issue, but this sets up so much for the ongoing series that I have to recommend that you at least borrow it.

DMZ #57
Publisher: DC Comics / Vertigo
Released: 15 September 2010
Writer: Brian Wood
Artist: Cliff Chiang
Colorist: Jeromy Cox
Letterer: Jared K. Fletcher
Cover: JP Leon
Cover price: $2.99

Review: Tom Hemmings
DMZ is one of those concept-based series that occasionally gets lost in the shuffle when the conversation comes around to recommending long-running series. Following civilian life in a war-torn New York is an intriguing premise, but when put up against some of its contemporaries — the last man left in a world of women, or a zombie survival horror — its clear where a lot of people are going to put their money down first. Escapism is a core reason many read comics and DMZ not only avoids this, it magnifies themes of terror and conflict by bringing them to the heart of Western civilization.

This issue is a self-contained revisiting of a character first seen quite early in the series: Amina, an attempted suicide bomber. As with the majority of the inhabitants of the DMZ, the conflict drastically affected her life, but after being radicalized and then rendered homeless for several years, she is finally back on her feet, with her own home assigned by the city authorities. Here she finds an abandoned infant and we see the impact it makes on her self-imposed isolation.

Brian Wood has always had a tight grasp of his characters as they develop, even the incidental ones like Amina. Through her story she had lost everything to the conflict, including her convictions and understanding of who she was. This resulted in a degree of self-imposed isolation, and a refusal to engage with other people — not just due to the obvious dangers of a warzone, but to avoid being hurt or used again. By giving her something to lose, Wood is creating a means for this damaged and lonely person to reengage with the world. Despite the violence and the high stakes, what this story principally does is examine its lead character and how she chooses to engage with the world by providing tests to her character. It's elegant storytelling that deserves multiple reads.

Artist Cliff Chiang has provided topnotch visuals for this story. His work is most reminiscent of Michael Lark, perhaps with a hint of Darwyn Cooke thrown in. There are occasional issues with the faces, particularly with the baby, but this is nothing compared to the life he breathes into Amina throughout the issue. In several scenes where the composition is really just Amina holding the baby, a myriad of different meanings and emotions are conveyed through Chiang's strong and consistent character models and storytelling. Likewise, the colors match the mood, and indeed the palette of DMZ as a whole. It's surprising to see that this is Chiang's first work on the series; in fact, this art team seems like a natural fit given how well they adapted to the nature of the series, even incorporating images from previous stories into this one.

DMZ is a book more people should be reading. That's not to say that everything in the series is perfect, but it is a rich world that Wood is exploring with his usual highly personalized focus. He's used the heightened danger and stakes of the DMZ to expose the underlying personalities of the characters, and created a full and dynamic arc for them. It's wonderful character-driven storytelling in an environment that could so easily devolve into action clichιs. On top of all that, this issue, whilst simple and straightforward, is one of the best single issues of this series. It's excellent. Buy this.

Thor: First Thunder #1
Publisher: Marvel
Released: 15 September 2010
Writer: Bryan JL Glass
Artist: Tan Eng Huat
Colorist: Jose Villarrubia
Letterer: VC's Joe Sabino
Cover: Jay Anacleto and Brian Haberlin
Cover price: $3.99

Review: Sean Lemberg
As if the title didn't make it patently obvious, First Thunder is, simply enough, a retelling of the origin of the mighty Thor. With a plot pulled nearly action-for-action from the character's original appearance in 1962's Journey into Mystery #83, dedicated fans shouldn't expect many surprises in this miniseries, just a few modernizations and minor alterations.

Artist Tan Eng Huat is the first thing you'll notice; his inspired work fills the issue with richly detailed environments and strangely proportioned characters, an unusual blend of Leinil Yu and Aeon Flux's Peter Chung. First Thunder's small cast universally exhibits bulging cheeks, bent bones, and awkward poses, but they do so against a sharp backdrop and smart, well-timed storyboards. Though his work does seem too cartoonish and exaggerated during the scenes featuring Thor himself, Huat feels right at home with the God of Thunder's human host: Donald Blake. An early chase scene between Blake and an unidentified monstrous pursuer, in fact, serves as immediate proof that Huat knows what he's doing. His clever storytelling does such a good job of leading us through the action that the numerous accompanying narration boxes quickly start to feel like overkill.

And that's where the issue's charm wears off. Bryan JL Glass' writing never even approaches the level of its paired artwork. Not a single page is left to speak for itself without the invasion of a hackneyed narrative box or bland thought balloons. Blake's ongoing internal monologues dwell too long on the presence of unseen gods and their effect on his situation. When he falls into a lake in the darkness, it's because the gods put it there. Swimming in a random direction, he finds land because the gods have shown mercy upon him. I'd assume the idea is to present him as a spiritual man — perhaps an expert in Norse mythology or general theological studies — but instead it just gives the impression that he's mentally unstable. Fred Phelps doesn't think about God's personal agenda this often.

When he isn't rambling on about the Almighty, Blake is obsessing over his daddy issues, which seem to be a vital ingredient in something like 85% of all superhero origin tales. As it turns out, it's this fixation that unites doctor and Thunder God, ensuring that no matter which consciousness is at the head of the issue's action, they're almost certainly going to be whining about something. When Blake makes his first transformation into Thor, the action immediately picks up and the dialog goes straight off the deep end. Not just from Thor himself — whose long-winded, lore-steeped monologues remain as frequent as ever — but from his enemies and their civilian observers. In true throwback fashion, everyone on the page suddenly becomes obsessed with explaining their thoughts and actions aloud.

While I'm sure the original feels out of touch and dated, the decision to retell this story in a modern setting is a curious one. It brings very little to the table in the way of fresh ideas or new revelations, and actually serves to make the characters less interesting and appreciable than they were before. The writing is heavy-handed and clumsy, and while the artwork has some real moments of power, it's not without its own shortcomings. Big fans will want to skim over this, but the rest of us can skip it.

Thunderbolts #148
Publisher: Marvel
Released: 15 September 2010
Writer: Jeff Parker
Artist: Declan Shalvey
Colorists: Frank Martin and Fabio D'Auria
Letterer: Comicraft's Albert Deschesne
Cover: Frank Martin
Cover price: $2.99

Review: Sean Lemberg
As it turns out, Luke Cage is good buddies with Daredevil. So, naturally, when the blind attorney / ninja finds himself at the center of his publisher's latest event, Shadowland, every series touched by that character or any of his supporting cast is immediately sucked in, like so much driftwood along the outer edges of a short-lived whirlpool. Such is the predicament with Thunderbolts this month, as Cage realizes that he can use his squad of convicts and ragamuffins to confront his old friend in a brazen show of force.

Writer Jeff Parker does manage to preserve a lot of the book's individuality, though, which is key to maintaining the interest of his regular readers in spite of the diversion. While it's technically a tie-in to the big crossover that's looming above Daredevil at the moment, this issue is primarily a story about the Thunderbolts and how the action in Hell's Kitchen is affecting both the team and their leader. The story splits its focus between Luke's street-level view of Daredevil's dark kingdom and the rest of the team's exploits in prison, biding time while they wait for the squad's designated leader to return with a new mission. Both provide plenty of opportunities for character development, and Parker doesn't disappoint. It's no easy task to turn such a vile cluster of villains into a team worth rooting for, but he manages via playful, entertaining back-and-forths and a few not-so-subtle outbursts in the prison mess hall. The spirit of this team remains unlike that of their squeaky clean counterparts, and that's responsible for a great deal of its allure.

On the visual side, I loved what I saw from Declan Shalvey. His quick, concise artwork cuts to the core of each character, telling more with less, and isn't above trying a few new techniques here and there. Shalvey's limited line work results in a page that's easy to navigate, but still crams in plenty of atmosphere, perspective, and individuality. He's not unlike a young Chris Bachalo, still trying to find precisely where his niche actually is, but definitely on the scent of something big. He gives the issue a light tone that's in sync with the witty, casual banter of the team on a mission, with flashing hints of a more sinister nature.

Too often an issue like this one tries to stretch itself in two different directions, directly continuing the story of the main crossover while introducing the unique perspective of its own series. It almost never works. Followers of the big event skip out on it as an inessential chapter, while dedicated followers of the series itself feel betrayed by the sudden unannounced change in focus. Where other writers often feel compelled to please everyone, Jeff Parker isn't afraid to make a choice and stick with it; this might be listed in the checklist of Shadowland tie-ins, but it's not just another chapter. Regular Thunderbolts readers shouldn't feel like their series has been taken captive. Those less familiar with the team but interested in the event will find enough forward momentum to make it worth a purchase, along with more than one reason to keep up with the series after its involvement with Daredevil comes to a close. It's a rarity: buy it.

X-Force: Sex and Violence #3
Publisher: Marvel
Released: 09 September 2010
Writers: Craig Kyle and Chris Yost
Artist: Gabriele Dell'Otto
Letterer: VC's Cory Petit
Cover: Gabriele Dell'Otto
Cover price: $3.99

Review: Tom Hemmings
So the Assassin's Guild (AKA Marvel's Secret Shadowy Society #1138) is doing deals with The Hand (AKA Marvel's Secret Shadowy Society #3). These deals involve selling teenagers into slavery, which I'm sure The Hand boss Daredevil is completely down with. So Domino decides to do some illegal work-for-hire stuff (because X-Force is nothing if not flexible regarding its member's personal projects), and this winds up causing a stink between her and MSSS #1138. Then Wolverine decides to weigh in, because, as this comic makes very clear early on, he and Domino are doing the nasty. That's where this issues starts.

X-Force has actually been a pretty fun book since the re-launch just over two years ago; it's basically the more cutlery-happy mutants getting the chance to turn huge numbers of bad guys into hamburger meat, but the plots have been compelling and Clayton Crain's art has been superb. Since this three-issue miniseries is a direct continuation of the now finished X-Force, Gabriele Dell'Otto's gritty art was the perfect fit for Sex and Violence. The art is of an extremely high quality, and the style is consistent with Crain's work on the main book. With the retention of the main X-Force writers, this feels like a story they just didn't have time to fit into the core comic, but was in no way cut for quality reasons. If you like X-Force, then this is more of the same.

It's not without problems though. The moral basically comes down to this: if you're involved in a special ops murder-cell that is designed to safeguard the lives of your entire dying race, then it's probably not a great idea to take on too many side jobs. It's really surprising that so many people had to die before Domino got that message. Oh yeah, and regardless of what you do with him, it's impossible to make Razor Fist a good villain. Dude can't even use the bathroom by himself, so why on earth should we ever take him seriously? By extension, if he's a senior member of a league of assassins that most of us have never heard of, how seriously can we possibly take them as a group? All these bad guys amount to is a terrible team that you really wouldn't buy as a threat in the main book. Hell, I'm surprised that Wolverine isn't reduced to tears of laughter every time he looks at Razor Fist. He should just start taunting him with his extravagant claws and fingers combo.

This also seems like a chance for the creative team to flesh out Domino. To date she's been the token action chick, so seeing her given more to do is nice, but it's a shame she had to sleep with Wolverine to be seen as a top-level character. She's mainly a fairly generic bad girl — just as we've seen from many female comic book characters before — but the banter between her and Wolverine does her a lot of favors. The bulk of this book hangs on their relationship, and it succeeds in shouldering that burden.

Because it's a short three-issue aside that sidelines most of the team, it does feel like a throwaway. If they release this as its own trade rather than with the final issues of the series, then you'd have to question its worth; it's a bit too thin to pay trade prices for by itself. Without the narrative drive of X-Force this doesn't really feel essential, but there's no denying that it's quality work that thematically fits in with the brand. Flip through.

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