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Is It Wednesday Yet?

14 December 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.

Action Comics Annual #13
Publisher: DC Comics
Released: 01 December 2010
Writer: Paul Cornell
Artists: Marco Rudy and Ed Benes
Letterer: John J. Hill
Colorists: Val Staples and Jason Wright
Cover: Ethan Van Sciver
Cover price: $4.99

Review: Sean Lemberg
If it's as odd for you to consider the prospect of an Action Comics without the Last Son of Krypton as it is for me, this annual should throw you for a bit of a loop. Granted, the series wasn't always so intently focused on Superman, and given the retro movement that seems to be sweeping through the industry, perhaps a change of focus isn't completely out of left field. While annuals have never been particularly renowned for their continuation of the monthly's ongoing storylines anyway, this year's installment takes that concept a step further. Rather than a single, double-sized story, Action Comics Annual #13 has opted to go the anthology route, with two feature-length stories.

In "Father Box," Paul Cornell and Marco Rudy explore an undocumented meeting between the ancient intergalactic menace Darkseid, and Metropolis's own locally budding mad genius Lex Luthor. It's an unusual tale, one that moves in leaps and bounds, jerking readers away from their expectations just as soon as they've been developed. One moment we're enjoying a baby-faced Lex clawing his way up from the streets in a cash-strapped, crime-soaked Metropolis, the next a glowing pink door materializes in his office and we're jolted off, literally, to another dimension. It's an enjoyable little romp, matching laidback, adventurous storytelling with freeform, unusually composed visuals, though I couldn't help but notice the unanswered questions that kept tugging at the back of my mind. Why does Darkseid come off less like a power-hungry evil tyrant and more like the Mad Hatter? What era are we in, when Luthor and Perry White are still bright-eyed and bushy tailed, but civilians stroll around with smart phones in their hands? It's a bouncy, energetic action / adventure playground, but not one that grants more than a fleeting glance to the structures of continuity. For better or for worse.

Cornell again spotlights a young Luthor in the issue's second tale, "A Father's Box," this time with artist Ed Benes at his side and Ra's al Ghul teaching Lex a few lessons. Told almost exclusively through narration, this anecdote works as a deliberate, casually paced counterpart to the first. Here, the writer's take on the well-examined central figures is more honest and recognizable. It's not the joyride that Lex's encounter with Darkseid was, and as such it pales in direct, immediate comparison. On the whole, though, it's a more complete, enjoyable story.

Though neither tale furthers any current narratives, they do provide a certain degree of added depth to each character enjoying the limelight. Naturally, there's that lingering question of where these adventures belong in the grand scheme of things, if at all, brought on by the strange disconnects and missteps I've mentioned above. But, assuming they are legitimately in continuity, both stories add a certain degree of depth and lore to three of the publisher's most highly regarded demons. This isn't required reading, but it's worthy of a borrow.

Batman: Orphans #1
Publisher: DC Comics
Released: 01 December 2010
Writer: Eddie Berganza
Penciler: Carlo Barberi
Inker: Jean Vlasco
Colorist: Chuck Pires
Letterer: John E. Workman, Jr.
Cover: Carlo Barberi
Cover price: $2.99

Review: Tom Hemmings
I'm going to come right out and say this: there's a great deal in this book that confused me, and I think that it's largely down to a poor combination of writer and artist. If you're looking for an art comparison to draw here, there's very clearly a proto-Skottie Young style at work. I know opinions are mixed on his art, but I think it works in the right context and with the right writer. I also think his panel to panel continuity is greatly improved in recent years. Penciler Carlo Barberi hasn't picked that skill up yet. Some panels are very nice, but the story progression is hampered by the way the whole thing jumps around.

That brings me to the writing. Throwing a chaotic art style in with a story like this is a huge mistake by DC. This story could at best be described as utterly confusing, and is helped in no way by how it's constructed on the page. The premise of this story has Batman investigating missing orphans in Gotham, and then also recruiting and training these orphans to work for him. There are implications you are supposed to draw from this that I wasn't getting until the second or third reading. I didn't know if it was bad art or the way Batman was being written, but it took ages to figure out what was supposed to be happening.

This is not helped by the continuity issues the book presents. It appears to be set sometime after No Man's Land or War Games. So why is this being released now? Is the world crying out for stories circa 1999-2005? It makes this feel not just out-of-date, but totally irrelevant. This whole thing starts out with a fake Robin being murdered, which will be familiar to anyone who's read the superb series Gotham Central which was also set during this period in Bat-history. Two fake Robin murder mysteries in the same era? This whole thing is slavishly adherent to the mythos, yet completely uninformed. Couple that with the author's inability to choose a protagonist. Are we supposed to be following Batman and Nightwing? The plucky female reporter whose inner monologue provides the framing device, even for scenes she's nowhere near? The orphans themselves? The book has no idea if it wants to be a teen-team, Batman, or journalistic story. Throw in a load of needless pop culture references, and you've got an unintelligible mishmash of nothing.

I can only imagine that DC ordered this years ago, and when they got it they were so deeply ashamed of what they saw, that they threw it in a drawer and tried to forget about it. The only reason it's out now is that Kevin Smith has proven there's a market for utterly abysmal Batman books. Skip it. It's too painful to try.

Jonah Hex #62
Publisher: DC Comics
Released: 01 December 2010
Writers: Justin Gray and Jimmy Palmiotti
Artist: Eduardo Risso
Colorist: Rob Schwager
Letterer: Rob Leigh
Cover: Eduardo Risso
Cover price: $2.99

Review: Sean Lemberg
What can you say about Jonah Hex? He's a Wild West bounty hunter with an ugly mug and a knack for disaster; a walking, talking tankard of trouble with a mean streak longer than the scar on his cheek. This month, rather than chasing bounties on the lam, Hex is pulling a more legitimate paycheck: escorting a mysterious, silent package through the lawless countryside with a small group of hired guns to watch his back. Only, as fate would have it, that quiet package isn't nearly as innocent as one might think, and it brings along its own set of criminally minded, gun-toting admirers.

Justin Gray and Jimmy Palmiotti spin this unconventional yarn part Fistful of Dollars, part Freaks into an offbeat, fast-paced one-off storyline. Having no experience with Jonah Hex myself, the ability to jump right into this tale and understand what's going on without half an issue's worth of backstory was a genuine blessing, and one that's become far too difficult to find in modern comics. If you've seen a Western and appreciate a nice slice of suspense, you've already got all the tools you'll need to comprehend and appreciate Jonah Hex #62.

Of course, working within the framework of a self-contained story carries certain restraints and limitations of its own, especially when 95% of the cast is comprised of fresh faces. It's no easy task to establish a character, make your audience care one way or another for him, and tell his story, all as the subtext to a greater saga, within such a short page count. Having said that, Gray and Palmiotti manage to do exactly that a dozen different times. It helps that the story is largely character-driven, with the single plot point of a risky escort job providing all the loose framework the main narrative really needs. Still, our dual writers deliver on their promises and manage to establish a strong cast, share enough about them to make the audience care about their grand fates, and then ultimately get them what they've got coming by the time we reach that final panel.

The latest in a series of guest artists to make a stop on Jonah Hex, Eduardo Risso doesn't take long to get comfortable with the cast or the setting. Risso has his share of supporters and haters, and though I consider myself to be planted firmly in the former camp, I have a hard time picturing anyone in the latter finding anything to complain about here. On a stone-cold serious book like 100 Bullets or Logan, Risso's wild, untamed transgressions between the serious and the nutty could come across as aloof and out of place. Here, directing a troupe of misfits, circus freaks, and outcasts on their bizarre adventures in the Old West, those dual personalities feel right at home. Master of the establishing shot, Risso has a field day with the gorgeous scenery of America's untamed territories before turning his eye to the grizzled, unmistakable visage of the protagonist and his cohorts. When the story slows down to catch its breath, Risso is right there to keep the ball rolling and give his readers something to appreciate. He turns in fantastic work this month, and it's regretful that his stay with the character is destined to be such a short one.

It may not be the most refined work, nor the most intellectually challenging, but the present state of Jonah Hex is still worthy of a closer look. Gray and Palmiotti are clearly enjoying themselves, taking liberties with the lead and with his supporting cast, going nowhere in particular but still getting into adventures. The short-term addition of Eduardo Risso really puts them over the top this month, but this is a series worth keeping an eye on even after he's out of the picture. Buy it.

Teen Titans #89
Publisher: DC Comics
Released: 24 November 2010
Writer: JT Krul
Penciler: Nicola Scott
Inker: Doug Hazlewood
Colorist: Jason Wright
Letterer: Sal Cipriano
Cover: Nicola Scott
Cover price: $2.99

Review: Tom Hemmings
Not so long ago I was very unkind to Mr. Krul regarding an issue of Green Arrow, so when I was given this, needless to say, my expectations were dirt-low. This issue heralds the much-talked about arrival of a new Robin on the team: Damian, son of Bruce Wayne and generally awesome character. Can Krul surprise us all and deliver something that does justice to the potential of this scenario?

Sort of. I think it has a lot to do with the fact that Damian is quite a hard character to screw up. He has an ego twice as big as the Batcave and talent to back it up, but zero social skills and almost no appreciation of anyone besides Bruce and Dick. It's like throwing fireworks into a crowded monkey-enclosure: yes it's going to get messy, but you're going to be entertained. Krul does a decent job with this, however, despite that it's hard to find much else here to recommend. The central villain is weak at this point maybe that'll be fleshed out later but right now there's nothing to suggest this guy is going to be memorable. He's just someone for the Titans to tussle with without any actual meaningful interaction occurring.

If this were my first issue of Teen Titans, I'd come out of it knowing basically nothing about half the cast. Superboy, Beast Boy, Kid Flash, and Raven are all waiting to be defined beyond just disliking Damian. Ordinarily I'd be fine with a comic working that way, since all of these characters bar Ravager have been on the team since the 2003 re-launch; they shouldn't need to be explained to the regular reader. However, this isn't a standard issue. Damian comes to this from the pages of the highly successful Grant Morrison Batman books, plus this issue has a Frank Quitely variant cover. This has quite clearly been designed to draw in new readers, and there's nothing here that tells me why the Titans are anything special in themselves there's no evident dynamic between the team other than their group-hate of their newest member. If by the end of this story Damian leaves the team and this isn't remedied, then I can't see any of the new readership sticking with the book. It's just not strong enough to hook anyone long-term. That's a shame to me, because I think Teen Titans could once again be a top-tier book, like it was back in the Wolfman / Perez and, later, Geoff Johns days.

On the art front, I know he has it in the cartoon, but I've been reading Teen Titans for quite a while now and this is the first time anyone's drawn Beast Boy with that goofy single pointed tooth. It's solid stuff otherwise. There are hints of the occasional unstable facial feature, but that's really stretching for something to take issue with. It's totally serviceable work, and is well suited to this sort of book. This art team was probably a good choice for these issues, as there are Quitely-esque elements to some of the more ambitious panels in particular Damian's introduction to the team.

Flip through this. It's simplistic and flawed, but the potential of having Damian on this book hasn't been completely squandered.

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