Monday, February 28, 2011

King Conan #1

When I first started buying comic books in the 1960s, the artist who did the interior art almost always provided the cover art, too. (Or at least it seemed that way.)

But at some point, comic book companies started handing the cover chores over to artists who were often more dynamic than the the interior artists. I was never crazy about the practice - it seemed like a cheat.

You might think that would be the case with the newest title to star everyone's favorite barbarian, because King Conan sports an amazing cover by Darick Robertson (with Dave Stewart).

The good news is, the interiors are just as impressive. Tomas Giorello turns in some amazing work here, loaded with detailed fantasy settings, powerful characters, nasty villains and an iconic scene that features Conan in a very bad spot indeed.

The story is an adaptation of Robert E. Howard's The Scarlet Citadel, and writer Timothy Truman continues to show his mastery of this kind of barbaric adventure story, with mayhem and court intrigue aplenty.

The story finds Conan the king of Aquilonia, but he is captured when his army is betrayed and ambushed. He is taken in chains to the city of Khorshemish, where he faces death - or worse.

It's a great start to the story, and a great jumping-on spot. The highest praise I can offer is: this comic stars the real Conan. Robert E. Howard would no doubt approve.

Grade: A


Sunday, February 27, 2011

Uncanny X-Men #533

It's surprising that the Uncanny X-Men comic has fallen from the upper ranks of the sales charts, considering that the comic owned the top spot for so many years.

There are several reasons for that fall: there are too many X-titles; there are too many X-Men; and frankly, the comic just hasn't been very good for a while.

The book rose to success on the strength of great characters, terrific art and compelling stories.

This issue is a great example of how excess has brought the title down. There are several good characters in the line - Cyclops, Wolverine, Emma Frost, Kitty Pryde - but they're lost in the army of characters bouncing through the story.

This issue features no less than 10 X-Men in three different storylines, eight bad guys and three different menaces, including a runaway powerhouse (Sebastian Shaw), a plague on the island home of the X-Men, and an evil corporation that's marketing a drug that gives ordinary people the power of the X-Men.

And despite all that being crammed into one issue, the whole story feels thin. That's because nothing changes from the beginning of each story to the end of the issue. Good guys fight bad guys, everyone makes cute comments, and we see lots of characters posing for the "camera" with the obligatory identifying blocks of copy next to them, because otherwise you'd have no idea who was who.

The art by Greg Land and Jay Leisten is very pretty, but every panel looks more like a carefully posed beauty shot than art designed to tell a story. The characters are beautiful (especially the women), but the layouts are bland and there's no sense of danger or urgency.

It's a shame because I've been an X-fan practically since the beginning, but I've been thinking about dropping the book. Maybe if they trimmed down the cast, reduced the number of X-titles and focused on the characters and the stories, readers would return to the book.

But for now, it's just a big, confusing mess - lots of noise but no heart. Too bad.

Grade: C+


Saturday, February 26, 2011

The Avengers #10

In yesterday's review of Ultimate Spider-Man I talked about my general distaste for cosmic MacGuffins - although I had to admit that the Zodiac Key was used to good effect in that story.

In this issue of The Avengers, the Infinity Gauntlet is at the heart of the story - and even though this book boasts the same writer, the end result isn't as good.

Here we have a traditional quest storyline, as the bad guy (The Hood) is trying to gather the Infinity Gems, while the heroes have split into teams to try to recover the gems first.

The interesting thing about the story is finding out how each member of the Illuminati hid (and protected) the gem they were entrusted with - and the answers are pretty clever. The big flaw is that everything else that happens is predictable.

Even John Romita, Jr.'s art isn't quite up to his usual stellar standards. There's an underwater fight sequence that's all over the place, and there are panels in an X-Men-based fight that are indecipherable.

There's still time to turn this story around - and the "Next issue" cover looks interesting - but I still stand by my original "cosmic MacGuffins stink" platform.

Prove me wrong, Marvel!

Grade: B


Friday, February 25, 2011

Ultimate Spider-Man #154

I'm generally not a fan of the big cosmic MacGuffins that drive so many comic book stories - the Cosmic Cube, the Infinity Gauntlet, the Ultimate Nullifier - they make for an overpowering, impossible-to-beat enemy - but that just means the hero has to find a way to trick the bad guy, as opposed to actually outsmarting or outmaneuvering him. (There is a difference.)

This issue of Ultimate Spider-Man includes an old weapon, the Zodiac Key, that has been MacGuffined - but writer Brian Bendis re-imagines it as not only a force capable of terrible destruction, but one that the holder can't always control. It's a great twist on a well-worn concept.

The Key has also become something of a hot potato - the Kingpin had it (before he was killed), then Mysterio had it, then the Black Cat stole it, and with this issue we throw Spider-Man (still alive!) and Iron Man into the mix.

The result is a fast-paced scramble that's a heck of a lot of fun.

The art is still being handled, tag-team fashion, by Sara Pichelli, David Lafuente and Elena Casagrande - but the credits don't specify who did what (though it appears that Sara handled the superhero stuff while David did the civilian part). Whoever did what, it's great stuff, and I especially enjoyed the double page 16-panel action sequence.

Also, great cover by Steve McNiven and Dean White!

We're still waiting for (Ultimate) Spidey to die (all the cool heroes are doing it). Hopefully he'll meet his fate at the hands of a more down-to-Earth agent, instead of some cosmic doodad.

Grade: A-


Thursday, February 24, 2011

Fantastic Four #588

It's impressive when a comic book touches your heart.

Now, I must admit that the cynic in me knows that we have not seen the last of Johnny Storm, the Human Torch. But here we have the surviving members of the Fantastic Four dealing with their grief, each one in their own way - and it's a series of touching and heartfelt vignettes.

The story is told with minimal dialogue - and certainly, until the final chapter (a discussion between Franklin Richards and Spider-Man), none is needed.

This is supposedly the final issue of this title (yeah, I'm not buying that, either), and it looks like the team will be moving into interesting directions.

Jonathan Hickman has done amazing work on this title - managing to build on the rich history of the team while setting up new and exciting directions for future stories.

The art in this issue is by Nick Dragotta, whose work I'm not familiar with, and Paul Mounts on color. I like the art in this issue, although there are a few panels that seem bit distorted. But the storytelling is clear and he's quite good at depicting the emotion on the faces of the characters - and that's the real focus of this issue.

So from here it's a new direction and a new look, with lots of amazing challenges to be confronted.

The FF comic has always my all-time favorite, although it's gone through some rough patches over the years.

It's great to see it back at the level it once occupied: "The World's Greatest Comic Magazine."

It's about time.

Grade: A


Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Today's Comics

I picked up a boat-load of comics today:

- Avengers #10 - Not the Infinity Gauntlet!

- Secret Avengers #10 - The final showdown with Fu Manchu (sorta).

- Captain America #615 - The end of the trial - or is it?

- King Conan #1 (of 4)
- Starting a favorite, the Scarlet Citadel!

- Fantastic Four #688 - The final issue?

- The Incredible Hulks #623 - Checking out the Savage Land.

- The Invincible Iron Man #501 - Sort of a Spider-Man crossover, without the Spidey.

- Justice Society of America #48 - Lots of pain dished out here.

- Kull: the Hate Witch #4 (of 4) - Back in the old home town.

- Morning Glories #7 - Those are some wicked cheerleaders.

- Thor #620 - Odin is finally back, just in time to go to war in a way we've never seen before.

- Ultimate Doom #3 (of 4)
- Pretty sure I see where this is all going.

- Ultimate Spider-Man #154 - Still not dead.

- Uncanny X-Men #533 - Too many X-Men.

Whew! And that's it!

The Classics - Zot! #33

You know, I've read a lot of comics over the past (mumblety-mumble) years - and to be honest, most of them were forgettable. (It's Sturgeon's law: 90 percent of everything is crud. True about TV, movies, books - and comics, too.)

But this issue of Zot! (published in October 1990) is one of the 10 percent - it's a great example of the power of comic books, and it's an intelligent story with impact.

But first, some background information: Zot is a young man who lives in an alternate universe that seems to be a futuristic (and largely upbeat) version of Earth. He's a hero who befriends a teenage girl named Jenny, and together they have amazing adventures. (You can read my review of the first issue in the series right here.)

After starting out at Eclipse comics as a full-color comic, Zot switched over to black-and-white (with color covers) with issue #11. With issue #28, the stories took a surprising turn from fanciful adventures. Zot is trapped on our Earth and must adjust to a more mundane existence.

The focus of the book shifted to personal stories featuring Jenny, Zot and their friends - including this issue, which turned the spotlight on a girl named Terry.

This is (I believe) the first mainstream comic to tackle the subject of homosexuality. It's a thoughtful, serious treatment that manages to convey the anguish most teens face: unrequited love, confusion, embarrassment, raw emotions - the list goes on and on.

Terry hides the fact that she is a lesbian - especially in light of violence against an effeminate young man at her school. It would be easy for this to enter the dreaded "After School Special" zone that most such stories wander into.

But writer and artist Scott McCloud tackles the subject with intelligence and sensitivity, and he uses his art to depict the conflict within and the intolerance "without." And it really is the story of any teen who has fought to work up the nerve to talk to someone they have a crush on (whether straight or gay).

He also manages a stunning bit of comic book craft at the end of the story - which I can't discuss for fear of spoiling it for you. Suffice to say, it knocked me over when I read it.

Even more impressive, this is a story that hasn't aged at all - it could have been written in 2011, as kids still go through this same agony today.

The honesty of the story is why this comic stayed with me long after most have faded from memory. It's a great example of a master storyteller at work.

Highly recommended!

Grade: A+


Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Magnus Robot Fighter #3

Three issues in and I'm still not sure what to make of the latest version of Magnus Robot Fighter.

I like it - but that's about it.

I'm surprised at the "old-fashioned" feel of this comic - each page is broken up into five or six panel grids - even the first page has two panels.

The art is very good, but you get the sense that the artists - Bill Reinhold and Mike Manley - are working in cramped conditions.

Certainly writer Jim Shooter is squeezing in quite a bit of story in here, as we follow Magnus' attempts to learn about life in North Am while fighting to protect humanity. Here Magnus finds himself fighting for his life in a futuristic version of a Pro Wrestling / Mixed Martial Arts competition.

I especially enjoy Magnus' discussions with his "parent," the robot 1-A, which provide some welcome levity while he's still sorting out his relationship with actual people.

I'm really glad to see Magnus back again, and the foundation is in place for this series to go in any direction - but it's all so serious. It just feels like everyone involved needs to loosen up just a little bit more and have fun, and the readers will follow suit.

Grade: B+


Monday, February 21, 2011

Silver Surfer #1 (of 5)

When he first appeared in the Fantastic Four, the Silver Surfer was a secondary character. He was the herald for Galactus, tossed in as an apparent afterthought by the legendary Jack Kirby.

He became an immediate favorite of Stan Lee's, who gave the Surfer a distinct voice. After a few guest stints in the FF's magazine, the Surfer graduated to his own title, which featured amazing art by John Buscema.

But the series didn't catch on - possibly because the character was too different. Instead of being a proactive hero, he was more passive - always bemoaning the dark side of humanity.

Years later he returned with his own title, this time written by Steve Englehart and drawn by Marshall Rogers. Under their capable hands, the series flourished for a while, but after a long run with various creators it finally floundered and folded.

There have been a few attempts at revivals in the years since, but they didn't last, either. Despite his sleek look and incredible powers, perhaps the Surfer is just too alien to catch on.

That character is back in a new mini-series, and once again they have some outstanding talent on board.

Writer Greg Pak gives us a Surfer who doesn't whine and moan, but is instead resigned to his cosmic duty - leading the world-devouring Galactus to new planets.

The issue picks up (I assume) at the end of the recent events of the Chaos War. Galactus is weak from his part of the battle, so the Surfer leads him to a sun so he can recharge. (Which seems to go against the previously-stated fact that Galactus can only feed on planets that support life. But I digress.)

To kill time while Galactus is feeding, the Surfer visits the Earth, watching recent events from a distance - until he's drawn to stop a violent incident.

There are quite a few surprises in store, and the story ends with a heck of a cliffhanger (and more than a few questions).

The art by Stephen Segovia and Victor Olazaba is quite good, with several powerful splash pages on display.

It's too early to tell how the story is going to play out, and whether or not we'll see the Surfer regain his apparently-missing conscience - but so far, this mini-series is off to a good start. Here's hoping the finish lives up to it!

Grade: A-


Sunday, February 20, 2011

Green Lantern #62

The Green Lantern comic has been so wrapped up with cosmic adventures and the aftermath of Blackest Night that it's easy to forget that the title character has human friends, too.

We get a reminder with this issue as several key members of the Justice League of America show up to offer their help in tackling Krona, the powerful mastermind who's capturing the colorful entities that power the various lantern corps.

It's a good down-to-Earth moment for Hal Jordan, and a badly-needed moment where we see the man behind the costume - especially since the story is moving directly into the next cosmic event series, War of the Green Lanterns.

The art is exceptional as always, with Doug Mahnke being covered by three different inkers. Kudos also to colorist Randy Mayor, whose pallet gets a workout here.

Krona may be the most intimidating villain of them all (in GL's Rogues Gallery) , and he's used to good effect here.

This book is a great balance between advancing the story, ongoing mysteries behind several of the characters, and lots of over-the-top action. Fun all the way around!

With a feature film on the way and a big event around the corner, this is once again the comic to watch at DC.

Grade: A-


Saturday, February 19, 2011

Daredevil Reborn #2 (of 4)

Well, that was disappointing.

I liked the first issue in the Daredevil Reborn series (you can read that review here).

But in the review I said it was too early to tell how good this mini-series was going to be. Two issues in and my hopes are fading fast.

In the last issue we established that the police officers in a small town in New Mexico were (apparently) bad guys in disguise. In this issue, written by Andy Diggle, we get some clues about the secret they're hiding, but the story doesn't really move forward at all.

It begins with Matt Murdock looking for information, but he's apparently more concerned with being left alone than fighting the bad guys.

By the end of the story, we're right where we were at the end of the last issue, no closer to a resolution than before. The villains are dull and not particularly menacing, the entire plot seems lifted wholesale from the movie First Blood (the first movie to star Rambo), and Murdock spends the entire issue maintaining that he's not a hero and doesn't fight crime anymore.

The reason to but this comic is the artwork by Davide Gianfelice. It's a bit rough around the edges, but it's loaded with power and energy, and it's the best thing about this comic.

Perhaps the story will kick into gear next issue - but I'm not holding my breath waiting.

Grade: B-


Friday, February 18, 2011

Avengers Academy #9

The Taskmaster has always been an entertaining bad guy - he has a photographic memory (of sorts) for combat moves and can imitate any style.

Which means he has the same abilities as the most interesting member of the Avengers Academy, Finesse - which leads her to wonder if he might be her real father.

With the help of Quicksilver she tracks down Taskmaster - and what follows is a heck of a knock-down, drag-out fight.

She's the most interesting member of the team for several reasons: she's the most intelligent (smart characters always drive the story); she's very skillful; and she seems to teeter back and forth between being a "good guy" and a villain.

The other storyline is less interesting - Tigra is angry at three of the students for their attempt at revenge on The Hood, so she tells them they're expelled.

The debate that follows leans a little too close to "After School Special" territory - a constant threat in a book about teens.

The art by Mike McKone and Rebecca Buchman is quite good, especially the fight sequence - it's a shame this is McKone's last issue as the regular penciler.

I'd still like to see the students get some "down time" - doing whatever kids do these days (see a movie, play softball, etc.) - that would go a long way to making them "real people," and not just superhero cutouts.

Still, aside from a few minor stumbles along the way, this continues to be an entertaining comic, and one well worth following.

Grade: A-


Thursday, February 17, 2011

Uncanny X-Force #5

You know your book is mighty dark when Deadpool complains about how dark it is.

And for the Uncanny X-Force, the future doesn't look any lighter.

Written by Rick Remender, this issue focuses largely on the repercussions from the brutal ending of the last issue as Fantomex tries to deal with his terrible - but perhaps necessary - act of murder.

He journeys back to the alternate dimension where he was raised and trained to be a killing machine - but he finds that much has changed, and he soon is in the fight of his life.

It's a clever (though sometimes difficult to follow) bit of business, as we meet someone close to that hero, just in time for a monstrous attack by some familiar figures.

The last page also offers a great treat to longtime readers - but I won't spoil it for you.

The art by Esad Ribic and John Lucas is outstanding (if a bit monochromatic), although some of the fight sequences are a bit difficult to follow. But the art captures the dark mood of the story perfectly.

I'm on the fence with this series - it's well written and has great art, but the stories are very dark, and having OD'd on grim and gritty comics, I'm not sure I'm ready for another one.

Still, I like the ending of this story, so I'll keep hanging around - for a while.

Grade: B+

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Hey, Kids - Comics!!

Today, I picked up:

- Avengers Academy #9 - A family feud!

- Brightest Day #20 - Give that (Aqua)man a hand!

- Daredevil: Reborn #2 (of 4) - Taking on some crooked cops!

- Green Lantern #62 - Gearing up for the War of the Green Lanterns.

- Magnus Robot Fighter #3 - Fighting robots in the square circle.

- S.H.I.E.L.D. #6 - It will all end in tears.

- Silver Surfer #1 (of 5) - Nice to see the Surfer back.

- Uncanny X-Force #5 - Hey, it's Deathlok!

And that's it.

The Classics - The Phantom Stranger #4

I'm hard-pressed to explain why I picked up this issue of The Phantom Stranger.

Cover dated November - December 1969, it looked like another one of DC's supernatural books, like House of Mystery or House of Secrets. They were usually anthologies, with three short tales of the supernatural that felt like watered-down tales from TV's The Twilight Zone. I have to admit, I never had much interest in those books (though obviously many readers did like them).

I suspect I was pulled in by the Neal Adams cover. Even though I was a die-hard Marvel fan by the end of the '60s, I was also a fan of Adams' artwork.

In reading this issue today, I get the sense that the writer (Robert Kanigher, according to the letters page - there are no credits) and the artist were fighting for control of the issue.

The main feature is split into three virtually unrelated pieces. Dr. Thirteen is a scientist who debunks supernatural events, making him a natural counterpart to The Phantom Stranger, who is all mystery and apparently has supernatural powers. Dr. Thirteen inadvertently releases the evil spirit Tala, who randomly appears through the story.

The Phantom Stranger's mission is to show up and thwart Tala's evil, and the Doc is there to try to debunk everything that happens. So Tala brings monsters to life, and the Stranger fights back. An ancient woman haunts a house, and her story is introduced and dismissed in record time.

The whole issue would be a complete mess if not for the art. Adams creates some amazing images here, from photorealistic shots of airplanes, stunningly beautiful women, intense confrontations and some great surreal images of the title character.

This comic always had great luck with its artists, as Adams was followed in future issues by the great Jim Aparo. Its luck also improved when Len Wein took over the writing chores. Instead of stories filled with random events, Wein established a supporting cast for the Stranger, and found a balance for the character, making him less omnipotent but just as compelling.

I quickly became a fan of the character, but it was in spite of the story in this issue. But I'm glad I stuck around - when handled properly, the Phantom Stranger is a terrific character - and as the '60s waned, he was one even a Marvel fan could enjoy.

Grade: B-


Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Warlord of Mars #4

This comic is proof (if any were needed) that I must be a geezer.

Let me explain. Sometime in the early-to-mid-1960s, at the age of about 10 (and maybe a little younger) I saw an issue of Playboy. I was at a friend's house, and he and his brother had discovered a issue of the magazine their dad had hidden in his bedroom.

With great delight we stared at the centerfold, which featured a beautiful (and naked) woman laying on a bear skin rug.

And she was more covered up than Dejah Thoris is on the cover of this issue of Warlord of Mars.

And if that's not enough, the gal on the cover is also more modest than the drawings inside this issue, wherein Dejah wears just the tiniest pasties and a skimpy thong.

Don't think I'm complaining - but with a feature film in the near future, you'd think the creators of this comic would give her at least a little more cover, if just in the interest of appealing to a wider audience.

This issue continues the adaptation of A Princess of Mars by Edgar Rice Burroughs, and it brings us to the point - finally - where John Carter of Earth meets Dejah Thoris.

But the path of true love is never smooth (or something like that), and there are a few hundred angry Martians John will have to deal with first.

Writer Arvid Nelson and illustrator Lui Antonio turn in strong work here, with some impressive creative touches such as the unique design for the Martian air ships.

The story is unfolding slowly, but so far, it's been true to the original story (which has long been one of my favorites), even if the costuming is a bit more daring.

Grade: B+


Monday, February 14, 2011

DC Universe Legacies #9 (of 10)

The DC Universe Legacies series has been a heroic effort to make sense of more than 70 years of DC history, as witnessed (more or less) by a policeman named Paul Lincoln.

I'm not sure what it says about the series (or me) that I find my interest waning more as the series nears its conclusion.

Perhaps it's because I've enjoyed the skillful way writer Len Wein has woven together "historic" events from the earliest years, perhaps it's my own nostalgia for those early stories - or perhaps it's just that more recent stories don't stand up well to the "old days."

More likely, it's that these events seem too recent to be historic (if that makes sense) - but I suppose such things are relative.

Anyway, by this point we're deep into the "event" storylines that have dominated DC (and Marvel) for the last decade or so. This time around the story focuses on the Final Night story, where a cosmic creature called the Sun-Eater threatens to snuff out the sun, ending all life on Earth.

The story is all about the first attempts at redeeming Hal Jordan, who had been transformed into the mass murderer called Parallax. (Have I mentioned how much I hated that whole storyline? I thought so.)

The art by Jesus Saiz and Karl Story is quite good, although they mostly get to draw big crowds of heroes posing for the "camera."

The backup feature is more experimental and more fun, as Wein and artist Bill Sienkiewicz focus on Captain Marvel and the Shazam family - and Black Adam.

Next issue wraps up the series, and I'm sorry to see it end - I just wish it had focused more on the Silver and Bronze Ages, and less on the "Modern" Age (or whatever they're calling it now).

But that's just me.

Grade: B+


Sunday, February 13, 2011

John Byrne's Next Men #3

For his first story arc in the newly-revived Next Men series, artist and writer John Byrne is walking along a very tricky line.

He is (basically) putting each member of the team through hell. All but one member of the team has been (apparently) scattered across time, where they have spent years in a different time period.

As a result, one member has been killed, another terribly brutalized, one faces torture or death, and the other is trapped in Shakespeare's time (which might not seem so bad, but there are ill signs...). One is seen as an older man leading a peaceful life in the future.

The one left behind is the invulnerable Bethany, who sees the plight of her friends but is (apparently) unable to help them. We meet the mysterious armored figure who is behind the events, but the reasons for all this is still unknown.

The reason I say Byrne is walking the line is because the opening issue revolved around dream images - and the origin of the team started with them in an imaginary world.

So are these horrific events actually happening, or is it another illusion? It's the kind of story that can captivate, but leave the reader feeling let down at the end.

But I find that I'm not worried that the answers will hurt the story - Byrne is a pro at both writing and illustrating, and both work together to drive this comic.

The art is fantastic - dynamic and loaded with details, with each character distinct and unique.

The writing is just as captivating, and I'm anxious to see where it all goes from here. As I've said before: I'm so glad to see this issue back and in peak form, and Byrne back up on the high wire where he belongs!

Grade: A-


Saturday, February 12, 2011

The New Avengers #9

Well, you have to hand it to this issue - it certainly is... interesting.

It's one of those stories where you feel like you walked in on the middle of the movie.

It starts out in 1959 (with some terrific Howard Chaykin artwork) as Nick Fury finds himself on the run from some Nazis hiding out in Cuba.

From there it jumps to the present (with awesome art by Mike Deodato), where The New Avengers are spying on a criminal operation and planning how to take it down.

But we never learn why Fury was confronting those Nazis, and we don't know how the Avengers learned about the mysterious operation led by the woman named Superia. Oh, and they break several laws in trying to stop the bad guys (at least, we assume they're the bad guys).

The end of the story is a shocker, but it seems to come way out of left field, so it elicits more of a "What the--?" than a "Holy cow!"

Perhaps the next issue will bring this story by Brian Bendis into focus - but for now, it's all very fuzzy.

But the art is great!

Grade: B+

Friday, February 11, 2011

The Flash #9

After a couple of issues that focused on members of The Flash's Rogues Gallery, it's nice to see the focus back on the title character.

This issue begins the Flashpoint story, which somehow involves the Reverse-Flash and a mysterious figure who drives a souped-up motorcycle.

Don't flip ahead to that last page or you'll spoil a great surprise as that figure unmasks to reveal - something surprising!

Along the way we get a glimpse of the other members of the Flash family, and it's nice to see them getting at least a tiny amount of face time - hopefully they'll get to be more active in the crossover event that's coming.

This issue written by Geoff Johns is focused on setting up the story. Barry gets involved in a new murder mystery - one that involves a hero I'm not familiar with (I'm pretty sure he was invented for this story, but I could be wrong there).

The art for the issue is by Francis Manapul, and I like his style more with every issue. His art is unique, high-powered and fun. The only artist whose style comes close was Mike Wieringo - good company to be in.

It's too early to judge this story - it's just out of the blocks - but so far, it's off to a good start.

Grade: B+


Thursday, February 10, 2011

Ultimate Spider-Man #153

This issue is the prelude to the upcoming "Death of Ultimate Spider-Man" series that we'll no doubt be hearing more about in the coming months.

(Ah, death - all the heroes are doing it!)

This issue doesn't feel like a prelude as much as a story in the middle. It follows two stories: one in which Spider-Man receives his first lesson in how to be a super-hero; and a cat-and-mouse game between the Black Cat and Mysterio.

The Spider-Man story is the more entertaining, as it involves a lot of hero worship and humorous banter with Tony Stark (we've come to expect great dialogue in a Brian Bendis story) - but the stakes are much higher in the other story, with the control of a powerful object at stake.

The art is something of a mix - four artists are listed in the credits - but the final product is very good, though the story is a quiet one - there's not a lot of action on display.

Still, it's an entertaining issue, and sets up a heck of a confrontation for the next chapter - which may or may not end with Spidey pushing up daisies (though I'm guessing they'll drag that out for a while yet).

Grade: A-


Wednesday, February 9, 2011

A Cold Day for Comics

Here's what I picked up at the comics shop:

- The New Avengers #9 - Hey, it's a Nick Fury flashback!

- DC Universe Legacies #9 (of 10) - Ah, Green Lantern goes mad. How I hated that story.

- Doc Savage #11 - Meeting old friends.

- The Flash #9 - Beginning the Flashpoint story with a few surprises.

- The Incredible Hulks #622 - Clash of the titans!

- Incognito: Bad Influences #3 - Going undercover.

- Next Men #3 - Time-traveling terror continues.

- Secret Warriors #24 - The end is near.

- THUNDER Agents #4 - A Perez flashback sequence to die for!

- Ultimate Spider-Man #153 - Will Spider-Man really die?

- Warlord of Mars #4 - a few decades back, that cover would have been the centerfold in Playboy magazine.

And that's it!

The Classics - Planetary #1

One of the best gifts I gave over the holiday was a set of Absolute Planetary books, which I was lucky enough to find for a reasonable price (and not the overinflated charges you'll find online).

It's a series that's well worth that kind of printing - something that was obvious from the first issue, cover dated April 1999.

Written by Warren Ellis, the book features the mysterious Elijah Snow. The man in white is 100 years old, has a mysterious past, a sharp tongue and (as we would discover later) some amazing abilities.

He's lured out of his hermit-like existence by the promise of the unknown. The second member of the group is Jakita Wagner, a beautiful, intelligent and powerful representative of the secret organization called Planetary, which seeks out and solves mysteries, monsters and mayhem.

Snow is the brains, Wagner is the muscle, and the third member of the team handles the tech end of it - he's The Drummer.

For their first investigation they travel to a newly-discovered hidden lair in the Adirondack Mountains. There they discover a connection to a team of heroes (well, I think they're heroes) whose roots lie in pulp magazines.

It's the kind of thing that's easy to do badly - ripping off the creations of others, making them pale images of once-great figures. But Ellis treats them with great respect and intelligence, and lets the reader enjoy their "return." (I would rave more about this part, but I don't want to spoil the surprises.)

It's a story with its roots deep in heroic literature and comics legends, all wrapped up in a remarkably clever science fiction story.

The writing is outstanding, and it would take an outstanding artist to keep up with it. Luckily, Ellis managed the perfect marriage as he teamed up with John Cassaday, and artist I hadn't seen before this issue.

His work in this issue boosted him immediately into my top ten list. My first reaction was that Cassaday was channeling Steranko, because his art has that same kind of impact, with powerful, vivid images and layouts, heroic figures, great characterization and expression, terrific action sequences - I could go on and on. He's one of the best in the business today, and I automatically buy any comic he draws.

And even more impressive: he just keeps getting better all the time.

So, if you're looking for intelligent stories with incredible art, you can't go wrong with Planetary.

But if you want the Absolute versions, start saving those sheckles - they're steep!

Grade: A+


Tuesday, February 8, 2011

Ozma of Oz #4 (of 8)

It's amazing to think that this mini-series is based on a children's book that was written almost a century ago - yet it feels just as fresh as though it were newly minted.

Ozma of Oz actually focuses more on our friend Dorothy Gale from Kansas, who has returned to the magical land of Oz (in the kingdom of Ev, to be exact), where she finds the wicked Princess Langwidere, who likes to wear a variety of different heads.

Dorothy refuses to allow the Princess to take her head, so the plucky girl is imprisoned in a tower - only to be rescued by the timely arrival of her friends, the Scarecrow, the Tin Man, the Cowardly Lion and Ozma, the ruler of the Emerald City.

Her friends have arrived to investigate the disappearance of the true Royal Family of Ev, and they realize that they're going to have to face a powerful opponent.

This series continues to be a true delight, offering a faithful adaptation of the original story by L. Frank Baum, as adapted by Eric Shanower.

The art is by the unique and delightful Skottie Young. His characters are brimming with life and energy, and while they don't look like the traditional view of the characters in the original stories or in the MGM movie, they're spot on.

Special kudos for the first appearance of the Hungry Tiger, who somehow manages to be both terribly menacing and rather sweet all at the same time. (And having been close to a hungry tiger once - don't worry, I was shooting video during feeding time at the circus - let me assure you, it's not a beast you'd want to confront - and Young captures that here.)

Once again: this is a terrific series, creative and original while staying true to the Oz books. Highly recommended!

Grade: A


Monday, February 7, 2011

Walt Disney's Uncle Scrooge #400

I wasn't sure what to expect from this 400th issue of Uncle Scrooge - would it include a Don Rosa story, or reprint a classic Carl Barks story?

The answer ends up being neither one - but it's still a special issue, if a bit of an odd duck (sorry).

There may not be a story by Rosa, but thankfully he provides one of three available covers for the issue (the other ones are by Barks and Dan Jippes). You can see which one I picked up - it is, of course, terrific, offering a glimpse of some of Scrooge's greatest adventures.

Barks is represented by three one-page gags starring Scrooge - and the main story is a fanciful tale about a reporter's visit to "The Man Who Drew Ducks." The interview reveals the story behind the "Good Duck Artist" and how he ended up telling Scrooge's story.

It's a neat tale, written by Rudy Salvagnine and drawn by Giorgio Cavazzano, and it honors everyone's favorite duck artist.

There's also a fun story featuring Magica De Spell and her attempts to outwit Scrooge. Written by Byron Erickson and drawn by Dan Jippes (another excellent duck artist), it manages a fresh angle on that classic tussle over Scrooge's "Number One" dime.

Scrooge's stories were always great fun, loaded with adventure and humor and clever plot twists, and it's great to see the old bird still going strong.

Barks may be gone, but as long as there are talented writers and artists ready to carry on the tradition, readers will be able to enjoy more adventures like these far into the future.

Grade: B+


Sunday, February 6, 2011

Ultimate New Ultimates #5 (of 5)

So after 11 months we finally get the final issue in this Ultimate New Ultimates mini-series.

I wish I could say it's worth the wait - but it isn't.

The art by Frank Cho is outstanding, of course. It's loaded with beautiful, scantily-clad women, muscular heroes and bombastic action scenes.

But the story by Jeph Loeb is thin at best. Thor has wigged out because his beloved Valkyrie was killed, so he goes on a murderous rampage, destroying much of New York and threatening to kill the "heroes" (if you can call them that) who make up the Ultimates team.

The series doesn't so much end - it just runs out of gas and sputters to a halt.

So the verdict on this series: as expected. Great art, weak story. I can't recommend this one, unless you're a diehard fan of all things Cho.

Grade: C


Saturday, February 5, 2011

Dr. Strange: From the Marvel Vault #1 (One-Shot)

I almost passed this issue up, assuming it was a reprint of a past appearance by Dr. Strange. Imagine my surprise to discover that it was a never-before-printed tale originally written for the Marvel Universe comic.

That series was canceled before this story was completed, so it went into the Marvel Vault (which is presumably close to the Disney Vault). Now it's back, and it's a real treat.

There are several reasons why I liked this comic a lot. First, it's well drawn by Neil Vokes and Jay Geldhof. They manage to capture the feel of original Dr. Strange artist Steve Ditko without actually copying his style. The look is fresh, imaginative and lots of fun.

The second reason I like it is because it's a flashback to the earliest days of Strange's career. Here he has just returned to New York after training with the Ancient One to become a Master of the Mystic Arts. He's dressed in his original dark blue and black costume, which I always liked.

But the best reason to buy this comic is for the writing of Roger Stern. When I think of Strange's long history, there are four writers who come to mind as having the most impact of the series: Stan Lee, who originated the series with Ditko; Roy Thomas, who took over and guided Strange for years (mostly working with the legendary Gene Colan); Steve Englehart, who created some amazing stories that established Strange as the Sorcerer Supreme (working with the incredible Frank Brunner and Colan); and Roger Stern, whose run on the book was short but outstanding (mostly working with the terrific Marshall Rogers).

Now Stern is back guiding Strange in this issue, and I couldn't be happier. The comic tells the untold story about how Strange first moved into his Greenwich Village Sanctum Sanctorum, and the terrible menace that hides there.

It's a delightful (if all too brief) tale that's been hiding from us for far too long. More like this, please!

Grade: A-


Friday, February 4, 2011

Archie #617

And now, for something completely different...

While I was an Archie fan as a kid, I've only bought the title sporadically since then - but I couldn't pass this issue up, if just for the cover.

It got a laugh out of me - and my wife (who enjoys politics much more than I do) had the same reaction.

Here at Chuck's Comic of the Day, we tend to avoid political discussions like the plague - and I have no intention of getting into one here.

Thankfully, it doesn't matter which political figure you prefer (if you have a preference) - the story is played right down the middle.

I missed the previous issue (which was the first part of this two-part story), but apparently Archie and Reggie are running for Class President, and each had their photo taken with Barack Obama and Sarah Palin, and they've allowed people to think they were endorsed by those figures.

For some reason this makes Palin and Obama angry, and they travel to Riverdale to mete out punishment to Archie and Reggie.

It's silly, and the story by Alex Simmons never really goes anywhere - I think they're trying so hard not to offend anyone that they never had much of a chance to load in any real laughs.

The art is excellent as always, as Dan Parent and Rich Koslowski continue the classic Archie style with a nice injection of energy and charm.

So what we have here is a stunt comic that doesn't really accomplish much - except make a sale to me.

But I do love that cover! You know, now that I think about it, maybe we should move everyone in Washington to Riverdale...

Grade: B-


Thursday, February 3, 2011

Iron Man #500.1

Count me among those who are tired of the "creative numbering" that pops up at comics companies - the issues numbered "0," "1,000,000" or "-1" - it's tiring and messes up my orderly filing system.

So here's Marvel, trotting out a series of issues with a ".1" added on the number. Sheesh!

However, the idea's not a bad thing. The comics are (apparently) designed to present the origin and background of the heroes to bring new readers up to speed.

Of course, that means it's old news to us old-timers. However, give writer Matt Fraction credit for coming up with an interesting angle on the tired "here's my story" issue for Iron Man #500.1.

He accomplishes this by following Tony Stark to an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting, where Tony gets up and tells his story, using the classic "he's saying one thing while the illustrations show he's thinking something else."

That makes it interesting for those of us who have been following for quite a while, but if the idea is to catch up readers who are new to the series, I suspect it fails to convey the necessary information.

Of course, Iron Man's origin is well known thanks to the popular feature film, but lots of incidents have happened between his comic book origin and modern times, and I doubt a new reader would have any idea what was going on in some panels (the "Teen Tony" panel threw me, and I remember those stories - though not fondly).

The art by Salvador Larroca is quite good as always, although he seems constrained by the small panels. Still, great stuff here.

So, a solid issue - though I'm not sure it achieves its purpose. I suspect longtime fans will enjoy the flashbacks more than new readers, but maybe that's just me.

It feels more like an evergreen "fill-in" issue that a special event, so just an average grade from me. The regular title (the one without decimal places) is much, much better.

Grade: B-


Wednesday, February 2, 2011

What I Bought at the Comics Shop

Here's what I picked up today:

- Archie #617 - Now there's a political cover I can get behind.

- Brightest Day #19 - Not just a war, it's an Aquawar!

- Doctor Strange from the Marvel Vault #1 (One Shot) - An unseen story by Roger Stern? Awesome!

- Hellboy: The Sleeping and the Dead #2 (of 2) - Now those are vampires!

- Iron Man #500.1 - As if "Zero" issues weren't enough of a problem when filing comics...

- Irredeemable #22 - Prison Break!

- Ozma of Oz #4 (of 8) - Getting the gang back together.

- Ultimate New Ultimates #5 - It's so long between issues, I keep forgetting that this is being published.

- Ultimate Thor #4 - Bring down the hammer.

- Uncle Scrooge #400 - Love that Don Rosa cover!

And that's it! (My shop didn't get its shipment of Jonah Hex, or it would be on the list, too.)

The Classics - Luke Cage, Hero for Hire #1

When I reviewed the recent issue of New Avengers that was Luke Cage-centric, I started thinking about this issue.

This was a rare event in 1972 - an origin issue featuring a character who had never appeared in another comic, and an African-American at that.

While Cage isn't the first black super-hero - I believe the Black Panther has that honor - and Gabe Jones (a member of the World War II-era Howling Commandos) was possibly the first black hero in a mainstream comic book (discounting the racist portrayals from the '40s and '50s), Cage is the first to have his own title.

In modern light, the comic seems very dated, mostly because of the dialogue. Writer Archie Goodwin (one of the all-time greats) had to walk a fine line to approximate street dialogue without actually using the (shall we say) vivid language that would ordinarily require. That he manages it without making the characters sound foolish is a tribute to his skill (it's something later writers would have less success at).

The origin is about as raw as a mainstream comic could manage in the '70s. Lucas grows up in Harlem on the wrong side of the law. He and his friend Willis break the law as a team, but eventually Cage turns away from crime while Willis embraces it.

Jealous of Lucas, Willis frames him, and while Luke is in prison, Willis is responsible for the death of the woman Lucas loves.

Jailed in Seagate Prison, Lucas dreams of freedom, and grasps at a desperate bid for parole - he agrees to take part in an experiment designed to cure diseases by sparking cellular regeneration.

When the experiment goes wrong, Lucas finds his body is now like steel, and he uses his new powers to escape.

While on the run, he hits on an idea - he'll use his powers to make money! He devises a distinctive costume, adopts a stage name and sets up shop as a "Hero for Hire."

It was an original concept, to have a hero sell his skills for a good cause - and the stories managed to walk the tightrope between having Cage be a mercenary and allowing him to do a job that helps people and pays a living wage.

The art for this issue was by the great George Tuska, working in an unusual style. Some of the characters - the evil prison guards, mostly - were drawn in a more exaggerated style, while others - including Cage - were depicted in a more realistic fashion.

Still, the layouts are dynamic, the story is gritty and raw and clearly told. Tuska also benefits from the inks of Billy Graham (who was also an outstanding penciller - and no relation to the famous preacher).

The credits also give a tip of the hat to Roy Thomas and John Romita for the "considerable creative contributions," which I assume would include plotting input by Thomas and the character's design by Romita.

Cage's costume didn't stand the test of time - the low-cut yellow shirt and the metal headband eventually went out of style - and these days he just wears street clothes. Kind of a shame, really.

Anyway, it was a terrific beginning to a series that would have a lot of ups and downs, with some outstanding issues and some (frankly) badly written ones.

But it was obvious the character had great potential - and it's good to see it being realized in modern times. But it started right here, with a great foundation and a unique origin story.

Grade: A

Tuesday, February 1, 2011

Kull: The Hate Witch #3 (of 4)

While I'm usually a fan of all things related to pulp writer Robert E. Howard, I have to admit that this mini-series starring Kull just hasn't captured the feel of the character for me.

The Hate Witch finds Kull traveling to his homeland on Atlantis to track down the (literal) witch who cursed him when he was a child and has returned to threaten his kingdom.

The residents there are apparently a savage lot, and there are misunderstandings and deadly battles aplenty. But the issue seems to get bogged down in side-events and doesn't really advance the story much at all.

The art by Gabriel Guzman and Mariano Taibo is solid - sometimes inspired, sometimes uneven - but professional throughout.

Don't get me wrong, I'm thrilled to see Kull back in action - but this series just feels like a generic barbarian adventure.

Hopefully the next issue will find things back on track.

Grade: C+