Sunday, July 31, 2005

Comic Reviews For July 27, 2005

A quintet of happy this week: Runaways, Legion of Super-Heroes, Fantastic Four, Amazing Spider-Man, and Astro City: The Dark Ages.Runaways 6 – “True Believers, Conclusion”
By Brian K. Vaughan and Adrian Alphona

They may not have mentioned this book specifically in the nomination, but it’s hard to argue that Runaways isn’t one of the major reasons Vaughan earned his Eisner award. This is old-fashioned slam-bang comics filtered through the lens of modern America, the kind of book Stan Lee would have written if he was a member of Generation X. This issue, we get the conclusion of Volume 2’s opening arc, which sets the stage for the next phase of the Runaways’ lives. Recementing the theme of youth vs. age is the addition of Victor Mancha, the “son” of the murderous Ultron. In restrospect, it’s a perfect choice, Ultron himself being the wayward child of superhero Hank “Pick a Codename” Pym. Vaughan points this up in a great monologue by Ultron at the issue’s start, counterpointing some things the Runaways have said about their own nefarious progenitors. (See, he’s even got me talking like Stan.)
We also get the wrap-up to another big mystery, the benefactor of the ex-teen hero team Excelsior. It makes sense, and it brings one of my favorite Marvel characters out of a thankfully short retirement. This guy’s been handled mostly by one writer for a while now, and it’ll be interesting to see how Vaughan’s take on him works out.
And it wouldn’t be a Runaways book without the introduction of another mystery. This one plays on the expectations of the readers, but in a way none of us saw, as a member of Excelsior reveals (to us, anyway) half of a very important secret that will no doubt break the Internet in half yet again once all is revealed.
Throughout, we get some excellent characterizations, hints of things to come, and the patented BKV dialogue that’s made his books some of the most fun to read in quite a while.
On to the art: Adrian Alphona continues to impress. I like his new design for Ultron, and the action scenes in this issue definitely kick up a notch. I also have to renew my appreciation for cover artist Jo Chen, who’s one of the most underrated talents working in comics today. Her covers range across the spectrum of emotions, this one being best described as “haunting.” It’s not my favorite, but it does the job, and I always look forward to the next one.
The issue isn’t perfect; the benefactor is drawn so non-descriptly that I wouldn’t have known who he was if the dialogue hadn’t told me. There’s also the distinct lack of a letter column. Since most Marvel books are in the process of bringing that back (a trend I hope DC follows), it wouldn’t hurt to have one in my favoritest book ever.
Runaways is one of the best books of the decade, by some of the best talents of the decade. Vaughan has pledged himself to issue 100 and beyond; I aim to follow him the whole way.
Grade: A

Legion of Super-Heroes 8 –
By Mark Waid and Kevin Sharpe

And the dam bursts. Waid’s been building up to a fracture in the Legion almost since the beginning, and that comes to a head this issue. There’s been some complaining that the Legionnaires are acting petty and immature in this issue, which makes me wonder if the people saying it remember being a teenager. Guys, I did theatre in high school, and let me tell you: this stuff is dead on. The power struggles, the resentment, the egos, the backstabbing: welcome to adolescence. And in between the dickishness, we get some genuine emotion, especially from Cosmic Boy. Having seen more than one pubescent would-be Spartacus self-destruct in my day, I can understand the pressure he’s going through, and where it leads him. I can also understand Brainiac 5 choosing that exact moment to be a complete and total dick.
There’s also a good opening sequence that’s not related to this very much, but is a quite novel use of Element Lad, and a good action scene in its own right. Brrrr.
Kevin Sharpe is decent, but no Barry Kitson. I couldn’t help, looking at this issue, thinking what BK would have done with the same script, and finding Sharpe falling short. It’s no crime, but I have to be honest: this isn’t as good as the regular art. Some of the designs are a bit off, the facial expressions aren’t as subtle, and the pacing on Sun Boy’s resignation just falls on its face.
Some of the best space opera in comics is going on in the pages of this book. I tip my hat to the team, and can’t wait to see what’s next. Poor Cos…
Grade: B+

Fantastic Four 529 – “Appointment Overdue”
By J. Michael Straczynski and Mike McKone

Reed vs. the government. I’m pretty sure it’s been done, but it’s new to me, and the team pulls it off, so I’m happy. Fortunately, Reed’s motivation for sabotaging the army’s project to replicate the incident that created the FF turns out to be something more than “I don’t trust them to handle the responsibility,” which is thankful, since I got my fill of that plotline from the recent season of Justice League Unlimited.
I wish I could say I was feeling the Child Protective Services plotline like that, but it’s just stretching my suspense of disbelief too much. The FF are public heroes, and it’s pretty hard to believe that the agent in charge (I forgot her name, and I don’t much care) is so ignorant of what happens in their daily lives. That also goes for the prospective nannies Sue brings in, who are also superfluous, given Reed’s established robotics skills. They’d have to be idiots not to know about “the monsters,” as Franklin says, and as for the CPS lady, she comes off as way too much of a bitch, the stereotypical Social Services employee who has an instant mad-on for the parents and covers her ignorance and unfair judgments by saying it’s about the best interests of the children. It’s an unfair portrayal. I also don’t buy that Sue would try to pass the FF off as pseudonormal to placate this woman. This is a woman who’s faced down Dr. Doom, Annhilus, and Galactus, and we’re supposed to believe the US government can bully her into conformity? Not buying it.
But Reed’s flight from the military is a beautifully executed sequence. And we get the “flying bathtub” back. And the issue’s denouement plays the right notes, bringing the team together even as they rocket towards something that could (but probably won’t) change them forever. This is solid sci-fi storytelling with great illustration and some classic characters. I don’t like everything about it, but it’s worthy of the legacy.
Grade: B

Amazing Spider-Man 522 – “Moving Targets”
By J. Michael Straczynski and Mike Deodato, Jr.

Dammit, can we get some creators whose names are easier to spell?
Seriously, though, JMS is doing a better job of fitting Spidey into the Avengers than Brain Bendis. Here’s a team where the characters actually interact, where they mesh, and where Spidey contributes more than an MST3K-style running commentary. Our hero is smart, dedicated, and witty, and the story showcases all of this. There’s beats and offbeats, and it all runs to a cliffhanger that I’m gonna enjoy next time out.
I do think JMS has written himself into a corner, however, with the MJ/Tony Stark/tabloid subplot. How can they possibly get out of this, other than reveal Peter’s secret identity. Of course, we know that won’t happen, so where can we go? I’d love to be proved wrong here, but I’m just not seeing it. I also didn’t like having the Ogalala Aquifer thing repeated; yeah, every issue is somebody’s first, but this was almost word-for-word the exposition we got last issue. Sometimes, I wish JMS did take advantage of the recap page.
Mike Deodato draws a nice Spidey and a hot MJ, but some of his other figures leave something to be desired. I do like his pacing on the latest Wolverine moment, though. Of course, this does mean that at some point, Peter and Logan must be forced to fight back-to-back, or disarm a bomb on a toilet, or something. Looking forward to that.
Spider-Man is, still after all these years, a unique character and a unique title. Thankfully, JMS is upholding that tradition, giving us superhero adventure with a human twist and a hint of the refreshing taste of Limon. Which, as it turns out, doesn’t raise any flags for spellcheck. I think that’s a Spidey moment right there.
Grade: B+

Astro City: The Dark Age 2 – “Criminal Prosecution”
By Kurt Busiek and Brent Anderson

Yeah, Kurt, this series isn’t a metaphor for the comic industry at all. Sure.
I keed, I keed. I’ll buy that Kurt intends this series as more a look at America in the 70s and 80s as a whole, but you can’t argue that the comics stuff is there as well: Growing discontent with the icons of yesteryear. An urban vigilante killing criminals instead of tying them up and leaving a note. A symbol of the best we can offer laid low by scandal. It’s there.
But it’s not really the focus, is it? No, it’s not. Like all Astro City stories, this is about real people caught in the superhuman crossfire. The characters and philosophies of Charlie and Royal, sketched in the first issue, become more fleshed out as we progress through the tumult of their lives. It’s interesting how pragmatism led the previously criminal brother down the path of law and order, and how idealism pointed the straight and narrow one to a life of crime. It’s not as cut and dried as that, we see bits of each brother’s philosophy infecting the other, but the archetypes are there. Of course, it’s all tied in with their perceptions of the event, previously alluded to, that changed them both, of which we see some more this time around. I predicted the twist, but not quite the way it’s presented, and now I don’t know what to think about Charlie, Royal, the Agent, or anything else in the AC Universe. I do know that I’m loving the relationship between these two, though, and I want to see them through this time, to whatever might await them at the other end.
And along the way, we get some more glimpses of Astro City history (can we really call something so deliberate and layered mere continuity?), such as the First Family’s initial meeting with Rex, the appearance of a sinister new organization, some new players on the global stage, and the continuing saga of the Blue Knight. All of this and more is shaded by the nuanced pencilwork of Brent Anderson, who I’m convinced is the only one who could have brought Astro City to life. Work like this requires precision to achieve the necessary emotional beats, and precision is what we get. The grim execution-style slayings of the Knight (and the Agent?), Royal’s cynical sneer, the oppressive flames surrounding the young Williams brothers in the flashback: all of it is exquisitely executed, bringing Busiek’s vision to life on the page.
Astro City is a superhero book like few others, a landmark for the genre. That it remains so after a decade is a testament to the ability of the creators. It tells us about superheroes, and about ourselves, and it does it without self-consciousness or ego. Astro City is.
Grade: A+

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